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Lavinia, live

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Before, she made music with lute and voice. It was not her only pursuit, for a virtuous Roman woman must spin and weave to clothe her family, and an activity that produced nothing tangible seemed to savor too much of frivolity. But music was her delight. Before, even stern Titus smiled to hear her play, drawing a rippling fall of music from the instrument or singing the ancient hymns to the gods in due season. Now that music was lost to her, a small loss among so many losses, and yet it was not the least of the things she wept for.

The night after Titus Andronicus was buried in the tomb of his ancestors, Lavinia dreamed of a youth with a golden bow at his back and the sunlight caught in his hair. “This was an ill deed,” he said, and frowned. “If your father had not been too impatient, I myself would have taken vengeance for your wrongs. It is I, the god of Delos, who take heed even for the birds who nest in my temple eaves. Have they taken your voice, sweet bird, and the hands with which you used to play for me? You have lost your voice, but I will lend you mine. Come to my temple, and there become my priestess. My prophetic voice will speak through you, and I will guide the Roman state.”

And so it was that Lavinia lived as a priestess in Apollo’s temple for the rest of her days, honored by her fellow servants of the god and reverenced by the people of Rome.

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Lavinia meant only to wait until she was stronger, until they watched her less closely, before completing what was left undone. Her father wished her dead, and she had always been a dutiful daughter. And then she realized she was with child, and the thought became unthinkable. She kept the knowledge to herself, revealed only from time to time in a secret smile.

As the months wore on, her brother and her uncle started giving her uneasy glances, and they would stop their conversation when she entered the room. She did not let it trouble her, for her treasure was safe under her eyes, under her heart.

When it came time for the child to be born, Lavinia cried out without words to Juno Lucina, and the goddess heard her and granted her a safe delivery. But as she lay with her newborn son in her arms, her brother came into the room. His pace was slow and reluctant, and he would not meet her eyes as he bade her women wait outside.

“Lavinia, hear me. I do not like this duty, but I am head of our family now, and it falls on me. If this child is the son of Bassianus, that is well. He was a noble man, and I honored him. But if it is not –“

It was the law and custom of Rome. The father of each household had the right to decide whether a child born in his house should be raised, or exposed to die. Lavinia felt a cold chill settle over her. The child is mine, she gestured fiercely.

“It grieves me to the heart, sister. But we cannot be sure. To raise a ravisher’s offspring would shame your father’s house and all Rome.”

In despair and defiance, Lavinia drew herself up and gave the Emperor of Rome such a look as Titus Andronicus had used to make even emperors quail. Lucius retreated. From behind the half-open door she heard, “Uncle, you speak to her.” But Marcus did not come in.

Lavinia did not let her child out of her sight until she could rise from her bed, and then she came to the Emperor carrying her son and a book borrowed from her nephew’s library. She placed the book open before him. Lucius greeted her reluctantly, but looked at the page where she directed him. “O you Achaeans, with whom prowess in war bulks larger than wisdom, why did you fear this child and add slaughter to slaughter?”

He blanched. “Which of the poets is this, sister?”

Read, she gestured. Lucius turned the pages back. “Hector cannot come to you, snatching up his famous spear; he cannot leave the grave to succor you. I remember now, this is the lament for Astyanax, Hector’s son, whom the victorious Greeks slew . . .” Avoiding her face, he turned back to the play but found no help there. Reading the next line, his voice faltered. “Your father’s kinsmen cannot help you, nor the strength of Phrygia. Sister, do not look at me so.” He was silent for a moment. “Very well,” he said. “Give me the boy.”

Lavinia passed over the child without hesitation. Lucius had no treachery in him.

“I take up this child,” Lucius said, “the son of my sister and her late husband Bassianus. And if any base villain objects, he will feel the wrath of the Emperor.”

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Without a tongue to form speech and hands to act, Lavinia lost much of what was said to separate men from the beasts. She did not grieve at that, for had not men and women shown themselves worse than beasts to her?

Her brother and her uncle looked at her with pity, but her father’s hunting-dogs welcomed her the same as ever. Her scent had not changed, and so to them she was still Lavinia. She stroked their shaggy sides, and they licked her wrists and were glad. With two or three of them bounding beside her, she walked the forest and was not afraid. The dogs were large and solid and faithful; they could protect her. No one had harmed her lips, and when she whistled, the dogs leapt to obey her.

In former days, she had ridden to the hunt and drawn a bow as skillful as her brothers’. Now she tracked the beasts to their hidden lairs but did not harm them, and they seemed to make a place for her among themselves. She saw where the eagles built their nests, and the first time the young foxes left their den, and a silent pool where the reflections of the pines were broken only by the rare leap of a silver-gleaming fish. She could not tell anyone what she had seen, but she did not mind that. The languages of men did not have the right words.

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Once Lavinia had read aloud to her brother’s son, and now he returned the favor. With more patience than she would have thought to find in one so young, he read to her from Homer, the Latin poets, and the histories that told the noble deeds of their ancestors.

One day the boy frowned and broke off in the midst of reading the description of the shield of Achilles. “If Vulcan could make such a marvelous shield,” he said, “and metal servants that move by themselves, and so many other things, I am sure he could make you a new pair of hands. Men are not gods, but why should not someone try? Would you like that, aunt?”

She shook her head, not meaning that she would not like it, but that it was not possible. But young Lucius persisted. He spoke of it to her uncle and then to his father, who was Emperor of Rome. And when the Emperor commanded, men moved to obey.

In the end, they made her hands of wood, since metal was too heavy and would weary her. They were not the same as her own nimble fingers, but they could hold and grasp. When she held a pen between her fingers for the first time since the loss of her hands, Lavinia was shaken by a sudden storm of weeping and could not stop long enough to reassure her anxious kinsmen.

They had given words back to her, who had been deprived of words for so long. She could take part now in a conversation, but most often she sat in her chamber and wrote frantically, covering the parchment with inky scrawls. She wrote a history first, relating the illustrious deeds of their house. Then an epic in dactylic hexameters blazed forth to astonish Rome. She was possessed by a Muse of fire, and the words flew from her hand like sparks from a forge.

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Everything in Rome reminded Lavinia of her griefs, and at last she determined to leave home. She persuaded Camilla, one of the more adventurous household servants, to be her companion, and they bought passage on the first ship to leave the harbor. They stopped at Sicily and sailed onward to Africa, where they met Moors who were not in the least like Aaron. In Egypt, they wondered at the statues of kings in endless rows, signs of an antiquity that made Rome itself seem young. Turning northward again, they saw frozen lands where the snow lay on the ground all the year long and the young people glided along the icy rivers on blades of metal and bone.

They travelled to far lands where the people did not speak Latin or Etruscan or even Greek, and Camilla’s quickness of speech helped no more than Lavinia’s silence. Over time, they worked out a sort of gesture-language, and, after all, there was much that could be said without words. At times when it seemed perilous to travel openly as women, Lavinia wore men’s clothing, since she was the taller, and let Camilla pass as her sister. Camilla explained Lavinia’s maimed hands and tongue as wounds suffered in war, and spun stories of imaginary battles until Lavinia, smiling, shook her head to chide her. There were wonders enough on land, but the sea itself was a wonder, and Lavinia grew to love the long weeks between harbors, watching the tossing waves and breathing in the salt-scented air. She was never seasick, much to Camilla’s envy.

She was away for ten years, and when she returned, her heart was at peace.

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Lavinia stayed at home; how not? Her mother and her brother’s wife had both been dead for long years, and without her there would be no woman to oversee the household tasks or tend to the sacred hearth-fire. Her family needed her: her brother Lucius, newly weighed down with cares of state; her uncle Marcus, still the prop of Rome, but aged by grief that he would not show; and her nephew the younger Lucius, who had no mother except for her. They gave her their strength, and she supported them in turn. Lavinia was with those who loved her, and she was not unhappy.

As the year turned toward winter, she recalled the story of Proserpina, who was taken into darkness. The goddess, too, had suffered at the hands of a ravisher. Lavinia wrapped her mantle more tightly about her and waited for spring.

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Lavinia was not supposed to live. Titus Andronicus was not wont to miss his aim. But he held the knife with his left hand and struck hastily, and so it was that she opened her eyes again after long and confused dreaming.

When her wound was healed, Lavinia spent long hours in the ancient tomb of the Andronici. She brought offerings daily and paid the customary rites to the dead. Holding the vessel carefully between her wrists, she poured libations for each of the dear ones who rested there. Her uncle Marcus feared the gloomy place would trouble her mind and gently sought to dissuade her from her visits to the tomb. But she persisted, and in time he let her be.

To Lavinia, the tomb was a refuge. Her safety had been stripped from her in bright daylight, but none would dare to insult her in the presence of her father and brothers. Here by their side she shunned the pitying gazes of others, the shameful awkwardness of even the simplest tasks, and speech which seemed to reproach her with her lack of speech. Among the silent dead she moved on utterly silent feet as if she were herself a spirit. When the doves fluttered in fright from their perch in the cypresses, she heard the winged sandals of Mercury, who was said by the Greeks to guide the souls of the dead with his staff. And gradually, her ears became attuned to the voices of the dead.

Titus Andronicus, below the earth, was finally at peace. But her younger brother Mutius grieved that he had died so young. To comfort him, she told stories of what took place among the living, of sunlit fields and the chattering of sparrows. She needed no tongue, for she spoke to him in the wordless language of the dead.

It was not only her own dead who spoke to her, she came to realize. A poor shepherd died in a remote part of the mountains and lamented that there was no one to bury him or place the coin on his tongue for Charon. Lavinia guided her brother’s servants to the place and saw the dead man interred with due rites. His shade thanked her before departing.

As time passed, many shades came to her: criminals, virtuous maidens, soldiers slain in their prime, old mothers bent by the weight of many years. Lavinia spoke with all of them, found what troubled them, and comforted them when she could.

It was not right for her to die, Lavinia realized. The dead needed her where she was.

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After the battle, Lavinia took the most stout-hearted of her attendants and went among the tents where the wounded lay. She was the daughter and sister of soldiers, and wounds dealt in battle did not frighten her. It was a gracious gesture by the Emperor’s sister, but it was also something more. She acknowledged the secret fear in their eyes, that their wounds would make them helpless and useless, and met it with her own calm gaze. Sometimes she only sat by their bedside. Yes, she said to them silently, if you endure this moment and live on, you will find your life again. When it seemed helpful, she showed them the ingenious contrivances of hooks and ties, which could do many things that hands could do and some things that hands could not, and the wax tablet that she carried around her neck, and the stylus that attached to her wrist and could be flipped out of the way when not in use.

She went among the women, also. What she said to them was different, but not so different.

When she returned home, she wrote a line of Vergil on the tablet which she showed her brother: Non ignara mali, miseris succurrere disco. Not unfamiliar with misfortune, I learn to help those who have suffered.

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Lucius had to marry again, of course. Alliance with the Emperor of Rome was too powerful a tool not to use. Lavinia approved of her brother’s eventual choice, and indeed had some part in it. Lucius knew the powerful men of Rome, but Lavinia knew their daughters. Her brother did not choose for himself alone; his wife would be protectress of the Roman state and mother of emperors. Valeria was worthy to be both wife and Empress, and Lavinia gladly welcomed her as a sister.

Lavinia was sitting one day at her reading when Valeria came to her chamber. Lavinia at once put aside her book and stood to welcome the Empress. Valeria glanced at the opened pages and sighed. “I wish I could read Greek,” she said wistfully. She blushed at Lavinia’s look of surprise. “I was never taught to read Greek letters,” Valeria said, still a little abashed. “My parents said that it was enough for a woman to read and write in Latin. But I would give half my dowry to read Homer and Sophocles for myself.”

Lavinia nodded thoughtfully. Her father’s only daughter, she had been given more freedom than most maidens in any virtuous pursuit. Music, Greek, painting – all the tutors she wished for had been at her command. Come here, she gestured, smiling. With her stylus she wrote, I will teach you.

Together, they studied authors both Greek and Roman, in prose and poetry. Their studies brought pleasure to both of them, but Lavinia continued to turn over the matter in her mind. Why should Valeria be the only one to learn? First Valeria’s younger sister joined them, then the wife of Lavinia’s cousin Publius. Their small circle grew, and with the Empress’s approval, Lavinia brought in tutors and philosophers to teach what she could not. At last it became an academy in all but name.

Years later, as Lavinia bounced her brother’s baby daughter in her arms, Valeria asked her curiously, “Sister, have you never wanted to remarry? As Vergil says, to know sweet children and the gifts of Venus?” Lavinia smiled and shook her head. She gestured to the maidens who sat nearby, their heads bent over a perplexing point of grammar. These are my children.

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Lucius had been a soldier all his life and knew well how to command men on the battlefield. Being Emperor, as he found to his disquiet, was entirely different. He turned often to his uncle for advice, but somewhat to his surprise, he also found himself consulting his sister. It began because he wanted to lend her his company but found the silence uncomfortable. Almost at random, Lucius began speaking of the dispute that was vexing him, a quarrel between Romans and Goths where he must tread carefully and offend neither party. Lavinia listened attentively, then took up her stylus and wrote out where he might find a precedent in Roman law and custom. From then on, Lucius did not attempt to exclude her from matters of state. A practical Roman used every resource at his disposal.

The greater part of his education had been in the field, and he knew that Lavinia was more widely read. But that was not the only reason he sought her counsel. She did not hesitate to let him know when she thought him in the wrong, and the Emperor would endure harsh truths from her that he could not brook from another. She taught him patience and humility, so that he did not lose the people’s hearts through overmuch pride. Her compassion balanced the strictness of his judgments.

When the Emperor passed away of a fever – the only one of his father’s sons to die peacefully in bed -- the undisputed election fell upon his son. Long a pillar of the state, Marcus Andronicus had also rested in the tomb beside his brother for many years. Young Lucius, no longer a boy, turned to Lavinia and asked her, “You will help me, aunt, won’t you?” She nodded in solemn promise. Though it was not spoken of in the Senate-house, she remained one of the Emperor’s most valued and cherished advisors for as long as she lived. When at last she died, full of years, all of Rome mourned for her and she was buried in the tomb of the Andronici with great honor.