Josh Koehn moved south of Missouri and then west after the death of his father. His mother brought him to San Jose before the bubble burst, and...read more he has mostly called the Bay Area home ever since. He works as an investigative reporter and editor for Metro, Silicon Valley’s alternative weekly newspaper. His wife and two old cats form alliances against him most nights. Josh studied literature and journalism at the University of California, Davis, where he graduated with an English degree after being kicked out. Twice. He gave up on being a sportswriter and sold everything he owned to travel and write. He ran out of money and lived with his evangelical Christian grandparents in Iowa. He worked at an afternoon daily newspaper and covered a one-company town that was reeling from the loss of its one company. He moved back to California and got a job writing about politics. He uncovered the biggest and dumbest case of political corruption in Silicon Valley’s history. The guy went to jail. Almost twice. Josh met a woman who brought him peace and gave her a ring passed down on his mother’s side. He continued working on the novel he started during his travels and finished it in the summer of 2016. His first novel is titled The Day God Slept.
The golden arch above her head was enormous and the bracketing gates seemed to stretch into infinity. She had once heard that the human eye can see two miles from the highest peaks, but each view Quadrata took in seemed exceptionally far away and yet easy to make out. If she had known what a telescope was, and the power it possessed, Quadrata would have politely tapped the shoulder of the woman in front of her and explained how odd it was to see so far into the distance—like a telescope snuck up behind another telescope and they joined forces to become a telescope team. Inside the gates she could see a road that stretched to a magnificent and towering city, all skyways and spires and minarets. The great city rested upon the same cloud in which she stood. In front of her, people scampered about happy and hectic. Angels coasted above and shouted out directions. Everyone had a purpose it seemed, except for Heaven’s newest member, who had no idea where she was.
“Let’s see,” Peter said, tapping his list. “Quadrata. No last name. No schooling nor religious beliefs.”
She mustered an “uh-huh” and continued to survey her surroundings. If Quadrata had pictured something like this when she was alive she would have had a good laugh about it with the other girls. Heaven was a hot meal and a cool pillow, not cloud fairies in a golden ghetto. She was one of the many slave girls of her generation to suffer from the first day of her life to her last, and salvation to a slave is the difference between comedy and tragedy.
Peter could tell her birth had been the difficult kind. The effort to dislodge her from the womb had left her head badly misshapen, and the violent tear led to no small amount of bleeding on her mother’s part. When it was over the midwife wiped the young mother’s immobile brow, shielding her eyes and drawing them down like a shade. The midwife took Quadrata to the slave quarters and never once mentioned what the master did with her mother’s body. Unmarked graves really aren’t graves at all. Quadrata shared a room with the other girls, who weren’t her friends but also weren’t her enemies. There was only one enemy: him.
Concessions were rarely made for Quadrata’s appearance. Her head, and body for that matter, was square and hard, as if it had been built with a trowel and clay, heavy and thick. She was all rump, hips and haunches, built sturdy. If she put her ear to the pillow she could rest a cup on her cheek. If she stood up she could just as easily transfer that cup atop her ass. Few of her features could be called alluring, yet all were noteworthy for their bulk and hardiness. She had thick fingers like dowels. Her calves had a greater circumference than most men’s thighs. She had heavy breasts that hung low like sacks left out to collect November rain and her backside was muscular and strapping. She had eyes set deep in her face, tucked away, almost hidden under that kneaded dough brow. If she hadn’t been the homeliest woman in Rome she was ready for next year’s pageant, and few passersby failed to remind her with quick diversions of the eyes, as if there was an urgent need to stare blankly into the dirt or distance. She was the anti-Helen, men snickered, “The face that recalled 10,000 ships.” Quadrata was a misfit from the time she came into this world until the time she left, and, like her mother, no one mourned her death.
Peter consulted his list and stopped short of speaking for a time. The notes informed him of Quadrata’s life, which had depended on the daily whims of Master Silus, a man with four talents: widowing, drinking, torturing and snorting to punctuate what he considered excellent counterpoints—not necessarily in that order. Quadrata was expected to prepare Silus’ meals as well as carry out the household chores of his fourth wife, Merga, who only raised a finger—or two—when signaling for cups of wine. Merga considered chores beneath a lady of so many obligations, of which she had none. Quadrata, like the other slave girls, rarely received credit for her labor, and when she was recognized it only made life more miserable, as expectations to surpass past performances were unsustainable. There was no consistency in her masters, except when it came to Quadrata and the other girls’ thoughts and opinions. On these matters they had unremitting apathy.
Silas and Merga’s loop of displeasure with Quadrata was only put to rest on the evenings that they and their guests went blind from drink. Merga forbid Quadrata from looking at anything other than her own square feet when serving, as her mere countenance at the table elicited scoffs and giggles. A young man courting the oldest and most foul mannered of Silus’ stepdaughters, a peevish runt who fancied himself a poet, once wondered how Silus managed to purchase Medusa’s midwife. The joke was lost on Quadrata, which was a shame. She and the other girls would have had a good laugh hearing that all they had to do was wear a few snakes on their heads to turn those suckers to stone. Silas recited the same answer he gave to any criticism of Quadrata: “Slaves don’t need to be pretty, just sturdy enough to last until I can afford a new one.” He snorted and drank.
While true—Silus was cognizant that he should stretch out his beatings like a bridge, tanning a slave until he could afford the next—that claim only held up in the company of others. He raped Quadrata and the other girls on the days Merga toured the market with her daughters, as well as in the evenings when his wife was too drunk to rouse herself. Silus had an unusual gift: Even blind drunk he possessed the preternatural gift of night vision when it came to finding the slave quarters.
Several times Silus beat Quadrata within an inch of her life, which on the final occasion proved to be one inch too far.
Quadrata’s belly had grown more bulbous in her final weeks, and Silus, more concerned about another mouth to feed than Merga’s scorn over the bourgeoning population of little yellow babies, took it upon himself to prevent the bud from seeing the light of day. He cinched a bottle in the pit of his elbow and held a lantern close to his chest with the slinged appendage. The other hand he used to lead Quadrata to the stable, where he hung the lantern on a nail plunged into a post just above two sows and a mare. He tied Quadrata’s wrists and threw the rope around the barn’s king post, which projected up from the crossbeam. The barn would serve as her only support.
The lashes crackled down on both sides, sending streaks of warm blood across Quadrata’s back. Other strikes came down awkward, in the thick of the whip, on her ears and neck. In between imprecise strokes, Silus took long pulls from his jug and explained the error of her ways. Then he’d reel back.
It was on the twenty-third blow that Silus raised the whip and felt inertia take hold, but he caught himself from falling and lunged forward to cast his reel. The tip of the whip flared out and announced a sonic boom—an explosion of sound and light, blinding and unfamiliar. Silus seemed positively mystified as the flames burst out of the glass lantern he’d unsuspectingly snatched and flung with a rogue strap of leather. Fire zipped across the barn’s banisters, and his senses took hold. A sudden, earnest soberness confronted the inebriated cells in his body. He rushed to Quadrata, grabbed her by the shoulders and shoved her out of the way to yank on the reins that kept the frantic horse secured to its pen.
Quadrata barely had the strength to beg for her life, as she watched him curse and heave with every fiber in his sinewy limbs. She watched as he saved the horse and spirited it outside and fell to the ground to thank the gods on hands and knees. Silus came back and took her by the arms. He shoved her out of the way again and negotiated a path to rescue the sows.
The barn supported Quadrata and she swayed from the rope tied to her wrists. Braided knots dug into her skin, so that blood trickled down her forearms and on to her back, flowing like tributaries into larger rivers and lakes of red flesh. The wood planks of the barn groaned and popped from the heat and Quadrata watched Silus stumble against a post as he cursed the cows out of the barn. He looked her in the eyes and she knew then that the fire would run its course, cough its last miserable gasp of smoke, and she would still be there, fastened to the barn’s cross. The fire would consume her and the baby in her belly, and here Silus had the bizarre smile of a caveman who’d just discovered fire.
Quadrata closed her eyes to the smoke and her consciousness began to fade. The darkness felt comforting, like lying on a thousand pillows. It wasn’t until the flames licked at her feet that her wits were restored. She refused to scream from the horrible tickle. Had her eyes been open she would have seen Silus, just a few feet away, swaying with a bottle. He wanted a front-row seat to watch her die. The only sound came from his mouth relinquishing the jug’s lip, and she knew he’d ventured close enough to get a long, good look.
“You did this to me,” Quadrata said, keeping her eyes shut to prevent smoke from coming in and tears from going out. “You did this.”
He stared at her and smiled. “You’re goddamn right I did, bitch. And that little bastard inside you ain’t gonna—”
Quadrata never learned how Silus finished the thought. Thrashing her restrained wrists down toward her feet, she ripped down the king post like a tired branch. The barn’s burning roof rushed to greet her and she never had a chance to see or take pleasure in the fiery columns and beams falling on Silus as well.
Peter looked down at his list again and then back at Quadrata. He checked off her name before asking the name of the wee babe in her arms. The boy looked up at Peter and smiled with pink, healthy gums.