Over the next year and a half Zoie grew like the proverbial weed. It seemed each day when I arrived home something was new. Smiles, rolls, sitting up, crawling, standing, walking, talking. I was awed by how quickly this baby becomes a small person. Before I realized it, she was running to meet me crying “Dwaddy! Dwaddy!” in her little voice.
Time passed and my house became crowded. I was thankful for the assistance of the healer’s niece, though now my home was overrun with women. It seemed the midwife and healer had felt sympathy for me, they took to visiting frequently. I used their kindness as liberally, for it was difficult to work and raise a growing daughter.
I was often seen running between my home and the fields. Neo would meet me each morning and run at my side. Without his humour the days would have been dark with the only speck of light from Zoie’s smiling, sparkling green eyes.
On her second birthday, I took Zoie with me to the fields. I had been promoted and was in charge of my own field. ‘My own’ in that if anything went wrong, I was held responsible, not meaning that I owned it. I owned nothing, except my daughter.
Zoie ran dark hair flying behind her like a shawl, for about two minutes, kicking up dust and squealing, before turning and running headlong back at me. I must catch her, spin her not once but twice, and lift her onto my shoulders. “It’s the rules, Dwaddy,” she had told me.
The various women in their stola fetching water and food each spared a smile for Zoie and I. I praised Hestia for the warmth Zoie had brought to me.
“Dwaddy! Bird!” she pointed upwards.
“Yes Zoie,” I replied.
“Dwaddy! Unca Neo! Down, down!” She bounced urgently on my shoulders. Chuckling, I reached up, lifted her over my head, and place her on the dusty ground. Immediately, she took off running towards Neo who was blissfully unaware as he stared at a pretty girl. Or two. This heedless contemplation was short lived when Zoie crashed into his knees.
Laughing, Neo fell carefully to the ground. “Wow, by Bellona, you’re a strong one Zoie! Be careful of your old Uncle Neo.” Neo pushed himself up off the ground. He began dusting off his tunic, but Zoie tackled him again, grabbing his hands as they dusted.
“Up, up, up,” she bounced. “Zoie want up, Unca Neo! Up, up!” Her enthusiasm made the plain tan tunic she wore swirl around her ankles.
Neo grinned as he placed Zoie on his shoulders. “Off to work with Dad and Uncle Neo, then, are you Zoie? Better be sure to listen closely. Threshing can be dangerous.” I watched as Neo bounced her along on his shoulders. He enjoyed Zoie nearly as much as I did. It was unfortunate Neo had yet to become a father himself.
We passed through the village and followed the well trod path to the fields the sounds of the birds accompanying us. I always arrived early, liking my stolen moments of solitude before the onrush of workers and chores began. This morning Zoie sat on Neo’s shoulders, mesmerized. Neo whistled a child’s song, but only for his own benefit.
The temporary shed, left up during harvest time to protect the tools, was at the end of our field. It got moved around as needed, the landowner not wanting his slaves and freedmen to spend any more time away from actual work than necessary. I lifted the cover and counted out a dozen scythes.
Zoie was down and running, again. I did not see her for several minutes, and then her head was bobbing above the wheat, her arms flailing as she yelled, “Dwaddy! Look at! Look at what I found, Dwaddy!”
Gently, I lay the scythes neatly on a piece of dry tarp from the shed, and went to see. She was a third of the way down a row of wheat, bouncing up and down on a large rock. “Look at, Dwaddy! I stand here and I see you work. I see all it from here.” Zoie nodded seriously, as only a child can.
“Yes, dear, you could. But it is dangerous to be in the middle of a field at threshing time, especially when you are so little. You might be injured if someone was working nearby and didn’t see you.”
“Oh,” Zoie sniffed at my rebuke, and sat down clutching her knees. “But I want to watch.” Her green eyes glistened with tears as she pleaded with me.
“Well, we have some time before the other workers arrive. Neo!” I turned and yelled for Neo who was resting near the laid out scythes. “Bring two scythes and come here!”
“Yes, sir, mister boss, sir!” was his brash reply. A few moments later he appeared, holding two scythes. “What’s up, Demetri?”
“Zoie wants to sit here and watch today,” I explained, “so we are going to clear the surrounding wheat. We don’t want any accidents.” Neo nodded. “I’ll take left, you take right.” I patted Zoie quickly on the head and moved off to thresh the area to the left of her rock.
Zoie came with me for threshing every year after that, and always Neo and I would clear the area around ‘her’ rock before the others arrived. Just in case.
The morning of Zoie’s fifth birthday, I left our home early to retrieve the doll I had asked the toymaker to hold for me.
Today Zoie would go to learn her work. She was fortunate, I was fortunate. The healer who had long taken pity on us had seen a talent in Zoie, and would train her as an assistant. I was glad Zoie would have a skill, and not simply woman’s work. It was a small buffer against the harshness of the world. And so, for this special day, I had requested a special doll.
It was perfect. I had asked the toymaker to build the doll in Zoie’s likeness. Her dark brown hair was braided in two tight braids. Her small pink mouth smiled at the world. Her simple tunic was tied with a bright blue ribbon, Zoie’s favourite colour. And its sparkling green eyes were the very essence of Zoie’s joyous soul. Her own eyes, unlike either mine or her mother’s; all her own.
The sunrise shone golden as I walked back to our home, cradling Zoie’s doll as I had once cradled her. I saw her sitting on Neo’s lap laughing at a jest he had made. A braided crown of dark hair above her flushed and smiling face. She bounced on Neo’s lap, as full of joy as ever. Her green eyes sparkled, and I saw the same joyful sparkle echoed in Neo’s green eyes.
A puff of dust rose from the ground at my feet where Zoie’s doll had fallen. Numbness flooded me with understanding as I stared at my betrayer and his progeny.
I marched towards the field, unmindful of the squawks left in my wake. Fury followed numbness. I must get to the field, to act, before my mind was wholly overcome.
I tore the cover from the shed and wrenched a scythe from its innards. The others clattered to ground nearby, and I kicked them out of my way.
I swung the scythe with both arms and cut down the wheat like traitors. Over and over my scythe swung, relentless in its efficiency, my shoulders becoming as numb as I once again felt. I barely noticed the presence of the other workers as they arrived. I didn’t notice passing Zoie’s rock, nor the soft thump that landed behind me as I did.
Not until night fell and the air around me cooled, did I begin to cool. I slowed and finished the row of wheat, taking my scythe to return it to the shed. As I placed it inside, I noticed rust along its edge. One of the slaves had been failing to close the shed tightly, it seemed.
I straightened and saw Neo running towards me, his face contorted in fear. Did he know I knew? Should I kill him here and now? There was no one else around and the rusty scythe blade would assuredly camouflage his blood. Then Zoie would be my daughter again and he could never change that. I would wait to see what he said. Then I would know if it was necessary.
“Demetri?” Neo panted, “have you seen Zoie? I’ve just come from the healer’s and she’s not been there all day. I know she followed you to the field this morning, and….” He shrugged elegantly.
I blinked, confused, trying to recall this morning through the haze of discovery. “I haven’t seen my daughter all day,” I rebutted. “Are you sure she followed me?”
He nodded so violently I thought his head might fall off. I nearly laughed at the image. “Well,” I turned to survey the field and noticed Zoie’s rock sitting alone in its midst, “perhaps she’s on the rock. I’ll look.” I strode off with him.
As I approached the rock I saw a shadow on the ground that was not wheat. At the foot of the rock were two shapes; one round, the second oblong with odd appendages. The nearer I got, the faster my mind raced and the slower my heart became. Steps away I closed my eyes, willing it to be something else.
I knelt at the foot of Zoie’s rock and lifted her severed head into my lap. I stroked the back of her soft skull, the whisps of brown hair caressing my fingers. I lifted her body from where it lay, and placed it in my lap next to the head. I closed my eyes and cradled her close. She felt just the same.
But the warmth was gone. The only warmth I could feel were the tears running down my face. I raised my head the skies and howled.
I was numb as I lifted Zoie in my arms and carried her from the field. I was numb as I heard Neo’s gasp. I was numb as I turned to glare at him, promising him retribution for the tragedy his actions had caused. I was numb as I wandered.
I awoke from numbness to find myself at the foot of Letha’s grave. All I had carried with me was Zoie. I had no tools for the job ahead, and I was content. My hands, the hands that had held her, had comforted her, had fed her, had played with her, had killed her; my hands would dig her grave.
I lay Zoie’s body on the grass where I knew Letha’s chest would be. If I turned her just so I could pretend she was snuggled against her mother’s grave as she had been before. My face was still wet, but I paid it no mind as I began to dig.
The grasses were dense over the grave due to the richness of the soil, I presumed. The earth tore at my fingers as I tried to rip it up but to no avail. I won; I would always win whatever the cost. When I wiped my brow the blood from my fingertips, the soil, and my tears blended together and were returned to the earth, to the grave that would soon bear not only my wife, unfaithful though she had been, but my daughter, the child of my heart. Soon blood, sweat, tears and earth coated my arms and formed a heap beside Zoie’s still form.
The hole was clear in the moonlight. It lay just beside Zoie, above Letha’s chest. I lifted Zoie gently, attempting to pretend she was asleep, but the coldness of her skin and the wobbling of her head broke apart my fantasy. At last Zoie was snug near Letha. Snuggled against her mother in death, as she had never been in life.
I collapsed back on my heels. I wanted to take a few moments to grieve for the two women I had lost, but my job was not yet complete. I still had to fill the hole.
Fingers bleeding, arms already caked with dirt, I began to lift back into the hole what I had just dug out. It seemed fitting that my blood mixed with the soil that covered Zoie. My blood might never have run in her veins, a thought that nearly brought the return of the morning’s madness, but my blood had protected her and cared for her. Mine was all she’d ever known and been.
They had both been mine, and Neo had stolen them. First Letha, then, from that theft, Zoie. He would pay. I would not forget his betrayal. I would not blame Zoie for the fault of her mother, and Letha was weak of spirit like many women, easily swayed by a glib smiling fool like Neo. Besides, she was already dead.
I lay the last of the soil atop Zoie’s body and sat back on my heels, free at last mourn until I was empty. I mourned the loss of Zoie’s presence, her joy, her future, my happiness in watching her grow; I mourned the loss of my naivety, the thought that Letha had been mine alone, that loyalty and family were as important to others as they were to me; I mourned for myself, knowing that I would never be whole again, never truly be Demetrius, husband, father, friend. I was only a man, alone.
Such was my grief that I believed the darkness moving in around me to be wholly my own creation. As though my grief had summoned the Shades to drag me down to Hades’ depths. Then the shadows drew close around me, pinning my arms, and squeezing my chest. I drew a shallow breath, restricted by the shadows wrapped round my torso.
And then I welcome them. I was no longer Demetri, everything of value was gone and soon I would be gone, too. Something pierced my neck, and pain radiated outwards yet I remained calm. I was aware of my blood leaving through that piercing, my breath leaving my lungs; all that remained of Demetri, leaving. It was good.
Drained of all life, and all that had made life worthwhile, I fell forwards into the shadow’s waiting arms. My face was engulfed in solid shadows, and a drip of something coppery crossed my tongue. My swallow was a mere reflex; I did not want sustenance, I wanted death, but my body was betraying me.
More of the coppery liquid passed my lips, a drop, a mouthful, more. With each swallow I could feel death growing weaker. I tried to turn my head away, I tried to close my mouth, but my body refused to let go. Strength began returning to my limbs, but I still could not catch my breath. I pushed against the shadows, and they retreated.
I sucked deeply of the night air, yet could not feel it filling my lungs. I blew out, but it required such effort that I abandoned the attempt, simply standing and watching the shadows slowly recede as my insides called for more of that coppery liquid.
Come, the shadows spoke in my mind, come to your new life, son of shadow. Leaving Demetri with his wife and daughter, I followed.