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Chapter 20

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[East of Carthage, March 457]

The old villa past Clupea was much as she remembered it from childhood, a vision of olive-green hills and white flocks, myrtle groves and fountains shadowed with soft fern, purple-dark skies and a golden moon, and everywhere the turquoise sea. The thickets of laurel had grown up in the years since her mother had planted them; the gardens had run wild. But the terraces and colonnades and the sea-wall of white marble still glistened like salt. A little forest of olive trees still screened the estate-house from the farm-buildings. Nothing had happened to spoil the hidden white beach where two lovers could swim as naked as gods or fishermen.

Alone among all creatures, she had stepped back through the window of time and was a child again, with the sun in her eyes and sand in her hair, moving in a waking dream down rose-scented porticoes that still echoed with her motherís voice. Wolf had presented her claim, after the certification of their marriage. Geiseric had been gracious; the absentee Vandal owner had been compensated with a pair of estates west of Carthage.

The house had deteriorated since the German conquest. Hens nested in the bedrooms; peacocks shredded the rose-beds and pebbled the walkways with excrement; pigs slumbered in the waterless pools of the garden; farm-dogs urinated on the legs of the ancient statues. But the structure was still a tangible connection with the age of Constantine; its archaic beauty had somehow stayed intact after the fall of Africa. It glowed with old gold and old glass, with tapestries whose colors had been harmonized by time, and with priceless furniture whose age was attested by tiny cracks in the finish. Even the grey busts of Adrianaís ancestors stood undamaged in the great, ghostly atrium, perhaps spared by the Vandals for superstitious reasons.

The oldest servants, who barely remembered her, approached Adriana shyly at first, as though fearing she would vanish if they came too close. Reverently they laid their wrinkled fingers on her shoulders; then they brought the hands that had touched the goddess to their foreheads and lips. Finally they crowed for joy, joining hands and dancing around her with brittle elderly steps.

The younger servants, a generation away from Roman civilization, were a torment to her. At first she could imagine no hope for their fondness for bad wine, their thievishness, their absolute unreliability, their invincible resistance to thrift, cleanliness, and common sense. They kept an uncooperative distance from Wolf because he was seldom drunk, he cursed in German, he bathed ridiculously often, he drank milk, he never slept with the serf-girls, he never kissed his mare on the forehead, and he rode in the appalling German fashion with swing-like contraptions holding up his feet. But something in the young dominaís eye and manner took hold of their hearts, and eventually they let Wolf into their hearts as well.

She set out to reform them.

"Some of you," Adriana said, "are like wild pigs. You enjoy the swamp. You donít want to go to clean straw in a stable. But some of you are not wild pigs, perhaps not pigs at all."

She put the best of them to work cleaning her house. A platoon of servants on ladders, grimly purposeful, brought down layers of webbed filth, with spiders struggling and kicking in the wreckage. Every day she ordered her mare at dawn and rode until late in the morning, observing, judging, giving orders for the whitewashing of serfsí cabins, the cutting down of half-dead olive trees, the trenching of vineyards, the repair of ruined barns and stables.

The estateís great and small affairs passed through her head, and were settled by her hand. She inquired daily into the condition of every bloated ox and spavined horse, every woman in childbed, every bone-factured plowman and whooping infant in her serf-village. Nothing was too trivial to merit her attention: the choice of an assistant to the vilicus, the punishment of a drunken swineherd, the design of a stone-cart, the mixing of honey with the dinner-wine.

She delivered babies and arranged marriages, summoned her neighbors to the Vandal law-courts, ordered the dayís meals herself and entertained the kingís officials at them. In her study she sipped light wine while errant serfs were brought before her for stealing and drunkenness, and she fanned herself languidly while they confessed and groveled and wept, and swore by their eyes and their vital organs and the Mother of God that they would mend their ways.

Her great triumph was to overhaul the living conditions of her serfs.

"These people are Christians; they will live like Christians," she said, summoning her steward. "The village of my peasants belongs to me. It will be clean."

"But, Your Magnificence, how can it be clean when it is full of pigs?" the astounded man asked.

"There will be no pigs in my streets. You will make a place to keep the pigs."

"But, Your Charity, it will be an apocalypse. Your Beatitude is going against the habit of ages."

"Let it be done. If I discover one pig in my village a week from today, you will spend the rest of your life here as a swineherd."

When she had finished her work, the animals, the serfs and slaves, the manager, and even the slovenly old priest all glistened like new-minted silver. The streets were clean, the houses were repaired, the little Arian church had a new roof.

"You are Godís children; you will live like Godís children," Adriana said to the little crowds of people who gathered around her in the center of her serf-hamlet. "When youíve been clean for a year, youíll have no desire to be dirty again."

"Thatís true," the old men of the village said, wagging their heads wisely. "But who would have thought so? The woman is from God."

*

She had escaped the city at last. Now the rhythms of her body and brain shaped themselves to the rhythms of the countryside. She rediscovered quiet sensations that she had forgotten in the turmoil of her adult life: musty silences in neglected corners of the farmhouse; the textures of old scrolls, old furniture, old tapestries and plate; the wood-smelling closeness of lofts; distinctive bird-calls that surprised her city ears when she walked through the olive groves; late-sleeping in a big bed with country smells in the ticking; the unspoiled air that one could breathe deeply in perfect trust; the slow, rough courtesy of country people; touches of color in the house and garden that could have been brought to life by her motherís hand just yesterday instead of an age ago.

The month was March, her second spring in Africa. At her motherís bedroom window, now her own, she waited for the sun to rise over the dark sea. The morning was already warm. She leaned against the casement and watched a great band of saffron light grow beyond the water. There was nothing on the shore to complicate her view of rock and sand, stretching out of sight under a feathery border of palms, and nothing in the clean sky except a few wisps of cloud.

In Italy, at Nomentum, the winterís cold would be passing off the land, and the damp fields would be drying, green with wheat sprouts. Soon the lupins would give way to field pansies on the grassy hillsides, and the pear trees would throw out sprays of blossom. Once again, she had missed the Roman spring.

Her nostalgia for the Roman countryside was perpetual, and there were even times when she was nostalgic for the city, for the murmur of numberless fountains, the myriad lights at dayís end, the nightingales singing in the leafy courtyards of churches. There were days when the limitless blue of the Mediterranean outside her bedroom offered nothing to compare with her memory of the golden Tiber at daybreak. There were evenings when the curious brilliance of the African sunsets, glorifying the hills behind the villa, seemed no improvement on a plain orange sunset west of Nomentum.

Often the thought of Rome came to her with news of its afflictions. After fifteen months as emperor, Avitus had died at the hands of his enemies: utterly without fear, she was sure. The throne stood empty; Count Majorian was said to crave it. Adriana was grateful that her old friend had lived fully all his life, that the inglorious end of his career could do nothing to erase the glories that had gone before.

Meanwhile, famine had overtaken the city. The poor were making soup from weeds and boiled rats; the dogs and cats were long gone; in a little while, the slaves would begin to follow the rats, and salt flesh with a distinctive flavor would once again change hands in dark corners of the Subura. Anarchy would run blind in the streets, and then perhaps a plague would follow, like the one that had come after Alaric, mowing down people like a scythe through hay. Aromatic logs would be burned under the windows of the rich to overmaster the stench of corpses that penetrated every corner of the city like a sick manís breath. The survivors would be men who never spoke, women who never laughed, children who never wept.

Perhaps Faustinus had been to blame for it all.

Sometimes she woke on a crisp night, hearing the wind-note of a jackal on the hills, and she wondered in cold dread whether Faustinusís damned spirit howled eternally in the waste places to which it had surely gone. On such nights she pressed close to Wolf in their great bed and felt his clean breath against her cheek, and the thought left her like a demon vanishing at the name of Christ.

At night, too, the image of Flavia came to her, multiplying bed-partners in her lonely palace at Rome, friendless because she could not be a friend, unable to trust because she could not be trusted, growing more wrinkled and bitter every day, before a mirror whose company she sought more and more often, and whose message she had more and more reason to dread. Soon she would be the mere husk of a once-handsome woman, thrown aside like a grape-skin after all the juice had been crushed out, looking forward to the ruin and horror of an eternal sabbath of devils.

But perhaps the empireís end would have come without Faustinus and Flavia. Among the voices from her childhood, Adriana remembered that of a white-haired priest, weeping bitterly in the pulpit at Nomentum: O Rome, if you would only heed the Spirit! . . . At some point during the disastrous years since Alaric, the decisive moment had passed. Now the dusk had merged into darkness, and to turn back was no longer possible.

*

There was a knock; Adriana went to her door and smiled at the birdlike murmurs of her maids as they delivered her sleeping baby into her arms. The little boy was a miniature of his father: serious, blond, perfectly shaped.

She stood at the window as she nursed Adalo, taking pleasure in his baby-noises of satisfaction. With her eye she traced the peaceful shore northward until it disappeared in the distance. The sun was up; in a hot breeze, the Mediterranean glistened under a velvety sky like diamonds displayed in a blue mist. At the edge of the picture stood the tiny, lonely silhouette of a fisher-boy, halved by the line between the infinite sky and the infinite sea.

She caught a whiff of her motherís roses from the portico outside her window, and nostalgia flooded her. Her old world was passing away; her soul murmured its protest. But there was consolation in knowing that the sky and the sea that gave her pleasure would endure longer than the Senate and People of Rome were on earth to number the passing years.

Turning, Adriana heard the soft gossip of her maids, coming for the boy. She delivered him to the girls with a nod of thanks, and took from their hands a goblet of spice-water to freshen her mouth and her senses. She went to Wolf, sleeping in a splendid curve that stretched past both ends of the Roman bed.

"Sunrise again," she said to herself with a little laugh.

She lay next to him and pressed her face against his yellow hair that smelled of summer flowers; and with a soft motion of the hand she woke him to the pleasure of the garden-scented morning.

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Christmas Eve, 1991
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