From Galla Placidia, a novel
The crowds pressed tight to the barriers push closer as the litter moves through the street. From all sides: shouts of greeting, birthday wishes. Hanging from the litter’s canopy, loose-woven curtains offer the closest bystanders the barest glimpse of her.
Nor does the princess, from her seat inside, have a satisfactory view. Through the curtains, she thinks she can see the pair of brass elephants looming ahead to the right. If so, she has passed the Arch of Constantine and the old Apis temple. She resists the urge to open the curtains and satisfy those who have waited here—for days, possibly—hoping to get a glimpse of her, to see how she is dressed for her nineteenth birthday.
What she wears is less opulent than some might expect: a white silk tunic and palla, the latter draping her head and shoulders and beneath which the braided circlet of her hair is set with pearled combs. Except for the signet ring on her finger, the combs and matching pearl eardrops are her only ornaments.
Her handmaid sits dourly beside her, lips moving to a verse of Scripture that cannot be heard above the ruckus. Verina oversees the princess’s wardrobe, supervises the functioning of the household, and ensures that its prayers and sacraments are properly executed. All around her stand the monuments of the past—testaments to pompous history, trophies of material achievement.
The city is Rome. The month is September. The day is cloudless and cool: a perfection.
From the roof of the former Temple of Venus fall another basketful of petals—pink, crimson, yellow, white. In the gentle onslaught, a renewed scent of roses fills the Sacred Way.
Every statue in the Forum has been scrubbed to shining—the towering Apollo, Trajan on his horse. Images of the princess’s father are set along the route—Theodosius the Great, now fifteen years gone. Those of her brother, the Western emperor, are even more plentiful, as if their number will somehow shorten the distance between Rome and the seat of his Court at Ravenna.
But she is here, the virgin princess. And it is said that a virgin in a Christian house protects that house from evil. She has lived in Rome for almost a year, though except for her household and the palace slaves, only magistrates and the highest clergy have seen Her Grace in person. Finally, she will show herself to the people and receive their blessings on her birth’s anniversary, which is also—as many have remarked—the same as that of Octavian Augustus who set Rome’s standard on the gates of the Earth more than four centuries past.
Carried on the shoulders of eight slaves, the litter moves toward the center of the plaza. The guards form up beside a triumphal arch hung with garlands of oak leaves—her father’s arch—the reliefs depicting one of his victories, with the traditional line of captured foes being driven up this very street.
In Milan, as a child, the princess found an old guidebook to the city, the illustrations of which captivated her. She remembers Verina peering over her shoulder and citing the vanity of man.
The procession halts. To the right of the litter, a group of hooded clerics stands on the Senate House porch. The chamberlain steps from his riding chair, his oiled scalp shining in the sun. His arms cut the air with purpose as he skirts a pair of barking mastiffs to confront the escort captain. An issue of protocol has been breached.
“The wells,” says Verina, her gaunt face a grimace. “We shouldn’t have come through the Forum, mistress.”
The princess, cautiously drawing aside the curtain, is struck by the clarity of the spectacle around her: the sunlight on Apollo’s marble shoulders, the painted trappings of the escort horses, the silver and scarlet of the Palatine guards. By comparison, the clerics on the porch are dressed in the color of dirt. The archbishop is with them, his ivory staff the only thing to distinguish him from the others.
Verina is right. The wells must must be near—those three ancient holes ringed in marble and stained black from centuries of profane sacrifices. So the princess was told by the archbishop, whose presence reminds her that her first venture into city politics was one that sparked dissent.
“Draw the curtains, I beg you, mistress.”
A timely burst of trumpet calls incites another roar of welcome. Raising her hand, she makes the sign of the cross, keeping the signet ring in full view—the embossed carnelian of the dynasty. She is afraid to look at individual faces, but her gaze, like a stone skipping over water, touches helplessly on a few, each rapt but oddly blank-looking. They could just as well be shouting curses.
“It’s dangerous to encourage them, mistress.”
The chamberlain sprints back to his chair and the guardsmen fall into line. She draws the curtains, feeling the expression chiseled into her face—a provincial’s helpless joy.
The litter jogs into movement. Leaving the plaza, the procession enters the narrow street of Agrippa shadowed by crumbling cenotaphs. Pipes and flutes make a pleasant dissonance, seeming far away, then closer as the passage widens. To the left is the fountain of Hercules. Its steps, as the princess can see through the curtain, are crowded with men in orange robes. These constitute the pagan response to the clerical delegation. But this group isn’t silent. Though their sentiments only condemn the archbishop, it is clear for whose ears they are meant.
Verina returns the princess’s glance without a crumb of sympathy. By her look, she fully expected this development.
Three months before, on Pentecost Sunday, a group of monks petitioned the city prefect to close the ritual wells. He refused, insisting that the Senate’s mandate was needed. When Christian zealots filled the wells with rubble, fanatics of traditional bent—including two prominent senators—retaliated by defacing the granite steps of Saint Peter’s with foundry mallets in the middle of the night. Both parties broke precedent by appealing to the emperor’s sister.
Her first use of the signet ring approved a compromise: until the Senate passed a bill on the matter or appealed to the emperor Honorius in Ravenna, the wells would be closed to public access on Christian holidays. At the time, she thought this a prudent policy, one that the Sacred Court would approve and that prepared inveterate Hellenists for permanent closure of the wells. Instead, it pleased no one.
Sunlight hits the curtains of the litter. The street has merged with the Avenue of Neptune. Mounted sentries line this part of the route, which descends to the stadium precinct. Multitudes pack the open spaces, stand on the roofs of taverns and latrines. Here the smell is not of roses but of beer, urine, sweat. Thoughts of violated wells and churches do not distract this crowd. The voices that hailed their favorite charioteer in the stadium now call to the daughter of Theodosius.
With a wider margin between herself and the crowds, she parts the curtains fully. Only an emperor’s presence could bring greater joy. Those close to the barriers throw wreaths and palm fronds. For too long, she thinks, the city lacked an imperial resident. She will give the people a glimpse of the Purple to sweeten their evening festivities.
The guard captain catches her nod and blows his silver whistle. As the litter shifts slowly about, her gaze sweeps over the sea of faces, then retreats to safer sights, sharpening briefly on a glimpse of the Tiber, then on the captain’s gleaming corselet. When the litter has completed half a turn, she watches the procession behind her funneling between the Capitoline Hill, with its gracefully cluttered slope of temples, and the soaring walls of the Palatine, white in the afternoon sun. She has never seen Rome from this perspective or to such advantage.
The poet Virgil said it best: She has raised her head among all other cities, as high as the cypress above the guelder rose.
The golden statue of the Great Mother, her many breasts flushed red with sunset, stands over the gate to the Aventine Hill. Here begins the Street of the Muses. Vine-twined tombs on either side give way to groves of statuary. This blind congregation ends abruptly at the first turn of the street, at the first patrician villa whose walkway is shaded by trees as old as the oldest shrine in the Forum.
On the Aventine, the edicts of the Christian emperors have made the least impression. Within living memory, parades of Diana and Isis have regaled this street with music and maidens and decorated carts. In a grotto shrine stands an alabaster statue of Hermes. Garlands of flowers drape his altar.
Verina makes the sign of the cross on her chest, then clasps her hands in her lap so tightly she might be trying to crack open an almond. Still, she peers through the weave of the curtains. She feels the Tempter’s presence strongly, the shadows of idolatry and vain philosophies darkened further by wealth’s corruption. In her thirty-nine years, she has felt nothing like it, even in the cities of Greece.
The princess feels these shadows, too, but not as direly. For her, there is a hint of color in the darkness—iridescence. The families here own half the world. They can trace their lineage to Republican times, some further—to the kings, to Aeneas. Should she not have accepted her friend’s invitation to dine on the Aventine Hill? The archbishop gave his assent, qualified only by his choice of words: “Your Grace will be a witness for the True Faith to our sorely deluded, if well-meaning, nobility.”
Today, in honor of the emperor’s sister—and Octavian Augustus, “scion of Venus”—the distinguished residents stand in their gates. In reverent tones they speak her name as those of lesser standing cannot: Aelia Galla Placidia Theodosia. Or Galla Placidia. Or simply Theodosia. This is new to her, this familiarity. It flatters her. It is meant to.
Verina’s voice scrapes lightly in her ear: “‘Friendship with the world is enmity with God.’”
All morning this woman has nipped and chided. The princess has borne it with patience until now. She feels obliged to favor this select audience, and wants to. “Open the curtains.”
The command is met without comment. Again, she displays the sacred carnelian. Her stomach tenses. Her eyes light on yet another shrine, this one, to judge by the wine-stained altar, reserved for offerings to Bacchus.
Near the top of the hill, at a gateway arbor of grapes and laurel, a youth in a yellow tunic plays a gilded harp. He sits in shadow, all but the top of his wheat-colored hair, which shines like fire in the sun’s last rays. The air has cooled. On the breeze: whiffs of roasting boar and poultry. The Marcellan villa lies to the right. Household eunuchs wait at the entrance and kneel as the litter moves into the courtyard.
Julia Marcella, the mistress of the house, has imported birds for roving exotica. A peacock stands inside the gate. As if incited by the new arrival, its half-spread tail fans out—snap—as it turns and haughtily withdraws. A stilt-legged fowl with russet plumage stands on the knee of a seated Minerva, one of many exquisite bronzes in the courtyard.
As Her Grace is carried up the steps to the porch, a group of men step out to salute her. Quintus Marcellus lurches forward on his cane, beside him Petronius Probus in his bluish-gray toga, its folds impeccably arranged. Lord Probus wears no rings or pendants, keeps his white hair cropped. She withholds her greeting as Marcellus’ young wife and her retinue file noisily into the forecourt. The scent of jasmine perfume tints the air.
Lady Julia has informed Her Grace that the traditional dish of Augustan quail would be part of the eight-course feast. But first: a reception in the atrium, over the newly laid floor moved tile by tile from Cleopatra’s ruin on the eastern slope of the hill. Any provocative imagery displayed in the atrium was removed for this occasion. Statues of Cicero and Virgil are the only ones present, standing together at the end of the pool.
The princess is seated in an ebony chair with Verina and the maids-in-waiting behind her. Despite the air of good will in this villa, Her Grace feels as much an alien figure as the colorful birds in the courtyard. Verina’s presence, even more than that of the Palatine presbyter, keeps her helplessly wary.
Julia, in a tunic and palla of deep green silk and with diamond pins in her dark coiffure, moves deftly between groups of men and women, Christians and pagans. She facilitates access to the princess without burdening the felicitous mood or cramping the flow of diverting inanities that every good host must sustain.
She is referring now to the floor mosaics, while leading Lord Probus toward the guest of honor: “My cooks have seen Cleopatra’s ghost pacing this floor at dusk. She was gazing at the tiles and weeping, they said. If the ‘theft’ of her pictures has summoned her, she should be thankful they now have a much nicer home than her tumble-down cave of a villa.”
Probus conjectures, to the company’s amusement, that Charon must have ferried her shade from its tomb in Alexandria.
Marcellus, who is nearly as old as his fellow senator, adds in a quavering voice: “If only the the grain fleet from Africa had such rowing muscle. The granaries, I’ve heard, are near bare again thanks to lagging winds at Carthage.”
To keep Probus from having to kneel, the princess rises and offers her hand. He takes only the tips of her fingers as he kisses the signet ring.
Next to come forward are two middle-aged matrons who praise her for increasing the dole to the poor and restoring the porch of Constantine’s bathhouse, though she only funded the latter. Similar expressions of gratitude follow as wine is mixed and distributed along with olive cakes drizzled with gold-infused honey.
Some speak of the day’s procession, alluding to certain dignitaries present, including the archbishop, though nobody mentions the wells. Except for quotes of Virgil and Catullus, conversation is kept to Greek, deferring to the cradle tongue of the princess, though she speaks fluent, if assiduous, Latin.
At dinner, she is seated with Julia and Marcellus, the Lady Valeria—who provided the roses for the festival procession—and Petronius Probus. Her couch has been draped in deep blue silks chosen to contrast with her clothes. They also complement the signet ring, the stone’s color a perfect synthesis of blood and gold. A string of sinew wrapping the band keeps it snugly in place on her finger. She isn’t yet comfortable wearing the ring, which is used for ceremonial and official purposes. She looks at it often, as if she has grown an extra digit and still finds its presence a novelty.
Fabrics drape some of the dining room walls to conceal potentially offensive frescos, yet two superlative bronzes remain—one of Hercules as an infant strangling a snake, the other of a grieving Medea. There is also a large gilt cross set conspicuously in the middle of the room, certainly installed for this meal.
When the company is seated, Julia nods to the presbyter who is part of the palace cortege. The archbishop, who declined to be present, delegated the task of sanctifying the meal to this bearded young priest. He delivers a stiff and tediously long benediction, ending with a “special blessing on our faithfully Orthodox Theodosia” as the servers line up in the hall.
First course: a poached egg in quince sauce—the egg from the quail that will appear later on.
If any group can sustain conversation that evades unpleasantries it is this one—and the prospect of tomorrow’s chariot races offers easy escape—but there’s a subtle inflection of glance and tone that admits to this avoidance. Probus guides the conversation since the princess appears content to follow the lead of others while keeping a pose of engagement. The steward knows to keep her wine watered.
Second course: tiny pyramids of goose liver blended with raisins and pepper.
The mingling of men and women at table is unfamiliar to her. The Aventine keeps its own conventions. Every day in Rome, it seems, introduces some new deviation that she must decide to accept or resist, sometimes without warning. With her knife, she cuts a slice from the goose.
“Is it true,” Probus asks the table, “that the rival champions of the Blues and the Greens are brothers?”
“They aren’t,” says Marcellus, making an effort to straighten his spine. “Though they’re both from Spain and look much alike. All tomorrow’s heats will be good. There’s One-Eye, the Hun. He’s new to the Greens. I saw him race in Trier some years ago, just hours before that earthquake.”
“My lord,” says Julia, referring to Marcellus, “has never missed a primary heat in the years that we’ve been married.” Her fingers stroke a crystal goblet, her eyes moving to the princess. “The view of the stadium from your terrace, Theodosia, can’t possibly capture the full impact of the spectacle. I might suggest it is too safe a distance.” She knows that Christian do not attend such venues.
The response comes slowly, its tone carefully neutral: “You may be right, Julia. Should the occasion arise that would demand my attendance, I would happily join you in your box.”
Probus, watching her, remembers the thin, pale eighteen-year-old who came to the city the previous autumn. She was frightened, excited, almost desperately awestruck, and carefully watching with those large green eyes—the same as her father’s—the behavior of the nobles around her, as she tried to parse the convolutions of etiquette so apparently different from those in Ravenna.
Tonight, she continues to observe and deliberate, though more subtly, as the lady Valeria deposits her second-course napkin not on the floor for a slave to remove but on the back of her couch, expounding as she does so on the difference in flavor between the olives grown on her Gallic plantations and those from her properties in Spain. Valeria could speak of the “barbarian troubles,” the discontent haunting that part of the world, the sorry condition of bridges and highways, but she keeps to the topic of olives.
Third course: flamingo tongues served on ivory toothpicks, of which Julia eats only one, careful to keep from mussing the paint on her lips.
Each successive dish of the feast—not to mention cups of wine—adds to the weight of nostalgia in the room. The past steps out from mosaics and frescos, from patterns in the plates and cutlery, from the bronzes—artworks that haven’t been equaled in centuries.
Outside, in the garden, the peacocks retire to their ebony roosts as lamps are lighted and placed about the grounds. A song accompanies this age-old rite, a hymn calling for the sun’s return. This plea, lifting softly from all over Aventine, is mingled with a different one elsewhere. As the lamps are kindled in Christian households, they pray for the return of their Savior to the world.
Hours later, Her Grace returns by carriage to the Palatine. Moonlight on those grand façades set one atop the other like steps to a kingdom of giants. After the fourth turn of the ramp, the carriage reaches the gate. It is open. A full garrison of mounted sentries waits in the carriage yard. Every lamp is burning, every torch. Past the sentries, the tented wagons of a small caravan are grouped near the entrance hall.
Assisted by footmen, Galla Placidia steps down from the carriage. On the porch, the remaining members of her household are standing with the Palatine warden, Lucius Gaius, who directs all matters of maintenance and security. This is a measure beyond formality. The chamberlain, having left his own carriage, quickly approaches the warden.
Already the princess suspects what has happened. She feels the moonlight on her cheek. Ill moon.
“She has come,” says Verina, shaking her head. “Impeccable timing.” To the maids of the wardrobe: “Take up Her Grace’s mantle.”
“But why would she come to Rome? Why?” Placidia hears the frustration in her voice, the tone of a petulant child.
Verina’s look is starkly admonishing, her small dark eyes.
The chamberlain returns with the warden at his heels. A sudden breeze through the flames of the torches makes a storm of shadows in the forecourt.
“Beg pardon, Highness. Your sacred cousin has come from Milan.”
Lucius Gaius sweeps forward, bows. “She’s been granted temporary rooms, Your Grace, until more suitable lodgings can be found.”
The princess does not ask which rooms. Her day is toppled. She looks up at the frieze of the porch—its equestrian reliefs in deep shadow—and further, up the buttressed walls of the Palace of the Caesars. She has come to know its habitable regions, its lavish salons and meeting halls. She has slept in the bed of Constantine’s mother. She has peeped under carpets hiding mosaics of the orgies of Priapus. Caligula had a house somewhere on the Palatine, Marcus Aurelius a library, though no one knows where. She has been reading things other than prayer books and Augustine—Plutarch, Cicero. All compelled by this legendary place which, in flecks and sparks, has finally started to feel like her own.
“Shall we go in, mistress?”
Galla Placida addresses the chamberlain: “I won’t see her tonight. I’m too tired.”
“Understandably, Your Grace.” The chamberlain presents his unflappable smile, as enduring a feature as his polished bald head.
She puts her arm through Verina’s. Summoned by the captain’s whistle, two doormen emerge from the shadows of the porch.
“Go lightly,” Verina whispers as her fellow attendants makes a path to the steps. “They’re watching.”
Soundlessly, the gilded doors open. They pass between a pair of Babylonian gryphons. The vastness of the hall confers an illusion of privacy.
The princess is careful to keep her voice low: “From Milan, she should have gone to Ravenna. Why didn’t she?”
“Serena is quite abandoned, mistress. Quite alone.”
“They should have warned me. The warden should have sent word.”
“To the Aventine?”
Verina knows her, being fifteen years in her service. Verina in her woolens and boots, her hair pulled back in a roll beneath her palla, and a small gold cross on its silver chain laid over the bodice of her tunic in the daytime and clutched in her hand at night.
Placidia sighs, a mountainside falling. Her eyes threaten tears. “I will never be free of her now.”
It is well after midnight by the time she has bathed and the maids have brushed out her hair. The wine from dinner has lost its effect, leaving her sapped beyond the late hour.
Lying in the bed of sainted Helena, she feels the place between her breasts that Verina scoured so eagerly, where a rose petal managed to infiltrate and flatten itself like a kiss. By the look on Verina’s face, she must have thought the same seeing it.
In spite of her handmaid’s monkish opinions, the princess heard her the previous morning absently humming an ode to Venus as she laid out the pearled, cruciform combs. When called to question, Verina went white as a pearl herself. She looked at the combs and shook her head sadly. “Satan distracts the soul with beauty, even in the shape of the cross.”
Tonight, the usual noises of the toiling city—the rattling of warehouse wagons and refuse carts—have been suspended for the holiday. Instead, the sounds of horns and drums come faintly to her ear. Verina is snoring in the room next door. A guard in the corridor coughs. There’s a skittering noise from the direction of the terrace—the chamberlain’s cat batting its hollow silver ball. She keeps waiting for it to go clinking down a stair, perhaps the steps to the servants’ quarters, the warren of cells two floors below, directly under the state rooms.
She pictures the cat chasing after the toy, swatting it into the temporary chambers given over to her cousin. Wherever she is, Aelia Maria Serena Theodosia can’t possibly be sleeping. If Galla Placidia knows her at all, this woman of forty, whom she sometimes called “aunt,” is thinking of the kind of accommodations required not only for comfort but respectability, too. One of her rooms in the palace at Milan was devoted to her collection of wigs and their care—a room that smelled strongly of the cinnamon oil used to keep lice from the hair.
One night, years before, the princess followed Serena through the darkened halls of that palace. It was the day her sacred father died. She was five. She doesn’t remember where they were going, but Serena insisted on walking so quickly that the distance between them kept widening. The child Placidia kept telling herself that if she followed the smell of cinnamon, she wouldn’t get lost in the maze of passages. But could she really have been alone with her cousin, whose maids were always present? And the corridors would have been lighted, surely. Yet that isn’t how she recalls it. Memory, she thinks, is slippery, shape-shifting.
Much happened in those ominous hours that she was only to realize later. Her brothers, despite their ages, were both vested with the title Augustus—Honorius to take the throne in Milan, and Arcadius in Constantinople. The princess, for her part, was placed in the care of Serena, while Serena’s husband, the master general, was entrusted with protecting the fledgling emperors and keeping the army sworn to their support.
Now, thirteen years later, Arcadius Augustus is dead of pneumonia and the master general has been, an event that occurred only days after Galla Placidia was sent to Rome. Lord Stilicho was charged with subverting the Roman army by increasing its dependence on barbarian recruits. That he himself carried Vandal blood was exploited by his enemies to convict him.
Serena is quite abandoned, mistress.
In the shallows of sleep, a dream creeps in. Verina is beside her, as always in her dreams, as in her waking life, too. The place is the public square in Ravenna. They are looking at the body of Flavius Stilicho sprawled in a growing puddle of blood. His wife is not with them, but his son is—Eucherius. Or it looks like him, except that his blond hair is long and his face scored with tattoos. Could this really be the one to whom she was betrothed? No, this can’t be Eucherius. Yet he is weeping at the bloody sight in the square. He is kneeling pathetically at her feet, his cheek pressed to her thigh. His tears darken the silk of her tunic. Whoever he is, she does not want him near her. Still, she finds herself laying a hand on his head.
The dream slips away. She thinks she hears a tambourine in the distance. When she concentrates on it, the sound gets fainter, if in fact it is there at all. She opens her eyes. On the ceiling is an eagle-shaped medallion that she can just make out in the darkness.
She and Eucherius are close in age, less than three years between them. Their formative years were spent in Milan. One could say that they grew up together except that from his early adolescence, he was increasingly part to his father’s world, commanding his own cavalry squadron by the time he was a very young man. Now she can scarcely call up his face. When she does, she pictures the man in the dream. After Stilicho’s execution, the betrothal was nullified and Eucherius, stripped of titles and command, went into hiding.
She shifts to her side. The remnants of the holiday meal have turned to sodden wood in her stomach. She guides her thoughts toward the feast on the Aventine, trying to remember every detail—the presentation of the food, the attire of the guests. Each moment a delight, a novelty. An entire golden day. A perfect day come to ruin.
She can understand why Serena left Milan, where supporters of her husband’s policies were reportedly bludgeoned to death. Ravenna must have been her preferred destination, with her daughter newly married to Honorius and certainly soon to be pregnant. But evidently the Court denied her entry. How desperate she must be to seek refuge in Rome, which she always considered a “nest of perversions.” Or did she come at the emperor’s request to keep watch on his younger sister, to serve as the curb—as she’d always done—to her notions and wants?
Placidia listens for the clinking ball, but hears only the sounds of her breath on the pillow and Verina’s persistent snores. The moon peeping through a gap in the curtains seems to be growing brighter. Again, the pulse of a tambourine drifts up from some crevice of the city.
More than one hundred miles north of Rome, forty-three horsemen at a measured trot ascend the winding, ill-cobbled road into Saena. The sinking sun of a late afternoon casts their shadows on the crumbling walls well before they enter the gates. They are dressed in hides and incongruous pieces of Roman armor—riveted helmets with short metal crests, ancient breastplates of molded leather, rusted chain mail. Swords and axes hang from their belts. Some of the riders have beards and long hair, mostly flax-colored, tied back or in plaits.
They canter their steeds through the open gate. The market square is nearly empty. Half a dozen old women and several dogs are gathered by the cistern, beside which stands the square’s only monument, a bronze of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus. The women stare up from the shade of their hats at the mounted strangers grouped before them in such an orderly fashion. A man at the front wears a dented helmet with fox tails tied to the cheek guards. Speaking over the dogs’ excitement, he commands in warped but intelligible Latin that someone fetch the town constable.
After whispered discussion, one of the women hobbles out through the gate. Her comrades inform the intruder that the constable is in his orchard, that no able man in a respectable town would spend his hours of harvest daylight at leisure. Even within the city walls, the air holds the odors of ripe fruit and ox dung, smoke and honey.
The horsemen wait patiently on their mounts. At length, the constable appears. He is a short, broad-shouldered man of middle years with the look of one raised far above his station and insecure in his authority. Though he knew of the presence of raiders in the Apennines, he hoped his town would escape molestation, lying twenty rugged miles from the highway.
Without ceremony, the spokesman for the ragged troop asks the constable for fifty gold solidi in return for leaving the town as they found it. The constable does not have ten such coins after paying the landholder’s share of his earnings. His neighbors, he knows, have less. He looks at the bronze she-wolf, as if an appeal to history might result in gentler treatment. What use, he thinks, to offer the provisions in his storehouse? There was such a good harvest and the goats so prolific. All to be taken by filthy savages. Who are what? Vandals? Goths? Are they part of a larger, organized force, or have they deserted the imperial army as their swords and armor suggest? Rue the day when the security of Romans depends on the loyalty of beasts.
The constable kneels on the flagstones. The fox-tailed brigand, leaning forward on his horse, seems to consider the suppliant’s dilemma—the women’s, the town’s. A scant remnant of silver gilt streaks the crest of his helm. Born in a Gothic settlement within the frontier, he has seen many mountains and rivers in his thirty-odd years. The tattoos on his forearms indeed mark his tenure with the Roman cavalry. He served under general Stilicho against a joint-force of Seuves and Alans who crossed the frozen Rhine in winter. He sits up on his horse, turns his mount sharply and leads his fellows through the gate.
The constable sends word to Saena’s farmers to flee to the valleys or take sanctuary in the town’s only church. He himself isn’t Christian. In Diana’s grove near the tombs of the city, he pours his best wine on the altar, offers figs and cheese, cuts a hen’s throat, calls on the gods as night closes around him. Wine the gods did not claim for themselves he drinks on their behalf.
He wakes on the ground in the full gleam of morning, dirt pressed into his cheek. His wife and children are still in the church with most of the other townsfolk. He walks to his goat pens, his beehives, his orchard. There he culls the last figs of the season and rakes up the spoilage for fodder. The doors on his neighbor’s sheds have been purposely left wide open. “Come take,” they invite, “and don’t burn us.” In the valley, he seeks the company of herdsmen. News: A small camp of Goths and their families are ensconced on the Cassian highway. Above the hills to the west can be seen the telltale, wheeling specks of vultures.
At high noon, the horsemen return, their number doubled, two riders per mount, and with sacks and pole-drags. In town, they pilfer sheds and pantries, but choosily, as if they intend to return for the rest at their convenience. They have to kill a few dogs to proceed. In the constable’s apiary, they heap straw around the hives and set it to flame; they stuff the dripping combs into bags, straw sticking to hands and beards. Against orders, one scar-riddled Goth with a dark plaited beard tries to burn the church and those in it, though the blaze does not take. The same kills a farmer holed up in his stable. First knifes him, then hacks through his neck with a shovel. With each chop to the throat, the assailant cries out the name of Honorius.
Michael Hawley’s short stories have been or will soon be published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The New Yorker, Post Road Magazine, Saint Ann’s Review and elsewhere. He lives in New York City. (Web page: www.michaelhawleyfiction.com)