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Sing, Antoninus

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Do you steal, Antoninus, Crassus asked. Antoninus said no, he had never stolen before, the risk not worth the trouble. His former Master had treated him well. But children grow, teachers lose their worth, and Antoninus had been sold. Crassus had no children, had no need of a teacher. He was a cat playing with a mouse, the Master who wanted a slave for dinner. Antoninus has been running for three days, and yet he still looks over his shoulder, expecting Crassus’ men to be right behind him. It is Crassus' face Antoninus sees behind every tree and bush. It’s his voice haunting him in dreams when he finally allows himself some sleep. If Crassus were to catch him and ask again, Antoninus would have to answer differently. He’d stolen himself away. 

Do you lie, Antoninus, Crassus asked. Antoninus denied that question as truthful as possible. Slaves have their own truth - the only right answer is the answer the Master expects, any other truths are not of import. He’d never had to lie with his former Master, but Crassus seemed like the kind of man who accepted nothing but his own truth, his own expectations of how the world was supposed to be. Crassus expected the world to be his, and the expectation was a heavy weight on Antoninus shoulders, choking him with the neverending pressure.
He didn’t lie, he hadn’t yet, but it was only a matter of time.

Do you eat snails, Crassus asked. Antoninus told his first lie, layered in truths. The truth was that he had indeed eaten snails, once, as a treat from his former Master. The lie was the implication he didn’t understand the meaning Crassus actually intended. The truth was Crassus intentions were clear, but so far seemed willing to be deflected. The lie was the denial of preference. A slave couldn’t say no, but Antoninus refused to consent. The truth was that Antoninus wasn’t interested in snails when they wore Crassus face. The lie is what bought him time.

 

Why do you run, Crassus asks in his dreams. Antoninus never answers, and wouldn’t know how to respond were Crassus to ask him. There’s no truth that would satisfy a Master whose slave has run. There’s no lie that would appease Crassus, who sees himself as a benevolent ruler of all that is his. Crassus had seen Rome’s might and made that might his. Antoninus had seen Crassus and knew he couldn’t win that fight.  He keeps running.

What will you do, Crassus asks in his dreams. He used to be a singer of songs, a teacher of words. Poetry his answer when his own thoughts weren’t fit for the Master's ears. Crassus hadn’t wanted Antoninus’ words, Antoninus songs’, or Antoninus’ poetry. Crassus was like Rome, never satisfied, desire forever expanding. He’d owned him, but that wasn’t enough, he’d wanted to own Antoninus body, to own his thoughts, to own his desire.

So Antoninus runs, and recites poetry to the open skies and the empty fields. 

 

why, so the lamb leaps from the raging wolf,
and from the lion runs the timid faun,
and from the eagle flies the trembling dove,
so the slave runs from the Master cruel,
all hasten from their natural enemy
[I]

 

Is this your Rebellion, Crassus asks, mocking him while awake. The slave camp, it is nothing like he expected. He didn't have any expectations, really, just a vague idea of freedom, a concept so strange and foreign to him, he still doesn't feel free. Nobody has told him what to do for more than two weeks, and yet he only feels unmoored, driftwood cast away by the sea. He has no purpose but to run and stay safe from Crassus' clutches. But if fear of Crassus is what drives him, is he truly free from Crassus?

What work did you do, Spartacus asks. Antoninus lies by ommission, refusing the truth of having been Crassus' bodyslave. This Spartacus doesn't behave as a slave. He laughs, he teases, he is commanding. He has the body of a warrior, a god, and his eyes are harsh and all-knowing, even when he smiles. Antoninus doesn't see how this man could ever have been shackled. But Antoninus is wary, he ran away from a man with eyes like that. So he says he was a singer of songs, which is a truth. After all, Antoninus is free, he can be what he wants.

Maybe he can make the Romans dissapear, Spartacus mocks him. Antoninus burns. He has been nothing but a tool to the Romans, made into a faunt of knowledge to teach children, thrown away when those children had grown. Desired for his body instead of his mind by his next Master. Now he's free and he's still nothing but a Roman tool, a teacher of Roman tastes. He's useless for these men who are used to use their bodies as tools, their hands as weapons. He burns with shame and anger and disappointment. Antoninus is free, but he's still thrown away.

Sing us a song, Spartacus asks. He'd tricked Spartacus in breaking an egg over his own head. He expected to be punished, but instead he got laughter, applause and appreciation. He'd trained with these people all day, learned to fight, learned to hurt. They'd battered and bruised and beaten each other, but here they were, laughing by the fire, together. He can learn to use his body, and they can learn to appreciate his mind. And maybe Antoninus can belong here with these fellow slaves, these fellow people.

He sings them a song.

 

When the blazing sun hangs low in the western sky
when the wind dies away on the mountain
when the song of the meadowlark turns still
when the field locust clicks no more in the field
and the sea foam sleeps like a maiden at rest
and twilight touches the shape of the wandering earth
I turn home.
Through blueshadows and purple woods
I turn home.
I turn to the place that I was born
to the mother who bore me and the father who taught me
long ago, long ago
long ago.
Alone am l now, lost and alone, in a far, wide, wandering world.
Yet still when the blazing sun hangs low
when the wind dies away and the sea foam sleeps
and twilight touches the wandering earth
I turn home.
[II]

 

Read me these letters, Spartacus asks. Antoninus reads, teaches Spartacus about maps, about Italian geography, about sea currents and seasonal winds. He teaches Spartacus about Roman history, mostly about military conquests and the strategies behind them. He teaches him about Roman formations. Spartacus is the best pupil Antoninus ever had. He wants to learn, wants to understand, and isn't afraid to think for himself. The student soon surpasses the teacher, but still Spartacus seeks his company, asks his advise, demands a song. Antoninus burns, but this time with pride. He is needed. He is useful. He is wanted, for body and mind.

Teach me to sing, Spartacus asks. Antoninus teaches him the songs his father taught him, the songs his mother sang him to sleep with. He teaches him stanza’s from classic epic poetry, and dirty rhymes from the Roman streets. Spartacus has no talent for whimsey, nor the voice for reciting poetry. But it fills the evenings with laughter after planning against hope, it fills the nights with merriment after bartering with pirates. For a moment war, nor the Romans, are on their minds. For a moment they are truly free, together at peace.

They share wine from the same cup, laughter echoing in the night. Antoninus' heart swells, and they sing into the night.

 

To fight with wine-cups intended for pleasure
only suits Thracians: forget those barbarous
games, and keep modest Bacchus away
from all those bloodthirsty quarrels of yours.
The Persian scimitar’s quite out of keeping
with the wine and the lamplight: my friends restrain
all that impious clamour, and rest
on the couches, lean back on your elbows.
[III]

 

 

Teach me to fight, Antoninus wants to ask, but doesn’t dare. Spartacus sees him as a man for beautiful things, not a man for destruction. He has learned to fight, no longer stumbles through his movements. But he’s far from a soldier, and it’ll never be enough. Antoninus has seen Rome’s might, has seen Crassus’ determination. Rome will come, and once they’re within reach they will keep coming. Like a sea rolling onto a coast, wave after wave, eating away the rock. They need more time to make it to the coast in time. Time is all Antoninus wants. More time with Spartacus, time to teach, time to learn, time to laugh and to be free. He wants to fight for that.

Antoninus sings to himself for courage, alone on his watch.

 

Antoninus, just ask, we never know, what fate the gods grant us,
whether your fate or mine, don’t waste your time on Babylonian,
futile, calculations. How much better to suffer what happens,
whether Jupiter gives us more winters or this is the last one,
one debilitating the Tyrrhenian Sea on opposing cliffs.
Be wise, and mix the wine, since time is short: limit that far-reaching hope.
The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking
Seize the day, place in the hours that come as little faith as you can.
[IV]

 

Teach me to fight, Antoninus asks. In 26 years it’s the first time he demands something for himself, and his hearts beats with it. Spartacus looks at him, and Antoninus sees the refusal in his eyes. The rejection burns. It must show on his face, because Spartacus nods his consent. Spartacus alters his grip, shows him how to weigh the gladius in his hands, how keep it sharp. He shows him how to set his feet for balance, how to move his feet with speed. They spar, they fight and grapple. Antoninus loses, Spartacus the stronger, faster, better fighter. Better man. Antoninus wins, he gets more time.

Why do you want to fight, Spartacus asks. Antoninus has many answers. The truth is, the better he can fight, the better they all can fight, the better their chances. The better he can fight, the more time they can steal. It's only part of the truth. Another part, the first truth maybe, is that he wanted to fight because he was taught not to. He wanted to fight because he hated the Romans, hated Crassus, and here was the chance to finally object. He wanted to fight because he was a free man, and fighting is what he wanted to do with his freedom. Still, the third part of the truth, was the truth Antoninus long denied himself. He wants Spartacus to teach him to fight, because he wants to steal more time with Spartacus. Hands grappling his thighs, breath rough on his neck, smile sharp in the night. They fight, Antoninus wants, and he burns with it.

Snails or oysters, Antoninus doesn't ask. The answer doesn't matter, and it's not the kind of game they play. They'll leave Vesuvius soon, time is running out on them. But still they train after the sun has set, and still they sing after their bodies are exhausted. There's nothing left to learn. Antoninus will never be a fighter, Spartacus will never be a singer of songs. It doesn't matter, because they are free men who once were slaves, and they make their own choices. Antoninus chooses to kiss Spartacus. Spartacus kisses him back. Hands grappling his thighs, breath rough on his neck, smile sharp in the night. Sex is a lot like fighting. Laughter echoing into the dark, wine shared from the same cup, kisses making their heart swell. Sex is a lot like singing.

Is this happiness, Antoninus asks the sky. The sky doesn't give an answer, but Antoninus doesn't need one. This is freedom.

A storm is coming, bringing with it the Romans, and Antoninus sings.

  

A dreadful storm has contracted the sky, and the driving rain
And snow bring Jupiter to earth: and now the sea and the woods
Resound with the Thracian northerly. My friends let us seize
The chance that the day now grants us, and while our limbs are strong
And it’s right, banish all seriousness from our clouded brows.
Don’t speak of those other things: the god perhaps with kindly
Fortune, will make them subside. Now’s the time to delight.
[V]