From the journal of Ellen Lambert:
Pompeii - The Death of a Dream
The Romans quickly dominated the world as we knew it then, the powerful reach of the Roman Empire extending throughout Asia Minor, Middle East and Africa. I gave in to its siren song of influence and prosperity and moved us to the lovely city of Pompeii along the Bay of Naples in the region known as Compania. Pompeii had survived conquest by the Greeks, Etruscans and Samnites, until it became a Roman colony. The town also became an important seaport for the passage for goods along the Appian Way.
Through my acquaintance with a discreet and shrewd land agent named Campanula, I acquired a charming house with a small garden in back. If anyone inquired about us, I assumed the role of a widow of a Roman senator with some wealth, my name Elodea. I also served as the guardian of my Grecian cousin, Penelope. No one questioned our status.
Penelope immediately took up the task of making the house our home. She sewed curtains and cushions, and cultivated herbs, vegetables and flowers in a variety of clay pots she decorated herself with root dye paints. Her vivid depictions of sunflowers, the sun and moon with whimsical faces, and rainbow-striped cats brightened our backyard. We even had a real cat, a male with white, grey and black stripes. Penelope called him Dandelon and doted on the big brute, often allowing him to sleep between us.
Pompeii provided everything we could ever want or need. Various retail shops offered a wide variety of goods; and we enjoyed the modern conveniences of restaurants, amphitheaters, a swimming pool, gymnasium, and public baths. An elaborate aqueduct system supplied water to businesses and households, and filled the public fountains along the market square.
Pompeii prospered in the arts and sciences, and became a model for other towns to emulate. In fact, wealthy Romans owned holiday villas here, the predecessors of vacation homes. Frescoes filled the walls of public places and palatial homes, many highly erotic in nature since the phallic symbol was considered a good luck charm. The temple of Apollo—the god of music, archery, prophesies and healing, and the city’s patron god—remained the city’s most important religious structure. But always Mount Vesuvius, with its volcanic maw, dominated the area.
Frequently Penelope and I took walks upon the cliffs overlooking the sea or along the shoreline. On one of our excursions, we found a small lagoon and waterfall tucked in a rocky grotto. It soon became our special place to swim and play in the nude, even embrace and kiss beneath the cascade of clear, warm water. By far, our life here in Pompeii and environs remained the most idyllic of all the time we spent together.
As we settled in our home, I employed a maidservant by the name of Juno. The young woman possessed the admirable traits of intelligence, tenacity and discretion, but she lacked the intimate and majestic qualities of Tirafa, not that I wished to make Juno live up to her predecessor. No, I had my memories of my special friend and traveling companion, as well as her necklace and her ashes in a small silver urn. They would go with me wherever I went.
Not long after our arrival, I attracted the attention of a centurion named Darius Aurelia, a tall man with bronzed skin and a muscular form. He was not particularly handsome but possessed a self-assured, aggressive, and commanding presence, his facial features craggy and weathered from his many military excursions, his shrewd eyes like rich earth, and his hair thick and dark brown.
I had no desire to begin a liaison with the man, my days as a courtesan long over. But Darius remained persistent in courting me. I relented only to invite him to dinner at the house. A well-traveled and intelligent man, Darius spoke of world affairs and the future of Pax Romania, the name for Italy during this time. Various independent states still existed in the country, and yet had not escaped the Roman tax system. For many years, Pompeii held out against joining the empire, but finally became Marionxed to the Roman Republic. Darius helped to enforce the laws passed in Rome by the senate and approved by the Emperor Augustus.
As he talked, I glanced at Penelope who seemed fascinated with the man. I could see how, as a young naïve woman without much experience, she would be attracted to him, his very presence and stentorian voice highly compelling. I had to wonder if she entertained the thought of what it would be like to have Darius make love to her. She never had sex with a man before, and this could be an educational and thrilling experience, or one that proved disappointing and even disastrous.
Before, during and after the meal, Darius drank generously of the wine I offered, a delicious vintage made locally. He never appeared inebriated, just animated, his face florid and his eyes glossy and vivid.
When we finished our last course of peaches and sweet curd, I turned to Penelope and suggested that she retire for the evening. Agreeing, she smiled politely at the soldier and bade him good night. Then she rose and went to our chamber with the hushed sway of her white gown and a wisp of her amber musk perfume.
“Such a beautiful young woman,” Darius commented, his gaze fired with growing arousal. “Is she taken or spoken for by some lucky fellow?”
“No,” I told him truthfully. “She is my ward and I look out for her interests. Penelope has no experience in the arts of love with a man.”
“Then I shall be the one to teach her.”
He rose from his pillowed seat on the low settee. Any other man would have done so with an unsteady and ungainly lurch, but Darius was no ordinary man. He maintained his grand stature as he rose, just as he did on the battlefield, and when he walked about the town, commanding respect from both his enemies and the citizens of Pompeii.
“No, you will not.” I stood as well, ready to block his path to the bedchamber. “Penelope is young, delicate and vulnerable, and you are rough and demanding. Take me instead.”
He donned a clever smile. “Why can I not have you both?” Coming forward, he gripped my upper arms with his large calloused hands. “I have enough stamina and passion to go around.”
“I never question your abilities, my captain, but the hour is late and I wish to retire as well.”
He pulled me against him. “You must realize, Elodea,” he murmured, his breath on my face sickening sweet from the wine, “that I know all about you. I know where you come from and who you really are. I have been protecting you from other men who wish to take what they want, enjoy your charms and hospitality, and then ravish your luscious body with their own hot, heavy, seething bodies and sweaty hands. You owe me something for keeping you and your ward away from those who wish to pry into your past, those who do not believe your story of widowhood and guardianship.”
If Darius knew anything it would of my time in Greece where I worked at the House of the Muses. But did he also know of my physical relationship with Penelope? I rather doubted it. Penelope and I remained careful not to pass adoring glances at each other or linger together if perchance we touched. He may be astute, but Darius was just grasping at sharp swords.
“I never asked for your favors,” I replied with a hard, stern look. “Now I wish for you to stay away from here. There can be no amicable agreement between us if your passion obscures your judgment and whittles away your decency.”
He laughed cruelly. “From what I know, you are not decent in any sense, Elodea. Therefore you remain fair game for the lust of any man.”
Suddenly, his mouth came down on mine, crushing my lips in a savage kiss. His hands gripped and twisted my wrists to keep me from scratching him while he blocked my desire to knee him in the groin with a steely thigh and hip. Even if I tried to fight him off, it would only prove a futile gesture on my part. I hadn’t the strength to push Darius away or resist his advances now aflame with powerful arousal. Better though he ravish me than force himself on Penelope.
Releasing my mouth and arms, he ripped away the bodice of my gown and then caressed my breasts with rough fingers. I tried to push him off, my hands useless against the strong leather and metal of his uniform.
“Take me!” Suddenly, Penelope’s voice rang out in a firm, startling command.
As Darius let go, I turned to follow his gaze, to my love who stood in the doorway. The candlelight made a dark silhouette of her slim form. As came into the room as if floating on a cloud, Penelope revealed her naked body, the ripples of red hair that fell about her breasts emphasizing her soft, pale flesh.
“Penelope!” I cried, starting to move toward her. “Go back to your room!”
“No, Elodea. I don’t want you to have to submit to this man’s vile caresses just to save me. Let me be the one to tame his lust.”
“Your ward is a sensible young thing,” Darius commented as he reached for my arm and pulled me back. “She has made her choice; now allow her to act upon it.”
He pulled me up as if I weighed no more than a feather and then cast me aside with a strong push. I fell to the hard floor on my hands and knees. Now Darius would pay for this outrage and pay dearly. One glance at the harsh blue flames in Penelope’s eyes told me what she wanted us to do. She had been listening in the shadows, knew we could very well be in danger if Darius continued to pry and discover our secrets, and not just our loving relationship.
I quickly formulated a plan as the centurion shed his uniform and sandals. Naked now, he scooped Penelope up in his arms like a rag doll and pressed his mouth to hers while one hand held her tight and the other pawed at her delicate breasts. As he moved along her body, I noticed the red marks he left behind on her delicate torso, his fingertips pressing into her soft vulnerable flesh.
When his hand plunged between her legs and his fingers thrust inside of her, she let out a little moan of pain. Unable to stand this horrible abuse any longer, I rose and ran to the table, yet to be cleared of the detritus of our meal. I picked up a meat knife with a long, sharp blade and then ran forward with the blade poised like a gleaming saber ready to smite the enemy. Darius had already pressed Penelope down to the floor and prepared to mount her. She tried desperately to keep him at bay, but her little fingers never made a dent in the smooth, taut muscles of his chest.
Charging at him, I plunged the knife between his shoulder blades. Darius reared back, letting out a howl of surprise and pain. His hands tried desperately to reach around and pull out the lethal weapon but he couldn’t quite reach it. I had put it directly in the upper middle of his back. He pulled away from Penelope and got to his feet but he had difficulty standing straight and firm. Instead he swayed back and forth like a drunken man as if the wine had finally done its job.
Blood oozed from the wound, prompting a wicked thirst in me and no doubt in Penelope as well. As soon as Darius fell forward and stretched out flat on his face, we pounced on him. I drove the knife in a little deeper just to make sure I had killed the big brute. Then I removed the knife and allowed Penelope to drink first from the gush of blood, to drink her fill as vengeance for his brutal ravishment. She would be bruised for days, and worse, bear his vile markings on her tender pristine flesh.
I joined her in this glorious feast of revenge. When we had our fill, I went to retrieve a bottle of the elixir from my secret cache. The potion would heal the wound on his back as it had healed mine so many years ago when the assassin had plunged his sword into my side.
My plan for Darius remained simple. Penelope and I would dress him and then place him in the little cart we had out back. Once we wheeled him out to the cliffs, we would toss him over so that his body would hit the jagged rocks below. With the lashing of the waves from the sea, his body would be broken apart in no time. The verdict: Darius had drunk too much wine during his dinner with me and Penelope, and on his way back to the barracks he had walked too close to the edge of the cliffs. Then, loosing his footing, he fell to his death below. I would swear to it and so would Penelope. And if anyone dared to go down and retrieve Darius’ body, he would confirm our story.
We wore black clothing to blend in with the night, thankful that a cloud cover kept us cloaked in darkness as we made our way to the cliffs. I know Penelope strained to push the cart with the heavy body but she persevered, never one to shirk from duty or shy away from danger. I would make this up to her. Whether I was aware of it or not at the time, I had encouraged Darius to continue his pursuit of me. I had unwittingly put my lover in danger and for that no punishment would be harsh enough to inflict upon myself.
When we finished our task and returned home, Penelope and I bathed to wash away our and then slipped into bed. Juno had lit the candles earlier and our bedchamber appeared warm and inviting. As I held my lover close, I noticed the faintest of lines around her eyes, and the laugh lines on either side of her mouth seemingly deeper and fuller. Only days ago I had caressed Penelope’s face, so smooth and line-free. Now I shivered with anxiety and dread. Before Tirafa had died, I noticed as well the lines carved in her normally-smooth cacao face, a precursory sign that she had begun to age. The elixir and ritual of blood had not given full immortality, only a taste of it.
When Penelope noticed the change in my demeanor, she cupped my face in her hands and frowned. “What it is, Elodea? Is something the matter? Does it have to do with Darius?”
“No, no, my darling. It is nothing.”
I tried to smile even though my heart felt heavy with sadness and regret. I had done this to my lover, promised her a life and relationship for all eternity, and now the vow had seemingly been broken. What could I do to stop the process? I could only try more of the elixir. Rising from the bed, I told her I would fetch her some warm wine to help her sleep, although I would add a bit of the elixir without her knowledge. By now I stored my precious store in a gilt box with Egyptian designs, and made to my specifications with a secret latch on the box lid that opened it and then locked it securely.
When I returned with her drink, I noticed that Penelope shivered beneath our blanket of fine lamb’s wool. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said in a quavering voice. “Lately my body aches and I have pains in my hands and knees.”
“Perhaps it’s the weather,” I lied. “Sometimes the sea air produces pains in the joints. Mortals often say that they experience such pains when it becomes cold and damp. I feel it too at times, and tonight it seemed rather chilly and damp.”
Sitting beside her, I brought the cup of wine to her lips. “Now, darling, drink this and you will feel better in the morning.” Again I lied, but at this point I had no other choice. I refused to alarm her if these pains and age lines disappeared with the additional elixir. Only time would tell, and though I had all the time in the world, I could not guarantee my lover that she would have the same. After she drank the wine, I lay beside her and massaged those body parts that ailed her. Soon the wine and my efforts eased her into a pain-free sleep.
Yet that night I barely slept as my thoughts tumbled about and anguish squeezed my head and heart. As an immortal I was supposed to be invincible, ageless, immune to negative feelings and thoughts, and able to grant others the same power, just as the gods did above on Mount Olympus. Now I felt helpless like a newborn babe as powers greater than my own seemingly worked against me and thwarted my desire to obtain everlasting love.
And I could nothing but watch the disintegration of my efforts.
The next day, when Darius failed to report for duty, his commanding officer by the name of Tiberius paid me a call at the house. Tall, muscular and commanding like Darius, Tiberius was a bit older, with gray stands among his fair hair. He had eyes like hard pieces of blue slate and his weathered features reflected the many military campaigns he commanded as a skilled, practical, and no-nonsense leader. I told him what happened with Penelope at my side to collaborate our story. Darius had come for supper and drank more wine than he should have. When he was about to leave, he mentioned that he wanted to walk a bit in order to clear his head.
When he and I often met to walk and talk together in the few months we knew each other, we often took the cliff paths that hugged close to the edge of the rocks, and I assumed that was where he went to walk off the liquor last night. Of course, with the cloud cover that obscured any guiding stars as well as the moonlight, Darius had perhaps lost his bearings.
“And fell over the cliff,” Tiberius finished for me. Although the timber of his voice remained non-challenging his expression hinted at his skepticism. No soldier of his would accidentally do anything to cause danger to himself, drunk or sober. But since he had no proof of Darius’ ill-fated walk and perhaps demise, he had to accept my version of the story.
When the soldier left, Penelope wrapped her arms around my waist and placed her head on my shoulder. “I hope that will satisfy him,” she speculated with a little sigh.
“It will,” I assured as I ran my fingers slowly and tenderly down her back. “By the time Tiberius and his men scour the cliffs Darius’ body will have been washed out to sea and perhaps devoured by the fish.”
I felt Penelope shiver in my arms. “When it’s my time will you take care of my body rather than dispose of it like we did with Darius? Of course, it will be just a shell with no life or soul, but still...”
I quickly placed a finger to her lips, even as my hand—and the rest of me—quivered with the shock of her declaration. “Hush, now, my sweet. I won’t have you talk like this.”
When had Penelope sensed that she may not possess the power of immortality after all? Had the pains told her, or had she looked in the mirror and spotted the age lines that continued to grow and deepen?
“You will never die, my darling,” I tried to soothe. “And you and I will be together for always.”
She glanced up at me with wide, luminous eyes the color of our special lagoon. “I hope so.”
We said nothing more as we went about our usual activities, lunch first, and then a period of rest along the wide divan that comfortably held me and Penelope in a lover’s embrace. I welcomed this time for a nap since I had slept badly the night before. We had just finished lunch when Juno came running into the dining room, her face flushed. “There are two soldiers at the gate,” she told us between breaths, her wide-eyed gaze then focusing on me. “And they wish to see you, my lady.”
“Have them come inside,” I told her. Dignity bade me to receive visitors in the house and not outside at the gate.
When the soldiers entered—two young centurions in full uniform of helmets and swords—I asked their business. The one on the right, serving as the spokesman, told me that Commandant Tiberius wished to see me at his headquarters. When I asked how long I would be there, the soldier could only say that I would be detained which meant I could very well be there for hours or even days, whether under arrest or not. When I asked about Darius and if he had been found, neither soldier answered me.
With no idea how long I would be gone, I went to fetch my cloak and my drawstring purse. Over the months, I had filled it with change from our transactions, all silver coins, the total a sizable amount. Sometimes money spoke louder than guilt or innocence.
Once on the street, I had to walk with the soldiers on either side of me, similar to the way guards escorted a prisoner. People stared as we passed by but I kept my head held high, my gaze straight. I had no fear of Tiberius and what he might have in store for me.
But fate decided to intervene at that moment, or more precisely mother earth. Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupted, sending fire balls into the street and causing the ground to tremble beneath our feet. People screamed in terror and began to run in all directions as panic prevailed. My two guards looked confused as to what their duties entailed when under siege by a volcano. Soon cracks sizzled down the pavements and the columned fronts of buildings began to crumble. The stone base of the fountain that featured the marble statue of Poseidon and his trident split in two and sent water gushing into the street.
I took the opportunity to slip away from my guards and try to head back to my house. The citizens of Pompeii seemed to swarm in packs, all so panicked that they pushed and shoved each other as they tried to find way out of the city with its many buildings and walls that prevented easy access to the outside.
Besides the large fire balls, red-hot magma began to pour into the city, so fast that it caught people trapped in walled alleyways. Their screams of horror and despair overwhelmed the few of us who could still move out of harm’s way. Since my house sat on a hill, it would take the lava longer to move upstream and devour it. A large meadow lay beyond the backyard wall. I hoped that Penelope and Juno had been able to climb over it to safety.
When I spied the house, or what was left of it, I slowed my gait. The foundation had cracked and sent the walls and roof crashing in. No doubt all of our belongings lay in ruin. Then I thought of my box with the elixir. The box itself was made of strong metal, the bottle of elixir couched in padded velvet. Since it might have survived, I had to make the effort to save my valuable cache.
I carefully picked my way through the broken chunks of stone and the pieces of furniture. My box sat in a sturdy enclosed alcove. I found it beneath a jagged tumble of wooden roof beams. Gathering my strength, I lifted the nearest beam and hurled it aside, then did the same for the other two that hampered my access to the alcove. Once I cleared the way, I opened the alcove door that had been carved in beautiful Wedgewood and found my box within, blessedly intact. Snatching it up, I wrapped the box in a heavy scarlet curtain and then hurried out of the rubble. I climbed the series of stone wall steps that Penelope had decorated with clay pots of flowers, the steps now bereft of her lovely décor, the pots and flowers smashed upon the terrace tiles below. What happened to Dandelon I had no idea, but being a smart cat, Dandelon had probably run well away before the first tremor hit our house.
At the tall barrier wall, I clamored to the top, took in a steadying breath, and jumped down into the sweet-smelling grass below.
I ran and ran, for how long and how far I did not know, although I appeared to be out of the danger for the time being. When I paused to catch my breath, I looked back and saw the city of Pompeii engulfed in flames. Even from this distance I could hear the cries of the trapped and dying. Oh, please, I begged Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth, please guide Penelope and Juno—and even Dandelon—to a safe place where we will meet again.