My mother and I emerged from the tumult of rich smells, from the dark, narrow alleys of Naxos market into bright sunlight. We saw the crowd of refugees and recoiled in horror. Just for a moment both of us were convinced that half the population of Serifos had arrived, destitute, while we were trading (and spying a little, on the side). We’d only been away four days, but war had broken out. These were the survivors, which meant that everyone we loved was dead or enslaved. It was all over.
Excerpted from Snakehead by Ann Halam Copyright © 2008 by Ann Halam. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A second look reassured us. The people clogging up the busy waterfront had come a long way; they didn’t even look like islanders. We grinned at each other ruefully, sharing the shock and the guilty relief. Oh good, not us this time. Some other poor victims of hateful injustice, divine displeasure or a pirate raid.
Moumi and I had been making this trip together, twice a shipping season, since I was a little boy. I had loved the whole thing, in those days. The market stalls where I got spoiled rotten. The quiet times when I would sit under a tree or by a fountain and think while Moumi talked to merchants, and other, shifty-looking people. Everything was different now that I was almost a man. I understood what was going on at home, and that knowledge had opened my eyes to the state my whole world was in.
“The trouble is,” said Moumi, “too many refugees have been dumped on the Naxians, and it’s mostly the worst off. The ones who have nothing: no relatives who will take them in, no trades. Oh, I hope the town doesn’t turn the soldiers on them.”
Naxos isn’t the richest of the islands we call the “Turning Islands,” which is “Kyklades” in Greek. It isn’t the one with the most sea-route connections either; that’s Paros. But it’s the biggest. Penniless refugees tended to end up here as a last resort, on the grounds there was always room for a few more.
We were blocking the alley. We led the mules along the colonnade and stopped by a drinking fountain to regroup. We had laden animals. One of them—dear Brainy—was liable to panic in a noisy crowd. We shifted Music to the back and Brainy to the middle place (which he usually didn’t like), beside a group of men who were muttering about Trojans and Achaeans.
Troy ruled the far-distant east end of the Middle Sea. The Achaeans had taken over on the Greek Mainland, which lay to the north of us, a little too close for comfort. These two Great Powers (or bully gangs, depending on your point of view) were in a continual state of undeclared war, always picking on each other’s so-called allies. The men thought one or the other of them was responsible for the new influx, but they couldn’t decide which. I asked a Naxian matriarch, who was standing there frowning darkly at the scene, accompanied by servant boys and a heavy handcart full of oil jars.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know who they are?”
The lady looked us over, noting our coloring: Moumi’s hair, coming out from under her scarf in ringlets of pure gold. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously between the lines of Egyptian-style kohl. “You’re Achaeans, aren’t you?”
“Not anymore,” said my mother, without taking offense. “We were invited to leave, by the king of our former country, shortly after my son was born. We were castaways ourselves once; that’s why we feel sympathy for the refugees’ plight.”
My mother looks like a teenager. Strangers often take her for my sister. But when she feels like it, she can take on the hauteur of an Argolide princess, because that’s what she used to be. Also, we had three fine-looking mules in tow, which made us respectable even if we weren’t Naxians.
The lady changed her tone. “They’re not from the Turning Islands, madam. No one can understand the language they speak. The sailors say they’re from the south, Libya or somewhere like that. Apparently, there’s been a quake and tidal wave; it wiped out a whole coast.”
A shiver went through me. A big quake is a fearful portent—but it wasn’t fear I felt, not exactly fear. “Was there a Supernatural involved?” I blurted. “Who was it?”
The woman took a second look, her eyes widened and I suspected she’d recognized us. Our story was old news, but it had been spread all over the place by tale-tellers, and people tend to remember gossip about the god-touched. We still got that spooked reaction occasionally. I didn’t like it, but sometimes—I have to admit—it was my own fault. At moments of stress I tend to forget that normal people don’t talk about the Achaean Divinities as if they’re disreputable family connections.
“It’s none of my business,” the Naxian lady muttered, fearful and wary. “Excuse me, my lady, er, young sir. I must get to the dock.” She hustled her boys and her cart away.
“Don’t do that, Perseus,” said my mother (whose name was Danae, of the shower of gold: the famous imprisoned princess who had once been visited by the chief of the Achaean Gods, my father).
“Sorry. I didn’t think.”
I saw that the nymph of the fountain, barely visible in the sunlight, was watching me. I wondered what that fragile creature made of our tragedies and disasters, and all the human bustle that had grown up around her timeless little world.
Meanwhile, my mortal mother, who could not see the spirit of the water as I could, had forged off on her own with the mules, into the churning crowd. I hurried to catch up.
From the Hardcover edition.