By Scott G. Ondercin
The day Amena’s husband went to war against Rome, she spent two hours chasing down a pig. It was one of the young ones, small enough to slip beneath the fence of their pen. Even as Isdrubal was sliding on his armor, Amena was out in the hills, hiking up her muddy skirt and following their dog, big shaggy Hamilcar, as he chased down the pig’s scent. Gods bless the dog, she thought more than once, as the brittle scrub tore at her clothes and scraped her legs. He was more dependable than her husband.
Eventually they found the pig, in the middle of digging some burrow into a hillside. When Hamilcar cornered it the thing started squealing in panic, first stupidly trying to flee into its half-dug burrow, then trying to scamper uphill. Hamilcar was faster and fleeter of foot, and soon the barking dog had the pig cornered. It was a fifteen minute walk back downhill to their farm, and the pig kicked all the while. It pounded its muddy hooves into her chest, leaving dirty marks on her dress and probably bruises under that, before she was able to change her grip and carry it underarm, so its legs flailed pointlessly beneath it. Eventually it stopped squealing and jerking about. Maybe it was finally tired.
Once she dropped it back into the pen it scrambled back to life, kicking up dirt as it raced around its siblings and zeroed in directly for the spot through which it had just escaped. Yet where was once a shallow ditch, awkwardly dug by eager little hooves, there was now an additional board of wood, nailed tight to the rest of the fence. At least her son Gisgo was good for something. The pig squealed some more and raced around, annoying its siblings, before finally settling down to suckling at the pink log of fat that was its mother.
Amena sighed, tried vainly to pick some of the mud off her dress, and walked back into the house. Hamilcar pattered close at her heels. Standing there in the anteroom was her husband: armor polished and in place, held by leather bands across his chest and back. A weighted skirt, down to his knees, and sandals bound to halfway up the calve. At his hip, his sword, carefully cleaned and polished, yet in the dim light she could see in its silver face the few nicks and dents received just a few months back at Saguntium: the first battle in this war against distant Rome, the first time that sword had drawn blood, and the first time Isdrubal himself had seen battle. Finally, in his hands, the helm of Hannibal’s army, crested with the symbol of Melqart, God of War, patron of the Barca clan and this city of New Carthage they had erected halfway across the sea from either Carthage or Rome.
How ludicrous her husband looked in that suit of armor, that barely-used sword at his hip. He had the thick arms and legs of a laborer, but his armor plating swelled awkwardly at the midsection, and his face was pulled low by gravity and time, weathered by the constant sun. He was ten years too old to be a soldier. This was Isdrubal, who had left Utica fifteen years ago with new wife in tow, seeking the promise of new lands in distant Iberia. And that is what they had found here: A sunny shore, with more fertile soil than the coast of Africa. From the sea came trader’s ships from Corsica, Massalia, Cadiz, the Balaeric Isles, and more. From the land came all the Celtic tribes of Iberia and Gaul, their warlike tendencies tamed by the allure of dyed robes and bronze jewelry from faraway lands. There was always something to buy or sell. It was a port on par with Carthage itself, or Tyre and Sidon of old.
And so that was their life in New Carthage: Growing, trading, storing up whatever money they could. They stood at one end of the great sea and seemed so far away from Rome and its newly-won Sicily, away from the humiliations and constant reminders of the bloody wars that had claimed both their fathers: hers lost somewhere with his trireme at the bottom of the sea, his horribly flailed and beaten by the Libyan and Numidian savages who had sacked Utica during their violent and pointless revolt. In fleeing the southern shores Amena and Isrubal had sought something akin to peace.
Still, as silly as her husband looked dressed up for war, she was not surprised. This was Isdrubal, after all, who spoke of the Barca family with a reverence normally reserved for Melqart or Ba’al. He credited Hannibal’s father with saving Utica, and thus his own life, and had given the dead suffette the honor of having a dog named after him. So, when Hannibal Barca arrived in New Carthage and began speaking loudly of his intent to liberate Saguntium from the perfidious Romans, of course Isdrubal had volunteered the join the fight. Never mind that he’d never slain a man in his life. Never mind that their farm, while mildly profitable, needed all the hands it could get. Never mind the son he’d leave behind.
She’d stood in the doorway, looking at that ridiculous man, for what seemed like a long time before he noticed her. He gave her his bravest smile. She could tell it was sincere, and felt an ache in her gut. He held out his arms, as if to show off his soldier’s costume, never mind the paunch.
“Let’s see it with the helm on,” she said.
Isdrubal nodded, and slid the thing on to his head, awkwardly slipping the leather strap beneath his chin. It tugged upward at his jowls, leaving them sagging on either side.
“Did you find the pig, mama?” asked little Gisgo.
“Yes, I did.” She said, gesturing at the muddy hoof-prints across her chest.
“I was wondering whether you’d get back in time,” Isdrubal said. He was trying to temper the accusation in his voice. “It was just one pig, and a young one at that.”
“A young one that will grow up big and fat like this mother, if we’re lucky,” she said. “Gisgo, get your sandals on. We should leave for town immediately.”
The child scampered off. Husband and wife stood in the foyer, wordless, awkward. Isdrubal moved closer, and she didn’t resist. He laid a hand on her shoulder and said, “We have enough money left over to buy a servant for at least two seasons. You can hire an Iberian for cheap. They’re good workers, as long as you keep an eye on them. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from Mathaco. He may be a grouch, but he’s been doing this all his life, and he’ll help his neighbors if they ask.”
“I know,” she said. “And Gigsco is getting older. He should be able to help out with the heavy lifting in a year or so.”
“Exactly,” Isdrubal smiled. The boy ran back into the foyer, this time with his sandals on.
“I’m ready to go,” the boy said, trying to stand straight like a soldier. Isdrubal roughed his thick black hair and did the same. Two soldiers, off to war. Amena restrained a sigh, and followed them out of the house and down into the city. Hamilcar remained on the step of the house and watched them depart. Then he scratched out a flea from behind his ear and trotted to the backside of the house, to see how those pigs were doing.
By the time they got to the mustering grounds they had missed the sacrifices to Melqart, for which Isdrubal was disappointed and Amena thankful. Her husband was sacrifice enough to the war god; she didn’t need to see more.
Against herself, Amena was awed by the sight of Hannibal’s army. Over ninety thousand infantry, she heard from someone, with over ten thousand mounted on horse or elephant. There were others like Isdrubal, farmers marked by ill-fitted armor-plates and cheap sandals, but there were far more real soldiers. Mercenaries, the lot of them: Iberians, Balaeric, Lugurians, Numidians, Greeks, Latins, Libyans, races she couldn’t even recognize. She wondered how many of these tamed barbarians would turn against Hannibal as they had his father once the money ran out. There were many Punic soldiers too, both from Libya and Iberian settler communities, but it seemed to Amena that they were outnumbered by foreigners, even taking into account volunteers like Isdrubal. Making war against Rome with any army of hired swords had nearly destroyed the Carthage of Hannibal’s father, and Amena shuddered at the thought of so many savages falling on New Carthage just as they had the old. She thought of her husband’s long talks with her, justifying his decision to join the war by saying that there were too few Carthaginians fighting for Carthage as it was, and that every truly loyal sword was valuable, even if it was not wielded by the most deft of hand. She understood a little better now, even if she did not approve.
The city guard that would remain, itself a sizeable command led by Hannibal’s brother, had erected barriers around the plain, and the families of soldiers were left to share parting embraces at the gates of sporadic checkpoints. Isdrubal lingered for a while before the gate. He knelt down, took young Gigsco by his shoulders, and spoke softly, even though the boy was too awed by the foreign soldiers and lumbering elephants to pay attention. He rattled off a list of responsibilities a young man should take on, and reminded him to always honor his mother’s wishes. The boy nodded dully while watching a pair of hung-over Campanian mercenaries giving sloppy goodbyes to some dockside whores.
Then came time to say goodbye to Amena. They embraced, stiffly at first, but in her husband’s strong arms she felt bitterness wilt, yielding less to love than to weariness. She slid hands beneath his armor plating and along his sides and back. She was tired of resentment, almost as much as she was tired of war. So she yielded to him, and embraced him back.
“I’ll write you from the ports,” he said. “Share my letters with Gisgo. I don’t want him to forget me.”
“I won’t let him.”
“Good,” he said, and wanted to say more, but stopped himself. He stepped back, looked over his wife and child once more, then turned and walked through the gate.
Amena picked up the boy and held him high, so he could watch his father’s helm disappear into the sea of bobbing helms. The boy was getting heavier every week, and after a minute she put him back down on the ground.
Gisgo grasped his mother’s hand and asked, “Can we stay and watch them go?”
Amena wanted nothing more than to go back to the farm and forget the pomp and pretension that was taking her husband away, but she yielded to the wish of her son.
They retreated to the hillside, where others were gathered to watch the departure. There were many women and children, but men as well. There were men older than Isdrubal but many hale young ones as well. Many of them, she thought, must have been merchants, who decided not to part with their business just because of Hannibal’s crusade against Rome. She envied their pragmatism, and wished her husband had had some of that, but then he wouldn’t have been her husband, would he? No, Isdrubal had been impractical enough to gamble on coming to New Carthage in the first place, leaving their old lives behind after a good sales pitch. His yearning for a new start had at once sprung from and been tempered by the savagery of his youth. Having seen Carthage brought near ruin by both the Romans and the barbarians, he had the true determination of a patriot to prevent such disaster from coming again, and to revenge that humiliation on distant Rome. A good match for Hannibal, then, but no good for a farmer.
She and Gisgo sat on the hillside, silently watching as the army began to array itself into ordered lines. At the head of some columns men held standards high, bearing the symbols of Tanit or Melqart or some obscure Celtic gods. Others beat ox-hide drums, whose bass rumble rolled up the hill and filled the afternoon air. Others, sitting in their howdahs on the backs of their war-elephants, blew horns, signaling the start of a march. The city sentinels blew their own horns in response, and so it was that Hannibal’s army began its march to the triumphal roar of percussion and brass. Every so often an elephant would trumpet, as if to join in the song.
The army moved slowly. All those bronze and iron helms, glistening in the afternoon sun, seemed to tinkle like light on flowing water as the columns made their way northward. Elephants bobbed along like pebbles in the stream. Yet the sun was starting to set and the western hills cast lengthened shadows that, little by little, swallowed up the men in armor. Little by little, their gleam went away. They were what they were: Men covered in metal, disparate in origin and means and motivation, marching in union to some distant fate. A final sacrifice to Melqart, she thought. Such a gluttonous god.
When the army had left the plain, the crowd turned to go. Amena held Gisgo tight by the hand. The boy was oddly silent during the long walk through town, back up into the hills toward the farm. She was thankful for the silence. If he wanted comfort, she could provide none, and if he had been excited by the events of the day, she didn’t want to know.
When they arrived home it was nearing sundown. As Amena and Gigsco stepped through the doorway they heard the sound of barking from outside. With a sigh she walked around to the back of the house to see what Hamilcar was on about. When she saw, she hardly felt surprised. The damned pig had gotten loose again.
Scott G. Ondercin lives in Chicago, Illinois. He has previously been published in New Realm, Short Fiction Break, and Cleveland Scene.