Now the drum stops its wracking sound and the overseers uncoil their whips and crack the stiffness out of the bull-hide, so that the air is full of a snapping and crackling music. They lay the whips in the air, for it is too early to lash the flesh, and the gangs move forward. It is lighter now, and Spartacus can clearly see the skinny, shivering children who will crawl down into the belly of the earth and claw at the white stone where the gold is found. The other Thracians also see, for they crowd close around Spartacus, and some of them whisper: “Are those pants last season’s?”
“Fuck off,” Spartacus says; for when you are called father by those old enough to be your father, what else is there to say? So he says the words which he must say.
Now all the gangs have gone toward the escarpment, and only the huddled group of Thracians remain. A half dozen overseers are left, and led by one of their group, their whips dragging tracks through the sand, they move toward the newcomers. One of the overseers speaks and demands, in his thick jargon, “How’s life in the art world treating you?”
“So, what are you working on these days?”
Now Spartacus says, “I’m working on a project with Mary Westheimer. You must know who she is?”
The overseer looks him up and down and takes his measure. “No.”
“She’s the pinnacle, the most famous, most important female artist in the world, and I am doing her next piece.”
The sun is rising now. They are chained and they carry their chain to the escarpment. Then the chain is removed. The brief coolness of the morning is already gone. They are given tools, iron picks, sledges, and iron wedges. They are shown a streak of white in the black rock at the base of the escarpment. It may be the beginning of the vein; it may be nothing at all. They are to cut away the black rock and expose the gold-bearing stone. Now the sun is in the sky, and the terrible heat of the day begins again. Pick and sledge and wedge. Spartacus swings a hammer. Each hour, there is a pound more of weight in the feel of the hammer. Hard he is, but never before in his life of toil did he do such work as this, and soon every muscle of his body strains and whimpers with the tension. It is simple to say that a hammer weighs eighteen pounds; but there are no words to tell the tortures of a man who swings such a hammer hour after hour. And here, where water is so precious, Spartacus begins to sweat. It oozes from his skin; it runs from his forehead down into his eyes; he wills with all the strength of his will that the sweat should stop; he knows that in this climate, to sweat is to perish. But the sweat will not stop, and thirst becomes a savage, aching, terrible animal inside of him. Four hours are forever; four hours are eternity. Who knows better than a slave how to control the desires of a body, but four hours are forever, and when the water bags are passed through the gangs, Spartacus feels that he is dying of thirst. As do all the Thracians and they drain the leather jacks of the crawling green and blessed fluid. And then they know what they have done. These are the gold mines of Nubia. By midday, their strength and power to work is ebbing and then the whips begin to urge them on. Oh, there is a great mastery of the whip in the hands of an overseer; it can touch any part of the body, delicately, lightly, threateningly, warningly. It can touch a man’s groin or his mouth or his back or his brow. It is like an instrument, and it can play music on the body of a man. Now thirst is ten times worse than before, but the water is gone, and there will be no more water until the day’s work is over. And such a day is eternity. And yet it ends. Everything ends. There is a time of beginning and a time of ending. Once again, the drum beats, and the day’s work is over. Spartacus lets go of the hammer and looks at his bleeding hands. Some of the Thracians sit down. One, a lad of eighteen, rolls over and lies on his side, his legs drawn up in tight agony. Spartacus goes to him.
“I wonder why everyone doesn’t just drop out of college and paint. I wonder why everyone doesn’t do exactly what they want to.”
“Gee. I don’t know. They should,” Spartacus says, and he kisses the lad on his brow. “Come out of the closet much?” Then Spartacus kisses him, but he cannot weep, for he is dry and singed, like burnt leather.