“I just, well, you see ….” Director Crittenden ran a hand through his hair, mussing it, smoothing it back down again. “This is highly unusual.”
“Doubtful,” Mrs. Auriemma demurred.
Crittenden’s head snapped up. She did not react, just sat in the chair on the far side of his desk, hands folded over her walking stick, purse in her lap, ankles crossed beneath her long dress. She blinked slowly, hat low over her forehead, dark eyes hidden for a brief moment. The polished head of her cane caught the light and almost seemed to blink, too. An unusual piece: dark red wood with curious botanical reliefs and a round, black head that might have been stone or ceramic or wood, he couldn’t really be sure.
He straightened in his own chair, tugging at his vest and then the sleeves of his jacket. He started to reach for his tie, but managed to stop himself, instead folding his hands atop his desk blotter.
“As you say,” he murmured.
He stiffened, his gaze jumping from her to the opaque window in his office door as a shadow passed across it. Surely there was no one —
— ah, no. Of course. Just that strange grandson of hers. Not the new night guard or any of the staff, or God forbid, any of the trustees. If any of them should discover that he had invited an Italian into the museum and not just any Italian but Mrs. Auriemma, who already had a reputation for filching the finer members of society with her seances and palm readings ….
He shuddered at the thought.
No. The excavation had already been a drain on the museum’s coffers; a desperate attempt to find something new and flashy to draw in the crowds bored by the usual displays and enchanted by the new vaudeville films. And the mausoleum of Vipsania Licinia was very unusual. No. This exhibit had to succeed; it could not fail. Best that no one ever learn of what was happening or of who, exactly, he had called in to deal with the matter.
He leaned forward. “I trust the problem will be taken care of tonight, and discreetly, yes?”
“I have no idea. You have not yet stated the nature of this unusual problem. Perhaps you could provide me with more information?”
Crittenden grit his teeth, struggling to find the right words. This whole thing was just so absurd …. “It concerns our newest exhibit.”
“An authentic Roman cemetery complete with funeral masks, portraits of the dead, urns — presumably with the ashes still sealed inside — and sixintact sarcophagi. And a tomb, rebuilt here in the museum stone by stone.”
“Ah, eh, yes.”
“These unusual problems began at the original site in Italy.”
Crittenden scowled. “How did you know that?”
“Vipsania Licinia told me. As you should have.”
Crittenden’s mouth dropped open. Then he felt his face flush hot and he shoved himself to his feet. “Mrs. Auriemma, if this is some attempt on your part at extortion or … or … fraud or some other criminal — ”
A loud knock and the office door was pushed open, the hinges squeaking. The strange grandson stood there, his thin shoulders rolled forward, his eyes even darker than those of his grandmother.
“It is beginning,” he said, voice low.
Mrs. Auriemma dipped her head once in acknowledgment and turned back to Crittenden. “We haven’t much time. Explain while we walk.” She rose and turned away, stick clacking against the parquet floor.
Crittenden found himself scrambling after her. The anxiety roiling his stomach twisted and morphed into embarrassed anger. “Now hold on just a moment — ”
“Mr. Crittenden.” She spun on her heel, fingers curled around the smooth head of her cane. “There are forces at work in your museum which you do not understand, beings whom you have awakened through your arrogance and ignorance. If you wish me to deal with the matter, tonight, discreetly, then you will walk and talk.”
Clack clack clack went her cane as she hastened away down the corridor, her grandson at her side.
Crittenden sputtered and then dashed after them.
“You were saying?” she prompted.
He grit his teeth. “Yes. The excavation was plagued by problems. Unusual sounds and smells. Animal attacks. A swarm of bats one night, snakes another night. We had to double and then triple what we were paying the local peasants. Superstitious lot.”
“And yet the problems continued even after you left behind those superstitious peasants.”
They rounded a corner, leaving the administrative offices for the public area of the museum. Large glass windows on both sides opened on life-size dioramas of primitive Africans and Indians butchering animals, dancing around fire pits, and burying their dead in strange rites. As they descended a wide staircase, the parquet floors gave way to marble and the dioramas changed to scenes of American and European history: the War for Independence, Cortes facing Montezuma, Columbus, Gutenberg and his printing press, the Crusades, and, finally, the Classical World.
A large gold and green banner hung from the pillars that framed the entrance to the exhibit.
The Tomb of Vipsania Licinia: An Ancient Roman Necropolis
1 May — 31 October 1905
The banner waved slightly, moving in a breeze that Crittenden could not feel.
She poked his foot with her cane and he realized that he had stopped. “Mr. Crittenden?”
He licked his lips. “Problems continued on the ship. There were rats. Quite a few rats. Things seemed to settle down for a time once we reached the museum and reassembled the tomb, moved the sarcophagi and urns into place. Then, last week, er ….”
She poked his foot again. “Yes?”
A soft wind wafted through the entrance, tugging at his hair. It smelled of woodsmoke and flowers.
“One of the night watchmen. He became inebriated and — ” Crittenden cleared his throat, again flushing with embarrassment “ — he drew some rather crude images on the outer wall of the mausoleum and then urinated on Vipsania Licinia’s sarcophagus.”
Now it was Mrs. Auriemma who stared, her lips an oh of surprise. Her mouth snapped shut. “Well no wonder she’s so angry. First you rip her and her entire family out of the ground, and then pollute and desecrate their final resting place.”
“We had no idea the man was a drunkard! We terminated him as soon as we discovered what had happened.”
“The damage was already done, though.” This from the grandson, his voice still low, his gaze fixed on the darkened hall which lay beyond the banner and pillars. “She might have been content here, once her family and proper surroundings were restored, but not now.”
“Indeed,” Mrs. Auriemma murmured. “And since the incident with the drunkard?”
Crittenden’s mouth thinned. “More rats. A swarm of them destroyed dozens of artifacts stored in the basement. Winds out of nowhere, strong enough to knock over desks and chairs. Strange voices jabbering in Latin and something like Italian; medieval Italian, perhaps. And a scent like rotting meat. It was so strong that we had to close the museum.”
A stronger wind this time, pulling at the banner and their clothes. It smelled less of woodsmoke and flowers and more of wet stone and rot.
“Very well, then.” Mrs. Auriemma wrapped a hand around his arm. “Come along, Mr. Crittenden.”
“What? Me?” he squawked, lurching back. “I did nothing!”
“I beg to differ. Additionally, you are, to Vipsania Licinia’s way of thinking, Dominus. The lord of this place. As such, every action taken by those under your roof — and the consequences thereof — ultimately fall on you. Therefore it is you who must make amends. How’s your Latin?”
He gulped. “Passable?”
“She strikes me as an intelligent woman. Hopefully she’ll understand your meaning even if your pronunciation is terrible.” She turned to her grandson. “Postumus, if you would please fetch my satchel from the car?”
Without answering, the young man bobbed a bow and made for the stairs to the ground floor. His shoes were a soft shush-shush across the marble.
She tightened her grip on Crittenden’s arm. “When he returns, I will recite an invocation, calling on my ancestors and the blessed dead to watch over us, to intercede on our behalf with Vipsania Licinia and with Dis Pater and his Queen.”
Crittenden blinked at her. “Eh.”
“We will then proceed into the hall towards the tomb. At the entrance to the tomb, we will again offer libations. We will then enter the tomb and repeat the libation and you will apologize. Hopefully that will be enough.”
“Eh, and if it is not?”
She did not answer as Postumus appeared silently at his side. Crittenden jumped, breath catching in his chest. The young man pulled a bottle out of the satchel and handed it to Crittenden. He squinted at the label. He didn’t recognize it, but it was — no great surprise — Italian.
“Mr. Crittenden, I will invoke, you will pour. Not all of it. Save some for Vipsania Licinia. When I say repeat after me, you will repeat after me. Is that clear?”
“No. Is all of this absolutely necessary? We’ve been able to explain away the incidents so far, but if the trustees were to find out — ”
She an arched an eyebrow at him. “You would like these incidents to continue after the exhibit opens? Perhaps even on your gala opening night, when all of those trustees are present?”
Crittenden huffed out his chest, then sighed, deflating.
Apparently taking that as acquiescence on his part, Mrs. Auriemma nodded once and turned towards the entrance to the exhibit hall. She dropped to one knee, laid down her cane, pulled her veil down from her hat to cover her face, and lifted her arms.
Then she began to pray.
Her Latin was exquisite. Better, Crittenden was forced to admit, than his own awkward attempts. But he understood enough to follow along. She was, indeed, calling upon her ancestors to watch over them in this “awful, dreadful” endeavor.
Her choice of words gave him pause.
Which is when he realized there had actually been a pause. Mrs. Auriemma was no longer speaking. He could see her glaring at him from the corner of her eye.
Postumus leaned over and flicked the wine bottle with one finger.
“Oh!” Crittenden cleared his throat, face flushing. He pulled out the cork (conveniently already loose) and tipped the bottle to splash a bit of the wine on the floor.
Mrs. Auriemma resumed her prayers, this time calling on specific individuals by name and title. Sacerdos made a certain amount of sense, but Flamen and Flaminica? There had never been a high priest of Dis Pater in ancient Rome, never mind a high priestess.
Crittenden opened his mouth to argue, but was interrupted by a violent gust of wind that smelled of stone and old cloth and wet earth. It roared out of the exhibit hall, tearing his tie loose from his vest so that it fluttered around his neck. His hair fluffed up, turning into a tangled mess. He felt Postumus grab his elbow with surprising strength, holding him steady.
The wind dropped away and Mrs. Auriemma climbed to her feet, holding her long skirts out of the way with one hand, clutching her cane with the other. “More wine, if you please.”
Crittenden nodded mutely, tipping the bottle.
“That is quite enough, thank you.”
Hand shaking, he righted the bottle.
“Let us proceed. And please remember your mythology, Mr. Crittenden.”
“Don’t look behind you.”
He started to turn and felt a sharp squeeze on his elbow. “… Yes. Of course.”
And he followed her into the necropolis.
The room was oddly grey. The museum had been one of the first buildings in the city to be connected to the new electrical lines, and so, when he touched the switch, the room should have become brightly illuminated. It did not. Instead, the light emitted by the wall sconces and the two chandeliers was a dull silvery-grey.
Crittenden flicked the switch a few times, to no effect.
Frowning, the strange grandson at his side, he followed Mrs. Auriemma deeper into the hall. Along the outer wall, wrapping all the way around the room, were miniature dioramas and tables and display cases with funeral masks and busts and bits of stone and even children’s toys.
But then there was another, inner wall: the original wall of the necropolis. It was partly stone, partly plastered brick, the bits which had been lost to time recreated with modern concrete. It completely surrounded the inner display of urns, headstones, statues, and the mausoleum of Vipsania Licinia. Visitors would be forced to slow down, examine the wall and its beautifully carved archway, and then make their way through the metal gate.
Mrs. Auriemma paused, staring up at the stone carvings. They were worn after all these centuries, but some of the carvings were easier to make out than others: the voluptuous woman seated on a high chair, cornucopia in her hands; figures floating in the air which might have been air spirits or cherubs; spirits of the dead holding sheaves of wheat and vases of wine. A plaque set into the wall showed their best guess as to what the carving had originally looked like, complete with bright paint.
Garish, Crittenden thought. The plain stone and marble was so much more dignified and elegant.
Mrs. Auriemma drew a breath. “Remember what I said.”
And Crittenden remembered where he was and why, and he was suddenly very afraid. The hair on his arms stood on end. Postumus’ grip tightened again, hauling him forward, through the gateway.
It was — impossibly — colder inside the necropolis. That made no sense. The very thin layer of fog trailing across the floor made even less sense.
Crittenden struggled to explain these to himself, and failed.
A narrow stone road, blocks neatly fitted together, led from the gateway towards the main tomb at the back of the exhibit. The fog muffled their steps, even the clack clack clack of Mrs. Auriemma’s cane.
Something was behind him. Several somethings.
He looked around — not back! Don’t look back! — taking in the headstones and the cherub statues, so unusual for a cemetery of the period. He started babbling. “Thirteenth century! That was the most recent burial. Thirteenth century. Though they go back to the first century, at least. Maybe older. Thirteenth century. Abandoned after that. No idea why. Peasants wouldn’t tell us. If they even knew.”
“The Inquisition.” Postumus’ voice was a soft singsong, just loud enough to reach Crittenden’s ear. “Vipsania Licinia’s descendants had kept the old ways alive, as much as they could. They prayed and left offerings. But the Inquisition killed the last of them. They are not buried here. The Church would not allow it. And the cemetery, after that, would have been considered tainted, cursed, unholy ground for its association with … heathens. So it was abandoned.”
Crittenden swallowed hard, staring down at the strange young man. “How do you know that?” he whispered, hands tight around the bottle of wine.
“Vipsania Licinia told me.” Postumus looked up at him, his eyes so very dark in the low, grey light. “They were caught here: a man and his daughter and his young son. The Inquisition caught them. The boy fought back and was killed right over there.” He waved a hand towards an unremarkable headstone off to the right. There was a chip in the stone, as if from a sword, now dulled with age. “The man and his daughter were dragged out and beheaded in front of the gate.”
“She went to sleep after that, she and her children and grandchildren and down through the generations. Until you came along and woke her up by violating their sanctuary. Perhaps you can understand, now, why she is so angry.”
The somethings at his back shifted, drawing close. They were a weight, pressing at him.
“You can sense them now, can’t you?” Postumus’ lip twisted up in a humorless smile. “I could hear and see and smell them before I even stepped foot in your museum.”
Crittenden shuddered again, breathing hard.
Which is when Crittenden realized that the fog had grown thicker and now nearly reached his knees. Many of the headstones were lost in the haze and the roadway was barely visible through the swirl of the fog, his steps thinning it for a brief moment —
— wait, how long had they been walking?
He swallowed. “Shouldn’t — shouldn’t we be at the mausoleum already?”
“We will get there when she wants us to.”
“… Oh ….”
He lost all track of time. He had no idea how long they walked. He grew hungry and thirsty. But that was in all the stories, too. Even if there had been food and drink available, every story told him not to touch it.
But those are just stories, fables to frighten and entertain children.
He felt the weight of the somethings at his back, felt the chill of the air down to his bones, watched the thick fog swirl around his legs and Mrs. Auriemma’s skirts.
Perhaps more than stories, after all.
And then the mausoleum loomed above them.
The rectangular face of the tomb, composed of polished travertine blocks, was bisected by a rounded archway and capped by another carved relief of (apparently) the same voluptuous woman. This time, though, the man seated beside her was clearly visible, as was the matching cornucopia he held in one hand and the bident staff in the other. The doors had long ago rotted away or been removed. Crittenden and the board of trustees had opted not to replace them so that visitors could more easily move in and out of the tomb.
The somethings at his back pressed harder. He tried to lick his lips, but his tongue was too dry. He started coughing.
Cool metal pressed against his mouth. A flask of water.
“You should have said that you were thirsty,” Postumus scolded him, voice low. “There are rations in my bag.”
“Too late now.” Mrs. Auriemma backed up a few steps, coming even with them. She turned her head just enough to look at them. “Remember: repeat after me and, no matter what, don’t look behind you.”
She knelt again, walking stick flat on the ground, hands raised, exquisite Latin floating through the air. With every pause, Crittenden would tip the bottle and allow a bit of wine to splash on the floor. With every small nod and twitch of her eye, he would repeat her last phrase.
Inwardly, he flinched at how he mangled the words. Latin was so much easier to read than it was to speak.
Postumus’ Latin, of course, was just as fine as his Grandmother’s.
The entrance to the tomb brightened slightly, as if the electrical lights attached to the walls within had turned on.
Mrs. Auriemma rose and led them inside, clack clack clack.
He knew the layout of the mausoleum by heart. A long rectangle with four niches cut into the walls, two on either side, and a barrel vault ceiling. The niches held the sarcophagi of Vipsania Licinia’s two daughters and their husbands. A fifth niche at the far end held the sarcophagus of her husband, with much smaller holes for urns holding the cremains of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The lady herself lay in the center of the tomb, her sarcophagus covered in detailed reliefs: Dis Pater and his Queen, Bacchus in a rich vineyard, dancing Seasons and Muses, and the deceased herself from childhood through marriage and motherhood — and, strangely, wearing the traditional dress of a flaminica.
He had noted the unusual carving while excavating the tomb, but thought it just another oddity among so many others. Now, though ….
Realization dawned. “She was a priestess of Dis Pater and his Queen.”
“Not just a priestess,” Postumus whispered. “The priestess. Flaminica Maior Dis Pateralis. Her husband was Flamen Maior.”
“But — but there was no such — ”
“Their names were never written down nor spoken aloud. They performed their rites in secret, ensuring that the dead of Rome — known and unknown, remembered and forgotten, loved and hated — would leave this world peacefully and move on to the next.” Postumus tilted his head up at Crittenden. “So, yes, you violated the sanctuary of a very powerful woman.”
“And her husband,” Mrs. Auriemma interrupted. “Though he does not seem quite as angry. A bit more forgiving than her.” She dropped to her knee again. “Once more. And let us hope that he can persuade her.”
Latin filled the tomb, echoing off the stone walls and the curved ceiling. Crittenden needed no prompting this time, pouring the wine and reciting the words at the proper time. He only noticed how the fog had thickened when it reached his thighs and he could no longer see where the wine splashed on the floor.
The fog swirled and whirled, shrinking, pulling in tight around Vipsania Licinia’s sarcophagus. Then it rose up, a cloud of brilliant white, twisted round and round itself, and settled into the shape of a woman dressed in a traditional tunic and stola; a palla was draped over her tightly curled hair. Color smeared through the fog like diluted paint: red, yellow, purple, red again, green.
He blinked at the kaleidoscopic effect, trying to focus as Mrs. Auriemma addressed the figure in her exquisite Latin.
“Flaminica Maior Dis Pateralis! We entreat you! We honor you! We bless you! It was not our intent to cause you offense, to wound you and your loved ones! Dominus Crittenden speaks his humble apology!”
“Eh, yes! Ave! Ave, Flaminica Maior!” And then his Latin utterly failed him. He stumbled on in English. “It was not our intent to offend you — ”
Postumus broke in, translating.
“ — we sought only to honor you. And your loved ones! You lay forgotten so long. We brought you here, all of you, so that future generations may know your name and honor you — ”
More translating, and he was sure that Postumus was adding a few flourishes, because it was taking him longer to say the same thing.
Wait, what had he just said? Sacrificium?
The fog that was Vipsania Licinia whirled up higher, filling the room, towering over them.
Factum est! boomed through his head, made his bones shake.
And the fog evaporated away. The weight of the somethings at his back was gone, and everything was very quiet.
Mrs. Auriemma righted her cane, pressing against the ground as she rose awkwardly to her feet. She was bent slightly, her hair hanging limp, and lines of exhaustion radiated from the corners of her mouth and eyes. “It is done.”
Crittenden had found his voice again by the time they reached the main hall. He guzzled the entire flask of water, drinking so quickly that it dribbled down his chin. He wiped at the drool with his sleeve, still too agitated and confused to pull the handkerchief from his pocket.
“So, that’s it then? It’s done?”
“For the most part.” Mrs. Auriemma arched an eyebrow at her grandson.
Postumus was silent for too long.
“Well?” Crittenden snapped. His knees were shaking and he was certain that sweat had soaked through his shirt and vest. His clothes were probably ruined.
“Vipsania Licinia accepted your apology, but only under certain conditions. If you fail to meet those conditions, she will be … upset. Again.”
Crittenden blinked. His knees shook so hard that he dropped to the floor, flat on his bottom. He tipped the flask, but the water was gone. “What conditions?” he croaked.
“Offerings.” There was a tinge of amusement to Postumus’ tone, as if he were having a good laugh at Crittenden’s expense. “Traditional Roman offerings. Wine, incense, grain, and fresh vegetables every month at the dark moon. A full feast every night during Parentalia. And the sacrifice of a live sow every Feralia.”
“What?!” Crittenden squawked.
Mrs. Auriemma folded her hands over the head of her cane. “She and her loved ones have been neglected for centuries. Atonement must be made.”
“But — but — wine, yes. Easy enough. Not likely anyone would notice. But a live pig?? How can I possibly — ! And, furthermore, the exhibit won’t even be here in February. It only runs through October!”
Mrs. Auriemma and her grandson exchanged a look.
Crittenden really needed something stronger than water. “What?”
“She was quite adamant that the necropolis not be moved.”
Another look, and then Mrs. Auriemma shrugged.
Crittenden ran his fingers through his already-disastrous hair. He tugged his tie loose. “Not possible. Simply not possible — ”
A ferocious wind roared through the entrance to the exhibit hall, tearing at Mrs. Auriemma’s skirts and shoving them all a good three feet across the floor.
“Yes! Yes! Sic! Ave!” Crittenden shouted.
The wind died away and he slouched, head in his hands.
Postumus crouched in front of him. “Perhaps we should return to your office and begin composing your speech to the board of trustees.”
Crittenden lifted his head. “We can’t tell them about any of this!”
“No.” Postumus frowned. “But, as you noted, there has been no previous evidence of a Flamen and Flaminica Maior Dis Pateralis. Or of continued devotions up through at least the thirteenth century. That would make this necropolis, well, quite a unique find. Special. Utterly unlike any exhibit at any other museum in the world.”
Crittenden stared at him. His knees stopped shaking and he slowly straightened. “Yes. Utterly unique. Quite the moneymaker. Perhaps … perhaps we can come to an arrangement, after all.”
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. Her poetry, short fiction, and essays have been published in a variety of venues, a complete list of which can be found at EHS.]