Ashes & Light

Posted on September 25, 2008

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This is the story as the doctor presented it:

Marius Ambustus, the merchant and trader, was forty when his first and only son, Lucinius, was born.  The midwife who attended the birth possessed some skill at divining, and so the merchant asked her to tell him what she could about the child.  She held the wrinkled infant in her arms, touched a hand to his forehead, and, after some thought, replied.  He will not have an ordinary fate, she said, certainly there would be something uncommon about it, but – she lifted her shoulders in a shrug – what it was she couldn’t say.

The merchant thought:  Well, who knows if I will ever live to see my child grow up.  Or see anything else that follows.  I`ll ask the oracle, then.

He went to the oracle, and the god, through the mouth of a priestess, riddled him some words, and another priestess translated the god’s meaning for him.

— Beyond Rome’s empire, she said, outlasting even its time, strangers from unknown places will come and to see him, Lucinius, son of Marius Ambustus.

— Will there be a sign to guide him? asked the merchant hopefully.

— Clouds and thunder, said the priestess.  And that is all the god will say.

Then the merchant returned home with his infant son.

As a child of fate, the young Lucinius had a pampered childhood and a privileged youth.  He was given tutors and trainers to prepare him for war and public life.  But early on he was aware that the gods had inscribed a special glory for him, so he relied on the gods to prepare the way.  He eschewed study and discipline and learned nothing of the arts of commerce, politics or battle.

— Lucinius, take care, his father said more than once.  The gods don’t protect those who presume on their favours.

But Lucinius didn’t listen.  The natural strength of his youth he dissipated in drunkenness and whoremongering, to his father’s sorrow.

But maybe he will find his way, thought the old merchant doubtfully before going puzzled and wondering to his death.  Some great event will happen, such events as fire and hammer the souls of great men, which will change him.

But the old man didn’t live to see that happen.

When the merchant died, Lucinius inherited the old man’s houses, his ships and his wealth, which of course did nothing to improve his habits.  He continued in the service of Bacchus, and being worthless and wilfully ignorant, took great pains to point out both how worthy and how wise he was.  He wasn’t the kind of fool, perhaps, who believed this when he was sober.  But in his mind he thought, if the oracle says it, then why shouldn’t I?

The young man drank and grew fat.  But there were too many ships and houses and too much wealth for him to misuse it all, since gambling, fortunately, was not among his vices.  And he grew to middle-age, surviving the last of the line of Caesars into the reign of the Emperor Vespasian.  It was then that his fate finally unfolded itself.

He was sitting in his house drinking – alone, as it happened, having just quarrelled with his companions and driven them home.  He heard a sound so great and loud that his house shivered, and urns tumbled and broke. When the first roar subsided, he knew that in other houses more had broken than pottery, because in the street he heard cries and shouting.

Making his way to the doorway, he saw that across the way a roof had tumbled in and there was a crack in the wall which had not been there before.  Dust arose from the fallen masonry.  But pointing hands and shouts made him look away from the house and toward the mountain which sheltered the city. There he saw a great rising plume of cloud.

Clouds and thunder, he said to himself, with some mixture of feeling:  That is the god’s sign.

For a brief time, his terror of the mountain was denied. Glory resided in him. Glory led him out into the street.

— Be calm, friends, citizens, he said to his fellow townsmen, who were already inclining to hysteria.  Someone in that house needs our help.

But no one moved to help, or even to listen.  Like water in a sudden flood, the citizens all turned and began escaping down the street towards the sea, fleeing the mountain and the terrible plume of cloud.  Lucinius saw that he himself had to answer the screams. (Whether male or female, he could not tell, so distorted was the voice.)  So he dodged through the escaping crowd and edged in through the collapsed house’s broken door.

Inside he found the one who was screaming.  It was a girl, perhaps fourteen years old, and she was pinned by a portion of tumbled wall.  Near her, an arm jutted out of a pile of rubble.  Lucinius stared at the jutting arm in horror, and he shuddered when he saw that its fingers were still flexing.  He looked back at the girl and saw now that there was dark blood dripping from her mouth, puddling amidst the thick dust on the floor.

— Help me, she pleaded.

But in that moment Lucinius’s courage had already exhausted itself.  Ignoring the girl’s renewed and rising cries, forgetting glory, he escaped from the house and ran once more into the street.  Pausing outside the house’s cracked wall, he threw up, then he stumbled across the way to his own door, feeling suddenly thirsty.

Somehow, it seemed to him, he was not ready for glory.  He only wanted wine.  And the great plume of cloud rising from the mountain began again to frighten him.  He entered his door and closed it behind him, then began looking for his cup and flask.  The mountain roared and thundered while he shivered in his bedroom, his flask beside him, runnels of red wine staining his beard and shirt.

Shortly, however, with everything growing dark outside his window, he realized that his house would not shelter him from the mountain for long, that he must join his fellow citizens and run. He went out into the darkened day and found the air choking with bitter ash.  He tried to cover his mouth with his wide sleeve, to flee down the streets toward the sea, but he was too late.  Suddenly the mountain paused.  The great plume of ash which it was spouting collapsed, and the fire and heat of the mountain fell onto the town, got into his mouth, soured his tongue and choked his lungs, even as he crept on his hands and knees and struggled through the final minutes of his life.  And as he died, one ironical and pointless thought returned to him:  What of my fate?  Did the gods lie?

The fire and ash bittered his eyes and mouth and lungs, and he choked and perished there in the streets beneath Mount Vesuvius.

And a thousand or more years after the empire of Rome had fallen, men came and dug beneath the ashes.  They found him there, frozen in his death struggle, his image preserved by the ashes which had covered him as he died.  And men looked with awe and pity at this terrible death which had happened so long ago.  No one had any knowledge of what his name might have been, but his fate was now known throughout the world, beyond seas unknown to Rome, as the oracle had promised.

This was the strange and uncommon glory of Lucinius, citizen of Pompeii.

*                 *                 *

After he had finished his reading of the above story, the doctor put his manuscript aside and sat silent for a moment, looking at the professor who was his friend and only audience.

“What do you think?” he asked presently.

“It is clever, my friend,” said the professor.  “Very well done.  But there is only one problem.  I think there is too much piety in your attitude.”

“What do you mean?”

“In your quest for irony, you have taken a great natural disaster and fashioned it into a punishment for indolence and drunkenness.  Disasters happen, and not always because those who suffer by them deserved them.”

“How would you have told the story?”

“I am no story-teller, as you know.  But I think I would have made Lucinius into an ordinary man, a person of ordinary accomplishment, who tried to fulfill his supposed destiny by his own hands.  Then his death would be bitter-sweet, a tragic rather than a smug irony – more like life itself.”

“Ah,” said the doctor, “it wouldn`t be the same story.”

“No,” said his friend, “but it would be truer.”

The two friends disputed in a friendly fashion for a few moments more.  Then the doctor looked at the angle of light shining in the window and realized that he had to go.  It was morning.  He had risen before dawn in order to find some time to spend with his friend and show him his new story before it was time to go to work.  But now it was time and he took his leave.

As he walked through the streets, the doctor reviewed his friend’s arguments in his mind, shaking his head a little.  He did not agree, and he only wished that he had the time to stay and discuss it further.  He was becoming an old man, and he should have been allowed much more rest and leisure than his life was presently affording him.  But this war had changed many things.  People in his profession were urgently needed everywhere, so he had to snatch what time he could to talk and visit with his friend.

That warm August morning, on his way to work, it is true that the doctor did pause for a moment by a wall and cast his eyes upward to look at the sky.  But he didn’t see anything – neither plane nor flash of light.  He never heard the thunder nor felt the fire’s heat.

The flash of light that did come, he had no time to see. The light had hardly passed into his eyes, and the signal hardly started along the sloth-paced conduit of his optic nerve toward the optical interpreters in his brain, before there was no brain for the signal to reach.  Before there was no body to house the brain.  Before he was vapourized by the astonishing light.  Where a moment before there had been the doctor, now there was only his shadow, displayed upon the sidewalk and upon the stone wall beside which he had been standing.

He never learned of the great mushroom cloud, nor of the war’s end, nor the meaning, if any, of his death.

When finally the fires were done and the black rain had fallen and some of the great terror had shrunk to mourning, then at last the people had time to come and see.  No one had any knowledge of what his name might have been, or his works, or his thoughts.  But the people looked at him, the shadow which was all that remained of him, with awe and wonder, and yes, pity too.

Predicted by no oracles, such was the doctor’s fate on that clear warm morning in Hiroshima as he walked to work and contemplated the application of pious and of tragic irony.

©2008 by Theo G. Collins.  All rights reserved.