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NINE YEARS LATER. 431 BC.
THE CITY-STATE OF PLATAEA IN THE PLAINS OF THE OXLANDS.
MONTH OF AGRIONIOS (MARCH).
The fighters’ torsos were locked in place like two beams hewed and fitted by a master joiner. They leaned forward, heaving in unison, chest on chest and cheek to cheek. Both men’s fingers dug into the flesh of his opponent’s back as anchors and they struggled with bare feet to gain purchase in the deep sand of the farmyard arena.
Despite the cold evening the fighters trained naked and dog tied—the uncircumcised foreskin of their penises wrapped with a leather thong, pulled down, and knotted to the scrotum to prevent an opponent from taking hold and seizing their manhood. Their skin was coated with olive oil and sand to keep their hands from slipping on each other’s bodies. They wore thin leather boxing gloves that did little to deaden their brutal blows. They were the two best pankrators in the Oxlands. Maybe even the finest in all of Greece.
“You’re like the pig who rubs the stone for water,” growled Menesarkus. “And you’ll get no satisfaction from me,” he added, punctuating the age-old platitude with a strained grunt that escaped from his lips in a burst of vapor.
Nearly ten years had passed since he’d fought and killed Damos the Theban, and the Bull of Plataea had aged little in that time. His beard was streaked with gray, his hair was thinner, and he had gone almost completely deaf in one ear. But he was still as muscle-bound as a warrior half his age. The only outward sign of that terrible championship fight was a thick leather brace that supported his crippled knee, and the mournful cast to his dark eyes.
Nikias twisted his neck so his mouth pressed directly against one of Menesarkus’s cauliflower ears and replied playfully, “Stone-rubbing pig? Know thyself, old man,” and pushed back with all his might.
Nikias, in stark contrast to his grandfather, had altered much over the last decade. He was now taller than Menesarkus by six inches. Even though the Bull outweighed him by fifty pounds, Nikias was as hard muscled as a professional oarsman on an Athenian war galley. His hair, worn long to signify he was not yet of age, remained a golden blond. Despite his slightly crooked nose—broken three times in bouts since he was a child—his striking looks made girls and old women and everything in between swoon.
“The Old Bull and the Young Bull,” thought Menesarkus, straining to force Nikias in the opposite direction. That’s how he saw them in his mind’s eye. But right now the Old Bull was losing ground. His legs were starting to tremble. It felt as if he’d run around Plataea’s walls a dozen times.…
“Break,” hissed Saeed in his thick Eastern accent. The wiry Persian slave danced around the two pankrators, prodding them in the calves with a pointed training stick until they released their grips. Saeed’s intervention was just in time for Menesarkus, whose legs were about to buckle. He glanced at his old, faithful servant and the slender Persian smiled back.
“Fight!” barked Saeed, smacking them on the backs of their legs with his quick stick.
The men squared off, rotating their forearms so their fists bobbed and weaved. Menesarkus’s lower lip was puffed up and trickled blood. Nikias had already suffered two hard blows to the face, and one eye had nearly swelled shut.
Menesarkus had been taught by his own grandfather that Pythagoras of Samos was the first pankrator to box scientifically with set moves and feints. But Menesarkus believed that a psychological war against one’s opponent was just as important as technique. The old fighter liked to dig at his combatants until they lashed out in anger.
“You can’t beat me, Nik,” said Menesarkus. “I’ll get you in the Morpheus hold and then it’s good-bye, sun, just like always.”
Nikias had never once broken free of the hold in all their years of training and had suffered numerous blackouts for his efforts. But he’d never given up. Menesarkus admired Nikias for his persistence. And at the same time resented him for being so strong willed, a constant test to his authority. He knew the youthful fighter had the talent and physique to surpass him in skills someday. The thought was both reassuring and unsettling.
In three days Nikias would cut off his hair and burn it on the altar of Zeus with all of the other young men in Plataea turning eighteen this season. With the completion of that highly anticipated ceremony—the lad talked about it incessantly!—his grandson would officially be a man with the duty to serve as a warrior until the age of sixty-five, and the right to vote in the Assembly Hall until death.
“Maybe once you’ve burned your hair and stood in a phalanx,” suggested Menesarkus, “you’ll grow balls big enough to beat me.”
But Nikias wasn’t going to let himself be goaded. He curled back his lips. The smile of a hunting dog as it approaches a wounded boar. “You missed your calling, old man. You’ve got more lines than Euripides the playwright.”
Menesarkus felt a strange fear he’d rarely experienced in the arena. Or was it a thrill? “Could this be the day he beats me?” he thought.
Nikias threw a sweeping punch at Menesarkus’s head, a knockout blow. But the young fighter had put too much force behind it and stumbled when Menesarkus ducked aside. Menesarkus seized the moment. He jumped onto Nikias’s back, clamped his arm around his grandson’s neck, and dropped his head down low so Nikias couldn’t whip back his head and smash him in the face.
“Say good-bye to the sun, Nikias,” called out Saeed, stabbing his stick into the sand and crossing his arms on his chest. His job was done for the day.
For a moment Nikias did nothing.
“Come on, boy!” Menesarkus growled through clenched teeth. Two seconds had already passed. “Do something. This is too easy.…”
Nikias leaned forward, dug his feet into the sand of the arena, and started moving toward a storage shed a few paces away, the veins bulging at his temples, face turning bright red. Menesarkus hopped along on his one good leg, squeezing as hard as he could to stop the flow of blood to Nikias’s brain, trying to drag him down. But the young man’s legs were too strong. He made it to the shed, grabbed one of the poles supporting the overhang, twisted his body with a violent effort—sending the startled Saeed scurrying out of the way—and flung Menesarkus against the wall with the force of a bucking horse. Menesarkus winced from the blow. Nikias dragged him along the wall, using the rough stucco wall to scrape the skin off his grandfather’s back.
Menesarkus yelled in pain and relaxed his grip. Nikias broke free, pounded him in the face with his fist, and danced away, raising his arms in the air with jubilation, whooping at the top of his lungs.
“Surprised you, didn’t I?” Nikias shouted. “I’ve been planning that for a month! Now you know what the hide of the stone-rubbing pig feels like.”
Menesarkus shifted his jaw back and forth. It made a crunching sound in his ears. He felt foolish. Nikias had used his strength, his powerful legs, against Menesarkus’s weakness. He had turned the wall of the shed into a weapon. He glanced over at Saeed, who wore a stunned expression on his usually placid face. The Persian raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Clever boy.”
“The sun seems brighter,” Nikias said to Saeed, shading his brow and squinting at the sky. He cavorted like a Thrakian minstrel. “No dirt naps for me today.”
“Take him down, Master,” urged Saeed in a harsh whisper.
“Think you’re tough, Nikias?” Menesarkus limped back into the practice arena. “You beardless piece of dung.” He raised his gloves and bobbed them up and down menacingly. “Pythagoras of Samos was the first fighter to box scientifically, but—”
“Quit giving lessons!” ordered Nikias with a force that stopped Menesarkus’s words in his throat. Nikias appeared to have grown in stature. He moved slowly forward with such confidence, it seemed as if he carried an invisible shield—a shield that pushed Menesarkus backward.
“Come on, old man.” Nikias was puffed up with the thrill of having escaped the older fighter’s famous hold. “No more Pythagoras or pigs. Let’s just throw some punches.” He descended upon Menesarkus with a torrent of blows and then backed away.
Menesarkus realized, with a sinking in his gut, that he was afraid of his grandson. He did not want to fight him anymore today. He did not want to be beaten.
“What is Helladios’s daughter doing here?” asked Menesarkus angrily, pointing a stiff finger and peering across the arena toward the women’s quarters.
Nikias asked, “Where?” and whipped his head around, looking for their neighbor’s daughter. But he saw no one there. He snapped back his head to face Menesarkus, and a spray of sand from Menesarkus’s hand blinded him. It was followed by the Bull’s perfectly timed leather-clad fist, which caught him squarely on the jaw. Nikias’s knees buckled and he toppled like a dead man.
Saeed dashed across the arena and adjusted Nikias’s head to free his airway, so he would not suffocate while he was unconscious.
“Old tricks still work,” said Saeed, shaking his head at Nikias’s folly.
“He got too excited,” said Menesarkus softly. “He should have gone right for the kill when he caught me off guard.”
He stood over the prostrate body, rubbing his tingling knuckles with a lopsided smile on his face. He was suddenly aware of singing coming from the women’s quarters where his wife, widowed daughter-in-law, and granddaughter were hard at work, weaving cloth that would be sold in town. The movement of the wooden machinery sounded like percussion instruments, tapping and drumming in rhythm to the song.
Menesarkus recalled his earliest memory: lying on the floor next to his mother as she worked those same looms, watching the oil from the new-spun wool collect at the bottom of the tapestry and drip onto the dirt floor like dark dew. He was overcome by a disconcerting feeling. His heart was filled with incalculable joy mingled with profound sadness.
He could not hide from the world any longer. The pipes of war were on the wind. The Athenians and Spartans were on the verge of open conflict. And Plataea would get caught in the middle like an olive pit between two massive grinding stones. Would Nikias prove himself in battle and live to be a hero? Or die in ignominy like his father?
“Your grandson almost defeated you,” observed Saeed.
“Almost is the same as dead.” Menesarkus glanced up at the ancient olive grove on the slopes above the farm where his ancestor, the founder of the Nemean tribe, had planted them over three hundred years ago.
Hiding behind the largest tree was a stranger who had been spying on the farm for most of the day. But Menesarkus’s myopic gaze saw only gnarled limbs—twisted trunks and branches that reminded him of tired old men.
Copyright © 2013 by Noble Smith