My ancestors began their lives in the fertile crescent of Egypt about 4,000 years ago. The Egyptians revere us as the great hunters we are and worship us as gods and goddesses. One of the most revered goddesses is Bastet. She, the keeper of the hearth and home, goddess of cats to whom a magnificent temple has been built. It is known by all visitors to our kingdom that anyone caught trying to smuggle a cat out of Egypt or harming a hair on the head of a cat, would be put to death. So, it came as quite a surprise to all and sundry when I, an Egyptian cat was presented as a gift to a Roman scribe.
When the Roman historian and poet, Marcellus Gaius Aquilinus, was sent to Egypt on a mission of peace, my mistress, Ahmose Ahmuniet, presented me as a gesture of friendship and trust. I was but a kitten just weaned from my mother, but my new life and master suited me. He called me Agathoclea. Marcellus was a kind and generous human who had me ride with him in a wooden box he called a carpentum, which was pulled by six magnificent Persian horses and equipped with the finest, softest cushions, one of which was mine alone. Marcellus was accompanied by a host of servants, and a troop from the cavalry who were assigned to protect the Roman Empire’s most famous storyteller and historian.
Riding with my new master was pleasant indeed. Marcellus would pet me for hours, rubbing my ears and calling me his little girl, his little Agatha. Although it would have been quicker to travel by ship, a mere eight days from Ostia to Alexandria, Marcellus liked to travel by land. He would stop at different outposts, studying and recording details of the local flora and fauna. During the long and arduous journey, he would write on parchment or papyrus, often reciting aloud epic poems about Roman heroes, or simple verse about the birds and flowers he had discovered. I would frequently sit on my master’s shoulder or wrap myself around his neck and gaze down at his writing until one day I realized that I knew what the lines and swirls and markings actually meant. Praise be Bastet! What joy this gift brought me! I was now able to share what my master held so dear. It was not long after this discovery, that it became clear to me that the great scholar Marcellus Gaius Aquilinus understood every syllable and nuance of my language as well.
Once we arrived in Rome, my master took me to live in his elaborately decorated house full of marble columns, colorful frescoes, and paintings. Best of all were the gardens that surrounded the house. Ornamental trees, beautiful flower beds, bubbling water fountains, and benches where I could sun myself while enjoying the warm ocean breeze. Marcellus liked to say that a library and a garden were all anyone needed in life. I would add the delicacies of the sea and of the field were what made life complete. I lived a good, peaceful life for several years until the day my master announced that we would be taking another journey, this time to the south, to a city called Pompeii in the province of Campania. Here my master had a home in the shadow of the great Mount Vesuvius.
I had heard my master speak of his house in Pompeii and understood it to be as lovely as our home in Rome. The servants spoke in awe of the multitude of rooms made of a smooth marble stone with floor to ceiling shelves and painted domes that served as the libraries of Marcellus Gaius Aquilinus. They spoke in awe of their good fortune of having a master who was kind and generous to man and beast, but who never allowed a soul to enter his precious libraries. It was not an eccentricity of the master, but the result of an omen foretold by the powerful priest and soothsayer, Lucius Bassus. Two years previous, the soothsayer warned the master that he had had a vision after witnessing a falling star. The priest’s prediction was that fire would eradicate the house of Marcellus Gaius Aquilinus, destroying everything within. Fearing a catastrophe, the master had barred entry to even his most trusted servant. But, I was sure that I, Agathoclea, would be the one exception and I was looking forward to exploring the house of many books.
After weeks of preparation, the day finally came when my master, the members of his household, the servants and I boarded the sailing vessel Minerva for our journey to the port of Pompeii. I roamed the pitch covered planks of that ship’s deck daily. I was anxious to arrive, to see for myself the splendor of my new home and the many libraries of my master. One morning just before dawn, the daughter of my master’s sister, and my favorite playmate, Alexia, indicated with an unladylike shout that we were nearing our destination. Leaning over the side of the ship, she pointed to a formation on the horizon and said “That is the great Mount Vesuvius, Agathoclea. We shall be arriving soon.” Oh, what joy and excitement I felt at that moment. All I could think about were the libraries of which my master so often spoke. In fevered anticipation, I planned to spend all my waking moments prowling among the books and manuscripts that my master Marcellus held so dear.
Before we even had time to settle into the new house the master was called away on urgent business. During his absence, I attempted on numerous occasions to gain entrance to the sanctum sanctorum, only to be shooed away by the servants. Such action was incomprehensible to me! Try as I might, I was not allowed entry even by my playmate, Alexia. “You must not enter the libraries, Agathoclea. Uncle has forbidden anyone from entering this most sacred of places.” I argued and delivered a long harangue about the need for a crafty hunter like myself to have access to a place in desperate need of protection from those mischievous destructors of papyrus and parchment, but to no avail.
For six long weeks, I was banned from that holy of holies until one glorious evening the arrival of Marcellus Gaius Aquilinus was announced by the head servant, Tiro. I was overjoyed to see my master and rubbed against his legs and purred my most sincere greeting. After some hours of rest, the master emerged from his chamber and lifted me into his arms, “It is time to record all the events of these last three months, my dear,” he whispered as he carried me into those sacred rooms. The joy I felt at finally being allowed into those forbidden halls cannot be expressed. Once we entered the rooms, the master set me atop his writing table and placed a covered device closer. I had never seen this fire holder before and marveled over the ability to see the papyrus better. “You, Agatha are to guard against those creatures that would destroy my manuscripts. Keep them away and you may peruse all I have stored here to your heart’s content.” As you can imagine, those words were music to my ears!
Long happy hours were spent in my master’s rooms and time slipped away. I managed to learn everything those hallowed halls had to offer. My thirst for knowledge knew no bounds and it was this very curiosity and my need to know that would nearly be my undoing.
One hot summer morning, the master announced that he must travel to Misenum to meet with the fleet admiral. It was the Emperor’s wish to have a complete recording of the comings and goings of the Empire’s warships. During his absence, I was to be cared for by the servant Tiro, as my playmate Alexia had left for Rome to visit her ailing grandmother.
The days of my master’s absence passed pleasantly enough as I was totally engrossed in the chronicles of Pompeii and Herculaneum. So consumed was I in my studies that I did not heed the cries of Tiro or the other servants to make haste for the harbor until a sudden blast shook the entire house, throwing me from the shelf I had been sitting on and knocking me to the floor. Shaking myself off, I leaped up to my perch and resumed my reading. But then another blast shook the entire building so severely that all the shelving, books, and writing paraphernalia came crashing to the floor very nearly crushing me beneath them. Hastening to the courtyard, I scurried up one of the trees. From there I saw a mushroom-like cloud form over one of the mountain tops. I sat in the shelter of the tree for what seemed an eternity. It was as if I were hypnotized until another violent tremor shook the tree so violently that I was tossed to the ground. Dazed and shaken, I picked myself up and made my way toward the entrance of the house when another violent shock knocked over the lavish courtyard fountain spraying water everywhere. Just as I leaped out of the way, an entire outer wall came crashing down within inches of where I stood. I was petrified and don’t know how long I
Stunned, I shook myself and made my way back to what I thought would be the safety of the trees. I had to get a better idea of what was going on and if there was a way safe enough for me to travel. Climbing as high as I dared, I soon realized that the fiery cloud had expanded and was moving closer to the city. The air smelled so hot, hot enough to burn the whiskers off my face and singe my nostrils. Climbing nearly to the top of a sturdy olive tree, I looked once again toward the mountain where I saw pumice stone and ash raining down on the villages below. Perhaps I imagined it, but I swear I heard a collective scream rise up to the gods as cinders rained down from the sky. Slowly and cautiously, I climbed down from the tree, fearing all the while that another eruption would send me to my death. Making my way to the street, darting back and forth through the panicking crowds, I ran as fast as I could for the harbor hoping for sight of Tiro or one of the other servants, but to no avail.
What I saw were two very young slaves trying desperately to pull an extremely stout man to his feet while nearby a small child screaming hysterically for its mother. I saw sailors ushering frantic citizenry onboard galley ships that had been bobbing and swaying on high angry waves one minute but were now becoming stuck in the mud left by the receding seas. Suddenly darkness overtook everything. It was the kind of darkness that befalls a room when the torches are extinguished and the door is shut tight. All I could see, even with my keen eyesight, was the terrible cloud raining fire and stone as it hovered over Pompeii. I moved as swiftly as possible, darting around humans and the debris caused by collapsing structures, and the stone and ash spewed by the mountain. Several times I needed to stop and shake the hot ash off my fur lest it burn me to a cinder. At one point I heard terrible inhuman screams as I paused to get my bearings. The sight paralyzed me for what later seemed an eternity. A barn that housed cavalry horses had gone up in a blaze. While some of the horses had kicked down a wall and were running straight into the sea, others were trapped. Several soldiers were trying to rescue their beloved animals, only to be caught by the flaming structure as the walls collapsed around them. It was horrible.
Somehow, I managed to pull myself together and hurry onward. Burned, bruised, again covered in ash, and terribly frightened, I made my way south stopping to inquire along the way for word of Tiro or any of my master’s household. I traveled for days on end and only stopped to search for water and to make inquiries. Time lost all meaning until I reached the port of Salerno. Here I met an old she-cat who said that refugees had arrived from Herculaneum and Pompeii and perhaps I might find my master or his household among those who sought refuge there. Although I was feeling the pain of my wounds, and I was exhausted beyond words, I knew I could not rest until I knew the fate of my master. Had Marcellus remained in Misenum? Was Alexia still in Rome? What had happened to Tiro and the other servants? Did they make it to the ships safely? I had no answers, only questions.
I was beyond exhaustion now, but I continued to search through every corner of that port without success. On the fifth day after my arrival, I had given up all hope. Tucked away in the cool, shaded recess of an old bath house, I found refuge. I was sure I had an infection from the burns on my back and my blistered paws were an agony. Normally, I would clean my own wounds, but I could not bear the pain that grooming myself caused me. Although I was desperately hungry and thirsty, I couldn’t conjure up one more ounce of energy. Perhaps I’ll just lie here and rest a bit I thought, closing my eyes. I must have dozed off when I was suddenly awakened by a familiar voice. With a supreme effort I opened my eyes and peered around me but did not see anyone. Surely, I must be dreaming or the infection in my body is causing hallucinations, I thought. Settling back down in my refuge I again heard a voice I most certainly recognized. With a herculean effort, I forced myself up and slowly made for the entryway. Looking about me, I did not see anyone. Was I hallucinating? Was this the end? Some instinct told me that I would have to get to higher ground, but climbing a tree seemed to take more strength than my injured body could muster. Gathering the last bit of strength I possessed I slowly climbed a nearby tree and with a supreme effort launched myself onto the roof of the bathhouse in the hope of a better view. Perching precariously on the farthest corner of the building, I again heard that familiar voice. Were my ears deceiving me, I wondered. Could that be the voice of my friend and master?
As swiftly as I could manage, I made my way across the roof and back to the tree next to the bathhouse. I began to climb down, but the pain in my paws caused me to let go and down I tumbled to the earth below. Dragging my bruised and beaten body, I made it to the courtyard of a large house that was surrounded by a high wall. I had no illusions. I knew I would not be able to scale that wall and so in despair, collapsed to the ground beside it. Although there were trees on either side of the house, I just didn’t have the strength to reach them, let alone climb up to their branches. And so, I laid down where I was, defeated, exhausted and overwhelmed by pain. I did not even realize that the long pitiful howl I heard in my head had escaped from my mouth. I had accepted defeat and knew that I was going to die alone in the dirt alongside this insurmountable wall when miraculously I felt two hands lift me gently and enfold me in loving arms. “Agatha, my girl! My dearest friend,” I heard a familiar voice cry, “I thought I had lost you forever.” With a sigh, my body went limp and I knew no more.
I awoke one morning and was told by a servant that many weeks had passed since the master had discovered me lying in the road. With each passing day, I regained my strength and my wounds healed thanks to the ministrations of a learned physician and the tender nursing of my master. Marcellus looked in on me several times a day and, after being instructed by the physician, cared for my wounds himself. After I had awakened, he would tenderly set me on a soft, pillowed divan and feed me tidbits of fish and other favorite treats until one day, I felt and looked much like my old self. But sadness still held its sway over our household. As I lay in my sick bed, I learned that a dear friend of my master, Pliny the Elder, had been killed. A letter from Pliny’s nephew described how his uncle, who had also been in Misenum, had died when overcome by poisonous fumes while attempting to rescue the wife of a friend. I heard the servants whisper about a glowing avalanche that had consumed all of Herculaneum. And, when I asked for Tiro’s whereabouts, Marcellus told me that the ship Tiro had boarded had disappeared.
I found myself plagued by nightmares, as were other members of the household, and was repeatedly assured that this was our new home and that we would not be returning to Pompeii. But, it would take months, even years, before any of us felt safe again. Eventually, the nightmares ceased and our lives returned to a familiar pattern. Marcellus began rebuilding his library and although I mourned the loss of the master’s books, he assured me that together we would work to recreate all that was lost. “We will rebuild our library together, my girl,” he said. And we did. Together.
Stephanie Dargon Luce has had feature stories published in Seoul Word and Morning Calm newspapers, and Arirang magazine. She is the author of All Hail the Queen and the soon to be released Caribbean Queens. Stephanie also enjoys writing short stories featuring anthropomorphic animals, and really bad poetry. Follow her on Twitter @DargonLuce.