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     Etruscan swan song

       Pier Isa Della Rupe / History & Fiction / Romance & Love
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CHAPTER 9

Heedless of the raging fury which destroyed all, the hours passed slowly. Marcus lay on the ground unconscious, more dead than alive for two days and two nights. He woke on the third night with the moon turning the darkness into a mere twilight and illuminating the columns of black smoke that still blanketed Mount Venus. The woods around him were covered in blue-grey ash and seemed to sway with a rippling effect like a rough sea; far, far away tree trunks stripped of all foliage and branches stood out starkly like spectral mummies covered in black soot. He found himself lying all alone half-naked in a puddle of mud, blood and sweat, with a gash on his head, charred clothes and his throat parched with fever. He had no idea how he had got there or why, there was no sign of his young slave, nor did his master remember him.
So, dirty and bloody, as if he had just emerged from his mother’s womb, Marcus was reborn. He had forgotten the Capitoline, the Senate, the mission he had called sacred, he had lost all his strength and ardour, his fiery gaze and thundering voice, his memory was a blank, he did not know where or who he was and the earth seemed about to open and swallow him up beneath his naked feet. He had lost all sense of direction and could not remember his own name, or where the sun rose or where the black shadows that rise from nothing hide. Rome’s arrogant, bloodthirsty, unscrupulous, iron general was lost in the woods like a child with his eyes filled with tears, and like any child lost in a strange place he hid his head between his knees and grasped his calves sobbing, rocking himself back and forth until he dropped into a leaden sleep like death.
Dawn found him stretched out on the ground with his eyes wide open staring at the sky like a dead man’s, he was surrounded by a tragic silence only broken occasionally by the cawing of the birds of prey who circled above him, eager to claim their share of the prize, while other strange forms slink in and out of the smoke. Marcus took no notice of them just as he took no notice of the white clouds racing across the skies like a stampeding herd of wild horses, he did not even see the sky, he had been lying there sphinx-like for hours, his glassy gaze on a black spider spinning a web in the twigs of a laurel hedge.
Only when the spider’s web was a perfect trap gleaming in the sunlight did the sphinx wake from his torpor and heave himself painfully up to wander off endlessly in the woods around the lake, coming back to the same place time after time again. Exhausted, with the ache of fever penetrating his very bones and unable even to stand upright anymore, racked with hunger and pain from his wounds, closer to death than life, he continued to clamber bent double over the rough-edged rocks seeking his lost path. When he saw a dead leaf trembling in the breeze on a bush he was overcome by a mad desire to launch himself into the air and fly away to escape the hounding of death. Because he could feel death; it was there with him accompanied by a thousand lost souls dancing around like maddened butterflies. And at their head was the angel with the huge scarlet wings .... he was overcome by a chill wave and gripped by cold shivers and suddenly he remembered everything: Rome, his mission, the secret meeting in the Campidoglio, his slave Janu. He saw beautiful Uri again and Azelen, the angel of death, as he unfolded his enormous wings and whispered from icy lips,
”Leave these mountains. Go! Go as quickly as you can and never come back again.”
Time slid slowly by, long, difficult hours, and Marcus remained in the same place, imprisoned by invisible chains. A storm raged in his head, a battle royal of conflicting, tumultuous thoughts; then as the air slowly warmed the wilderness rang out with the love song of the blue rock thrush, singing his heart out from a lonely branch in the middle of the wood beside his burnt nest. A desperate Marcus listened to the hauntingly lovely notes as he clung to an oak tree on his hands and knees, and long-forgotten memories came back to him as clearly etched as pink clouds, in a flash he saw his whole life and remembered another thrush singing in his youth.
That bird had been as blue as the sky after sunset too, and had sung on and on as it waited for its mate and built its nest in the chimney of his childhood home; still singing it had fluttered to the branches of the pomegranate tree in the garden. Marcus, saw himself as a child under the tree, while his mother threaded the seeds from an open fruit into a necklace as if they had been precious pearls, and how, laughing, she had jokingly put it round his neck. He remembered how he used to play with a little wooden boat in the stream in front of the house; it was a hot day in August and he was happily launching his little boat as far as possible when suddenly gusts of winds swept dark storm clouds over the sky and curtains of rain began to fall, sinking his little boat which disappeared under the water forever.
Then he saw himself grown up, commanding his men on a large ship, also made of wood, he saw once more the battles, the sacks, the dead, so many dead… and to block out that terrible picture he closed his eyes, but it was too late, enormous roots had grown in his soul.
His face livid, his lips drawn back in a rictus, his heart was a burning brand in his breast and bowels. He started to cry again, wringing his hands: he cried for all the widows’ tears, for all the mothers’ laments, for the hunger of the orphaned children, for the cruelty of war, for his own contempt for life. He cried for the ferocious beast which lurked in man, remembering all the men he had killed, and finally, lacerating his face and breast with his nails, he cried for himself: “you will discover the paradise of tears,” Uri had predicted, and for the first time in his life Marcus, so sure of himself, domineering and bold, used to commanding other men, felt lonely and frightened, terribly frightened. He felt as if he were already dead, dead and exiled even from hell, wandering aimlessly with a train of other ghosts brandishing burning torches and setting fire to banners dyed with their victims’ blood.
The storms, earthquakes, fires and other scourges which afflict nature, are they not all like the hate, envy, vendetta and desire for ill which afflict men’s hearts? The ferocious elements rage, devastating and destroying the earth only to subside, and from their fury men learn to know and tame them, but first come blood and tears. After his cathartic cry, drained of all his bitter tears, Marcus calmed down and reflected on his limited powers against those invisible forces, hidden beneath the earth’s crust; he lingered, torn between desperation, pain and torment. But hunger and thirst drive the wolf from its lair, and like a wounded giant Marcus staggered up, resolved to make a last desperate effort to save himself.
Slowly, painfully he pulled himself up and with the aid of a dried branch as a walking stick he set off into the smouldering woods, straining to hear the sound of running water. He was desperately thirsty, he would have given his life just to be able to wet his lips and struggled along buoyed up by the hope of finding a spring. His knees were buckling, his dragging feet left bloody footprints, but stumbling and falling he managed to make his way from one spur to another until he plunged into a dense green cloud.
He was greeted by an overpowering smell of sulphur and when he reached the rim of the crater he peered down into a bottomless pit. Muffled sounds rose from the depths of the riven earth, mournful murmurs and laments from the eternity of an infinite abyss.... but Marcus was determined not to give up, so with his eyes watering from the fumes and a hand cupped over his brow to ward off the sun’s glare, he pressed on until he came across a little stone temple in the middle of a grove of trees. It was the famous temple dedicated to the Cimina Jupiter, sited right on the god’s rock. Marcus was oddly comforted by the sight of a man-made object and persevered with his climb over the smoking rocks. From the summit he swept the valley below with his eagle’s eye and summoning the last remnants of his ringing soldier’s voice, a voice that in the heat of the battle had shaken the earth itself, he raised his staff high and like Moses from the heights of Sinai, thundered:
“Is anyone there? Can you hear me? What cheer? I, Marcus Fabius Cesus, Rome’s general, I am still alive. Do you hear me? Come and get me, I am alive, alive, still alive!”
After that outburst, rather like a sick man who seems to improve just before the onset of death, Marcus felt faint and grabbed hold of a tree to stop himself falling. Then suddenly like magic he saw a dreamlike vision emerge from that pathless wasteland wreathed in black smoke.
The sun was drowning in an immense plain which stretched down to the sea. It was the famous broad valley of red earth where the blond Tiber placidly flowed, backed by a chain of azure mountains caressed by the last rays of the dying sun. Far away the trunks of shorn cork oaks gleamed like burning brands and on the horizon the Tyrrhenian sea shone like golden mother of pearl as it kissed the skies.
Houses were set in huge, stupendous gardens full of magnificent trees groaning with ripe fruit. The tiled roofs were supported by wonderful painted columns shining in the sun. The ashes from the volcano had not touched the green plain where herds of cattle and horses grazed peacefully. Some farmers were bent over their ploughs, others were singing as they scattered seed over the fertile soil. Lush vineyards dotted the valley interspersed with waving olive groves. Wild myrtle, holly, bay leaves, rosemary and lavender mingled their scent with that of the dog roses, pines and cypress trees. A paradise strewn with little groves here and there among the fields and criss-crossed with rivers and streams leaping joyfully over the golden tufa rock.
This marvellous, sweeping prospect was protected on one flank by the harsh wooded chain of the Cimina Mountains with lake Vicus, and on the other by hot and cold thermal spring lagoons. The rolling fields stretched to the horizon in an archaic vision moulded like the rounded forms of a woman nourishing the villages with the milk from her breasts. The magical vision reverberated with the sound of the sirens’ singing and was bathed in a pure light coloured from the palette of some unknown god. An amazed Marcus was convinced he was seeing things, castles in the clouds created by light and shadow, the whole scene looked like an incredible painting by a crazed artist sprung magically into life.
Some cunning magician must have breathed over the timeless masterpiece on this land where the inhabitants seem to have just woken from a deep sleep. Although nature reigned over the scene the valley hummed with life and bustle; in the distance the sound of bronze axes and picks rang out as deep tunnels were dug under the mountains to extract ore, and long processions of carts hauled precious metals from the mines. Marcus glimpsed the fires of the charcoal burners and caught the glow from numerous forges hard at work.
Down below smiths were working copper, iron, gold and other metals, smoke from the new industries hung over the plain and there was a hive of activity by the sea; the ports were clogged with the coming and going of ships loading and unloading their goods at the wharves, while the warehouses overflowed with merchandise from all over the world. Everywhere Marcus looked people were on the move. He was overcome with dizziness and closed his eyes. He did not realise that he had finally reached Etruria, his objective, and now had the privilege of observing the secrets of that mysterious population without being seen, now that he had a pageant of Etruscan life being played out before his eyes his only thoughts were on survival.
He had to get down and out of the forest as quickly as possible, find people to help him, food and medication for his injuries. His dry lips, swollen tongue, empty stomach and the pain from his hurts all sharpened his vision and hearing, he looked around carefully until he saw a spiral of smoke from a fire rising quite close by. This was his last chance, so with the hope that someone was next to the fire he set off, following the drifting smoke as trustfully as the pollen blows in the wind. Slowly, almost on his hands and knees like a wounded wolf, he advanced cautiously down towards the fire.
Around the burning embers he found people bustling about preparing food for a great banquet: some of the servants had butchered a large goat with curved horns and were cutting the meat up into pieces, others were beating the meat before roasting it, a scullion was kneading dough in a large basin and other helpers were flaying kids and roasting pork. Handmaidens were placing platters and bowls on tables with artistically carved legs in the shape of various animal hooves, servants were spreading cow hides on the ground and carrying bread baskets and other food to the tables, others were pouring wine mixed with honey and water into jugs, carafes and kraters in gold, silver and ivory.
Sweet incense was burning in a richly carved bronze tripod and to one side someone played the double flute as dancers in beautiful transparent veils paced through their steps. Close by in front of a cave entrance completely covered in moss, ferns and red earth an old woman sang to herself as she wove a linen cloth with the colours and patterns of the sacred serpent.
Marcus stayed hidden watching this scene of refined luxury and ostentatious wealth without being able to decide what to do; in the meantime the sacred drums began to boom in the depths of the forest, their beat magnified a thousand times as they thudded through his chest. Suddenly group of beautiful maidens filed out of the woods, more beautiful than roses at dawn, and in a single instant, perhaps less, the thorny brambles cover them with white veils over their hair gleaming like silk. The splendid maidens were dressed for the hunt, their white tunics damp with perspiration clung to their bodies as if they had just sprung from the womb of the earth. With their skin glowing like the moon they seemed to belong to some remote age when god’s face was mirrored in the countenance of the human race.
Captivated by so much beauty, Marcus wanted to shout out, but his cry died on his parched lips; he tried again without success, he had completely lost his voice. The pain from his injuries and hunger set his head spinning, and his eyes clouded over. Through a grey haze he glimpsed the bows and arrows and slings the girls were carrying and tried to follow the sinuous movements of their closely draped white tunics embroidered with gold thread, their bare breasts and naked shoulders ... , suddenly he felt someone grasp him by the shoulders and a rough voice asking:
“Who are you stranger? Where do you come from, of what blood are you? Did the wind blow you here? Are you alone? Where are your companions?”
Before his strength abandoned him again, Marcus tried to answer but he could not even manage to turn round, he was already encased in death’s chill, he could not see the man behind him and in his delirium all he could do was to stare straight ahead at the girls in front of him and their rich black locks which had been bound in plaits coiled around their heads before the hunt, but had escaped in the fury of the chase and fell around their shoulders in soft wavy swathes, making the young amazons even more majestic and attractive.
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