Unholy Night
sisters, Melita and Tanis, twins, both nine; and his baby brother, Abdi, two.
    Balthazar was fond of his mother, and on some level—although he had yet to discover where it was—he loved his sisters. But Abdi was his shadow. His audience. His worshipper. The boy who wanted to play with him every waking moment, who laughed at every funny face he made, and who—despite being small for his age—was every bit as brave as his brother. When Balthazar left for the forum each morning, Abdi often ran after him, tugging at his leg and crying, “Bal-faza! Bal-faza! You stay right here!”
    On those rare occasions when Balthazar didn’t work, they would spend the day together. Balthazar would carry his brother up and down the Colonnaded Street, stopping to watch musicians perform or petting the strange animals that came from beyond the Himalayas. Once in a while, he would even splurge on a handful of cinnamon dates to share between them, their secret. In the afternoon, Balthazar would take Abdi to the banks of the Orontes and to the shade of their favorite palm tree. The one with the deep gash down the side of its trunk. The one that looks like a scar. And there, in the shade of their scarred little tree, Balthazar would sit and watch the men fish as Abdi napped in his arms, running his fingers through his brother’s brown hair. Sometimes he dozed off himself.
    At night, with the five of them crowded in a single room, Balthazar would tell Abdi some of the stories he’d loved as a child: the conquests of Alexander the Great and Leonidas, the Battles of Carthage and Salamis. And then the five of them would sleep, each on his own straw mat on the dirt floor.
    Until two years ago, there had been six mats.
    Balthazar’s father had made his living the same way most of the neighborhood men had: by spending hot, backbreaking days hammering away at stones in a quarry north of the city. It was one of the few jobs deemed acceptable for the Syrian locals. In the old days, they’d been farmers and merchants. But then Rome had descended on Antioch, and they’d been pushed out of the fields and forums and into the slums.
    Conditions in the quarry were dangerous. Ropes broke. Hoists toppled. Men were routinely hit by heavy pieces of debris, sliced in half by slivers of rock that broke loose from the walls. Sometimes, like Balthazar’s father, they were simply crushed to death beneath twelve-ton blocks when a wooden hoist failed.
    Balthazar had never seen his father’s body, and he was thankful for this. But he’d heard descriptions of men who’d suffered similar fates—their bodies all but liquefied by the force, and he hadn’t been able to keep himself from imagining what his father had looked like when they finally hoisted that stone off of him: every drop of blood and bile and piss squeezed out of his organs, the contents of his stomach and bowels exploding outward in a grotesque sunburst pattern, his brains forced through his eye sockets, and his skull rendered a mosaic of tiny, shattered tiles. One second, he’d been a hardworking man with a wicked sense of humor, a meticulously trimmed beard, and a love of cinnamon dates. The next, he was a blood-soaked bag of broken tiles. Erased from existence in the blink of an eye. The snap of a rope.
    Tragedy had made Balthazar the Man of the House. The sole provider for his mother and three siblings. And while his mother didn’t approve of Balthazar’s methods, she didn’t forbid them, either.
    “Stealing is a sin,” she’d told him with a sigh on learning of his pickpocketing, “but starving is an even greater one.”
    She had drawn the line, however, when she’d learned about one of Balthazar’s self-taught methods: donning a prayer shawl, going into the Jewish temple, and picking men’s pockets while they were deep in prayer.
    “It’s an abomination,” his mother had said, “whether you worship the God of the Hebrews or not.”
    After paying off his accomplices, rewarding

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