EXCERPT FROM ‘THE ROAD TO ALEXANDER’
Alexander couldn’t get over it. My itchy linen robe had been the very finest quality, thanks to the machine that wove it, but my shoes had been a dismal failure and he was disappointed in the god’s choice of footwear.
I tried to explain that the gods had nothing to do with my sandals but fell asleep in the middle of my sentence. It wasn’t that important anyway, I thought.
There was a new pair of sandals on the rug the next morning. They fitted perfectly. My old ones had disappeared, and I didn’t find out where they’d gone until I went into the village and passed by the temple. There, on the altar, were my sandals.
Fresh flowers, a bowl of warm milk, and a small snail made of clay surrounded them. A young girl in temple robes sat next to them murmuring a prayer. I tried to speak to her in Greek, but she didn’t understand me. I pursed my lips and went to find Nassar. Maybe he could explain.
Nassar was writing a letter for a tough-looking soldier. They were both sitting on a mat made of reeds, and every once in a while Nassar would throw his pen away and break off a reed. He would sharpen it quickly with his teeth and I realized with a small start that his front teeth had been carefully cut at a bias to trim reeds into pens. It was interesting and I resolved to have him explain how it was done. He dipped the reed into a little clay pot of ink and wrote on a rather cheap piece of papyrus. A dozen rolled-up letters were lying beside him, each one flattened and sealed with a blob of wax. He’d been busy all morning. When he finished the letter he rolled it up, tied it with a piece of grass and sealed it with hard wax. Then he flattened the whole thing with his fist, wrote the address on the outside, and placed it on top of the pile.
“Next?” he called out in his nasal voice.
“Good morning, Nassar,” I said as I approached.
He held his arms up in a stiff salute and then bowed, touching his forehead to the mat. “Hail Demeter’s daughter,” he intoned.
“Don’t do that!” I was upset. “Who told you that, anyway?”
“Oh, everyone knows,” he said smugly.
“Well, I’d like you to come to the temple with me to see about a pair of shoes,” I said.
“Oh! The Sacred Sandals! I should be honored! May I touch them, oh daughter of Demeter?”
I closed my eyes and counted to ten. “They aren’t sacred sandals,” I said. “And of course you can touch them. There’s been a mistake.”
“They weren’t your sandals? The captain of the guards took them to the shoemaker early this morning to have a copy made in leather and gave the originals to the temple. It is not a coincidence that the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, guards this town. It was why you were sent here. Now that Iskander has rescued you, the harvest is sure to be fantastic this year.”
“But isn’t the village protected by Ishtar?”
“It was, but it’s becoming Hellenicised. Now it has adopted Demeter, goddess of the harvest, because of what Iskander said last night in his speech.”
“His speech? What did he say?”
“You should have asked me to translate,” he said, reproach in his voice. “He said he was glad to be there and that he hoped the play would be entertaining, that he and his soldiers were very happy in the village, and he was honored everyone had made them feel so welcome, and how the two cultures would complement each other.” Nassar took a deep breath, like a swimmer, and plunged in again. “He said that the gods of Greece were stronger than our gods so we’d do well to adopt theirs. He said you had been sent as a sign and that he’d saved you from Hades himself, so Demeter would forever be grateful. He said that as a goddess you would personally see to the welfare of the village.” He finished in a rush and smiled at me. “I’m no longer an atheist,” he said proudly. “I believe in you. Why, if I want, I can actually touch your sandals.”
I closed my eyes again and waited for the wave of pain that was sure to come. Pretending to be a goddess must rate among the three top reasons for erasing a Time-traveling journalist. After a few seconds I opened one eye, then the other. Nothing had happened. I was still sitting in front of Nassar, and he was watching me with a rapt expression on his narrow, rat-like face.
“Did your mother speak to you?” he whispered, his eyes wide.
“No. No, she didn’t. Excuse me, Nassar, but I think I’ll just go lie down. I have to think about all this.” I stood up, shivering with disquiet, and walked back to the tent where Alexander was having a game of dice with a tall man I recognized as the village priest. I wondered if I could sneak away, but they turned and saw me.
“Oh! There you are!” cried Alexander, standing up and holding out his arms. “I was worried. Did you find your new shoes? Yes, I see you did. The village priest has come to thank you for your sandals. In exchange, he has agreed to forsake all virgin sacrifices. Isn’t that wonderful? Your mother will be thrilled.”
“I’m sure she will be,” I said with the utmost truthfulness. Then I went into the tent and collapsed.