The Wind in Rome [Extract]

The wind is born from nothing, and vanishes
to nowhere, leaving nothing but stories behind.
Tacitus

The wind in Rome vanishes at the very same time as Celestion returns from his final naval campaign. Final, because the wind does not rise on the day after his return, nor on any day of the month which follows, while soon Celestion himself, the best of my commanders, prefers to vanish too, following the wind’s example, complaining to me before he does so that the absence of waves on the sea is driving him out of his mind.

It is around this same time that rumours begin to spread through my city: somewhere on the outskirts an old woman – crackpot you would think, to look at her – is roaming the streets foretelling misfortune for everyone she encounters, and each of her predictions comes unerringly true, which I personally rather doubt; I ascribe this tale to that same absence of even the very feeblest puff of wind in the city, since even if there is this old woman, then no-one can vouch for her prophecies: after all, scarcely any time at all has passed since the city air reached this unbearable temperature. However, refuting the rumours is impossible, for the same reason.

Any time now we can expect revolt, because not only are the flags which hang above my palace now drooping, and the fans which wave within now useless, but elsewhere the tunics and tresses of our beautiful Roman women no longer now flutter, while each day now birds fall from the heavens, their wings having nothing on which to gain purchase – this is not the happiest of portents, even without the rumours of mad old women.

The smooth, nay, flawless mirror of the water in the bay where the entire Roman sailing fleet is held captive merges seamlessly with the fathomless sky and twice each day it seems as though the boats take the place of the birds and hover in the air: at dawn, shortly before the sun rises, and at dusk, just after the scorching red disk of the sun disappears from view.

Without exception, every poet in Rome gathers on the shore of the bay for the morning minutes of this delightful enchantment, and those among them who manage to catch their restless muse by the toe of her sandal in the morning repair to the shore in the evening, too, to declaim, to the appreciative exclamations of the city’s residents, anything which, or so the poets believe, might divert the Romans, who are dejected from the lack of wind.

I am also in the habit of spending my evenings on the shore, hearkening to the poets and drinking in the sight of the triremes hanging in the air, and one day I hear one of these poets loudly recounting the tale of a nameless grandee who spends his days and nights surrounded by courtesans; he scorns their embrace completely, bidding them instead to blow constantly in his direction and so create an approximation of breeze. He is no miser, he pays well for the difficult labour of their lungs and cheeks.

I instantly guess who in Rome might be ready to cast his entire fortune to the wind, and I send men to discover which part of the city is home to this ill-starred versifier, who does not even begin to suspect what the man whose anonymity he has so recklessly destroyed might do to him in return.

My spies return and report that Celestion has based himself in one of the brothels in the eastern outskirts, and that the women within are cooling only him, no others, with their exhalations, while that ambitious rhymer who, quite unaware he was doing so, revealed the location of my general is merely one of those who got short shrift following the latter’s appearance in the establishment.

I need Celestion. Rome’s main strength has always been her navy, and now, when that same fleet is twice daily suspended shimmering somewhere between heaven and water, Rome is growing weak. Our enemies may soon learn of this, but what worries me more than anything else is the notion that those who dwell in the Eternal City have already begun to forget what the wind is, and I am left with two options: either to let them forget that it ever existed, or to do all in my power to return the wind to Rome. I decide to talk to Celestion myself, and to this end I spend the whole of the following day making my way through the eastern outskirts of Rome, trying to remain incognito.

“I will help you, my sovereign,” Celestion is glad I have come. “Not least as my money will soon run out, and my delightful companions, it seems, have forgotten how to blow – they didn’t even bother trying to purse their lips today. Most likely they have guessed that their client will not be able to keep his head above water much longer.”

On the way back we run into an old woman coming the other way. Almost before she has caught sight of me, she flinches, and presses herself to the wall. The soldiers escorting me seize her by the arms, but I immediately order them to release her. In her eyes I see madness and I know who it is that stands before me.
“Tell me, kind woman, how to get back that which is lost without trace?”
The old woman lifts her hand and stretches it out to touch my face, then she gazes long into my eyes. Finally, she says, “In the mountains it was born, over the sea it was lost. Search in the place where you have not yet looked.”
“You speak no sense, old woman!” My rage surges within me.

She laughs mockingly, but seemingly she is, nonetheless, fearful of my demeanour, because, cutting her laughter off abruptly, she finishes the words she had meant to say: “You cannot return that which you did not possess. If you find that which you have not lost, you might lose everything which belongs to you, and then, also, that which you are yet to have.”

For several days both as I fall asleep and awaken, the old woman’s words are on my lips, but even so I cannot decipher their meaning, and then I forget about them, for at last Celestion appears and I must speak to him with the senators convened, whom he will soon persuade that a new military campaign, this time land-based, is vital.

As before, there is no wind. Rome is languishing in the heat. When it rains I close my eyes, for I cannot bear to see the drops fall in perfect vertical lines. The rain brings almost no relief, but that “almost” is the sole thing which keeps my legions from mutiny. If I do not send Celestion on a campaign to the east, they will bring him, or someone else, to power.

The ruler of such a huge empire as that of Rome must constantly maintain the infinite difference between himself and his subjects – that is, in fact, the main infinite difference between the ruler and the many citizens of Rome who are just waiting for the moment when I become, even if only slightly, the same as them, the same as everyone. The endless military campaigns, the necessity for constantly expanding the Empire’s borders, my simultaneous presence in several places at once, which is quite inexplicable to the masses (it is, of course, in fact due to the skilful spread of rumours to that effect): all of these are the inevitable attributes of power, no less than my palaces, my legions, and my concubines.

My concubines… My head used to be turned more by the impetuous gallop of a mare with her mane tossing in the wind, by an untamed herd of horses down at the shoreline, challenging the waves and scattering the foam with their hooves. I can watch that forever. At least, I could, until the wind vanished. Maybe this is why I have always preferred to campaign against naval powers, despite the seasickness which has plagued me since my very childhood. Or maybe I sensed from my very childhood that misfortune would come from a distant mountainous land where I have never been, for the same reason: for fear of losing sight of the sea. Sometimes I find it funny that no-one has guessed this weakness of mine.

I do have one powerful quality: I am bound to nothing. I bow to no-one. I love no-one. I am certain that the only genuinely powerful person is he who has no attachments. There are no bounds stronger than love. He who has known love has acquired a weakness and cannot hope to become strong once again, and for this reason Caesar knows not love, and of this Caesar is rightly proud.

Of course, I have women without number. From the north and from the south, from the west of the Empire and from the east, yet not one of them touches my heart sufficiently for me even to want to ask any of them their name. The fair-haired maids who have made the long journey from Scandinavia, the dark-skinned denizens of Africa, the almond-eyed natives of the lands to the east – none of them can even speak my language, and so I can hardly remember the faces of those who my personal servants bring to me for a second time, mistaking my uncertain stare for long-awaited attention.

Of course, as soon as we are left alone, the girls immediately try to say something in their barbarous dialects, plus, later, as they rise from my couch, they again attempt to repeat their name in the hope that this time, at last, I will remember all the sounds in the sequence. Whether long or short they are equally incomprehensible to me. I divide them into three parts: howls, like a dog’s; hisses, like a snake’s; or chirrups, like a bird’s. I don’t encounter many in the last category.

And so, from his first land campaign, like from all his others, Celestion returns victorious. And, like from all his other campaigns, he brings back with him women. Some of them ride on the wagons, but not many, the rest go on their own two feet. I wish to return as soon as I can to my contemplation of the sea and my horses, but what I see diverts my attention for quite some time.

The women that my centurion has brought back from the pacified mountain kingdom do not look like any other woman that I have seen before. They parade slowly past me, their hair the colour of tarnished bronze, their faces well-sculpted, their necks long, their skin dusky; all of this differentiates them from my concubines. And they do not so much as glance in my direction. The last in line is the only girl out of all them who meets my gaze. She is taller than the rest and her hair is cut so short you can hardly guess its shade – the same dull bronze as the others.

Of course, her hairstyle piques my interest, but still more does the look on her face, which implies that the real captive here is me, as though someone has changed our respective positions for an instant. Whatever is happening here? Afterwards, throughout the whole of the following night, I see her face before my eyes, but for some reason the thought never enters my head to order her brought to my chambers. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.

The next morning, I ask Celestion about her hair. He replies that all the women of the conquered kingdom sheared off their hair as soon as they realised that their husbands or fathers would not be able to protect them.
“And yet all the others have managed to grow their hair back. Why not her?”
“I do not know, my sovereign, but I can vouch for the fact that no knife has touched a hair on her head since we set out on the march home.”