Dragana Kršenković Brković is an author who studied at the University of Belgrade, and at the University of of Monte Negro. Author of two novels, two books of short stories and books for children.
T H E A T E L L A N F A R C E
Fifteen books about death, writing on water
and great exploits
Some time later he realized
he was levitating over the bed
Nearly flying across the broad, centuries-old Milvian bridge, the carriage, pulled by two vigorous steeds, left behind the River Tiber and the center with its one million inhabitants and, bypassing the rocky terrain dotted with dark purple and blue sage flowers and karst heather, turned to the right and rushed northward. The wheels clattered sharply, bouncing at times off the rough stone slabs of the Via Flaminia – and that was what irritated Horace. Frowning, he silently watched the landscape through which he was passing while he suffered patiently with the discomfort of the journey.
He was pleased to have decided at the last minute to take this carriage instead of his lighter one. The carpentum, he thought, was far more comfortable for such a long trip. He did not have to stand and he was shielded from the early May sun by a red-cloth shade edged in old-gold tassels.
Gazing at the line of thinning trees by the roadside whose trunks he was passing at a speedy clip, the Apulian poet mused on everything that had happened since the moment when, eleven days earlier, he had visited the Hall of Fame on Palatine Hill and the First Citizen.
Constantly on the move, Horace spent those days trundling back and forth between his estate in Sabina, the capital, the harbour city of Ostia, and the Palace on the Hill, where he was now headed.
Noisily gulping air and slightly shifting his large hands from the sun-exposed parts of his knees, he thought with resignation about how he had actually never much liked sudden departures and returns, and, even less, long journeys and new beds. Accustomed to a relaxed life at home, to late rising, hearty breakfasts and then reading, writing, or just idly sitting, he was reluctant to embrace sudden change.
Nervously pressing together his wet lips, he also thought bitterly of how eager he was to end this quest for some (any!) sign, which could help him understand better the circumstances under which general Marcus Agrippa had died and then – after conveying his impressions to the First Citizen – to return to his manuscripts, his favourite garden chair under a spreading acacia tree, and his quiet attention to distant voices.
He spotted a nondescript stone bridge, no more than a few feet long, arching over a swollen stream; it appeared just as the road was curving to the left. At that very moment he had been reflecting on everything he had heard over these past days. Recollections of his interlocutors were shrouded in such murky impressions that he had to wonder what part of the narratives had been the fruit of sincere devotion and loyalty to the late Agrippa, and what were a relentless offensive against the deceased.
He himself could not make head nor tail of it.
Only some twenty years separated him from the extraordinary events related to him by senior civil administrator Claudio Sizi and Livio Cato, commander of the first cohort, and yet the clear outlines of these events were not apparent.
Nothing indisputable could be established about the late warlord, either. What sort of man, according to these people, had Marcus Agrippa been?
Rigid and unsophisticated? Contemptible?
An inconsiderate upstart, camouflaging his rough nature with stylish clothes?
An arrogant bully, with no trace of mercy, behind whom were left legions of the slain and wretches dispatched to Tartarus , that deep, dark, gloomy pit, surrounded by the flaming River Phlegethon and triple thick walls to prevent the deceased from returning to the light of day?
Or was the commander a dignified, proud person? Adorned by brightness. By acuity. Acumen. And by a brilliant, penetrating spirit. Like many fanatic daydreamers, he, too, had felt the urge to build. All in hopes of building something of the world's stunning beauty and immensity into his projects.
Although absent-minded and odd – as one could also infer from the narratives of Horace’s interlocutors – the army general Marcus Agrippa was devoted to the people. Himself born among those who had been rejected by society, he understood well what affliction and woe were, and the relentless toil that crushes and ages you prematurely through arduous toil as much as through a life with no hope.
This is why the renowned man had so persistently devised ways to present ordinary beings, abandoned by both people and gods, with something useful. It was a rare and estimable intent, which ought not be disregarded.
– What of all this is the truth? – muttered the poet.
He did not know the answer.
Arching his eyebrows, he shook his head mechanically. Then he turned to stare at the bright, sparkling gleam that was following him, shining through the densely branching trees alongside the road. And his mind sped forward.
Just how could he – he wondered – weary before his time, irresolute, with frail hands and faltering vigour, distinguish what in those stories could and what should not be attributed to people’s inclination to fabricate and embroider?
How to discern the thin line separating reality from fiction? The credible from the illusions and delusions?
And, first of all, how was it that he – a lowly poet and solitary creature – could muddle through it all?
Anguish clouded his features.
We live next to one another – continued Horace’s thinking in the same vein – and yet we cannot comprehend the true nature of a person standing righ there beside us. If his beloved Stoics, whom he had listened to in his youth during his time in Athens, were saying that “every man is the world in miniature” and that the one “who understands what drives man” would also fathom the currents upon which the world rested; if those wise rhetoricians claimed that “there is no difference between a single individual and the infinite universe,” and that “an individual is a reflection of the cosmos as a droplet of sea water is a reflection of the sea” – then we can conclude that the true nature of the world can not be divined. Horace could not accept that.
He felt again a flood of grief and melancholy. Wanting to shrug them off, he stood abruptly and moved to the seat in front of him.
The road was now running through a gently undulating highland. Horace looked up and saw a flock of sheep grazing peacefully on a hillside. Farther off, at the foot of a jagged peak, there stood a heap of stones. For a moment he wondered what the cone-shaped mound, higher by a head than the tallest man, was there for, but at the next instant the question vanished from his mind. Parallel to the road curved a low wall of stacked flat slabs presumably erected there, he mused, along a property line.
Beyond a meadow covered in lowlying ferns, the road suddenly ran into a small hamlet with shanties strung along the road. As he made his way among the dilapidated, dank wooden shacks, the carriage slowed.
Horace gazed jauntily at the large curbstones covered in lichen and moss. When he looked up just a few moments later he saw a dark-eyed little girl carrying a scruffy little boy on her head in a wicker basket. Probably her brother, the thought crossed his mind, as the willowy little barefoot girl moved swiftly along the meadow.
An aggressive dog barked furiously, tugging to wrench free of its chain and attack the unfamiliar passers-by, and in the distance, in front of a dense enclosed thicket, two farm labourers were carrying sacks on their backs, straining to the utmost, taking slow, unsteady steps, bent over double.
And the clatter of wheels on the uneven road did not lessen. This was all taxing the poet sorely and a blue vein stood out on his neck.
Somewhere in the corner of his mind he suspected that the anxiety that had seized him over the past days came from a different source.
– All the blame lies with that man's death – he suddenly muttered, while a shadow flashed over his weary face. Somber and sullen, he was trying, in vain, to shed such disquieting thoughts.
Horace did not like to think about dying.
Despite the fact that death was present in so many of his poems – he had written of the brevity of life; of the years passing and time flying imperceptibly by; of pale Death kicking its way into the hovels of the poor and towers of kings alike; that this new winter, a gift from Jupiter to the people, might be his last; that in one's short life one should cherish no hope of distant future summers; no piety could delay impending old age, facial wrinkles, or the inevitable voyage to the Kingdom of Shadows – whenever this issue cropped up he would hastily think of something else.
He also refused to accept the picturesque images of the underworld which others shared, whether scenes of marvelous Elysian Fields inhabited by heroes or the terrifying swampy region of Erebus to which the souls of the wicked, cruel and evil departed.
And just as he was riding to the Hill Palace he tried to shed the agitation that was weighing him down, but there was no way he could shake it off.
– That dream... – he uttered angrily through clenched teeth, thinking about what he had dreamed the night before. – Why does a person dream such preposterous things? Which... even when it dawns... he cannot shake free of?
He did not know the answer to this either, and this annoyed him even more.
Before his eyes re-emerged the bedroom at Villa Minerva filled with the dim light of an oil lamp. Standing in the corner, it would occasionally release a barely audible sound, like crackling. Lying on the bed, Horace was still. Anticipating sleep, his eyes roamed over the ceiling. He was trying not to think about anything.
He chewed his lower lip and inhaled the scent of the lavender with which the bedding was soaked. Suddenly the light curtain on the door moved silently. And the shadows on the wall began to dance.
“Here comes Eolus... Lord of the winds,” he thought and smiled slightly. “He plays with people.”
He recalled the names of the winds, about which an older woman had so memorably spoken during his stay in Athens. The woman had a long face and a furrowed brow; she was a sister of the baker from whom Horace bought his pita bread. “Remember,” she usually started her tale. “Among the winds, the fiercest is the violent Boreas. There is also the warm, humid Notus... Then, the dry eastern Eurus that brings fine weather... The mild Zephyrus; Caicias, that carries olives in his hands; Lips, clad in mist” – she would list while inquisitive Horace listened closely, munching the hot little breads with such relish.
“It is wise to know which wind is blowing at any particular time,” she said. “The winds feel it when someone knows them and they treat that person with care,” she would confide as if revealing a secret. The twenty-year-old Apulian did not laugh.
“Someone who is able,” he thought, “to speak of the winds as she does certainly has a special imagination.” This is why he kept coming and nibbling the hot pitas with saffron and cumin while listening to the old woman’s stories.
At some point, Horace became aware that he was levitating over the bed.
Looking around, surprised, he saw his own body lying there on his bed. On the pale countenance he could see the heavy, dark, wrinkly rings. It was not long before he felt the lavender scent thickening and enveloping him... until it formed a transparent sphere.
The lavender-soaked sphere (“Or... made of that very scent?,” he wondered) suddenly moved and flew to the window. Turning his head, over his shoulder Horace was able to glimpse his own body lying on the bed and then he gave himself over to flying.
The transparent sphere transported him over the tops of slender palm trees, over barren cliffs and reefs here and there along the coast, and beyond, through the thinning clouds that sailed above the calm open sea and the boundless blue, filled with rare white dots of distant stars and the glittering of the huge sickle of the Moon that was steadily shining to the right... Down there, beneath him were the outlines of meandering rivers and scattered, sky-rearing mountain peaks... All the rest was swallowed in darkness.
“If I... Quintus Horatius Flaccus... am here above the rivers and the mountains,” he thought with a shiver, “then who is lying in the bedroom at the Villa Minerva?”
Feeling horror come over him, he looked back in hopes of catching sight of anything familiar to help him understand where the mysterious transparent membrane was taking him, but apart from the darkness and a terrifying silence there was nothing else to see.
– Does death... look like this? – he uttered barely audibly. – And does... all this... mean that I... have ceased to live!?!
The thought plagued him.
Despondent and filled with horror, he waited to see what would happen next.
Suddenly, out of the darkness emerged a silver mist. It parted and through it Horace could glimpse the outlines of the rooftops of the City of Seven Hills. When he reached out his hand, wanting to come closer and perhaps see a familiar face, the misty cloud sank downwards into the turquoise depths.
Below Horace appeared largish rounded stones and rocks scattered along a winding path. He could also discern a rocky plateau illuminated by dim light. It was above this rugged ground that the transparent sphere stopped and silently melted away. Taking a cautious step, Horace looked out hesitantly over the gently rolling plateau.
– This is my abode? – he wondered aloud. In the total silence his cracked voice rebounded from a nearby rock and then, amplified, echoed back, soaring over the sharp edges of the terrace and into a fathomless chasm.
He recoiled in horror.
Before Horace’s eyes there arose an image of himself remaining on that narrow plateau, it was only a few steps wide, for ten thousand, then for twelve thousand and for who knew how many more thousands of days and nights, staring at the empty horizon. “What else can man feel here but wasteland?,” he thought.
Suddenly he couldn't breathe.
Translated into English by Ellen Elias Bursac