Vignette 11: Write from the perspective of a widow who lives alone in Pompeii without family or many friends. Perhaps she feels differently about the eruption than other citizens do, or is more accepting of it since life has already ‘passed her by.’ Or, maybe the chaos is a wake-up call to start living in the moment instead of reliving the past. This vignette should take place before and during the eruption.
I wake too early yet again. Peeking through the dark auburn curtains I see nothing but the dark, I mutter a curse and turn to sleep again -- but there is the faintest streak of gray across the sky beyond my window. I might as well get up.
I don’t hear any birds chirping yet from the plain tree in the courtyard. It’s going to be a long day indeed, and I’m not looking forward to it. Well, it’s probably for the best . The Feast of Vulcan is only two days hence, and already people are trickling into the city: some to sell, some to buy, some to entertain, some to be entertained. The sooner I can get to the market to buy stores, the better, and I need to buy for a week so I won’t have to fight the crowds later. A woman on her own should plan ahead. Being on my own for so long has changed me.
I break my fast with the scraps from last night’s dinner, and carefully don my second-best robes. I’m far from reaching my dotage but my joints are starting to stiffen a bit in the earliest mornings.
‘Hercules! Hercules, you naughty boy, where are you? Hercules!’
My neighbor’s little girl is apparently up too early as well, still hollering for her lost puppy. My dream with my husband had always been to have a little girl of our own. After his death, that dream of course shattered. I wouldn’t think the stupid mutt would have the wherewithal to toddle off somewhere on his own, never mind disappear for -- what? Three days now?
‘Hercules!’ the little girl cried out
What a ridiculous name for such a tiny dog. Really?
I step outside. ‘Hush, girl! There are still decent folks abed!’
She sticks her tongue out at me. ‘Must be why you’re awake.’
I have a sneaking suspicion she’s one of the children who take pot-shots at me sometimes from around corners. As long as their parents all know that I’m a good woman who makes an honest living, I don’t much mind. She sometimes reminds why I truly almost appreciate that i don't have a child. The Whining, the crying, the obnoxious banter. I enjoy my peace, but at the same time dread it.
I squint up at the mountain, still barely lit by the growing dawn. I detest that hill, squatting over the town like a fire-breathing demon. I came here so long ago, as a very young woman not much more than a girl, but I have never gotten used to living in the shadow of such a great beast. Even living on the outskirts of town as I do, the mountain is unavoidable.
My faint memories of home are of wide blue skies and flat, open plains. I remember lying on my back, staring up at the heavens which reached from edge to edge of my entire vision. Unfortunately I also remember the wars, and the deaths of my closest family, friends, and the slave ship which brought me here.
In the end, I should be grateful. While my ugly face kept me from the life of ease I might have had if I could have lured my master into my bed, the man treated me well and had me trained as a midwife. He found me a good husband amongst the slaves of his household. While my husband may not have given me children to care for me when I am old, he was kind enough.
And when he died too young, I found his last gift: a small horde of coin, gotten somehow or another, so within two years I was able to buy my freedom and work for my own gain. Now the bread is running out and the material for cloth is scarce. I wonder sometimes if maybe i should have died in the eruption. I have prayed to my God about how thankful i am for each beautiful day. Is it really such a blessing anymore for him to leave me dreading every morning? I still want a child, but out of Wedlock it could not occur and i cannot see myself marrying another man. Arranged marriage at first with my beloved Timothy, but i grew to love him. I am now too old to be arranged for marriage so i truly must accept my ongoing never-ending loneliness.
I cast my glance back at the mountain, wondering why I’m feeling so maudlin today. Despite my best efforts I cannot feel affection for its glowering face.
The Forum market is a fair walk from my small room, but the morning is blessedly cool and quiet. Few people are stirring yet, and for some strange reason there doesn’t even seem to be many animals, either. Lost in my own thoughts, my mood continues to worsen, making my head ache. All through my life i have bottled away my happy memories, for my only memories that have kept me alive is fear, and loneliness.
Fortunately there are a few shops already open for business -- including, I am glad to see, my particularly favorite stall, run by Felix. Poor Felix has not been fortunate as his name might suggest; his face is even uglier than mine and he walks with a jerking limp. His wife is a horrible shrew whom I’ve fortunately only run into a handful of times, and only once did Felix summon me to help birth a small stillborn daughter. My skill in handling not only the difficult birth and unfortunate result, but also my ability to handle his quarrelsome yet heartbroken wife, earned his respect; his recommendations to friends and family have earned me a good reputation and improved my business. For a woman with few friends, his friendly face is always a welcome sight.
‘Valeria!’ Felix’s misshapen face breaks into a large grin. ‘You’re certainly up early this morning.’
‘The mountain growled at me. Then that brat next door started hollering for her missing dog, and after that I decided I might as well beat the rush this morning.’
Felix laughs at that, and I finally have to crack a reluctant smile myself.
‘Well, good thing you’re early, because I set a few things aside for you in the hopes that you would be.’
‘Yes, indeed! I have that fresh birthwort you were asking for, and….’ He holds out a small cloth pouch, his excitement palpable.
Carefully I take the bag, and peer inside. Poppy seeds! How did Felix know my small stash was running low? I look up at him, and this time I smile in earnest.
‘Thank you so much, Felix. Truly.’
He gives a small bow, like a magician who had just performed a baffling trick, and adds a large wink. I have to laugh at his theatricality, and he beams at the success of his efforts.
‘You are a wonder and a blessing, Felix.’ I grin at him.
‘I do try.’ He packs up my herbs and medicines into my basket for me as I hand over a few coins. I can ill afford the extra expense but I have a sneaking suspicion that Felix habitually undercharges me, so I certainly don’t begrudge him the silver. Besides, at least two women I had birthed successfully a year or two ago are nearing their time again, so I know funds won’t be short for long.
By the time I leave Felix’s stall more shopkeepers open up the doors for business. I spend a pleasant hour or two haggling over dried fish and cheese and fruit and bread, and eying wistfully some lovely fabric too rich for my blood. Maybe if the next lady I birth pays me well I can afford a new robe.
As the day becomes warmer I finally start to head home. I stop by a caupona on the way for a quick lunch of sausage and libum, but I don’t linger. By the time I reach my door my early morning start and the growing heat are making my head ache, and I gratefully lay down on my cool bed for a hour’s respite.
I awake and the afternoon is late and the day is warm, I have slept much longer than intended. I am thirsty and my head still aches, unusual, and I hope I am not becoming ill. I arise, rinse my face and drink a horn of cool water and make an offering at my simple lararia, nothing more than a niche in the wall really, nothing like the elaborate shrine in the home of my master, where I dwelt before the passing of my husband.
I do not dwell in the past as my mind is strangely unsettled. I think a bath will restore some peace to my mind and some vigour to my weary bones, I look to my pocket, I can spare the coins. I gather my basket and make for the Forum Baths.
There are no demands on my time this day so I stroll at my leisure, preparation for the Feast is well underway and everywhere there is activity. I look to the fire-breathing dragon and feel no more at ease than I had this morning.
I enter the baths through the women’s entrance on the far side of the building. As I emerge into the apodyterium I look for a trustworthy slave to tend my belongings. I see Amica, a slight, pretty girl who has tended me in the past, I wave her over and greet her with a smile “Good afternoon Amica”, she bows her head in acknowledgment and helps me disrobe, the marble is cool beneath my feet and immediately soothing. I make my way into the tepidarium, and as the warm water rises to meet me I feel my body relax, I sit back, close my eyes and submerge my body deeper into the soothing waters. The chatter among the women is of the forthcoming Feast, of new robes and jewels. Of parties and play.
Chatter I have no concern with. The Feast is for the wealthy and those with little regard for their own dignity. No doubt the revelling will degenerate into little more than an excuse for debauchery and debasement, as is the habit of those who come to Pompeii. I well remember many a pretty slave girl returning to the quarters her clothes and pride a tatter. And those with virginity for the taking were most desired. I am at once thankful for my fortune.
Before too long a quiet but anguished moan escapes the women seated beside me. I had not noticed her when I entered, she is a small, petite young woman her hair twisted into the fashionable, low chignon at the base of her neck, her face beautifully made - a wealthy woman and pregnant. The look on her face tells me she is in some discomfort.
I turn to face her, and instinctively take her hand “My name is Valeria, maybe I can be of assistance. I am a midwife”. A small gasp escapes her lips and she grips my hand tightly. “It is not yet my time” her voice is shaky and her eyes fearful. “Your first child” I inquire and am answered with a vigorous nod of her head. “Well let’s get you out of this bath”, I smile reassuringly and signal to Amica for assistance. We raise her up and she leans on me as we emerge from the bath, I notice her baby appears to sit quite high, yet she is experiencing contractions. I fear the worst, that the baby is breach.
Amica informs me her name is Primilla and she is newly arrived in Pompeii. “Take some deep breaths and try to straighten” I gently prompt, again the look of fear but she breathes deeply and steadies herself. As Amica assists her to dry and dress I quickly retrieve my robe and dress also.
Primilla has a large bundle with her and I carry this to the portico as she continues to grip my arm for support. “I shall accompany you to your home” .
She looks at me in earnest , “I am newly arrived in Pompeii, my husband is not yet arrived. He is traveling from Naples and I have not yet secured accommodation”. I look at her somewhat astonished, a woman traveling alone, while not unheard of is nary common. But a pregnant woman traveling alone, without husband or mother or attendant is uncommon. I am suspicious, and this must show on my face.
“Please”, she begs “do not abandon me in this strange city, I have money I can pay for your services”.
I am in a quandary as to what I should do. I clearly cannot leave her alone, but to where shall I take her. My home? And I fear she will not be able to walk the distance. I feel her body contract against mine and she again leans heavily against me. “We shall go to my home, can you walk?”. She nods.
As we pass through the Forum and past the market the sun is setting over the city and the stall holders are packing away their wares. I see Felix as he is leaving the square, “Felix!” he turns and as recognition dawns on his face he rushes over, raising Primilla’s arm across his shoulder and bearing most of her weight I am relieved.
Felix looks at me enquiringly “Valeria?”.
“Felix, this is Primilla, I am conveying her to my home, where she must rest”, I looked across the girls head and gave Felix, what I hoped was a look to still his questions further. We continued in silence, carefully making our way through the now crowded streets, everyone was out enjoying the cool of the evening. As we approached I heard the children again calling for that damnable Hercules!
“Let’s take her through to my bed”
She is panting heavily as we lay her down. I dampen a cloth and wipe her brow. And leave her to rest, and so that I may make a tincture of the poppy I had only than morning bought from Felix.
Felix looks concerned, “It is not usual for you to bring your charges into your home. What of the woman’s family?”
“I am uncertain. I encountered her at the baths, and in her condition could not leave her. I fear the baby is breach. She is in great pain and the contractions have begun. I do not foresee an easy birthing”
“But what of her husband” Felix entreats, “She is a citizen is she not”.
“I know not her story. Thank you for your help Felix. I must tend her needs now”.
As Felix leaves he promises to call tomorrow on his way to market. And I make the necessary preparations.
When all of a sudden, there was a boom outside. Looking out of the deep dark gray sky I saw before me the clouds roll in. The heat outside started to rise, I didn't know what to do, as I saw the woman before me in pain. In a panic the floors underneath me started to shake, pots from the shelfs started to shatter. I opened the windows seeing the city skyline and the volcano shaking. Then everything around here seemed to slow down, she remembered that this happened to her before in a dream she once had when she was younger with her husband. Then all of a sudden she hear a scream snapping out vision to reality. Looking behind the woman was screaming, and hollering gripping on the chair in pain. She thought to herself, knowing that if they were both to live to escape Pompii and help the woman deliver the baby.
I kneel by the bed. ‘Primilla, look at me!’ I command. Gasping, her eyes fly open. She is terrified.
‘I am a professional. While this might be your first birth, it is not mine. But you have to trust me and do as I say, all right?’
She nods, calmer for a brief moment before another contraction contorts her face in pain.
Carefully my fingers explore her distended belly. Nothing under my hands felt right! The baby was definitely breech, but the contractions were barely a dozen moments apart and speeding up. There was no time to turn the baby, certainly not without help.
I grab every bit of bedding I can find in my apartment, and come back to Primilla’s side. I grab her hand and call her name. “Can you sit up for me? Come on.’
She doesn’t hear me at first, so I start to pull on her arm. Finally she understand and inches her shoulders off of the mattress. Quick as lightening I stuff as much padding underneath her as I can, so at least she’s reclining now and not flat on her back.
I mix a glass of wine with every concoction and decoction I have -- to lessen the bleeding, to ease her contractions, to encourage the baby -- and make Primilla swallow every bitter drop. Finally, for good measure, I carefully spoon out a few grains of the fresh poppy seeds I acquired this morning (only this morning?). In between two violent contractions I manage to get her to chew the precious seeds.
Finally I pull out my last bit of assistance: a small stick bound tightly with a leather thong. ‘Open your mouth one more time.’ Her jaw is clenched too tight. ‘Primilla, open your mouth!’ By sheer dint of will, it seems, her teeth separate enough, and I work the stick between them.
‘Bite down hard. It’ll help, I promise.’ There is nothing in her eyes that resembles gratitude, though; only pain and fear.
I need help. Even one extra pair of hands right now would be invaluable. I step out of my doorway… and step into chaos! Even though night is falling nothing can match the blackness of the mountain. My eyes are dragged upwards to the very summit, which was vomiting an evil-colored of smoke.
People were rushing past me. I see a neighbor boy and grab his arm. Shocked, he starts to yell but then whirls around and sees me.
‘What’s going on? Is everything all right?’
‘Didn’t you feel the earthquake? And look at the mountain!’
‘Why the rush?’
‘Well, it’s the festival today, too.’
‘Look, boy. I need help. I need water, and can you ask your mother to come? I can’t leave my house, I have a client in labor here with me.’
He looks confused.
‘Go! There’s a piece of silver in it for you!’
That does the trick, I think, as the boy dashes off down the alley. Hopefully he’ll come back, if only for the silver piece I can ill afford.
I can less afford to lose a client, though! Even if it turns out she can’t pay me, I’ll be out less than I would if I damage my reputation by losing her. I’ve lost many women, all midwives do. But to take a stranger into my home only to fail her at the end -- well, best not to think about that.
Primilla screams and I turn around in haste. All I can hope is that the boy does come back with help. I don’t have enough water or towels, so I’ll have to do what I can alone.
I examine her again, massaging her belly firmly in an attempt to straighten out the baby. The child is desperate to be born , it seems! It is stubborn, too, and it refuses to turn. All I can do is keep trying.
Finally, at long last, the poppy seeds begin to work their magic; Primilla’s body sags between contractions although her teeth never lose their grip on the bit of wood.
Hours pass, it seems. My fingers become numb from their efforts but I’ve learned through long practice to keep them working no matter what. I feel each contraction throb across Primilla’s stomach a bare second before she groans violently against the bit, and my thoughts wander.
I am sorry, yes, that I never had children of my own. My husband more than did his duty but never with any result. Yet, for all my longing, a small part of me is glad; I have helped too many women endure such agony to bring a life into this world -- and too many women of those did not survive despite my best efforts. And look at me now! When that accident took my husband, how would I have survived with brats to feed? I would not have been able to buy my freedom, and I would not have been able to establish myself and my career.
Finally, I take a chance and I step out of my doorway again, but this time into a world that seems dead. The boy never returned , and the street is heavy with darkness and an unnatural heat. I take another chance and hammer at two neighboring doors, but my neighbors are either gone or don’t deign to answer. All I can do is try to make it through the short summer night until Felix returns in the morning, I think.
I return to Primilla, but her eyes are glazed and she barely responds to the cool towel I press to her brow.
‘Promise… me….’ In astonishment I look down at Primilla’s newly focused eyes. She has spit out the bit of wood and looks at me pleadingly. She grabs at my arm. ‘Take care of my baby.’
‘Hush. Don’t talk like that! I’ll get all of us through this, I promise!’
But I know by now I’m lying, and from the look Primilla gives me as I offer her back the stick, she knows it too.
Finally, in the darkest hour of the morning, one tiny foot emerges. I reach past, trying to find the other foot, but the baby is wriggling desperately. Again and again that second foot eludes my grasp. I am soaked in too much blood.
Then, for one short moment, the baby stills; by some miracle I find the second foot between my fingers… and I pull.
I left the house to see what was happening, it was dead silent outside all the animals around gone, people gone, the life of nature gone. Before my eyes I saw the red heat coming slowly from afar. I ran back in where the woman laid, more calmly than before looking at me with tears.
"You should go, save yourself, you have a life to live." she took a deep breath going on,"Why should I live if my husband could not come to me, he is probably dead, or left me for his own life."
I looked at her confused, grumply as I snapped back at her,"I am the one who should die, this world is a place of disgrace, why should you die when you would have a life to live on with your child.
She looked at me smiling, as the tears rolled down she screamed one last time, as her last breath as she whispered in the wind. "Take care of Luna" her hand that was gripping the chair loosened as it dangled.
An hour later passed, and she held in her hand the little girl. I looked at her, imaging around me my husband looking down at the little girl. The vision fading, as i repeated "Luna"
It is silent. There is not a sound of feet on the ground, there is no sound of people rushing, of breathing as they carry all they can manage away from this home to a new home. How far will they have to go? As I tune into the larger space around me, I can feel the rumbling. It does not reach me as a sound just a steady vibration that greets my toes as I walk slowly down the side of the mountain, away from my village. I am not leaving, just descending into the valley so I can watch. Someone has to be able to tell what happened here. Maybe it will be nothing. Perhaps the legends we have heard are not true. Maybe the watchers of the past did not tell the true story of what happened. Did the Mountain spirit chase them, make them run as fast as they could, dodging around rocks and trees just as nimbly as they were, a dance of a runner leading and an evil spirit trying to attach to them and thus be dragged along, until the runner was dragged down. The ones far in the lead left to tell the story. Perhaps that was not true at all. We can never know unless someone stays here and watches and waits. I will not be a runner. What would I run to? Who would be there? With my husband gone to speak to the mountain, I would have no one. He may return. I will watch for him until the mountain spirit reaches out for me. The air is still and warm. It feels like nothing will ever come down from that mountain. The rumbling sounds come back to my attention, they are fainter now, but still distinct. I feel the motion as I walk slowly down the mountain. I am bringing one thing with me. It is a bowl, made from wood that my husband brought to me when we got married. I think I have used this bowl everyday of our marriage. Today, I will crack the nuts I have gathered for when my husband comes down the mountain. I know he is not coming, but a faint hope keeps me alive and in a state of readiness for his return. Some dust is falling. Should I run? Should I watch?