Book Club: A God in Every Stone
Fig leaves and fruit twirl in Scylax’s hands. As he turns the silver circlet round and round, animating the engravings, he imagines flexing his wrist and watching the headpiece skim down
desert of the mountain, across the jewelled valley of streamsand fields and fruit,
in the muddied tributary along which it races towards the crocodile-filled Indus.
Beside the distant riverbank, his ship is a brown smear. His crew think him mad to have spent all night on the mountain; but why explain to them, if they don’t already understand, the wonder of waking with the sun and, in the clear morning air, looking upon the rushing course of the Indus which is laid out before him like an offering. He places the circlet on his head, runs his rough sailor’s hands over the delicate figs embossed on it – in honour of his homeland of Caria, where men are barbarians but the fruit is sweet. So the Persians say and yet here he is, one of the barbarian men, entrusted to lead the most daring of missions in the Empire. No man has ever navigated the mighty Indus. No man has ever attempted it. Not even Odysseus.
A flock of white birds swarms around his ship. No, it’s the sails. His crew has worked all night to surprise him with this gift. The ship is ready; the sails catch the wind and billow towards him. He whistles sharply and his horse, tethered further down the mountain, responds with a whinny. Scylax runs towards the noise; the distance between him and the ship suddenly enormous. Today it begins. Today they set sail from the city of Caspatyrus, edge of Darius’ empire, edge of the known world. Caspatyrus – the doorway to glory.
Vivian Rose Spencer was almost running now, up the mountainside, along the ancient paving stones of the Sacred Way, accompanied by an orchestra of birds, spring water, cicadas and the encounter of breeze and olive trees. The guide and donkeys were far behind, so there was no one to see her stop sharply beside a white block which had tumbled partway down the mountain centuries ago and rest her hands against its surface before bending close to touch her lips to it. Marble, grit, and a taste which made her jerk away in shock – the bones of Zeus’ sanctuary had the sweetness of fig. Either that, or a bird flying overhead might have dropped a fruit here, and the juice of it smeared against the stone. She looked down at her feet, saw a split- open fig.
– Labraunda! she called out, her voice echoing.
– Labraunda! she heard, bouncing back down the moun- tain at her. That wasn’t her voice at all. It was a man, his accent both familiar and foreign. But no, she was the foreign one here. She picked up the fig, held it to her nose and closed her eyes. She never wanted to return to London again.
The reports of the nineteenth-century travellers hadn’t prepared her for this: on the terraced upper slopes of the mountain enough of the vast temple complex remained intact to allow the imagination to pick up fallen colonnades, piece together the scattered marble and stone blocks, and imagine the grandeur that once was. Here, the Carian forces fled after losing a battle against the might of Darius’ Persians; here, the architects of the Mausoleum, that wonder of the world, honed their craft; here, Alexander came to see the mighty two-headed axe of the Amazon queen held aloft by the statue of Zeus.
Viv walked slowly, trying to take it all in: the ruins, half lost in foliage; the sounds of earth being turned, tree limbs hacked, voices speaking indistinct words; the view which held, all at once, the vast sky, the plain beneath, and the Aegean Sea in the distance. She had yet to become accustomed to the light of this part of the world – brilliant without being harsh, it made her feel she’d spent her whole life with gauze over her eyes. Something small and muscled charged at her, almost knocking her down.
– Alice! she cried out, and tried to pick up the pug, but the animal bounded ahead, and Viv followed, through a maze of broken columns taller than the tallest of men, until she saw the familiar lean form of her father’s old friend Tahsin Bey crouching on the ground next to a man with sandy-blond hair, pointing at something carved onto a large stone block – a serpentine shape, with a loop behind its open jaw.
– A snake, the man with sandy-blond hair said, in a German accent.
– An eel? suggested Tahsin Bey in that way he had of putting forward a certainty as though it were a theory he was asking you to consider.
– An eel? Why an eel?
It was Viv who answered, though she knew it was impolite to enter the conversation of men unaware of her presence.
– Because Pliny tells us that in the springs of Labraunda there are eels which wear earrings.
The two men turned to look at her, and she couldn’t stop herself from adding:
– And Aelian says there are fish wearing golden necklaces who are tamed, and answer the calls of men.
Tahsin Bey held out his hand, his smile of welcome over- riding the formality of the gesture.
– Welcome to Labraunda, Vivian Rose.
His palm was callused, and a few moments later when she raised her hand to brush some irritation out of her eye she smelt tobacco and earth overlaying fig. The richness of the scent made her linger over it until she saw the German looking at her with a knowing expression she didn’t like. Briskly, she lowered her hand and rubbed it on her skirt, all the while wondering how she would ever rest her eyes in this place with so much to see.
She woke up early the next morning, still wearing clothes from the day before. She had done little the previous after- noon beyond measure and sketch the columns of one of the buildings – a temple? an andron? a treasury? – but her muscles ached from the walk up the mountain and the half-delirious scrambling up and down the terraces before Tahsin Bey had instructed her to take her sketchbook and make herself useful. By dinnertime it had been all she could do to place her food in her mouth and chew while conversation buzzed around her, good-natured about her inability to participate.
She arose from her camp bed and changed her clothes quietly without disturbing the two German women in the tent, before stepping out into the hour between darkness and light. There was almost a chill in the air, but not quite, as she walked among the ruins, both hands held out to touch every block, every column she passed. A sharp yip cut through the silence. Looking around for Alice she found Tahsin Bey instead, sitting on the large rock with a fissure running through it – the split rock of Zeus – holding up a mug to her in greeting. Alice was dispatched to guide her up through trees and broken steps, and a few minutes later she was drink- ing hot tea from the cap of a thermos, watching the sun rise over the ancient land of Caria.
– So that’s what a rosy-fingered dawn looks like.
– You must write and tell your father that. He’ll be pleased.
– Oh, I’m going to write and tell him everything!
Her father, a man without sons, had turned his regret at that lack into a determination to make his daughter rise above all others of her sex; a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect. Taking upon himself the training of her mind he had read Homer with her in her childhood, took vast pleasure in her endless questioning of Tahsin Bey about the life of an archaeologist every time the Turk came to visit, and championed her right to study history and Egyptology at UCL despite his wife’s objections – even so, Viv had barely allowed herself to believe he was being serious when he’d asked her one morning, as if enquiring if she’d like a drive through the park, if she’d be interested in joining Tahsin Bey at a dig in Labraunda. Outrageous! Mrs Spencer had said, slapping a napkin onto the polished wood of the breakfast table. Did he want his daughter running up the pyramids in her bloomers like Mrs Flinders Petrie? Did he have no thought for her marital prospects?
Father and daughter had shared the smile of conspirators across the breakfast table before Viv rose from her chair to throw her arms around Dr Spencer’s neck. She had been more disappointed than she’d ever revealed during her just-concluded university years when he’d said no, she would not be among the students who Flinders Petrie took to Egypt over the summer – and assumed that meant all future digs were out of the question, too, as long as she was unmarried and under his roof. But there he was, pushing aside his plate, showing her the letter from Tahsin Bey and saying of course she mustn’t miss such an opportunity, and his old friend could be trusted to ensure all proprieties were observed which was more than could be said for Flinders Petrie with that madcap wife of his, and how he wished he could set aside the responsibilities of his life and join them.
– He’s very proud of you, the Turk said, turning his body slightly towards her on the rock.
– I know, but I haven’t given him any reason to be proud. Not yet.
– No? You don’t think he should be proud of your courage?
– Courage? That’s something I certainly don’t have. You remember my friend, Mary? She’s become one of those militant suffragettes, I regret to say. But even though she’s completely wrong, I see her facing prison and force-feeding, and I recognise courage. But it isn’t there when I look in the mirror.
– It takes considerable courage to come to an unknown part of the world, away from everything you’ve ever known.
– This isn’t courage. You’re here.
She felt herself blush as she said the words, which had more heat in them spoken aloud than she had anticipated. All she meant was that she wasn’t away from everything she’d ever known when in his familiar company – he and her father had tumbled into an unexpected friendship as young men who met on a train in France, and there had scarcely been a year she could remember when Tahsin Bey hadn’t come to London and walked with her through the British Museum, talking about his hopes for one day convincing the Ottoman authorities to grant him a firman to excavate at Labraunda. And I’ll come along! she had always said. Oh of course, he'd replied when she was a child and, if your father approves, once she’d started to approach adulthood.
But his company wasn’t familiar in the old way, she saw as he blushed too. She was twenty-two now, and though she’d always thought of him as old the muscles of his bare forearm and the thickness of his dark hair which she’d never noticed in the muffled light of London made her sharply aware that a twenty-five-year gap grows narrower over time. She had friends from school who’d married men in their forties, and had children.
She swivelled away from Tahsin Bey, and opened her sketchbook so she could pretend the change in angle was necessary only to allow her to draw the ruins of the building which she’d been sketching up close the previous day. Of course, she’d often thought that marrying an archaeologist was the only way she might ensure her place in the thrilling excavations of the age – as opposed to the irrelevant digs at the edges of knowledge to which the recent fad for women- led excavations was relegated. But to think of Tahsin Bey in that manner was absurd. He was her father’s friend; she couldn’t begin to imagine . . . not that she’d ever really known what she was supposed to imagine about men in that way; she’d seen enough fertility totems to understand the mechanics of it, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was, she would die of embarrassment if he even knew what she was thinking.
– You have a fine hand.
She looked up, startled, but his attention was entirely on the page which she had filled with a quick, precise sketch of the stumps of columns – Ionic on two sides – which formed the rectangular outline of the building. He held out his hand, she gave him the sketchbook, and watched as he turned the pages.
– Not a fine hand, an exceptional one. When you show these to your father, he will be proud.
She returned his smile – a child again, in the presence of an adult whose assurances made the world better.
That night there were ten at dinner around a long wooden table under the night sky. Three Germans, six Turks, and Viv. They started the meal in near-silence, all attention on the stew which Nergiz the cook had prepared, but when it was over they pushed their plates away, and everyone other than Viv – even the two German women – lit up cigarettes and fell into rapid chatter about their day in a mix of languages in which French dominated. Viv was seated next to the blond German man, Wilhelm, who was particularly interested in the necropolis surrounding the Temple complex and talked to her in painstaking detail about the coins and inscriptions he’d already found in one of the rock tombs. She nodded and listened, which was clearly all he expected of her, while her ears caught wisps of the conversations she’d rather be in – an increasingly heated discussion about whether the largest building within the complex was the Temple of Zeus particularly intrigued her. At some point she caught Tahsin Bey’s eye, and he winked – she could never imagine him doing such a thing in her parents’ home, but it didn’t feel as though he were taking a liberty.
– Bored? he mouthed, and she nodded.
The next thing she knew he was standing on his wooden chair, Alice tucked under one arm, the stars clustered around his head like a band of silver.
– Ladies and Gentlemen, if we lower our voices we might be able to hear them.
He placed one finger on his lips, and pointed down the mountainside. They all turned to look but there was nothing to see except white columns cut out of the darkness.
– The remnants of the Carian army. Listen – you can hear their weary footsteps as they drag themselves and their wounded brothers up the Sacred Way to the Temple of Labraunda. It isn’t the physical wounds that make their steps falter – it is failure. This morning they were men of hope and courage, a brave people at the edge of a vast empire, ready to cut through the chains that bind them to their Persian overlords. Now they are a tattered, spent force. – not one of them hasn’t lost someone he loves to a Persian sword. There they go now, limping past us, towards the Temple of Zeus . . . no, Mehmet, not that one . . . their hearts filled with either sorrow or rage towards the god who has deserted them.
Since her childhood, this had been his role. The Storyteller of the Ancients. In her first clear memory of talking to him he had told her he was from Anatolia – ancient Caria – like Herodotus the Father of History and Scylax the Great Explorer.
– In the temple they argue: should they give themselves up to the Persians or try to flee their homeland? Only one man says nothing: Scylax, who knows the Persians best of all – has travelled with them, drunk with them, and worn Darius’ mark of favour on his brow.
– Stop him!
The words whispered in her ear by Tahsin Bey’s nephew, Mehmet, the archaeologist nearest to her in age but until now distant around her, almost distrustful.
– Please. He’ll listen to you. Please.
The edge of panic in his voice made her act without thinking. Picking up a slice of pear she flicked it towards the pug who leapt from Tahsin Bey’s arms, tiny legs paddling the air as though it were water; the Turk lunged forward, caught her, and somehow managed to regain his balance on the chair to the sounds of applause. It had worked; the mood shifted to the jubilance which accompanies averted disaster, Mehmet called out, A song! A song! and the Germans around the table broke into ‘Greensleeves’, Wilhelm catching hold of Viv’s hands and pulling her into a surprisingly light-footed dance around the table as he sang.
A little later, she apologised to Tahsin Bey. For some reason, I was convinced I could toss the pear directly into Alice’s mouth, she said. He waved away the need for any explanation. Mehmet, sitting near by, watched impassively.
– Why did I really do it? she asked the young man when they were out of everyone’s hearing.
– Oh, I’ve heard that story so many times I’m sick of it, he said, and though she knew he was lying she couldn’t begin to fathom why.