by Saramanda Swigart
Julia used poison the first time. She’d been married to the senator for almost six years. There was a scandal involving a minor tribute, and even though it was easy to cover up, the senator’s reputation suffered. They had a child, but he died. After that, bitterness grew between them. One day Julia’s mother came over with a vial, and Julia didn’t have to ask what it was for.
The senator died horribly. His hand curled up into a kind of claw, and white foam spewed from the corners of his mouth. Dark veins stood out on his neck. A spasm shook him, and his teeth rattled like dice. As Julia watched, he said, “No, no, no.” The tears that came to her eyes were real tears. After the senator was carried out of the house for good, Julia spent some time wandering the streets, moaning and beating her arms as a widow should. Then she remarried.
* * *
This time she married a younger man. He had all his hair and a magnificent set of teeth, and he came back from tours of duty smelling like iron and wool. Julia kept his hearth and organized his household finances. After a particularly successful military mission, a triumph was held for him in the city. He was arrogant in the best way. Crowds loved him. Young women wrote him passionate love letters. He had a second triumph, and Julia wore a green dress of organdy silk and attended party after party in his honor. But when he left the military and tried his hand at politics, he wasn’t very good at it. Julia got pregnant, and miscarried. Her husband lost a few teeth and most of his hair. He started mumbling when he spoke. Julia got pregnant again, and again she lost it.
Her mother gave her a curt nod. This time Julia’s nephew and a couple of his thugs took care of it. They accosted her husband after a party, and threw his body in the river at a point where he was sure to be found, but not for a day or so.
Julia identified the body. She howled and wailed and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. She beat her arms with her fists like a widow does. They gave her his signet ring, the only thing he had on him when he was dragged from the river, and if anyone suspected her, they kept quiet. She got all his property without fuss.
* * *
“You’re not young anymore,” her mother said, pinching her belly. Her mother was tense, slight, and staggeringly resourceful. She arranged flowers skillfully. She didn’t even have to look at them. She pinched Julia’s belly with one hand and placed the final flower with the other, and the arrangement was a work of art.
Julia looked at her own haphazard bouquet. “I want to marry a poet,” she said.
Julia’s mother snorted impatiently. “Stories. Stories and nonsense,” she said. “This,” she pointed to herself and pointed to Julia, “this is real life.”
“Poetry is real life,” Julia protested.
“While others sit around making up stories, we take. We take what we want.”
“Whom do I marry then?” Julia asked.
“You marry an emperor,” said her mother.
Her mother could arrange anything, and as effortlessly as she arranged flowers, she arranged for Julia to marry the emperor’s successor, a man seven years her junior. And lo, after a few years the old emperor died and Julia’s husband became emperor. He loved marinated olives, and left pits all over their house, arranged in neat little rows, which she found by the side of the bath. She saw poetry in this, and left little rows of pits beside his rows so he would find them. Julia had more power, money, and servants than she had ever dreamed. Powerful people came to her for advice and favor, and commoners began to adopt her dress and mannerisms. Her mother gave interviews about raising the mother of nations.
One by one, the emperor’s children from his previous wife started to die until his brood was pared down to a single daughter, twelve-year-old Octavia, who also mysteriously took ill. Julia’s hair began to fall out too, and before long she realized that the emperor, justly suspicious about his children’s deaths, had been poisoning her olives. Sadness pressed her heart to the size of a pit. She stopped eating olives altogether, but resigned herself to a death by poison, and wondered for the first time if poisoners must be prepared to die that way—if all murders are visited upon the murderer in kind, in this life or the next. If that were true, Julia reasoned, then she could look forward to many horrible deaths.
Octavia recovered as quickly as she’d taken ill.
That’s when the barbarians attacked.
* * *
They were from the north, and they painted their eyes black and most of them had ragged blond beards. They sacked the city, killing every rich man they met. The brigand-king of the barbarians killed the emperor. He listened to the emperor beg, and then slit his throat just above the sternum. After the emperor died, the brigand severed his head from his body with a serrated knife. Julia had never seen so much blood—so dark it was almost black. Fascinated, she watched it spread, dilating out from the emperor’s neck in a dark, reflective pool. The brigand burned their villa with the emperor’s body inside it, and when he left, he took Julia and Octavia along with the emperor’s other valuables. On the march out of the city, Octavia wailed and beat her arms in grief, attracting leers from the brigand’s ill-mannered comrades. Julia yanked Octavia by the hair: Quiet now, she hissed. A girl must know when to mourn. When Octavia continued to weep, Julia changed her approach. She used her sleeve to wipe tears from the girl’s cheeks. She spoke to the girl in a soothing voice about the adventures they would have once they’d escaped the brigand. Ecce: They’d live among the wolves and thieves in the frozen north, hunting a giant stag with hunting dogs twice Octavia’s size. They’d be carried by camel, one hump for each of them, in a caravan, past the ziggurats of the East, and they’d narrowly escape a cannibal priest who’d want to take Octavia as his own and eat her (Julia pinched the girl’s belly, and the girl laughed through her tears). On another continent they’d stop for the night in the waves of a golden ocean of sand. They’d drink cups of magic tea brewed from their tears, which granted oracular powers. When they got lost, a talking falcon would find them, half-starved, and hunt for them, and watch over them when they slept, and from that day forward would never leave Octavia’s side.
While she spoke, Julia looked around for a weapon to use on the girl. There were plenty of rocks. A single blow could crush her skull. Octavia, at her side, pulled on her stepmother’s sleeve. “What’s the falcon’s name?” she said. As stories unspooled from Julia as though they’d been trapped inside her, she thought about her own ambitious mother, always scheming, dead now, surely. She had never whispered stories to Julia. Julia hadn’t whispered stories either, since none of her children had survived. Though Octavia was no longer crying, Julia kept talking, nesting one story inside the other, building and elaborating, disassembling and filling in. When they camped for the night, Julia kept talking. In her hand she held a rock. Her stories had boats and queens, and a moon hanging, reflected in a glassy sea, and mortals who are transformed by divine agency into other wondrous forms, and mothers who lose their daughters and find them again. The stories grew as though by some external force, roosting and taking flight in a mind larger and more powerful than Julia’s. She fingered a groove in the smooth rock with the one jagged edge.
That night, when the brigand came to take Octavia to his tent, Julia hid the rock in her skirts. She stood between the brigand and Octavia and laid her hand on his chest.
“Take me,” she said. “I’m an emperor’s wife. I know things. Let me show you the luxuries of the city. You can have the child later.”
The brigand pulled Julia by the hair, holding his knife against her back, all the way to his tent. They passed two huge sentries guarding the tent flap. One of them smirked, and the other looked at Julia once and then flicked his eyes away.
* * *
When the brigand was finished, and lay stretched out and sleeping, Julia was stunned to be alive. She unwrapped the rock in her discarded skirt. The sentries would be a problem, she thought, but she’d worry about them once she had dispatched the brigand. She made her way to the brigand’s sleeping body and held the stone above his head, regarding his sleeping figure coolly, calculating the momentum the stone would need for a soundless killing. Just then he opened his eyes. He stared up at her. A smile crept across his face. One of his canine teeth was dark brown. Instead of trying to take the stone, he spread his arms wide. His expression was warm and kind, urging her to do it. His eyes told her that this would be a happy fate for him. Julia had never seen this kind of acceptance in a man’s eyes: acceptance of his death, yes, but also acceptance of her, of everything she was and had been. Still holding the stone, she began to cry, fat tears that fell into the hair matted on the brigand’s chest. She cried tears that were tears of pity, for the senator, for her military man, for the emperor, and most of all for each of the emperor’s children. She placed the stone on the ground next to her and put her hand to the brigand’s cheek. He pulled the hair back from her face.
* * *
That’s how Julia got her fourth husband, and became a warrior and a queen. Her hair grew out, long and wild. She wore leather instead of silk, and she learned to kill out in the open, with her hands. The brigand showed her how to sharpen the sharp edge of the rock with which she’d almost killed him, and to lash it to a thick staff of ash. Julia used it to open the heads of his enemies when she accompanied him on his pillaging campaigns.
And what of Octavia?
The night after her time with the brigand, Julia planned to kill her stepdaughter. Before she did, the girl looked up at her with curious eyes and said, “Finish the story.” Something in her tone allowed for no argument. And Julia was surprised to feel the stories rise up in her throat. As soon as she opened her mouth, they poured from her until the night blurred into the next night, which blurred into the following nights until they became one long story that refused to end. In the stories the two women lived as nomads, wandering across deserts and over mountains, holding hands, which is, in real life, what they did. They traveled through many lands, across tilled fields, through forests, and over a rope bridge that connected the two halves of the world. In the stories Octavia died and Julia took a boat across the river of the underworld to save her. A sorcerer stole Julia, sweeping her up to the sky, and Octavia climbed a ladder to retrieve her from the surface of the moon.
In all the stories, each of their deaths—the brigand’s, Julia’s, and Octavia’s—unlike the deaths that actually awaited them—was peaceful and quick. But in the end real life fades and finally vanishes. It is the stories that we remember.
Category: Fiction, Short Story