Marcellus looked up at Mt. Vesuvius, looming over the city like a gentle giant, protecting their city. He tightened his grip around his younger brother and wished he could fill his brother with the mountain’s strength.
“It’ll be good again,” he said. His dog, Dorcea, whined, and put her chin on Crispus’s foot.
Crispus sniffed and rubbed his eyes. “I know, but… I can’t believe that she’s gone.”
“Crispus… Kiddo, she left two months ago. I thought you were doing better.” Marcellus bit his lip. Crispus had always been over emotional, but this was almost more than Marcellus could bear.
“I know, I know, but…” Crispus’s lip trembled, and he burst into tears. “I miss her so much! And now she’s found someone else and I’m never going to find anyone else and—”
“Calm down, calm down.” Marcellus hugged his brother. “It’ll be okay. You have Ursinia, you have me. You aren’t alone. You will get through this.” Dorcea licked his knee comfortingly.
Crispus sighed. “I know, I know, I just…”
“Come on, come with me. Ursinia is with Dad, right? We’ll go to the market, just you and me, we’ll buy some wine, we’ll go back home, and we’ll talk it out until you feel better.”
Crispus sniffed and blinked his sad, brown eyes. “Really? Promise?”
“Of course.” Marcellus helped his brother to his feet. Dorcea bounced beside them, nudging her master with her nose. “Now, it’s kind of a long walk until we get to the market, so maybe you could try to stop crying by then?”
That forced a laugh out of him. “I’ll try.”
Glancing back up at Mount Vesuvius, Marcellus silently prayed that the gods give them both the strength to get through this. It was bad enough that Crispus had allowed the divorce in the first place—if people saw him crying about it as well, it would reflect badly on their entire family.
However, as Crispus ran his fingers over the tips of the summer flowers they passed, Marcellus didn’t have the heart to chastise him any more than their father already had. Crispus already knew he was weak—telling him that wouldn’t heal his broken heart. Marcellus sighed. Maybe he should leave Dorcea with Crispus for a while so he wouldn’t feel as alone. He’d have the rest of her life with her—she could stay here for a couple of months. They had the time.
“So,” said Marcellus, kicking a flower, “have you planned any funerals lately?”
Just as Marcellus had predicted, Crispus’s face brightened. “Yes, a few days ago,” he said proudly. “Just before you came back into town.”
“Oh? Anyone I knew?”
“I don’t think so. He was pretty old. Do you remember Flavius?”
“No, the cooper’s uncle.”
“Oh. Then no.”
“Well, it was for his aunt’s husband. I went all out on this one, and I think the family was really pleased with the result.”
That would keep Crispus entertained for a while, Marcellus thought. He looked up at the sky, which was bluer than the eyes of Venus. Such a lovely day it was. If it had been up to him, he would be out with Dorcea. Maybe they would’ve hunted rabbits. Oh well. He had time.
Marcellus was torn away from his thoughts by Dorcea, who suddenly started whining. He interrupted Crispus, who was still describing the mourners at the funeral, by taking a knee and facing Dorcea. “What is it, girl? What is the matter?”
Dorcea tucked her tail between her legs and raised her ears.
Crispus knelt next to him. “What’s going on?”
Marcellus shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s usually not like this.” Although, he thought, it had happened before, right before…
“Get down!” Marcellus grabbed Crispus’s arm, flattening him to the grassy plain.
Crispus lifted his head to spit out grass. “Why’d you do that?”
“Stay down,” Marcellus ordered, and when he was done talking, the ground started shaking. Even though they were flat on the ground, Marcellus could still feel the violent vibrations in his teeth.
As suddenly as it began, the tremor ended, and Marcellus and Crispus sat up.
“Impressive. How did you know that was going to happen?” Crispus wiped his mouth.
“Dorcea. Whenever there is an earthquake, she gets all jittery.”
“You didn’t have to pull me down like that though. I know you’ve been out of town, but for us who stayed home like good sons,” Crispus teased, “this has become pretty normal around these parts.”
Crispus stood up and extended his hand to his brother. “Yeah. They’ve been pretty common for the last couple days. Ursinia thinks it’s the sign from the gods.”
Marcellus grabbed Crispus’s hand and got to his feet. “Yeah? She does?”
“She really feels the influence of the gods. More than most. I was thinking I might take her to Rome.”
Dorcea, now calmed, rubbed against Marcellus’s leg. Marcellus patted her head affectionately. They had to keep moving if they were going to get to buy any wine before the market closed. “Why?”
“She’s been really interested in devoting her life to religion. I thought maybe—”
“Really? A Vestal Virgin?”
Crispus shrugged. “Maybe.”
“She’s the granddaughter of a freedman, you really think they’d take her?”
“Who knows? Wouldn’t hurt to try, if it would make her happy. I’m sure they could provide a much more enriched life than just her single dad could. Plus, once she retired, we’d be related to patricians. Can’t say you wouldn’t like that. Besides, she’s a rather… academic girl. I worry that her intellect would be wasted on a husband.”
Marcellus let Crispus drone on and on about his daughter and counted on his fingers how many more topics he could get Crispus to talk about. He’d already brought up his job and his kid. Maybe their little brother?
Luckily, the edge of the market popped into his vision before Crispus was done bragging. “Look! The market!” Dorcea ran ahead happily.
Crispus looked up. “Yeah. Did you forget where it was? It’s only been a year since you’ve been back, Marcellus.”
“I didn’t forget.” Marcellus rolled his eyes. I’m just surprised I didn’t die of boredom before we got here, he thought. It was okay—he had time to do more exciting things once he took care of his brother.
“So, what exactly was your plan?” Crispus kicked at the dirt. “Wine, right? Are we buying a full amphora?”
Marcellus made a sharp right turn, passed the fish stalls. Hopefully, the seller was still here—it’d been a while since he’d been home and in need of a strong drink. “I’m not carrying that home. We’ve got wine at home, but I figured while we’re here…”
“While we’re where?” Crispus trailed after him as if they were children again. “We’re walking away from the market right now, you know.”
“I know, I know.” There it was, just where he remembered. He hurried up to the dingy apartment house and knocked on the door.
“What are we doing here?” Crispus whispered closed to Marcellus’s ear.
“Shut up,” Marcellus whispered back as the door opened.
The woman who answered the door had once boasted brassy golden tresses, but now they’d faded to grey. Her smile, however, was as brilliant as it had always been. “Marcellus! You’re back in town.”
“Faviona.” Marcellus smiled. “It’s good to see you too.” Dorcea jumped up to greet the old woman and was rewarded with a pat on the head.
Faviona turned to Crispus. “And Crispus, dear, I was so sad to hear about you and—”
“No!” whispered Marcellus very loudly, as Crispus’s eyes filled with tears again.
“So, what can I do for you boys?” Faviona said quickly. “I’m afraid my husband isn’t home right now.”
“That’s alright,” said Marcellus, patting Crispus on the back. “We’re actually here for some wine, if you know what I mean.”
Faviona raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know about that, Marcellus. Our price has gone up since you’ve been gone.”
“Even for…” It took Marcellus a hair longer than he would’ve liked to drag the denarius out of his pouch, so it didn’t quite have the effect he wanted.
Faviona’s eyes widened. “Well, in that case…”
Mere moments later, Crispus and Marcellus bid Faviona a fond promise to meet again soon and made their way back home, sipping on large cups of wine. If he hadn’t been with Crispus, he definitely would’ve stayed to wait for Faviona’s husband, so they could make dinner plans while he was in town. Oh well, Marcellus figured. He had time.
“Is this Falerian?” Although Crispus hadn’t had that much wine yet, he tripped over the dirt and the dog and seemingly nothing as he walked. “How’d you get money for Falerian wine?”
“I’ve always been good at saving,” Marcellus said. “Don’t worry about that. How are you feeling?”
“A little better. It’s been nice to be… distracted.”
When they reached their family house, Marcellus sent Dorcea through the front door before passing his cup to his brother to climb onto the roof. Crispus soon followed, and settled next to Marcellus and together they faced west and watched the sun set.
“Thanks for doing this for me.” Crispus’s eyes watered, but he didn’t start crying again.
“What are brothers for?” Marcellus clinked his cup with Crispus, and watched his brother down the rest of the wine in a gulp.
“I know it’s been… Unmanly.”
I’ll say, Marcellus thought. “Moment of weakness. Don’t worry about it.”
“I know I was supposed to be a strong man, keep her from leaving. I was supposed to deny her a divorce or wait until I had a son. But I didn’t want her to be so miserable, to hate me so.”
“I loved her so much. It hurts.”
“I know, kiddo.” Marcellus put his hand on Crispus’s curly head, just like when they were children. “It will get better.”
“What if it doesn’t? What if Ursinia grows up and gets married and leaves the house and I still miss her? What if there is no other wife for me?”
Marcellus sighed. “I don’t know. I can’t tell you that there will be someone else for you. But you shouldn’t write off your whole future.”
“I know, I know, I should be strong.” Crispus’s voice cracked.
“That’s not exactly what I was going to say. I don’t think…” Marcellus paused, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t think you’re the kind of man that can just pretend you’re not sad. I think you have to be sad, and let it take time. The only way out is through.”
Crispus sniffled. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. Just allow yourself to mourn and be upset and then you’ll start to feel more at peace.”
Marcellus finished nursing his wine, swirling the dregs in his cup. He looked right at Mt. Vesuvius, proud and mighty, keeping watch over them all. Keeping them safe.
He put an arm around his brother. “Tomorrow will be better.”
They had time.