Chapter 18 of my novel about a Vestal Virgin in Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
I awoke with a headache, to the barking of a dog. I was lying on a cot, in a sort of cubicle smaller than my vault. The light was dim. The air seemed dank, but breathable. There was a doorway, in which a little spotted dog stood, yapping at me.
“Quiet, Cerberus. This is our friend. Don’t you want to meet our friend?” The owner of the human voice reached the door. She was a girl in her twenties with a deeply scarred face, sparkling eyes and dark hair pulled into a braid. The animal approached suspiciously and barked one more time, then relented and enthusiastically licked my hand.
“My name is Anna,” offered the girl. “How do you feel?”
“Not very well,” I admitted, “but I’m alive. Did you rescue me from the vault? What is this place?” My thoughts raced ahead. Why did you help me? Where can I go now, when I am supposed to be dead? Am I even free to go?
“You are in a safe place. I came to find out if you are well enough to eat something and travel a short distance on your own feet. When we broke into the vault, you seemed drugged, but with the Goddess’ help, you have recovered.”
She pointed to a cup of water and some bread, beside a small lamp on the floor. I sat up, noticing that I was now dressed in a heavier woolen robe of inexpensive make, with a blanket-like cloak secured by a wooden pin. The extra layers were welcome, because the room was chilly. My little bag of personal items was absent. Anna told me that it remained in the vault. “We keep few possessions here, but you can retrieve it at any time,” she said. “Nobody will steal it.” After refreshing myself, and handing a morsel of bread to Cerberus, who seemed to expect it, I stood up, stretching. Simply to be alive seemed a great luxury.
“Bring your lamp,” she said. “This is your room, for now.”
I followed her out the door into a stone tunnel. Cerberus ran at our heels, charging ahead into the shadows. He knew where we were going. We passed some other doorways, but the cubicles within were dark. The tunnel turned to the right. At last the corridor widened into a spacious room where a perimeter of shelf or bench was cut into the rock. The air here was sweeter and perfumed with the scent of a small charcoal fire, burning in what appeared to be a shaft leading upward. Seated near the shaft was an elderly woman with long grey curls confined in a band, but not pinned up. She wore a heavy garment like mine, with the same wooden dress pin. I was surprised but comforted to find a woman in charge, and thought with a pang of Fabia and the Vestal House. Perhaps these women were priestesses too.
“Welcome, daughter of the Goddess,” said the grey-haired woman. “My name is Thana. This is a place of refuge, but you are free to leave. Is it your wish to remain here for a time and learn more of our ways, or do you prefer to return to Roma?”
I did not understand her. Surely we were still in Roma? “I am grateful for your help,” I said cautiously. “I owe you my life, and I have no place to go. Because you rescued me, you must know who I am. Or who I was. My senses tell me that I am still alive, yet for me, this is an afterlife.”
Thana waited, her expression neutral, and I realized that I had not fully answered her question. It seemed to hold some special import. I glanced at Anna, who gave me a sympathetic smile. Cerberus sat at her feet, also waiting.
“It is my wish to remain here for a time,” I answered solemnly.
“In that case, I must ask two questions. The first is whether you will swear a mighty oath to keep secret that which must not be spoken concerning this place.”
“I will.” As a Vestal, my life had been devoted to guarding secrets; a few more would not trouble me. Thana lifted a small terracotta jug from the bench and poured wine into a bowl, then looked up at me. “Swear the mightiest oath you know.”
Again, my experience as a Vestal served me well. “If I fail to keep secret that which must not be spoken concerning this place, may my blood be spilled as this wine is spilled, and may I be accursed and handed over to the Goddess.”
Thana nodded, exchanging a glance with Anna. “Now drink.”
I lifted the bowl and sipped the unmixed wine. No expensive Chian vintage, it was harsh and sour: the kind of wine, I supposed, that one bought in tavernas on the streets.
I replaced the bowl and asked, “What is the second question, Thana?”
“You have been reborn below the earth. By what name shall we call you, daughter of the Goddess?”
No doubt these women knew my identity, but this seemed to be part of the rite by which they offered refuge to those they took in. I gathered that the place was a subterranean sanctuary of the Goddess under one or another of her names.
I replied, “I was the Vestal Lucia, born to Gaius Lucius Castus and his wife Marcia. I do not know who I am now, or whether I have forfeited my old name. I am no longer a Vestal, yet I know that my life still belongs to the Goddess.”
“As do all our lives,” Thana replied. “Shall I consult the Goddess immediately, in the matter of your name, or will you name yourself?”
This intrigued me, for Vestals had no ability to consult the Goddess so casually. For us it was always necessary to conduct a sacrifice and read the signs. The pontifices and other male priests practiced bird augury, while humbler methods of divination, such as casting lots, were used by the People. “Please do so,” I said.
Thana drew out a little pouch which was suspended from her neck so that it hung beneath her garment. She opened it and tipped out a small piece of painted terracotta into her palm, then closed her fingers over it, and bowed her head, her lips moving silently. She rocked forward and back in a gentle motion. We waited. At last she raised her head, and carefully replaced the object in its little bag.
“I put the question this way: Should this woman still be called Lucia? The answer was received: This woman is a light beneath the earth. I conclude that the name you bore in Roma has not been forfeited, Lucia, for your name denotes light.”
“Thank you, Thana. I would like to know more about your method, which is one I have never seen. The Greeks say that it is possible to commune directly with Apollo, and that he speaks through the mouth of his prophetess, but the technique is not used in Roma itself.”
Thana laughed. “Were any Roman woman to claim such inspiration, the Senate would quickly bury her deeper than ten unchaste Vestals. But we are not in Roma. Nor do we speak with Apollo, though his sayings are not to be scorned. We speak with the Goddess, who is far older than he.” Her manner became brisk. “You and I will discuss these matters again. For now, you must learn more of your new home.”
“Come, Lucia,” said Anna. “I have much to show you.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
Historical note: The women are not in the “catacombs,” which were mostly built outside the ancient city. Rome has real quarry tunnels like this under the old city, though I have added a few fictional touches.