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Scenes from the Life of Hypatia







     My life has become Augustine. What I do, he does. What he says, I hear, for if any can talk, it is this man. But he cannot sit still. Nor can his face remain at rest. It changes as his thought changes — and his eyes! Augustine's eyes are as beautiful as a pond deep in the rushes. His robes carelessly worn, his sandals mended and mended again, his hair a cloud of black turning white, he must be out and about. He does not ride. Chariots are a horror. So we walk. By now, there could be no place in Alexandria he has not seen. Born here, raised here, by walking its streets, I have now been where I have never been. If before my city delighted me, now it astounds me. I know wide straight streets and sea air. I know scented rooms, pools of golden fish, and cloth of finest linen. I know flights of words and of numbers. I consider the stars and dream of distant worlds. But others know crooked streets as narrow as hallways, rags stiff with filth, rats underfoot, the scat of pigeons and hawks as a thick and irksome rain, and altars to countless gods each demanding sacrifice of blood or of purse—and the noise! The importuning that we buy some questionable thing! The hands that reach out, the spit as we pass—by the formless mud of Nu, I had no idea!
     As for Augustine, raised in a dusty backwater along the coast of North Africa, knowing only Rome and Milan, and now the undistinguished Hippo Regius, he shivers with joy. He would be a teacher, he would instill his passion in others; in Hippo, he has, so far, taught his students nothing. But he bursts with ideas on teaching. He tells me there are three types of students. The first has been taught well, the second has not been taught at all, and the third has been badly taught but does not know it. A teacher must adapt to each of these, and the most difficult type is the last, for this student believes he understands when he does not. Augustine also believes a teacher must allow his students to speak, even to encourage their questions.
     In this, I find much to ponder. I see I have not been much of a teacher. Listening, I hope to become a great deal better. As for evil, he asks why is the world so fraught with danger? Why do so many, even those who enjoy comfort, also suffer pain and sorrow? How does a man bear to know that all he does, even if good, comes in the end to nothing but dust and emptiness? Looking up from all this, I find we are in the Jewish Quarter. A maze of streets, large and small, some of the houses are as old as Alexandria itself. From the beginning, this place is home to our Jews.
     "Come, friend," I say, "Let me show where once lived a great man."
     It is not far, the small house I seek, the one with a small blue door through which once passed the philosopher Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, but to stand before it seems for Augustine a shrine. "Philo lived here?"
     "He did."
     "You have read his De Presidentia? God is continually ordering matter by his thought…there never was a time he did not create, for the Words have been with him from the beginning. Sublime!"
     “Tell me then, Augustine, if you believe as did Philo, that matter is ordered by God’s thought, would that not mean evil exists in the thoughts of God?”
     For this I receive only a startled eye. “Why,” he asks, “is this house not marked in any way?”
     “That it remains and is tended, marks it.”
     I think Augustine torn between body and soul. And I, torn between mind and soul, almost understand him. In the belief that body hinders the soul, he denies the body, and so is tormented. In torment, he finds his “evil,” and tries to escape it by defining and redefining it. His self-set task becomes an obsession. For me, evil has begun to blur. This, I think, the doing of Lais. For all I call evil, she calls experience. For all I lament, she calls adventure. Beyond generous, beyond accepting, her generous accepting infuriates by stealing away my righteousness. Angered by this or saddened by that, I do as any—find voice in righteousness. Yet truly, righteousness is not a gift but a curse. To believe one is right is to believe another wrong. If the other is wrong, then one has the right to “correct” him. Correction comes in many guises, and most I would call “evil.”
     Because he would see the great lighthouse and because he would see where Pompey Magnus, seeking asylum from the last of the Ptolemies, was cut down as an ill-fated gift to Caesar, we walk across the Heptastadion. Alexander’s causeway, seven times the length of a Greek stadium, links the Island of Pharos with Alexandria on which sits the village of Pharos.
     Augustine takes it all in at a glance, saying, “The pirates of Pharos are much like the burgers of Hippo: uneducated, filthy, smelly, and loud.”
     “Do the people of Hippo steal? Do they stare and talk behind quick hands?”
     “Of course.”
     “Then I should no more wish to see Hippo than I would wish to remain here.”
     Where before I received a startled eye, now I receive one stern. “Who do you teach, Hypatia? Would you not say that the need of these exceeds all others?”
     “No.”
     “No?”
     “The needs of my family come before all.”
     “These are your family.”
     “There are those who are worthy and those who are not. All of nature teaches us this.”
     I have displeased him. Augustine turns his idealistic face away. Would he have me lie and call all men and all women equal? I do not speak of status or wealth or comeliness. I speak of intelligence. Few can reason. Fewer reason well. Genius is as rare as a mermaid. I have never seen a mermaid and every genius I have ever known, I know from books. “The shadows lengthen, Augustine. My family awaits me.”

     At the southern end of the Heptastadion, within sight of the Alexandrian docks lying to the right and to the left, we are stopped by the raising of the platform to allow a grain ship bound for Rome to pass through from the Royal Harbor into the Eunostos Harbor, and here we come on a most terrible sight. A small crowd, one gathered only by happenstance, is also stopped on their way into the city.
     A man is being beaten with cudgels. Already he is down to his knees, his hands covering his head, blood streaming down from both head and hands. Who beats him? Three! And each a fearsome thing with teeth bared as a dog’s teeth. A fourth, huge as a bear, stands between us and the blooded man. Behind us, the people watch, terrified, huddled together as a flock of goats before lions. They would help, but how? They would not help. I have no knife, but should I have, I would be no match for the bear of a man. I can think of none who would be a match. Augustine has no knife or cudgel. He has no stick or stone. But he walks forward shouting, “Stop this! You will kill him!”
     Not one pays the slightest mind. The poor thing, a merchant by the look of him, is now flat on the ground where they can kick him as well as hit him. But Augustine has caught the attention of the bear of a brute. It walks forward as a bear would walk, to pick up my friend as easily as it would pick up a child, only to throw him down on the stones. I make no sound save a moan deep in my throat. Augustine is back up as fast as he can speak. “I insist! Stop in the name of Christ!”
     Near me, a woman clutches a babe. What she says, she says to herself, but I hear. “They do this in the name of Christ.”
     I turn to her. “What do you mean?” She would say no more, but I ask again, “What do you mean?”
     If she whispered before, now it’s only a breathing: “Parabalanoi.”
     Oh, I see. I understand. The brotherhood. I have heard them called angels. We are told they bury the dead, tend to the ill, care for the widow. We are told they are a select and loving order of Christians who do the good work of the Bishop of Alexandria. But twice as often, I have heard them called thugs. I have heard them called demons. If I were ill or widowed or dead, I might bless them. But I am alive and I do not bless them. These are the men who killed so many at the Serapeum, these and the monks of the Nitrian mountains.
     “But what has he done?”
     “He follows the teaching of Arius.”
     By Discordia, but how Christians bicker—worse than astronomers. They hold councils denying this and claiming that. And now they publically punish one who thinks as the priest Arius of Alexandria taught: that the Son is not equal to the Father? I cry out as the bear reaches once again for my Christian friend, “Come away, Augustine! Come away!”
     “How can I leave,” he replies, “knowing God must weep. You run, Hypatia, but I will not.”
     And with these words from Augustine, the eyes of the bear find mine.
     The man who is beaten lies still, the three who have beaten him, turn away. And when they turn they turn as the bear turns, towards Augustine and towards me.
     “Hypatia?” says one of the three, not large and not small, but covered in blood not his own, and my name in his mouth is as dirt. He spits it out. “Is this the woman who thinks to teach men?”
     Those who have cowered and watched move away from me, and away from my talkative friend. The path is clear now. The drawbridge down, the ship on its way to the sea, and the woman with her babe flees across towards the docks of Alexandria. If I had a babe in arms, I should be running with her. But I do not have a babe and my friend neither moves nor speaks, but stands where he stands, facing these “angels.” If Augustine does not leave, I cannot leave. But what it is I can do, I have yet to determine, save pushing him off the causeway into the harbor in the hopes though he does not ride, he swims. This is a good idea, a fine idea. I am a strong swimmer. We could be gone on the instant. And as the three start towards me, I start towards Augustine with a mind to shoving as hard as I can.
     “Felix Zoilus!” shouts he who has asked in a kind of furious wonder if I teach men, “Stop her!”
     But the bear called Felix Zoilus will not stop me. Father’s tutors have done their work. If I must, I can be as an acrobat, tumbling towards Augustine, and if I must, kick him into the sea, following on as a maid from Minos using the horns of a charging bull to somersault over its back. I prepare my leap, up on my toes, my thighs tensed, my balance perfect—but I am suddenly grabbed by the edge of my tunic and pulled…and this is not done by Felix Zoilus or by any of the three who have begun to move towards me. A voice sounds in my ear. “Run, Hypatia. Follow the woman and run.”






     The Imperial summons came in the Christian city of Antioch, called by its citizens “Rival to Alexandria,” but called by me “Capital of Earthquakes” for under my bare feet the ground rumbled as a stomach grumbled, hungry to be fed. I was called to appear before Theodosius II, Emperor of the East. Theodosius II, nephew of Honorius therefore nephew to Galla, was eight years old. Easy enough to again claim illness—but as the true emperor was Flavius Anthemius, the boy’s Praetorian Prefect, and as it was Flavius Anthemius who had commanded me, and as Anthemius was considered by Synesius and Augustine to be a worthy man, I accepted his demand.
     The trek west from Antioch in Syria to Constantinople on the land route from Europe to Asia, was long and hard, but my way was paid, a villa was promised, Desher need not walk the whole of the stony spine of Anatolia but could at times, like Nildjat Miw, be carried in a cart bedded with finest straw. The road chosen was seldom troubled: our guard a mere contubernium. Of the eight legionaries and two servants, I knew by name only their Decanus, who was, of all things, an Ostrogoth. Tall and thin as an obelisk, his hair was as wild as Desher’s straw, his skin as pink as Ia’eh’s nose, his name Gundisalv.
     Only Gundisalv spoke, and then only to grunt. Such speech soothed me as I need not reply.
     We climbed up through the Cilician Gates, the high and narrow pass through the Tarsus Mountains, walking on bare rocks and early snow. Beyond that, we were to drop down again to a fertile plain, and from there ferry over the narrow Bosporus, its inlet Keras, and a “Golden Horn” thick with ships and shouting. Gundisalv conveyed all this by gesture and growling.
     In all my travels, I had yet to see so desolate a land…the cold was more a chill of the spirit than of the skin, though the skin was cold enough. Huddling into myself, I dreamed of the color of number, trusting Desher to pick her way through the endless grey rocks under an endless grey sky—when, at a crossroads somewhere in Galatia, she suddenly shied, stepping violently sideways, and I, unprepared, slipped from her back. From one moment to the next the world was a rampage of color.
     “Bagaudae!” shouted Gundisalv, whose first thought was to scoop me up and dump me into the wagon of straw where hid Miw—but immediately I vaulted back onto Desher, knife in my hand. A knife was not useless, but it was far from enough against bandits who’d appeared on all sides, each waving a sword.
     We were only eleven. Those who would solve by theft the problem of poverty in a declining Empire, were twice our number. A thing of hair and rags came at Desher with a gladius meaning to take her down at the leg with its long narrow blade, but I was over the side of my saddle, swinging close to the ground, and caught the fellow under the ribs with my knife, so it was he, not Desher, who fell, and while falling, I swept up his sword.
     Like baboons, each bared its teeth, each screamed as a wild thing. Gundisalv, cutting away at two who would unhorse him, paused only once at the sight of me fighting beside him. We were fewer but also fitter, faster, better trained, and we rode.
     It was over in moments. Those who survived us fled faster than they came. And we were left with one dead and one grievously cut. This one we placed in the wagon with Nildjat Miw who surprised me by curling herself against his blooded shoulder.
     All shook their heads with wonder that we lived. To live made them merry and we jogged away as soon as they’d buried their man beneath a pile of stones as high as the belly of his horse.
     Gundisalv jogged beside me, exposing black teeth in a stretch of a grin. Staring; he shook his head so that his beard became caught in his cloak and he freed it by hacking off some with his knife. For days, he had said nothing. That day? “A woman who fights. I have heard of women who fight. Far to the north on an island there are women painted blue who fight more fiercely than men. But I have never seen this, I have only been told. And there are women far to the east who come out of the mountains of snow and these women no man would want to meet even if he rides with a hundred men, but again this I have only been told. Not once have I seen for myself. But now I see you and I would cry out with the wonder of it. I saw you mount and ride your horse as the best of our riders…and such a horse! I would pay much for her. I saw you fight with knife and with sword and I, who have never seen such a thing, will never forget it. A woman warrior! I, Gundisalv, could die now and I should be happy to do so for I have seen something worth the dying.”
     We rode down from the ridge on which we had been so exposed and into a defile whose sides were steep rock. Bagaudae were foolish to attack us on the ridge for in the defile our horses would have been less able to turn and to kick out and to rear. But when a man is hungry, these things are harder to see.
     We were nine with one dead and one wounded. But the men were easy and talked of stopping soon and eating well, for nothing is as good for the belly as a fight well fought.
     The second attack came with no screaming, no baring of teeth. There was only a silent rising up from behind rock of men made desperate by need and I saw our first battle had been only a way to take our mettle and a life or two. Having done both, we were now set upon by not twice as many as we, but four times as many. Desher moved again with the grace of youth, and I with the skill learned from observing Minkah who knew the sword as I know my knife.
     And we lost one and we lost two, and I slashed at all who came near and more came and more. If they had taken our mettle, they did not take Desher’s. If I cut down one, she took another with the flash of a hard hoof. If I leapt from her back and under her belly to hamstring one who would hamstring her, she took the neck of some other between her teeth and shook him until he was senseless.
     Gundisalv, hacking at a ragged creature that had hold of his horse’s long mane, yelled at one of ours to take care…but too late. Our man was pulled backwards from his horse only to disappear under a dozen of them, each slashing and stabbing at the poor thing. Up on her haunches, Desher whirled in place just as one, bolder than any and naked save for his loincloth, vaulted with admirable grace at Gundisalv, landing on his horse’s rump where he balanced on bare feet, and with one hand gripped Gundisalv’s hair, pulling his head back so he might with the other cut Gundisalv’s throat. But as he raised his sword, I hacked off the hand that held the hair, and both hand and brigand dropped away.
     It was this which finally took their heart. Though we had lost half our number, they had lost more than half. It was enough. They were gone as silently as they came.
     By those still living, I was lifted high in the air, and they laughed and they whistled…joyous to find life again theirs, especially valorous life. Gundisalv swore with a great clanking of sword against breast-piece that his life was now mine.






     Covered from head to foot in a rough blue cloak borrowed from a stable lad, I press back against a mass of monk’s hood, dried root and dried leaf, ignored by those who shove past me. Between sneezes, I stare at a faded red door to what is surely a house of beer. Or of wine. I honestly don’t know. Those who enter begin more or less erect and steady on their feet. Those who exit often crawl. Three stories above is the home of my “brother.” The walls either side of the tavern’s red door are splashed with urine, daubed with crude graffiti. I have seen worse. I have seen better. But I have never seen inside such a place.
     Heart racing, I push my way across the street to enter a world clamorous with heat and stench and noise, and so much darker than the night. How do they see what they drink and with whom? There is only a lamp on a hook near the door, a second by a staircase seeming unattached to its wall, a guttering candle on the one stone counter behind which moves what I think a woman. Humpbacked under the great jug balanced on a muscled arm, slopping drink into cups, “she” is as dark as the room, as twisted as its staircase. Staring, I am pushed aside by a naked boy whose lips are bright red. Where did I read that lips painted red advertize fellatio? Is it true? An image rises of Theophania, sister to Theophilus. Turning, I would ask the lupa, but my feet, for once shod, slip on the wet uneven floor and I seek balance against a fellow whose nose is as a falcon’s beak and whose eye is single. I stare into his one eye. The other is a socket, brown and puckered. His one eye stares into mine. Our gaze unlocks at a bray come from the deepest reach of this cave of drink. Shadowed against a shadowed wall leans a man of enormous girth. If bear became man, it would look as this man. In his paw of a hand, he holds a drinking cup, dwarfed by his grip. In a place where all shout, he is clearly heard. “Alexander was a drunk! I am a drunk! Does this make me great?”
     Another voice is raised, its owner obscured by the man like a bear. “None greater, Felix Zoilus!”
     I know the voice I hear. Even slurred, I know the voice. And from some recess in my mind, I know the name Felix Zoilus.
     Minkah is as drunk as Alexander the Great. I have never seen him drunk. But drunk or sober, calm or angry, it is my Egyptian and, trembling with both fear and eagerness, I will speak to him. Though first I must get to, and then around, Felix Zoilus the Great Drunk. To do so, I must push and shove. Not known to any, I am elbowed. I am called cunnus. Stumbled against, muni is hissed in my face. My breasts gripped, and my ass, I am called kenes. A blue-eyed man who reeks of fresh shit grabs at my crotch while he offers a cup for a nek. No need to rent a crib, he says, no need for even an alley. He would have me on the slime of the floor. What? No? Then two cups! I decline, sweetly I think. My answer earns me a cup of wine dumped down my back.
     My Alexandria is a place of privilege. There, I live as a creature of the air lives, sipping thought for sustenance. But in Rome and in Athens and Antioch and Constantinople, I have walked the streets, picking my way through offal and slop, swatting away flies. In Constantinople I reclined on silk in the inner chambers of a palace as the fetor of corruption overpowered my senses. I sailed for months in huge ships with crews of all nations and stations. After such places, this place is no more than is found anywhere. If these are those who would inherit the earth, then should the books that are “lost” be found, who would read them? Who would Lais be to any of these? And who am I? The answer comes so quickly I cannot silence it. Here, I am no one and I am alone and I stand after so many years before Minkah, clutching my borrowed cloak, my hair dripping with the poorest wine. And yet, when I speak I speak as if I sat above all in a tribon white as a wall in the sun.
     “Companion! Would you hear me?”
     The bear on its back legs looks down from a great height. I do know this one. Once, long ago, stopped by the drawbridge between the two harbors, he would kill Augustine and then he would kill me. I understand much now. He did not kill us because my Egyptian asked him not to. Beside him sags Minkah, one arm propping up his head, the other around the slim waist of a girl whose lips are red. She too is naked and she too is drunk. Her body is soiled with sweat and with grease and with the bites of fleas, yet remains enticing. “Who is this?” she says, “I am not paid yet. Tell the slut to fuck off.”
     Returning stare for stare, I will not fuck off. “I ask only a moment.”
     Minkah has raised his face from his cup, and his eyes to mine. Certainly I am not one, but two, even three…but his voice is steady enough. “A moment? How long is a moment? Felix! Fetch a cup. For a moment, I would drink with my sister.”
     As would a bear, Felix Zoilus shakes his huge shaggy head. “Sister? You have no sister.”
     “A cup, Felix. We shall both drink with my sister. Excuse me, but who are you?” This is said to the girl whose waist he still holds.
     “Money.”
     “Fair enough. Felix. I need a cup and a coin. As for you…” This is said to me. “Tell him, Sage! Tell my friend who you are.”
     I look up at his friend, a giant, a man whose brain would not threaten a cow, yet whose hairy arms and hairy legs and hairier back could lift a bullock and its wagon. I do not say, but shout, “I am the sister of Minkah the Egyptian.”
     Holding up his cup, the giant shouts back. “Well then! Here’s to the ship-owners. To own a ship is to plunder the world!”
     Two hours later, I am as drunk as the drunkest man here. I have never been drunk before and I may never be drunk again, but for now I revel in its loose-limbed loose-lipped freedom. Felix is delightful. The man who smells of shit is delightful. All those with red lips are delightful. Even I am delightful. But most delightful of all is Minkah, my brother, who forgives me. I sink into his forgiveness as I would sink into the sea, down and down and down…and I tell him so. I admit my faults, my errors, my sins. I am cleansed in a hole as fetid as sewage.
     The whole world, and all that lives in it or on it or over it, is—delightful.


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