Here Ashley has just been kidnapped by Alexander….
“…Alexander and I went for our evening swim. We washed each other’s hair, and I plucked a willow branch and proceeded to clean my teeth. I had been cleaning them this way since I’d arrived, although I would have liked some fresh mint toothpaste to go along with it. I was just starting to nibble at the wood, to make it softer, when Alexander asked me what I was doing.
“I’m cleaning my teeth,” I explained. I showed him how it was done, and told him I did it three times a day.
Alexander raised his eyebrows. “We use little brushes and put paste made of chalk and lemon juice on them. The Egyptians use urine, white wood ashes and ass’s milk,” he added. “What does your mother use? What do you use in the underworld? Are there trees there? It must be dreadfully cold.” He stopped talking and waited for me to answer all of his questions in the order he’d asked them.
I hadn’t known about their toothbrushes. I was put off by the description of the Egyptian’s toothpaste, though. “My mother had little brushes that we used, the ones she liked had hog’s bristles. And as for the underworld,” I stopped and groped for something to say about that, “well, it’s cold in the wintertime and hot in the summer.” I left it at that and he seemed content.
Except for one thing.
“What about the trees?”
“Oh. Well, no, there are no trees underground.” I frowned. This was getting tricky. “You know, I can’t talk about any of that, I hope you’ll understand.”
He nodded. “I should have known. I won’t ask you any more about it. It must have been dreadful and you want to forget it, is that it?”
“Exactly.” I smiled and then swam against the current. “Shall we get dressed for the theater? I don’t want to be late.”
“No, I don’t want to get dressed just yet.” He drifted alongside me and rolled over in the water like a playful dolphin. I noticed his erection and grinned; he was about as subtle as a tank. We splashed about in the water together. It was fun swimming against the current and making love at the same time. I started giggling and nearly choked and he found that hilarious. He held me up and then moaned, putting his face in the crook of my neck. The current took us downstream, and we had to wade back to our beach.
He caught me watching him, and his face shifted. He smiled and shook his head. “You mustn’t look at me like that,” he said gravely. “The gods will be jealous and they’ll take you away again.” He caught me by the arm and pulled me to him, holding me tightly. “I don’t want to lose you,” he whispered in my ear. “So don’t tempt the gods, please.”
For once, I thought I knew what he was feeling, so I nodded, my face against his broad chest.
We dressed for the theater. I wrapped linen around myself like a sari, tied a yellow sash around my waist, and then wincing, put my sandals on again. My feet were not getting used to them.
Alexander looked imposing with a white, pleated dress skirt and his military tunic. He slipped his breastplate on, then shook his head and took it off. “A bit ostentatious,” he said. Instead, he took a deep purple cape.
“Very handsome,” I told him.
He asked me to plait his hair into one long braid. His shoulder-length hair was naturally wavy and thick, and I wished mine would grow in faster. My stubble looked like hoarfrost on my head. I put my turban on.
He kissed me before we left. He grinned at me, our foreheads touching. His was warm, mine cool.
“Shall we go, my snow queen?”
“We go, my sun prince,” I answered, and our hands entwined as we walked down the road towards the setting sun. There was a marvelous feeling growing in my chest making it hard to breathe, but even harder to stop grinning.
The theater was crowded, but we had the best seats. First, one of the actors read a discourse from Plato’s Republic, in Phoenician, so I didn’t get a word of it. Then Alexander went to the stage and took a bow. He gave a long speech, also in Phoenician, and I had no idea what it was about, but I guessed it was a harangue on Greek culture. The people raised their arms into the air and snapped their fingers, which was their way of applauding.
Afterwards there was a tragedy, and then a comedy.
The tragedy was Oedipus Rex.
Unwittingly, Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. Then he tried to find out why the gods were forsaking the city. No one would tell him. When he discovered the truth, he put out his own eyes and became a beggar.
Everyone cried; some even sobbed aloud. I was embarrassed by the noisy outburst of emotion, and shrank into my seat. Alexander turned to me with tears on his face. When he saw my frozen expression he looked startled for an instant, then shutters seemed to come down over his eyes. He turned back to the play, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Afterwards, there was an intermission, and venders swarmed over the amphitheater offering food and drinks. Alexander bought me some honeyed nuts, and we drank watered wine that one of the soldiers carried in a goatskin. A section of the theater was reserved for slaves, and I caught sight of Brazza, the mute, happily munching on nuts.
Nassar was near the stage translating for some merchants who looked like Egyptians. He saw me, his face brightened, and he waved.
Then the actors came back on the stage, and the second half of the evening began. It was the comedy. Some women and children left, and I remembered that comedies could sometimes turn lascivious or impious. People with high moral standards departed after the tragedies.
Most people stayed.
It was “Plato’s Banquet”, which I’d never seen. I recognized the famous harangue “in vino veritas,” and the crowd was helpless with laughter at the actors’ drunken antics. The play was not a straight comedy, it seemed to have more to do with love than wine, and I was nearly moved to tears in the end. Everyone else did cry. I sat there feeling out of place, but I was used to that.
Afterwards the actors took their masks off and came to meet Alexander. He praised their interpretation, even reciting several speeches by heart. More people came up to him, and he smiled and answered questions. His magnetism drew them. They crowded around him. He didn’t seem to notice. He was the same with everyone, be they slave, infant, or Queen of Egypt. He treated everyone with the same grave consideration. The people adored him.
When the crowd thinned, we strolled back to the camp, the soldiers walking behind us. Alexander had his arm linked through mine, and every now and then we’d stop and he’d point out a constellation.
The soldiers stopped when we did and walked when we walked. Alexander spoke to them as if they were all equals, and they looked at him in open admiration. He didn’t notice.
He did notice when I started limping, though.
“What happened to you? Let me see your feet.” He motioned for a torch and looked at my sore feet, making clucking sounds as he did. “What awful sandals, where did you get them? I’ve never seen worse. Why don’t you get some leather ones? Lysimachus!”
The captain of the guard came over. “Yes sir!”
“Captain, you will get some sandals for this woman tomorrow.”
“Yes sir!” He saluted.
Alexander had two soldiers make a hand-chair for me, and they carried me back to the tent.
“I can’t believe you wore these!” he kept exclaiming.
“They were given to me,” I explained.
Alexander couldn’t get over it. My itchy linen robe had been the very finest quality, thanks to the machine that wove it, but my shoes had been a dismal failure and he was disappointed in the god’s choice of footwear.
I tried to explain that the gods had nothing to do with my sandals but fell asleep in the middle of my sentence. It wasn’t that important anyway, I thought.
There was a new pair of sandals on the rug the next morning. They fitted perfectly. My old ones had disappeared, and I didn’t find out where they’d gone until I went into the village and passed by the temple. There, on the altar, were my sandals.
Fresh flowers, a bowl of warm milk, and a small snail made of clay surrounded them. A young girl in temple robes sat next to them murmuring a prayer. I tried to speak to her in Greek, but she didn’t understand me.
I pursed my lips and went to find Nassar. Maybe he could explain.
Nassar was writing a letter for a tough-looking soldier. They were both sitting on a mat made of reeds, and every once in a while Nassar would throw his pen away and break off a reed. He would sharpen it quickly with his teeth and I realized with a small start that his front teeth had been carefully cut at a bias to trim reeds into pens.
It was interesting and I resolved to have him explain how it was done. He dipped the reed into a little clay pot of ink and wrote on a rather cheap piece of papyrus. A dozen rolled-up letters were lying beside him, each one flattened and sealed with a blob of wax. He’d been busy all morning.
When he finished the letter he rolled it up, tied it with a piece of grass and sealed it with hard wax. Then he flattened the whole thing with his fist, wrote the address on the outside, and placed it on top of the pile.
“Next?” he called out in his nasal voice.
“Good morning, Nassar,” I said as I approached.
He held his arms up in a stiff salute and then bowed, touching his forehead to the mat. “Hail Demeter’s daughter,” he intoned.
“Don’t do that!” I was upset. “Who told you that, anyway?”
“Oh, everyone knows,” he said smugly.
“Well, I’d like you to come to the temple with me to see about a pair of shoes,” I said.
“Oh! The Sacred Sandals! I should be honored! May I touch them, oh daughter of Demeter?”
I closed my eyes and counted to ten. “They aren’t sacred sandals,” I said. “And of course you can touch them. There’s been a mistake.”
“They weren’t your sandals? The captain of the guards took them to the shoemaker early this morning to have a copy made in leather and gave the originals to the temple. It is not a coincidence that the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, guards this town. It was why you were sent here. Now that Iskander has rescued you, the harvest is sure to be fantastic this year.”
“But isn’t the village protected by Ishtar?”
“It was, but it’s becoming Hellenicised. Now it has adopted Demeter, goddess of the harvest, because of what Iskander said last night in his speech.”
“His speech? What did he say?”
“You should have asked me to translate,” he said, reproach in his voice. “He said he was glad to be there and that he hoped the play would be entertaining, that he and his soldiers were very happy in the village, and he was honored everyone had made them feel so welcome, and how the two cultures would complement each other.”
Nassar took a deep breath, like a swimmer, and plunged in again. “He said that the gods of Greece were stronger than our gods so we’d do well to adopt theirs. He said you had been sent as a sign and that he’d saved you from Hades himself, so Demeter would forever be grateful. He said that as a goddess you would personally see to the welfare of the village.” He finished in a rush and smiled at me. “I’m no longer an atheist,” he said proudly. “I believe in you. Why, if I want, I can actually touch your sandals.”
I closed my eyes again and waited for the wave of pain that was sure to come. Pretending to be a goddess must rate among the three top reasons for erasing a Time-traveling journalist. After a few seconds I opened one eye, then the other.
Nothing had happened. I was still sitting in front of Nassar, and he was watching me with a rapt expression on his narrow, rat-like face.
“Did your mother speak to you?” he whispered, his eyes wide.
“No. No, she didn’t. Excuse me, Nassar, but I think I’ll just go lie down. I have to think about all this.”
I stood up, shivering with disquiet, and walked back to the tent where Alexander was having a game of dice with a tall man I recognized as the village priest. I wondered if I could sneak away, but they turned and saw me.
“Oh! There you are!” cried Alexander, standing up and holding out his arms. “I was worried. Did you find your new shoes? Yes, I see you did. The village priest has come to thank you for your sandals. In exchange, he has agreed to forsake all virgin sacrifices. Isn’t that wonderful? Your mother will be thrilled.”
“I’m sure she will be,” I said with the utmost truthfulness. Then I went into the tent and collapsed.