Fear has different colors. Where it had been the blackness of death that drove me to Volusian’s house in the first place, now it was the slavish gray of a life indebted to him that I couldn’t bear, but despite the loathing I felt for my oldest friend, it occurred to me that what he had done to Gallus was little different from anything I had ever done to him.
Gallus always said we were brutal men with terrible appetites, but it was only then that I realized that Volusian had no appetite.
Because he had no desire, only need and fear drove him, so his brutality seemed perverse in a way mine never was. It was the same perversity I saw in the mob at the arena, who came to that final court of Rome merely to feel the rush of blood as a man lost his life in a most savage way. Neither the mindless mob, who filled the arenas, nor even the more thoughtful and pious elite, who didn’t come at all, appreciated the bare honesty of that place, where pretension and self-deception gave way to reality.
Those who came and those who didn’t both made a lie of their lives when they believed they remained on the safe side of that wall. Like them, Volusian delighted in his illusion of distance and control, whether it was among thousands at a beast show or alone with a terrified boy in his bedroom.
Watching those final days of my father had made me rethink my own death. We have to learn to die well, because that’s all that distinguishes us from dogs. Poets and philosophers used to write about such things, and the arenas used to show it to us, but one-by-one the poets became priests and the arenas have been closed. Christian Rome has left us grasping. I’ve watched myself die a hundred times in the sand. That night at Volusian’s I wondered how I would know my own moment of inevitability, how I would know that final moment when I might either run to the wall and scramble pathetically on the slick marble or turn and meet my death with dignity.
Guards would surely find me within a day or so, and as I considered how I would meet them, I thought of Gallus. When I imagined my full-blooded, passionate boy beneath the flaccid white skin of my brittle, bloodless old friend, I found my decision was already made. With reckless urgency, I surrendered my future for a slave, who, I was sure, would only be worse off for it. I couldn’t protect him, since I couldn’t protect even myself, but I convinced the Huns to help me steal Gallus anyway. We passed from Ostia late in the night. Two of Volusian’s slaves were dead by the time we left, and we had taken three of his best horses. What little good will he might have had for me was certainly undone.
At a rural church south of Rome I took sanctuary. Kneeling at an altar as my father had, I vomited onto the polished granite, my nausea affirming what I still tried to deny. It was a contradiction I was still unwilling to reconcile, a descent from my own illusion of control that left me pondering blind impulses.
As Count Heraclian had come for my father, so Arsace came for me. He came to the church several weeks after I arrived, accompanied by some of the Master’s Men and imperial guards. The entourage glittered like a ruby in the sand as they entered the rural church.
Arsace had done well for himself. His robe was scarlet and hung with the silver medallions of a Respectable Man. He was still a eunuch slave, but in that age of obscenities, he was also made a senator. He wore a leather belt so new, it had no creases, and his scarlet sandals were untouched by time. He demanded I leave the ground that was consecrated with the bones of martyrs.
“You must come,” he insisted, black hair still hanging down his cheeks in oily streaks. He reached out, holding a parchment dyed purple and trimmed in gold. “The emperor’s signed the warrant. You’re to die like your father. Have the respect for your emperor and for Rome that he had and surrender now.”
I drew my knife which brought the guards to his side. Flipping it around, I jabbed the handle at him. “Kill me here,” I said, shaking. “Finish it now, you dog.”
“This is Christ’s church,” he declared, cheeks heating. “There will be no blood spilled here. You use this place to protect yourself, but you’re a traitor.” He walked to the doors of the church. “When you leave this sanctuary, I’ll be waiting. Christ won’t suffer to keep you in this holy place.”
For weeks, I walked the church grounds, and the Huns returned now and again from the countryside where they survived as brigands. In time, they stopped coming, and I assumed they joined up with Alaric, who was pressing nearer to Rome. The Master’s Men kept a watch on me from outside the church. Occasionally, Arsace came to harass me, but he didn’t dare molest me in the sacred place. No friend visited, if indeed, I had any.
People came and went, and in their coming and going, I conceived a dozen means of escape. Yet I remained in the dark basement, only coming to the altar for a chance to see the sun through the windows nearby. Concerned with saving my soul, the priest often sat with me. He was my lone source of information about the City, about a madness he couldn’t explain.
Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction |