Etruscan swan song

       Pier Isa Della Rupe / History & Fiction / Romance & Love
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CHAPTER 5

At the first light of dawn they started to explore that unknown world that had never been trodden by Roman feet. They realised at once that finding a path through the Cimina wilderness was going to be no easy task. The wooded clay slopes were extremely steep and further on the mountains reared up almost in cliffs, covered with dense scrub and tall trees. The only way ahead was to tunnel through the undergrowth on their hands and knees; so Marcus and Janu crawled along, hacking their way through thickets of bushes and brambles with saws and axes. Wriggling through a particularly dense patch of hawthorn bedecked with bright red berries they found a vague track which eventually led them out onto an open down.
They were still silently celebrating that first, tiny victory when they caught sight of a manikin with two heads, a satyr-like figure with a goat’s thighs. The strange creature was leaping over thickets of bramble bushes in an intricate dance and playing a divine melody on a double flute. The two men stared at him in astonishment but before they could do anything he disappeared in a flash. Marcus and Janu were well aware that the Cimina Mountains were home to all sorts of strange phenomena, a den of tricks and false apparitions, the lair of primitive men who could be hidden anywhere around them, above them or even in the depths of the ground beneath them. To be sure of finding their way back through that maze of deception they carved marks on the trunks of the bigger trees.
Even during the worst of his fatigue Janu did not forget his Orphea. His long curls were always getting tangled in the twigs but his green eyes were filled with the vision of his love as he signalled the springs he found to his master, and even though he was dead tired, that evening he perched on a rock and played a sylvan melody for her before sleeping.
Next day Janu found two precious springs of mineral water, one hot and one cold. This was exactly what Marcus Fabius had hoped for but even so he was dissatisfied and irritated. He longed to reach the last peak of Mount Cimino itself so that he could look down over all Etruria and spy out the lie of the land like a vulture. Therefore he pushed on and on without a moment’s respite, marking possible routes for the army as well as mineral springs on his map. He reconnoitred potential campsites and paced out measurements for the cavalry and the infantry, exploring the undergrowth where the grassy downs plunged into the woods and deciding where to position his archers. He was a man used to commanding entire legions, used to the clash of hand-to-hand combat, the pounding of his racing heart as he massacred his enemies, used to sacking defeated populaces and holding his troops in his iron hand, and now he was feeling claustrophobic in that endless, dark wilderness.
Ever since they had set foot in the forest he had felt that they had somehow stepped out of the mainstream of life and as they penetrated further and further into the depths of those mysterious woods he felt less and less sure of himself, although nothing in the whole world could have persuaded him to abandon a mission he obstinately considered a sacred trust.
A few days later, when Janu had gone ahead to cleave a path through the undergrowth as usual and Marcus was drawing a map of a series of grottoes which riddled the cliffs of a steep ravine. He was intent on his task when suddenly he heard the sound of a distant melody, poignant and sweet, music without words, unreal but true, it seemed to issue forth from every leaf on the forest trees, to descend from the clouds, to rise from the red earth. How could anybody possibly be playing so beautifully in the midst of that inhospitable wilderness, inhabited solely by foxes and sparrow hawks? Marcus was so surprised that he froze into immobility, sitting on a stone listening, unable to sum up the willpower to move. When he did move to seek the source of that strange phenomenon it was in a trance, a secret mystic force drew him towards that ancestral call.
The slopes of that part of the Cimini rose majestically, honeycombed with caves and strewn with enormous boulders. Scrambling over rocks and up and down stony vales choked with briars was no easy task for a warrior used to fighting on horseback. But Marcus clung on to the rocks tenaciously with tooth and nail, ready to go all the way to hell to discover who was playing that tune.
Finally, when his hands were covered in scratches and embedded thorns, he rounded a hedge of bay leaves and dog roses and espied a beautiful young girl. She was wearing an immaculate white robe bordered with golden leaves, a candid goatskin was gathered at her breast by a panel embroidered in gold thread with animals and plants. The embroidery was rich but extremely delicate. A finely-spun gold snood gathered her night-black hair softly to the nape of her neck and then left it to flow freely down to her feet, her skin was as soft as a petal, her wrists and ankles were adorned with garlands of woven bay leaves and cyclamens. The suns rays caressed her face, as pure and beautiful as a marble statue from Lysippus’ magic chisel.
Who could she be, as delicate as the dawn, as beautiful as the moon and as bright as the sun? Who was this arcane figure bedecked like a goddess, reclining like a siren on a cradle-shaped rock?
The girl was playing a short-stringed instrument that Marcus had never seen before, and a small roe deer was lying down beside her. Amazed, Marcus came to a dead halt behind a tree and gazed at the scene without saying a word, as if he had been struck by an arrow. The girl went on playing for a while, but when she realised she was no longer alone she rose slowly, tied up her delicately-worked sandals that shone like gold, and walked away without saying a word. She walked through the undergrowth until she came to a waterfall thundering down a cliff, here she suddenly took a cat-like leap and disappeared behind the curtain of rushing water and spray with her deer.
Marcus the warrior had followed her like pollen helplessly blown by the breeze. Once he got over his initial shock he spent hours searching around the rocky cliff amidst a labyrinth of boulders, thickets of brambles and clumps of wind-swept heather.
He searched for a passage, an underground entrance, for the whole of the afternoon, firmly convinced that there must be a hole in the rocks, some way into a hidden cave. After an endless, fruitless search he had to give up as the sun shed her last rays to be admired just before setting. Exhausted soaked in sweat and disappointed Marcus contemplated the ball of fire dying like a poppy in the golden sky as he collapsed against a tree trunk next to the stream.
He was just coming to the decision that the spirit of the mountains had played a trick on him when he heard a moan coming from the reeds on the banks of the stream. His curiosity aroused, he approached the spot as quietly as he could, hoping against hope to catch another glimpse of the beautiful siren. In the soft twilight, half hidden in the reeds and ferns, in a pool carved by the rushing stream, he saw a woman with long plaits hanging down over her naked breast and another plait wound around the crown of her head in an elaborate style. The woman was kneeling in the water with her legs spread wide and was gently rocking back and forth. Marcus realised immediately that she was in labour and embarrassed, tried to beat a hasty retreat, but the woman caught sight of him and with no sign of displeasure called out:
“Stop, stranger. Don’t run away. Who are you, can you speak my language? Perhaps you’re an immigrant? You’re not frightened of a birth, are you?”
“Woman, I’m not afraid of the devil himself, but, to tell the truth… a birth daunts me somewhat. I confess that childbirth terrifies me.”
“You speak my language very well, stranger. Haven’t you ever watched an ear of wheat swell and crack to release the ripe grain? Haven’t you ever seen ripe figs open on the tree and scatter their seed? This is exactly how my womb will open, so what is there to be frightened of? Don’t sheep, bitches, wolves and bears all give birth? Animals all lick their young as soon as they’re born. Mother Nature doesn’t find it repugnant but makes proud display of her work, just as we, the women of the Cimina, always come to give birth here. Here we can wash our children as soon as they are born, proud of our labour and its fruits, because a sterile woman is like a dry field, a thicket of briars that produces nothing but scratches. What use to the tribe is a woman without children, her flaccid flesh dried up like a dead thistle? She is just a useless mouth to feed. So, stranger, stay where you are and do not offend me by going away, stay and watch this miracle, do not shut out life and beauty.”
“But I really wouldn’t know how to help you woman! Did you come up here all on your own? Where do you live?”
“In the broad valley at the foot of the mountains.”
“What is life like down there?”
“Like life anywhere else, like yours on the other side of these mountains, beyond the trees, beyond the rivers and ravines, if you live beyond the Cimina Mountains. Yes, I came here alone. We Rasèna women, Rasèna is the name of my people, we always come to give birth to our children alone here in this clear running stream. All a child needs to be born is its mother. I don’t need any help from you, all you need to do is wait here for my child with me. A child is more than a miracle, it comes into the light covered in blood and mucus, heaven and earth touched in the darkness to cause its birth. Now wait here with me, wait for my child, wait until the flowing waters of the stream have sculpted my wild body and my cries will have filled all creation, then new life will spring from the depths of my being. Only then may you go on your way. I want to be alone with him when he takes his first swim in this rushing stream, as I bend over him like a willow tree to help him. I want to be alone when he first suckles my milk, life itself, from my swollen breasts. And I want to be alone when, replete, he falls asleep in my warm embrace to the sound of the blood flowing through my veins. But while we wait I will tell you how I had a son from the earth.
As I disrobed in the gardens of heaven, watching the vines budding and the almond trees flowering, I asked the wind to make my rose bud too, and I asked the air, the sun and the clouds for the same miracle. As I dug the earth I hoped that it would fulfil my desire, as I kneaded the bread I prayed that my dough would rise too, as I emerged my body in the running stream I prayed that my breast would run with sweet milk, until, one day a fertile seed finally took root in my womb. Hark my words, stranger. Even if I were certain that this eagerly-awaited son would one day hate me and turn on me like a rabid dog, spitting venom like a viper, even if I were certain that one day he would abandon me in the deepest cavern and knife me in the back, I swear, stranger, I swear that I would still await him as eagerly as the night awaits the day.”
Marcus sat uneasily on the banks of the stream listening to the young woman’s words without looking at her. Then she was overcome by labour pains and started to pant as she clung to a trailing tangle of traveller’s joy. Only when the echo of her cries had risen like a prayer into the quiet of the night, only then, did Marcus silently leave her.
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