Author Archives: Claire Catacouzinos

Asklepios, Claire Catacouzinos

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The gods would hear them. They must. One of the gods must hear their screams, their wallowing, their cries, their prayers for help, for cures, for remedies. A god who could soothe them, who could tell them everything would be all right. A god who loved them. That was all they needed. A god who cherished them.

City of Sikyon, Northern Peloponnese, 420 B.C.E

Along the sparkling grey rocks of the Asopos River, the dark-haired Sikyonian woman, Nikagora, scrubbed and scrubbed a purple cloth clean, her fingers raw from the frosty water. There was another woman, swollen and ready to give birth any day now, soon to hear the cries and wails of a baby; her baby. Nikagora stopped scrubbing the olive oil stained cloth and watched the pregnant girl who was holding her stomach with a handful of her garment, her body swaying as she stamped on a long red cloth, drowning the fabric deep into the river. Each stamp reminded Nikagora of what she wished for, how far away her hopes were leaving her.

She yearned for her body to be clean, cleansed by the river god Asopos, to scrape her apart, to rub her with oil, to anoint her with a child, any child like his twenty nymph daughters, the Naiads. May her child be a demi-god, a half creature, a nymph, anything, just as long as she could be a mother.

Nikagora exhaled a long deep breath. It had been too long, she thought, almost five years since she was fourteen and married. Five years and she had still not swelled with a baby. Her sister had five already, one was lost in childbirth, and Nikagora had been there, watching her sister lose someone so dear, so small, so much hope in those tiny-skinny fingers…so much.

‘Is something wrong, dear?’ the old woman, Aristodama asked nearby.

Looking up, it was the woman’s blue eyes, as deep as the river beds that poured into her soul, wanting to help her, to listen to her. The same old woman who helped her and young married girls learn the ways of washing garments, the best angles the river hit the rocks and the sun along the river bed. Nikagora felt lucky, worthy that this knowledgeable woman wanted to talk to her. Had she heard the gossiping girls talk about the curse that was on her marriage?

‘It is my husband,’ she said, wringing the purple cloth, ‘ever since he fell at the stone quarry his hips have never been the same. We try,’ she said, looking at the woman, ‘but he is in pain, and my womb has still not taken his seed after all these years, nothing has changed.’ She discarded the scrunched up cloth and grabbed another. ‘Nothing has changed, nothing will ever change.’

Aristodama touched her shoulder. ‘There is still hope, child, Asklepios will help you.’

The God of Healing, Nikagora thought, he had done nothing for her, just like Apollo and Artemis and Hera and Zeus – nothing.

‘He will come to you just like he helped me and I had my son. Take this,’ Aristodama said, her wrinkled hands that were clotted with blue veins removed a golden amulet around her neck, ‘you take this and hold on, Asklepios will come when you are ready.’

Nikagora rubbed the amulet in her palm, her thumb tracing the snake that circled the staff. ‘How will the god appear to me?’ she asked, ‘how will I know? Do I need to make an offering tonight?’

‘No, child, he will come to you, he is different to the other gods.’

She could not believe what the old woman was saying. ‘How can he help me when I have not paid him homage, I have not given him a gift, said a prayer to invoke him?’

‘Just hold the amulet,’ Aristodama said, ‘he will find you.’

That night, after the Sikyonian women stamped on and washed and cleansed the stains on the hundreds of clothes, then spread them along the rocky shore to dry in the sunshine, they hauled them onto a mule cart, and went back up the river to the city. Nikagora grabbed her bundle, was paid by the official six obols, just one drachma. This was all she could use in the following days to feed herself and her husband.

When she arrived home, her husband, Echetimos, was sitting in the courtyard, carving a piece of wood, tiny scraps of shavings fluttered to the holes of their unfinished mosaic floor. She ambled along the cracked pebbles and wrapped her skinny arms around his neck, taking in the smell of burnt wood mixed with thyme and oregano; the Lemnos red wine that her husband so dearly loved to purchase at the market.

‘What are you making?’ she asked, as she kissed the side of his cheek, his beard prickling her face. A beard he combed every morning with olive oil, a beard that should be shaved, torn from his chin like every other man who was mourning. Nikagora every day mourned for their loss, their loss of having no children. And yet, she loved him, loved him for his boldness, his hope.

He lifted the figurine up to her now. ‘A little horse,’ he said, steering her hand over its smooth muzzle. ‘I need to make the wheels soon, and then the toy will be ready.’

‘And who will play with it?’ she asked, jerking away from him. ‘What good is a toy without a child?’

Echetimos turned around. ‘A gift, to your sister’s little one.’

She tugged her cloak closer and stared at him. Was it him or her that was being punished by the gods? At the beginning, before his injury at the stone quarry, it had been nights upon nights of love, warmth, bed sheets, oil lamps burning, their hopes tangled with their limbs and their hair. Then a year went by, ‘Do not worry,’ her sister had told her, ‘eat and eat apples and honey-cakes and grapes and you will surely be ripe to bear children’. She listened to her sister, but still, change did not happen. Another year, a new garden in their courtyard with the ripe fruits of fertility that she needed, and still, nothing. And now, five years had passed; the gods had left her barren. And her husband, since the accident he could not work on foot, the wooden stool was his ally, his hips, the master of his body, the controllers of pain and happiness; the thorn stabbing at them every day.

‘Why do you choose to mock us? Why must you sit at home and make these silly toys?’ she said.

She feared that if she did not give him an heir, he would leave her. How many times she had seen a physician and tried a new test to open her womb, staying in a room fumigated with crushed laurel leaves and myrrh and garlic, and then another test by applying an ointment mixed with goat fat and cyclamen and fig tree juice, and those green cardamom seeds. And then there was that time when she had wrapped herself in a cloak and held incense below her opening, waiting for the smell to travel through her womb to her mouth, waiting for the smell to escape her lips, showing that she was not infertile; but she was. Oh Hera, and the last test she had done was the most horrid, before Echetimos had fractured his hips. She was told to insert a woollen pessary into her womb that had been dipped in goose fat, marrow of ox, rose oil and thapsia root, and then, she had to drink leek juice and white wine as well – for four days! She had never stunk so vile in her whole life with that remedy. She felt like a foul-smelling hag, her womb venomous and dark like the Furies, always wandering around with madness. Echetimos had refused to sleep next to her for those nights. ‘It smells,’ he had told her, ‘and stop seeing that physician; he will surely kill us with all of those potions.’ She had never felt so lonely.

‘They are not silly,’ he said, staring at the horse, ‘they make young ones smile.’

They make me hate myself, she thought, I hate myself for not giving you what I was born to do. ‘You deserve better,’ Nikagora said, ‘you will be fatherless if you stay with me.’

‘Nikki,’ he said, standing up from his stool with his ebony walking stick, wincing from the pain in his hips, ‘how can I be a father like this?’

‘Your pain will go away; it has only been three months since you fell.’

‘I was supposed to be cured before the harvest season and look at me,’ he said, and she did: both of his callused hands leaned on his walking stick, his long hair was bedraggled and his tunic sagged on him without his girdle, pulling his hunched over body further to the ground. ‘I am a cripple.’

She could not be angry with him, how could she be when they were both in pain? It was pain that was separating them from each other, the Algea spirits were torturing them, cursing them.

Nikagora went over to her husband and kissed him. ‘You are not a cripple, my love, we will find a way, together.’

She escorted him into the reclining room and then vanished inside the storage room, scooping out from the huge amphorae barley flour and sesame seeds for supper. After they ate the barley porridge and dipped barley bread into wine, they climbed into their wooden bed and mattress stuffed with leaves and hay; silence between them. Nikagora turned over and her husband wrapped his arm around her waist like he did every night.

‘I love you,’ he said.

His embrace used to be all she needed, but now, as she grabbed his hand and rested it on her womb and said, ‘I love you too,’ all she could think about was a prayer she wanted to say to the gods. I want a child, she wanted to pray, I want a child that I can call my own. I want my husband to be cured. I want to share our bed again, the way a husband and wife are meant to.

While she slept, Asklepios arrived in her dreams. She was in awe of him. He was as mighty as Zeus, holding his golden staff, his curly white beard as long as the monstrous snakes that hissed and slithered and coiled behind him. The oil lamps flickered as he came closer to the sitting Nikagora; she was naked, her flesh bare for him to see, stripped down to nothing; she felt like nothing. She scrunched her body into a ball, trying to hide her breasts from him, but Asklepios reached out his hand and touched her forehead, soothing her. She saw long-cloaked companions standing behind him now, his daughters, the all-healing Panakeia, the good health attendant Hygeia, the remedy-maker Iaso, and the healing and curing Akeso; they all held small stone boxes, crested in gold and red, but it was their faces that eased her fright and pain, their faces, full of hope, just like their father. The sacred snakes circled all of them now, hissing. ‘My child,’ Asklepios said, crouching down low to look Nikagora in the eye, she reached out and held his hand, bringing it to her cheek, her tears falling on his hand. ‘At present, you need me. I will be your guide.’ Yes, she thought, yes, you will help me. ‘Travel to Epidauros with your husband and I will appear to you again in the temple.’ I will, she thought, I will go. ‘I will be your cure,’ was the last thing he said to her.

Nikagora wondered what would happen to her in Asklepios’ temple. Would he need to lie down with her, consume her with his body, the snakes hissing, his daughters watching? Or would one touch, or one ointment from him be all she needed? And how would he cure her husband’s hips?

In the morning, when she jolted awake, she stuffed leather sacks with clothes and wrapped honey-cakes and barley-bread in linen cloths, and loaded them into food sacks, and then she filled small amphorae with sweet red wine and loaded those next to the front door. She snatched their secret stash of drachmas and obols that were stuffed deep inside an amphora that had a chipped rim. She counted the coins. They had fifty drachmas saved. Money that would have been used to extend their house with rooms for their children. Children that were still unborn. If it wasn’t for Aristodama and her amulet, Asklepios wouldn’t have appeared to her. How she wanted to thank the old woman for helping her. Perhaps when she returned from Epidauros, she would speak to her again. She gripped the money bag, knowing what she had to do, and fled from her house in search for a mule cart. It would take a couple of days to get to Epidauros from Sikyon and the cart was needed for Echetimos. As soon as she went to her neighbour’s property nearby, the farmer Onesiphoros was picking olives from a leafy tree, ready for the harvest season, she hurried to him, begging to borrow his mule and wagon.

‘It will only be for a couple of days,’ she told him, shaking the money bag in front of him. ‘How much do you want?’

‘Where is your husband?’ he asked her, still holding the weaved basket under his arm.

‘Packing our bags,’ she lied, ‘he sent me here to rent our transport. How much do you want?’

Under those bushy eyebrows as gnarled and thick as the olive tree’s trunk, his brown eyes squinted, probably curious to understand what she was trying to do.

‘You must help us, Onesiphoros, I need to appease the gods.’

‘When will you return?’

‘Allow me seven days and I will not be a burden, your belongings will be returned.’ She shook the bag again. ‘Please?’

He licked his top teeth and made a sucking sound. ‘Ten drachmas and you have a deal.’

It was expensive, yes, but she did not care. All the money in the world was worth saving her from being barren and healing her husband’s hips.

After the exchange was made, Nikagora returned home and loaded the sacks and amphorae onto the wagon. She dashed inside the master bedroom and sprung her husband to his feet, telling him of the news, of her dream, of Asklepios finding her. ‘Can you believe it?’ she screamed in excitement, hurrying him to dress. ‘We must leave now, I have rented a mule and wagon from Onesiphoros, Asklepios will help us, he is our last hope.’ They needed to get going, they needed to get to Epidauros now.

She prodded him to hurry and dress, but he still stayed seated on their bed, wearing his loincloth and linen bandages wrapped around his hips. ‘Nikki,’ he said, ‘listen to yourself.’

She paused for a moment and looked at him.

‘You spent our money on a wagon and mule? What for, so that we travel for two days and have our hopes stretched even more, and then nothing will come of it? What have you done?’

‘We must do something; I cannot sit around here waiting for a miracle. He has come for me, Echetimos, for us, to mend our sorrow. Why will you not see what I see?’

‘The gods have forsaken us, so why would this one help us, what does he want?’

‘Come with me and we shall learn together. He will help us.’ Echetimos had to listen to her, he had to believe, oh how she wanted him to believe in her dream, to believe in Asklepios. ‘He will be the answer to our prayers.’

‘And what if you have been mistaken, what if nothing happens?’

‘Then it is by the will of the gods that we should not be a pateras and a mitera.’ A father and a mother. ‘Perhaps, we were only ever meant to be just husband and wife.’

No, Nikagora thought, I do not think so.

 

Three days had passed. Three days of riding along rocky outcrops and wheel ruts and dirt roads. Nikagora kept asking for directions to Epidauros while Echetimos sat beside her, carving another wooden toy. The bumps on the road escalated the pain in his hips, but he kept carving the toy, fixating his mind on what this could all mean. ‘This time,’ he had said, ‘this will be for our own child.’ Ever since that morning she had awakened from her dream, since he had agreed to come with her, she loved him even more. It did not matter if she had a girl and not a boy, as long as she had a child with him.

They had now arrived into the bustling city of the ambeloessa, full of vineyards, the city of Epidauros. Men and women in wagons passed them, whipping their mules as they rode along the cobblestone road into the city. Merchants, on either sides of the road, were amongst colonnades selling scaly mackerel, red mullets, tunnies, anchovies, freshly picked apples and figs and dates. Further into the city were stalls selling purple, white, and red linen, while others sold tall and round jars. As they got closer, Nikagora noticed a couple of stores selling bronze and terracotta figurines shaped as body parts, like legs and hearts and eyes and ears and breasts. But there was one that looked like a woman’s womb that Nikagoara had seen in her physician’s house when she visited. This terracotta piece looked like an upside down open vessel that was ribbed.

‘What are those?’ she asked a local man.

‘Votive offerings for Asklepios,’ he said, passing by.

If Asklepios healed her, and she knew he would, she would come back to Epidauros and purchase that terracotta piece and take it to his temple herself.

Further ahead there were three old Epidaurian men holding signs that said, IEPOY ASKLHPIOS. Sanctuary of Asklepios. They were almost there.

Nikagora turned to her husband. ‘They will show us the way.’

They paid the three peppered beard men, and in a group of ten people, they followed the men up the hill, along the wheel-rutted road. After a couple of minutes of walking, they passed a long line of women crawling up the road on bloodied knees and hands, their foreheads sweaty, their clothes ripped, their hair disarrayed, their faces stained with dried tears and dirt. Oh Hera, Nikagora thought, smacking her hand to her mouth as she watched the women. Echetimos reached for her hand and clasped it tight while they road past, listening to the wailing women.

‘Be my Saviour!’

Please, oh please, help me!’

‘He is dying, he is dying…’

‘Once, just heal me once!’

‘Take me, take me!’

Later, much later, when they had passed the women, the outcrying had stopped. It took them three hours to reach the sanctuary on the winding hill. Three hours and all Nikagora could think about were those wailing women on their bloodied hands and knees, distressed, needing, aching for Asklepios to help them. She wondered, if Echetimos had not been here with her, would she be one of those women, a living carcass scraping her body on the ground, crawling and pleading for help, sacrificing her blood to a god?

Once they entered the sacred grove of Asklepios and tied their mule to a nearby tree, Nikagora held Echetimos’ hand, and together, while he limped, and she walked beside him holding two barley cakes, they lined up behind the bustling crowd to offer their cakes at the altar in front of the temple. Men were scratching their scalps, women tending to their clothes, others held baskets filled with honey-cakes and figs, and in the air, all Nikagora could smell was burning incense. We will see him today, she thought, we will be cured.

A man in a long white tunic approached the altar and raised his arms in the air. ‘My name is Methodios, before you can enter Asklepios’ house tonight, for those of you who wish to stay, you must bathe in the nearby baths. In the presence of our Healer, you must be clean.’

Nikagora thought it was a good idea. She stunk of sweat from the past three days, and from those annoying flies that were buzzing around the mule’s buttocks. She did not want to imagine if any of those flies were tangled in her hair.

‘I will meet you in the evening,’ she said to Echetimos.

‘Nikki,’ he said, grabbing her hand before she could go, ‘what if this does not work?’

‘It will,’ she said, squeezing his hand, ‘have faith, my love.’

She repeated these words over and over in her head while she bathed in a bath house amongst other naked women. Their chatter was loud, deafening the words she tried to repeat in her mind. Why couldn’t they let her concentrate? she thought.

‘My friend has been here three times. She had a cataract in her eye, she was having bad headaches, and I think the other time she came for her husband’s yellow toe. Asklepios healed them all!’

Nikagora stared at the women: one woman had a lopsided breast, another had purple patches on her skin, one kept jabbing her fingers into her mouth, wiggling her teeth. But there was one woman who was like her, with no stretch marks on her breasts, hips, or stomach; a childless woman. He will help us, she thought, he has too.

She melted into the steam, patting her face with a wet cloth. Tonight was it, she thought. Tonight was the night Asklepios needed to cure her and her husband like he promised. She squeezed her eyes shut to stop herself from crying. Tonight was the night he needed to help them. Please, she thought, biting down on her fist, do not abandon us.

 

That night, Nikagora and Echetimos lay beside one another in the temple of Asklepios on straw pallets, their noses touching. They held each other’s hands in front of their chests, listening to the hundreds of whispers drifting in the temple, their noses filling with burning incense. They had only eaten vegetable broth for supper and their stomachs rumbled as their eyes gazed at the glorious amount of fruit and cakes at the offering table in front of Asklepios’ ivory and gold statue.

Nikagora listened to the slapping of a temple slave’s sandals above her head. When she looked up, she saw that it was Methodios, and like the rest of the temple slaves, he started blowing out the oil lamps.

‘Sleep now,’ he said to the bountiful bodies in the room, ‘sleep now and if you hear any noise, remain silent; Asklepios will be in his house attending to you.’

She tried listening to her breathing, pacing herself of what was to come. Echetimos squeezed her hand and she held on, trying to fall asleep.

In her dreams, Nikagora was standing in the sanctuary of Asklepios, in front of the altar where they had placed the barley cakes at midday. When she looked up, she saw Echetimos as tall as a tree, strolling down the temple steps with Asklepios, the god’s hand on her husband’s shoulder, his chest puffed out. ‘Go to her now,’ she heard him say. Her husband came to her and cupped her face and smiled. ‘It is your time now.’ He kissed her, his lips warm and nourishing, and as he did, he undressed her, sliding her tunic straps from her shoulders. Her body naked before him, wanting to be the mother of his children. He helped her lie on top of the altar, and as she lay there, her hands on her stomach, all she could think was that this was it, finally, after all these years, she would become a mother. Echetimos placed her tunic inside a stone chest beside the altar and then, when Asklepios approached them, her husband held her hand. Do not let go, she thought, never ever let me go. Asklepios wearing his holy laurel garland touched her forehead and said, ‘You have come, and now my child, I will give you the gift you have desired.’ He made a clucking sound, and Nikagora did not wince when five snakes slithered down his arms and coiled to her stomach. They lay there, hissing, their long tongues lapping her with tickles. The last thing she could remember was Asklepios’ daughters, the all-healing Panakeia, and the good health attendant Hygeia, carrying the stone chest that treasured her tunic, and then her eyes blinked, until she was staring into the eyes of her husband.

 

Five years. That was all it took for Nikagora to have her fifth child. Another girl. When she had returned home from her travels, Aristodama at the Asopos River took one look at her and said, ‘You are with child.’ She then told Nikagora that Asklepios all those years ago had given her a healthy son, Aratos, and she knew the God of Healing would help her too. ‘Keep the amulet,’ she had said, ‘give it to another woman who is most deserving.’

Asklepios had also cured the lame to walk about. Echetimos was always seen now in his carpentry workshop with his five-year-old son, Agasikles, his first born. But Nikagora and him could not stop there, they now had four daughters, five healthy children that would witness today the festival in honour of Asklepios at the new erected temple in honour of the Miracle-Worker and Dream-God. It was decreed with good fortune by Nikagora and the Council that in fair and pious fashion the sacrifices and offerings of the year to the other gods would be held at the Sanctuary of Asklepion in Sikyon for all the sick and diseased.

Nikagora stood outside of the temple and stared at the two reliefs on the roof, one was a small figure of a woman riding a serpent, and beside them was a wife and husband surrounded by their five children. When she walked inside the temple holding her youngest daughter, and her second born holding her hand, she stared at the gold and ivory statue of the god, beardless, holding his rustic staff in one hand, and a cone of the cultivated pine in the other, crafted by Kalamis. Nikagora would always be thankful that this metalworker and the city had seen what her and her husband and Aristodama had seen, and believed in – Asklepios the Saviour.

 

He is the one who guides and rules the universe, the saviour of the whole and the guardian of the immortals…

– Aristides, Oratio XLII, 4.

Links

Asklepios god information
http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Asklepios.html

Sikyon Project
http://extras.ha.uth.gr/sikyon/en/index.asp

Pausanius Description of Greece 10.2-3 on Sikyon
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0160%3Abook%3D2%3Achapter%3D10%3Asection%3D2
http://www.theoi.com/Text/Pausanias2A.html#5

Dedications (votive offerings) and inscriptions on stone found at the sanctuary of Asklepios
https://www.atticinscriptions.com/inscription/AleshireAsklepieion/4
https://www.atticinscriptions.com/inscription/AleshireAsklepieion/5

Dedications and votive offerings to Asklepios
https://holylandphotos.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/gsplco15.jpg
http://morbidanatomy.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/anatomical-votives-and-milagros-guest.html

Sikyon Map
http://extras.ha.uth.gr/sikyon/popup.asp?f=index1en&t=Location%20of%20the%20ancient%20city%20of%20Sikyon.%3Cbr%20/%3E

Archaeological site of Sikyon 
http://extras.ha.uth.gr/sikyon/popup.asp?f=previous1en&t=Ground%20plan%20of%20the%20excavated%20monuments%20of%20ancient%20Sikyon.%3Cbr%20/%3ESource:%20N.%20Papachatzis,%20%3Ci%3E%D0%E1%F5%F3%E1%ED%DF%EF%F5,%20%C5%EB%EB%DC%E4%EF%F2%20%D0%E5%F1%E9%DE%E3%E7%F3%E9%F2:%20%CA%EF%F1%E9%ED%E8%E9%E1%EA%DC-%CB%E1%EA%F9%ED%E9%EA%DC%3C/i%3E%20(Athens%201976)%20p.%2090

Claire Catacouzinos

Claire Catacouzinos is a Greek-Australian writer in Sydney and in 2014 she completed her MA in Creative Writing at Macquarie University and completed her Diploma in Book Editing and Publishing at Macleay College. She writes Historical Fiction set in Ancient Greece, Young Adult Fiction focusing on multiculturalism, and poetry about Australian-Greek identity and Greek Diaspora. Also in 2014 she was the Copy Editor and History in Review Columnist of Macquarie University’s Student Publication Magazine, Grapeshot. Her historical fiction short stories, "Helike" and "Taras' Parthenians" are published on The Quarry, and are both cited at two archaeological research and excavation websites in Greece: The Helike Project, and, Amyklaion: The Amykles Research Project. She was also the Editor-in-Chief of The Quarry in 2014 for Issue 4, and in 2015 for Issue 6. For more information, check out her blog: www.clairecatacouzinos.wordpress.com

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Golden Drachmas, Claire Catacouzinos

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Thasians wrestle with malleable metals. They mine, smelt, mint, and tend to hot furnaces, wrought with much toil. They are iron-willed smiths like Hephastios, forger of the three-forked thunderbolts. They should be equal to other Hellenic cities; but why has Athens seized their markets and a gold mine at Thrace? Why do the Athenians’ believe they can rule them? Thasos is the golden island, caved with quarries of gold, marble, lead, and iron. For they are masters of hammers, strikers that can crumble empires, not sooty anvils that tolerate threats.

 

Limenas, Thasos, 463 B.C.E

 

Sixteen year old Nesaea, an orphaned Abderan now living at Thasos, grabs a silver blank disk inside the minting workshop, and places it in between two blocks of iron, the dies that have carved designs. She raises her hammer, tightening her grip, and strikes down on the first die; the punch made. Yes, she thinks, as she takes the disk out, another great coin for today. She stares at one side, touching its edges, checking that the image of four tiny squares is smooth. Perfect, she thinks, as she then flips the coin to the other side, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the sight of the bald-headed, bearded satyr, kneeling to his right as he carries a struggling nymph. She imagines her master, Aglaophon, that four-plumed monster, carrying her to bed like he does with the slave girls at night. Thank sweet Demeter he does not know about her disguise.

She tosses the new coin to the pile of forty-nine drachmas that she has made on the marble table, listening to slaves outside smelting metal. Out the window, she sees sweating faces, men’s short tunics damp, their skin tanned just like her own, and their callused hands with disjointed and purple-bruised fingers holding metal clamps. They pour the molten metal into circular, shallow pits that are narrow at the bottom, and wait for them to cool.

Turning away, she stares at her messy nest of coins. If only these were hers, every piece for her to keep, to help her start a new life away from Thasos. She suddenly feels wetness in her loincloth. She knots her eyebrows, thinking it can only mean one thing. She holds in her breath, her skin tight against her ribs like leather stretched to make a tympanon, a hand drum, and touches the dampness in between her thighs. The god Deimos creeps upon her when she realises with dread what it is. Damn the gods, she thinks, my gorgon has escaped her case.

She hears her friend returning to the workshop and she knows she needs to get back to her master’s house and grab a linen rag. Why did she not remember to wear extra rags today? Last night she tried to count on her fingers, to remember the last time her blood flowed, but her mind was empty like her clay cup beside her bed. It has been months, she thinks, so many months since my body has done this.

Wiping her hand on the inside of her brown chlamys, she pins her cloak to her right shoulder, snatches a few drachma coins, hides them in her breast-band, and runs out of the mint workshop.

‘Where are you going, Nireus?’ her friend asks as she passes by.

‘I will be back,’ she says.

‘You cannot leave,’ he says, grabbing her arm, ‘the official will cut your throat!’

She yanks his arm away. ‘I will return in an hour, just cover for me until I get back.’

‘The things I do for you, Nireus. Just think, one day it will be us shitting on the golden hills!’

Yes, she thinks, one day we will be living on solid mountains of gold in our own houses…one day.

She hurries past the three minting workshops and peeps behind the stone wall. She sees her red girdled supervisor with his pot-belly, his long hair tied back in a ponytail, a leather whip in his hand. For a moment she wishes she had her long hair again, braided to the side by her mother’s milk-skinned hands; but once she hears the loud crack of a whip, she’s glad she hacked it off. There is no work for her as a slave girl, besides selling herself at brothels, having older men’s oily and hairy bodies upon her. She remembers what her mother told her that day the Athenians ransacked her home, two years ago, ‘You run, you hear me, Nesaea, you run and take care of yourself.’

She sneaks past the slaves blistering in the heat, and runs out of the back entrance of the metalworking precinct on the west side of the agora, the market place. She passes Thasians ambling near their struggling slaves, and dodges the fresh-smelling stalls of bakers, but it is when she sees a young couple, holding hands, the woman’s stomach swollen, and the man’s hand caressing her belly, that she slows down. Her heart still racing, she watches the woman and touches her own stomach, feeling its hollowness, her body not ripe. One day, she thinks, staring at the woman, rubbing her belly, one day soon enough, I will be like you, with my own husband beside me.

When she sneaks into her master’s house, and hides behind a marble column, both hands touching the cold frame, she sees Aristophon, her dear friend, one of her master’s sons, painting on a wooden board in the garden courtyard, with its cream and brown pebbled mosaic floor. Aristophon, the man whose name she whispers at night in her sleep, wishing to share her bed with him, to feel his hands on her breasts, hands that are stained with pigments and powder that are mixed with egg yolk inside an oyster shell, to bind the colourful paints. How she yearns, longing to tell him every day of her true identity, to have him look at her with those cerulean eyes, like he does with the Thasian maidens at festivals that dine with him, who are dressed in silk, one sash fastened to their waist, another under their plump breasts, their heads adorned with wreaths, their bangles and gemstones shining.

Oh how Nesaea wishes to dress like a girl again, wearing these expensive dresses, and her body, oh how lovely and thick and round it will be, plumped with fine slices of fish that are salted with thyme in fig leaves, and sesame-cakes. Aristophon likes wealthy girls, not scrawny girls that bind their breasts with linen, smelling like foul, muddied swines, and diseased pigeons.

I wish you knew, she thinks, then I could kiss you.

She turns away from the column and sneaks past him, entering the slave quarters. None of them are in sight and the room is crammed with four beds, all the coverlets bedraggled. She hurries to her bed, bends down on her knees and searches through Satorneila’s wooden chest. They have to be in here, she thinks, they just have to. As soon as she lifts up a black, tattered dress, she finds the linen rags. Thank you, merciful Zeus, she thinks, standing up and wiping herself clean. She changes into a fresh loincloth and places a rag inside. The bloodied rags are still in her hand.

‘Satorneila!’ someone calls.

Nesaea slams the chest shut. By the gods, no, she thinks, looking around the room to hide herself. But there is no time. Damn the gods, what is she going to do?

‘Satorneila, have you made my oxtail soup?’

The door opens and Nesaea does not move, her body feeling heavy like the stout iron block the slaves hammer metal on.

‘Nireus, what are you doing home so early?’ Aristophon asks, his hand still on the door handle.

I can lie, she thinks, or I can tell him the truth. Perhaps it is time he knew, but what of the master, what will he do? Will Aristophon tell his father; surely he would not do that to me?

‘I…I,’ she says, looking down at the rags in her hand, ‘I had an accident at the workshop.’ She sits down on the bed, touching her chest. Yes, that will have to do.

‘You’re hurt,’ he says, running over to her and bending down on one knee.

Their eyes lock. Nesaea’s heart beats faster, her palms damp. All she wants to do is tell him the truth.

‘Where are you hurt?’ he asks, touching her shoulder, looking at her legs, her hands, her arms, her neck, and her face. ‘Where are you bleeding?

It’s his eyes that torture her, those blue depths weakening her heart. ‘Ari,’ she says, smiling inside, thinking about that sweet name she calls him, and drops the rags and grabs his hand, ‘I need you to listen.’ He squeezes her hand. Please, she thinks, please do not hate me.

‘Did someone at the workshop hurt you,’ he asks, shaking her hand, ‘I will have them removed from the place.’

‘No, no,’ she says, taking his other hand as well, ‘it’s not that.’ She looks down at both of his hands, rubbing her callused thumbs against his smooth skin, her back hunched over like a wilted flower, its petals browned, shrivelled and soft. ‘I…I need to tell you something,’ she chokes. Tucking a short strand of hair behind her ear, she holds both of his hands again in her lap, bringing them close to her mouth to kiss. He smells like olive oil, she thinks, mixed with lemons and yellow yolk. When she looks up, teary, and stares into his eyes, her cheeks reddened, his eyebrows are knotted, his mouth agape. It’s her teary eyes that make him see; she is a girl.

He blinks four times, and jerks away.

‘You lied to me,’ he mutters, letting go of her hands and stepping away from her. He holds his mouth shut and turns away.

‘No, Ari, you need to listen to me,’ she pleads, getting up and grabbing his arm, ‘you need to listen to me.’

He moves away from her, and she clasps both hands to her mouth, sucking in a deep breath. He walks sideways, touching his forehead now as he stares at the ground.

‘You are always keeping secrets from me,’ he says, turning around and looking at her.

Nesaea feels like a wooden spinning top that the gods have unwound, her life unstrung, staggering to its last turnings of hope. She squeezes her eyes shut and prays — please, Hera, oh please, help me.

She opens her eyes, still holding her hands together, and rests them under her chin. ‘I need to protect myself,’ she says, looking at him.

‘You always say that!’

‘I know, Ari, I know, but I did not want to die on the streets.’

‘You should have told me,’ he says, ‘I thought we were like brothers.’

‘How can I be that close to you when I was bought by your father?’ she asks, her eyes tearing again. She thinks about his father hitting her over and over again on the head when she drops a tray of fruit.

Silence. The goddess Hesykhia forbids the branches to sway outside, the birds from warbling, and Nesaea’s mouth to move.

Aristophon clenches his fist. ‘Who are you then? Are you really someone from Abdera?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then what is your name?’

Shaking her head, she closes her eyes, her clasped hands in front of her lips now. I want to tell you, she thinks, oh how every night I want to tell you; but you know now. Nothing good will come from this. Nothing.

She opens her eyes and she can see the pain on his face, just like Achilles when he lost his beloved friend, Patroklus. ‘I cannot,’ she says, shaking her head, ‘I cannot tell you.’ She flees from the room and runs into the courtyard.

‘Come back!’ Aristophon shouts.

She ignores him and sprints out of the lion-sized door, never looking back, never wanting to see the pain in Ari’s eyes.

‘Stop!’ he yells, ‘Nireus, come back!’

I cannot, she thinks. Your father will have his way with me now. She keeps running, past the chunky trinketed Thasians, and thin, short-haired slaves holding amphorae and sacks of food. Past the stalls selling corn, wheat, leather and rowlock thongs, jars, and nets of garlic and olives and onions, until she is one in the midst of the sweating crowd at the temple of the god of war, Ares.

Looking around the area, she tries to find a gap to escape through, when she hears a man say, ‘This sacrifice will scare those Athenians away!’

‘Nireus!’ Aristophon calls.

Go away, she wants to yell. She pushes past the Thasians, and trips. Wincing, she looks down at her skidded knees, grimy and bloodied. When she looks up, Aristophon sees her. Damn the gods. Her heart pounding, she runs faster and faster, hearing the pan-pipes and reed pipes pierce her ears as people chant to Ares — hail to the spear-wielder! She sees strangers’ blurry faces of toothy grins, bushy eyebrows, and black-pigmented eyes staring at her. She passes cracked buildings and stalls opened with fresh caught tunnies, codfish, and mackerel. Following the cobblestone footpath, she heads to the docks, listening to the shouts and commands by the boatswains, the sounds of sailors hammering in dowels.

‘Nireus, wait!’

She sprints east to the iron mines that she first worked at disguised as a boy, when she was fourteen, before Aristophon found her.

She pants now, each step thudding with the beat in her ears. Twelve fishing boats at the dock are swaying in the breeze. Once she’s in front of the hollow cave, she touches the bronzed and red-tinged edges of the entrance, her eyes catching sight of the layers of smoky iron rocks with their dark raspberry and ebony spirals at the foot of the entrance. Looking over her shoulder, Aristophon’s running, his cheeks reddened, his eyes determined like a foot runner returning home with an important message from an enemy. The sky above him is turning grey and cloudy by the Nephelai nymphs; they will soon pour water from their pitchers, casting rain across the land and sea.

Nesaea scurries into the iron mine, her feet slugging through the damp dirt, her legs splotched with mud. There are no oil lamps. If she stays quiet, hidden, Ari will not see her.

Further into the mine, she raises her hands to help her move around, going deeper and deeper into the tunnel. When she can walk no longer, scared of losing the light from outside, she turns around and sits down on the ground, the cold dirt freezing her skin. A tiny drop of water drips in the distance. As she huddles her legs and wraps her arms around them, she rests her chin on her knees, staring at the opening of the cave; she listens to the pounding of her heart.

A figure nears the entrance; please go away. Biting down on her lip, she waits. The figure draws near. The body of a man appears, the light from outside framing him.

‘Nireus!’ Aristophon calls.

She squeezes her eyes shut, tightening her grip around her legs. A cold breeze blows her hair away from her face, a gasp decamps her lips. Opening her eyes, she watches him.

‘Please come out so we can talk,’ he says, holding the side of his waist, leaning down and panting.

‘I do not want to,’ she says.

‘You can trust me, you know you can. How many times have I helped you?’

Too many times, she thinks. Even when she bought the wrong grapes one day for her master, he went with her back to the agora and showed her the dark purple ones that were prized by his father.

‘Can you at least tell me your real name?’

But that will mean I will never be able to hide again, she thinks. My name is all I have left from my home.

Aristophon leans against the cave entrance. ‘I am not going anywhere until you come out.’

‘I will be cold by sundown,’ she says, letting go of her legs and rubbing her arms now.

‘Well, my dear little friend, that will be your choice,’ he says, folding his arms.

She knows she has to decide whether to tell him the truth, or to get out of the mine and run. But am I done hiding? What is there stopping me?

She leans forward and sees Ari at the entrance smooth back his brown hair from his face and wait. If he has come all this way, she thinks, then he must want to help me. He must care for me.

She stands up now, taking slow steps towards him. She can see it now. Back to the first day she met him. Here. At the iron mines, deep in the tunnels, when he offered her water, that rich, delicate water that quenched her thirst. ‘I am Aristophon,’ he had said.

Out in the open where the wind makes her shiver, he turns and looks at her. This is it.

‘My name is Nesaea,’ she says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

He ushers for her to come closer, and puts his arm around her. ‘A name of a nymph,’ he says, kissing her forehead, ‘I do not know what I will do without you.’

His words swell her heart, but she sees in the distance a trireme ship sailing towards them with its huge white sails and daunting eyes and its nose slicing through the water. Who are they? How many men are on that ship?

She keeps looking beyond Ari in front of her, her hand on his chest. ‘Can you see them?’ she asks.

‘I see you and only you.’

Thunder cracks in the sky; the rustling breeze is bringing the rain. He needs to look, he needs to see what is approaching us, she thinks.

‘Nesaea, speak to me, my girl of golden hope.’

She looks back at him. ‘My girl of golden hope,’ he called her. I am his golden girl, she thinks.

‘I want to be with you,’ she says.

‘And I want to be with you.’ He touches her hand on his chest. ‘You are special to me like Aphrodite loving Adonis.’

‘What are we going to do? What will your family think of us?’

‘We will leave!’ he says, ‘but I cannot leave the island empty-handed, we must return home.’

‘What if we get caught?’

‘How can we when I have you?’

Men chant nearby and Ari turns around.

In one moment, they see the trireme ship with one-hundred and seventy bronzed armoured men row past them on the rocky hill in front of the iron mine, curving west towards the hub of the city. In one moment, one man raises a shield to the sky, the crest of Medusa with her serpent coiled hair, lolling tongue and sharp fangs stare at them; the Athenians. In one moment, Ari rises from his seat, and that’s when Nesaea sees an archer, pulling his bowstring.

‘Holy Hera, no!’ she shouts, pushing Ari out of the way. The arrow pierces her flesh, blood trickles down her arm. No no no, this cannot be!

‘Hail to Athena!’ the soldiers chant.

Four arrows hit Aristophon in the chest, one after the other; he gasps, grabbing one near his heart. ‘Run!’ Ari shouts, pulling the arrow out, ‘run, Nesaea!’

Her eyes frightened, she’s frozen, staring at him as he pulls the other arrows out. You cannot die, she thinks as the rain begins to fall. ‘I cannot leave you,’ she weeps, touching his shoulder. I cannot abandon you, she thinks. ‘You have to let me help you.’

Blood froths from his mouth. She wipes the sanguine smear from his lips, holding his chin. He clutches her wrist, ‘You run,’ he says, ‘you hear me, you run and live your life.’

More arrows are fired at them and Ari embraces her in his arms, protecting her as the sharp-pointed arrows puncture his legs and arms and back and neck and skull.

You are my girl of golden hope, he had said.

Nesaea holds in her breath, thinking, please do not leave me too, as he stirs in her arms.

 

You came and I was crazy for you, and you cooled my mind that burned with longing. We live, the opposite [lives], daring. Loves new.

— Sappho of Lesvos, Fragments 48, 24A & 59

 

Download a pdf of ‘Golden Drachmas’

Claire Catacouzinos

Claire Catacouzinos is a Greek-Australian writer in Sydney and in 2014 she completed her MA in Creative Writing at Macquarie University and completed her Diploma in Book Editing and Publishing at Macleay College. She writes Historical Fiction set in Ancient Greece, Young Adult Fiction focusing on multiculturalism, and poetry about Australian-Greek identity and Greek Diaspora. Also in 2014 she was the Copy Editor and History in Review Columnist of Macquarie University’s Student Publication Magazine, Grapeshot. Her historical fiction short stories, "Helike" and "Taras' Parthenians" are published on The Quarry, and are both cited at two archaeological research and excavation websites in Greece: The Helike Project, and, Amyklaion: The Amykles Research Project. She was also the Editor-in-Chief of The Quarry in 2014 for Issue 4, and in 2015 for Issue 6. For more information, check out her blog: www.clairecatacouzinos.wordpress.com

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Taras’ Parthenians, Claire Catacouzinos

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They would have their revenge one day, these bastard children, sons of bitches and Helot slaves, they were filthy mutts, unworthy of Spartan rights and citizenship. Their Spartiate fathers had disowned them after the First Messenian war, their Helot mothers tried to protect their puny sons, but they were better off to be thrown over Mount Taygetos, down into the chasm of the Apothetae. They were named, the Parthenians, the sons of virgins, born out of wedlock, and wherever they went, they were attacked with cacophonous insults from the Spartans, that scathed their hearts. For they were inferiors, half-bloods; but they would have their rancorous vengeance, oh yes they would, for the gods themselves willed it.

 

Amyklai, Lakonia, 706. B. C. E.

 

In the month of Hekatombaion, Neophytos the Parthenian was at the Amyklaion sanctuary celebrating the Hyakinthia festival among the Spartans, Periokoi and Helots. It was the second day of the festival. Neophytos was lined up behind other men on the right side of Apollo’s temple, waiting for the sausage contest to begin. There were six older men in front of him, wearing the red cloaks of Spartan men. He looked above them and gazed at the almighty, towering statue of Apollo; he wore the Corinthian helmet, held a bow in his left hand and a spear in his right that pointed down towards the entrance of his rectangular temple. Neophytos could see through the marble columns the priestess offering a chiton the women had sewn for the festival, and watched as she placed it down on the pedestal shaped as an altar that the statue was built on; a gift to Apollo, rejoicing in honour of him and his lover Hyakinthos. May they be blessed, he thought, looking away and staring at the cooked pieces of pig intestines filled with pork mince in front of him, hanging on the wall. Each sausage was pierced with a spear to keep it in place – by the gods, they looked delicious to eat. Neophytos licked his lips as he heard someone laugh beside him.

‘You look hungry Neo, I can see you desire to test your tongue.’

‘All in good time Timaios,’ he said, laughing with his friend. ‘But I will win the eating contest today.’ Of course he would, his stomach was grumbling for food, he could eat four pigs like Dionysos feasting, and then drink it all down with diluted wine; he could salivate on the tenderness of each meat – ah, he wished the damn contest would start already.

‘I am not so sure, Apollo standing before you is on my side today, have you not seen the hyacinth flower I wear?’

Neophytos looked down and saw the red flower attached to Timaios’s belt. The bastard, Apollo would favour him today. ‘Where did you get that?’

‘From your averter of unlawful desires.’

‘My Oreithyia?’

‘Yes, she entered the sanctuary moments ago with the other dancers, they are handing the flowers around for good fortune. It seems I am in more luck.’

Neophytos turned away from his friend, looking for his beloved – where was she? More men joined the two lines for the contest. Neophytos looked over their heads, searching for the girl who doted him with her honey-sweet love. When was the last time he had seen her, four days ago? She had been preparing with the other girls for the procession dances for their three-day Hyakinthia festival.

People were scattered everywhere: other Spartan men were near the lounging statues of couples who lay on marble recliners shaped as lions feet, children raced each other to the left of the sanctuary near the marble buildings, and outside of the precinct chariot races would be starting soon, after the parades of carts decorated with Spartan girls and women finished going around. Then to his right, on the other side of the temple, were four rows of choir boys and girls already competing amongst themselves, playing the kitharas and aulos, and singing the celebration song to Apollo; Oh great Apollo, hail! God of the golden bow and the creator of the hyacinth flower. Oh great Apollo, hail!

People everywhere wore crimson tunics: the women wore short chitons, Spartan men were draped with their red cloaks, and they all wore grassy wreaths – except for the Helots, Neophytos’s mother amongst them. They stood out like deer, waiting for their predators to strike them down. They wore the symbol of their social class; dog-skin caps, that shielded their faces from Helios’ rays. Why could they not have a day off from wearing them? Neophytos thought.

He turned away from the groups of Helots and saw a couple of women walking around with baskets filled with hyacinths in their arms, their long, violet chitons lapping and fluttering in the wind like Pegasus’s wings; their veils covering their braided hair. One of the girls, Oreithyia, bent down and handed a child a red flower. She smiled at the little boy and Neophytos felt an overwhelming feeling of love that swelled his heart and made him smile. Ah, my Oreithyia, he thought.

He watched the little boy, a couple of metres in front of him, place the flower amongst the many others that rested against the circular altar. Neophytos remembered how he had gone to the altar yesterday with his mother and half-siblings, and placed their own red flowers amongst the rivers of red and purple flora. It had been the sorrowful day, the first day of the Hyakinthia festival where everyone mourned with Apollo for the loss of his lover, Hyakinthos. The hyacinth flowers spilled along the circular altar like the spilled blood of Hyakinthos when he had been killed by a discus. Neophytos could not imagine losing Oreithyia. How long had it been now since their secret union when they had first tasted each other’s lips? He watched her rise from the ground and place the basket on her head, the flowers complementing her rosy lips and tanned skin. May Apollo bless her, she looked like a sun-light Hesperides, rich and luscious like the golden apples they were entrusted to care for. If only he could hold her in front of everyone like they did every night when her betrothed, Dexios, was away, fighting in battle with the other Spartans. He watched her compose herself, and when she was ready to walk away from the altar, she looked up, and Neophytos and her locked eyes on each other, and without being aware that Neophytos had been watching her, thinking about their relationship and her beauty, she stood there and smiled at him, Neophytos the Parthenian, the man she truly loved, and she wondered if they would ever be together, to hold hands in public. However, she would be ridiculed if she married him by the ever-watchful Spartan women, whose eyes were all-seeing like Argos-Panoptes; but she could not help thinking that if only Neophytos was a full-blooded Spartan like Dexios, they would be able to wed and create their own family. Yet, Neophytos had lost that right once he was born a half-blood, he had been dishonoured by the community to remain wifeless like the rest of the Parthenians. She did not know how their love affair was going to end, and when, and if Dexios returned, she could go through with marrying her betrothed. She looked away and bent down to give a little girl a flower – may her fate be different to her own.

Neophytos turned back to Timaios who had been watching him stare at Oreithyia. He was the only man who knew of their affair, but he had told them, their secret was safe with him. Just as Neophytos was about to talk about Oreithyia with Timaios, an old man shouted behind him, ‘Move, you dirty Parthenians.’

Timaios elbowed Neophytos, but he ignored his friend.

‘Are you deaf, boy? Move out of the way, you bastard child!’

Neophytos folded his arms, ‘Wait your turn, you old brute, there is plenty for all.’

Move.’

The Spartan men in front of him now turned around. ‘Let him through, show some respect to your elders,’ one said.

‘Did your mother teach you any manners?’

‘With this one, how could she when she is bending over like a dog,’ another said, who wore wristbands.

Neophytos clenched his fists while his arms were still folded; he tightened his jaw, wishing he could put these men in their place.

‘I bet ten drachmas a Helot is breathing hot desire into her bosoms and thighs,’ the man with wristbands continued.

‘Shut up, you cock-sucking swine,’ Neophytos yelled.

‘Come at me, boy. I will rip your balls off; there is no use for them in our city.’

‘You dare make war upon me, I scorn the threats you vomit forth.’ Neophytos lunged at the man in front of him, but the old man, who had tried to push through, knocked him in the ribs. He let out a breath full of air as the old man grabbed his arms behind his back.

No sound echoed throughout the sanctuary anymore; the choirs of girls and boys stopped competing. All eyes watched the men in front of the temple of Apollo.

‘Let him go!’ Timaios yelled.

‘Silence him,’ the man with wristbands yelled. Another Spartan punched Timaios and he fell to the ground.

‘Do you know who you are speaking to, boy?’ the man asked Neophytos. He did not care; he was a pig-headed brute, just like the rest of the Spartans. He did not answer him, but fumed out his anger.

‘Hold him steady, I want to admire the craftsmanship my son did to this Parthenian years ago.’ He pulled down the tunic from Neophytos’s chest and exposed the scar of the letter P above his left breast.

‘You are Dexios’s father?’

‘Yes, I am Doriskos.’

Neophytos remembered that day like any other when he had been bashed and ambushed by the Spartan boys, before they went to the barracks and trained in the agoge. Two boys had held him down while Dexios straddled him and carved the letter into his skin, branding him as a Parthenian forever. Someone had yelled for him to stop, Neophytos had thought the torture would end, but once the man approached them, he had said, ‘keep going, son, you need to carve deeper than into the flesh.’

Neophytos clenched his jaw as Doriskos’s face was so close to his own. This was enough, there had to be a change, he had to be respected, to be an equal. He head-butted Doriskos and watched the man fall back to the ground. The men stood still, shocked with what he had done. Neophytos was able to loosen his hands from the old man’s grip and punched him in the face. He grabbed Timaios’s hand and yanked him up. ‘Victory for the Parthenians!’ he chanted.

Spartan men now lunged for them, throwing punches to stop them, but other Parthenians around joined in – this was not about a misunderstanding.

Women yanked their children away and ran out of the sanctuary, screaming. Dirt lifted into the air as people rushed away over the precinct wall and down the hill of the sanctuary into the bushes.

‘The gods will have their heads,’ someone screamed.

Neophytos punched another man to the ground with Timaios beside him. He looked around the rushing crowd but could not see the purple figure of his beloved. He was about to run to the circular altar to look for her when someone pushed him into the marble wall of the temple. The pork sausages fell to the ground, some hit Neophytos’s head. He saw a wristband coming at him and he was punched in the face. He shook his head, drool falling to the ground, and took a swing at the man, punching him in the face. He jumped up, grabbed hold of Doriskos’s shoulders and kneed him in the genitals – now who would not be able to use his balls? Neophytos thought. With his hands full of Doriskos’s hair, he bashed and bashed his head against the temple wall – more sacrificial blood for Apollo. The man fell to the ground, blood frothed from his mouth, dyeing his beard the colour of wine. Neophytos with one knee, knelt down on Doriskos’s chest. Timaios approached him from behind, blood smeared on his cheek and mouth, a sword in hand, and gave it to Neophytos.

He smiled down at the man, shouts and screams drilled into his hears, but he let them fade away; this was his sanguinary time. ‘Tell your son you were defeated by Neophytos the Parthenian.’ He hoisted the sword and took his strike. A croaked yelp, spurted blood, hacked bone, an annihilated arm – ah, the smell of victory.

Timaios smacked Neophytos on the back, ‘That will teach them; we will bring death upon the enemy.’

‘Let this one live,’ Neo said, ‘his son can see the mark I have left behind for him.’ He wiped the sweat dripping from his face, noting that he needed to change his headband once he got home, and turned around. He could see red cloaks twirling in dirt, and ripped crimson tunics moving side to side like snakes. He felt like a suppressed dog that had been suffocated by a leash, had finally bit back and ripped its teeth into its master’s arm, puncturing the skin; the blood oozing, the bitter taste and smell reassuring the dog of its freedom.

Neophytos noticed that amongst the blood and tunics, there were scattered hyacinth flowers around the circular altar. Had Oreithyia escaped? He was about to run over to the altar when he saw an arm appear with bangles, leaning on the ground, and a purple figure revealed herself closer to the flowers, bent down on her knees and looking around the sanctuary. Her veil had fallen from her head; parts of her hair had fallen out of her braid. Oreithyia looked up and Neophytos caught her eye. They stared at each other – if only he could take her to safety, but she could take care of herself, she had been doing it for a long time since her mother had died, when she was younger. Oreithyia stared back at Neophytos; blood soaked his hair, his hands covered in it. When would the fighting end, she thought, when would all of this frightening end?

‘Neo, come help me,’ Timaios called, fighting two Spartans.

He took one last look at Oreithyia and motioned his head to the right – go, run, he thought. He took a bronze dagger from a body on the ground and hurled it at one of the Spartans. It hit the man in the chest and he fell to the ground. Neophytos ran towards Timaios, snatched a sword from another body and struck another man down in his way. He followed Timaios away from the temple and jumped on top of one of the reclining couples statues, and fought another Spartan. The man’s sword cut into Neophytos’s arm, but he ignored the pain and thrust his sword into the man’s stomach. He thought he was in a bloody bath as he watched the blood purge out of the man once he withdrew his sword.

‘Stop this madness,’ someone yelled.

Neophytos looked up, still mantled on the statue, and saw his friend, Phalanthos, on the steps of the temple, holding a spear like the statue of Apollo above his head, but with blistered hands, and an index finger missing.

‘Heed yourselves.’

‘They must be put in place,’ Neophytos yelled, jumping off the statue and walking towards Phalanthos. He kicked a flinching hand on the ground that tried to grab a sword.

‘You are all fools, they will gather more Spartans and they will come find us and kills us.’

‘Not if we take the upper hand,’ Timaios yelled, stepping closer to Neophytos.

‘They will come, they will kill our families, we must go, now.

Neophytos looked at Timaios, perhaps if they killed the two Spartan kings they would not have to leave the city. They needed more weapons, they could fight them off?

‘We must go, leave the dead; the women will return and bury them.’ Neophytos watched as Phalanthos hurried down the stone steps, his long blonde braid swishing side to side as he walked right up to him. ‘Follow me; they will drive us out of the city.’

‘The gods will ensure us victory if we stay.’

‘Hold your tongue, Apollo will smite us for this treachery. We have spilt blood on a day of celebration. Gather your belongings from Messoa and we shall meet at Therapne,’ he turned away from Neophytos. ‘Hurry, men.’

Neophytos clenched his jaw, but listened to Phalanthos’s wise words – he was always right. He was the first Parthenian to train and educate the other Parthenians to be strong and fearless warriors, when all the Spartan boys at the age of seven left to go live in the barracks and train. Phalanthos would take them to the Plantanistas, a secret place that was surrounded by plane-tree groves, a couple of metres south of the tribe of Messoa. Two groups of Spartan boys would brawl with each other there for a couple of months, biting and gouging each others’ eyes out until one group won. Neophytos had learned how to fight with his fists and legs. The first time he had trained with daggers was the day he had been attacked by Dexios in the marketplace at night. If Phalanthos had not found him with Timaios, he would have not been able to take his spiteful revenge.

Timaios turned to him, ‘We could still raise an attack.’

‘I think Phalanthos is right, we are not able to control this.’

They followed the Parthenians down the sanctuary hill. It was going to take a good hour heading north on foot to get to Messoa and far away from Amyklai. Neophytos then noticed that Timaios’s hyacinth flower under his belt had missing petals, a couple still held on, but they were ripped and damaged – discoloured, just like Neophytos’s own heart.

 

Neophytos was beating down a sheet of bronze material later on that night, when the blacksmith’s workshop door slammed open.

‘They are going to kill you; they are sending the krypteia out tonight!’

‘Let them come,’ he said, looking up, ‘I will cut their throats.’

‘Why must you shed more blood to be heard?’ Oreithyia took a step closer to him, her golden bangles jingling. He liked the sound of them, how they reminded him of her and when they had first kissed. It had been the Karneia festival and he had been watching her dance, her bangles and anklets clinking together with every precise twist and flick she made with her hands, her body whirling in the ring dance with four other chosen girls who were unmarried; he had become enchanted by her like Aphrodite herself, and that day, he had talked her into watching him during an athletic race. They had kissed afterwards behind one of the tents set up for the festival. She had revealed she had always been filled with pothos, passionate longing for him, since that day in the marketplace when he had given her food to take home. It had been raining, and it was the dreadful time she had lost her mother to childbirth. How things were changing now, he knew she did not want him to fight for his cause.

‘They will kill you; you will leave me and go to Hades.’

‘My rightful place is to be honoured, to be respected as an equal.’

‘Do not let your pride suffocate you.’

‘How can I when they have taken my right to marry, am I to remain wifeless because I was born a Parthenian?’

‘They are going to kill you.’

‘I am leaving with the others.’

‘What about me, are you going to leave me all on my own?’

Beads of sweat travelled down Neophytos’s face, his olive skin was alight by the fire in the corner that was illuminating the dark room. He ignored her and kept bashing down the bronze material, he needed to finish this, he had to get it right, it would be his last job as a blacksmith.

‘Do I mean anything to you?’

He stopped. His hand unclasped the hammer and he leaned forward on the stone bench, his weight pushed on his arms, his head bent down. She had to come with him, he could not leave her with Dexios; he could not leave her here. He clenched his jaw, wiped his face with his arm and stood up. Their eyes interlocked and they stared at each other.

‘You will come with me.’

‘I will not die for your cause.’

‘I am waiting for Phalanthos’s orders’ we are planning on leaving the city.’

‘But I thought – ’

They heard a noise outside. Neophytos walked in front of Oreithyia – Zeus forbid, had the krypteia been sent out already? He grabbed his sword from the wooden stool where he had left it and watched the door pull open. He raised his sword, ready to strike.

‘I have word,’ Timaios said, taking in deep breaths, leaning forward.

Neophytos withdrew, and threw his sword on the stone bench. ‘What is the news?’

‘Phalanthos has returned, there is word going around that they are attacking us tonight.’

‘We must go.’ Neophytos grabbed his sword and the bronze armour he had been beating down to fit him. ‘Oreithyia, you must come with us.’

‘I cannot leave my family.’

‘If you want a life with Dexios and to bear his children, stay, but if you want to be with me, to be free of these people, come with us, we will marry, I will be able to marry you.’

They left the blacksmith’s workshop, Neophytos holding Oreithyia’s hand, his woollen cloak flapping in the wind, Timaios behind them. They travelled south to Neophytos’s family home and once they were in, his mother, Krateia, stood up from the hearth she had been sitting near.

‘Where have you been, I thought you were killed?’ she hugged her son, and Neophytos let go of Oreithyia’s hand.

‘We are leaving the city with the other Parthenians.’ He told her of their plan and the Spartan’s attack tonight. ‘You must stay indoors; they could kill Blathyllos and Elatreus if they see them.’

His mother called his half-brothers over to sit at the hearth where his half-sisters, Kydilla and Limnoreia were slurping down their broth soups in wooden bowls. ‘Will we not see you again, my boy?’

‘Boethus will take care of you all, I will send a messenger if our plans have been a success, but if you do not hear from me in a couple of years, you must find peace.’

He saw his step-father, Boethus, another helot, carving into wood, making a figurine. He did not move. His mother looked at Oreithyia behind him and Timaios, and she smiled. She looked up at her boy for the last time and cupped his face, ‘May the gods be with you all, my son.’ She kissed him twice on both cheeks and he hugged his siblings goodbye.

His step-father finally stepped forward, ‘Your mother will be fine with us,’ and handed him the figurine he had been carving.

They left the house and saw a snake of light approaching Messoa from the citadel of Sparta. The enemy was coming. They climbed onto their horses and travelled south to Therapne and met up with the other Parthenians and Phalanthos. Before Neophytos left, he looked down at the wooden figurine in his hand, and saw that it was Zeus Tropaios – he who turns to flight.

The Parthenians would find a new fate with order and law, by their own making, for the gods themselves willed it.

 

Glossary

Agoge                                    Spartan system of education and military training

Apothetae                             deposits

Aulos                                      an ancient wind instrument like a pipe

Argos-Panoptes                   a one hundred-eyed giant

Drachmas                              ancient coinage/currency

Hekatombaion                     July/August Summer

Helot                                      captured Greeks of Messenia and turned into slaves for Spartans, they were subjugated and carried out domestic duties and farming

Hesperides                            nymphs who attend a blissful garden

Kithara                                  an ancient musical instrument – a lyre and similar to a modern harp and guitar

Spartiate                               Spartan men of equal status and known as peers

 

Download a pdf of Taras’ Parthenians

 

Claire Catacouzinos

Claire Catacouzinos is a Greek-Australian writer in Sydney and in 2014 she completed her MA in Creative Writing at Macquarie University and completed her Diploma in Book Editing and Publishing at Macleay College. She writes Historical Fiction set in Ancient Greece, Young Adult Fiction focusing on multiculturalism, and poetry about Australian-Greek identity and Greek Diaspora. Also in 2014 she was the Copy Editor and History in Review Columnist of Macquarie University’s Student Publication Magazine, Grapeshot. Her historical fiction short stories, "Helike" and "Taras' Parthenians" are published on The Quarry, and are both cited at two archaeological research and excavation websites in Greece: The Helike Project, and, Amyklaion: The Amykles Research Project. She was also the Editor-in-Chief of The Quarry in 2014 for Issue 4, and in 2015 for Issue 6. For more information, check out her blog: www.clairecatacouzinos.wordpress.com

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Helike, Claire Catacouzinos

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The gods are amaranthine, and so is their wrath. They are the controllers and doers of the land, they know their place, and the mortals know theirs. They decide when to thread life with a needle through their canvas, to place a stitch here and another over there, when to sail horizontally, travel diagonally, to enjoy life in a straight line or go tumbling vertically down to the depths of Hades; perhaps another colour to play with, just to test the mortal’s piety? And if a stitch is removed from the canvas, a place vanishes from history; lives are taken away; the canvas shall be remodelled, in time, when the gods decide to do so. For they are the controllers and doers of the land, they know their place, and the mortals know theirs.

The Gulf of Corinth 373 B.C.E.

In the month of Anathesterion, Alethea the daughter of Mikkos of Helike is spinning her wool in her family’s marble house when the floor beneath her bare feet begins to shake. He has come back, she thinks, moving in rhythm with the quaking earth, her body is tossed against the wall, sinking to the unsteady floor. She presses her ear against the mud brick wall, feeling the vibration of the earth ringing in her ears. Why is Poseidon angry? She hears her stool tapping against the floor. The chimes hanging in the room jingle together like the storage jars that shimmy across the room. She forces herself to stand, to do something, anything! Her sister is screaming in the opposite room. She hears the outcries of Helikeans outside; children crying for their mother’s protective arms, animal’s footsteps are clapping against the cobblestone pathways, fathers hollering for their families to get inside their houses. Is it safer inside or outside? The earth shaking, Alethea waits for a moment, her body still against the wall, when it stops. Poseidon’s anger has abated.

‘Alethea!’ she hears her sister weep. She pushes herself from the wall, and runs to locate Adelphia. She finds her amongst the pallid blankets in the corner of her room.

‘Are you alright?’ she asks. Adelphia’s curly brown hair is tangled like vineyards, her complexion that of a terrified child.

‘Why is Poseidon Helikonios angry?’ Alethea grabs hold of her sister’s hand and helps her up, still hearing the screams of the citizens.

‘Perhaps the city has unwittingly been impious to him?’ For she knows she has been for many years.

‘Father is at his workshop, do you think he is alright?’

‘If the gods have willed it,’ Alethea says.

She hears a hoarse voice outside her window and clasps her sister’s hand. She moves towards it. A tall, white-bearded man is talking to a clan of Helikeans, where more, one by one, approach to hear him speak. ‘My good citizens of Helike.There will be a meeting tonight in the market place to discuss this matter. I advise all of you to be there.’

Alethea turns away from the window. She looks at Adelphia, thinking over the past years of how they have been deprived of their mother. She knows Poseidon has not been angry with her city since the day he drowned her mother at sea. They had been returning from a visit to the Oracle of Delphi, across the Corinthian Gulf. She remembers that it had been the annual festival of the Theophania, celebrating the return of Apollo from his winter quarters in Thrace. She had been twelve at the time when the turbulent waves of Poseidon had rocked the boat. Little by little each wave grew, becoming stronger and stronger until they had risen over the surface of the boat and crashed down onto the deck, taking many helpless victims. Had Poseidon been angry with them for paying homage to a god who was not their patron? Is that why he had killed her mother? Is this why he is striking again? She knows that the only gods she prays to are Hera and Zeus, ever since she became betrothed to Elpidios. Is the quake her fault? She takes her sister’s hand and squeezes it; they look at each other and Alethea knows she has to do anything to keep her sister safe.

That night, under the lunar light Alethea and her sister arrive in the market place, joining the crowded Helikeans. They surround the area like fire flies, holding their torches. They have not heard from their father for the whole day. Perhaps there was an accident during his travels to Aigion today, to deliver his new crafts?

Alethea feels her sister holding her hand tightly, just like she did that awful night when their mother was swept away. She turns her attention to the white-bearded man – a magistrate of the committee for the safety of their city-state. He is standing on a stool in front of the Temple of Poseidon Helikonios, ‘My fellow citizens,’ he begins, ‘the quake is over. Poseidon has relinquished his wrath on us. But we shall sacrifice a bull to him tonight. We shall soothe his anger.’

A tirade breaks out amongst the Helikeans.

‘Why is he furious with us?’ They ask. Some are blaming the politicians for their corrupt ways; other citizens are frantic, holding their children closer to them, their eyes fixated on the magistrate.

While Alethea watches, she can feel her fear of Poseidon rising, deep down she is sure she knows what he is up to. She hears her betrothed speaking her name. She lets go of her sister’s hand and embraces Elpidios. Her arms wrap around him like Penelope did when she hugged her Odysseus for the first time after twenty years. The warmth of Elpidios’ skin calms Alethea’s thoughts.

‘Where have you been?’ she asks.

‘I was fishing in the gulf when the waves started tossing our boat. We capsized and had to swim to shore.’

‘Thank Hera you are alright.’

Agapi mou, of course I am alright, it would take all the gods to rid me from your side.’

Alethea refuses to ponder over the matter, for she knows, if the gods willed it, they could kill anyone. She kisses Elpidios as he wraps an arm around her and she leans into the curve of his chest and shoulder. She can hear the Helikeans still shouting at the magistrate, when he announces, ‘I have with me the Priestess of Poseidon Helikonios, our dear Elpis. She will save us by slitting the throat of the sacrificial bull.’

Alethea watches as Elpidios’ sister wearing her white shawl, holds the dagger to the thrusting bull’s neck and begins her prayer, ‘Patron god of our city, Poseidon Helikonios, Shaker of the Earth, I humbly succumb to your presence and will, to accept this sacrifice as homage from your people.’ The crimson blood from the bull is purged and gushes forth upon the marble altar, and slowly drips down on the cobblestone. ‘For now, we hope he will give us another day for his Panionia festival tomorrow, so we may be pardoned for our misdoings.’

At midnight, the god Morpheus enters Alethea’s dreams. His presence awakens her deep thoughts on Poseidon. The spirits of Morpheus’ Oneiroi envision messages of dark roaring waves and high-pitched screams of civilians running inland. Animals are stampeding amongst humans, squashing those in the way like insects. Alethea finds herself amongst the waves, drowning in the ocean. Help me, help me father, Adelphia, help! Elpidios, where are you? She thinks. Her eyes are stinging as she tastes the bitterness of salt on her tongue, her nose inhaling the waves, suffocating her. Why does Poseidon hate her? He reveals himself, his white mane covering his squared face, the sharp ends of his golden trident pointing towards her, condemning her. His cerulean eyes are fixated on her, mouthing words to her, words that never enter her ears, the sea water has already deafened them. And all she can think is, You, you who are the saviour of our city, you the god of the sea, the earthquakes, the rivers, the floods, the droughts, how could you? You, you who are the Patron of our city, Poseidon Helikonios, oh why? What have I ever done to you?

She awakes from heat, sweat and dried tears. She looks over at her sister sleeping beside her, their father did not return that night. She turns her head and looks at the starry night sky through her window. Help me Hera, oh help me, she thinks. She feels the heat and notices her blankets are lying on the floor. Is it not winter? Why is it so hot?

The next evening Alethea finds Elpidios upon his fishing boat alone. The sun rays of Helios lightening his dark skin and his obsidian hair. She watches as he packs his belongings from the boat onto the deck.

‘I thought I might find you here.’ She approaches him wearing a thin shawl. Her hand fans the heat away from her face.

He looks up from what he is doing and their eyes meet. ‘I thought you would be preparing for the festival tonight?’ He places his hand upon his brow to block Helios’ rays, his eyes squinting.

‘My father has not returned home since yesterday. I fear he has left my sister and I, the coward within him is too scared to return to Helike.’

‘Why would you say such things?’

‘He knows from the earthquake that Poseidon’s rage will be thunderous soon, yesterday was only the beginning.’

‘Alethea, you know my sister would have spoken to me if she knew Poseidon was going to punish us.’

‘Have you not heard the cries since yesterday? Something happened a few nights ago when the Akhaean League formed an agreement. There is gossip in the street that Poseidon will strike again tonight.’

‘You should not fill your head with discontent Alethea. We have appeased Poseidon with our sacrifice and today we shall rejoice in celebration of him.’

‘We ought to leave before he strikes again. We must travel inland.’

He lifts himself out from the boat and clasps her hand. ‘You should not be scared of him. Can you not see he has blessed me today with all these fish?’

Alethea’s eyes look upon the carcasses stacked in a net on the boat. Their scales silver, their black beady eyes looking up to the heavens. ‘I cannot stay; I have already sent Adelphia inland to Tritaia. Many people are leaving the city today.’

‘Are you going to leave me?’ he asks, wiping his hands on his tunic. Alethea smells the odour of fish, and breathes in the scent, remembering all the times she has been fishing with him. How he catches a bundle, kisses each of them, and thanks Poseidon for the blessing. Out in the ocean, this is where he had kissed her for the first time. On their patron gods territory, when she was only fourteen years old, the same ocean that killed her mother. Why is Poseidon doing this now? she thinks.

‘You need to come with me. I want you to leave with me.’

‘I cannot go,’ he says.

‘Can you not see the animals are fleeing? Even they know Poseidon will release his rage soon.’

‘My sister is the priestess, you are defying our patron.’

‘Then why have the wells risen? The air soaring with heat when it is winter? The fate of our city is in turmoil…Elpidios, please?’
‘No Alethea, I am to stay here in the city with my family. I have an obligation to them. If I leave them I will lose my honour.’

‘There will be no honour once Poseidon has had his way.’

‘You do not know if he is to cause any misfortune. Elpis said Poseidon had sent us a message yesterday to strengthen our piety for the festival today.’

Alethea closes her eyes, and takes in a long breath of the salty air. She could go and leave him here. He could suffer the wrath of Poseidon if he wanted. She could find a new partner, marry a different man. And yet, all she wants is to be the mother of his children. She wants to be with him.

‘Agapi mou, you are being suspicious because of your mother. Please stay for the festival tonight?’

She did not know what she was doing. A part of her wanted to run to the hills, to jump onto a cart and ride to Tritaia, further and further away from Helike. And yet the other half of her, yearned for Elpidios, for him to stay with her. Perhaps Poseidon would not strike tonight. Perhaps tonight, the festival would soothe his rage, and they would be left for another night.

The festival that night is triumphant; the athletics start with men and boys competing against each other in honour of Poseidon. At dinner time, four fat bulls are sacrificed by the Priestess during the procession. Libations of silky milk, red wine and honey are poured in honour of Poseidon Helikonios. The Priestess performs her fluid dance, choirs of boys and girls sing in praise. And to Alethea’s shock, there has not been another tremor. It is not until midway through the next pouring of libations and dancing that the ground begins to shake.

She jumps from her seat, grabbing Elpidios’ hand and runs away from the festival, her body shaking and moving with the rhythm of the earth. She can hear people screaming, panicking – run, run for your lives! Have mercy on us! What are we to do! Keep running! She hears thunder above her head. He has awakened. She keeps running. She needs to find safety.

‘Alethea, wait!’ Elpidios shouts, catching his breath. But she cannot, she is terrified, her heart pounding in her chest like her fists banging on dough. Her eyes watch the buildings around her shaking; some are swaying side to side, and others she can see are forming cracks. She keeps running, with him behind her. She runs, and runs, and runs all the way outside of the market place, pacing through the cracking buildings and animals thrashing from their chains. She hears outcries.

‘Help me!’
‘Where is my mother?’
‘Where is my father?’
‘Oh Zeus help us! Where are my children?’

And then. It stops. And so does she. She bends down, and inhales a long breath of air. Oh help me Hera, she thinks. That’s when she turns around and sees Elpidios is still there. Scared like her. But, her eyes look above him. She sees a huge wave. It is rising up, up, up towards the sky, as when she had lost her mother.

She cries, ‘Oh Hera! Please, help us!’ She tilts her head up, watching the wave; it just keeps on rising, it just keeps on rising. ‘He’s got us, he’s got us!’

Until, in a split moment, as she holds her breath, it hits its peak…and then, like the speed of Zeus’ lightning bolt, it rushes towards the city of Helike.

Elpidios grabs her. He clutches her as he whispers in her ear, ‘Signomi agapi mou, s’agapo.’

The tidal wave crashes down upon them. For the gods are the controllers and doers of the land, they know their place, and the mortals know theirs.

[For] you will remember, for we in our youth did [many] things, yes many beautiful things. Someone will remember us, I say, even in another time.
– Sappho of Lesvos Fragments 24A & 147

 

Download a pdf of Helike

 

Glossary
Anathesterion – February/March
Agapi mou – my love
Oneiroi – dark-winged spirits of dreams
Signomi agapi mou, s’agapo- I’m sorry my love, I love you

Claire Catacouzinos

Claire Catacouzinos is a Greek-Australian writer in Sydney and in 2014 she completed her MA in Creative Writing at Macquarie University and completed her Diploma in Book Editing and Publishing at Macleay College. She writes Historical Fiction set in Ancient Greece, Young Adult Fiction focusing on multiculturalism, and poetry about Australian-Greek identity and Greek Diaspora. Also in 2014 she was the Copy Editor and History in Review Columnist of Macquarie University’s Student Publication Magazine, Grapeshot. Her historical fiction short stories, "Helike" and "Taras' Parthenians" are published on The Quarry, and are both cited at two archaeological research and excavation websites in Greece: The Helike Project, and, Amyklaion: The Amykles Research Project. She was also the Editor-in-Chief of The Quarry in 2014 for Issue 4, and in 2015 for Issue 6. For more information, check out her blog: www.clairecatacouzinos.wordpress.com

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