* (Return to the hearth gods)
The A-1 Autostrada crossed the Tiber River shortly after he departed from Rome. He had allowed three days of leisurely driving to arrive in time for meetings in Milan. For the past ten years his fluency in the language made him the company’s go-to man for Italy. On an impulse he had adjusted his schedule to permit a visit en-route to a place off the highway just beyond the detour to Siena. A farmhouse rested at the broad end of an arrowhead shaped grain field, backed by a row of ancient gnarled olive trees and a small vineyard.
The house, constructed of stone, and apparently even older than the olive trees, in fact bespoke more than a millennium of existence. Although it appeared to be unoccupied, it showed care and maintenance.
In August of each year as he passed on his way north from Rome he noted that the field showed signs of recent harvest, probably wheat or barley. The farm haunted him until he confirmed each year that it remained as he had first seen it. It gave him a strange sense of comfort, of permanence. This year he had decided that he must stop and visit the farm, talk to the locals and learn its story.
He booked two nights in an alberga in the village of Marti, not far from the site of the farmhouse. Arriving in late afternoon, he checked in and visited the small family-operated restaurant in the village. He asked about the farm and to his surprise, the locals all professed to know nothing about it. It was as if it didn’t exist.
He tossed and turned in the strange bed that night . . . It is not a figment of my imagination, he told himself, but they must know of the farm. It is unique and it is right here, within walking distance of their homes.
He rose with the sun. Dressed in jeans, a light-weight shirt, and windbreaker and wearing comfortable walking shoes, he set out for the farm. The few villagers in the road at that hour ignored his presence, not even offering a greeting. Strange, a village of less than 900 inhabitants, and they don’t even acknowledge me. This is not the character of rural Italians that I have met in the past.
Walking along the A-1 that rose several meters above the landscape, he soon found the field and spotted the stone house at the opposite end. He walked into the harvest debris and found loose grains. From his business, he recognized spelt, an ancient precursor of wheat still cultivated as a specialty crop.
He followed the edge of the field to the house. It was constructed of large stones insulated with mud packed into the crevices. Once there might have been a wooden door. Coarse woolen curtains covered the only window. Thrusting them back to dispel the gloom, he observed a broad hand-made table and a single bench, its gray wood, perhaps oak, deeply worn and ridged. He saw no other furnishings, no bed, no chairs, no trunk or alcove to store things.
Against the east wall, he observed a hearth, apparently made of slate tiles. It’s difficult to tell, he mused. Agglomerated ash and a few protruding chunks of charred wood covered its surface. How long has this remained unattended? Probably used occasionally by vagrants, he decided.
Beside the hearth stood two large cobwebbed terra cotta bowls and an iron pot of uneven surface, blistered by oxidation. Then above the hearth, partially obscured by shadow, he spotted a niche built into the inner wall with mud bricks. It contained a figurine about eighteen inches tall.
He approached and removed it. “A house lar,” he exclaimed aloud. “This should be in a museum!” It’s worth thousands. It must be fifteen hundred years old, at least before or near the beginning of the Christian era. Or maybe it’s a copy.
The lar ,of finely shaped bronze, depicted a youth holding aloft a drinking horn in one hand and platter extended forward as if offering food in the other. I’ve seen similar ones in the museums in Rome. They’re ancient! They show wear. This lar is pristine. It has to be a copy, he concluded.
But he felt light-headed; a sense of detachment from reality. No longer the master of his impulses, he walked out the door and around to the side of the stone structure . . . to a second building.
It held what had to be a small stable large enough for a single animal, likely a mule. It contained a stone manger at the back. Next to the stable were two separate rooms of about eight feet deep and four feet wide. In one he saw the remains of iron tools, a mattock blade, two scythe blades, and what he surmised was a large shear for a plow. They bore signs of oxidation similar to the iron pot near the hearth. The normal wood appurtenances were absent, perhaps long rotted away.
He glanced into the other space, nothing. A sleeping cubicle for a slave, he guessed. Unwonted, a strange name entered his mind; Gundemar. Surprised, without any previous frame of reference, he knew the name was of a Goth slave. How do I know this?
Without thought, he returned to the tool room, took up the mattock blade and returned to the house. He knelt in front of the hearth. Conscious of his actions, he puzzled over the fact that he knew what to do as he did it, but couldn’t fathom why.
His eyes were drawn to the image of the lar, and then he began to scrape away the hardened ash from the floor of the hearth. It came away in biscuit-like chunks. How long has this ash waited here for me?
The edge of the mattock blade caught on a loose tile. Prying it away from the hearth, a second slate tile appeared beneath the first. He removed it and peered down into a dark space fifteen inches square of unknown depth. What looked like a felt cloth covered the contents of the hole.
He reached in to extract the cloth, but it disintegrated and collapsed inward onto the still obscured contents. His hand touched the hilt of a dagger in its sheath! He held it up to the light from the door and wiped away the dust. The sheath appeared to be of silver, inset with gemstones. It’s ornamental, not an ordinary weapon. Again his awareness disturbed him. How do I know that?
His bewilderment drove him back to the hole. Whatever it contained resisted, immoveable. Placing his hands at the sides of a round object, attempting to gain purchase to withdraw it, he became overwhelmed by a deep sense of melancholy. Something terrible happened here.
The sudden despondency drove his thoughts to his family: to his estrangement from his wife, Myriam; to his seven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. How much he missed them. His wife had told him that his ambition had led him away the real values in his life, her and his children. What did she mean by that? Aren’t I working for them? The reverie threatened distraction. With conscious effort, he banished the feeling, and focused on the task at hand.
He worked the object against the walls of the opening until he brought forth a tarnished helmet. It was heavy, too heavy to be just a helmet. “My God, it’s a centurion’s helmet,” he exclaimed aloud! He recognized it from those he had seen in the museums of Rome. A shadow in the doorway blocked the light.
“Yes,” a voice from behind informed him in rural vernacular, “It is the helmet of Quintilus il Martelo, Centurion of the IV Legion, Martia.” The voice continued, “The dagger was awarded to Quintilus when he chose to retire from the service of the emperor. He also received this land and a Goth prisoner as a slave. The name of the slave you know.”
He still thought he was alone, the voice in his head. Yes, Gundemar. He remained on his knees clutching the helmet, and a hand descended onto his shoulder. Startled, he half-rose from one knee, “Who are you?”
An old man, who wore a simple gray smock-like tunic reaching to his thighs, had stepped into the room returning daylight to the space. He removed a droopy-brimmed straw hat and beat the dust from it on his leg, drawing attention also to the wooden clogs on his feet. “I am Pietro Zanello, the caretaker of this house. Signore, may I please ask you for your name and what you are doing here?”
“My name is Quentin Hammer. I am an American. For many years I have driven by this place when I visit Italy on business and it has somehow called to me. Finally, today, I have yielded to this strange attraction and come here. I have a feeling I have been here before.”
“You speak our language well for an American,” the old man observed.
“My grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1920. We have preserved the tradition of his native tongue.
“But Hammer is not an Italian family name?”
“At Ellis Island in the New York harbor, where all immigrants had to pass in the early days of the last century, my grandfather anglicized his name from Martelo to Hammer. Italians were not welcome in those days.”
“Your given name is the same as his?”
Quentin’s sense of unease heightened. How did Zanello know that?
“Yes, at my grandfather’s insistence the first-born male in each generation is given the name Quentin and a second name to distinguish him from his predecessors. My middle name is Thomas. My son is named Quentin Samuel. Why are you so curious about my name?”
“Would you like to learn about your ancestors, Quintilus?”
An odd sense of familiarity struck him, “My name is Quentin, not Quintilus.”
“Perhaps,” responded Zanello. “Why do you think your grandfather insisted that the name Quentin be given to each first-born male?”
Quentin said nothing, shifting the helmet in his arms and rising to his feet to place it on the table. As he rose, he saw something else in the bottom of the hole.
“You are the oldest survivor of your line bearing the name Quentin.” The old man stated it as a certainty, not a question. He shifted abruptly, “Do you believe in the lares?”
“I am a Christian.”
“You don’t believe in the spirits, those below your all-powerful God?
“I believe in the one God.”
“But you pray to saints for intervention, you believe in angels. The lares are not supreme gods, they intervene; protect our homes, our loved ones, our lands and our crops. They intervene in the affairs of mortals. Are they so different from your angels?”
“Are you pagan, Pietro Zanello? I thought such beliefs had disappeared many centuries ago.”
“Are you so certain that our ancient lares have departed . . . or have they just changed their names and images? What roles do you assign to your patron saints?”
Quentin hesitated, thinking about the events since his arrival at the farmhouse. How did the name of the slave, Gundemar, come to me? How did the old man know the name that stole into my consciousness? What possessed me to take the mattock blade and clear the debris from the hearth . . . and go directly to the secret hiding place of the dagger and the helmet? And what of the names, Quintilus and Quentin? He stared at the old man. “Did you say that the first owner of this farm was named Quintilus il Martelo?”
“Later generations took Martelo as their own. Quintilus the centurion was a great warrior and captain; he was called Quintilus il Martelo, the Hammer. Look in the helmet. It is heavy, no? I will tell you what is in it.”
Quentin looked uneasily at the helmet resting on the table.
“Quintilus was honored with the dagger for his valor, and for his service received the farm and a Goth slave. He was also awarded ten thousand silver denarius: divided into bronze and silver coins and also gold aureus. He hid his wealth, what remained of it, in this helmet beneath the hearth.”
“Wait; there is something else.” Quentin knelt and retrieved two further objects he had seen in Quintilus’ hiding place. He wiped them clean of dust: a comb made from a conch shell and a delicately carved wooden image of a centurion mounted on a horse holding a sword high. The wooden object was surprisingly intact for its probable age.
“Gifts for his children on their name days,” Zanello rejoined, “for his son, also named Quintilus, and his daughter, Lucilia. They were never given.”
Quentin’s sense of melancholy returned.
The old peasant continued, “When the barbarian Visigoths marched on Rome, Quintilus sent his family to hide in a cave in the hills. He freed Gundemar and stood to defend his hearth. The barbarians came to this house and in a great combat slew him. Quintilus and his wife had treated their slave with kindness and generosity. Gundemar sought out Quintilus’ wife and children. He took the woman to wife and kept the girl. The boy of seven years fled and survived, and continued the family line.”
Zanello gazed at Quentin. “Neither the Goths nor his son ever discovered Quintilus’ wealth.”
Quentin overturned the helmet and spilled the coins onto the table. The coins were dark with oxidation. He could tell the dull glow of the gold from the silver and bronze. The old man is telling the truth! Why would he make this up; and besides, he sees into my head!
He gazed at the old man, at the weathered lines in his face, into those tired, wise old eyes. He noticed then that Zanello’s garb was not that of the twenty-first century. He appeared more like the images Quentin had seen in old pastoral paintings of previous millennia. Is he the incarnation of the house lar I saw over the hearth?
Quentin shifted his gaze to the niche over the hearth. The image was gone! He swung back to the old man and saw a twinkle in his eyes.
Zanello had more to say. “Quintilus il Martello was more than just a bold and successful centurion, he was a great leader. In the last years of the Empire, commanders rose through military success to the highest ranks, even emperor. But Quintilus sought retirement. He had no ambitions for wealth and power. He longed for family, the love of a woman and a son to carry forward his name. It pleased his commander that Quintilus would not challenge his own ambitions.
“Quintilus stood in front of his door and with spear and sword gave great account of himself. He killed several of the Goths, but their numbers overcame Quintilus. The Goths admired great warriors, and they laid Quintilus to rest beside the grove of olive trees he had planted with his own hands. They interred him with his sword and his shield in the manner honoring warriors.
Zanello pointed to the olive trees lining the edge of the field, “You see those trees? They are the same olives that Quintilus planted. And today, August first 2010,” the old man’s gaze held Quentin’s eyes, “exactly one thousand six hundred years ago, Quintilus il Martelo, your ancestor, perished on this doorstep.”
A new awareness struck Quentin. The melancholy he felt at the hearth was that of Quintilus. The arrival of the Goths spelled the end of the simple, serene life that he had chosen when he left the legion. That morning, when Quintilus sent his family away, he knew it was the last time he would gaze on their faces. He would not see his children grow to adulthood or again hold his wife Miriam in his arms. It came to Quentin. Quintilus’ wife’s name was Miriam? My God!
The sadness of that event sixteen centuries past returned. Quentin stepped to the door of the house and stared at the olive grove that stood guard over the resting place of Quintilus. He is my heritage . . . and that of my children. He felt a deep longing for them . . . and Myriam. He turned back to the old man. Gone!
His gaze shifted to the niche, the lar extended the drinking horn and the plate to him.
What had old Zanello said? Lares intervene in the affairs of mortals, our homes, our loved ones.
Quentin’s gaze fell on the table, the few relics that represented the life of Quintilus il Martelo. He carefully swept the coins together and restored them to the helmet. He picked up the comb and wooden horseman. He knelt and placed the gifts for Quintilus’ children in the bottom of the hiding place in the hearth, followed by the helmet.
He held the dagger in his hand, drew it from its scabbard, the sadness disappeared and a sense of warmth filled him, of kinship with the ancient centurion. Yes! He placed it with reverence upon the other artifacts beneath the hearth. He removed a handkerchief from his pocket and placed it over the contents, and slid the slate covers into place.
Quentin left the stone dwelling and sought out dry sticks in the nearby woods. He built a fire on the hearth, sufficient to cover the hiding place with ash and charred debris. He gave one last glance at the lar and departed.
That afternoon, Quentin left the alberga in Marti. A sense of urgency overcame him, a desire to hear the voice of Myriam; to remove the barriers he had built between them. He needed to see the faces of his children.
When he drove back onto the autostrada, he looked down for a last view of the ancient farmhouse. In its place stood a thick grove of trees!
Copyright © 2018 by Robert Bruce Drynan
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