My Blog‎ > ‎

Even Tide

posted Jun 25, 2012, 2:00 PM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jan 27, 2015, 3:35 AM ]

It was the day I was supposed to die.

A heroic death for a Roman Hastati: the Goddess Roma had divined it; the Roman republic expected it and my centurion had spoken of it almost as an honour I should seize. Then the fleet admiral had practically guaranteed it with his tactical naïvete.

Mirroring the azure sky, the Middle Sea lapped timidly over our shard of flotsam, licking its wounds from the raging battle it had swallowed whole only hours ago. The sun seared my bare back while the saltwater tormented my torn feet. The pain demanded attention, but my eyes were fixed on the Carthaginian: sat cross-legged and staring into the southern horizon, hands clasped on his bloodied stomach – those same hands that had wrenched me from Neptune’s icy claws. I was alive only because of him. Yet I could not prise my thoughts from my dagger.

We had both gasped for breath at first, shaking and exhausted from the fight. Then as the battle smoke cleared this odd silence had descended over our creaking raft. Even at such close quarters I could not work out if he was avoiding my gaze or simply lost in his own thought. My jaw flexed in anticipation of some line of introduction, maybe gratitude, when he turned to me suddenly, his sallow skin punctuated with beading sweat, eyes masked in the shade of a thick brow.

            ‘Does this feel like victory? ’

His words sliced through the tension like a scythe, his neat lips articulating the Latin immaculately. The first words I had heard in hours. The question hung in the air, suspended like the droplets of saltwater quivering on the end of his dark curls.

‘Victory?’ I rasped. ‘For Rome?’

The battle had raged since dawn. The order and method of the drills and then the early manoeuvres had been swallowed by  ravenous pandemonium until only a rhythmic crunch of collapsing galleys provided pattern to the chaos. Now all that remained were the regular glistening humps of human jetsam.

‘For Rome, for Carthage, I don’t know. But there’s always a victory, surely?’

I had seen no other survivors, let alone ships. A blood-rich stalemate seemed to have been the outcome, Pluto the only victor. ‘Well we’re alive,’ I started, my mind quickly scrabbling for the still unspoken gratitude. But the Carthaginian cut me off.

‘Otherwise why are we here? Can you see reason, meaning?’

His eyes darted across my face in expectation. My jaw fell slack as I rejected each of the simple platitudes that came to mind. I closed my lips and shook my head. We sat in silence, skin now raw and crisp as the sun ambled across its zenith. Eventually, my battered body and thumping head were beaten by fatigue and my eyelids began to droop, seeing Fulvia’s rounded beauty in my scrambled thoughts.

‘Waken, Roman!’

I jolted upright. The Carthaginian had my ankle in his grip, his eyes flared. My instinct to grab for my dagger leapt and then died as I saw it: a dot on the horizon at first, but it grew like a thundercloud as it approached – a Carthaginian quinquereme. Now my fate was sealed.

‘They’ll be checking for survivors,’ the Carthaginian hissed.

My eyes fell to his dagger.

‘If you want to live, Roman, lie down. Face down. Play dead.’

My skin prickled: lie prone at the feet of my enemy, back turned? The drilled Roman hatred of Carthage began to curl my upper lip and my rebuke spouted from my lungs, but the words lodged in my throat as the Carthaginian sprawled himself on the raft, wincing at the pain from his wound. I felt like a foolish boy, ashamed at my fingertips hovering on my dagger hilt. The quinquereme was now only a few stadia away. I crumpled to the raft deck and tempered my breathing, torturing my lungs with only the shallowest swipes of breath.

Playing dead to cheat death! The absurdity danced in my stomach, daring my ribs to shake with a wry laughter. And all this came down to trust: trust that the Carthaginian was honourable and would not drive his dagger firmly between my shoulders where I lay; trust that he was not tempted by the surefire prospect of his own rescue - and surely he was - to signal the vessel silently while I lay prone. And trust in my own resolve - that I could hold my doubts and instincts at bay.

The churn of the vessel wrapped around me like a shroud. My eyes shrivelled at the certainty of betrayal and death. And then quiet returned. Finally I heard a shuffling next to me.

'Breath freely, Roman,' the Carthaginian spoke, his voice rasping.

'You gave up your freedom...surely your life.....why?' I spluttered as I rose, opening my hands to the shrinking stern of the Carthaginian galley. I knew the answer.

Because he's a good man.

His eyes remained on the sunlight sparkling in the ship’s wake, but his gaze seemed to be cutting through the waves, plunging below that tranquil ripple. I noticed his skin had paled. I shuffled forward, the strangest emotion curling around my heart. Pity. I reached out a numb and chafed hand to him. As he had done to me. I rested it upon his shoulder.

‘My wife once said to me,’ he muttered, his words fading at the edges, ‘that I was everything to her.’ His eyes shrivelled. ‘Now if I am everything to her – what happens to her when I die?’

I glanced down at his tunic: crimson spidered from under his hand. The wound was haemorrhaging. Words stuck in my throat.

‘You have a wife, Roman?’

I nodded, visualising Fulvia cradling little Minucius.

‘It’s not too late,’ I croaked, struggling to my feet. I barely noticed the thick plop of my dagger sinking into the blue as I stood tall. Like a fool I bounced on the flotsam, waving my arms, rasping hoarsely at the shrinking dot of the Carthaginian galley. He was dead before I could exhaust myself.

I sunk back to my knees and waved my fingers over his staring eyes, drawing the lids closed. The motion was enough to topple his body into the serene perfection of the Middle Sea. My throat ached as I tried to swallow – not a drop of moisture left. The horizon yawned around me and I could not shut out the gruesome school of bodies bobbing in its bite.

All alone, I searched for meaning.