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Book online «Amber and Clay Laura Schlitz (if you liked this book TXT) 📖». Author Laura Schlitz

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Ostracon, or fragment of a broken pot, circa 400 BCE, found in the marketplace of Athens.

The letters scratched on the clay are unevenly formed, suggesting that the writer was learning to write. Though many words are missing, what remains is remarkable. Some scholars have interpreted lines 10 –11 to mean “I will be a free man someday. I will no longer be a slave.” If this is so, the inscription gives us a unique example of a Greek enslaved person expressing himself in writing.

Still more extraordinary is the writer’s assertion that he knew Sokrates and the reference to Sokrates’s famous saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.” A few art historians have been tempted to identify Rhaskos the Thracian as the “Horse Painter” responsible for the famous red-figure vases in the British Museum. While this is an appealing theory, there is little evidence to support it.

Hermes here. The Greek god —

No. Don’t put down the book —

I’m talking to you. If the lines look like poetry,

relax. This book is shorter than it looks.

I am Hermes,

a Greek god,

young, fleet-footed, good-looking:

Note my winged sandals,

my cloak, my crooked hat —

I’m the Jack that slays the giant,

Bringer of dreams and king of schemes,

The crafter of lyres and sometimes of lies.

Protector of travelers, tricksters, and thieves.

Also, communication:

poetry, picture books, opera, the internet,

television, smoke signals, whispers in the night.

It’s all my territory. I hear it all.

— What am I doing here?

I assure you, I go everywhere —

I can soar above Olympus

or dive to the deeps of the underworld,

talk to the dead and come out quick —

that’s a pun. Quick means alive,

or used to. Which reminds me:

I bring you a story that tells

of the quick and the dead:

the tale of a girl as precious as amber,

the tale of a boy as common as clay.

The meaning, the moral,

is up to you. We gods swap stories,

but you are the ones

who divine what they mean.

I think because you suffer. We gods don’t.

We think pain

is overrated. We watch you

the way you watch television. If you make us laugh —

and believe me,

you do —

we adore that.

If you make us cry, so much the better.

That’s a good show. But we don’t lose sleep over your suffering,

or puzzle over what it means.

You poor mortals, you want to know why.

We gods don’t suffer, so we don’t care why.

Where was I? This story: two children. A boy, Rhaskos,

and a girl, Melisto,

plus a bully, a wise man, and a bear. Wait!

I’ve thought of something else:

A tale I stole from a playwright!

It may shed light on our story:

Long ago.

In the beginning.

Every person was two people,

gummed together like a globe. Belly to belly!

Four legs, four arms,

twenty fingers, twenty toes!

They could flip and turn cartwheels,

a riot to watch:

They could curl like waves,

creep like spiders,

and climb like monkeys,

double-quick, and so wise . . .

(two heads are better than one!)

— Wait. Did I mention the sex thing?

Most of them

were male and female: hermaphrodite

(the word comes from Aphrodite, my sister,

and also from Hermes — that’s me).

but some were two men or two women . . .

Either way, they were priceless,

those fabulous, two-for-one twins!

The only thing was, they were bound to make trouble —

plucky and puckish and proud to boot.

And Zeus, my father, doesn’t like trouble,

so he decided

to chop them in two.

(That’s another thing. We Greek gods

are not known for our tender hearts.)

So! He sliced up the twins as you’d cut up an apple,

cutting their power in half.

And ever since,

people have been lonely:

“Where’s my twin? What happened to my old self,

my other half?”

The men who’d been fastened to women, chased women.

The men who’d been fastened to men, chased men . . .

and so forth. We watched. It was amusing.

It’s still amusing. All that panting and longing,

and loving and losing. Dear child,

somewhere in the world is your missing piece,

and you’re going to spend your life trying to find her

or him, as the case may be. I wish you good hunting.

I wish you good luck.

The children I spoke of before were like that.

They weren’t alike, but they fit together,

like lock and key. The boy, Rhaskos,

was a slave boy. Unlucky at first.

A Thracian boy — (Thrace is north of Greece)

— redheaded, nervy, neglected.

A clever boy who was taught he was stupid.

A beautiful boy whose mother

scarred him with a knife.

The girl, Melisto, started life lucky.

A rich man’s daughter, and a proper Greek.

Owl-eyed Melisto: a born fighter,

prone to tantrums, hating the loom.

A wild girl, chosen by Artemis,

and lucky, as I said before —

except for one thing: she died young.

This is their story. When it’s over, if you like,

you can tell me what it means.


I wonder if I speak aloud —

can my words reach you?

It’s been over a year since you spoke to me —

You and Sokrates: I lost you both

the same month. I think of him, too;

but you’re the one I want to tell.

I want you to hear me remember.

Sokrates taught me:

if you don’t think about your life,

that’s no life for a man.

I’ve tried to write my story,

but writing’s slow,

and Sokrates said

written words can’t be trusted. When you read,

you can’t ask questions. You have to ask questions.

Those are the most important things:

to remember;

to ask questions.

My memories are like my drawings.

Some are no good. I mean —

when I used to draw in the dirt,

the line was fat and blurred,

and you couldn’t tell what the picture was.

Now I draw on clay with a knife,

and my lines are sharp. Clear. Detailed.

Some of my memories are like that.

The early ones are blurred.

I was born in Thessaly,

a land known for witchcraft,


and meadows rich with grain.

I belonged to Alexidemus,

a rich man. He had wide pastures,

and swift-stepping horses,

but no witches, as far as I know.

My mother was his slave.

My mother watched the children of the household.

She was their nurse.

There was a whole flock of us.

We played in the courtyard:

an olive tree, good

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