Written by Emma Tang
I have stared at this street, at the same patch of brown gravel every day with no way of turning my head to see where that little voice came from, or what kind of dog I heard barking to my left. Nope, just forward. Always forward.
Not long ago, tourists would hustle and bustle in this area. Now, I have only seen one or two masked figures pass by. The street is strangely abandoned, as if it had been recently sacked. With so few people and vehicles, the aroma of wisteria as it drapes over archaic architectures drifts towards my nose, reminding me of my youth, when my wife and I would stroll in our hortus perfumed by the flowers.
Suddenly, a couple comes into sight, pulling me from my reverie with their strong accents. They hastily pull a giant suitcase over the stones, stopping at a bench in front of me to catch their breath. Through their agitation, I grasp specifics about current events. In fact, this is usually how I, stuck in my fossil with no means of movement or communication, gather information and stay updated on what is going on in the world. Because what else can you do when you’ve been mercifully spared during a natural disaster only to stand alone in the sun for all eternity? You watch. You listen. And you reflect.
A pandemic called COVID-19, I believe, is tearing through the globe and has brought humankind to a state of panic. Lockdowns have been imposed, and people are staying at home, leaving once-teeming public spaces desolate. I am thrilled to have some entertainment again but the situation seems fraught.
The woman is making a phone call. Her face instantly changes by what is said to her from the other end. Her eyes and mouth are frozen wide open in an expression of shock.
“You mean our flight is cancelled, and no alternative is available in the upcoming weeks?” She shouts to the phone, pacing like a frantic panther as she does so. “But I have to go home. My mom is in hospital!”
The call ends abruptly with her slamming her phone down on the bench. She stays motionless, her arm hanging loosely by her side. It is obvious that a desirable response was not given.
“More than two thousand Italians have contracted the coronavirus. Hotels are shut down. How can we survive here? What happens if my mother dies and I’m not by her side?”
The woman’s husband tries to compose himself and clasps his arms around her as she sobbingly vents her anxiety. She goes to sit down on the bench with the man’s assistance, and they soon fall asleep nuzzling up against each other. The trace of tears remains visible on her cheek.
Eventually, dusk arrives, and my two visitors continue to sleep. Brushes of purplish-orange hue stretch far and wide, merging with the darkening sky above them. I feel the warmth of the day sneaking away, leaving only a long chilly night ahead.
Absolute silence. Just a sleeping couple and a fossilized ancient man, side by side. As I watch them on the bench, I can still recall the despair that had choked me on the final day of my human life. I had punched the wall until my knuckles streamed with blood. I had cried and screamed until I sank to the ground, depleted of all energy. I knew intimately what being trapped felt like, and I wished I could comfort them.
My name is Anulus Vettius Firmus. I am a Pompeiian born in 49 AD. Yes, my birth traces all the way back to the Roman Empire. You must be shocked. Who can believe that I, an ancient soul supposed to perish centuries ago, am still alive under layers of ash? The calcified ash wrapped me so tightly that I can’t even recognize my physical condition—if I have any—and I only feel my mind functioning.
Just like you, I was young and rosy, until the fatal eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the afternoon on August 24, 79 AD took it all away from me.
A week before, my wife and I were hosting quite a sumptuous dinner for acquaintances to negotiate my election campaign. The triclinium was elaborately decorated. Servants were occupied with cooking and serving the meal, and we reclined on the couch, pretending to be relaxed and cordial.
Thirty was the prime age for a Roman man, and those of us lucky to be of this age were burdened by expectations. My self esteem balanced on a piece of paper, as if ‘thirty’ presented the single opportunity to realize my meaning. Aspiring to a political career, I dreamt of attending meetings with elites across the empire, waving to the public as they applauded me wildly, and a future when I could write a memoir regarding my accomplishments. Hope and excitement were pumping in my chest. This year I began running for the aedile, magistrate for maintenance of public buildings and regulation of public festivals. This position would be an ideal springboard to higher political office and an expanded network.
Our guests drank toasts to me, and with the aid of my wicked ambition, I made bold promises as they did. I guaranteed a prominent pistor the monopolistic power of supplying pastry for future public banquets. I told tabernarii that I would rent out Pompeiian properties at low prices for them to grow their businesses. I implied loose supervision of police-related bribery. I greedily took in any opportunity in my sight that might serve my interests, simultaneously stuffing my mouth too full. My morals — what I deemed right since childhood — were overwhelmed by this new appetite of power-hungry desires.
That night, after we bid farewell to all the guests, Iulia and I, exhausted, sank into our couches. Residues from the feast scattered across the huge table in front of us. Laughter and chatter had suddenly ceased with the boisterous guests’ departure. Face to face, we lay in perfect silence. Such silence caressed my skin and smoothed out the roughness of the day like a cool summer breeze. I felt great. The moonlight brushed a glaze of tenderness on everything. I gazed upon Iulia’s countenance, gorgeous but pale, and realized for how long I had not given full attention to my wife.
“Is this what you want?” Iulia whispered in a trembling voice.
“What’s the matter with you? Didn’t you see how successful we were?”
“Money and power blind you,” she said. “Listening to your promises to those influential people, you are sacrificing the interest of common Pompeiians for a job that is supposed to serve them.”
“I have a strategy to win the election. How I do this is not your business. Who are you to criticize me, my wife?”
Noticing my edginess, she sighed: “Then consider things you will lose by centering your life around politics. Consider your old self. Consider your genuine friends. Consider me.”
“We’ve got plenty of time ahead to worry about such things, my love. You do not need to take this burden on.” I quickly replied. With great speed and little finesse, I stood up and retreated to my room as if I had just broken something precious and was fleeing from the scene. I think there was a part of me that knew already that she was right.
I convinced myself that I could easily heal my wounded relationships once my primary goal was achieved. My loved ones would be proud of me. My success would outweigh my mistakes.
I was wrong. The chance never came.
My American couple are still sound asleep, their bodies intertwined. This serene and loving picture melts my heart. I have rarely spent such a period of time with any other human. Mostly in a hurry, tourists come, take a few pictures and leave.
2019 had seemed like a prosperous year, as I heard people talking about financial successes and saw the electronic devices they held evolving. Back in December last year, there hadn’t been the slightest hint that a catastrophe was on its way. The world had been peaceful for a considerable period of time. People were engrossed in pop culture, political drama and developing technology. The capacity of a microscopic virus to press a stop button to everything in the world was eerie indeed.
This is perhaps how nature works. Humans are incredibly intelligent, resilient and arrogant. We often disregard the fact that we are merely a species whose life is limited and vulnerable.
World leaders strive for a larger share of international power. The media manipulates the audience through choice: what gets reported and what stories occupy the front page. Alleged experts delight in commenting about the virus in public despite their actual ignorance. To so many people, the pandemic, along with other crises, is just a chance or a showcase, as long as it does not affect them personally.
Umm, what a mess.
My diplomacy had paid off! I became the promising candidate whom folks betted on. Signs, painted murals and electoral posters campaigning for me could be found in every corner of the town. An endless stream of visitors called on and heaped praises on me. My smile and humor were only ready for those who might serve my purpose. I turned away from trivial conversations with my family or “irrelevant people” by displaying contempt or indifference. I immersed myself in this sense of superiority and self-importance while overlooking the gradual detachment from my once-congenial friends and Iulia’s frustrated eyes. In some ways I knew I was deviating from the personality that used to attract my loved ones to me, yet the belief that whatever I wanted would be handed to me as long as I reached a solid place on the bureaucratic ladder spurred me on.
I was rising. There would be time for apologies.
Then the day came. It is unbelievable that despite the passage of so much time, I still remember it in so much detail. At 12 p.m., as I was dictating some letters, one of my servants suddenly yelled: “Look! The sky today is odd!” I chided him for interrupting my work but couldn’t help my own curiosity. I walked outside to see for myself, and found distressing puffs of clouds congregating over the top of Mt. Vesuvius, drifting with ominous slowness. They were slate grey and chunky, nothing like the fluffy snowy cotton balls from yesterday. In my foolish arrogance of knowing everything about the world around me, I assumed they were indicating severe weather and severe weather only.
I resumed my work, until Iulia called me at about 2 p.m. “Ash and white pumice are raining down!” She was breathing rapidly, “This is unlike anything we’ve experienced before. We must leave Pompeii immediately!”
I could not come up with an explanation for the condition, but by instinct I refused to go. The pivotal stage of my campaign had arrived. How could I drop my well-established properties, business and social networks all at once? I tried to be persuasive: “Mt. Vesuvius has been the epicenter of earthquakes for years. Perhaps it’s just another earthquake occurring. We’re going to be fine, Iulia.”
“But if something devastating happens…” I cut off my wife, who was clearly apprehensive, and reassured her that I would take care of the situation and we would be safe.
I would be lying if I say I was truly as confident and self-possessed as I sounded. Although Pompeiians had grown accustomed to occasional earthquakes, the gigantic ash cloud suggested another level of rarity and harshness. Nevertheless, the possibility that a natural disaster would turn my life upside down and disrupt my elaborate plans was unbearable. It took me months and even years of effort to mature into a respectable Roman man and get ready for a thriving career. I hated to feel out of control.
But look at what pride does. It blinds you to your own demise.
For the next few hours, volcanic ash and a hail of pumice stones continued showering Pompeii. Suddenly, the ground beneath me began shaking violently. Books fell off the shelves. My one-of-a-kind glass mosaic was smashed. The entire structure was swaying. I scrambled up to my feet, yet instantly lost balance and was reduced to crawling.
“Iulia, Iulia!” I called out to my wife, “We need to get out! Get out of the house! Now!” In a second’s time, she was beside me.
When we were rushing to escape, we found in terror that the door was blocked — actually the space where we were, seemed tightly sealed in pieces of debris. I summoned up all my strength, my bare hands pushing against the rough surface of the masonry. I inched around, searching for even a crevice that might lead to a way out. I cried, as loudly as possible, in the hope of someone coming to help. It was all in vain. A shudder ran through me: we were trapped. We would die.
Then I heard a scream behind me. I turned backwards and saw a chunk of the ceiling weighing down Iulia’s back. Her face was contorted in a grimace of extreme pain. Her fingers curled into a fist, nails digging into her palm. My heart skipped a beat.
Despite my desperate attempts to remove it, the mass was stubbornly crushing my wife. Energy was being drained out of me, and I crumpled feebly after I depleted my last bit of muscle reserves. I kneeled by Iulia, caressed her cheek and repeated some useless comforting words. Tears flooded my eyes, as her natural fair skin gradually sank in tone to something so lifeless.
“Don’t leave me, Iulia!” I bawled like a child. The feeling of loss was too hurtful, as if a rib was torn from my body.
She managed to put on a smile and murmured: “I’m…fine, honey. You…go…”
Seconds later, a cloud of thick gas poured into our house. I gasped for a breath but the air wouldn’t go in. Next comes the surging dread, dizziness and ferocious burning in my lungs. Warmth was leaving my lungs, and my limbs were turning stiff. The ghastly realization of imminent death dawned on me. The last thing I remember doing was dragging myself toward my wife.
When I woke up again, I was confined to a shell of calcified ash. Centuries later, archeologists poured plaster into cavities that outlined my body so that my form could be retained in spite of the soft tissue decomposing overtime—this is what I heard during the process. Withal, I had lost my perception of physique.
I was placed at the location where I was discovered. My house had completely fallen apart. The elegant architecture had broken down to stone, brick and concrete in random compositions around me. I was basically alone amid ruins of the house. When the ancient city of Pompeii was opened to tourists and I became part of the attraction, workers set up a bench right opposite me on the other side of the street.
So here I am, a living statue for 1,941 years (to be exact).
Sounds coming from the bench pull me back to the present—my couple have just roused. They rub their eyes and sit still in an expression of confusion for a moment, seemingly to readjust to their surroundings. Then the woman stands up and points at me.
“Do you see the statue over there, Leif?” she said to her husband, “It is so lifelike, isn’t it?”
The man’s eyes shifted from the ground to me: “I watched a documentary about the excavation of Pompeii. If I’m not mistaken, this is the body cast of an actual Pompeian man who died in the eruption of Mt.Vesuvius. He’s been frozen in time.”
They approached me as he talked. The woman tentatively raised an arm and softly touched my nose. “Wow, amazing…I can still see pain and horror in his face. How agonizing must his last moment have been! And he seems so lonely locked in this pose with no company.”
I can’t believe it, but I almost have an urge to tear up. A thousand, nine hundred and forty-four years. I had long forgotten what human interactions felt like. My senses had become numb. At this moment, the vague texture of the woman’s finger releases the emotions that I had managed to suppress for so long: terror, solitude, bewilderment and remorse.
“At least we have each other in such a difficult time.” The man holds his wife’s hands and prints a kiss on her forehead. As he does so, my sense of confinement begins to fade. Glaring rays cascad over me, wrapping me in a tender yet steady hug. All thoughts in my mind clear. My body is getting lighter and lighter, as if I am stepping on a cloud, and slowly ascends to somewhere high up.
Then I see flocks of transparent, shimmering beings wafting across the sky. A slender figure looms behind them at a faraway point. As the mist disperses, I recognize her face—
“Oh, my Iulia!”