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Book Club: A God in Every Stone

Book Club: A God in Every Stone

Read an extract from Kamila Shamsie's A God in Every Stones, part of our Waterstones Book Club.

Posted on 29th March 2015 by Kamila Shamsie

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

the
         sloping

                         desert of the mountain, across the jewelled valley of streamsand fields and fruit,

to land

             splash!

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.

July-August 1914

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.