“What are you talking about?” Marta demands. “We don’t want any part of this. You’ve endangered our lives enough already. Come on, Olivia.” She grabs my arm.
“Olivia asked me whether the gods are real. I can show her they are,” Cassius says. I resist Marta’s grasp. Now he has my attention. “And I want to prove that even women can grow plants by invoking Ceres.”
“You mean you think we actually could?” I ask, astonished. This opens up an entirely new world of possibilities, ways to find my spiritual direction. Now that my life with Vesta has so little meaning, I cling to his suggestion as a way to perhaps fill this goddess-shaped hole in my heart.
“Yes, I think you could,” says Cassius. “In theory, women can invoke the gods. But as far as I know it has never been tested.”
“No. Absolutely not. No way. Olivia, I can’t let you do this,” insists Marta. “The punishment for any woman who invokes the gods is death, as you well know,” she says, shooting an accusatory look at Cassius. “Even Virgins aren’t allowed to invoke Vesta. Prayer is expected, but directly calling on the gods to change the natural world for you is completely forbidden. Only priests are allowed to do it.”
As much as I want to say yes to Cassius, I know she’s right. There’s no way we can take that kind of risk. A little knowledge is one thing. At least you could plausibly deny what you heard. But this crosses an even more serious line.
“I’m sorry, Cassius,” I say in a sad but firm tone. “We’re not interested.”
“Okay, sure, no problem,” he says, grinning widely.
“What’s so funny? Aren’t you disappointed? I was all ready for you to beg and plead so we could crush your hopes,” Marta says.
“Oh, not at all. I’m a patient guy,” Cassius says. “And you’ll be back.”
“Whatever,” she says and yanks me out of the clearing. We’re both quiet as we walk home, still processing everything we’ve just learned. It’s a lot to take in all at once. I’m so dazed and disoriented that what I really need is a day off to clear my head and reflect. Unfortunately, that’s not what I’ve got on my schedule.
The next day the feast preparations begin in earnest, and I devote my every waking minute to party planning. There’s entertainment to book: I’ve got referrals from the Vestalis Maxima, but I hold auditions myself, determined not to be surprised by any unexpected mediocrity. We’ll have poetry, and then music. Then there’s the rain location to select, which I take very seriously, even though Marta rolls her eyes at me. When we scout out the third possible spot, she finally insists that we’ll just plan to put up a tent. This sends me into a frenzy of re-budgeting.
The real panic hits when one of my vendors comes to tell me he can’t deliver the wheat I’ve purchased due to spoilage problems in his warehouses.
“It’s Cerealia!” I shout at him violently as Marta and Lucia restrain me. “It’s the festival of the goddess of grain! Have you ever had this festival without bread? Without flour? It’s a major component in eight of the dishes!” When I lunge for his throat, Marta tackles me and drags me outside. Though my shouting didn’t help matters, even Lucia’s charms can’t convince him to short somebody else instead. I know how this story goes. He’s promised wheat to almost every major event planner in this city, and we’re the least important customers on the list.
To solve this catastrophe, Lucia recruits the most talented cook we can get our hands on, stealing him out from under some other poor sap’s festival operation with a few flirty looks and a well-timed smile. When we finally produce a revised menu, it’s heavy on pork. Ceres has a particular aversion to pigs, so killing a few for a feast in her honor seems appropriate.
The day of the feast arrives, sunny and clear. We hover around the temporary kitchens erected nearby, but the cooks are all very experienced, and things go smoothly. By the time the banquet tables and linens are placed, my anxiety starts to subside. The servants are all appropriately dressed, the poet is here, and the dried fruits and cheeses start circulating as guests begin to arrive. The only thing to do now is to have a glass of wine and remain vigilant for any pacing issues as the food comes out of the kitchen.
The night turns into a lovely success, although one guest drops a plate of food that shatters all over the floor, but I can hardly be held responsible for that. The entertainment is even more charming than in rehearsal. And I’m starting to feel this wine. I even eat a few mouthfuls of the food—I couldn’t touch anything all day because of my nerves.
“Did you plan all this yourself?” asks someone at my shoulder.
“Gaius!” I exclaim. “I didn’t know you were invited.”
“I wasn’t,” he says. “My father got a courtesy invitation, but he had something much fancier and more important to attend, so I snagged it.”
Gaius’s father is an extremely wealthy landholder with an enormous property that begins a few miles west of the city. Even for Academy of Mars boys, he has quite a pedigree. I’m sure his father must receive invitations to every major festival event all year long.
“I think it’s going well so far, thank the gods,” I say.
“It would seem so. Although the menu’s a bit…exotic.” He raises an eyebrow. “Did the harvest fail to bless us with a wheat crop last year? Or does someone need a theology lesson?”
He’s being arch, but I can tell he came to me in friendship, and I feel a glow of appreciation. “A vendor had some supply problems and shorted us.”
“Did Marta rip him a new one?”
“No, but I almost did.”
This is the longest conversation, by far, that I’ve ever been able to sustain with Gaius. And he smiled at me! I can’t think of anything else to contribute, but I want to keep it going, to show I’m glad he’s come. Then my eye falls on one of the nearby tables. “There are quite a few Selanthi here tonight.”
Selanth is a country that borders us to the north. Its countrymen are easy to recognize because they almost all have white-blond hair and pale skin, probably because of their cold climate. We try to keep a diplomatic relationship with them, so we see them around the city from time to time. I used to wonder why they were always trailed by one or two miserable-looking attendants. It took me a while to figure out that Selanth still practices slavery.
“They’re here for peace talks,” Gaius says, frowning.
This surprises me. I’ve heard snatches of conversations in the hallways of the College of Pontiffs, or from listening to the academy boys, so I know that there have been border skirmishes recently. But that’s common enough. I didn’t get the impression that it was anything serious.
Before I can reply, one of the Selanthi begins shouting at his seatmate, who I recognize as an academy student. As he begins shouting back, I’m afraid they’re going to come to blows. Gaius dashes their way as some other party guests pull them apart.
“Let me apologize on behalf of my countryman, sir,” Gaius says to the Selanthian, who still looks extremely angry. “He’s had a little too much wine, but I’m sure he meant no disrespect. We are honored by your presence at this banquet today and hope you will forgive his bad manners.”
The Selanthian doesn’t relax, but he nods to Gaius. He then starts back in on his pork belly, radiating anger. His compatriots begin talking heatedly.
Gaius grabs the young academy boy by the arm and manhandles him out a side door. I bet there’s nothing good waiting for him. Disciplinary action at the academy can be unpleasant.
Marta and Lucia join me. “The Flamen Cerialis is here,” Lucia reports. “He’s going to give the final blessing.” Since this is a rather unimportant feast, he’s just stopping by for a moment.
The flamen excuses the musicians and takes the stage. “Honored guests, I hope you have enjoyed this lovely evening, the entertainment, and the excellent food we’ve partaken in today. All this was made possible by the generosity of our goddess Ceres. Please join me in offering a prayer of thanks.”
As the room turns to pray with the flamen, I feel a flash of annoyance. Made possible by Ceres maybe, even though we didn’t eat any grain. But also made possible by our days of hard work and anxiety. Not only did we get no thanks whatsoever, he didn’t even mention Vesta. When the flamen leaves, he walks right by us Vestals without even pausing to say hello.
I turn to Marta and Lucia. “Did the flamen thank either of you earlier?”
“No,” they say.
I breathe out heavily and put my hand on my hip. “I need a break,” I say. “Make sure the clean-up goes okay.” And before they can object, I head to the door. I’m several paces outside when Marta catches up and grabs my wrist.
“I don’t know what’s up with you,” she says, “but you can’t go walking around this area at night. You’re not in the sacred grove here, you’re in the city. There are plenty of drunk men in the streets. They’ve been at parties all day. It’s dangerous.”
“I’ll be fine,” I say, shaking her off with enough violence that she knows to let me go.
The night is cool, and a breeze has picked up, making me slightly uncomfortable. In the tent I was overheated from wine and anger, but the wind quickly chills me. I cross my arms and walk faster, hoping to generate some warmth. Turning down an alley, I catch the overloud, raucous laughter of an inebriated crowd, and begin to regret venturing out into the city. I hasten towards the next intersection so I can return to the main road, and as I turn the corner I almost collide with another woman in white.
“Olivia,” Lavinia says in disapproving surprise. “What are you doing out here alone? Is your feast over? You were supposed to go home with one of the flamen’s assistants.”
There’s no good excuse, so I go with the truth. “I’m taking an angry walk,” I tell her.
“I see,” she says. “What upset you?”
Although she’s not afraid to dole out punishments when they’re warranted, I’ve always found Lavinia to be a sympathetic listener. And I need to talk about this.
“The flamen didn’t thank us for putting on the feast,” I tell her, realizing how absurd that sounds. But I don’t dare give her any further context.
Lavinia laughs aloud. “Were you expecting his thanks?”
“Well, yes,” I say sulkily. “We put in a lot of work for his goddess.”
“Ceres is your goddess too,” she reminds me. “You know that.”
“But why should we help them with their festival? Do they ever help us?” I demand.
“Olivia, Vesta is the hearth of our nation, and we are the brides. It’s our duty to support all of the flamen, just as dutiful wives would support their husbands. In honoring Ceres, we also honor Vesta,” Lavinia says.
Vesta’s not even real, I want to retort. Instead, I just look at her, still defiant.
“Olivia, if you are expecting thanks from the flamens for simply doing your duty, you’re in for a lot of disappointment,” Lavinia says with a half-smile.
“You thank me all the time. You even thank me for taking your letters to the Regia. Why shouldn’t the flamens?”
Lavinia gazes at me, her brow furrowed. “They don’t need to thank you. They don’t thank me either. Get used to it,” she says. Then her expression softens. “I think you’re overworked,” she tells me. “You can spend tomorrow with your friends. Try to get over whatever’s bothering you. It’s not like you to behave this way.”
“I’ll do my best,” I say, affected by her kindness.
“Good. Now let’s go home,” she guides me, putting her arm around my shoulders.
When I return to my room in the House of Vestals, I find Marta and Lucia deep in conversation about me. They look up as I arrive, and the relief on their faces is obvious.
“The Vestalis Maxima says we can have the day off,” I announce immediately. “I ran into her outside the tent.”
Lucia beams. “Excellent!”
“So you’ve recovered from your little fit of temper, then?” Marta asks.
I ignore this and begin getting ready for bed, and sensing that they won’t get any more out of me tonight, they follow suit.
I spend the night restlessly, and my frequent tossing wakes Marta on several occasions. “Go to sleep,” she murmurs, but with less rancor than usual. When dawn breaks, I finally give up.
“Marta,” I whisper. “I’m going to do the experiment.”
Marta sits up, wearily rubbing her eyes. “I can tell further sleep isn’t happening. Get dressed. Walk with me.”
The walls of the House of Vestals aren’t exactly soundproof, and I can see why Marta doesn’t want to be overheard, so I comply. We sneak down a side staircase to an exit that won’t wake anyone. Squinting in the morning light, I follow her out of the house, past the Regia, to a cluster of laurel trees that will hide us from view.
“Olivia, you can’t do the experiment,” she says, turning to me as we arrive. “I know you’re upset now, but it will all be okay. You have a nice life here. You have friends, a home, and plenty to do. You’ll be fine.”
“I won’t be fine,” I say tiredly. “I’ll be miserable. I’ll be a fraud. I’ll be a liar, because I’ll have to tell our supplicants to pray to Vesta when I know she’s not real. And…”
“And what?” Marta asks.
“I won’t have any relationship with the real gods,” I say. I know this doesn’t mean anything to Marta. But I need another goddess in my life.
Marta sighs and sits in the grass next to one of the trees. “What a reversal. I never thought I would be the one urging you to be happy with your life as a Vestal.”
“I just want to feel like my life means something,” I tell her. “I don’t want to be an unpaid party planner for the next twenty years.”
“Twenty four,” she says glumly, resignation on her face. “I know, Olivia. I want to do it too.” She holds out her hand to me. I join her on the grass, and we watch the sun rise together.
“When are we going to tell Cassius?” I ask her. “I want to start right away. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“It’s Cerealia,” she reminds me. “I’m sure he’ll be busy for the next few days. It’s his goddess’s festival.”
But our fears are unfounded. After returning to our beds for a few more hours of sleep, Marta and I rise and walk to the temple steps in the hope that he’ll pass by. To our surprise, he’s already there.
“Ladies,” he says with his brilliant smile, “I’ve been expecting you. How did it go last night, Olivia?” he asks. “Did Ceres put on a brilliant feast? Were you sure to thank her for all that hard work?”
His penetration astonishes me. “I…I thought you would be at the festival all day,” I stammer, for lack of anything more relevant to say.
“I skipped out,” he says. “Now let’s get started.”
Cassius leads us back through the woods to his secret clearing. “I figure this is as safe a place as any, for right now,” he says. “Later on maybe we’ll switch things up a bit, but we’ll start here today.” I see he has turned over a plot of fresh earth and set up an altar in front of some grassy space.
“Now, here I have some lovely sprouts of anemone,” he says, holding up two small pots, “just days after poking their heads up from the ground.” I look closely and see that there are two little leaves on a small stem nestled into the soil in the pot.
“First, we are going to plant these. They’ll need some space after you girls work your magic,” Cassius says. So we dig holes in a plot of soil that he has already prepared for us and transfer the plants. My breathing gets shallower with my mounting excitement.
“What next?” I say eagerly.
Cassius pauses and then frowns. “Are you ready to do this?” he asks. “I mean, really ready to accept the consequences if we’re found?” Now that we’ve come to the precipice, he seems to be having a moment of doubt.
“You dragged us all the way out here to ask us that question?” says Marta in disgust. “We’ve made our decision. Let’s do it already.”
“Okay,” he says decidedly. “Today you will be praying to Flora, goddess of spring and of flowers. First, let’s make an offering.”
Marta and I pass over some nut cakes that we took from the kitchens this morning after breakfast. We always carry food. It’s a good idea to have some on hand in case an offering to some god or other is called for in the course of your day.
Cassius lays them on the altar. “Now, let’s say a prayer of praise for Flora before we ask for her aid,” he says. He speaks a simple prayer for us aloud, and we repeat it and commit it to memory. Part of it is in Old Polonian, a language only used in religious ritual, but of course we’ve all studied it.
Veris laeta facies
victa iam fugatur.
In vestitu vario
que cantu celebratur.
The joyous face of spring
is presented to the world.
is conquered and put to flight.
In colorful dress
Flora is arrayed,
and the woods are sweet
with birdsong in her praise.
“Now, ladies,” says Cassius, “I am about to tell you the big secret that I’ve sworn about fifteen holy vows to protect. Ready yourselves. To ask the gods to change the natural world for you, you simply have to say please.” We look at him curiously, and he smiles.
“Sit on your knees in front of your plant. Relax your body, close your eyes, and try to be as still as possible. Clear your mind. Recite your paean to Flora. When you’re ready, take this strip of cloth and bind your wrists together. Not seriously bind them. It can be gentle,” he says. “This symbolizes your helplessness compared to the powerful gods, and in essence, it’s to get them to pity you. ‘Oh, I’m so weak, and you’re so strong and awesome,’ is what you’re trying to say.” Cassius pauses to wait while we drape our wrists with the cloth, helping us cross the strip of fabric under and over. “Now repeat the following words: ‘Oh, Flora, as I lack your godly power, so I invoke your aid. Hear my prayer and make my will your own.’”
We repeat the prayer, my heart pounding in my chest. I can barely get the words out. This prayer could be condemning us to death, I think, and my breath catches at the word invoke. But I remember the flame, and the awful lie I’ve been living for the past six years as a Vestal, and I force myself to recite it.
When the pounding in my heart subsides, I give a sideways glance to Marta, who’s looking pale. We lock eyes, and then look to Cassius for further instruction.
“Okay, well done girls,” Cassius says comfortably, unconcerned with our apparent distress. “The rest is prayer. Get comfortable, and focus on your goal. Ask Flora repeatedly for exactly what you want, which is to make this plant grow and blossom as quickly as possible. Don’t let other thoughts or feelings intrude.”
As I sit on the grass, trying to get settled, Cassius kneels besides me. “Now close your eyes,” he says softly, “and tilt your head back a little like this. It will keep you more comfortable.” He lifts my chin, and I stiffen at his touch. “You need to relax,” he says. He’s way too close.
“Well that’s not helping,” Marta snaps, and shoves him over.
“Um, we don’t really like men getting too close to us, Cassius,” I say kindly, although it hardly matters now that we’ve broken such a serious law. Marta, as usual, has overreacted.
“We know how to pray,” Marta says, glaring at him.
“Sorry,” he says. “Point taken.”
I silently recite and pray until my knees begin to ache. Judging by the sun, it’s been over an hour. Despite my best effort, my mind begins to wander.
“That’s probably enough for now,” Cassius says when he notices our fatigue.
“What do we do next?” I say.
“That’s it. It’s that simple,” says Cassius. “The actions you need to take are simple, I should say. But you won’t see results unless you’ve put in the spiritual effort, and that involves focus and mental discipline. And ‘purity of heart,’ whatever that means. That’s something the priests say, but I suspect it’s just to guilt us into being good boys and girls. But for now, we wait. Meet me back here in about six hours so we can check in with these little plants before sundown.”
Since we have nothing else to occupy our time, Marta and I return to the House of Vestals.
“So all it takes is prayer,” Marta ponders in a low voice as we walk. “We do plenty of that every day. Although granted it’s to a fake goddess.”
I glance around immediately to make sure we won’t be overheard. “I know. And it was over so fast. Can you believe it was so simple?”
“Yes,” says Marta. “Most of those academy boys are so dumb that it had to be something easy. But I don’t understand why they’re allowed to do it at all. Aren’t only priests supposed to be able to invoke the gods?”
“You are right, only priests can.” I say. “But technically all the boys in the academies are priests. They’re inducted into the order after the first few weeks of their studies.” I’ve been guilty of paying a little more attention to the academy doings than Marta has.
I suppose I should take a moment to reflect on the danger of our actions, but instead I’m buzzing with energy, still exhilarated by our rule-breaking. I’m desperate for the hours to pass so I can see the results of my efforts. Maybe it’s unworthy of me, but I’m secretly curious to see how much progress my plant makes compared with Marta’s. I am a champion prayer, and I am far more sincere in all of my religious duties than Marta ever is. In any case, I’m absolutely sure that my plant would look like Hercules next to any effort Lucia ever made.
I suggest we go down to have some lunch, just to keep ourselves busy. We both take our meals outside and eat in the shade of an olive tree, well-guarded from any eavesdroppers.
“Have you ever prayed to Flora before?” Marta asks.
“No,” I admit. Flora doesn’t have a large following, or her own temple, as far as I know. There is a Flamen Floralis, but he’s a lesser priest. “We would have prayed to her, if we had ever stayed in the city for Floralia.”
“Which is something I always wanted to do,” Marta says, smiling. “What a show that must be. I’m desperately curious. I would rove around the city until I caught a pontiff misbehaving.”
Floralia is a festival with a particularly plebian flavor. It is frequently celebrated by plays and performances where the main point is to be completely sexually dissipated. Prostitutes claim this festival as their own, and the revelry lasts far into the night.
I laugh at Marta. “I would like to see it too,” I admit. “It’s a shame the Vestalis Maxima would never let us anywhere near the city.” We have never attended a Floralia, for obvious reasons. Those in charge of the Vestals would prefer to see every Virgin as far away from this holiday as possible.
“I don’t mind missing Floralia, but this is the first year I’m not looking forward to our trip to the shore.” I say. “We’ve just started our training with Cassius. I don’t want to leave.”
“Are you telling me that you find praying more fun than the beach?” Marta smiles, shaking her head. “Olivia, you are so weird.”
Since we can’t stay in the city, Lucia, Marta, and I always go to the seashore, a tradition we’ve kept up since Flavia and the older girls used to take us. Now that they’ve all been transferred to various other temples around the country, they can’t join us. But we remember them when we play in the sand and walk in the surf. And we always stay with an innkeeper the Vestalis Maxima trusts, so it’s a real vacation, with no elder Vestals lurking around corners to lecture us.
The hours drag by, but finally it’s time to meet Cassius. As we head for the sacred grove, our excitement mounts. On our walk through the woods, we’re not particularly cautious about the sound we’re making, or of our clothes and shoes, until I point out that it would seem odd for us to return to the house later tonight covered in mud.
Finally we’re there, and he’s waiting for us, grinning. My eyes find the ground, and I almost weep with happiness. There, in the place where we settled my plant, stands a young but flourishing anemone. I kneel on the ground and bend over it, run the delicate leaves through my hands. It’s the picture of health. Marta’s plant has also grown well, but I spot a tiny bud on mine about to open, and hers doesn’t have any. I’m secretly pleased.
Suddenly, from behind us, we hear a rustling in the trees, and look around, alarmed. Then there’s something crashing toward us. It sounds huge. Based on its size, I think it’s a bear. A big, blond bear. Lucia. Damn.
“What are you guys doingin here, and why are you always leaving me behind?” she whines, wrestling with a tree branch. “You think you’re so cool in your little club, don’t you? Sure, just leave Lucia behind, she doesn’t matter, she doesn’t like to have secret fun times in the forest.” She makes a growling noise at the branch. It seems to be snagged in her braid.
“Here,” I say, helping to get her untangled. “And now you’re going to turn around immediately. Lucia, you can’t be here. You don’t want to get involved in this,” I say urgently.
“Bull,” she says. “I am not leaving. What are you doing, and why am I not a part of it? And why is he here?” she says, noticing Cassius for the first time.
Marta and I look at each other. I have no idea how to handle this in a way that doesn’t leave her curious enough to spy on us for the rest of our lives.
“Lucia,” Marta says, “we don’t want to tell you why we’re here. Because what we’re doing here is utterly illegal, and we could all be killed for it. Believe me when I say that we didn’t try to exclude you. We didn’t invite you here for your own good.” The sincerity in Marta’s tone gives Lucia pause. This degree of respectfulness from Marta definitely signals something highly irregular.
“Okay,” Lucia says uncertainly. “Say that I believe you. Why would you think that you, my two closest friends in the world, don’t have a responsibility to at least give me an opportunity to join you? I’m not as dumb as you think, you know,” she says angrily, jabbing her finger at Marta. “If you ever gave me half a chance, I might surprise you.”
“Lucia,” I say, “we prayed to Flora. We grew these plants. And if you tell anyone about this, or lead them here, or let this slip in any way at all, we are all going to die.”
“You grew the wheat?” she says, shocked, looking at Cassius’s trough.
“No, these little anemones,” says Marta.
“Oh, they are so cute!” says Lucia, clasping her hands. “Look at you! Look at you girls! You can do the most amazing thing! How did you find out you were so special?”
“That’s the thing, Lucia,” says Cassius. “They’re not. Anybody can do this. You can do it too, only the priests and pontiffs don’t want you to use your natural ability.”
“No way!” she says, open-mouthed. “I want to try,” she demands. “I want an anemone too.”
“Well, I don’t have any more anemones,” Cassius says. “In fact I don’t have anything at all that you could practice on at the moment. But if you wanted to try to come back tomorrow I might be able to meet you here again.”
“No!” Lucia says forcefully.
“Here we go,” says Marta. Lucia’s wealth and extraordinary beauty have caused her to be petted and spoiled all her life, and she’s accustomed to always getting her way. Marta and I have vivid memories of her epic meltdowns at ten years old.
“I have to try, and I am going to try today. I can’t just look at this happening and not try for myself. What can we do? What can I grow?” Lucia asks.
“Uh,” says Cassius, “I have a dried fig. This is the best I can do. I doubt you’ll be able to germinate it on your first try, but if you really want to give it a shot…”
Lucia does, so Cassius talks her through the process. When she produces a nut cake for the offering, he almost places it on the altar, and then he stops.
“Wait,” he says. “I don’t think Flora’s going to work for us here. We want a tree, not a flower.”
“Whom do I pray to then?” Lucia asks.
“Um,” he says, “I’m kind of a grain guy, but I think it would be Pomona.”
“Yes,” I confirm. “Pomona, goddess of fruit and orchards. Unless you’d rather try Insitor.”
Everybody looks at me.
“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” I say. “All three of you have studied religion almost your whole lives. Insitor. Minor helper god to Ceres. Germinator of seeds.”
“Well,” says Cassius, the corner of his mouth rising, “I think Insitor could possibly be…er…very busy right now with all of the people praying to him and all, so let’s maybe give Pomona a shot first before we consult a specialist.” He can’t stifle his smile now.
“Ass,” I say to him, eyes narrowed. “Fine. Let her try Pomona, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Marta and I kneel and start a second round of prayer. Cassius begins teaching Lucia a paean to Pomona, and it’s a bit longer and more complicated than the one we had for Flora.
Rege sub hoc Pomona fuit, qua nulla Latinas
inter hamadryadas coluit sollertius hortos
nec fuit arborei studiosior altera fetus;
unde tenet nomen: non silvas illa nec amnes,
rus amat et ramos felicia poma ferentes;
nec iaculo gravis est, sed adunca dextera falce
qua modo luxuriem premit et spatiantia passim
bracchia conpescit, fisso modo cortice virgam
inserit et sucos alieno praestat alumno,
nec sentire sitim patitur bibulaeque recurvas
radicis fibras labentibus inrigat undis.
Hic amor, hoc studium, Veneris quoque nulla cupido est.
Vim tamen agrestum metuens pomaria claudit
intus et accessus prohibet refugitque viriles.
Under this reign Pomona lived.
No other of the wood nymphs of Latium
cared for the gardens more skillfully
or was more devoted to the orchards;
this is how she made her name:
neither woods nor rivers did she love,
rather fields and branches laden with ripe apples;
not with a javelin, but with a pruning knife
she cut back the spreading branches,
splitting the bark and inserting a graft,
and giving a fosterling the sap of others.
She would not allow them to suffer thirst;
watering the twining roots in trickling streams.
This was her love, her passion, and she had no longing
for the desires of Venus.
“Rege sub hoc Pomona fuis…?” Lucia recites.
“Fuit,” Cassius says softly. “It’s in past tense. That’s okay, try again.”
“…inter dryadahamys coluit sollertius hortos?” she attempts.
“Hamadrydas,” Cassius corrects her.
“What does that mean again?” says Lucia uncertainly.
“Idiot,” mutters Marta.
“It means wood nymphs,” Cassius explains, with a warning glance to Marta. “You’re doing fine.”
“Thanks,” Lucia says, feigning deafness to Marta’s comment. “Rege sub hoc Pomona fuit, qua nulla Latinas inter drydahamys. I mean…”
“Idiot,” Marta speaks aloud with a snicker.
“I’ve had enough!” Lucia says to her furiously.
I jab Marta in the ribs. Really, sometimes she crosses the line. She never gives Lucia a chance.
“So the point is, just grow!” Lucia demands the fig. “Okay,” she whips back around to Cassius, “this is never going to happen with herhere.” She glares at Marta. “Can you just teach me the Flora one and you can bring me an anemone next time?”
“Sure,” Cassius says, hiding a smile. “Let’s practice.” And he quietly recites the Ode to Flora with Lucia while we pray.
If I could, I’d stay for hours. But the sun dips toward the horizon, and Cassius says it’s time to go. “I’m impressed with your dedication,” he says. We’re all flushed with happiness, grateful to be doing something rewarding. As we head back to the house, I want to offer a prayer of thanks, but I can’t think who to address it to. So I thank Cassius instead.
“Don’t mention it.” He smiles.
We say good-bye to Cassius and take a circuitous route back home, conscious that Lucia followed us easily today and we need to be more careful. As we pass the temple steps in the dusk, I see someone tall moving toward us.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hi, Gaius!” Lucia says cheerily.
But Gaius ignores her. “Are you going to the Ludi Cereales tomorrow?” he asks, addressing me directly.
“Yes, that’s the plan,” I say, surprised. Tomorrow, on the last day of Cerealia, there will be games held in the city’s huge stadium, the Circus Maximus. As important state personages, the Virgins always attend, and we get very nice seats up in the front with other prominent people and various heads of state. Virginhood does have its perks.
“You don’t want to go, though,” he says. “It’s going to be hot. With that sun glaring down…I hate those things.”
“It’s late April!” I protest.
“All the dust…all the crowds, it’s such a hassle,” he says. “And you can never see what’s going on in the ring.”
“We have very nice seats,” I assert, “and it’s a Vestal tradition. We always manage to have a nice time. We like the food. Lucia always has lamb kebabs. Right, Lucia?” I say nervously, unsure where our conversation is going.
“Then suppose I go with you,” he says, without waiting for Lucia’s answer. “I’ll meet you at eleven in the market square.” And he walks away.
“Well, I’ll see if I can get you a seat…” I trail off. Once again, I’m unsure whether I’ve been asked or told.
“Now what was that about?” Marta puzzles.
“He must love lamb!” says Lucia brightly.