Papa had always placed his hopes in Octavia. She had a strange type of elegance and moved as if gliding on ice. Her eyes reflected the sun in perfect shades of dark green, and her hair formed a crown of auburn blonde. From head to toe she was perfect: slim, pronounced hips, sharp nose, oval cheeks. As kind as she was, I still couldn’t push down the envy clawing up my throat. I wanted to be her. But I didn’t even want to be a Vestal, constantly paraded around and tending to a stupid fire. Being a Vestal was the perfect life, according to my father. And only to my father. No other Roman patrician would voluntarily give up their daughters to 30 years of servitude under the goddess Vesta. Overall, my father was quite outlandish in the patrician circle. Poor Octavia was naive enough to buy into the blessings Papa screeched would occur if she became a Vestal. She didn’t even find it odd that only plebeian families were present at the captio, the choosing ceremony. It was surprising enough that my family even made it into the captio after what happened with Felix.
“Look! It’s the Pontifex Maximus!” Octavia clung onto my arm, overtaken with excitement. “Maybe he’ll come to choose me. Not anyone else, but me! Occacia, aren’t you overjoyed?”
“Of course I’m overjoyed to see my little sister put into slavery,” I sneered.
Octavia let out an exasperated sigh. “Magna servitus est magna fortuna. A great fortune is a great slavery.”
“That’s what we all said until Felix was accused then whipped to death,” I muttered, quiet enough to avoid Octavia hearing. But she did, and her eyes quickly filled with tears.
“We all knew Gus didn’t deserve that. He would’ve never displeased the Goddess like that.” Octavia said even quieter.
Felix Augustus Torquetta was a quiet and reserved boy. So quiet, I can’t even recall how his voice sounded. Octavia was closer to Felix than anyone else even with the limited time they spent together. Felix always had to accompany Papa to the patrician meetings that lasted hours on end. Octavia, Mama, and I were left at home to clean up and prepare meals. Even though Felix was considerably mysterious, no one doubted he was a good boy who would eventually lead a powerful family. Well, until Felix was seen in that accursed room.
“I’ve always wondered why you don’t want to be a Vestal Virgin, Occacia,” Papa said, joining the conversation. “Life as a Vestal is glamorous and filled with blessings. Transport via carpentum, private seats at the Colosseum, and you’re not even technically under oath in courtroom testimonies.”
“I don’t particularly enjoy the showings at the Colosseum, sir,” I said.
Papa laughed, but the laughter didn’t reach his eyes. “I remember when you were four; you loved the idea of becoming a Vestal Priestess. You would wrap white sheets around yourself in a Vestal-like fashion then braid your hair in seni crine. What happened? Perhaps your chastity has left you?”
“Father!” Octavia gasped. “Occacia would never have done such.”
Papa immediately turned stone. “Never put your mouth in a conversation you were not invited into, especially since you’re just a woman. Have your principles abandoned you?”
“But sir,” Octavia protested again.
This time Papa wasn’t as nice. He took Octavia’s fourth finger in his hand and snapped it as if it was a toothpick.
Octavia let out a soft gasp but didn’t speak. As for me, it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before. Mama and papa in their room; snap. Snap. Snap.
“A Vestal Virgin’s blood should never be spilled, for that is treason,” Papa turned again to Octavia. “A Vestal tends the fire of Vesta in the Forum Romanum. A Vestal officiates holy services, files and maintains citizen’s wills, but, most importantly, stays pure. A Vestal has no family and cannot marry, for she is married to the magnificent empire of Rome.”
“Yes sir,” Octavia muttered quietly. “And it would be no greater joy for me to be selected to serve goddess Vesta.”
To my surprise, Octavia spoke the truth, despite what just happened. She believed in Vesta.
“Remain pure, Octavia, and uphold your Vestal vows. You don’t want to end up like the treacherous Vestal Fonteia: buried alive under the Campus Sceleratus. And your beloved partner would be whipped to death like Felix was for the same indictment.” Papa said. He oozed sarcasm and spoke Felix’s name with such disdain–as if he hadn’t been his own son.
Octavia simply nodded, but I could see the tears she bravely held back.
“Sir, you can’t talk to Octavia like this. If she truly becomes a Vestal Virgin, she holds more power than anyone else in Rome, apart from a select few. Your disrespect would be met with treason.” I said.
“Until the Pontifex has said the words, she is not a Vestal. Therefore she is only my daughter, with whom I will do with anything I choose,” Papa said walking away.
I breathed a sigh of relief. “How do you put up with him?”
“I do not ‘put up’ with him. He is my father, and I do as he says.” Octavia replied sternly.
“I am 4 years older than you, I am 10 and you 6, but you still talk as if you carry seniority,” I said.
“When I become a Vestal Virgin that will not matter,” Octavia’s sternness suddenly broke. “And I can’t wait for that day to come!”
“30 years of slavery,” I retorted.
“Hush! The pontifex is headed right here! Maybe he’ll say the words.” Octavia squealed. She positioned herself in a picture of elegance.
I squeezed Octavia’s hand as if to say “congratulations.” But I felt her hand shake away from mine. Isn’t this what she wanted? To become a vestal. Then it hit me. Indeed, the pontifex had come over to say those accursed words. But he was looking at me. Not Octavia, but me.
Karen Umeora is in grade 8 and attends Valley Junior High School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, United States. Her short story, “Real Beloved,” was a finalist in the 2020 Writing for Peace Young Writers Competition.
The 2020 Young Writing Contest Finalist pieces will be published on our blog during the month of July in recognition of their outstanding qualities. Winning pieces will be published on August 1st in the summer edition of DoveTales, Resistance, Guest Edited by Brad Wetzler.
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