Locusta had been able to walk to the small baths at the end of the road for her ablutions; yet she remained mostly house bound, since any sudden or irregular movement still caused shooting pain.
While not able to sit, she could stand and perform simple tasks for her host, whose name was Actis.
She was peeling and scrubbing gentian root as the old pharmacist was consulted by a soldier with severe nasal congestion. From gestures and the bits of conversation which were in Gallic she was able to gather that the soldier had long term problems with breathing and wakefulness in the night due to the congestion.
Though Locusta made no comment, Actis, from the corner of his eye, had noted her interest by the aleady familiar furrowing on her high brow. Her turned to her.
“Young lady, do you have any ideas on this man’s condition?”
“I have only made out certain words…and observed the man.”
“My experience of such things is narrow.”
“Never mind that. I know you like to be direct. Tell me directly what you think.”
“Well, have you examined his discharge and maybe even his sputum?”
“Yes, on a a previous visit. His nasal discharge is very solid and yellowish, sometimes even a grey-green, when it not not too thin and watery. What else might one observe?”
“Does it float?”
“Float? How should I know or care if the muck floats?”
“Well, I’ve noted that unhealthy sputum or mucus sometimes resembles the active leaven of bread. If you place it in water it floats and has tiny bubbles about it.”
“I see. And what do you conclude from that?”
“Sir, I seldom conclude. But I have given thought to cleansing the nasal passages with dilute sulphurous liquid or any mild substance known to slow the leavening of bread…onion juice, garlic juice. Perhaps there is a sort of leavening going inside the nose, expanding or increasing the mucus? In any case, it is something I have thought about trying. It’s just that treatment of such a stubborn condition might still take months, even years, so it would be hard to measure success till much time should elapse.”
Actis was now stroking his chin.
“Indeed, indeed…Now that you mention it I have seen nasal muck float in a spit bowl, while at other times it sinks. Hmm…”
The two were drinking wine later in the day, Actis sitting, Locusta standing.
“So, you don’t mind dealing with the various bodily discharges. It is not common in young women to observe and discuss such things.”
Locusta was genuinely surprised.
“Me? Mind? But through my whole life I have examined them. Why to smell a patient’s urine especially, or taste one’s own…”
Actis spat his wine and had a short laughing fit.
“Enough, girl! Enough! Let me drink my wine without such thoughts.”
“Enough! What have I brought into my shop? Now tell me, do you not have any understanding of classical medicine? One does not touch let alone smell and taste bodily discharges.”
“Of course not. Except urine.”
“How ‘except’? How can you know such a thing?”
“From accident. Then observation.”
“And what of ancient prescription? Even in the forest these crones who…well, I mean no insult, but…”
“Ancient prescription is nothing to me, in or out of the forest. Nothing in itself, that is. If something has no effect after much trial I discard it. I don’t care how sacred or for how long it has been used. I’m too busy, too many families to tend. In one day I may rush between twenty homes, with the Morgarita wolves stalking me as I go. How should I spend even an hour on empty spells and useless cures?”
“Girl, that’s all very well for the forest, but there have been physicians and scholars whose work has been known for centuries and discussed across empires. Greeks, Egyptians, even Romans. Men whose thoughts have soared to the stars and plumbed the ocean depths. Do you really think your judgement – or mine, for that matter – can take precedence over theirs?”
“Observation and trial take precedence over all. One must not be hasty to discard, but once observation and trial have been done, then one should discard whatever fails their test. Whatever.”
Actis was shaking his head, frustrated but strangely not displeased by this precocious adolescent who towered above him like a statue of Diana or Athena. He muttered:
“Never…Never in my life…A child dragged from the forest…Never in all my life…”
There was silence as they drank, then Actis looked up.
“And yet you believe in forces no other can experience. Your voices, for example…”
“If one person experiences something that person should give credit to the experience. If other do not go through the experience they need give it no credit.”
Locusta paused, the brow furrowing. Then:
“What of the power you and I observe which is invisible to most?”
“The power of herb and mineral. The power, saving or destructive, of poisons. We might kill a legion with a sufficiently large infusion of wolf’s bane root. Or we might stop a fever raging through the region with that same infusion. Yet we see nothing, we merely observe an effect.”
“Yes, but your voices…”
“Are intimate, I know. I alone hear them. But what if they are produced by the same force as produces the effects of wolf’s bane root? When a sickening man is made nauseous by the thought of honey but craves the bitterness of that gentian I was peeling earlier, isn’t that a voice of sorts? What speaks to him? What if everything is connected and in movement, intelligent in some way, or part of an intelligence?”
“Now you are being too original all together. There are Greeks – Plato and Democritus – who might vaguely agree with half of what you expound, but neither would agree with the same half. Just what are you trying to say? Or is my wine too strong?”
“I mean…that it is impossible to believe in gods who brawl and fool about like men…but that…on the other hand…Oh, I don’t have the words. Maybe if I had the Greek language! I don’t have the words!”
“Never mind, child. Time is on your side. Perhaps the after-effects of the beating, and all the drugs, have made your mind a little feverish. We should suspend the drugs now. For the moment, just finish your wine then lie down on your stomach again.”
“Perhaps…perhaps I should stay quiet…And yet…”
“And yet what?”
“You spoke to me about the Jews, and how they have but one god. Do they recognise the gods of others, or do they believe their one god is all there is.”
“Therein lies their problem. Some Jews believe there are demons whom others worship as gods, but all Jews believe there is but one true god anywhere.”
“And where do they think this one true god dwells?”
“Oh, they see him as dwelling in certain places and objects, but they also believe he is everywhere. He’s quite a god, the god of Israel. You think he’d get lazy or bored or lonely, without competition, without company…But why do you find the subject so interesting? Is it somehow related to your notions of movement and intelligence in rocks and so forth?”
“Oh, I don’t know…it’s just that…One god. It would explain some things…”
“Child, you have only one body, last time I counted. It is time to look after it. Rest now. I will bring you some supper later.”
“Oh, I can fetch it for us.”
“You can, but you won’t. Rest. Rest both body and brain. I have some papers to read in my room and then…”
“Oh, if I could only read I…”
A sudden bustle in the shop woke Locusta.
Turning to one side she saw a flustered Actis bowing deeply. He was speaking Latin to someone. When she turned the other way, Locusta saw the reason for the fuss.
Inside the doorway stood the Lady Agrippina with an infant in her arms and a boy of some five years by her side. Surprisingly, she seemed to have no servants with her. She was about to speak when the infant began to bawl ferociously.
As the mother soothed the infant, Locusta kept her eye on the boy, whom she had seen pinch the baby very deftly. The boy returned Locusta’s gaze, with a furtive grin. His expression was conspiratorial, even seductive.
There was conversation which Locusta could not understand. Agrippina spoke in a loud, commanding tone, almost jabbering. Like her pointy, prying nose, the great lady’s speech subtracted from her beauty.
All then looked toward Locusta as she propped herself on her wrists with the intention of rising, albeit with care. Then Actis:
“Stay as you are, Locusta. The Lady Agrippina does not stand on formalities, she merely wishes to inquire after your health.”
“Please tell the lady that I am recovering well and thank her for her concern. As I thank her for her kind offer to…enter her service.”
The response was translated, then:
“The Lady Agrippina wishes to give you an emolument in silver to help with your recovery and return home.”
“Please tell the lady her kindness is appreciated but I can take no money without working or serving in some way. As for returning home, the bandits of the forest will never permit it. I should not be surprised if my home is now in ashes…”
“Locusta, all the more reason to accept…”
“I cannot. Please tell the lady.”
After this exchange was translated, Agrippina began to make affectionate noises at the baby, calling it Agrippinilla. It seemed to Locusta that the abrupt shift was a way of saving face. Clearly, few ever refused the Lady Agrippina anything.
The lady next began to speak in her loud, snapping way to Actis about her baby’s colic. Locusta could tell this was the topic because of gestures and some references to herbs in Gallic.
While this interview proceeded, Locusta watched from the corner of her eye as the boy slid up to the side of the table on which she lay. Next he began to caress her hair and neck. Locusta permitted it. The boy then drew down the light sheet which covered her back. Rather than cause embarrassment to her host she decided to allow the impertinence. Locusta was no prude and there might well be limits to the overbearing mother’s magnanimity toward lowly Gallic subjects of Rome.
Suddenly the boy’s hand smacked down on the sorest part of her back. She cried out, the boy did a giggling retreat to his mother, who pretended not to have noticed what happened. Actis shot a quick glance of concern toward Locusta, who lowered her eyelids and nodded once to indicate that all was well.
In fact, the boy had chosen the sorest, blackest part of her back and Locusta was in severe pain again.
He fixed Locusta with his seductive grin as he huddled into his mother’s skirts. Locusta stared back with a cold curiosity, as if this boy was somehow a discovery.
Some minutes later the Lady Agrippina was about to leave the shop, only directing a curt nod at Locusta.
It was one of the few Latin words Locusta knew, the expression a slave uses to a mistress.
Agrippina stopped, not a little surprised. All turned toward Locusta.
“Actis, will you tell the Lady Agrippina that I am able to accept silver from her son? In fact, I should be very grateful to receive the emolument from his hand.”
“What? I cannot say such a thing to the lady!”
“Do so, please.”
When Actis had translated the request, Agrippina showed her anger only briefly, then made an expression of indifference by pulling down the sides of her mouth. She thrust a little purse at the boy who looked bewildered. After prompting, he walked toward Locusta, fearing some trick, some punishment. He held the purse toward her with his arm completely extended to maintain a distance. Locusta merely received the purse and said in Gallic:
“Thank you, young gentleman. I am now in your debt.”
The odd situation was ended by Agrippina turning abruptly and heading out the door, almost with a military strut. She snapped back at the boy, who was still staring at Locusta, amused and bewildered: