Like it’s been said, I am a man of few words. I learned early that talking just led to trouble. Now my woman, this one, she knows without needing any words. We’ve made up our own language, her and me. It’s a cross between her village talk and my old Roman solider talk. Well, not my talk, but the Lieutenant’s talk she was with before she found me on the field.
Damn, there I go again. Getting tangled with words, foreign and old, time and place seeming to filter through each other like the rising sun in the morning, filtering through the dew’s uprising mist.
The smells return the strongest, stronger than my muscled ex-slave arms. The village folk like to hear me talk, but I don’t. There’s about ten left from our regiment. Ten old ones, that is. Some of them went back to Rome, they say. Then Rome was sacked, and nothing left of the structures, the people. The Senate, empty? I can hardly envision that as I lay here dying.
It’s almost an embarrassment to die on a bed, and not a battlefield. Oh… here it comes again. My blood is oozing real slow like, out of me. There’s this face bending over, hovering. Others are calling to the face, asking what she’s got. I can smell her bloodstained clothing.The blood’s stench is perfume to me, now – as it was then. I was ready. Completely.
Then roughened fingertips brushed my hair from my face, travel down my gaunt cheekbones – supplies had been hard to find once the roads to Rome were blocked. I wasn’t going to open my eyes until I knew what the person wanted.
“I know you,” she said, her voice a spring breeze refreshing the small air between us.
Still, I kept my eyes closed. I was young then. It was a sorrow, to wear out my women, watching them die so often.
Her opened palm sat upon my chest, feeling for a heartbeat, feeling for so much more, so long ago on that battlefield. Like other camp followers, she was searching the dead for valuables. After the women were done, they and the locals would have strewn our remains with oil to burn all the dead. She had found the leather pouch. Skillfully, she opened it. Her eyes quickly appraised the herbs she had once given me. For wounds. Yes, she knew me and I knew her. Vestal virgins who loved their work were hard to find, especially when they yearned to be what the gods had forbidden. She was one of the general’s women. He had promised her the world on his last campaign, only to disappoint her with the five other women she shared a tent with, waiting for him to beckon her to his tent.
She liked the life, but feared she would be discarded – regulated to the rank of camp follower and whore. Stealth becomes a woman in war. I had been the guard. I heard their women talk. Where she learned such things! Took her a while, but she only had to kill one. The others she talked into things: running off to a local village, being unfaithful with another general – so her general gave the woman away. She spoiled one of them. She made love to that young girl as if she were ten generals! Ruined her for any man. The general gave the girl to her as a servant.
Many vestal virgins weren’t that pretty, but their veils hid their faces, and they were picked like apples and oranges – not grapes for wine. For use. Their bodies fresh, curved, pampered and softened for the holy days of their work – their near naked bodies transported by the eunuchs to especially assigned chambers of the temples.
Anyway, she learned to cook rather than gossip like the others. She had cooked for the six of them, then five, then four. One she made ill over and over, tiring the General of her complaints and constant need for the pot. No one suspected her, since most of them had little learning, and less association with such plotting, but the last one. After I heard the struggle, I tell you, I didn’t know who was going to come out of that tent.
I knew how to keep my mouth shut, and my eyes dulled. She was a witch, that woman. Like her, survival was my goal. My dulled eyes never let her know.
The general knew, of course. That’s why he was a general. That’s why he knew how to use even me, positioning me there by that tent. Young. Virile. Not anywhere near being a eunuch, but fully aware I would be one if I touched any of those women!
When she had finished with the competition, keeping the one for a servant and lover, the general – or was it me – wasn’t sure if he still wanted her.
Mile after mile, night after night, and mornings too, she took care of the general. Taught him to talk, a bit.
As for the fighting, now that’s something to talk about! To stand full force, Roman soldier armored, trained, muscles ready, stomach hard, legs like marble columns… I wanted a chariot. So I swung my ax, threw my pick, and slashed and slew inch after inch, near the general’s chariot, waiting to leap onto it and fly into the fray, the mighty stallion clearing the way and humbling the soldiers I would more easily slay.
That’s how the damn general noticed me and assigned me to the women’s tent. But in battle, all that noise, and breathing, blood and gore was a natural to me as monthly blood is to a woman. He would have honored me when we turned back to cross the Rubicon home. None of that happened. Each battle further north ruined us a little bit more.
Then he kept the woman in his tent, not off in her own, separate tent, like he had with the others. Their voices mingled. He made her sit, mostly hidden by blankets, her face down, when the lieutenants and locals talked, plotted, planned, negotiated. Her servant woman was there too. But that flighty woman couldn’t remember a thing. It was the General’s woman who understood when the food supplied began to dwindle. Then work on the Roman roads was abandoned.
The General liked killing too much to stop. Me too. It wasn’t just the killing that was in our blood, it was the victory, the power of joy and the sweet feel of being alive while all around you were dead. We were merciful, us Romans, unlike the stories coming to us about the Vandals and Goths. So we turned north east, not west. Let Rome defend Rome. We bought our land with blood, wrestled it from half-human, half-animal people who didn’t even know civilization meant cleaning one’s body and mind.
Slowly, he appointed a lieutenant here, another there, and another in a nearby village, carefully selecting the local woman to mate and pacify the people. Each lieutenant only took ten of his soldiers, no more. It was not to be an occupation force, but a settlement, a new Romulus and Remus as the old Rome died.
The sound of metal slicing through a man when you know that your life is just a few seconds away from the same onslaught – how can a soldier claim joy at such deaths? I got my wish, jumping upon the General’s chariot as he fell.
And I took his woman too. By then she had given three children to the camp followers to keep the General’s eye from roaming.
We won, barely. It was the last battle for that Roman legion. We cleaned ourselves, honor burned the officers, had the locals burn our dead alongside their dead after the womenfolk had taken what they could. She fell. In a faint. When she saw me come back from battle. Wearing his golden armor upon my chest. Her servant girl put her into the tent, washing her tears. I brushed the girl away and claimed what was mine by rights. All the while, she stared straight up, past my eyes, through my head, going far, far away.
It was then I stopped. Her eyes refocused. I let her see mine for the first time.
So we were mated. The children came to our tent. We grieved together. I let them light their father’s pyre. I told stories of his valor, his strength, his wisdom to his children, now mine.
The woods were thick. The people of Gaul welcomed an end to our marauding. Another Lieutenant, whose name I loved to forget, fought me for the woman, but left her with me once he saw how I brought her children from the backcamps to the officer’s camps.
I didn’t want to be a general. Found a way to tell him at the negotiations. I had my woman prepare them. She knew the tongue they spoke. Rather than sit like conquer and conquered, we sat like family, albeit not exactly a happy family that first night.
We Romans accepted that Gaul was divided into three parts. After the plagues that had escaped from there to Egypt and back, enough land could be shared, without us new settlers causing too much of a ruckus. We assured those we had overpowered that we would not rule, but live with them. We as Romans knew Rome had ceased to order even us, thus, in the blessed glory of freedom – from the battlefields alive, and freedom from orders made by politicians far from the field and our bloody fellow soldiers – yes, we let Rome die.
None of us wanted to return. The old money Romans who had play-acted as soldiers were long since gone. Died in silly ways, or run off home earlier only to be slaughtered by vengeful locals, or wild Goths on their way to Rome.
With their men dead, and their women grieving, my woman – advised me that we could kill many birds with one idea: mate, by choice, our men with their women. Let the women choose.
We men were all ready to stand in formation and let the woman chose. Problem was, the women spat on us, and only those old or with children needed a man to replace the lost one. Most of us soldiers had started from Rome nearly fifteen years earlier, thinking after 20 years we would return, be given land, women, and honor. Eventually, the younger men got picked first, of course. My woman wanted to have me there, standing with the men. I even knew the one she wanted to pick! Her children had tugged on her arms, her dress, her shoulders, her very heart, holding her back. They put her hand into mine. We were mated, but that moment we were married.
She wanted a lieutenant, to be rid of me, and I wanted her, so I gave her what she wanted – allowed her to have him. Until she saw through his ways. It took a few years, that standing by and watching another man use my wife. But like I said, I had signed up for 20 years with the soldiering, I was signed up for 20 years with the wife.
I had mated before, but what’s the use of talking of such now, when that wife has long been gone, and now it’s her servant’s daughter that calls me husband?
I didn’t take to farming. Many soldiers didn’t. Many went wandering, maundering all over the land, sorrowful that they could not return home, angry that which had been promised was denied, their eyes bloodied with resentment so they could not see what a good life could be had. Well, I was old then myself. You might say those first ten years of soldiering were the same as the maundering. And that woman – she set me right. Turns out we had our 20 years until she died, all worn out from children. She told me, dying, she was worn out from wanting me. Said she knew I wasn’t dull-eyed as I had led her to believe. Heck, she knew it now, and was re-writing our history! But I let her have her say, since it was she who was dying that day.
She spent a heck of a lot of time giving me advice! That dying day. She’d done the same, if I hadn’t been breeding horses all the while, then building castles to keep those marauders aways from our women and food.
We weren’t important then, our family. It was our descendants who would rise, she told me. ‘Keep them away from religion,’ she had said on her dying bed. Swiftly she covered my howling mouth with her hand. ‘Shhhh! You know horses, I know the town. After everything dies down, some religion will come and take our great-great-granddaughters and then them into harlots. Don’t let that happen to our women.’
Her hand fell from my mouth. In all the gods’ names, under all the foreign soils and flags and food we had shared, I was amazed this woman could still surprise me.
‘Marry Lila’s girl. She will be good to grow old with, since she won’t push you around like I have. You can rest in her youth and loyalty, as I have in her mother’s. Go now. You must not see me pass to the other side.’
‘I have seen the passing, often. I have felt the joy, but rarely the sorrow. I wish to stay, to see and touch how death can be when it is earned by life,’ I told her.
‘So you wish to see love?’ she asked. ‘Then bring me Lila!’
What can a man do with a complicated woman? So I bought her Lila. The two lay next to each other, in tears, trying to fondle their old bodies, when it was their hearts they were linking. This was not exactly what I had in mind for a deathbed, so I brought in the children, and their children. We made ourselves and them two old women comfortable, pumping up the pillows and talking softly.
Then the villagers came by. It got to be such a party, everyone forgot about death, except me. Her eyes were bright and looking straight at me. I saw the way she put the herbs into her and Lila’s wine.
Then what killed me, she put her arm around Lila’s shoulder, not mine. And worse yet, she looked right through me, through my head, just like the first night in the tent.
Then Lila’s little girl was wiping some salt water from my face. ‘Oh, we all knew. Lila wanted to go with her. We’re sorry you didn’t know.’
I looked into that little girl’s eyes, and saw reflected all that stuff called love, which I finally knew what it was – and what I had and hadn’t had in my years soldiering. There it all was, for me.
Lila’s little girl put her finger to my lips then, as she’s doing now. ‘Words aren’t necessary,’ she’s saying. She lays her head upon my heart. She listens to this life and its blood singing its last song.
The fort became a castle, the lieutenant became a mayor, the Gauls and us Romans mixed so well, with just a little bit of killing, that soon we weren’t Gauls or Romans, but a new tribe, with a new language, new ways.
‘Don’t let religion take your womanhood from you and our daughters and granddaughters,’ I repeated to my last wife.
She smiled, the Nile and the Po river making valleys between our love, life and my death. She would not follow me in death. I had already freed her from all bounds. She wanted to travel again, walk the land north, as her mother and I had done.
I turned my head from her careful eyes. Outside the window stood the carriage I had made for her. Walking was too dangerous. Half the sons and two daughters would migrate with her – the ones who didn’t mind the cold so much.
Both of us wanted to know what this was all about, but she wouldn’t know how to put words to it. So we called in all the children and children’s children. The younger ones jumped about on the bed, demanded to see all my wounds, and pull on my beard. I laughed and found what love was again. One little boy was retelling how I loved horses and chariots, and had taken the General’s chariot, and his woman! My poor wife looked at me then, wondering as I had done, who I had loved more – her or the other wives. I opened my arms. The children fell into them. I called to her and she joined us.
Then the four horsemen of the apocalypse came, swinging their axes, picks and swords. What had not killed me in battle, came to haunt me. A pain went through my chest. I cried out, “I’m wounded!” My wife’s voice pushed through the crowed of children and kissed me alive.
‘You are not wounded, you are dying of love, my love….’
And so I did.