The way to heaven doesn't lie across a river, as I had been told. I don't care what the learned say, I know the way to heaven is through a gate……..
A wooden gate in a stone wall……..
I stopped on the way to Ostia, got down off the wagon and walked off the road, away from the horse manure and the dust. Sisro went with me. He didn't want to know what I was doing, I think perhaps he thought I was crazy, but he didn't leave me.
He was a good man.
Genrul was sick, he had a fever, he hurt……I could hardly move my arm. And he was sick at heart. No reason to live…….
I don't know if I saw the gate because of our bond, or because of my Sight, but I knew he was close to it. He wanted to go through it.
I couldn't let that happen. I thought I wouldn't be able to bear it. He had to live.
He said I had called him back from the gates of death before, when he was hit on the head. He said he heard me speaking to him when he was poisoned. I believed if I could speak to him again, he would live. Maybe.
I wanted to lay my cheek against his, feel the stubble of his beard rough against my skin; but there was no way for me to do that. No way for me to whisper in his ear.
I could shout it into the air, but the wind would blow my words away before they got to him. I could pray…..but the gods were always less than reliable.
I thought…..wherever he is, whatever he's doing, he must be on the earth. Walking, or sitting, or lying…..he must be touching the ground.
I told Sisro not to bother me until tomorrow. He said, "You're planning on sitting here all night? How are we supposed to----?" Then he stopped, possibly because of the stubborn look on my face, and sat down in the dead brown grass. "I won't bother you."
I scraped away the grass, uncovering the bare dirt, and lay my face down on it. It was cold.
Genrul was hot. Where he was, the sun was fierce.
It wouldn't be enough just to whisper the words. I would need to send them to him. The ground would need to know that it must hold them as I said them, not lose the meaning of them, and carry them to him, no matter how far away he was.
My grandmother had never taught me anything like this. When the time came for me to do it, I just knew. I have never been able to explain why, or how, but it's not important to me; women know there are many things that can't be explained. We live with them every day. It's only men that don't believe unless they know how.
I shut my eyes, and spoke to the earth. Talked to the earth, and the gods of the earth, and to myself, until I sank…..my body was lying where it had been, but I felt myself enter the earth………and I spoke to Maximus.
I spoke, and spoke, and spoke; all my being was in the words……the language didn't matter, the words themselves didn't even matter, I think perhaps it was some part of myself I sent through the earth, seeking him.
I saw flashes of things I had never seen before. Was it something he saw, or something in his mind? I couldn't tell. Beasts; and strange looking people. Sand, a white horse, the sun racing……and something that disturbed me too much to think about it……
When I rose from the ground, the sun was in the east. Sisro was asleep under a tree. I shook him awake.
"Did you do it?" he said.
"Whatever you were doing."
"I don't know yet. Maybe."
Genrul must have been far away….or my words traveled slowly……it was not until after midday that I felt him wake. He was still ill and full of despair. But he had turned away from the gate. He would live now whether he wished it or not.
I don't remember much about Ostia. My mind was turned inward, and so, to me, it was like any other place.
No one asked us what we did there. We had a place of our own in the barracks, just as if we were in the army like the soldiers, and Sisro found employment with one of the armorers.
When a new group of officers arrived, the soldiers called one of them Genrul. The resulting conversation with Sisro was confusing, but that is when I discovered that my Genrul was not, in fact, the King of the Romans, the Wise Man was; but he was dead, and a young Wise Man who was not wise had taken his place.
The new Genrul held himself apart from the men, and so I didn't meet him. I was only a girl, and not an important girl at that.
Marius called him pompous and silly; and spit on the ground each time he passed by. The soldiers snickered at him behind his back, and obeyed him only if they had to. I suppose it wasn't entirely his fault. It was a political appointment; he was only there for form's sake and everyone knew it. If he hadn't been constantly compared to Maximus, he might have fared better; but he couldn't measure up.
The army was told to stay in Ostia and do nothing……….and that is what we did.
Genrul (I can't help calling him that, that is who he was to me) was alive…..but not alive. His body lived and healed itself, but inside he was dead. I don't know who cared for him, how he ate, or slept, or how he passed his days. He lived, because he had no choice, but he waited to die.
I cried for him sometimes; at night, if I was alone on my pallet, I held close to me that part of him that was inside me, held it fiercely ….and cried for the pain and sorrow that were his and mine together.
And I cried sometimes during the day, when the pain he pushed away welled up in my heart instead till I could hardly breathe. I believe, during that time, I was the madwoman of the camp, apt to break into tears at any moment, or fall to the ground for no reason, muttering to myself, and ignoring the advances of the new soldiers that arrived, all as if I was alone.
I was on my knees stirring Sisro's clothing in the laundry pot over the fire, one long sunny day……and I felt something from Genrul, inside. A spark, a small thing, and not happy……but more than nothing. I didn't know what it was at first…..then he opened himself a little more. To me? Or someone else? Or to himself? I don't know. What I felt…….I had never felt this from Genrul. It was as if he was becoming someone unfamiliar……
Someone hit him. I doubled over. Again; and this time I fell sideways. My arm had hurt less than this before, when he'd injured it. But I hardly noticed.
He wanted the pain. Wanted to be hit again.
I came to expect the random blows at any time over the next few days. There was no way to predict when they would come. He asked for them, I thought. It was confusing to me, I would have avoided them if I could, but by this time, there was no backing away for me; no retreating from my constant companion.
It was punishment. For what, I didn't know, but he wanted it, waited for it, felt he deserved it……
And the abuse was healing him somehow. I didn't understand it, but I knew it was so.
Wounds beget scars. Sometimes the scar is no prettier than the wound; he was healing, yes, but…..he would never again be the Man in the Red Cloak that I had met that first day. He was turning into someone else.
I could taste his hatred growing; Freyja, such contempt. For himself, for others. For life.
The months that passed were more of the same……except the punishment stopped. There were battles, I think, but no exhilaration. He expected death for a time, but it didn't come, and so he stopped expecting it. There was no joy in the struggle, or in the victory. No joy in living while others died. He existed. He hated. He held his rage, nursed it. He waited.
I Saw his wife. She touched him, and spoke to him. He picked up his child, a boy with dark hair and eyes. He gave his wife a heavy gold ring for her wrist, in his dream; and they ate a meal of bread and honey and olives. He kissed her afterwards, and she smiled.
The terrible thing that had happened, that took away his will to live……..I Saw it now.
A man who loves his wife more than a reasonable man should……What does he do when he loses her?
He dreams happiness.
I wept with him when he woke.
And I understood the desire for vengeance I felt growing in his heart.
I didn't speak of Genrul to Sisro. I tried to be good for him, but I was a madwoman. How good can a madwoman be?
He was very patient with the strange things I did……but sometimes he didn't come to my bed at night. Sometimes I didn't know where he was. I thought, I am failing him, good, kind Sisro, who deserves a woman who loves him with all her heart, and not just the part that is left over…….
I tried harder. And one night, after I had persuaded him into my bed, I knew something was different. Something had happened. Something I didn't dare tell him about just yet.
It was hard to keep it a secret. I knew I had to wait the same length of time any other woman would wait, but I could hardly stand it.
I didn't have to tell him at all. A man with four older sisters knows the child-sickness when he sees it. He held my head one morning, and then, brushing my hair for me, said, "When were you going to tell me you were with child?"
"Maybe I didn't know till just now."
He snorted. "You're the woman who brings men back from death. You're the one who talks with the gods and the earth. You're the woman who makes the best sweetcakes in the land. You're trying to tell me you didn't know you have a baby growing in there?" And he poked me right where he knew I was the most ticklish.
I squealed. "All right, I knew it. I just thought I should wait to tell you, like an ordinary woman would."
He said my Roman name. "Why would I want an ordinary woman, when I can have you?"
"You might want a woman who doesn't do mad things."
"I might. Or I might not." And he wouldn't say any more about that.
"What does that mean, my name?" I asked. "I think it means something. I know the first part is the same as the word for Little. But I don't know the last part."
"Yes, you do," he said. He stuck his hands in his armpits and flapped them.
"My name means Little Chicken?"
He chuckled and flopped on his back next to me. "No, it's another bird. That little bird….in Germania…..I haven't seen one here."
Little Bird-of-some-sort. I wasn't sure I liked that. I suppose I looked offended.
"Would you rather be Little Pig? Or Little Weasel? We had to call you something besides that awful name your mother gave you."
"I guess it doesn't matter what it means. I'm used to it now."
He ran his hand across my belly. It was still flat, but I think he was imagining. "We can call the baby Little Weasel."
I laughed. "I thought you were Little Weasel." And I took him in my hand to prove my point.
He shook his head. Rolled over and settled on top of me. "I'm Big Weasel."
He was right, he was.
I wasn't surprised when Marius brought us the news from Rome. "There was a man in the games called The Spaniard." His eyes were sparkling. "He defeated the Emperor's chariots with a handful of men on foot. My cousin saw it, he said it was a glorious victory."
Sisro pretended to be busy. He didn't look up. "So?"
"He said the man used classic army maneuvers. Rode like he and the horse were a centaur; gave orders like a general."
Sisro got up and walked away.
Marius frowned. "I thought he would be happy to know that Maximus might still be alive."
"He is afraid to hope," I said. "What if it isn't Maximus?"
Sisro said the same thing to me later, when I asked him what he was going to do. "What if I go there, and it isn't Maximus?"
"What if you don't go, and it is?"
He frowned. "You think Maximus is alive." It wasn't a question.
I nodded. "I know he is."
"So, is it him?"
I shook my head. "I don't know that. I don't know where Genrul is. I only know that he lives, that he is well in body."
"You should come, too."
I looked down at my big belly. "You know I can't. You will find him and bring him back here."
I kissed him the morning he left, and told him to be well.
I was never able to See the Future. That was not one of my abilities. What would I have done, if I had Known he would not come back?
Dear Sisro. My husband.
My mother used to say that women who carry children in their bellies must be careful what they see and hear, that the child can be changed by anything the mother experiences. It will be interesting to see what my children gained in the womb.
I knew what happened, or as much as I needed to know; no one had to tell me. Genrul told me. His rage, his sorrow……not the familiar ache we had grown accustomed to, this was fresh, his heart was broken anew……..and it tore at me…….I knew it must be Sisro that he mourned. My Sisro.
The woman with the pockmarked face told me later she heard me scream, and thought the child was coming too soon. "I left you alone," she said, plucking at her skirt, and avoiding my eyes, "because……when I looked to see if you were alright……I thought a demon was in you. I was too frightened to come in."
"You did the right thing," I said to her. "You must take care of yourself."
"Was it a demon?"
She waited for me to answer. Her eyes were wide. I think she expected me to say yes.
"No. It was not a demon." It might have hurt less if it was a demon.
What more should I tell you? You probably know more about what happened than I do. All I know is what I felt. I was weeping when I felt the wound that killed Maximus; and I knew there would be no calling him back from the gate this time……
I heard from Marius the story of the young Wise-Man-who-was-unwise. That didn't matter to me. All that I cared about then, as well as now, were the lives of the men I gave my love to. And their deaths.
Sisro had not been alone when he died; Genrul was with him. And Genrul was not alone while his life trickled away. I was with him. I felt the blood run down his leg as he fought.
I expected some satisfaction, a little righteous exultation, when he killed his enemy, but there was none. I felt his weariness, not just that caused by his wound, but with life.
I felt the hot sand against his shoulders and the back of his head, and I saw the gate. I was with him.
And then Genrul wasn't on the sand any longer. There was no more pain. The gate….Genrul reached for it, pushed it open…….someone stood on the other side. I felt the smile in his heart, and I Knew she was there waiting for him.
Was it peace he had yearned for in life? Was it love? Or was it freedom?
Freedom. I felt it spilling out of me, overflowing my poor vessel. He was free.
Sisro was there on the other side of the gate, I was certain of it, and soon Genrul would be, too. I would be alone. "I will come with you. Take me with you." I was ready.
I Heard my Roman name. I lost Sight of the gate, my inner eyes closed. Still, I Knew…..I didn't See it, but I Knew it…….when Maximus stepped through the gate, he turned his gaze toward me, held out his fist, opened it……..and released me.
Three days I wept without ceasing.
On the fourth day, the kicking in my belly was too strong to ignore. I had to stop crying, open my eyes, had to turn over. The witch-man, who was ordinarily too important to see to a woman with women's problems, was there. I suppose someone called him because they believed I was carrying a demon inside me. I suppose I should have felt more grateful.
He put his hands on my belly. If I had stopped to think, I might not have punched him in the eye.
As it was, his eye was purple for days. I thought it strange that a man so slow to dodge had lasted so long in the army.
"You will need me," he snarled, with his hand over his eye. "You carry two babes."
"And what will you do about it?"
"I have delivered foals that were tangled together so that neither could be born. I suppose I can do the same for human children."
I had heard about his skills with a hook. "You will not be cutting up any of my children."
"Would you rather die?"
I smiled. It didn't feel wrong………"There are worse things."
My son has dark hair and deep blue eyes. He watches everything. Sometimes, if I please him, one corner of his mouth turns up……..and then he grins so wide, I fear for his face. He is full of joy, and comforting to be with.
I thought of naming him for his father……and then I thought of naming him Maximus…….The pockmarked woman said the first boy should be named for his grandfather……The woman with the limp said I should name him for the qualities I wished him to have.
It required much thought. And then I remembered the Wise Man, the King of the Romans, the man that Genrul respected above all others; wise and powerful and kind enough to spare a thought for a frightened German girl when he need not have bothered. I thought Sisro would like to have his son named for the King of the Romans.
When I'd made Marius understand who I meant, he told me the Wise Man's name…..and I changed my mind. Full half the babies in the camp were named Marcus.
I called him Athas. In his father's tongue that means joy. Sisro said once I gave him that.
My daughter…..that is another story. She is called Ethne, which means fire, in her father's tongue; it was the name of Sisro's mother, and it suits the flame that is my daughter. She laughs as fiercely as she rages, and she fears nothing. Sometimes……she looks at me as if she knows what I'm thinking.
I intend to tell her about her father and about Maximus, and about the war between the Romans and the Germans, at least what I know of it……but it's possible I won't have to.
I still wonder if the gods arrange our lives for us. Was there a reason I bound myself to Genrul beyond the one that I knew? Did my uncle break his leg running away from a badger, just so I could give birth to my children? Have I already, at the beginning of my seventeenth year, accomplished the thing the gods sent me to earth to do, or is there more yet to come?
How should I know what I am to do, or be, or feel? If the gods refuse to tell me, then I'll do what I want.
I raise my eyes to the sky and talk to the gods that live there, even though they haven't answered me yet. I hold my beautiful children in my arms and kiss them. I sing and dance when my neighbors least expect it.
I dream of a wooden gate in a stone wall; and the men behind it. Heaven is there; I have seen it.
I dream happiness.