5.4.07

Scene-stealing





… He was huddling by the breakwater. That’s where I saw him first. I suppose it was his clothes that attracted my attention. No furs – no cloak – just a thin tunic and a blanket wrapped round his shoulders (someone must have taken some pity on him already).

A slight little man – quite unimpressive in my eyes. I could see he was shivering, but when I was called over to speak to him – I don’t fear anyone, that’s my badge of honour in this town – he hardly seemed to notice me at all. He was talking, or reciting, in his own tongue: I presume the language of the Imperium. I’d seen it written a few times: deep dark lines splayed across the surface of marble blocks.

I tried him in the Greek I spoke in childhood, then in one or two of the tribal tongues. Nothing. He was a sad bedraggled creature, wet through from his night outside.

One of the sailors from the ship riding at anchor out at sea came over then and slipped me a few coins. “Look after him,” he said, in rough but serviceable Getic. Most of these Greek sailors pick up enough of the language to negotiate with the onshore girls. “He was a great man once – a magician in his way.”

That intrigued me a little, I must admit. I could have taken the coins and left him there to die, of course. Perhaps that’s what I would have done ten years ago. But … well, he made me curious. And I haven’t felt that way for such a long time – since I came to this godforsaken town, learned that the only way to keep their pricks out of me was to build upon their fears, live apart in my own dank hut as the local witch.

A civilised man! Was there such a thing left in the world? News travels so slowly all the way up north. This man might have the latest tidings from Athens, Rome, or even further afield! The coins would pay for his keep – what could I spend them on save medicines and food, in any case?

To tell the truth, it was touch and go. For weeks, it seemed, he roamed through dark dreams and nightmares, sweating and freezing by turns, crying out that I was poisoning him by feeding him blood (which was true, I must confess – the tribesmen swear by it for fevered cattle, and use it also at their high feasts. If only he’d known the privilege I was extending him …), clinging to me and recoiling from me in turns.

In his lucid moments he spoke good Greek – far better than mine, in fact. I’ve hardly spoken it since I was ten and went on the road for the first time. My mother was little better than a whore, my father …well, who knows? The best thing that she taught me was some slight knowledge of herbs and charms, the worst a habit of compliance with men’s whims.

Some nights I slept with him, too, I must confess. There was nothing strange about it. He was as limp as a rag at first, clinging to me like a small boy with his mother. He needed comfort. It seemed a small thing to lend him.

My dogs frightened him most. No woman who lives alone in these wilds, whatever her reputation for sorcery, can be without a fierce dog or two. My bitch had just pupped, and the little bundles of black fur were underfoot everywhere.

He seemed to have a horror of them, and sat there petrified whenever they crawled onto his lap. I know now that he thought they were mine – so little difference could he make in his mind between dreams and reality. He thought me some great witch who could transform herself into an animal!

Turn him onto that subject, though, and he could talk all day. So many tales he knew – of gods, of giants, men – transformations, love affairs between men and beasts, and trees and birds – that you could waste your whole life just listening to him. He had a gift, I’ll give him that. The sailor was right. This was the ruins of what had once been a great man.

As time went by he grew to rely on me less. He would go walking through the town, talking to any travellers or soldiers who could bring him news of the outside world. A few would give him coins for his stories, and he spent it all on paper to write upon. He cut pens out of reeds, and used the local oak’s-gall stain for ink.

I asked him once what he was writing: letters home, he said. That wasn’t all, though. He had an insatiable appetite for stories. Anything the locals could tell him he would note down. When his sight grew dim he taught me the Roman letters and dictated to me instead. I humoured him – who knew when such knowledge might not come in handy – but could write down little of what he so carefully spelt out to me. The names meant nothing, the thoughts, the forms of speech were too strange.

He spoke sometimes of his wife – always in loving terms. He didn’t blame her at all for not accompanying him. He’d ordered her not to come, in fact, he said. But his voice was always sad at such times. I could tell he missed her. More than her, though, he missed his city – the agora, the dinners with his friends. What do I know of such things? The back-alleys of Thrace are where I grew up.

I only saw him really excited once – when the news reached us at last that the emperor was dead. Old Augustus, sent down to the shades to languish with the souls of those he’d slaughtered. Do the dead hold grudges still, I wonder? The tribesmen think so – always on at me to expel some angry spirit or demon. Augustus would never get the chance to find out: the Romans declared him a god as soon as they could to keep him from the hungry teeth of the dead.

Or so he said, so little Ovid said. He got quite drunk that night, raving on and on about the old man and his ways – then turned to praise of the new ruler Germanicus, that golden boy who would bring back the Spring again.

It was Tiberius, the Emperor’s brooding hulk of an adoptive son, who took over the reins of power, though. When the next news came, a few months later, and he heard that his high spirits were dashed. I think he knew right then there’d be no recall. His bones would whiten here, not in the land of his fathers.

For a week he didn’t speak at all – to me or anyone else. He lay all day indoors in his little room. I brought him food he wouldn’t touch, tried to tempt him with broth and little delicacies – the small indulgences he took such childish delight in at other times.
Nothing worked. He wouldn’t write, even (and I took care to leave out his paper and ink, with well-sharpened pens nearby). He lay there on his bunk with his face to the wall.

I think that’s when his spirit died. When he took up his pen again it was to write curses only. All the tender entreaties had died – he poured out his vexations on some false friend, a shadow figure who stood for all who’d left him here, took delight in praising him when he was bright and famous, and shunned him and foreclosed on him the moment he fell.

That’s when I decided to walk into his dreams.

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