traders once again camped there. Still, the island and the surrounding area remained nothing more than a stopping place. Deer, rabbits, and wolves roamed the seven nearby hills. Frogs and dragonflies dwelled in the marshy lowlands between the hills. Birds passed overhead and saw below them no sign of human occupation.

Elsewhere in the world, men built great cities, made war, consecrated temples to gods, sang of heroes, and dreamed of empires. In faraway Egypt, the dynasties of the Pharaohs had already reigned for millennia; the Great Pyramid of Giza was more than 1,500 years old. The war of the Greeks against Troy was two hundred years in the past; the taking of Helen and the wrath of Achilles had already passed into legend. In Israel, King David had captured the old city of Jerusalem and made it his capital, and his son Solomon was building the first temple to the god Yahweh. Further to the east, migrating Aryans were founding the kingdoms of Media and Parsa, forerunners of the great Persian empire.

But the island in the river, and the seven nearby hills, remained unsettled by men and overlooked by the gods, a place where nothing of particular importance had ever happened.


850 B.C.

It seemed to Cacus that, once upon a time, he had been human.

Cacus had been born in a village high in the mountains. Like the others in the village, he possessed two arm and two hands, and he walked upright on two feet. Clearly, he had not been born an animal, like the timid sheep or the wild wolves, but a human being.

But Cacus had always been different from the others. They walked with an even gait; Cacus shambled, because one of his legs was too short and oddly bent. The others could stand tall and straight with their arms at their sides; Cacus’s back was hunched and his arms mismatched. His eyes were sharp, but there seemed to be something wrong with his mouth; he never learned to speak, and could make only a garbled noise which sounded like “cacus”; it was from this noise that he acquired his name. His face was grossly misshapen; another child once told him that a potter made his face out of clay, then threw it down and stepped on it.

Few people ever looked at him directly. Those who knew him looked away out of pity; strangers drew back in fear. His deformities should have marked him for death in the hour of his birth, but his mother had contrived to spare him, pleading that the infant’s prodigious size-he was so big that she very nearly died in bearing him-was a promise of future strength. She had been correct. While still a child, Cacus grew to be bigger and stronger than even the biggest, strongest man in the village.

When that happened, the villagers who had pitied him began to fear him.

Then came the Hunger.

The winter was dry and cold. The spring was dry and hot. The summer was drier and hotter still. Streams dwindled to a trickle, then to nothing. Crops withered and died. The sheep could not be fed. When it seemed that things could not become worse, one night the mountain shook so severely that some of the huts collapsed. Not long after that, black clouds came from the west; they promised rain, but sent down only lightning bolts. A lightning strike started a fire that swept across the mountainside and destroyed the hut in which the grain was stored.

The villagers turned to the elders for advice. Had things ever gone so badly before? What could be done?

One of the elders recalled a similar time from his childhood, when the number of villagers had grown too large and a series of bad years led to hunger and desperation. There was a ritual handed down from a time before his birth, called the rite of sacred spring. A pact was made with the great numina of the sky and the earth: If the village could survive the winter, then, when spring came, a group of children would be driven away from the village, sent forth to survive in the world beyond as best they could.

It seemed a harsh remedy, but times were harsh. The elders advised that there must be a rite of sacred spring. The villagers agreed.

The number of children to be sent away was decided by portent. On a still day, the elders climbed up to a stone promontory on the mountainside above the village. There they set fire to a bundle of dry branches, then stood back and waited until the rising smoke formed a column in the air, so that the sky was separated into two regions, one to either side of the smoke. The elders watched the sky and counted the number of birds that flew from one region to the other, crossing the line defined by the smoke. By the time the branches burned to ashes and the column of smoke dispersed, seven birds were seen to cross. Seven children had to be chosen.

The choosing was done by lottery. It was important that everyone in the village could see that the numina of chance, not the scheming of any parent, dictated the outcome. While everyone in the village watched, the children stood in a line. A pot full of small pebbles, all white except for seven black ones, was passed before them. One by one, the children reached inside and took a pebble. When all of them were done, together they opened their palms to show the stone they had chosen. When it was seen which children had chosen the black pebbles, there was much weeping; but when Cacus’s claw of a hand opened to show a black pebble, even his mother seemed relieved.

That winter was milder than the year before. Despite hunger and hardship, no one in the village died. It seemed that the rite of sacred spring had placated the numina and preserved the village. When spring came, and the first buds opened on the trees, it was decided that the children must set out.

According to the ritual, an animal would guide the children to their new home. All the elders agreed on this, but none of them could quite remember how this animal was to be chosen. The eldest among them said that the animal would make itself known, and sure enough, the night before the children were to set out, several of the elders had a dream in which they saw a vulture.

The next morning, the seven children were taken from their homes. The other children and all the women of the village were shut away; from the huts, their weeping could be heard all over the mountainside. The elder with the keenest eyes climbed up to the promontory and watched. At last he gave a shout and pointed to the southwest, where he saw a vulture circling just above the horizon.

The men took up cudgels. Beating drums and shaking rattles, the elders led them in a chant meant to summon their courage and harden their hearts. The chant grew faster and faster, louder and louder. At last, screaming and brandishing their cudgels, they ran toward the seven children and drove them from the village.

The days after that had been very hard. Each morning the children searched the sky for a vulture. If they saw one, they headed toward it. Sometimes the vulture led them to carrion that was still fit to eat; sometimes it led them to a carcass so foul that even the vulture would not touch it. Desperation taught them to hunt and fish and to sample every plant that might be edible; even so, on many days, the children went hungry. Cacus was too clumsy to be of much use as a hunter, and the others resented him because he needed more to eat. But he was the strongest by far, and when predators howled at night, it was to Cacus that the others looked for protection.

The first to die was a girl. Faint from hunger, she fell from a high place and struck her head. The children debated what they should do with her body. It was not Cacus who suggested the unthinkable, but another boy. The rest agreed, and Cacus did as the others did. Was that when he began to become something that was not human, when he first ate human flesh?

Little by little, their wanderings took them to the lower lands to the south and west of the mountains. Here the land offered more game and the rivers more fish, and the plants were more fit to eat. Still, they were hungry.

The next child to die was a boy with an injured foot. When the children came upon a bear and scattered in panic, the boy lagged behind. The bear caught him and mauled him badly, then lumbered off when Cacus came running back, screaming and brandishing a branch. The boy was already dead.

When the children ate that night, it seemed only proper that Cacus should have the largest portion.

Summer passed, and still they found no home. One of the children died after eating a mushroom. Another died after several days of sickness and fever. Despite their hunger, the survivors feared to eat the bodies of those who had died of poison or fever, and so they buried them in shallow graves.

Вы читаете Roma.The novel of ancient Rome
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату