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The Bitter Boughs of January (Cicero, Set VII/Theme 5)

Title: The Bitter Boughs of January
Characters: Marcus Tullius Cicero, Tullia Ciceronis, Titus Pullo, Tiro
Theme: (Set VII, Theme 5: Umbra)
Disclaimer: To better understand this story, which involves the historical Cicero's daughter, you may want to read this excellent discussion of Tullia and her father. Story is set during Phillipi, with a flashback to three years prior.


Summer, 42 B.C.E

Cicero often imagined he would die in his villa, on a cool, moonless night, the faintest hint of rosemary in his last breath, before he slipped from the darkness of sleep into whatever lay beyond this life. Even after he began his relentless assault on Anthony, he expected a knife in the dark, the most underhanded of deaths for the most public of provocations.

He doesn’t expect this, however, to die beneath a bright summer sky with a polite if slightly affable executioner, waiting for him to gather his thoughts and stretch out his head as meekly as a lamb.

No, not meekly. Dignified and calm as the breeze that wafted through the villa, bringing the scent of ripened fruit and rosemary and the faintest hint of dust raised from the messenger’s hurried departure. He will meet his death without fear, and with only the shame that in the end he had failed to save his beloved Republic. He can only pray that Brutus and Cassius would succeed where he had failed.

He can only pray that they survive to have the chance.

His reverie is interrupted by an absurd question from his unexpected executioner. A request for peaches from a dead man – a simple question in a complicated context. Cicero dare not begrudge the man these strange spoils of conquest.

Cicero never doubted the power of words – as one who weaves them with exquisite to do his will and help convince others to the merits of doing likewise, he respects and venerates that power. But one simple sentence, spoken by a simple man, unnerves all his calm. As he catches the redolent sweetness of the peaches in the air, the warmth of summer turns to the deepest cold of winter.

***

January, 45 B.C.E.

The villa reeked of death and helplessness. The hearth fire burned fiercely, casting dark shadows across the room, where the faint winter light could scarcely reach.

Tullia’s skin burned to the touch, but it was not the fire that warmed her. Tusculum was no cure, as he prayed it would be; if anything, she was sicker here in the country than she had been in the morass of Rome. He had hired physician after physician, the servants prayed to any deity who would listen but the harsh truth was settling in like the frost on the garden. His daughter, his dear, beloved daughter who for so long was his fondest joy and in these times was his only solace, was dying. He had only brought her to a more comforting place.

Tullia’s skin was damp with sweat and the wet cloth he continually dabbed at her forehead, trying to keep the fever at bay. Her dark curls clung close about her head, and her skin was as luminescent as the moon. She slept for hours at a time, waking only for the briefest moments, but Cicero dare not leave her side. The servants only tended her when Tiro pulled him away, exhausted. It did not matter though, for sleep had scarcely came since she fell ill in November.

“Pater,” she whispered, her dark eyes fever bright as she struggled to open her eyes. Her voice was barely heard over the roar of the fire, it was her mellifluous tones, all the same. He draped the cloth across her brow and cupped her cheek in his hand; she felt as frail and small as the day she was born.

Tiro, Cicero’s constant shadow, stepped up and smiled at his mistress. “Do you want water, Domina?”

Tullia shook her head; Cicero could feel the gesture more than he could see it. “Are any peaches ripe?” He smiled down at her, but the gesture tore at his heart with a fresh grief. There was no more hope of peaches on this dim winter day than there was hope for his daughter’s recovery.

When she was but a girl, the summer of her seventh year, Cicero gently teased his daughter for eating every peach in the garden as soon as it ripened, her hands and face sticky and sweet. A few days after this mild reprobation, if it could be called that at all, he and Tiro came outside to find Tullia and one of Terentia’s slavewomen plucking the newest fruit off the boughs. Looking for all the world like a general at a triumph, Tullia walked forward, her purple tunic skimming the soft grass, and presented her father with the first spoils.

“It is January, my darling. There are none to be found.” Cicero gently stroked her cheek, even as Tiro quietly coughed besides him.

“There are peaches in honey from last summer, Domina. Shall I fetch them for you?”

“Please.” Tullia smiled, and Cicero looked between his daughter and his servant with an overwhelming gratitude.

“It is a day for miracles, it seems,” he said as Tiro quietly slipped away to the kitchen. Even through the fever, he could see the struggle behind her eyes. He had raised his daughter with an education befitting a philosopher, for her mind was quick and agile as his. If there was a person he could not win over with mere platitudes, it was Tullia, who at times seemed to share his very soul.

“A day to be thankful for Tiro’s ingenuity.” His other hand clasped hers as he could see her weaken with every word. “Pater, I-“

“Hush, my Tulliola. You must rest – you can’t exert yourself like this.” For three months now Cicero had kept her death at bay, first with hope and then denial. He knew she only sought to comfort him, but there was no consolation she could give. His beloved Republic was all but dead and his darling daughter was clinging to life, if only to ease her father’s grief.

A smile with only the barest hint of sadness illuminated Tullia’s fever-bright face like the evening star. “I’ll rest soon enough,” she said, her chest rising and falling in the faintest hitches. “But you must have hope when I-“

“Don’t speak like this,” he pleaded, taking her hand in both of his. “You must believe that you will be well.”

“I’m not afraid for myself,” she said, and she looked at him with intensity that was nearly too painful to bear. “I’m afraid for you – you can’t lose hope. You are the light of the Republic – it needs you.”

“I am an old man with no true power,” he said, with heavy shame, clasping her hand against his cheek. He could feel the tears stinging at the corners of his eyes trickling down, against her fingers. “I cannot save the Republic, even if I tried. I cannot lose you – you are the only good thing left in this world. Please, do not make me bear it without you.”

“There are still good people,” Tullia said, her eyelids fluttering with the effort of merely staying conscious. “There is still hope, even if it is the barest flicker. Even after winter – there’s always spring.”

“You’re my only light,” he said, unable to keep his voice from slipping into a nearly breathless sob as he lowered her hand and brushed his lips against it.. “It will be nothing but darkness without you, but if my darling- my darling-”

Only her labored last breath and the sudden heaviness of her hand marked his daughter’s passing. He pressed her hand to his forehead, he called her name, every dear word he ever used for her, but she did not wake. She was far beyond his calling. He gently placed her arm across her waist and gathered her in his arms – faintly, he heard the servants begin to weep, but he could barely distinguish them over the hitching sobs of his own mourning.

Minutes, perhaps hours passed. Cicero felt Tiro tugging at his shoulders, his own eyes reddened with grief. Tullia’s body was cool to the touch, now, and it was only with great pain that he could bring himself to turn away. He wiped away his tears to see the last of the light in the garden, reflecting off the beach boughs, bare and covered in frost.


***


In the hindsight that comes with the celerity granted by impending death, Cicero perhaps expected to die here after all. Perhaps that’s why he retreated here, to a place of very little safety, but at last a place of comfort. For months after Tullia’s death he could find no solace here, he could only remember her death on a gray January day and recall nothing of the bright, brilliant life she lived for thirty-four years prior. He walked the halls and paths and was haunted by her shade. Today he can feel her, in the warmth of the sun and the gentleness of the breeze, in the scent of peaches on Pullo’s hands as he touches him with surprising gentleness. Her ghost is all around him and for the first time in three years, he no longer feels alone.

His knees brush against the gravel, and he can hear Tiro’s muffled sobs. The cold blade rests against his neck and he pulls aside his tunic, to give it, and him, quicker passage to their respective destinations.

Boughs laden with fruit frame Cicero’s vision of one of the doors to his villa, the last thing he is to see. He no longer feels the blade against his skin and he knows it is merely a matter of breaths before another of the Tulii is vanquished from the earth.

“Pater!”

Cicero would catch his breath if he had a breath to catch. There was a moment of pain, he is certain, but this moment, caught between life and death, stretches out like Zeno’s paradox, never ending. Everything is dim at the edges, but before him, warmer than the sunlight he can no longer feel, Tullia rushes to embrace him, and she is the only thing real left in this world.

“My Tulliola,” he says, though he doesn’t know if the words are spoken or merely his last thoughts, stretching into the infinite. There is only a daughter’s embrace, a father’s love, and then there is no more.

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Comments

This story was a form of catharsis - it took me a while to come back to it after re-watching Rome last night.

Reasearching his daughter, when I realized she had died in the same villa, the story just unfolded on its own. And the way Pullo asks for peaches, it's almost childlike the way he does it. The flashback was the *hardest* thing to manage, trying to get Cicero's voice and trying to imagine what Tullia's would be like. It makes me so glad to hear you think it wasn't too far off. The ending - there had to be some glimmer of hope in all that darkness, even if it's a tenuous hope at that.

And thank you for creating this community! This is such a wonderful creative outlet.

June 2007

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