Consumed By Fire

"In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni." (We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire.)-unknown

I. Rosa rubicundior, lilio candidior, omnibus formosior, semper in te glorior.

You miss the gardens most of all. You have a garden here, Lydon has seen to that, but not the old ones you spent your life in, the smells as familiar as the vision of Pompeii to the sighted people around you. Those smelled sweet, like the richest perfume, a gentle, tender scent that wrapped around you like comforting arms. Now you only smell Pompeii burning within each petal in your garden.

The ash doesn't wash out of your hair. You reek of it and no amount of washing erases it, permeating every breath you take, the food you eat, and the garments you wear. Somehow it's burning within you like the flames of Isis, mingled with the scent of blood and ash and poisoned air, of his sweat and your tears as you cling together, his arms wrapped around you and your face against his chest. You think you'll never be clean of it, and you feel sick inside, only comforted by those arms that hold you so tenderly and brush away the tears.

Rome is too large and foreign and you're lost here, afraid to venture more than a few steps from the house lest the baby cry and you not be able to find your way back to him. Only when Lydon is there do you walk around the city, hands clutching his arm as he leads you slowly past strange scents and loud voices that swirl around you until you can't breathe, heart pounding. Those are the times when he draws you against him, lifts you up in his arms with the ease of a father holding a child, nestles you against his heart and shelters you against the storm.

You have survived, and unlike the others you have not lost everything. You are a stranger here but you have found more than you ever knew you had. You are free and loved, and that is enough.

II. Libertas quae sera tamen.

The blood doesn't wash off your hands.

There's always blood here, for Rome is seeped in it, the gates laid with the death of Remus, and human sacrifices offered in the arena for the pleasure of it's citizens. The air reeks of death that no amount of perfume and incense can mask. Every time you pass the arena and hear the crowds screaming you see it all, the blood and sand, Glaucus's face looking up at you, eyes silent and still, waiting for the death blow. The memories overwhelm you, choking the very life out of your body.

At night Nydia takes your hands in her's, runs her fingers over every line, feeling the scars no eyes can see but she can still find, the crevices and cracks worn into skin and bone from the years of holding trident and sword as you killed men, so many you can't remember all the names and faces. They bleed together on your feet and over the sand, lost in the people's shouts as another gladiator falls. Sometimes she cries when she feels all the scars, hundreds of them etched into your body, all the ones you hid all those years, the first carved when you were a slave, the rest after you won your freedom by running your sword through other men.

You comfort her, then, for you are the strong one. And yet she is stronger than you ever imagined, this fragile wisp of a woman who turned back from the ships that carried the survivors and returned to the city to find you. It was she who gave you the strength to leave the body of your father, she who carried you in spirit for you to reach the ships. She loves you, as you have loved her for almost as long as you can remember, and the wonder of it fills you with an awe that crowds out the nightmares and the stains of blood.

Here, you have been given a chance to be reborn. You have Nydia, and the baby, a family you never dreamed you'd have, and your hands are finally clean, calloused with honest labor. You will never be a wealthy man but it means nothing to you. You are content to hold them the way Diomed held his gold.

At long last, you have found your peace.

III. Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas.

You can't seem to stop painting their faces. Sooner or later they all appear, Lepidus, Petrus, Clodius, Julia, and all the others, in perfect detail and vivid color, spilled wine and golden bracelets, warm flesh and ruby lips.

It's ironic, somehow, that you, the artist who once painted the men and women of Pompeii as gods and goddesses now show them as they lived and died, fragile mortals destroyed by the very gods they fancied themselves to be. You don't show the ash and smoke and flames in your art but it haunts it like quiet ghosts, lurking in the smiles and eyes of the faces of the dead.

You remember new faces every day, a child in the market, a slave you passed, the ones who shoved you aside, and the ones who treated you with kindness. They're gone, all of them, buried.

You could let them go, perhaps, a sip of wine, a little forgetfulness, but you don't let yourself try. You must remember, must tell the people you meet the story the only way you know how, through your art. Someday perhaps it will be forgotten, a myth, a whisper in the darkness, and nothing more.

You cannot let it be forgotten, as if by forgetting it will erase any sense you could make of it all. In some way, holding onto the memories keeps them alive, makes their deaths have some meaning, no matter how obscure and lost to you.

And so you paint Pompeii and all those lost, in silent witness, and pray, to whatever gods may listen, that someday when you are gone, someone will remember.

IV. Vox clamantis in deserto.

You have survived for a reason.

It is a gift you never expected, one perhaps you would not have even chosen if given a choice. In your cell, with the lions roaring around you, you had prepared for death, with little fear, only trust. You had accepted it, passing the moments in silence.

You did not pray for deliverance, only for those in the arena, for Lydon and Glaucus, for a miracle for them. Even as the walls around you crumbled, setting you free, you did not expect or even hope for it. But you have survived.

After all these years, God has given you a family, not only a boy to raise as your son, but all the rest, men, women, children, babies. They are the ones plucked from the fire, a remnant preserved to do His work. You are blessed, in a way you had never dared dream, and no matter how difficult the road ahead, you will endure.

It will be difficult you know, with the sword raised against you, and the flames waiting to touch your soul, but you will accept it without questioning. In the end, God willing, you will die as you have lived, with your faith as your shield against all that may destroy the body and not wound the spirit.

V. Cuius est solum eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos.

The sunlight hurts your eyes.

You're accustomed to the heat and flames of the room where you spent most of your young life but not the sunlight. It's strange and somehow frightening to you and when you go out you hold onto Olinthus's hand and squeeze your eyes tightly shut. You know in time you will be able to bear it but for now it only hurts.

Rome is a strange place, like an entire world compared to the room that was once your whole world, cool like the breeze that sometimes drifted over you at night, providing some meager comfort. Here there is enough food for you, a soft place to sleep, and only kind words. You study the Holy Words, memorize them, and one day you will carry on Olinthus's work. It is how you thank God for your survival, your life, and your freedom.

VI. Caput inter nubila condit.

You have changed.

You've grown older, a man and not the youth you were before you set foot in Pompeii, before you almost died, and before you knew the depth of your love for Ione. You smile at yourself, shaking your head at the man who couldn't find enough beautiful women being won and taken by one woman, and only one. She's your's now, as so many others have been, but she is the last, forever. You love her, as you've never loved a living soul, as if your heart has been placed inside her body.

Against all odds you have both survived. Here in Rome you are still very much a stranger, a Greek in a place you are at conflict with, like a newborn thrust into a cold room, uncertain and alone. But you are not alone, not with Ione, with friends who have become like brothers and sisters to you.

You have accepted the God of Olinthus, and have joined his work, spreading the words you have learned through the darkness of Rome. You lack his thunder but not his passion. Here you speak quietly, and find comfort when others listen.

You have changed, you know, but not as some may think, changed from what you were. In some small way you have become better.

VII. Ignis aurum probat.

The screams never leave you.

You can't stop hearing them, the cries and pleas of those left behind to burn with Pompeii, can't stop the guilt that clings to your throat like the taste of ash, guilt for surviving when so many perished.

You tell yourself you committed no sin. To survive is no crime. And yet it eats at you as you remember all those who died, as you laugh, and love, and find joy with Glaucus, when all those you knew, those you spoke with, from gentle, weeping Chloe, to your brother Antonius, are gone, some lost to the flames of Pompeii, others before.

It is Glaucus who saves you, for without him the loss of your brother, your faith, and all you ever knew would surely destroy you. In a way you can't fully explain he has become your whole world, your one anchor. He's your light and quiet words of comfort, a strength you draw from when the days wear you down like your feet against sharp rocks.

You are stronger, because of him and all you endured. You will never be as strong as Nydia or the others, but he loves you, and you think that is enough to survive on.

I. (Nydia) Redder than the rose, whiter than the lilies, fairer than all things, I do ever glory in thee. II. (Lydon) Freedom, which is however late. III. (Philos) "Vanity, vanity, everything [is] vanity"-Vulgate, Ecclesiastes, 1:2. IV. (Olinthus) "The voice of one shouting in the wilderness"-Isaiah 40 V. (Catus) For whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to the sky and down to the depths. VI. (Glaucus) "He plunges [his] head in the clouds."-Virgil's Aeneid VII. (Ione) Fire tests gold.