The mines were manned by an odd mixture of convicts, a few of them exiled nobles, and free Afar and Aksumites of a handful of tribes. They camped at the well nearest the salt flats, a journey of some three hours each way. The men worked through the day’s heat so the camels could rest in the night’s cool. Every morning the men trudged on foot across the desert to the crusted lake where they cut and lifted the salt and shaped it with small hatchets into amole bars. Then they walked back to the camp. The camels were loaded with salt on the return trip; they could not carry enough water to sustain the men for more than a single morning’s labor.
During the day Telemakos was set to ferrying water skins from the camels to the workers out on the salt. Fetching water was women’s work, so no one ever wanted this job; at the mines it fell to those who had no other choice, and as long as someone loaded and led him, it was a task Telemakos could do without the use of his hands. He served the free workmen who could pour the water for themselves. To walk and stand among these men proved better luck than he had ever hoped for, for there was enough foreign traffic each day that even the Afar salt cutters spoke Ethiopic as often as they spoke their own language, and they talked unguardedly with one another as if Telemakos were not there. In a week he had pieced together the crimes and pedigrees of half the prisoners, and which of the foremen were not to be trusted and why, and the schedule of expected traders over the next three months.
This constant spring of information was his only consolation in an otherwise agonizing life of discomfort and exhaustion. His narrow ankles would not be held in a grown man’s leg irons, so they were made to fit both at once through a single large shackle while he slept; then, hours before sunrise, Telemakos was led on the trek over the barren miles to the salt, and back in the infernal heat of early afternoon. The ring of gold seared his throat like a branding iron. His bare scalp grew sun-scorched, as did his nose and the back of his neck and the tops of his ears; when the sunburn blistered and peeled, the raw skin beneath burned over again. The cuts and open blisters of his first unshod march would not heal, but they were caked with salt now and did not fester.
Telemakos hardened to the daily journey. He did not doubt that if he failed to keep up he would be abandoned by the roadside, bound and blind and without water in the hellish desert sun; and maybe the Afar tribesmen would trouble to build a cairn over his desiccated body if they discovered him later. His deep horror of this doom pressed Telemakos more urgently than the whip that sometimes cut across the backs of his bare knees, and Telemakos kept pace with the miners.
All in darkness. In darkness he was led to the mines, in darkness led over the salt burdened with water he was never allowed to share, in darkness he was fed, in darkness led to the sleeping place. He hated the blindfold more than the goatskin straps that sawed at his shoulders, or the stale injera that was all they ever gave him to eat, or the hard salt crust burning the soles of his cracked feet, or the heat, or the constant thirst.
They never gave him enough water. For a fortnight or more he was given only three measures during the day’s work—one before setting out for the salt flats, one on arrival, and one before the return trek—until he felt sure he would die within the month. He could scarcely feel his tongue; his lips were so dry they split and bled. If he wept there were no tears. When the empty jar was taken from his lips he yearned after it, as if the very scent of the warm, brackish water that had filled it could refresh him.
Telemakos and the one who held the jar for him were able to coordinate their movements so that no drop was ever lost. There came a light tap on the back of his head that told him the water was coming, and then the hand on his head held him steady, and the rim was held to his mouth: once when he was dragged from sleep, thrice during the wretched hours of blind labor, and lastly before he was pushed back down among the other resting bodies when the hours of labor were over. One blistering morning, the man who guided his drinking brought Telemakos an extra measure of water. Telemakos held still, feeling the priceless gift waiting against his chin; then he turned his head a fraction, and with his broken lips gently kissed the hand that held the bottle.
“Eh, you are welcome, boy,” said a harsh voice, and another said, “He can’t hear you.”
“I forget sometimes,” said the guide. “He’s finer mannered than any noble I’ve had in my charge.”
How in the world can he tell that? Telemakos wondered. All I ever do is go where they push me and eat what they put in front of me. And I must look like a warthog when I eat, holding my bread between my knees and tearing it apart with my teeth.
“Aye, he carries himself like a young chieftain,” said the other.
This worried Telemakos. He did not want anyone to notice him. He tried to seem more cowed.
It should have been easy. There was scarcely a shred left of his shamma, which they tore apart again to make a new blindfold when the first began to disintegrate. Telemakos had never imagined he could hate a lifeless piece of cloth as much as he now hated that shamma. Because of the blindfold Telemakos was kept bound; and that meant he could never sleep comfortably, nor feed himself, nor reach to adjust the water bags when they chafed his shoulders.
Nor could he stop them when they slipped.
Telemakos could carry one full goatskin, and that was a day’s water for four men. It took all his strength to stay upright and stagger forward under this awkward weight, so to make better use of him his overseers usually loaded him with several partly emptied skins that could be evenly distributed over his shoulders. These they tied together into a makeshift harness, which one day came apart while Telemakos was waiting to be led out onto the salt.
He could not reach the slipping water bags, nor even see where they were falling, but instinctively Telemakos swung around as though he had some hope of saving them. In doing so he collided with a man who was tying amole blocks to a camel’s back. Salt and water came toppling down around them. One of the skins burst as it struck the ground, and Telemakos’s sore feet were soothed with an unexpected wash of warm water even as he heard the salt blocks shattering.
He stood frozen while the amole crashed in a heap around his ankles. One of the falling blocks grazed his wrist bone hard enough to draw blood.
People surrounded him, cursing and crying out.
“The belt’s slipped—”
“That is an hour’s work smashed to ruin!”
“There’s salt everywhere, man, who needs salt? The water wasted!”
Someone hit Telemakos across the mouth.
“Don’t do that. You’ve no authority.”
“Well, get Hara.”
Telemakos stood waiting, filled with childish dread, while they fetched the vindictive warden.
Hara was brutal. “Careless whelp! Those bars were worth more than I paid for you!” He struck Telemakos again, driving him to his knees. “And who will go without the water spilled this day, young jackal’s spawn? Eh? Too well born for work that any half-grown girl can do! Here in the desert he who cannot carry, cannot drink.”
Telemakos cowered beneath the vitriol as much as the blows, and ground his teeth together in the effort not to answer in kind. All his hope lay in seeming ignorant.
Hara made a sound as though he were dusting Telemakos’s touch from his hands. “Thunder and lightning, how am I to discipline a deaf-mute? Have this boy lashed. I hate these royal outcasts.”
It was foully unfair. Righteous anger, and despair over the lost water, made Telemakos reckless. He fought as they untangled him from the fickle harness.
They bore down on him like hunting hyenas, with terrifying swiftness. Telemakos had nursed the illusion that although he volunteered his obedience, he was still free to move and object and make his own will known. But his will counted for nothing. He could not see to aim his blows; his feet and teeth never connected with anything, and his bound arms were useless. Every hand that touched him seemed twice the size of his own, and wielded thrice the strength. They overpowered him as easily as they might have held off a toddling infant, and much more cruelly.
They tore off his ragged shamma, and fixed his loosely bound hands tight together behind his back; then one of them managed to shove thick fingers into the scant space between Telemakos’s throat and the band of gold he wore, and gripping the collar as though Telemakos were an unruly hound, the man heaved him across a stretch of burning gravel and hurled him against a wall of salt slag. Telemakos was so choked and stunned by this that he could scarcely breathe. He did not make a sound during the beating that followed, only because they did not release his throat until it was over.
When they let go of him at last, he sank to his knees, battling the need to weep aloud. After a little while this gave him focus, and he sniffed and sniveled abjectly in the blazing sunlight until his bonds were loosened slightly and he was set back to work. He was given no drink through all that afternoon.
Later, when he lay with his feet ironbound in the row of sleeping prisoners, Telemakos cried again, silently and to himself, for a long time.
No one will treat you gently if you are caught.
Telemakos did not mind hardship, and he was not usually afraid of being hurt. But he was beginning to thirst for kindness more desperately than he thirsted for water.
—tight in his claws a struggling dove, and he ripped its feathers out and they drifted down to earth …
HIS HAIR WAS GROWING back. Telemakos could tell, because people suddenly began to touch his head, as if for luck, like the street children of Aksum. It came out of nowhere: when he was waiting for his shoulders to be hung about with water skins, when he was eating, sometimes when he was allowed a few moments to sit resting with his head against his knees between trips out to the salt. Light fingers brushed against his scalp and no one ever said anything. Eventually he could feel the slight give of the new hair as the surreptitious fingers swept over it.
There was not a thing Telemakos could do about his hair, except to hope that it would not be recognized or held against him.
Caravan upon caravan of traders arrived and left without Telemakos’s being parceled off to them, and he was in an agony of confusion as to what this could mean. Had they not been willing to pay whatever exorbitant price Hara asked for him, or had he not been offered to them? None of the bands had included the man Telemakos was waiting for, so he tried to be thankful that he had not been shipped off already. He suspected and hoped, and feared so cravenly he grew ashamed of himself, that Hara was waiting for the Lazarus even as Telemakos was, and meant to offer Telemakos to him and none other.
His tracker’s intuition was dead on target. It was in fact more than two months since Telemakos had left Adulis, and a little less than two months since he had first come to the mines in Afar. Telemakos was one day stripped of his baggage and led to a place he had not been before, but which he knew existed: the enclosure where the foremen and warden camped. Telemakos was taken inside one of the shelters; he could tell he was inside by the shade, though it was not much cooler than without. It was anyway singularly different from the punishing legwork he had grown used to, and it set his nerves on edge.