"Men make the rules and women make the food."
After having heard this for all of the eighteen winters of my life, you would think I believed it. I did not.
I believed it just as much as I believed that the grass was purple and the sky was green. I burnt the food I cooked as I lacked skill, but my mother believed it was a curse from the Gods, as I cut my hair long, brown, wavy, waist-length up till my shoulders when I was thirteen winters old, and because it hadn't grown since. I would like to say that it was such because I had willed it to not grow, but that would be untrue.
I compensated for my horrid skills in the kitchen with my skills as a forager. I could shoot an arrow by just listening to the muffled sound of hooves hitting the dry ground, the squelching of light paws in the wet mud. I could differentiate between poisonous and healthy plants just by looking at the colour of their skin and taking in their aroma.
I hunted and foraged for food in the woods which stood some distance from the entrance of my house, as that was the only way to fill my stomach, since women weren't allowed to eat until and unless the men of the house had a full stomach.
Which basically meant that my mother and I got the scraps from my father and brother's plate.
Not a very filling supper, to say the least.
My brother was kind and tried to save some food from his plate for me, may it be just the tiniest berry that he could fit in his palm, or a juicy bunch of grapes that he had hidden in his toga, despite my father telling him not to do so several times. Our father would yell at him, throw things around the house, but he would never hit Andreas like he hit me and my mother when we disobeyed him in the slightest.
He would not ever hit his heir, obviously.
My senile father didn't really care for his wife or his daughter, as his wife was merely a vessel and his daughter was an unfortunate incident that happened before the birth of his son, that he could not get rid of as the Gods did not look upon kindly to the ones who committed a henious crime such as the murder and spilling of their own family's blood. His son was the light of his his eye, the reason he built everything for, as his son would be the one who inherited the trade business he'd worked on for decades.
His son, who didn't have the guts to tell him that his heart wept to become a royal chef, not to learn the ropes of the trade.
When I hunted out in the forest, I tried to gather the dry twigs fallen around the trees on the unusually damp forest floor, which was harder than finding a needle in a haystack, and find flintstones to smash together and get the first spark to start a flame and roast whatever I gathered in the forest over a fire.
Eating the chewy, raw meat, the hard, undercooked roots and bulbs could offend the Gods and make me sick to my stomach. I was better at roasting than I was at cooking. Cooking required practice, and most of all, patience. I preferred to eat undercooked meat than letting it sit in the fire for longer, even if I was just experiencing the first pangs of hunger and not the clenching of my stomach.
I never had patience in the meager situations of life. Except when it came to my brother.
His talks about food and how we could make it better deserved all the time and attention of every person on this realm. And of all the people that existed in other realms. He deserved the attention of every single living creature that breathed. The pure, undiluted joy that I saw on his face whenever he talked about making food, that was the only thing I lived for.
After eight summers of experimentation, sicknesses due to unsafe plants and critters and experience, I was almost perfect at identifying the plants and fungi which grow in the forests. I was not as good at hunting, but that was more in my favor since killing unknowing, innocent animals for food never really sat well for me. It reminded me of the women in my town, who were at the mercy of the men. Hunting was, and always had been, more of a way of survival.
My mother knew about them, of course, my late night trips to the dark forest. She had come into my chambers one night when I was gone to inform me about the marriage of a girl I knew, but she found my chambers empty. She was sitting on the kline in the main hall when I returned, seething with anger. She yelled at me loud enough to cause damage to my ears, but quiet enough so as to not disturb the sleep of Andreas and my father.
She would have told my father of my shenanigans, but women weren't allowed to talk in the presence of men unless they were directly asked something by a man. And she had been beaten too many times to disobey the town's rules just to complain about me. I tried to offer her a part of my gather when I first succeeded in it. It was a measly meal of a handful of berries, two olives and some tree sap, but she refused it, as she 'couldn't eat something bought by someone cursed by the Gods'.
That was all she saw me as, someone cursed. Not Melissa Elene Athanasios, named after herself and her sister, not Andreas' Mel, not the daughter she gave birth to, but as someone cursed. The length of my hair defined my person, she believed.
So, when she said those vile words which forced gender roles on people for the hundredth time since I had first heard them, I spilt the water I was boiling; scalding myself, as my hands shook so violently you'd think I was a bird in flight, flapping my wings. It felt as if I had stuck my hands into the hearth, and was unable to get them out. The thin hair on my skin curled away from the heat, giving the appearance that my forearms were hairless.
I got tired of that senseless sentence when I was just a child. I was better at internalising and not dealing with my anger when she used to say that statement before I learnt that women just about half a day's journey on foot away from me lived a much, much better life than I did.
They lived in a wonderful land called Sparta.
Spartan women could own property, which meant I could have my own house with just me and my brother living there. It would have walls made of stone thatched together with clay. It would have a staircase which led to an open roof, where I could dry fruits for the year. The stairs would be made of red stone, and the house would always smell of wet mud after a long awaited rain. If I ever had children, I would be respected as the mother of warriors. I could serve in the temple of the virgin Huntress Artemis, I could whip the human sacrifices put forth for Artemis and stain the holy altar with their blood to please the Goddess. That sounded like such a dream.
And I learnt all this because of a young boy with green eyes and the darkest hair.
He had come to the northern lands with his father, who, just like mine, was teaching his son the ropes of his business as a cattle trader. They had met my father when they had been looking for traders who operated in our part of the country in the market. My father invited the two of them over for dinner, as 'no business prospects can be too many'. The men relished the meal as if it were their last, sucking their fingers clean of the juices after every bite of the meat, drinking the wine as if it were a never-ending holy gift from the Gods. Andreas ate sparingly, as not much was needed to sustain his stick like form which did not seem to fatten up no matter what he ate. I saw him from the corner of my eye from where was working in the kitchen, cutting a fruit for the men to eat after dinner. He took something from the plate and then immediately covered his hands up with his toga. He was stealing food for me. I smiled and thanked the Gods for the wonderful heart that they had given him.
After they were done eating their dinner and the fruit, it was pitch dark outside and we could hear the chitter of the insects that awoke in the night, it was too late at night to leave. So, my mother prepared one of the guest chambers for them, and his father went upstairs and passed out due to the volume of wine he had consumed.
Even after the scrumptious feast the men had consumed, I was spared a bare piece of bread and a few drops of gravy, which I'd left untouched for my mother. Andreas accidentally lost hold over his cloths when he excused himself from dinner and got caught with a loaf of buttered bread hidden in his toga, which he had smuggled for me, and my father asked Andreas to eat it all while sitting with him and the cattle trader at dinner, who was talking about the merits and demerits of hiring someone to do your job.
When everyone had gone off to sleep, I went downstairs and out the front door with a sword I hadn't mastered yet, but was adamant to conquer, strapped to my waist and daggers in my quiver along with some arrows, as always. The men were heavy sleepers who could sleep through a widespread noise such as the roar of a lion, but loud commotions or the sound of a pot falling and breaking could wake them up. I closed the door just as gently as I had opened it, and greeted the darkness that had been waiting outside, welcoming me.
After roaming for hours and barely gathering anything other than a handful of black, sweet berries from a bush because of the thick blanket of darkness, I'd finally accepted I was to go to bed with an empty stomach that night. I was chewing the last berry, relishing every drop; when suddenly, I saw the boy with the crystal eyes sitting in the main room. With a small plate in one of his hands which had some pieces of cooked meat, half a loaf of bread and some water in a glass in his other hand, he looked like God incarnate to me.
But I was still wary to approach him. A part of me thought he was my saviour but another part doubted him to be a minion of my father who was here to take all my secrets and reveal them to the people of the town and have me publicly whipped for directly disobeying my father's orders.
I chose to believe that he was trustworthy and I am glad that I did.