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The Memoirs of Cleopatra
By Margaret George
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Margaret George
All rights reserved.
Warmth. Wind. Dancing blue waters, and the sound of waves. I see, hear, feel them all still. I even taste the sting of the salt against my lips, where the fine, misty spray coats them. And closer even than that, the lulling, drowsy smell of my mother's skin by my nose, where she holds me against her bosom, her hand making a sunshade across my forehead to shield my eyes. The boat is rocking gently, and my mother is rocking me as well, so I sway to a double rhythm. It makes me very sleepy, and the sloshing of the water all around me makes a blanket of sound, wrapping me securely. I am held safely, cradled in love and watchfulness. I remember. I remember ...
And then ... the memory is torn apart, upended, overturned, as the boat must have been. My mother gone, and I tumbling through the air, caught by other arms, rough ones that grip so hard around my middle that I can hardly breathe. And the splashing ... I can still hear the splashing, hear the brief, surprised cries.
They say I could not possibly, that I was not yet three years old when my mother drowned in the harbor, terrible accident, and on such a calm day, how did it ever happen? was the boat tampered with? did someone push? no, she just tripped and fell in while trying to stand up, and you know she couldn't swim, no, we didn't know that, until it was too late, why then did she go out on the water so often? She liked it, poor soul, poor Queen, liked the sound and the colors ...
A bright blue ball seems to envelop all that terror, that thrashing and the arcs of water flying all over, a sweeping circle, and the screams of the ladies on the boat. They say that someone dived over to help and was dragged down, too, and that two died instead of one. They also say that I clawed and kicked and tried to fling myself after my mother, screaming in fear and loss, but my strong-armed nurse, who had caught me, held me fast.
I remember being pushed onto my back and being held flat, staring up at the underside of a canopy where dazzling blue water was reflected, and unable to throw off my captor's hands.
No one comforts me, as one would expect someone to do for a frightened child. They are too concerned with preventing me from escaping. They say I cannot remember that either, but I do. How exposed I feel, how naked on that boat bench, torn from my mother's arms and now forcibly held down, as the boat hurries for shore.
Some days later I am taken to a large, echoing room, where light seems to come in from all sides and wind sweeps through, too. It is a room, but it feels as if it is also outdoors—a special sort of room, the room for someone who is not a person but a god. It is the temple of Isis, and the nurse is leading me to a huge statue—pulling me, rather. I remember digging in my heels and having to be almost dragged across the shiny stone floor.
The base of the statue is enormous. I can barely see over the top of it, to where two white feet seem to be, and a figure standing above it. The face is lost in shadow.
"Put your flowers at her feet," the nurse is saying, tugging at my fist with the flowers I am clutching.
I don't want to let go of them, don't want to put them there.
"This is Isis," the nurse says gently. "Look at her face. She is watching you. She will take care of you. She is your mother now."
Is she? I try to see the face, but it is so high and far away. It does not look like my mother's face.
"Give her the flowers," the nurse prompts.
Slowly I lift my hand and put my little offering on the pedestal at the end of my reach. I look up again, hoping to see the statue smile, and I imagine that I do.
So, Isis, it is thus, and on that day, I became your daughter.CHAPTER 2
My mother the late Queen's name was Cleopatra, and I was proud to bear her name. But I would have been proud of it in any case, for it is a great name in the history of our family, going all the way back to the sister of Alexander the Great, to whom we Ptolemies are related. It means "Glory to her Ancestry," and all my life and reign I have tried to fulfill that promise. All that I have done, I have done to preserve my heritage and Egypt.
All the women in our line were named Cleopatra, Berenice, or Arsinoe. Those names, too, went all the way back to Macedonia, where our family had its origins. Thus my two older sisters received the names of Cleopatra (yes, there were two of us) and Berenice, and my younger sister the name of Arsinoe.
Younger sister ... there were others after me. For the King needed to marry again, and soon after the untimely death of his Queen Cleopatra, he took a new wife, and she straightway produced my sister Arsinoe. Later she gave birth to the two little boys to whom I was briefly "married." Then she died, leaving Father a widower again. This time he did not remarry.
I did not care for my father's new wife, nor for my sister Arsinoe, who was only a little more than three years younger than I. From her earliest days she was sly and deceitful, a whiner and complainer. It did not help that she was also quite beautiful—the kind of child that everyone exclaims over, and asks, "And where did she come by those eyes?" and not merely out of politeness. It gave her an arrogance from the cradle, as she saw it not as a gift to be appreciated but as a power to be used.
My sister Cleopatra was some ten years older than I, and Berenice eight. Fortunate sisters, to have had our mother for that many years longer than I! Not that they seemed to be grateful for it. The eldest was a dour, drooping sort of creature; I fear I cannot even recall her very well. And Berenice—she was a veritable bull of a woman, big-shouldered, raw-voiced, with wide, flat feet that made even normal walking sound like stamping. There was nothing about her to recall our ancestor, the delicate-featured Berenice II, who had reigned with Ptolemy III two hundred years earlier and passed into legend as a strong-willed beauty to whom court poets dedicated their works. No, the red-faced, snorting Berenice would never inspire such literary outpourings.
I basked in the knowledge that I was my father's favorite. Do not ask me how children know these things, but they do, no matter how well parents try to hide it. Perhaps it was because I found the other Cleopatra and Berenice to be so peculiar that I could not imagine anyone being partial to them rather than to me. But later, even after Arsinoe with all her beauty came along, I retained the leading place in my father's heart. I know now it was because I was the only one who showed any concern for him in return.
I must admit it, honestly but with reluctance: The rest of the world (including his own children) found Father either comical or pitiful—perhaps both. He was a handsome, slight man, with a diffident and dreamy manner that could turn quickly to nervousness when he felt threatened. People blamed him both for what he himself was—an artist by inclination, a flute player, and a dancer—and for the situation he had inherited. The first was his own doing, but the second was an unfortunate legacy. It was not his fault that by the time he managed to climb onto the throne, it was practically in the jaws of Rome, necessitating any number of undignified postures to retain it. These included groveling, flattering, jettisoning his brother, paying colossal bribes, and entertaining the hated potential conquerors at his very court. It did not make him loved. Nor did it make him secure. Was it any wonder that he sought escape with the wine and music of Dionysus, his patron god? But the more he sought it, the more disdain he reaped.
Father's Magnificent Banquet for Pompey the Great: I was almost seven then, and eager finally to see Romans, real Romans, the Romans (that is, the dangerous ones, not the harmless merchants or scholars who showed up in Alexandria on personal business). I pestered Father to let me attend, knowing well how to persuade him, since he was susceptible to almost everything I asked, within reason.
"I want to see them," I told him. "The famous Pompey—what does he look like?"
Everyone had trembled about Pompey, since he had just swooped down on our part of the world. First he had put down a major rebellion in Pontus, then he had continued into Syria and taken the remnants of the empire of the Seleucids, turning it into a Roman province.
A Roman province. The whole world was turning into a Roman province, so it seemed. For a long time, Rome—which was located far away, on the other side of the Mediterranean—had confined itself to its own area. Then gradually it had extended its grasp in all directions, like the arms of an octopus. It grabbed Spain to the west, and Carthage to the south, and then Greece to the east, swelling and swelling. And the larger it swelled, the more its appetite grew to feed its bulk.
Little kingdoms were just morsels to it—tidbits like Pergamon and Caria, easily swallowed. The ancient realms of Alexander would be more satisfying, stave off its hunger better.
Once there had been three kingdoms carved out of Alexander's domains, ruled by his three generals and their descendants: Macedonia, Syria, and Egypt. Then two. Then Syria fell and there was only one: Egypt. There were reports that the Romans now felt the time was ripe to annex Egypt as well, and that Pompey himself was particularly keen on it. So Father had decided to do everything in his power to buy Pompey off. He sent cavalry units to help Pompey in crushing his next victim, our nearest neighbor, Judaea.
Yes, it was shameful. I admit it. No wonder his own people hated him. But would they rather have fallen to the Romans? His choices were those of a desperate man, between bad and worse. He chose bad. Would they have preferred worse?
"He's a big, strapping man," Father said. "Not unlike your sister Berenice!" We laughed together at that, conspirators. Then the laughter died. "He's frightening," he added. "Anyone with that much power is frightening, no matter how charming his manners."
"I want to see him," I insisted.
"The banquet will go on for hours—it will be loud, and hot, and boring for you. There's no point to it. Perhaps when you are older—"
"I hope you never have to entertain them again, so this is my only chance," I pointed out to him. "And if they do ever come here again, it won't be under pleasant circumstances. No lavish banquets then."
He looked at me oddly. Now I know it was because it was a strange way for a seven-year-old to speak, but then I was just afraid he was displeased with me and was going to refuse me permission.
"Very well," he finally said. "But I expect you to do more than just stare. You must be on your best behavior; we have to convince him that both Egypt and Rome are well served by our remaining on the throne."
"We?" Surely he did not mean ...or did he? I was only the third child, although at that point I had no brothers.
"We Ptolemies," he clarified. But he had seen the hope that had briefly flared up in me.
My First Banquet: Every royal child should be required to write a rhetorical exercise with that title. For banquets play such an inordinately large part in our lives; they are the stage where we act out our reigns. You start out dazzled by them, as I was then, only to find that after a few years they all run together. But this one will remain forever engraved in my mind.
There was the (soon to become dully routine) act of dressing, the first stage in the ritual. Each princess had her own wardrobe mistress, but mine was actually my old nurse, who knew little about clothes. She outfitted me in the first dress from the stack; her main concern was that it be freshly laundered and ironed, which it was.
"Now you must sit still, so it won't wrinkle," she said, smoothing out the skirt. I remember that it was blue, and rather stiff. "Linen is so easy to wrinkle! None of that romping, none of that acting like a boy that you sometimes do, not tonight! Tonight you must behave like a princess."
"And how is that?" I felt as encased as a mummy in its wrappings, which were also usually of linen. Perhaps going to the banquet was not such a good idea after all.
"With dignity. When someone speaks to you, you turn your head around, slowly. Like this." She gave a demonstration, letting her head swivel smoothly around, then lowering her eyelids. "And you look down, modestly." She paused. "And you answer in a sweet, low voice. Do not say, 'What?' Only barbarians do that. The Romans might well do it," she said grimly. "But you must not follow their example!"
She fussed with my collar a little, straightening it. "And should anyone be so rude as to mention an unpleasant subject—like taxes or plague or vermin—you must not reply. It is unfit to discuss such things at a banquet."
"What if I see a scorpion about to sting someone? Suppose, right on Pompey's shoulder, there's a bright red scorpion, its stinger raised—can I tell him?" I must learn all the rules. "Wouldn't it be rude not to? Even though it's an unpleasant subject?"
She looked confused. "Well, I suppose—" She snorted. "There won't be a scorpion on Pompey's shoulder! Honestly—you are an exasperating child, always thinking of something like that." But she said it affectionately. "At least we should hope there isn't a scorpion to bother Pompey, or anything else to ruin his good mood."
"Shouldn't I wear a diadem?" I said.
"No," she said. "Where did you get that idea? You aren't a queen."
"Aren't there any for princesses? We should be able to wear something on our heads. Romans have those laurel wreaths, don't they? And so do athletes."
She cocked her head, as she did when she was thinking hard. "I think the best ornament for a young girl is her hair. And you have such pretty hair. Why spoil it with anything else?"
She was always very attentive to my hair, rinsing it in scented rainwater and combing it with ivory combs. She taught me to be proud of it. But I longed to wear something special tonight. "But there should be something to mark us out as the royal family. My sisters—"
"Your sisters are older, and it is appropriate for them. When you are seventeen, or even fifteen like Berenice, you can wear such things."
"I suppose you are right." I pretended to agree. I let her comb my hair and pull it back with a clasp. Then I said, "Now that my forehead is so bare—not even a fillet?" A small, discreet one, a narrow band—yes, that would be fine with me.
She laughed. "Child, child, child! Why are you not content to let things rest?" But I could see that she was going to relent. "Perhaps a very small gold one. But I want you to use it as a reminder, the whole evening, that you are a princess."
"Of course," I promised. "I won't do anything rude, and even if a Roman belches or spills or steals a gold spoon by hiding it in his napkin, I'll pretend I don't see."
"You may well see some spoon-stealing," she admitted. "They are so hungry for gold, they drool at its sight. It's a good thing the artworks in the palace are too big to be tucked into the fold of a toga, or some of them would be missing come morning."
I had been in the banqueting hall before, but only when it was empty. The enormous chamber, which stretched from one side to the other of a palace building (for there were many palace buildings on the royal grounds) and opened onto steps overlooking the inner harbor, had always seemed like a shiny cavern to me. Its polished floors reflected my image when I ran across it, and the rows of pillars showed me passing. High above, the ceiling was lost in shadow.
Excerpted from The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George. Copyright © 1997 Margaret George. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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