Stilicho’s Son – Episode 39

I asked, “Have you heard the story of the last human sacrifice?” It was story that had been on my mind since leaving Volusian’s. Pelagius invoked some blessing as I sat down. “I heard it from someone who would know. It took place near here, just over the hill.” Pelagius and Gallus stood to either side of me. “Ten years ago, on a rainy night like tonight,” I began, “three men drove a wagon along the Portuensian Way. One of the men was a senator. They crossed the Tiber, passed the sacred walls, and rode up a rutted path on the Janiculan Hill. They dragged a slave from under a tarp and walked the rest of the way.

“The slave was a yellow-hair captured along the Danube. With his hands and feet in chains and weighed down in the rain by a wet wool cloak, he stumbled toward the temple. It’s part of the complex they say was built by Syrians. A miserable place, the temple on the hill. It might have offered relief from the rain but not the cold. Once inside, the men dropped the yellow-hair before an altar where two gods looked down on him. One was the golden Dionysus. The image glitters like the god himself, except that thieves scraped a thigh clean of its gilding some years ago. Next to Dionysus towers an Egyptian pharaoh carved in black basalt. That night, a casket lay before the gods. Inside was another statue of two entwined bodies: a young man and a snake. The statue was splattered with eggs.

“Each egg had been broken by a member of the cult who had come there that night to be reborn. It was a cult of Jupiter. They stood solemnly behind the three men, who exchanged their wet cloaks for priest robes. I doubt the slave heard or understood much of what was spoken. Needless-to-say, with several strokes of an ax, his obscure life ended over the casket of eggs. His body was tossed into the Tiber to be carried to the sea. His head was buried at the other end of the temple beneath the giant image of Jupiter where it remains to this day.”

“That’s a terrible story.” Pelagius’s complexion paled. “You sound as if you were there.”

“It was Volusian who told me. He’s fond of scandal, especially when it concerns my family. He said the slave belonged to a Spanish cousin of Theodosius. Human sacrifice has never been allowed, but even so, many things aren’t allowed. All that means is that one should have enough cleverness not to be caught or enough money if he is. So I wonder. I wonder whether it happened. I wonder who that Barbarian was and if his head’s still there and if the legends we have match the men we never knew.”

“Surely you don’t believe it?” asked Pelagius.

“He died a noble death,” said Gallus with careful thought. His eyes appeared a distant black in the dim light.

I tried to laugh. “Are you comforting me? What’s noble about a man who feels no shame for loving a half-wit boy incapable of loyalty or courage or any manly virtue? When the choice between him and his son will save not only his own life but those of his family—tell me then what’s noble about him. His sacrifice, his virtue, served criminals and saved a coward. What do his intentions matter when his acts were so cruel—the savage deaths of his loyal men, his wife and son? When he could have prevented all of this, tell me why he’s noble.”

“Should I forgive you and you not forgive your father?”

Although I wanted to speak, I felt my jaw lock and my nostrils flare. He was a clever boy, and appreciating his particular virtue helped distract me from the insult. “Is it what we do or why we do it, Gallus, that serves virtue? Tell me, because your answer will color me as treacherous as Volusian or as foolish as my father.”

“There’s Lérins,” replied Gallus anxiously. “The Ceionii. You still have choices.”

“Choices,” I repeated. “It’s a new world, Gallus. Don’t you see it? I don’t think you do. You talk about casting off illusions, but you only replace old ones with new ones. I’ve wondered for years about a god who spoke of love and charity, but whose followers use the methods of their own persecutors. They’re killing each other in the streets, even in the churches.”

I looked at Pelagius who relaxed in his usual contemplative stance with his hands across his belly. I said, “It’s a strange thing, a god divided from himself, like any man—the thing he’s forced to be and the thing he is.”

“It takes no courage to give up,” Gallus said.

“My father was a German, and he couldn’t accept it. He was a threat to those he loved, and he didn’t see it. He was envied and conspired against, and he couldn’t believe it.” From my belt, I drew out the letter given me by the Minister and handed it to Gallus. “The only thing you should fear is the truth, but that’s not what you’re looking for anyway. Don’t spend all your life trying to be only what you should be. Some men think God loves what you are. Always remember I did.” 

Taking the letter, he glanced from it to me, while his eyes grew shiny.

“The letter’s addressed to Honoratus at Lérins,” I explained. “A splendid letter of recommendation for a man called ‘Faustus’. You’ll have to give up your name again, but Pelagius will make sure you reach Lérins a free man.” I nodded at Pelagius to confirm it.

“What about you?” asked Pelagius. “Placidia sent me.”

“What does she want?”

“Her request was cryptic: to keep you away from a cliff.”

Leaving my chair, I stood some distance from them, staring at a wall, indulging myself for a moment with what it might be like to be her husband. “Tell her I’m enjoying the view all the way down.”

 I had lost my toga and other possessions when I fled Volusian’s villa in the middle of the night. All I had left was a torn tunic and my scrolls, which I had given to Gallus. I considered what I had and what I didn’t and said, “My father walked to his death as a Christian.” I turned back. “I’m not faithless, Gallus, and maybe I’d have more choices if I were. How often have we seen men made mad by what they saw and couldn’t stop—whether in the arena or in their beds as some spirit devoured them? What is it that makes them mad except the illusion they’ve lived with? I don’t think I’ll have that problem because I never accepted the lie.”

“You believe in life,” Gallus commented after a moment of silence. His dark eyes were squinting as they analyzed me. “And if you believe in that, then you will do whatever it takes, not because you choose to, but because you can’t choose anything else.”

“Yes, you’re a very clever boy,” I told him, “But I’m afraid you won’t win this argument, either. I don’t always know what I believe, Gallus, but I know what I don’t believe. I also know I won’t leave you at the mercy of a god who has no mercy.”

Later that evening, I said goodbye to Gallus for the last time. After kissing his lips, I stared hard into the gentle brown eyes to remember the kindness I always found there. I wondered at what his life would show them and how they might appear, many years from then, buried deep among the wrinkles of an old man. I struggled unsuccessfully against my tears as I watched him walk away. I knew God went with him, and as I had always feared, I was finally, completely alone.

Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction |