Nine days then I was swept along by the force of the hostile
winds on the fishy sea, but on the tenth day we landed
in the country of the Lotus-Eaters . . .
—Homer, The Odyssey
In her own obscure fashion, my grandmother did what she could to arm me for the carnage of life. Stamping hooves, rushing chariots, rapacious males . . . thanks to Granny, I had it more or less cased by the age of ten.
Alas, the world turned out so very different from the noble battleground she had led me to expect. The stakes were puny, the people gray and gutless; my Amazon arts were futile here. And certainly nothing Granny taught me during our long afternoons of mint tea and imagined monsters could buoy me for the currents and crosswinds of academia.
On this particular October afternoon—the day it all started— I was knocked down by an unexpected gust of wrath halfway through a conference paper. Prompted by the almighty Professor Vandenbosch in the front row, the discussion leader sprang to her feet and drew a cowardly finger across her throat to let me know I had precisely zero minutes left to finish my lecture. According to my own wristwatch I was perfectly on time, but my academic future depended on the favor of these distinguished scholars.
“To conclude”—I stole a glance at Professor Vandenbosch, who sat with his arms and legs crossed, peering at me with belligerent eyes—“it becomes clear that despite all the graphic descriptions of their mating habits, these Greek authors never saw the swashbuckling Amazons as anything more than fictitious, quasi-erotic playmates.”
A rustle of enthusiasm went through the auditorium. Everyone had been sodden and rather glum coming in from the rainy quad earlier, but my lecture had clearly done its bit to warm up the room.
“However”—I nodded at the discussion leader to assure her I was almost finished—“the knowledge that these bloodthirsty female warriors were pure fiction did not stop our writers from using them in cautionary tales about the dangers of unbridled female liberty. Why?” I panned the audience, trying to count my allies. “Why were Greek men compelled to keep their wives imprisoned in the home? We don’t know. But surely this Amazon scaremongering would have served to justify their misogyny.”
As soon as the applause had waned, Professor Vandenbosch short-circuited the discussion leader by standing up and looking around sternly, mowing down the many eagerly raised hands with his gaze alone. Then he turned to me, a little smirk on his venerable face. “Thank you, Dr. Morgan. I am gratified to discover that I am no longer the most antiquated scholar at Oxford. For your sake I hope the academy will one day come to need feminism again; the rest of us, I am relieved to say, have long since moved along and buried the old battle-ax.”
Although his charge was disguised as a joke, it was so outrageous that no one laughed. Even I, trapped behind the lectern, was too shocked to attempt a riposte. Most of the audience was on my side, I was sure of it—and yet no one dared to stand up and defend me. The silence in the room was so complete you could hear the faint plunking of raindrops on the copper roof.
Ten mortifying minutes later I was able to flee the lecture hall at last and retreat into the wet October fog. Drawing my shawl more tightly around me, I tried to visualize the teapot awaiting me at home . . . but was still too furious.
Professor Vandenbosch had never liked me. According to a particularly malicious report, he had once entertained his peers with a fantasy in which I was stolen away from Oxford to star in a girl-power TV series. My own theory was that he was using me to ruffle his rival, my mentor Katherine Kent, thinking he could weaken her position by attacking her favorites.
Katherine, of course, had warned me against giving another lecture on the Amazons. “If you continue down this path of inquiry,” she had said, blunt as always, “you will become academic roadkill.”
I refused to believe her. One day the subject would catch, and Professor Vandenbosch would be helpless to smother the flames. If only I could find time to finish my book, or, best of all, get my hands on the Historia Amazonum. One more letter to Istanbul, handwritten this time, and maybe Grigor Reznik’s magic cave would finally open. I owed it to Granny to try.
Scuttling down the soppy street, my shirt collar up against the elements, I was too preoccupied to notice someone following until a man caught up with me at the High Street crosswalk and took the liberty of holding his umbrella over me. He looked a sprightly sixty and was certainly no academic; underneath his spotless trench coat I spied an expensive suit, and I suspected his socks matched the tie.
“Dr. Morgan,” he began, his accent betraying South African origins. “I enjoyed your talk. Do you have a moment?” He nodded at the Grand Café across the street. “Can I buy you a drink? You look as if you need one.”
“Very kind of you”—I checked my wristwatch—“but unfortunately, I am late for another appointment.” And I really was. Since it was recruiting week at the university fencing club, I had promised to pop by after hours to help demonstrate the equipment. A convenient arrangement, as it turned out, since I was very much in the mood to lunge at a few imaginary foes.
“Oh—” The man proceeded to follow me down the street, the tips of his umbrella stabbing at my hair. “How about later? Are you free tonight?”
I hesitated. There was something unsettling about the man’s eyes; they were uncommonly intense and had a jaundiced tint to them, not unlike those of the owls perched on top of the bookcases in my father’s study.
Instead of turning down the dark and mostly deserted Magpie Lane, I stopped at the corner with what I hoped was a friendly smile. “I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name?”
“John Ludwig. Here—” The man rummaged around in his pockets for a bit, then grimaced. “No cards. Never mind. I have an invitation for you.” He looked at me with a squint of deliberation, as if to reassure himself of my worthiness. “The foundation I work with has made a sensational discovery.” He paused and frowned, clearly uncomfortable with the public setting. “Are you sure I can’t buy you a drink?”
Despite my erstwhile apprehensions, I couldn’t help a twitch of curiosity. “Perhaps we could meet tomorrow?” I offered. “For a quick coffee?”
Mr. Ludwig glanced at a few hunched passersby before leaning closer. “Tomorrow,” he said, his voice dropping to an intimate whisper, “you and I will be on our way to Amsterdam.” Seeing the shock on my face, he had the nerve to smile. “First class.”
“Right!” I ducked away from the umbrella and started down Magpie Lane. “Good day, Mr. Ludwig—”
“Wait!” He trailed me down the alley, easily matching my pace on the uneven pavement. “I am talking about a discovery that is going to rewrite history. It’s a brand-new excavation, top secret, and guess what: We’d like you to take a look at it.”
My steps slowed. “Why me? I’m not an archaeologist. I’m a philologist. As you are doubtlessly aware, philology is not about digging, but about reading and deciphering—”
“Precisely!” Burrowing into the same pockets that had failed to produce his business card, Mr. Ludwig extracted a bent photograph. “What we need is someone who can make sense of this.”
Even in the murk of Magpie Lane I was able to see that the photograph showed an inscription on what appeared to be an ancient plaster wall. “Where was this taken?”
“That I can’t tell you. Not until you agree to come.” Mr. Ludwig stepped closer, his voice low with secrecy. “You see, we’ve found proof that the Amazons really did exist.”
I was so surprised I nearly started laughing. “You can’t be serious—”
Mr. Ludwig snapped upright. “Excuse me, but I am very serious.” He opened his arms, umbrella and all, as if to demonstrate the enormity of the matter. “This is your field. Your passion. Is it not?”
“Yes, but—” I glanced at the photograph, not immune to its lure. Every six months or so, I would come across an article about an archaeologist who claimed to have found a genuine Amazon burial, or even the legendary city of women, Themiscyra. The articles were usually headlined new find proves amazons really did exist, and I always read through them eagerly, only to be disappointed. Yes, another weather-beaten diehard with a hooded parka had spent a lifetime combing the Black Sea region for women buried with weapons and horses. And, yes, occasionally he or she would find evidence of a prehistoric tribe that hadn’t prevented females from riding and carrying weapons. To claim, however, that those women had lived in a manless Amazon society that occasionally clashed with the ancient Greeks in spectacular battles . . . well, that was a bit like finding a dinosaur skeleton and deducing that fire-breathing fairy-tale dragons had once been reality.
Mr. Ludwig looked at me with his owl eyes. “Do you really want me to believe that after spending, what, nine years researching the Amazons there is not a tiny part of Diana Morgan that wants to prove they really lived?” He nodded at the photograph he had given me. “You’re looking at a hitherto undeciphered Amazon alphabet, and get this: We are giving you the chance to be the first academic to take a stab at it. Plus, we’re going to compensate you handsomely for your time. Five thousand dollars for one week’s work—”
“Just a minute,” I said, my teeth chattering with cold and the shock of it all. “What makes you so certain this inscription has anything to do with the Amazons?” I waved the photograph in front of him. “You just told me it has not yet been deciphered—”
“Aha!” Mr. Ludwig pointed at my nose, almost touching it. “That’s precisely the kind of smart thinking we’re looking for. Here—” He reached into an inner pocket and handed me an envelope. “This is your plane ticket. We leave from Gatwick tomorrow afternoon. I’ll see you at the gate.”
And that was it. Without even waiting for my reaction, Mr. Ludwig simply turned and walked away, disappearing into the flurry of High Street without looking back once.