Monday, March 9, 2015

The character of Vasilios Eleni in 'Like Fire Through Bone'

The 2013 novel Like Fire Through Bone by E. E. Ottoman is told from the perspective of Vasilios Eleni, a eunuch who serves Panagiotis Xarchakos in a household that includes Panagiotis' wife Eudoxia and her own eunuch servants. The setting seems to be Byzantine, but the level of historical accuracy is unclear. It may be considered a fantasy world.

Vasilios' history

When Vasilios was 14 years old, he was conscripted into an army along with his father and brother on their tiny island home where they fought with swords against the Empire. However, at age 15, he was captured and castrated, was no longer "considered a man," swore he'd rather die, and refused food, "determined to die with honor or whatever his fifteen-year-old self had thought that was, thin and almost skeletal in shackles, still healing from where he'd been made a eunuch." But when Panagiotis bought him for ten solidus and gave him the choice – work to death in the iron mines, or learn to read and write and become his secretary – Vasilios chose the latter. The eldest eunuch in Panagiotis' household was cruel to him. Vasilios decided "that I would become the best eunuch I could be, that people would talk about me with envy and admiration." He had to submit to Panagiotis's sexual desires, and felt that he must "uphold his image as the calm and collected castratos."

Vasilios dresses up nicely in a "red, finely woven, lamb's-wool, ankle-length tunic with a gray woven trim, his best leather belt, and gray slippers." He has "smoke-dark skin, short-cropped dark hair, and dark eyes." On another occasion, walking near the Emperor's palace, Vasilios thinks he looks vulnerable "in his fine clothes and the headscarf that clearly marked him as a eunuch and, therefore, unarmed."

Autonomy

The household eunuchs have an ambiguous amount of autonomy. Eudoxia says: "I always prefer my servants to be able to think and make decisions for themselves when necessary. It is an admirable quality, especially in a eunuch." Panagiotis tells Vasilios that "your condition means you cannot be expected to perform a man's duties, but I trust you above all others, and you have never given me reason to regret that trust." But Vasilios warns a subordinate domestic eunuch who has transgressed that "most other masters would beat you every day for daring to even think beyond what you were ordered to do. We are eunuchs and that makes us more valuable than most servants, but never forget that we are still owned. ... You have disappointed not only the expectation of our master and mistress, but the very duties you were designed to do." Vasilios treats him relatively leniently, lashing him instead of mutilating him, but he regrets that the other household eunuchs are fearful of him after this incident. He reminds everyone: "A jewel [this book's word for a concubine who was castrated in boyhood] who refuses to serve his master in bed gets beaten with a switch, not merely less wine for a week."

When Panagiotis dies, the household eunuchs prepare his body, and Vasilios thinks "suddenly that he no longer belonged to Panagiotis. They were equals in some strange way, because in death Panagiotis no longer held the wealth and power he had in life, the ability to enrich or destroy Vasilios's life with a single word."

Gender

A six-year-old girl asks him: "Are you really a eunuch?" and her mother reprimands her: "That's not a polite thing to ask over a meal." When the girl persists, saying, "the others said you weren't really a man because you are a eunuch, but you look like a man to me," Vasilios finally answers, "In some ways, I am still a man, and in some ways, I am not. In many ways, I still think of myself as a man, but often, I and other eunuchs are grouped with women and girls, like at the public baths, for instance. Most of the time, though, I think eunuchs are a little bit of neither and a little bit of both."

All of the eunuchs in the story have a first male name and a second female name. The main character, Vasilios Eleni, meets two noble eunuchs, Ilkay Zoe and Xêgodis Aetia.

Role

"Ilkay Zoe was the most famous eunuch in the Empire, maybe the most famous eunuch who ever lived. A brilliant strategist and most trusted advisor to the previous Emperor, he'd been given his freedom when the late Emperor had been on his deathbed." He is portrayed as beautiful in palace art. Theofilos Yalim is his lover.

When Vasilios meets Ilkay, he has this dilemma:

Vasilios didn't know how to address Ilkay respectfully. Usually eunuchs referred to each other by their male names, but usually eunuchs weren't free or as well-thought-of as Ilkay. Should he use both his male and female names? Every eunuch was stripped of their male birth name and given a new male and female name when they were cut. The double name signified the fact that they were no longer male but not female either. To use both would be to show the greatest amount of respect yet even that seemed somehow not enough. Vasilios tried to remember if there was another even more formal title he should be using. He didn't know if Ilkay had a title anymore.

Xêgodis Aetia, despite being married to a woman, presents as a eunuch because he wears silver earrings. He's tall, gray-haired, wearing a "long ankle-length tunic in gray and dark blue," and "carried himself with the air of someone who was used to being obeyed instantly and without question". He seems to have a high voice that he forces down artificially when he speaks.

Another high-ranking figure who appears only briefly in the book is a "very dark-skinned" eunuch wearing "expensive lamb's wool, with the glint of silver in his ears and around each wrist as well." The eunuch bows to Vasilios. He is the servant of the Lady Adhira Rahimi.

"If you could do anything, what would you do?" - Nereida
"I don't know. I try not to think about what will never be. I am the eunuch of a well-placed household, good at what I do, and that is enough." - Vasilios
"Is it?" - Nereida

Crush

Panagiotis offers the sexual services of Vasilios, his property, to a man named Markos. Markos declines to use Vasilios sexually, but says he would like Vasilios to accompany him on an errand. When they are in private, Markos tells Vasilios that he would like to attempt to buy his freedom so that they can have consensual sex.

Vasilios is bewildered by Markos' expression of attraction. Usually, as far as Vasilios believes, men are attracted to eunuchs when they are castrated early in life and with care not to scar them excessively so that they can be "jewels" (concubines). This does not describe Vasilios' life story, and he is not even young anymore. Furthermore: "If Markos wanted a lover equal to himself, wouldn't he want one who still fully functioned as a man?" On his own body, "there was nothing left but a tiny puckered nub of scar tissue and another long, raised scar below it." Markos eventually tells him that he's impressed that Vasilios retains his own will: "You have held your own. Even while kneeling, even while following every rule and order, you are still your own person. And that is amazing."

When he finally has the chance to have a sexual relationship with Markos, Vasilios confides that he does not enjoy performing oral sex on men, and Markos confides that he does not enjoy anally penetrating eunuchs (even though, Vasilios assures him, "that according to the Church it is not immoral to take a eunuch that way.")

Demon hunting

Vasilios has the opportunity to hunt a demon named Gyllou. A woman named Arite says she can't open the door to cast it out, but she says that Vasilios is gifted with "the sight" to find the person who can open the door. Vasilios is reluctant to leave Panagiotis's funeral preparations. "I don't have a choice," he says. Arite says: "Maybe not now, not yet, but there will come a time when you will have a choice, and then you will need to choose between being the obedient eunuch or trusting in God and letting what happens, happen after that."

Vasilios and his posse go on a quest to the monastery of the Archangel Michael, believing that there is a chance that they can send the demon back to Hell, but at the same time fearing that "the punishment for a eunuch who ran was death." The monk says that women aren't allowed inside, but eunuchs are. Vasilios meets Brother Stavros who is half-man, half-snake, and who suggests that Vasilios might like to join the religious order. Vasilios replies: "Thank you, but I don't think I am cut out for such a life." Th author then implies that he is simply not religious: "...thinking of the faith of his childhood, the statues, offerings, and rules about what the Gods would or would not tolerate. He'd been young and known little about faith or belief, and then he'd been taken, cut, and sold. He shook his head." Elsewhere he says he is not superstitious about the color of cats' eyes: "I believe we make our own luck."

In a dream, Vasilios sees Malachi: "This figure was tall, with striking, strong features and wide shoulders. The figure was dressed in dark-blue silk, of a shade Vasilios had never seen before, with a scarf pulled over his head and tucked around his shoulders in the way eunuchs wore them. His skin was the color of fire-darkened copper." The figure shaves his head bald wears gold earrings, and carries a dark red snake. His "eyes were dark, but flecked through with gold."

Book

E. E. Ottoman, Like Fire Through Bone. Tallahassee, Fla.: Dreamspinner Press, 2013.

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