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By Ben Stroud
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2013 Ben Stroud
All rights reserved.
I was born a disappointment.
My father was John Lekapenos, one of the emperor Maurice's favorite generals. He had risen through the ranks from a hovel in Thessaly and had plans to establish himself — through me — among the great families. In the years he awaited my arrival, he elaborated my future career: the army, an illustrious marriage, a governorship or high ministerial position. But when I was brought to him, still smeared with my mother's blood, the first thing he saw curling toward him out of the blankets that swaddled me was the chewed red crook of my withered hand.
He must have thought it a talisman of his reverse. Not long after my birth, Maurice was overthrown and my father discharged from the army by the usurper, Phocas. He was forced to leave the camps for good, and, bloated and disheveled, he spent his days sitting in the kitchen with a pot of wine, haranguing the servants about long-ago campaigns against the Avars and the Bulgars. He talked of armies massed in the cold along the Danube, of the legion's priest bringing forth the icon of the Holy Mother, and how he would know, if the sun glinted just right against her eyes, that it would be a good day for fighting. The servants ignored him, but I always listened, snug in my hiding spot behind the oil vat, my legs folded against my chest. He loathed the sight of me, would cuff me whenever I came into his presence, but I liked to be near him, and longed to prove myself worthy of his love.
I never had the chance. He died when I was eight. He was in his bedchamber, putting on his old uniform. The Persians had been swallowing provinces whole, Phocas had in turn been deposed, and my father hoped the new emperor, Heraclius, would give him a legion. They had campaigned together years before, and he'd talked of nothing else for weeks, brightening when at last he heard the drums of Heraclius's soldiers as they entered the city. As soon as Heraclius was established in the palace and Phocas's ashes were tossed in the sea, my father prepared for court. He was to go that morning and was cleaning his sword — this he always insisted on doing himself — when he put his hand over his arm. Then he collapsed. I had hidden myself in a corner behind a chair, and when he fell I stayed there watching for nearly an hour. Eventually I crept away and left him for the servants to find.
That was the end of any hope for us. My mother kept me shut in the city house, where she looked after our dwindling fortune. I spent my days reading or hiding in the garden, listening to the servants' gossip. At my mother's insistence I always wore a specially fitted glove over my hand. I got older, grew restless. When I reached my majority a procuress was consulted and a woman brought to my chamber, and soon after that I began to sleep all day so I could prowl at night. At dusk I would escape through the back entrance to wander the dark streets, going as far as the Hippodrome. There I would watch others taking their pleasure — keeping to the shadows, my hand hidden as I studied a chariot racer leaning into a prostitute, her leg wrapped round his torso, or libertines goading a gilded crocodile in the bear pit, their bodies slurred by powders from the east. When the Persians came and encamped across the Bosporus, laying siege to the city, I went up to the roof every night to watch their attacks and then their slow retreat. When a traitor's body was dragged through the streets, I joined the mob, unnoticed, and kicked at the corpse and cursed it as the chariot pulled it toward the harbor. I had no vocation. I had no life or standing beyond our house's walls. So I lived until my twenty-eighth year, a rattling ghost in the great hive of the city.
I SAY UNTIL MY TWENTY-EIGHTH YEAR because it was in that year — the first of that brief, confident era following Heraclius's crushing victories against the Persians in the east — that an imperial courier burst into the garden where I was sitting with my mother, drinking tea, and handed me a summons. It came from the Keeper of the Seals, and when my mother saw the purple ink she began to fret. She declared I was to be given some high rank and fussed over my appearance, then decided I was to be executed and began to cry, then reversed herself a dozen times more. I didn't know what to think. The summons itself offered no hints: it only gave directions for when and how I should come to the palace. I was surprised that anyone, much less the Keeper of the Seals, would wish to seek me out. I brushed my mother away and went up to my chamber to spend the rest of the day alone.
When morning came I hired a litter to take me to the Chalke Gate, as instructed. There I showed my summons to the guards, and they admitted me to a courtyard where a large ivy grew. I knew, from one of my father's stories, what I was seeing. The ivy was nurtured from a clipping taken from the old palace at Rome, and the fountain in the courtyard's middle, surmounted by a bronze Romulus and Remus, ran with waters brought from all the empire's corners: the Tiber, the Danube, a spring in Syria, the upper reaches of the Nile. Just beyond the fountain, three men were contesting with an elephant, a spoil from the wars. A crowd of servants and soldiers had gathered to watch them fit gold covers onto his tusks. Some had their arms to their noses in imitation of the elephant's trunk, and were whistling, trying to get him to trumpet.
Stacks of crates filled the other side of the courtyard, and it was from behind one of these that a eunuch, spare and with a shaved head, emerged. Squeezing out of his hiding place, he dusted himself off and came up to me and demanded the summons. After he read it he gave me an oddly close look. Then he ordered me out of the litter and took me past the elephant and through a guarded archway. We walked a few steps down a grand corridor of white marble before he stopped and pulled back a tapestry. Behind it, a narrow passageway snaked off into darkness. He went in ahead of me, guiding me by the sleeve, running his other hand along the brick and repeating something to himself. When we came to a tiny iron door he stopped and faced me.
"Say nothing," he said. "Stand and wait." Then, twisting and pulling a ring in the door, he opened it and told me to step through.
I had to stoop to clear the topstone, and by the time I stood on the other side, the door had shut behind me. Turning back, I could barely make it out, its lines fitting smoothly into the wall. But as I looked around me I soon forgot the door. The room glittered with gold. A stream ran through its middle, bounded by golden shrubs hung with carnelian fruits and silver briars hooked with thorns. High green trees of mosaic climbed the walls to the ceiling, where light fell from shafts and a sun glided on a circuit. In the center of the ceiling's vault, God stared down, His hair flowing, His eyes gleaming in angry judgment. I knew where I was. I had always thought the Chamber of the Golden Meadow a legend, like the chamber that contained a living map of the sea. I looked again at the silver briars. I had heard it said that some of the thorns were poisoned; only the emperor knew which ones. He would meet his spies and servants here and take them for a stroll alongside the briars. If he grew displeased, he would give his interlocutor a nudge, and the unfortunate's soul would be parted from his body by morning.
The stream trickled, the sun clicked on its track, and I waited, even more uncertain of what was to come.
A half hour passed, then another. Finally, a door on the far side of the room opened. It wasn't the Keeper of the Seals who stepped through but Heraclius himself. The door closed behind him and he took a few steps toward me, then stopped. He was dressed in a simple tunic and a studded leather belt. His beard, grayed by his campaigns, hung below his chest. I stood still as stone — to suddenly be alone with the emperor, the man on whom all the eyes of the known world were fixed! — before it dawned on me that I was to go to him. I did so, bowing two or three times (in my nervousness I forgot the specific demands of protocol), and once I came near he put his hand on my shoulder and looked me over with his fading blue eyes.
"You are Eusebios Lekapenos, John Lekapenos's son?"
"I am," I answered, keeping my head bowed.
"Show me your hand."
He did not specify, but it was not difficult to guess which he meant. I brought my withered hand forward, slipped off the glove, and let him see. He glanced at the bent knobs that were my fingers, the wrinkled crook that was my wrist, then motioned for me to put the glove back on. Once I'd done this, he took me by the arm and led me toward the stream.
"I knew your father," he said. "We campaigned together. It was a shame that —" He broke off, then nodded at me. After a moment's silence, he started again, using a tone that, coupled with the unsubtle shift in subject, told me he was getting down to business. With a shiver I realized he was guiding me along the silver briars. "I recall hearing a story that when you were a child you visited several holy men, each of whom promised to heal your hand for you."
The story was true. Two years after my father died, my mother conceived the notion that a holy man could heal my hand, and she broke our isolation to take me through the streets to find one. In those days, as now, holy men flocked to the capital. They set themselves up in the houses of the rich, where they dressed in rags, refused baths, and spat out the delicate morsels offered them at dinner while shouting about fleshpots and the temptations of Babylon. Others, claiming to shun the world, lived in caves or on mountaintops a day's walk from the city, where they received crowds. And yet others set themselves on pillars in the streets and in the fora, shaking their beards at the people below and warning of coming cataclysms. The first holy man she took me to, chubby and with matted hair, grabbed my hand, put it to his mouth, and licked it. The second made me wait in his cave for two hours while he received other pilgrims, then told me that my hand was twisted because the devil had taken hold of it and that I must repent of my sins. The third spat at me from his pillar, claiming that would be enough, and the fourth told me to fast for six days and then return, by which time, forgetting me, he had left the city. Only with the fifth did I rebel. He had set himself up in one of the grandest houses on the Golden Horn, and promised to heal my hand if I would show my faith in his works by plunging it into a pot of boiling water. I had been given hope, I had believed in them, and when the healings failed I had blamed myself. But as I trembled beneath this holy man's half-blind stare, his toothless scowl, I understood: he was a charlatan. They were all charlatans. I kicked the pot over, scalding the holy man's legs, and ran out. The story passed through the city for a week — this I heard from the servants — before dying out. It was painful to recall, and I wondered why the emperor was interested.
"I visited five," I said.
"And they could do nothing for you," he said, "except mock your misfortune."
I didn't know what answer to give, so I remained silent. We reached the end of the stream.
"Have you heard the stories about the monk Theodosios?"
I nodded. Everyone had.
"Let me tell you another," the emperor said as we crossed a footbridge and started walking up the other side. "The emperor Maurice had a son named Theodosios. He was slaughtered by Phocas alongside his father, but because his head was not sent back to the city, some claim he escaped and fled to the Persians for safety." The emperor paused for a moment. He glanced up at the ceiling, to the eyes of God. Then he continued. "That story belongs to the past, and yet only a week ago one of my spies brought me a troubling report. In both Aleppo and Antioch he heard a rumor that Maurice's Theodosios and this monk are the same, and that this monk has a claim to the throne as the rightful heir."
The emperor squeezed my arm, nudged me ever so slightly toward the briars.
"It is a foolish rumor, and yet it disturbs my sleep."
"But, Emperor, surely no one would —"
At a look from Heraclius I quieted. He was at the height of his glory. He had crushed the Persian king Chosroes, regained the eastern provinces, restored the True Cross to Jerusalem, and ordered the golden saddle of the general Shahrbaraz beaten into coins for the poor. It was said that he had saved the empire, and now it would last a thousand more years. Meanwhile, Theodosios was the object of vague stories that had only recently spread to the city. He was a monk at the Monastery of the Five Holy Martyrs, in the desert between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, and was said to be a master ascetic and to have seen visions of the Holy Mother denouncing the Monophysites. He never stirred from his monastery, and as yet only a few pilgrims from Constantinople had reported seeing him — and they never spoke of the encounter except in the most general terms. The bronze likenesses of his head that merchants sold in the Mese were each unlike the other, because no one knew what he looked like, and his fame paled when compared to that of Father Eustachios, who lived at Mount Athos and allegedly spoke with the angels, or that of Severus, an Egyptian who was walking on his knees from Alexandria to our city and stopping only to deliver homilies.
What, I thought, could Heraclius fear from such a man? But then one need only consider his three predecessors, whose fates I'd studied as a child: Tiberius Constantine poisoned, Maurice made to watch the slaughter of his family before being slaughtered himself, and Phocas hanged then burned in the Bronze Bull. It seemed Heraclius had learned that most vital lesson of ruling: for an emperor, natural death is rare. All it takes is for the people to be disappointed — for the corn boats from Alexandria to sink, for the Avars to make unexpected advances on the frontier — and with a single riot, the Christ-Faithful emperor, Autocrat of all the Romans, can fall. The people only need a candidate to replace him, a candidate much like this monk Theodosios.
"You have led an aimless life," the emperor said once he saw I understood. "A life without meaning, unworthy of your father. I offer you a chance to honor him and to serve the empire. I have need of a man with no fear of holy men, a man not known as one of my spies or assassins, a man who yearns for the glory of which he has been deprived." I felt his fingers clench my arm. "I believe I have found this man," he said.
His words sank like a stone weight. But there was no time for consideration. "You have, Emperor," I said.
At that he guided me from the thorns. "I will not forget your service," he said, then touched one of the carnelian berries. The door in the wall opened.
The eunuch was waiting for me. He rushed me back through the narrow passage and whispered hurriedly in my ear. "Do not kill him," he said. "The emperor is superstitious and will not allow the death of a monk. You are to geld him, for a eunuch can never hope to be emperor." He flashed me a grim smile, then handed me a knife and a leather purse filled with coins. "You will bring back the fruits of your gelding in the purse. For this the emperor will reward you with rank and gold." We reached the courtyard just as he finished. Once there, he gave me a shove toward the waiting litter, then disappeared behind the crates. One of the slaves was holding open the litter's curtain; I signed for him to wait. The elephant I had seen when I arrived was now enraged. A gold cover had been set on one of his tusks, but the elephant had crushed the other cover with his foot and, to the delight of the crowd, was now rising on his hind legs and trumpeting as his caretakers scrambled to tame him. It was a rare spectacle, and even in my state I thought it worth a moment's pause.
WHEN I TOLD MY MOTHER the emperor had trusted me with a commission, she fell to her knees and kissed my hem, swearing she would pray each day in the Church of the Holy Wisdom for my success. I fled to my chamber and prepared to leave. I saw no reason to wait. Rather, I was eager to have the thing done. Rattled from my meeting with Heraclius, I seemed unable to loose the tangle of thoughts that had taken possession of me since our stroll in the Golden Meadow. There was insult: this was an executioner's task, the kind you hire a wretch from the streets to accomplish. And there was fear: where would I begin, how would I bring myself to castrate a man? But twisted among these, growing like a summer vine, was pride. At last I could do something worthy, at last I could, in my way, serve the empire like my father. I sailed that very night, using the emperor's gold to buy passage on a Cretan trader, and all during the voyage I stayed in my cabin and practiced. I wrestled with a sack of grain, cut at slabs of meat with the knife. As the ship rocked and the sack lurched, I trained myself to pin it with my lame hand.
My regimen was not perfect, but by the time I landed at Caesarea I felt I had become, if not expert, adequate to the emperor's task. I purchased three donkeys and spent the day loading them with provisions, then joined a caravan for Jerusalem. Once we reached the city, still in ruins from the Persian occupation, I stopped only to take a meal. Let it be finished, I thought, and that night I hired a guide and set out for the desert.
I ARRIVED AT THE Monastery of the Five Holy Martyrs at noon the next day. The monastery, a collection of paths and caves and small stone buildings, lay scattered along the side of a dry ravine, and as soon as I rounded the last bend, a monk came running down from its tower. He intercepted me and introduced himself as Brother Sergios. He was young, just out of boyhood — his blond eyes and smooth skin would have caused a stir in the baths — and it was his task, he told me, to aid visitors.
Excerpted from Byzantium by Ben Stroud. Copyright © 2013 Ben Stroud. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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