I’ve come to a juicy episode, part of chapter 6. And the strange thing is that I feel deep emotion for the character I’m creating. The chapter introduces a runaway slave, whom Silvanus finds in the woods. Listen to the story and let me know what you think…
“Aren’t you afraid of Jupiter and Mars and all the others? Do you pray to that god of yours?”
“Well, yes, but I don’t really know much about him.” I notice tears forming in his eyes and his voice begins to tremble. “My Mother used to talk a lot about him. Before they… killed her.”
“Killed her? Who did that?”
“The goyim – Barbarians, I guess they were. They landed near our city in many large boats. At first, I had no idea what was happening. I was just a little child, playing on the steps near the Church above our house. But soon they were running everywhere, slaughtering people with their horrible swords and axes and setting all the houses on fire. I wanted to go home but they were everywhere. My Father and big brother tried to protect my Mother and sister, who had just fallen on their knees… They didn’t stand a chance.” He breaks down, sobbing bitterly.
I move nearer and try to console him. “I’m so sorry for you. It must have been terrible.”
He can’t speak for a while. Then: “It was horrible. Horrible. I watched them slash them down. And they just lay there, twitching, in pools of blood… My whole family. All the servants. Everyone. They just grabbed me and Salome and some other little girls… children. Tied us up and dragged us to their ships. We screamed and bit and scratched but it didn’t help.” He pauses again, shaking his head, the tears now running freely.
After a bit, I ask, “Who’s Salome?”
“My friend. She lived next door. She had a brother, Marcus. I liked him. We were just children. We always played together… I never saw them again.”
“Where did they take you then?”
“How can I know? I was pushed down into the hold of one of their beastly ships, along with lots of other children. It seems they had killed all the adults who crossed their path. We sailed for several days. I remember it was stormy and many of us were sick. They didn’t give us any food, just buckets of water once a day. It was miserable. Everything stank of vomit and piss. No-one knew what they were going to do with us. We’d lost everything – our parents, our families, our homes, everything…” He can’t go on.
After some time: “Oh, how I miss Mother! I miss them all. How can it be that they have all been taken from me and I alone live on? We had such a happy life. We loved each other. Mother used to sing to me when she put me to bed. A song about God and the Christ. She always prayed for us. I still remember it. She gave me this,” turning back the collar of his tunic, he shows me a carved ivory brooch of a dove, pinned to the inside. “It’s the only thing I have from my family. I don’t really remember what it’s supposed to mean but I know it’s something to do with God. And it comforts me.” Again he sobs bitterly. “Everything else is lost. Horrible, just horrible, it was.”
I put my arm on his shoulder and let him weep. Then, after a while: “And then they brought you here to Ilva?”
“No, not here at first. We landed somewhere else. A big port. It was cold. And the people were white and spoke differently. There were hardly any dark-skinned people like us. I don’t know where it was. Somewhere in Italy, I suppose.”
“So, what did they do with you then?”
“They took us to the market, and… sold us… as slaves. I was only a g… a child, maybe 5 years old at the time. And I was to work as a slave. I big, proud man wearing a rich gown and gold jewelry bought me and gave me into the care of one of his servants. It was no use trying to escape. Where should I have gone? After some days in an inn – I guess he was doing other business – they took me into another boat. This time I wasn’t thrown into the hold; they treated me fairly well, fed me and gave me clothes, since mine were filthy and anyway not warm enough. Then they brought me here, to their villa – you probably saw it – on the hill overlooking the town. I was sent to live with their other slaves and servants.”
“And you lived there till now?”
“Yes, I must have been about five years with them. At first it was alright. I had to learn how to wash clothes and things like that. At first, I wasn’t allowed to help with the cooking, because they had funny rules about how the food had to be prepared and served. At least I had somewhere to live and food to eat.
“My master was a harsh man with his slaves, shouting at them and always complaining that they hadn’t done their cleaning properly, or whatever. Sometimes he got really angry and then he would beat someone with a cane. It was terrifying to have to watch and not be able to do anything about it. We were just slaves, so we didn’t count. It didn’t seem right, somehow, that he behaved like that with his servants and, at the same time, insisted on the family performing their religious rites – especially on Saturday, which was supposed to be a day of rest, although, of course, we still had to serve them. They put on special clothes and lit a strange lamp with many arms and recited strange sing-song prayers in a language I didn’t understand.
“There was a daughter in the family, Sabina, who’s only a couple of years older than me. She seemed to like me. A lovely girl; my only friend. And now I’ve lost her, too. Sometimes I was invited into the family’s quarters – the others slaves weren’t usually allowed there – to keep Sabina company, because I was so young and her brothers were much older. We dressed up her dolls as lords and ladies and played together. She taught me to sew and even to read her scrolls. She had some songs, too. Lovely songs about the one true God. But when I asked her about the Christ, she didn’t know what I was talking about. She was also learning to play a harp. Beautiful sound it makes. I loved to dance while she played and that made her laugh. Those were happy times, even if I was just a slave. And, of course, I often met her parents, as they were going about their daily business. Her mother seemed quite fond of me too.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” I remark. “Why then did you want to escape?”
“Things changed… Oh, it was horrible. I couldn’t bear it any more. But I don’t want to talk about that,” he answers. And I just have to accept it.
As I make my way down to the brook to fetch water, I suddenly stop in my tracks. Valerius is there, bathing, and hasn’t noticed me. But two things shock me to the marrow: First, I see two terrible red welts across his back where the flesh has been torn by some vicious blows. And second: I see Valerius isn’t a boy at all!
He – or, rather she – hasn’t noticed me yet and I am so horrified and dumbfounded that I can’t do anything for a moment. When I get my breath back, I manage to bring out some words: “Valerius - or whoever you are…” At the first sound of my voice, she crumples up and tries to hide in the overhanging bushes, which isn’t a good idea, as they are thorns. “You… You need help with those wounds!”
“Oh, I didn’t want you to know,” she sobs. “Now all is lost again. You won’t want a wounded girl for company! Oh, God, have mercy on me!”
“Come on. Don’t be silly,” I manage to say. “Alright, I can see you’re a girl. What’s so terrible about that? It’s those gashes I’m worried about. They seem to be inflamed. You just have to be brave and let me look at them. I still have some of the labdanum salve my hostess – what was her name? Drusa – gave me that night after the storm. Did I tell you about her? It really helped heal my scratches, although they weren’t anything like as bad as yours look.”
She refuses to come out of the pool.
“Look, I’ll go back to the mules and find the phial. You can come out and wrap yourself up, if you’re embarrassed, but you must let me see to those wounds.” I make my way back to our camp and take out the strong-smelling ointment.
After some time, she appears, wearing a loin cloth and shyly holding her tunic in front of her.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But it is rather painful. I was trying to clean the wounds myself but, of course, I can’t see my back.”
I get her to lie down on the goat skin. I’m struck by how skinny her whole body seems, as if there’s hardly any flesh on her bones. As gently as I can, I examine the festering weals. One place, just below her left shoulder blade, is particularly sore and oozing pus. She winces and barely suppresses a scream as I clean it as best I can with a wet strip of cotton from the bolt.
“I’m going to put some salve on now. It’ll sting at first.” She winces again but is remarkably self-controlled. I cut off a longer strip of cotton and wrap it around her skinny chest to protect the wounds. Her tiny breasts are just beginning to develop.
“Alright, you were very brave,” I say. “But I’ll need to look at the wounds again in the evening. Get dressed now and let’s have some breakfast.”
I cook up some oats and a hot brew of thyme and rosemary. It’s good I bought those glass beakers. Warm food seems to calm her down a bit. After washing the pots and clearing up a bit, I smile and say, “So now, my little Valerius, I think it’s time to tell me the whole truth, starting with what your real name is. And who gave you those lashes.”
“Very well. It’s no use trying to hide anything from you. I’m at your mercy, after all. Thanks for treating my wounds. And thanks for not getting mad when you saw I wasn’t telling the whole truth. I hated having to lie. God doesn’t like liars. I just thought I had more chance of escaping if I looked like a boy. That’s why I cut my hair. I hated having to do that, as well; I had such lovely black locks almost down to my waist.” She falters, tears welling up in her eyes.
“My name’s Virna.”
“Virna. Lovely name.”
“Thank you. But everything else I said was true. My family was murdered and I was taken as a slave when I was just five.”
“Can you tell me how you got those wounds? Was that why you ran away?”
“Well, yes. But it all started a few days ago. My mistress took Sabina and the boys over to the mainland. I think it was for a relative’s wedding. So I was lonely. Of course, I had my chores in the kitchen, and the other slave women weren’t unkind, but still: my friend was away. We were baking challah, so it must have been last Friday. They need that special bread for their Sabbath celebrations. I don’t really understand what it’s all about. But I had learned to plait the six strands of dough. It’s not easy, but I loved doing that.
“I was surprised when Laban said the master wanted to see me. I never went into their rooms except with Sabina. But I washed my hands, took off my apron and the hood I used to cover my hair while we were baking and made my way up to the oecus. He was reclining on the couch, and just smiled at me.
“‘What can I do for you, sir?’ I stuttered.
“‘Just come over here, my dear.’ He’d never talked to me like that before, but I had to obey. ‘Don’t be shy!’ He grabbed my arm and pulled me closer, stroking my hair. ‘You’re a pretty girl, Virna. Soon a beautiful woman. I like your wavy black hair.’ I couldn’t understand what was happening. ‘Have some of my wine!’ I couldn’t believe it. He wanted me to drink from his goblet. But what could I do? I took a sip. It was so strong! Not like the watery wine the servants were given. I nearly choked and he just laughed. He made me drink more and it began to make me feel dizzy. I still had no idea what he really wanted. He never talked to me otherwise. Oh, it horrifies me just to talk about what happened.”
“Take your time. I don’t want to force you, but I think you need to get it off your chest. Anyway, it’s over now.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” She’s breathing in spasms now. “It’s no good trying to pretend it didn’t happen. And I haven’t told you about the lashes yet.”
“Just tell it as it happened.”
“Well, I’m just a girl. I don’t know the ways of men with women. He got up then, still holding my arm, and drew me over into his bedroom. I’d only been in there once when their maid was sick and I had to empty the chamber pot and then help the mistress with her hair. But she’s away on the mainland. He pulled me to the side of the bed and lay down, muttering silly things about how pretty I was, what lovely eyes I had and beautiful hair. Then I noticed he was only wearing a loose bath robe and it was half open. I saw his hairy chest, and… Oh, it was awful! He seemed to be wriggling on purpose so that the robe opened up more and more. I was horrified. I’d never seen a man naked, not even my Father or my brothers. I tried to turn away but he was still holding my arm. Then he said: ‘It’s warm in here’ There was a good fire going in the grate. ‘Wouldn’t you like to take off your tunic?’ I was devastated, as you can imagine. But he meant it! ‘You could come and snuggle up with me in bed. I’d like that.’ I wanted to scream but he grabbed me round the waist and covered my mouth with his free hand. What could I do? A slave daren’t disobey her master but I was terrified and disgusted by his behaviour.
“When He started pulling up my tunic, I just couldn’t stand it any more. I scratched at his face with all my strength and bit the hand that was covering my mouth. That made him let go, so I began to scream at the top of my voice. He was still firmly holding my tunic with his other hand and he got really mad then, shouting out what an ungrateful, vicious little slut I was. Everyone must have heard him, but I guess they knew they weren’t allowed to interfere in his private life. He was so furious that he got up – almost naked, his robe just hanging over his shoulders – and grabbed a strigil from the bedside chest. He pressed me face down onto the bed with one hand and then beat me with all his strength across my back. You saw the result. Just two blows and then I guess he felt ashamed of himself. I was in agony, shaking and sobbing bitterly into the bed linen. I couldn’t move. But at least he had stopped torturing me.
“Then he shouted: ‘Get out! Get out! You’re not to come to these quarters ever again! And don’t you dare say anything to anyone about what just happened.’ I could hardly raise myself to my feet, my back ached so badly. But somehow I managed to stand and run sobbing out of the room and down to the slaves’ dormitory. I hid in the corner and wept, it must have been for hours. I still don’t know what he wanted to do with me but I just couldn’t bring myself to strip naked in front of him. It’s not proper, is it?”
“It certainly isn’t. His behaviour sounds absolutely scandalous.”
“My back hurt frightfully. But what was I to do? My only friend was away in Italy and, in any case, he said I was never to go back to their rooms. I just had to escape.
“It was the first time in my life that I stole anything. I sneaked into the kitchen, grabbed a knife, one of the challah that had just come out of the oven, and that bag from near the door, and ran. I ran and ran, not knowing where I was going. Out of town I ran and into the woods, where I thought no-one would find me. I cut off my beautiful hair, so that I wouldn’t be recognised so easily. The rest you know.”
“So, that was stolen bread you provided for our first meal together!”
“Yes, I’d forgotten about it. It was still in the bag. The first day I couldn’t eat anything anyway. I just drank water from the stream. My back hurt frightfully, especially when I lay down. I tried to make a bed of heather and dry leaves. But it gets so cold at night! I thought I would die. You don’t know how grateful I am for your kindness to me.”
As the horror of her story sinks in, it takes me a while before I can say anything sensible.
“I’m so sorry. Really I am. I didn’t want to callous, just teasing you about the bread. What can I say? You’ve lost your family. You’ve been treated brutally by a lewd man who should be ashamed of himself. And now you’ve lost your only friend. I’m so sorry.”
“But now I’ve found a new friend. Is it alright if I call you my friend, Silvanus?”