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This story is from Rubicon, an HWA Short Story Collection.

Exiles

The poet eases his tongue into her mouth. He probes. She lets him. He pulls back, and she can see his eyes, watery and squid-ink dark. She closes hers, and presses her lips together into a thin line.

‘How strange,’ she hears him say. ‘How strange you are.’

He puts his wrinkled, old man hands on her.

In he comes again, his tongue tip-tapping at her teeth. She lets it in, feeling him push deeper. He finds the puckered stump, licking at it. She feels it all the way down to her toes. His tongue swirls fatly in that space where her phantom tongue lies – the ghostly part of her that itches and twitches, and probes her teeth for trapped spinach, and when she forgets, so rarely now, wraps itself around silent consonants.

‘I remember you,’ he says. ‘I remember when it happened.’

She nods and opens her eyes so that he can see her sadness. He was always in and out of the house, laughter and glamour snapping at his heels. A treasured guest. An adornment – like a precious vase, or a giant eel, or a thick necklace hung with glossy amethysts.

The poet. Never a neutral epithet.

‘Look, there goes Ovid, the poet,’ said Agrippina when they were little and he was young. The way she said it, the word was a sneer. ‘Look, there goes the poet,’ said Agrippina’s sister Julia, and the way she said it the word was a hymn, an offering. His art was the bridge to the divine. There they were then, the first time she had seen him, peering into a world of adults around the corner of a hedge. Watching the poet spin his lattice of stories, and throw it high and wide above the silent, upturned faces. Watching them caught and tied.

The garden was thick with golden torch-light and the smell of the dusk-drunk roses.

And even then she thought, when is a story a story and when is it just a lie?

The girls’ mother Julia was there, chief among the worshipers. Little Julia had her mother’s face, that sweet oval which tapered down to a pointed chin. They listened to the poet in the same rapt haze, hands clasped. They loved a story. How did they feel later, when their own lives became stories, distorted and told and retold? Stories and lies. Lies and stories.

She had a tongue then. She had said to Agrippina: Your Mother loves him, mistress. Your sister, too. Look.

‘Oh, that woman loves poets,’ said Agrippina. ‘And my sister is a simpleton. But look at my Father.’

She looked, then, at Agrippa. He was restless. Bored. His eyes flickered around the garden, looking for diversion. He caught sight of them suddenly, peering out from behind the hedge. We will be in trouble, she thought, her stomach sinking. But he had smiled, softening that square, Saturnine face. He had winked at them both. He died not long after. The wink was the last thing either had from him. That one, silent snap of an eyelid.

The poet’s voice, loud and sonorous, sang on.

No. That can’t be right. Agrippina was a toddler when Agrippa died. She is confusing two different days. Even the stories our memories tell us are tricky and full of lies. Agrippa’s wink came earlier, much earlier. She has hoarded it. The day she is thinking of, the first time she saw the poet, it must have been Agrippina’s step-father, Tiberius, who sat there with an irascible face. He hated the modern poets, particularly this one. He thought poems should be formal and full of divine fire. Yes, he hated this poet, and his playful obsession with love and mortal life in all its beauty and ugliness.

Tiberius then. Sitting in Rome waiting for everybody he hates to die.

***

  That was then, and here he is now. The shining chronicler of sex and love. He is almost unrecognisable. Young, he was not a handsome man. But he was violently attractive – adored for his wit and his joy and his irreverence. What is left? White stubble and the wrinkled skin of a man who was once portly and is now despairingly thin. The misery buzzing round him like a cloud of flies. His voice is a quavering, unused thing. She feels something akin to pity, and drives it off.

Poor child, he is saying. ‘You poor child. Oh, she was always difficult your little Mistress. Even as a child. A little girl with the face of a nymph and the eyes of a Gorgon. She was always watching. Silent like you. But I remember you. Those eyebrows! Or rather, that eyebrow. Even our faces can tell a story.’

He runs a finger the wrong way across her eyebrow, which sits squarely across her forehead. The hair bristles. She does not like it, and she has to work hard to keep her face passive. She seeks to distract him, and raises her head, catching his finger in her tongueless mouth. She watches his eyes widen and the quick bob of the apple in his neck as he swallows.

***

  Later, he collapses onto her. She worries for a minute that he might be dead. His head is buried in her armpit.

He is alive, just. He shouts into her armpit: ‘Oh, you smell of Rome!’

She doubts it. She was weeks on a boat getting here. Her skin is streaked with puke and salt and the bosun’s slobber.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Of Rome! The women here chew a root they pick from the swamp. Chew chew chew. Like cows. They smell of aniseed. They open their great, stupid barbarian mouths to speak their barbaric Greek, and a Roman could near faint with it. The smell of it gets into their skin and their hair. I asked a girl about it. She said she couldn’t smell it. There she was, reeking of goat’s milk and aniseed, and she couldn’t smell it. She had no idea. Can you believe it?’

She pulls the appropriate face from her repertoire and wears it. He lifts his head from her armpit, and looks at her face. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Yes.’

He rolls away from her. ‘Oh, everything here smells different. The houses smell of different bricks. The wine. The oil. The cheese. Oh, the horrible cheese. The oil in the lamps smells of fish. Do you understand? And the worst of it is that I am beginning to forget what Rome smells like. I know this is all wrong. But I can’t remember the right. I can’t.’

Don’t cry old man, she thinks, fighting to keep her eyes from rolling. She strokes his arm, and kisses his shoulder.

He falls silent, eyes watery. He looks down at her, pats her on the head like a docile child.

‘The letter you brought,’ he says. ‘From Agrippina. Did you read it?’

She shakes her head. Makes her stupid face.

‘Can you read?’

She shakes her head again. Sad face.

He claps his hands, calling for his slave. She makes to rise out of the bed, but he holds her arm. ‘Stay’, he says. The slave is ordered to bring wine and food, and to stoke the brazier higher. It is cold beyond the bed, so very cold. She huddles in to him when the slave is gone, pushing herself against him like a cat.

He pats her head and he pulls the heavy furs higher.

‘I have never known cold like it,’ he says. ‘This is only the start. I have done two winters now. It gets into my bones. My bones are made of ice. And the worst of it, is that when the river freezes, the raiders come. You must be out before it freezes, little one. They ride across the ice on those horrible, little shaggy ponies. Like centaurs. Shaggy, furry, ugly barbarians on shaggy, furry horses. Like centaurs from a bad epic. Oh, you should hear them. They whoop and they scream. They fire their arrows. I had a girl, here. Last winter. She walked near the wall. An arrow came from the sky, looping up and over. They come all the time, thwacking into the ground, the roofs. This one just nicked her arm. But they poison them you know. Her arm blew up. Skin like an angry drum. She wept and cried. All the offerings could not save her. The fever took her.’

She shivers. The poet looks pleased. He watches her to see how the words affect her.

‘Her arm was striped with purples and yellows, radiating out from the cut like a web. She lost her smatter of Greek at the end. Babbled in a stream of mad consonants. People die in the language they hear at their birth. I will die in Latin, even if they bury my bones here, in this treeless, flat wasteland.’

He grips her by the shoulders, forces her to look into his eyes. His fingers dig into her skin, scraping at her with his too-long nails. He says it again. ‘I do not want to die here, screaming in Latin. None of them speak Latin. Oh, don’t look at me like that. I understand the irony.’

He lets her go, cross with her. She must not let her face slip. Stupid. She slumps back into the pillow.

He mutters: ‘I do not want to die here shouting to an empty room. Here, I am voiceless.’

She thinks: I will die silently.

***

  She wakes. The brazier has died. There is cold blue light filtering through the edge of the heavy curtains. She slips out of the bed, and the shock of the freezing air is like a punch. She uses the pot, then walks to the window, feeling the goosebumps rise. She pulls back the edge and looks out. They are high up in this room, and she can see out and over the wall towards the grey sea. The sky is a giant thunder-cloud waiting to rage. The ship will not be leaving today, she thinks.

She hears him behind her using the pot, grumbling about the uselessness of the slave and the brackishness of the water, and the cold, Oh Gods, the cold.

Was it exile that made him peevish, she wonders? Or is it age? How can men bear it, she wonders. What God’s trick is it, that the longer men live the more irascible they become? Why would each passing year make you angrier, rather than more at peace?

Behind her, the irritations continue. Is he talking to her, or to himself? Perhaps this is the exile’s morning ritual, the same each day, like a Priest at the altar of Discontent.

Perhaps, Julia the Younger is the same on that island of hers. Perhaps, there, she whines of the heat and the salt and the silence and the surrounding sea. Or perhaps she is more stoical than her erstwhile friend, who grumbles and whines like a child. Men had to invent a philosophy and call it Stoicism; women are born knowing how to endure.

She is cold, and the smile cannot be put off any longer. She fixes it on, and she turns back to him. He stops his grumbling, and looks at her. In his silent stare, she feels the power of her smile and her young, supple body. She is 27 to his 53.

Sweet girl, the poet says. Come here.

Afterwards he says. ‘The letter. The letter from Agrippina. She says that He is softening. People have been working for me. My wife. She knows Livia, you know. My dear wife,’ he says, his hand lying like a dead toad on her skin. She longs to push it off.

‘Are my poems helping?’ he asks her. He has been sending letters home, full of poetry. Beautifully written of course. He is not capable of writing inelegantly. But so embarrassing. Anguished appeals for clemency from the Divine ruler. Long tributes to the man who exiled him here, interspersed with long, elegant whining about being here. The Whine Cycle they are calling it back home, in the fashionable salons. At Agrippina’s last party, she had watched silently from the shadows as one of the poet’s letters from Tomis was read out to general mirth. Didn’t the Athenians laugh at exiled Alcibiades, sitting in bleak Sparta eating his black broth?

There is, among the fashionable set, an appreciation of Augustus’ hitherto unsuspected sense of the ironic. Sending this poet to this place? Brilliant, darling. Just too perfect!

Oh, yes, they laughed as they read of the cold, and the ranging barbarians, and the houses made of straw. They patted their silk robes, and drank their expensive reds, and flirted with one another ceaselessly.

Was his wife at that party? If she was, she had been laughing too.

He is looking at her. Eyes, big and pleading. ‘Are they helping?’ he asks again.

She nods. Smiles.

He smiles back, and the hope in his face makes her pause. It makes her feel troubled.

‘Do you know what I really miss the most? My garden. My orchard. I worked it myself, you know. The soil in my hands. Trying out phrases on the worms, the birds. And I wrote beneath the fruit trees. I knew myself to be happy, I could not understand how happy until now. It takes misery to understand past happiness.’

She nods. This, she agrees with.

Perhaps he sees something sincere in her face, because he kisses her. ‘Come now,’ he says. ‘I must work. Leave me. Come later, though? You will come later?’

She nods, and slips out of the room.

 

To read further, purchase Issue One of Aspects of History.

Rubicon
This story is from Rubicon, an HWA Short Story Collection.