A lost American fins himself, and much more on an archaeological dig in Transylvania.
Digging the Porrolissum
Jake tried to lift his head from the pillow, but someone had nailed it there. He could feel the full length of the spike radiating down it's full length, from the top of his head down to the base of his neck.
When would he learn? Palinca, like other clear spirits, was good for cleaning wounds, external wounds, at least. Taken internally, it only exacerbated his normally fragile emotional state.
Water. He needed water. Perhaps a few liters ... or more.
He rolled over on his side, realized that his head was not on a pillow, but atop his shirt rolled up. And he was not in his bed, not even in his room, but still out in the grove where they'd had their cookout hours before. In the spare light of a bright moon, he spied a water jug a few meters away and started elbowing his way towards it, a pilgrimage of sorts, though an odd one, here on the mountain above Moisgrad, clawing his way towards the Mecca of the moment.
Just another small journey in what had now become a way of life. He'd wound up a traveler, a wanderer, a profession his parents didn't exactly approve of, but far less expensive than having to pay to finish his bachelor's degree, (after only ten years), and best for all concerned as it kept him away from home.
But this jaunt had been a bit of a departure, coming to join the summer archaeological dig in Northern Transylvania. He had liked the place names when he saw the email that arrived, (apparently they had a list of all those who had ever taken an archeology course anywhere in the country)—Salaj County, Municipality of Zalau—rolled across the tongue, succulent... Por-o-lis-sum .... Once the furthest extent of the Roman empire in 150 b.c., before it started to contract and eventually crumble. Seemed far more interesting than another summer in London, Paris, Berlin. After so many visits to so many Western European cities, he found them to be utterly similar, despite their differences. He was tired of their obviousness. The buildings, monuments, were all just there, right out in the open, in plain view. And as soon as he saw the invitation, he realized he'd been on the wrong track, not really interested in looking for something that had been already found.
The little edge of wall the students had dug up a week before was far more exciting to him than the Louvre, the Arc d' Triomphe... (God, how arrogant the French were. They hadn't won a war since Napoleon, and their big attraction was a spire of victory? Please).
No, this dig in Northern Transylvania fit the moody moment of his life perfectly, as well as his fashion sense. Or lack of it, as it were. Here on the mountain, he could be his shabby self, with broken, flopping sandals, grubby, cut-off jeans, (worn soft and smooth, with holes that provided ventilation). Who needed fashion when his decade old jeans, that had been whittled down, (or up, really), were as comfortable as old familiar friends?
Not that he had old familiar friends. In the fifth grade, he'd weighed double of anyone in class, an exponential equation that seemed to escalate to gargantuan proportions by high school. A condition that had excited the football coach, who had pictured Jake anchoring the defensive line, only to realize that the mountain of a boy moved glacially, a slow, pondering advance better suited to geology than sport.
Oh, the diets, the doctors, his parents' angry debates, his father's disgust, and one overheard late night accusation that his wife must have had an affair with a visiting sumo wrestler. The fact that Toledo, Ohio had never actually hosted such an Oriental event, much less that Jake had his father's eyes, were tidbits of rebuttal the boy had never brought to his dad's attention.
He paused in his crawling pilgrimage, fighting against a sudden tsunami wave of nausea.
Ah, sweet foolishness, such dulcet buffoonery. He'd downed at least eight, maybe ten glasses of palinca trying to out drink first several of the other students, then a couple workers from the museum staff, and finally two shepherds whose sheep were helping to keep the grass and weeds at bay on the mountain top site. The shepherds seemed to be impressed with his intake, all the while knowing how his victory would end.
The nausea subsided, he cast a bloodshot eye towards the water, now only a couple meters away, and once again began pulling himself along like the broken-legged beggar he'd seen on the streets of Zalau that first weekend in town. The young man's legs were turned inside out at the knees, and he navigated through the streets chest-down on a cart. What glorious, righteous fury Jake had felt when he realized that the crippling could not have been the result of some accident. Rather that the boy's parents must have done that do him, to make a better beggar of him. Jake had scanned the faces of passersby, looking for... well he didn't know. Someone in authority, someone who would find and arrest the parents, pay for surgery to correct his affliction. Two policemen stood across on the corner, casually watching the flow, unmoved by the akimbo beggar. He thought to go speak to them, but realized they probably didn't speak English, and besides, what would he say?
He fumbled in his pocket, pulled out a few lei, and gave them to the young man, who reached up to take the bills, then nodded, and pushed away.
Satisfied he'd done something, at least, Jake had felt some of the rage dissipate.
“You're not helping,” a voice behind him.
He turned. It was Liviu, one of the museum staff charged with accompanying the volunteer diggers because of his command of English. A man in his thirties who was already exhibiting male pattern balding.
“What?” Jake asked.
“You give him money, it only encourages them to do the same or worse to other children.”
“Them? You mean Gypsies?”
“But he needs to eat.”
“He receive, how you say, disability payment from the state. But they take that too.” He shrugged at Jake's frustration. “Remember that Gypsy mansion I show you last weekend, on the trip to Sibiu?”
“With all the silver on the roof, and onion-shaped spires?”
Another nod. “You just made a donation to it, or one like it.”
He had been flustered afterwards, stalking the streets while the rest of the group ate lunch at an outdoor cafe. He looked at the towering blocs, the crumbling facades, which Andrei, the head archaeologist, said was a legacy from the Ceaucescu years, when speed of construction was more important than durability. Some of the buildings had been redone, insulated and then given a new coat of lime rendering and fresh paint—looking like pastel transplants from the Florida Gold Coast. But most still showed cracks in the cement, rusting balconies, and a wild assortment of antennas on top approximating hairdos styled by Picasso.
As he walked he felt the stares of the children, whose mouths would drop open in wonder at the vision of a foreign Goliath wandering their streets. Zalau wasn't a big tourist town, (though he got the same kind of looks in other places, even back home), and they didn't see many foreigners, much less one weight a hundred and fifty plus kilograms whose every footstep threatened to further fracture the pavement.
He stopped in front of the entrance to the downtown park, which featured a semi-circle of faux roman pillars. The greenery and trees beyond rose up a steep hill. The grass wasn't trimmed perfectly, as it would have been in England, and some of the benches were in desperate need of repair, which would have appalled German municipal officials. But he saw the people sitting and reading, talking, watching their children and grandchildren play. It was a scene he might have encountered anywhere else, but here it felt different. He glanced back down the main drag, Mihai Viteazeul Boulevard, named for Michael the Brave, a national hero who was instrumental in driving out the Turks in the 16th Century. People were walking, window shopping, stopping to speak with one another, kissing both cheeks, laughing, shaking hands, smiling. He glanced across the street to the Casa de Cultural, which was fronted by a battalion of rosebushes that seemed to have simultaneously exploded into bloom, like a frozen blast of Fourth of July Fireworks. More people, babies, children, grandparents...
He looked up again at the buildings, saw the flowers that cascaded from nearly every balcony, and murmured. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.” Something like a warm breeze passed over him, prickling the hairs on his arm. But it wasn't wind, the air was still. A slight panic arose, with his bulk, he was unaccustomed to translating subtle sensations. What was it?
Back to the park, gazing up the green slope. Two men encountered each other, an embrace and more cheek kissing. He'd seen men do that in France and Italy... never in Ohio. He unconsciously rubbed his own cheek, unkissed for years by either gender.
But he pushed away the hint of self-pity, being far more interested in what he wasn't seeing right in front of his eyes, was feeling without definition.
A word whispered inside his head, but he frowned, discounting it as too simple.
Again, the word whispered, more insistent. He tasted it, allowed it to roll around his head like a metal roller in a pin ball machine.
He made eye contact with several passersby. They looked, appreciated his size, went on their way. An older couple dipped their eyes, but Andrei had prepared him for this. Decades of communism taught the older folk to keep the windows in their public eyes shuttered around strangers.
Looking around, he realized what he was feeling wasn't an actual sensation, but the lack of one. There was no fear here. No one was afraid. He saw three youngsters, perhaps six or seven years old, walking together on the street, laughing, elbowing each other. Flower sellers, kiosk clerks. Gypsy women carrying babies, asking for help, which was either given or not, but without argument or anger on either side.
The word made another loop around the track inside of his head. Such a strange idea, after all his travels, growing up in the United States... where, city and countryside, people were so afraid, a national condition: afraid of being robbed, of having their children kidnapped, of not making enough money, of not being seen as successful, (or at least cool), of not fitting it, of not being noticed, of driving the wrong kind of car, living in the wrong neighborhood, afraid the economy will dip or the price of the dollar will rise, of the liberal vote (if you're conservative), of conservatives in general (if you're not), of Catholics (if you're protestant), of born-agains (if you're not), of every form of terrorism (bio-, micro-macro, and whackos), afraid that aliens really existed, (or that they don't, and aren't coming to save mankind from itself), afraid that God doesn't exist, (or that he does and is really, really pissed off at what man has done to the earth), afraid of wild animals, large and small, of viruses and microbes, afraid of pollution, or that the world is running out of oil and they'll have to park their SUV's forever, of staying home alone on Saturday night, of crossing the street—a dizzying tabulation that sent the rolling ball inside his head caroming off chalk walls of fear, creating an inner dust storm that clouded his vision, left him paralyzed, afraid to take a step.
“Parlez vous Francez?”
Jake opened his eyes. An eight-year old Gypsy boy, his hand outstretched.
“Sprechenzi Deutch?” The hand waved insistently.
“Yeah, kid,” Jake reached into his pocket, pulled out a green, one lei note. “Here, go build yourself a mansion.”
He walked back to the cafe, tilting his head occasionally to take a deep breath, taste the air, awed by the realization this was the first time he'd ever felt peace.
The very first time.
Finally having reached the end of the water jug pilgrimage, Jake stretched out his hand, clasped it by the handle, and tipped it up to his mouth, splashing his shirt as water rushed out, only partially filling his mouth. He gulped and gulped, hoping to quench the scraping dryness of his throat, knowing full well that adding water to the slosh of palinca still in his stomach would only make him drunk again. He rolled over and belched loudly, the moon grinning at him with a shepherd's squint.
This was all her fault, he decided, the girl with the glasses. If she hadn't arrived midway through what the Romanians called a “gratar”, after the mici and before the fried potatoes and sizzled pork, he might not have started drinking.
It wasn't that she was a beauty, between his shaggy hair, shabby clothes, and rolling fat crisscrossed by more stretch marks than a mother of eight, Jake had lost interest in the concept of “beauty” (somewhere between 100 and 150 kilograms). She had the dark hair that that predominated here, and dark eyes slightly obscured by her thick glasses, a slender, swooping nose with just a hint of bend midway down. The kind of flaw that saved a smart, pretty woman from ascending to the rigors of the beautifully damned. No, it was the way she had looked at him, with an intensity, almost an intimacy, that appeared as unexpected as bothersome to her as it was to him.
Was it disgust? Didn't seem so. At that he was an expert, his father having provided the first lessons. No, it was still another subtle, inexplicable sensation that tickled, teased, but refused to fully show itself.
Whenever faced with with an insoluble social situation, he had a simple formula that, while never providing a reasonable solution, always provided an avenue of escape. He drank.
After a second, quickly downed palinca, he caught another of her imperceptible glances, saw her ask something of one of the staff members, who nodded and responded with, “Jake.” (Which so far, Romanians seemed to like repeating, hitting the K like an overzealous bell ringer). Followed by the phrase, “Corpul mare, suflet slab ."
Not realizing he'd tucked the phrase away, it echoed again now, his mind clicking through his high school Latin,( of which he remembered more than he realized), and the few Romanian words he'd picked up in the first two weeks.
“Body... big...” Hm, Jake scrunched his eyebrows. That wasn't exactly a news flash. Suflet. Several times he'd heard “cu suflet”... which Andrei had used, then explained… yes, now he remembered. Slab meant slim or weak.
His excitement at solving the riddle had only temporarily forestalled an imminent collision between his hangover and a sudden rush of emotional nausea. As the complete meaning hit him, spasms of dry retching began shuddering through his mountainous frame, followed by the water he'd so greedily chugged. After several loud, eternal minutes, he flopped on to his back, letting the last waves soak into the ground.
“Big body, weak soul,” he whispered to the sky, feeling a blush of embarrassment crawl up his neck.
Shame? Now? His Star Trek-like defensive shields had lost all power. How had this strange girl penetrated his years of practiced, piggish indifference. A flood of humiliating moments lined up to pass before his bloodshot eyes, as if he were really dying and the past was sashaying across the stage like Parisian Can-Can dancers: Teachers, students, his father, ministers, deacons, car wash attendants, his father, drive-thru window clerks, shoe salesmen, even a pair of morticians at his grandmother's funeral, (who had no doubt joked about getting him on their embalming table—and oh, what a casket!), the firemen washing the pumper truck in front of their station, relatives, his father, even his mother once. All parodying Carole King, singing, “He's so fat, he probably thinks this song is about him.”
What a joke, thinking he would actually find peace in this country. More bitter bile threatened to emerge and he clamped his teeth shut, grinding them against years of stuffed anger, a mound of humiliating linguine, one strand long enough to reach the moon, that he had slurped and slurped instead of spitting back in his tormentors' smug, thin faces.
Yes, this was all her fault. She had triggered it all by looking at him, asking his name. And then when the staff worker said those magic words: “Big body, weak soul,” she had... she had....
He stopped, began rubbing his eyes, pulverizing sleepy seeds, as if he could somehow polish the lens of his memory.
She had …
… shaken her head. Not in agreement. Not in dismay or disgust. She had disagreed, and then said something... but what?
He had heard it, clearly. And understood it, though with the party and the palinca, it hadn't registered until now, all alone out here in the grove.
Jake sat up, the inner turbulence subsiding. The moon had settled atop a tall tree, hovering like a streetlamp on a slender post. He rubbed his eyes again, but now in a vain effort to stem the flow of tears that had sprung so effortlessly and cascaded down his cheeks.
He could see her through the waterfall of tears, shaking her head and saying clear as a bell:
“No cred”: I don't believe it.”
Jacobus hefted the last load of firewood on his shoulder and began climbing the wooden ladder to the top of the stone watch tower. As he crested the ledge, he lowered the wood to the stone floor then gazed disgustedly at the unkempt scattering of wood from previous watches.
Before putting things in order, he scanned the horizon to the northeast and then northwest. Good, no signal fires. Another glance up towards Porrolissum confirmed the quietude of the day. He let his eyes stay on the mountaintop city, the profusion of white indicating the expansion that had taken place during his 6 years here. The new amphitheater curled out from the main fortress, curving like a wing. He smiled. The architect, Seminus, needed to see this latest creation from this vantage point. No doubt his tender sensibilities would be offended, and he would insist on adding some new temple or feature on the other side of the mountain to restore the “visual integrity,” a phrase he sprinkled through nearly every conversation.
Chuckling, Jacobus stooped to begin stacking the firewood. A career soldier, a numeri with major campaigns to his credit, he could claim privilege and avoid border observation, but enjoyed the solitude, the peace. His first few years here, there had been occasional skirmishes with the Dacians, but the last two years had seen almost no new activity. Trajan's defeat of Decebal had been so brutally efficient, a tower had been erected in Rome to celebrate it. Jacobus had seen it, and all the other statues, temples, all celebrating some victory or another. All of them put together couldn't compare with the verdant beauty that shimmered out beyond his own tower.
He gazed up the mountain again. A new amphitheater meant “sport.” Not sure what kind of angry beasts these quiet hillsides might offer. Wolves and bears wouldn't be nearly as entertaining as lions and tigers, but Dacia wasn't exactly Rome after all. And as for gladiators, well, that would involve enlisting some locals, who might not take kindly to becoming pawns for Roman blood lust. After his experiences in battle, he wasn't sure he would take too well to it anymore, either.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a young woman walking with two large jugs suspended on a pole balanced across her shoulders. He paused in his restacking efforts to watch her pick her way across the meadow toward the spring. This was another reason he enjoyed this duty, observing the country folk go about their daily lives, accomplishing the seasonal tasks of tending the fields, minding their flocks. One of the reasons he stayed past the first five year assignment was how much this valley reminded him of his roots in Vindolanda. Funny to have to travel so far, so long, to feel a place that felt like home.
A sharp scream shrilled from the direction of the spring, then was cut short. Jacobus scrambled down the ladder, ran in that direction, slowing when he saw them through a break in the trees. Three of them, Macedonicans, holding the struggling girl. He crashed through the brush, shouting, “Stop,” freezing the men as his massive frame came into view. The girl, her dress half torn away from her body, had wilted.
“Leave off, Jacobus,” one of them said. “We're just having a bit of sport.”
“Tearing clothes off innocent girls is sport?”
“It's a start,” the one holding her a lot said, grinning.
“Look, if it's so important to you, you can have her first.”
Jacobus took a step forward, snarled, “Don't you have sisters?”
They gawked at him, then laughed.
“Fair enough, how shall we proceed?” he asked, removing his cloak, folding it carefully and placing it on the ground.
“You'd risk fighting the three of us over a Dacian girl?”
“Looks that way.”
The three exchanged nervous glances. They knew the stories, Jacobus the Bull, known to kill as many with his bare hands as with his sword in battle.
He smiled, watching them weigh their chances, the verdict sealed when the girl was released, slumping heavily to the ground.
They backed away, warily, two quickly melting into the forest. The third stood watching as Jacobus retrieved his cloak, wrapped it carefully around the girl, and lifted her.
“I had a sister, the watcher said. “She died after being raped by six legionaires.”
Jacobus nodded, acknowledging the loss. “Then you should know better.”
He started away, pausing momentarily to take the pole and water jugs, and headed in the direction he had seen her come earlier. She stirred slightly when he saw the small cottage of rough stone, an animal pen, the long, straight rows of corn and cabbages.
A man, no doubt her father, came running, then slowed as the fear of seeing a solder and concern for his daughter mixed in his face.
“Not hurt,” Jacobus said, then repeated it in as best he could in Dacian.
Relief shown on the man's face, then an awkward moment, followed by him stretching out his arms to take her.
Jacobus gently handed the girl over, surprised at the regretful emptiness his arms felt unburdened.
“Thank you,” the father said in Latin.
A woman came wailing from the far fields. The man barked something Jacobus didn't understand, but she came all the faster, throwing a terrified look at the soldier, then began searching her daughter for wounds. The father barked again and the woman left off her frantic inspection long enough to bow her head toward the soldier, then very nearly buried her face in the folds of the cloak, sobbing.
The father started to undo the cloak, but Jacobus indicated he should leave it around the girl. The father nodded.
“Live in Peace,” Jacobus said, then turned and left them.
Three days later, Jacobus climbed down from the tower to wash himself at a nearby stream. When he returned, he found his cloak, cleaned and folded crisply, as well as a jug of wine and a leather bag filled with cheese and smoked goat meat. He glanced around surprised that he hadn't seen or heard anyone's approach. He was convinced it had been the farmer, since he had seen the man going for water the previous day, instead of the daughter. A natural precaution.
When his relief arrived the next afternoon, he started to warn the soldier to keep an eye out for trouble, when the man told him he was to report to the Centurio.
“Do you know what it's about,” Jacobus asked, receiving a noncommittal shrug for an answer.
It was nearly nightfall by the time Jacobus entered the gate at the Porolissum, and ordinarily he would have gone to eat, but went straight to the Centurio's quarters.
After his salute, he remained silent.
Several long moments later, the Centurio shook his head. “I've had a complaint about you, from my counterpart with the Macedonica.
“I know your record, you received a phalera for your bravery in Coria against the Brigantes, and another in Jerusalem, and I know you prefer battle to minding a watchtower, but picking a fight with a couple of Macedonians is no way to dispel boredom.” When Jacobus didn't answer immediately, the officer said bluntly, “Do you refute this?”
“There were three of them, and I stopped them from raping a young girl.”
The Centurio's eyebrows raised. “A citizen?”
Now came a long sigh, which through pursed lips would have resembled a whistle but for an obvious note of frustration.
We are soldiers, not beneficari, you understand the difference? Fighters, not policemen.”
“I do, sir”
“It seemed the right thing to do at the time, sir.”
“What are your orders when manning the watchtower?”
“To watch for enemy troops and signal at their approach.”
“But nothing about acting as savior to young peasant girls.”
The centurio tapped his lips with his forefinger, half-nodding. “Your mother was peregrinus, was she not?”
“She was a Briton, yes.”
“And you became a citizen when your father retired from service. But you need to know the laws covering marriages to foreign locals have changed. You are nearing retirement, take care you don't jeopardize that.
It took a moment for Jacobus to realize the man's inference. He was about to say he had no interest in consorting with a local when the centurio waved him away. “You are dismissed, soldier.”
“Thank you, sir.”
As Jacobus reached the small corridor, the officer called out, “If the girl had been attacked by a bear, would you still have gone to her rescue?”
Jacobus sensed some kind of trap, but decided against subterfuge. “Yes, sir, I would have.”
After navigating the torturous one way circuit that took crawling traffic past the county building, a left hand turn to confront the Porolissum Hotel, then a right in front of the Insurance Administration and the Office for the Protection of Children, with banks filling every available square meter of commercial space, the The minivan finally pulled in front of the Museo. Normally Jake didn't mind the vagaries of traffic, but he'd seen her standing in front of he Museo as they'd made the last right turn, and between delivery trucks, an elderly man blithely pushing his cart filled with steel collected for recycling, student drivers, and numerous other cars that had been left in precarious angles perfectly figured to provide the narrowest passage for others, the minutes it took to actually traverse the last 50 meters thumped raggedly in his chest. First, there was the fear that she might walk away before they actually arrived. Then the humbling possibility, (indeed, reality) that she was no doubt waiting for someone else. Feeling very much like Quasimodo in the cathedral bell tower, he peeked over shoulders through a neighbor's window, ducking back quickly lest she see him. He had begun sweating copiously, and managed to find a spare t-shirt in his knapsack, considered changing, then merely used it to dab under his arms, a gesture not unlike throwing a sponge at an ocean wave. He fought against the sense of panic that she would leave at any moment, forcing himself to stay in the furthest back seat while the others casually, ever so casually, retrieved their bags, and seemed to dawdle in the aisle as if to test his patience, little realizing that if she should take one step away from where she was anchored in front of the museo, he would scatter them like bowling pins in his rush to leave the bus.
Mercifully, she stayed. But so did he, in the back of the bus, even after everyone left. Because now the greatest terror of all loomed. She was waiting for him, and the very notion left him paralyzed, unable to move. At least until the blare of honking horns awakened Jake to the fact that they were blocking traffic, and if he didn't get off right away...
He flung himself down the aisle, squeezing his considerable bulk magma-like between the flimsy seat backs, grabbing the passenger pole that anchored the front seat to swing down the steps in a very un-Gene Kelly-like dance move, which the driver assisted by opening the door at just the right moment so instead of being able to slow his impetus, Jake found himself gathering dangerous speed, which he could not stem despite the very real possibility that, should he burst uncontrolled from the minivan he might crush an unsuspecting child on the street.
Just as he was about to breach the doorway, she raised her right hand, perhaps as a defensive manner, or formal greeting, whichever, he found himself suspended, seemingly in midair, stunned by her apparent mastery over his physics, until he realized the bus driver had foreseen the same potential calamity and grabbed the back of his shirt. He made a shambling, inglorious exit from the bus, turning to express his gratitude to the driver who winked, as if to say, “I've been in love in my time too.” A shocking misunderstanding that Jake might have taken time to try to correct if she hadn't said, just then, “I was worried you wouldn't come with the others.”
“Here I am,” he said,. Wincing brightly.”
“You have plans, yes?” she asked, squinting up at him through her thick lenses.
He shook his head. “No, none. No plans.”
“If you like, There is someone I'd like you to meet.”
“Who?” he blurted out, not caring at all.
“Okay....” His brain was still spinning, not catching the normal gears, asking questions like, “Why would you want me to meet your grandmother when I don't even know your name yet?” Followed by, “Why would you want me to meet your grandmother at all?” But any questions were stilled when she took his hand and began walking up the street, as naturally as if leading an overgrown toddler to his first day of preschool.
“Your grandmother lives here in Zalau?”
“No, in the village.”
“Oh, then where are we going now?”
The answer became obvious when she pulled him through the gates of the Piata, the open air market that he normally tried to avoid, as it was usually packed with buyers of all ages, forcing him to nearly tiptoe through the crowd, adjusting his bulk every step to keep from bumping grandmothers into the stalls. He was pulled past the fruit and vegetable stands, around the cheese and eggs, and towards the back in an area he had never been. Shoes and apparel.
“Please, don't be offended,” she said. “But we have to buy you some new clothes, Don't worry, I will pay...”
“I have money, but...”
She blushed. “If my grandmother sees holes in your clothes, she will insist on mending them before you leave. So, we save her the trouble, okay?”
“Okay, but before we do all this, can I ask you a question?”
Her eyes looked a little haunted for a moment, then she nodded.
“What's your name?”
It wasn't the question she was expecting, or dreading, whatever the flash had been. She laughed. It was the tinkling of crystal, a high-pitched tone that hovered, circling her like a corona, so tangible, Jake felt as if he reached out he could touch it.
“Crina,” she said softly. “It means, how you say, Lily?”
Before she had laughed, he might have thought her too serious for such a name, but now he could see the flower in her. He bowed and extended his hand, “Lead the way, Crina. I'm willing to buy anything up to a tuxedo if it will make things easier for your grandmother.
But shopping for clothes his size turned out to be an adventure in itself. The second hand stores, which were numerous, tended to stock for average sizes. After completely exhausting the stalls at the market, they finally found a relatively nice Hawaiian shirt and serviceable pair of shorts (with elastic waistband) at the fourth such store along the main boulevard. They found nothing even close to the barges necessary to replace his sandals, but Crina said that didn't matter as much, suggesting that they might hurry a bit, since her grandmother was expecting them.
“Okay,” Jake said, casting a mournful glance at the placinteria, where dough was rolled, fried, then, filled with cheese and sour cream, potatoes, spices.
“She's probably been cooking since five this morning,” Crina said. “It is better you bring your full appetite.”
She led him behind a bloc to an older Dacia, the sturdy national brand, which filled the streets, though whose numbers were now being overtaken by foreign brands such as Audi, VW, and Renault since the borders had been liberated by entry in to the European Union—for commerce at least.
“My brother's car,” she explained. “He is in Italy, working.”
“Ah, what does he do there?”
Her eyes tightened. “His degree is in economics, but he works in agriculture.”
She drove like she talked and walked. Exact application of the clutch, shift, signal, turn, all smooth, nothing wasted. At the last roundabout before leaving town, they passed a long line of people hitchhiking, (another note to self, Jake thought, when was the last time he'd seen anyone hitchhiking in the united states? He added kidnapping, rape and murder to his previous list of American fears.) As they started the steep climb that marked this edge of the valley, she seemed to relax as the hills unrolled rectangular carpets of corn, potato, wheat beneath the lower belt of blue sky punctuated by gleaming church spires.
He had seen so many landscapes in his travels, the French wine regions, the Italian southern coast, English heaths, a train along the Rhine that displayed the pristine, well-ordered German farms. And across the United States, with its varied and often spectacular range of vistas, The Grand Canyon, the California coast, the Rocky Mountains, Arizona desert, Florida everglades... he'd seen just about everything short of the Arctic, but something kept pulling inside him as they rounded every turn, as each new scene was revealed, another slight inner jolt.
“Are you ill,” she asked. “Am I driving too fast?”
“No, not at all,” he answered. “I was just trying to figure out why the hills, the villages... why everything affects me so much.”
She smiled. “Maybe my grandmother can help with that.”
As they approached one village, several oncoming cars flashed their headlights, the international signal that a police car was stationed up ahead and drivers should watch their speed. Another difference. In the U.S., cop cars hid like hunters, playing a cat and mouse game with drivers to catch them unaware, rushing out of their duck blind to snag unsuspecting speeders like thoughtless fish from a stream. Here, the police essentially stood on the side of the road and motioned speeding cars over with a wave of the hand. There didn't seem to be the kind of simmering anger between the authorities and the people, which he would have expected from a former police state.
As they left the National Road, the necessity for the Dacia's sturdiness came into play as the secondary road, while paved, was pockmarked as if recently hit by mortar rounds. Crina avoided the holes effortlessly, only slowing when their arrangement across the road meant they couldn't be missed. In one village, they passed a Gypsy neighborhood where a flood of young children playing along the roadside waved, then screamed with delighted fear at the vision of Jake's massive head and flying hair in the window. He waved back, extending his meaty hand outside so several of the children could try to slap his palm when Crina slowed to traverse several deep holes.”
He sat back, thinking of the difference between the mansions he'd seen compared to the poor houses they had just passed.
“You are thinking, maybe, there is some kind of magic formula that will improve life for the Gypsies?”
He turned, mildly startled at her insight to his thoughts. “I guess so. It's all kind of muddled in my head.”
“Not just your head,” she smiled. “The European Union punishes us because they say we haven't done enough for our gypsies, but they don't realize that while there may be an answer one day, it will come from within their community. Not from outsiders.”
They continued on in silence, turning off the broken asphalt across a small bridge to a stone road, that in some ways felt smoother than the asphalt. Each house had a fence, a garden, grapes growing across wires to provide summer shade. Older folks sat outside, talking, an occasional flock of geese would lift their beaks and berate the car for intruding on their street. Chickens pecked along fences, at every third or fourth house, a dog would turn its head to watch, then flop back down to sleep. A horse cart passed in the opposite direction, piled high with hay, the driver holding the reins with one hand, the other holding a cellphone to his ear.
Then, without warning, Crina pulled the car off the road in front of one of the houses, announcing, “we are here.”
Standing on the porch, he saw a round face looking through the grape leaves, a bright grin split her features as she trundled down the steps, retrieved her cane, and made her way to the gate to greet them.
Crina kissed her grandmother on both cheeks, then introduced the visitor as Jake.
A pair of hands, nearly as big as his own, reached up and pulled his face down to hers for a kiss. Then she murmured something soft and breathless.
“What did she say?” he asked.
Crina hesitated, then said, “She said, 'You have come just in time.”
Nearly dizzy from the amount of food she had served him, Jake surveyed the empty plates on the table. Chicken and gravy, followed by a mound of sarmale lathered with fresh sour cream, then rolled pancakes filled with jam, which Crina called clatitas.
“Eat, eat,” Bunica repeated for the twentieth time, pinching his stomach, then his cheeks.
Once Crina convinced her grandmother that he would explode with one more bite, she motioned him up from the chair and insisted on showing him the farm, proudly pointing out various highlights, which she had accomplished by herself. Her husband returned from post war deportation to the Soviet Union, too ill to work the land, and had eventually died prematurely in 1980.
In the barn she lovingly caressed a concrete cross that stood propped in the corner.
“She had it made after she was diagnosed with cancer,” Crina explained. “She has everything ready for her funeral.”
“I'm so sorry,” Jake lamented. “If I had known she was so sick, I wouldn't have eaten so much.”
Crina translated what he said and Bunica laughed, kissed him again.
“Don't be silly, the cross had been here in the barn for six years. Besides, it makes her happy to finally have a man at her table who can eat as much as she can cook.”
“But if she's making funeral preparations, shouldn't she be resting?”
Another burst of laughter and Crina said, “She says there's plenty of time to rest after she's buried.” Then, after a moment's pause, she added, “Besides, she's been waiting for you.”
Jake watched the meaningful exchange between the two women. A nod from Grandmother, then Crina said, “She's dreamed about your coming her whole life.”
His eyebrows raised, he gazed at the short, round woman, her eyes so bright he couldn't believe she was ill. She accepted his gaze, seemed to swallow it like a vitamin. Her eyes became moist, her lips pursed as if fighting a long wave of emotion. Once back in control, she took his hand, led him around back of the barn where a long field of potatoes had begun to flower, a purple glimmer in the hot sun, dotted by occasional yellow and white blooms. They walked slowly to the very end of the field, where she stopped, pointed up to the mountain range in the distance.
“What's up there?” Jake asked Crina.
“She says that's where you came from.”
He strained his eyes, recognizing the series of hills that surrounded the crest. “The Porolissum,” he said, turning to grin at the old woman. “Yes, that's what brought me here, to work at the Porolissum.”
After Crina translated, her grandmother shook her head, signaling “no” with several waves of her forefinger. Then spoke carefully, her eyes locked into Jake's.
“The Porolissum is not the reason you came here, she is,” Crina translated slowly. “She called you here to help her find something that was lost. She says she won't die until you recover it for her.”
He looked at the little grandmother, so much more powerful in her little frame than he felt in his gargantuan one. The thought that his arrival might mean her death clutched at his heart. He shook his head, his own eyes now moist. “Then I don't want to find it.”
The gnarled old hand rose to his face, not to pinch a cheek, but caress. “Will you do this for me?” she asked through Crina.
Finally, he nodded, and the blossom returned to grandmother's face.
What is it she wants me to find?” he asked,fighting to keep his voice from breaking with his heart.
Her grandmother reached into the folds of her apron and pulled out a faded piece of paper. She opened it lovingly, and handed it to Jake. It was a rough sketch of a disk, with the picture of a bull in the middle.
“It's called a phalera,” Crina explained, “a military decoration Roman soldiers wore on their breastplates.”
“How big is it?”
Crina asked her grandmother, who spread her thumb and forefinger apart..
“Okay, where do I look, in the museum?”
Crina asked her grandmother, which began an exchange that went back and forth so fast Jake couldn't decipher any of the words. Finally, a mildly exasperated Crina turned to Jake and said, “She says it was buried it up there by a young woman.” pointing to the mountain top off in the distance.
He frowned. “At the Porolissum?”
“When was this?”
Now she bit her lip, then kind of nodded, and said. “Near as I can make out, it would have been around the year 158 A.D.”
What a parade it had been. Jake and Crina, following Bunica, who walked painfully down the slope to the amphitheater, her cane digging into the ground, refusing Jake's offers of assistance.
Then came Andrei, the head archaeologist, Liviu, helping to translate, and the group of students who couldn't resist the allure of the mad adventure. Jake's first request had been turned down flat. No way he was going to dig outside the walls of the amphitheater on his own. But the director's resolve couldn't stand up to the warm-eyed entreaty of Crina's grandmother the next morning when they met at the Museum. What could it hurt, after all, if he dug a little. If he found nothing, he would just fill in the hole. If he found something, well.... it would be a feather in Andrei's cap.
“Respect,” had been Andrei's sharp answer. They had enough trouble getting funding for the annual digs, only made possible by the students' paying their own way. If the Ministry got wind of the fact he'd allowed an unplanned dig based on a crazy grandmother's dream, he'd be laughed out of his position, and work at the site would probably stop for years.
“How will they find out, if you don't tell them?” had been her simple answer.
A compromise was reached. Jake could dig, but only in a ten square meter section, and only after his regular duties and on weekends.
Thus the slow parade, to allow Buni to see if she could “feel” where Jake should dig. It was a torturous journey, which Jake prolonged by insisting they stop every twenty meters so he could rest. It was a shallow subterfuge, but one which the old woman accepted without resistance.
When they reached the hill just above the amphitheater, Buni stopped, squinted her eyes, and swept the landscape, nodding. Since the path was steep and rocky, she finally accepted Jake's assistance in working their way down to the actual site. Once inside the stony remains, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“Tell him your dream,” Crina said softly.
Bunica nodded, and slowly began to speak.
Jacobus saw the squad of Macedonians approaching from the north and clambered down the tower steps, meeting them just as they were about to pass.
“This is none of your concern, Jacobus,” said the Decanus, “We're here at the Centurio's orders.”
“Mine or yours?” he asked bluntly.
“Yours, though it's none of your business.”
He saw the three legionnaires who had attacked the girl, making no effort to mask their smirking faces as he moved out of the squad's path..
He stayed by the tower, watching the squad return with the farmer, hands bound behind his back. The man's eyes were beseeching, which Jacobus answered with a short nod.
After they were gone, he hurried to the farm, found the girl and her mother, arms around each other, weeping.
The mother misinterpreted his arrival, shielding her daughter against him, but the daughter gently extracted herself from her mother's arms and approached.
“Did they say why he was taken?” asked Jacobus.
“They claimed he stole a ram,” she answered in simple Latin, no doubt learned at the market.
Jacobus nodded. It was an almost indefensible charge, one of a multitude levied over the past month in anticipation of the arrival of the Emperor's representative. All would be found guilty, with the punishment to be meted out in the amphitheater. All part of putting on a good “Roman” show.
“I make no promises,” he said. “But I shall do my best to see your father returned to you.”
Her eyes shone with terrified gratitude.
“In his stead, what do you need here?” He smiled at her confusion.”I was a farmer before a soldier.”
Over the next several weeks he worked harder than he had in years. He hoed and planted corn and beans, hauling bucket after bucket of water to insure they had a sufficient supply to insure the seeds germinated properly. When not at the tower or helping the women, he canvassed trusted friends at the Porolissum, searching for a way to help the girl's father, knowing full well that there was very little hope. The governor was set on providing a proper Roman exhibition for the visiting dignitaries, and without the kind of wild animals Rome attracted, human carnage was the order of the day.
When the entourage from Rome arrived, the mountaintop fortress was a frenzy of military parades and parties lasting long into the night. Three days before the announced spectacle, Jacobus asked for and received a meeting with the centurio, who didn't seem especially surprised to see him.
The man watched him through narrow slits as Jacobus outlined his request. He would extend his time of service beyond the twenty-five year mark, in exchange for the release of the girl's father.
The Centurio shook his head. “Not enough.”
Jacobus studied him. “Which means, something more would be?”
Jacobus waited, as the man tapped his fingers on the stone table, apparently thinking. Finally, he said, “There is precedent, for a citizen to take another's place in the arena, but there would be conditions in this case.”
“The man you speak of was charged with theft. The witnesses against him were legionnaires.”
“So, I would need to fight them, to prove his innocence.”
“That would be one condition, but I'm not sure that would be enough to sway the governor.”
“What more? I am willing.”
“Your reputation on the field of battle would insure great interest amid our honored guests, but that reputation was gained against men.” He went on to explain what he was sure the governor would agree to, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the man's innocence.
Jacobus considered the proposal. “I have your word, if I do this, the man will be free to return to his family?”
“My word, even ascribed to papyrus, if you wish.”
“Your word is good enough for me, sir. But, if you don't mind, there is something else I would have written.”
Jake dug. While the others ate breakfast, he hurried down to the amphitheater and dug. Then he joined them on the other side of the site, helping to unearth what looked to be an old cistern. The previous year, the students had found a series of walls that seemed to lead to what might have been a bath house, given the arrangement of of bricks underneath that would have been used to heat the water that passed over them. As impatient as he was to get back to what Bunica believed was the spot of her dream, he found himself working meticulously, sifting each small shovelful of dirt for artifacts. And while there were times he felt as if he were just plain melting in the mid summer heat, he didn't care. All he could think of was bringing Bunica's trophy home to her.
When lunch arrived, he grabbed some carrots or other raw vegetables, and spent another half hour digging across the way. He was just as meticulous there, not wanting to miss the tiniest fragment. It was very possible that the phalera had been broken over the two centuries it had been nestled there.
“If it is there,” Andrei reminded him almost every day.
When the others went to dinner, he continued digging, until darkness or one of the aides came to insist he stop. He had asked for a lantern, but Andrei told him that working in such dim conditions might make him miss something, besides, he had to rest or he'd become sick.
“I've never felt better,” Jake insisted.
“But you need to eat, you'll be too weak to work.”
How could Jake explain that he was still working off meals he'd eaten ten years before? But arguing wasn't worth the effort. He put down his shovel and climbed the hill to join the others at the nightly campfire.
Saturdays, while the others went on field trips to the botanical garden at Jibou, the Holocaust Museum in Simleu, or the Roman site in Buciumi, Jake stayed and dug. He had reached the one meter deep level without finding anything, but Andrei had explained that he probably couldn't find anything until he reached two meters, at least. “If...”
Sundays, he was forbidden to work as the entire country rested or went to church. So Crina retrieved him to visit her grandmother. There, he had to eat, as Bunica complained that he was growing too thin. This made him laugh, and Crina translated to her grandmother that it was the first time in his life anyone had complained so.
After chicken soup, (which bunica said was a bonus because the rooster pecked her hand and the only fit punishment was to put him in the pot of boiling water to teach him some manners), potatoes and sausage, and sarmale, she settled back and started telling stories. How the Nazis took over their village and everyone had to hide in the woods. How her older brother was conscripted by a passing unit, even though he was only seventeen, and how he escaped, traveling through the woods for two weeks, living on leaves and roots, only to die of exhaustion in the front courtyard, so infested with grubs they continued to crawl out of his eyes at the funeral. How she sneaked back to her house to retrieve the family sewing machine, still standing against the far wall in the kitchen, lest the soldiers take it as war booty. How she broke her ankle when the bag she carried it in smashed against her leg as she was running back to the forest. How she lay there for an hour before two Romanian soldiers found her and carried her into the trees. Only to announce that an offensive was coming, and they would have to leave the forest before the bombardment started. How she limped across the furrows holding her four year old brother's hand, only reaching midway when the artillery shells started flying, exploding around them. How she covered her brother's body with her own for four hours, staying nose-to-nose with the boy, her little fingers in his ears, and her thumbs in her own to keep from going deaf. She pointed to the picture of a man whose features resembled her own. Now a grandfather, whose grandchilden had heard over and over again how they would never have arrived if his sister hadn't protected him so many years before. How her husband, who had been a large man himself, was taken to Russia after the war, returning weighing only 50 kilos. How she worked double shifts for the commune to make up for her his incapacity, many days taking Crina, whose parents were working in the city, on her back, setting her under a tree while she worked the fields.
He gazed at her while Crina translated, noting the powerful hands that touched his face so softly each time he arrived, her stocky legs and gnarled feet, that supported her while she worked as hard as any man, sometimes harder. Listening as she described walking to take hand made clothes to her daughter in the city, sometimes sleeping alongside the road at night since it was too far to return while it was still daylight.
She wheezed as she talked, often gasping as they walked, so she could show him how the corn had grown, how the potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumbers were tall and green in her small garden, how the branches of the nut tree was so heavy, they almost touched the ground.
Occasionally, Crina would surreptitiously move to the cold water sink to retrieve a rag and clean some blood that had fallen to the wavy linoleum floor. He always pretended not to see, to spare Bunica any embarrassment over her condition. And while the pain he felt didn't come close to matching hers, it stung him deeply to know that she was hurting so. That she would die one day seemed as impossible as his own death.
She never asked him if he found anything yet, knowing he would tell her if he had.
And he learned how to say, “Te Iubesc” — “I love you,” because it was the only way to keep the feeling from blowing up inside him as he spent time across the table from her. He couldn't remember the last time he said “I love you” to anyone in English, doubting if it would ever mean as much as saying it to her did.
He reached the two meter deep mark on the last week of the primary dig without finding anything. Andrei would come over occasionally, shake his head without saying a word, then return to the main building, muttering under his breath. As final pictures and measurements were taken of the walls and other features uncovered at the main section, Andrei announced that the next day they would begin filling back in what they had dug up. It was an annual precaution, as the earth that had hidden the stones and bricks for centuries were still the best protection against the elements. He glanced at Jake, his eyes transmitting an unmistakable message: “You will fill in your hole, as well.”
Jake dug furiously that evening, still trying to be careful, but terrified that he would have to leave with his work undone, the phalera still hidden.
Just before dark, Crina arrived, the Dacia screeching to a halt, kicking up dirt and stone. She came running down to the amphitheater calling his name.
“What's the matter?”
“She's very ill,” she said. “She's asking to see you.”
Jake sprinted up the hill to the car, with Crina close at his heels. They raced down the windy road through Moisgrad, through Zalau, and back up over the meses, careening dangerously around the sharp curves.
“You don't think...?” Jake started.
Crina was biting her lip, shook her head. “No, I don't think. I can't think about it at all.”
It was completely dark when they pulled in front of the gate. Once inside, he was shocked to see Bunica in bed, her face turned to the wall.
“Buni?” Crina said gently. “Jake is here.”
There was a slight groan as she turned to look at him, her face illuminated in the harsh light of the single bulb that hung down from the middle of the ceiling. She smiled, but a shard of pain cut it in half.
“How are you?” he asked, through Crina.
“Dying, I think,” she replied, then eyes wrinkling from her tight, painful grin.
“You should go to the hospital,” he said, frowning.
She shook her head. “I birthed my baby in this bed.” She patted the blanket. “My husband died here. I am not leaving.”
She waved her hand idly. “This dying's not as bad as everyone says.”
“But you said you would wait until I found the phalera.”
She half shrugged. “Maybe you find it tomorrow, eh?”
He took her hand and kissed it. “I;m staying here tomorrow, to be with you.”
Her eyes sharpened. “You promised.”
“I don't want to die with everyone thinking I was crazy. You prove them wrong for me, you hear?”
He nodded when Crina was through translating.
That night, he and Crina took turns sitting up with her. As he lay in the other room, unable to sleep, his feet hung over the edge of the old traditional bed, he would hear her groans and Crina's soothing voice. She never moaned when he sat with her. They didn't talk. He just held her hand, her big rough hand, trying to keep his tears from falling on it.
The next morning, Crina's mother relieved them so Crina could drive him back to the mountaintop. They drove without speaking.
As he walked past the main site, he was surprised no one was there. It wasn't until he started down the hill to the amphitheater that he saw the students: all working around his hole. Andrei was circling, arguing with Liviu.
“We have to finish on top,” he berated the students. “ Then turned when he saw Jake. “This is your fault. And that crazy old woman. If I had known—“
“Stop right there,” Jake warned. “Don't you dare call her crazy, or I'll put you in this hole and bury you for someone to find you a century from now.”
Andrei stared at him, his fists curling and uncurling. Then he whirled on his heels and stomped away.
One of the students handed Jake a shovel.
“How is she?” asked one of the girls.
Jake only shook his head.
“You work the middle, we'll handle the perimeter,” another student said.
“What about Andrei?”
“What's he going to do,” cracked another of the girls, “send us home?”
Jacobus sat on the curved stone wall that surrounded the arena, looking at the setting sun. From inside the stone holding cells he could hear men moaning, sobbing, bemoaning their awaiting fate. There were ominous growls coming from the cells on the other side of the circle. None of this affected him. He was thinking of Britannica, Jerusalem, the nights before battle when soldiers prepared, each in their own way, for what might be their last day on earth.
He heard them before he saw them, turning to find the father and daughter standing, as if waiting for permission to approach him. He nodded, the girl moved toward him.
“We don't know how to thank you,” she said, her lip trembling. “My father...”
“I did not ask to see you for thanks,” he said softly. “I am happy to do this for my own reasons.”
“But what can we do for you, in return?”
“Live, be happy. Marry, have children. Make sure they are happy. That is enough.”
“But what for you?”
“You can take this for me.” He handed her a papyrus roll.
“I do not read.”
“It says, if I die tomorrow, you will receive my death benefits, 5,000 dinari and 50 hectares of land.”
“But you will not die, will you?
He smiled. “I hope not, but...”
“Why would you do this for us?”
He was silent for a moment, then said. “I have been away from home a long time. My parents are dead, there is no one to … mourn me.”
“Mourn?” she asked.
“To remember me.” A sad smile. “Will you do that for me?”
“Thank you.” He reached into a small pouch and pulled out two bronze disks. He handed her the first one.
“What is it?” she asked, looking at the engraving of a bull.
“Is is a phalera. An honor I received for a battle. If I die tomorrow, will you make sure this goes into my grave.”
She took the disk, gingerly, as if it burned her hand.
“And this second one,” he said, “I want you to take it to the temple.”
“What do I do there?”
“Just set it by the altar, and say, 'Great Jupiter, Jacobus the bull is coming home.”
“Great Jupiter, Jacobus the bull is coming home,” she twice repeated softly.
She stood holding one disk in each hand, seeming unable to move from the spot.
“Go,” Jacobus said. “Your father is waiting for you.”
She stayed, finally turned to him and said. “If you don't die tomorrow...”
He kept silent as she gathered her courage.
“If you don't die tomorrow, will you...”
“If I don't die tomorrow, I will come help you harvest the corn.”
A small smile fought its way through her struggling emotions. “You promise?”
He sat in the small, dark room, listening to the sounds of the crowd that swept past the doorway, small wisps of sounded echoing around him. Trumpets, a cheering crowd. The first clanging of swords, all finally dimming as if coming from a far distance. He had time, there would be lesser soldiers to finish off the large group of so-called criminals that had been gathered over the past month. He thought of the corn growing, how good it had felt to put seed into the ground and see it emerge from the dark soil and turn green. The flowers on the apple trees, that would soon be fruit. And of his promise to the girl that he would help with the harvest. He would not hold her to any debt over her father's release, but perhaps take his retirement money and find some land near to theirs. He hadn't known neighbors for so long, that would be enough to see him through the rest of his days.
A soldier appeared at the door. “It is time, Jacobus.”
He rose, fitted the breastplate, and walked out into the sunlight.
The sound of the crowd washed over him as he heard his name, his list of accomplishments, and then those of the men he was facing. There they were, the three Macedonians who had testified against the girl's father. Without bravado, he gestured them towards him. They moved apart, circling him cautiously.
Then suddenly, with a roar, he raced right at the one directly in front of him, turning at the last moment to slash on the one who had come from the right. He felt the killing blow to the man's neck travel sweetly up his arm, but immediately went low, feeling the wind of a missed sword strike, his blade cutting through the second man's leg at the knee. He went down screaming.
Rolling to his left, Jacobus avoided the last man's swipe, lunging upwards, burying metal to the hilt as blood gushed out. He was holding the man, face to face, said evenly, “Now you will be with your sister again. She will be happy to see you.”
He pulled away, letting the man fall. Stood over the second man, whose leg was exsanguinating rapidly, but he still lived.
He raised his sword to the governor's tent-shaded seats, saw for the first time the dignitaries from Rome, one of whom yawned without covering his mouth. A referee motioned to the crowd for a decision.
After the shouting died down, Jacobus looked down at the man on the ground. “It's gone against you.”
The crowd roared, “Jacobus the bull!” as he left the arena.
He returned to the arena three times. Killed seven more men. When the soldier came again, Jacobus rose, began to affix his breastplate, but the man shook his head.
“No armor, this time, Jacobus.”
“And no sword.”
The man handed him a short knife. “The way you are fighting today, your opponent might just lay down and die once the crowd calls your name.”
A roar of “Jacobus” did indeed greet him as he strode into the sunlight again, increasing in intensity as he walked to the center of the arena.
There was a sudden gasp as a door was opened on the other side of the circle. He looked to face his next opponent. Heard another kind of roar, glanced up at the Centurio, sitting next to the governor. Both were grinning, trading words with the Roman officials.
Maddened by thirst and hunger, raging from small wounds, the huge bear roared again as it entered the arena.
Jacobus took a defensive stance, awaited the enraged beast's charge.
“I've found something,” called out one of the girls.
“What?” shouted Jake, rushing over to the south end of the pit.
“It looks like … a skull.”
“Human?” asked Andrei, suddenly interested, dropping skittering down into the pit.
The girl brushed away the rest of the dirt, carefully lifted the skull from the ground. “I don't think so,” she said with a note of awe. “If it was, would have to be the ugliest man that ever lived.”
Andrei and Jake reached the girl at the same time. The director took the skull, held it up, shook his head. “I'll be damned, Andrei murmured. “She wasn't crazy after all.”
“It's a bear's skull, isn't it,” said Jake.
“Dig, everybody,” the director ordered. “We've still got five hours of daylight.”
Covered in dirt, Jake jumped out of the minivan and raced inside the cottage, only slowing when he heard the sobbing of Crina and her mother. He looked at the small form on the bed, so still, the large, strong hands folded over her chest.
“No, she can't be,” he cried.
Crina rose and put her arms around him.
“About an hour and a half ago.”
“But... we found it.” He held up the phalera. “She was right. We found the bones, the bear, Jacobus. They died in a death embrace, just like she described. She was right about everything.”
“She knew,” Crina sad, a sob catching in her throat. “She told us you found it, then...she smiled and just went to sleep...”
Now he put his arms around her, holding her up as her grief threatened to topple her.
“But, what do I do with it?”
“She said you were to keep it.”
“But why? It should go in her coffin.”
Crina shook her head. “She said it was for you, so you would remember her.”
They sat next to each other in the international departures terminal at Cluj. Occasional passersby glancing at the powerful, tan American, sitting next to a dark-haired Romanian woman.
“Passport?” Crina asked.
“Right here,” Jake patted the pocket of his shirt.
He smiled, holding up the small leather bag. “Everything, all in here.”
“And you think you can get all that you need... arranged in time?”
“I'm sure of it.”
A voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing that his flight was about to begin boarding. He rose, hefted his knapsack onto his shoulder. He looked at Crina, who had taken off her glasses, and noticed the for first time how much her eyes reminded him of her grandmother's. She reached up, kissed his cheeks, then wrapped herself around him as if to keep him from boarding the plane. He slipped the bronze disk into her pocket, then kissed her forehead, extracted himself from her embrace and started toward the gate, aware that people were staring at him, but not as they had when he arrived.
As he stood in line, he heard a shout and looked back to see Crina holding up the phalera, which she had discovered in her pocket.
“You should take this,” she called out.
He shook his head. “Keep it until I return to help with the harvest.”
“Promise.” He saluted her, tapping his fist against his chest, murmured the two words he knew whose meaning would never sound right in any other language, “Te iubesc.”