Steven Saylor

A Mist of Prophecies

Apollo, Apollo!

Lord of the ways, my ruin

You have undone me once again, and utterly.


After the darkness of her speech

I go bewildered in a mist of prophecies.

— Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1080-82; 1112-13


The last time I saw Cassandra…

I was about to say: the last time I saw Cassandra was on the day of her death. But that would be untrue. The last time I saw her-gazed upon her face, ran my fingers over her golden hair, dared to touch her cold cheek- was on her funeral day.

It was I who made all the arrangements. There was no one else to do it. No one else came forward to claim her body.

I call her Cassandra, but that was not her real name, of course. No parents would ever give a child such an accursed name, any more than they would name a baby Medea or Medusa or Cyclops. Nor would any master give such an ill-omened name to a slave. Others called her Cassandra because of the special gift they believed her to possess. Like the original Cassandra, the doomed princess of ancient Troy, it seemed that our Cassandra could foretell the future. Little good that accursed gift did either of the women who bore that name.

She called herself what others called her, Cassandra, saying she could no longer remember her real name or who her parents were or where she came from. Some thought the gods had given her glimpses of the future to compensate for robbing her of the past.

Someone else robbed her of the present. Someone snuffed out the flame that burned inside her and lit her with an inner glow such as I have seen in no other mortal. Someone murdered Cassandra.

As I said, it fell to me to make the funeral arrangements. No outraged friend or lover, no grieving parent or sibling came forward to claim her. The young man who had been her sole companion, the mute she called Rupa- bodyguard, servant, relative, lover? — vanished when she was murdered.

For three days her body rested on a bier in the foyer of my house on the Palatine Hill. The embalmers clothed her in white and surrounded her with pine branches to scent the air. Her killer had done nothing to destroy Cassandra's beauty; it was poison that killed her. Drained of color, Cassandra's smooth cheeks and tender lips took on a waxen, opalescent quality, as if she were carved from translucent white marble. The hair that framed her face looked like hammered gold, cold and hard to the touch.

By day, illuminated by sunbeams that poured through the atrium skylight, she looked no more alive than a white marble statue. But each night, while the rest of the household slept, I stole from my wife's bed and crept to the foyer to gaze at Cassandra's body. There were times-strange moments such as occur only in the middle of the night, when the mind is weary and flickering lamplight plays tricks on an old man's eyes-when it seemed hardly possible that the body on the bier could be truly dead. The lamplight infused Cassandra's face with a warm glow. Her hair shimmered with highlights of red and yellow. It seemed that at any moment she might open her eyes and part her lips to draw a quickening breath. Once I even dared to touch my lips to hers, but I drew back with a shudder, for they were as cold and unresponsive as the lips of a statue.

I placed a black wreath on my door. Such wreaths are a warning in one sense, alerting others to the presence of death in the household, but in another sense they issue an invitation: come, pay your final respects. But not a single visitor came to view Cassandra's body. Not even one of those compulsive gossips came to pester us, the type who make the rounds of the city looking for wreaths and knocking on doors of people they've never met, just to have a look at the latest corpse so they can deliver an opinion on the embalmers' handiwork. I alone mourned Cassandra.

Perhaps, I thought, death and funerals had become too commonplace in Rome for the passing of a single woman of unknown family, commonly thought to be as mad as-well, as mad as Cassandra-to excite any interest. The whole world was swept up in a civil war that dwarfed all other conflicts in the history of the world. Warriors were dying by the hundreds and thousands on land and on sea. Despairing wives were wasting into oblivion. Ruined debtors were found hanging from rafters. Greedy speculators were stabbed in their sleep. All was ruin, and the future promised only more death and suffering on a scale never known before by human kind. Beautiful Cassandra, who'd haunted the streets of Rome uttering shrill, crazy prophecies, was dead-and no one cared enough to come and see her body.

And yet, someone had cared enough to murder her.

When the period of mourning was done, I summoned the strongest of my household slaves to lift the bier onto their shoulders. The members of my household formed the funeral cortege, except for my wife, Bethesda, who had been ill for quite some time and was not well enough to go out that day. In her place my daughter, Diana, walked beside me, and beside her walked her husband, Davus. Behind us walked my son Eco and his wife, Menenia, and their golden-headed twins, now old enough, at eleven, to understand the somber nature of the occasion. Hieronymus the Massilian, who had been residing in my house since his arrival in Rome the previous year, also came; he had suffered much in his life and had known the pain of being outcast, so I think he felt a natural bond of sympathy with Cassandra. My household slaves, few in number, followed, among them the brothers Androcles and Mopsus, who were not quite as old as Eco's children. For once, sensing the gravity of the occasion, they behaved themselves.

So that all would be done fittingly, I hired three musicians to lead the procession. They played a mournful dirge, one blowing a horn and another a flute, while the third shook a bronze rattle. My neighbors in their stately houses on the Palatine heard them coming from a distance and either closed their shutters, irritated at the noise, or opened them, curious to have a look at the funeral party.

After the musicians came the hired mourners. I settled for four, the most I could afford considering the state of my finances, even though they worked cheaply. I suppose there was no shortage of women in Rome who could draw upon their own tragedies to produce tears for a woman they had never known. These four had worked together on previous occasions and performed with admirable professionalism. They shivered and wept, shuffled and staggered but never collided, pulled at their tangled hair, and took turns chanting the refrain of the playwright Naevius's famous epitaph: ' 'If the death of any mortal saddens hearts immortal, the gods above must weep at this woman's death…' '

Next came the mime. I had debated whether to hire one, but in the end it seemed proper. I had been told he came from Alexandria and was the best man in Rome for this sort of thing. He wore a mask with feminine features, a blond wig, and a blue tunica such as Cassandra wore. I myself had coached him on mimicking Cassandra's gait and mannerisms. For the most part his gestures were too broad and generic, but every so often, whether by accident or design, he struck an attitude that epitomized Cassandra to an uncanny degree and sent a shiver through me.

Funeral mimes are usually allowed a great deal of latitude to caricature and gently lampoon their subject, but I had forbidden this; it is one thing to sketch a loving parody of a deceased patriarch or a public figure, but too little was known about Cassandra's life to offer fodder for humor. Still, the mime could not offer a portrait of her without imitating the one thing that everyone would recall about her: her fits of prophecy. Every so often, he suddenly

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