Other Villas

By Erika Peterson, illustration by Jeff Doten

Flavia heard the scrape of footsteps, quick and light, on the loose rocks of the road. She let fall her needlework and hurried through the portico, thinking she would find Caius back from a day on the hills with the goatherds. But the small figure who approached was not her son.

It was one of those children.

He carried on his hip another child, a girl with dark curling locks who looked no older than two. The boy had the appearance of a child of six, but he held the other child's weight with no awkwardness, and his steps were sure.

Flavia could not imagine why he walked. It was more their way to arrive unannounced, to appear swimming in the water trough between one dip of the ewer and the next, and then to fly away over the yard in a flurry of laughter. Flavia and her household never talked to the wild children. If one tried to pretend that they were simply little birds or animals, they were less disturbing.

The look on the face of this one was sober and adult. He stopped at the foot of the steps and stood in the white heat as if waiting for her.

Half-unwilling, she left the shade of the portico and sat on the dusty steps, directly in front of him. He joined her, settling the toddler on his lap. The girl looked up at Flavia and moved her lips in something like a smile.

"Are you well, Flavia? And Caius Amatius?" the older child asked.

"We're both well, thank you." Useless to wonder how he knew their names. There were powers here, Flavia knew, but they did not intrude where they were not wanted, and they were not wanted at this villa. Perhaps they had sent the boy to speak for them. The little girl waved her arm at Flavia, and Flavia took the girl's hand loosely in her own. She drew her thumb lightly across the plump palm with its delicate lines; the girl laughed and pulled her hand away. Then a look of distress crossed her face. She looked from Flavia to the boy in confusion. Flavia touched the girl's cheek and made soothing noises. There was no strange wisdom in the little girl's eyes, no flash of visions beyond sight.

This was what children had looked like when Flavia was alive.

"She's Amatia, your husband's youngest daughter," the boy told her.

"What? But I didn't know she was even ill!"

"The plague is in Rome again."

Flavia knelt before the steps, the better to see the girl's face. Yes. The shape of her eyes and the breadth of her forehead, they were just like the features of her own son. "And you've brought her here to stay with me?"

"It wouldn't be right not to give you the choice," the boy sighed. "But it won't make you happy. I know that. You can let the child come back with me. I promise we'll reunite her with her parents when the time comes."

"No. No. Why would you bring her here at all if you don't want her to stay? Look at her, how young she is! She needs a family. She'll stay with me." Flavia tried to keep her words calm, but she wanted to snatch the girl away from him, shelter her and hide her away, before the boy could change his mind and lure her into the wilderness. Perhaps he sensed that, for he stood up and passed the girl to Flavia, who nestled her in her lap and kissed her soft hair.

The girl's skin was pale and fine as silk. Her bones were sturdy, more prominent at the wrist than Flavia would have expected. Flavia remembered her with the tiny, round limbs of an infant; she had seen her once or twice at that age. She had never been sure whether it was a proper thing to do, to seek out visions of her husband and his new wife and their life together. She thought that perhaps as long as Titus Amatius still missed her and remembered her, it wasn't wrong. But last year he hadn't visited Flavia's tomb, and now she did not watch his family.

"Flavia, you have no obligation to her. She would be so happy with us."

Flavia stared up at him. "Please, could you leave now? Before Caius gets home."

The air brightened and the boy faded.

That wordless knowledge. That too-shining joy. Every day she feared she would awaken to find them in the face of her son.

Wait -- the solemn boy might go to Caius, might be whispering wild thoughts in his ear even now. At that thought, Flavia began to run, out through the garden and into the yellow hills to find her son, scarcely noticing the weight of the girl at her hip.

Flavia watched Caius practicing his letters in the dust. Amatia sat beside him, and whenever he would lean back to think of another word, she would lean forward and smack the dirt with her palm, ruining what he had written. He didn't seem to mind; he was always so patient with her.

Then she heard a new burst of laughter from the shed where the farmhands were threshing, and one dusty man after another emerged. "It's finished!" someone cheered. The threshers dispersed throughout the yard, some to wash at the trough, some to rest in the shade beneath the poplars, some to the kitchen to nag old Luculla to hurry with the midday meal. Gnaeus Fortius came to Flavia with his report. "We did everything just as we've always done it. The work was no easier and no harder, and we've as much grain as we had in a good year."

"Make the work easier," she said quietly. He looked like he would protest, and she shushed him. "I don't want anyone to leave! I want us all to be happy. They must realize by now that no one need stay and thresh. They can do anything they dream of. Why do they stay?"

"Why do you? You could join Verus in Rome and live like an empress on larks' tongues and roast peacock."

"This is my home."

He nodded as if that settled things. "It should be a month till the grape harvest."

"I'll note it in my diary. We should take everyone out to the vineyard this evening -- let them see the grapes and think of their ripening. Then we'll count the days."

The serving-women brought out clay bowls and wooden platters laden with bread, cheese, fruits, and greens. Flavia called the children to her. They took their food and went to sit on the low wall that enclosed the yard. Flavia set Amatia in her lap and fed her bites of plum. She knew already that Amatia didn't like the skin, so she peeled it off and held the fruit by its fragile flesh, the juice running down her arm as she steadied it for another bite.

Amatia rarely ate. At every meal Flavia fussed over her, offering her every delicacy at the table and coaxing her with smiles. The other women joined in, too. They reminisced about other difficult eaters they had known. No one acknowledged that there was no longer any need for Amatia to eat, or for any of them to.

Caius ate. He was sitting next to her right now, eating bread and honey; his white teeth tore at the bread's hard crust. He ate, he drank, he even grew. It had been seven years since pestilence had ravaged the farms of their valley, bringing them all here, mistress and son, servants and families. Caius hadn't grown to be a youth of sixteen as he should have, but he had grown. He looked to be twelve, perhaps.

Did he grow because he ate? Or simply because he was old enough to know that growing is what children do?

Maybe she should ask one of the wild children. She could catch one next washing day. They often came to the river to watch the proceedings, looking curious and uncomprehending as little cats. But she knew now that some of them did comprehend. Some of them could put words to their knowledge. She could drag one out from the bushes where they played beneath the drying laundry. She could carry him home and feed him honey cakes and candied nuts until he agreed to answer all the terrible questions she had not yet dared to ask.

Amatia wriggled in her arms, and Flavia realized she was crushing the poor child to her chest.

Mutton roasted on a spit over the fire. Flavia chopped leeks. Luculla and Clodia lifted bread from the oven. Once, Flavia and Caius and Titus had eaten their dinner apart from the others. There was no sense in those distinctions now.

Hoofbeats and shouts came from the yard. Flavia leapt up, then smoothed her gown and moved at a more seemly pace toward the door. Tonight of all nights, Lucius should see her dignified and composed.

When Lucius came in, his hands were cold and the evening air hung in the folds of his toga. He murmured a greeting in her ear, and she in his. Then he stopped still.

She knew, before stepping back from him, before looking over her shoulder, that he was seeing Amatia playing on the floor. "She's Titus's daughter. Vera's daughter," she explained.

"I know," he said. He looked from the child to her. She saw pity for her, but no surprise.

"Did they-- They brought her to you first, didn't they?" she asked.

He knelt on the clay tiles beside Amatia. He tilted his head and seemed to study the girl. Flavia returned to the table to master her tears. So many of the body's embarrassments were forgotten now, lost unless one called them up, yet tears still came unbidden.

"Flavia, what do you think will happen?" he asked gently.

"It doesn't matter what will happen." If he objected, she would not defend herself. Nor would she ask him how he could have turned away his own daughter's child. She would simply take her new daughter in her arms and go sit in the moonlight under the fig tree. He would ride away back to Rome. He might never return.

Lucius came and stood next to her, his back to the table, his shoulder touching hers. He said nothing. Flavia scooped up the leeks and moved them to a bowl. She wiped her hands clean.

"And how is Rome?" she asked, finally, when silence had stretched so long that surely it meant acceptance.

"Which one?"

"Yours, of course."

"Swamped with philosophers. Athens must be emptied; the halls of all the palaces are clogged with Greeks. The debate is noisy and ceaseless. Heady stuff, but I needed a respite."

Flavia left the final preparations to the servants. She picked up Amatia and led Lucius to the chamber where once she and her family had dined every night. Luculla had already slipped in and lit the oil lamps.

"What do they debate these days?" she asked him, settling into a carved chair.

"What don't they? And sometimes I think 'debate' does them too much credit. Before I came here, we all took a trip to see Nero. Don't let anyone tell you that philosophers are high-minded. They may have cheerfully given up all the pleasures of the body in favor of endless talk, yet when they stare and probe at a monster like Nero they're as avid as a mob at an execution. They all maintain that the purpose was to discuss what a bad example he provides, but in truth, we went to gawk. I at least am honest about it."

Caius burst into the room. He and Lucius exchanged affectionate greetings, then he ran off again to eat with the servants' children. Dinner was brought in. Flavia and Lucius were left alone.

With Lucius there to protect her, the fear of drifting was muted, becoming something akin to anticipation.

Once she had gone for a walk with him, far down the road out of sight of the villa. She had plaited poppies to wear in her hair and scuffed the dust up with her bare feet. They lingered to watch hawks soaring over an escarpment, and they argued over whether they had imagined the hawks into being and if so, whose thought it had been.

When they returned, the villa was gone.

Flavia remembered running. Where the lane should have been there was only meadow; she forced her way through the tangled plants, her gown hitched up. She didn't panic, not entirely, at first. She felt strangely certain that the house was just invisible. She walked toward it with her arms out like a blind woman. Farther and farther she walked, and touched nothing. Then she ran again, arms whirling, stumbling, crying out.

Lucius grabbed her; she struggled against him as if he were keeping her from saving her child from drowning. Finally he caught hold of her hair and twisted it around his hand. He pressed his cheek against hers. "Close your eyes," he whispered. "Think of Caius. How he looks. How he smells. The home you've made for him."

"Caius," she moaned, and he hushed her.

"No, think. See him. Do you see him?" She made some noise. He said, "My eyes are closed, too. Step forward, walk toward him, just a few steps. Now open your eyes."

There Caius was, sitting on a bench in the farmyard with one of the men, learning how to whittle. Her sobs of relief must have embarrassed him, but he returned her embrace anyway.

After that, everyone had slowly learned how to keep from drifting, and how to find their way home when they did. But they all feared it.

Lucius didn't. He lived in Rome, that vortex of the swirling dreams of thousands of people. He traveled alone to see her -- with less fear than he had ever felt traveling in life, he said.

Sometimes when he visited her, they would emerge from a chamber after some time alone to find the house empty and echoing. Knowing that she could find her son again as soon as she wished to, she would allow herself to taste for a few moments the sensation of being lost, before she could stand it no longer.

"Nero is as mad as ever," Lucius was saying. "Seneca can always find him; he led us all there. Vile as Nero is, he's a passable architect. He sustains acres of lavish palaces, and some of them are not without aesthetic appeal. He gave us a tour. Everywhere we went, the creations of his mind made obeisance to him. Senators, slaves, prostitutes, priestesses . . . the whole panoply of Rome, bowing and cheering. We played along with it at first, but soon some couldn't resist baiting him. It was an ill thing to do, for all that it had its amusing side. It wasn't long before Nero was red-faced and spitting with rage. He must have hurled an entire legion of exotics at us -- bronze-clad Parthians with bows, black Africans with golden scimitars -- and of course nothing could touch us. He was on the verge of apoplexy when we left."

They ate in silence for a time. Flavia shifted Amatia on her lap. The girl drew Lucius's attention again.

"If my husband hadn't married your daughter, we never would have met," Flavia began, starting the explanation she had promised herself she wouldn't give. It would sound as if she was begging to keep Amatia, like a child with a stray dog.

"When the messenger came," Lucius interrupted, "and I sent the girl away with him, it wasn't because I don't care for her. Or for my daughter. Or for you. I did it so that the child could be free."

"What a horrible freedom!" Flavia protested.

Lucius rose and came to stand behind her. He rested one hand on her shoulder and the other on Amatia's head. The girl looked up at him. "Bread," she said, holding up the sticky crust she had been sucking on.

"Yes, bread," Flavia agreed.

"I wish you would come back to Rome with me," he said from above her. "The children, too, of course."

"No. This is where we belong."

His hand left her shoulder. He moved away. "There's so much you need to see! Not just the palaces and monuments; if that were all there was to it, I could build Rome here for you in a day. But the people, the soul of Rome. . . . You isolate yourselves here, your handful of people, and enslave yourselves to your past. The same few words, the same well-worn actions over and over again. Can that really be what the gods intended for you? The people who have come together in Rome are brilliant and kind. They would welcome you into their fellowship in an instant."

"I'm afraid of Rome," she confessed, and the shining look on his face turned to incomprehension.

"But -- but there's nothing to fear." He spoke slowly, as if reexamining his own logic for flaws. "Not here, not in Rome, not anywhere. Nothing can hurt you now, not hunger or disease or the sword. You are set free in a land of marvels, and given the power to cherish the best impulses of your fellow man, while ignoring his worst. . . ." His words trailed off when he saw they were having no impact.

"Perhaps we could speak of this another time," she said quietly. She watched the flickering of the lamps on the side table.

"Another time," he agreed, and sighed.

He came and took her right hand in both of his. His hands were warm. She wondered which of them had imagined them that way.

Quinces grew in the valley, and their fruits were ripe. A fire burned in the kitchen hearth; Luculla was telling stories of her childhood in Salernum as the women took turns stirring the cauldron of quinces over the fire.

Flavia handed the long spoon to the next woman and turned to the spot where Amatia had been sitting moments before. The child was gone.

What she had feared all along had finally happened.

"Amatia!" she called. She hurried to the other side of the table. She shifted the jars of oil to look behind them. She looked up to find the other women peering about themselves, lifting up the hems of their gowns and looking over their shoulders, as if they might find that they were accidentally standing atop her. "Were none of you watching her? Was no one even thinking about her?" They stared back at her. "Leave. Get out of the kitchen. I have to find her."

Amatia liked to play too close to the hearth, Flavia knew that. From the spot where Amatia had disappeared, Flavia closed her eyes and walked toward the hearth. She stopped when her fingers touched rough stone. The hearth was cold, the fire out.

She thought she knew whose villa this was. She ran from room to empty room, calling for her child. In the courtyard she surprised a man and a woman who were richly robed and weighed down with jewels. They glared at her. These were her husband's parents. They made believe that they were young and handsome and as wealthy as kings. Their son's wife and children had no part to play in that. Sometimes they drifted into Flavia's own villa, angry and unwilling ghosts.

Flavia ran from them without speaking. She rushed out into the farmyard. A bonfire danced, with shepherds gathered round it. The outbuildings were gone, and behind her, so was the villa. "Have you seen my daughter?" she pleaded. "She's only two years old."

"A child was here," one man said. The others nodded. The first man smiled in sympathy and patted a seat beside him on the log by the fire.

Flavia didn't accept his invitation. She moved close to the fire and felt the familiar assault of heat on her skin. She held her hand out further until it floated in the flame itself. Mutters came from the men around her, but she had no time to pretend for them that their fire was real. Something told her to step into the heart of the fire.

There was a dream of flickering color and distant heat. Other villas rushed past, her own yet not her own, a different villa for every thought of every person who had ever lived in this spot. Amatia could be in any of them. Trusting blindly in instinct, Flavia stepped out of the fire. She stood before the kitchen hearth once more, where a fire burned again. Perhaps it was the first fire ever to burn there; no soot marred the hearth's smooth stones.

"You're here for the girl, aren't you?" An old woman was perched on a stool by the hearth. Amatia sat at her feet, playing with a lapful of apples. Flavia scooped up her child, scattering a hail of fruit. "I had hoped she would stay and keep me company for a while," the unknown woman said.

Flavia brushed her cheeks against the girl's sweetly scented hair, trying to hide the evidence of her tears. She wished them home again.

From the kitchen of their own villa they went toward Flavia's bedchamber. She set Amatia down to walk, but didn't release her hand. When they reached the chamber, the child tugged free and ran to play with the inlaid combs and small mirror that sat on a low table.

Flavia opened a chest made of cedar and took out a doll she had been working on since Amatia had arrived. She understood now that she had meant the doll to be a charm. With every stitch, she had tried to infuse it with her will: Let this be an anchor. Let it hold the child here.

But she knew now that there would never be any such anchor, nor would there be walls. Amatia was open to every impulse carried by the wind. A butterfly, a tongue of flame, a bird perched on a reed, any of these might catch her eye and she would be off, sliding swiftly through the layers of this maddening world. And what need would she have to return?

Flavia would try anyway. She knelt by the table and took the mirror out of the girl's hand, replacing it with the doll. "Look at the baby I made for you, Amatia." Amatia smiled. She looked Flavia in the eye, and Flavia felt a surge of hope. In that look, for a moment she felt known. She felt she might be real to the child, a thing remembered and kept in one's thoughts, not just a shadow passing across the senses.

"Comb hair, comb hair," the little girl sang. She drew the comb through her own hair, then across the featureless cloth scalp of the doll. Then she clambered across the table and combed Flavia's hair. She combed clumsily, pulling tendrils out of the loosely braided knot. She hummed odd notes as she worked. Flavia covered her face with her hands, momentarily overcome. Amatia danced from one side of her to the other, tugging at her hair, and then as suddenly as she had begun, she was finished. She marched out of the room on some errand of her own. She had taken the comb with her, but left the doll.

Flavia listened to the pad of small bare feet on the tiles. She listened until the steps were just on the threshold of hearing. For a moment she thought she should let the faint sounds slip away altogether, but in a burst of fear she changed her mind. "Amatia, wait!" She ran down the hall, catching up with the girl before she rounded the corner.

She thought about asking where Amatia was going, or whether her company was wanted, but even if the child could answer, the answers would make no difference.

The carefully reconstructed pleasures of the villa began to pall. Nothing brought her comfort now. Fruits ripened in their turn and swine were slaughtered for the winter. The stars wheeled in their remembered courses. At night sometimes she wanted to scatter the stars or turn them backwards in their paths; she suspected it was in her power to do so. But it would only upset everyone else.

Even with the fear of loss growing daily in her heart, she played her role in their shared life. She sewed and she wove. She cooked and swept.

One morning she was folding newly dried linens for her bed. She looked up the hill and saw children in the olive trees. They laughed and shrieked and danced on the branches. The sky behind them burned blue. She shielded her eyes. Then Caius came from around the corner of the villa. "Look!" He pointed at the children. He smiled in delight and took a step toward the hill. Frantic, Flavia grabbed his arm and jerked him back.

"Go back inside the house," she insisted. He searched her face in confusion and finally turned to go. "And make sure your sister is still with Clodia."

He looked over her shoulder at the children on the hill, then nodded and went inside.

The children were chattering but the sounds made no sense to her. It was empty birdsong. She climbed the path to the hill. She moved warily at first so as not to startle them. Closer now, she could see their faces. They saw her, too. Some ignored her; some stared back, as frank and friendly and unconcerned as any neighbor's children.

She moved among them now. The silvered leaves fluttered and rustled. The wind whistled and the children's songs surrounded her. Children of six or seven swung by their knees from the boughs. Younger children pelted each other with fallen olives. Some made nests in the branches and lay curled in their cradles of leaves. In the middle of the grove was a sleeping child, no more than a year old, rosy and naked.

The other children ignored the baby. They tumbled around her, yelling like savages. Boys tussled in the branches above her, shaking leaves down upon her. Their cries were too loud. The sun was too harsh. No one protected the little girl.

"Go away!" Flavia yelled at the boys. She reached into the branches and tapped at their feet. "Go on, leave her alone."

The boys laughed and kicked their feet. "Catch me!" one boy called.

It was all in play, but Flavia grew angry. "Go on!" she yelled again. She swiped at their legs and missed as they climbed higher.

"Catch me, catch me!" other children began to chant. The happiness in their voices was beyond bearing.

"Go home!" she cried. She still clutched the linen she had been folding. She unfurled it, waving it at the children she could not reach. "Go home!" She was sobbing now. "Go away! Go home, all of you!" She ran at the trees that encircled her, flapping the sheet in the wind as if shooing away a flock of birds. "Go home!"

And like a flock of birds, they finally flew away. From the tops of the trees the children leapt up. They floated in the burning sky and winked out one by one. Flavia turned to the branch that had sheltered the baby she had thought to rescue, but even that child was gone. Not helpless, not lost, no -- she hadn't needed Flavia, not for a moment. Even that tiny child was as wise and wild and heedless as all the rest.

Nothing brought her comfort now, and when Lucius whispered in her ear again in the dark of night, asking her to come to Rome with him, she agreed.

Three horses were saddled in the yard. No horses were needed, nor any road, but she knew Lucius enjoyed the semblance of a journey. Caius would like it, too.

It was for Caius's sake that the rest of the household was here to see them off. For him they pretended that the travellers would be home again in a month or two, full of stories and bearing gifts, and then everything would return to the way it had always been.

The road took them past waterfalls and over gorges and along a cliff by the sea. All this was Lucius's doing. Flavia remembered the time that people from her villa had tried to make a journey. In the world of their living days, the market town had been three days away from their farm. In this world, no one could say how far it was, because they had not been able to find it. The men who had tried to go to town returned a day later, frightened and sad. They spoke of a road that changed directions before their eyes, and a hill near the villa that appeared again and again on the horizon, no matter how far they traveled.

This road, however, was stable, unspooling solidly before them, pale and dusty in the sun. Lucius told her son stories of things that had happened in the lands that they passed. Here a long-ago battle had been fought. There a temple to an oracle had once stood. "And that cave on that far hill," Lucius said, "is the lair of a band of notorious bandits. Their leader is both cunning and strong. If he and his men can't steal something by force, they'll steal it by trickery."

"You mean they used to steal things," Caius corrected him. "Nobody has to steal anymore."

"That's true," Lucius agreed. "But if forty dangerous men with gleaming eyes suddenly melted out of the bushes, brandishing cudgels and daggers, wouldn't you pretend to be afraid, and give them some coins, just for old times' sake?"

Caius's eyes grew wide as he scanned the thick brush along the road. Flavia smiled. So one of her children was enjoying the journey. The other one . . . maybe she was as well. Too much, even.

Amatia hardly fidgeted at all. She was rapt, gazing at the passing scenery. Little things would catch her attention -- a nodding wildflower by the roadside, a gull floating in the air off the cliff -- and it seemed that where her eyes went, her soul went also. She had never seemed so insubstantial, so illusory. Flavia could see the child sitting on her lap; she thought she could feel the weight of her. Yet when Amatia pointed to another flock of gulls, and Flavia's gaze fixed upon them, she began to wonder whether there ever had been such a thing as weight. Perhaps she had just dreamed it. If she weren't careful, the horses' hooves might not touch the road on their next step. They would all rise and rise and rise and then hang motionless in eternal blue.

For a moment, Flavia wanted to hurl herself from the horse and hug the ground, but slowly a knot in her eased and she looked up at the sky again.

Would it really be so terrible there?

Finally the road reached the walls of a great city and a new world sprang up about them. Rome was there in the blink of an eye.

The city was dizzying: trumpet fanfares and braying donkeys, marble monuments and fluttering pennants, and every open space hemmed in by hulking stone buildings and forests of columns. The streets were choked with life, an eddying river of men, women, and beasts. And there was a motion unaccounted for, something that forced her to grip her horse's mane for balance. As she swayed, she thought perhaps it was the buildings, rising and falling at a stately pace like constellations. But then she looked again and knew that it was the people. Among the great throng, men and women appeared and disappeared. A girl brought wine to men seated before a tavern, then she ceased to exist. Liveried slaves carried the litter of a wealthy man, and vanished with a wave of his hand after he descended.

Frightened, she looked back to Lucius and her son. Both were still solid and whole. Lucius moved forward to lead them. They pushed through the crowd and gradually passed from the great river to its smaller tributaries. Their road climbed now, winding around a hill crowned with palaces of gleaming marble. There was freedom to move here, but the streets were by no means empty. A tide of men and women flowed in their direction, everyone ascending the hill. They were different from the crowds in the streets below, their faces serene and joyful.

At their destination, Lucius held Amatia while Flavia dismounted. The crowd swept them up the steps of the palace before them. Columns held up a roof so high it felt like a sky of stone. Doves and swallows sailed through the upper shadows. The music of voices swelled in echoes.

Lucius was greeted everywhere he went, and always he presented Flavia. Just as he had said she would be, she was welcomed, even by poets, statesmen, and emperors.

The noise of the crowd was like a rushing cataract. Everyone spoke. She listened for a time, but could not keep her attention fixed. There were so many people. . . . She hadn't thought herself isolated at her villa. She was never alone there; always there were people talking and laughing. But these were strange people, hundreds of them, whose names and voices and stories she did not know. Their foreignness pricked at her skin. She felt as if she were alive again. It overwhelmed her. Lucius led her to a cushioned bench off in a corner. Caius ran off to talk to some young people. Lucius returned to his friends. Flavia cradled Amatia in her lap and closed her eyes.

The voices rose and fell and rose again. There were shouts and laughter and sibilant whispers. She began to feel that they wove a pattern. Maybe if she were up with the doves, high above the gathering, the figure might become plain to her. Threads of silk and threads of spun gold, colors deep and glittering. . . . The separate voices coalesced into joyous chorus. She felt Amatia pluck at her arms, and without opening her eyes she set the child down beside her. A fleeting caress of Amatia's hair, and then Flavia withdrew her hands and folded them upon her breast.

She soared up into the song again. She picked out first one thread and then another, losing them again in the whole. The chorus swelled. It was a song of glory, of praise and magnificence. A song about the death of fear. She listened for a very long time.

And eventually, it passed away. Voices became voices again, human and separate. Nearest to her, she could hear conversations about the works of Hesiod and the civilizations of the Indus. Flavia opened her eyes and found Amatia gone.

She had known it would happen and had not prevented it. She smoothed the velvet of the cushion beside her, then knelt before the bench, her arm curled about the spot where the child had been. She could still try to find her. She could sink into the floor and submerge herself in the thousands of Romes that welled up from the minds of shopkeepers and gladiators and matrons, tracing Amatia's flight. Flavia could hunt her down and cage her again.

But she would not. She had known it would happen, from the moment she had chosen to come to Rome. She had felt the child leaving her along the road, but she had not turned back. She hadn't known the time and the place of their parting. She hadn't known it would come so soon. But then, she thought, no one ever does.

Other Villas illustration by Jeff Doten
Other Villas illustration Copyright © 2002 Jeff Doten


Copyright © 2002 Erika Peterson

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Erika Peterson lives in southern Illinois with her husband and numerous pets. She has a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Washington and taught psychology at George Washington University for several years.

Jeff Doten has been painting for roughly twenty years and has been unable to stop so far. Science fiction and Fantasy subjects make up most of his work with the occasional dinosaur thrown in. Jeff works in acrylic paints and digital media. Recent projects include a group of six paintings for the Lord of the Rings themed restaurant "The House at Bag End", as well as cover work for Padwolf Books. A current personal project "The Fire Gods of Venus" is a heavily illustrated novel and is showcased on his Web site.