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Part I

AD 517 527

I am She whom one honors and disdains. I am the Saint and the prostitute. I am the virgin and the wife. I am knowledge and I am ignorance. I am strength and I am fear I am Godless and I am the Greatness of God.
fif t h-cen t u ry A D Gnos t ic h y m n f r o m N a g - H a m m a d i, E g y p t

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Chapter 1
Twenty-sixth year of the reign of Emperor Anastasius

y life began the night death visited our house. I lay on the straw pallet with my sisters and listened to Comito grinding her teeth and Anastasia breathing evenly in the dark. An animal snorted in the distanceprobably the scraggly new bear Father had acquired to train for the Greens, a beast scarcely fit for the spectacle of the Hippodrome. I scratched my stomach and poked Comito, none too gently. The fleas were bad tonight, and Constantinoples sticky heat made the stench of the nearby garbage heap especially pungent. I missed our old home in Cyprus, the salty smell of the Mediterranean, and the cicadas buzzing amidst the olive trees. Our ramshackle house near Constantinoples amphitheater could scarcely compare. There was a shuffle in the darkpossibly a ratbut then my father grunted. Quiet, Acacius. My mother giggled. Youll wake the girls. She gave a little moan as I snuggled into Anastasias bare back, hoping for more dreams like last nights fantasy of roasted goat with mint yogurt. Comito claimed I had made cow eyes at the butchers son
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when Mother sent us to collect our monthly grain ration earlier today, but in truth I was more impressed with the fresh leg of goat hanging from his stall than the cut of his calves under his tunica. It seemed like years since wed had meat. Acacius. My mothers voice woke me, the same tone she used when my father came home after too much wine at the Boars Eye. There was another sound, a thud like a sack of flour hitting the ground. Acacius! Mama? I opened my eyes. My father was facedown on their pallet, arms crumpled like twigs under his bulk. My mother struggled to move him. Help me, Theodora. The chipped mosaic blossoms scraped my knee as I helped shove him to his back. Anastasia whimpered in the moonlight. Cold sweat covered my fathers skin as he opened and closed his mouth like a mackerel freshly pulled from the Bosphorus, fingers plucking the neck of his tunica. My mother clutched his hand to her chest. You stay right here, Acacius. She rifled through a little cedar box with her free hand, the one with our scant supply of spices and medicines. Willow bark and chamomile filled my nose as Comito rubbed her eyes and Anastasia crawled into my lap, thumb in her mouth and her wooden doll tucked tight under her arm. It squinted at me through its charcoal smudge of an eye. My father looked from me to Mama to my sisters, and his tongue lurched in his mouth, as if he were trying to speak. Death has many sounds, the shrieks of men crushed by a chariot in the Hippodrome, the final rattle of ancient lungs, or the gentle sigh of a child ravaged by creeping sickness. My giant of a father only gurgled like an infant and then went still. We sat in silence for a moment. Then my mother screamed and pummeled my father with tiny fists, dusting his chest with the yellow ash of crushed herbs. No! Tears streamed down her face. No! Get up!
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She collapsed to his chest, golden curls covering him like a burial shroud as her body heaved with sobs. Departing this life in the throes of passion is as good a way to go as any, but I could not fathom my father greeting Saint Peter now. I clung to Anastasia as my tears fell into her hair. Dont be sad, Dora. She traced my cheeks with fingers still sticky from the honeyed kopton wed eaten before bed, but her chin wobbled as my mother wailed louder. My little sister slid from my lap and touched Mamas shoulder, but she jerked back as Comito added her voice to the howls. I pulled Anastasia to me and tucked us into the crook of my fathers arm, savoring his fleeting warmth. My father was dead. Never again would he carry Anastasia on his shoulders to see the zebras before a show, or tease Comito until the tips of her ears turned red. He would never wrap me in an elephant hug that smelled of the wild rosemary he constantly chewed and the ever-present animal musk that clung to his skin, even after hed just come home from the baths. I dont know how long we listened to one anothers tears, but his body grew stiff and clammy before I could rouse myself. He would have to be buried soon, before his flesh began to decay. I touched my mothers back, but she jerked away as if stung, still draped over my father. The sun will rise soon. I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand. We have to purify him. She stumbled to her feet, hair veiling her eyes. No. I wont. Her hands fluttered in the air. I cant. She slammed the door behind her, followed by a surly thump on our ceiling from the Syrian neighbors above. Raucous laughter from a nearby taverna floated to our apartment, the high trill of a woman and throaty baritone of the man who had likely paid for her services for the night. I stared at the shaft of silvery light that had swallowed my
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mother, torn between the urge to follow her or stay with my fathers body. What should we do? Comito wiped her puffy eyes. She was older than me by two years but looked far younger in the moonlight. Anastasia sucked her thumb and reached out to touch our fathers cheek with her little hand. It was more than I could bear. Go. Gather flowers. Its dark out. Comito hated the darkshe still liked to fall asleep with an olive oil lamp burning, although she claimed it was for Anastasia. I pressed a frayed basket to her hand as Anastasia whimpered. The lion will eat us if we go outside, she said, her eyes big as plums. I would have laughedmy father had been telling Anastasia myths from the Golden Age, most recently acting out the story of the Nemean Lion falling from the full moonbut instead I blinked hard and tweaked her nose. Silly goose, Heracles slew the lion. Youll be perfectly safe. I bent down to whisper in her ear. And youre much scarier than any lion when you growl. She bared her teeth and made claws with her hands, her little mouth opening in an adorable roar. I swallowed hard and dropped a kiss on her head. Help Comito pick a pretty posy. And find Uncle Asterius. My voice quavered as I spoke to Comito. He needs to bring a priest. They left and I was alone. I shouldnt have been alonethis was my mothers job. I didnt know how to prepare a body, how to purify my father so he could pass to the afterlife. But there was no one else. My hands trembled as I struck the flame for our oil lamp and rummaged through our lone trunk, past my fathers ivory backgammon set with its missing piece and the worn codex of Homers Song of Ilium. I tossed out her saffron wedding veil before I finally I found what I was looking fora single bottle of olive oil pressed from our own trees in Cyprus. I tried not to cry but had to set the bottle down to wipe the
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stream of snot and tears from my face. Once started, I couldnt seem to stop. I didnt hear my mother return until she gathered me into her arms, the hot smell of wine on her breath as she pressed her lips to my forehead. Together we readied my fathershe washed his body and redressed him in his green tunica, and my uneven stitches sewed him into his brown cloak until only his face and the splayed toes of his feet showed, the better to allow the angels to examine him and determine his fitness for paradise. He looked asleep, and I prayed that he might sit up and roar with laughter because wed fallen for another of his jokes. Yet God was deaf to my prayers. Myrrh choked the air and the sun had almost heaved itself over the horizon when Comito arrived with a priest and Uncle Asterius, Anastasia asleep in his arms with her thumb tucked in her mouth. He wasnt really our uncle, but our fathers boss. As leader of the Green faction, he was also one of Constantinoples most powerful politicians. He draped an arm around my mother. You have my deepest condolences, Zenobia. He crooned something in her ear that made her blanch white, but then she looked at us and gave a terse nod. Uncle Asterius swept me into a hug that smelled of the lavender used to sweeten his linen. Poor child, he said. Everything is going to be all right. Even then, I knew that to be a lie. The funeral began in the thin morning light as Uncle Asterius bleary-eyed slaves hefted the greenwood coffin onto their shoulders, my fathers circus whip and pitchfork nestled beside him. Yawning shopkeepers crossed themselves as we made our way to the cedarlined path that led to the cemetery outside the Gate of Charisios. The air stunk like rotting fish, compliments of the nearby garos factories, forced outside the city walls with their vats of fermenting fish sauce. The flowers my sisters had picked on the banks of the Lycus River daisies, blue crocuses, violets, and scraggly yellow poppieshad
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already begun to wilt over the sides of the box, and the calm hymns of the lone priest battled with the mournful dirges sung by a professional mourner paid for by Uncle Asterius. We recited a truncated version of the Divine Liturgy and each kissed the rough wooden cross the priest held over the coffin before accepting a square of dry bread and a sip of phouska, the watery, sour wine only the poor would drink. My mothers hands trembled violently as she struggled to cut a lock of my fathers hair, and the tears ran unchecked down her cheeks. I took the knife from her. I stared at the blade and ran my thumb down its edge, transfixed by the pearl of blood that dropped onto my fathers rough brown shroud. One swift cut and I could join him, free myself from griefs jagged teeth. Two dark eyes stopped me. Anastasia wiped her nose on her sleeve and took my hand in her little one, kissing the tip of my thumb above the blood. You hurt yourself, Dora. Are you going to die, too? I shook my head, the words tangled in my throat. It would be cowardly to abandon my family. I had many faults Comito was always quick to point out my temper and snitch on me when I liedbut I wasnt a coward. Family was all we had. I managed to cut a lock of my fathers dark hair, identical to my own, and folded it into my palm, mingling my blood with the black strands. My mother fell to her knees and refused to rise long after the slaves tucked him into the red earth. We were alone in Constantinople no money squirreled away under a pallet and no way to provide for ourselves. Id have promised God anything then to have our old lives back. Unfortunately, our new lives were just beginning. The food in our cupboard finally ran out a week later. Id picked the weevils from our bag of barley flourit was still a quarter full and we were entitled to a free bread ration at one of the citys public bakeries,
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