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       Snakehead, p.1

           Ann Halam
 
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Snakehead


  OTHER LAUREL-LEAF BOOKS

  YOU WILL ENJOY

  ACCELERATION, Graham McNamee

  DAUGHTER OF VENICE

  Donna Jo Napoli

  CHILDREN OF THE RIVER

  Linda Crew

  HOW IT HAPPENED IN PEACH HILL

  Marthe Jocelyn

  MY SWORDHAND IS SINGING

  Marcus Sedgwick

  THE WHOLE SKY FULL OF STARS

  RenéSaldaña, Jr.

  A BONE FROM A DRY SEA

  Peter Dickinson

  ALSO BY ANN HALAM

  Dr. Franklin’s Island

  Siberia

  Taylor Five

  For Philip Sinclair-Jones

  CAST OF CHARACTERS

  On the Island of Serifos

  Figures from Greek myth

  Danae The only legitimate daughter of the Achaean king, Acrisus of Argos

  Perseus The son of Zeus and of Danae of Argos Diety The rightful king of Serifos (sometimes spelled “Dictys” in the classical sources)

  Andromeda (Kore) The brilliant and beautiful daughter of Cassiopeia, great queen of the Phoenician city of Haifa

  Polydectes The tyrant king who rules Serifos from his citadel, “the High Place”

  Fictional characters

  Taki A shipping magnate with connections everywhere and a heart of stone

  Anthe A talented young cook at Dicty’s taverna Palikari The cocktail waiter and bar manager at the taverna

  Aten A resident foreigner on Serifos Moni the Naxian Aten’s wife

  Koukla The taverna’s housekeeper and laundrywoman Kefi A timid but faithful mule boy Mando A famous singer

  Bozic A smuggler and part-time secret agent Balba A Serifos matriarch and renowned weaver Yiannis An old sea dog Sika The captain of the Octopus

  [Yacht Club Kids:] Kia of Keros, Gliko and Niki from the Twelve Islands, and others (young adventurers traveling around the Middle Sea, looking for fun and trouble)

  More figures from myth

  On board the Argo (a famous ship)

  Jason The favorite of the Goddess Hera; leader of a crew of half-immortals and heroes

  Members of his crew include:

  Heracles The strong man

  Castor and Polydeuces The twins

  Atalanta The fleet footed

  Orpheus The musician

  In the Phoenician City of Haifa

  Cassiopeia the Ethiopian The great queen and mother of Andromeda

  Kephus Her consort and father of Andromeda Phineus A suitor for the hand of Princess Andromeda

  Gods, Goddesses, and

  other Supernatural Beings

  Zeus The king of the Olympians and Perseus’s absentee father; chieftain of the gods; a magnificent big shot with the attitude of a gangster, serious superpowers, and surprisingly good manners

  Poseidon/Melqart The god of making and breaking, of earthquakes and the ocean; known as Poseidon to the Greeks, Melqart to the Phoenicians

  Athini The goddess of wisdom and woman warrior; known to the Greeks as the daughter of Zeus; Perseus’s half sister and patroness

  Hermes The divine messenger and Perseus’s half brother

  Hera Zeus’s estranged wife, liable to make trouble for any of Zeus’s half-mortal children

  The Graeae Three hideous old women, with one eye and one tooth among them, who feed on the flesh of drowned sailors; also known as the Gray Sisters; the pitiless seas, personified

  The Stygian Nymphs (Minthe, Orphne, Eleione, Lethe, Styx) Not your average wispy airhead spirits of stream and grove, these immortal maidens from the court of the king of the underworld are very cool, excellent company, and highly dangerous.

  Medusa The only mortal of the three Gorgons. Her hair is a nest of living serpents, her blood is deadly poison, her glance turns anyone she looks upon to stone. Once the most beautiful woman in the world, she was turned into a monster by Athini.

  Pegasus The winged horse, the opener of the springs, and child of Poseidon and Medusa

  Great Mother The single deity worshipped all over the Aegean before the Great Disaster

  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.

  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.

  The lady with the cart of oil was heading for the Paros jetty, where the regular ferry was already in dock. The ship we were waiting for, the mighty Blue Star Afroditi, was still far out on the dark sea. Port Authority tugs could be seen guiding her in, their smart oars flashing in the sunlight.

  The Naxos Militia were in among the crowd, trying to get the refugees to move on. They had a right, I suppose, but the refugees had nowhere to go. Some of them had set up little camps, oblivious of people trying to get by—as if they thought they could settle down and live on the waterfront. It was a mess. Scuffles were breaking out. Armored men were grappling with unarmed men and women; pathetic belongings were flying about; children were screaming.

  The Holy Sisters had arrived. I could see their gray robes moving toward the trouble: but how much good could they do? The militia disgusted me, they made me think of the so-called king of Serifos and his brutal followers. Yet I could understand their frustration, and I had no answers. Me, I just wanted to fling everything I possessed at the miserable folk, and run away.

  I got up front and grabbed Dolly’s bridle. Moumi dropped back to keep the rearguard, by Music’s glossy dark rump. Brainy pressed close to Dolly, our sensible old gray, his ears back and his big teeth bared. We reached the gates of the splendid harbor. We were allowed to pass through, and got waved over to the mule line. Everything was suddenly quiet and ordered again, but I was ready to spit, between fury and shame at my own helplessness.

  Moumi started unloading. I began to help, not sure why she was doing this. Bundles of vegetables, wax-sealed jars of honey and Kitron liqueur, sacks of pulses, specialty oils and spices.

  “Coin would be better,” she said. “But we haven’t enough.”

  We tried to avoid taking coin for our trade goods. Even if the coin is pure, and weighs what it’s supposed to weigh, the metals market changes so fast. You can never be sure what silver or copper is going to be worth, a shipping season down the line. If we were paid in money, we spent it, at once, on fancy sundries: napkins, scented soap, exotic produce. We worked at a taverna, and those things come in handy.

  “Better for what?”

  “I’m going to give half a mule load to the Holy Sisters,” said Moumi, refastening Brainy’s pack strap with a brisk tug. “They can trade it for food, shelter, whatever those people need. I’ve been running over the figures in my head. We can afford it.”

  That’s one of the reasons why I love my mother. She never puts on airs, like some smug charitable ladies, but she makes up her mind, and does the right thing while I’m floundering. “What’ll Dicty say?”

  Moumi grinned at me. We both knew that our boss at the taverna wouldn’t say a thing, except to wonder if she should have given more. “Generosity is good advertising,” she quoted.

  “It impresses people,” I agreed, also quoting the boss. “An open hand makes you look successful, and that’s always good for business.”

  “I’ll get a receipt. The nuns will tell the refugees who we are, and where we live. They’ll know where to come if they can ever pay us back.”

  We sorted out half a load of easily tradeable goods, and Moumi set off. She took Dolly, who could be trusted. Brainy looked after them in disbelief, and then at me with a horrified expression in his big eyes, like we’re never going to see them again! He’s a scaredy-cat, poor Brainy. I never knew a brighter mule, but he has too much imagination.

  So there I was alone on the dock with the mules, two laden packsaddles and a half load that would be Dolly’s when she came back. Music let out two or three of his cracking great honks (it’s not for nothing he’s called Music), tipped up his left-hand back hoof and drifted off into a trance on three legs. Brainy calmed down and relaxed, with his chin on Music’s backside. I had some preserved figs in my wallet, and a couple of olive-bread rolls. I propped myself against a packsaddle, chewing, and checked out the action.

  Like her sister ship, the Dimitra, the ship that had brought us to Naxos, Afroditi plied the whole western line between the islands. She was coming back from Fira now—the island which had once been the queen of the Kyklades, a fabulous city-state, but was now a ruined stump of land where nobody could live. The ship had touched at Milos, the obsidian island, where the cutting-edge black glass comes from. She’d be going all the way to the Mainland after she dropped us at Serifos. She had plenty of custom: islanders and foreigners, couriers and merchants; maybe from as far away as Kriti or Eygpt.

  The drivers and foot passengers were in the covered arcade. The sun was going down behind Great Mother’s sanctuary isle across the harbor channel, but it was still hot enough to bother people. The Port Authority police, in their spruce white uniforms, were watching the tugs or else had taken shelter in the big, open customs shed. Only mule boys and teamsters’ lads were hanging around the vehicle lines. Among them I could see a gang I didn’t care to meet, and I had a feeling they were talking about me.

  I decided to go for a stroll. There was a girl walking on her own along the edge of the dock. She’d caught my eye, so I headed in that direction. She was tall and slim, and had a distinguished look. I thought she might be a Phoenician, because she was wearing a red dress. The word for Phoenician in our language means “the Red People.” No one really knows why. It’s not as if they’re red, as if they’d been painted; they’re more a baked-brick color. But this girl’s skin was dark, a clear, vivid darkness like polished obsidian.

  She didn’t notice me, so I kept on looking. She had very good hair. It fell down her back in closely curling black ringlets, not tied or braided but held off her face with combs. Under her red dress she was wearing trousers gathered at the ankle, a style we call “Skythian,” though nobody I know has ever seen a Skythian. The dress was fastened on both shoulders, which I liked. The girls on our island leave one shoulder and breast bare, unless they’re doing heavy work. They think this is stylish; to me it looks half-cooked. The two brooches gave her a nice cleavage. She stopped and stared into the clear water of the harbor, pushing a pair of yellow bracelets up and down her arms, lost in thought.

  I stopped at a polite distance, just close enough for conversation. “There’s supposed to be big octopus in there. They come out hunting about now; d’you see any?”

  “No.”

  “Are you waiting for the Afroditi?”

  “Yes.”

  “Are you going far? Is the rest of your party in the arcade?”

  She looked up, at last. She looked at me very directly, with somber eyes: letting me know she had too much on
her mind to care about my lame chat-up lines. “I’m traveling alone. Thank you.”

  I was startled. Every shipping season well-off young people traveled for fun around the Middle Sea, looking for adventure: girls as well as boys. I envied them, and knew that could never be me. But she didn’t look like one of those carefree kids, and who travels alone? It isn’t healthy these days, no matter who you are.

  The next thing she said surprised me even more.

  “I’ve been watching you. The lady you were with: I saw her taking a mule load to the Holy Sisters. What was that for?”

  “It’s for the refugees,” I said. “The victims of the Libyan earthquake.”

  “That’s what I thought.” Her eyes were black and very sad. Was she traveling to a funeral, maybe? “It was good of you and the lady. Is she your sister?”

  “She’s my mother. We’re in the taverna business; we were over here picking up supplies.” I was embarrassed. I didn’t want us to sound like do-gooders. “Generosity is great advertising. An open hand makes you look successful.”

  Not a smile. I wanted to say I was not trying to pick her up…. Don’t be stupid, I told myself. Back off, make your retreat. But while my attention had been on this beautiful girl, the layabouts I didn’t want to meet had followed me.

  “Hey, Perseus. Hey, Big Boy!”

  The chief miscreant was right there, strutting, fists in his belt. The rest of them, brainless mule boys and shiftless oxcart juniors, were bunched behind him.

  “Tell your pretty new girlfriend, let’s hear it. Is the yeller-haired ‘lady’ your mother, or your sister?” He smacked his lips. “Or what …?”

  It is my fate to be unusually big and strong for my age—well, for any age, to be honest. I was hardly shaving, but I looked like a challenge to the muscle-worshipping idiots of this world. This one was a prize specimen. I’d met him before, but managed to get away without having to thump him. He wasn’t from my island, Serifos, or he’d have known better. He was from Paros. Leather straps around his biceps; his bullet head shaved nearly to the skin, Trojan style; a sick, scared and greedy look on his pasty face … He was too old for his company, nothing like my equal and just dying to take on the god-touched.

 
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