About Your Mother…
She hears her daughter's screams, and she wants to scream herself. All the sounds, sights, and smells of the birthing room bring her back to her own labours. First a daughter, then a son. A son that died before he drew breath. Then another son. This one would live; this one would be Caesar.
When she thought about the day she had given birth to Octavian, Atia wondered whether she could have ever imagined the man he would become. She of course had dreamed he would wear the laurels on his head, be crowned Emperor of Rome, reach the highest levels of human achievement and power. Atia had wanted everything for her son, though she had wanted even more for herself. But what she, as a woman, could never had, she wanted her son to achieve.
As a woman. Atia had never felt so deeply how wretched it truly was. How she and Octavia had been used by Octavian made her blood boil. She would never forgive him for taking away the only thing she had ever wanted: control over her own life.
"To be a woman is to be truly cursed." Atia said this to herself, but loud enough for the others to hear.
Octavia, who by now was resting from her most recent series of contractions, sighed. "To be a woman in this family certainly is." She was partially in jest, but there was enough resentment in her tone to make it clear that she believed what she said.
"Oh yes, it's all my fault, I know. I should have strangled your brother while he was in his crib. I did not know what a monster he would become. One has so little control over such things… or perhaps too much control. It never ends up as you planned, you know? Nothing in life ever does."
Atia sighed, falling back in her chair. She felt utterly defeated by life, and could not find the energy she had once had to fight against fate. She knew quite well that the gods were laughing at her. How had she presumed? And would her transgressions ever be forgiven? Would she ever have peace? She had once wanted power, love… now all she really wanted was peace.
"I certainly never planned on this." Octavia said this as her next contraction began, this one much more intense than the others had been. She cried out in pain, and when Atia tried to wipe the sweat off her forehead, she pushed her away. When the contraction was over, she looked at Atia, who was sulking in her chair.
"I suppose you blame me for this as well." Atia did not want to fight, but could think of no other way of deflecting the incalculable guilt she felt about how she had used Octavia. She only understood how cruel she had been because she had been treated the same way by her son. That kind of cruelty, she had learned, as easy to inflict, but devastating to endure. "I always acted for the best, you know. It turned out for the worst, of course, but I could not have known. You hate me anyway, I know. I would, too. In fact, I do."
Octavia was angry, but not at her mother. "At first I did blame you. I wanted to curse you; I wished I had the strength to hurt you like you had hurt me. It hardly seems worth it now. Hating you is not going to bring Agrippa back to me, or Antony to you. And would we want them back? After all that has happened? I do not hate them either… it is pointless to hate men. They control you and desert you whether you love them or not. The men who we have loved have hurt us the most. What does it matter now if we hate them?"
Octavia tried not to let the bitterness she felt about her lot pour over her like a wave. She wanted this child to be born into a world without the added burden of a mother who did not want to be a mother. Octavia didn't know whether or not she wanted to a be a mother; though she had always wanted a child, it now seemed a mockery of her ideal to be giving birth under such circumstances.
Octavia's birth pangs intensified. Each contraction brought her closer and closer to understanding her mother's deep resentment of her role as wife and mother. And though Octavia was in many ways nothing like Atia, becoming a mother made her understand Atia more than ever, becoming closer to her than she had thought possible. Her hand, which had been resting on her stomach, dropped to her side, her fist clenched in pain. Then, to her surprise, she felt her mother's hand in hers, squeezing tightly. Octavia looked over at her mother and squeezed back, using the pressure of her mother's hand to divert the pain of the contractions.
"The women of the Julii have always had hard labours. Bearing the future Emperor is not an easy task."
"You think it will be a boy, then?"
"Of course. Women must always think they are going to have sons, or it will never happen. Every time I was pregnant, I was convinced I was having a boy. Which made your appearance in the world quite intolerable." Atia's humour never seemed to leave her, even when everything else about her seemed blank, defeated.
"I do not wish for a son." Octavia said this quietly, almost as if in prayer.
Atia was ready with an astonished reply, but for once paused and did not give the easy response which was even then on her lips. She paused, knowing the depth of the water she was wading into and considering how much deeper she should go. But she was never one to turn away, and although she knew it was not the right thing to say, she allowed herself to speak the words: "His father would not want to hear you say that."
Octavia winced—not in pain, at least not in physical pain, but because of her mother's words. "His father—and who is that? My husband? Glabius is long dead. Antony? Agrippa? Where are they? This child has no father."
Atia was silent. The mere mention of Antony's name was like a knife in her breast, and as she thought of the possibility that her daughter was even now giving birth to his child made she felt sick at heart. She thought of the last time she had seen him, his eyes as he said his last goodbye… would she see those eyes staring up at her when she looked upon her first grandchild? The thought was too horrible to bear.
The midwife, pretending not to hear the conversation between mother and daughter, took advantage of the silence to speak. "It's almost time, Domina. One last push."
Octavia began to panic. She was not ready for this child; she wished in that one instant that she had never been pregnant, and in the same terrible instant prayed to the gods to kill her child before it ever drew its first breath. As the pain of the last contraction began, Octavia began crying hysterically and screaming for the end to come, one way or the other.
Atia was helpless to spare her daughter the pain she was now going through. She wished and prayed to the gods that she might take the pain upon herself; she was afraid that Octavia's spirit would prove weak at the last moment and that both mother and child would die.
Octavia was even now slumping down as she became exhausted in both body and spirit. Atia gripped her by the shoulders, bracing her daughter against the pain and bearing her up so that she might give one final push. Octavia pushed—then a moment of almost complete silence until at last the baby was brought screaming into the world.
The baby's cry brought Octavia out of her hysteria. She became very quiet, but it was not the quiet of exhaustion. On the contrary, Octavia was sitting upright, no longer supported by her mother. She was calm, trying to catch a glimpse of her baby as it was examined by the midwife.
"Is it a boy?" Atia asked, half-hopeful, half-fearful.
"It's a girl, domina. A beautiful, healthy girl." Atia looked at Octavia and smiled. The baby was swaddled as she still screamed and cried. Finally, she was placed in her mother's arms, but still she cried.
"Not a very happy little beast is it?"
"Mother! I'm sure you came into this word kicking and screaming, too." Octavia's face was flushed and her cheeks damp from tears and sweat, yet as she beamed down on her child, she looked more beautiful than any alabaster goddess.
"As a matter of fact I did. Or so the story goes." Atia wished she could tell Octavia how proud she was of her, but the words stuck in her throat. Instead of saying anything she simply smiled, for the first time in months, hoping her daughter would know what she was feeling without her having to say anything.
Atia took the baby from her daughter as the final pains of the labour began—the bloody and painful afterbirth that claimed the lives of many Roman women, who had used up all their strength in the delivery of the child. Octavia seemed hardly to flinch through the intense pain, and Atia felt that perhaps her daughter had inherited some of her fire.
When Octavia was quiet again, Atia brought her the baby. She had been staring into the child's eyes, trying to discover within them the deep brown of Antony's eyes staring back at her. But the baby's eyes were bright green, flashing with life and energy. She did not see Agrippa in the child, either. Perhaps it truly was a fatherless child.
"You must name her Antonia of course." Atia tried not to wince as she pronounced the name.
Octavia looked up at her mother, silently acknowledging how difficult this was for her mother while also trying to put the past pain and bitterness behind. "It's not a bad name, really. Little Antonia." Octavia was now also staring into the baby's eyes, like Atia trying to discern her parentage, trying to find in her eyes those of her lost love. But Octavia found something quite different.
"She has your eyes, mother. She looks like you."
Atia did not know whether to laugh or cry. In the end, she did both. "Just what the world needs, another Atia."
Atia looked at the child again, and she saw her own two eyes looking back at her. She wondered whether this girl would find life any easier than Atia had found it. She sincerely hoped so.
"Another woman of the Julii is born," Octavia mused, looking down on her now-sleeping infant. "Gods help us."