Every Friday, 1 creative, letting their work speak for itself.
Rulers and Fools
Men say the gods are fickle creatures, yet Hannibal has held their favour since we survived the Alps. I named the elephant Barca. Some might call it an insult to Hannibal’s bloodline. Others would say it was the vanity of man; they’d say a beast of such fortitude deserves a divine title. So, I guard the name, like a secret desire.
The elephant is fed before the horses, before the warriors. Ba’al help me if I scavenged a single scrap; if caught, my hands would be removed. Hannibal claims no other was as skilled as I. The African elephants with their titan ears towered over Barca. They blazed white fury in the roll of their eyes, and created chaos in their stampede. All are dead now, along with their trainers. None possessed the heart of Barca.
By day, I manage the elephant. By night, I bed Anna: a camp follower whose master, I assume is dead. She told me her name was Anna, but perhaps offered me a word simple to speak. It’s a comfort to know I can summon her easily; I like to think that was her intention.
She stoops under her shawl and shuffles like a turtle across sand. If the Celts see her replenishing her urn, they push her away from the water hole until they’ve taken their fill. She shrugs and says she’s fortunate to receive only the ends of their boots. They believe she is an old woman because of how she moves; perhaps they believe she is a seer, to have survived the mountain pass. Anyway, they do not bother her.
She says I’m not like the other men. She doesn’t mind about the scar, where I was burnt as a boy. It makes one side of my face appear like an old man, and certainly twenty-seven summers is ripened for the battle ground. Soon I will fit my skin. I wonder why she comes to me without demanding coin. She says I have gentle hands and she knows why the elephant trusts me.
In early summer we moved south from Picenum, seized a large army supply at Cannae, and claimed a great victory. Word of our success spread like malaria. Rome’s allies turned to slush, as if melting from the peaks of the Alps when the sun triumphs. Things have never been so good, spirits never so high. Food and water are plenty. The land is warm and the cypress trees tall, but they bow to a breeze chased from the Adriatic.
Some say Hannibal is a god. But when he comes to inspect the elephant, he swears and spits and stinks just like any other man.
And yet, He has done the impossible. He has brought us to the gates of Rome, and we’ll prize open those gates before winter can freeze the lake. We long to bathe in the rose water baths and spend our days gambling on gladiatorial contests. We fantasise over backing favoured teams in chariot races. There is talk of riches beyond measure and comfort beyond belief. Once we enter.
Rumour travels in half-told stories: Scipio has not recovered from the last encounter. Hannibal will not allow anyone to suggest the general lingers. He says remarks like that will be our path to disaster. He doesn’t like to tempt the fates. The last man who dared speak it aloud has welts across his back as deep as the Styx. Hannibal keeps his eye fixed on Rome. But I wonder, is his vision half as strong?
“So, we will finally see the city that has tried, and failed to rule the world,” I say to Anna, whispering as if it might be a fitting tribute to our lovemaking. I’ve spoken similar words each night for the past moon. For once, Anna does not roll towards me and rub my shoulders as if in tacit agreement. She leans on her elbows and props her head into her hands. Her hair unfolds like a robe and partially conceals her face.
“You think he will open the gates of the city, Esdras?”
Her eyes dance a tease; her question is an insult to my master.
I shift from her and sit upright. “You think he will not?”
She smiles and looks as if my question is a threadbare fable told too many times by old men who watch everything and do nothing. Perhaps the Celts are right, perhaps she is a seer?
I look off with a frown. “Have you been listening to those who would doubt him? If you’ve heard of something that will thwart us, speak it.”
She runs her fingers down my face; her skin feels smooth and wintry. How does she stay cool in this place where the earth is dried to dust?
“I was forced here by a master, now dead. I keep my face cloaked and share my bed with a man who serves an elephant and a god. I speak to no one but you, my love. No one speaks to me, except for the camp whores, and who listens to them?”
“Why then, do you question him? You think he will not give us the city after we have endured so much, followed him so far?”
She pauses and shakes her head as if ordering her thoughts. “It is not about endurance or loyalty, Esdras, it’s about what we do when dreams are sated. Have you ever wanted something so much it haunts you day and night, drives your every thought, and becomes a part of every action?”
I think about my devotion to the elephants and my quest to keep them alive. I think about waiting for Anna each night. When I was fifteen, the first woman I bedded was a whore with whom I thought I was in love. One night she stole my belongings and never returned. Soon after, I was captured in battle, and ever since I’ve served the needs of others. “No,” I say.
“Hannibal has dreamt of this moment for his entire life. He has planned and sacrificed, suffered and fought, and now he is so close to his dream, he can taste it.” She licks her lips.
“I do not see…”
“Shh,” she presses a slender finger to my mouth. “I am Numidian, taken into service at twelve by a Carthage nobleman, and bought by a warrior eight years later who wanted a woman to warm his war bed. I am mother to three dead babies. I have thought of nothing but escape since the day of my capture. Now my master is dead, what keeps me bound to Hannibal’s army day after day? What ties me to this life?”
She has never revealed her history, never given any clue as to her past. I want the reason for her delay to be me so badly I am unable to utter a word.
“Hannibal will not enter the city,” she says. “For what is left once this act is achieved?”
With faltering speech I confess my own longings, “Sometimes I imagine owning a farm and a woman, and of raising sons, of living a calm life: life without war.” But escape is a foreign word to me.
She moves her hands along my shoulders, kneading her fingers into my neck. “Men and their ownership. It is easy to yearn for peace during times of conflict,” she says.
I slosh the water and thrust the bucket into the air, spray arcs onto Barca’s back. His ears flap and his head nods in approval. The sun sinks, but the day isn’t done with its heat. The grass is a patchwork crisp of brown and white, impossible to move over without sound.
“Sir?” I kneel.
Hannibal usually comes with an entourage. His robe is creased and split open to the waist. A loose binding retains his dagger behind a leather belt. He hasn’t bothered with a sword. I catch the dry fruit of wine on his breath, and his cheeks are shadowed.
“Get up,” he says.
He smiles at the elephant, and brings a hand to Barca’s leg, slapping it in affection. “I’m going to name him Shahar – he has earned it.”
Barca was the one elephant in the herd never named. Believed inferior to the African giants, he was overlooked from the outset, except by me.
“God of dawn,” I say. “It’s a fine name, Sir.” But he’ll remain Barca to me.
“Shahar is healthy and strong.” Now he looks at me rather than the elephant.
I blink and bow my head. “Once in the city, he can be treated like a god as well as named as one,” I say.
“Yes, yes.” He waves a hand and stares off in the direction of Rome.
“Should I begin preparations to leave, Sir?”
He keeps staring off, trancelike. “Very soon,” he murmurs. He shakes his head as if waking. He touches my shoulder and for once, I don’t flinch. “Everyone is eager to see beyond the walls.” He pauses and stares off again.
Then he turns his back to the city and marches off in the direction from which he came.
Dusk descends and mosquitos invade the air. I continue to attend to Barca until the heat subsides.
Very soon. His words. His promise.
What keeps me bound to Hannibal’s army day after day?
I imagine a farm and a family. I dare to dream it.
And I see a wedge of land the size of…of the price of an elephant.
“Esdras, this is not what I meant.” Anna snatches her arm from my grip.
“Come,” I say. “There is no reason to stay. Come with me.”
“Desert? Steal his elephant? They will cut you to pieces when they catch you.”
“They won’t catch us. Come.”
She shakes her head at my outstretched hand and withdraws into the tent until all I can see are the whites of her eyes.
“Are you frightened? We can’t lose each other, not now…”
She doesn’t speak for a long time. I can hear her breath funnelling in shallow traces. Her voice when it comes is thick, and soft, and firm. “It is not my fear, Esdras. You cannot lose what you never had. Ba’al be with you, if you are brave or fool enough to go.”
She turns away, or shuts her eyes because the whites disappear into the darkness.
Her refusal weighs like a stone in my gut.
Barca is easy to persuade. I guide him from the camp before dawn reveals guards, sloppy at their posts, and before my betrayal is exposed. I swear I’ll never look back.
Later, I catch rumour of how Hannibal’s allies scattered, sensing his loss of focus. Then Scipio turned his attention to Carthage. So I slipped from my master’s notice as easily as conquest from his sight.
I exchange Barca for a patch of land near the edge of the Danubius. I marry a sturdy woman of Celtic descent, who promises to bear me many strong sons. She ran an eye over the rich soil as she spoke. She says dreams are for rulers and fools. I father two daughters and long for a son. My joints grate in the day and ache at night. I tell my daughters stories of the past as if my soldier’s life is another man’s existence.
But at night when the stars could be the eyes of the gods, when I’m alone, and my family sleeps. I dream of snow and hunger on the mountain pass; of dark, sweet nights with Anna. And I dream of rocky trails, which never led to rose water baths.
I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember. Many wing their way back to the recesses of my laptop and await further coffee-fuelled sessions of juggling words. Some of my short stories have found homes in the pages of magazines and anthologies, or in various corners of the internet, and a few have won prizes. I enjoy reading and creating flash fiction and tweet-length stories. But much of my time is spent as door-person and arbitrator to two wannabe tigers. www.shirleygolden.net @shirl1001
On Monday you will find some more Found Poetry posted up from the foundlings: Kate Garrett, Lydia Allison, James Giddings and Joanna Lee. And if you’d like to have a Weekend Showcase or take part in a collaboration do get in touch via the contact form on the What’s On page or by @ArtiPeeps. Thank you for your interest.