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A Conspiracy of Breath

By Latayne C. Scott

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Praefatio




I carry the wrapped child in front of me, in the crook of my aching arm, his head above his curled feet, as if he were alive. As if he had ever been born, or named, or drew breath, or saw his dying mother’s eyes. As if she had ever seen his.
This is night work, and the mule beside me stumbles in the uneven, now unseen streets that only reveal shadow and character in the light of a doorway, here and there. All around our feet are what people throw away after a spectacle—torn banners, scraps of food, dropped, lost mementos.
Behind me on the creaking wagon are the remains, what I gather after the spectacle: torn things, fallen, saved, remembered.
When I first began this job, I could do it in the daylight. It was a curiosity to those who saw me, a woman who wore the robes of aristocracy and did the work of a ghoul. Most of those who knew me would not meet my eyes, or if they did, it was with a mixture of disgust and wonder. And later, some of them, with triumph, from behind secure windows, around impassable gates.
The first time I gained permission to bring the bodies back from the killing places, Cordelia began to strategize how to borrow a cart and donkey. Many of our friends still lived and had animals then, and she still had a bit of her father’s money left.
“We’ll need a big wagon,” she calculated, counting without knowing it on her crooked knuckles, imagining that the aftereffects of imperial entertainment would necessitate strong beasts of burden, perhaps several trips with several wagons.
She wasn’t thinking straight, I should have seen that. There is little left when wild lions are finished with a human being.
I lined the wagon with pieces of old goat-hair tents. People bring me the ripped flaps, snagged beckets, unsalvageable vestibules. When my needle cannot resurrect them, they leave the raveling remnants with me.
At first, I thought my supply was endless and I threw the blood-crusted pieces away. Now I wash them before dawn and let them dry for the next load. My shop, miles away, is where there are no sewers, so my gutters are red ropes each sunrise. My neighbors blink in the sunshine, step over, cross to the other side of the street.
It will take me most of a night-watch to bring the wagon from the circus maximus to the catacombs. I hold my other hand out in front. It is only because I once lived in this neighborhood that I can navigate in darkness so profound I feel blind. The darkness is a covering for me, I must remember that, a veil that keeps me hidden.
In front of me is my childhood home. Though I walk by it often these days, I have not been inside it for decades, since my mother died. I have rounded a corner and candlelight seeps through the doors at the street, the cracked lips shielding the long throat into the house.
In the light, I see my tree.
I named that cypress tree as soon as my child lips could formulate the sounds. My mother, Livia Ocellina, believed it should have a proper Latin name. The tree, she told me, began to grow outside her door the very month she found that I was growing within her. Of course, it never entered her head to name it, only to notice it, and to tell visitors of its coincidence, the tree’s and mine. She had the servants water it, and care for it. But when I made its name an issue, she waved it away with those long elegant fingers.
When she finally engaged me on the subject when I was twelve years old, it was with supreme effort, Juno Lucina the light-bringer mother-god, looking down from Olympus.
Was it male or female? she asked me, among her many frittered words. The tree, child, the tree. If it were a male, and of course it was associated with us, it must have the three parts of any patrician name.
I stared at the tree and more heard it than saw it. True, its fronds were the beardlets of adolescent boys, but its sound was that of innocence, of little girls whispering.
Yes, Arbor puerorum sussorum. The tree of whispering children. When the breezes came ’round the corner of the villa, its branches murmured secrets and it always had dancing in its voice. It grew with me and though I left childhood, it never ceased its sounds.
Tonight, it looks like a woman bereft, so anguished she holds her hands straight above her head then puts her elbows together and lets her wrists fall behind her bowed head. I have never before known it to be without a whisper. Tonight, it is silent as I pass it by, with Cordelia’s child of stone burdening my arm.

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