Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Walk in His Shoes


Greece, 500 BC
The boy’s bare feet on the marble floor of the portico sounded like the clapping of a cheering audience. He breathlessly came to a halt where his fellow slave, Zosimus, had stopped for a rest from fetching water. He was glad Ligeia was nowhere to be seen. The woman’s name meant shrill and it suited her well. When she spoke, everyone around her knew it. If Ligeia caught Carpus with the young master’s sandals in his hands, he’d surely face severe punishment.
“Here, take these,” Carpus said between gasps. Zosimus grabbed the sandals from Carpus’ outstretched hand and stuffed them behind one of the end pillars. No one would think to look there.
Carpus bent forward with his hands on his knees, still sucking in air by huge mouthfuls. Zosimus tugged at his shoulder. “Come on, Carpus. I want to know what happened. Was it as fun as you thought? What’d you do?”
Carpus drew to a standing position. After two more heavy breaths, he began. “Don’t ever try it, Zo. I thought wearing sandals would be fun. I didn’t know I’d have to run for my life. I had a policeman chasing me most of the way home. I lost him, though. I’m quick. Maybe as fast as Praxi the butcher’s dog when he’s stealing meat,” he said with a proud smile.
“It wasn’t one of the slaves that are policemen, was it?” Zosimus asked in amazement.
Carpus brushed his matted brown hair from his forehead before answering. “Sure. It was one of them. Almost all the police are slaves.”
Zo’s eyes opened wide at his friend’s words.
“They have no allegiance to us, Zo,” Carpus added with a sneer. “You’re seven years old. You should know that.”
Zosimus gulped. “I don’t know as much as you do, Carpus. You’re already nine.”
“I know.” Carpus ruffled his friend’s hair. He glanced around for any sign of Ligeia. Still safe. The two hurried to the bushes behind the well, their favorite hiding place, and huddled together. They would be undisturbed there.

Carpus and Zosimus had been slaves in Maro’s household since infancy. They were among the many newborns left “exposed” by parents who couldn’t, or didn’t, desire to care for them. Such infants were left at the city gate or on a hillside to either die of exposure or be snatched up by some passerby. Raising such a baby meant a significant commitment on the part of a household, including finding a wet nurse and years of feeding and clothing before any sort of return could be expected.
Maro’s wife, Elpis, had pleaded, cajoled, and begged her husband to allow her to take on two such babies. She had suffered through eight years of childlessness, and, though she did carry one child to term, it was only after a difficult pregnancy and complicated birth. The midwife told her she would never have another child of her own.
Agreeing to his wife’s request, Maro stipulated the babies would be slaves in their household, not adopted children. He dubbed the first baby “Carpus,” meaning “profits,” to remind his wife of the child’s destiny as their slave. Elpis nursed the baby at the same time she was nursing her one and only natural child.
The second child, Zosimus was discovered on a nearby hill, belting out loud and lusty wails. This time it was Elpis who decided on the name; she deemed any baby who ate as well as he did “likely to survive.” Elpis was glad she still had milk in her breasts to feed the baby.
At her attentiveness to Zosimus’ every new smile, gurgle, step, and word, however, Maro became adamant they would never again acquire a slave in this way. The line between son and slave seemed blurry to his wife. A slave is a slave is a slave is a slave. He wouldn’t allow these foundlings to become members of his family. There was no way of finding out their parentage: no way of knowing who they were or what they would become.
Maro and Elpis’ natural son, Nikomedes, also failed to make the distinction between master and slave for many years. In fact, during the first years of the boys’ lives, they were each other’s best friends and playmates. The three spent most of their time together each day. When Nikomedes turned seven, however, Maro began to remind the three of their stations in life.
“Niko, my son, remember: you are not a slave. You’re the son of an important house. As such, you are privileged.
“Carpus, Zosimus, remember this: you are no more than slaves in this household. Don’t expect to be treated as my sons. Your sole purpose in life is to attend to your duties.”
When Nikomedes was old enough to begin his education, the other two boys were excluded. Soon, Nikomedes began developing other friendships. Since he knew his father didn’t approve of him fraternizing with the slaves, he began to view Carpus and Zosimus as inferior and unworthy of his attention.
But Carpus and Zosimus were glad to have each other. The boys cheered each other on, plotted and planned together, and offered each other the comfort and attention they lacked from parents. It was in this spirit that Carpus had first articulated his dream in whispers to Zosimus one night as they lay side by side before falling asleep.
“Zo, do you ever wonder what it’s like to be a free citizen of Greece?”
“You know. You could walk down the street whenever you wanted,” Carpus explained, “and everyone would respect you. You could order slaves to do anything you didn’t feel like doing.”
“Yeah. That would be nice.”
“I’ve been thinking.”
“About what?”
“I want to see what it’s like to be a free citizen of Greece.”   
Zosimus giggled. “You’re silly, Carpus. You don’t even have shoes. Slaves have bare feet; free Greeks have shoes. Ligeia told me all about it last time she took me to the market. She said free Greeks don’t even dare to leave their houses without shoes. Someone might think they’re slaves.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know all about that. But if I had shoes, I could trick people.”
“But where would you get shoes?”
“I can use Niko’s sandals.”
“What?!” Zosimus said.
“Shhh!” Carpus scolded. “Someone will hear you.”
“You’re crazy!”
“No. Listen. Haven’t you noticed?  Niko has two pairs of sandals. Two,” he said. “And we have none. Anyway, I have it all figured out. I’ll take whichever pair he leaves behind when he goes to his lessons. It’ll be easy.”
“What if Ligeia sees you with them?”
“She won’t,” Carpus said with confidence. “I’ll hide them under my chiton. No one pays any attention to the way I look anyway.”
“But if you get caught—”
“I won’t. I’ll carry the shoes until I’m almost to the agora, then I’ll put them on when no one’s looking.”
“But you don’t have nice clothes like Niko does,” Zosimus continued to protest.
“Come on, Zo. You’ve been to the agora. Haven’t you looked around? There are a lot of poor Greeks. They don’t have good clothes, either.”
“Yes.” Zosimus drew out the word. “You’re right about that.”
“It’ll work!”
“But what if—“
“It’ll work,” Carpus declared.
“Okay,” Zosimus’ voice quavered.
Two days later, Carpus had his chance. He had finished the morning chores Ligeia had assigned him. He hoped she wouldn’t notice they weren’t done quite as well as usual. Niko had already left the house for school.
Before slipping into Niko’s room, Carpus turned around, checking to see if anyone was approaching. All clear. He scurried in. Though he no longer played there, he knew the room well and knew where to find the extra pair of sandals. He tucked them under his chiton. His simple tunic had metal buckles at each shoulder to hold it in place and was cinched at the waist with a leather belt. The boy secured the sandals by shoving them into the waistline under his garment. He looked down to appraise himself. Satisfied the bulge from the sandals wouldn’t draw attention, he peeped around the doorway to see if anyone was approaching. A startled face spotted him. Carpus wished he could withdraw and disappear somewhere into the masonry walls. But wishes, he had learned, rarely came true.
Elpis smiled as she approached him, then wrapped her arms around the boy and held him close. “Oh, my Carpus! How pleasant to see and hold you. I’ve missed your hugs.” Carpus felt the smooth, delicate silk of the woman’s pastel green peplos—her flowing dress. How soft it was! And how good she smelled. What a happy and secure feeling it was to be in her arms.
A sudden noise behind her startled Elpis. She dropped her arms and spun around. It was nothing—a sudden breeze had toppled a vase filled with greenery. She exhaled a heavy, relieved breath. “I thought that might be Maro. Oh, but he’s already left the house. Why am I shaking?” She blushed at her own unnecessary fear. “Still, I must be careful.” Her hand caressed Carpus’ cheek. “If Maro knew how much I love you, he would be furious.”
Carpus moved closer to her, hoping to be held again by the only woman he had known as a mother. Elpis responded by placing her hands on his shoulders to hold him back. “I’m sorry, my love. But we really must not take such risks.”
Then, as though it hadn’t occurred to her when she first spotted him there, Elpis furrowed her brow with mock sternness. She bent down to the boy’s level to look into his eyes. “Why are you here in Nikomedes’ room, Carpus?  I thought Ligeia had you busy brushing wool today.” 
Carpus gazed at the woman. She was so beautiful. Her long hair was gathered atop her head and elegantly arranged. Scented wax held it in place. Her dark brown eyes spoke kindness and acceptance.
“Ligeia thought she left a basket here and wanted me to check for it,” he lied.
Her look asked him if he found it.
He shook his head. “It wasn’t here. You know old Ligeia. She’s always forgetting things.”
The woman straightened. “Well, she is older, but ‘always forgetting things?’  I’ve never noticed that.”
Carpus crossed his arms in front of his body, remembering Nikomedes’ sandals. He didn’t even want to think of the possible consequences of being found with the stolen shoes, even by someone who was sympathetic toward him. “I better get back to my work,” he said, avoiding eye contact.
“Yes, of course,” Elpis replied. She ran her fingers through Carpus’ hair before he turned to walk away.
Minutes later, Carpus was headed toward the agora. He skipped down the dusty street of the large marketplace for several steps with a broad smile on his face before ordering himself to calm down. Nothing had thwarted his plan. Not only had he escaped detection by Elpis, but he had managed to leave the house without being seen by any of the other slaves, especially Ligeia.
Besides Maro, the master of the house, Ligeia was feared the most by Carpus and the rest of the slaves. Carpus didn’t know how old she was, but she seemed like she had been a part of Maro’s household for eons. All the slaves seemed to know her story. Her family had sold her as a slave to Maro’s father when she was a young girl in order to pay off a debt.
Carpus didn’t understand why, but Ligeia had much more freedom than the rest of the slaves. She even visited her natural family from time to time. And being a slave seemed no burden to her; she seemed almost a part of Maro and Elpis’ family. Carpus had even heard Maro encourage her to sit down and rest a little from time to time. The master had never spoken to him that way!  Ligeia was also the only slave who took part in the family sacrifices to their gods.
The household was different in another way, too. The usual practice was for the woman of the house—Elpis in this case—to supervise the slaves, making sure they were kept busy working and addressing any insubordination from them. Instead, Ligeia took on this role. Carpus supposed the task wasn’t easy, since there were ten slaves in the household, and among them were rather large and powerful young men. Some had been prisoners, taken as slaves after their cities were attacked in battle. Some had been born into slavery as children of other slaves. In fact, all of the slaves in Maro’s household, with the exception of Carpus and Zosimus, had been passed on to him when his father died.
Ligeia took on her responsibilities with gravity. If there was any sort of infraction on the part of a slave, she addressed the matter with swift and firm measures. Carpus had seen the back of one of the male slaves after he had defied the woman; a severe whipping had left him incapacitated for many days. Though the man didn’t hide his hatred of Ligeia after that, he was careful never to cross her again.
Now Carpus was hoping to escape Ligeia’s notice. He knew her daily routine well. She wouldn’t check his work until after lunchtime. 
The boy did have to admit that Ligeia wasn’t so bad. As strict as she was, she did allow Carpus and Zosimus a small amount of discretionary time each day. On a number of occasions, she had even allowed them to go to the agora and purchase some small sweets for themselves. But if they took more time than she allowed, a piercing reprimand made her disapproval clear. She wouldn’t be taken advantage of by anyone, large or small.
Now, after Carpus’ frantic return from the market, Zosimus begged his friend for more details. “So what happened when you reached the agora? Was it any different than when Ligeia takes you with her to help carry things?”
“Was it ever different! For one thing, I wasn’t walking behind some old lady slave,” Carpus answered, disdain infusing his words.
“Shhh, Carpus! Someone might—”
“Aha! So here you two are!” Ligeia’s voice pierced the air. “I should have known I’d find you here.”
The boys glanced at each other in confusion and surprise. No one was supposed to know about their secret place.
“What? Do you think you two are the only ones who ever thought of hiding behind the well? On your feet now, before I decide you need to be punished. Carpus, I can’t say I’m happy with your work this morning…”
Carpus and Zosimus had no time to talk of the day’s events until bedtime. Ligeia kept them busier than usual. For her, supervising the household slaves meant making sure the cleaning, shopping, food preparation, serving, wool-working, water-carrying and so on were all done with efficiency and care. When required, she would help with anything that needed to be done. Carpus and Zosimus were hers to assign to whatever duties she felt they were capable of until they were old enough to join the other male slaves in agricultural and other heavy work. Today it seemed she managed to wring every last drop of energy out of them. Still, although the boys were sapped of the strength to stand, Carpus couldn’t resist telling Zo more about the day’s events. Curled up on their thin mattress with foreheads touching, Carpus began, finding it difficult to keep his voice to a whisper. Recalling his adventure seemed to spark him to renewed life. “I tell you, Zo, there’s something about those shoes. I mean, I know I was the same person as always—a slave boy. But with those sandals on, I felt important. I was walking with my head up and my chest out without even thinking about it.”
“Did anyone recognize you?” Zo answered with a yawn.
“No. Or at least, I don’t think so. In fact, you remember the man we bought sweets from last time Ligeia let us go there?”
“The mean guy? The one who yelled at us?”
Carpus chuckled. “Yeah. Him. He smiled at me then let me pick out a candy for free.”
Zo gasped. “You’re joking.”
“No. I guess he thought I would recommend his shop to my mother or something.”
“But you don’t have a—“
“I know. But he doesn’t know. After I looked around for a while, I went to the stand where they have all those toys. You know the one I mean?”
“The man had lots of little kid toys today. You know, those small clay animals, the horses on wheels you can pull behind you, rattles, and little terra-cotta dolls.”
“I wish I had one of those to play with.”
“Well I don’t. But there was something there I would like.”
“A yo-yo. He had all kinds of colors and sizes. And you should have seen all the tricks the seller could do with a yo-yo. I wanted to buy one, but the few coins I had left over from the last time Ligeia gave us money weren’t enough. So I stood near the stand for a long time. The owner kept looking at me, but he couldn’t keep an eye on me all the time. Other people came to his stand, too. Then,” Carpus’ voice grew breathier and deeper, “while he was helping a lady who had her little girl with her, I grabbed a yo-yo and ran.”
Zo gasped. “You mean…  You mean you stole it?” Zosimus was now wide awake.
“Yes,” Carpus answered in a matter-of fact tone.
“You can’t do that, Carpus. It’s wrong.”
“Be quiet and listen to the story. Like I said, I ran. Right into a policeman.”
“Oh, no!” Zo replied, drawing out the syllables.
“Oh, yes! What’s worse, the seller was pointing at me and yelling, ‘Thief! That boy stole from me!’ The policeman grabbed me by the shoulder, turned me around, and began walking with me toward the stand. Lucky for me I’m kind of slippery. I threw the yo-yo right into the policeman’s face, wriggled out of his grip, and started running again. Since I’m little, I had no trouble hiding behind different booths. I think I lost him even before I left the market, but I was still scared. I didn’t stop running until I was almost home. Before I got here, though, I hid behind some bushes and took off the sandals. Then I ran the rest of the way home. And that’s when you saw me.”
“Oh, Carpus! You’re so lucky the policeman didn’t catch you again.”
“Yeah. And I’m lucky Ligeia didn’t see me with those sand—” Carpus stopped talking.
“The sandals. Where are they?”
“They’re right where we left them.” Zo paused, realizing what that meant. “You mean you never put them back?”
“No. I was busy all day.”
“Oh, no! What are you going to do?”
“Don’t worry,” Carpus answered with a false cheerfulness. “I’ll take care of them tomorrow. Let’s try to sleep now.”
“Go to sleep, silly. Everything’ll be all right.”
It was a long time after he heard Zo’s deep sleep breathing that Carpus drifted off.
“What do you know about these?” The boys felt a rough shaking along with the demanding words. Carpus opened his eyes at once. Zo was not long behind him.
They sat up on their mattress. The sight of Maro towering over them with Ligeia and Elpis by his side terrified them. Maro looked between the two boys’ faces, waiting for an answer. When none came, he bellowed, “What do you know about these?  Answer me!”
Carpus loosed his tongue first. “Um, those are Niko’s sandals. Right?”
“Yeah,” added Zo in a tiny voice.
“I know whose sandals they are.” Maro wasn’t a patient man. “Why were they found behind a pillar in the rear portico?”
“One of the servants found them there this morning,” Ligeia explained. “I remembered you two were hiding out back yesterday. Perhaps you saw someone.”
The boys’ eyes widened. 
“Maybe one of the other slaves was cleaning them and didn’t have time to put them away,” Carpus answered, “but I didn’t see anyone else out there, Ligeia. Honest.”
“They know nothing about it, my dear,” Elpis said as she touched her husband’s elbow.
The man jerked his arm away, making Elpis recoil.
Without looking at his wife, Carpus said in a more menacing tone, “Do you really think they don’t know, my wife?  Look at the guilty way they trade glances. Are those looks of innocence?”
“W-we didn’t mean to leave them there,” Zo answered.
“Zo!” Carpus answered before thinking.
Now no one doubted their guilt. Soon, the entire story came out, though without the embellishments Carpus had related to Zosimus.
Maro was fuming. Elpis had managed to draw her husband away before he rained blows on Carpus. The couple stood alone in the courtyard. If the placid atmosphere of the columns, plants, and statuary couldn’t settle Maro, nothing could.
“The boy stole, Elpis. He had no right to take Niko’s sandals. Why shouldn’t I be angry?” Carpus had left out the part of the story about stealing the yo-yo. Had Maro known about that, the boy would have suffered an immediate beating and perhaps worse. But the contrition and sorrow he showed for taking the sandals seemed heartfelt to Elpis.
“You’re right,” she said. “He did something wrong. But he’s sorry.”
“Sorry.” Maro spat the word out as though its taste on his tongue were bitter. “Elpis, stealing should never be tolerated, especially by a slave.”
“But he never intended to keep the shoes,” she said. “He was only curious. Surely—”
“Surely nothing!  He will, he must, be punished.”
“What will you do?” she asked with pleading eyes, voice, and hands.
“I’ll tell you what I’ve a mind to do,” he answered, a sinister tone rising in his voice. “I’ve heard they need youngsters in the mines. There are some shafts which are difficult for grown men to reach.”
Elpis gasped. “Maro! You mustn’t!” She knew, and certainly he knew, that forcing a slave to work in the mines was tantamount to a death sentence. It was a punishment reserved only for the foulest of criminals; no one survived there for long. The conditions were miserable; the work was arduous and hazardous; and the life—if it could be termed “life”—was wretched.
Maro turned his head while lifting his hand between himself and Elpis, as if to ward off any further objections.
“Please, Maro,” Elpis begged with tears, her words choked.
He swung around to look at her with disdain. “Oh stop it. All of this for a slave.”
“For a child I love.” The world stopped for several seconds. Elpis was sure of it. Where had those words come from?  They were true, but she was careful never to mention her feelings to her husband. He had a strange reaction to her affection for the boys. It was as though her loving them meant that he, Maro, was being polluted by something common. She couldn’t believe she’d let the words spill. Now what?
Maro’s face turned red. In a low, controlled voice, he said, “I will hear no more of this. It’s obvious you can’t evaluate the situation without bias, Wife. I’ll decide what’s to be done with the boy on my own.” He stormed from the courtyard, but stopped abruptly at the exit and turned again to his wife. “I hope you’ve saved enough of your love for your true son, Elpis. He might like to know his mother holds him in higher regard than a slave living in her household.”
Elpis sobbed into her hands. She’d helped no one.
A shadow that seemed darker than others under the arched ceiling moved toward Maro. He detected the motion only out of his peripheral vision, but had no trouble hearing the voice.
“Maro.” The word reached his ears as a scolding. It was Ligeia. His slave, yes. The woman who had raised him in his father’s house, yes. The woman he owed his life to. Yes again. He stopped. His head fell forward as in resignation. Of course he would listen to what Ligeia had to say. How could he do otherwise?
“How could you forget, Maro?”
“I haven’t forgotten, Ligeia.”
“Is that so? You haven’t forgotten what happened when you were Carpus’ age?  When you were playing in the courtyard and knocked over the sculpture of Athena, breaking off her head?”
“I haven’t forgotten.” Maro repeated.
“Your father would have killed you.” Then, lower, “He beat your brother to death for a lesser offense later on. He was a violent man.”
  Maro stared at nothing, remembering.
“And he would have beaten you to death, too” Ligeia continued. “He was that angry.”
“The only reason he didn’t,” Maro said, “was because you took my place. You said you had broken the statue. He had you beaten until you could no longer move. You were that way for days. He would have had you beaten to death if you hadn’t been such a valuable slave.”
“Yes. The price of a good slave was of greater value to him than punishment. Wealth was always his priority.”
Silence hung between them.
“What do you think should be done with the boy?” Ligeia asked.
Several long moments passed before Maro replied. “I suppose he could be forgiven. This time. I suppose I would have been curious about what it would be like to walk in a free Greek’s shoes if I were him.” A smile crossed his face. “He does have guts. I have to say that for him.” He turned his eyes to hers. “Thank you, Ligeia, my friend. Once again.”
“You’re welcome.”
Maro left to console his wife. What had he said to her?  He shook his head and sighed. This would be a long morning.
The End

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