You’re walking down the Lungotevere one day, your last day in Rome, in fact, when a woman stops you. She smiles, a bright smile, and invites you, in English, into her home. You’re about to ignore her and keep going. But she puts her hand on your arm with a strength that doesn’t seem as though it should reside in that slender body, and she looks at you, and suddenly you have to know, even though it’s the beginning of every ghost story, even if you end up murdered (and for what? an iPhone and a couple of euros?), because adding in Rome makes everything seem more appealing, even death.
You turn and look at her more closely. She’s slightly shorter than you, elegantly slim and elegantly dressed, in a coat that’s too heavy for the day. Her blonde hair is cut short.
“Why?” you ask.
“Why did you agree to come?” she answers.
You follow her down the sunsetting road, below the flocks of swallows that swoop and swarm, forming massive constellations in the blue-grey sky. She takes you to the catacombs, and even now you don’t hesitate, because whatever happens, you have to know. You’ve read this story. Its heroine rarely does well. And you don’t care; you’ve spent a week in Rome, and it’s been beautiful, and everything you wanted, and if you’re going to die, let it be here and not at home, amid the ruins of a life that should have been brilliant and was slowly fading out into ash.
She turns, and smiles, and a late sunbeam glances off her white teeth. She has been talking, chattering really, a long calming narration of the things you’ve passed—the Castel Sant’Angelo; the restaurant that has the best pasta in the city, even though it’s made it into none of the tourist guides; various bookstores—and sometimes, you think, things that were there once and no longer are.
This is no time to hesitate. It’s foolish, of course, but you’ve never been cautious. You follow her into the darkness. Can you see? you don’t ask her. She takes your hand, with a strange gentleness, as though she’s trying not to crush an egg. You lose track of the turns she takes you on, and the darkness turns from violet to black. You can feel the walls of the catacombs close around you; you reach out and touch the rough stone, to make sure it’s there. She’s stopped talking now. All that’s real is the pressure of her hand on yours and the oppressive darkness.
You feel more air around you now, and a slight movement in it. She stops and claps her hands. In response a dim light glows. You look around. The remnants of every era of history are here—an 18th-century baroque disaster of a bed, some paintings you’re sure are genuine Renaissance, heavy wooden chairs from a medieval stage play, a mosaic floor laid with care by some ancient artist.
“What—” you begin.
She holds up a hand, and you are silent.
“I am weary,” she says.
“What are you?” you say.
She smiles, and even the dim light catches on her teeth.
“I am Memory,” she says, “and History, made flesh.”
“That doesn’t answer the question,” you say. “What are you?”
She opens her mouth fully and you see the points on her teeth.
“Oh,” you say.
“I don’t want to harm you,” she says. “I want to talk to you. I want to tell you stories. I want to make your last day in Rome a memorable one.”
“You’ve done that already,” you say.
She laughs. “Ask me for a story.”
“Tell me a story.”
“I need something to go on. What do you want to hear about?”
“Tell me something no one else knows.”
“You’ve seen it,” she says, but now she’s following an ancient thread of memory.
Once upon a time in the Subura there was a girl. She was like all the other girls. Her hair was brown, and her eyes were brown, and her skin, touched all day by the sun, was brown. Her name was Terentia. She had two brothers, Marcus and Gaius. They had no mother, and their father was off serving in a legion, so Gaius took care of her, and let her run wild.
This was in the Year of the Tribunate of Papirius, Fidenas, Mamercinus, Lanatus and Poplicola, or 367 Ab Urbe Condita, or 387 Before Christ. That summer was oppressive: the air was heavy not only with humidity but fear. The Gauls were coming.
Terentia was not unaware of the Gallic advance, but she had no fear of it. Marcus, her older brother, was in the legions defending Rome, and if he was there, there was nothing to worry about. So she played in the street with the other urchins, and gave no thought to the future.
I had been watching her for a long time. She was perfect: she had no family, not really. Gaius was careless, and I was sure Marcus was doomed to fall. When she disappeared, no one would notice. A thousand girls disappeared in the Subura every month. No one would look for her. Perhaps Gaius would, half-heartedly, and Marcus would be sad when he got home and Gaius told him that his sister was gone.
On July 18th, the Battle of the Allia took place, and the fears of the citizens were realized. Terentia saw the city aflame and now she was afraid. She ran through the street screaming for her brothers, for the absent Gaius and the more absent Marcus.
Her headlong rush brought her only to danger: she ran straight into a massive Gaul, his sword bloody and his eyes mad. He caught her up in his left hand and drew the sword back.
I swept down from the sky.
The Gaul turned to look at me, Terentia still squirming in his hand.
“Put her down,” I said.
“She is my prize,” he said.
“Put her down,” I repeated.
“Will you take her from me?”
I gave a sharp nod. One of Terentia’s kicking feet hit him square in the chest, but he did not even flinch. He laughed.
“Go, woman,” he said, “or I’ll take you too.”
I caught him by the right wrist and pulled him down to the cobblestones. In shock, he released Terentia, who did not run.
Well, I thought, I was going to feed in any case. I pushed the Gaul down on his back. I could smell his fear, now, and see it in his eyes.
“What are you going to do to me?” he asked.
I kissed him, and he never spoke again. He lay as though dead in the street, and I put my teeth to the vein in the neck where the life pulsed. And when I was done, it no longer pulsed there. He lay pale and dead, and Terentia came out of the shadows. She was braver than I had ever been, even if it was foolish.
“You saved me,” she said.
I nodded. The Gaul’s blood raced in my veins, his fury combating the need to sleep after feeding. My senses were even sharper than usual; I could hear the whine of every mosquito in a two-mile radius and count the drops of water in the air around me.
“Why?” she asked, and her voice was like thunder in my ears.
“I was going to feed on you,” I said. We cannot lie, not when asked a direct question. “But when I saw you helpless I—I felt pity.”
“What are you?” she asked.
“I am,” I said, because they did not have a word for what I was.
“But what?” she said, looking up at me with big, round eyes. “Are you a lar?”
“No,” I said, and because I could not bear to be near that small live thing, I turned and left.
“And?” you say. “What happened to Terentia?”
The woman shrugs. “She died, I suppose. Of malaria, maybe. Or old age. There are so many things to die of.”
“But—” you begin.
“But you thought this was going to be about how I learned humanity? How I became her lar? How I watched her grow and thrive and saved her time after time?”
You gulp, and the dim light glints off her teeth again.
“I’m afraid, my dear, that you’ve much misunderstood this story.”
“Are you going to—” you make a motion toward your own throat. You feel your pulse rise, as though your blood yearns to be drunk, and you put a hand on your jugular.
“No,” she says, and she’s told you she can’t lie when asked a direct question, so you believe her. Her grey eyes light with grim amusement. “Go on. I’m sure there’s more you’d like to hear.”
“Not if it’s as unsatisfying as the last story.”
She smiles, this time with absolutely no humour, and half closes her eyes, like a cat. “You’re bold for a woman in your position,” she says. You’re silent, and the words fall into the muffled silence of the room and are lost on the floor. “I like that,” she says, after a moment that lasts a little too long.
“A satisfying story,” she muses. “What is a satisfying story? A rise, a reign, a fall? These are the kinds of stories that only exist in fiction. The world doesn’t care about narrative.”
“I know,” you say, your throat dry.
“And still you want satisfaction.”
“Yes,” you say.
“I can give you blood,” she says. “I can tell you of the times I—yes, I—fought in Vespasian’s arena. I can make you smell the metal of blood, my own and others’, on the sand. I can tell you of the times that I felt fear. But I cannot give you satisfaction.”
“Try,” you say.
“Persistent, aren’t you?” she says. She stands and paces. “Very well.”
I was in love once. I don’t suggest it. She was a fellow gladiator—we fought as a team. It amused the people to see her, tall and powerful and dark-haired, with her axe flying over my head, and me, slim—as you see me—and quick, my shortsword darting out from under her protective circle to kill, again and again. We are not in any history. The rolls of gladiators were written on papyrus that has long since perished.
She was a barbarian, from the wilds of Scythia. Her Latin was good, as was the Latin of many a barbarian, out of necessity. She chose to be a gladiator; it was no shame, to her, to fight and kill, even in such a shameful place as the arena. And she was beautiful, like a panther—I nearly missed a kill or two as I watched the muscles of her back and arms slide over each other, the grace of her movement, the flight of her hair.
We lived in whispers, in the spaces between games. We had not known each other when we were first thrown together—indeed, we were both supposed to be fighting beasts separately, when we found ourselves back to back, swords out. But after that fight, we were always together.
Until one day, when we woke, tangled in each other, and around us in the barracks was a silence. I cannot describe what it was to walk through that awful silence, with people we’d thought were friends, as much as one can be friends with a fellow gladiator, turning their backs on us even as they smiled.
She saw it first, and howled. And then I looked, and saw, and was struck dumb. I could not, if I had a thousand tongues, if the Muses themselves stood behind me, if I had Sappho’s pen, express the anguish of that moment. That moment, in which I could scarcely read, in which my eyes were dim, and my own blood thundered in my ears, and my heart was clenched with misery.
We were to fight to the death in the next games.
This is who she was: she did not change her demeanour towards me. I think she knew, then, that I would win—could not lose.
“We’ve had a good run, Corvina,” she told me. “We should have known it could not last.”
She didn’t even begin to plan an escape. Why would she? She courted death, and I never knew why.
The day of the games was bright and hot. Stripped to the waist though we were, I was sweating. The sword was loose in my hand.
She bent and kissed my forehead. “Let’s give them a show,” she said, as the elevator took us up to the floor of the arena.
And we did. The crowd liked to see blood as much as they liked to see death. I could have killed her almost instantly, but I knew that that wasn’t what they wanted. So I darted in and out, and slashed at her arms, so that she bled, and her blood fell on my tongue; and she could not land a blow on me. At last she mouthed please. So I pushed her back, and she fell. My blade at her throat, I looked up at the Emperor’s box, and waited. Silence fell, the screaming silence of twenty thousand throats holding their breath. A slow silhouette in the light of the sun, the Emperor held his thumb even, and then, glacially, turned it upwards.
“Do it,” she said.
And my sword plunged into her throat, and there were no cheers. There was only her blood on the sand, and the Emperor, turning away, trailing purple like blood.
“Satisfying?” she asks.
“Yes,” you say. “I suppose. Did you ever find out why you had to fight?”
Her eyes dim, look inward. “No,” she says. “Someone, I don’t know who, asked for it.”
“And why didn’t the Emperor spare her? She’d fought well.”
“It was Domitian,” she says. “He had no reason to be kind, and he rarely was.”
“It was two thousand years ago,” she replies.
“I know,” you say. “You see it as though it was yesterday.”
“You’re more perceptive than I’d thought,” she says, with a flicker of a smile. “So—are you satisfied?”
You tilt your head to the side. “Yes,” you say. “I am.”
“Good,” she says. “One more story.”
There was, once, a woman who came to Rome. She didn’t know what she was looking for. She’d read all the Roman historians, and seen the pictures of the Colosseum, and all the debris of the Renaissance. She didn’t think she’d find herself; she’d read Horace, of course. “Caelum, non animum, mutant qui trans mare currunt—they change their skies and not their souls, those who rush across the sea.” She would be who she was, but in Rome. She had to see it for herself, and then—and then. She didn’t know what was left after that. A return home, with the memories of Rome tucked under her heart, so that she could live on them, a brief sojourn in colour between long sepia days?
On her last day in Rome, she met a stranger. Fearless, or careless of fear, she followed her into the depths of the world, and there was given three stories. Two of them were ancient, and had their ends long ago, one running out like a spring into dead leaves, its source and end obscure, the other bubbling up like blood from a cut throat. And the third—the third. The third did not yet have an end. It reached into the future, even if she did not, herself, know where it would go. She could follow the strands of it, trailing away like blood in water, into distant years.
Whether it would be glorious or dull, an end in spectacle or in a nameless grave, she could not tell. But she knew, as the stranger told her tales, as night fell over the Trastevere, that what she had been told was true: that the world did not care for narrative. Her life was not a story. Her life was a puzzle, the pieces (Rome, mountains, a tiny apartment lit by a single lamp, a job, the fall of a dress on a bright day) fitting into each other and leading, slowly, slowly, into the future.
“Are you satisfied now?”
“I am not here to dispense wisdom.”
“It’s time for you to go now. To rejoin the world.”
You nod, silently.
She takes your hand. The tunnels she leads you through are completely black; she doesn’t make a false step. When you emerge, it is into a violet twilight. Over the Tiber, which swirls below you green and white, and vigorous as blood running through live veins, the swallows eddy and swarm and furl, a scroll leading out into the darkness of an unknown world.
Story copyright © 2018 by A.J. Hammer
Artwork copyright © 2018 by Carrion House
A.J Hammer has a B.A. in Classics from Princeton University and has worked in the field of education policy. She used to be a speed skater, but now writes fantasy. “Satia Te Sanguine” is her first published short story, and she is honoured that it is appearing in Lackington’s.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.