Originally part of a collection of short stories, A Blatantly False History of the World, But Mostly America.
“Make your way to the sea,” He said. “There, we can hire ships to take us back to our homelands.” He whispered it to us in the darkness, when we had stopped toiling in the streets and in the house, serving the Romans for the day. We returned to our hovels under their vast, gilded courtyards and listened to His breath in our sleep. We dreamed. In our dreams walked the Gods of our homelands, of the green country of our birth. We listened to His words, seeping into the heart of us, and remembered.
There were houses in the north, dug into the ground for warmth during the harsh winters. Thatch stood up from the earth like tiny hills. Snow covered the ground as the seasons turned, and those living there would press together to share heat. It was companionable, looking out the door as the snow swirled, knowing that it could not take your life as long as you were with these others. We told stories there in the cold; of the magic of the moon and the restlessness of the dead. And then the Romans came, and there were no others, but only strangers.
Not all of us listened to His voice in the darkness. Not all of us felt His words pierce our ears with longing. Some of us were snatched from our homelands so long ago that the white marble of Rome was the only place we knew. It was tempting to stay, to try for the chance to become free again, given the ultimate gift for loyalty. But that kind of freedom was at the whim of the master. The kind He was whispering to us was something we didn’t have to rely on others to provide. It was something we would gain for ourselves. And so we left with Him. At first, we were just a small band of rebels on the outskirts of the town, living in the green hills peopled with boulders. They left us alone, and like bread dough, we rose. By the time our edges seeped from the hills, we were too big and scattered for them to bother with. This is what He told us.
He told us that the sea would be our life. If we could only get to the southern shore, we could pay the Cossacks to take us to freedom. They were no friend to the Romans, and they would help us. For enough money, they would do as we asked. This is what He told us.
The hills were very green, deep and lush. Small white flowers grew in patches, even up to the heels of the boulders. We hoisted our swords and watched them shine in the sunlight, new on the horizon. It had been ages since we felt the ungiving haft of steel, cold in our palms. We walked toward the sea. We felt the blades of grass brush our toes inside our sandals, scattering dew between our toes. We felt the rough cloth blow across our shoulders as we walked across the land. The sky was vivid blue and it stretched for days and into the future.
The hills changed. They became fields of wheat as we walked, golden to the horizon. Trees broke the line of waving grass in clumps. Sometimes, a cypress pointed to the sun above us as we strode by its shedding trunk. Once, we walked by a farm house. It was abandoned in the red sunlight, but a little dog barked in the distance. Some wanted to catch the dog; to taste the savor of dripping meat. Wheat is not always the best for a marching stomach. He convinced them we didn’t have the time.
We must always press forward toward the ocean. It is salt like our tears. It is salt like the sweat we shed for the comfort of the Roman masters, or for the life of our family in another existence far away. The ocean shall be our savior, and it shall return us to those we love.
The wheat became hills again, like a song that repeats itself. The trees stayed, to shelter the boulders and the little white flowers beneath. A hawk wheeled above our heads, dark checkered wings on the blue sky, blocking the sun as it flew past. It dipped to the green grass and pulled a mouse from the earth, tail twirling as it rose to the sky.
He said we were getting close. We wondered if the hawk could see it, so much farther could it see from its height. We remembered the ocean being vast and terrible. Sometimes it was a deep, swallowing, glassy blue. It was calm and deceptive when it looked like that, biding its time and lulling its prey into a false trust. It was black when it raged, froth shuddering over the timber frame of the ship. This is how it turned, mild to murderer in a swoop of cloud, a weeping of the heavens.
We were not at the end of the song. The ground changed again, and we could hear the rushing of the sea in our dreams from where we slept. It whispered to us in the darkness a faint crash-hush. Vast beaches spread sand before us, tan and glistening in the sunlight. The ocean was aggressive only in the way it beat its fists across the shore as we beat our fists against our masters. Gulls flew above, riding the wind in clumps. The wet breeze clung to our clothes and skin, making even our hair feel sticky with salt. We licked the brine from our lips and felt the spring stirring in our bones, the great rebirth.
Three days, we camped by the ocean. Three days, the wind blew salt into our being. On the third day, a messenger came. It was not a good omen. A rumor went around the camp. The Romans were not happy they had no one to wait at their table. We were pinned on the coast now, nowhere to escape. The army of Rome, glistening gold helmets, red manes dripping from the gold like entrails; the army of Rome was on the march. No Cossacks would come to our rescue and give us passage across the sea to our homeland. Rome had paid them not to.
He was the first to flee, our fearless leader, the one who whispered no longer. He would go back to the hillsides, to the cave we had lived in before, He said. It would just be temporary until we could try again. We scattered to the winds. But like a blown dandelion, there is a center that is not subject to the will of breath. I am that center.
There are a handful that join me; those with ballast. Sleeping by the sea made me remember many things, and this is the tale I remembered most.
It is terrible to perish at sea not because of death. Those that fall into the foamy waves do not die. The God of The Sea is too greedy for that. Whole ships are swallowed by the blackness, and they sail beneath the waves. Seafarers make weedy sails from kelp, and skim the depths for eternity. The eyes painted on the side of their ship shine like the sun in the darkness. The God of The Sea is waiting until they are enough. When he has an army, he will send them against the God of The Land, and he will be the God of Everything. Until then, they decompose in the deep.
And with that memory, fresh and clean, came another from my childhood. They had married in my mind while I worked in this land, and while I walked across it. It was of my grandmother.
She smelled of mint as she bent over me and kissed me goodnight. “I have had a premonition of you, Geric,” she told me. “It was not good. It was full of water and darkness, and you were far from home. I will tell you a story tonight and some day you will need it. You will forget this moment until you need it, but store it away for the time when winter becomes spring. It is important.”
She told me of the Sea God, and also of how the dead cannot always die. “You can turn them to your will, if you are strong enough. You can turn them to your will for a little while, and for longer if they like your cause and agree to help you.”
This was the way: I needed a bone, even from an animal, but a real bone it must be; something that was part of the living but was now stripped of muscle and sinew, of everything that made it what it was. There was a rune to carve into the shaft of the bone. It must be exact, not a twirl or hatch out of place. If the bone was perfect, and the rune was perfect, the spell could take place. Take land from where the heels of the fallen walked. Mingle it with the living saliva from your body. Say the name of the rune out loud. Shout the name to the stars, and if they bless the bone with their light they have blessed you with control. As long as you wear the bone, you will be safe. As long as you wear the bone, you can command them. They will listen for a time before the sound of eternity echoes again in their ears and they will leave you.
It would be hard to do by the sea. The men I wanted to call did not walk upon the ground, and so I could not mingle my spit with the earth. The rune was a vague memory in my mind. The smell of mint echoed through the ages. I would remember, I whispered to my grandmother in the dark. I will remember like you told me to. There were a dozen or so like me who had not given up, who were still camping by the sea. For my homeland and their homeland, I wanted to try. I could not bear to go back and give up, of another day living in the hills and waiting to rise. I could not bear the thought of crucifixion if the Roman army found me here.
I did as my grandmother told me. Instead of earth, I mixed my saliva with the sea. When the moon was high overhead, I lifted the bone. I screamed the name of the rune to the sky. The other slaves, the few of them who were left, clustered at my feet and they, too, screamed the word to the sky. The ocean crashed between my words, and their words met mine. I told the stars my anguish and ordered the bone to live. As I screamed, a bolt of light came from the sky. It burned the flesh off my fingers, and made the rune shine. The blood from my open wounds dripped into the sand at my feet.
It was cold the next morning, and a gray fog obscured the horizon. Drops fell on the sand, making divots in the dirt, pattering around me. The others stirred in their sleep. I went to the ocean and the others followed me. The lips of foam pounded across my knees. I took hands with the others. I held the bone aloft, as I had last night. I held it out to the sea, to the gray sky, to the blue depths.
“I need to get home,” I yelled into the rain. The mist swallowed the sound. I waited. The surf seethed in and out. The rain pelted across my shoulders, growing with intensity. I was drenched, dripping.
The ocean began to churn, out where the sea met the fog. It turned black, and a whirlpool formed from the chaos, whipping and turning in the deep. I could feel it from the shore, pulling my legs toward it, just as the earth pulled my feet to its own breast.
A flurry of weeds flew from the whirlpool. A mast emerged. With a sucking sound and a pop that shook the horizon, a black ship rose from the depths. The hull was covered with barnacles and slime. In some places it was black as pitch, glossy and slick. In others it was a furry green. Tendrils of seaweed dripped from the deck. The painted eyes on the side of the bow gleamed white, new as the day the ship was christened. Seaweed trailed from the masts. As we watched, a group of things, brown and upright, tossed a small boat overboard. They rowed for the shore. They came to bring me home. I stood together with the others on the shore, lined up shoulder to shoulder, and felt the waves crash over my sandals.
My hand throbbed with pain where the lightning left it raw. Tears dripped over my face as I watched the small boat row towards the shore. I thought of my grandmother, the smell of mint, the thatched huts of my homeland.