Eels with earrings

Vivian Rose Spencer was almost running now, up the mountainside, along the ancient paving stones of the Sacred Way, accompanied by an orchestra of birds, spring water, cicadas and the encounter of breeze and olive trees. The guide and donkeys were far behind, so there was no one to see her stop sharply beside a white block which had tumbled partway down the mountain centuries ago and rest her hands against its surface before bending close to touch her lips to it. Marble, grit, and a taste which made her jerk away in shock—the bones of Zeus’ sanctuary had the sweetness of fig. Either that, or a bird flying overhead might have dropped a fruit here, and the juice of it smeared against the stone. She looked down at her feet,saw a split-open fig.

– Labraunda! she called out, her voice echoing.

– Labraunda! she heard, bouncing back down the mountain at her. That wasn’t her voice at all. It was a man, his accent both familiar and foreign. But no, she was the foreign one here. She picked up the fig, held it to her nose and closed her eyes. She never wanted to return to London again.

The reports of the nineteenth-century travellers hadn’t prepared her for this: on the terraced upper slopes of the mountain enough of the vast temple complex remained intact to allow the imagination to pick up fallen colonnades, piece together the scattered marble and stone blocks, and imagine the grandeur that once was. Here, the Carian forces fled after losing a battle against the might of Darius’ Persians; here, the architects of the Mausoleum, that wonder of the world, honed their craft; here, Alexander came to see the mighty two-headed axe of the Amazon queen held aloft by the statue of Zeus.

Viv walked slowly, trying to take it all in: the ruins, half lost in foliage; the sounds of earth being turned, tree limbs hacked, voices speaking indistinct words; the view which held, all at once, the vast sky, the plain beneath, and the Aegean Sea in the distance. She had yet to become accustomed to the light of this part of the world—brilliant without being harsh, it made her feel she’d spent her whole life with gauze over her eyes. Something small and muscled charged at her, almost knocking her down.

– Alice! she cried out, and tried to pick up the pug, but the animal bounded ahead, and Viv followed, through a maze of broken columns taller than the tallest of men, until she saw the familiar lean form of her father’s old friend Tahsin Bey crouching on the ground next to a man with sandy-blond hair, pointing at something carved onto a large stone block—a serpentine shape, with a loop behind its open jaw.

– A snake, the man with sandy-blond hair said, in a German accent.

– An eel? suggested Tahsin Bey in that way he had of putting forward a certainty as though it were a theory he was asking you to consider.

– An eel? Why an eel?

It was Viv who answered, though she knew it was impolite to enter the conversation of men unaware of her presence.

– Because Pliny tells us that in the springs of Labraunda there are eels which wear earrings.

The two men turned to look at her, and she couldn’t stop herself from adding:

– And Aelian says there are fish wearing golden necklaces who are tamed, and answer the calls of men.

Tahsin Bey held out his hand, his smile of welcome overriding the formality of the gesture.

– Welcome to Labraunda, Vivian Rose.

His palm was calloused, and a few moments later when she raised her hand to brush some irritation out of her eye she smelt tobacco and earth overlaying fig. The richness of the scent made her linger over it until she saw the German looking at her with a knowing expression she didn’t like. Briskly, she lowered her hand and rubbed it on her skirt, all the while wondering how she would ever rest her eyes in this place with so much to see.

Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury India.

A God in Every Stone ( 499) is available in book stores from this week.