ORIGINAL FICTION by Alex Gough, (submitted 2016/12/10)
Alex Gough is a vet from southwest England and the author of the Carbo series of novels, following the scarred and traumatized veteran of the legions as he tries, and fails, to achieve a quiet retirement. Alex is married with a daughter and a small menagerie of pets.
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Mr. Alex Gough has given permission to the blog Ancient Rome Refocused to post his work of fiction “The Cure” one time. All other rights and privileges, including permission to repost or publish, are retained by the author.
By Alex Gough
Copyright © 2016 Alex Gough. All Rights Reserved.
Hyginos slowly, delicately unrolled the scroll, and felt the crisp papyrus beneath his fingertips. He started at the top, and read. His mouth worked as he whispered the words on the page. He was no scholar, just a moderately wealthy and moderately educated Greek Egyptian. Or at least, he had once been moderately wealthy. Physicians were expensive, and the more outlandish, the more esoteric their ideas and their cures, the higher the fee they commanded. Maybe there was some equation that linked the degree of desperation to the price the solution could command. Philosophy intersects with mathematics. But Euclid and Plato were in another bay.
He looked up, let his eyes scan the shelves. Rows and rows of books, most of them in the form of papyrus scrolls. So much knowledge, so much information.
When he had first stepped into the Library, he had been stunned. So much knowledge, so much thought, so many ideas. All gathered into one place. And he knew, just knew, that the answer had to be here somewhere. How could it not be?
One librarian told him that no one really knew how many scrolls the Library contained. It could be as many as half a million. It was the librarians’ constant endeavor to catalogue, to expand on the original index, Callimachus’ ‘Pinakes,’ but so vast was the collection it was a Sisyphean task. More scrolls arrived every day, and the librarians worked like quarry slaves to translate and transcribe them onto papyrus. The rulers of Alexandria, the Ptolemaic dynasty that had succeeded to this part of Alexander’s Empire, had been aggressive book collectors, funding trips to book fairs in Greece, seizing books from the huge number of galleys that passed through the important trading hub (copying them and giving the copies back to the owners while keeping the originals), and of course housing the works of the many scholars who in older, safer times, had studied and taught in the Museum of Alexandria.
Maybe the Ptolemies believed that knowledge was power. Maybe they thought the mere accumulation of the physical books was a demonstration of might and wealth, a symbol like the pyramids. Hyginos didn’t care. He was here for a reason. He continued to work down the scroll, reached the bottom, rolled it up carefully and replaced it on the shelf. One of the librarians, called Stephanos, looked up from their transcription work, nodded approvingly and continued scratching at the page he was filling with Greek lettering. The librarians largely left Hyginos to his own devices, unless he asked for help.
It had been different at first, all those months ago, when he had started looking for the cure. Then, they had treated him with suspicion and distrust. Many of them seemed to believe the scrolls were there to be admired, not to be read, so concerned were they that he would mishandle their charges. Persistence and coin had paid off, and soon he was viewed as part of the furniture.
He pulled the next scroll in the work from the shelf. Empedocles ‘On Nature.’ He had read this one before, but he had found a reference to the work in a newer treatise on humours, and he wanted to go back and see if he had missed anything the first time round. He reached the bottom of the scroll, and shook his head. No, there was nothing there, nothing new, nothing that would help. His eyes teared, blurring his vision, and a single drop rolled down his nose, and fell. He jerked his head backwards just in time to avoid the liquid falling onto the scroll, and instead saw it splash on the wooden desk.
Stephanos looked up at the sudden movement and frowned. Hyginos surreptitiously wiped his eyes, and sent a false smile in the direction of the man hunched over his work. The librarian hesitated, then smiled back and continued.
Hyginos sighed, ran his hands through his hair. He looked up at the shelves again. Above them, in large, ornate lettering, read, “The Place of the Cure of the Soul.” He shook his head.
The words had seemed inspiring at first. Now he found them irritating. It wasn’t his soul that needed curing.
The rows and rows of books loomed over him, seeming to mock him. How many had he read over the last months? How many more still to read? He cursed that he hadn’t been a more diligent student as a child, which he wasn’t able to read and understand with the speed and comprehension of the better behaved children. Then, he just wanted to do well enough to avoid the cane, and leave himself plenty of time to watch the horse races and chase his father’s prettiest slaves.
He ran his fingers along the shelves, noting the lack of dust. He read too much to let dust accumulate, at least on the medicine shelves. Maybe there were other amateur scholars looking for answers to their questions in the geography or the philosophy shelves, and those departments were just as well-used. But he knew their enquiries weren’t as vital as his.
Vitality. Life. Pneuma, air. The Stoic Chrysippus believed that Pneuma helped structure all things. The disciples of Hippocrates believed that Pneuma maintained the vital heat within the body. By dissecting corpses, Praxagoras had discovered that arteries were empty and veins full of blood, and believed that the arteries conducted Pneuma around the body. Erasistratus developed these ideas further, and taught them at the academy of anatomy that he had founded here in Alexandria with Herophilos the physician. The two great anatomists were often condemned these days, for their practice of vivisecting live condemned prisoners to ascertain the body’s workings. Still, Hyginos wished he had a fraction of the skills of those great men. He pulled out the first scroll in Herophilos’ ‘Therapeutics.’
No. He had been here before. He knew what he would find. The work, promising as it was, referenced so many times by other scholars, was incomplete. Just as it started to go beyond the discussion of the basic life forces, and to elucidate actual remedies, it ended abruptly.
He was going back over ground he had already covered, he knew. Yes, there were more books to read, more information to find, but he had studied all the major texts on physiology and medicine, and the scrolls now contained less and less of relevance, more and more that was implausible and wild and unbelievable. Just the same pattern as with the doctors.
He kicked his stool away, and it clattered to the floor with a loud noise. Stephanos leapt to his feet angrily. Hyginos held up a placatory hand, and stalked out. He walked past a lecture hall, glanced in at the orator droning on about meter in Euripides to a stuporous audience, along the peripatos walk, and into the dining room. He paid for a cup of honeyed wine, and sat, ignoring the chatter all around him from philosophers, mathematicians, geographers and astronomers. He heard the monkey cries and elephant trumpets from the zoo that the Museum housed. Beyond that he heard something more, like the shouting of a crowd, but at a huge distance.
“Hyginos!” He looked up, and saw Pausanius hurrying over to him. Despite his mood, he smiled and stood to greet his friend. He had met Pausanius at the start of his studies, and after one glass of wine too many, had shared his story. Since then, Pausanius had taken on the role of research assistant, monitoring the new arrivals in the acquisitions department where he worked.
“Pausanius,” said Hyginos. “Join me. Wine?”
Pausanius looked around suspiciously and shook his head. “The boss would send me to the mines if he caught me drinking at work.”
“Aren’t you on a break?”
“No, I just came here to find you. Stephanos told me you were here. He said you seemed to be in a temper. Still nothing?”
Hyginos sighed. He said nothing, but his expression told Pausanius everything.
“Well, I’ve got some news that just might cheer you up. Caesar may hold the answer.”
Hyginos looked at him quizzically. He turned towards the docks, where the Egyptian Navy under Ptolemy XIII had Julius Caesar’s ships bottled up. Although the siege had been going on for weeks, there seemed to be more activity than usual.
“Pausanius what are you talking about?”
“One of Caesar’s slaves arrived at the Library this morning, with a cartload of scrolls. A donation from Caesar, from his own personal library. A bribe to help him get into Cleopatra’s bedchamber no doubt.”
“And? What are you saying?”
“Hyginos, it contains the missing scrolls from Herophilos!”
Hyginos’ jaw dropped. For a moment he stared at Pausanius. Then he leapt to his feet.
“Show me. Please, show me now!”
“It’s still in the acquisitions department. The head librarian is drooling over the gifts as we speak. Wait for me by the medicine shelves. I’ll bring them to you there as soon as I can. I must go before I’m missed.”
Pausanius hurried away, and Hyginos stared after him. After all this time, was the answer in reach?
A strange, crackling noise came from the direction of the docks. Hyginos glanced towards it, then dismissed it from his mind, and rushed back into the Library.
Hyginos paced up and down like an expectant father. Stephanos shot him irritated looks, but Hyginos ignored them. At last, it was coming to him. The answer to his prayers, his entreaties to the gods, all the money he had spent, and all the research he had done.
An acrid smell reached Herophilus’ nostrils, and he sniffed curiously. Smoke?
Pausanius entered, looking around him shiftily. He clutched an armful of scrolls to his chest. Herophilus grabbed him and guided him to a desk. He took the scrolls greedily, and started to unroll them.
“Carefully,” admonished Pausanius but Hyginos paid him no attention.
He read, cursing his slow reading. The first scroll continued the discussion of the imbalances in the humours, and how the imbalance led to the dropsy. He knew this theory, from his other research, but the writing promised much more. It told him to read on, to discover the remedy. His heart pounded, breath caught in his throat.
A slave ran into the room, shouted something, and ran out again. Pausanius and Stephanos looked at each other in alarm, then Stephanos left at a run.
Pausanis shook Hyginos by the shoulder. “Hyginos. Hyginos!”
Hyginos shrugged him off, reading as fast as he could, lips working furiously as his eyes translated the markings on the page into sentences in his mind.
“Hyginos! The Library! It is on fire. We must run.”
Hyginos stared at him blankly, his mind elsewhere.
“Caesar set fire to his own ships to destroy the Egyptian navy. The fire spread to the docks, and now it’s reached the library. It’s spreading with the speed of a race horse.”
The crackling was loud now, the stench of acrid smoke becoming overpowering. Suddenly, flames appeared at the edges of the roof beams, licking the walls like serpent’s tongues, then slithering down into the stacks of scrolls. As the flames touched the papyrus, they combusted, each scroll infecting its neighbor so they too exploded into fire.
Pausanius tried to pull Hyginos away, but he resisted. Pausanius gave up and ran for the exit. Hyginos gathered the scrolls to himself, stood, dropped a scroll and fumbled for it on the floor.
A burning beam split in two and crashed to the marbled tiles, sending up a shower of sparks. Hyginos picked up the fallen scroll and staggered towards the door. Another beam creaked above him, and the shelves turned into raging infernos, the heat searing his face. He choked on the thick smoke, and he grabbed at his throat, dropping three scrolls as he did so.
He fell to his hands and knees, scrabbling for the essential, life-saving information. He crawled forwards towards the door, keeping below the smoke. The door drew nearer, and beyond he could see the corridor that led to the garden, as yet clear from flames. He reached the exit, thrust his head forward to breathe in clear air.
The creaking beam crashed down onto his back, knocking the wind from him. The scrolls scattered.
Through eyes half blind with tears from the smoke, he saw the papyrus cylinders roll sideways against the walls. The burning walls.
The first one to touch leapt into flames in an instant. The one next to it caught a moment later. Hyginos extended a hand in desperation, but his trapped legs prevented him from reaching. He struggled, thrust with blistering hands against the thick wood, wriggled and painfully slowly, he freed himself.
He turned back to the scrolls just in time to see the last one ignite. He scrabbled towards it, smacked the flames out with his agonized hands, and then dragged himself into the garden. Flames and smoke raged all around him. Everywhere he looked were fleeing slaves, yelling librarians, screaming students. Some ran to save themselves, some tried to save the scrolls.
Hyginos painfully rose to his feet. In the confusion and destruction, no one would notice one missing scroll. He limped out of the Library and away from the fire.
His wife lay on their bed where he had left her that morning, and where she would still be when he retired for the night. The same as every day now. At first she had been more active, but the illness, the dropsy, had taken her strength. Now the slightest exertion left her breathless. He noticed that even lying still, asleep as she was now, her breathing was rapid and shallow. Her face was pale, her lips blue and her cheeks drawn in. He understood that her belly was filled with fluid, but he still marveled at how fat and how wasted she could look at the same time.
He unrolled the last surviving scroll. The outer parts were charred, unreadable, but some of the words had survived. He read them, whispering them out loud.
“And so it is clear that assiduous application of the aforementioned remedy will be completely successful in the treatment of the dropsy.”
And that was it. His fingers relaxed, the scroll dropped to the floor.
His wife stirred from her sleep.
“Hyginos,” she said, voice weak.
“I’m here, my darling.”
“Did you find anything new today?”
He swallowed, for a moment not trusting himself to speak. After a moment, he took her hand and squeezed it.
“Not yet. But I’m near, I’m sure of it. Soon I will find the cure.”
She nodded and once again closed her eyes.
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