I walk toward the tree as if in a dream. I touch the leaves, the branches…they are perfect. Figs are not in season, but this tree is laden with fruit. I pick one. It is the most delicious fig I’ve ever tasted.
“What the eff?” I say.
“That’s not the word I would have chosen,” Marta says.
“Gods, it’s gorgeous,” Lucia gasps, running to embrace it.
“Looks like Pomona worked out, then!” says Cassius, smiling somewhat insanely. He shakes his head in wonderment, at a loss for further words.
We spend a few minutes more just gaping. Lucia has climbed into her tree, petting it. Marta says quietly, “What do you think did it?”
“I’m at a loss,” says Cassius.
“Could it have been her chastity?” I ask. “Is she just purer than the rest of us?” We look at each other. Somehow that doesn’t seem right.
“Maybe it’s her looks,” says Marta sourly.
“Does she have some hidden intelligence? Some talent?” guesses Cassius. We ponder this.
“Who’s a pretty tree?” Lucia coos. “Who’s my pretty, pretty tree? You are.”
We look at her. She’s nuzzling its bark.
“Well, she does seem to love trees,” I say. “Or maybe that’s new.”
That evening, we spend more time examining the tree, even climbing in it, but we don’t find anything remarkable. When we’ve scrutinized every part of it, Marta and I think of praying for our anemones, although they appear rather pointless next to Lucia’s effort.
When we ask Cassius to meet us during our vacation to the seashore, he happily agrees, pleased at the opportunity continue our experiments. “I can meet you discreetly,” he promises. “Take some food and water and walk about an hour north of the inn. The beach is deserted up that way. I’ll take a different route into the country and wait for you there.”
“And it’s okay for you to miss class?” I ask.
He laughs. “On Floralia? Are you kidding? Even the professors won’t show up,” he says, still chuckling. Ugh. I think of Gaius at Floralia and my stomach twists.
The next morning we’re up early and in a rented cart on our ride to the shore. The innkeeper, Vitus, is expecting us. We come to the same place every year, and we’ve developed a friendly relationship with him. He always shows extra concern for three girls traveling alone, and puts us in the best room where we’ll feel safe. However, this time his watchful eye may be a problem for us as we try to sneak around.
After we greet him and his wife and catch up on all their news, we ask them to prepare a meal that we can take with us on our walk on the beach. Then we retire to our room and start pulling all the pins out of our hair. We’ve agreed that if we’re accidentally seen with Cassius, it will look better if we don’t look like Vestals, so we’ve brought the street clothes we’ve accumulated thanks to Lucia’s shopping addiction.
“Ah, that’s a new style for you, girls,” says Vitus as we’re about to leave the inn. “I don’t know if I like the idea of you walking around without your bridal dress. Being Vestals protects you from unwanted attention, you know.”
“Thank you so much for your concern, Vitus.” I smile. “But we’re so tired of getting sand in our hair and nice clothes. This year we’re trying to prevent it.”
“I know we can trust you to keep our secret if the Vestalis Maxima stops by,” Lucia flirts.
He smiles. “Of course. Just be careful.”
It’s a long trek, and by the end we’re all winded and tired, but our excitement starts mounting again when we see Cassius in the sand waiting for us. He was right, this place is totally deserted. We must be miles away from any other homes or businesses. Perfect conditions for law-breaking.
Cassius wants us to start by trying to grow grass on the sandy dunes. “It’s such a simple plant,” he says, “that you should be able to see results after just ten minutes or so, especially now that you’ve established a relationship with Flora. Pick a clump and focus.” He has set up a small altar out of some driftwood and placed a tiny statue of Flora on it, and we make sacrifices of some dried fruit from our bag. “Marta and Olivia can start here, but Lucia, I want you to come with me. I want you to pray to Neptune and see if you can make the waves roll in,” he says, as he fashions a second altar. He pulls out a small drawstring bag and chooses another statue, this time a tiny Neptune. This is handy. He must have all the gods in there, in case we want to try something on a whim.
Curious, Marta and I turn to watch as he leads a barefoot Lucia onto the wet beach, where small waves are lapping on the waterline. We can’t hear them speak, but they don’t say much. I guess he’s not bothering to teach Lucia any prayer, since it wasn’t necessary with Pomona. She closes her eyes and holds both hands in front of her, palms in, as though she’s signaling that the water should come toward her. After a few seconds, they both run for higher ground as a huge wave comes crashing onto the beach.
“Unbelievable,” says Marta. “She can do anything.” I guess we both have to accept that we’ve underestimated Lucia. She has more depth than we realized.
Touchingly, after her success with the wave, Lucia insists on joining us at the sea grass. “I want to be with you girls,” she says. But eventually she has to move a little farther away from us, because she’s making the entire dune grow with her prayer. With her at a distance, Marta and I slowly begin to see results. After a while, I can almost see the grass growing before my eyes. I’m the one doing this, I think joyfully. I’m the one making this happen.
To my side I hear a shriek and then a thud. Marta and I turn to see Lucia holding Cassius down on the sand. One of her hands grips his throat, and her knee is pinning his midsection to the ground. As she has several inches on him and probably a few pounds as well, I know she had no trouble taking him down.
“What are you thinking,” she hisses, “touching my hair and neck?”
Cassius gives her a bemused look. “A bit too close for comfort, then?” he asks.
“You selfish moron, you could get me killed and you don’t even care. You could get us all killed.”
I’ve never seen Lucia so furious. It seems that beneath that flighty act, she does actually acknowledge the danger that faces every Vestal. Reassured by her cheery, even careless, demeanor, I guess Cassius was tempted into crossing a line he knew the rest of us would never permit. “Sorry,” he mutters, and when she doesn’t relent, he attempts to wrestle her up off the ground.
“Stop it. Lie still. Assaulting the person of a Virgin is a crime punishable by death,” she snaps.
“Oh, now we’re concerned about the law all of a sudden?” Cassius smiles. “And just what have we been doing all day, Lucia? Picnicking with your girlfriends? Taking a harmless stroll on the beach?”
“I swear to Vesta,” she says in a deadly tone, “I swear to Mars and Jupiter and the whole damn pantheon, that if you touch me again, I will kick your ass.”
“Hit him in the nuts, Lucia!” Marta yells.
After extracting a more sincere apology, Lucia lets Cassius up off the ground without further injury, but she’s still fuming. When Marta and I decide to try praying to Neptune, she stays behind on the dunes.
After an offering to the altar, we recite a paean to Neptune. “Interea magno misceri murmure pontum, emissamque hiemem sensit Neptunus…” we begin. When we’ve remembered the whole thing, we step just behind the waterline and imitate Lucia with our hands held up, palms in. After a few tries, the waves begin lapping above my feet.
Lucia’s now wading in the shallows, and tiny silver fish surround her and dance around her ankles. “At this point, I’m surprised birds and woodland animals don’t come and do her hair in the morning,” says Marta sarcastically.
When we can’t hold out against hunger anymore, we lay a blanket down and have dinner on the beach. The sound of the waves is so calming that nobody says much. We spread out and enjoy the perfect day. I almost nod off, warm and happy in the sun.
“What about the war?” Lucia says unexpectedly. “Do you think there’s fighting going on right now?”
“There’s fighting going on right now, that’s absolutely certain. Fighting and dying,” says Cassius.
Suddenly I feel terribly guilty. The war has been the last thing on my mind. Men are losing their lives, and I’ve been worrying about whether I can make dune grass grow. “I feel so helpless,” I say. “All we can do is sit and wait for it all to be over.”
The girls sigh. Cassius says nothing. I suddenly wonder if he will be conscripted.
We don’t want to walk home in the dark, so it’s time to leave, but we linger after packing up the supplies. None of us wants to let this day go. Cassius is going to walk to the road and try to flag down a cart back into the city, but if he can’t manage it, he will camp in the woods.
Because of our dawdling, a heavy dusk has settled by the time we get close to the inn again. We hear male voices and raucous laughter from the homes near the beach, mostly fishermen. There’s no reason to expect that they would do us any harm, but I don’t want to attract their attention.
Suddenly we cross the path of a few men walking up from the beach to join their companions, and we draw a catcall from one of them, making my heart pound. Taking advantage of the darkness, we run full tilt to the inn and don’t stop till we reach the door, panting.
“Girls, what’s the matter? Did you have a scare?” asks Vitus, who is clearing a dinner he set out for the other guests. He gives us a concerned look. “I wish you hadn’t stayed out after dark without your dresses. It’s just not safe.”
“Well excuse us for living our lives!” I snap at him. He gives me an astonished look, and then I don’t know what to say, so I turn and sweep off to our room. I was terribly rude, and I already regret it. I don’t understand where that flash of anger came from. I hear the girls apologizing for me. When they join me, I tell them I don’t want to talk about it, mainly to hide the fact that I don’t know what to say. Then I insist we go straight to bed.
The following morning, after the two-hour braid-a-thon to get ourselves put back together, I slink out of the inn without breakfast and go to arrange a cart home for us. I should apologize to Vitus, but I’m so embarrassed I don’t think I can manage it. Maybe he’ll forget all about it by next year.
“Okay, Olivia,” Marta says once we’re on our way, “what has gotten into you? I have never heard you snap at anyone that way, other than Lucia, of course.”
“I just don’t…,” I begin, and then I stop, grasping for a way to phrase it. “I don’t like being blamed for the fact that the world is a scary place.”
The cart jolts to a halt, and the driver hops down. We’ve reached the fork in the road back to Polonia, and there’s a notice posted where the three roads meet. Several other men have clustered around it.
“It must be news,” says Marta, hushed. “It must be related to the war.”
It turns out to be very bad news. On the day of the circus bombing, battles commenced at several points on the northern border of Parcae, and on the coast. The casualties are devastating, far higher than anyone expected, even taking their advanced weaponry into account. We spend the rest of our ride home first in shock, and then in sorrow.
When we pull up next to the House of Vestals, Cassius is waiting for us right on the house steps. This is unusual and not particularly wise. While the girls pay the driver and give him our thanks, he pulls me aside and says in a low voice, “No need for alarm, but I have to get you girls back into the forest. Please meet me in one hour.”
“Welcome back, ladies,” he says in a normal tone, “let me help you with those bags.” Then he makes a show of unloading them for us.
Once he’s gone, I relay his request and we scramble to unpack our things and have a quick bite to eat. Then we head out to the clearing, careful to melt into the forest only when no one is watching.
When we arrive, he’s waiting for us. “Girls, we are expecting a visitor today,” he says casually.
“What?” we all gasp. This is terrifying news.
“How could you do this?” Marta says in a fury. “How could you risk all of our lives? What could be that important, and why wouldn’t you at least ask us first?”
“Because I know you would have said yes,” Cassius says, unruffled.
At that moment, Gaius steps into the clearing.