Pompeii

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It was a relief, a decided relief, for Krisius to sink down on the stone steps and bask, for a moment, in the warm July sun. Though the day was fine, the mist in the sauna had nearly overwhelmed her. Her lady, Lucretia, had announced her intention to spend several hours at the baths that morning. A cousin of hers was soon to marry, and Lucretia was to participate in the pre-marriage initiation rites of the young woman at the Villa of the Mysteries, which she was excited about. Normally Krisius would have to stay in the interior of the bath and sit for hours in the cloakroom to make sure the lady’s dress was not stolen, because there were all sorts of ludicrous thieves in the city and in the baths, who would grab whatever they could without any thought about whether it was useful to them or not. However, another slave had agreed to do it, freeing Krisius to go sit in the courtyard. Krisius had also bought a flask of wine for herself, at the snack bar when the lady Lucretia was occupied waving to a neighbor, not paying attention to how many flasks were purchased and how many pastries. Krisius intended to sit on some stone steps on a courtyard that adjoined an alley, and drink a little and think a little, rest a little and remember a little.

She was annoyed immediately as she sat down, and was confronted immediately by a man in a hideous orange toga, the color only prisoners wore. He was outside in the alley, picking up trash, which he did indifferently. Well, Krisius thought, he will soon enough move along. Another guard stood a ways off, at the entrance to the alley, making sure the prisoner did his work, but he was bored, like Krisius, and occasionally turned his head to watch the people in the street. Krisius thought about going back indoors, but she disliked the interior of the baths, confined as she was to the less desirable areas, and unable to drink in public. She decided to stay where she was and dart inside if necessary.

“Hellllllloooooo,” the prisoner yelped at Krisius, after a short time. “Can I have a sip of wine?”

“It’s not wine, it’s water,” Krisius lied.

“Oh, that’s fine, then, keep it.”

“You should keep to your work,” said Krisius. “Lest you incur the wrath of your master.”

The man shrugged.

“I’m Marcus,” he volunteered. “Marcus X.”

Krisius found she was curious.

“How is that you have such an unusual patronym?” She questioned.

Marcus came to sit beside her on the stone steps, dispensing with his trash-sorting utensil, a sharpened metal prong. He was a man of about forty five, with large, dark eyes, olive skin, a large but regular nose, and a strong chin. His hair was black, slicked back roughly.

‘Well, I’ll tell you my tale,” he said. “Beginning with the name thing. This city we live in, Pompeii, though it be occupied by Romans, has an Etruscan heritage. Haven’t you wondered why the name is so different from Roman names?”

“I didn’t think much about it,” said Krisius.

“It’s because it’s an Etruscan name,” said Marcus. “I was born a slave, and I served a Roman master, who forced me to take his name, robbing me of my Etruscan heritage and my Etruscan ways, and gave a Roman name. I refuse to take his patronym, but neither can I assume by proper Etruscan name, the one my parents would have given me, for my tongue has been fitted to the grooves of Latin speech, and I cannot manage those double vowels all the time without seeming a fool trying to speak my own name. So, I stand as Marcus X.”

“For what offenses are you restrained against your will, picking up trash in this alley behind the bathhouse?”

“Well, I’ll tell you,” said Marcus. “My master was a man well known throughout Italy, the famous Marcus Tullius Cicero. I expect you have heard of him.”

“I have, my lady speaks of him often.”

“Many speak of him with praise at his virtues, yet I will tell you,” said Marcus, turning his gaze upon Krisius, “I have seen a different side of him, and have much to say about him, including the tale of a murder.”

Krisius took a sip of her wine.

“Oh, we started out well enough,” said Marcus. “I was abducted as a child into slavery as a young child, so young I cannot remember my parents. I am told I was bought at a slave auction and brought into Cicero’s household, at one of his villas near here, but I was sent almost immediately to work as an agricultural slave on a farm that Cicero himself never visited. It was hard work, but we enjoyed loose supervision, and the overseer occasionally let me sell some of the fruits and vegetables on the side, so, over time, I accumulated a little bit of money, a very little bit, I admit. After some twenty years, I thought I had had enough, and I thought I might try to buy my freedom. The overseer told me Cicero was not an unreasonable man, and that had been saddled with a great deal of debt, and he might agree to free me to spare the expense of feeding and clothing me, for he planned to sell the farm on which we worked, anyway, and I was getting on in years, and might, at some point, be a burden. I agreed to this plan, not expecting much, but one day, the man came to me, announced that I was free, provided I give my little bit of money for a fee, and that I could leave that day. I was incredibly pleased. I left that day, walking to Rome, which took many days.”

“In Rome, I felt that my prospects were limited. I met a woman and married, this is so. I had not given the overseer *all* my money, so I started a business making little loans to other slaves, collecting a little interest money, and I did side work on the side, but despite all this, I could not make ends meet. It seemed I was always looking out for the concerns of other people, to my detriment. Often, when I went to collect a debt, I was met with some sad tale of woe, and, defeated by the woes of these impoverished slaves in a state of desperation, I could not insist on repayment. I was so depressed in spirits I wanted to end my own life, and, one dark night, during Saturnalia, I actually decided to kill myself. As I was approaching the Tiber, however, I met a strange man, a god, I would say, even, who told me that he would show me what life would have been like if I had never been born at all. I was intrigued, and, despite my distrust of all he was saying, I told him that I agreed to his curious plan, as I was convinced my wife’s prospects had been ruined by marrying me, and that my daughter’s prospects were dim. However, as we turned to walk back to the house, Marcus Tullius Cicero emerged from the shadows, throwing back a hood so that the moon fell upon his features, and the man ran off in the other direction. It had all been a trick. I had been very stupid, indeed.”

“Indeed,” agreed Krisius.

“At first, I thought I had nothing to worry about. I had been freed, after all. However, within moments of the encounter, Cicero informed me that he intended to recall me into slavery. As you know, Roman manumission allows for the retrieval even of freed slaves. It seems that, after freeing me, which he had agreed to do, personally, well enough, he had encountered more financial reverses. As we returned to Pompeii, he told me the story.

“I have a brother, also a slave, and my brother was a gladiator. Though a slave to another man, he lived in a fine palace outside Rome, receiving extravagant wages, but he often said to me ‘Yes, I have a nice house, but you know what, it better be a nice house, because that’s the only place I can truly be *me*, for, as soon as my attendants leave the house on my business, aren’t they assailed for news of me, news of my physical state, my money, and even the women I see? I am a prisoner in more ways than one.’ Well, it happened that my brother had fought well in an extended combat against various animals, including a jackal, two eagles on chains who struck at him and appeared to dislike him for no good reason, a leopard, and, finally, a lion, which my brother managed to dismiss but was badly injured in the process. The crowd was very impressed and began to shout that my brother might be given his freedom, for it appeared that he was facing death, and it might be a nice gesture if he did not die a slave. Everyone might feel better. Cicero, wanting to make a good impression, stood and announced he would pay for the man’s freedom. The owner of the gladiator was also in the arena, and he stood, agreed to the deal, but demanded an exorbitant sum. Cicero felt that he could not back down in front of such a large crowd, and agreed. However, the doctor and his assistants ran onto the field, carried my brother off, and they said that it would be a long recovery for my brother, and that they must be paid. Cicero was still standing in the arena when they hastened to him, demanding money for all the poultices and splints and herbs that would restore my brother to health. Cicero told them he was under the impression that my brother’s condition was desperate, and that he might only be made comfortable in his last moments, but the doctors told him, that no, in fact, while he hovering close to death, in fact, he might live if he could receive the necessary treatments, which he deserved for fighting so bravely. The crowd overhead and began to demand the doctors be paid, immediately, so that my brother might be restored to health, and this Cicero agreed to, figuring he was done, at least. However, at last, the crowd, disgusted with the turn of events that led to the near mortal wounding of a beloved gladiator, also demanded that Cicero made contributions to various local societies who promoted prevention of cruelty to animals as well, and the illegal poaching of lions and jackals for furs and entertainment, and this, was well, Cicero was forced to pay, and, so infuriated was he, that he decided I might be found and returned to slavery, as I had been a hard working slave and he decided he might but his losses a little, in the end.”

“That is a strange tale,” said Krisius.

“I am not near done,” said Marcus.

“Do go on,” said Krisius.

“As I returned on a long journey with Cicero, I became much better acquainted with him. I grudgingly complimented him on his ingenuity in retrieving me, and I admitted that things had not been going well. He said that, at first, he was little acquainted with me, besides the letter from the overseer some time before, having never set eyes on me, but that he was man with a particular set of skills, and that he had used those skills to hunt me down and find me. He said he had vowed it. Then, he said that he had thought it over, and there was something else I could do for him, a way that we could help each other, perhaps. It turned out Cicero had trouble with a woman. He had hastily married a young woman of good family, barely a teen, but said that she had been acting strangely. He said that, despite prohibitions, she was leaving the house to visit the tomb of a long deceased Roman woman, Portia, and that she seemed to think the woman was haunting her. Cicero said that, if it could be proven that his young wife was mad, he would have reason to honorably return her to her family, and give me my freedom. He wanted me to follow the woman and confirm that she was doing these strange things. I agreed to the plan.

“Accordingly, I began to follow the woman. I found that she was dressing in a veil and leaving the house early in the mornings, walking through side streets, to visit a broken tomb with a long faded mural of an attractive Roman matron, staring at the inscriptions, and leaving some roses. And yet that was not all. I saw her enter a darkened house, and yet, when I followed her, she seemed to disappear into thin air. I did not know what to make of it. One day, as I was following her, she approached a cliffside and made to throw herself over. I restrained her, and she begged me not to tell her husband. She said she had more to say to me, but could not say it, and asked me to go with her to a secret location the following day, where she would reveal more. I agreed to this. The secret location was an old temple with an upper patio. As I was walking to meet her, she was walking ahead of me, but suddenly broke into a run. I ran after her, concerned, for what reason I could not say. I had reason. Before I knew it, she ran up some steps to the upper patio, and flung herself to the ground, killing herself. I saw her body myself. There was no mistake. She was dead.”

“Well, I went back to Cicero, and we drank a little whiskey together, horrified. Cicero said he would take care of all the burial arrangements. Hesitating a little, I said I knew that I had not had much chance to discover for sure if the woman was mad, but that, hadn’t she revealed it herself in her suicide, and might I be freed a second time, perhaps for good? I suppose I picked the wrong time to ask, but it wasn’t so often that I had the chance to speak to him, and I felt I had to seek every opportunity. I saw that he was torn between grief and irritation. He did say that, while, it was true, that his wife had surely been insane, now he supposed everyone would think that she killed herself to avoid a man some thirty years her senior, and that made him look bad. He supposed he would have to make some payment to her family, who might be angry, and that, technically, I was in debt to him even more than before. However, he was saddened by the death, it seemed, shaken, and he let me drink a little more with him, and by the end of the night he agreed to at least think about it.”

“For about a year, I continued in the household of Cicero. I was not returned to the farm, for reasons I cannot say, but remained in Pompeii, performing the duties of a kitchen slave. These duties took me to the market every day, nearly, and one of those days I saw a woman that bore an unmistakable resemblance to Cicero’s deceased wife. She was working a bakery at that time. The hair was different, it was true, but otherwise the resemblance was uncanny. I bought her a wig. Maybe it was guilt, I cannot say, but for some reason I just wanted her to look like the dead woman. I said she looked better with lighter hair. She was very, very unnerved by this, but, in time, I brought her around. I brought her earrings, and a new dress.”

“One day, I came up with a plan. By this time the bakery girl was in love with me. I said that I had an idea. She was the daughter of a poor baker, and would probably be married soon to another baker, but perhaps she might be presented to Cicero. Cicero might tell the family of his deceased wife that a horrible error had occurred, that there had been a bad earthquake, and that another deceased woman had been mistaken for Cicero’s wife, who was still living. Cicero might say that, yes, this woman had been outside during the earthquake, and the stress of the event had so disordered her that she had run off, lost her wits completely. He might say that she had forgotten even who she was, perhaps suffering some sort of head injury that further disoriented her, had wandered about, and had been taken by the whores in a Pompeii brothel, where she was now so addicted to vice that the best thing that might happen would be for her to enter the convent of Vesta, and let the priestesses care for her in relative comfort. I said this was a better lot for her, and that the plan might work, since Cicero’s wife had not been returned to Rome after the death, and that the family might believe it, lifting the blame from Cicero and not demanding payment, since repeating the story of the mad young woman would only bring shame on their noble family. The bakery girl did not like the idea, but agreed to it, only she and I might marry, once all matters had been disposed of and Cicero was well pleased. I agreed to this, figuring I could think it over.”

“At the appointed hour, we approached my master, and I began, with passion, to deliver my fantastic narrative. They both began to laugh, which stunned me. It developed the woman and Cicero had played a trick on me. Cicero stated that he had devised the entire ruse to test my fidelity, and that, obviously, I was not to be trusted, unlike this sweet new wife, and that now he planned to send me to mine for silver in one of his distant land holdings. He said that initially he had pulled back from the plan, wondering if it was correct to punish me in this way, but, now that I had plotted with his own wife for my own benefit, he had no further qualms. He seemed be glossing over the fact that his young wife of noble family had been allowed to masquerade in a common bakery for the satisfaction of his jest, and that he seemed to have no qualms about trusting her, actress as she seemed to turn out to be, but I left, angry but saying nothing, figuring that life in a mine was preferable to life in a household with such as these people.”

“I assume there’s a further episode,” said Krisius.

“If you have time,” said Marcus.

“I have time,” said Krisius.

“I was to leave on a horse cart the next morning. I packed up my other belongings, meager as they were. There was another man leaving for the silver mines with me, and we clambered into the cart. I lay down in the corner for a nap, as it promised to be a long journey. For a time, we rumbled along, and I slept. However, the cart started picking up speed, and then moved faster and faster. I could no longer sleep, and I sat up. The other man appeared concerned, and we started yelling at the driver to stop. Still we raced along, faster and faster. I jumped up and reached out to him, to grab the reins, but he turned to me, and yelled ‘If this cart drops below fifty miles per hour, it will explode!’ My jaw dropped, but I saw soon enough what I must do, so I grabbed the other fellow, to save him, and jumped out of the cart, pulling him with me, to save his life. We fell heavily to the ground, and watched the cart round a corner, and I do not know what happened next, but, as it rumbled out of sight, I had a low boom, and I have my suspicions. I was pleased…hadn’t we been spared from the silver mines? Who could say that we had not both been killed? Weren’t we free at last?”

“But no,” said Krisius.

“But no,” said Marcus.” The man suffered many broken bones in the fall. I carried him back to Pompeii, where he was treated, and returned to Cicero, who placed the entire blame on me, having no proof of the accident and assuming I made the whole thing up to escape yet again. The other fellow was permanently disabled and Cicero turned me over the law, saying that he could do no more with me. As part of my legal restitution, I receive regular letters from the fellow, along with hastily scratched pictures of the man reclining in chairs or bedbound, designed to help me remember how I have injured him and I should feel terrible. And yet. I have no qualms about picking up trash behind the bathhouse, I assure you, because in all my days, I have had my fill of important people.”

“I quite understand,” said Krisius.

“Have an excellent day,” said the man, and he stood up, continuing his work, and Krisius sat in the sun a while longer, thinking over all she had heard, before returning indoors to her lady and her work.

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Jennifer York

Jennifer York

I like to write.

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