By Neena Grewal, TIWP Student
Our people weren’t the ones who threw harmless girls into volcanoes on the regular. They were quite the partiers, army-goers, art-makers, and gods-fearers and didn’t feel the need to throw someone into a mountain. But, every once in a while, there’s the primal urge to give something up for something they think will be better, something more helpful to the community—like good crops, avoidance of storms, victory in a war.
They threw me in for another vat of wine.
Can’t blame them, I suppose, seeing as our town was one with limited resources on hot summer nights, and the youth of Pompeii always ran rampant around the streets, searching for their next source of entertainment or food. Girls like Caesetia and Pontidia would run with them with flushed cheeks, while others like Gegania and Varia would hide away in their homes. I landed somewhere in the middle.
I was married, of course, like all the other girls who had a somewhat respectable name. But while we could keep a mask on during the day, caring for children we never asked for, the night was ours to be wild. The times we didn’t spend with the young men were the ones where we danced on the beach, barefoot in the sand with our hair uncoiling and our spirits melding together. We sang songs till morning, and our voices were hoarse for weeks at a time.
And together we learned more about ourselves. We learned that there was anger underlying every word to our men, that we all cried after our wedding night, that our children were loved but not loved enough to erase the pain of having them. We learned that we were inflicted with the same insatiable hunger of our male counterparts, the same thirst for something more than what we could see, to sail the ocean or trek the land.
I died in the morning, before the sun rose and with it our female duties. The sky, usually black or blue, was a deep violet, the stars slowly fading into the heavens. That night had been one of the most exciting in my life.
As though the gods knew what was to happen, we felt the presence of Bacchus in the sweet wine and pace of our feet across sand. Jupiter calmed the storm clouds into a soft patter of warm rain. And Minerva ran with us, screaming for a war against the dangerous night. Together we kicked across the beach, toes barely scraping the chilled water, pale against the moonlight. No ships sailed the sea that night; it was a private place for us to dream of escaping from our lives.
We left for the streets reluctantly, but there was a promise made and a drink to drown our sorrows in. We reached the lights of our town, and we could see the remnants of the beach covering us from head to toe. Sand and wind tangled in the thick tresses of our hair, skirts dragging behind with water, skin itching from the sea salt.
It started as an offhand remark about the lack of drinks in Amulius’ house, to which Pontidia laughed and I smirked. “We should throw Varia into the mountain,” she’d said, slinging an arm around me. “Maybe then we can get some decent tasting wine.” We all tilted back with laughter, and careened out of his house.
Amulius was not amused. “You don’t like my wine?” He yelled after us, sandals pattering over the street. “I’ll get you some, the best you’ve ever had.”
“I doubt it,” Pontidia snarked, “Your coinpurse is empty. Not even the gods could help you find some decent wine.” She loops her elbow around my arm, the other hand resting on my shoulder. “Come, Varia. We’ll find someone with good cellars. Maybe some food!”
“I don’t need the gods to help me,” Amulius stormed to where we stood. “I know of a way to get the sweetest wine in all of Pompeii. Even Bacchus would be jealous.”
I scoff, throwing my nose up to glare down at him. “Please, enlighten us. Where exactly is this wine found?” He frowns at my expression, taking a step forward.
“I don’t know,” Amulius says. “It’s difficult to get to. Especially for the likes of you girls.” There’s a terse silence hanging thick around our heads. Our eyes lock in stormy rage and fiery sharpness. I am the first to break.
“Take us to it,” I snap, turning on my heel. “Where do we need to go?” He smirks, knowing he’s won. It takes all I have not to slap the smug look off his face. “Or are you just lying to us to get some favor?”
“We need to go up there,” Amulius replies, pointing into the blackened sky. “That’s where we’ll find it.”
I raise my eyebrows in disbelief. “On Vesuvius? That’ll take hours to climb! We’ll never make it in time to return before sunup.”
He shrugs, brushing past us. “I told you it was difficult. You can stay here, if you’re too scared of your husband finding out,” he says. “But then, of course, you’d never get to taste the wine.”
This was my first mistake. The lure of adventure, delightful on the tongue, roamed through my head, murky and heavy like summer rain. It’s the reason why we danced on the beach; the call to explore was so strong we feel felt it pulse through our feet. It was seductive, poisonous, cloudy. It was familiar and light. It was my undoing.
Aurora was rising in the east, spreading her rosy fingers across the sky just beyond where the land disappeared. The mountain was cold. Gusts of wind untangled our hair, tugged at our stolas. The gods sent us their last prayers, and we received them with heavy heart.
“There isn’t any wine here, Amulius,” Pontidia yelled over the roaring wind. “Why are we here?”
He shakes his head, gripping my arm as if for stability. “It’s not here yet. We need to give something up to get it.”
“We don’t have anything with us,” I reply, “You should have told us before we left!”
“We have everything we need right here.” His fingers tighten around my forearm, and I am suddenly reminded Amulius was never in need of my stability.
Being thrown into a volcano is not as fun as it sounds. For starters, the burning hot rock does not end up killing you. Rather, you bake and bake until there is nothing left but ashes. Another reason dying a dramatic death by volcano isn’t fun is that you can still see the open air, meters above you, choking on the boiling blood in your throat.
The stars are the last thing I ever saw. Weak, twinkling lights that sunk into the horizon like a mother at her son’s funeral. Only my mother would never have a funeral to attend, because I would be ash and dust by the time anyone knew of my demise. It would hurt more, I think, to not have a body to send off to the grave. The stars streaked across the rosy sky, the gods own tears to shed for me. A final farewell.
Another thing you should know about death by volcano is that you get the weakness burned out of you. My body, a thin contraption of flesh plastered to ivory bones was a cage I had been freed from. Husbands and children were not meant for dead women, and so there was no fear of repercussion. Sadness and pity dried like a puddle in the sunlight. All that was left was my roiling fury.
Anger, it seems, was something we women kept close to our person. A natural state, to paint our faces with the blood of those who displeased us and roam the world singing a warning to anyone who dared come near. So I explode. And with me, the mountain.
Oh, they threw me into the volcano. They never expected me to come back out.