Shemsi pushed a lock of hair away from her face; a few strands sticking to the sides with sweat as she breathed in air made heavy by the evaporation from the Mediterranean Sea. It was another sweltering day on the port in Sidon, with the heat from the noonday sun bearing down upon all who dared to venture out on such a day. Shemsi grit her teeth and squinted, her eyes on the good being off-loaded from the ship by sweaty, muscled slaves. She rubbed the linen- covered scratches on forearm absent mindedly.
The four years after Baarak’s death had seen his fortune swell, with Shemsi being known around Sidon as a shrewd and calculating business woman, dealing in fine spices, linen, spun silk and fine jewelry brought from as far as Egypt. Rumour had it she could tell if an entire consignment of spices had gone stale by inhaling the top of the barrels.
She also dealt in the costly purple dye from murex shells- her purple silks so coveted by the wives of the rich that she was able to name her price for them. She counted Roman officials as part of her customer base. One of such customers was Centurion Janus Marcellus, a Roman soldier.
She had gone to appeal to him, asking that the soldiers in his command cease the harassment being leveled on her workers, especially those involved in bringing in goods.
“It is bad for business,” she had said, standing in front of him in his large tent in the middle of the military camp. “Why, the last time one of your soldiers almost beat one of my men to death for a minor infraction. Thank the gods he did not die as he is one of my best dye mixers!”
She had been agitated that day, she remembered, even as she came to him adorned in her finery, with her eyes rimmed in black. She had noted with satisfaction, the gleam of appreciation in his eyes as they roved over her form. Men. They are all the same. Pretty face, pretty body, pretty flattery and money…and you have them in your palm.
He had smiled at her- his lip curling and the dimple in his chin appearing pressed in. “And what would you have me do, my lady?” His voice had flowed over her in a wave of innuendo and she prepared herself for what she was sure to come.
“I would request that your men desist from harassing or harming my men. I am willing to pay handsomely for this. I am one of the richest and most respected merchants in all Sidon so you may name your price.”
“Oh, I have a price, my lady,” he said.
And Shemsi understood.
Janus Marcellus proved to be an accomplished lover, but more importantly, a useful one. Her workers were relatively free of harassment and she found that having a Roman lover oiled the hinges of commerce for her. Every time Shemsi found herself in his embrace, she focused her mind on her wealth and what she wanted to leave behind for her daughter. Gold and silver were all she could give Ba’asma and all they had in life was each other.
She was aware of the scorn people had for her, calling her a harlot behind her back. She was accustomed to it as she had been even when Baarak was alive.
At least this time it is true; I am a harlot. But I am not a hypocrite. At least as I sell my body to the Roman I gain an empire in wealth. I am no worse than some of these foolish simpletons who spend a night in a lover’s embrace for nothing more than a few words of poetry and a few scraps of silk.
In another lifetime perhaps she would have prayed to the gods, Eshmun and Ba’al. But she had nothing left in her for them, and she suspected the feeling was mutual. They had abandoned her the day she married Baarak. For a time, after Baarak’s death, she had renewed her devotion to them, hoping they would lift the oppressive heaviness in her home and heart, and free Ba’asma from the imp within. They had proven deaf to her pleas and so she stopped pleading entirely.
The squawking of birds brought her attention back to the port.
“Be careful with that box, you fool,” she shouted at one of the workers. “You drop it and I will have the skin stripped off you.”
Her head was throbbing.
Ba’asma had had one of her episodes again that morning and had smashed several Corinthian vases before some slaves had subdued her. Shemsi had run in to find Ba’asma held fast by three slaves, her hair in disarray and her eyes flashing. She had cuts on her arms where she had taken shards of the broken vases and cut herself before they had grabbed her. When she saw Shemsi, she had let out a roar so guttural that even the slaves flinched.
“You!” she spat. “You old whore!”
Shemsi heard the servant girls gasp. Shemsi knelt down and grabbed her daughter’s face between her palms, staring and desperate to try and catch a glimpse of the Ba’asma she had long lost. Tears clouded her vision as she held her fast.
“Oh Ba’asma…what are we to do?” Her tone was pleading, as if in the corner of her mind, she felt that the malevolent force within her child would see reason and leave her alone.
For a moment, she thought she glimpsed innocence in those eyes and felt Ba’asma relax.
Shemsi felt a surge of relief and love flood her. Ba’asma relaxed and Shemsi moved her arms to embrace her daughter, and Ba’asma rested her head on Shemsi’s shoulder. The servants let go of her and pulled back, leaving mother and daughter. Shemsi pulled back and studied Ba’asma, whose eyes were closed, as though asleep.
“Oh my darling…my only precious daughter…”
There was total silence, and Shemsi reveled in the moment. Then Ba’asma opened her eyes.
“You are still a dirty Roman’s whore,” she hissed, the hatred back in her eyes.
Shemsi gasped as Ba’asma reached to the floor, picked a shard of pottery and swung it at her. Shemsi put her arm up to block the blow and felt a stream of pain slice up her arm. Her reaction was swift and violent: she drew up her other arm and slapped her daughter so hard that her head snapped back and she fell backward, sprawled on the floor. Shemsi got up, weeping more from the pain of the war within her daughter than the wound she sported on her arm.
Ba’asma began to scream, high pitched wails that sounded like the howl of a desert fox. The servants ran back and restrained her.
“Quick, bring the flower milk! Bring it now.”Shemsi shouted. Frida, her handmaid, came scurrying in, holding a small jar with a milky substance in it. Shemsi snatched it from her and grabbed her daughter’s face, squeezing her cheeks between her fingers to part her lips and tipped the jar so a few drops fell into Ba’asma’s open, screaming mouth. A few moments later a glazed look came over Ba’asma and she relaxed, the drug taking effect. That had proved to be the only way to calm Ba’asma.
That substance was another benefit of being Janus’ lover – a secret potion he claimed was derived from some red flowers far east; a substance that when ingested caused numbness, sleep and in some cases hallucinations. She had paid dearly for that one jar whose contents she guarded carefully. Only Frida knew its whereabouts in the house.
As a servant carried Ba’asma’s limp form into her room, Shemsi stood by, appearing aloof and in control. Frida hurried in with a bowl of hot water and wine and began to clean the wound on her arm, which had begun to drip in scarlet circles on the cream colored floor tiles.
Shemsi flinched at the pain and forced herself to ask, through gritted teeth, “Are her wounds being tended to?”
“As we speak, my lady,” the trembling maid responded. “Old Gerta is cleaning them and will apply salve and dress them. She ought to sleep soundly this time around as you gave her a little more potion than usual. I fear she may need more in time to keep her under control.”
“Did I ask for your opinion?” Shemsi’s question was cold and she saw the maid recoil in fear. She did not wish to be harsh but she knew she had to appear hard and unyielding to ensure that she retained mastery over her emotions and utmost control over her household.
Frida seemed to shrink back. “My apologies, my lady. I meant no harm.”
“If you are finished with my wound, you may leave.”
The girl got up and scampered away, leaving Shemsi to herself. It was then that she had given in to her tears.