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What We Keep

The West Pasture

The ghost of a Roman camp

 

The ghosts of old Roman forts still appear in aerial photography two thousand years later as crop marks. This one was the start of a story that's now included as a bonus in the e-book version of The Wall at the Edge of the World, since it features a descendant of that family.

 

 

THE WEST PASTURE

 

     "What's that bite out of the edge of the west pasture for?" It still perplexed Clytie, that triangular piece of overgrown land jutting into the field and putting two bends in the hedgerow as if someone had shoved the corner of a large box into it.

     Her uncle's gardener looked up from the cold frame. "That's the old boundary. That's always been like that. And stay out of it."

     "Why?"

     "Just do." When she didn't move, he added, "And if they give you something, don't take it."

     "Who?"

     He didn't answer and in the few weeks that Clytie had occupied the spare room at Low Farm she had learned that if she got two sentences out of Old George, that was more than most people did. As she walked away he muttered something that sounded like "Pharisees" and she recognized the country term for those folk whom it was not a good idea to name. She grinned. If that was all, she thought she might go exploring. Nobody but Old George had said not to.

     Clytie had come to Low Farm to get her out of her father's hair in London, and away from the German bombing raids that were becoming more frequent and more deadly. She was too old for school, barely, and unlikely to marry with a war on and all the young men at the front in France. A widower with a job in the War Office needed peace and quiet at home, and his bachelor brother managing Low Farm with most of the young staff gone could use some help. That was what her father said anyway. Clytie was aware that he lived in terror of losing her too.

     When she packed herself a basket lunch in the kitchen and mentioned her expedition, Rose the cook told her not to as well. "Keep out of those woods," Rose said, lifting the cloth from a bowl of rising dough. "I'm not saying as it's anything supernatural, but Tom Dennehy's horse got loose and spent the night in there and when Tom got hold of him he was all saddle marked and sweaty."

     "Isn't it witches that do that?" Clytie asked, slicing the end of a ham while Alice, the half-setter bitch who had accompanied Clytie to Low Farm, leaned against her skirts.

     "I'm not going to argue which nonexistent thingamabob rode Tom Dennehy's horse," Rose said. "Just leave it alone."

     "Why was it left to woods anyway?" Clytie asked, undeterred. "Everything else here is field or pasture."

     "For the lord's sake, I don't know," Rose said. "Nothing grows there was what I heard. It's been cleared and plowed a few times but never a good crop."

     "All right then. We'll just go for a walk." Clytie packed up her sandwiches.

     "Come back in time for the Women's Committee meeting." Rose punched the bread dough down. "If they corner your uncle again about the fête he'll be rude to them."

     "All right." Clytie's main duty so far was to represent Low Farm on the Women's Committee for the War Effort so that they didn't drive her uncle mad.

     She called Alice to heel with every intention of walking sedately to the village but Alice turned toward the west pasture on her own, and Clytie didn't see how she could help that. Whoever owned it would probably have to clear and plow it soon anyway, good land or poor, to help with the food shortages. Bread flour was already scarce. The loaves Rose was making would be doled out carefully and Clytie had sliced her sandwiches paper thin.

     They passed Joey, Old George's grandson, sweeping the stableyard and he waved to Clytie and beamed at her when she walked over to him. "I have a new hat," he informed her. "Found it in the loft." He took it off his head and offered it for inspection, a melon-crowned object apparently belonging to the late Queen's reign.

     "That's very handsome, Joey."

     "Thank you, Miss Clytie. Now I have sweeping or Rose will shout at me."

     He returned to his work, setting the hat on his pale curls again. Then he stopped and looked over his shoulder, slyly. "If you go to those old woods, you won't get hurt."

     "How do you know that?" Joey was accounted to be simple and his information on any subject generally unreliable.

     There was no answer. Joey returned to the stableyard and the barn which now housed only the cob that pulled the pony trap. Every riding horse in the country, no doubt including Tom Dennehy's, had been bought up for the war, and as many work horses as could be spared from their farms. Clytie followed Alice's nose into the rough grass of the field, holding her skirts above the damp. There were rabbits probably. Alice seemed to think so.

     At the far end the hedgerow loomed, an apparently impenetrable wedge thrust into the geometry of the west pasture. Alice, however, with her mind on rabbits, found a gap and wriggled in. Clytie followed, pushing her way through blackthorn and wild privet, dog rose and hawthorn, disentangling herself as she went. Someone obviously came this way fairly often. Joey maybe. That might be the source of the household supply of rabbit pies.

     Beyond the hedgerow were woods, thick and cool. The trees were still in late summer leaf but the canopy shed enough light to see a man perched on an outcrop of stone. He had dark hair and a bony face and wore what looked like some sort of gymnasium costume, loose breeches and a tunic faded to a reddish brown. Clytie stopped abruptly.

     "I am so sorry! I didn't mean to intrude on you. Alice, come back!" She had never seen him before and it occurred to her that he might be a German. There had been rumors of spies landing on the coast and making their way inland.

     "You can see me?" He looked startled.

     She had not been prepared for that reaction. "Shouldn't I?"

     "I don't know," he said. "Except for Joey, people can't as a rule, unless we work at it. Who are you?"

     "I'm Clytie Evans. I'm staying at Low Farm," she said warily. "Who are you?" If he was a German she needed to tell someone right away. Joey wouldn't have thought of it.

     He paused and then said, "Justin." He held out his hand to Alice, who sniffed it and sat down on his boots in a canine demonstration of approval.

     "Just that? Do you have a last name?"

     "Crow."

     He looked as if he might take flight. There was something intangible about him, even though he looked solid. The light in the woods was odd, greenish even though the trees were beginning to turn their leaves.

     "What is this place? Why does it shove into our pasture like that?" If he was a local, he would know.

     He stood. He didn't look much older than she was and wore boots that laced over his breeches like a circus performer's. He said, "I'll show you."

     He motioned with a nod of his head to follow him. She hesitated, but Alice was generally a good judge of character and seemed to have no doubts. She was also big enough to defend her mistress from an unarmed male. They needed to find out who he was. Clytie made up her mind and picked her way after him while the undergrowth dragged at her skirts.

     "Everyone says to stay out of these woods," she commented as they walked, side by side now. "For fear of the fairies." She'd see what he said to that. His speech had a curious formal quality but he didn't sound German; but of course he wouldn't if he was any kind of spy at all.

     The man laughed. "It isn't fairies, it's just us."

     "Us?" Maybe they were gypsies. That would be an adventure. My mother said I never should play with the gypsies in the wood. That bit of verse came back to her and she ignored it.

     "Us. We died here."

     Clytie cocked her head at him and raised her eyebrows. "You don't look dead," she told him.

     He faded slowly from her vision until she could see the trees through him.

     "Wait!"

     He rematerialized.

     Clytie stared at him, getting her breath back. Not gypsies then. Or a German. He looked solid now but there was no denying what she had seen. "Who are you?"

     "We called ourselves Romans," he said. "But by the time the emperor said that Britain must look to its own defense, we weren't anymore, not really."

     Clytie blinked at him, shook her head to readjust her perspective, like realizing that one has been looking at a painting upside down. The world had felt lately as if it were tipping anyway, with the war. Maybe ghosts were part of that. And late summer was an odd time of year, with one foot already into autumn.

     "I was decurion of the first cavalry squadron," he said. "Second Legion Augusta, the last to be called back. When the troop ships sailed, some of us stayed behind."

     "Why?"

     "To fight off your ancestors, I expect. Saxons and Danes and the Norse just waiting for the last defenders to leave."

     Clytie extracted the pertinent facts from her schoolgirl history book.

     "They came anyway," she said.

     "They did. And we were badly outnumbered and went down like a bug under a shoe. And we stayed here again, out of sheer pigheadedness, I suppose." They had halted in a little clearing now. "Our fort was here, our last posting. That odd wedge into your pasture follows the line of the walls. It's been the boundary since the walls were still standing, people have just forgotten. This is the bit where the fort headquarters stood and the chapel of the standards."

     Clytie looked around the clearing, wondering if she imagined the faint wisp of walls that seemed to be visible only on the periphery of her sight. She remembered the standard bearer in his lionskin hood illustrated in her history book. "Then how do I understand you? Don't you speak Latin?"

     "After all this time? I followed along, you know. Language changes very slowly. Even when new people come in, there's an overlap."

     "How many of you are there? Why can't I see the others? Joey can see them, can't he?" She remembered what Joey had said about the woods not hurting her.

     "His head's a bit different, I think," the Roman said. "A bit like Alice here maybe."

     Alice looked up at her name and went and leaned on his boots.

     "Can you eat? I have sandwiches."

     "No, not really, I miss it though. You go ahead."

     A stump with a pair of logs on either side looked suspiciously like a table and benches. He pointed at it and she sat and unpacked her sandwiches. Alice transferred her attention to Clytie.

     "I don't know why you can't see the others," he said. "I don't know why you can see me, if it comes to that. Does it matter? I like the company."

     "I never met a ghost before." It seemed reasonable to be matter of fact, now that the picture had turned right side up. There was no point in pretending that she hadn't seen him disappear like that. "I'm not sure my uncle would approve," she added.

     "Do you care?"

     "Not really." She unwrapped her sandwich. "I've been sent here to be out of the way while my father does important things in the War Office. And to keep me away from the Zeppelin raids. Mainly I'm to prevent the Women's Committee from feuding with each other and all trying to run things at once. Apparently Low Farm is top of the village hierarchy and expected to lead in times like these. Uncle doesn't want to lead the Women's Committee." That thought brought her round abruptly and she consulted the watch pinned to her shirtwaist. "Oh heavens, I'm late!"

 

     "Will you have more tea, Mrs. Allen?"

     "Thank you, dear." The vicar's wife held out her cup and reined in the ladies gathered in the Low Farm parlor with a practiced glance. Clytie was very young and they were growing argumentative. "We're very grateful to you, Miss Evans, for heading up the fête, as you have much the best space to set up the tents, and of course the village is used to looking to Low Farm. The town green simply isn't large enough with most of it plowed up for garden."

     Mrs. Dennehy, wife of the mayor, gave a sniff to indicate her disagreement. Miss Radcliff, who was held to be dangerously modern and went walking in bloomers, said, "I don't see why we can't each just contribute money instead of knitting gloves to sell to each other. It would be simpler."

     "That would not involve the village, dear," Mrs. Allen said while Clytie was wondering the same thing.

     "Everyone must be a part of the war effort," Mrs. Dennehy pronounced. "We lead by example."

     "Of course," Clytie said. "The Women's Land Army has been recruiting volunteers for work at the remount depots," she added wistfully.

     "Riding cross-saddle in breeches?" Mrs. Dennehy looked appalled. "Certainly not. Your uncle would never approve of that."

     "Not until after the fête, of course," Clytie said. "Will you have more tea?" And I know who rode your horse, she thought, with a small, secret pleasure.

     "Young William Hawkins joined up yesterday," Mrs. Allen said. "My husband married William and Susan Moorehouse this morning." She sighed. "They're barely old enough. It seems a shame but it's better than taking chances," a comment that everyone understood to mean risking a baby out of wedlock. "I think he's almost the last in the village."

     "Mrs. Comstock told me that her husband wants young Joey to join up," Miss Radcliff said. "Some vicious female handed him a white feather at the railway station last week and they're embarrassed." Old George's daughter had married the village postmaster and ran the shop attached to it, but Joey had been bounced back to his grandfather at the farm once it was clear that his assistance in either shop or post office courted disaster.

     "Oh not Joey!" Mrs. Allen said. "Anyone can tell he's not fit."

     "That's what I told her," Miss Radcliff said. "He won't be sane by the time he comes back."

     If he does, Clytie thought. It didn't seem right. Joey wouldn't understand the army. "Surely they wouldn't want him?" she asked.

     "They want anybody now," Mrs. Dennehy said. "I'm not saying it's the right thing for Joey but I don't doubt they've taken worse."

    

     Clytie voiced her worries to the Roman the next week when Joey asked her if the army would let him come home from France on the weekends. Clytie and Alice now made the woods a regular, secret part of their ramblings and the Roman appeared whenever they slipped through the hedgerow.

     "What do I call you?" she asked him the first time that she went back. How formal should one be with a ghost? And did Romans have titles?

     "Crow. That will do."

     "Is that really your name?"

     "That's the English for it."

     "How many of you are there?"

     "Just a handful now. A lot have gone on over the years. There isn't much to do here but sleep and make a pet of Joey. We taught him to throw dice."

     "For money?"

     Crow laughed. "And let him take a Roman coin home and fill up the place with antiquities hunters? For stones. Or bits of tile from the bath house floor. He's like a magpie. Anything shiny."

     "I thought the old fort was all buried?"

     "There are doors. For us anyway. I'd be wary of taking you through them. Sometimes doors like that don't open again. Or open somewhere else."

     "I still don't see why I can only see you," Clytie said. "Or see you at all."

     "Maybe it's because I'm more rooted here than the rest." Crow looked at his feet as if they might actually be. "The others stayed because I was their commander maybe, but the first of my family came to Britain before Hadrian built his wall. Around 120 by Christian reckoning."

     Clytie considered that. Three hundred years in Britain would make you a Briton, by the time the orders came to leave. And then another fifteen hundred here while the fort they had tried to defend crumbled around their bones and sank into the earth. And what would happen to Joey if he died somewhere in France? Would he know how to go where he was supposed to?

     "It's not that he doesn't think, you know," she said. "He just thinks differently. I asked him to start collecting the eggs because he's just about the only staff we have left since Jenny joined the Land Girls. He started looking for them so often that the hens got upset and quit laying. He'll be in trouble constantly, he'll get his orders confused. And then he'll be punished for it, I imagine."

     "He will," Crow said. "Speaking as an officer." He scratched Alice's ears and she laid her head on his knee. "I spent thirty years in the army and most of the time I had a dog. I miss them."

     Clytie looked doubtful. "You don't look that old."

     "This is what I looked like when I was twenty-five — I think. It's been so long. We seem to be...malleable. I could probably look like you if I tried."

     "Don't! That's a horrible idea. That makes my skin crawl."

     "It would probably be better than what I looked like when I died," he said. "I thought you might like it better this way."

     They were sitting side by side on the log bench in the clearing while Clytie ate her boiled egg and salt and Crow watched her wistfully.

     "Did you have a wife?" she asked him.

     "I did. The girl I wanted married someone else because she didn't want a man in the army. Thought I'd be killed and leave her. Then her husband died when the Saxons began to raid the southeast coast  — they had a farm there — and after that life seemed too chancy to worry about so she married me anyway. She died of a fever not long before me and she's buried near here. I couldn't bear to leave that either. What about you? Do you have a young man?"

     Clytie took off her hat and straightened the pins in her hair. It was cool in the wood but the little breeze felt good. "I haven't had time," she said sadly. "They've all gone to fight in France, and I wouldn't want to be like Susan Moorehouse in the village who got married one day and sent her husband to war the next. Like your wife, I suppose."

     "Susan in the village may have had her reasons," Crow said.

     It was hard to imagine him as fifty when he so plainly looked twenty just now. He had dark brows that winged up a bit at the ends like his name, and a strong nose that was probably its origin. His arms and legs were muscular and his hands callused. There was a small callused spot under his chin too, as if a helmet strap had rubbed at it over the years. He wouldn't have been out of place in a drawing room though. She had thought his clothing just a gymnasium costume at first.

     "I suspect you'll marry," he said, "when it's all over. If you still want to."

     "If there's anyone left," Clytie said miserably. The casualties were an ever increasing stream of the maimed and the slowly dying. When she wasn't walking Alice or trying to manage what she was coming to think of as the Horrible Fête, she rolled bandages and knitted socks, or emptied slops at the hospital and read to mangled boys barely conscious enough to hear her. "How do I know whether I will or not? I haven't even kissed anyone."

     "Do you want to?"

     "I'd like to see what it's like."

     He bent his head and kissed her. He was surprisingly solid, and warm to the touch.

     "I didn't mean now," Clytie said.

     Crow looked apologetic. "I'm sorry. I know you didn't. It's been a long time since I kissed a girl."

     It was nice though, and Clytie allowed herself to think that maybe he would do to practice on. There wouldn't be any lingering complications from kissing a ghost. She tilted her head up and let him kiss her again.

     She met Joey on the way home, crossing the pasture with a rabbit snare dangling from his hand, melon-crowned hat jauntily atop his curls. He smiled at her and she smiled back.

     They had passed each other when he stopped suddenly and said, worried, "Will I have to shoot a gun in the army? Grandpa doesn't let me."

     Clytie turned back. "I think so," she said and he looked distressed. "Don't join the army, Joey. We need you here, you know," she added.

     "Pa says I'm no use, and they gave me a feather."

     Clytie gritted her teeth. The fashion for handing out white feathers to shame men not in uniform disgusted her. Several of her London friends indulged in it, clothing themselves in a patriotic righteousness, and Clytie had dropped them for it. "Don't listen to them," she told Joey, knowing the inadequacy of that advice.

     "And it's not as if he'd be anything but a liability," she told Crow two days later. "He's starting to fret over it all the time."

     Crow looked grim. "He'll come up before his commander for something or other without knowing why and it won't go well."

     "I wish he could just stay here in the woods and throw dice with ghosts. There's talk of clearing this land, though, to plow," she added.

     "They won't," Crow said. "It's been tried but we make them nervous even if they don't know why." He faded to a wraithlike transparency as if to demonstrate.   

     No wonder, if they saw that, Clytie thought. "There was another Zeppelin raid," she said. "Our guns aren't very good at taking them out but one of our fighter pilots set it alight with an incendiary round. The Zeppelin crew all burned to death or jumped. I tried to pray for them but I just couldn't."

     Crow nodded. He had become interested in the war and how it was being fought, asking Clytie for the news on every visit. He had been — was still, she supposed — a soldier after all. War was his profession. "Germans," he said now. "Again."

     "Again?"

     "Saxons are Germans," Crow said. "Or were until they got here. The land takes its invaders in after a while."

     "Not these, please," Clytie said. "And not pleasant for the invaded. And quit calling me a Saxon. There must be some Briton in me too. Evans is a Welsh name."

     "Well, there you are," Crow said. "That's why you can see me. We're probably related. Likely I'm your grandfather."

     "You kissed me," Clytie said, mildly horrified. "If you're my ancestor, that's indecent."

     "We don't know for sure."

     "I have to see the man with the tents for the fête and keep Mrs. Dennehy from changing the layout again. Think about what to do about Joey."

     Crow didn't answer and she packed up the remains of her lunch and told Alice to come along.

 

     She went back the next day with a newspaper featuring an illustration of a Zeppelin because Crow had wanted to see one.

     "Astonishing," he said, studying it. A sinister sausage shape hovered over a dark shoreline while fire exploded out of the ground below it.

     "You didn't know about air flight?" Clytie asked. The things he knew sometimes startled her, as did the things he didn't know.

     "We sleep a lot, I think. Time gets stretched in some odd way for us, or maybe compacted. I'm not sure." He shook his head. "I seem more awake now."

     A deep hum filled the woods, like bees in a box, as if his wakefulness had called to something. They both looked up. A fighter squadron crossed the sky overhead, simultaneously fragile and dangerous. Crow swiveled his head to follow them.

     "Rome always had better weapons than its enemies," he said. "Until that didn't matter anymore. Until we were overwhelmed, too few against many." His face was somber now, and restless.

     Clytie studied him. "You're wishing you could go, aren't you?"

     Crow kept his eyes on the dragonfly shapes of the fighter squadron until they disappeared in the blue distance, the hum fading gradually behind them. "Not in those, no; far too much like Icarus. But yes. Go fight Germans. I would. It seems like a good substitute for fighting Saxons."

     "Can you get killed? Again, I mean?"

     "I don't know," he said. "Probably. The Boatman comes around now and again still to see if I want a lift."

     "And you've never gone with him?"

     "No. I don't even know why now. There didn't seem to be a point to it." He stood up and stretched, looking remarkably solid. "Tell young Joey to come and visit."

 

     The next day was Sunday and Clytie went dutifully to church and brought flowers from the Low Farm garden for the altar and shook her head with Mrs. Allen over Joey. "My husband had a talk with his father," Mrs. Allen said, "but I don't think it's done any good."

     Clytie thought of something Crow had said. "It won't take him a week to get court martialed for something he doesn't even know he's done. He thinks he can go home on the weekends. I'm terrified. They shoot deserters."

     Mrs. Allen sighed. "I know, dear. I'm afraid that's very likely. I've prayed about it, but I think God has rather too much on His hands right now."

     Clytie saw Joey at the service, standing between his parents and his grandfather, looking perplexed and uncomfortable, and afterward striding off across the west pasture. She decided to go to the hospital instead. Let Joey have the woods to himself today. If they sent him to the army, he wouldn't come back and he wouldn't even understand what had happened to him.

 

     In the morning she walked through a dank, depressing mist to the village to get the post and found Joey's mother putting up a sign in the shop window.

 

WHY AREN'T

YOU

IN KHAKI?

YOU'LL BE WANTED

ENLIST AT ONCE

 

     "Our Joey's joined up," Mrs. Comstock told Clytie proudly. "Done what his father asked him."

     Clytie's stomach heaved. "Oh, no..."

     Mrs. Comstock nodded. "He seemed different, do you know?" she said to Clytie. "Odd, but not in his usual way, more at himself this morning than I've seen him. Maybe this will be what he needs."

     Her husband leaned across the postal counter with a satisfied expression. "Make a man of him. I've a note here for your uncle, Miss Evans. He can send Joey's last pay on here."

     Clytie took the note and the handful of letters for Low Farm and fled. A double-decker troop transport full of recruits rumbled through the square, dark and sinister looking in the mist. Joey sat on the top deck. He turned to look at her and for a moment the bones of his face shifted, rearranged themselves, settled into Crow's face and then it was Joey again. Clytie put her hand to her mouth and the lorry turned the corner of the square and lumbered into the fog.

 

     After supper, Clytie called Alice and they walked across the pasture in the autumn twilight. The mist had burned off through the day and the pasture was dry, rustling with field mice disturbed by their footsteps and the seedheads of grasses going dormant. The hedgerow loomed ahead in the deepening dusk and shimmered into a strange translucence as she came to it. Through the dissolving briars she could see the clearing, bathed in the sunlight of a different century. Joey sat in the middle of it throwing dice with someone invisible. For a moment she saw the fort too, timber gates and whitewashed barracks buildings roofed with tile, and then they and Joey and whoever he was throwing dice with sank into the ground and the gap in the hedgerow closed up.

 

 

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First boil your ostrich

 

In the course of researching any past culture and its ways one occasionally comes on something that begs for experimentation. Cooking for instance, which tends to be largely experimentation anyway when I get my hands on it.

 

Wanting to get the menu of various fictional dinners right, and to know what one would eat for breakfast, I acquired a translation of the classic work on Roman food, the first-century recipes of Apicius, by two mid-twentieth century kitchen scholars who actually made most of the dishes before publishing their text.

 

Billed as "A Critical Translation of The Art of Cooking by Apicius for Use in the Study and the Kitchen," like many ancient texts this one derives only from copies of copies, preserved in two ninth-century versions of a fifth-century manuscript. Large chunks of it seem to be additions by the fifth-century editor, so there are the inevitable difficulties. One term, for instance, can mean either artichokes or mussels, which is going to make a difference in your recipe right there.

 

And there is the issue of measurement, because there isn't any, mainly. A sauce for boiled ostrich (should you be serving one) lists only the ingredients for the sauce but no quantities or instructions, other than to boil that too and pour it over the ostrich.

 

Naturally I want to make something out of this book, and am fortunate enough to have two mad friends who want to do so as well. When we can cook together again, I'm thinking of Chicken in the Numidian Way with the Spiced Wine Surprise.          

 

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The devil is in the details

Not a dog

 

Ever since I inadvertently put honeybees in the pre-Columbian southwest (they were a European import) and didn't realize my error until well after the book was in print, I have been an obsessive researcher of the kind of minutiae that, pre-internet, used to make authors throw up their hands and say "I don't care, it sounds logical and I'm putting it in," or scrap that lovely scene that relied on the presence of a piece of honeycomb. Did the Romans have window glass? (yes) Bound books? (only beginning with the late first century) Are marigolds a New World flower? (yes) Fly fishing in the Roman Empire? (only in the late second century)

 

I have never done anything as truly awful as the guy who thought prairie dogs were dogs and went on for pages about their big feet and floppy ears, but I have nightmares all the same. Even with the wonders of search engines you can spend hours when you are supposed to be writing chasing one fact for a two-sentence appearance in a 400 page book. This is known as verisimilitude, sense of place, and Some Kind of Disorder.

 

And then there's provenance. Not everyone on the Internet knows what they are talking about, believe it or not. If you are not willing to take the word of the first site you stumble on that Senator Mushrat is actually an alien lizard, then by all means apply that filter to your historical research. There's a lovely Facebook group where I glean a lot of interesting information, but the comments section inevitably bogs down in international squabbles over whose culture was better and thus who built whatever it was, not to mention the ongoing arguments about why Augustus could not have had blond hair (he probably did) and why an iron collar just the right size for a human neck, that says "I belong to Marcus Ginantonicus of the Sixth Legion, I have run away, please return," isn't a slave collar and must have been for a dog.

 

So much of what is accurate is counterintuitive, and so much that sounds right isn't. And there are so many fascinating things to investigate that aren't critical to your novel and actually fall into the category of Things That Are Interesting But Do Not Belong Here No Matter How Much You Like Them. It's so easy to spend a blissful two hours learning how sewage was disposed of and then realize that you have no place to put it that isn't utterly contrived, and the details are revolting anyway and emphatically not the ambience you are looking for. I have a little folder of these. One of these days someone is going to be appointed Aedile in charge of drains and I will be ready.

 

 

Photo credit: Joe Ravi

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Twenty-first century thoughts in a first-century head

The Appian Way in 2020.

 

I've been thinking lately that one of the ongoing problems for a historical novelist is putting twenty-first-century thoughts in a first-century head.

 

The temptation is strong. After all, we want these people to seem sympathetic to a twenty-first century reader. And the reader wants them to be good people too. Thus the very bad review I once got on a romance website where a reader complained that Aphrodite kept sleeping with men who weren't her husband. But when a first-century hero lectures Augustus on abolishing arena games, you know that someone hasn't done their research.

 

The treatment of women and the practice of slavery are particularly thorny. Your first-century hero isn't going to be a feminist. And your first-century heroine is unlikely to be either. Does he beat his wife? No? Good. A lot of men did, and he probably disapproves but it won't occur to him to give women equal legal standing. Does the beaten wife put up with it? She probably has to, but she may well hate his guts. Some things aren't different. But she's not launching a crusade for women's rights. She may be wondering how to poison him.

 

Those arena games entertained the mob and the aristocracy alike. Only Seneca came close to condemning them and that only because they damaged a man's inner fiber, not because of their intrinsic cruelty. I've had to tread lightly with those, mostly for my own stomach's sake. I imagine there were many who didn't care for them, but none who suggested abolishing them. They may be an order of magnitude higher than dog fights and cockfights, if you count animals souls as always lesser, but certainly on a par with the gleeful, hungry crowds who watched lynchings not all that long ago, and would do it again if given the chance. The games trouble me the most of the things that fall into the Acceptable-then-but-now-oh-my-god category, more than slavery or the status of women.

 

But it is the issue of slavery that seems to be the hardest for modern readers, and you can't write about the ancient world and ignore it. A great part of the economy ran on slaves in that pre-industrial empire. Because the subject is so fraught with anger and guilt and willful ignorance in our current world, ancient world slavery is the subject of recurring comment wars on every social media platform where someone mentions it. An argument between an archaeologist and a poster who wanted to insist that an iron collar from a burial site was for a dog and not a slave went on for days. Yet ancient world slavery was a different institution from the horrors of American slavery. Most importantly to my mind, it was not race-based. You could be born of a slave mother, or become a slave because you were captured in a war, or fell into debt, or were sold by your parents. Not a happy life generally, but not dependent on your skin color. Slaves might be highly educated, the better to serve their masters.  Many tutors, secretaries, accountants and so on were slaves. Furthermore, a slave could buy their freedom, and many did, and numerous freedmen became wealthy and powerful. Your first-century hero is going to own slaves unless he is one himself, if he has any social standing and means at all. He is not going to ponder the injustice of slavery in general, although he may free some of his slaves for services rendered and dislike the master who mistreats his own.

 

Writing about the past requires an honesty, I think, that precludes trying to give people who lived two thousand years ago the sensibilities of the progressive first world of 2020. The best you can do is to realize that for your characters, the first century is what they have to work with. It is what they do with it that matters.

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By any other name

The rumors that Elvis is still alive have a little extra fascination for me currently, since I've been working on a book that includes the Nero Redivivus cult. Gullibility being nothing new, it was as dismayingly easy then as now to convince a group of people not adept at critical thought that a man who has been seen to die and be buried by several people has not actually died at all, and has been hiding in disguise all this time. The plebeians loved Nero since he was openhanded with them, and they strewed flowers on his tomb for years, so it isn't surprising that there were at least three manifestations of opportunists claiming to be Nero, tenuously based on resemblance to the late emperor and ability to play the lyre, in the twenty years after his suicide had forestalled an outright assassination.

     This book, a project I never expected, has reminded me once again why I love the Romans—they are so appallingly like us. Writing is a weird business, but since it's all I know how to do, I have made my living thereby all my life, in one way or another, either the doing or the teaching. Now, unexpectedly, the Romans have showed up again.

     My first novel, The Legions of the Mist, was set in Roman Britain, and my next three, The Centurions series, in Britain and Germany and Rome. Those were written for a book packager under the pseudonym of Damion Hunter, since the packager had been burned once by a writer who wrote a million-selling series under his own name and then got bored and quit. Any future series, it was decreed, went under pseudonyms so that other writers could be assigned. Alas, my series never even went to the contracted four books since the publisher was swallowed up by a different house which promptly killed all its current projects.

     Now a UK publisher, Canelo, has contacted me out of the blue and, hot damn, has republished those old Roman books, and even suggested I write new ones. I had got so tired of explaining, while I was writing things for the book packager, that all those names were really me, that I had sworn I wouldn't use a pseudonym again. Maddeningly, but fortuitously, we discovered that the old pseudonym has a small cult following among Roman reenactors and some recognition among Roman history buffs, and you don't want to waste that sort of thing. So we have compromised, and all my old Roman novels are out again as "Amanda Cockrell writing as Damion Hunter," which seems reasonable.

     Better yet, I have written a sequel to Legions, called The Wall at the End of the World, which is out now, and am writing that long-delayed fourth book in the Centurions series. I feel rather like Nero, except that I am actually me and definitely not dead.

 

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