By David Mohan
We were taken that night, from citizens to slaves in a moment, our parents standing on the dock, silently cursing the diplomacy of kings.
The crossing is a blur—the hot blue of the sun and sea intermixed into a sun dazzle. The long thirst. The looming of that island.
My first surprise is this—we are brought through the town in wagons, cheered by the crowds as though we were soldiers returned from war. We are driven between tall white gates into a school. An academy, we are told, for acrobats.
That first day we are shown ‘round, new students to the art. We watch a near-naked girl enter a ring alone and face a charging bull. The bull’s eyes are red, foretelling blood, its hooves gouge up clots of yellow sand. The girl stands still, as cool as shade, but when the bull has almost got her pinned on its horns, she leaps, one hand on either horn and vaults across its back, and lands, without a stumble, clear, on untouched sand. The bull runs to the wall, bewildered. We gasp and chatter until we are silenced with a gesture.
I first met you in the sleeping room—we share adjacent patches of floor. You do not speak to me, but look me over. You are like a bull yourself, bull-necked, bull-chested, gladiatorial, martial. I am a more slender frame. I see you look at me as though I were a woman.
You usher me to the bullpens that afternoon. We spend our first day together roaming the paths between pens, and you touch your fingers against wet bullnoses, letting them snort furiously on your fingers before you pull away. You have sympathy for the beast.
That night you say, “You will be an excellent bull-dancer. Lightness is what they want. I am strong but more suited to the field.” You kiss me then and we lay together. It happens easily in the shadow of death.
I train and see nothing of you in the daytime. You are a performer. The strongest. You take on the smallest bulls when you cannot jump them, take hold of their horns, twist their necks, wrestle.
I learn my new trade, falling, failing, taking scratches. We try out on a vault, and then each other. I discover fearlessness, bodilessness. I pitch myself into the air believing in the turn that will take me to safety. My feet divine the ground each time. I am slight, a boy, but this does not matter. I grow a wiry strength and improve, my frame ideal for the dodge and scatter expected of each new-blooded bull-dancer.
In my first tournament, I do three perfect vaults, with two stumbles. Nevertheless, the applause is grudging, reproachful. I stand and take a bow feeling as blessed as the king.
You and I sleep close in each other’s arms through that long summer. At first, we take to sleeping in stalls, beside the bulls, in the scent of our new adversaries. You say, “We are no better than them and no worse. We are here to be slaughtered, one by one.” We had nothing to give except each other but as well as yourself you gave me a tangle woven of bull’s hair you had worried into the shape of a wreath.
But then, by the closing of the season, you grow nostalgic and take me to sleep against the tall white wall. We listen against its smoothness, as though it were a shell. We can hear the sea. “I want the sea,” you say, “I want the sea.”
In whispers throughout our days and nights, we plan to escape. We plan to run, fight, or win our freedom with wild feats. “If I could master the trick of it,” you say, “become the island’s best.”
“I am too big,” you say, “a farmer’s son. Designed to fight. When you are free you can return and buy me from the school.”
I promised then and wrote our contract with blood across the sand.
The fourth bull of the winter gored your heart out and scalded mine. I turned away as half of Crete cheered. But I had sworn, and so continued. I risked near-missed leaps between the horns of red-eyed bulls. This was our pact. I would live on carrying the thread of everything we’d sworn. It was written on sand.
And when I won my wreath as champion and rights to freedom, I ran to the shore and bathed in the sea. The sea touched every part of me and my skin drank up its touch as though it were a lover I had been parted from.
Children grow up and forget. And though I am now a gilded son of Thebes, and wise in my own way in the art of diplomacy, my only treasure is the bull’s hair wreath you wove for me to wear.