The Devil does enjoy his little jokes.
The toe of a boot, kicking me in the side, the butt of a spear jabbing me between the shoulder blades, woke me. A voice, barking commands at me in a language I did not recognize. Cold water rolling over me, retreating. I opened my eyes.
I lay on a beach, facedown in the mud. My legs were still in the water. The incoming waves threatened to drag me back into their embrace as they receded. I coughed up curses with the salty seawater. Still alive.
Another kick. I got my knees under me. I recognized no more about the men surrounding me than I did their language. Swarthy, hairy men with great mustaches and beards, leather tunics and skirts, carrying spears or short swords, knives strapped to their belts. Some wore bracelets or armlets of a metal which might have been gold, necklaces, rings on their fingers, these accouterments being incongruous with the men’s rough, disheveled appearances.
“Where am I?” I managed to speak, hoping the men would understand Greek. One of them at least did, for he replied: “You belong to us now, little fish. Get up!”
A pair of the men hauled me to my feet. My legs protested but held my weight. I had set sail how long ago? How many days had passed?
A jab from the spear butt got me to walking, ahead of and flanked by my captors. These cackled and made jokes in their language, jokes directed at me, I could tell, by the looks they gave me or their pointing at me. I think it for the best that I could not understand any of their words.
Surely not much time had passed. My legs were still twitchy. I had sailed out, a boy who had never even seen the sea before, and my legs had never adjusted to being on a ship. They felt, as I marched, as though the ground beneath my feet were swaying and unstable, like the boards of a ship riding on the waves. I could still hear the creaking of the ship’s timbers in my head, the snap of its sails when the wind hit them. No, I reasoned, only a day or two, three at most, could have passed for these memories to remain so fresh in my mind and flesh.
I had waited until we were far from the nearest land, out between Greece and the Egyptian coast, as near as I could reckon to the very center of the Mediterranean, to cast myself overboard under cover of night. I remembered drowning, an awful experience. Drowning, but not dying. I had somehow gotten to land. At all other times I could remember my actions while in the form of the Doghead, but not on those occasions when I tried to destroy myself, and I figured I must have transformed, there in the water. With its existence on the line, the beast had asserted itself, even with the moon only half full; such is the power of evil, it would seem, when it is desperate. Beyond that I do not know how I, or rather it, had survived so long in the sea. I suppose it swam the hundreds of miles to shore.
I did not know. I did not care, if I am honest. I lived, where I had sought the release of death. Nothing else mattered to me. I accepted at that point the fact that, no matter what I might do, I could not die. I could not kill the beast.
“Where am I?” I asked again. When I received no answer I surveyed my surroundings as if I might find an answer there. Fool. Did this place, with its narrow strip of beach stretching as far to the right or left as I could see, or the forest of scraggly, stunted trees that I and the men approached, also disappearing into the distance on both sides, bear any distinguishing characteristic that would tell me where I now found myself? Had I reached Egypt? I had no idea what Egypt might look like. Had I been returned to my native Greece? Had I reached some unknown island? I could, I realized in that moment, be anywhere at all.
“I know you can understand me,” I said to the man who had earlier spoken to me in Greek. “At least tell me where I am.”
“Hell!” he cackled.
“Then you are Pluto?” I said, which elicited another guffaw. “The sun shines rather bright here in Tartarus,” I said.
“For you this is Hell,” the man said.
I took a guess at the identities of my captors. “You are Berbers?” I said.
“We are the Marmorca, little fish,” the man said, “and we are your masters!”
Some barbarian tribe, then, which meant I had washed up on the coast somewhere to the west of Egypt. I was a prisoner now, with a lifetime of slavery to look forward to.
No. I doubted that.
I do not think there are words that will come close to conveying to you, reader, the mental state in which I found myself at this point. Despair is not a strong enough term. There is a state beyond despair wherein apathy takes hold and one is borne along, yes, as a drowned man on the waves, helpless to affect any change in his condition and too tired, too sick in the soul to try. This is how I felt. I let the barbarians, these Marmorca, take me where they wanted. I did not, even in my thoughts, resist them.
I would serve as no slave. Not to them. I carried a far worse fate. Let them lay claim to me. It didn’t matter. They wouldn’t keep me.
I had no idea how much time had passed. But I knew not much remained until the next full moon.