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The Wine-Ship, or, In Which Fantine Is Treated With Fennel And Does Not Die

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  1.       Lonely, and silent, the life of want
    in the country. Trembling to be caught
    rifling the paradeisos of rich men’s sport

and for a day dressing the vineyard
for a day’s coin. The charitable funds
paid girls a pittance; less for bastards.

But the city was a show. Of greatness
for the great; of wretchedness
for those who had to beg. Not enough

to ask for pity’s sake; you had to entertain
to flatter men’s appearance, their generosity
to make a wheedling desperate display.

Some had to maim their children. Monnica instead
rose before sunrise to sweep the market dregs
the apple pith, nut-husks, black bread like clay.

Each day she’d pushed the crowd aside
bitterly thinking there were too many alive
too little air. Sometimes saw a hand

dart into the stalls, and never breathed a word.
Now in her fine stola with silver to spend
her memories girded her like armour:

not to relent, or slacken; underneath her feet
the abyss still. Niobe sobbed herself to stone;
her tears were parched with fire at the kiln.

But the girl at the fish-stall was frighteningly thin
and flinched. She came at dawn to beg, alone.
A sallow face; not just hungry, but resigned

and she knew the look of a child still loved
the hair on a feverish skull, so gently combed...
nobody cared whether this one came home

and even her takings were being taken. Her voice
grew quiet; a woman cuffed her ears; but like a horse
strengthless at the plough, her health was broken

and Monnica not knowing she would speak up spoke:
“Planning to sell her, then?” she said, “she’s worthless;
soon be dead. You’ll  lose even the cost of her fodder,

I’ve seen it happen.” A slave dealer then, since she smiled
a mercantile smile, and said – “she’s healthy as a lark.
Besides, she’s not ours to sell. We’ll be rid of her

when her mother’s raised the ransom, lazy tart.
They sold a little Gaul for eighteen solidi; we’re charging ten
by Hercules! she should thank us.” “And have you waited long?

That kind of love’s not as pig-headed as you think
a mother feathers her nest as well. Not much of a deal
if she’s sent you only a thimbleful. You’ve sunk

a lot into this business. It could fall through.
The same thing’s happened to me, too. Can’t afford
the doctor’s fee? With these overheads

it’s hard to make a living, friend.” And if the girl
had lifted her head but once – but her eyes were dull.
Three years, the venalicius admitted; what a shame

and it was true she didn’t work the way she had;
didn’t earn her keep. Monnica sighed her sympathy;
and as poised as iron made to walk away.

But Clodia the slave-dealer needed ready money
more than she needed an ailing brat; struck
at long last a hard bargain for her life.

Monnica would fire bricks after brick
until the Tiber overran, the marble Victory
let go her chariot-reins, the calves grow double heads,

and never make that money back. Quiet
and questioning nothing, the girl took her hand;
and walked with uncertain steps from her family,

her captors. It was Monnica’s son who paid
the doctor’s fee; a regular, a friend,
who made groat porridge for each attack

of preternatural heat, and let a little blood,
and pressed bunches of fennel to her wet forehead
until the worst spasms passed, the humour ended.

So here it was, twenty years too late:
Monnica’s good luck. The gods had given back
one child for three. The measure of her fate.

  1.       The money that had kept Pelagia as far as Rome
    was meant to pay for place in a columbarium;
    the last gift of the town councillor, who lay now

in a living tomb, when she herself had somehow lived.
Now it would go to pay the ransom.
If only Epicharis was born a citizen!

But her daughter named for kindness, grace,
was the product of abomination
a senator of good family and the little slave

who dressed his sister’s hair and swept the kitchen.
No law’d been broken by the Clodii
not even that of stolen property.

Her marriage had been no marriage; her child
no child. And those terrible extortioneers
who’d run their business out of Antium

had fled among the thousand streets of Rome
to sell their cargo off beneath the crown
and lose her daughter in the human throng.

One neighbour had given her an address
of sorts; and said that by the Temple of Peace
the provincial dealers sometimes hawked their wares;

and several there had paid, they said, too much
for ugly slaves from a thin man, a tall woman,
sometimes both called Clodii...in the Suburra

with a stall by the ox-market, or begging
with their poor daughters (how she shuddered)
on Salt Street and by the cemeteries.

Once in a bakery four streets away
the exact image of her daughter stood
the familiar profile which Pelagia’d run after

and threw her arms around three times, all in vain
her hand on a strange child’s shoulder, making a scene,
who for a moment she swore, she could really swear...

but when she called “Epicharis!” the girl turned round
and those had been her eyes. Those. Exactly those.
And this stooped woman holding onto her!

“It’s you who took my daughter? All these months
I called after “Clodius” in every shop and street
and you’d stolen her already. I hardly recognised her!

“I didn’t steal her,” Monnica said, “I bought her.”
“So that’s all right then! That’s entirely fair!
And how much will you ask for her now?

I’ve sold a lot, but still I have my eyes;
then pluck them out, since your trophy is my child!
Or else my liver! What now, you screech-owl

you wolf, you shameless thief and triple-thief,
you gallows-bird and profiteer, go on
and name your price!” “Nothing at all

if the child is yours.” “Of course she’s mine!”
“I’ll leave that to your ‘daughter’ to decide.”
So small that for a moment Pelagia thought

only a day or so had passed; her darling had slept
like the seven in the cave of Ephesus
and then saw the bone of her wrists and wept.

Never, ever would Epicharis tell her later
she’d had not a flicker of recognition for that spectre
with her frightening smile; but the kind words

the open arms had swayed her, and to her
“It’s your mother, your mother, o my precious!”
had answered obediently “Mother.”

It seemed Pelagia’s curse to be charmed at once
with her worst betrayers, and to curse in turn
her dearest friends. And so it was with Monnica

who was sparing with words, and difficult
on first acquaintance; made odd private jokes
with the unmarried daughter who lived with her

in rapid Punic while Pelagia stood dumbly by.
But Epicharis missed her, pined away
for this woman who’d haggled for her like a cow

out of pity! It burnt at her mother’s heart
to play at knucklebones with her saviour
who’d doubted she had any claim on her.

But once they slipped behind the plebeian seats
to the pantomime of Turnus’ death; the actor
staggered like an enormous, drunken bear

instead of a doomed hero, and Pelagia’s laughter
stifled in her dress, was echoed back. Together
they’d sweep the floor of olive-pits her daughter spat.

And Monnica said once: I’d rather there’d been one
who’d thought a little of one of my own, when -- 
She had four children, now, all grown  

and swore by dried mice as a remedy
for colds, and sooted her hair a youthful black
although she was on the verge of sixty.

 

  1.       Optatus, “prayed for”, was his name; Monnica’s eldest
    who’d spoiled his siblings when young, and now
    doted on Epicharis. He shipped wine in from Gaul;

the Narbonese kind, sweetened with herbs and aloe
and Rhaetican from over the Alps, whose one virtue
was the kick it gave the stomach on the cheap.

He’d had a little good fortune with peppered wines
and now would come exhausted on a holiday
with his ledger in hand. Brought Pelagia a cup

of Spanish must to try; which tasted, perhaps,
like Cocolobis on her thoughtful tongue. Her senator
had taste; she knew the sort of wine

that men would fritter thousands on
in one night of debauchery, and when
Optatus despaired of getting better orders

asked if she could help him barter. Dipped
the ladles in; drank and spat out deliberately,
and said at last: “This is like a first-pressing

it’s so sweet; the juice flows out all by itself
at a feather’s touch to the ripened grapes.”
He trusted her; bought and sold it; escaped

the press of debts from a shipment that vinegared.
And so she took a day from sewing shirts
each week, to test his wines out jar by jar

and learn the prices, the weights and measures,
the names of the agents at the warehouses:
constellations of knowledge, all of it told

as though she would soon understand.
She took two days away; helped now with sales
and caulked the tiled floor. They danced

a delighted jig one evening at success
and collapsed together on the counter when they failed.
Mixed nard and pepper with the must

which turned out flavourless; painted their back wall
with WELCOME, DRINK, ENJOY.
And Epicharis, always welcome, climbed the shelves

forbidden even to contemplate the broom
and slipped pork crackling by her mother
sweetmeats by Optatus and the customers.

His hair was an athlete’s wreath of curls
(she forgave him the absurd Hellenic beard)
and he smiled a little crookedly, and strummed

the beads of his abacus with a harpist’s speed
and took her arm one evening when they walked
to the gate by the Praetorian Barracks; talking

of Pontic wormwood, Egyptian grape, and the must
from the mountain at Tmolus, miraculous stuff,
which turned the gall it touched to honey.

Broader than the span of the Appian Way
stretched the square shadows of Aurelian’s Walls
built fifteen years before; “Nearer the Viminal

and the Nomentine Gate, that’s where I worked
with my mother, my brothers and sisters...”
He walked a little on in silence.

 “They mixed pozzolanum; we hauled the hods
as high as we could take the wooden towers -
the city from above was laid out like a map:

the racecourse was a pigeon’s bath of dust
the Field of Mars a sleeping toad
the emperor’s tomb an ear of grain

The sweat stung my eyes; you worked in harness
but it didn’t do much good...Pelagia, do you think
it’s inhuman that I should remember any happiness in this?

How feeble-minded children are! My mother used
to tremble when she mounted that first slat;
she never took her eyes off us, but it’s hard...

Still, the best wine I’ve ever tasted
was that salt Cos wine the foreman watered down
warm in clay cups at dusk; yes, the best.”

“I drank worse to keep the cold out
and pay my daughter’s rescue. Without some joy
I would have known it all; been lost – ”

“That’s why you spit it out! Pelagia,
I don’t know where you find your bravery
I don’t want to ask more than you can give to me.”

“Trust me. I no longer work that trade...
you must have guessed the kind of woman I am.”
“The kind of dog your senator was! A wife’s

the woman you live with, who gives you a child.”
“By your laws at least. I wish that you were emperor
You’d make a better job of building walls

you’re the most humane person I know...”
“Even though...?” “Oh, yes, even though...”
The gate swung wide to let them through.

They chivvied the donkey through the gate home
and watched the sun light even that enormous facade
with a rosy haze of pink; the brick picked out in gold;

and with a little of their new-bought goods
poured a libation to the dead. It was so late
that the shop was entirely empty. They sat

by the resinous shelves and caught their breath.
All the way home they had talked so lightly...
and now Pelagia without thinking touched his hand

the curve of his back, the hollow of his shoulder
and felt him invisibly shudder. “My business partner,
my dear friend, my...” He cupped her cheek

for once lost for words, and turned
into the warm shape of her kiss. Her body
still remembered pleasure, trust,

and reached for Optatus, who followed her
like a pupil learning the steps of a dance:
so careful, so enraptured. Even his stubble

seemed a delightful roughness on her neck.
He praised against her hair her head
for numbers, her kindness, her clever tongue –

“It’s not just me who has a clever tongue,”
she said, amazed that she could laugh in this,
and saw him blush, his warm hands brush

her thighs under her dress. She hitched
her hips against the marble countertop
to give him room. The jostle of his breath

sparked tremors; and with his fingertips
he drew frustrating circles, lightly pressed
a little nearer to the mark. At last his mouth

in a flicker of heat, and, yes, how cleverly,
how he touches her; that wet caress
doubling and redoubling, unrelentingly...

She gripped at the air, and cried inevitably out
so loud she thought the neighbourhood would wake
the geese on the Capitol start to shriek

the Praetorian Guard panic and turn out
the water in the aqueducts shake and shake...
and touched him in her turn so thoroughly

he called even on the crossroad gods
and caught her round the waist, and kissed
her mouth as though a thousand kisses

would be too few, and never sate him.

  1.       Weekly by the temple of Athena Front-Fighter
    Monnica came for her share of good Egyptian grain
    and showed her gleaming tessera. Her name

was inked on the roll of the registered poor.
And so in exchange for the means of living
every functionary in Rome knew just where she lived.

The state archives could not keep track of a coward
who fled and pretended grandeur; but Allius Monnicus
was an uncommon name. The captain had good reason

to know he’d had a sister. She’d had a letter written
pleading to remove him from service, or at least
to keep him closer to their home town. And so his knock

startled her household at dawn. His cloak
was as red as ink in the risen sun. He asked to speak
to Allia Monnica; she would know the reason why.

“A fine business when the army recompenses you
for your brother’s service, and he proves himself
as slippery as quicksilver. I swear to you he won’t be burnt

or lose a hand; such things are a barbarous waste.
All I ask is honest service, and I’ll let him go.
You’ll find me reasonable. Believe me, I’ve learnt

how everyone would turn soldier when it’s a fine uniform
and a fat salary, but just let Bellona crack the whip
and grown men weep on the field. If you saw

how the barbarians treat a captured town
you’d hunt him down yourself! May every god that’s listening
spare you and your kids that  pretty sight.

We’re on the same side, Monnica: so hand him in.”
“I’ve seen nothing of my brother, nothing.” Tears
started in her eyes. “He didn’t even say he planned...”

“They handed me the money; then I heard
of the court martial, and the mines. Twenty years.
I wouldn’t recognise him if I saw him now.”

“A brother like that is no brother,” Aurelius said.
“Quite right. But you’d certainly recognise the brand!
Allia Monnica, keep that fact in mind.”

 

  1.       No one spoke, nor would have spoken
    after the captain, saluting, had at last left
    except that in the alcove of the mediolanum

Pelagia had hid stock-still behind a curtain
and cried: “Then Salvianus is not yet dead!
I know that man. I did not dream he’d said

his quarry had played at being a magistrate?
And had a brand? He seized him by my sick-bed.
I thought to take him to his death –

And this was your brother! He has your kind heart.
I could weep; I should find better words -
by all the gods! It was not the cudgel; he lives;

has he taken ship somewhere? Does he think
me dead as well? Your brother! I am sorry
my friend, this is too much to hear at once -

I’m sure he had good reason to desert.
What a bad man I thought him! But Monnica
he was so good...” And truly like a warrior

a Turnus at the gates of burning Latium
Monnica’s great strength, that built the Wall,
and bore her griefs, at last gave way;

she buckled at the knees, fell to the floor
her daughter and Pelagia to support her
and hardly comprehend her shining tears.

Themiste went running to call her brother;
(too dangerous to ask a messenger)
and write to their family in Syracuse

telling them without telling them
that their uncle still lived, and they, with him,
in danger. She'd quietly accused

his cowardice, his absence; most of all
his failure, all these years. But now
remembered only how they'd stolen milk

and he'd said not a word. How hard
it was to live! Some people simply folded -
but after all he'd lived through the mines

if not the army. As a child she'd only thought
of how tall he was, wondered how he could fit
beneath the earth. He'd helped another man desert;

that's why they were so heavy-handed.
And now they had to find some way to warn him
even get him out! The conference ran:

“The officer -" so Monnica "- knows him by sight. And would
he have chased a dead man’s sister if he had not thought
he might be here, in Rome? Should we find

him, should he come here, to my door
we must make plans to run. I can’t offer shelter
since the army knows my address.”

“Then I know a few men in the shipping trade,”
Optatus said; “who take the run up to Massilia
with a heavy cargo, I could bribe my way

into room in the hold for three or four.
If really Allius is alive, if somehow...”
“And what do you know of life there?”

 “Massilia!” he said, “can you imagine? The Rhine
flows into that valley. They sail wine upriver
to where men live wild, in barrelfuls – they drink

a tun up in a silver mixing-bowl at feasts.
And if you’re frightened of the law, there’s none
once past Narbonne. The Bagaudae

scratch their rulings on tree-bark, and parade
magistrates and governors naked. Some, they say,
are Christ-worshippers, and dream of equality--”  

"But why come knocking now? Wasn't
your "Salvianus" was caught in June?
Perhaps something has spurred him on."

(Themiste, shorter with words.) "And Rome.
It's after he was stationed here. He looked at the rolls.
He must have seen someone - " "Be watching?

Yes," Pelagia said, thinking, "Yes, I remember.
his thoroughness; he'll be at the barracks; not too far.
I see now there's a way to find this out."

6. “He has not seen me,” she said, “and I believe
he does not know me.” She barked a laugh.
“He would not even suspect I could be so brave

as to come after him. I won’t be seen. I know
those alleys; I was a child here, after all. Ah!
It will be easy, even.” In her matron’s stola

the grey-brown of the crowd, she darted like a bird
within it. And with that same quavering pulse
watched his booted steps, the beat of his sword

on his marching thigh, as even as a drum.
One dreadful Suburra winter the proseucha
that stood just opposite the greengrocer’s

had set a counter out to feed the crowd; given
soup and stories to an orphan girl; who remembered now
how a magician had made a man of clay and leavened

the dull earth with bone-breath to move his limbs
obediently; and took away his orders; made him dust.
Surely he had moved with just that measured tread

and never looked aside. But on his brow
no holy words; instead his oath. Which spoke
perhaps of honour. Well! A soldier needs his oil and wood

his sport as well. Aurelius kept the accounts
and heard complaints; apprehended thieves; even
when he caught men drawing swords at market

had them promptly flogged; was strict, and even just
in grain-measures, chalk-billets, and the arrest
of an infamis  woman, on a citizen’s petition.

The order of the world. Yes, great and lowly
barbarian and Roman; armed and unarmed.
How the army upheld it. How bravely

one day he would die, and could not doubt
any more than could the Wall the function
his captain scored with leek juice on his skin.

Dreamed, perhaps, if not of promotion,
of the small-holding he’d dutifully plough
after fifteen years. The Blues had better odds

of winning every season than he of living out
his active service. How he didn’t drink
Pelagia wondered. How he didn’t see

the other regiments, their swathes of pillage,
the weeping girls, the empty granaries, the threats,
the bruises, most of all, the lies... 

 

 

  1.       Insomuch as Pelagia had thought
    she would find Salvianus when his pursuer did
    she had been quite right; but had not dreamed

of how she’d outstrip him when she did. She had
perhaps five minutes; only a warning;
for her benefactor who now, astonished,

still, at once, knotted his bedlinen. The wall
was watched by Aurelius; across the corridor
stood the latrine; a dreadful passage for the desperate.

 The rope guided them only so far. They hung
over the fetid breath of the pit, the litter
of oyster-shells and bones flung in

with human waste. The walls were thin;
the house reverberated like a drum
to the careful, quiet climbing steps

that scraped the loose mosaic by their ears
and carried on upwards. The linen would not hold.
Not daring one word, mouth tight shut

he touched Pelagia’s shoulder, drew her arms
around his neck, as gently as he could.
She clung on like a shipwrecked man.

Just so, in the terrible belly of the mines
Allius had made a ladder of the tomb
and braced his back against his prison.

Pelagia was little weight. He vowed
fresh, new cakes on the Mother’s altar
a cockerel to the god of doors, if only

the slime of the walls did not betray him.
Foot by foot, they reached the door
of the lowest floor; Allius kicked it wide

and caught the lintel with one hand.
They choked, this far down, on the smell,
but, by Hercules! – hadn’t fallen.

Upstairs Aurelius’ methodical search
which would soon turn to the windows, guess -
but in that few minutes desperation granted

they ran like Atalanta. The donkey was penned
by the Tiburtine Gate; the best Optatus could do
for a getaway. Allius, who could talk nettles

into a useful bloom, coaxed it to a flying trot
down to the river-boat docks. And there his sister
a niece and nephew, the child he’d longed to save.

Allius who had lived a Stoic’s life for Epicharis
thinking only that he must continue for her sake
as lonely and as hunted as a beast; who’d lived

for a moment with hope and had it taken
and seen the span of the world in cruelty
cast his arms around his sister wordlessly

and catching at last his shocked and sobbing breath
“I’m sorry,” said, “I couldn’t, I couldn’t,
I had my sword but when I saw his face

he caught the man at my side in the ribs
but still I couldn’t...how it rained! And I knew
I’d brought you poverty, disgrace. You can’t forgive - ”

“I do,” Monnica said, “I do. You did all you could
and I've come here with everything I have
to fly with you to safety. I thank every god

the mines couldn’t kill you...oh my brother –
With the younger ones there marvelling at his face
so gentle and so worn; his gladiator’s frame

never used. He stripped his filthy tunic off
and ducked into the hold, still unbelieving,
not daring to ask if the others lived abroad

or lived at all; seven children! Too much
to remember for twenty years and now not enough;
too many questions. He huddled in.

And Pelagia, who’d spat in his face, embraced him
“Your statue, good sir, still stands by our basilica
splendid on horseback, the patron of the town!”

He smiled: “It must have cost too much to melt it down.
But how did you come to warn me? And to meet my sister -
and now we are to board ship to Massilia?

“It’s straight out of Chaireas and Callirhoe
I’ll tell you when we’re safely in the hold
you must think yourself an amphora till we’re past Ostia.”