*** Vignette 2
Vignette 2: Paint a literary portrait of the scene before the eruption: What does it look like? What does it smell like? What sounds does one hear? What are the animals doing? How is the natural world responding to the signs of volcanic activity? Think of this vignette as a bird’s-eye view of Pompeii in the days leading up to the eruption.
When everything is about to change, the air becomes still. The sky turns a non-descript color of grey and people throw themselves into normalcy with a sense of purpose usually reserved for special occasions. They'll walk through town and wave brightly to familiar faces, laugh a little too loudly, and buy a loaf of bread for dinner. All the while, they understand that their reality will soon shift ever-so-slightly from its axis and life will never be the same again. They feel it in the air, and so do I. It’s still dark when I awaken. I unfold my wings reluctantly and flap them about to warm myself up. The people will be out soon. I fly about, determined to satisfy my cravings for a morning worm. I spot a few still basking in the cold night air and scorn their foolishness as I eat. Some animals are far too easy prey. I rise into the air and survey the half-completed re-construction of the city. My father told me that a couple years ago, right before I was born, an earthquake shook Pompeii, one much bigger than all of the little ones that occur so often. It destroyed many important structures, including homes, temples, and bridges. Even the roads broke apart and had to be repaired. Since that day, many people have moved away, and only some have stayed to help rebuild Pompeii. I swoop over the city and perch on a rooftop. Many people are already up, getting water from fountains in the plaza. The sun is rising, and the shops are beginning to open. I catch whiffs of baking bread and hear the mounting sound of noisy chatter. Merchants are wheeling their carts into the streets. Children are running about, chasing stray dogs and other birds that are too stupid to stay out of crowds. Homeless families are huddled in street corners and alleys, hungry and empty-eyed, being passed by as if they did not exist. I know many of them are tired. Yesterday was the festival of Vulcanalia. The people lit bonfires in celebration and sacrificed fish and other small animals to Vulcan, the god of fire. At the beginning of the day they began work by the light of a candle. As was tradition, they also hung their clothes out under the sun. Last night I picked through the remains of the sacrifices and came up with some nice dinner. A young boy dressed in rags, perhaps six or seven years of age, darts through the crowds. I see this scene every morning. I know what he is doing. I know what he will end up with. And I pity him. He attempts to mix in with the crowds as best he can, staying near motherly-looking figures. He has his eye on one fruit stand in particular. The merchant handling the cart turns around to help a customer, and quick as a wink, the boy sprints to the cart, snatches an apple, and spins around to run when he is collared by the burly-looking merchant. “You again!” the merchant snarls, holding the boy by the ear and grabbing the apple. “I told you to stay away!” “I only want some food, sir,” the boy whimpers. “I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning and I’m hungry.” “I don’t care if you starve to death! That’s no excuse for stealing, y’ little no-good thief,” the merchant growls, he was not the kindly type, “Now stay away or I’ll really get you!” The boy nods pitifully. The man shoves him, and the he quickly makes his getaway, probably to tackle another food cart. The sun is rising steadily now. The temperature, although higher than before, remains chilly. I fly into the shade of some trees and watch the hustle and bustle of the city. Smoke wafts about me as I sit underneath the blanket of leaves. It is the temple, and the people of Pompeii are coming to worship Venus. She is the god of love. I know, because I have managed to fly inside; the walls are coated with paintings of all colours, and there are marble and bronze statuettes abundant. The people are bringing incense and oils of all kinds to honour her, and to ask for her presence as the city is being rebuilt. But I have a feeling she will not be here for long. Mount Vesuvius stands tall above the city. I pick up my wings and fly again, towards the volcano, beating against the air and letting the wind guide me - a mutual agreement of sorts. The air is clear as the city beneath me fades away, and the land stretches out in front of me. Shouts and bellows from merchants and whining children have ceased, and the cry of nature is stronger. I do not resist it, and continue on to the mountain. I let out a squawk - the squawk so many humans seem to hate - knowing that here, alone, free, there is no one to hear me but Vesuvius. And she does not hate them. Vesuvius understands. We understand each other's solitude. I cross the landscape, the trees, the grass, the roaming animals, and I finally look below me. I see Vesuvius, and she seems troubled. She is screaming and gulping, afraid and confused. I squawk at her, but this time she doesn't respond. She simply continues on with her cries, her cries at nothing. Panic surges through me. Something is wrong. I have never witnessed a scene like this before. And there is more to her cries, she seems angered.I circle my friend over and over as I watched her choke out loads of smoke into the lights sky. I remember what my father told me once before. He talked of the earthquake, and how Vesuvius remained calm through the destruction. But today, I have a feeling, she is ready to cause one of her own. I don't know what to do. So I fly back. Maybe I can get away from it this way. Maybe Vesuvius will calm down. I don't know. But I do the only thing I can. As I fly, I look below. I see people, foolish people. They are going about their work as if nothing had happened, as if nothing will happen. But how am I better off than them? How will my knowledge help me? If Vesuvius destroys everything, the only thing that will separate us, is this knowledge that we will die together. Still I can't just fly by and do nothing. How can I help them? What can I do? Maybe a warning signal for all to hear, a loud caw perhaps? I know that seems futile - I am but a bird - but I will not just fly by and do nothing. Looking around I see a few of my brothers nearby. Some are collecting food for their nests; others are teaching their young to fly. Do they sense what is happening? Flying over I call out to them, telling them of the danger that awaits their families. No one responds. I call out again, louder, as I fly over the town. Surely the townspeople can hear me. Maybe they will note my odd behaviour and wonder. Still no one pays any attention to my cries. Looking down I see the young boy huddled in a corner of a house ruin. Maybe he can help and he can warn everyone! The little boy is crying softly, his small hands cluthing his stomach as if in pain. I watch him for a while and then fly and rest near his feet. Giving a caw I see him look over at me. Calling out to him again I begin to tell him of Vesuvius' anger. But he only smiles and gestures for me to come closer. My cries have been in vain. He doesn't know what is about to happen. Pompeii is its usual self, stuck in its usual routine. But out there, Vesuvius is stirring. I've seen it. The air is becoming thick and humid, and the hot ground offers no respite for those forced to grovel in the dirt. These peasants may be the only ones to have any real sense of what is about to happen, but their ravings have as much effect as my cries; they are simply ignored as noise. The higher born, however, are typically unaware of what goes on outside their thick stone walls. The women are dressed and tended to by their many slaves, their hair twisted and pinned tightly. Amongst the colonnades, idle gossip and laughter echoes as servants share stories from the amphitheatre. Affairs of business are discussed in the atrium, the chairs tucked neatly in one corner as the sun begins to climb and the air begins to burn. I pause a moment to listen, hopeful that amongst these people of influence and their advisers, someone may have the wit to know what to do. "So tell me, where have you travelled from?" "From Naples; I hope to return in the morning, but I have further business to attend to this day. Your hospitality is most generous, Lucius, I know it is not customary to invite guests to dine so early in the day." "It is customary in this house to break bread with those who bring us such beautiful things. To have brought us this dining table and chairs with not so much as a scratch after such a journey; well, it would be rudeness indeed." "Your kindness will not be forgotten. I might say, your frescoes really are delightful. Your artist must be commended on his stunning portrayal of Minerva." "Thanks indeed; I really must show you our statue of Bacchus in the triclinia at lunch, it is quite a thrill to see. Incidentally, cook is preparing fish in genuine Pompeii garum; I assure you, it is quite the delicacy in these parts." He pauses for a moment in thought; I pray that he has sensed a change in the air or a tremor underfoot. He beckons to a nearby slave that stands holding an amphora. "Send for another batch of that wine, my boy." He turned to his companion, confiding; "We rather drank our house dry at the festivities yesterday and it would be a shame indeed not to enjoy that sweet nectar once more." It was clear there was no hope to be had here. As I lift my wings to continue my search, I lift the weight of my heavy heart as well, and almost cannot fly away. This is going to be a sad day indeed. I circle the town, resting on each roof, listening for someone, something that can alert these people. But it is all in vain. The only cries to be heard speak of hunger, a thing to fear, of course, but not today. I do not know what more I can do. Looking skyward, I see that the sun has reached its zenith now and will soon begin to fall. I take to the air once more, rising higher than ever before. The wind is stronger here and I am buffeted about, but I am able to view the whole town, with Vesuvius rising above. I drink it in; every home and shop, each temple and theatre, each soul a tiny speck. Does our smallness make the loss less significant? I cannot allow myself to believe this. The same air I breathe out is breathed in by those poor souls below me. The same sky above, the same earth below; the same capacity for love. That must stand for something? Desperate, I fly again to Vesuvius' gentle slopes. The ground is warmer now, her fury intensifying. I coo a gentle lullaby, hoping to soothe her fears, knowing that no help is coming. What more can I do? It has been a long and hard morning, and my wings are tired. Perhaps I could rest here awhile? * * * It happened suddenly, eerily. The sudden calm before a storm - before nature unleashes its rage upon its unsuspecting victims... but even then there were signs unknown to the inhabitants of the city but commonplace among the peasants and farmers who practised agriculture near the mountain. A strange disease had been wiping off the sheep one by one with no external signs or symptoms. Its end result was a calm death that gave impression of a natural euthanasia that involved nature weeding out and culling bad breeds to prepare for a purer breed and generation. In response to nature's change of hand, some farming communities had slowly began shifting away from the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius' fertile slope, abandoning their fields temporarily with plans to return after the season of bad luck had been abetted by a sacrifice to the gods. But this was the only the case for the poor families who had little or nothing to lose to in the migration. Larger families whose entire livelihood was based on the vast produce from their lands looked at the situation as more of a sheep/animal infection and opted to stay behind to safeguard their interests. Their pilgrimmage they said, would be effective once they had the 'tangible' in this case financial returns to offer as a worthy sacrifice to the deity that kept their city safe. The clouds themselves held telling signs that to the untrained eye may have been easy to miss. The massive migration of a flock of birds from the slopes and areas surrounding Mt Vesuvius gave the impression of soon-to-come downpour even in the midst of wonderful sunshine. The repeated migration of birds and failure of the clouds to release torrential rain had become such a popular event that the locals had come up with a term for it: 'sunshine clowns'. The older generation whose multittude of years had given them access to archives of history of the years passed mockingly referred to the birds as "false rain prophets" and as thus the migration become a meaningless phenomena especially to the inhabitants of the city whose architecture made them immune to torrential downpours. When the beggar looked, his world was changing; when the prince looked, his world was changing. The entire land was about to be thrown into chaos, a turmoil of the ages. And there was nothing anyone could do. They could only watch, only wimper, only run, as Vesuvius began to release its tumultuous contents. Today was the day of anarchy. Today was the day of death.