A Prayer at Herculaneum
by R. S. Pyne
Packed into the boat sheds, they waited for rescue that never came—women and children with a few old men. Fathers, husbands and brothers stood guard on the beach for there was not enough room for everyone. Crowded together in a dimly lit space that smelt of sweat, shit, urine and fear, the shelters no longer offered any reassurance.
Named in honor of Hercules, the town had grown into a place for the wealthy of Rome to escape summer heat, ignoring the brooding shadow of Vesuvius. The mountain had slept for so long, it was no longer considered a serious threat. When ash first started to settle the previous afternoon, many took it as an ominous sign and left before nightfall. They were mocked, likened to panic-stricken chickens on the run from a marauding hawk. Julia stayed because her elderly father refused to leave, certain the Gods would calm the earth. An impious voice pulled her back from thoughts that evacuation would have been a better option.
“Give me a little water,” the old woman had already tried three families and been told there was none to spare. In the flickering lamplight, her fine spun woollen stola and mantle glowed with the colour of ripe peaches – a costly colour. Costly gold and red coral circled a long, patrician neck; gold rings on her fingers, but her feet were bare and bleeding. In younger days, this woman had been a great beauty, faded now but still showing evidence of her former glory. Nobody knew her but she had a regal bearing, like an empress.
“Of course,” Julia held out the flask, hoping the stranger would not take too much, but unable to deny a reasonable request.
Her guest drank sparingly and gave thanks. “A pretty child,” she smiled at an infant too young to understand what was happening and little Livia smiled back. “It is such a shame.”
“What do you mean?” Julia felt a sudden chill and shivered. She stroked her daughter’s downy hair as a woman wept hysterically, no longer caring who saw such loss of control.
“It does not have to be this way. Every man, woman and child in this place is fated to die, and their deaths will not be easy. I can do nothing to stop it, but can save one. All your life you have been loyal to the Gods and now it is time for that devotion to be repaid.”
The years fell away as she spoke, the time worn face regaining a radiance that no longer seemed human, now a disguise no longer mattered.
Julia felt her eyes close, unable to stay awake. She woke from a troubled doze to find the stranger had vanished, a drifting, iridescent peacock feather the only reminder.
Her infant daughter no longer lay cradled in arms that were now lightly dusted with ash.
From the time they first sought the protection of the boat sheds, she had prayed so hard to the Queen of the Gods to spare the child, speaking prayers over and over again in a desperate litany.
“Close your eyes,” a familiar voice offered comfort, washing over her until it acted like a triple strength draft of poppy juice. “It will be quick. At least it will be quick.”
The fiery cloud rolled in, unstoppable as a wave breaking on the shore, and she knew nothing more. Her last thought in this world was that her baby would live; the last word on her lips the child’s name.
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R. S. Pyne
R. S. Pyne is a short story writer/freelance Micropalaeontologist and part-time poet based in rural West Wales near Aberystwyth. Previous writing credits include Bete Noire, Albedo One, Aurora Wolf, Lacuna, Neo-opsis, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Fifth Di, and quite a few others. She lives with a hyperactive rescue sprollie (springer spaniel x border collie) and a black tortoiseshell cat that just appeared from nowhere one rainy November day and decided to stay.