late-summer rains saved her life.
been lying on the shore of the pond with her feet in the
water, trying to keep cool in a dense, sultry dusk. Far
down in the valley a woman’s full-throated cry went up
like a ribbon of smoke in the vast silence of the day’s
end. It rose, shuddered, and died away suddenly, followed
almost at once by the unmistakable bark of Father
climbed to the edge of the woods and peered into the
valley. Lamps had begun to twinkle in the peasants’
huts. An ox bellowed lazily, the sound of bovine boredom.
The scene was peaceful.
badly. The night was humid, full of ill omen. The air
seemed abnormally thick and agitated, though there was no
wind. A shudder of lightning troubled the heavens. Thunder
rolled over the mountain peaks.
She got out
of bed and stood at the door to the villa garden, watching
the odd play of sky-images in the west. Sheet-lightning
flashed behind towers of cloud, writing brief tales of
terror across the sky. Spectral cities perished in flames;
monstrous grey-robed Persons rose at the Last Dawn; dark
ships went down in a wintry sea.
By dawn the
sun was back, crisp and autumnal. Adriana did the
morning’s chores and took her siesta at noon, lying next
to Wolf, naked after swimming, on the beach at the
creek’s mouth. With half-closed eyes she watched the
pond glitter under the high sun. A bird’s shadow
darkened the wet sand; a warm breeze stirred sleepily in
stretched and turned to lay her cheek against Wolf’s wet
hair. She heard rustlings among the trees, and the crack
of a dry stick.
goes?" she demanded, rolling over on her back.
nothing," Wolf said. "It is a wandering pig, or
a goat from the hill."
not a pig," a little boy’s voice said, greatly
up, pulled her discarded tunic across her lap, and peered
into the brush behind the beach.
out, come out," she said gently, beckoning at a clump
of scrub willow.
boys in white tunics climbed out of hiding and came
forward hand in hand, the younger a small copy of the
are you doing so far from home, little ones?" Adriana
said, touching the older boy on the cheek.
came up here looking for Maura, the funny woman." The
boy touched his temple and shook his head. "Nobody
knows where she is."
with a scornful thumb at his little brother. "He
swears by his head, which has no brains, that he saw
yellow men with masks and hair like a black goat’s hair.
They were humping Maura."
boy nodded solemnly. "I was in the woods down there
at sunset, chasing squirrels," he pointed toward the
valley, "and the men wearing masks came into the
woods, pulling Maura by the arms. They rolled on her
first. Then they hit her. She shouted, the way she
does." He covered his ears. "They they threw her
down—thump! like that—on the rocks. Then they went
away. Why did they wear masks?"
chill passed over the back of Adriana’s neck.
think they were demons, myself," the older boy said.
"No one saw them but him. He’s always seeing things
nobody else can see."
boy nodded vigorously. "I saw them with this eye, and
He made the
sign of the cross over each eye.
home, now," Adriana said sweetly, patting each boy on
the cheek. "My husband and I weren’t expecting
company, or we would have put on our clothes."
children nodded and ran away.
back close to Wolf. Her scalp tingled with a rising,
Wolf said, "the people come all the time, there is no
men with masks," Adriana murmured, "and black
goat’s hair. I can’t imagine how. . . ."
She let the
evening, when Wolf and Adriana returned from Old Baldy,
the autumnal weather was back. A melancholy gust of wind
whirled down from the heights. A raven, sitting on a
rotten stump, rose and flapped past Adriana’s head with
a mournful croak. She laughed a little at the omen, but
the laughter stuck in her throat.
nightfall there was a continuous, subdued rumble of
thunder. An angry wind flowed in from the west, driving a
cloud-veil that seemed to shred itself on the pointed
stars. Adriana heaped up the hearth-fire and warmed her
hands before the blaze of pine-knots that sent out hissing
jets of steam.
have time to get into bed," Wolf said, sniffing the
coming storm. "Bed is the place for wild weather like
fell. Gathering his great shoulders in her blanket and
drawing him close, she cradled Wolf’s head on her breast
and sang softly while the embers hissed in the glowing
hearth and their orange light shifted among the rafters
overhead. Lightning flickered in the belly of the tempest
as it advanced from the west. A dreary wind moaned along
the mountainside; heavy drops of rain fell one by one.
burst over the mountains with a roar of thunder and an icy
rush of wind. Flashes of lightning tumbled over one
another; wind-tossed vines scratched at the house, like
children lost in the night. Sheets of rain pounded the
roof-tiles and shutters and the broad-leaved weeds outside
the kitchen door. Wrapped all around each other, Wolf and
Adriana lay snug in their cocoon of warmth, listening to
the storm as it roared through the woods like a flock of
grew used to the thunder, Adriana fell asleep. She dreamed
that she had swallowed a gold solidus and Faustinus was
cutting a hole in her belly to get it out. A thunderclap
woke her in a panic. She got up and stoked the fire in the
hearth. It flared around pine-knots and calmed her with
its warmth. She lay in the glow and watched the ethereal
silver smoke drift off through the high window, and
listened to the inexhaustible rainfall until its hypnotic
monotony put her to sleep again.
the morning the rain stopped at last. While Wolf still
slept, Adriana pulled her tunic over her head and went
barefoot to see the damage the storm had done. No part of
the house was under water. Branches and leaves littered
the grassy space around the villa. A driving, restless
wind shifted along the mountain slopes, pressing
Adriana’s tunic against her body, worrying at her face
and breast as if to push her back into the safety of the
house. The forest dripped, a spatter of consonants. The
pond had swollen into a fast-emptying lake, its surface
cluttered with vegetation stripped from the heights. The
creek was a torrent, booming and hissing through its
gorge. It seemed to be escaping from the mountains while
the sobbing forest urged it to stay.
Adriana went back to the kitchen. Wolf was up, naked,
time to fish," he said gravely, looking out at the
grey day, pulling his tunic over his head, and digging
through his effects for his pole. "The storm has
washed all the fish out of the mountains."
In vain she
searched his face for hints of a German joke. He fished
until noon at the edge of the swollen pond, caught nothing
but dead branches, and lost his temper and the tip of his
are not biting, they do not like old dead
grasshoppers," he said. "I must go down to the
Widow Phaleria’s and dig worms, which the fish will not
be able to resist."
stood in the doorless vestibule, watching him go,
listening to his squelching footfalls above the wind that
moaned high in the trees. The thunder of the creek,
swollen into a river, had grown louder since dawn.
Rivulets dodged and leaped down the forest slopes,
splitting and reuniting, shooting along smooth granite,
plunging over boulders, rock-shelves, fallen trees.
the house, she took odd comfort in the attack of the wind,
howling among the trees, pelting the roof with bark and
twigs. All afternoon she worked to calm herself, knitting,
dusting, rearranging the simple furniture in the kitchen.
She carried clean water from the spring and chopped
pine-faggots, rubbing her palms raw on the axe-handle. She
piled up the bedside brazier for added cheer; the
pine-knots crackled, spurting flame now and then with a
melancholy hiss. She prepared a simple supper of wine and
cheese and covered the food with a cloth. Shivering in the
grey dampness, she climbed to the edge of the woods and
peered down the valley toward the village, hoping to see
Wolf swinging up the ascent.
you there?" she shouted. A moist echo came back to
her. When it died away, the hills were silent.
indoors and stirred the hearth, tidied her supper
pointlessly, and lit a lamp of perfumed oil to make the
meal cheerful. She listened to the out-of-doors, hoping
for what she could not hear. The lamp died. She relit it
cautiously with a roll of bark.
A damp gust of air from the garden, like a spirit, sent up
a whirl of sparks from the bedside brazier. A light chill
passed down her spine. She began to hear odd sounds in the
vacant rooms overhead: faint rubbing, scratching, gnawing,
the burrowing of unseen claws.
She sang a
little, and broke into a sweat. She looked out the window
and swore to herself that there were shapes stealing among
the trees and gliding down the slopes: two, three, perhaps
five. Perhaps they were wolves. She thought she could see
their eyes glittering in the woods, hear their feet stir
the last autumn’s wet leaves.
her cheeks to calm herself. Her mind invented its own
horrors. She thought of the fool-woman, her large body
being torn by the murderers, her life-blood pouring out at
the bottom of a trench in the woods, and the murderers
themselves slinking away through the brush. Her heart
pounded furiously, like a mallet in a barrel.
she felt exhausted.
must sleep, he will come," she said to herself aloud.
and barred the kitchen door that led to the rest of the
house. Instinct told her to leave the solitary window
unshuttered and the door open to the kitchen-garden and
the forest, in case she had to leave in a hurry.
She lay on
her bed of ferns. The rush of her thoughts became
increasingly bizarre and then extinguished itself abruptly
in a dreamless sleep. She woke near dusk. A gust of wind
had blown out the lamp. She lay frozen on the bed for a
moment, straining to hear, above the moaning of the wind,
the human sounds that she knew must be present in the
she got to her feet and fumbled against the wall, reaching
for the lamp. She laid a strip of bark in the brazier,
stirred up the coals, and relit the wick with the bark
when it had burst into flame.
hear nothing but the wind and the monotonous thunder of
the creek, but she knew with cold certainty that they
were there, and when she turned with the lighted lamp in
her hand she was startled, but not surprised, to see them
standing at the edge of the orange glow.
the lamp with a crash, and clapped her right hand to the
poisoned stiletto that rested against her thigh. The Huns
seemed not to notice. With perfect economy of motion, in
six noiseless strides, they were on either side of her,
smiling the smile that the women of Aquileia had seen on
the day they died.
herself to scream.
Adriana’s height, the creatures hardly seemed like
angels of death. They were compact and smooth-skinned;
their most threatening features were their steely
muscularity and their overpowering body-odor. The
body-odor of Huns was in the bloodstream, Adriana thought,
fermented for centuries on the plains of Asia.
Bare-chested in the abominable weather, they wore greasy
leg-wraps and loincloths that would never be changed until
they rotted and fell off. They had few tattoos and no
amulets. Perhaps, as children of the devil, they needed no
protection from him.
hungry," one of them said, patting his flat belly, on
which a drift of black hair spoke of some Persian ancestor
who had mated with the women of the Asian steppes.
was frozen; her hands were frozen.
make fire," the creature snapped, his eyes glinting.
He kicked the bedside brazier, showering red coals on the
Adriana said absurdly, the only word she could bring her
paralyzed mouth to shape. She set her feet and hands in
motion, stoking the hearth with pine-knots, picking coals
off the floor with a rusted pair of tongs, blowing with
wooden lips until a wisp of smoke announced the coming
thoughts were out of control, like birds trapped in a
windowless room; she longed for her habitual dry calm in
the face of catastrophe. She thought how pleasant the
safety of the brigand-camp would be, how unobjectionable
to lose a finger for the sake of the ring it wore, or an
ear for the sake of a pearl. A fragment of Avitus’s
advice presented itself, like a flute-note in a cyclone,
that Deity had provided a hundred escapes from every tight
place and the trick was to find just one of them.
herself to imagine the possible worst: her head sitting in
the crotch of a tree, her limbs dangling from the adjacent
branches, her intestines draped over the surrounding
bushes like fish-line; and suddenly her thoughts were
orderly, as if news of her death had been brought to her
and she knew it was false. She turned to the Huns.
have cheese," she said, gesturing at the table she
had set for Wolf.
want meat." The little beast-man’s eyes glittered.
have pig," she nodded. "It will take time."
time," the Hun repeated, like a child rehearsing a
the last of the suckling pig that she and Wolf had eaten
the night before, and set it rotating above the strong
blaze. She tempered the fire with water, thinking, with
dreadful logic, that slow cooking over a weak fire would
let her live longer. Wolf was surely on his way home. She
would ply her guests with food and wine, especially wine.
God be thanked, there was plenty of wine.
the spit with one hand and turned to the Huns with a
gracious smile. They looked like square-set children to
her now, standing side by side, their flat chests
glistening in the orange light of the hearth.
need wine," she said, smiling, "to prepare you
for the meal."
wine," they said, and giggled, as Huns were apt to
do, at nothing in particular.
out the potent wine of the valley, filled her own large
goblet and Wolf’s, and served the black draft unmixed
with water. The Huns hunkered down near the hearth,
drained their goblets, and wagged them in the air.
unspeakable thanks, she filled the goblets again, watching
the intruders’ faces for signs of drowsiness from strong
drink and the heat of the fire.
talkative of the two put his stubby fingers under his
loin-apron, kneaded his genitals appreciatively, and
smirked up at Adriana.
cook self. You make dance for Optila."
it will be time to eat," she said, dismay clutching
at her again.
into the hearth, raising a puff of steam. He grinned. His
brother Traustila grinned. They grinned together, and
emitted little nasal giggles.
you make dance," Optila said, nudging his brother.
"Then we eat. Or we do something else."
by Optila’s humor, the Huns giggled, nudging each other
like small boys. Their moon-faces glowed under their
pleased Flavia would be, Adriana thought with the
humor of despair; I’m the she-buffoon in a monstrous
farce, a noblewoman dancing in her underwear.
prepared herself for the mortification of presenting her
body for the amusement of strangers. She glanced at her
tormentors, sitting elbow-to-elbow in the hearth-light.
Her hand itched for the tiny knife that lay against her
lower belly; a single well-managed pass of the blade would
send both devils to the Pit, after some preliminary
I dance while you eat?" she asked, buying time.
make dance. Then we eat—or something else. You take
clothes off." The Hun delivered his idiot Latin with
the last demand, she set the fallen brazier upright to
clear a space for herself, kicked the scattered coals
against the hearth, and began to dance, clapping her
hands, humming her own accompaniment. Ordinarily satisfied
with her body, she felt gaunt and ill-shaped as she moved.
Her charms could not possibly keep her alive, after all;
at most they would postpone her death, or prolong it. With
cold foresight she prepared herself for the moment when
the Huns grew bored with their play, and closed in to rape
and dismember her, according to their custom. Perhaps she
could manage to die quickly. Meanwhile, she danced to
soothe the beasts; she would put them to sleep if
possible. Already their eyelids were heavy with wine.
take clothes off." The Hun-voice was petulant. The
boy made an imperious gesture.
I sing?" she asked, pretending not to understand.
Her voice seemed to her to come from the Huns or the
hearth, not her own mouth. How we loved! Who saw us? A
star that dropped into the sea, and told the waves, who
told the oar, and the oar the fisherman, and the fisherman
his wife, who told the whole village!
take clothes off!" Optila’s eyes were angry. He had
gathered his body, apparently to spring at her.
at her tunic, pulling it over her head. The Huns giggled
at the sight of her breasts. She would die, she decided,
before giving up her loin-wrap and the stiletto that it
into an ancient dance, ancient gestures, for which her
body knew the intimate reasons. In the red glow of the
hearth, the Huns nodded and smiled with half-shut eyelids,
grunting with pleasure at her performance. Leaping maenads
entered Adriana’s bruised imagination, with bleeding
faces and breasts. Howling satyrs followed, with sharpened
teeth, and there was a thunder of skin-headed drums. As
her mind escaped to a place where death could not follow,
her feet pursued her mind, and she was running, running
through the forest in her mind, and her body ached to
Huns’ coughing laughter went up near the hearth. Their
heads nodded in drunken enthusiasm as they followed her
movements with their little eyes. Traustila shut his eyes
suddenly, apparently asleep. Optila seemed to have trouble
keeping both eyes open at once. He squinted at Adriana
with one, then the other. Then he seemed to slip into a
trance with the left eye open, the right eye closed.
hesitated in mid-movement. The Hun registered no change of
door stood open, where the creatures had entered. Beyond
it, the dark forest dripped into the kitchen garden;
beyond the garden lay the path to Probus’s cliff.
out into the open air, bruising her hardened feet on the
stones of the forest floor, and pounded through the grey
dusk toward the creek. Her head seemed filled with the
clamor of voices calling her name. In her witless panic
she thought she would be safe on Old Baldy. The forest
undergrowth lashed at her and slowed her. She tripped over
an exposed root and dropped like a bird felled by a stone.
Her shoulder and thigh hurt abominably, but she dragged
herself to her feet by force of will.
again, she could see the swollen creek. The sight gave her
courage. She misplaced her bruised feet, slipped, and fell
against a tree, striking her head with a disorienting
flash of pain. Giddy and faint, with a sick, tingling
sensation at the roots of her hair, she stumbled to the
creek-bank and collapsed down it, bruising her buttocks
struggled to her feet and wiped the spray from her eyes. A
clump of brush had broken her fall just short of the
smooth, oily curve of the torrent, sweeping past her at
the speed of a horse’s gallop. All the familiar
landmarks had vanished under water. Above the flood, the
monk’s rope shifted in the spray. Just west of it the
stream broke into a long fury of rapids.
to die by water than steel, she thought, throwing off
her loin-wrap and biting hard on the sheath of her painted
stiletto. In an animated daze she entered the stream where
she knew the stepping-stones would be. If the rope held,
she could reach the other shore. The flood battered her
legs. With raw fingers she dragged herself hand over hand
through the boiling current, aware that a moment’s
relaxation of her grip would toss her into the white rage
beyond where she moved.
on what she could see of the far shore, moving her
half-paralyzed hands toward it, hand over hand along the
wet ridges of rope, moving her mind toward it, as if she
were contemplating the Eucharist. Her consciousness began
to wander. She thought of a drowned man she had seen in
Tuscany, a mound of flesh washed up on a beach, its eyes
eaten away by sea-birds.
moved of their own accord now, one over the other, chafing
against the wet rope. A branch swept past, nearly taking
her with it. Choked with spray, she saw rocks looming, dim
shapes above the waste of hurtling water. Her feet seemed
to take on an intelligence of their own, searching out
desperate toeholds on the creek-bottom. Her right foot
slipped on a familiar rock. She caught her balance,
glanced backward, and saw two human forms through the
out again with the strength of renewed terror,
concentrating on her dead feet, trying to remember where
the flat stones were. Her knees collided sharply with the
far bank of the creek. Hand over hand she pulled herself
up the rocky slope, upward among brambles, her legs and
body numb, her arms and chest a continuous mass of pain.
The stream sucked at her knees and ankles as she pulled
them free. She hooked her left arm over a willow branch
and pushed her heels into the vegetable rot at the edge of
the bank until her feet were secure.
see the Huns clearly now. Ignorant of the stepping-stones,
they were throwing their whole weight on the rope,
dangling from it like apes. She pulled her stiletto free,
spat out the sheath, and began to saw deliberately at the
knotted rope that strained under the weight of the shapes
drawing near, hand over hand, on the lip of the cataract.
split off one by one; the main body of the rope stretched
at the cut. She saw the black heads approaching through
wreaths of spray, and thought she heard the rush of
athletic breathing above the boom and hiss of the torrent.
arm went numb around the branch; her right hand worked
with an unfeeling life of its own. She pulled the blade
toward herself and sprawled back onto wet rock. The Huns
barked as the sundered rope plunged them into the rapids.
Their black heads bobbed for an instant above the rushing
water and then vanished, like dead leaves before a high
For a while
she stared at the space between her feet. Then she allowed
herself to weep, silently at first, until her shaking
stopped, and she had recovered herself enough to open her
eyes and look candidly at the swirling water, making sure
that the Huns were gone.
starved. Absurdly, she had an appetite for strawberries.
Her legs were coated with slime and bits of wet bark. She
tried to move, and had no strength. She kept her place and
allowed her mind to go numb. For a long while she leaned
against the cliff-face, mentally at a great distance from
her pain, the raging of the creek, and the souls of the
drowned Huns shouting at her from hell in their strange
nightfall there was movement in the trees across the
creek, upstream, near the pond. She called out weakly.
Wolf’s clear baritone floated back to her above the
the water outstretched and was half way across the pond,
seeming to push the surface out of his way with his
powerful stroke. His bright hair showed just short of the
falls; then he rose out of the torrent and climbed the
rocks to her side, saying her name again and again,
shaking his wet head like a seal. He crouched beside her.
you well?" he asked, laying a hand to her cheek and
smoothing back her hair with the other. "You will
not shivering from the chill," she said, her hands
clenched over her knees in a convulsive effort at
blood trickling down her arm.
are cut up," he worried. "Your face is like
lost a bit of skin," she said, sucking at the scrape.
I did not come, Adriana, because we were looking for the
demons who killed Maura—all of us, the priest, the dog,
everyone. Ach, we looked everywhere but here. The
demons must have known we would do that."
their quarry," she said. "Maybe they waited
until I was alone. It’s all right."
need wine and a fire. I will carry you home."
her up in his arms like a child and carried her along the
shore. At the edge of the pond where the current could be
breasted safely, he lowered her gently into the water and
followed with a splash. She relaxed under his arm and let
the dark water flow by her ears as he drew her with his
powerful one-armed stroke, snorting like a dog with a
had stopped chattering when they reached the house. She
was faint, as if from fasting. Wolf built a fire, wrapped
Adriana in a blanket, laid her near the hearth on their
bed of fern, and brought her a goblet of hot spiced wine.
She drank it and shivered.
rarely catch cold," she said hopefully, and sneezed.
The wine numbed her; she grew drowsy as the warmth
penetrated her bruised, chilled body. A rush of words came
to her lips as she lay with her head in Wolf’s lap,
explaining her brush with death.
a woman from the East once," she babbled, "a
delicate little wisp the color of an apricot. Don’t you
think Huns must come from the mating of Eastern women with
lions? They’re said to be inexhaustible in bed. My
sister Flavia’s ambition is to own a Hunnish slave. She
says she’s always wanted a lover who has to be kept in a
and talked, and sobbed a little. Her tongue would not stop
moving. Wolf pillowed her head against his shoulder and
smoothed her hair with his hand. The wine took full effect
at last. Soon her voice trailed away, and she slept like
an exhausted infant.
came round, warmth had crept back into her thighs and
upper arms. The weather was softening; a light breeze
stirred the soaked underbrush outside the kitchen window.
"Why," she asked, looking up at Wolf, "does
a cup of wine always taste sweetest when it’s nearly
not understand, madam," Wolf said softly.
being played with," Adriana said hopelessly. "He
builds up our hopes so he can crush them."
has an infinite number of eyes and ears, and the help of
the devil besides," she said.
gripped her intestines like a hand of lead. "He could
have destroyed us any time, but he’s playing with us. He
won’t pluck the pear before it’s ripe. He’ll find a
way to drag out the game until he gets tired of it. It’s
her hands. "If we stay here, he’ll hound us to
death. If we move on, he’ll run us down."
is cleverer than Faustinus, and more patient," Wolf
brought us here, I think," she nodded. "There
must be other places like this, tucked away where nothing
important happens. Maybe we can find one. If we do,
we’ll drink deeply in a hurry, before Faustinus can take
the cup of pleasure from us again."
closer to Wolf. The smells and sounds of the forest
deepened her melancholy.
now it’s time to leave," she said after a while, in
a voice that carried all the weariness of the world.
had melted over the Sila. The valleys were bogs; the roads
were chutes of clay. The forest was still dripping.
Vanished creeklets had left their traces in stands of
pine, around the trunks of holm-oaks, through clumps of
chestnut, running away to the sea. Small plants lay
draggled on the floor, in a litter of branches and fallen
by the hand at dawn, Adriana walked to the creek and
looked carefully at it, booming through its gorge.
one could have survived that," Wolf said, and Adriana
nodded, grateful that the devil had claimed his own.
wooden spirit she went through her customary
morning-motions, feeling like the last of the summer’s
flowers, odorless and dull. Perhaps the day would be
easier after she had said her farewells in the village.
Without conviction she arrayed her hair, smoothed her
tunic, beckoned to Wolf, and went out into the grey day.
barefoot down the mountainside, moving from bush to bush
along the path where it had become a slide. The only
street in Curia was a morass. Adriana and Wolf squelched
their way to the church. Spino blocked the door, half
asleep, lifting his head now and then to make a gigantic
snap at the flies that teased him. Seeing Adriana, he
barked joyously and came to lick her hand.
Oppius was at prayer, kneeling in an aura of lamplight and
incense. Adriana went to her knees, crossed herself, and
waited patiently in the golden semidarkness of the little
refuge until the priest looked up to see why Spino was
thumping his tail.
saint got off his knees and bowed to Adriana and Wolf in
he said, taking each of them by an elbow and leading them
out of the sanctuary.
courtyard he turned and examined Adriana’s face in
leaving," he said simply, reading her eyes.
must. I’ve made promises. I’m no longer safe."
Father Oppius nodded. "There’s no changing your
mind. Your eyes say so."
sadly. "Well, God be thanked anyway. You were good
for us. You let us see that decent people can be from
anywhere, even Rome. Come to the house. I must give you
something for your trip. What shall I give you? Ah, Flora.
I can’t give you Florus the mule, alas, but Flora is one
more donkey than I need. She’ll carry everything you
pile on her and thank you for the privilege, the good
Oppius’s stable, Flora the donkey glared at Adriana like
an old woman preparing to curse.
be no charge," the priest said, with a sad little
wave of the hand. "It’d be like selling a member of
the family. She belonged to my brother, great man that he
was. The evening before he died he made a drink of meal
and water for her, just as if she were our sister. May you
live well, Flora!"
the donkey between the eyes. She turned, stretched her
neck, and bit Adriana’s hand.
break your fast," Father Oppius said, and led his
guests back to the house. In the cheerful simplicity of
his kitchen they shelled boiled eggs together. While they
ate, Basilia ran through the village. The plain folk of
Curia began to appear at the priest’s door, taking time
from their chores to bid the strange visitors goodbye.
women wrung their hands and sniffled. The old men saluted
and said "Farewell!" in their thin voices. Women
held up their babies. Girls came to kiss Adriana and Wolf
as they left the house, and whispered Vale! in
their ears. Adriana found a little girl’s warm hand in
her own. She picked up the small person and hugged her,
feeling a touch of envy that the child would enjoy the
simple life of the hills all during the distant spring.
brought a red rose and fixed it above Adriana’s right
ear. He had tears in his eyes.
goodbye," he said, tracing crosses in the air with
two fingers. Spino barked mournfully.
sadness dragged her toward the ground as she walked away
from the people of Curia for the last time, with a burning
sensation in her throat. Passing through the village gate
into the countryside, she turned so often to wave and blow
kisses that her neck ached when at last she set her eyes
on the hills and threw herself into the climb. At the top,
she could not bear to look long at anything, the pond, the
friendly profile of the collapsing house, the tiny meadow
in which she had half-hoped to plant cabbages and beans in
donkey had dragged her feet spitefully all the way up the
hill. Adriana led the creature into the house, tethered
her in the vestibule, and gave her some of the priest’s
barley that she had carried up the hillside.
for nightfall. Somehow the agony of departure would have
been minimized if the familiar surroundings had been
concealed. She went through the morning with numb
determination, gathering her effects, directing the silent
Wolf with curt phrases, as if he were her slave again.
They agreed to travel sparely; the load that Wolf draped
over the resentful Flora was hardly staggering: a pair of
coarse blankets, a pair of wicker baskets with spare
sandals, a change of tunics, and food that would be slow
went through the house, touching familiar things: the cold
hearth, a vase with wilted wildflowers, a broken statue in
the atrium with dead leaves gathered at its base. She went
alone to the ruined garden for the last time, and touched
the broken sundial and the willow pole in which Wolf had
notched the passing days. The rain had greened everything.
The place was restful and fragrant, like the garden she
had left at Rome.
sorry, I must go," she said quietly to the flowers,
and turned to leave.
the doors to the kitchen and did her best to align the
broken shutters over the window. Wolf gave her a stout
staff that he had cut, and took one of his own. They slung
their bundles over their shoulders, carrying fresh bread
and goat’s ham cured in the mountaineers’ fashion, and
set off into the forest. The breeze from the mountains
followed them, carrying the smell of pine.
westward path Adriana turned where she knew she could
still see the house, and made the sign of the cross over
it, whispering a blessing in the names of the Trinity.
I’m dead, bring me back here if you can," she
murmured to Wolf with a terrible ache in her throat, and
turned westward again.
rose from the forest undergrowth on either side of the
charcoal-burners’ track. There was hardly a sound in the
grey day, sometimes a goat’s bell, or the murmur of
cattle in the mountain meadows.
stubborn care placing her hoofs on the slopes, treacherous
after the storm. In the afternoon she put her nose into a
clump of thistles and refused to budge. Wolf tugged at her
bridle and she showed her teeth. His lips grimly set, Wolf
took the beast’s head in a hammer-lock, dragged her back
to the path, and kicked her into motion. She was docile
the rest of the day.
afternoon, Adriana and Wolf walked the damp stones of the
southbound Via Popilia. Halfway down to the plain of the
River Lametus, the decayed walls of a giant villa loomed
out of a mountainside. The wreck depressed Adriana,
because it seemed to stand for all that had been her life,
but there was dry hay for a good night’s sleep in the
deserted stables. In the morning she and Wolf bargained
with a peasant woman for a breakfast of eggs, and took to
the highway again with stomachs half-full.
had assaulted the lower forest pitilessly; the
unrestrained rainfall had rushed down the mountainsides,
flooding the lowlands and carrying away animals and
houses. But two days after the storm, the abused land had
dried out as fast as it had become saturated. The lower
countryside lacked the clean light and shadow of the
mountains. The infrequent peasant huts were often
deserted. Others were sties inhabited by famished
ex-serfs, clawing a living from fields no longer rich.
suddenly quickened her pace and bit Wolf on the hand.
hungry," Adriana said wearily. "Her ears are
hanging. Let’s turn her loose among the thistles."
The donkey ran away, but not very fast, because of her
age. Adriana sat on a stone by the highway while Wolf
chased Flora through the brambles and dragged her back to
the path. Scanning the landscape, Adriana saw a green
slash in a yellow field, announcing a spring. She rushed
to it. Even Flora was content to rest by the tiny trickle
of water with her persecutors, who drank sparingly and
gathered their strength.
emerged from the foothills of the Sila. Through sparse
woods the plain of the Lametus appeared, simmering in the
August heat, and beyond it the great mirror of the
what a desert!" Adriana said. "There’s a house
over there, with people, thank God. Perhaps they’ll put
us up for the night."
approach to the peasant hut was dismal. Two bony hens,
pictures of despair, scratched mournfully in a clutter of
broken amphorae, dead leaves, dung, brambles, and rags. A
black pair of horns had been sketched with charcoal over
the door of the hut to prevent witches from crossing the
rapped on the door. The knock was answered by a
pinch-faced woman who could have sat for a formal portrait
of Destitution. She was old at thirty, dull as lead, the
product of years of sour wine, miscarriages, too little
biscuit, and hard digging in dry fields.
are you, in the name of God?" the farm-wife asked
you give us supper, madam?" Adriana asked.
have no wine worth drinking and no supper worth
eating," the creature answered, and shut the door.
prepared to pay."
you will, I’d like to bargain with you for that handsome
donkey," the woman said, casting sad eyes on Flora.
her and good riddance," Adriana said. "The
dishonest beast doesn’t earn what she eats, even if she
eats it in the woods. I’ll give you a coin just to take
She found a
copper piece in her purse and put it in the farm-wife’s
Ursina; you’re welcome here," the woman said, not
smiling, and motioned the travelers into her hovel.
interior was predictably squalid, with a hearth of
unmortared stones, walls as sooty as the hearth, and a
smoke-hole in the roof that seemed to let light out of the
house rather than bring it in. Black cobwebs hung from the
rafters. The dirt floor was crisscrossed by trails of dung
from the yard. Two scrawny hens ran in and out of the
living space. An evil-looking black pig dozed in the
rubble. A pale man lay on a pallet, spitting against the
has a demon, no one knows its name," Ursina said
Wolf stood in the center of the room, looking for a place
to sit. A spindly son of the house got up with an
expression of resentment, shook the droppings off a mat on
which the hens had been roosting, and spread it on the
floor for the guests.
weather has been from hell," Ursina whined, kicking
the pig out of its doze and sending it squealing out of
the house. "Enough rain to drown the rich man’s
cattle and the poor woman’s chickens, but not enough to
make decent grain. A week ago everything was dry as
Satan’s spit, and now the crops are drowned."
to chase a hen that had invaded the family’s store of
grain and was eating three times her own value in one
she said, "the world is full of hungry stomachs. Why?
Because when we need sunshine the devil sends water, and
when we need water the devil sends sunshine. They say
it’s God’s will. I say it’s the devil’s."
coughed weakly. He turned to the wayfarers. Sweat beaded
his forehead and the sacs under his eyes. The eyes were
alive with suspicions and schemes; the man on his deathbed
could still think of ways to cheat a guest.
showed him Adriana’s coin.
me of last year, when I got a whole denarius for a couple
of chickens that died of the pip," the husband said,
don’t think we’ve had any luck since then," the
wife said sorrowfully, and presented her left breast to a
child who stood at her knee. A wasted baby, apparently the
youngest child, moaned in a corner of the room.
Undead are sucking him, I think," the mother said
the ailment?" Adriana asked.
knows? What the devil wishes, he has."
handful of wilted ferns Ursina brushed the flies from her
face and breast, and talked wearily of death and decay. In
their youth, she and her husband had started well, but
their best pig had died, the goat had died, the geese had
died thirsty with their mouths hanging open, the donkey
had turned vicious and stamped around in the cabbages and
then had kicked Junius in the stones, which was just as
well because the household could not afford more children,
but more had been born anyway, and most had died, which
was just as well. The dog had developed a passion for
egg-sucking and Ursina had killed it with her own hands,
and in any case the hens that had not died had stopped
laying regularly but ate twice as much as before, as the
devil would have it.
unhooked a pot that hung on a chain over the hearth.
"It’s time to eat, but we’ll see the color of
your money first," she said.
presented a second coin. The woman poured bean porridge
out of the pot into a clay bowl, pulled a black loaf to
pieces, and handed the rough gouts around the circle of
diners. The family ate as noisily as pigs, and with less
delicacy. Ursina gave her best to the guests: an extra
helping of coarse bread, broken with dirty fingers, and a
clay tumbler of muddy red wine.
up a vast sigh from somewhere below the breastbone.
when I was a girl there was bread for everyone—bread for
the dogs and the pigs, even, and the loaves were as big as
the stones in my garden, and we had wine and chicken
whenever we wanted it. Lord! Chicken! You might as well
take down the moon to eat for supper now. What kind of a
life is this? The hens won’t lay, the pig is lean as a
cricket, the cabbages have worms, the children have worms,
for all I know the worms have worms."
into the hearth-fire.
sleep now," Adriana said, rising. "We’ll leave
early tomorrow, to stay out of the sun."
with God," Ursina said, and followed her guests to
to the barn, their feet catching in dry weeds. Lampless,
they climbed a ladder into the dusty hay-rick, and nestled
in a corner under the eaves. The loft was open at one end,
admitting the last light of day. There was a tart smell of
parched hay and old manure. Spiders watched from the
corners; two rats, ignoring the newcomers, chewed busily
at a heap of rotten skins.
staring up at the roof, whose confining presence she could
feel more than see. There were stealthy scratchings in the
hay as night fell. The rats, at least, were wide awake: in
the hay, in Rome, in the world.
we are again," she said. "We have our brief
moment of joy, then we spend the rest of our lives in a
frenzy trying to make the joy come again."
will make it come," Wolf said. "We are together,
and if we both wish it, it will come. Not even the king
can stop it from coming."
even the king," she repeated, with a mental shrug.
it’s so hard to go back," she said after a time,
and wept. She buried her face against Wolf’s chest. When
the tears left her at last he was sleeping peacefully.
drawn up around her head, she lay awake, listening to a
rising wind that stalked the shed like a hunter of blood,
clawing the roof, breathing hard in the eaves, hurling
itself against the rotted walls.
her eyes and remembered floating silently with Wolf on
clean water, in clean sun, with a clean wind rustling in
the pine-tops, and everything quiet underneath except the
chattering creek, parting over stones and logs and
rounding into bright pools that flashed where the sun
descended warm through willow branches and made the sleek
leaves glow against the shade.
The wind battered the stable and brought down dead matter
from the oak that overspread it. The disturbance woke her
in confusion, and she thought she was in her grave, that
the sound above her head was the shuffling of feet, of all
the tormented multitudes that had wandered the world since
time began, moving forever aimlessly over the surface of
the dark earth where she lay.
awake when something dragged itself over her feet and
scurried away through the straw. The darkness was still
intense. The wind had died; cool night air flowed evenly
through the loft. She could see the Dog Star through the
open end. Wolf woke and shifted against her.
time to leave?" he asked.
think so," she said. "There’s light enough to
show the road."
In the dark
she checked herself by hand to be sure her undergarments
were securely tied, and that the pope’s ring, the
stiletto, and her sack of coins were in place, along with
the remaining dry bread she had brought from the
mountains, which the rats had no doubt smelled when her
body had warmed it.
followed her down the ladder into the starlight. The
landscape was pale and weary-looking, as if the night had
been unable to refresh it. A hazy moon was slipping below
the western horizon. The wretched thickets that passed for
forest on the fringe of the seaside lowland were
absolutely silent. Adriana would have been grateful for
the sound of a lizard rushing through the grass, or for
the screech of a single night-hunting bird.
rose all too soon. The touch of its rays on the backs of
her arms felt like fire. In late summer in the South, the
sunrise had no charm. It seemed to add one more trouble to
a predictably troublesome day.
mid-afternoon, leaning against Wolf for support, Adriana
toiled up the long slope to Vibo, past clusters of mud
huts that the next earthquake would rattle against one
another like dice in a box. On its sunbaked eminence, the
city dozed and reeked like a monk on a pillar.
Rome all over again," Adriana said, passing through
the gate. She felt like a runaway child who had fled in a
circle and found itself at home. The noise, the stench,
the anguished tedium were all Rome: the familiar dirt and
dust, eggshells, bones, fish-heads, decaying vegetables,
excrement; the sad vagabonds crouched around the dry
fountains, sunning their tatters and searching for vermin
on each other’s scalps; the priests wandering in a dream
of the hereafter; the madmen lecturing the air; the old
women cursing everything; the dull-eyed little boys making
faces at the old women, the madmen, and the priests.
Wolf’s hand and climbed the blazing east-west
thoroughfare, between grim rows of houses shut tight
against the heat. There was no worthwhile shade in the
forum. Only the lizards seemed charmed by the sun, sliding
like quicksilver among the crannies in the walls.
decapitated bronze body, with rippling muscles, towered
above the pedestrians, awaiting the head of a new emperor.
question froze her blood.
me, Father," she said, turning to a pleasant-looking
old man with a white beard. "I wish to ask a question
about that statue."
to the bronze hulk.
head used to be there?" she asked.
think his name was Maximus."
whose head will be there now?" She held her breath,
preparing herself for the Name.
can say?" the old man shrugged. "One loses
track. I can’t even remember the name of Placidia’s
son, who used to stand there."
new emperor has been announced?"
catastrophic possibilities jostled each other in her mind.
is the bishop, Father?"
The old man
made an eloquent gesture, due west. Adriana thanked him
with a coin, and dragged Wolf out of the forum. She
hurried to the great church, followed by a dwindling
clientele of dogs, boys, and loafers. The neighborhood
improved; the wealth of Vibo seemed concentrated in the
vicinity of the bishop’s palace, next to the cathedral.
here," she said to Wolf at the porter’s wicket.
"Find some shade. I don’t want to take time for
introductions just yet."
the pope’s ring and letter, and passed into the cool
opulence of the palace with a suddenness that made her
cheeks tingle. In silence she followed a deacon down
polished corridors lit with a dim religious light.
of Vibo received her in his garden, pungent with roses and
hyacinths. He bowed cordially, excused her disorderliness,
and handed her a pouch of money and a small scroll,
written in the pope’s own unmistakable hand.
the message, excused herself with thanks, and left the
bishop, thinking of Avitus, her childhood friend. She was
afraid for him, and grateful for his presence in the
waiting patiently in the shade of the palace portico.
Senate in Gaul has moved into the power vacuum," she
announced, kissing him on the cheek.
I’m going to get drunk," she smiled. "Eparchius
Avitus is emperor at Rome."