Mother knows best?

Submitted into Contest #152 in response to: Set your story in an oracle or a fortune teller’s parlor.... view prompt

22 comments

Historical Fiction Adventure

"Beware the Ides Of March," I told him. I'm sure I told him more than once, but did he listen?

My mother said that morning, "You want to be careful, my girl. Giving out messages of doom is going to get you into trouble. You mark my words!"

"Mother, it's a job," I told her as I wrapped myself in a warm cloak. "You said get yourself a job with a future. Well, I get lots of futures every day. Just not my own."

I laughed at my joke, but she shrugged her shoulders and said gloomily, "Mark my words, no good will come of it."

I should go back to the beginning and explain how this conversation came about.

I had been a soothsayer for just over two years. It's not a bad job; I worked from mid-morning till sunset in the Agora, just down from the Acropolis. It's a busy place. There's always someone who wants to know their fortune. Especially the Roman tourists. I could easily earn five sestertii a day. In case you're a stranger here, one sestertius will buy you five loaves of bread or two and a half donkeys, although what anyone is going to do with half a donkey, I don't know. So, I hoarded as many little brass coins as possible. I had been saving for a trip to Rome.

You might wonder why a young Greek woman would want to risk the journey on the seas plagued by pirates. Then, run the gauntlet of Scylla and Charybdis through the Straits of Messina.

I had a reason dear to my heart. I wanted to find my father.

My mother had told me many times, that my father was a handsome Roman sailor she had loved with a passion eighteen years ago. Too passionately, it turned out. I was the result of the two nights they had spent together in Piraeus, where his ship had docked for repairs. My grandfather, a ship-builder, had welcomed the crew and their money. Since the Romans had taken us under their empire, no one wanted our Hellenistic coins.

My seventeen-year-old mother had tried to flee with her lover, who concealed her in a barrel. She nearly drowned when the barrel rolled along the dock and dropped like a fat duck into the translucent sea. She floundered ashore, her feathers ruffled, and my father set sail without her.

My grandparents brought me up as if I were their own child, while my mother worked as a servant in one of the largest villas in the city, eventually rising to the position of the personal maid to the owner's wife. I should be clear. My mother was a free woman, not just a servant. She returned to see me once or twice each month. My grandmother taught me the skills I would need to look after a husband when the time came for my grandfather to choose one for me. Lying convincingly and inflating the cost of bread was high on her list. Other skills I learned from the illustrations on the brothel walls I saw daily in Athens.

You can imagine my excitement the day my mother told us all,

"Hestia is taking me to Rome! Her husband has been called to address the Senate. Something to do with the drains, she said. He is taking the whole family."

"Mother! I let out an excited squeal. "Let me come with you. I can help with the children. Please, oh please, speak to Hestia. I will work for free, for my passage."

"Foolish child." My grandfather stood up abruptly and paced, wringing his hands, squeezing his fingertips, until they turned white.

"They have servants for that, child. Why would they want you?"

"Do they speak Latin?" I countered. I had been working amongst the Romans for two years and had quickly picked up the language. That gave me an edge over the other girls who worked the Agora. It started with directing visitors to the local brothel and learning a few obscene words when I refused their advances. Now, most of my earnings came from the plump-lipped, black-eyed Roman matrons, wanting to know when they might expect to be free of their encumbrances in life, their husbands. Their lovers paid me two and a half donkeys to be made asses of.

I knew my grandfather's actual fear, but I was not as naïve as my mother.

Four days later, I joined my mother, Hestia, Kyros, and their four children on the deck of the merchant ship, The Dolphin. Amphora, wooden trunks of their clothing, provisions for three days, and blankets to sleep on waited in our allotted space amongst some forty other families. I clutched my bag with my few possessions tightly as I eyed up our fellow travellers. Then I prayed to Poseidon for The Dolphin to be as swift and smooth as her namesake.

Poseidon heard my prayer; the monster, Scylla, slept, and the whirlpool of Messina churned more softly than butter in a jar. Such an adventure thrilled my young charges, and I played knucklebones and tavli with the girls while the boys pretended to box. The sailors applauded them generously. I noticed one particularly handsome, curly-haired boy watching us until his officer cuffed him round the ear and told him to get back to work. Ah well, I thought, at least my grandfather need not worry.

We came ashore at some unknown port. It was dirty and smelled of rotted fish. We were glad when the cart arrived to take us to Rome. Kyros had hired a villa on the city's outskirts, where olive groves blossomed, with the warm scents of home and the colours of early spring, and goats ran freely between the trees. I could happily live here. The thought went through my head, if we find my father.

     "Stop your daydreaming girl and help me get these trunks unloaded. Hestia has a different gown every day until next spring!"

I looked at my small bag. I had travelled with one gown; Hestia's cast-off, a spare work robe, a breast band, and my goatskin loincloth. I was rich beyond the dreams of most eighteen-year-old girls. Poor Hestia, I did not envy her; she had the old goat for company every night.

The villa took my breath away. Kyros must have powerful friends. Mother and I carried Hestia's boxes to the dressing room attached to her bedroom and unpacked them. The soft cotton and silk robes were colourful in contrast to the white woolen togae of the Roman women I had seen. Beyond the dressing room was the small bedroom I was to share with my mother for the month of our visit.

On the third day of our stay, Hestia summoned me to the atrium, where she was arranging flowers.

     "Tomorrow evening, my husband has guests coming to dine with us. They are important people. You must keep the children out of their sight, but I wish you and your mother to help attend to the ladies."

I was thrilled. It would be an opportunity to see more of Roman life. Perhaps Hestia would allow me to practice my skills and earn a little money.

The busy villa hummed to the sound of men running back and forth, bearing platters of fruit. The marble floors sparkled, and cushions added to the comfort of the low stools. They watered down the wine far less than at home. No expense was too much for these guests. Rumour had it that Kyros hoped to be the architect of the new triumphal arch near the hippodrome. Life was looking up for him. Up, from his usual viewpoint of drains and underfloor heating.

With the children tucked in their beds and one of the servants watching over them, mother and I changed into the gowns Hestia had given us to wear. She was happy that her kindness would reflect on her well with her guests. Look at Hestia, how well she treats her servants, they would exclaim.

The wives and elder daughters of the senators arrived, adorned in their finery. Hestia had chosen a more modest gown. It would not do to outshine these influential women. The wine flowed, and Mother and I were serving fruits and sweetmeats when Hestia called.

     "Kassandra, come sit with us."

My mother stared at me, her face pale, her eyes wide.

     "Be careful, daughter. She wishes you to tell the future. Say nothing to alarm these people."

I sat on the edge of a low stool, my eyes downcast, my hands clasped in my lap.

     "Your mistress tells us you can foresee the future child. Tell me, what do you see for me?"

I had no entrails to study. I would have to rely on my wits.

The elderly matron dripped with valuable jewels. Her fingers, wrinkled and thin, bore rings of gold. Bangles hung from her skinny wrists. A younger woman stood behind her, resting a hand gently on her shoulder, a finger stroking her hair. The woman's belly swelled against her diaphanous gown.

     "You will have a long future filled with prosperity and love. A family who adores you. Grandsons who will carry the family name with pride." I paused as the women fell silent, nodding their heads in agreement. "I see your generosity and goodness."

The younger woman pressed a small coin into my palm as the women gathered closer, keen to learn their fate.

Hestia smiled as I foresaw her household and her own importance growing.

Two hours passed with laughter and intrigue as I predicted marriages, children, wealth, promotions for husbands, and travel to fabulous foreign lands.

A finely dressed, attractive woman approached me. Younger than my mother, I surmised, but well used to these women and at least equal amongst them.

    "Kassandra, my name is Calpurnia. My husband is an important man. You may know of him."

    "Come away, Calpurnia," an older woman called. "It is time for us to leave."

She smiled at me apologetically. "My sister-in-law. May I send my servant to collect you tomorrow? I would like to know my future." 

I looked at Hestia, who nodded her agreement. My mother's face echoed her concern until I showed her the eight sestertii I had earned. 

The following morning, we helped clear the rooms of the debris left by the visitors. The men had gathered in the vestibulum, playing games while lounging on their couches, spilling wine as their heads nodded. Kyros sat and surveyed the room, his chest puffed out like a fat pigeon, his short legs spread wide under the toga he had adopted as his daywear.

     "Ha, Hestia, a good night. These senators enjoy a splendid feast. And a pretty girl." He fixed his eyes on me, and I hurried to gather wine jugs and escape to the culina. I heard a laugh and then an ouch as Hestia pinched his ear. The power behind the throne, as I had predicted.

     "He's a dirty old man," I hissed to my mother. "His lechery will send him blind and his sons will oust him from his own position of fortune. And soon he will be running home with his tail between his legs."

She wiped her hands on a linen cloth and waggled a finger at me.

 "You want to be careful, my girl. Giving out messages of doom is going to get you into trouble. You mark my words!"

Calpurnia's servant arrived before noon in a cart pulled by two mules. A demonstration of her worth and her wealth, I thought. The journey to the forum was short and uneventful, but I was glad of my warm cloak. As we passed the hippodrome, I murmured to the elderly driver,

     "Maximus Felix and his chariot will be most successful this afternoon, worthy of a small wager."

He stared at me, nearly losing control of the cart, but nodded his gratitude.

The villa Horti Caesaris had a fine view across the river Tiber and of the Basilica Julia, named in honour of Caesar's daughter by his first wife, Cornelia. Now Caesar wished for a new triumphal arch to remind the people of his victories. I did not like to tell Kyros he was doomed to fail in his aim to be the next big thing in Rome's architecture.

Calpurnia greeted me warmly and showed me to her room.

     "I had a dream, Kassandra. I saw a statue of my husband weeping blood. Please, tell me, does this mean what I fear?"

Poor woman. I saw it in her face, and I had seen it in the entrails of an unfortunate goat, slaughtered for the previous night's entertainment. I thought about my mother's warning.

     "I see you love your husband very much."

She nodded, her face pale and expression forlorn.

     "There are people around who you should not trust. They pretend to be your friends but do not wish you well. You should trust your dream and warn your husband not to attend the Senate tomorrow."

     "So soon?" Calpurnia shed a tear and gripped my hands firmly.

     "Calpurnia? Where are you?" A shout echoed along the corridors.

      "Coming, husband." Her voice dropped. "You must leave," she said. "My servant will take you home."

As my driver escorted me to the ostium, the elder statesman passed us. I stopped, and he turned to look at me, his expression wary.

.

     "Beware the Ides of March."

     "What?"

     "Beware the Ides of March." I repeated.

     "Foolish child. Be gone with you." 

He turned and walked away. It was the first and last time I met Julius Caesar.

I heard, through Hestia, that Calpurnia had tried to prevent her husband from leaving the following morning. Of course, it was in vain. Fate would have its way with Caesar. 

–0–

My mother sighed.

     "I expect we will return to Athens much sooner than you had hoped," she said as she scrubbed the hem of Hestia's gown. "This wine will never come out. I hope I can shorten this and possibly wear it myself. She will never wear it again."

My mother is much more shapely than Hestia, and I saw the dress would look charming on her. I encouraged her with a smile. I still had plans for Rome.  

In the backstreets of Rome there is a taverna run by a former sailor, Marcus Scipio. He is not my father, but he is a kind and good-looking man. My mother wore a very attractive, if slightly too short, gown when she met him. The entrails of a goose told me that my father was no longer around, but all I had ever wanted was to see my mother happy. My grandparents joined us for the wedding.

As for me? Well, Hestia was so impressed with my abilities that she set me up with my own booth, just off the forum here in Rome. We split the profits for the first two years. Then I bought out her share. She has set up a chain of fortune-telling booths across Athens, helped by her sons. I have a husband and a young son, and we are buying our first villa together.

Thank goodness, I thought, that my mother's predictions were not as good as my own.

June 26, 2022 19:41

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22 comments

Laura Eliz
14:28 Jul 07, 2022

The dialogue is so natural. The language is spot on for the time period you are writing about. You can tell that you put a lot of effort into this piece. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

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Wendy M
16:01 Jul 07, 2022

Thanks Laura, I appreciate your comments. I will head on over to read your story this evening.

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Scott Dutkus
18:06 Jul 03, 2022

Wendy, Another well-written and awesome story. This clicked with me and my love of history. Great flow, beautiful visualization, awesome historical aspects, and just enough intrigue without becoming more of a mystery. But you never answered what you can do with half a donkey! Just kidding. Unfortunately, my business trip prevented me from submitting my story for this prompt...oh well, I will keep it and use it in the future. As always, I am looking forward to reading more of your work!. Scott

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Wendy M
18:45 Jul 03, 2022

Thank you for your kind words. Perhaps e need to know which end of the donkey we're getting. 😆 Hopefully your gnomes will have some fun in another story.

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Rebecca Miles
09:48 Jul 03, 2022

I think this is very of the moment: rewriting these classic stories from the female pov. I used to teach Julius Caesar and always found Calpurnia fascinating, a real neglected strong woman. I like how you weave in her story along the way. Is this the backdrop to your book you mention in your bio? If yes, I think you've chosen a wise context given the success of Circe etc. Really enjoyed this!

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Wendy M
11:05 Jul 03, 2022

My book is a romance, ultimately, but it is the story of a woman who has been through a great deal of sadness, only resolved by the death of her husband! Don't give me ideas! Lol.

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L.C. Schäfer
18:31 Jul 02, 2022

I enjoyed it, it felt really thorough and rich without feeling like an info-dump 😁👍 I also feel like it could be transformed into a much longer story. Did you have any WIPs in waiting? 😁😁

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Wendy M
18:51 Jul 02, 2022

Thank you for the feedback. I'm glad you liked it. I'm currently editing a novel so I thought I would give this week's prompt a miss. And I tell myself I really must concentrate on my book and I don't have time for anything else. Then I get drawn in...it's fateful 😂😂 I predict that more stories may follow!

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L.C. Schäfer
20:46 Jul 02, 2022

I hope they do!

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Zack Powell
17:00 Jul 02, 2022

Nice to see that you also went the Historical Fiction route this week, Wendy. Your attention to detail really sold this story - you put us right there in ancient Rome. And in just 3K words too. Really enjoyed how layered this story is. It seems like every little thing - the setting, the characterization, the plot - was meticulously chosen. This reads like a chapter from a novel with the amount of specificity you've given everything, alongside the proper terminologies of the time period. The language throughout was great, and the story was a...

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Wendy M
18:17 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks, Zack, I appreciate your feedback and I'm very pleased that you like the story.

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Katy Borobia
16:48 Jul 02, 2022

The historical aspect of Julius Caesar is excellent! I would love to see a version of this story that really focuses on Kassandra's prophecy to him, perhaps with the ensuing political turmoil.

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Wendy M
18:20 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks Katy, If a suitable prompt comes up, I might give Kassandra another voice.

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Cindy Strube
20:17 Jul 01, 2022

Nice historical setting. Really enjoyable read. It’s easy to picture, very realistic. Love the repeated references to two-and-a-half donkeys!

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Betty Gilgoff
15:50 Jul 01, 2022

Nicely done Wendy. It's hard work getting the setting right in historical fiction but you make it work, make it believable. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

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17:33 Jun 28, 2022

Wendy this was delightful to read! I loved the slow build up to her divination of Caesar, it was so clever and I was captivated from start to finish! My only comment, the ending seemed a bit fast. But this was still beautifully written! Great job! <3

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Wendy M
17:43 Jun 28, 2022

Thanks Hannah, I had concerns about the end I may have to try a bit of a re-write.

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Howard Halsall
07:51 Jun 28, 2022

Hello Wendy, I loved reading your story and enjoyed the interplay of myths and fables. It’s an ambitious idea that draws together many references in an amusing and entertaining way. The only thing I would say, (and this isn’t negative), is that it feels like part of a much longer tale. Have you thought about extending it? Take care HH

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Wendy M
08:53 Jun 28, 2022

Thanks, Howard, that's an interesting point. I hadn't, but I might now! These short stories have been by way of a change. I started writing a novel last year and now I'm supposed to be editing. It's hard taking out words you love but it focuses the mind.

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Howard Halsall
09:19 Jun 28, 2022

Hi Wendy, I always reckon that editing is where the writing starts. In my case, editing is the point I convince myself I knew what I was doing in the first instance and then change everything… H

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Michał Przywara
21:02 Jun 27, 2022

An enjoyable read! The story flowed smoothly, blending action with historical context seamlessly, and the setting was very fitting for an oracle story. I also appreciate that her name is Kassandra, and that her important and correct predictions are ignored :) There's a curious theme here about predictions. Yes, obviously because Kassandra makes them, but also because others make them about her. Her grandfather had trepidations she'd run off with a sailor, but that didn't pan out. Her mother warned her about warning people, but likewise t...

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Wendy M
22:09 Jun 27, 2022

Thank you for reading and commenting. Although Kassandra (good spot) made predictions she also is meant to be good at reading character, no entrails to look at but she saw the elderly matron dripping with gold and with a loving family. I think, although I didn't look too deeply into my motives, I did want to show that somethings can be left to chance. The ship was called the dolphin because the latin for dolphin is Delphis I couldn't resist the link. I was worried the ending was a bit weak.

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