Their bodies were solid as stone, yet once these same shapes had been filled with vigor, with a knowledge of each other, the world around them, respect for the gods who ruled their lives on whims they didn’t always understand, and knew they weren’t supposed to. Now what remained were their final moments, when all that living ended with a suddenness unimaginable in life. There, in glass cases in Pompeii, she saw contorted faces and angled limbs: outstretched arms, hunched legs.
She’d always thought of death, the split second when awareness ends, as a kind of peace wrapping itself around the fading form, a moment of privacy not meant for sharing beyond one’s closest circle. Yet here these castings mocked that belief. Tormented, desperate and naked to public view, each element disturbed her, the utter impossibility of reconciling it with what she felt, with the memory of her father’s death: the quiet room and caring faces, his glittering eyes. And most of all, the intimacy, the knowing that she was meant to be privy to it.
But here, with cameras flashing, guides cutting the silence in foreign tongues, bodies shifting for better views, she felt herself to be an intruder of the worst kind, one who has passed beyond the limits of decency. Instinctively she turned away. Mike was right behind her, adjusting his camera settings.
“Time to go,” she said.
“In a minute. I just want to get a shot of you with the cases behind, prove we actually saw them.” His grin couldn’t soften his words.
“No!” It came out sharper than she’d intended, and louder too. A few heads turned, then looked away.
“Are you Okay?” He frowned.
“Yes.” Her voice was quieter now, but she couldn’t mask the urgency; “I want to get away from here.”
“God, Marie, we did a daylong detour just for this place.” He pushed the baseball cap back on his head, the one he’d bought from a vendor’s cart that morning. He was a stylish dresser, conscientious about his appearance. The purchase was a surprise to her. “Some days you need to feel different,” was all he’d said at the time. It looked wrong now, disrespectful.
“You shouldn’t wear that here,” she said.
“What?” He frowned again, but this time his eyes were more annoyed than concerned.
“I’m going to the forum. Maybe the air’s fresher there.” She knew that somewhere there were other casts: lovers wrapped in an embrace; a couple folded together in repose; others simply lying alone as if sleeping their way into death. But she didn’t have the stomach to search through the displays, didn’t think they’d make her feel any different. She’d still be an interloper.
“We agreed to stay together.” His mouth was tight with irritation; “We don’t know the place if we get separated. We’re not at home now,” he muttered in an afterthought.
“No, we’re not,” she said and began to walk away, unfolding the tour map at the same time, Mike’s concerns falling behind her. Not home, she thought. Home isn’t smeared with death, daubed everywhere in shades of black and grey. Home isn’t filled with fear and loss.
She’d read of Pompeii, seen movies, photographs, spent hours researching. What she’d loved had been the depictions of life before the end, cultured, civilized: baths and central heating; art, philosophy, history, drama, music. At school she’d relished lessons of that era, in such marked contrast to the drabness of the settlers’ lives, their rigid ways of living. She’d expected this visit to be a high point, surpassing the ancient buildings they’d visited on their tour of the Amalfi coast – a whole ancient town to explore, a vibrant past to conjure up. But everywhere she went she’d heard the echoes of death.
She was walking along a grassy path when she came to another, smaller collection of cases. She tried to avert her eyes as she walked past, but something pulled her to
them. Her feet stopped moving as if by some other’s command, as if willing her to look closer and understand what had up till now escaped her. It was then that she saw the shape of a child, lying as if asleep in its parents’ bed, a young child, probably only two or three years old. She saw it playing in a courtyard under watchful adult eyes, saw it giggling, laughing, being carried on its father’s shoulders. And then she saw the parents putting it down for a nap, knowing it would never wake again. Suddenly she’s caught up in the current of her own past, teeming with memories that refuse to die; memories dragging her to where she does not want to be. She cannot fight them, cannot hide from them. Can only wait as sorrow and regret wash over her.
Later, in the amphitheater, seated on one of the grassy tiers leading down to the stage, legs pulled up against her chest as if trying to make herself smaller, she had no recollection of how or when she got there, or even who she was. Teacher of history, wife of Mike, daughter of one deceased and one uninvolved parent; these were roles, character descriptions such as you might find in a playbill. They were the what’s of her life. Now, for the first time, she thought about the who’s. She wanted to know herself, know what essence of her an artist would portray on canvas. Curious? Hardworking? Conforming? But other words were fighting their way to the surface of her mind: Thoughtless, Selfish.
The child curled inside of the protective spoon of his parents’ bodies, held tight to shield him from knowledge of the ills that were about to befall all three of them, had jolted her into an awareness of self knowledge she’d tried to conceal for almost seven years.
What would my father make of me now, she thought. Would he see the wrongness swirling inside me? Will I see him again in some other dimension, in some spirit world? And if I do, how will I explain? Are families reunited beyond death? She wondered. When her father died, it had comforted her to think that death was only an entry point to another world, although she could not have defined it. Now, the thought of an afterlife filled her with unease and guilt. Would the child she’d chosen not to birth be there? Would it seek her out? Would they know each other? And if they did, how could she make it understand that inconvenience was the reason it had never had its time on earth? She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. She had no right to expect some kind of absolution for discarding motherhood, treating it as if it were one of the many throwaways of the modern world.
At twenty she hadn’t been ready to be a mother, to put another’s wants and needs before her own. She hadn’t felt any of the warmth and tenderness that older women had told her comes automatically with the role. She’d wanted to enjoy the excitements and explorations that at the time, had felt like the birthright of youth: relationships, college, travel. The list could have filled pages. Now, it seemed of such insignificance that she could remember very little of those priorities. Deep down she wondered if beneath all the superficialities that governed her decision was fear – not of motherhood in and of itself, but fear of what kind of a mother she would have been: the fear of being a clone of her own mother.
And so, like the ancient gods, she’d assumed the power of life and death. But she was bound by other rules than theirs. She knew that now. Sitting in the quietness of the theatre, emptied of the energy and excitement that had once filled its seats, she understood that at the end, each person in this town, whether patrician or plebian, master or slave, each had instinctively wanted to live. And so, she thought, did my child.
The sky was filling up with unexpected clouds when Mike found her, a slight wind stirring the grassy expanses and green tufts sprouting between ancient stones. “Marie, I’ve been looking all over for you.” He stood over her, his voice a mixture of irritation and relief, “You said you’d be at the forum. Why__?”
“The gods ruled everything back then,” she said, cutting him off as if she hadn’t heard him.
He dropped the backpack with their bread-and-cheese lunch on the ground and sat down beside her, “What’s going on?” The irritation was still there.
“These days we think we’re them.”
Voices drifted down from the area of the anteroom where theatergoers used to mingle before the play. Sometimes on this vacation, the two of them had made a game of inventing what people were saying when they heard them indistinctly like this, but not now.
“I’m in no mood for philosophy,” he said; “I think we should eat and leave.” He looked up. The sky was darkening, great swaths of grey hiding the blue. “Before it starts to rain.”
Again she ignored him, “There’s something we need to talk about,” she said, and wrapped her arms around her upper body as if holding all the pieces of herself together. Part of her wished that Mike would hold her close, fill her with a sense of peace to get her through the rest of the day until it became a yesterday. But since breakfast he’d not been the Mike she knew, strangely flippant and out of character. She was on her own with this, and deserved to be.
The sky above the amphitheater was growing darker; the voices she’d heard moments earlier were silent. She turned and looked up the slope of tiers. The area was deserted, except for the two of them.
“The rain,” Mike said, as if reading her min; “They’ve all left for their tour buses and trains before it begins. That’s what we should be doing”
“I packed two ponchos before we left.”
“Those flimsy things,” his voice crackled with disdain; “One puff of wind and they’ll rip.” He fumbled with the zipper on the backpack, “Damn it; it’s stuck,” he said, tugging over and over.
Carefully she eased his fingers away and slid it open, “here.” She passed him a little, white plastic pack, and when he simply held it in his hand, she shook it open and pulled its contents over her own head, “There’s another one in there somewhere.”
“Now,” she said, as if they were seated on a couch in their living room, as if no raindrops were starting to fall, “We can’t spend the rest of the day like this. What’s bothering you?”
He looked down at his knees, “Nothing that I want to talk about. Really. It’s something I have to figure out for myself.” A sprinkling of moisture glistened on the top of his head.
“That’s not good enough. Not today.”
He ran a hand through his hair, “I’m getting wet.” He sounded surprised. She turned to look at him. A little stream was starting to travel down his forehead, “Today’s her birthday,” she said.
“Don’t go there,” his voice was low, pleading almost: a tone she’d never heard from him before. He was digging inside the backpack, “Darn it. Which pocket is it in?”
“But I’m there already. She would have been six years old today. My due date.”
He froze, the poncho halfway over his head, “You need to let this go. You need to let me let it go.”
Rain was falling steadily, streaming down her face. Ten years from now there will be rain here, giant tears soaking into the ground, seeping beneath ancient structures, cracking and razing restorations that have consumed decades of painstaking reconstruction. Newspapers, magazines, television stations, will report on the threatened death of a city of death. A nation will mourn the desecrated tombstone of its glorious past, and all that will remain of Marie’s presence here will be the tiniest of whispers in the wind. But she does not know this, cannot think of this, can only think of the past and how it is shaping her present in ways she cannot control.