Upon the Aurès Mountains
a d VIII Id Jan, VII a r c1
(8 January 256 CE)
Modified after Karten von Römischen Provinzen (detail) from Römische Provinzen by Theodor Mommsen, 1921 via commons.wikimedia.org. © Bin im Garten. CC BY-SA 3.0
In 256 CE, a mystic warrior named Diana embarks on a vision quest outside of Carthage. Her tale begins atop the Aurès Mountains, where she leaps into a whirlpool and lands in a still river underground. With the power of Yanitah, the muse of liminality, Diana moves the river-water to carry her off.
Stars revolve counterclockwise over the watery rim of the world. With the wind and the rain, icy droplets plunge from out the vapory parts of the void and comets cross the heavens as on cataclysm’s eve. Diana sits huddled over her cookfire. Her staff leans upon her legs. Her heavy coat of boar-skin bristles in the snow. Her head is hooded with a lion’s mane.
More sheets of rain lash down. Wellsprings on the craggy Aurès Mountain peaks over-brim. They hurtle their waters together with a crash and cry, exploding salty foam into the skies. Arising from her fire, Diana takes up her staff and sprints down the icy rocks plated on the mountaintop. The stones are slick as the snow creaks beneath her boots.
She leaps into the pool where the rocks open and swallow the waters of the flash-flooding mountains, landing in a river that harries her with frost like fishhooks needle-sharp. Her coat submerges in the river bottomless. She unfastens the clasp and lets it sink, whereto for aught she knows naught lies. Her lion-hide tunic is soaked and her hooded mane flows with the under-peak cold that buoys up the tattered leather haversack that’s slung across her shoulder.
Diana arranges herself supine upon the water’s face. Her breath smokes quickly in the cold. She clutches her cypress staff extended lengthwise down her body, as if pharaoh-like embalmed. She stops shaking; she lies still; she floats. Her breathing slows. She watches as it smokes and vanishes, smokes and vanishes, as though she burns with inner flame against the river’s night.
She feels divinity within her and around her. The presence of its influence electrifies the air. And she says, “My muse of liminality, double-faced Yanitah, I’m your raised portcullis for the fallen to traverse.” Her eyes lapidify like star-stones and the baetyl mounted on her staff illuminates the absolute dark. On the cave-pocked roof of the tunnel, a glyph in the shape of a rudimentary gate shimmers bright blue.
The torrent rages, and the freshwater carries her off. It hisses like the passing of an underwater serpent in this nether place of woe and the water rises up. Conveying her through mountains like a ferryman’s path, it navigates the stone and crystal of the mountain-core. Her senses of the present fade. She is drifting, lulled from out the waking world into the one for memory, which shoots its crystals in her mind.
Diana is transported to a dreamlike state and begins to remember her childhood.
I see myself at 10 years old. I watch as my father dies of meteoric plague, the Sky Scourge. He coughs blood into his pillow of rawhide stuffed with straw. His bedpost is bedewed and specked with blood as if by a hyssop. His voiceless cry is warning me away from Tenebrae. I will not see again the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, or the eyelids vellum thin. That is not a sleep; that is not a dream. The baetyl-miners wear masks in likeness of our forebears long forgotten. They bear his body to the pyre. Heaven swallows the smoke, his ashes relodged within an urn beneath the ground.
I leave Apisa Maius, the baetyl-mining town. With my mother, I board the wagon bound for Carthage. Horses trot uphill on Via Perpetua. The road comprises polygonal stones, paved with Roman concrete. The wheels of hooped iron wobble and the wooden boards creak. We travel for most of the day shadowed in the canyon whose sediment is uniform, like urstone that destratifies the geomantic ages.
That night we pass Colonia Elagabala, the imperial smithy. Sparks shoot from out the night as in a forgery volcanic. Castors work the baetyls into adamant refined. By every hammer-beat, they seem to create from darkness’s retreat the momentary canyon-wall that is sucked back into the night again.
At dawn we reach the guard-town, Lacadaemon Nova. Our wagon approaches soldiers decked in adamantine plates.
Our driver reins the horses to a halt.
“Carthago,” our driver says.
The guard looks at us.
I am silent; my mother shakes her head.
“Manticam mihi da.”
My mother gives the guard her bag.
As he searches her leather haversack, his bolts and hinges screak. He returns her victuals and our wagon moves on.
The canyon terminates in fields of wheat, wherethrough the road is strewn with bits of straw. My mother and I break bread. Our driver eats parched corn he’d crushed beneath a stone. Circumspect, he lets his horses eat the crops. A shrewd wind engrains the dust with rain. Siroccos shudder fields to sway more fervently than gulfweed undulates. On either side we are walled by stalks, a sea of reeds precariously heaped. Our faces are besmirched with whetted dust and silence. My mother wipes the dirt from my face. I huddle in her arms against the cold.
With shadowed agony, husbandmen pursue mule and harrow down the rain-blown bottomland toward night. They till the skyline fringed against the sun’s declining, slouched in a resin of nameless rage. So harrowing the hinterlands with skin as rough as bark, they look like aphids in the amber of a fossilizing tree. The wind and rain abate. Via Perpetua curves right against the lake. A seawall curbs the dusky lagoon.
By night we approach the great city, whose triple walls all parallel the lengthy western border. Archers stride the ramparts. Again, our wagon is stopped and searched. My mother lifts me off; my legs are weak from sitting for so long. The watchman cries, “Recludite!” Thapsus Gate swings open into three successive gates, in three successive walls, like a portal in a dream a sleeper crosses many times.
The hallowed heights of Carthage kiss the moon; topless towers flame the stars. The city glows lunar-lit in semblance of a skyscape, with paths that could be paved into a mesa of the moon. Weak-kneed, I wobble heavy on the stones as on the surface of a waning world. My mother carries me the rest of the way. I look up at her face of darkest skin engraved, carved with cares and wrinkled deep in time. My mother turns left, bearing me up Carvo Maximus. “Almost there,” she says.
I see the library. From the windows, firelights flicker against the outer night. One by one the candles are all extinguished, but a lone dark reader keeps her candle burning rather longer than the rest. It falls on her to guard the scrolls that wars can clear away.
While the moon raves on high, heaven as her adytum, the solar temple sets in its facade and roof of marble Parian. It enshrines the first true star-stone: the Stone of Belgabal. The dark and scintillating rock is enclosed within a pteron, like ribs enjoining at the sternum round a speckled egg, enwombed within a creature that had best been left untouched. The oval stone’s enmeshed in wool as ruddy as a trailing navel-cord, or holy swaddling bands become a life-entwining net.
With me in her arms, my mother supplicant arrives before the palace. Set around the citadel are Doric pillars overlaid with brass entablature. Embossed with graven sculptures, the fretted roof is adamant. Walls stand fixed in stately height; doors enclose their inner light. “Here we are,” my mother says.
My eyes are heavy, overweighed by night. The citadel is exhaled from Byrsa Hill like pneuma from a cleft, while the manic moon presides delirious — as if waxing and waning in a single night. The moon bathes in silver eddies of the dark and heaven’s phiale pours the waters of eternity. The Pleiades dissolve their bands; Orion’s reins are loosed. Ursa Major leads her cubs to liberty. Bright dolphin-asterisms flee the great electric sea-net of the stars. The universe is drowned, a spring unwarped by light, wherein I drift from out the waking world into the one for dreams.
The dawn-star abrupts through the small window. I lift my head from off the rawhide pillow and look around at empty beds aligned in rows. I cannot find my mother. My travel-clothes are gone. A linen tunic’s set at bedside. I don the tunic and leave the quarters bare. Flights of steps lead up to brazen doors.
The antechamber is bedecked with adamant and torches are unfed yet unconsumed. Within the empty vestibule, I admire the fresco of Empress Elagabala and General Kinnoc triumphant over the Third Augustan Legion 20 years ago. Their images both wear plates of painted adamant and star-stones. Though their embellished armor’s dark and speckled, their painted bodies burn bright, like sunshine wrapped in starry night.
When the brass hinges of the outer doors grate, I turn and see a warlike pair step over the brazen threshold. Foremost is the huntress. Across her shoulder’s slung a bow in readiness; her black hair is braided in a bun. Her tunic’s flowing folds are gathered in a knot beneath a spotted lynx’s hide. Scarlet hunting boots bind her dark calves, her dark arms overspread with tattoos labyrinthine not even their artist could retrace.
No less resplendent, the hunter’s shoulders are invested with a robe of Tyrian purple. It is woven with Sidonian borders, whereabout he wears a bull-hide in the fashion of the young men of Byrsa. A golden clasp holds fast his purple cloak. Arrows clatter on his shoulder. His hair is bound with gentle leaves and braided knots entwined with gold.
The hunter does not note me, but the huntress sees. She nods her stately head. I am motionless. Huntress and hunter approach the courtyard, the atrial gates close with a grate of brazen hinges and all is silent again. The air is somehow altered and electric in their wake. I am still amazed, but soon the air calms and I continue searching for my mother, yet not along the warriors’ path.
1. Ante diem octavum idibus Ianuariis, septimum ab republica condita (eight days before the ides of January, seven years since the founding of the Carthaginian Republic).
Joseph Paul Torres
Publab Fellow 2022
Joseph is a Ph.D. student in the UCLA Department of English. He received a B.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley and an M.A. in the Humanities from the University of Chicago. Additionally, Joseph studied Renaissance texts, Latin translation, and digital humanities at Trinity College Dublin. His research focuses on modes of world-remaking in early modern English literature. He is also writing a fantasy novel that takes place in Roman Africa during the third century CE.