Vignette 5: Write from the perspective of a temple priest before the eruption. He’s trying to connect the volcanic activity with a god, or maybe even experiencing a vision related to the eruption. Make this vignette as mystical as you like.
Agrippina stood up from the bed and wrapped a fine satin shawl around her statuesque body.
"I cannot do this, Marcus. The gods have not spoken to me yet."
Marcus Sempronius also stood up from the bed and pulled his toga around his body.
"Agrippina, Caesar orders it! The festivities are in less than a month, we need to keep the people quiet and in a proper festive spirit."
He laced his sandals and stood up.
Gripping her chin in his large hand, he spoke slowly, "This is not a request; this is an order, Agrippina. Do not disregard it."
"But we do not dare to ignore the gods, Marcus. They will exact a terrible punishment."
"Caesar is our ruler. Do it."
He planted a kiss on her mouth and left.
It was quiet in the temple. The smell of incense was soothing, transporting Agrippina to a higher plane. Her spirit was raised up there, but the gods were still silent. They would not speak to her and tell what the white smoke rising from the mountain top meant. She became upset due to the fact that she did not know what the smoke meant. She was also upset since the gods stayed silent.
She knew that they would never speak to her again, not since she had given in the sin of flesh with Marcus. But it had been impossible to resist his will and his charms. Mostly, she could not resist his power. He was the closest man to Caesar himself....the captain of his guards. Having Caesar's protection had its advantages; there were unsuspected luxuries in her house. She was favored by the most important and richest patrician families to bless their houses.
But there were also the orders. And now, just half an hour before she should speak to the people and give them the message of the gods, she was standing there, in the perfect silence, and her spirit heard no messages.
The gods were silent to her forever, but Caesar was not. He had given an order... an order she would have to follow.
"Oh, powerful and immortal gods, speak to me! Tell me your meaning. Tell me, why you are sending the white smoke. Is this your sign of contentment? Or of displeasure? Are you favorable to the festivities? Oh, immortal gods, speak to me!"
There was a waft of wind, and one of the bowls of incense started to spread scented smoke around Agrippina. She inhaled it slowly. Was this the message? Was this the answer?
It was the closest communion to the higher power she had experienced, so it had to be true.
She turned around and opened the doors. The crowd was there, waiting in silence, their eyes affixed on her.
"Joy to the people of Pompeii, for the gods have spoken! They are sending their joy and blessing upon each and every one of us. They wish peace and prosperity on each and every one of you. Receive Caesar's festivities with joy in your hearts. All is good upon the blessed land of Pompeii!"
She walked quickly back into the temple, not able to stand there and face the cheers of the crowd.
She had lied. In her heart she knew that she had lied. The incense was now all burned out, sending only black smoke in the air.
"Black smoke...the gods are angry! Oh, Marcus, my beloved Marcus....what did you do? What did you make me do?"
That night, Agrippina could not sleep. She felt hot, as if the sun was burning her. She threw away the light sheet covering her, but rivulets of sweat still broke across her spine. The heat seemed to increase, almost to an unbearable point.
Agrippina stood right up and walked to the window, letting the cool night air soothe her. The white smoke still came out of the Vesuvius.
"Gods, speak to me now! I beg you to speak to me now! There is still time...I can still make things right...But speak to me!"
Only silence reigned supreme and her spirit was not touched by any higher being. Perhaps all was lost. Agrippina walked back to bed and decided to take a few drops of valerian in a cup of wine. Valerian was the favored plant of the gods, bringing sweet dreams to the troubled spirits. Sometimes, they would favor her with visions. Agrippina hoped it would work this time.
She lay down in bed and closed her eyes, waiting for that special feeling. The feeling between waking and sleeping, when the spirits of the departed could be seen in with the mind's eye and the gods took human form.
It was a soft sensation of floating....until she felt the horrible choking feeling. The air was a wave of heat, burning down her nostrils and chest. She sat up in bed, coughing and heaving. Little by little, the horrible feeling of breathing pure fire was gone...but her peace was shattered. Was this the gods' punishment for lying? Or was it something worse...a sign of things to come?
She tried to get some sleep but the images of fire and the fear remained, making any attempts futile. She wanted to speak to Marcus about the vision. At first sign of light she went to him.
"What is the matter Agrippina?" he asked stirring. Her dishevelled appearance aroused him in a way he knew was not appropriate for this meeting.
"I had a vision, oh Marcus it was horrific" he motioned for her to sit on the bed with him.
She sat down and launched into the explanation. He absently caressed her arm as her worried words washed over him.
"I am sure it was nothing to worry about. Maybe it is just you worrying about your sin. You have no idea what this vision is referring to." she shook her head. He was right, she didn't but she had a feeling it had something to do with the white smoke.
"It was a warning I know it. Maybe we should leave?" he just laughed at her. She thought he'd be more understanding. She didn't know what else to say so left without another word.
During the sunlight hours men, women and children all came to her asking after the wishes of the gods. Agrippina told them the white smoke was a blessing or the preparations for the Vulcanalia festival were being well received by the god Vulcan and the white smoke was his contentment; like a wise and weathered old man smokes his pipe. She didn't disobey the orders she was given, keeping to her designated role to the letter. Mindlessly, she conversed with the fathers and mothers and thanked the children for the little gifts they kept bringing her, for the Gods. She congratulated the expectant little faces, looking up at her eagerly, eyes brimming with the desire to please. She encouraged them to pray and trust the priests' words and the Gods' blessings, despite her own treachery.
She placated the people of the city with soothing words that slipped from her lips; words that were lying, ugly, black and choking. For Agripinna knew that if she spoke to them of her fears about angered gods and black smoke that they would be the last words she would ever speak.
Each night; since the first vision of breathing fire, burning and of the suffocating feeling she’d awoken with; Agrippina was tormented by similar visions. Some of her visions and dreams were clearer than others; where the fires burned hotter, the cloying fear made her sick, black smoke stole air and smothered daylight, the screams were louder, and she was surrounded by pain. In the worst ones, she could see the innocent faces she had lied to during the day ; rosy cheeks covered in ashes, contorting in pain and desperately trying to breathe through the burning engulfing their small lungs. She recoiled helplessly in front of the accusations swimming in their betrayed eyes, of how she lied to them, of how she could have saved them, of how she could have taken pity and killed them herself to spare them such unbearable agony. Trashing around in her bed, she was unable to escape the sounds of their laughter turned into mangled cries of horror, the acrid smell of their skin boiling or the vision of their flesh melting in the hellish rings of smoke and fires enveloping her entire world.
She awoke from each vision screaming, lungs gasping for air and long limbs struggling in her sheets.
Agrippina tried to tell Marcus again that what she saw was a warning. Eventually she stopped trying to tell him because each time he laughed her off and told her she had nothing to worry about, what she saw was nothing and if it was something it was just the guilt and worry that came with her sin, of sleeping with him.
Agrippina spent most of her days in the temple, her statuesque form bowed and praying to the gods and to Vulcan in particular. Her words not just a prayer for answers but an appeal and a plea for her visions to not come true or to be a lie and for life and peace.
The time she didn’t spend praying or tortured by nightmares in her sleep she spent amongst the people. Despite her visions she remained dignified as she walked through the cobbled streets letting the sounds of laughter and preparations for the coming festival wash over her. Agrippina was a striking woman who stood out from the dirty clothes of the citizens who spoke to her and asked for advice. She was tall and held herself in a way that welcoming, it was her duty to her people to help them when she could even if she lied about the smoke. Her long hair of mahogany ringlets was twisted and pinned and hanging loose all at once. Intelligent slate eyes observed everything and everyone, trying to imprint it all on the walls of her mind.
Days passed and she glided from temple to city to Marcus to sleep to nightmarish visions. She prayed. She listened. She placated. She lied. And a hollow feeling began to seep slowly through her as with each day the realisation that she couldn’t do anything, with her fears or her god given visions, crashed over her violently again and again.
She barely slept instead watching the moonlight dance around the room. A naked Marcus passes out in exhaustion beside her. She just lay there unmoving as the moonlight dance faded, candles flickered and were extinguished as the dance of a new sun dawned. Agrippina knew that outside night transitioned into day the townspeople and villagers would be preparing for the day ahead. Hanging out cloths, lighting fires in their ovens, catching small animals or on the shore and in boasts fishing for small fish, both to be engulfed in the bonfire flames as sacrificial offerings to Vulcan.
The day of the Vulcanalia festival was finally here.
People woke and gathered their things. Agrippina slid from the bed after Marcus left, she remained still and quiet between the time he woke and the time he departed, she bathed and dressed in her festival fabrics. She joined the temple in their celebration of Vulcanalia and praying to great god Vulcan. Agrippina could almost see the people and communities gathering in the Pompeii that rested outside the temple doors. Kneeling, head bowed and hands clasped she closed her eyes. Her lids shuttered the light and her vision went dark. Form the dark shapes began to form and she could see the people of Pompeii and those in the villages and towns beyond beginning the celebrations.
Agrippina left her temple and the other priests to their prayer, slipping out into the city of Pompeii. The worry she carried from her now nightly visions of fire and pain was now her constant companion an invisible cloak that itched all her senses.
She flits from gathering to gathering and celebration to celebration. Sometimes she joining the people of Pompeii in their games and sometimes leading them in their prayers to Vulcan; asking for fertile fields, successful harvests and for their grain and food to be safe from destruction by fire.
As the day flowed on, the sun moved across the skies overhead and the great Mount Vesuvius began casting dark abyss like shadows across Pompeii.
Agrippina’s worry dissolved as a sense of foreboding enveloped her. She talked with the people, listened to their worries and helped them as they lit their bonfires. The small animals and still-live fish that had been caught in the early hours of the morn were thrown into the fires as sacrificial offerings to the Vulcan. She watched as each sacrifice was engulfed by hot flames, any sounds the small creatures made were cut short as they died and joined the wood that fuelled the burn. She flinched remembering the screams from her visions as each small bodies crackled and burned. Closing her eyes all she could see were men, women and children being smothered and burning their screams echoing every corridor of her mind.
Her vision that night was both better and worse she screamed and gasped in her pain like those around her but this time her pain suddenly stopped and peace seaped through her body. When she woke she looked around her knowing without any doubt in her mind that this was the last time she would sleep here.
Today was her last. Today she would die.
She felt the earth quake. It had been quaking on and off for weeks, like it was both angry and sad and knew what was coming.
Agrippina was with the orphans and children who had noone. She felt the world shake, the barest moment of silence then sound exploded. She saw Mount Vesuvious erupt. rock and earth flew out from its top, the sky darked to pitch with smoke. The children were screaming and she stayed with them. Mount Vesuvious's top, its new mouth, glowed a molten blend of orange and red and started spewing ash. The air around Agrippina and the people of pompeii grew thick with hot ash and something poisonous.
It was chaos.