From the journal of Ellen Lambert:
The Death & Renewal of Love
In one day, Mother Nature had destroyed a prosperous and innovative city. Nothing was left of Pompeii, buildings, temples, houses, retail wares, food, animals, roads, bridges and people buried beneath and between the hot, steaming magna and ash. Once it cooled, it would solidify everything it consumed. From my vantage on the hill overlooking the once bustling town, I swore I gazed at hell, a hell with sinners, not wailing and writhing in pain and anguish, but dead and buried forever.
Ironically, that day was to be a celebration in honor of Emperor Augustus who had been named “Father of the Nation” as well as the feast day in honor of the guardian spirits of the city. In the aftermath, chaos and anarchy ruled. Fires, caused by falling oil lamps, also ravaged the city. People looted whatever they could find, and most not only faced homelessness but starvation. I had lost everything, but material things could be replaced; I had accumulated a significant amount of money in a secured account overseen by the land agent, Campanula. I felt certain he survived and I would have to seek him out later to retrieve my money.
What I could not replace was the human element, the woman who had captured my love and devotion. Instinctively, I knew Penelope had also survived.
I soon learned that almost all of the survivors had gathered at the nearby towns of Herculaneum and Nuceria, although these communities had been affected by the eruption as well. I journeyed first to Herculaneum in search of Penelope and Juno. The earth felt hot beneath my sandaled feet, and so I walked along the cooler banks of the Sarnus River. All I had with me, my sacred box with the elixir and six silver coins plucked from the wreckage of my house, were secured in the rucksack I fashioned from the curtain I also salvaged.
When I reached Herculaneum, I enquired after my two companions, asking anyone who would pause to hear me out. No one could help me. Most of the survivors had lost a loved one or loved ones, even an entire family. I looked into the ashen faces of stunned, grieving people who shuffled slowly along with nowhere to go. Finally, a priest from the Temple of Bacchus directed me to an encampment in the ruins of another temple dedicated to Ceres, the goddess of grain and agriculture. This temple offered a labyrinth of corridors and rooms, its once beautiful Corinthian columns and marble floors now broken and coated with ash, the frescoes destroyed.
Survivors claimed small areas here and there to call their own, some sleeping in niches carved out of the statue of the goddess herself. I searched rooms, halls and nooks, always calling out the names of those I sought, Penelope and Juno from Pompeii. Finally, an old lady with rheumy eyes and hair like dried grape vines responded to my query.
“You looking for your mother, eh?” the woman postulated with a toothless grin. She held out her thin wiry hand for a contribution. If I gave her something, she would be more inclined to talk.
“Not my mother,” I corrected as I gave her one coin which she promptly wrapped tightly in her gnarled fingers. “The one I seek is my young ward, Penelope, a beautiful girl with red hair. I’m also looking for my servant, Juno, also young and pretty.”
“There is a Penelope in the vaults over there, but she’s not young and pretty. Oh, no, she’s old and frail...and quite ugly.”
My heart tripped over the lump of anxiety growing steadily in my abdomen. This Penelope the old lady described could not possibly be the one I sought. As I told her so, the hag cocked a shaggy brow over a milky eye. “Well then, dearie, go look for yourself. If she is the one you seek, I want to be compensated for my efforts in helping you.”
“You’ll be compensated all right,” I promised. “But not until I find her and verify that she is, indeed, the Penelope I seek.”
The woman cackled. “Go on then, dearie, go on and find out! I’ll be waiting right here.” She nodded toward a dark hall that presumably led to the sacred and secret chamber of Ceres, now used as a sanctuary. “Go on,” she repeated. “Go inside if you dare.”
I started toward the hall but first grabbed one of the two torches that lighted this sanctum. As I made my way into the labyrinth, I called out Penelope’s name in a soft, tender tone.
When I heard her respond to me, although in a weak and quivering voice, my heart sang with relief. “Penelope!” I ran forward into those dark cloying shadows. My torch offered a small pool of light, just enough to highlight her lovely form. But what I now spied made me stop in shock and disbelief. Before me stood a naked woman, but not the woman I had known and loved. This one had to be at least ninety years old, with a wrinkled, distorted face, dull milky-blue eyes, and sagging and bent body.
“Elodea,” she murmured. “It is me, Penelope. I do not know what happened. I began to age only two days ago with no warning signs. It came upon me very rapidly. Oh, my darling, what has happened to me?” She took a few tottering steps forward but stopped suddenly as if the effort had been too much for her.
“I am so sorry, my love,” I whispered, dropping the torch to run to her and scoop her up in my embrace. “I am so sorry.” Her flesh felt cold, as thin and white as parchment; and when I pressed my cheek to hers, some of her hair matted between us, the strands dry and rough to the touch, and no longer the vibrant red of only days before. Now her hair resembled gray straw.
“Juno,” she murmured. “She was with me at first, but I lost her when the earthquake opened up the road and swallowed whole groups of people. I’m afraid she was one of them, now dead as well.”
I tried to hold back my tears of sorrow for our dear, departed companion. If the cat, Dandelon, survived he was now a wild creature, having to live on his own and survive by his wits. In a way, we were the same, without home or comfort, our survival dependent on our wits.
“I wish I were dead as well,” Penelope continued in a sad whisper. “Please, oh, please, my darling, remember me as I was, not as I am.”
“You know I will, my love. And I will take you with me, even in death. Rest assured you will be with me always.”
I shook with the terrifying realization that I had failed to give my love true immortality. How long would she survive? I had no idea, but I knew death was imminent. I could smell and feel it, my only thought now to take her with me and try to provide some comfort in her last hours.
As she collapsed and sobbed in my arms, I held her tight and tried to whisper some words of comfort. I told her it was not her fault, that for some reason the gods had taken away my gift to her. Fate could be so cruel, and we remained powerless to change our course.
Then I picked her up and carried her out of this dank chamber. She felt so light and fragile in my arms, as if I carried only a whisper of the girl I knew.
When I returned to the outer chamber and the old woman waiting there, I gently lowered Penelope to the floor so I could bargain with the hag for a blanket or cloak or something to cover my love. Shrewd as well as greedy, the old lady would only accept two more coins and the necklace I wore, the one left to me by Tirafa.
She held up a dark length of cloth that looked moth eaten and smelled of burnt oil. “This cloak will be yours then, dearie, to wrap around your ward. That’s if she really is your ward, the one you’ve been seeking, eh? She looks very chilled, chilled to the bone, although she resembles just a bag of bones.” The hag cackled at her own attempt at snide humor.
“Elodea,” Penelope murmured as she looked up at me with haunting eyes. “I am so very hungry. Will you give me something to quench my appetite?”
“Yes, my love, yes I will.”
I pounced on the old woman with vicious intent. She had angered me with her snide and sarcastic words. I had with me a small paring knife I had found in the rubble of my house, and now I used it to cut the hag’s throat. As her blood began to run down her neck, I brought Penelope over to drink her fill with the hope that this new infusion of blood would rejuvenate her and return her to me as she had been. Unfortunately, it was not to be. I drank as well, with a savage rage directed at the unrelenting gods. When we both finished, I gently wiped Penelope’s mouth with the old cloak, and then rummaged through the hag’s belongings beside her now-dead body. I found a decent cloak, a gown and a pair of sandals. After dressing Penelope, I carried her out of this loathsome place and searched for a decent dwelling to bide our time. I found an abandoned house, barely touched by the disaster. We spent the night there with Penelope wrapped in my tender, loving embrace. Sometime during the night she passed away as I sang softly to her and rocked her in my arms.
Fires continued to burn throughout the city, and so I knew the funerary fire I built out back would not garner anyone’s interest or concern. I built a makeshift funeral pyre with pieces of wood and some hemp rope, and then gently laid Penelope on top. My lover looked so serene now. The long lashes of her closed eyes brushed the wrinkled folds of her cheeks, and her mouth, in the moment of death, had formed a rosebud smile of peace and contentment. I was glad she no longer suffered from such a cruel and hideous decimation. Before I allowed the flames to consume her, I cut a length of Penelope’s once beautiful hair to keep as a memento of our love. Miraculously, after I cut the strands with a knife, her brittle, dull-gray hair turned back to its soft, vibrant red color. For a moment I hoped this sign meant that Penelope hadn’t been lost to me forever, that somewhere, somehow we would be reunited.
But until such a wish came true, I had to put Penelope to rest as she wanted. After pulling the pyre into the fire, I stood back and tried to formulate some words that would be appropriate for my grief, but none came as I watched the flames consume my lover’s body. Yet as I stood there I formed a plan. When I returned to Pompeii in order to rebuild my life with the money I had in safekeeping, I would hire a master craftsman to construct a beautiful cask in which to house Penelope’s ashes and her hair, a fitting memorial to my lost love. It would be in my possession always.