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The last time I saw Cassandra . . .
I was about to say: the last time I saw Cassandra was on the day of her death. But that would be untrue. The last time I saw her--gazed upon her face, ran my fingers over her golden hair, dared to touch her cold cheek--was on her funeral day.
It was I who made all the arrangements. There was no one else to do it. No one else came forward to claim her body.
I call her Cassandra, but that was not her real name, of course. No parents would ever give a child such an accursed name, any more than they would name a baby Medea or Medusa or Cyclops. Nor would any master give such an ill-omened name to a slave. Others called her Cassandra because of the special gift they believed her to possess. Like the original Cassandra, the doomed princess of ancient Troy, it seemed that our Cassandra could foretell the future. Little good that accursed gift did either of the women who bore that name.
She called herself what others called her, Cassandra, saying she could no longer remember her real name or who her parents were or where she came from. Some thought the gods had given her glimpses of the future to compensate for robbing her of the past.
Someone else robbed her of the present. Someone snuffed out the flame that burned inside her and lit her with an inner glow such as I have seen in no other mortal. Someone murdered Cassandra.
As I said, it fell to me to make the funeral arrangements. No outraged friend or lover, no grieving parent or sibling came forward to claim her. The young man who had been her sole companion, the mute she called Rupa--bodyguard, servant, relative,lover?--vanished when she was murdered.
For three days her body rested on a bier in the foyer of my house on the Palatine Hill. The embalmers clothed her in white and surrounded her with pine branches to scent the air. Her killer had done nothing to destroy Cassandra's beauty; it was poison that killed her. Drained of color, Cassandra's smooth cheeks and tender lips took on a waxen, opalescent quality, as if she were carved from translucent white marble. The hair that framed her face looked like hammered gold, cold and hard to the touch.
By day, illuminated by sunbeams that poured through the atrium skylight, she looked no more alive than a white marble statue. But each night, while the rest of the household slept, I stole from my wife's bed and crept to the foyer to gaze at Cassandra's body. There were times--strange moments such as occur only in the middle of the night, when the mind is weary and flickering lamplight plays tricks on an old man's eyes-when it seemed hardly possible that the body on the bier could be truly dead. The lamplight infused Cassandra's face with a warm glow. Her hair shimmered with highlights of red and yellow. It seemed that at any moment she might open her eyes and part her lips to draw a quickening breath. Once I even dared to touch my lips to hers, but I drew back with a shudder, for they were as cold and unresponsive as the lips of a statue.
I placed a black wreath on my door. Such wreaths are a warning in one sense, alerting others to the presence of death in the household, but in another sense they issue an invitation: come, pay your final respects. But not a single visitor came to view Cassandra's body. Not even one of those compulsive gossips came to pester us, the type who make the rounds of the city looking for wreaths and knocking on doors of people they've never met, just to have a look at the latest corpse so they can deliver an opinion on the embalmers' handiwork. I alone mourned Cassandra.
Perhaps, I thought, death and funerals had become too commonplace in Rome for the passing of a single woman of unknown family, commonly thought to be as mad as-well, as mad as Cassandra-to excite any interest. The whole world was swept up in a civil war that dwarfed all other conflicts in the history of the world. Warriors were dying by the hundreds and thousands on land and on sea. Despairing wives were wasting into oblivion. Ruined debtors were found hanging from rafters. Greedy speculators were stabbed in their sleep. All was ruin, and the future promised only more death and suffering on a scale never known before by humankind. Beautiful Cassandra, who'd haunted the streets of Rome uttering shrill, crazy prophecies, was dead--and no one cared enough to come and see her body.
And yet, someone had cared enough to murder her.
When the period of mourning was done, I summoned the strongest of my household slaves to lift the bier onto their shoulders. The members of my household formed the funeral cortege, except for my wife, Bethesda, who had been ill for quite some time and was not well enough to go out that day. In her place my daughter, Diana, walked beside me, and beside her walked her husband, Davus. Behind us walked my son Eco and his wife, Menema, and their golden-headed twins, now old enough, at eleven, to understand the somber nature of the occasion. Hieronymus the Massilian, who had been residing in my house since his arrival in Rome the previous year, also came; he had suffered much in his life and had known the pain of being outcast, so I think he felt a natural bond of sympathy with Cassandra. My household slaves, few in number, followed, among them the brothers Androcles and Mopsus, who were not quite as old as Eco's children. For once, sensing the gravity of the occasion, they behaved themselves.
So that all would be done fittingly, I hired three musicians to lead the procession. They played a mournful dirge, one blowing a horn and another a flute, while the third shook a bronze rattle. My neighbors in their stately houses on the Palatine heard them coming from a distance and either closed their shutters, irritated at the noise, or opened them, curious to have a look at the funeral party.
After the musicians came the hired mourners. I settled for four, the most I could afford considering the state of my finances, even though they worked cheaply. I suppose there was no shortage of women in Rome who could draw upon their own tragedies to produce tears for a woman they had never known. These four had worked together on previous occasions and performed with admirable professionalism. They shivered and wept, shuffled and staggered but never collided, pulled at their tangled hair, and took turns chanting the refrain of the playwright Naevius's famous epitaph: " 'If the death of any mortal saddens hearts immortal, the gods above must weep at this woman's death . . . .' "
Next came the mime. I had debated whether to hire one, but in the end it seemed proper. I had been told he came from Alexandria and was the best man in Rome for this sort of thing. He wore a mask with feminine features, a blond wig, and a blue tunica such as Cassandra wore. I myself had coached him on mimicking Cassandra's gait and mannerisms. For the most part his gestures were too broad and generic, but every so often, whether by accident or design, he struck an attitude that epitomized Cassandra to an uncanny degree and sent a shiver through me.
Funeral mimes are usually allowed a great deal of latitude to caricature and gently lampoon their subject, but I had forbidden this; it is one thing to sketch a loving parody of a deceased patriarch or a public figure, but too little was known about Cassandra's life to offer fodder for humor. Still, the mime could not offer a portrait of her without imitating the one thing that everyone would recall about her: her fits of prophecy. Every so often, he suddenly convulsed and spun about, then threw back his head and let out a strange, unnerving ululation. It was not an exact imitation of the real thing, only a suggestion-not even remotely as frightening or uncanny as the real Cassandra's episodes of possession by the god-but it was close enough to cause any bystanders who had ever seen Cassandra prophesy in the Forum or in a public market to nod and say to themselves, So that's who's lying upon that funeral bier. Directly after the mime came Cassandra herself, carried aloft and ensconced amid fresh flowers and evergreen boughs, her arms crossed over her chest and her eyes closed as if she slept. After Cassandra came the members of my household, marching in solemn procession for a woman none of them but myself had actually known.
We strode slowly past the great houses on the Palatine and then down into the region of the Subura, where the narrow streets teemed with life. Even in these impious days, when men scorn the gods and the gods scorn us in return, people pay their respects when a funeral passes by. They stopped squabbling or gossiping or bargaining, shut their mouths, and stood aside to let the dead and the mourning pass.
Often, as a funeral cortege makes its way through Rome, others join the retinue, inspired to pay their respects by following along behind the family and adding to the train. This invariably happens with the funerals of the famous and powerful, and often even with those of the humble, if they were well-known and well liked in the community. But on that day, no one joined us. Whenever I looked over my shoulder, I saw only a gap behind the last of our retinue, and then the crowd closing ranks behind us, turning their attention away from the passing spectacle and getting back to their business.
And yet, we were observed, and we were followed-as I soon would discover.
At length, we came to the Esquiline Gate. Passing through its portals, we stepped from the city of the living into the city of the dead. Sprawling over the gently sloping hillsides, as far as the eye could see, was the public necropolis of Rome. Here the unmarked graves of slaves and the modest tombs of common citizens were crowded close together. Ours was not the only funeral that day. Here and there, plumes of smoke from funeral pyres rose into the air, scenting the necropolis with the smells of burning wood and flesh.
A little way off the road, atop a small hill, the pyre for Cassandra had already been prepared. While her bier was being laid upon it and the keepers of the flame set about stoking the fire, I stepped into the Temple of Venus Libitina, where the registry of deaths is kept.
The clerk who attended me was officious and sullen from the moment he slammed his record book onto the counter that separated us. I told him I wanted to register a death. He opened the hinged wooden diptych with its inlaid wax tablets and took up his stylus.
"Citizen, slave, or foreigner?" he asked curtly.
"I'm not sure."
"Not sure?" He looked at me as if I had entered the temple with the specific intention of wasting his time.
"I didn't really know her. No one seems to have known her."
"Not part of your household?"
"No. I'm only attending to her funeral because-"
"A foreigner then, visiting the city?"
"I'm not sure."
He slammed shut his record book and brandished his stylus at me. "Then go away and don't come back until you are sure."
I reached across the counter and grabbed the front of his tunic in my fist. "She died four days ago, here in Rome, and you will enter her death into the registry."
The clerk blanched. "Certainly," he squeaked.
It was only as I gradually released him that I realized how hard I had been clutching his tunic. His face was red, and it took him a moment to catch his breath. He made a show of reasserting his dignity, straightening his tunic, and slicking back his hair. With great punctiliousness, he opened his register and pressed his stylus to the wax. "Name of the deceased?" he asked, his voice breaking. He coughed to clear his throat.
"I'm not sure," I said.
His mouth twitched. He bit his tongue. He kept his eyes on the register. "Nevertheless, I have to put down something for a name."
"Put down Cassandra, then." "Very well." He pressed the letters crisply into the hard wax. "Her place of origin?"
"I told you, 1 don't know."
He clicked his tongue. "But I have to put something. If she was a Roman citizen, I have to know her family name; and if she was married, her husband's name. If she was a foreigner, I have to know where she came from. If she was a slave--"
"Then write, 'Origin unknown.' "
He opened his mouth to speak then thought better of it. "Highly irregular," he muttered, as he wrote what I told him. "I don't suppose you know the date of her birth?"
I glowered at him.
"I see. 'Birthdate unknown,' then. And the date of her death? Four days ago, you said?"
"Yes. She died on the Nones of Sextilis."
"And the cause of her death?"
"Poison," I said, through gritted teeth. "She was poisoned."
"I see," he said, showing no emotion and hurriedly scribbling. "With a name like Cassandra," he said under his breath, "you might think she'd have seen it coming. And what is your name? I have to have it to complete the record."
I felt another impulse to strike him, but resisted. "Gordianus, called the Finder."
"Very well, then. There, I've written the entry just as you wished. 'Name of deceased: Cassandra. Family and status unknown. Birthdate unknown. Death by poison on the Nones of Sextilis, Year of Rome 706. Reported by Gordianus, called the Finder.' Does that satisfy you, citizen?"
I said nothing and walked away, toward the pillars that flanked the entrance. Behind me I heard him mutter, "Finder, eh? Perhaps he should find out who poisoned her . . . ."
I walked down the temple steps and back toward the funeral pyre, staring at the ground, seeing nothing. I felt the heat of the fire as I drew closer; and when I finally lifted my eyes, I beheld Cassandra amid the flames. Her bier had been tilted upright so that the funeral party could view the final moments of her physical existence. The musicians quickened their tempo from a mournful dirge to a shrill lament. The hired mourners dropped to their knees, pounded their fists against the earth, screamed and wailed.
A gust of wind suddenly whipped the flames higher. The roar of the fire was punctuated with loud cracking and popping and sizzling noises. While I watched, the flames gradually consumed her, frizzling her hair, withering and charring her flesh, turning everything black, destroying her beauty forever. The wind blew smoke in my eyes, stinging them, filling them with tears. I tried to look away--I wanted to look away-but I couldn't. Even this awful spectacle constituted one more moment, one final chance to look upon Cassandra.
I reached into my toga and pulled out a short baton made of leather. It had belonged to Cassandra; it was the only one of her possessions that still existed. I clutched it in my fist for a moment, then hurled it into the flames.
I felt Diana's presence beside me, then the touch of her hand on my arm. "Papa, look."
I finally tore my eyes from the funeral pyre. I looked blankly at my daughter's face. Her eyes--so beloved, so vibrantly alive--met mine, then turned elsewhere. I followed her gaze. We were no longer alone. Others had come to witness Cassandra's end. They must have arrived while I was in the temple or staring at the flames. The separate groups stood well away from the fire, scattered in a semicircle behind us. There were seven entourages in all. I looked at each in turn, hardly able to believe what I was seeing.
Seven of the wealthiest, most powerful, most remarkable women in Rome had come to the necropolis to see Cassandra burn. They had not joined in the public funeral procession, yet here they were, each woman seated in a litter surrounded by her own retinue of relatives, bodyguards, and litter bearers, not one of them acknowledging the presence of any of the others, all keeping their distance from ourselves and from each other, each gazing steadily straight ahead at the funeral pyre.
I took stock of them, looking from left to right.
First, there was Terentia, the pious, always proper wife of Cicero. With her husband off in Greece to side with Pompey in the civil war, Terentia was said to be hard-pressed to make ends meet, and in fact her litter was the most modest. The draperies that surrounded the box were no longer white but shabby gray, with tatters here and there. But her litter was also the largest, and squinting, 1 made out two other women in the litter with her. One was her daughter, Tullia, the apple of Cicero's eye. The other was farther back in the shadows, but from her distinctive clothing and headdress, I saw she was a Vestal Virgin. No doubt it was Fabia, Terentia's sister, who in younger days had very nearly met her end for breaking her sacred vow of chastity.
In the next litter I saw Antonia, the cousin and wife of Marc Antony, Caesar's right-hand man. While Caesar had been off fighting his enemies in Spain, Antony had been left in charge of Italy. Now both men had departed for northern Greece to do battle with Pompey. Antonia was said to be a very attractive woman. I had never formally met her and might not have recognized her except for the bronze lions' heads that surmounted the upright supports at each corner of her litter. The lion's head was Antony's symbol.
Her presence was all the more remarkable because of the woman whose litter was next in the semicircle. Anyone in Rome would have recognized that gaudy green box decorated with pink-and-gold tassels, for Cytheris, the actress, always made a show of her comings and goings. She was Antony's lover, and he had made no secret of that fact while he ruled Rome in Caesar's absence, traveling all over Italy with her. People called her his understudy-wife. Cytheris was famous for her beauty, though I myself had never seen her close enough to get a good look. Those who had seen her perform in mime shows for her former master, Volumnius the banker, said she was talented as well, able by the subtlest gestures and expressions to evoke a whole range of responses in her audience-lust not least among them. She and Antonia cast not a single glance in each other's direction, apparently oblivious of one another.
I looked to the next litter, which was draped in shades of deepest blue and black suitable for mourning, and recognized Fulvia, the twice-widowed. She had been married first to Clodius, the radical politician and rabble-rouser. After his murder four years ago on the Appian Way and the chaos that followed--the beginning of the end of the Republic, it seemed in retrospect--Fulvia had eventually remarried, joining her fortunes to Caesar's beloved young lieutenant, Gaius Curio. Only a few months ago, word had arrived from Africa of Curio's disastrous end; his head had become a trophy for King Juba. Some called Fulvia the unluckiest woman in Rome, but having met her, I knew her to possess an indomitable spirit. Seated with her in her litter was her mother, Sempronia, from whom Fulvia had inherited that spirit.
As I moved my eyes to the occupant of the next litter, the incongruities multiplied. There, reclining amid mounds of cushions in a typically voluptuous pose, was Fausta, the notoriously promiscuous daughter of the dictator Sulla. Thirty years after his death, the dictator's brief, blood-soaked reign still haunted Rome. (Some predicted that whoever triumphed in the current struggle, Caesar or Pompey, would follow Sulla's merciless example and line the Forum with the heads of his enemies.) Sulla's ghost haunted the Forum, but Sulla's daughter was said to haunt the more dissolute gatherings in the city. Fausta was still married, though in name only, to the banished gang leader Milo, the one political exile whom Caesar had pointedly excluded from the generous pardons he'd issued before leaving Rome. Milo's unforgivable crime had been the murder four years ago of his hated rival Clodius on the Appian Way. According to the court, it was Fausta's husband who had made a widow (for the first time) of Fulvia. Were the two women aware of one another's presence? If they were, they gave no more indication of it than did Antonia and Cytheris. At that moment Milo was very much on everyone's mind, for he had escaped from exile and was said to be raising an insurrection in the countryside. What did Fausta know about that? Why was she here at Cassandra's funeral?
Next to Fausta's litter, surrounded by the largest retinue of bodyguards, was a resplendent canopy with ivory poles and white draperies that shimmered with golden threads, hemmed with a purple stripe. It was the litter of great Caesar's wife, Calpurnia.
Now that Marc Antony had left Rome to fight alongside Caesar, many thought it was Calpurnia who functioned as the eyes and ears of her husband in his absence. Caesar had married her ten years ago, purely for political advantage some said, because in Calpurnia he had found a woman to match his own ambition. She was said to be an uncommonly hardheaded woman with no time for superstition. Why had she come to witness the funeral of a mad seeress?
One litter remained, a little farther off than all the others. When my eyes fell on it, my heart skipped a beat. Its occupant couldn't be seen, except for a finger that parted the closed drapes just enough for her to see out. But I knew that litter, with its red-and-white stripes, all too well. Eight years ago its occupant had been one of the most public women in Rome, notorious for her flamboyance and high spirits. Then she had dragged her estranged young lover into the courts and made the grave mistake of crossing Cicero. The result had been a disastrous public humiliation from which she had never recovered. Then her brother (some said lover) Clodius met his end on the Appian Way, and her spirit seemed to have been snuffed out altogether. She had retreated into a seclusion so complete that some thought she must be dead. She was the one woman in Rome-before Cassandra who had threatened to break my heart. What was Clodia--beautiful, enigmatic Clodia, once the most dangerous woman in Rome, now all but forgotten--doing there that day, lurking incognito amid the litters of the other women?
I gazed from litter to litter, my head spinning. To see these particular women all gathered in one place at one time was more than remarkable; it was astounding. And yet, there they all were, their various litters scattered before the burning pyre like the pavilions of contending armies arrayed on a field of battle. Terentia, Antonia, Cytheris, Fulvia, Fausta, Calpurnia, and Clodiathe funeral of Cassandra had brought them all together. Why had they come? To mourn Cassandra? To curse her? To gloat? The distance made it impossible to read the expressions on their faces.
Beside me, Diana crossed her arms and took on the hard, shrewd look so familiar to me from her mother. "It must have been one of them," she said. "You know it must have been one of those women who murdered her."
I felt a chill, despite the heat of the flames. I blinked at a sudden swirl of smoke and cinders and turned to look again at the burning pyre. The fire had consumed yet more of Cassandra, had taken another portion of her away from me, and I had missed it. I opened my eyes wide despite the burning smoke. I stared at the blackened remains upon the upright bier reduced now to a bed of glowing coals. The musicians played their shrill lament. The mourners raised their cry to heaven.
How long I stared at the flames, I don't know. But when I finally turned to look behind me again, all seven of the women with their litters and their entourages had vanished as if they had never been there.
Copyright 2002 by Steven Saylor