An August short Shots comp fiction piece about roots, memorializing and iconoclasm
The main street, the Cardo Maximus, is broad and straight, but the paths among the fallen gods leading from it are are now crooked, narrowed and choked by the bones of sentinels that long ago held them up. The once crowded temples are mute remains of holy reverence, grand design and overwhelming imperium. The desert sun keeps past magnificence mummified in light, shimmering reflectively in the late afternoon, as a stiff offshore breeze moans memorial chants through the remaining upright pediments and gables.
This ruined city is not forgotten, for careers in resurrecting memory are plump pickings. ’Tis foundation root stock for the urban forests that have grown and multiplied since this Roman showpiece was endowed by imperial favor at the end of the second century. Yet... others would destroy and desecrate its ancient vanity to cut that root, for iconoclasts do not forget their enemy’s ancestors.
This north African imperial city, Leptis Magna, was more Roman than Rome. Hail Septimius Severus, Our Emperor; a provincial home town boy made good, who showered his love upon this place that made him.
And he made it a frontier beacon of Roman civilization, prestige and power. Even now, awe and hatred prowl its precincts, still.
Beyond the temples, just out of shot, are swarms of flies and protesting squawks of quarreling vultures, feeding on bloated corpses smelling of bacteria on afternoon heat. They are beheaded. The gouts of blood are already dried and cracked. The now taught faces are Caucasian. They had been digging, for their tools lie around the measured remains of an archaeological site. Their tent is torn down and the tables and chairs smashed. Bits of pottery lie scattered about. Papers blow around in eddies.
The vultures do not understand caution. The spines of the corpses have been wired into buried mines beneath their resting place. It would be a mistake to lift them…A guard casually shoots in the direction of the crowding birds to warn them away, and laughs at the flapping confusion. He lights a cigarette taken from one of the bodies, and draws appreciatively.
In the background there are other echoes of men at work, reminiscent of another age; enduring heat, sweating, calling for water and cursing at the dilatoriness of its delivery. The carrier has a battered face, bloodied shirt and sways slightly. The young woman must remain focused, or she shall surely die now rather than later. But who knows how long later will be, so one foot in front of another…
A man in need of water is taping explosive to an ancient pillar. He pauses briefly to take the proffered pitcher, but does not gaze upon the infidel. He gulps it down and returns the vessel, spitting on her feet as he does so, and returns wordlessly to his labors.
And so she passes between the men with weapons slung across their chests, as nitrate, primacord and fuses are assembled like a gathering riot of plebeians in the forum. Troops sent to cut them down are moving out of the late afternoon shadows, marching at the double. She can almost sense the tramp of feet, rattling armour, and polished weapons drawn, glinting in the sun, but a broken nose and blurred vision make her judgements uncertain.
Her reverie is broken by a rough hand on her arm and she is half pulled half dragged behind a pillar. It’s a loitering drone. The men wait for it to pass, and then redouble their efforts, for they know time is the real enemy. Sometimes it’s slow and sometimes it’s quick, and today both shall be joined as the immemorial meets the abrupt. And troops will be coming.
None of the gang take any notice of the water carrier, for where can she run in this forsaken but now guarded place, once a busy imperial hub on the southern coast of the Roman sea, full of the shouts of traders, the clatter of wheels and horses, greetings across the street, women singing as they put out the washing on their verandahs and masters berating lazy apprentices….. ?
“Come here woman! Are you deaf? Come here!”
She mutely obeys, as slaves always have with masters who could have them whipped or crucified if they caused the slightest offense. Every stone in the place was the work of slaves. Its extraction, dressing, transportation, construction handling, final placement and decorating all meant grinding labor, pain and sometimes death. As she steadies herself against a pillar next to where her new master stands, she feels it; despair.
The man speaks with an English Midlands accent. “Infidel, you have a choice to live or die. Convert and believe in the word of Allah and his Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him, or die in these ruins. We have finished our work here. What’s it to be?”
He stares at her hard. She looks at the ground and into her heart. Slavery or death? A whole empire had risen to dizzying heights on the answer to that question...in the affirmative. Those who refused died. If they worked conscientiously for their masters they might one day be freed and become part of the imperium; 'more Roman than the Romans'….
“You can obey Allah and have many children, or share the fate of the pillar you are leaning on….”
She can live….but she, Rosemary Cranston, will be annihilated; a doctoral student from the Art and Archaeological department at Princeton, with a once promising career, from a good Mid-Western Christian family, reduced to a Mohammedan breeder and living with a master she would have to sleep and be intimate with, at his pleasure.
She has too much invested in her past to even consider the offer. She hangs her head, slowly shakes it, and quietly weeps the tears of the condemned. This is what it was like for the pagans in the last years of the empire. It would have been thus in Leptis Magna. They too ended up in the amphitheater to be slaughtered. She resigns herself as they would have done, hanging on to happier memories of a happier time, until they were no more.
She loved her mother and father as much as any Democrat can in a nest of pro Trump Republicans. It had not been an easy parting when she left for the big project in Libya, just after the 2016 elections... She remembered her childhood and hot chocolate in bed with them on weekend mornings before breakfast, sun streaming through the windows, with its cuddles, banter and the fuss they made of her; their darling little sausage...How she aches to be their little sausage one more time….
She does not beg for mercy or cry out as he gaffer tapes her to the column, between the already attached bags of nitrate. She closes her eyes, face streaked, wet and contorted with grief, bracing…
The man speaks again, gently this time, close to her ear. He is not indifferent, for he is moved by her grace and humble resignation. It would be such waste to lose someone who might have come to Allah and created children, who she would love and be loved by; a respected Muslim woman and one day grandmother, to be mourned when Allah called her back…. “You could be a fine Muslim woman and be loved and cherished if you became one of us. Our hearts are only hardened by infidels who have hardened theirs.”
She raises her head and gazes at him for the first time. He isn’t quite the slave master she expects. There’s a softness in his eyes that takes her quite aback, as she then looks over to the scrum of re-emboldened vultures starting once again to pick over her dead companions, and then onward to a line of heavy cannon and missile launcher armed trucks, a hundred meters away, parked in line on the aforesaid Cardo Maximus, that runs east of the main temple ruins where she will die. The men are in the last stage of packing up and boarding, assault rifles unslung.
Perhaps the Romans too had sweet talked some of their captives with stories of doing well for themselves in a much better and more civilized place, with better and more powerful Gods and more elaborate ceremonies to celebrate them than were to be found in the rough circumstances of their barbarian birth. And some masters were kind and decent people who appreciated loyal and steadfast service…
She looks back at him with uncertainty in her face. A kind word in a killing field carries more weight than it should and she knows it, but notwithstanding, she allows it past her first defenses. She frowns at herself and he laughs, for he knows. He had always been a bit of a charmer with the girls back in Birmingham, where he was born and grew up.
He was about to further probe and exploit this shadow of weakness, when shouts in Arabic from the trucks tell him there is no time. “Leave her to the nitrate Jussuf. Troops are coming. Hurry!”
He looks back at her with urgency and begs, “Come with me to Allah and his infinite mercy, now. There’s no more time. Jump and he will catch you in his bosom. Fear not! ...Fatimah”. He is so close to her she can smell the spiced yogurt and coffee on his breath; another world that seems as peaceful and safe as an ‘Arabian Nights’ bedtime story told to her by her father when she was small.
His pleading face eclipses most of her view... as the road and trucks in the background erupt into flowers of fire, dust, missile tracks and tracer; dust and aeroplane wheeling vehicle parts, road pavers and men, or bits of them. For one lifetime elongated moment they stare at all that could have been...till shock waves push his face into hers, and ever so briefly, they join, painfully.
The vultures hardly notice, flap lazily away from the blasts, then go back to work. They are used to this. Jussuf staggers back dazed with his nose bleeding and the moment is lost. Their resolve hardens; hers in hope, his in anguished desperation. He picks up his weapon….
The biggest and meanest looking vulture decides that there is more meat to be had beneath the carcass and it pulls hard at its ribs...
Bits of mine, carcass and vultures pepper the column where the two people still stand. Jussuf drops his head upon her breasts and slides down her, crumpling at her feet, as enraptured lovers sometimes do. She bleeds profusely from her now twice wounded nose and for the first time, wails inconsolably,..for her friends, all the other dead, the man face down in front of her….and for what she once was, and never will be again; her worldview cleaved straight through and its heartlands flattened, like the ruined old city itself.
Her stuffing was all pulled out; emptied and crushed by angry ancient Gods. She’s ineluctably part of the old place now, like one of its stones, with duct taped passions wrapped around it, joining the living and the dead.
Two gunships quietly hover into the wind just above the horizon line of the cliffs that go down to the bay, like innocent seaside rides in the tourist season, waiting for beach goers to disarm the city’s life belts in preparation for the next ride. They pivot slightly from left to right...right to left...checking...waiting for something to move...watching the fires burn down.
She awaits release, but she shall not escape….No one is saved, for the funeral pyre on the Cardo Maximus is also hers.
Someone else will return home; at war between the Muslim ‘Fatima’ she might have been and the enraged Republican hawk she might yet become, but not her, the once innocent liberal Democrat from Illinois.