When I was a child, it was my job to watch the bread as it baked, to take it out of the oven when it was golden-brown and perfectly risen. Often, I would find myself distracted – by a stray cat maybe, by my neighbours shouting, or even by an errant butterfly that had found its way inside. It never mattered what the distraction was, but it always seemed more interesting to me than the forgotten bread which would burn and shrink into a hard, flat, unappetising disk. My mother would scold that if I was going to ruin the bread then I might as well be the one to eat it. It always tasted bitterly of parental disappointment and left my mouth feeling dusty and parched. The air today tastes just like that, charcoal and sulphur lingering on my tongue no matter how much water I drink.
The roof above me is damaged, letting in powdery shafts of orange-grey light, and I brush the ash from my face, my eyes watering from the filaments clinging to my lashes. The floor tiles are warm under my feet as I move into the main room which has survived the afternoon mostly intact. Aurelius is sleeping, no doubt exhausted from having been moved. He is curled up on the thin straw mat that has been his since we came to this house, though his injured leg remains stretched out at an angle away from the rest of his body. Instead of the usual dried rosemary, the room smells of the sickly-sweet sweat produced by the gravely ill. I hate that smell. It doesn’t belong in our sunny little home, in our lives, filling up the silent moments between us. Aurelius says he doesn’t even notice it anymore, and I still haven’t decided if I believe him. His skin is too warm when I touch his arm to shake him awake. His eyes, too, take several long seconds to open and are glassy and unfocussed when they finally do.
“Still here?” he asks, lips cracked and dry.
I fetch him a jug with lukewarm water and help him pour some in his mouth. He drinks in desperate little sips, one hand trying and failing to support the jug. The water seems to help, already he looks a little steadier, more like himself. He immediately uses his painstakingly gathered strength to tell me to leave – just as he has done every day since the earth first began to shake. In the spirit of this morbid tradition, I ignore him.
“If you cannot go, neither will I.” The answer displeases him, but I pay it no mind, instead finding some food for us to eat. “Bread?” I ask, offering him a healthy amount.
“Is there enough?”
“For today. I’ll have to make some more tomorrow.”
Aurelius has always had an unsettling ability to make me feel transparent, a certain quirk to his dark brows that makes me feel both stubbornly young and exhaustingly ancient. “Tomorrow.” he repeats.
“Yes.” I raise my chin at him, daring him to disagree with me.
The corner of his mouth twitches. “I look forward to it.”
There is a bubble of unreasonable, insane laughter trapped in my chest, and I bite my tongue to keep it in. Aurelius is probably the one person in our city who would laugh with me, head thrown back and the lines of his face settling into a well-worn expression of mirth.
“The day isn’t over yet,” I tell him. “There is a lot to be done.”
He almost smiles, lowering his head back onto his cushion. “Then by all means you should begin.”
“Will you help me?”
He gestures at his mangled leg, hidden beneath the linen bandages I do not have the courage to look under again. “Gladly, but I don’t know how helpful I’ll be.”
I offer him more water which he declines. “You can help by talking to me. Housework isn’t exactly the most diverting pastime.”
“What have you left to do?”
I shrug. I turned the goats over to a neighbour who was leaving, and the chickens who usually scratched about the forecourt are long gone. “Not much. I swept earlier but there are some holes in your other tunic I need to patch up.”
Neither of us mention the futility of sweeping the house. Instead, Aurelius says, “My apologies for being so careless that I’ve created more work for you.”
“Well, idle hands aren’t what I need right now, so I suppose I appreciate your carelessness.”
“In that case I rescind my apology.”
“Of course you do.”
I leave him briefly to fetch the needle, thread, and damaged tunic from the chest in the other room, and when I return, Aurelius has managed to prop himself up a little. His head and shoulders lean against the wall and his skin is pale under his tan, lips colourless, his chest heaving with exertion.
“You should have waited for me,” I tell him disapprovingly, and it takes him a moment to muster the strength needed to scowl at me.
“Next time,” he acknowledges as I sit down next to him, positioning myself as close as I can without hurting him.
I thread the needle and start to make slow, careful stitches, stretching out the work. “Speak,” I demand.
“What would you have me say?”
“Something, anything, sing for all I care.”
“You hate my singing.”
“Nonsense, you have a lovely voice.”
“Just last week you said my wailing would bring the wrath of the Gods down upon us.”
A nauseating, guilty feeling rises in my throat. It wasn’t right of me to joke about such things. Aurelius stops me before I can say so.
“How about I tell you a story instead?”
“About how we met.”
“You don’t need to tell me about how we met; I was there too. I remember the whole thing.”
“I thought you wanted to hear a story?” he asks, and I sigh, defeated. His grin is wide as he continues. “Alright then. The day I met you I was on my way to the market with the family donkey to sell the clay plates I made -”
“Your family has never owned a donkey and you’ve never made a plate in your life,” I interject. “What are you doing?”
“Just seeing if you’re paying attention,” Aurelius responds. “So, I wasn’t at the market. I had just arrived at the harbour.”
“With your brother.”
“Yes, with my brother,” he agrees, taking a moment to shift into a more comfortable position. “And with our fish. And we were preparing our catch for salting when it started to rain. Sheets of water, descending from the sky like waves onto a beach. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.”
I shake my head. “It was barely a drizzle. Why must you be so dramatic, Aurelius?”
“Why must you be so serious? It’s not right for someone as young as yourself to be so averse to fun.”
“I haven’t been young in a very long time.”
“But you were when I met you. Now, where was I?”
“You were being rained on.”
“Ah yes. The rain – torrential as it was, I thought the fish might confuse it for the ocean and come back to life.”
“But I assume gutting them with a knife put a stop to any reanimation,” I say drily and Aurelius smiles widely.
“Exactly! See, you’re enjoying this now, aren’t you?”
“Hmm,” I say as he settles himself more firmly against my side, both of us steadfastly ignoring the pained hitch in his breath when he jostles his leg. “If you must tell this story, why don’t you skip to the part that I’m in.”
“So, you don’t want to hear about me gutting fish? The roughness of the scales, the slickness of their insides?”
“Pah, as if I’ve not heard, smelled, and seen enough of it to last me ten lifetimes.”
“There’s always space for more,” he teases. “But fine. When I met you, I was wrist-deep in a tuna and my brother was talking about how one day he was going to be so rich that he would buy an olive press and fill a whole fountain with oil.”
“Sounds impractical,” I say when he pauses, a familiar grief settling over his face like a veil.
“Very. But he was not a practical person. Perhaps that’s why he was so good at catching fish.”
“And how is that?” I ask, the movement of my needle slowing as I try to follow what he is saying.
“Fish like shiny things, they’re baited by them. And I have never known anyone with shinier, more golden thoughts than him.” I brush a hand through Aurelius’ hair, pushing it off his brow and try to ignore how unnaturally hot his skin feels against mine. He leans into the touch as he continues. “And much like a fish I have become distracted again. I was about to meet you for the first time.”
“If you could meet me again for the first time, would you do it?” I am not sure what possesses me to ask the question, but once it’s out of my mouth it hangs between us, accompanied only by what I don’t say: Would you do it again? Knowing what you know, knowing how it will end? Would you do it again?
But Aurelius – beautifully-suffering, quick-witted, sun-bright Aurelius – replies before the moment can stretch too far and snap, like a taut rope splitting apart, heedless of what it will take with it. “Of course,” he says without even an ounce of doubt in his voice. “Of course, I would. That’s all we’re ever asked to do in love, make the same choice over again.”
“Some would say it isn’t a choice,” is what I eventually respond.
“Everything is a choice. Like you choosing to walk right past me the first time I saw you.”
“You were an odd little man, crouched on the ground with a fish. Why would I have talked to you?”
“Is that really what you thought of me?”
“You surely didn’t think much more highly of me after a passing glance.” I resume my sewing and he scoffs in disagreement.
“Of course I did. I thought you were divinity walking amongst mortals. Curls have never been so perfectly coiled, a tunic never so handsomely worn, bone structure never put together in such perfect fashion.”
An unwilling blush rises in my face. “Be serious.”
“Oh, I am,” he says. “But anyway, let’s continue with our story. I was near the harbour with my hand up a fish and you were walking to the Forum, and I thought, this is a person I need to talk to. So, I called out to you, and you just kept walking.”
“I did. Maybe I should have stopped and spoken to you.”
“Perhaps, but we would not have had so much fun shouting at and then ignoring each other for weeks if you had.”
“I still can’t believe that was fun for you.”
His smile becomes mischievous. “It was the best part of my day. It was fun for you too, it just took you longer to admit it.”
“It had been a long time since someone had spoken to me with intent,” I say. He knows this. After all these years, of course he knows this. But inside me there is a small wound that will never heal completely. A wound I find still myself proffering as an explanation for myself as if to say: This is what made me. This is who I am and why I am and what I am.
“Continue with the story, please,” I ask, instead of dwelling in my thoughts any longer.
His head bumps against my shoulder when he nods, and I finally abandon my sewing to be able to hold him properly. “Very well. So, I would call out to you, and you would ignore me, and this was our little game for the better part of a month. And then one day when I called out to you, you replied. Do you remember what you said? You said –”
“You have fish-scales in your hair,” we say at the same time.
“I looked like Neptune,” Aurelius says confidently.
“You looked like a sad creature dredged from a pond,” I retort.
“And yet you stopped and spoke to me.”
“And we haven’t stopped speaking to each other since.” He coughs and I shift his weight off my shoulder, propping him against the wall and reaching for the water jug. He waves it away. “Do we have wine instead?”
“Yes.” I fetch us both a cup, placing the amphora within reach of the pallet.
I sweeten the wine with honey and ensure Aurelius’ hands are steady before letting go of the cup I give him. I sit beside him, encouraging him to lean on me once again and we drink in silence, letting the wine soothe us into quiet contemplation, moving only to refill our cups. There is barely enough light to see by, and I feel very warm with Aurelius pressed against my side and the wine in my stomach.
I suppress a yawn as I speak. “I should move, I don’t want to bump your leg by accident in my sleep.”
“It’s alright,” he says. “Don’t go tonight, just stay here and sleep now.”
“You didn’t finish the story, there is a lot more to say about us,” I protest quietly as he settles one arm around me.
“We’ll finish it tomorrow,” he says, his words slurring together – whether from pain, or fatigue, or the wine I cannot tell.
“Tomorrow then,” I agree, shuffling even closer. “I look forward to it.”
I breathe in, still almost overwhelmed by the thick scent of sulphur in the air, but underneath it is a hint of rosemary and Aurelius’ heartbeat is loud when I settle my head on his chest. Tomorrow we will argue about leaving and maybe forget to finish our story, but for now I sleep, with the taste of bread I have not eaten in fifty years on my tongue.