In Which an Impossible Birth Is Celebrated

Serenity seemed to flow over Etruria in wave after wave, like the gentle surf of an endless ocean of blissful calm. Never had Xian-Li felt more at peace. Although she still had not felt the baby move, she no longer feared the worst.

Turms’ continued assurance that all would be well served as a restorative tonic. It was as if the ceremony performed by the king to learn the likely fate of the unborn child had driven off the clouds of doom and disaster that had gathered so thickly about her, and dispelled any lingering doubt. Since that night, everything had changed; she held the memory of the strange ceremony as a rare and precious gift.

They had stood in the temple portico before a small stone altar. The king was attended by a fellow priest and one identified as the netsvis; dressed in a blue robe with a tall conical hat similar to the king’s, he would conduct the augury. A few curious onlookers had also come to observe the ceremony.

In the last rays of the day’s sun, a young lamb had been brought to the temple, its legs bound with a golden cord, and laid upon the altar. After a brief incantation, Turms, splendid in a crimson robe and tall hat trimmed in gold, stooped low and thanked the animal for the sacrifice of its life. With a nod to Arthur and Xian-Li, he beckoned them to the altar and instructed them to place their hands upon the lamb. He then drew a knife made from black volcanic glass across its throat. The small creature lay still and expired without a sound. Then, while attendants eviscerated the carcass, a golden bowl in which some of the blood had been collected was passed to Turms.

He lifted the bowl and drank, then offered the bowl to both Arthur and Xian-Li. After she had taken a sip, he pointed to her stomach and said, “Open your gown just there.” She did as instructed and bared a section of her rounded belly. The Priest King dipped a finger in the still-warm blood and, with the tip of his finger, drew a small circle on her stomach; he dipped again and added a cross inside the circle of blood. As he did so, he breathed a single word, “Imantua.”

The netsvis approached and, with a bow of deference to the king, offered up a golden dish bearing several of the animal’s internal organs. The two exchanged a few private words, whereupon the king announced: “As you have seen, the animal died at peace and without distress. This is a good omen. The liver and entrails were pristine and perfectly formed-this, too, bodes well for our inquiry. We will now conduct the augury.”

He passed the dish to the seer, who carried it back to the altar where he began to examine the contents, standing with one foot on a block of uncut stone that had been placed beneath the altar. Other attendants gathered around, and all leaned near to study the organs and determine from the signs what could be told of the unborn child’s future.

Twilight overtook the ceremony, so torches were lit. Arthur and Xian-Li stood waiting while the priests continued their deliberations amid much mumbled discussion. This continued far longer than Xian-Li might have expected. She watched with dread fascination as one of the priests took up the obsidian knife and began to divide the liver into sections, subjecting each section to minute examination.

The first stars were shining in the east when the netsvis finally turned and offered his judgement. Turms listened, his head bowed, nodding now and then as the blue-robed seer spoke. The king thanked him for his counsel, then summoned an attendant, who brought forth a censer on a chain. The attendant blew on the coals in the bowl, then dropped a pinch of something onto the glowing charcoal. Fragrant smoke billowed from the bowl. Turms bowed at the waist as the censer was swung before his face. He closed his eyes and breathed in the smoke. .. once… twice… three times; he made a gesture as if he were washing his hands in it, then placed his hands over his face. Palms pressed to his eyes, he grew very still.

Xian-Li began to think he had fallen asleep on his feet when Turms opened his eyes and gazed at her. With the glint of a rising moon shining in his dark eyes, he said, “I have seen the life light of the child stretching far into the future like a radiant silver cord. The end of this cord cannot be seen. It is lost to view in the unformed darkness of the distant future.” He smiled. “I believe this signifies a long and meaningful life for the child soon to make his appearance in the land of the living.”

Arthur squeezed his wife’s hand. “The child will be born alive,” he said, more a question seeking confirmation than a statement.

“The birth will be blessed with success, and the resulting infant will thrive,” the king assured them in a tone that allowed no room for doubt. “I, Turms the Immortal, have seen this.”

“Thank you, O King,” breathed Xian-Li. Then the tears began to flow as the fear that had held her these last weeks released its unforgiving grip. “Thank you.”

“I have seen something else,” Turms continued. “After this child, your womb will be closed. There will be no more children for you.”

Arthur darted a glance at his wife to see how she would receive this blow, but her smile did not alter. “I understand,” she murmured, resting her hand on her belly. “I will cherish this one the more.”

The ceremony moved to its conclusion, but Xian-Li remembered little of what happened after the pronouncement. That night she slept better than she could remember and rose the next morning at perfect peace. The house was still asleep when she slipped out. Unseen, she walked down the path to the temple and there, as the first rays of the sun touched the temple steps, she knelt and gave thanks for the life of her unborn child.

Now, as the first pangs of birth came upon her, Xian-Li recalled the serenity of that sacred moment. Her heart rose, and she pressed a hand to her swollen belly. Soon-before another day had dawned-she would hold her babe in her arms. When the next quiver of pain came upon her, she reached over to her sleeping husband and let her hand fall upon his shoulder. She did not shake him, but let the warmth of her body gently awaken him.

“It is time,” she said when he raised his head from the pillow beside her.

He sat up with a jerk. “Now?”

She smiled. “Soon. In a little while. Lie down beside me.” He put his head down again and closed his eyes; she closed hers too, remembering that day a few weeks after the ceremony when, over a dinner of roast quail and greens, Turms had announced, “It would please me to have the child to be born here in the royal palace.” Before either she or Arthur could reply, the king had quickly added, “It is a long time since this house heard the sound of a baby’s cry. I would consider it an honour if you agreed to this request.”

“After all you have done for us, the honour would be mine,” she had said, picking out the words in his language-the first time she had spoken to him on her own. This surprised and delighted their noble host. “We accept.”

“She has been learning,” Arthur told him.

“I am impressed.”

“You have done so much for us already,” said Arthur. “We are in your debt.”

“How can friends ever be indebted to one another?”

Thus, Xian-Li had completed her time in the best place she could have imagined-luxuriating in the sun and warmth, the food and company, and all the accoutrements of the palace. Had she been a queen, she could not have been treated more royally. And the knowledge that she would be delivered of a living child made it all that much more to be cherished. The final weeks had passed, and now it was time for the child to be born. She was ready.

When, later in the day, she was in the throes of birthing the baby and surrounded by skilled Etruscan physicians, she knew that all was as it should be. There was a rightness to things that surpassed understanding, but she knew beyond all doubt that in each and every circumstance her feet had been guided along this path and to this place. A favourite saying in China-which she had heard on occasion from her own grandmother-was that the threads of life are easy to weave, but difficult to untangle. Xian-Li knew, for Arthur had shown her, that the threads of her life were being woven by a master of the loom.

It was Arthur who, having spent the better part of an anxious day sitting outside the birthing house, appeared at her bedside to receive his first glimpse of the newborn. “Well done, Xian-Li,” he said, beaming with pride. “We have a son.”

“Yes, a son,” she whispered, somewhat dizzy with exhaustion. “Is he not the most beautiful child?” Xian-Li pulled back the edge of her robe, which swaddled her baby, to reveal a small, pinched red face with a mass of spiky black hair resembling the glistening pelt of a bear. The infant’s eyes were shut tight and its tiny lips pressed firm as if the child was determined to sleep through any efforts that might be made to introduce him to this strange new world.

“He is perfect,” murmured his father. Arthur leaned close and gave his wife a kiss. “Thank you,” he said.

She reached for his hand and squeezed it.

“What shall we call him?” he asked, perching on the edge of the bed, his hand resting on the tiny lump beneath her robe.

They had been so preoccupied with the troubled pregnancy-and, truth be told, in some part of their deepest hearts they had not fully believed Turms’ prediction of a successful birth-that they had utterly neglected the important task of selecting a name. Whatever the reason, they now realised this oversight.

“He is your son,” said Xian-Li, brushing the infant’s forehead with her lips. “You should choose, husband.”

“Very well,” agreed Arthur. “Do you have any suggestions?”

She shook her head. “The son of an Englishman must have an English name. Whatever pleases you will please me also.”

He gazed at his newborn son, hoping for inspiration, but nothing came to him. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “There are so many.”

She laughed. “He needs only one.”

He rubbed his hand along his unshaved jaw. “This is going to take some thought.”

The Etruscans had a custom that a newborn infant should not be named until seven days had passed. “On the eighth day,” Turms told Arthur, “the child receives his name. This is a very old tradition. The eighth day-it is the most propitious day for naming, beginning a new venture, or undertaking a journey.”

Arthur liked that idea, since it allowed him plenty of time to think. It did not, however, make the thinking any easier. In his search, he conjured before him the faces of all his male ancestors-all those he could remember, alive or dead-to see if any of them had qualities he admired and whose names he might borrow and commemorate. This proved a useful exercise, but all the time devoted to the project failed to bring him any closer to a final decision.

When, after four days had passed, Xian-Li asked him what he was thinking, he was forced to admit that while he had begun drawing up a list, he had not yet chosen a name. He told her what Turms had said about refraining from conferring a name until seven days had passed. She accepted this, but warned, “Ponder as much as you like, but you have only four more days.”

His ruminations carried him to the final hour of the final day. “The king has asked me to inform you that tomorrow morning at sunrise we will hold the naming ceremony,” the king’s chief housekeeper told him. “I am to come and wake you at the appropriate time.”

“Ah,” replied Arthur, wondering where the days had flown. “Thank you, Pacha. Please, tell the king we will be ready.”

So, as the night ended and the moon began to set over the Tyrhennian Sea, Arthur and Xian-Li walked down the moonlit path to the little temple at the bottom of the hill. Xian-Li carried the infant asleep in her arms. It was the first time she had been out since the baby was born, and it felt good to move and feel the soft night air on her face, and to see the world once again. Turms had come to see her several times since the birth, and she wanted to thank him for his thoughtfulness.

When they reached the temple, however, he was not there. In fact, no one was about except a young acolyte, who had been charged with the task of informing them that the naming ceremony would not take place in the temple. “I am to ask you to follow me,” he said. “It is not far. But there is a donkey ready if you would like to ride.”

“It feels good to walk,” Xian-Li said when Arthur had relayed the offer.

“Thank you, but we will walk,” Arthur told the youth. “Lead the way.”

They continued along the path towards the town and soon came to a small pillar standing to one side. The acolyte paused here and, turning to them, said, “They are gathered at the king’s tomb. It is on the sacred road.” Indicating the little pillar, he said, “You are to wash before you enter the sacred way.”

The top of the pillar had been hollowed into a shallow depression, and this was filled with water. The young man demonstrated how to make the symbolic gesture by dipping his hands and then passing them over his head and face. “Also the child,” he said when they had done as instructed. Xian-Li dipped her fingertips in the water and, pushing away the unruly shock of hair, dampened the child’s forehead and wet his curled little hands.

The young acolyte led them off the path towards what appeared to be nothing more than the edge of a small defile-a place where the ground had crumbled away, or where a stream had cut through the soft earth over time. They quickly discovered, however, that it was not a natural feature at all, but man-made. Steps had been cut in the soft tufa stone that lay beneath the ground.

This hewn staircase led down and down, passing between narrow walls until they could no longer see the surface they had left behind. At the bottom, the steps joined a passage wide enough for two horses to pass abreast; the passage stretched away on either hand. Torches had been lit and set in simple sconces carved into the towering stone walls.

“This is the sacred road,” the young man informed them.

“Where does it lead?” asked Arthur.

“It joins other sacred ways in other places,” replied the acolyte. “There are many such throughout the land.”

They walked along, the passageway cast in deepest gloom though the sky above held the faint glimmer of the rising sun. They passed an elaborate doorway that had been carved into the tufa; columns, also carved, supported a triangular pediment that bore the sculpted image of a man in long robes lying on a low couch. There was an inscription, which seemed to be a name carved into the architrave. The doors were of stone and sealed.

“What is this?” asked Arthur.

“It is the tomb of Lars Volsina,” answered the youth. “He was a king of our people many years ago.”

They passed another doorway set in a niche on the opposite side of the sunken road, then two more; as they continued along there were more of these elaborate facades: some larger, grandly decorated porticoes with steps and columns; others simple posts and lintels framing a stone door. “Are they all tombs?” wondered Arthur. “All these doorways?”

“Yes, all are tombs of kings and noblemen.”

The deep-carved passageway wound gently down, curving as it went. As it straightened again they saw a short distance ahead a group of people standing before another of the rock-cut tombs, this one somewhat larger than the others and more elaborate, with stone steps leading up to a covered porch. A fire had been lit in an iron bowl supported by a tripod, and torches attached to the columns and walls of the sunken roadway gave the tufa a warm, ruddy glow. There was a stone plinth covered with an orange cloth in front of the steps. King Turms stood before it, flanked on either side by women in long white linen gowns. Both had their hair braided in such a way as to fall over each shoulder; one of them held a golden bowl, the other a knife with a blade of black glass.

“Welcome, friends,” called Turms as they came to stand before the plinth. “This rite is best observed on the sacred way in the presence of venerable ancestors,” he explained. “This is a most auspicious place.”

At Arthur’s sceptical expression, he said, “I suppose it will seem strange to you that the celebration of new life should take place amongst the tombs. Even so, this, like the road you have taken to come here, represents the journey of life itself. We are travellers, and each of us, body and soul together, are companions for life’s journey. One day we will part company, as we must. The body, grown weary, will take its rest at last.” Turms lifted a hand to the surrounding tombs.

“But for those whose spirits are alive to the purposes of creation,” he continued, “there is no final destination. For such as these, death is merely a pause, an interlude where one can gather strength for new and greater journeys. Friends, we are created travellers. I ask you, what true traveller ever arrived in a new place who did not wish to explore it, and in exploring did not continue his travels, seeing new sights, learning new ways, breathing the air of a new land under new skies, and rejoicing in new discoveries?”

Turms the Immortal, priest king of the Velathri, turned and motioned to the woman with the bowl. She stepped forward, placing the bowl on the orange-draped plinth. “Though the body you bring before me in this most favourable hour will one day grow weary and die, the new spirit which has entered the world in this body is immortal and will never die. Know this, my friends, we are-all of us-immortal.”

He held out his hands. “Give me the child.”

Xian-Li, who had been following Turms’ explanation with Arthur’s whispered translation, extended her arms and gently placed her newborn son in the king’s hands. Turms raised the infant above his head, then passed it to the woman who had held the bowl. She unwrapped the baby and presented it naked to the king, who cradled it in his arms. “As the last stars of the night fade into the dawn, so begins a new day in the dying of the old. This is as it must be.”

Turms dipped a little water from the bowl and wet the baby’s head. “We welcome you, little soul, into the life we all share in this world,” he said, his voice growing soft as a mother’s. Extending his hand to the woman with the knife, he said, “Yours is not a solitary life, little one.” With a quick deft stroke he pricked the sole of the infant’s foot with the point of the knife.

Xian-Li stifled a gasp, and the child gave a squeak of surprise at the sudden, fleeting pain. A big drop of bright red blood welled up on the little heel. Turms dabbed the blood with a forefinger and made a spot on the baby’s forehead, then repeated the gesture three times, placing a spot first on Xian-Li’s forehead, then on Arthur’s, and finally on his own. “This sign is to remind you that your life is not yours alone-it is mingled with your parents, and with all those who came before you and will come after. But it is mingled with others, too, just as their lives are mingled with still others. In this way, we are all part of one another.”

The baby, growing cold and uncomfortable in the morning air, squirmed and gave out a growl like that of a kitten or a cub. The king smiled and returned the child to the woman holding the swaddling cloth; she gathered the infant once more into the soft folds and returned it to the king. Turms placed his hand on the infant’s head and said, “Our hope for you is that you will grow to be strong and virtuous in spirit and deed, and that whether the length of your journey through this world is short or long, it will be a boon to you and all those around you. Learn well, little soul, so that the knowledge and wisdom you gather on your way can strengthen and sustain you in the life to come.”

Turms raised his eyes and asked Arthur, “By what name will this child be known?”

Arthur’s mouth framed the word Benjamin -a name he had decided on that held some resonance for him. Curiously, his tongue uttered, “Benedict.”

The king nodded. Taking the infant’s curled fist in his, he dipped the tiny hand into the water, and then pressed that little fist to its chest. “From henceforth you will be called Benedict.”

Xian-Li glanced at her husband and mouthed the question, “Benedict?”

The ceremony was completed, and Turms handed the child back to its mother. The two women attendants took up the bowl and knife once more.

“Wait,” said Arthur. “I meant to say Benjamin.”

Turms’ smile grew broad, and he put back his head and laughed. “And yet you did not.”

“But-” Arthur started to object.

“It is done, my friend,” the king told him. “And it is right. The name you have given is what was chosen for him. All is as it must be.”

Arthur gave in to the decision with rueful acceptance. They all walked back to the palace to eat a celebratory meal in honour of the newly named infant, retracing their steps along the sacred way, passing the silent tombs. They mounted the steps and, upon reaching the top, the rising sun broke above the horizon, for a moment dazzling them. Arthur felt as if, having spent the night in the tomb, he was rising to new life.

On the way back up the hill, Xian-Li leaned close to her husband. “Why Benedict?” she wondered. “What does it mean?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” confessed Arthur. “Blessing or blessed one, I think-something like that.”

Xian-Li smiled and held the infant up before her to look at him. “He is our blessing,” she decided, and the awkwardness of the mistake dissolved. In that moment, the world settled into place once more.


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