He should have killed her.
He is too large, too well-formed for the world, and it cannot contain him; she cannot contain him. And so he should have killed her with his birth: her Caius Martius, turned in breech, her attendant women sharing looks as they change the blood-soaked sheets and wipe the sweat from her brow. “Is he turned,” she asks, drawing strength from screaming, her chest raw from the sobs. “My child, is he turned?”
The midwife, wrist-deep in her womb and only the top of her head visible from this position, grunts and pushes her legs yet a little wider. “He is on the turn, lady,” she says, and Volumnia feels something heavy shift within her, as if her heart has been displaced.
She wonders after – after the babe is placed in her arms, large and lusty and perfectly formed, with the midwife’s exultant cry at confirming his maleness – which gods were watching o’er them both, for one or both should rightly have died. To have both mother and child survive – one widowed, one orphaned even when still in her womb – is not a mere stroke of luck. “The gods be praised for your safe birth, my Caius Martius,” she tells the babe, stroking one finger down his cheek as he screams his rage in her arms. His face is streaked with blood and mucus and muck, the tender top of his head a little distended from the trauma of his birth. Volumnia takes a deep breath and watches the squashed little face turn blindly towards her, mouth smacking as he sought to fix on the nipple she brought to his lips. “There,” she says as she feels him latch on, the pull of him already strong and vital, though he be but minutes old. “There, my son. Take what strength you need from me.”
At her legs, the midwife and the fluttering attendants are busy swapping out more clean linen to staunch the flow of blood from her womb and wrap together her torn parts.
“He is beautiful, domina,” one of her attendant women ventures timidly. “May he be as a balm to the wound you bear in the loss of your husband.”
In truth, Volumnia would not wish it so, but perhaps it is not for her to decide. All she is, is his mother: surely he will make his own way in the world, clear of his dead father’s shadow. No one shall think him as tainted by death for long.
She closes her eyes to the feel of female hands cleaning her with soft cloth and water, and her son’s mouth at her breast, lulling her into sleep.
Later – older – she wraps tokens of her love around his childish frame. He stands half a head taller than the other boys his age, his gaze and brow clear and noble, and had she a dozen sons she could not be prouder than she is of him. “My Caius Martius,” she says to him each morning as he spills wine and oil in obeisance to the household gods. “What a son you are, my Martius. You make your name proud.” She reaches out to touch a lock of his curling hair and smooth it back into place.
She cannot ask it of him. And yet. And yet.
"What a wolf-mother you are," Virgilia had told her one day, furious, "That you are so willing to hand your own child over to those hungry wolves outside!"
She meant the Volscian army, then, for those were the wolves at Rome’s door, and Caius Martius – proven many times over – had set off on campaign to bring glory to his name and safety to his city. And Virgilia – soft and pampered, a nursing child at her breast – had railed at her for sending her husband off to battle.
In truth, she does not understand such squeamishness. Virgilia’s son had been born free and easy, slipping from her womb into Volumnia’s waiting hands as if he were a slippery fish and not a wet, bloody child. As if the act of birthing were a natural thing, and not a filthy, brutal act, to kill both mother and babe more times than not.
As if in birthing her son, Volumnia had not prepared his soul, and her own, for their likely deaths.
“Rome was founded on wolf-mothers," she had replied, her eyes hard. She had gripped Virgilia's forearms; at her daughter's breast, the babe had startled and began to mew piteously. "Birthing him was the most brutal thing I could have done. All else the world requires of him is pale and inconsequential in comparison. Daughter, I would have killed him and me in the act of bringing him forth; and you think to question what his city asks of him? When I have already asked the worst?”
Virgilia’s soft-lipped mouth had thinned, and she had taken a step back, as if denying the truth of her words.
What an odd thing, that she should remember that now, on this road. Ahead the Volscian wolves have gathered, her own wolf-cub at their head. Virgilia walks behind her, her hands gripping those of Valeria. And by her own side walks her son’s son; the bargaining chip she hopes to play to pierce her son’s heart.
Her son. O, her son. She knows what she asks of him, do not doubt it.
His hands are cold when she grips them, as if the Volscian teeth had closed about his throat before she had but opened her mouth to speak.
Rome is victorious. The wolves have been stayed yet again; turned back from tearing into this wolf-born city.
She wonders if she did the right thing, if perhaps she has turned Rome away from what is rightly her fate. Borne of wolves, taken back into the wolfish mouth: perhaps that is what the augur would have cast had he but backbone enough to see it.
Virgilia cannot stand for weeping. Valeria is overtaken with grief for her part in this. Her son's son is too young yet to realise what he has lost. Volumnia would turn to Menenius to share her grief, but he - honourable man 'til the end - could not bear to see defeat at such hands, nor victory at such cost.
And so she is alone when the tribunes come to her with their thanks.
Rome is victorious.
She looks down at her hands; at the clean, unblemished skin with which she killed her own child. "I understand," she tells the tribunes, watching their uneasy exchange of glances as they withdraw.
There is a formal seal of the accord. She attends, because it is what Juno would do were she to turn her hand to her child's breast.
His body is cut down and given back to her as grief-price: her grief, or that of the Volscian leader, Aufidius, she does not know. All she can see is the pallor of her son’s cheek, and the reddish smears on his mouth and chest from whence his sometime friends had brought forth his blood as if they had been culling cattle. Her son, strung up as if he were a piece of meat! The sound she makes is thin and reedy, and Virgilia’s arms are tight about her as she takes a step forward. Her son: her light, her shining glory. Tall and spare and beautiful even in death, so much a man that the Volscian hordes could not bring themselves to dishonour him further and so had brought him back as offering to seal the peace. "Here is Caius Martius", they said, and it had been Aufidius’s man who had said it, but not Aufidius himself. "Our quarrel has been ended with his death. Let that be the end to it. Let the blood of Martius seal our friendship."
And Aufidius’s man – though not Aufidius himself – reaches forth his hand and clasps the arm of Cominius in friendship while Rome looks blindly on.
Oh, that she were a man! That she could step forth and cut out Aufidius’s eyes! And the eyes of the tribunes, and of the people thronging the streets – yes, she would cut out their eyes, so that they could not feast them on the corpse of her son, red-clad, brought back to Rome as mere meat, buying their lives with his.
Buying her life with his, for she has no illusions.
And if he’d had no mother, what then? If she had taken a misstep a year ago, or a month; if her strength had failed, or if some unlucky augur had writ her doom across her brow? What then? Would he have died still, her son, if she were dead and he – motherless – had received Rome’s poor entreaties?
She cannot encompass such impossibility in her thoughts. No: this blame is to be laid at her door. That she lived still is from his stilling of his hand; that she be not dead is only true in that he did not kill her. Her son, her son; that the choice was his to kill his mother, and that he shirked from it at her pleading –
Virgilia’s hand is cold in hers, and Cominius meets her eyes, suddenly old. The ghost of Menenius at her side watches sadly on. This is Rome, now: children and women and old men, for they have slaughtered their young men and champions on the steps of their vanity.
She turns blind eyes back to where her son lies still on the pallet, attended by a guard of honour. He is so very beautiful, she thinks. Always, this has been the case. He is too large, too well-formed for the world, and it cannot contain him; she cannot contain him.
O Mother, mother! What have you done?
(He should have killed her.)