Now the word is given, the horses are lashed, and the wagon jolts down the dark street, a helmeted soldier seated at each side and Ovid, the exile, between them. Flames glare through the eyes and mouths of stone lanterns, and the blue night air swirls about him like water. The Palatine, crusted with villas, floats off to his left, the Capitoline with its glowing temples to his right; his own house dissolves far behind. His cold hands are clasped together upon his satchel, and he stares, his eyes like the eyes of the lanterns, that word still incomprehensible. Exile.
The soldiers came to his house only an hour ago. They stood in the overgrown atrium, in their dazzling armor, and when they told him why they’d come, Ovid–tall and lean, pen in hand–noticed the red wall near his arm gently waver. It was late. “I see,” he said, but all he could hear was a humming. “Tomis.” He touched the wall with his fingertip to still it. “The Black Sea, you say. Exile”–as if in his own voice it might become clear. “But I may bring what I want. My writing things, my books.”
He watched as his index finger drew a damp line on the wall, from the hoof of a stag to the white teeth of a dog. Then, unaccountably, he felt his mouth stretching into a grotesque hyena grin; he actually heard himself laugh. “Does that mean I can bring Rome?”
The soldiers, of course, didn’t answer. They placed themselves at either side of the door and waited for him to pack. So Ovid found himself turning slowly, underwater, moving through the red and gold and black walls of his house, his shocked eyes falling upon the familiar bronze, marble, and papery surfaces, with that terrible grin stretching his face, with that terrible word incomprehensible. He stood swaying slightly in his bedroom, on the mosaic skeleton that danced upon the floor. He put some warm clothes, a few tablets, and a stylus in his satchel. Then another pair of shoes, and Carus’s book. He stood there, looking around; he knelt and fastened his boots. He walked back into the wet green atrium, past Persilla with her streaming old eyes, past poor Lazar hiding his face in the shadows. “I’m sorry, goodbye,” he heard himself say, as if he had been a bad guest. Then he passed for the last time through his own door into the cool spring night, and stepped into the wagon, a soldier on either side.
The blue night swirls by, and there’s a dim roar of Rome all around. The wagon has reached the green stretch between the two hills and passes over the cloaca; it threads around the circular temple and, climbing, skirts Marcellus’s theater. It would be lit inside now, Ovid realizes. The stage would be glowing saffron red, and there would be the murmur of all the voices, and the intricate hairstyles, and the bare shoulders, and the messages flying, and the swift appreciative glances, and the limb-weakening applause, which has often been for him . . .
The theater drifts by. They reach the river with its marshy spring air, and as the horses break into a gallop Ovid is thrown against one of the soldiers. He’s jolted; his heart pounds.
“The thing is,” he says–and he’s shocked by his voice, how suddenly it flies from his throat–”the thing is, I didn’t do anything.”
The soldier’s gaze shifts his way, and light glances from his helmet, a reflection of the city going by.
“I didn’t. I thought Augustus believed me.” But Ovid’s voice seems to be drifting away. “You see,” he says, concentrating with effort, “it was a mistake. I didn’t know what Julia was doing. How could I have known?”
The soldier turns. It has nothing to do with him. His instructions were simple: arrest Ovid, remove him from Rome, place him on the ship bound for Tomis, the Black Sea. It’s someplace up and over, he vaguely knows, at the edge of the world. A Roman outpost, very cold, always under siege. Uncivilized. Not likely that anyone speaks Latin up there, not even much chance of fresh fruit. What a place for this swan, he thinks, this poet with his tall, gray elegance, his finely arched nose, his feverish look, his leanness. Women were said to rush him on the streets, their dresses flying, bare arms lifted, eyes dilated, delirious to know him . . . Tomis.
Ovid has fallen silent, realizing that his words do not matter. The wagon jolts along more slowly, one of thousands rolling through the city, their wooden wheels groaning upon the granite roads. He gazes at the faces passing by–hard faces of fishermen and farmers, their wagons full of octopus, artichokes, and quail, the minor delights of Rome that he won’t taste again. A merchant’s daughter looks up as she passes, and her mouth falls open in recognition. She covers it with a startled hand.
Now the Aventine is rising to the left, its great black form blocking out the stars, giving off a scent of cypress. They turn onto the Via Ostiensis, swing south. Ovid has become aware of the pain in breathing; he keeps his teeth tightly clenched. They trot by a place that is discreetly marked, but he knows it at once: it’s where the Vestals are buried alive when they break their vows to be virgins. Something runs through him, and he finds an arm flying: he finds himself almost laughing.
“He may as well just do that,” he cries. “Give me a lamp and food for a day and pack me underground.”
The soldier to his left grips Ovid’s wild arm. He himself supervised hundreds of suicides some years back, when Augustus was cleaning out the senate, not to mention the swift executions when they didn’t go willingly. Exile seems to him rather mild. “It’s not the end of the world,” he says.
Ovid looks away, sobered. “It is,” he says. “I’ve been there.”
Although in his mind he amends himself. He hasn’t been there, exactly, not Tomis. Not the western side of the Black Sea, where he is bound now. But the eastern shore he has certainly seen, for that is where he found her, Xenia, only a year ago. When he set out blindly on the trip that has ruined him.
Suddenly he feels it streaming behind him, this world that he is leaving. This great city and all that it’s made of–the finest things men have created and all the texture of cultured life, books and art and buildings and music, whispers in a marble square, sun shining through an amethyst dress, a glance on the street, sleek onyx statues standing in a row, the flare of recognition in intelligent eyes, the piercing spur of rivalry, the pleasure of praise, the thunder of the crowd as the horses gallop by, a translucent white vase in a garden, walls all figured with myth, the rooms where conversation flies like torches, and everywhere, everywhere, the subtle net of language, whose strands he himself has woven so finely that veils upon veils of meaning have hovered . . . He is going where there will be nothing: only the silent ground and the hard sky, alone.
The wagon rattles on. He clenches his teeth as the darkened walls roll by, and no one sees or comes.
Where is everyone? Where are the women who were inflamed by his Loves–the one who drew him a message in wine on a dinner-party tablecloth, that one who stood before him in an afternoon bedroom, nude? Where are the grand old patricians who clapped him on the back, their eyes wet from the sheer knowing beauty of his Metamorphoses? Where are the ox-eyed young men with their groomed dark heads, reading his Art of Love for advice? And the old women, keyholes to bedrooms, and the tarty slave girls with their slippery tongues? And the Greek booksellers, who know literature when they see it! Where is Carus? Where are his friends?
All the doors are closed, the shutters drawn for the night, this, his last night in Rome.
No, what’s he thinking: she’s already gone. Augustus’s own granddaughter–she had to be gotten rid of. Adultery is the official charge, as Augustus doesn’t want known what she’s really done. She’s been packed off like her mother to a remote island, to live and die, alone. You are a boil, Augustus said. I want you out of my sight.
And she, that other, that Xenia? Where exactly is she? She left nothing behind but that jungle in the atrium, a few withered things in the window, and those two chilling lines . . . She even took her door handle.
At the thought of those two lines and all that is lost, a quiver runs through him. “Witch,” he whispers. The word flies from his mouth, and his eyes dart up to the night sky with it, as if he expects to see her there, wheeling like the gulls against the lopsided moon. Only blue clouds drift by. She could be anywhere. In the sea–in the grass–for all he knows, laughing right now in his satchel. He looks down at it sharply, then closes his eyes and passes a damp hand over them.
Palm trees hurry by, and lemon trees, and an illuminated temple. A door to a house opens upon a bright hum of voices and color, and two drunken men come out, laughing. They look up with blurred recognition at Ovid as he is borne by.
Guilt and remorse fan slowly through him, like blood let in a bath. The sickening sense washes up his throat, flows salty into his mouth, but when it reaches his teeth he bites down. No: Xenia did it to herself. She could have given him what he wanted, when he begged her, and he would have undone everything–he would have burned the precious thing himself. If she had only told him what she alone was able to see, what he so desperately wanted to know.
Whether his work would last. Whether he’d be immortal.
How much could it have cost her to tell?
If only, as Ovid is carried from Rome, the world would draw back its veils and show itself the way Xenia could see it! If only he could see what was to become of him, of his name and his bright, mercurial poems–the palaces and villas that will rise up hundreds of years later all over these famous hills, their ceilings and walls made brilliant with frescoes, and the stately galleries of paintings, the halls of marble sculptures . . . all glorying him and his clever, alchemical stories. If he could see the scholars and monks illuminating his verses with tiny images of girls becoming trees, of boys with feathery wings, of cool statues blushing to life. I’ll write about bodies transfigured . . . He has hoped and begged for this so fervently that his nails have pierced his lean dry palms, as iron nails will pierce other palms only a few years from now; he has forced the blood to pounding behind his eyes with the sheer aching pressure of his ambition; he has, finally, done what he’s done, in the terrible force of his desire.
To be known. To be remembered. To live forever.
Now they’ve come to the bottom of Rome; they’re approaching the Ostian gate. This is it, then. Nothing will stop this steady movement; he’s helpless. The wagon keeps rolling forward; the gate rises up with its huge brick arches and all its engraved inscriptions. With a sudden darkness, a smell of damp, the wagon passes under the arch and they’re through, out in the stretching fields, the straight road lined with tombs.
Beside him, the soldiers relax. They are out of Rome now. Ovid is gone.
<. . .>