“Blessed is our generation,” said the priest as he, Gallus, and I sat in the basement one morning. “We are not thrown down,” the priest continued, “for we have been recognized by the light. We do not belong to time, which would dissolve us. We are not a product of motion, which would destroy us again. We belong to the greatness toward which we are striving. We belong to the One who has mercy toward us, to the light which has expelled the darkness, to the One from whom we have turned away and by whom we have understood the world for what it is.”
Gallus listened to the priest in the way he used to listen to me, attentive and critical.
“We do not belong to time,” I repeated.
“We are eternal,” agreed the priest, “like the One who made us. And all this…” He turned to a window, pointing. “These are the acts of faithless men.”
I observed the priest’s outrage, as he observed the City’s apostasy, but I knew that since no effective army stood between Alaric and Rome, the City’s sin was only an expression of its desperation. “The age of the Martyrs is long past,” I replied. “Men don’t die for gods these days. Even the Pope has fled to Ravenna. My father was desperate, too, when he stayed at the church in Ravenna, but he still had choices. He might have become emperor himself, or he might have escaped, or he might have taken his own life. Instead, he walked to his enemies. He walked to them like a Christian.”
I found myself at the priest’s side, and we stood staring out the window, but my thoughts left the church. I felt as though my own father stood beside me again at that altar in Ravenna. “You surrendered,” I muttered to the phantom, “and the tragedy of your obedience is that your life is forgotten. Did you feel it, too, Father? Did you feel the world disintegrating, loosening under you like a sandy embankment at the water’s edge?”
Pale Diana, the Virgin Huntress, was obscured by storm clouds, and lightning occasionally drove the darkness away, but the thunder was far off. I returned to my seat at the other side of the room. The basement smelled of wet stone, musty like time, and beetles ran between cracks in the floor, chasing each other and being chased by worm-like centipedes. One of the strange creatures caught one of the beetles and had it on its back while it ate the soft belly.
I turned to Gallus, to see if he was watching the grotesque event. When I saw his eyes soften as he stared at me, I commanded, “Don’t.”
His gaze dropped.
“If you pity me, then what am I to feel for you? I’m not a sentimental man,” I reminded him. “So we die. Did you think we wouldn’t? Do men ever really convince themselves of that?” I thought of Arsace. Revulsion overcame my mild fatalism. “Like dogs,” I snapped. “We die like dogs. Are you afraid?”
He shook his head, but I knew he lied.
“You’re not a coward,” I consoled him.
He thought a minute and replied, “If I were you, I think I might do whatever I was told. I don’t know that I could die even for what I believe.”
His honesty made me feel grateful for him in the way I always had, even when he lied, because his lies were meant only to fool other men, not himself. “Maybe not, but you would die for what you loved.”
“You don’t speak like a faithless man,” the priest said to me.
“I have faith in many things.” I looked at Gallus. “I believe in your goodness. I believe in my own understanding. I even believe in God. But I don’t love all those things, and that’s the difference that makes all the difference.”
The priest walked to where Gallus and I sat. Folding his arms in front of him, he gazed from me to Gallus and back. “I don’t believe the accusations made about you. It doesn’t matter what men think or say—”
“They’re the ones who are planning to execute me, so it does matter.”
“Not if God is with you.”
“Well, he isn’t.”
“He always is.” The priest bent toward me and reached to lift the amulets I wore. He held them in his hand. “You trust magic more than prayer?”
“It takes a reasonable man to recognize his risks,” I said, drawing the amulets from the priest’s hand and turning to Gallus. “Only a man who recognizes what he’s risking can be brave, and you’re brave, Gallus. As for me, if a man’s motive truly matters more than his actions, then I should be judged well, because whatever I’ve done…” I paused, unsure how to continue. “It’s always been important that you not live a false life. Men like Volusian will have many more years than us, but that doesn’t make them better men. It’s important you see the truth about yourself, not just what you’ve been told you are.” Rubbing my ragged beard, I was reminded of the last image I had of my father alive.
“I was offered Lérins,” I said, thinking about it in a new way. “A new identity, a new life, but not as a man—as a monk.”
“Then you have choices.”
“Bad ones and worse ones.”
“Don’t chose the worse ones, like your father.”
“Do you think he was wrong?” I was surprised to learn that Gallus thought anything my father did was wrong.
“It would be wrong for you.”
“To die? To pretend to love what I don’t is the worse choice.”
A young boy, a foundling who belonged to the church, startled us just as thunder vibrated the building. He escorted a visitor, and expecting another round of harassment from Arsace, I stepped back from the door.
Pelagius entered the room, shaking water from his cloak. I tried to keep my distance, but he reached to grab my forearm in greeting and drenched my tunic.
“I can’t do anything for you,” I said roughly, drawing away.
“Maybe I can do something for you.” He pulled off his cloak and handed it to the priest, who left, closing the door behind him. “His Clemency has been in an exceptional mood.”
“Exceptional mood? Is that why you’ve come here? You’re a fool. The Barbarians aren’t a day’s ride from here. The only thing my uncle should be thinking about is settling with Alaric.”
“Jovius delivered the Augustus’s message yesterday, and he rejected Alaric’s latest offer.” Pelagius looked around and picked a chair to sit in. “The Augustus will give that rogue nothing after what he’s done to Rome.”
“Then he’ll give him Rome. Some of Alaric’s men have come here for baptism. Do you know what that means, Monk? They’re ready to die. They’re expecting they might.”
“The Augustus is ready to soften his heart to you, especially considering the terrible incident with your mother.”
“Mother?” I lost my breath and didn’t want to hear the rest.
He hesitated. “No one’s told you?” He seemed to be searching for the right words. “She was executed last week.”
I took hold of the fat man’s tunic, but he was too heavy to lift to his feet, so I just held his clothes.
“The Senate had evidence. Placidia herself testified.”
“Evidence of what?”
“Who but Stilicho’s widow could reach beyond the walls of Rome and safely into Alaric’s camp? He’s here, certain he’s safe, because he is. We have no army to stand against him.”
“What about Jovius? Great Bloody Mars! If ever a vengeful arrow was shot, who would deny it to the only one of my father’s men who survived? Now he’s making diplomatic runs to the enemy, but you kill an old—” Even as angry as I was, fear for my sister suddenly changed my mood, “Thermantia…”
“She’s at your father’s house. Although it’s been confiscated along with the rest of his property, His Clemency has allowed her to stay there.”
“For how long? How long until it’s she who’s the cause of the calamity? And when all my family’s dead, and Alaric is still at their gate, who will they blame?” The thought of my mother’s head atop a gate was horrifying enough, but to imagine my delicate sister attacked and mutilated took my breath away. Grasping my head with both hands, I tried to press the images from my mind, but they refused to leave.
“I think after this business with your mother, he’s ready to forgive.”
I couldn’t believe the idiocy of the man, the complete lack of awareness for what he said and to whom he said it. “Forgive? He would like to forgive me?” I pushed him, and a chair leg cracked, sending him over to sprawl on the ground. “Do you hear yourself? Get out!”
It wasn’t until he said my name more loudly than before that I realized Gallus had been trying to get my attention for some time. I turned to him as Pelagius struggled to his feet.
We watched each other, while Pelagius grunted in the background, trying to get to his feet. When he finally made it, he joined us.
Once Gallus had my attention, he was silent.
Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction |