Chapter 7: The Mission

Stauria awoke with the foul taste of bad wine coating her mouth.  In the dark she could feel the weight of his arm around her waist, the heat of his body pressed against her back.  What is his name? she wondered and then shrugged off the question as unimportant.  She picked up his wrist between thumb and finger, removing the offending limb so she could sit up and step away from the bed.  He paid for me last night, she thought.  But it’s morning now and I belong to myself for a few hours.

She dressed quickly, eager to get to the public baths and wash away his touch, his smell. She was quick, but she was also quiet, not wanting to disturb the man’s sleep—though it was the desire to have no further contact with him rather than any feeling of kindness for a weary sailor that motivated her stealth.  Taking one more careful look at the sleeping figure, she ran her hands over his discarded clothing, hoping to find a coin purse to sweeten the meager fee they had agreed to on the street.  She remembered, then, that he had tied his purse around his neck before turning to sleep, mocking her with a gap-toothed grin, letting her know wordlessly that he’d dealt with her kind before. Angered by the memory, she slammed the door on leaving and raced down the stairs to lose herself in the press of slaves and freedmen already flowing through the streets of Corinth. 

There, in the loneliness of the crowd, moving toward the morning’s bath and the morning’s first drink, she let the tears come.  

It had been her habit for twenty years—ever since she’d first been captured and passed among the Roman soldiers, through the succession of masters who used her and made her available to their friends, through this last decade serving a pimp who sold her services at symposiae and then, as she wore, in his brothel and finally, almost used up, on street corners and in low-rent inns.  Whatever her circumstances, there had always been this morning walk from the bed to the baths, time enough for a few tears. 

In the early years, she had wept for shame.  Then she wept in anger.  There had been a long period when the tears were an outlet for self-pity, lamenting her emptiness and the waste of her life. 

She still wept each morning. But, more and more, it was fear that made her cry.  She was no longer young and the long slide to the bottom of the prostitution ladder was almost over.  Men did not look at her now with hunger.  They saw the lines on her face, the scars of disease on her cheeks, and passed on to find someone more desirable.  Only if it was dark and they were very drunk could Stauria negotiate a fee.  Their apathy wounded her.  How often had she wished men would not look at her in that way.  But now that they looked away, she craved their eyes on her body and the security of knowing there would be food tomorrow.

Her pimp grumbled about her dwindling take and beat her on those occasions when she came in from the night empty-handed.  “Worthless whore!” he’d call after her when she finally broke away. “You’re no good to me unless you’re on your back.  But nobody’s desperate enough to pay for the privilege.” His ridicule drove her back to the streets, eager to prove him wrong.  But she knew her time was running out.  She knew that after the street corners came the horrors of being a two-obol woman, selling herself under bridges and in alley ways, trading the remains of her body for a life that was worse than death.

Stauria was thirty two and her life was over.

She wiped her face and hurried her steps to the baths.  No wine today.  A decent meal, perhaps—she was so thin. A borrowed bed at the brothel for a good, long sleep.  Yes.  That will help.  A hard scrubbing so I will be fresher for tonight.

But the thought of yet another night slowed her feet.  She recalled the faces last evening, the sneers and disgust that greeted her advances.  She remembered her desperation, how she’d trolled the bars until early morning, looking for someone drunk enough to have her.  She remembered his foul stench and crude pawings.

She stopped in the middle of the street and admitted that a bath would not help much after all.  There was a dirt that clung to her no matter how carefully she washed.  It polluted her all the way to her bones.  It made her despise herself.  It  drove her to the wine she used to blunt the odor of an inner decay. 

Stauria knew—without doubt and in that piece of her heart she had reserved for herself—that she needed something a bath or a good meal or a long sleep could never supply. She needed something to stop the slide.  She stood there as people walked around her or elbowed her aside and thought about opening her wrists.  They say it didn’t hurt much.  Sort of like going to sleep.  And she was so tired.

And then she heard the strident calls of the street-hawker and decided she would have some wine after all.  It might give her the courage to face another night.  She counted her meager funds and realized there would not be enough left for food.  But drink took the edge off hunger, she well knew, and if she were to have a full stomach to fortify her for the unpleasantness of the evening, better it be wine than bread. 

Bread sharpens.  Wine dulls.

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[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.