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Little Dogs

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Athalbelet, whom her father always called by her Greek name of Eugenia, had always thought of herself as a good person. Her father had always told her she was his own good girl, and more precious than a multitude of sons. Her mother, who always called her by her Phoenician name, had always praised her skills with wool. Her tutor said she was a quick learner. When her mother died everyone praised her calm, sad decorum. She was unprepared, therefore, for the enmity of her husband.

Andronicus looked down on her because she was not a Greek by birth, although her spoken Greek was much purer than his. Her father had always insisted that they spoke it at home, and being cheated of sons had lavished education upon her. Andronicus was put out by this learning, and did not approve of a young wife who could quote the poets.

"Are you a hetaira that you flaunt your wit before men?" he would snap.

Athalbelet learned not to snap back that conversing with her husband hardly counted as 'flaunting' anything. If she spoke back to him he would insult her, and her city and her history. Her father's citizenship of Tyre, an ancient city, counted for nothing in his eyes compared with his own citizenship of Antioch, a good Greek foundation. Her father's wealth counted for much more. The only reason he never hit her, she thought, was that he feared she would flee and he would lose her inheritance. So she stayed silent before him, knowing that he had one great legitimate complaint against her for she could not give him an heir. With unceasing regularity her courses came and went, a mockery of her married state. Month by month Andronicus took pleasure in telling her she had failed yet again, that the learning she was so proud of had made her useless as a woman.

Athalbelet kept her peace, knowing it was her father's wish that she had married Andronicus. A respectable and sober man, he had said. He will take good care of you when I am gone and will not squander your estate. And he is Greek. That had been the best of all for her father, she knew, that a man whose family had been in the area a few hundred years should deign to marry a girl whose family had been here for a thousand years. Her father valued all things Greek and spoke Aramaic only if there was no other option. He only held back from calling the gods by the names the Greeks had put on them.

She had been married almost six years when her father suddenly freed his concubine and married her. Five months later the girl bore a son. Athalbelet rejoiced for her father's sake, seeing him like a child with a great and unexpected gift. Andronicus saw his future great wealth vanish like a dream. When he could not see her, Athalbelet laughed. Wealth had so far been a curse to her, winning a husband who was so different at home than he presented himself in public. She had no wish to increase her wealth and her curse. A year after her brother's birth, Andronicus divorced her. It would not have seemed respectable to cast her off before that, she thought. She returned to her father's house and became once again a good and dutiful daughter. That month she did not bleed and laughed bitterly at the fulfilment of her prayers. The time of the gods was truly not that of mortals. Her father assured her that Andronicus would take her back, and went to plead her case. Athalbelet knelt at the shrine in the rooms that had been her mothers and prayed till he came home, despondent.

"He cast doubts on your integrity," her father said in rage. "He said educated women are well known to have weak morals. If I attempt to reclaim your dowry he will accuse you of harlotry."

Athalbelet silently praised the gods for being more speedy with their grace this time and assured her father that she had no wish to remarry just yet, he should put the dowry from his mind. When she bore a daughter she rejoiced still more, knowing Andronicus would now never change his mind, nor would he seek to take her daughter from her. Having this proof of the gods' grace, she called her daughter Hanan-ilim and to please her father, Berenike. Persis, her father's wife, breathed more easily, seeing no threat to little Baal-nathan Alexandros' inheritance. The children grew up together, infant uncle and niece thinking themselves brother and sister.

 

When he was four years old little Alexandros fell ill. Their father sent for a Greek doctor, who came with his books and instruments and an assistant. Alexandros was bled and shut up in a dark room against the effect of ill humours. He was dead by the fourth day. The doctor looked professionally sad and said it was a quartain fever and regretted that Athalbelet had not allowed him bleed the other child as a preventative measure. At the funeral Persis wept and tore her clothes in a barbarous manner, but Athalbelet and her father maintained their Greek composure. The time of purification was barely past when Athalbelet's father summoned scribes and lawyers and changed his will and Athalbelet found herself once more an heiress.

"You will be able to marry again, and to look after little Berenike properly, Eugenia," he said, showing her the documents.

She nodded and promised she would be kind to Persis and would take good care of Hanan-ilim Berenike. She did not promise to marry again, and her father did not push her, although she knew how much it worried him. While he lived he protected her reputation, but it would not be quite respectable for her to be single and wealthy woman without any male relatives. Although she felt ungrateful, she did not promise, and prayed her father would be spared for many years, knowing he loved her dearly despite her disappointing femaleness.

A year and a half later the gods struck her father, and he lay insensible for a week, his face strangely drawn. The doctors shook their heads and regretted that some things were beyond the reach of medicine. He died never knowing his daughter held him and wept. Persis shut herself up so that no one could hear her sobs, and re-emerged veiled and silently dignified, as her late husband would have wished. Athalbelet maintained her silence at the funeral, and bore the consolations of her father's friends. She withdrew into her house and lived a secluded life, as remote and respectable as an Athenian lady of the past, and prayed this might comfort her father in Sheol.

Hanan-ilim was six years old when she fell ill. It seemed nothing much, a sickness such as children recovered readily from. She soon rose from her bed and ran out to the courtyard to play. Athalbelet heard her screams, along with those of the nurse. Her steward carried the child in and they put her in her mother's bed, with the shutters closed. All the time she screamed and thrashed, and then all of a sudden went limp.

"She cried out that the light pained her, Madam," the nurse whispered, "and then she cursed me, with language no gently brought up child would use."

Athalbelet heard the other servants in the doorway, whispering about demons. She assured herself that the child was sleeping, and did not seem harmed.

"She is just weak from her illness," she said loudly, "and all children learn unfortunate language from irresponsible persons."

She glared at the servants, who looked down and withdrew. Hanan-ilim woke in the evening and seemed well once more. From that time on, however, she flinched away from bright light and loud noises terrified her, and she would cast herself down and thrash wildly on the floor and scream for no reason. Athalbelet's steward tried to reason with her.

"It is a demon, Madam. It has entered into her," he said.

"Illness is caused by an imbalance in the bodily humours," she said. "We must send for the doctors."

Persis, who so seldom spoke any more, looked up from her spinning.

"Having killed my child, will you let them kill yours also? What good have these doctors ever done us? Did they save my son? Did they save your father? He is right, it is a demon."

Athalbelet rose with dignity and went into her room, where she muffled her face and wept. Persis was right, the doctors could not help. They had never helped. She would have to stop being Greek, and try to get help some other way. She veiled herself, and gathered up Persis and went to the temple of the Lady Tanit and besought the aid of the kalbu-priests. Two of them came to her house and put puppies in Hanan-ilim's bed, then burnt incense and sang spells to drive the demon into the dogs instead. They left, promising to dispose of the dogs and demon together, but no matter how many puppies she had buried the demon would not leave her daughter. She offered lambs to the Lord Melqart, but still Hanan-ilim screamed and did herself harm. Athalbelet looked at the child, who grew thinner by the day, and knew she would do anything to have her daughter restored to her. When her steward came to say he had learned that an exorcist famed equally for his skill and his radical politics was staying in a village three hours' walk from the city, she did not hesitate.

"Let me go for you, Madam," he said. "I will hire this fellow."

"No, I will see him myself," she said, "and beg him to come."

"He is a country person," her steward said, "he will not know how to speak with a lady of your quality. Such people have bad Greek, if they have any at all. And besides, Madam, all the people of that country hate Tyrians."

"I will go," she said. "I would walk to Rome if I had to, and have them laugh at me for an Oriental."

She put on good clothes, and tied a purse full of good silver coins around her waist. The servants muttered and tied and re-tied her sash until no one could see she was carrying anything. Persis and her steward nagged her until she took off the fine new sandals and put on her oldest, most comfortable pair. She saw the exasperated look they gave each other, but ignored it. Then, in the dawn twilight, she walked out of her house and out of her city without looking back. She had never gone anywhere unchaperoned before, and was not used to walking long distances. As the light grew and the day got hotter she trudged along, looking down at the ground and drawing her veil across her face as she passed strange men. As she walked, she thought of what she would say, composing her speech first in Greek and then translating it to Aramaic. Her steward had promised she would reach her destination easily, but she felt she would never get there. She had spent much longer than three hours on the road, she thought, and her feet were swollen and sore. Finally she came to a small village and sat wearily at the edge of its well. A couple of women paused from filling their jars and looked at her suspiciously.

"A little water, please," she said. "Please, where is the exorcist?"

"You're from the city," one woman said, tipping her jar so that Athalbelet could dip water from it. "Why come all this way? Don't you have magicians in the city?"

"She wants the foreign magician," the other woman said. "He's staying in the house at the very end of the street, but his friends will not let you see him."

"I will see him," Athalbelet said, rising.

The women shook their heads at her, but pointed her down the street. She saw the house, and saw the men sitting idly in its yard, and her heart sank. It was not decent that she should go and speak to strange men, her father would not approve, and she would dishonour his memory. She shrank back against a wall and watched them come and go for an hour, marking which of them they all looked to. That was the exorcist, so. After an hour he yawned and went into the house. A couple of the men lay in the shade of an awning and fell asleep, and the others wandered out into the street. She covered her face, and they paid her no attention. She should go to the house now, she thought. The door was open, and it was dark within. The idea of walking through it terrified her. What if the exorcist would not listen? What if these men assaulted her and used her as a whore? Where would she carry her shame? She thought of her father calling her his own good girl, and Andronicus asking if she were a hetaira and thought last of her child who had not yet learnt how little protection mothers were. One of the men in the yard stirred, and she broke from stillness, picking up her skirts and sprinting for the open doorway.

She skidded to a halt inside, hearing a cry of surprise from the yard. The exorcist was sitting on a bench at the side of the room, looking at her sardonically.

"I wondered when you would come in," he said, his rural accent harsh.

She stared at him, trying to decide what to say. One of his friends came in and took her by the arm, making her cry out.

"She ran straight past me! I'll send her away."

"No, it's all right, Yehuda. Let her speak."

The man withdrew, giving her a hard look. Athalbelet unveiled herself and bowed to the exorcist.

"Sir, sir," she cried, the careful speech she had prepared deserting her. "My little daughter is possessed, and your fame is widespread. Please come to my house and cast the demon from my Hanan-ilim. I can pay you, look."

She pulled the purse out of her sash and took out a handful of coins.

"I will give you more in the city, if you will only come," she begged.

The exorcist rose and plucked one coin off her palm, looking at it closely.

"I don't want your money," he said coldly. "Do you think to please me by offering me coins with these images of false gods?"

He dropped it to the floor. Athalbelet felt fury rise in her heart at this peasant who mocked her city's gods.

"Cities with the freedom to mint their own coins may decorate them at their pleasure," she said. "Shall I exchange them for Roman denarii such as are used in your country?"

The exorcist raised his eyebrows.

"Yet another who wishes me to give my opinion on coins," he said. "I cannot help you, I am sorry."

Athalbelet flung herself down on the floor, and seized hold of his feet.

"Sir, please! I did not mean to give offence, please help my daughter."

He stepped away fastidiously.

"Seek help elsewhere. I will not throw what is meant to sustain children out to the dogs."

Athalbelet felt weak. Not even Andronicus had ever used such an insult to her. The demon would eat her daughter up from the inside and all this man would do was call her and her child bitches. I will at least not let him have the last word, she thought, as she climbed heavily to her feet.

"Well, Sir," she said, "even little dogs begging for crumbs might expect the children's leftovers. Keep the coin. Give it to the next petitioner you refuse, that they might buy help elsewhere."

She drew her veil over her face again, and turned to the door.

"You're a sharp-tongued woman," the exorcist said behind her. "Most people don't have the nerve to be quite so rude to me. You win."

She turned to him in the beginnings of hope. He bent and picked up her coin and held it out.

"Go home. The demon has left your daughter. Give this to the poor yourself."

She left quickly, and rushed back to the city. It did not seem so far this time. When she reached her house her steward rose from the gateway where he had been sitting and sighed in relief to see her safe.

"Madam, Madam!" he cried. "The child is well, Madam!"

She went in and found Hanan-ilim in bed, the afternoon sun streaming in the window and falling on her sleeping face. Persis rose from her chair by the bed, smiling through tears.

"It cast her down a little before noon, and she cried out and wept. Then she stood up and went out and said how lovely the sunlight was. We knew then that the demon was gone. She ate a little and has slept ever since."

Athalbelet nodded, as if she not doubted all the way home. She untied the purse and handed it to her steward.

"This is to be given to the poor. And take the same amount and seek out any of the exorcist's countrymen who may be offered for sale in the markets, and I shall free them in his name."

She looked at the faces of the servants peering in the door, people she had known all her life and never given a moment's thought to. She had taken them all for granted, seeing them only as servants, just as the exorcist had seen her as a dog.

"You are all free," she said, "and may go where you will, although I hope you will stay in this house. I will have all the documents drawn up before tomorrow evening, I swear it."

As they crowded round her praising her generosity and calling the gods to witness that she was a good woman, Athalbelet thought she would go to the great temple of Melqart the next day and offer sacrifices for the well-being of the exorcist. There was something about him that said he would get himself into trouble, and she did not want that to happen. She would pray for his safety. It couldn't do any harm.

 

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