Because I had been a reasonable boy, mother allowed me to accompany Manis to the marketplace. But because I was a reasonable boy, I raised my chin.
“No, mother.” A swallow passed above the courtyard, snapping at whatever small things flew there. Black against the grey. “The teacher said my letters were well-made, and I ought to write more.”
As I’d hoped, mother clasped her hands together, her onyx rings catching the light. Black against the grey. Then she put her cold palms to my cheeks. “Such a clever child. Isn’t he clever, Manis?” The slave agreed, of course. Mother gave him a drachma to hold for me. “Letters later, Aristocles. Now, darling boy, you may buy your very own pelike.”
I had no need for a jug. I bought no wine, sweet or dry, white or black; I prepared no wine, mixing good water from wherever it snowed. I was served. I drank.
Still, this gift was a kind of praise. “Thank you, mother,” I said. “I’ll pick something well made.”
She smiled at me, and this was quite believable: eyes happy above that strained mouth. She liked well-made things.
I was well-made, for a time.
There were no barbarians in the agora – or none that I saw. Most were strangers to me, yet not strange at all: the same drab clothing, the same sweat and haggling and gossiping. Their feathers were either dull or dyed, the spearheads rusted. When I reached for cinnabar, Manis stopped my wrist very gently.
“I’m allowed to.”
“You are, of course,” he said, bowing. “But physicians say it brings sickness, master.”
I knew about illness. In one season, it took my father, baby sister and the warmth from my mother’s hands. “Let’s go to the potters now.”
I chose well. My jug portrayed youths in the gymnasium, red figures against black. On one side, a boy had his curved scraper ready to remove sweat, oil and dirt. Across from him was another with spears. The clay was bright in the grey sky. When the sun came out, the athletes glowed like the lamp by my bed.
I was admiring the work – that is, admiring myself, who chose it – when the laughter began. I turned quickly, almost dropping the pelike.
“It’s only the philosopher, master.”
I had heard of him from mother. Just seeing him made me feel dirty, as if I had touched a corpse. Those unseemly blue eyes, those uncouth jerky gestures. He was pointing to his feet, and I looked there for something worthy of wit. There was nothing.
“What’s he laughing about?”
“Perhaps he’s drunk.” Manis turned to the road.
I didn’t strike him, for I was a reasonable child. But how I wanted to. “Answer me properly, slave.”
Manis breathed long, as adults so often do. “Philosophers mock common ideas, master. Perhaps the stonemason said...”
Squinting up at the sky, the philosopher turned so that his back was fully to the sun. His laughter became forceful, more of a phlegmy wheeze, his mouth wide. I saw what he was pointing at now: his own shadow. Blackness on the grey dirt, a grotesque, misshapen version of his grotesque, misshapen being.
Then the philosopher looked at me. For just a moment, I recognised something familiar in those eyes: fear. I looked away.
“Take me home, Manis.”
I showed mother the pelike and she praised my taste. She said my father would be proud, though he was now a shade in the dark, and my stepfather would be pleased, though he was overseeing our mines. Another shade in the dark.
I heard these things but didn’t heed them. Because now I knew. I knew. The shadow was in the corners of the garden, where spiders laid their eggs. Under the fountain, where clear water gave way to dirt and worms. Beneath my mother. In her.
“What a beautiful jug,” said my uncle, visiting from his estate. He pointed to the bright youths.
I nodded and smiled – believably, I hoped. But I did not see the red figures now. I saw what was between and around them.
“I’ll do my letters now, mother.” Then, because I was reasonable: “Manis, light my lamp. It helps me.”
It didn’t help. It made the shadows darker. I squinted through them, shivering. I wanted to close my eyes but I knew what I would see.
I crouched on my bed and stared into the lamp until my eyes stung.
I didn’t sleep.
I rose before everyone – even before the slaves. I wrapped the pelike in a blanket and smashed it against the plinth in the courtyard. If mother asked, I’d blame Manis. And he would accept the blame.
Keeping the red shards, I threw the rest into the sea. I was worried that they would pass through my hand, that the nothings would become a nothing in me.
But they fell like ordinary clay. Of course. The nothings were in me already.
I emptied my stomach and slept.
The courtyard was bright at noon. I was safe. They were hidden.
Perhaps mother stared at me. It was difficult to tell, her eyes were so dark in their sockets, her mouth a dark slit.
The sundial bent on its plinth. It was no longer noon. The shadows were everywhere. Everything had its dark double. Except the sun, which was too far to help me.
“What is it, darling boy? Why are you laughing?”
Because I was a reasonable boy, I pointed beneath me. There I was, pointing back.
Yes, here I am.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2023 as "Reasonable boy".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription