She ignores me.
"Beer!" Callisthenes says. "I'll drink yours, Auntie."
"Remember yourself," I tell the young man, who has a tendency to giggle when he gets excited. "We are diplomats now."
The caravan steps up its pace, and my wife's back straightens. We're on.
Despite the rain and ankle-sucking mud, we pick up a retinue as we pass through the city's outskirts, men and women who come out of their houses to stare, and children who run after us, pulling at the skins covering the bulging carts, trying to dislodge some souvenir. They're particularly drawn to the cart that carries the cages - a few bedraggled birds and small animals - which they dart at, only to retreat, screaming in pleasure and shaking their hands as though they've been nipped. They're tall children, for the most part, and well formed. My men kick idly at a clutch of little beggars to fend them off, while my nephew genially turns out his pockets to them to prove his poverty. Pythias, veiled, draws the most stares.
At the palace, my nephew speaks to the guard and we are admitted. As the gates close behind us and we begin to dismount, I notice a boy - thirteen, maybe - wandering amongst the carts. Rain-plastered hair, ruddy skin, eyes big as a calf's.
"Get away from there," I call when the boy tries to help with one of the cages, a chameleon as it happens, and more gently, when the boy turns to look at me in amazement: "He'll bite you."
The boy smiles. "Me?"
The chameleon, on closer inspection, is shit-smelling and lethargic, and dangerously pale; I hope it will survive until I can prepare a proper dissection.
"See its ribs?" I say to the boy. "They aren't like ours. They extend all the way down and meet at the belly, like a fish's. The legs flex opposite to a man's. Can you see his toes? He has five, like you, but with talons like a bird of prey. When he's healthy he changes colours."
"I want to see that," the boy says.
Together we study the monster, the never-closing eye and the tail coiled like a strap.
"Sometimes he goes dark, almost like a crocodile," I say. "Or spotted, like a leopard. You won't see it today, I'm afraid. He's about dead."
The boy's eyes rove across the carts.
"Birds," he says.
"Are they dying, too?"
"And what's in here?"
The boy points at a cart of large amphora with wood and stones wedged around them to keep them upright.
"Get me a stick."
Again that look of amazement.
"There." I point at the ground some feet away, then turn away deliberately to prise the lid off one of the jars. When I turn back, the boy is holding out the stick. I take it and reach into the jar with it, prodding gently once or twice.
"Smells," the boy says, and indeed the smell of sea water, creamy and rank, is mingling with the smell of horse dung in the courtyard.
I pull out the stick. Clinging to its end is a small crab.
"That's just a crab."
"Can you swim?" I ask.
When the boy doesn't reply, I describe the lagoon where I used to go diving, the flashing sunlight and then the plunge. This crab, I explain, came from there. I recall going out past the reef with the fishermen and helping with their nets so I could study the catch. There, too, I swam, where the water was deeper and colder and the currents ran like striations in rock, and more than once I had to be rescued, hauled hacking into a boat. Back on shore the fishermen would build fires, make their offerings, and cook what they couldn't sell. Once I went out with them to hunt dolphin. In their log canoes they would encircle a pod and slap the water with their oars, making a great noise. The animals would beach themselves as they tried to flee. I leapt from the canoe as it reached shore and splashed through the shallows to claim one of them for myself. The fishermen were bemused by my fascination with the viscera, which was inedible and therefore waste to them. They marvelled at my drawings of dissections, pointing in wonder at birds and mice and snakes and beetles, cheering when they recognized a fish. But as orange dims to blue in a few sunset moments, so in most people wonder dims as quickly to horror. A pretty metaphor for a hard lesson I learned long ago. The larger drawings - cow, sheep, goat, deer, dog, cat, child - I left at home.
Excerpted from The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon Copyright © 2010 by Annabel Lyon. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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