A Flash of Fiction

Here is a piece of flash fiction for you today. Purely imaginary, I assure you.


Lessons from Latin

It was a conversation from a long time ago – 1974? 1975? Latin class, anyway.

Latin, in our comprehensive school, was a hangover from the grammar school it had been only a few years before. Those who took it were self-consciously the clever kids, interested in history, or with parents who valued the old grammar school ways. We followed the Cambridge Classics curriculum – Caecilius est pater, Metella est mater – but we were well beyond that text, discussing a story we had just translated.

“Eww, marrying a thirteen year old off to a man in his fifties, it’s disgusting.”

“However did those Roman girls bear it?”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Oh, it was very common, especially among the upper classes,” put in Mr Miller, our Latin master. “Pliny the Younger himself was over fifty when he married his third wife. She was fifteen. He writes very affectionate letters to her. There is one included in your set texts for next year.”

Several people made faces at this.

In the story the girl, Polla, confided her troubles to the young man she had hoped to marry. This Helvidius proposed a Romeo and Juliet style solution. Consulting a sinister drug-seller, he obtained a preparation that would let Polla fake her death. He then proposed to abstract her body from the family vault and carry her off to marry her himself.

Nobody raised any questions about the implications of that, though it would still leave a thirteen-year-old in a sexual relationship and totally in the power of her husband. It was the seventies after all. And Romeo and Juliet has a lot to answer for.

I had been thinking about the unlikelihood of a thirteen year old having that kind of a relationship, a would-be lover to turn to, whether in Roman times or the present day. But I wasn’t about to make any remark that would draw attention to my own boyfriend-less status.

The story had turned to tragedy when the drug failed to work as promised. Polla died in truth, Helvidius was left distraught.

Then Kim Harper spoke up.

“Well, I think it was a silly plan. The girl should have married the rich old senator. He couldn’t have lasted long and then she would have inherited much of his money. As a prosperous young widow she would have had a lot more freedom, could probably have married Helvidius then.”

“Ah, yes. A solution more in keeping with Roman mores,” said Mr Miller. “Mind, fifty is not that old, she could have been waiting twenty years for her widowhood.”

“But it wouldn’t have been particularly suspicious if he died, at that age. If she wanted to hurry things.”

“So, Kimberly,” said Mr Miller, with a kind of horrified fascination, “if he lingered too long you would have been off to the drug-seller for a dose of poison?”

Kim considered this.

“Buying poison is a fatal mistake,” she opined, “you’d either be caught or blackmailed for ever. I think I’d go for Lily of the Valley. Perfectly acceptable flowers to have on display, for all that they are poisonous. If you put them in a vase the toxins leak into the water. Then you could feed the water to your victim, in spiced wine for example.”

There was a reason Kim Harper was considered the weirdest girl in the whole school.

Yeah, I had remembered that conversation a long time, I thought, as I added three pots of Lily of the Valley to the garden centre trolley. Men in their fifties and thirteen year old girls, thirteen year old step-daughters, that wasn’t to be tolerated.



A Little Self Promotion

My story ‘Object Lessons’ will be featured on Every Day Fiction – the Online Flash Fiction Magazine today. It is a very short piece, just 400 words but some encouraging things have been said about it.

“I didn’t see that ending coming. I think our readers will enjoy this to brighten a Monday with some humour.” Camille Gooderham Campbell , Editor, Every Day Fiction.

The piece will continue to be findable at Every Day Fiction thereafter.

The subject is not mythological but I have definitely subverted a metaphor!

Yes, a toothbrush!

Yes, a toothbrush!

On Putti

Ever wondered about the inspiration behind ‘putti’, the little winged children that are seen, playing, fighting and attending Gods and Goddesses, in Renaissance painting and sculpture and also in frescoes from Pompeii?  My thoughts inspired this fictional account. It is given by Lavinia, a servant at the Latin shrine of Alba Longa or White Ridge.

cropped putti

The holiest parts of the shrine lie deep within the grove and in the fissures and clefts of the cliff. A great square boulder tumbled from the cliff forms a natural altar and screens a dank crevasse, shaded with ferns.   Flocks of rock doves nest on the cliffs and also in wattle dove houses where they are bred up for sacrifice. The priestess tends them herself and marks which are to be offered and which to be spared.

We used them especially for the rite of Ruminalis which is carried out when a child is to be fully weaned. The mother and child with other relatives come to the shrine and make offerings of sweet stuffs, dried figs and raisins, honey or fresh fruits in season.   A dove is selected and offered at the common altar, just within the grove. The doves are accustomed to handling and make little disturbance. A swift stroke with the knife will take off the head and the welling blood is caught in a cup. Most of this is poured as a libation to the goddess. Then the wings are cut off the bird and used to anoint the child, forehead and breast, with a splash of blood.  At White Ridge we then thread the wings on a string and give them to the child, to play with or to wear. Very pretty these weanlings look, tumbling about on unsteady feet, chased for their feathers by older playmates.

The dove is cooked into a good broth for the child’s first proper meal. It is well if the young one has played hard and is hungry when the time comes to eat, for weaning is a dangerous time for children. The mothers and relatives will talk long with the priestess about the best foods and methods and how to tempt a sickly or fractious child. For the women the afternoon often ends in weeping, talking over bittersweet memories of other children, lost as infants. But living children coming in boisterous and hungry to the evening meal are a comfort and a distraction. All in all, it is a happy festival, is Ruminalis and there are few in farms and villages around the lake who would neglect to come to the shrine to mark it.

Image cropped from  Heldrich, Frieze with Putti 1898, Shepherd Gallery CC by 2.0