- Published: 18 June 2019
- ISBN: 9780241983201
- Imprint: Penguin General UK
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $19.99
The Silence of the Girls
From the Booker prize-winning author of Regeneration
Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.
Swift-footed Achilles. Now there’s an interesting one. More than anything else, more than brilliance, more than greatness, his speed defined him. There’s a story that he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: ‘You can’t kill me, I’m immortal.’ ‘Ah, yes,’ Achilles replied. ‘But we both know if you weren’t immortal, you’d be dead.’
Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.
I heard him before I saw him: his battle cry ringing round the walls of Lyrnessus.
We women – children too, of course – had been told to go to the citadel, taking a change of clothes and as much food and drink as we could carry. Like all respectable married women, I rarely left my house – though admittedly in my case the house was a palace – so to be walking down the street in broad daylight felt like a holiday. Almost. Under the laughter and cheering and shouted jokes, I think we were all afraid. I know I was. We all knew the men were being pushed back – the fighting that had once been on the beach and around the harbour was now directly under the gates. We could hear shouts, cries, the clash of swords on shields – and we knew what awaited us if the city fell. And yet the danger didn’t feel real – not to me at any rate, and I doubt if the others were any closer to grasping it. How was it possible for these high walls that had protected us all our lives to fall?
Down all the narrow lanes of the city, small groups of women carrying babies or holding children by the hand were converging on the main square. Fierce sunlight, a scouring wind and the citadel’s black shadow reaching out to take us in. Blinded for a moment, I stumbled, moving from bright light into the dark. The common women and slaves were herded together into the basement while members of royal and aristocratic families occupied the top floor. All the way up the twisting staircase we went, barely able to get a foothold on the narrow steps, round and round and round until at last we came out, abruptly, into a big, bare room. Arrows of light from the slit windows lay at intervals across the floor, leaving the corners of the room in shadow. Slowly, we looked around, selecting places to sit and spread our belongings and start trying to create some semblance of a home.
At first, it felt cool but then, as the sun rose higher, it became hot and stuffy. Airless. Within a few hours, the smells of sweaty bodies, of milk, baby-shit and menstrual blood, had become almost unbearable. Babies and toddlers grew fretful in the heat. Mothers laid the youngest children on sheets and fanned them while their older brothers and sisters ran around, overexcited, not really understanding what was going on. A couple of boys – ten or eleven years old, too young to fight – occupied the top of the stairs and pretended to drive back the invaders. The women kept looking at each other, dry-mouthed, not talking much, as outside the shouts and cries grew louder and a great hammering on the gates began. Again, and again, that battle cry rang out, as inhuman as the howling of a wolf. For once, women with sons envied those with daughters, because girls would be allowed to live. Boys, if anywhere near fighting age, were routinely slaughtered. Even pregnant women were sometimes killed, speared through the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy. I noticed Ismene, who was four months pregnant with my husband’s child, pressing her hands hard into her stomach, trying to convince herself the pregnancy didn’t show.
In the past few days, I’d often seen her looking at me – Ismene, who’d once been so careful never to meet my eyes – and her expression had said, more clearly than any words: It’s your turn now. Let’s see how you like it. It hurt, that brash, unblinking stare. I came from a family where slaves were treated kindly and when my father gave me in marriage to Mynes, the king, I carried on the tradition in my own home. I’d been kind to Ismene – or I thought I had, but perhaps no kindness was possible between owner and slave, only varying degrees of brutality? I looked across the room at Ismene and thought: Yes, you’re right. My turn now.
Nobody was talking of defeat, though we all expected it. Oh, except for one old woman, my husband’s great-aunt, who insisted this falling back to the gate was a mere tactical ploy. Mynes was just playing them along, she said, leading them blindfolded into a trap. We were going to win, chase the marauding Greeks into the sea – and I think perhaps some of the younger women believed her. But then that war cry came again, and again, each time closer, and we all knew who it was, though nobody said his name.
The air was heavy with the foreknowledge of what we would have to face. Mothers put their arms round girls who were growing up fast but not yet ripe for marriage. Girls as young as nine and ten would not be spared. Ritsa leant across to me. ‘Well, at least we’re not virgins.’ She was grinning as she said it, revealing gaps in her teeth caused by long years of childbearing – and no living child to show for it. I nodded and forced a smile, but said nothing.
I was worried about my mother- in- law, who’d chosen to stay behind in the palace rather than be carried to the citadel on a litter – worried, and exasperated with myself for being worried, for if our situations had been reversed she would certainly not have cared about me. She’d been ill for a year with a disease that swelled her belly and stripped the flesh from her bones. Finally, I decided I had to go to her, at least check she had enough water and food. Ritsa would have gone with me – she was already on her feet – but I shook my head. ‘I won’t be gone a minute,’ I said.
Outside, I took a deep breath. Even at that moment, with the world about to explode and cascade down around my ears, I felt the relief of breathing untainted air. Dusty and hot – it scorched the back of my throat – but still smelling fresh after the foetid atmosphere of the upstairs room. The quickest route to the palace was straight across the main square, but I could see arrows scattered in the dust and even as I watched one soared over the walls and stuck, quivering, in a pile of dirt. No, better not risk it. I ran down a side street so narrow the houses towering over me let in scarcely any light. Reaching the palace walls, I entered through a side gate that must have been left unlocked when the servants fled. Horses whickered from the stables on my right. I crossed the courtyard and ran quickly along a passage that led into the main hall.
It seemed strange to me, the huge, lofty room with Mynes’ throne at the far end. I’d first entered this room on my marriage day, carried from my father’s house on a litter, after dark, surrounded by men holding blazing torches. Mynes, with his mother, Queen Maire, by his side, had been waiting to greet me. His father had died the year before, he had no brothers and it was vital for him to get an heir. So he was being married, far younger than men expect to marry, though no doubt he’d already worked his way round the palace women and thrown in a few stable lads for relish along the way. What a disappointment I must have been when, finally, I climbed down from the litter and stood, trembling, as the maids removed my mantle and veils: a skinny little thing, all hair and eyes and scarcely a curve in sight. Poor Mynes. His idea of female beauty was a woman so fat if you slapped her backside in the morning she’d still be jiggling when you got back home for dinner. But he did his best, every night for months, toiling between my less-than-voluptuous thighs as willingly as a carthorse in the shafts, but when no pregnancy resulted he quickly became bored and reverted to his first love: a woman who worked in the kitchens and who, with a slave’s subtle mixture of fondness and aggression, had taken him into her bed when he was only twelve years old.
Even on that first day, I looked at Queen Maire and knew I had a fight on my hands. Only it was not just one fight, it was a whole bloody war. By the time I was eighteen I was the veteran of many long and bitter campaigns. Mynes seemed entirely unaware of the tension, but then in my experience men are curiously blind to aggression in women. They’re the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don’t seem to see our battles – or they prefer not to. Perhaps if they realized we’re not the gentle creatures they take us for their own peace of mind would be disturbed?
If I’d had a baby – a son – everything would have changed, but at the end of a year I was still wearing my girdle defiantly tight until at last Maire, made desperate by her longing for a grandchild, pointed at my slim waist and openly jeered. I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t become ill. She’d already selected a concubine from one of the ruling families; a girl who, although not lawfully married, would have become queen in all but name. But then, Maire’s own belly began to grow. She was still just young enough for there to be ripples of scandal. Whose is it? everybody was asking. She never left the palace except to pray at her husband’s tomb! But then she began to turn yellow and lose weight and kept to her own rooms most of the time. Without her to drive them, the negotiations over the sixteen-year-old concubine faltered and died. This was my opportunity, the first I’d had, and I seized it. Soon, all the palace officials who’d been loyal to her were answering to me. And the palace was no worse run than it had been when she was in power. More efficiently, if anything.
I stood in the centre of the hall, remembering these things and the palace that was normally so full of noise – voices, clattering pans, running feet – stretched out all around me as quiet as a tomb. Oh, I could still hear the clash of battle from outside the city walls but, rather like the intermittent humming of a bee on a summer’s evening, the sound seemed merely to intensify the silence.
I’d have liked to stay there in the hall or, even better, go out into the inner courtyard and sit under my favourite tree, but I knew Ritsa would be worrying about me and so I went slowly up the stairs and along the main corridor to my mother- in- law’s room. The door creaked as I opened it. The room was in semi-darkness; Maire kept the blinds closed, whether because the light hurt her eyes or because she wished to hide her changed appearance from the world, I didn’t know. She had been a very beautiful woman – and I’d noticed a few weeks before that the precious bronze mirror that had formed part of her dowry was nowhere to be seen.
A movement on the bed. A pale face turned towards me in the gloom.
‘Who is it?’
Immediately, the face turned away. That wasn’t the name she’d been hoping for. She’d become rather fond of Ismene, who was supposed to be carrying Mynes’ baby – and probably was, though given the lives slaves lead it’s not always possible to know who a child’s father is. But in these last few desperate weeks and months that child had become Maire’s hope. Yes, Ismene was a slave, but slaves can be freed, and if the child were to be a boy . . .
I went further into the room. ‘Do you have everything you need?’
‘Yes.’ Not thinking about it, just wanting me to go.
She glanced at her bedside table. I went round the bed and picked up the jug, which was almost full. I poured her a large cup then went to refill the jug from a bowl of water in the corner furthest from the door. Warm, stale water with a film of dust on the top. I plunged the jug deep and took it across to the bed. Four sharp slits of light lay across the red-and-purple rug beneath my feet, bright enough to hurt my eyes, though the bed was in near-darkness.
She was struggling to sit up. I held the cup to her lips and she drank greedily, her wasted throat jerking with every gulp. After a while, she raised her head and I thought she’d had enough, but she made a little mew of protest when I tried to take the cup away. When at last she’d finished, she wiped her mouth delicately on a corner of her veil. I could feel her resenting me because I’d witnessed her thirst, her helplessness.
I straightened the pillows behind her head. As she bent forward her spine was shockingly visible under the pallid skin. You lift spines like that out of cooked fish. I lowered her gently on to the pillows and she let out a sigh of contentment. I smoothed the sheets, every fold of linen releasing smells of old age, illness . . . Urine too. I was angry. I’d hated this woman so fiercely for so long – and not without cause. I’d come into her house as a fourteen-year-old girl, a girl with no mother to guide her. She could’ve been kind to me and she wasn’t; she could’ve helped me find my feet and she didn’t. I had no reason to love her, but what made me angry at that moment was that in allowing herself to dwindle until she was nothing more than a heap of creased flesh and jutting bone, she’d left me with so very little to hate. Yes, I’d won, but it was a hollow victory – and not just because Achilles was hammering on the gate.
‘There is something you could do for me.’ Her voice was high, clear and cold. ‘You see that chest?’
I could, though only just. An oblong of heavy, carved oak, squatting on its own shadow at the foot of the bed.
‘I need you to get something.’
Raising the heavy lid, I released a fusty smell of feathers and stale herbs. ‘What am I looking for?’
‘There’s a knife. No, not on the top – underneath . . . Can you see it?’
I turned to look at her. She stared straight back at me, not blinking, not lowering her gaze.
The knife was tucked in between the third and fourth layer of bedclothes. I drew it from its sheath and the sharp blade winked wickedly up at me. This was far from being the small, ornamental knife I’d been expecting to find, the kind rich women use to cut their meat. It was the length of a man’s ceremonial dagger and must surely have belonged to her husband. I carried it across to her and placed it in her hands. She looked down at it, fingering the encrusted jewels on the hilt. I wondered for a moment if she was going to ask me to kill her and how I would feel if she did, but no, she sighed and set the knife to one side.
Easing herself a little higher in the bed, she said, ‘Have you heard anything? Do you know what’s happening?’
‘No. I know they’re close to the gates.’ I could pity her then, an old woman – because illness had made her old – dreading to be told her son was dead. ‘If I do hear anything, of course I’ll let you know . . .’
She nodded, dismissing me. When I got to the door I paused with my hand on the latch and looked back, but she’d already turned away.
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