On the morning of the thirteenth day before the Kalends of Maius, when Porphyry left his insula to see Stefano, he had not expected to give alms to the old hag who begged by the fontanelle on via Bocca di Leone.
Porphyry had exactly eight denarii in his coin purse. Now, to be sure, a week’s pay for any common soldier or labourer, but merely simple convenience to a scholar of Porphyry’s standing who taught the Metellii children.
The trouble was, he did not know why he gave all but three denarii to the sun-ripened crone with milky eyes. Porphyry had strolled down this same via many times, countless in fact, and had never paid presence of mind to her.
She was simply put, without Porphyry’s realm of intellectual rigour and pursuit. Her unassuming physicality floated in an inventory of meaningless things in Porphyry’s abstract world.
To Porphyry, she did not exist.
But as the early sun broke over the beggar woman’s hunched shoulders, burlap rags and flat toothless grimace, Porphyry felt compelled to approach her. At first, he believed his baxa sandals had been cursed by the woman, lifting one foot after another towards her.
However, upon coming within a pollex of her wrinkled, prune face, Porphyry felt a weightlessness he had never experienced before. A lightness of being. An ease with the hard reality he had fought against ever since he was a child at home in Tyre.
The muscles in his neck loosened. The knots in his shoulders untied themselves. The pain in his spine seeped out of the pores in his back and out into the Roman air.
And in that moment, he could hear the water. The rippling water flowing from Jove’s pursed marble lips into the cistern below. A sound so beautiful and fractious and incalculable, a stream of varying thoughts flooded into Porphyry’s mind all at once and just as quickly dissipated, but leaving a small hard kernel.
And inside this strange seed, Porphyry suddenly knew what he was meant to do on this fine Dies Mercurii morning before he met with Stefano to purchase a new slave. He must give this strange woman five-eighths of his purse’s contents.
And so he reached for the soft leather pouch, loosened the strings and poured five denarii into her tiny, outstretched hand.
Plop, clink, clink, clink, clink.
The hag raised her cloudy white eyes to her benefactor as if she could see through Porphyry, and with blinding intensity, she muttered, “Multas gratias tibi ago, Porphyry, son of Itthokothar, scholar of our times. Beware the sudden wealth you’ll receive the third day before the Nones of Quinctilis. May you be blessed by Dispater.”
And with that, her chin sunk into her shrivelled breasts again, a bundle of rags curled upon itself.
And with that, Porphyry shuddered out of the brief enchantment. “I’m certain you have mistaken me for someone else, pauper woman. I’m no son of Itthokothar. My father was Abnshahar.”
The woman, now small and with her face hidden, did not respond.
“Tell me,” Porphyry asked. “What is the meaning of your prophecy? From whence do your visions come? What say you? Speak!”
To Porphyry’s surprise, the beggar seemed to shrink slowly before his eyes. Or perhaps it was a trick of the Maius morning light.
Porphyry closed his eyes and rubbed them, skeptical of the anomaly. At my age, he thought to himself, I would do well to ward off temptations to study until the second watch!
He laughed at himself as well. Any other Roman would have fallen for this as a superstitious warning to return home! But not me! Not the scholar of House Metellii! Not the student of Plotinus! I am the embodiment of cold reason and logic!
Porphyry chuckled loudly and opened his eyes again and sure enough, the old woman had not shrunk or vanished. She was of the same size as before, and as quiet and unassuming and meaningless as all the other mornings Porphyry had walked past her.
“Very well, then,” Porphyry announced, perhaps to the beggar-woman, perhaps to himself, or vaguely to a lectisternium of deities. “I shall be off now.”
Silence, once more, from the woman. No nattering. No mumbling. Nothing.
“Vale!” Prophyry said loudly, and continued his walk down via Bocca di Leone to meet Stefano, five dinarii poorer.
This week’s Garage Fiction prompt was provided by Dogwood Daniels…
A Bloomberg article published on July 22, 2015:
These Superhumans Are Real and Their DNA Could Be Worth Billions
Written by Caroline Chen
Here is the article’s lead:
Steven Pete can put his hand on a hot stove or step on a piece of glass and not feel a thing, all because of a quirk in his genes. Only a few dozen people in the world share Pete’s congenital insensitivity to pain. Drug companies see riches in his rare mutation. They also have their eye on people like Timothy Dreyer, 25, who has bones so dense he could walk away from accidents that would leave others with broken limbs. About 100 people have sclerosteosis, Dreyer’s condition.
Both men’s apparent superpowers come from exceedingly uncommon deviations in their DNA. They are genetic outliers, coveted by drug companies Amgen, Genentech, and others in search of drugs for some of the industry’s biggest, most lucrative markets.
These weekly scenes & stories are part of an ongoing project codenamed “Garage Fiction”. Since January 2015, three writers (Nicholas Brack, Dogwood Daniels and I) have committed to writing a flash fiction or scene each and every week. We post on Fridays and dissect on Tuesdays via podcast.