The drum gives me Now; and its silence Then.
Keep the beat and my soul will mend.
My father was a smith. We lived in tiny Dodona in a house behind the forge. We lived with the beat of hammer and anvil, and the longer pulse of heating and cooling. Poor, we embraced the rhythms of starving awhile until we were no longer as hungry, of collapsing exhausted until we were merely tired. My mother foraged meals from thin air and I worked at the fire from a tender age.
Father made a living selling pins, hasps and latches for a few lepta each. He taught me how to repair broken tools. Craning past his massive arm, I watched him steadily beat the ripple pattern of circles on a copper sheet until it became a shapely pot, worthy of Hephaestus, whose hammer icon hung in the forge.
His master was a Guild smith, who died before father could be Journeyed. Father’s craft sprang from glimpses of techniques he was never taught, leveraged into what he needed to know.
The tall oar, planted alongside our path near the road, belonged to the grandfather I never met. He had sailed as a freeman on the galleys. One long absence had become his last. Father wouldn’t talk about him or the sea, referring only to those ‘hard and bloody salt-water times.’ I dreamed him up and rode on his shoulders through the oaks and ate dates from his bag and traced his white scars with my pink finger.
Father threw me out when I was twelve. No warning. No anger. No tears. Just: “There’s not food enough for us all. Find your way now; you’re a man’s age. Your mother says ‘goodbye’.” His grotesque shadow followed me out the door. I found my bag and cloak lying on the threshold. The loaf of bread and bit of cheese on top of the cloak were the last food in the house.
In disbelief, I watched my parents from the nearby copse of woods. Concealed in my play shelter of happier times, I craved to see my mother emerge from the house. When she fed the animals, I inwardly protested that I ate no more than they. I finally wrapped myself in my sheepskin and alternately cried and slept for three days.
The fourth day, I trekked to the market place of Ambracia in southern Epirus, where we had sold jewelry. There, I carried loads, unpacked donkeys and stacked produce for handouts of fish, olives or bread. No one glanced at an apparent orphan in a town of poor fishing families, farmers and expatriates. The loss of my family was a dark lake at the center of my heart and I was without boat or raft to sail it.
The trough invites the crest to pause;
A mated pair, outbound from birth.
Flat? No choice? Then no exciting cause;
Only placid lack of pain or mirth.
I got impatient and caught the same day. With a ring-knife, I tried to separate a gourd-nosed leather peddler from his coin bag. He surprised me with a long blade. He was alert and quick for a big man.
The court could have exiled me or taken off my hand. Instead, a merchant bought the rights to me. He had forty trading ships with oar and sail in constant motion from the cold seas north of the Tin Isles to Tomi and the waters east of Thasos. Free sailors on those voyages could make a profit based on the success of the trip, if they survived. But I would work just to pay back my hundred drachmae debt. Ten thousand lepta!
I would learn to row on a galley with thirty-five other trainees, who had been everywhere, if you added them up: two or three boys from every region in Thessaly, one from Thrace, four from the Peloponnese, others from far away Illyris, Arabia and the southern shores. Some smelled of curry, some of cloves. We were dwarves and giants, brown and black. Cassil was even from my hometown. We had been clever and full of life. Now we were trapped on an island jail in the mouth of Pagasae harbor, as spiritless as oxen hitched to a wagon. No fences required.
We were to train for thirty days under a Rowing-Whip, a company Drummer and a Supplicant, or sea-going priest. A day’s training earned us ten lepta, paid to our account. Lodging, however, cost three lepta each night, food two lepta per meal, and water one lepton. If the weather was too foul to venture out, the day deepened our debt. If we needed sandals, a tunic, or a doctor, we owed the Company. Most of us would die in chains, still in debt; the game was rigged.
To say the first days on our training galley, the Cormorant, were hard would be to call the Aegean damp. We rowed till our arms felt heavy as logs and Marsyas, our trainer/Rowing Whip, seemed the dog of Hades. We weren’t a crew. We did not make friends. We were a pile of rocks, not a wall.
“Oars high!” shouted Marsyas.
Docking, we banged the Cormorant into the training float in front of our barracks. On the same bench as two other sweating, panting boys, our ankles shackled and raw, we forced the thick pole down with our remaining strength. When it thunked on the deck, we shoved it forward under the oar-keep. We released our grips, relieved.
“No! Free your oars by the count!” screamed Marsyas. “Not when you feel like it! Again! Around the course, twice, without mistakes or we’ll do this all night!” Marsyas’ peeling bald head and scarred cheek frightened me. “Together, you garbage eaters! Pull! Dip! Feather! Drop! It’s a four-count!”
“Cadence!” he yelled and the drum began its beat from the foredeck.
Marsyas demanded quiet. Stavros of Thessaly, talked like a rushing stream. When he first arrived, he pumped my hand and said: “I’m glad to meet you, Costas; shaking hands reminds me of milking goats. I’ve milked them from before I was born since there were so many goats and it was either help or go hungry and I got so sick of sleeping with goats and waking up in the dark and milking those steaming goats that my brother and I decided to lie about our age and join the army rather than face another day of it and of course right away we had to walk for days to Thessalonica – which wasn’t so bad itself because at least it wasn’t snowing when we went through the mountains -” and on he went. Marsyas stripped language from him like skin off a rabbit.
Our Drummer was thin, sun-baked and long past drumming the war galleys. Even his drum sounded old, mmph, mmph, mmph, as he beat time in his sleep for his pension.
Mornings, on the Cormorant, started with a sacrifice to the Cabeirii, protectors of sailors. The hooded, hollow-faced Supplicant was unintelligible. We assumed he asked for calm seas and safe return, in the gods’ language. When he lowered his arms, he made the swift cuts that destroyed another pigeon, adding to the stains of the deck. He dripped blood in the water, and tossed the carcass onto a charcoal brazier that hissed in gratitude. When he took his accustomed seat, he wasn’t to be addressed at all.
Day after day, under the grueling sun, we stirred the waters of the bay. Our joints and muscles strained, backs ached, blisters formed on our palms and buttocks. On a return trip from Oreus, Vallus lost the grip of his oar. Marsyas beat him until he lay motionless over his own knees. Vallus’ oar-mates kept time with us, though they almost died.
Various memories of my old Dodona home vied for attention. Hanging off my father’s strong outstretched arm as a little monkey. Watching my mother, tall and regal as an egret, slicing cucumber at our eating table. I saw their bed through the doorway and heard their murmured
voices. I knew my family was lost to me. The long nights were unbearable; rowing was only hard.
Let my fellow captives grieve; in my pain, I wanted to see my father slapped in rowing irons.
In elegant robes, my mother floats
Through the gardens thick and fragrant;
Strong lines of care carve my father’s face
As he scratches for our fortune.
Once, during a rest, as we ate some bland slop and tossed a skin of water back and forth, I noticed our Drummer eying me. I was feeling briefly light-hearted as I watched the swift movement of the water skin above the heads of the crew. It was our game: the unwary would catch the goat skin in the side of the head. The old man stared at me across his meal of soft bread and small fish. He had apparently noticed my feet tap a song that had been running through my head, a song of childhood. He smiled.
My head jerked stinging to one side, even as my hands caught the rebounding water skin. I flung it behind me over my head, but my eyes never left my Drummer. He was the first person to really notice me, since my father cut me adrift.
We had heard about the Red Galley, the flagship of the merchant’s fleet, and its oarsmen, the Red Serpents. Each Red sailor was handpicked, proud and strong, ready to prove his dominance over a village idiot, if that were the only target.
The first time we saw them, we were Half-Stroking out of the harbor toward the second point to the north. Marsyas suddenly shouted: “Oars high! Backwater! Double Stroke!” in such a rush that Flavus’ entire bench tumbled to the deck. Many of us lost our grips and flailing oar handles knocked some of us silly. A blood red hull slid past our starboard bow to a double-time beat and Marsyas screamed a curse at the passing Red Rowing Whip. His stare silenced Marsyas, who shrank like a shopkeeper. He didn’t berate us at all while we completed our round to the second point.
A week after our almost-clash with the Red Galley, we were idle in our morning seats in the Cormorant, waiting unusually long, when word spread: “Marsyas was taken.” No one knew
how, though someone had seen a strange boat on the beach before dawn. He was nowhere on the island.
As next in authority, the Drummer directed us out of the harbor at Three-Quarter Stroke, south toward the Cyclades. Behind the third point along Euboea, he started a torturous arm exercise that had us raise our oars off the water, gently slap the oar behind us, then the one in front of us and then knife back into the water for a pull stroke. Though we thought ourselves toughened by the relentless days of open water rowing, a couple of hours of this made our arms burn
The Drummer announced: “Oars high! That style is called ‘Scudo’s Wings’,” he said. “Usually reserved for royal galleys!” That got a laugh. “Some morning, you’ll see that your lives are still yours; still waiting to be lived. You have a chance to learn to row like men. For mastery. To reclaim your lives.” He paused. “Oars ready. Now let’s go home” And he began the familiar, monotone beat of Standard Stroke. We thrashed a bit, but different: we were learning to row for this Drummer and ourselves.
Marsyas was discovered the next morning, naked and witless, on the rocks by the harbor mouth; a reminder to all sailors in the fleet from the crew of the Red Galley.
We were often Whip-less, while Marsyas recovered. We’d shiver silently in the breeze until the Drummer took us out.
We took pride in perfecting Scudo’s Wings, the oar-clapping royal Stroke. Sometimes we cajoled him into beating it for us with calls of “Scudo, Scudo, Scudo” until he gave in. Other codes we developed were Danae: a sudden stop, and Lanaea: back by Half. We craved new maneuvers. Our arms and backs were soon strong and tireless as the legs of infantrymen, quick and snappish as rabbit snares.
Our mentor directed us to channels and bays that it seemed no man had ever seen and so distant from harbor that he steered us home by the stars.
After one twilight return, as I was leaving the boat with our shuffling, grunting group, I passed our Drummer, adjusting his sandal. I dropped back, hoping he would talk to me. Without even a hello, he said “Count to one hundred steadily and without speaking, keep the rhythm, start with me: ‘one, two, three’,” and nodding for me to continue, he went silent.
What’s this game? seven, eight, He’s slipped his anchor! Does he think I’m sixteen, seventeen, four? nineteen, twenty, a has-been Drummer playing children’s counting games? twenty-seven, twenty-eight, you should tell me salty stories full of sailors saving nobles, ladies cheering thirty-eight soldiers forty merchants sharing booty, owners choosing peasant partners, everything is fifty nifty fifty-two, fifty-three but all that ever changes is whose foot is on my neck and I seem to always miss a trick or sixty-five two sixty-seven come-on, Drummer man, don’t let me down! What are we doing? seventy-seven, seventy-eight I know you planned this little meeting. What on earth for? eighty-six What do you say? ninety I’ve played your game! ninety-five now you come across!
“One hundred,” I said, decisively.
“One hundred one,” said the older man. He watched me like a statue of himself. I thought I’d lost some game that might have bridged a gap to god-knows-what human contact. There was nothing I could say.
“Not bad,” he said with a half smile. He tossed me something, a dark, ripe fig. “Now catch up with the others.” As I turned to go, he smiled and touched my elbow. “I’m Lucius,” he said.
My stomach flipped like a fish on a hook. He left into shadows and I stared after him, feeling the sticky fig in my fingers and the warm evening breeze on my face. Had I made a friend?
That night after the torches were extinguished, I told Cassil about counting with Lucius.
“Don’t let him get you alone to count.” He said. “Next thing, he’ll want to see if you can count bending over.”
My smile somehow slid to my throat.
Be blade. Beat
back doubt. Don’t
Die. Push down
pain. Face fear.
Too soon, Lucius announced that in just three more days we were to be apportioned to other galleys. Divided. The prospect was hideous to us and I think Lucius kept us particularly busy for that reason.
Too soon, as well, Marsyas came back as Whip. Damaged. He was skinny now; more angular. His blue tattooed skin hung loose like bad drapery. The jerky puppet movements of his limbs initially aroused our sympathy. Then he opened his mouth.
“In two more days, you will be rowing alongside free men whose livelihoods and very lives will depend on how you perform. You will follow orders or die. Cadence!”
The drum sounded our cruising beat and we soon left the harbor mouth. Marsyas had narrow habits and planned a Double Stroke to the third point and back, probably grueling for most trainees.
Tito, our natural spokesman, shouted: “Hydra!” We switched flawlessly to stroking on the upbeat, every man. Lucius smiled, inconspicuously. The Whip spun to look at Tito.
Without a word, and while we were still at cruising speed, the Whip went to Tito’s bench and unlocked his ankle shackle.
One by one, Tito’s oar mates and others of us raggedly stopped rowing, though the beat kept on.
Dom, Dom, Dom. Only a few benches were rowing now.
Dom, Dom, continued the drum.
Twisting Tito’s ear, Marsyas forced him to the bow rail near the Supplicant, who stared forward blankly.
“Climb up,” the Whip told Tito, sticking the point of a short sword into Tito’s ribs.
Tito didn’t seem to comprehend.
“Onto the rail,” said the Whip. As Tito started to comply, the drum said DaDOM and stopped.
Every man looked at Lucius.
“If these boys are going to challenge the Red Galley tomorrow, they will need every oarsman,” said Lucius.
“What challenge?” asked the Whip.
“Tomorrow, the Red Galley leaves for Tunis. We will leave the island as they approach us and beat them to the third point.”
“Impossible,” spat the Whip.
“I am Lucius, son of Scudo,” said the Drummer. “I’ll wager my freedom these boys can beat the Red Serpent from harbor to the third point. It will happen,” said Lucius.
I was slack-jawed. Was this to shift focus from Tito? That had worked. As oarsmen, we were steadily improving, but they were the Red Serpents!
“Show me,” said Marsyas.
“Cadence!” called Tito, taking his seat without his ankle chains. Though we flew back to our island, fast even for us, Marsyas neither commented nor grunted, which fed our fears.
The next morning, a falcon flew over, going somewhere in a hurry, as we were being chained to our benches.
Our challenge was part foolishness, I decided, but not entirely. The Red Galley was loaded with trade goods and tribute for the noble houses of Tunis. Our training galley was lighter and we had an additional four oars in the water. The fact that their crew was twice our weight might tip the scales in their favor, of course, but it also made their boat heavier, didn’t it?
We watched another pigeon wasted at the bow, anxious for the Supplicant to be done.
Marsyas had buttressed our self-respect by trying to diminish it. We were men while on the Cormorant and this was our goodbye. We welcomed this now.
Lucius’ muffled drum sounded our beat and we were off, Quarter Stroke. A bit of haze on the water. Marsyas stood at the bow.
“There!” He pointed slightly off the stern to port and we saw the Red Galley’s Serpent head streaking through the water.
Still in the harbor, they were at Full Stroke! They should still have been at Half, at best! Lucius switched sticks. Tito yelled: “Marsyas, call it!”
Immediately, Marsyas called “Half Stroke moving to Three Quarter.” And after eight beats, he called: “Full Stroke moving to Double Time by Fours!” We had practiced this quick acceleration.
Lucius’ drum called us each by name and we sped across the water like a polished stone. “My God!” said Marsyas, in admiration.
The Red Drum was also audible now and had increased to Double. The Serpent was four lengths ahead to port and an arrow-shot away.
Our Drum went to Two-and-a-Half, unbidden. Lucius took us there gently but insistently, leaving us no choice. Then, emerging from the insane cadence of Two-and-a-Half, we heard grace notes, triple beats, staccato rim shots that clacked but counted, beats that said: “you are born to row, you were made for this race, for this moment, with these mates, pull for your lives, not to avoid dying, but to live!”
I glanced to the side. We were two lengths behind and gaining slowly. The Red Drum was still at Double. The Red Whip was striding down the walk, slashing one man after another with his knotted whip.
As we pulled within a half-length of the Serpents and so close our oars were almost clashing, at a shout from Red Whip, the Red crew suddenly shifted every starboard oar upright. The sudden lack of starboard drive threw the huge red hull into our port side oars, smashing them to kindling. Our oarsmen would have been flung across the boat but their ankles were chained to their benches.
The side of the Red boat screeched and shuddered down the length of our smaller hull. As the Red Galley swept away, oaths and screams and disbelief filled our world. Many lay groaning, twisted. Skulls lay open where bits of wood had flayed them. Legs had shattered like our oars. Cassil lay crooked and motionless; Vallus spurted blood from his thigh.
Marsyas, our flint-edged Whip, surveyed the disaster that was our crew. “The Red Galley has never been beaten,” he said with hatred and pity.
Life is short, and Art long;
The crisis fleeting;
Experience perilous and
Lucius spoke to Marsyas: “The Red Galley was at Full Stroke, four lengths off the dock.”
Marsyas nodded. He turned to the Supplicant. “How did they know about the challenge?” and he waited, like a cat crouched at the mouth of a gopher’s tunnel.
The Supplicant stared in front of him, trembling. My bench mates moaned and cried for help.
“Stand up,” said Marsyas.
Involuntarily, the Supplicant rose and said: “You can’t touch…”
With one motion, Marsyas swept forward, gathered fists full of the Supplicant’s robes and hurled him over the rail. The man splashed once like a diving pelican, but made no more sound. “He was lost in the crash,” he said, as he unchained Tito and handed him the leather lash. “You call the stroke,” he said.
Marsyas bent to the nearest wounded man.
Only stunned for a moment, Tito spoke to Lucius. Lucius left his post and brought water skins to where Marsyas was binding Atua’s head. The Drummer began to help Cassil.
Tito threw the lash aside. “Marsyas, the keys,” said Tito
As though expecting those words, the older man threw him his ring of keys. Tito handed the ring to Petros, at first bench. “As soon as you are free, six of you help our men to the stern for treatment; then come back to your benches. The rest clear the broken oars overboard and fill benches from amidships forward by pairs until we run out.” He skipped half a beat: “Let’s get them home.”
“Costas,” he said to me. “You beat cadence at my word; Half Stroke, till we sort ourselves out.” He turned to the others: “Any man without an oar, help Marsyas.” The Whip’s eyes met Tito’s briefly. Marsyas nodded curtly.
I stood motionless. “Drummer,” said Tito quietly.
I leapt to the bow and gathered Lucius’ sticks off the deck. Though I felt doomed to produce chaos, I watched Tito with excitement.
“Cadence,” yelled Tito.
As one man, the trainees of the Cormorant, the unseen and worthless, plunged their oars into the water. Dom, Dom, Dom, Dom, came my beat, and we gained speed.
“Three Quarter Stroke,” called Tito, obviously pleased. We were moving past the first point with a long row ahead of us.
“Physicians are on land,” Tito spoke just to me. “Let’s fly!” It struck me, then, that we were unshackled. If we went to port, we replaced our own ankle irons. We had the entire sea to choose from; free lives to be lived.
“Full Stroke!” called Tito. Dom, Dom, Dom, sounded my drum, a rich sound, worth much. I caught a glimpse of Lucius’ face; he was looking directly at me. He smiled warmly. I grinned back at him like an unabashed child. I thought my heart would burst from my chest with joy.
At the mouth of the harbor, I shouted: “Scudo!” and allowed eight beats to prepare the stroke. The rowers shifted to Scudo’s Wings with a galley-wide shout. Oar slapped oar, then cut the water, slap slap plunge rise, and even the wounded kept cheering as we raced toward land.
We sailed past our island to the dock of the merchant’s Red Galley. Our stroke had been observed and a cluster of the curious waited for us to make shore.
“Three-Quarter Stroke, going to Half,” yelled Tito.
Eight beats later: “Quarter Stroke” and the cadence slowed.
“Back Stroke,” then: “Oars high!” signaled Tito.
We released our oars by the four-count and our wooden prow kissed the Red dock. Ropes quickly snared our galley in front of a crowd of Greeks, sailors and cargo handlers on the dock.
A short, pale man in a rich tunic stepped out of the gathering. He looked at Lucius across the gunwale of our shallow boat.
“Drummer,” said the merchant. “They tell me you bet your freedom on victory.”
Lucius stood quietly in the open bow, surrounded by our battered shipmates.
“Fortunately, no one accepted your offer,” the merchant smiled. He looked at our sweating, bloody group. “A formidable crew, “he said to us. “Well done.” As he left, he nodded to a tall, bronzed older sailor in blue, calm as a cloud. I knew instantly it was Scudo that now stepped forward, our Drummer’s famous father, not just a legend, but Drummer of Drummers, for kings and heroes, up to that very day.
A pang of envy shot through me. Such a father! To have been the tail of such a comet would be to have bypassed the chains I wore, the abuse I’d taken and the pain I carried. He looked noble in his lake blue tunic.
Scudo stepped to the edge. Marsyas clambered awkwardly to the dock and whispered to him. Scudo gave orders over his shoulder and several men jumped into our boat and began lifting the least injured onto the dock. Others ran for litters.
“Your most dramatic class yet,” he said to Lucius, with a half-smile that reminded me of the Drummer himself.
“Best I’ve ever seen,” said Lucius
“Oarsmen!” said the older man. “My name is Scudo. I began following your progress when you couldn’t seem to keep a Rowing-Whip for more than a week. Lucius has given me details about all of you and I have an announcement. Your training is complete.”
No one breathed. Separation. New strange galleys. Hazed by horny sailors and attacked by pirates? Shackled for the rest of our lives with no Tito, no Lucius, no hope.
As the sea floor exposed before a tidal wave, our ebullient camaraderie disappeared. Our fear and hopelessness flopped on the seabed.
We were silent. Empty. What now?
“All of you will have two days of recovery, with pay.” He paused for the cheering. “Four of you are being invited to apprentice as Drummers at my School, at Lucius’ specific recommendation.” Scudo called out: “Tito. Drax. Cassil.”
An attendant spoke in his ear. “Cassil can join us after recovery from his injuries. And Costas,” he said, looking at me.
My knees went soft. The boat rocked.
We ring with growth
Who seem to only age;
Our scars of crisis
Balanced lives presage.
Time filled our sails then and blew us through the next year.
We drummed steadily; devotedly. Cassil recuperated in Dodona and came back to drum. He brought word my father had died; my mother was gone. Strangers had our old home.
Tito married a merchant’s daughter. I found a safe, slim girl in the town.
A stormy late summer turned to a brighter autumn and a different kind of graduation.
“Sticks down!” Scudo said, loudly.
At the four-count, twenty pair of sticks hit the rims of their drums for the last time together. Like a washbasin, the open-air school on the hill slowly emptied of sound and students. The natural roll of the theater poured out toward the bay where the ships rode at anchor.
A bubble of gratitude emerged from the murky bottom of my heart and grew larger. I thought of my father, buried in far away Dodona. As I stood on Scudo’s sunny doorstep, the image of my father’s tiny gift of cheese and bread, his small unspoken blessing, came back to me. My cold well of hurt was now a fondness for the man with scarred hands and distant eyes. I longed to embrace him, to play for him. He had done what he could.
The design of a tattoo formed in my imagination, something to celebrate the mastery I wished I could share with him: a drum head made of the metal smith’s concentric circles, set in the notch of a crossed drumstick and oar.
When I drum for my future galley, shirtless and sweating, bracing myself in tumbling storm-made swells that toss our bow like a drinking cup, the crew will lean on me and find me solid.
The design on my breast will be my sign:
I am Costas: son of my father, son of the sea and son of the drum