LIFE OF SAINT LOCUSTA Part 6

Locusta had been taken into a stone shed, one half of which was barred cell. She was locked in behind the bars without explanation. She suspected there was nothing yet determined as to her fate. Saving face while holding to their laws and balancing the politics…Somewhere Romans were conferring about Locusta, and it would be complicated for them.

The cell had an earthen floor with a scant layer of well trodden straw. There was a water jug and a curious funnel shaped hole in the floor with an open clay pipe buried at its base.

Shortly before dark the officer who had been in charge of her capture came into the shed carrying the old cloak and another bowl of steaming farrum, this time with a wooden spoon protruding from its rim. For a moment he seemed about to speak, then to change his mind. He unlocked the door, placed bowl and cloak inside, then locked up again.

He was about to leave when Locusta spoke.

“Thank you. I hope you are not compromised by helping me.”

“No. This is regular treatment.”

He went to go, then paused.

“I…added some extra garum – since you like it – and some dried pimbo herb with crumbs of hard cheese. The way to eat it is to stir in part to flavour the porridge, and leave a little floating as sauce.”

“I’ll do that.”

“You know what that hole is for?”

“Is it for pissing in?”

Locusta’s bluntness took him back a moment.

“That…and the other. If you do the other we can flush it out through the pipes with a bucket of water.”

“It’s a very good arrangement.”

The Roman began to recover some confidence.

“The dung is led to a sort of underground fermenting tank. It can be used later as fertiliser, though not for root crops.”

Locusta was genuinely interested, leaning over the latrine and inspecting hard, sniffing.

“There’s no smell.”

“If you do it right, there’s only smell for a few days after the cell’s been used. We sweeten the tank and pipes with lime.”

“Is this usual?”

“Not in a prison cell. But we have much time on our hands here after such a long peace. Soldiers are given all kinds of tasks in the Provincia. That’s why a man can be flogged for a smear on his armour. Without constant occupation and strict standards a Roman soldier reverts to barbarism. The longer the peace and the closer to Rome, the worse the abandon.”

“Then what of Rome itself?”

“There are no armies in Rome, just a guard for the emperor and special detachments to keep order. To bring an army into Rome is seen as a great violation….But eat your porridge while it’s hot.”

“I will. Thank you again.”

Again the officer made to leave, again he paused.

“Girl…Lady…”

“Yes?”

“Have a care, lady. You may yet live. But have a care.”

*

After dark another visitor entered the stone shed. He was carrying a lamp, and Locusta could see in its flicker that he was the young man who had acted as interpreter for Germanicus that morning. He looked Gallic by his hair and apparel but his face was darker and finer than a Gaul’s.

“General Germanicus and the Lady Agrippina send you greetings.”

“I…return their courteous greetings. That is, if a prisoner may do as much.”

“Certainly you may.”

“And you are the general’s secretary?”

“I am his interpreter, first and foremost. I am able to assist him with the languages of Gaul and Germany, and I write suitable Greek. They call me Tyricus.”

“You are a Gaul by birth?”

“Well, in a way, lady. I was born and raised in Lausonna, far to the north of here, close to Germany. My mother was of the Helvetian tribe. My father, however, was a Phoenician.”

“Phoenician! I know so little of the wider world, but aren’t they the people who trade on the eastern seas?”

“It would seem they traded everywhere, at least till recently. My father was born Phoenician yet at the other end of the world to Phoenicia, in a trading settlement on the western side of Hibernia, an island beyond Britain. He was shipwrecked on the coast of Spain on the way to buy wool there.”

Locusta stared at the exotic young man, fascinated and perhaps even attracted.

“He was saved by the same Asturians who had previously sold him wool, but, being traders in their very marrow, they sold him off into slavery in Gaul. I was born a slave to a slave woman of the tribe of the Helvetii…but I must talk less of myself…”

“No, the wider world is of interest to me. I notice that you are somewhat darker, your features are different…”

“That’s from my father. And I’m guessing the ability with language is something I inherit from my trading forbears. But on to business…

“The general has sent me here with a proposition. It seems that there is one law you have definitely broken, in spite of extenuating circumstances…”

“Killing a huge rapist when he was on top of me? Ending the sufferings of a fellow Gaul when I had been given permission to hit anybody who was not Roman? I can be fussy over legal niceties too.”

“No, in fact, none of that. You agree that you threatened Virio with your sling. He says so, and you say so.”

“Indeed.”

“There is your offence. No evidence was adduced that you were defending yourself…”

“It stands to reason!”

“Lady, the soldier Virio did no more than approach you – or rather the body of his comrade. All may assume he was a threat to you, but the law is not concerned with assumption. You threatened an unarmed Roman soldier with a weapon, forcing him to abandon his fallen comrade, whether alive or dead. There is no way around this.”

“Is it Germanicus who wants me prosecuted? Why has he sent you here?”

“Lady, the commander and the soldiery of the garrison are concerned – rightly, I would think – that their dangerous work will be made more dangerous if any such open affront to their authority is allowed to pass. You might also want to consider that without Rome the Gallic tribes, even if they survived one another’s violence, would certainly be the victims of German invasion. You Arverni owe your continued existence to Rome.”

“I seldom get to think about these matters. I hear a little in the many homes I attend, but my life is taken up with work. I am not interested in who rules Gaul, I am interested in defending myself against Morgarita wolves and their human counterparts. Common sense comes into it here. If I had not defended myself against the rat-faced soldier I would not now be alive, so I can hardly be expected to regret my actions.”

“Indeed, the general and, more particularly, the Lady Agrippina are aware of your situation. Like most of us they were impressed by your actions today and wish to, as it were, find a way forward through this difficult business. They want to advance a solution which satisfies the garrison, the Gallic chiefs, and the requirements of law.”

“Your general and his lady seem very intent on satisfying.”

“Girl! They are offering you your life!”

“Tell me, Tyricus the interpreter, why does the general take the slow way back to Rome?”

“Wh…why? How should I know? He is a man who enjoys travel, and feels an attachment to Roman soldiery in all corners of the empire.”

“Is it the emperor who wants him to proceed in this way?”

“What a question! Why do you ask?”

“It occurs to me that General Germanicus is being kept away from the legions…as if he might be too popular with them. So he travels where peace is old and ripe, and there are no great armies to meet him. Just fat towns and lazy garrisons – and even in these places he makes himself loved.”

“You are sharp, young lady, too sharp. Perhaps you don’t want to hear what Rome’s most distinguished couple have to offer?”

“On the contrary, I am very interested in surviving and lessening all possible suffering. Please, let me hear these propositions.”

“One way out of this affair is for you to become the property of the Lady Agrippina.”

“Slavery!”

“Yes, if you will, slavery. But you would be a slave as I am a slave. You could occupy a responsible position and be well treated. Mark you, there can be no deception, and Lady Agrippina insists that there must be consent on your part, as you are to become a legal debtor then a legal slave to absolve your debt.”

“How a debtor?”

“A massive fine will be imposed on you, one which will enrich the garrison. The Lady Agrippina will pay it for you and you will then become her slave. She wishes to make it clear that she will not have this seen as any evasion of law. You will be truly her slave. She cannot and will not merely buy you out of a problem.”

Locusta went quiet, contemplated.

“And if I say no?”

“Don’t say no.”

“Why? Would I be executed?”

“No, but…please take my advice. I know the course these things take.”

“Tell me, Tyricus. Tell me the course they take.”

“You will be flogged before the entire garrison. It will be severe. The Romans do not play at these things.”

“I see. And how will they flog me?’

“Oh, why even consider…?”

“How will they flog me, Tyricus?”

“The general thinks, or hopes, he can persuade them to use vine branches. They are a common means of hurting without killing in the army. A fit centurion can make strong soldiers scream and cry, yet there is little loss of blood. But, really, the general’s first hope is that take the chance to enter the Lady Agrippina’s service. Slavery in such circumstances can offer more than freedom.”

“I see…vine branches…little loss of blood…”

“But there is no limit in the way of time or number of blows. And there is the sheer humiliation.”

“Humiliation? That’s nothing to me. But if there is only pain with little blood loss…”

*

When they cut Locusta down from the stump she slumped to her knees but avoided falling further. The different posture caused new waves of pain all down her back and legs. It was like being on fire.

At the start of the punishment there had been the expected hoots and leering at her nakedness.

After some ten minutes, Locusta, breathing deliberately with eyes closed, had done nothing but soak up each strike of the whistling vine branches as if her body were a heavy, inert dough. Not one sound did she emit.

The crowd had grown subdued. Then completely quiet.

The relieved commander, sensing the general mood, had called an end to the punishment.

And now Locusta was forcing herself to stand, dragging up the smock which had been torn and pulled down to her ankles. Again, a new wave of pain.

She knew where to go. In the wall of the castrum there was a guarded exit into the adjacent town. She took one step, then another, in that direction. Then she stumbled.

A powerful arm raised her from one side.

“To the town, lady?”

It was the voice of the officer who had brought her the cloak and food. Unable to speak she managed a nod and a pant of consent.

Someone else then supported her on the other side, though she could not look to see who it was. Slowly they were able to advance across the open ground while the crowd also dispersed to the fringes of the huge castrum where most of the buildings were now located.

Every movement was like a scalding all down the back of her body, though Locusta was relieved to see no blood dribbling to the ground at her feet. All she could do was to concentrate on her breathing and her assisted slow shuffle.

At last they reached the gate out of the castrum and into the town.

“This is as far as we can go during duty hours. I must leave you here, lady. If I can assist you later…”

“Thank you. You’ve done enough already. I’m alive…and free.”

“Tend your sores. Your back looked…well, not good. Come Virio, we must leave the lady to make her own way.”

At the mention of the name Locusta turned to her left, showing more emotion than during the whole course of the beating. He stood there, the small, rat-faced soldier, author of all her trouble and pain. There was a stab of revulsion at the sight of him. She was about to consign him once again to oblivion after a cold stare…then Locusta observed his expression.

Virio was red-faced and his eyes glistened. The man was close to tears.

“I…” He fell speechless.

And then it happened, as it had happened before. The whisper of those voices, then the insight, as if a curtain had been pulled back.

In spite of the fire down half her body, she saw into the man facing her. She saw the generations before, thrusting into life to make his life, a desperate urge, carrying along countless flaws and burrs in the rush to find shape. She could almost hear the rush of life within him, coursing through that intricate web, hungry for further being – a furious, clashing universe, all bundled into this small, uncertain, unhappy man.

How could Locusta perceive all this, at such a moment, as in a dream? Was she, in fact, mad?

At last Virio found his voice. The words came in a broken croak.

“Lady, I wish I could make it better. I can only say…that I regret…”

Locusta was able to lay her hand limply on his forearm. She found she could speak.

“No, I’m the one who must say sorry.”

“Oh no, lady. You are the true Roman. What you did was…”

“What I did was to make nothing of you. In that, perhaps, I was far too much of a Roman. But you are something. You are much more than anyone can fathom. The greater offense was mine. I ignored the life in you…the life…

“But now I need to find lodging in the town.”

“I have money, lady, and I know people in the town, I can…”

“No, no. I will find some work here. These last two days are the only ones in my life when I haven’t worked. It feels very odd. Money without working? I couldn’t accept it. It would be just too strange. It’s best I find some work in the town, and soon.”

“But you have been beaten so badly. Tomorrow your back will be black and so tender you won’t be able to move. Moreover the only work for any young woman here…”

“Oh, don’t worry about my virtue, Virio. I will certainly find useful work and an honest income…

“I am a pharmacist!”

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About mosomoso

Growing moso bamboo on the mid-coast of NSW, Australia.
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17 Responses to LIFE OF SAINT LOCUSTA Part 6

  1. BethCooper says:

    Yr episode had me on the edge of me chair, moso, Dramatic!

  2. BethCooper says:

    Looks like the log in difficulty’s fixed.
    Beth the serf.

    • mosomoso says:

      I had to re-approve, which is odd. Maybe WordPress doesn’t approve of this mixing of the classes, a broken Coriolanus and a literate serf.

  3. BethCooper says:

    Tribal loyalty is the soup de jour. Take a look at the skeptical blogs de jour.

  4. BethCooper says:

    Liked the bit re Roman plumbing. It’s like in Foyle’s War little bits referring to
    some side issue during WW2, like women’s short skirts and using leg tan and
    other social change stuff. I’m reading ‘I Claudius’ again moso.maybe hints of
    Locusta in it …

  5. BethCooper says:

    Darn, I’ve gotten ter like her.

  6. BethCooper says:

    So calm and in control … Foyle that is. )

  7. BethCooper says:

    Had ter do a name change here and at CE. WordPress is a tricky sprite. 9

    • mosomoso says:

      Name change? Here at the manse we thought it was just more quaint serf spelling. How we chuckle over our candlelight-educated serfs. If we gave them cheaper electricity we’d have less to chuckle about. But nobody thinks of toffs’ needs.

  8. BethCooper says:

    Speaking of shape shifting, kinda’ – jest finished this. From a candle – educated serf
    ter the toff up at the manse.

    Shakespeare’s Tempest.

    The tempest(?) – reality or apparition (?)
    All within a play of course, nice play
    on how we human actors create our
    own living dramas that clash with,
    or sometimes catch an intimation of,
    a mysterious reality out – there, perhaps.
    Why the play’s very theme’s ‘deception,’
    the very events we witness here on
    Prospero’s island – used to be Caliban’s
    but now it’s not – we view because of it.

    Everyone’s landed on the island because
    of a take – over deal between Alonso, king
    of Naples and Antonio, Prospero’s brother.
    that robbed Prospero of his dukedom in Milan,
    Alonso and Antonio now brought to shore
    and judgement by a seeming tempest, dire
    spectacle of storm and shipwreck that
    Prospero has ordered with his magic.

    The play’s the thing of course, to catch
    the conscience of the king and perhaps
    of Antonio, planned by that master
    manipulator, Prospero, and ministered
    by his airy servant, Ariel. Nothing
    but transmogrified scenarios from
    beginning to end, masques, and music
    that sends the actors into dreaming sleeps,
    like tricksy Ariel’s song to Ferdinand:

    ‘Full fathoms five thy father lies …
    Nothing of him that doth fade
    But doth suffer a sea – change
    Into something rich and strange.’

    Magic’s in the air and in the language that
    resonates with strange conjunctions like
    ‘sea – change’ and ‘sea – swallowing’ and
    ‘heart – sorrow’ and ‘spell – stopped.’

    Not that the actors need much confusing when
    you see how easily they deceive them -selves.
    Do Gonzalo and Antonio describe the same island?
    One describes a place advantageous to life,
    the other ‘as ’twere perfumed by a fen.’ Then
    there are the case studies of confused identity,
    Stephan mistaking Caliban for a moon – calf,
    Caliban thinking Stephano fell from heaven,
    Miranda seeing Alonso and Antonio for the first time,
    marvelling at beauteous man – kind and exclaiming:
    ‘O brave new world that has such people in ‘t.’

    And just to confuse the audience, consider the
    final scenario where Prospero addresses us
    across the stage proscenium, breaking the magic,
    you’d say, except that he’s asking us to release him
    and the acting crew, asking us to breath into the sails
    of his craft and send him on his way back to Milan.
    What are we supposed to do? Any wonder that
    the audience departs the play still held in a kind
    of waking dream.

    ( Don’t blame me fer any mistakes, it’s the candle light.)

  9. BethCooper says:

    Yore subtile. u and kim.

  10. beththeserf says:

    ‘In spite of the fire down half her body, she saw into the man facing her.
    She saw the generations before, thrusting into life to make his life, a
    desperate urge, carrying along countless flaws and burrs in the rush to
    find shape. She could almost hear the rush of life within him, coursing
    through that intricate web, hungry for further being – a furious, clashing
    universe, all bundled into this small, uncertain, unhappy man.’

    I like this and Locusta in a past episode on the potency of seeds. She’s
    so aware of will ter live, like in the poem ‘Root Cellar.’

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