Call Me By Any Name (Prologue)
A little over a year had passed since Tita fastened the straps on her armor for the first time and it still weighed her down, but mostly it weighed down on her conscience. With every step she took along the castra’s precinct wall, the ratched thing left another mark on her.
The red sores and heaviness from the circular metal bands digging into her flesh remained with her even when she descended naked in the bath or when she stretched on the cot, surrendering herself to dreams. But, she found no relief in dreams for the shoulder guards, the breastplate and even the belt with its dangling straps found their way into Morpheus’ realm, and it even there itstill hurt.
Tita squeezed a wo of fingers under her shoulder guard to rub a sore spot, scolding herself for having forgotten to put on ointment. There were simply too many things for her to do to get ready in the morning.
Every day since they made their little pact, grandfather told her over and over again that she must love the armor because the armor made the soldier. As if she needed remembering; to pass for a soldier was as crucial as breathing, while every breath she took pretending to be a man poked a hole into the fabric of her being a woman. But Roman legionaries held their tongue, gritted their teeth and marched on, so she learned to love her armor in the same way the snail loved its shell. And after so many years, the cold and unyielding metal casing became as familiar to her as the faces of the men walking past her to change guard at the gates.
She should have stepped out of their way because a clumsy fellow kept walking and talking to his comrades until he bumped into her, almost knocking her over. He turned to apologize.
Tita knew him enough to call by name and nothing more. When he offered his hand in greeting and smiled at her suspiciously, she fiddled to respond.
Why would he eye her like that?
“Ave,” she said, half convinced, after a couple of odd moments, lifting her hand to meet him and forgetting about the bundle she carried in her arms. It slipped to her feet. The soldier dashed to help, stifling a laugh.
“No need!” Tita pushed him aside as if fending off a foe. When she realized what she had done it was too late. The soldier grimaced and stepped back with caution. He went on his way with no more smiles or warm greetings to share with her. Why would he? Barbarians acted with more courtesy than she had.
“Wonderful, Tita,” she thought while picking up her long package and tucking it under one arm. “Another one to gossip about how an urchin is more approachable than the Legate’s grandson. Unless… He didn’t notice anything out of place, did he?” Heart drumming, she glanced after him to find he paid her no more attention, grasping hands at the elbow and chatting lively to other familiar faces. Instead of relaxing, she slouched. Indeed, he intended to address her so heartily and that was how she should have responded if only she could afford to build such friendships with every comrade crossing her path. With longing, she glanced back at the friendly soldier and his small group of acquaintances once more. He would have made for a heck of a friend for sure. She shook her head to lose the feeling and quickened her steps to get back to the legate’s quarters.
For the fifth time this morning, Tita did a mental check: the bounds across her breast were doubled tied, her chin-length hair was tightly gathered at the back of her head, her face remained unwashed since the previous night, her thick brows were ruffled into a pair of messy lines and there was a fist-sized clump of cloth fastened to her crotch and itching. Besides the smooth features of her face that could pass for those of a pampered young man, nothing betrayed that she was almost a grown woman.
Staring down at her body clad in metal she felt reassured. After all, she wore the armor and it made her part of the legion. She was still part of the legion’s great family. She had every right to call this fort a home.
As she took a couple strides further down the paved road, along the same chiseled-stone wall, keeping distant company with the fort’s daily clamor or soldiers calling after each other, a firm hand grabbed her shoulder, uncomfortably pressing the cuirass into her collar bone. Tita cursed through her teeth and recoiled from the touch, almost dropping her package once more. Here she was, doing it again, sticking out her spines. It was almost like an instinct.
“Language and manners, Titus Valerius Corvinus!” said with an air of mischief the only one among her brethren who she could name as a friend.
“You scared me witless.”
Serpahinus huffed. “No say. I kept calling your name but have you ever honored me with an answer? No. I wager a year’s pay you enjoy ignoring me,” he crossed his arms over his chest, his armor missing. He must have been out of his duties.
Tita readjusted the load she cradled in her arms. “A whole year’s pay? Call me by any name and I’ll call you a fool. You’d fare better with a hole in your purse, Seraphinus” she offered her hand to greet him and returned a smile. The bright light of morning revealed how gray hairs swell their ranks around Seraphinus’ temple. Her smile faded.
Seraphinus grasped her hand firmly. “How can your voice still be so soft yet you talk like a boor?” He nodded toward the leather-wrapped package, “what are you carrying there so gingerly?”
“It’s Grandfather’s princeps sword,” Tita looked down at it, her gaze softening. “I’m coming from the blacksmith.”
Seraphinus grabbed it from her hold, leaving her dazed and empty-handed.
“Don’t! Give it here,” Tita demanded, impatiently extending her hand.
Seraphinus winked at her, unwrapping the weapon quicker than the wind and throwing the leather sheet to her face.
“Cacat, Seraphinus! That’s the legate’s sword. Don’t soil it!” Tita jumped to get it back.
Seraphinus turned to avoid her, not before tapping her armor playfully. Tita launched at him, but he skipped the blade from one hand to another, keeping it out of reach. She feinted coming for the sword a couple of times, Seraphinus dodging every time. Grinning, he wiggled a finger at her. Just what she waited for. Tita tried her luck again, her fingers almost touching the pommel, but Seraphinus twirled the blade in the air, catching it in his other hand with the quick reflexes of a sword dancer.
Those walking by eyed his unsheathed sword gimmicks amused but kept a prudent distance.
“I wager the Senior Legate would want his contubernalis to put it to the test.” He aimed the sword for the sky and challenged her with a smirk.
“As if he ever allowed to do more. Anyway, you wager too much these days, my lousy friend. That’s not a legate aide’s duty.” Enough with his antics. She kept hold on his arm, rose on her toes and stretched to almost touching the sword’s pommel.
“Try harder. You look like a kitten reaching for a ball of fleece.” Seraphinus chuckled and turned again, making her stumble and almost knocking into one of the passers-by.
Tita apologized but the seasoned centurion did not seem to mind. “Worry not, young Titus,” the man patted her arm. “Mind you, a kick in the groin would teach our friend here that kittens have sharp teeth,” laughing, he pointed to Seraphinus’ precious parts and threw a greeting his way before taking his leave.
Tita looked surprised at the older soldier whose name danced on her lips but escaped her. What an amusing crowd they were, so comfortable around each other despite age or rank. Now and then, to her delight, she found she had her special spot in their midst, but always when close to Seraphinus.
She righted herself, her shoulders straighter, and stared up at Seraphinus, grinning. “Say, if I kicked you in the groin, would you consider that unfriendly?”
His lips hitched up on one corner. “Oh, how I ache for a training session, just you and I, to reacquaint you with the respect you owe to your superiors.”
“Plead with the gods if you want. You won’t be my superior for long.”
“Counting on my retirement, are you?” he lifted an eyebrow in her direction. “Or are you counting the days until your service ends, and you’ll enter the senate in your purple striped toga?”
Tita muffled a snort. Forget the offense of a woman adorning a man’s armor. A woman donning a toga in the Forum would truly be preposterous.
“What are you? In your seventeenth year?” Seraphinus asked, still keeping the sword out of reach. “Don’t rush to grow up, little man,” he ruffled her hair, getting it loose from her short ponytail.
She slapped his hand away and poked the metal plates tied across his chest. “That does it. Give that back or you’ll be put on latrine duty. I am the general’s grandson. You know I can make it happen.”
Tita pulled again at Seraphinus’ arm. This time it felt flaccid as if she was handling a ragdoll. It shouldn’t have been that easy. Seraphinus had never cared for threats. Confused, she looked up to find him no longer interested in their little game. Instead he was squinting in the direction of the warehouse from where men’s voices gradually increased, bouncing off the walls around them.
They were not the only ones taking note of the commotion. Everyone in their vicinity headed that way, thickening the stream of soldiers gathered around each other like Danubius collecting tributaries. And most surprisingly, as soon as they were near enough they began to shout and throw gestures as well. Through their curses, a woman’s cries broke through.
Tita tsked. Not another of those loose women looking to make an easy coin and finding trouble.
In secret, she admired their long hair, wondering how hers would frame her face if she’d let it grow. Though she would have never dyed it like some of the harlots, in unnatural shades of red. But she did love the red in their brightly colored sheer dresses, and the light blue and yellow of their veils. She was sick of the ever constant sack-shape, off-white soldier tunic and the rigidness of her silver armor. Only a year ago, in the solitude of her room, she had pulled the sheets of the bed and draped it around herself, only to see how she would look in a dress. But the material sagged around her small mounds, her tiny waist getting lost in it. For a brief moment she wanted to have overly feminine forms. Then she remembered bigger breasts would equal bigger troubles.
There was a reason that women were not allowed inside the fort; one of the reasons she had for pretending to be a man for so long. Men understood each other, working, drinking and gambling together. And if they sparked a fight it only meant they had more reason to drink and gamble. Throw a pretty woman in their midst and they lose their heads, turning into wolves fighting over a carcass, but not out of hunger, simply out of pride.
Tita walked behind Seraphinus as he made his way through the assembled soldiers. They saluted and carved a path for them, many acknowledging her with a pat on the shoulder. She belonged here. She wore the armor. She was standing among her brothers.
Once the two of them breached the center row, Seraphinus treaded ahead while Tita staggered to a stop. Here people shouted louder, pushed and shoved to get a better look. She did not feel their crude gestures, nor the air infused with the stench of manly sweat. That too was much too familiar to distract her. Yet she cocked her head from one side to the other and stared confused at the two people caught in a brawl.
Glimpsed through the feet of the one standing in front of her, a berated soldier was on all fours, wailing with the voice of a woman while his companion violently pulled and hit at his armor as if he was channeling the crowd’s rage.
Seraphinus grabbed the man’s clenched fist in mid-air and stopped the pummeling. The spectators’ shouts were silenced in waves.
The enraged man locked eyes with Seraphinus and asked as if he was the pillar of righteousness, “Would you believe your eyes, Seraphinus Irenaeus? A woman, a barbarian whore no less, in a roman uniform with a full set of phalera. She mocks us. By the gods, we should stone her.”
“Calm down, Vitus.”
Tita’s eyes grew wide while blood came rushing to her temples. Her breath turned haggard. She’d heard it right.
Kneeling and desperate among a sea of soldiers, the man on his hands and knees was no man at all. She was one of the loose women from the settlement, wearing not her sheer chiffons, but metal and a fine-spun wool tunic, her hair fixture falling apart, the dark cohl painted around her eyes smudged and dragged down her cheeks by tears. She wailed like she was flayed alive and her cry pierced through Tita, armor and all.
Tita’s throat became parched. The crowd went wild again, shoving her to the center, next to Seraphinus. She slowly surveyed the familiar faces encasing them, caught in a frenzy that made her hair stand up. But the terror of the woman in front of her overpowered everything else as if it was her own.
Tita had seen all this before.
In her nightmare, clad in the armor that was supposed to keep her safe from dangers, her truth had been discovered. She was the one crawling through the mud, at the feet of those she considered family. Instead of adorning smiles, making jokes and patting her shoulder, they were cursing her for the sacrilege of wearing a legionnaire’s insignia, their faces contorted like masks from a Greek tragedy. In one voice, they demanded her head. She begged for mercy, but no one listened. To escape their wrath she pulled in vain at her armor to unfasten it. But the shoulder guards only grew heavier, the breastplate tightened around her, squashing her already flattened bosom, choking her, pinning her down. She could not move. A fist came to greet her face and she was awake, all drenched in sweat.
Today, her nightmare came true in the daylight.
Tita’s heart began to pound hard against her chest while icicles bloomed down her spine. Unconsciously she checked the metal bounds around her body. What an odd twist, to fear what kept her safe.
“Stone her, stone her,” people yelled around her. Tita’s heart skipped a beat, thinking for a moment they were referring to her.
“There would be no stoning,” Seraphinus retorted, surveying those gathered around. “We will wait for the legate’s return.”
“No! The legate will punish us,” shouted a couple of voices from the crowd.
The leader of their outrage addressed Seraphinus again. “Misplacing an armor is second to losing the acvila. Let’s teach the whore a lesson ourselves and settle this now.” With gritted teeth, he turned his anger back at the woman and snatched her by the hair. His eyes found Tita.
Tita took a couple of steps back, her first impulse to run and hide.
“Let’s have good Titus here deliver a punishment then. He is the legate’s grandson, the closest thing we have to his justice.”
Such a declaration would have honored her only half an hour ago. “I can’t stone her!” Tita raised her voice in disbelief and took another step back, reaching the ringside, but the men there pushed her back in the center.
The soldier dragged the woman closer and urged, “A slap then, Titus, hard and swift. Go on. Slap the whore and make a lesson out of her.”
“Gods and thunder, he must be joking,” Tita thought until she met Seraphinus’ eyes. Puckered lips on a resigned expression, he nodded once.
“Domine, Domine, please spare me the stoning.” The harlot released herself from the soldier’s grip and crawled to take hold of Tita’s leg. She latched hard, like a serpent coiled on a twig for dear life.
Tita stared down at her, her arms lean and milky white, not bronzed or strained from daily training out in the open. But the woman’s fingers were delicate just like hers, and she had a soft, sweet voice they could have shared secrets with in another life. Poor, silly creature, not knowing what she was getting herself into when she changed her harlot attire for that of a soldier. Out of a newly-found sense of camaraderie, Tita softly asked, “why – why are you wearing a uniform?”
The woman glanced sideways, at a soldier sitting on the sideline and biting his fingernails. She signaled with her head in his direction. “He made me do it. He wanted to play his funny games. He’s a weird one,” the woman added, her accent accentuating her revulsion.
Alas, it was not the woman’s fault. Tita stared at the soldier who stiffened. The people around continued to urge her to slap the whore.
“Whose uniform is this?” Tita asked loudly, keeping her gaze locked on the culprit.
The harlot stared up at her incredulously for a few moments, then slowly lifted her mud-soiled finger.
Tita raised her voice again, though it was shaking. “If he made her do it, he should be punished.”
The accused dared say nothing. He seemed to have enough Roman Dignitas not to deny it.
The shouts dimmed down. One or two voices were heard from the crowd, “Slap him too!” but no one else. Those around the singled-out soldier took a step back. Everyone else was waiting in unbearable, glaring silence.
Tita looked at Seraphinus for approval. All she received was a barely perceivable nod.
Around them, the flags from the battlements snapped in the wind while the commotion of those oblivious from the far side of the fort, getting on with their day, could be heard in the distance. Still, enough men from the garrison were gathered here, their faces melding with each other like the stones in the walls.
She had no escape.
Tita came face to face with the culprit and found herself looking up. He was standing at attention, eyes staring straight above her head, hands clasped at the back. She had to lift on her toes but she slapped him as hard as she could, the sound of it, sharp and loud, making those around wince. The man’s head flew to the side.
She might not be the tallest, but she had a strong arm. Seraphinus had made sure of that in all of their training sessions.
“Slap her, Titus! Slap her!” they immediately demanded. “Stone her!” a couple of them shouted, still bitter.
Tita sighed. Now she understood. It did not matter to them if there was a reason behind the harlot wearing armor, or if someone else was to blame. All they wanted was retribution for such an insult.
Would they be as ruthless with her since she was family? Perhaps they would do worse.
On shaking feet Tita came closer to the woman.
This time the whore eyed her differently, no desperation carried in her eyes. Respect had taken its place. Though she was on her knees, she stood dignified as if Tita’s justice had given her strength.
“Don’t look at me like that. I’m just a cheat,” she whispered to the woman and searched for Seraphinus.
Seraphinus stared back at her with his stoic gaze. “Would you throw the first stone if you knew?” she asked him without words. Her heart sank. From now on, in her nightmares, Seraphinus would be the one to throw the punch.
The soldiers shouted louder, “Do it, do it!” Tita lifted her arm, but it trembled in the air. Wasn’t she a hypocrite. With that thought she let her hand fall against the woman’s cheek.
The sound of the slap drowned in the soldiers’ cheers around her. Tita did not hear them. She remained to stare at her palm, bright red and aching, even more so than when she hit the soldier earlier. Every pat she got on her back from the disbanding crowd pushed the metal of the armor further into her flesh, leaving a searing, invisible mark. That of a pariah, neither a woman, nor a true soldier. Her stomach stirred, and her composure threatened to break. She could barely keep her lips from quivering.
Seraphinus walked toward her with a forced smile on his face. “By the gods, little man! The first time you get close to a woman, you’re livid. Rest assured, they won’t give you a rash. What if I arranged an encounter for you?” He wiggled his brows and laughed, but was met by Tita’s glacial stare. His laughter caught in his throat.
“I don’t feel well. I’ll come to find you some other day.” She recovered her grandfather’s sword still in his hand and darted away as if chased by the three Furies.
The distance to her and her grandfather’s quarters in the Praetorium could not have been longer. Tears threatened to pile in her eyes. She was all alone, overwhelmed by this lie that festered underneath her armor and she could not afford to have another’s ears to listen to her, another’s touch to comfort her. Not even the keeper of her secret, her grandfather. Luck had it he was away today. He had trusted her that she could be the soldier and every such moment of doubt proved she was failing.
Once inside their quarters, Tita slammed shut the door behind her, still in control of her sobs. Only one tear rolled freely on her cheek as she drew in deep shaking breaths. She was suffocating. With trembling fingers, she pulled at the buckles of her armor. It no longer made her feel at home. It no longer offered her protection. It was a cage. A cold, hard, detestable cage. A mockery when fastened on her body. A lie.
Once she broke out of the metal encasing and peeled away the tunic underneath, she undid the linen wrapping that flattened her chest, often losing the grip on the cloth. The tremor shook her from within.
Her breasts sprung free from their bounds, all creased and aching, but she did not curse at the pain. This time, she welcomed it. She stared at herself in the hanging mirror, chest naked, wearing only the customary regimental pants. Another lie. She took them off, almost tearing the seams apart, and pulled viciously at the clump of cloth fastened to her crotch until the linen straps loosened and slid down, leaving behind red marks and sores. She looked at herself again. There laid her truth.
Her gaze dropped on the armor fallen at her feet and she kicked it hard, sending it rolling for her grandfather’s cot with a metal clang. Once, it promised her the sort of liberty she thought she wanted, but she was nothing but a stupid child back then.
It was not the armor’s fault though. It was the men, the laws, the war, the empire. It was Lucius’ fault and hers, all wrapped into one for being a nosy, brazen little girl.
Tita ran across the floor and knelt beside her metal cage, the one that was so familiar she had learned to love it. She had no other home. She caressed it with trembling fingers but her caress paused. Under Grandfather’s cot, an old friend glared back at her, all covered in dust. She put the armor aside and pulled out the studded wooden chest, gently blowing over it. The bronze was turning from brown to green, the wood was charred around the corners. She placed her head on top of the lid as if to listen to an old tune about a little girl who was once named Tita.
The chest still smelled familiar; of linden flowers, incense and nard, like the walls of her home that she could not wait to leave behind. It smelled of Harina, and Ursus, and of her Duras The-Dung-Head. It smelled of a life left in ashes.
She hugged the chest and cried like she never cried before.
Princeps - first, important
Cacat - roman curse word, equivalent to Shit!
Legate - equivalent to a general in the Roman Army
Contubernalis - here used as tent mate, apprentice or recruit paired up with someone with experience
Primus Pilus - as in The First Spear, first or senior centurion in the legion
Phalera - equivalent to military medals in Ancient Rome, Acvila - the symbol of a legion; losing it was the same as defeat