Sinners and the Sea
CHAPTER 1 A MARKED AND NAMELESS GIRL
They say it is the mark of a demon. When I was a child, none took their chances by coming close to me, and certainly no one touched me. It looks as if a large man dipped his palm in wine and pressed it to my forehead above my left eye.
After I was born, the midwife seized the afterbirth and rubbed it over the mark. Then the afterbirth was buried, so that when it decayed, the mark would disappear too. But the mark grew darker. By my second year it had gone from red to purple.
My father tried every known remedy. He anointed it daily with olive oil, rubbed it with a sheep’s hoof, even offered the gods the smallest finger on his left hand to take it away. But the gods did not accept his finger. They dulled the heat of the fire he set to send it up to them so that it only smoked and did not burn.
He had not named me for fear it would be too easy then for
people to talk and spread lies, and he was glad of this when the gods would not hear his plea.
There was not another tent within fifty cubits of my father’s. So as not to catch my affliction through their gazes, when people hurried past to catch an errant sheep or child, they looked at me out of the corner of one eye or not at all. Once a man four tents away chased his goat to only a few cubits from my father’s land, then stopped suddenly when he saw me at the cookfire and ran back in the direction he had come.
The goat was never seen again. It was thought that I had changed it into a newborn, the one who was left outside the midwife’s tent one night. Rocks were tied to the newborn’s hands and feet, and he was taken to the Nile.
After this, pregnant women sometimes went to stay with tribesmen in other villages so they would not accidentally see me and have their own child marked in some way. I thought perhaps they also feared that looking at me was a death sentence. My father had told me that my own mother had choked to death a year after I was born. Pregnant women, being the most superstitious of all people, likely thought it was me who sealed her throat around the goat meat.
While I could not tell you what the people of my father’s village looked like up close, the traders were different. They did not fear the mark so greatly. They ventured from the cities along the Nile to haggle with my father for his olives. They brought fruit, nuts, honey, spices, incense, and every kind of grain. They brought flattery, promises, lies, and wine to make my father believe them. He pretended to entertain thoughts of buying large quantities of
grain to store in case of a famine, and wool and salted meat in case all the sheep died of the plague that had first fed upon people very young and old, even upon men and women who had been strong only half a moon before their deaths. What he really wanted from them was stories, thinking one might instruct him in how I could be saved.
The traders squatted around our cookfire and let me serve them. But if I accidentally brushed against one as I went around filling their bowls with goat stew and lentils, the man would jump up, curse, and sometimes run to wash himself where I had touched him. One trader even burned his tunic. So I was careful, because I loved to listen to their tales of other places, imagining one of them might be a place where I would not be thought so strange and dangerous.
The traders only spoke of one town with fear: Sorum, Town of Women. It was also known as the Town of Exiles. Though some traders would not venture there, many were their stories of Sorum. It was a town of whores and exiles, people whose foreheads were branded with the X of the banished. Unlike the protective mark that the God of Adam had put upon Cain, the marks on these people were not meant to save them from harm. An X upon your forehead meant that you had committed a crime in one of the cities along the Nile and were no longer welcome. I took a great interest in the stories of Sorum.
An old trader called Arrat the Storyteller told us most of what we knew of Sorum. Whenever he coughed and spat, it meant he wanted to speak. One night the other traders were so raucous, he had to do this over and over again until everyone went silent. Then
he rubbed his hand along his beard, rocked forward to his toes, and said, “Sorum. Town of Women.”
One trader narrowed his eyes, another pressed his lips tightly together, and a third pulled his tunic closer around him.
“Now, it is that a woman who is a cross between a girl and a boar guards the entrance. Not to keep men out but, rather, to lure them in. She is uglier than a rotting corpse and smells even worse, yet a man who looks upon her cannot stop his feet from taking him to suckle at her breasts. He will give her all his goods, even the sandals off his own feet. After they have joined together just once, he will pine for her demon’s nectar his whole life. He will bring her fruits and nuts he steals off other men’s trees, oxen and mules he kills other men for. And finally, whatever is left of his soul.
“After she has laid waste to it but before he has fully crossed to the other side, she eats his organs and sucks the marrow from his bones. She does not stop, even though his limbs twitch and he screams for death to take him.
“Then she fashions the bones into necklaces and belts and gives them to the women of the town. Some wear so many bones, they stumble under their weight as though they were overfull with wine. The boar woman herself is decorated so completely with the bones of the men she has eaten that her whole body, except her teats and sex, is covered. Even with this heaviness upon her, she can run faster than a man. And worse, she is stronger than the biggest mule. No one dares cross her.
“No one except a crazed man who rides an ass through town, ancient and unseeing. He is as old as the world itself. So old his
beard trails along the ground and gets caught beneath his donkey’s hooves. He yells at the women to repent. He wants to make Sorum upright for his god, the God of Adam.”
This brought laughter.
“His time would be better spent trying to turn a goat into a dove.”
“Or grow an olive grove from a whore—”
“Quiet!” my father commanded, knocking the man’s bowl from his hands. He stood to his full height and gestured toward where I squatted behind the circle of traders, eating my stew after having served theirs.
My father rarely went into a rage, though he had much to be unhappy about. He had a large olive grove and no heir, along with a daughter who could neither inherit the grove nor entice a match. I had heard a man scream at my father only a few days before: “Not even for every olive upon the earth!” The man stomped the ground so hard walking away that he left perfect sandal marks. He was enraged that my father would think him a match for me.
I hurried to pick up the trader’s bowl. “I am sorry,” the trader said, not to me but to my father.
My father said, “Do not think on it any longer.” But he did not buy any of the man’s honey, which surprised me, because eating honey makes a girl more pleasing in nature and shape.
Gods, see how he has lost hope. Please, I beg of you. Help rid me of this mark.
This was my daily plea, the same one I had been whispering each morning upon waking and each night before sleep since first seeing the mark in a pot of water ten years before. But I knew that
if the gods had not answered my plea already, they probably never would. I was already nineteen, seven long years past when most girls were taken as wives.
• • •
Then came Mechem the Magical. All the traders had quick tongues but none quicker than his. To a man who labored to breathe, he would sell some wind that he carried in a sack upon his back. He would sell grains of curing sand to the mother of a child with a pus-filled wound. To the sick, he sold the healing droppings of a healthy doe, to the barren, the miracle placenta of a ewe that had birthed three lambs instead of two.
And finally, to my father, for half the olives in his grove, he sold the urine of a great beast. One even more powerful than a demon. The beast had tusks sharp enough to spear spirits, hooves heavy enough to crush them, a trunk long enough to slap them a whole league, and ears big enough to hear them as clearly as a fly buzzing on the beast’s own flank. Mechem promised that, after applying the potion to my forehead, the mark would take only a few days to fade.
“Because of the potion’s great power,” he told my father, “administering it is dangerous. Though I might lose what is left of my life, I will do it for only half the olives that remain.”
My father and Mechem argued back and forth outside the tent, until my father conceded three quarters of his harvest. He lifted the door flap, and he and Mechem came in. Mechem held a small amphora in one hand.
“Our troubles are over,” my father told me. His eyes were full of hope and fear. I knew the fear. He was afraid that the potion would not be able to overcome the mark. He looked expectantly at Mechem.
But Mechem seemed to be waiting. He frowned at my father.
“You will not even know I am here, unless you should need something,” my father assured him.
“The potion will not work with so much flesh vying to be purified.”
“Mine is not in need of purification,” my father said, then quickly looked to make sure his words had not wounded me. “I can stand behind these pots of lentils so the potion is not confused as to which skin to set upon.”
“No, you must leave. I cannot waste what little I have. Unless you possess another olive grove with which to pay me.”
My father’s jaw tightened. He narrowed his eyes at the trader.
“Three men died getting this potion,” Mechem said.
My father came to stand only a few hands’ width from the trader. He was a whole head taller than the little man. “I trust you will do as you have promised,” he said. Then he slipped out the door flap, and I was alone with Mechem.
Mechem looked directly at me. “I do not flinch from demons,” he said. Was this the man the gods had sent to answer my plea that the mark be taken from me? His eyes were glassy and wide-set, like a goat’s. His fingers curled and uncurled as he came to stand beside where I squatted at my loom. He leaned down and whispered, “My own seed will master the demon.” The smell of the wine he had drunk with my father lingered in a cloud between us. I did not have to wonder what he meant.
“But my honor . . .”
“I have two potions, woman. One to remove the mark and one to restore your virtue when I am done.” He pulled another tiny amphora from a pouch tied to his belt and held it in front of my face.
I leaned away from him. “My father is already making me a match,” I lied. “I cannot be tainted.”
“Your father, who did not bother to name you, is now making a match for you?”
“He did not give me a name so that people could not speak of me and spread lies.”
He set the potions down and grabbed my shoulder. His nails dug into my skin. “Silly woman. If you do not have a name, people will give you one: Angels’ Bane, Demon’s Daughter, Demon’s Whore—”
I shook his hand off my shoulder and stood. He pushed up against me, knocking over my loom. “I will take these names out of their mouths when I take the mark from you. You will be a miracle, a woman who overcame a demon. You will have new names: Demon Slayer, Woman of the Gods—”
“I do not care what they call me,” I said, stepping back.
He did not advance. He smiled and said, “You do not know how to lie, woman.”
“I am not as skilled in it as some.”
His nostrils twitched, revealing the stiff black hairs inside. I knew I had erred in angering him. Even though he was a small man, he was still a man, and I was just a woman who no one wanted to take for a wife.
“Please,” I said, “apply the potion only to the mark. All I have is that I am untouched.”
He reached out a finger and pressed his nail against my mark. “But you are touched, for all to see.”
“No one but my father and now you looks closely.”
“People look with their tongues and ears more than their eyes. These very traders whose bowls you fill with your father’s meat and lentils, whose cups you fill with his wine, they do not profit only from their goods. Just as your father has them here so he can hear their tales, so too does he give them one.”
“One is not so many.”
“But it is such a good one, it overshadows all the others.”
“It is nothing that could compare to the story of the boar woman.”
“The demon-woman tale Arrat weaves is riveting. He says your mark changes from red to black and that, after gazing upon it, smoke sometimes comes from his own eyes.” Mechem pretended sadness. “He does not have to clear his throat twice when he goes back along the river. The people there want to know what is in a village so near to their own, a distance a demon could hop in one breath. Do you never worry that men of the nearby villages will come for you?”
“Why would they do so?”
“Who wants to live with a demon so close when there are crops, herds, children, wives, and other property to look after?”
“You are not a good liar either. You go too far.” But I wasn’t certain he exaggerated.
“I do not lie about this.”
My heart beat not only because he wanted to come too close to me but because it suddenly seemed that all the peoples of the world were talking about me in hushed tones.
“Let me help you. Another man has to show the demon he is no match, that he does not own you. It is other men’s fear of you that keeps the demon’s mark upon your brow.” His fingers circled a lock of hair that had come loose from my scarf, and gently ran down the length of it. “Besides, it is a shame to have this mark upon you when you would be such a sweet sight without it.”
He leaned in close again, so that his nose nearly touched mine, and his breath against my lips caused me to stumble backward. The lock of my hair that he still held stretched taut between us.
“The demon is too strong for a man to survive lying with me,” I said, trying to lie more convincingly this time. “He lifts me from my sleeping blanket in the blackest part of night. Things I touch wither and die. If I even look too long at a bird, she will crumple and fall from the sky.”
“I am not a bird.”
“The demon has infected me with his poison so any man who tries to know me will never know me or any other woman again.”
Mechem took hold of my shoulders. He shoved me to the ground.
I could not roll away quickly enough to keep him from falling upon me. The wine on his breath covered a worse odor from his mouth, that of rot, as when a mouse drowns in a pot of nuts or lentils and is not discovered right away. He looked down the length of my
body and grasped my breast through my tunic. I struggled to push him off, but my efforts had no effect on him.
He reached his hand lower still and pressed it to my tunic where my legs met. I bit him with all the strength of my fear. I tasted his dry, salty flesh and felt the wiry hair of his eyebrow against my lips. He recoiled, then thrust his hand against my neck. Though the bitter taste of his blood was upon my tongue, I was surprised by the deep gash upon his brow.
His cheeks flared red. “Let me tell you two things, woman. It was not a demon that gave you the mark. It was your own evil mother, and you will do as I say and tell no one, or I will let it be known in this village and all the surrounding ones that the demon has taken every last drop of your soul and uses your body for a vessel. I will show them my forehead, and they will not doubt me.”
“Do not speak false of the dead.”
“Your mother is dead now?” he asked. “Did she finally drink herself yellow and die?”
“She died a year after she bore me.”
He laughed, and his hand loosened on my neck. “And I am the handsomest man in the world! She fled before being branded with the mark of the exile for birthing you.”
“No, I do not believe you.” But I did. I finally understood why my father looked like he had just been hit with a rock whenever I asked about her.
“Even your own mother did not want you,” he said sadly. “Though I am no beauty, and years past the peak of my virility, I am not without an appetite for a woman’s softness. I will do what no
other man would dare to and bring you into full womanhood.” He yanked my tunic up over my thighs.
Sunlight streamed into the tent as the door flap was lifted behind Mechem. Before Mechem could turn around to defend himself, my father knocked him off of me unto the ground.
“Fool!” Mechem cried. “I could bring you to ruin with the slightest movement of my tongue. People would flock from leagues in all directions to tear apart your tent, burn your olive grove to the ground, and kill your worthless demon spawn. Now leave us or I will be gone, taking my potion and my tale.”
“We have already agreed upon the price for your potion. I will apply it to my child myself. If the mark disappears within the next four days, then you will have half my harvest.”
“You will have neither my potion nor my silence,” Mechem said. He picked up the amphora with the urine of the great beast and was moving to where he had left the other potion, the one that would restore my virtue after he had taken it, when my father wrapped an arm around him and tried to yank the amphora from his fingers.
“The demon is unleashed!” Mechem yelled loudly toward the door flap. As there were no tents near ours, I doubted anyone heard him. Still, he began screaming as though he were a man dying a horrible death.
My father put a hand over Mechem’s mouth, trying to muffle the old man’s screams. He forced the trader to the ground and slammed his head down with the full force of his weight. There was a great thud, and the screaming stopped.
My father stared down at Mechem. “Wake up,” he demanded.
The trader did not acknowledge my father, and his head and limbs moved lifelessly when my father shook him.
My father looked incredulously at the dead man for a few shallow breaths. Then he dropped his head into his hands. “We are doomed,” he said.