By Nickolas Urpí
Whispers slave whispers throngs bells jangling like the inconsistent shouts of the masses of people shouting “io triumphe io triumphe” purple purple purple burning of torches choking on smoke flooding nostrils incendiary
I had consented to let the soldiers burn the huts as they looted the thatched homes in the city as was customary of the time everyone always burns as is their right the right of the conquered is it not so?
“Of course it is so” I had said to myself with the slopping of boots across the muddied ground the same shouting bursting in my ears “There is no other way”
“Imperator! Imperator!” Calvinus the procession like a long snake winding its way up through the Forum heading directly to the Capitoline choking the streets the throngs of people shouting shouts shouts shouts repeat repeat repeat the hard cobblestones swallowing the noise the soldiers red glimmering bronze beaming like ten thousand suns painful to the eyes “To the Gauls came the torch, from the steps of his porch, the enemy was sprawled, by our general who’s bald!” reach for the top of my head, feel the empty spaces and the laurel wreath crinkling beneath my hot fingers in the sun the golden cloak at my feet and the studded sandals the laurel wreath adorning the son of Jupiter the red paint of Mars clinging to my face the red clay the statues of the heroes lining the procession, gilded and adorned with luscious paints brilliant colors dancing in the sun’s cascading lights—
The statues in the golden beaming of the sun—
“Your father triumphed twice in his lifetime,” they had said. “Your grandfather fought alongside Quintus Fabius Maximus in repelling Hannibal. He died in Zama. Of course you will go to war and defeat numerous enemies,” they had said this, encircling me in the atrium of my own house, my bulla my childhood medallion that had felt so light I had never truly felt it feeling so weighty as it was removed from me the wax faces of my ancestors peering out at me from around the room “Of course you will”
“Must I?” I had said. “Will I?”
The light from atop the Capitoline the sun’s fingers clinging to the Temple of Jupiter the greatest and best the greatest and best the shouts from the adoring crowd having earned their approbation and love and respect the way the ancestors had always done it the way of the ancestors the way of our fathers lining the streets watching the procession from atop their marble columns the fingers of their ambition poking the clouds Clavinus finding his name etched in stone across the way from his father my father the great Clavinus who took eight hundred prisoners had slain fifty thousand in battle brought back three million sesterces to the public coffers the great Calvinus who weareth the laurels of Jupiter atop his four horse chariot white as the day and pure as the light
Fifty thousand slain the prisoners bound by hemp to the carriage which pulls them thus to their imminent death or saledeath their eyes shadow cast and downfallen beneath the banners “Here are the captured prisoners of war from Britain” prisoners of war war war war
They had lost. Our glinting steel dulled and bloodied—dried up in the hot sun and cold wind the panoramic vista of a fresh lake with the reeking of severed limbs and drowning corpses in the evening glare. The golden sunset had faded into the crimson settling of the glare lingering beyond the horizon’s threshold.
“The town lies just beyond the ridge. They would have evacuated by now. Shall I give the order to burn the houses?” he repeated to me. It seemed as though my tongue had been pinned to the roof of my mouth the way the spear had been driven into that man’s head and split his skull.
“That is what is always done,” I had replied to him. The smoke from the burning huts beyond that thin invisible veil that separates what is seen from what is unseen.
The smoke rose up and filled my nostrils again the procession winding its way around the city like the curdling of milk the prisoners watching their precious metals piled atop each other like their comrades’ burnt corpses the savoring taste of defeat’s bitter dust lingering on their tongues are they not men too? The reds and the purples washing the sea of crowds shouting and shouting How could I not have said “That is what is always done” for it was always done it was the way of the ancestors
the ancestors’ watched atop the corpses of wasted quinqueremes and
the cheering and the shouting
Shouting “Calvinus!” my name the men marching onwards with their glimmering helmets the colossal monoliths of the ancestors peering down and gravely sending their approbation between the dying light of day and the ascension of the Capitoline rising before the heads of the four horses the smell of cypress trees congratula—
the cypress boughs
“Your father would be proud if he could see you today,” they said as the dirt began to pile atop him beneath the marble slab which listed his achievements which I did not care to read as I had memorized them long ago against the death written on his face when he became a wax mask to hang next to grandfather. “You will of course be consul and follow in his footsteps and slay many foes.”
“Must I?” I had said.
“Of course you must,” they had replied in unison.
I must have then no choice in the matter it was expected it was the way of the ancestors then the smoke ripping and tearing the water from the ducts in my eyes running down the cheek and mingling with the redness of my painted faces Mars’ and mine faces the shouting and cheering mixed with the cries of anguish and death and the smell of burning burning burning
“Is that not what the old generals had done?” he had asked, his armor spattered with the boiling blood of a Gaul.
“Then I must,” I had said. Though perhaps I could—
No perhaps only way the ancestors had done the cheering throngs of crowd singing as the ancestors fell behind in the procession but continued to glare casting their shadow over the crowd and I musn’t the son of Jupiter the face of Mars the mighty conqueror of the barbaric west laid waste the enemies of the people of Rome Calvinus the magnif—
I must I must I must the way of the ancestors there is no shame no shame no shame no shame the lingering redness of Mars across the battlefield night is falling hold onto the horses tighter the reins the army marching in red the crimson son the rock falling upwards cannot go upwards can it? No it cannot
“A wise man once said the rock can never be trained to move upwards, no matter how many times it has been thrown,” they had said to me when I still had my bulla.
“Why not?” I had asked.
“That is simply the way it is done,” they had said to me.
“But what if it wants to go up?” I had asked them.
“It does not matter what it wants—it cannot choose when everything tells it to fall down,” they had said to me. “Besides… a rock cannot want.”
“Let them have their pillage. I cannot stop them. I must let them do what is… as expected,” I said to him whilst my knees soaked in the freshly strewn lake lingering in the dying sun with fifty thousand lives extinguished before the second began to be counted.
“A marvelous victory.”
A marvelous victory resounding with the name Calvinus and the thoughts of shimmering gold armor adorning the triumphal column with his immortal visage atop it—
The sheep was led up to the altars the knife in my hand gleaming like the sword of Mars hanging above us all perhaps there is no expectation
But their faces are looking at me, looking at me with the grave approval of the ancestors to place this knife into the neck of this beast perhaps there is a—but no—there is only the way of the ancestors I must I could not have
I could not have the blood is dripping on my hands
“There are fifty thousand dead and eight hundred prisoners still alive mostly women and children.” The camp sat upon the hill looking over the field, the rancid and pungent grotesqueness of death sifting through the night breezes.
“The men forgot to place a barricade around the camp,” I had said.
“But there are no more enem—… yes, imperator I will see to it that it is done,” he had said. “The town was burned to the ground, as you wanted, imperator.”
“As I wanted?” I had said. “But, of course, that is always done. I could not more avoid it than a lion change his roar.”
The night was drifting away again, the moonlight pale and condescending
Of course there was no alternative the choice was not mine the choice was not mine to make not mine no choice the way of the ancestors compel compel push push force force like a blacksmith’s hammer to anvil the rock must fall the rock must fall yes it always falls
men are not rocks
Nickolas Urpí is the author of the literary war fantasy novel The Legend of Borach and has been published in HCE Review literary journal, Soft Cartel magazine, Ripples in Space magazine, and The Fall Line magazine. His writings fuse his studies of ancient history, literature, and philosophy with his crafted prose to immerse the reader in the world of his fiction through vivid settings and characters. An alumnus of the University of Virginia, he resides in Charlottesville, Virginia.