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Alexandria Leaving

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Last night I dreamt I was in Alexandria again. Waking up, I found that this was so, and the reality of it is worse than I had ever imagined.

"The dream again, Marcus?" asked my wife, who has never been to Alexandria before. It is all new to her, and while she knows the true purpose of this journey, she cannot help being seduced by the wonder of it all. But then, she is young. As I once was.


 

I had not intended to return to Egypt, ever again. It is a tomb to me now, a mausoleum; I buried the callow boy I had once been there, along with her dead body, laid side by side with her royal sister.

"Charmian, was this well done by your lady?" I had asked her, holding her dying body in my arms, and she told me it had been fitting for the last of so many noble kings.

I had not hated the Queen of Egypt until that moment, when Charmian chose to follow her into death. Charmian could have lived, you see. She was nothing to Octavian. He never understood she had been more to Cleopatra than a slave, and at any rate he could not have denied me anything, or anyone, not then. It wasn't that I still dreamt of a life to be shared. That well was truly poisoned by then. I would have let her go to wherever she chose to go. Egypt, or Syria, or Greece; it would not have have mattered to me as long as I knew she was alive and safe. But she chose death, because her sister and mistress had done, chose Cleopatra above any life I could have offered, for the second time.

My own guilt ate at me then, and has burdened me ever since. But woven in it are anger and spite, though I had to grow old myself to admit this. All of Rome blamed Cleopatra for unmanning Marcus Antonius in those years, for causing a war between Romans. I never did, even while fighting her and defeating her in that same war.

I blamed her for Charmian.


Charmian cursed me, that last day.

"Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, your house will go down in blood, and you will never know peace on this earth," she said, words already slightly slurred from the poison in her veins.

For years, I never spoke of this to anyone. Octavian would have laughed, and told me it was the bitterness of a dying slave lashing out one more time; he had never known what she had been to me. None of my friends had, and my first wife, Caecilia, whom I had married after Charmian had spurned me to remind myself I was a Roman, and for the riches her father offered, was a friendly stranger. My second wife, Marcella, had been frightened of too many shadows as it was. Besides, I told myself it was my own burden to carry, and that the two daughters Caecilia and Marcella had given me were safe. They would marry, they would leave my house; surely any curse would not reach them.

But Julia, who became my third wife, has given me sons as well as daughters. And now I rise with blood in the morning and lie down with it at night, as Charmian has cursed me to do. I dream of Alexandria, of that last day, and it is Julia I hold in my arms. I dream of the two boys whose deaths I ordered because reason and Octavian demanded it, and no longer are they Caesarion and Antyllus; they are Gaius and Lucius, my sons. Julia's sons.

Octavian's sons, too, as well as his grandsons. He has adopted them now, for he never had any child but Julia, and means for one of the boys to succeed him.

"Too many Caesars is not good", he had said to me when he was young, and I was young, and thus Caesarion was condemned to death so that there should be no more civil wars. Now we are both in the autumn of our lives, and I look at my sons who carry that name now, too. Caesar. I look at them and hear Charmian's voice in my heart.

"I have never known you to be afraid of anything," Julia said, who has known me all her life. "But you are afraid now. Why, Marcus?"

And so I told her. They are her sons, too. She was a child when Egypt fell and Charmian died, of course, but she has grown up with Cleopatra's daughter, Selene, who was raised in Rome by Julia's aunt Octavia. She remembers the triumph in which Cleopatra's children had to march. She knows the poems written in celebration, which poets recite to her often to flatter her father and myself. And so she knows some of the story already, contradictory fragments, stones from a mosaic that could never be whole.

People call Julia irreverent and flighty, because she takes few things seriously, not even her father, whom she teases all the time; she is the only one still alive who dares, now that Maecenas and Terentia are gone, and my own friendship with him has become frozen in formality and unspoken reproach. But she did take me seriously then, at once.

"Well, there's just one thing for it," she said. "We have to go to Egypt, you and I."

I stared at her in disbelief. "To ask for the curse to be lifted, there, where it was made," she said.

"I have asked," I said. "With every temple I have built, I prayed to the Gods, all the Gods, to show mercy. Rome is full of them, but the shadow has not left my heart."

"You haven't asked Charmian, though," Julia said, looking at me with her father's grey eyes, that always appear to see more than any man can hide in himself. "You have not prayed at her tomb."

"She is dead," I said, and the guilt and bitterness were as acid in my heart, as if no intervening years had occurred to make it numb. "There is nothing left in Egypt but bones and embalmed flesh."

"Selene always claimed the Kings and Queens of Egypt were gods," Julia said. "If Cleopatra is Isis now, then that tomb is her shrine. And if Charmian was Cleopatra's sister as well as her servant, then surely she will be Isis now, too. I think there can be no more powerful place for us to pray, and ask that the curse be taken from our children."