Vignette 14: Write from the perspective of a tourist exploring the ruins of Pompeii. What thoughts and feelings do they have? What questions do they have about the eruption?
The first thing Octavius felt in the morning was creaking. Slow, rigid creaking of wood, and the harsh slap of water against the walls of the ship carrying him back to the lost city. The sensation curled up his spine and Octavius' eyes rolled open, looking up at the ceiling, which had ornate wood designs carved by hand. The boat lurched and Octavius sighed, rolling over in his bed, which was nailed to the side of the massive boat he had commissioned to take him on his journey.
Octavius stumbled out of his huge bed, feeling tired and anxious. The sound and smell of the ocean assualted his senses as he got dressed. He was coming back to Pompeii, a lost home he had escaped ten years before.
After he dressed and ate, Octavius had gone up on deck to see the view. The fresh salty air woke his senses and he looked around at the other people on deck. He had noticed the change in the other passengers and crew as soon as they could see the volcano in the distance. Every person on board the creaking ship had become quieter, more withdrawn. The reality of the trip started to sink in. People were going to see for themselves what happened to their beloved city. Look for loved ones missing since the fateful day. Octavius sighed and reached into his pocket. The bracelet was still there. It had been a part of him since he left Pompeii. Since he left _her_ behind. He squeezed the bracelet tight before he pulled his hand out of his pocket. He had to see for himself. He had to know what happened to the owner of the bracelet.
Taking in a shaky breath, Octavius pulled his gaze from the view of the volcano and once again slid his gaze over the other passengers. A woman, pressed against the railing of the ship, her shoulders slumped, caught his eye. Her long golden curls hung passed her waist and a shawl was wrapped tightly about her upper torso. He could see only the side of her face, which was angled downward, staring into the depths of the sea rather than the heinous view in the distance, but it was evident she was crying. Though he preferred to keep to himself, a strange pull seemed to beckon him to her. He knew that if she was traveling to Pompeii for the same reason as himself, to see what had become of a loved one after the horrible destruction, that she was in desperate need of being comforted. With one final glance about the deck, Octavius straightened his stance and strode slowly toward the woman. He stopped a few feet short of her and gently cleared his throat, not wishing to startle her. The woman’s head lifted slowly and vibrant blue eyes settled on his. A lump formed in Octavius’ throat at the sight of her tear stained cheeks. As her eyes searched his, a slight crease in her forehead, Octavius suddenly found himself at a loss for words. He’d approached the woman with the intention of offering comfort, but now that he stood before her, the words didn’t seem to want to form themselves.
Octavius handles the bracelet in his pocket as he gazes into her eyes, lost in the blue that reminds him of the glazed pots Lucretia threw and glazed in her small shop. The sea disappears, and the scent of the salt air fades, replaced by the narrow streets of Pompeii. He visits the street vendors, poring through their merchandise, looking for something for her, something to give her today, something with which she might remember him. He finds a necklace, a simple chain, with seven jeweled beads strung on it. He catches the attention of the vendor.
"Could you add another bead onto this necklace?" Octavius asked.
"But that would throw it out of balance," the vendor responded, pointing out that the middle bead featured red jewels, as opposed to the clear jewels of the other six.
"Perhaps you could add another red bead in the middle," Octavius said. "Then, there would still by symmetry."
The vendor shrugged and agreed to do it. After a brief discussion about the price, Octavius paid, thanked the vendor and left, sliding through the crowds to get to Lucretia's house. Tonight, he would tell her about his business opportunity in Palermo, and give her the necklace. He didn't know it at the time, but she would give him her bracelet, and make him promise to return to her one day.
He releases the bracelet, and the city fades from view, and he finds himself back on the ship, rocking and lurching towards the port. Looking around, he doesn't see the woman with the golden curls. He asks those standing near him, but none remember seeing her. Leaning against the rail, he gazes out over the water as they pull in for a landing.
Refugees and tourists crowd the port, some looking to travel the area, others trying to find a way to go on with their lives. Octavius had heard of the devastation, rumors and tall tales of levelled cities and mass casualties, but until he walked down the ramp of the boat and looked into the eyes of the refugees and other people who had already visited the area, he hadn't believed much of it. What had the gods wrought on these people? Blank stares greeted him at every turn, hollow eyes and bowed shoulders. An agent at the edge of the town offered horse-drawn wagons to rent. Octavius order the servants to load his luggage, then paid the man, but told him to wait as he strode back into the crowd, looking for the golden-haired woman. Walking all the way back to the boat, no one, not even the captain, could recall even seeing her on board, let alone after they disembarked. He made his way back to the wagon, and told the driver to head out.
The ride from the port inland was short, and Octavius occupied himself by staring at the sky. Grey and choked with smog, nothing like the clear blue he remembered, and staring up at it felt smothering. He was so used to the freshness of sea air after his days on the ship, and his time spent living on the coast in Palermo, that this desolate grey was terrible and terrifying. Nothing else was like this. He thought of the woman, with her golden hair and blue eyes, like the blue of the sky he is missing, and he wondered what had happened to her. She had vanished like smoke in the wind, as if she had never been there at all. Maybe she was a spirit of the lost, he thought, and shivered even in the heat.
When the driver stopped, all Octavius could do was stare. There had been a city there once, and now Pompeii was a black plain, with nothing but soot and ash and a few glowing rivers of lava. The gods had brought down their fury upon this place, and now only the dead were left, trapped beneath the dried blood of the mountain. The great beast itself was still belching smoke into the air, but it had come to rest. Octavius clenched his hand around the breacelet in his pocket, and only the feeling of the beads biting into the soft skin of his fingers kept him from collapsing to his knees. Somewhere below all that was Lucretia, and all hope was lost. He understood now what had possessed those in the port, what force it was that had drained the life from their eyes and left them hollow, like dead men walking. The mountain had buried the city into a single mass grave, and all life had simply gone away, as easily as snuffing a candle.
"The lava is still flowing, Master," the driver called from the cart. Octavius had not notcied himself walking away, and now he turned back. "It's not safe."
Octavius swallowed. "I must look," he said. "For something, some trace."
"The city's buried."
Octavius only shook his head and ignored the driver's incredulous look, and set out across the desolation, eyes darting the earth below him to the horizon and back, again and again.
As he walks, the remnants of the mountain looming in the distance, he covers his mouth and nose with the sleeve of his tunic, protecting himself as much as possible from the dust he kicked up as he walked. Still, the acrid taste filled his mouth, burning his nose and throat. His eyes watered, tears rolling down his face, but he continued to focus on placing one foot in front of the other, plodding forward, until his feet simply refused to move, and he fell to his knees in the dirty ash.
He pulled the bracelet out of his pocket and gazed down at it, almost unable to see it through his swollen, watery eyes. He didn't know where in the city's layout he was, he didn't know if he was anywhere near Lucretia's house. All he knew was that he shouldn't be here at all, that there was nothing but death to be found here. Death for the residents, and for any that came to look for them.
"You should not be here," a voice said from above him. Octavius could not bring himself to look up at the speaker. "Octavius," the voice said. "You should not have come."
He realized that he recognized the voice, that it was that of the girl he'd left behind. It was the voice of Lucretia. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. The ash dissolved beneath him, casting him forward to slam into the large stones of the road like a bag of meat. He lay there a moment, trying to rectify where he was and from where he had fallen. Rolling slightly and looking to the sky, he saw nothing but clouds and the sun. A fellow pedestrian paused and helped him to his feet, checking to see if Octavius is okay, and then advising him to watch his step in the future. Octavius stared at the man for a moment then nodded. Another passerby handed him the small wooden box he’d been carrying.
Octavius looked down at the box in his hand, at the ornate carving on the lid and smiled. He was on his way to Lucretia’s. He thanked the men for helping him, told them he would be more careful, and strode off, marveling at the storefronts and homes as he passed. He waved to the book dealer on the corner as he turned down Lucretia’s street. Five houses down, he ducked inside the vestibulum and knocked on the wooden door. A servant let Octavius into the house, and led him into the atrium, where Lucretia sat on a stone bench reading a small book in the fading light, her golden curls hanging down her back. As he entered the courtyard, she looked up at him and smiles. Her face fell as her eyes took in the wooden box in his hand.
“So soon?” she said.
“I am sorry,” Octavius replied. “This is an opportunity on which I cannot pass. The timing is poor, but sensitive.”
“And so you bring me gifts to placate me as you leave?”
“I bring you this as a promise,” he said, handing her the box. “I must leave, but it is only temporary. I will come back.”
She held the box in her hands, staring down at the brass latch and hinges, and at the intricate monogram on the lid. “Why can’t I come with you?”
He shook his head. “My benefactor has extended a generous offer to me, but to me alone. I cannot impose on him.”
Lucretia nodded, undid the latch, and lifted the lid of the box. Her breath caught in her throat as the sun, now just barely visible over the edge of the atrium, glinted off the gems. “It is beautiful,” she said, setting the box on the bench between them and holding up the necklace. Octavius took it from her hands, and she turned away from him slightly so that he could drape it around her neck and clasp it in the back. She stood up and led him to a mirror where she admired the necklace. A small cloud of dust particles disturbed by the sudden movement dance in the afternoon sun.
“It is beautiful, Octavius. I shall never remove it.”
He leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. “It was made for you. Eight gems, two in the middle a bright red.”
Lucretia’s smile faded again. She turned and looked up at him, her face serious. “It is beautiful, and I will keep it as your promise, but how do I know that you will remember me?”
“Why would I not?”
“Are there no women in Palermo?”
“I suppose there are,” Octavius said, hold her hand in his. “Do you not believe, though, that the gods themselves brought us together? None can match that.”
“The gods may decide to test you while you are away, to tempt you away from me.” She slid the beaded golden bracelet off her wrist and pressed it into the palm of his hand.
“My mother gave me this bracelet just before she died,” she said. “Keep it with you wherever you go, and think of me. The gods brought us together and take you away from me now, but I believe they will bring us together again.” She looked up into his face, her bright blue eyes holding his for a moment, and then kissed him on the lips, a tear rolling down her cheek.
A servant entered, lighting the torches as the afternoon sun faded. The brazier at the middle of the atrium flared, an ashen smoke billowing out of the stone enclosure, knocking the servant backwards to the grass, and startling Lucretia. She looked up at Octavius and the color drained from her face. Even her eyes seemed to fade.
“It is time for you to go,” Lucretia said. Wiping tears from her eyes, she turned and disappeared into the house.
Octavius saw himself out, bracelet clutched tightly in his hand. The smoke from the brazier tore at his throat and stung his eyes. Smoke and ash poured out from the doors and windows of the house opposite Lucretia's, then from every house on the street. His legs buckled. He fell to his knees in the middle of the street. As the smoke flowed and swirled around him, darkening the sky, a fine film of ash coated his skin. Tears rolled down his face and the buildings in front of him blurred and faded.
“It is time for you to go,” Lucretia said again, from in front of him this time. He opened his eyes, saw nothing but the vast field of swirling dust and smoke, the evil mountain off in the distance, and howled at the gods. He had once believed them just and righteous, meting out punishments to fit the transgression, but nothing done in Pompeii could have warranted the complete erasure of the city.
Unless it was his own transgression. He should have come back sooner. Maybe he should never have left. Maybe this punishment had been meant for him and the other survivors, not for the residents. They have moved on to the next life, unconcerned with this realm, while he and those that still live can do nothing but mourn. He buried his face in his hands, trying to rub the tears from his eyes, but only increasing the inflammation.
A hand, soft and feminine, reached down and stroked his face. At her caress, the burning in his throat and eyes faded, strength returned to his legs.
He stood and looked into Lucretia’s eyes, holding up the bracelet for her to see. “I promised,” he said.
She smiled, though the tears still flowed down her cheeks. “There is nothing for you here anymore,” she said.
“I don’t believe that,” he said. "Come with me this time."
She shook her head, the rings of gold hair shaking. "I cannot."
"Then I will stay here with you."
“The gods will bring us together again,” she said, “but not yet.” She caressed his face again, her hand trailing down his cheek to his shoulder, his arm, and then his hand. She closed his fingers around the bracelet and pushes the hand back into his pocket. “It is time for you to go,” she said, caressing his face again.
Octavius closed his eyes and reached his hand up to touch hers, but found nothing but his own face. Opening his eyes, he saw nothign but the desolate plain. Clutching the bracelet again, he turned and walked back the way he had come. On the return trip, the smoke and ash did not sting and burn his airways or his eyes. The heat from the lava flow didn't affect him. His servants, when he arrived back at the wagon, claimed that the dust rose up around him, but would blow past him, as if diverted by the hands of the gods themselves.
"Did you find anything?" the driver asked.
Octavius shook his head, told the driver to turn the wagon around, so they could head back to the port. "All I have to remember her is this," he said, pulling his hand from his pocket. The servants gasp. They had seen the bracelet, and don't recognize the object Octavius now holds in his hand. He looks at it, the long chain, strung wtih eight jewel-encrusted beads, the middle two a vibrant red.