Work In Progress: Masks

 

Chapter One

 

The masks began to speak.

Lying on a dining couch in his parents’ villa, sluggish with wine, Marcus blinked at the littered table before him. Flickering oil lamps dimly lighted dirty plates and overtipped cups.

“Must have this all cleaned up before mother and father return,” he muttered.  It struck him that he was talking to himself. Where had his friends gone?

“Ah, right,” he said woozily to himself. They had left more than an hour ago. They’d be halfway back to Ravenna by now, the villa’s great hall empty but for himself.

Marcus half-rose from the couch and nearly fell over, the room spinning around. Must tell the servants to clean up this room—order them to say nothing to his father about the mess he and his friends had made, the drunkenness.

Weighted with dinner and drink, he fell back onto the couch.

How much time passed before he heard the first murmur of voices he could not say. Barely piercing the curtain of his slumber, the voices seemed to come from the entry hall where the terra-cotta masks of his ancestors hung.

A vision of the masks, hanging from their hooks, passed through his mind. He knew their faces as well as he knew his own, perhaps better. Over the last few years his had changed rapidly, losing its boyish roundness, the fair hair turned darker, the nose and jaw stronger.

His ancestors, though, were unchangeable, the stern faces of the grandfathers he had never known and the grandmothers but barely, the faces of their parents before them and theirs in turn, generations so deep into the past as to slip from memory into myth. Each mask bore the individual features of its subject—so eerily real, even to the fleshly colors painted by forgotten artisans, that they had frightened him as a boy.

Whatever their differences, each mask shared the relentless strength of character and firmness of purpose that had first won and then maintained the family’s position in this most distant part of Italy. His mother's ancestors, the Julians, a storied Roman family, hung on one side. On the other side were his father's, the Scaevolas, Romans too, but long ago come north, almost beyond the writ of the Senate and the shield of the legionnaire, to found their estate in the Po Valley when barbarians still roamed its plain.

Unable to keep his eyes open, Marcus fell into a doze on the couch.

The unhappy murmuring increased in strength, the voices drawing nearer. With a great effort he opened his eyes—and felt his heart stop in horror.

Before him, as if conjured by his thoughts, the masks of the ancestors were gliding above the atrium floor, winging toward him like a flock of angry ravens.

He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs that clouded his thoughts. But he could not banish the vision of the masks before him. Like unhappy spirits fleeing their tombs, they hovered in the air, floating in ragged ranks across the atrium.

With a shiver of horror, he realized the voices he heard came from their throatless mouths. Though he could not catch the sense of their words, Marcus heard them calling his name, their voices murderously angry.

He tried to rise, to shout for the servants, make them come and send these masks back to their places. But neither his voice nor limbs obeyed his will.

As he struggled to cry out, the masks underwent a macabre transformation. Beneath their shadowy features, living flesh began to materialize. Simulated colors took on the warm hues of life. Terra-cotta mouths began to move, brows to furrow in anger.

Anger at what? Marcus searched his conscience for some heedless act of impiety that might have so offended the ancestors that they would leave their places in the shadow world and return to their earthly home to judge him.

Like swirling smoke freezing in place, the ghastly forms took shape, dressed in men's togas and matron's gowns, their owners shouting, some with violent gestures and upraised fists, all speaking in the veiled language of the dead.

The spirits crept closer, gathering around the couch on which Marcus lay. For the length of a deep breath, the encircling shades looked down on the young nobleman with their fathomless eyes. Then they knelt, took up his couch, slowly raised it onto their shoulders, and began to bear him away across the atrium. The sense of their words became clearer to him: betrayal. Betrayal of the genius of his family and of its gods. Betrayal of a promise made long ago but left unfulfilled.

What family obligation, Marcus asked himself, should have passed over his parents and waited for him to keep? It made no sense. Yet the spirits insisted he had in some unknown way neglected his duties, betrayed his very Romanness as negligently as if he were of another race, another people.

His mind disordered by terror, Marcus could not at first see in what direction the spirits were taking him. Then he saw the entrance hall, its bare walls studded with the empty hooks from which the masks had wandered. Beyond it, the villa’s front door opened into the annihilating darkness.

Before him, just beyond the door, stood a formless shadow—Janus, the two-faced god of comings and goings, beginnings and endings. Behind Janus appeared another figure, his father, reciting a funeral oration, his face lined with anger and grief.

Marcus struggled to speak, to appeal to this stern man he knew so well and yet hardly at all. He tried to cry out, could make no sound.

He understood now, the ancestors were carrying him out the door of his home, bearing him in the traditional manner of a corpse, feet first, so that his wandering spirit could not find its way back.

In the shadowy realm beyond the courtyard, Marcus caught a glimpse of another figure—no, two figures. A boar snuffled in the distance, as if waiting for him. And a woman, beautiful beyond words, with long black hair and lips red as plums.

With a final effort he struggled to call out, "No! Please! I will keep the promise. Only tell me what it is." But he could produce nothing more than a strangled cry.

 

 

Marcus sat bolt upright in his bed, the echo of his shout fading in the dark room, his heart pounding, sweat running down his face.

“Marcus, you’ll frighten me to death.” In the dim light he saw Pompeiia beside him in the bed, clutching the bedclothes to her neck. She put an arm around his shoulders and let the bedclothes drop. The aromas of her perfume and the warmth of her flesh eased his terror. “You’ve had a bad dream. Here, come closer.” She patted his head as if he were a child, unmanning him. “You’re all right now.”

Still possessed by his nightmare, he could not reply.

Pompeiia smiled. “I know how to make bad dreams go away.” She drew his hand to her breast.

Marcus fought to slow his breath, tell himself that it had only been a bad dream. But in his heart he knew that nothing was more real than a dream.

“Is it morning yet?” he asked.

“It’s almost dawn. But we have time.”

Marcus shook his head. “My father must have come back hours ago. You have to go.” He staggered out of bed and threw a tunic over his head.

“But how will I get back? It’s miles to town.”

Marcus plucked some coins from a bedside table. “I’ll tell my slave to come up. He’ll take you out through the kitchens. Once you’re on the road someone will be happy to take you into Ravenna for this.”

He tossed the coins beside her on the bed, but the young girl’s mouth turned down.

“I didn’t make you happy,” she said.

Marcus thought she might cry. “No, Pompeiia, don’t …” He gave her two more coins and kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t worry. I’ll tell Calpurnia that you please me and that I’ll visit her place again when I’m in the city. I’ll ask for you particularly. I promise. But now you have to go.”

He dashed downstairs, knowing he was late. His father would already be outside, angry and waiting for him.

As he staggered out of the villa, he knew that the terrifying vision of his ancestors had been no mere dream, but a visitation, as real in spirit as it was shadowy in form—its purpose wholly obscure to him.

 

 

 

A small altar stood in the ancient oak grove beyond the villa, only a few paces from the marble tomb in which generations of Scaevola bones were interred. The carvings on the altar's sides had turned green with age and its base lay buried under layers of humus so thick that the two hooded observing rites at the altar needed to stoop slightly.

The two men turned as Marcus approached, pulling back the folds of their togas with which they covered their heads during religious ceremonies. His father's close-cropped graying hair, his lean, stern face always appeared to Marcus as grave and purposeful as the masks of the ancestors. He half realized that the unease he felt when passing the masks reflected the unease he felt in his father’s presence.

Lately, the deep lines that creased his father's face, the sagging flesh under his eyes and the paleness under his tan had carried a message of mortality that Marcus tried not to think of. For now, though, the anger in his father's blue eyes was proof enough of his vitality.

"You've interrupted the rites, Marcus. The gods no longer attend us. You come here late, dressed in a dirty tunic rather than a toga, your face unwashed.” He turned away from his son, but his anger drove him back. "It's not for my marriage we're enquiring of the gods, but yours—"

"Father—"

"Be quiet!” With this shout his father's shoulders sagged and he closed his eyes. When he opened them again the anger was gone. His voice was calm, almost relieved. "The auspices can't be read now. Go back inside. Put on clean clothes and go see your mother.” His father turned to the priest. "I'll see that you're taken back to town."

The old priest bowed his head. "As you wish, Atticus Publius."

The two men turned their backs on Marcus and walked toward the villa, their breath steaming in the morning air.

Marcus walked over to the altar, puzzled that his father's anger about the interrupted rites had so quickly cooled.

A wisp of smoke rose from the smoldering grain in the center of the altar. Next to the grain lay the body of the sacrificed lamb. Though the sheep’s flesh was pink and fresh, its shrunken liver was black with disease.

These were the auspices for his marriage to Cornelia, the daughter of his father’s closest friend. By arriving late and unclean he had, to his father’s relief, negated the rites. The lamb and its ominous message meant nothing now.