Alexander Part II: The journey aboard the Memnon

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Years later, we would often debate on who had made such a grave mistake.  With the remains of the previous night’s raki still fogging our brains every memory was clouded by nonsense.  And so each version of events was as different as the personalities in our party.  But I for one, regardless of whose mistake it was, am always reminded of a tenant of life: Never ask a thief to buy something for you.

And so after an expert, hearty breakfast prepared by one of Zeki’s men, we prepared to depart Istanbul bound for our adventure.  Stelios met us at the central terminal having bought the tickets that (somebody) had volunteered him to procure.  With glee, and a slap upon his packet of papers did Stelios state with a flourish, “Granicus.  Let’s go!”

All of us stared at Stelios without comprehension.  Until Mut offered, simply, “Granicus is Ottoman.”

“Yes!” Stelios lit a cigarette and dragged with pleasure.

“We’re going to Greece,” said George wearily.

Stelios waved his lit cigarette, “Why would we…”

“Greece is where Alexander started…”, George implored.

“…but to find Alexander,” Stelios clapped his palms together, “we must of course venture to his first great victory against the Persians!”

Mut shook his head, “Greece first.”

“No, Granicus,” Stelios stabbed his cigarette, “We will let you guide us through the oh so many Moslem worlds that await us, but for the moment, this is my part.  My part, and to Granicus we go.”

Mut again, deadpan, “Granicus is Moslem.”

Either out of frustration or sheer drive, Alianna stepped forward and ripped the tickets from the packet, and with the slightest of whispers did state into Stelios’ ear, “Idiot.”  And she was off toward the ticket office.  The rest of us meekly and with resignation followed.  She returned shortly afterwards with the steamer tickets for Chalcis.

Alexander was born in Pella, in theory.  But at that time he was just a baby, a human, and a reasonable calculation would have termed his political future (and his very life) doomed.  We were bound for Chalcis, and then through the dusty background of the Greek countryside we would edge the outskirts of Attica and then cross over the borders into Boeotia.  Finally we would stumble upon a little hamlet, the place where Alexander was born.  Chaeronea.  Granicus would come, but only later.

We bade goodbye to Istanbul, a place we would remain inexplicably linked to throughout our adventures but would not see for a very long time.  Zeki had left me with a great deal of letters and contacts for our forthcoming journeys.

The docks were a mass of humanity.  Shoulder to shoulder we pushed through the crowds for the steamship piers.  All of Istanbul seemed primed to dispense with most of the day’s business before the afternoon, before the heat returned.  Yet surrounded by traders, hackers, herders, moneymen, longshoremen, one quickly heats up anyways.

As always I was glad for my loose traveling clothes which equally fit a sun scorched mountain as a busy dockside.  George’s apparel quite agreed with my style.  I didn’t know how Mut and Stelios did it, with their tailored and pristine suits, saved from a bath only by the handkerchiefs they repeatedly bore.  Or Alianna, who wore her styled intoxicating garb with grace, but seemed to carry no handkerchief nor any sweat upon her brow.

We plowed our way to the jetty and our ride in Memnon, a coastal steamship whose material condition seemed perfectly suited to safely take us the seven-hundred yards across the Bosporus without incident, but not much further.  I made a note to thank my Uncle for teaching me how to swim the next time I found myself compelled to pray at some point in the forthcoming month.

I observed with pleasure the timetables and that our journey south would likely mirror the routes in which the triremes had sailed these waters.  We would hug Ottoman Europe and the Greek coast until we met Chalcis.  We would stop for passengers by choice.  The Ancient Greeks had to stop most nights and pull their vessels ashore just to remain afloat.  Our journey would take two days, theirs took weeks.  We would eat comfortably amongst our fellow passengers.  They would cook along beaches by the fireside.  Despite Memnon’s condition, I felt safe enough to enjoy the forthcoming ride.  They praised the gods every time their journey ended without them consigned to the deep.

As we pulled from the shore we left behind the heat that emanated from the city like a bird fleeing a warm desert rock.  The cool sea breeze dried the moisture from our faces and we drank it in as energy more powerful than the best of coffee.  Though Alianna had already found a mug of that too, and I began to wonder if she would always have some attached to her hand.

Memnon’s captain helmed her with the skill of a man who has done something thousands of times, effortless and with art.  The Bosporus certainly had all the charm of history, but could have done without the filth that clouded its historic waters.  After five thousand years, civilization had taken its toll on the cliffs, the stark beaches, the fishing settlements, and suburbs of the great Ottoman city.

I found my forearms planted upon the rail until the sun reddened the back of my neck.  Mothers dumped buckets of waste across the shore as children played behind them.  Fisherman plied their trade in thumb sized boats unchanged in their design since Alexander.  Bland villages found their way atop bluffs, astride cliffs, all competing pell-mell for access to the sea.

It was difficult, impossible even, to accurately imagine a time with most of this land as barren countryside between the oasis of villages that dotted the desolate landscape like stars in the night sky.  Much to my sickness, I allowed my mind to wander too far, too beyond usefulness.  And my thoughts turned to the reality that all our ship passed as it strode south was now in service to the maw of one singular man in The Sultan.

So much history, so much progress, and yet a poor fisherman still conducted his life driven by base needs, equipped with the minimalist of technology, and still bound by fate of the same kind of ruler as had been in charge for longer than it took the wind to smooth jagged rocks.

Were my adventures, my efforts any different?  I began to regret ever coming upon this journey.  I suddenly found myself wondering what in God’s name I was thinking.  I felt the need to escape.  My Browning, expertly tucked inside my belt at the small of my back, round chambered, began to feel three times as heavy.  I wanted the adventure, but I felt as if I didn’t want to go through the effort to get it.

Only shame kept me from doing anything other than gutting it out.  And the hope that once we really got started, things would begin to feel better.  Though my companions were all volunteers, and certainly knew the danger, I wondered if they understood just how many of those I’d traveled with in the past were by now but dust and bones.

George seemed much the same, only more so.  It seemed Allah’s sight did not progress beyond the brow of the Ottoman ship, and given the large number of Greek passengers, alcohol was served with abandon.  It wasn’t long before George was drunk, and stayed drunk.

Mut gambled, and gambled.  Then he gambled some more.  Cards, dice, dominoes, what bird would get the next fish, what time we’d make our next port, the fate of his daughter (I don’t believe he had one), and whatever else struck his moment.

Stelios seemed glued to the stern, where he had somehow procured the finest of deck chairs.  There he planted his liberated bare feet upon the rail, his jacket off and sleeves rolled, leaned back and read almost anything he could find.  I did not inquire where he got the chair, one that seemed fit for a king, or perhaps a steamboat captain.

I tried, quite hard, to make myself useful in what became an expedition for Alianna to talk to just about anybody who seemed capable of conversation.  It quickly dawned on me that she either relished it or needed it, constantly, it was her alcohol, her gambling, her reading material.

She seemed to select candidates from among the other passengers.  Once she found her mark, whoever was the most interesting, they became her focus to the exclusion of all others.  The Sultan’s detective from Gallipoli who was on the case but bound for the wrong port, the accountant from Alexandroupoli who had just made his fortune, the graceless Thessalonian grandmother who Mut couldn’t beat at anything, and the Albanian child who wrote poetry in pencil on the margins of discarded newspapers.

I couldn’t keep up with her, much to my disappointment.  I didn’t know yet if I wanted her, but any man in the presence of any such woman would be inhuman not to desire at least some attention.  As it was never forthcoming, I found myself retiring to my meager cabin more and more.  Often with the kicker required to relax and sleep with ease, though not nearly at the levels George seemed to require.

Somewhere along our brief time at sea I once again had that feeling of being watched.  But my mood, the drink, or the benign nature of riding a derelict steamship all combined to force my aspect into one of complete disengagement.  If we were watched, I didn’t care.  It didn’t matter to me.  The adventure had just begun, but perhaps had already lost its edge.

It had never been that way for Alexander.  His adventure took half a decade to lose its steam.  Mine lasted three days.

But as with all things, life can turn at any moment.

And in the dark of my cabin, well into the dead of a silent night, was broken by pounding, a sharply opened door, and a wide-eyed-bare-shirted Stelios who scraped, “George went over the side!”

I was out the door in a blink and darting with Stelios towards the stern.  Our bare feet patted the deck in slaps.  “Why didn’t you go in after him?” I fiercely shouted.

Between breaths, “I can’t swim, by God.”

As we made it to the stern and Stelios’ deck chair I nearly vaulted over the rail but found it nearly impossible to see anything other than the whitewash of the wake against black water and a cloudy night sky.  Within a second I came to the overwhelming calculation that a drunk George was a dead man the second he departed the boat and well before he ever hit the water.

And then my eyes caught up with my nerves, and I realized that Stelios’ deck chair hadn’t been vacant, but very much occupied.  I snapped around and behind me, very much seated, was George.  I then received the unbridled laughter of them both.

Out of relief, and remembering things I had done in my past, I began to smile and chuckle, but fueled by anger I grabbed for Stelios’ collar, but got his neck instead forgetting he was without a shirt, “In God’s name are you insane!”

“His face,” Stelios spit to George, “His face was the payoff.”  More laughter.

George, his eyes barely open but hopeful, “We’re out of fuel, have you got any money?”

I turned about, my palms on my head.  Then came about again and rammed a crunch of bills from my pocket into George’s chest.  He was on his feet and headed forward far faster than he should have been able in his condition.  And I suddenly knew I needed a huge pull of whatever he returned with.

Unconsciously, I began to smile, widely.  Then I laughed, and felt alive, so very alive.  Stelios, now clearly intoxicated to my calmed eyes, clapped me on the shoulder and leaned in, “Just so you know, I really can’t swim.  Not a bit.”

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we set off on our great adventure to discover the truth of Alexander

Late last summer, the haze still hung heavy over the alleyways of Istanbul. It was shortly after the most recent coup against the Sultan. The oppressive humidity matched the overbearing nature with which the Sultan’s men patrolled the streets. Fear hung heavy as teachers, professors, writers, and many others were wrapped up in the Sultan’s timed overreactions.

I found myself weary after arriving on the Express and eagerly sought refuge in a small but busy pub recommended by a friend. The journey on the Express was rather tiresome. I was constantly hassled by a Serb (or possibly a closet Moldovan) named Nikolai who was a far less interesting man than he thought.

Most seats in Zeki’s were taken, but I found enough open space at the bar. Smoke, conversation, Istanbul surrounded the place. It was good to be back on the road. It warmed me even before my first sip. But my first drink of scotch proved to be a poor choice. Even the most delicious of beverages can be drilled through by the worst of heat. At the barkeep’s recommendation, I switched to the raki, an inferior liquid but much preferable given the weather. Even the hint of ice, normally hated, was more than welcome to me.

“Good enough?” said the barkeep.

“Quite,” I replied, hoisting the glass toward him, “And your place I take it?”

He nodded, “Indeed, for many years now. May I ask how you found it back here, foreigner that you are.” “A friend,” I replied scantly.

“Ah,” Zeki scanned his establishment, “But what brings you to this city of life in these dark times?”

“Are these really dark times?” I asked.

“What? Oh,” he chuckled deeply, “No, no not really. What’s another coup?”

I smiled, looking down at my drink, “Just another day.”

He swiped his finger through the air, “Precisely!” He shrugged, “And after all, life doesn’t change, not even here.”

“No?”

“No, no, the Sultan shall be the Sultan, whoever that is, and life goes on. After all, the Sultan’s men do not change.”

“No?”

“They are the same, whoever they are,” he shrugged, “ I pay my bribes, the protection if offered, life goes on,” he said as if discussing why summers were considered hot. “But you Sir, you are here…”

I sipped deeply, “I seek Alexander.”

“Oh,” Zeki laughed heartedly, as if I’d just stated I intended to find The Prophet himself, “Well then, here he is, here he is, Sir.” Zeki mockingly pointed to a crusted framed picture, one of many, that adorned the wall atop the bar. And indeed, there among the many of history’s great faces was the greatest general himself. And off Zeki was, to another customer down the bar.

“Alexander’s dead,” from nowhere offered the man next to me. A man I’d not noticed thus far, so unassuming he was. He was far older than I, and also not a local. He slumped deeply at the bar, tired, his eyes closed, but not drunk, not wholly yet anyways.

“Yes,” I cautiously offered, “very much dead. But I seek the truth of him.” “Yeah, why, where?”

Not knowing this man, or his motives, I sought to learn more about him before ever speaking further. “And you Sir, I cannot place your accent for certain, though I can guess.” Without a shadow of guile the man gave himself forth, to a total stranger as I, “I’m Cornish.”

“Oh,” I said, shaking my head in pity and disgust, “I am sorry.”

He shrugged, resigned. And without any hesitation, he opened his life to me. “If you’re going after Alexander I’ll go too.”

So taken aback I was by his statement that I was dumbfounded. Seeking refuge in my glass, I found it empty. And so to pass the thought, I simply asked, “And your name?” “George,” he flatly stated.

“And where from George?”

“Cornwall…”

“No, no,…”

“Ah, Afghanistan,” he said, “a terrible place, and one that was equally as kind to Alexander as it was to me.”

And thus it all began to add up for me fairly quickly. The broken demeanor, the drinks, the resignation, and then, the pistol, carefully and professionally concealed within his clothing. The long look in his eyes, the old, but still strong frame of this man of the people of the English sea. I could use him, why not. Clearly here was a man in need of purpose. And men in need of purpose are the most useful of men.

“Not to Afghanistan, not yet, but certainly, if you need something to do, I’d welcome such a man as you.”

He nodded, slowly, pleased, grunted, and briefly hoisted his glass to me, emptied it, and motioned to Zeki for another. And another found him, and I as well.

“I hear all in my bar,” said Zeki to me as he poured.

“As any good bar should,” I responded.

“Our part of the world is generally unkind, especially to two foreign, eh, men, such as yourself,” Zeki capped the bottle with force.

I nodded, not knowing why.

Zeki leaned against the rail, his ear halfheartedly to mine. He drew incompressible designs on the bar’s surface, “Help, help is always helpful to those who need help.” I said nothing.

“A man on his travels in this part of the world needs friends, friends not in the fray,” Zeki spoke relatively softly, “I could perhaps…”

“I know you not.”

“Oh,” he smiled in a way that cleared my throat, “but even your presence here came at the recommendation of a, friend, yes?” Zeki scanned his pub briefly, “And in the end, I know who you are. And you shall thus see that I know your Guests, and have done business with them in the past. And yet,” he leaned back, proudly, “I have not presented you to the Sultan’s men. Though this would benefit me greatly.”

Sometimes knowing a man takes a lifetime. Sometimes you never actually know a man. Sometimes you have to take risks on men. Sometimes they take risks on you. And yet besides all this, I found not the need, but the desire to take a risk upon this Zeki. Here was a man, indeed recommended by my friend, but for what, a drink, or a chance? And here was this Zeki, self-assured, honest, even reckless to having met me a few minutes ago had yet already chanced to inform me that he had the Sultan’s men in his pay. That he thought nothing of the Sultan’s rule itself. Yes, yes why not risk this man, why not risk it when I had nothing else on offer. After all, even Alexander himself knew the importance of never venturing into the darkness without securing one’s rear area and homefront.

“And for you, so what?” I asked cautiously.

“Nothing,” he leaned back, “Not yet. But write to me,” he said, “when it is my time, you will know, and you will answer.”

Always the risk, but I nodded, once, hoping one day, I did not regret it. I could sense George’s uneasiness. He was back against his stool, one hand now always free. But it was my decision. Not George’s. And if George was to journey with me, he should understand this.

“But in the meantime,” Zeki held out his palm to behind me, “help, help for the two foreign dogs.” Behind us stepped forth two men. My attention first turned to the larger man, cloaked, and certainly a predator. “Mut,” (he pronounced it ‘moot’) Zeki named him, “And at your service. The finest of Oran’s backstreets.”

Mut fit his name’s spelling if not pronunciation well. His face and body, Berber, Arab, even if (dare I never have mentioned to him) perhaps a touch of Algérie in his complexion.

When confronted with an attack dog, directness is either the worst or best of options. I chanced best, simply stating, “And what is your talent, Sir.”

Mut opened his cloak, and contained therein was as throng of blades, edged weapons, decorated, sharp, beautiful. He closed his cloak. Joined his hands before him, and said nothing.

I chuckled, “Okay, you’ll do.” Surprisingly, George nodded, though I was unsure what George saw in this man that did not take his thoughts back to similar men he had undoubtedly met, and met sportingly or not, in Afghanistan.

The second man quickly stepped forward without giving Zeki an chance to introduce him. He thrust his small delicate hand forward to I, then to George, shaking with a brisk but firm strength, “Stelios, at your service,” he offered with a smile. “My talent? Quite simply,” he grunted softly, “is to relieve others of their possessions by my actions.” He clicked his heals. George shook his head in repulsion.

There could not have been a more Greek looking man on all the Earth. Short, solidly built, but with a deep refinement. His lengthy curled air, oiled, hung over a suit, tie, and shoes that if I had been told cost more than everything in this bar combined, would not have surprised me. But what use to us was he? Was there any meaningful nature behind the immaculate man? With such men, there is always an easy way to find out.

Off in one of the darker corners of the bar, sat a janissary and a few companions. Out of uniform, poorly armed, and looking deject, I could only assume they were now unemployed, perhaps even unemployed recently having found themselves on the wrong side of the coup. Now here, to drink their way to a future that was never coming. To the one closest to me I motioned with the greatest of care to Stelios, “I don’t like your kind, but see that man, go bring me one of his pistols.” Without waiting for a response, I returned to my drink.

Without offering a response, Stelios was off. It took him some time, but eventually I noticed he had found his way to the janissary’s table. And they talked, and talked, Stelios pulled up a chair, and he talked more. Mut became bored, sat down next to George, and drank, and drank again. After a good long while, I sighed, remarking wryly to George, “Theft is always far more boring in reality than in fiction.”

“Quite,” said George, deadpan.

So it went for a long, long time. Zeki was engrossed in conversation with men at the other end of the bar. The light outside began to fade. And perhaps, just perhaps the heat began to fade too. And I chanced a glance over my shoulder, and the janissary and his friends were gone and so was Stelios. Either Stelios had followed them out, or had given up and fled in shame. Either way, I cared not. I hated thieves anyways.

I grunted, sipped again, and then my eyes darted left, and next to me was Stelios. Shocked, I nearly reached within my coat, but before I could he planted before me with a delighted flourish a silver pistol of the janissary. He laughed out loud, took my glass, and finished my drink, his pristine teeth gleamed with the liquor’s remains and pride. “Oh,” he quipped, “and this too.” And he did plop atop the pistol my pocketwatch. George cackled with a partially inebriated humor. I looked down mournfully at my chest, and smiled without teeth.

“Okay,” I nodded slowly, “you’ll do.” And I clapped Stelios on the shoulder and guided him to the stool next to mine. And thus the four of us we drank for a while, as we resolved to depart on our adventure in the morning. For the night was ending, and when one starts to drink raki in Istanbul, one does not stop while the night is young.

And as often happens, but so rarely turns out to be the case, I felt myself being watched. And I wondered if this adventure was doomed to fail before its start. But I appraised Zeki, who was still involved in boisterous conversation down the bar. Mut and George were trying out their French, George by far the poorer of the exchange. Stelios was buried in a newspaper. I glanced about, subtly as possible, to see if only I could perceive the danger.

It took time, far too much time, blame the raki, to notice her. Off to the other corner, by the open bay window which led toward the busy alley. She was there alone, at the smallest of the window’s tables. I didn’t know her, I hadn’t seen her, but I instantly knew that she knew whatever I knew. It was written through the glean in her deep dark eyes. Without thinking, without fear, I rose from my stool and began to walk toward her. Was she a threat? Figure it out, immediately.

Yet as a approached her more and more I began to appreciate the inherent raw beauty that she was. And I began to unconsciously feel myself standing straighter, less drunk than I might have been, and intended to approach her with the greatest class possible. A threat she might have been, I was still a man, much to my detriment if she meant to end our adventure before it’s birth.

And in this state did I thus collide with a small dog that was darting across the floor. And thus did I partially tumble to the floor, only bracing myself on an occupied chair. Pulling myself up, I endeavored to appear the classy subject of a cruel joke played by the sharpest & wittiest of men, and not the victim of a scampering four pound nonsentient canine.

If I failed she did not show it. I sat down slowly, her eyes never moving from me at any point. Not alcohol for her, but coffee, Turkish black, black as her hair. The steam from the mug rose above to her face which gave her an ethereal quality which matched her beauty. Surely here was a face that matched the goddesses that Alexander would have sacrificed to. She drank her steaming coffee, not with delicacy, but with long deep sips like a barbarian Northman.

And thus with this thought on my mind, did she simply state, with the most delicate of slurs, “Alexander.” No lies, no lack of understanding, but I could say nothing. I knew not which way to respond, damned the raki and the heat which had taken all cunning from my brain. Or was it the way she looked, that I didn’t care to joust. Not at all. “I’ll go,” she stated flatly.

“Why?” I stated without resistance and even a slight desperation, “what are your talents?”

She smiled deeply, and I partially melted even more in the heat, “Many.”

I shrugged, she could have stolen one of my eyes if she’d wanted, I would not have cared, “Certainly.”

She smiled, even deeper, but perhaps, less genuinely as she hummed, “I might betray you.”

Ever the fool that I was, and beyond care, I blurted out, “Not if I betray you first.”

She cackled, rose swiftly, drained her coffee, slapped her palm on the table, “I am Alianna of Provence. And we, we shall find Alexander.” And before I was ably out of my chair she was already passed me, and at the bar. And Zeki was pouring more drinks. And I slugged over, smiling, suppressing all fear, and replacing it with optimism. Too much risk? For certain. But for the moment, I truly didn’t care.

And thus it began, this great adventure, as we set off to discover the truth of Alexander. I, the degenerate, George the Soldier, Mut of Oran, Stelios the Thief, and Alianna of Provence. And there Zeki, Zeki of Zeki’s.

And with the great Alexándrou Anábasis, the finest of all the works ever written about Alexander as our guide, did we thus begin. But not yet, for there was more raki, and Zeki was not charging, not yet anyways. And we drank until the day was gone, and even the streets of Istanbul began to cool down, a very long time.

Join us!

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