By Cameron MacPhail
Agrippa died one week before the festival of Lemuria.
The villa had been unusually chilly that night, a fading remnant of the winter past, and Julia was already awake when Karras crept into her bedroom, a tiny face swathed in rich and dark blankets, her breath puffs of thin white mist.
Karras crossed the room with a grace and intention unbecoming of his bent figure, and placed a gnarled hand on Julia’s foot.
“Come, child,” he whispered. “Your mother needs you.”
His face loomed above hers, his eyes wavering in the dark.
“Your brother has passed,” he said.
Julia drew her breath, held it. A thin whistle escaped her throat and her face disappeared beneath the heft of her blankets. Karras winced, reaching with a bony hand to pull down the hem of her blanket.
He turned the blanket down. Julia resembled a caricature of a girl in mourning, her features exaggerated and strained beneath him. Moonlight slanting in from the window caught a face half scarred, like the ridges of wind-blown sand, one eye hooded with tissue above a mouth turned up in silent agony. Karras’ hand tightened over the foot of the young girl he had cared for since birth. He leaned close.
“Child,” he said, his voice soft. “I will be by your side all through this night, I promise you. But you must be strong. And you must get up. Your family needs you.”
A reedy whine escaped Julia as she looked up at him, her eyes wide and gray. They held each other’s gaze in the dark room.
“I have cared for you every day of your twelve years,” Karras said, his face near hers. “Please, come with me. I will stand by you every moment.”
She peered at him from a bed far too large, then lifted the covers from herself and got out from beneath them. Karras saw the girl’s body, ravaged on one side by rippling scars, her small breasts and groin swathed in sleeping wear.
She looked up at him and nodded, and he smiled sadly at her, his face creasing in shadow.
She took a moment to dress in a wool tunic, bright in the dark, and together they walked out of her bedroom and into the atrium. The open sky glittered above the rainwater pool in the center of the room, the moon’s light diffused behind a film of cloud cover. They didn’t speak; only the soft slap of Karras’ thonged sandals and the pad of Julia’s feet on the tiled floor punctuated their passage. Candlelight flickered warm upon Julia’s scarred face, dancing across the walls in wicked striations that cast her face in a kaleidoscope of soft flame. She entered Agrippa’s room.
Her father’s straight back was turned to her in shadow, the outline of his thin figure tinged with flickers of red and orange. Beyond, Julia could see the foot of the bed, at which her mother kneeled, her head bowed as if in worship. Her hands clutched at a pair of pale and wretched feet. Karras moved in the shadows behind her, carefully lighting a string of wax candles with a thin strip of parchment.
Julia’s mother raised her head and caught sight of the little girl in the doorway. Her eyes were red and swollen, her cheeks streaked with salty tears, but when she saw her daughter, she smiled, her face filled with grief and a melancholic warmth. She reached for Julia, her mouth trembling and turned down at the corners, her face weathered and tragic and beautiful at once.
“My sweet,” she said. She motioned the girl over. “Come say goodbye to your brother.”
Julia stepped further into the room, her father turning to look down at her with crossed arms. He towered over her, a severe figure with unyielding eyes. She did not meet them. She passed under his stony gaze and threw herself into her mother’s arms, unable to look at the figure lying prostrate in the bed.
“Oh, my sweet,” her mother said, caressing Julia’s hair. She sighed, and Julia felt a hitching deep within her mother’s chest. “My dear, my Julia.”
Julia felt a wail rising. It fought from deep within her chest, like a trapped animal clawing to escape, ripping its way with talons that searched and scrabbled, and when it reached her throat, it kindled into a fire that tore through her like wheat turned to flame. She opened her mouth to scream, but all that emerged was a high and wretched whistling, a thin and piercing wail that filled the room with the shrill screech of a wounded animal. Julia buried herself in her mother’s toga, the scent of wool and her mother’s perfume familiar in her nose, and continued her muffled screeching, the inside of her throat raw and black and filled with fire.
“Make her stop,” her father said from somewhere behind her.
Julia’s mother looked up at him with fragile eyes, one hand caressing the brittle yellow of her daughter’s hair. Julia’s wail had taken on a low mewling, one filled with a steady and unbroken pain.
Her father’s eyes danced in the firelight, his jaw rigid and full of intent.
“I said make her stop, wife,” he said, his voice low and purposeful. “Or I will.”
For a moment, Julia’s mother returned his stare with a glittering defiance, but it melted away under his gaze, and she lowered her head to whisper into Julia’s hair.
“Julia,” she said. “I know it hurts you. But you must say goodbye to your brother now. There will be time for grief, but now we must send him on his way. For him. For Agrippa.”
Julia swallowed hard, the flames in her throat dying to softly glowing embers. She nodded against her mother’s chest, and lifted her head to look into her dark eyes.
“Good, dear. Go on,” her mother said.
Julia took a deep breath and turned to the body of what had once been her twin brother. He lay twisted in death as he had in later life, his body covered in the hot, layered scars of the burned. One wretched hand twisted to the ceiling, the palm open and raised as if in question. Candlelight danced and flickered across his half-naked body.
Julia moved past her father and stood at the side of the bed. Her eyes took in the withered muscles, his emaciated belly and ribs that lay sunken into the bed, the webbed scar tissue that ran across his body and neck. His face, once full of life, now stretched in a grimace of pain, his unseeing eyes open to the ceiling, the whites faded to smoked pink and crimson glass. His mouth twisted in repulsion, as if his final act had been to scream or breathe, or both. His hair held the consistency of straw, flat and brittle against the pillow beneath his head.
“He can stay in this world no longer, child,” Karras said from the shadows in the corner of the room. His voice sounded far off, remote. “As his closest, it is you that must send him.”
Julia leaned over her twin, looking into the fog of his eyes. She bent to him and kissed his forehead, the skin cold and hard against her lips, and with one hand, she closed his eyes, the embers in her throat threatening to catch flame once again. She swallowed them and straightened, her hooded eyes dark and cast to the floor.
“Agrippa,” her mother said.
“Agrippa,” Karras echoed.
“Agrippa,” her father said from the shadows.
Julia reached forward and grasped her brother’s hand tightly in both of her own and squeezed, her soft hands wrapping the cold rigidity of his. Her eyes closed, and she could feel the fire within, a dancing and wicked creature that threatened to leap forth and consume her. It waited, tapping its claws against the base of her throat.
Agrippa, she thought, and felt the creature diminish, retreating deep within, a blessed cool beginning to spread throughout her chest.
Her mother and Karras washed and oiled Agrippa’s body while her father watched without comment. They dressed him in a fine toga of the brightest white wool, and carried him to the atrium, placing him upon a funeral couch with his feet pointing to the villa’s door. While her mother lit incense around the dead boy, Karras disappeared into the night, returning with an armful of flowers and branches, which he placed around the funeral couch.
Soon the night was thick with incense, the floor of the atrium scattered with the popping colors of roses, honeysuckle and violet. The moon finally emerged from behind its curtain of cloud, full and icy bright, and dew collected upon the floor and foliage of the atrium, the air taking on a fine mist that caught on Julia’s hair and skin. Beads of water glistened on the tiled floor like scattered diamonds.
Julia imagined that she was inside a great gem, a jewel sparkling with starbursts of moonlight and accented with dark purples and reds and soft fingers of smoke that lay hidden to the darkened corridors of the villa around them. To her, Agrippa seemed at peace, a boy frozen in a surreal place of pale light and the faded hues of nightshade. His arm, still twisted and frozen upwards at the elbow, seemed to be in compliance to the keen light of the moon, his outstretched hand catching the fair mist that fell into his open palm. no longer bore the horrible look it had held in the fiery dark of his bedroom. Now his outstretched hand seemed to be in compliance to the keen light of the moon, catching the fair mist that fell into his open palm. Julia felt a calm wash over her that she had not felt since before the fire.
She watched Karras build a wreath of laurels and olive branches around the doorway to the villa, his bony fingers deftly twining the branches together with determined and unwavering practice. He looped sprigs of thyme into the structure, only showing signs of his age when he stooped to collect a handful of bay leaves, which he adorned above the doorway. He then looked back at her mother and father, and gave a brief nod.
“Thank you, Karras,” her mother said. “You may retire.”
He nodded, his eyes cast to the tiled floor. “Master.”
He passed them, briefly stopping to kiss Julia on her head.
“Goodnight, child. Sleep well.”
Julia grasped his hand, felt the dry skin and stiff bones there, and Karras passed out of her jewel and into the gloom. Her father turned to her and stared at her with something that dropped her eyes to the floor.
Her mother said, “You must get some sleep as well, dear one. Off to bed with you.”
But there would be no sleep that night. The dark gave way to a gray dawn, and Julia lay as she had, her eyes unfocused on the ceiling above. The previous hours had passed as syrup through a sieve, her mind blank and distant, flipping through a repetitive show of images to be viewed and barely understood. She saw her mother crouched at a pair of pale and lifeless feet, her head bowed to the floor. Her brother’s hand cupping moonlight and droplets of mist, incense curling upwards into a dank and foreign night. She saw shadow and flame flickering across her father’s lined face. Something cornered and shameful flaring from deep within the dark pools of his eyes.
Karras finally came for her, and she watched from the bed as he moved effortlessly for his age, stealing in among the shadows to appear at her bedside.
“Child,” he said. “One more day. Let us bury your brother and lay his animus to rest.”
She complied, rising and dressing and following him to the atrium. There, her mother and father were overseeing a number of slaves hoist Agrippa into the air, his body laid atop a velvet couch lined with marigolds and roses. They walked out of the villa and beyond the grapevines upon which it prospered, to a patchy rise of grass overlooking the property, where a build of timbers had been stacked.
They gathered, and placed the boy down upon the earth.
“Agrippa, boy of mine,” Julia’s father said, moving out from the small crowd to address the dead child at his feet. “Forever I cherish. Forever I hold. If spirits rise, I pray that you may sleep.”
He picked the boy up at his head, and Karras took his ankles, and together they laid him atop the stacked timbers. Her father went to retrieve a torch from one of the slaves and, lighting the pile around the dead boy, stepped back. The flames began to crackle and take hold. Julia watched until the morning took on a foul smell, then her mother put an arm around her shoulders and led her away. The others remained. When Julia looked back, she saw only her father’s thin figure framed against the flames, dark smoke billowing under a rheumy sky.
The next few days were quiet ones for the villa. Julia’s mother resigned herself to busy work and solitude, and Julia did her best to avoid her father.
At night, Julia dreamt of Agrippa. Most were sweet visions of the two of them playing, hiding from the servants amongst the grapevines. Even her father seemed a less severe sight; though he never laughed, his eyes held a sober amusement when she looked back at him watching them play in the field.
Her brother was as she remembered him: unblemished and able-bodied, a laughing, brown-haired boy with clever eyes. Julia would wake from these dreams, the warmth from the memory fleeting in the morning’s light, and squeeze her eyes shut, chasing the last of the dream until only her cold reality remained. She spent her mornings sullen and unresponsive, her mind torn by memories of warmth and what could never be again.
She passed her days in the atrium, scarcely listening to Karras and his lessons. He droned along while she stayed uncommunicative, her eyes cast to the tiled floor. At times, he would stop talking and fix his gaze upon her for long periods, watching the downcast girl with watery eyes. He resigned himself to sitting with her, spending long hours poring over lines of text in books of trivial matter.
“The festival of Lemuria begins tomorrow,” he said one day. “It is one of the oldest and most serious of household traditions,” Karras thought for a moment, then said, “Have I ever told you its origin?”
Julia gave no response, no sign that she was listening.
“Well. As I said, it is very old, as old as Rome itself, in fact. You see, when Romulus and Remus bickered over where to found their great city, they built their own sacred sites on the Seven Hills, with Romulus choosing the Palatine and his brother the Aventine. As they squabbled over whose choice would prove most auspicious, Romulus began building a wall around the Palatine, as a show of superiority over his brother’s choice. But Remus scoffed at his brother’s efforts at construction, and as brothers are ever in competition with each other, Remus bounded up the Palatine and gracefully leapt the wall.”
Karras lowered his head, trying to see into Julia’s downcast face.
“Do you remember this story? I am sure that you do. But an old teacher’s mind runs in lazy circles, and since I have heard no protest from my only pupil, I will continue. If only to amuse myself.”
He cleared his throat. “This affront by Remus sent Romulus into a naked rage. He knew that his wall was too low and poorly crafted, but to be insulted by his brother in this way was just too much to bear. In a fit, he killed poor Remus. We do not know if Remus had provoked him further, or if perhaps he knew that his actions would fan his brother’s temper, but when all was settled, the twins were no more; only Romulus remained. There was no further competition, and Romulus was left free to build the city of Rome.
“But no amount of glory could satisfy Romulus’ heart, as the grief over murdering his brother ate away at him with black teeth. To atone for this, he created the festival of Remuria, named for his slain brother. We now call this practice Lemuria, in honor of the unsatisfied spirits that wander this world, our lemures. He did this to pay penance to Remus’ spirit, but also out of mortal fear, to satiate his brother’s ghost. For angry spirits will haunt the living if not given their dues, and grow restless when ignored.”
Finally, Julia looked up, her scarred mouth set tightly in a child’s frown. Her eyes questioned his.
“No,” said Karras, reaching out to take her hands. She pulled away and set them in her lap, glaring at him. “No, child. Agrippa is not one of these spirits. He is not a lemure. He died in his sleep and was buried in the proper way, with the proper rites. Do not let such thoughts into your head. They will not serve you.”
Julia cast her eyes downward again, staring intensely at the edge of the table. Her tutor sighed, and they lapsed once again into silence.
“Have you learned,” he said unexpectedly, leaning forward. “of the idea of genius?”
Julia did not respond, only sat upon her chair, her eyes fixed upon the table between them.
Karras cleared his throat. “Well. I learned of it when your father was young and had yet no wife, when his father brought me from my home far away. It is the idea that there are forces within every object and living thing, and they watch over us and guide our mortal lives. They are spirits that dwell within our minds and every object around us. They support the chair you sit upon; they watch from the petals of flowers and hum in the wings of the bees that visit their nectar.”
He rapped on the table between them with bony knuckles, and was treated with Julia looking up at the hollow sound. She stared at his hands from a downturned face.
“They live within the grain of this wood, eagerly waiting to learn what they do not yet know, from an old and wise tutor,” he said with a slow smile.
“But, you see,” he continued, “the genii are strongest within us. They are the thoughts between our ears, the strikes of inspiration and insight that is our genius. They are our ancestors, our passed on. They are those that have come before us, and we are as much a part of them as they are part of us. They protect you and give you strength.”
He leaned back, watching the girl. She still sat uncommunicative, but his hands had clearly piqued the interest of her eyes, and that was as much as Karras could have asked for.
“For example,” he continued. “my genius, the one that resides within me, is one of reflection and literacy. It is a gift that I have learned from many books and from listening closely to the many genii that dwell within them. It is one that I have accumulated through years of learning; pieces of all the genii I have learned from reside within me. Do you understand?”
There was a moment’s hesitation, then Julia nodded imperceptibly, her eyes flickering upward.
“Good! As for you,” Karras reached across the table and took one of her hands in his, the other extending a long and bony finger to tap lightly upon her narrow chest. “Your genius is love, as it has always been. And you must know that it is love that will carry you through dark times. We are all connected in a circle, and it is those that have come before that bind that circle. That watch over us. Remember that in days to come.”
The breeze hushed above them, fast-tracking an unbroken layer of clouds in the open sky beyond the atrium, and for a moment they sat, the old tutor watching his charge closely.
Julia’s hand, small and pink inside of Karras’ freckled and knotted knuckles, gave a small and tender squeeze. Karras breathed deeply, and turned to watch the sky above.
The eve of Lemuria approached, and that night, Julia found her dreams of the field giving way to those more sinister. Memories of the fire crept in while she slept, unavoidable and terrible as they had been two years ago, and they were always the same. Julia would find herself choking on smoke in the storeroom, frantic and terrified, the first fingers of heat beginning to sear her skin. In the dream, she could hear her father beating on the door, her mother screaming her name in a fevered pitch, and as in life, Julia could not lift the collapsed cupboard to free herself from the burning storeroom. The flame licked at her face, real and unforgettable. She felt her hair singe and curl as if it were happening to her again, her exposed skin blistering. She pressed her face against the fallen cupboard as the flames crept in to envelop her, the screams of her parents and the hammering of the slaves on the other side of the wood lost in a blind terror.
And then her brother’s hand was there, grabbing her by the arm and hauling her through a billow of smoke and flame to the other side of the room. She felt Agrippa push her up to the storeroom window, just out of reach.
She knew that, two years ago, she had fallen a short distance to the raised earth and rolled to her belly, choking until she had lost consciousness, but in the dream, it was not so; in the dream, she fell to the earth and turned back, and reached through the thick smoke for her brother. But there was only a dark cloud, lit with orange blossoms of fire, and as she screamed for Agrippa, she saw him, impossibly far beneath her.
He had already begun to burn, his toga aflame, his screams hellish in the space between them. His hair popped alight like an oil torch. He clawed desperately for her, his reach just brushing her outstretched fingers. He was calling to her, and though his mouth worked her name, she could not hear him against the roar of fire. At the last, he caught her hand and pulled himself up, his sandaled feet scrabbling for purchase against the wall, one charred hand clutching the windowsill.
His face met hers, the skin peeled and smoking and blackened with ash. He suddenly gripped her about the back of the neck, pulling her close.
For a moment, she struggled against him, the smell of burning flesh overpowering, but stilled when she saw his eyes. They were filling with silver, liquid silver that swam with the reflection of her twisted face.
Julia, he mouthed, although the words blazed white hot in her head. His eyes had now filled entirely with silver, and it ran from their corners like molten tears. Don’t wait. You have to leave. Run.
Her brother released his grip and fell back into the inferno. Julia tried to scream, but she found her throat was clogged with ash, ash mixed with damp earth and trickling with the suffocating wetness of spring rain.
She awoke to the tumble of distant thunder, her scarred and trembling hands clutching the bedspread. Hazy light filtered in through the window, and Julia could tell that the sky would be unbroken with bloated clouds, their bellies fat and threatening to pour at a moment’s notice. She shivered as the last vestiges of her nightmare slipped away to vapor.
It was early yet; the light within her room was dim and cold. For a while, she lay there, staring at the ceiling, but shrugged the blankets off when she felt sleep creeping back behind her eyes. She did not want to endure another nightmare; her skin felt hot, as if singed by some lasting effect of the terrible dream.
She rose and dressed herself, walking with light feet into the atrium. Birds twittered from beyond the opening in the roof. She tiptoed over to the rainwater pool in the center of the room, bunching her tunic beneath her to keep her bottom off the cold tile as she sat down, and took to watching a steady drip cast ripples across the water’s glassy surface. The tiles that lined the bottom of the pool were smaller and ornate, brightly colored tones of ocher and verdant emerald that reminded her of soil and grass.
She searched within herself, for how she had changed, but found she had no answer, unable to put definition to how she felt and why. She knew that something was wrong, that something was still terribly wrong, but every time she came close to discovering just what, her stomach would twist in uncomfortable knots–as if the truth about her brother’s death was a truth that her mind could only hint at, could only begin to understand.
She reached forward to dip her hand in the pool. Soft ribbons of light danced across her palm as she swept it back and forth beneath the cool water, her reflection silhouetted inside the brighter opening of the atrium’s roof. She imagined herself as she would have looked: her skin pale and pretty, her hair grown past her shoulders in thick locks, her lips smooth and cool.
She noticed a rippling smudge in the water’s reflection. At first, she thought it a bird perched on the roof’s edge, but as she looked closer, leaning into the pool, she saw that it was a boy, watching her with his head resting on folded arms. The pool wavered and rippled.
And when she could stare no longer, she blinked, and the boy was gone, replaced by a rustle of damp wings and the chirp of birds waking to early morning light.
The day progressed in much the same way as the morning had foretold: the clouds proved true to their threats and burst with rain at midday, showering the countryside and bringing with it the makings of earliest summer. The air grew humid and still. The household rose late and set about preparations for the evening, and Karras flitted about from room to room, delegating tasks to the various household slaves.
Julia, alone in her thoughts, walked to a hill overlooking the villa and passed a moment before the rain came again, forcing her to retreat indoors. She spent the remainder of the afternoon reading from her lessons with an inattentive focus.
As the sporadic showers gave way to sheets that pounded down without relent, an early supper was had in the dining room, just off the atrium. She and her mother and father convened about the triclinium on three low couches draped in rich fabrics, the room lit by the glow of several tall candles. Her father resigned himself to solitude, taking long swigs of diluted wine from his cup and filling it from a ceramic amphora at his feet. Her mother reclined demurely and picked, birdlike, at a plate of hen’s egg and dried sardine.
For the main course, they dined on wheat porridge, followed by roasted dormouse stuffed with minced pork and herbs. Julia eyed the crisped meat in front of her as it dripped with beads of grease and flavorings. She made no move to eat.
“Julia,” her mother said. The muscles in her jaw clenched as she chewed. “You don’t like the dormouse tonight? It has always been your favorite.”
Julia shook her head. The candlelight flickering over the roasted meat was making her nauseous. She pushed the plate away.
Her father cleared his throat from across the table. His hands poured another full cup of wine and brought it to his lips.
“Julia,” her mother said again, her voice high. “Eat, please. There will be figs and soft cheese after.”
Julia looked up at her mother, only then seeing the darkening welt that had collected beneath her left eye. She held a pinched, flighty look about her. Her eyes pleaded.
Rain hammered against the villa’s roof. Julia felt the beast swelling within her chest, emerging from its lair to sniff at the change in the air. It panted in the dark, waiting to catch flame.
She abruptly stood and turned to her father. He reclined on one elbow, his lips stained from wine, his eyes dark and calculating pricks of light. A bolt of naked fear shot up Julia’s spine, but she fought it down and met his gaze, staring hard at him.
“You have something to say? Say it, if you can,” her father said. His eyes never left hers.
Julia trembled. Her father took another swig of wine, his eyes laughing at her, and she felt the urge to drown him in his own vice, to watch him sputter and choke.
“That is what I thought,” he said, and pushed his head forward like a snake finding interest. “Now sit. And eat.”
Julia spat onto the food before her.
Her father seemed stunned, then regarded her with the intensity of a wolf preparing to pounce.
Her mother’s words came fast and desperate. “Titus please she is just a child she doesn’t know please Titus please don’t—“
“OUT! OUT NOW!” he bellowed.
Julia threw one last look at her father’s raging face, and fled the room.
She listened from her bed as her father bulled about the villa, the rain outside as ceaseless as his intent. She was scared, but also proud of what she had done, and beneath the folds of her covers, she realized that she hated him, had always hated him. But with this realization came the truth that he felt no differently of her. That he despised her, and that her disfigurement shamed him.
The hours passed without sleep. She bunched the covers about her and stared at the ceiling, her belly rumbling for the lost dormouse and soft cheese. She soon settled into black thoughts and the incessant rain.
After some time, the door creaked open, and Karras’ worried face appeared.
“Child? Are you awake?”
He saw her watching him from the shadows and opened the door further, stepping into the doorway.
“The hour approaches midnight. Your parents have gathered in the atrium. Come, Julia.”
He watched her hesitate, saw the apprehension on her face.
“I promise he will not hurt you. To do so would bring the worst of curses upon him,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. “And not even the wine is strong enough to convince him otherwise.”
She rose and followed Karras to the atrium. No candles had been kept lit within the villa, and all was cast in shadow. The rain had continued to pour into the raised pool, and water now flowed freely over the edge, slopping to the tiled floor in splashes. In the dark, her mother and father waited about a long table upon which two ornate bowls had been set. Three brass pots stood at their feet.
They approached, Julia taking her place by her father’s left side, her mother painfully far away on his right. Her father swayed, his stare fixated on some far off spot in the shadows. He seemed to be quite drunk now. Karras took his place next to Julia, and laid a hand upon her shoulder.
Her father spoke, his words slurred. “All are here, then.”
He brought his hands to the larger of the two bowls, which had been filled with fresh spring water, and set to washing them. When he was done, he dried them on a cloth towel given to him by Karras, and set the towel to the side. Karras took the towel and bowl of water and left the room. Julia’s father scooped a handful of black beans from the smaller of the bowls set on the table, and with the other hand, placed his thumb between his forefingers and raised them high, pressing until the knuckles turned white. He turned to face the far side of the atrium.
“Vengeful spirits, I invoke the sign of mano fico,” he said, his voice surprisingly clear and controlled. “And with these beans, I redeem me and mine. Take them as tribute, and leave this house in the promise of peace. Bring upon us not harm nor foul, for we appease you this night.”
He placed the beans in his mouth. Karras came back from the dark of the house holding a fresh bowl of spring water, which he placed upon the table. He nodded at Julia’s mother, then at Julia, and together they picked up the three brass pots at the table’s foot, drawing from each a short stick that had been placed within. They gathered behind Julia’s father, waiting in the gloom.
He started forward, and when he reached the pool, he spat a portion of the beans over his shoulder without looking back. Julia, along with her mother and Karras, began to beat the pots with the sticks they held. The room filled with the obnoxious clamoring of brass.
When they stopped, Karras and her mother called in unison, “Ancestral spirits, flee this peaceful home!”
They moved to Julia’s room, where her father waited. He spat the beans from his mouth as before, and as before, the household beat their brass pots together, shouting: “Ancestral spirits, flee this peaceful home!”
From there, they shuffled to the peristyle, walking through the enclosed garden and to each room of importance in the villa. They repeated this nine times in total; the household moving from room to room, repeating the words their forefathers had taught them.
Julia felt as if she were walking through another house in another time–one where the shadows held purpose, and every room took on its own personality. As if the spitting of the beans were drawing forth more than they pushed away. To her, the genii were awakening, rising from their hidden domains to peer into the mortal world and breathe its foreign air.
Here was a chair, positioned in the same corner it had always been, but where it had once invited her to sit, it now threatened to swallow her, beckoning with a shadowy maw. Here she saw a vase, bearing a crude depiction of her father’s mother; the painted woman seemed to come alive and dance, as if in the knowledge that the time for revelry was short, and she would soon have to return to a place where people stood as trees and time was measured in the passing of generations. Beneath her, a puddle; each falling drop containing a genius that swam and frolicked about her bare feet. Her fingers thrummed with the genius living within her brass pot.
When they came to Agrippa’s room, her father stopped. He stood in the doorway and swayed, his breath laborious. The bedroom loomed at him. He turned his head and spat the remaining beans out of his mouth, giving the blackness of the room one last look before heading back into the atrium. The beans rattled to the floor at Julia’s feet.
Karras and her mother exchanged a fearful glance, then beat the pots, saying: “Ancestral spirits, flee this peaceful home!”
They returned to the atrium, stepping carefully so as not to slip upon the rain-slicked tiles, and gathered about the bowl of spring water that Karras had refreshed. Julia’s father washed and dried his hands, then without another word, left into the gloom. They set the pots down and placed the sticks back within them, and Karras took them back to where they had come.
Julia’s mother leaned down and raised her daughter’s chin in one cupped hand. Her lips were pressed in a hard line.
“That was very foolish earlier. Your father’s mind hasn’t been well,” she said, her voice no more than a whisper. She glanced in the direction that he had vanished. “I do not know what will happen. But you would do well to find his favor before Lemuria ends. Please, Julia. Promise me.”
Julia looked at her mother’s face, the ugly bruise cast in shadow, and the thought of trying to appeal to her father made her belly turn. But it worried her to see the fear in her eyes, so she nodded and wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist.
“Thank you,” her mother whispered. “You are all I have left.”
They held their embrace, then Julia’s mother took her by the shoulders and stooped to look at her.
“The hour is late. Go to bed now, may the lares of our house watch over you. I sleep to sooner see you rise, dear one.”
She awoke to a thump.
Her sleep had been thin and dreamless, and she gasped awake, feeling confused and disoriented. It was still night, though a lone bird’s twitter told her that morning had to be close. The rain had finally given up, and a shaft of moonlight now poured in through the bedroom window, painting the floor in pale streaks. Julia listened from beneath the covers, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. The moment stretched, quiet in the deep hour before dawn.
Another thump, much like the first. As if something heavy had fallen in another part of the house. Julia drew her breath and moved up to sit against the wall, listening.
And saw her brother sitting on the floor before her, cast in a strip of moonlight.
His skin was porcelain and unmarked, and he sat cross-legged in the middle of the room, his hands folded neatly into his lap. His eyes were polished plates of silver, over which the moon played and danced.
Julia’s breath hitched, then disappeared altogether.
Scattered across the floor before him were the beans that her father had spit out. Julia watched as the ghost picked one up, turning it to inspect it before popping it into his mouth, a smile creeping across his pale face. The shimmering silver of his eyes sought out another bean and consumed it, greedily this time, before moving onto the next. Julia watched, unable to look away.
Another thump. Voices murmured from somewhere in the house. The ghost glanced up, then resumed picking the beans up from the floor and placing them in his mouth. Something fragile crashed, the voices rising until they became shouts.
Her mother and father.
Julia tensed, fear needling at her chest. Another voice, familiar and soft, joined in and was drowned out by her father’s bellows. There were the sounds of a scuffle, a great crash of ceramic smashing on tile. Her mother’s shouts turned to screams.
Julia’s fear broke from her chest and spread through her body like freezing water.
The ghost raised his head to look at her, fixing her with his round plates for eyes. He frowned and tilted his head, as if in mock sympathy. There came another loud thump, followed by a shocked silence. Then her mother’s wail broke it, low and uncomprehending in terror. Heavy footsteps thudded toward Julia’s room, followed closely by her mother’s protests. Julia whimpered. Tears began to spill down her cheeks.
The ghost raised one hand in the moonlight and pointed at the door. The silver of his eyes flashed once.
Run, he mouthed. Beans fell from his open lips to rattle horribly on the floor. Run.
Her father burst through the doorway with a crash, panting, his face scratched and flushed with rage and wine. When he turned to Julia, she saw a creature whose murderous eyes sought only her, whose sole intent was to find her and consume her in its inconsolable rage.
“Here is the little cunt,” he slurred, his mouth hanging open. His wife’s nails had dug deep furrows into his cheek, and blood dripped from his chin. “Deformed wretch. You join your brother tonight.”
He started toward her. Julia pressed against the wall, her mouth forming words she could not speak, her chest hitching in pained sobs. Her father sneered horribly, his breath ragged and guttural.
He had almost crossed the room, when her mother appeared in the doorway, her hair in shambles and her face plastered with tears. She screamed and snatched at her husband’s hair, her fingers working to find his eyes and tear them from his head. He reeled back, roaring as she clawed at him.
“You won’t take her from me,” she cried, her voice that of a cornered animal. “You won’t take her! Julia, RUN!”
Julia threw the blanket aside and flew from the bed. As she sprinted for the doorway, she felt her father clutch at her, his fingers searching for her. But then he was gone, and as she looked over her shoulder, she saw him turn on her mother, gaining hold of her arms and hurling her to the wall with brutal force. She crumpled in a heap to the floor, sobbing pitifully. Then Julia was in the doorway, then in the atrium, her feet flying toward the villa’s door.
Something caught the corner of her eye as she ran. Karras. The old tutor was splayed out on his back across the tiled floor, his mouth slack to the ceiling, his thin body twisted at an unnatural angle. Dark blood had formed a pool beneath his head. A thin whistle escaped Julia’s throat. She plunged through the door to the villa and outside, running headlong into the night.
She ran blindly. Twice she stumbled in the mud, and found herself drenched as she ran on paths once familiar. When she reached a row of grapevines away from the villa, she dropped to her knees and began to cry, her face hidden behind her hands. Like some cruel joke, her mind showed her mother in a crumpled heap. Of blood pooling beneath Karras’ freckled head.
Her father’s shout. She heard him slip in the mud and curse. He rose, the sound of his feet splashing through puddles far too close, and called her name again.
There came a flash of silver from the darkness, just beyond her row of vines. Through the prism of her tears, she saw it flash again, beckoning her. Julia moaned and shook her head. She looked back the way she had come, and fought an urge to run back to the villa. Somewhere back there was her father, splashing his way through mud and water to find her and kill her, just as he had Agrippa. She turned the other way, and there was the flash again, urgent this time, telling her that she had only moments to decide. Julia whimpered, and began to crawl in the direction of the beacon, knowing what she would find there.
When she emerged from the grapevines, it was as she remembered it, untouched since the time of the accident, the scorched walls of the storeroom pointing upwards into the moonlight, like charred bones half-eaten to ash. The roof had mostly given way. It had been two years since the building had burned, and in those two years, it had been avoided and forgotten; a new storeroom had been built on the other side of the villa’s grounds, and her family did not speak of the old. Julia found herself within the doorway, and peered into the rubble and shadows.
It smelled musty and wet, not like burning hair, as she had always imagined it would. The floor inside had been earthen, and as she stepped on it, she sank to her ankle into muck. Frigid water poured in over her toes. She worked her foot out of the suctioning earth, pulling it free with a squelch that would have satisfied her on happier days.
Julia stepped further inside, picking her way through rotten wood and bits of blackened metal, the moon’s crescent peeking through the dilapidated roof. She found a place where the roof had fallen against the wall to make a sort of alcove, and ducked underneath, crawling into the shadowy hiding place. Shivering, she wrapped her arms about her knees and waited.
She did not have to wait long.
Her father came stumbling from the vines, muttering curses to himself. When he came to the doorway of the storeroom, he stopped and leaned against the entrance, his head lolling to his chest, and spit into the dark of the burned building. Julia watched from the shadows, trying not to move. The creature within her chest snickered, licking at her throat with a raspy tongue. Her father stepped inside, sank in the mud, and pulled himself out.
To her horror, he started straight for her.
“In here, child?” he asked, and barked something that might have been a laugh. “Of all places? I hope that you are.”
Now he stood within reach, just outside the fallen roof under which she hid. The moment stretched and became unbearable, and Julia’s throat began to work up and down, the pain there threatening to burst from her in a ragged cough. From somewhere above, her father grunted.
With a roar, he hauled the section of roof to the side, flipping it to the earth with a clatter. Julia tried to launch herself past him, heading for the doorway, but his hand found her hair, and he jerked her forward and to the side.
The pain was blinding. She fell to her knees, her face twisted, screeching horribly. He forced her head back to look into his face.
“No child of mine would look the way you do,” he said through gritted teeth, sour wine cloying on his hot breath. He gripped her about the throat and shook her violently. “Do you hear me? No child of mine!”
He squeezed, until her throat felt as if pressed in a vice. Her eyes bulged, the left filling with blood as a vessel burst and spread. He violently shook her in an attempt to snap her neck. Starbursts popped across her vision, threatening to steal it away.
But then she was falling onto her back in the mud, her father’s hands gone from her throat. She wheezed and crawled back through the rubble, unable to see him through the bright spots across her vision. She reached the doorway and, pushing herself up, was about to crawl out of the storeroom when she felt a hand brush against her face. The fire leapt from her throat in a terrified shriek, but the hand was cold and unthreatening, and she looked up, her vision swimming into focus.
Above her, the ghost of Agrippa stood.
He smiled at her sadly, and reached to hold the side of her face, the thumb tracing the hooded scar above her eye. Tears slipped down her cheeks. He watched them with an absent interest, wiping them away with a hand that felt cast in ice. He caught a single tear on his finger and, raising it to his mouth, tasted it. He cocked his head and frowned.
Then he turned his attention to their father.
He had fallen to his knees in the mud, his complexion as white as the ghost that had been his son. His mouth hung in disbelief and worked to say words that would not form. Agrippa stepped into the storeroom, walking atop the mud without a footprint, and approached his father.
He moaned as if sick, and fell back as Agrippa came, and pushed himself backward until he could go no further. Agrippa reached his father and stood over him, looking down on the stricken man. The ghost looked over his shoulder at Julia one last time, then turned away.
Agrippa lowered himself so that his knees were planted on his father’s chest. Together, they sank into the mud, pressing into the wet earth. Julia watched as her father began to sputter, then thrash as rainwater trickled in and collected around his mouth and nose. The ghost watched the man absently as he choked, water and flecks of mud spitting into the air as the man tried in vain to clear his throat. He began to drown in the shallow muck.
Julia stayed until her father’s protests became a series of disconnected gurgles, his arms twitching like a fish out of water that hasn’t yet realized its own death. Then she turned and ran from the storeroom.
The stars had begun to fade when Julia threw open the doors to the villa. There, on the lip of the pool, sat her mother, wiping tears from her swollen face. And beneath her, sitting on the floor with a bloodied rag to his head, was her teacher, Karras. Julia ran to them.
Her mother caught her with open arms, tears rolling down her face. She held her tight.
“I thought I would never see you alive again,” she said, sobbing into her hair. “Thank the gods for our fortune. Where is he?”
Julia shook her head against her mother’s chest. She looked at Karras, who was gazing up at her with eyes that blazed from an otherwise pale face. He put a bony hand to the small of her back and nodded weakly. Julia nodded back, reaching to take his hand in hers.
She held Karras’ hand as her arms remained wrapped around her mother’s waist, the wool of her mother’s tunic familiar and comforting. As she glanced up at the moon through the atrium’s ceiling, the first fingers of dawn creeping into the sky above, she saw the silhouette of a boy watching them from the roof, his head resting on folded arms. He peered down at them for a long moment, watching from afar as the three embraced, then he unfolded his arms and pushed back from the roof’s edge, disappearing from view.
About the author: Cameron C. MacPhail is from a hillside in Ohio, where he grew up catching fireflies and watching thunderheads gather. He’s a child of nature with a respect for ancestry and the things we carry with us, and his goal is to communicate, exposing life as it has been shown to him. He was a graduate of the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and lives in Oregon these days, pursuing his passions for adventure and creativity while providing original, compelling work for a variety of clients. You can learn more about him on his site: https://cameronmacphail.com
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