Pompeii is a city of pleasure and purse. It is no place to raise a child, not really. Rosaria tries to tell her husband this, but he does not listen to her, boards his young wife and unborn son in the city of whores.
“The soil is good,” he tells her. “We will be rich here.”
And they are. Never were they poor, exactly, but by the time their son is at her breast, Marcus dresses her in the best colors and hires a much prettier, much more experienced girl to do her hair. He buys her a fine loom and pours her wine from a fine amphora.
Rosarius, named for her father, is a fat and happy child who wants for nothing, but still, Pompeii is no place to raise a child.
Many have already left. That’s why they’re here; many have left and their land was available for the claiming. Marcus has wanted to leave the city and pursue the noble life of agriculture for some time. The soil here is famous the world over for its quality.
When they go to inspect the farm, Marcus digs his fingers deep into the black soil and brings up handfuls of it, lets it fall wet and fertile from between his fingers. If they lived at that farm, perhaps Rosaria would be happier.
But they board in the city, where things are more convenient, and leave the day-to-day running of the farm to an experienced overseer. Such is wise. Marcus is a merchant, not a farmer, he has no idea how to actually maintain the farm.
But Pompeii is a dreadful place. It’s full of whores and bathhouses. People scrawl obscenities on the wall and shit like dogs in the street. The narrow streets are clogged with refuse and tourists from every corner of the empire, jabbering and screaming to be heard over one another.
There are lovely frescoes, true, and sturdily built homes and businesses. But such superficial prettiness cannot hide the festering rot beneath. Rosaria’s doubt grows into hate.
Above them, Vesuvius reigns like Jove, glaring down at them, hateful and obscene. It rises from the land like a broken bone and it constantly shakes the buildings. Locals find Rosaria laughable for flinching. Whores in their togas and jewels shake their loosened curls in derision of her.
One day, while Rosaria and her sister-in-law, Marcia Major, are walking to the garden, children on their hip, a dreadfully hideous old man trips and falls before them. Marcia Major and their chaperone walk around him, but Rosaria stops and hauls him to his feet.
The old man’s left leg is a twisted mockery of a limb, and his features are so heavily concealed beneath leather-brown wrinkles he can hardly be said to have a face. When he grins, his toothless mouth yawns like a cavern in the earth, an endless pit, down, down, down, a darkness that doesn’t seem natural for a human being. Rosaria does not allow herself to stare into it. She feels like she could fall in.
“Thank you, daughter,” he croaks. His voice is like the breaking of walls in the earthquakes that always wrack Pompeii.
“Yes, grandfather,” Rosaria responds. “Have you no cane, grandfather?”
The dreadful old man grins up at her again. Rosaria catches a glimmer, a twinkle, like that of a golden coin, between his bushy white eyebrow and the mottled crag of his cheek.
“Such concern you show. Come closer, my child. Do you wish to hear a concern of one who is very old?”
Rosaria would not, actually, but she leans down nonetheless. She feels the hideous old man knows the inside of her mind, and shudders at the thought of that face leering at her innermost thoughts.
“You must leave Pompeii. When next you see me, it will be too late to run.”
Marcus doesn’t believe her. Or, rather, he does, but he doesn’t care. He bounces Rosarius on his knee and tosses back his head and laughs.
“Who cares for the foolish words of some doddering old fool?” he asks. “Pompeii has brought us nothing but fortune! Likely you shall never see him again, unless it is in a ditch, my trinket. Think nothing of him.”
He was a very handsome youth when they were married, with big, compassionate eyes that made her love him as well as she loved her duty. After a year and a half in Pompeii, those eyes are beginning to be squeezed smaller by the breadth of his reddening cheeks.
Still, she would love him, if only he would love their child as well as he loves the money Pompeii’s rich soil has brought them. Recently the very touch of his hands makes her… not disgusted. It’s worse. Plenty of women are disgusted by their husbands.
Rosaria’s own mother Julia was revolted by her husband, but that didn’t stop her from having eight children by him. Rosaria knows well how to swallow disgust.
In her dreams, she is Vesuvius. She tears off her ribbon and veil, looses her hair from its coils. Rips it free of her scalp in great, bleeding chunks and flings it at her husband. Shreds her fine dresses and snaps her gilt jewelry, tosses them aside and stomps her feet hard into Pompeii’s dark, wet soil.
The buildings shake and crumble. Black clouds roil around her head, a new, grim veil to replace the one she abandoned. The sea turns to boiling oil. The wind turns to fire. Her tears turn to fire, too, and her words turn to ash.
“Why won’t you listen to me?! This is for the sake of your firstborn son! Your heir and your legacy! This is for him! It isn’t for me! Pompeii is no place to raise a child!”
She doesn’t understand why she is so angry. Is it the changes in Marcus’s body and nature? He used to listen to her. It wasn’t until they came to this filthy city that he became so callous. She cares not for the fatness of his cheeks and belly. All men grow fat with age. A fat husband is the sign of a good wife. That’s what Mother always told her.
A fat husband and a fat child, but Rosaria grows thinner and thinner. Marcia Major thinks there might be something wrong with her. There is. This damn city, the never-ending earthquakes. Vesuvius casting its shadow over the whole place like a demon crouching over a sleeping babe.
Is this her son’s fate? To grow up used to the sight of fornication and fighting? To never know the smell of fresh air? To play among rats and garbage?
At least the frescoes are lovely. At least they are rich.
When she starts screaming, Marcia Major takes her to her bedroom and leaves her there for a while, hoping the isolation and comfortable familiarity will calm her down. When she sticks her head in and Rosaria dives for the door with a rabid animal’s ferocity, she bars it and sends for Marcus at once.
Marcus returns home hours later, at his usual time. Rosaria has turned over the bed but stopped herself from doing anything more, settled into a corner and curled up.
“I don’t know what came over me,” she pleads as the door opens. “I’m terribly frightened, Marcus.”
He drags her to her feet and asks what the neighbors will say. They must have heard her howling. Rosarius must have been terrified When will she think of someone but herself?
“I have given you everything you could possibly desire!” he shouts in her face.
Marcia Major stands by the open door, mouth agape. This wasn’t what she wanted, the horror on her face says it all, had she known this would be Rosaria’s fate… at least, that’s what Rosaria chooses to read there.
“I have given you everything! We are rich and successful and our son will be rich and successful! By the virtue of the gods, you ought to be happy!”
“I don’t want to raise our son in this horrible place!”
“Pompeii is the source of the very clothing on your body, you idiot woman!”
Never before has Marcus called her such a name, nor has he referred to her solely by her sex. Marcia Major flees before she can be spotted, and Rosaria just stares.
She feels a scream coming on. She swallows it down. She wants to be a good wife. She does.
But doesn’t a good wife deserve a good husband? She was in misery and now she is scared but her Marcus–this horrible man who has replaced her Marcus–he is only concerned that she is embarrassing to him.
She’ll show him embarrassment.
Vesuvius rumbles. Whores revel in the streets. There is wanton fornication. A man named Theopilus puts his heads under the skirts of a squealing, wriggling girl, and someone warns him against it once he’s finished and she’s gone off.
The land begins to swell. The sheep begin to suffocate.
The eruption is coming.
Rosarius does not understand much, but he understands bruises. He presses his lips to his mother’s swollen ones and says, “all better!”
She smiles down at him as best as she can and says, “yes, thank you.”
Marcia Major looks at nobody, and she says nothing. She stays weaving.
Silence reigns in the house of Marcus. After the hours of screaming and yelling and crashing, the quiet is striking. There is probably already grafitti on the wall of their house. The whores are probably already whispering, whispering, whispering, about what they’ve heard.
Let it be written: Marcus Catilius beats his wife.
Let it be written: Rosaria Catilia is a madwoman.
Let it be written: they were happy and well-disposed toward one another until they came to this dreadful city.
The Vulcanalia is not a time of rejoicing. It is a time to beg, to capitulate in the face of divine fire and beg for your life. Vulcan is not a cruel god. He is, however, still a god, and should it please him to burn all to the ground, he shall.
Pompeii has had enough of fire. Please, the citizens who remain beg, please let us know peace. Just for a while.
Rosaria is hanging up her clothes when she sees him. The old man. Years have passed and she has not forgotten his horrible face.
Or his warning.
“It is too late to run,” he says, shaking his monstrous head. He is sad, his voice heavy and slow. “You did not listen to me.”
“Marcus wouldn’t listen to me!” she wails.
She throws her clothes aside and drops to her knees before the terrible old man. Clutches his ratty, soot-stained tunic in her hands and presses her face against the hard belly.
“I hate this place! I have always hated this place! I wanted to leave! He wouldn’t listen to me! I hate him just as much as I hate this awful city! This is no place for me and no place for my precious son!”
The old man pats her hair.
“Please, Lord Vulcanus, please, give me another chance. This time I won’t wait for him. I’ll go! This time I’ll just go, I’ll listen to you, please, my lord, give me another chance.”
When she opens her eyes, the old man is gone. Instead, a very tall man, skin dark as copper and hair black as coal, stands before her. His eyes are two globules of purest gold, the molten glory roiling in his irises like water does in the sea. His tunic is still ratty and soot-stained. His leg is still mangled.
He is the old man. He is the mountain. He is the heat of the furnace. Rosaria was right; he is Lord Vulcanus.
“One last chance, Rosaria,” Lord Vulcanus warns her. “If you do not heed this warning, you and your son will burn alive. Listen well.”
Rosaria has just stepped over the threshold of her home when Vesuvius explodes.
A nightmare tower of ash-weeping black clouds shoots from the top of that mountain that has crouched for so long over the city. The earth seizes as though struck with falling sickness. In the dark clouds, Lord Vulcanus rises, hammer up high, and fixes his dread gaze upon Pompeii and the fertile land around it.
Rosaria stares into the eyes of the god of fire, and sees, for just a moment, two glimmers of gold. She needs no other sign. She spins on her heels and runs for her life.
A great cry comes up from the city at her back.
But she isn’t screaming anymore. The scream she had swallowed and strangled for so long has been freed, and all that fills her now is the need to flee. She has been given her chance. Run, run, run, run!
Rosarius is shrieking in childish terror, but he is well-tied to her front. She has wet cloths as Vulcan instructed thrown over her shoulder, ready to put over her and Rosarius’s mouths when the ash cloud becomes too thick to breathe.
She runs into Marcus near the gates of the city.
“Wait for me!” he tells her, smothering her face in kisses. Kissing their son on the head. “Wait for me here. I will bring a cart, I will bring Marcia and the slaves. There’s still time!”
He won’t make it in time. She knows he won’t. Lord Vulcanus warned her.
She runs with her son tied to her front and a bag of coins between them, enough to get them back to Rome–she hopes. There are precious few people running alongside them.
There is a single name on their tongues. “Lord Vulcanus, Lord Vulcanus…”
Rosaria’s legs scream for mercy, her bones feel more of fat and gristle than stone, but she urges herself forward. She is high above the city now, she can see it. She can see the stream of carts and slaves far below her, only barely visible in what paltry light can pierce Lord Vulcanus’s cloak of ash.
She and the other early runners are stained white and grey with the fallen ash. Many have already fallen, choking on lungfuls of it, but the cloth over her mouth, the cloth over her son’s mouth, holds fast. Occasionally she checks to make sure he is still breathing.
He exhausted himself a long time ago. He is asleep. He does not see what happens next.
There is fire on the mountain. And another explosion, just as violent as the one during the day. Lord Vulcanus has brought down his hammer. And now he overturns his crucible.
Liquid fire pours from Vesuvius’s gaping mouth, but they have only a moment to see its glowing before a new mass of dark clouds flows forth to obscure it.
Rosaria turns away and tucks her son’s face into her neck. A hot wind lashes her back, but they are far enough away that it carries with it no fire.
When the trembling has stopped, she turns back to look and see if she can see the carts and slaves. She knows they are all dead. She knows it. But she wants to be certain. If she has even a single doubt, the guilt will consume her.
There is nothing but blackness, and the dim, sickly glow of Lord Vulcanus’s liquid fire.
She begins the march toward Rome, empty save for her determination to make it.
“My mother,” Rosarius boasts to his young friends, years later, in his grandfather’s villa, “survived Pompeii.”
“That city that was destroyed by Vesuvius?”
“Yes, that one. Apparently my father moved her there before I was born. But she was smarter than he, at any rate, and ran away before the fires consumed it all.”
“Your father didn’t make it?”
“He went back for his riches, Grandfather says. He was a fool. Grandfather says I’m lucky my mother loved me more than he, at any rate.”
“How’d she know to run?”
Rosarius looks back towards the women’s atrium, where he can just make out the figure of a woman weaving.
“I dunno. Maybe she saw a portent?”
Rosaria made it back to Rome with Rosarius on her hip and every coin taken from her. She wasn’t the only one in her group. Many of the early runners who survived the ash fall went to Rome. Where else is there to go but to your mother when everything else is gone?
Father took them back in. He married her off to a man who owned a smithy, at her request, and she settled into life there.
She weaves the figure of Lord Vulcanus into almost every piece she does. Her new husband, Aelius, doesn’t question it, and nor do his blacksmiths and apprentices, and nor do his children.
Sometimes, Rosarius asks her how she knew to run. She has never answered. Sometimes, Aelius asks her what she saw, that night when Pompeii was devoured by liquid fire. She has told him the bare bones, and he takes it for enough. Nobody wants to bring up the painful memories more than is strictly necessary.
She watches the glowing iron of the smiths in the shop sometimes. She remembers standing above Pompeii and watching it disappear under Lord Vulcanus’s liquid fire. She remembers the fear of death, for her and her son.
She remembers that under the fear, there was such happiness.
Burn, she remembers thinking. Burn, burn, burn.
Her rage is spent. She has not felt such rage and terror since those last horrible days in Pompeii. Aulius is severe and sometimes aloof, but he takes her council and when she is upset, he takes her hands in his and, in his quiet, almost shy way, he tells her that he loves her. He treats Rosarius as his own son. Her clothes are not so fine, but when he sees her in them, he smiles behind his beard and nods.
When she wakes up, choking on ash that she has long since coughed out, he rubs her back and tells her that it’s alright. That she is in Rome, with him. That she will never see Pompeii again.
He is wrong. Rosaria goes there with Rosarius and her other grown sons, years later when she is very old. Rosarius has married well, and she ensured the same for all her children.
Where once there stood a city, there is now a field of verdant green. Trees are beginning to grow, as well. It is beautiful.
“Like it was never even there at all,” she whispers.
She asks for a moment and walks out of sight of the boys–the men–and takes a seat so she can look out over the pastoral scene. The wind blows through lush blades of grass, tousles the tender leaves of new trees as fondly as a mother.
Over it all, Vesuvius crouches, jutting obscenely from the earth. Part of the mountain has collapsed. She hadn’t noticed in that fearful night.
That’s all she wanted to see. She picks herself up. Rosaria returns to Rome, and never leaves again. Her sons bury her in a stately mausoleum. Her daughters weave beautiful funerary shrouds. Her white-bearded husband weeps into his hands.
The girl who left Rome died there, as was her wish. Rome is a fine place to raise children.
Vesuvius looms over the green hills, as ominous in sleep as it was awake.
Liquid fire gurgles in its belly. Lord Vulcanus kindles his furnace and fills his foundry. Lifts his hammer high above his head.
Soon the quakes will start again.
Written for Daily Prompt: Pink.
I found the image by typing in ‘pink’ on Wikimedia Commons, which is an excellent way to get inspiration, incidentally, and wrote based on the one that caught my eye the most.