First Cynthia caught me with her fulminating eyes. O me miserum! Captive and collared, a fool never before touched. Now she, trailing charred Coan silk, her curls breathing cold perfume, leans over my bed: We shall lie together, you and I.
I buried you ten years ago, Cynthia. Or was it ten days?
You should have brought me hyacinths! You should have been there, Cynthia. Oh, I forgot: you were. I always did hate your slave Lygdamus. I remember that too. Burn your poems. Chase all the girls you want. Soon, she says, fading, soon…
She snapped at me like the living woman. There are no poems, Cynthia, none for you. I sing such solemn songs now. Civil war tombs and overturned Etruscan hearths. No. None of that either. Gods and their origins, my dura domina. Sweet letters from sad wives to stern soldier husbands. The crashing victory of the Princeps, you know the one. Where in all this, Cynthia, would I find words to praise you?
You, Maecenas, my patron, my friend, you remember Cynthia. My light, my life, my venal dove. How I loved her. How she tormented me. The ring I gave her, burnt black on her finger. Long nights sobbing on her doorstep. You remember her hair, her silks, her sparkling eyes.
Sometimes I think I imagined her. Perfide! she cries. Ingrate!
This is what I wrote: sunt aliquid manes.
There are spirits. Death is not the end.
“It’s a curse,” says Canidia, and Folia, nodding her hoary head, says, “A curse for certain. Who’ve you upset, mister? Was it your girlfriend? Your dead girlfriend?” She leans so close I can smell her rotten teeth in the dark. “Did you chase other girls? Boys? Spend your money on whores? Gamble it away? Piss off her mother?”
Under the branches, Veia plies her mattock. The buried boy is squealing; the midnight moon, snared, straining, has been dragged down almost to the grass. Folia pokes my chest with her talon. “Come on, out with it. What’d you do?”
“I didn’t bring her hyacinths,” I say. “I didn’t put on a black toga.”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Canidia. “Very likely, I don’t think.”
Folia’s talon prods harder. “We don’t lift curses, mister. That’s not our line. You want a love spell? You want your girl burning for you? The live one, not the dead one. I got screech owls and toads and a starved boy’s liver right here.”
“No! How do I shake it?”
They put their heads together. “Maybe—” mumbles Canidia, and Folia mutters, “She won’t—” and Canidia murmurs, “But she might—” and I say, “Who?”
“You got a problem for Erichtho, mister,” Folia says. “And it’s your lucky day. She’s just arrived in Rome.”
They turn astounded eyes on each other. “He doesn’t know who Erichtho is!” says Canidia, and Folia exclaims, “‘Who’s Erichtho?’ he says!” and even old Veia, leaning over her digging, hisses through her grey moustache.
“Well? Who is she?”
“Only the best necromancer in Thessaly!” Canidia says. “Only the woman who makes the gods come when she calls! Who did Magnus’s pirate son go to when he wanted to know the future? Erichtho, that’s who!”
I flare hot and cold. “That’s a lie. Where do you get off, you old hag, calling Sextus Pompeius a pirate?”
“Ooo-ooh!” they chorus, and Folia gnashes her rotten teeth. “Says the man who sent Apollo to Actium!” she mocks. “What, are you going to honour the men who lost the civil war next? Sing paeans to the Princeps’ dead enemies? Is it Lucius Antonius and his sister-in-law you’ll be praising? Your displaced Perusine ancestors?”
“Get away, you bitch! How dare you!”
“‘While Caesar is being praised, I pray even you, Jupiter—’” squawks Canidia, quoting maliciously, and I, backing into the dark, spit out my desperate prayer: “‘I have sung enough wars!’”
Bella satis cecini. I have sung enough wars.
You remember, Maecenas, when the only war I sang was one Cynthia waged against me. You remember how white I was, how the tears drenched my cheeks. How I kissed her feet a thousand times, a hundred and then a thousand times again, and still was not forgiven.
Acanthis, the ancient brothel-madam who knows where Erichtho lives, says I should give the girl more gifts. “Is her neck nibbled? Has she found someone richer?” Dis Pater, the golden god down in the dark, is richer than any mortal. “Your hands are empty, Sextus. This will not do.” It’s not you I want, you old whore. What do you take me for? How can I buy off the dead?
Let my enemies win dull girls, I said once. With you, no peace will please me.
I think I wrote pax. I think.
Lygdamus ladles wine endlessly for Phyllis and Teia in the garden. “Lie down, my light,” says Phyllis, clattering her castanets, and Teia, merrily drunk on unmixed Methymnian, says, “My life, lie down.”
I take my place between them. “How pale you are, Sextus,” says Phyllis. “Are you ill?” Her patting hand slips downwards. “You won’t disappoint us, will you? We’ve been waiting so long.”
Teia tosses her golden curls and gurgles. Already the table, on its back, shows its soles to the stars.
The torches flare. I lie dreaming. They gossip about love spells, about friends beating down Erichtho’s door to learn the future. “Do you remember—” says Phyllis to Teia, and Teia, laughing, says, “That time we woke everyone up shouting ‘Fire’? We hid in the taberna on the corner. The wine was awful.”
“The company was worse.”
“Better than being caught by that girl of Sextus’s. What a fury!” She tips up her cup, showing her breasts. “What was her name?”
Cynthia, shedding ash over my pillow, turns her head away to weep. “No, don’t,” I say. She never wept except to hurt me. I block up my ears: she weeps harder. “Cynthia,” I say, reaching out, “Cynthia…”
Her hair, falling, covers her paling face. Her scent smokes.
You know how girls chase me, Maecenas. You know I only have to walk through a theatre to pick up a pretty armful. What I wrote was—
What I wrote was—
What happened was poetry. What happened was I would make eyes and the girls, the girls who heard me talk up my monument-more-lasting-than-bronze (five times a night, I tell you! often more!), those girls would come running. Oh yes. Sextus, you’re so smooth! Sextus, write a poem for me! Sextus, is it true, is it all true, does she really—
Yes, ladies. Yes, it is all true. On my honour as a poet. Would these tablets lie to you?
In the street, Sextus? Did you really?
How Cynthia would roar.
No one got angrier faster. No one lashed harder than Cynthia. No one’s eyes flashed more lightning, no one’s hair curled more furiously. And then it would be, “But your boyfriends—!” “You bastard, what boyfriends?” and “You son of a bitch!” and the sharp edge of her nails raking across my face. How she tore into me. What marks she would leave.
Always love a girl with long nails. How else will she draw blood?
I can’t count how often we went angry to bed. Do you know what that feels like, Maecenas? She bruises your criminal eyes and rips your tunic and rides you into the sheets: cursing, kissing, unworthy slave to the harshest of mistresses. Did you ever? The only good bellum is domesticum. Nothing is more exciting than furor. Let me kiss your feet, Cynthia, let me kiss your hands. Forgive me, domina! Phyllis meant nothing to me. I never touched Teia. Only you. Only you.
Waking slowly, sated. She stirs, flutters, presses her cheek against her dimpled shoulder. Only you, Cynthia. Here, smile at me, smile before you wake and remember to play at being cross.
When did you get old, Maecenas?
I can’t ask about your family because of that executed brother-in-law. “How is the fair Bathyllus?” You smile, spread languid hands. We talk about Hercules and Hylas. I manage not to mention Gallus. You yawn. “Of course the Princeps has little need of my services these days…”
It’s not Caesar’s help I need. You fold your hand over mine. “About this girl, Sextus, I always thought—” and looking down, I see the ring seared onto those bony claws.
She grips too tight to pull free. Soon, she hisses. Smoke swirls in ashen sockets. Soon your bones will mix with mine.
Erichtho binds skinned snakes into her hair, dismissing her latest client to the pyre. “Where’s the girl’s tomb?” she says, and kicks at its cloak of trailing ivy. The door to Cynthia’s bed is weathered; the gold that glittered there yesterday, or last week, or last year, is gone. “Open it up.”
Night falls as we uncover the ashes. The Thessalian hag crouches over the urn, muttering to herself. I cram my cold hands into my armpits, shivering, and watch the enchanted moon dancing in the dark.
Erichtho crawls out spiderwise. “Still sealed. Tricky one. What did you promise her?”
“Everything. Nothing. Fame. Oblivion.”
“No one’s cursed you,” Erichtho says. “No one but you. Did you think you could bind yourself to her in ink and then just walk away to sing about soldiers?”
“Listen, bitch, if you can’t fix this—”
She lashes me across the face. Stunned, I tumble backwards, drinking blood and dizzy stars.
The urn rocks, totters sickeningly, so slowly I might have caught it, and explodes as it strikes the stone. Out spill ash and burnt fragments and, bouncing through clouds of ashy particles, a blackened ring.
This is what I wrote. Now, lying amid spiralling shadows and Cynthia’s scattered bones, the door to her tomb swinging shut, I remember.
Cynthia was the first. Cynthia shall be the last.
Story copyright © 2018 by Julia August
Artwork copyright © 2018 by Pear Nuallak
Julia August owes this one to Propertius, Horace, and Lucan.** As well as Lackington’s Magazine, her short fiction has appeared in The Dark, The Journal of Unlikely Academia, Women Destroy Fantasy!, PodCastle, Kaleidotrope, and elsewhere. She is @JAugust7 on Twitter and j-august on Tumblr and one day she may stop writing about necromancers (but not today). **Full footnote: Propertius, Elegies 1.1, 1.12, 1.20, 2.1, 3.8A, 4.3, 4.5-8; Horace, Epode 5; Lucan, Pharsalia 6.430-830.
Pear Nuallak looks to their Thai heritage and the many faces of women to create words and images. They’ve contributed illustrations to The SEA Is Ours and The Future Fire.