Story Excerpt

The Lightness of Man

by Thomas K. Carpenter
 

Lightness_Ron-Bucalo
Art by Ron Bucalo

The Pharos of Alexandria reached like a pale fist into the thickening sky, defiant and unyielding, as the wine-dark sea crashed into the lighthouse’s bulwark, sending salty spray into Magistrate Ovid’s squinting face. The wind tugged at his robes, snapped the red and gold flags along the earthen mole.

Ovid leaned back—as much as his girth would allow—cupped his hand to shield his face against the weather, and tried to reconcile himself with the lighthouse, which had defied the elements for over three hundred years. The three-tiered structure had been built with millions of limestone blocks, reinforced with lead mortar, and adorned with the likeness of both Zeus and Poseidon, so as not to offend the gods. It was everything he did not want to be: grand, unyielding—and, most importantly—noticed.

He did not normally carry animosity towards inanimate objects, but the magistrate had always avoided this section of the city because of the lighthouse. Though he was sure the builders had meticulously planned and executed the building of the structure, he was convinced that it could fall at any moment, and that it was his unfortunate destiny to be crushed beneath.

The wind hid the approaching horse, so Magistrate Ovid was startled when the booming voice of his superior, Praetor Juneus Atticus, assaulted him.

“A marvel of human invention. Don’t you think?”

“It is—” Ovid searched for a suitable word “—overwhelming.”

The praetor, tall and clear-eyed, drove his horse towards Ovid, forcing him to stumble backwards.

“That—is overwhelming,” said the praetor, yanking on the reins. “The lighthouse is a stationary object, not to be feared. It is a tool of man. Overwhelmed? Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would never have believed you fought in the Legion.”

Magistrate Ovid mustered his voice. “Praetor Atticus, you sent for me, and I have come. What is it you require, so that I may return to my villa. There is a wicked storm upon the horizon and I do not wish to be caught in it.”

“Do not concern yourself with the storm, and, I daresay, you could use the bath, there are stains on your garment!”

Without further comment, the praetor rode towards the space between the garrison buildings and the lighthouse. In calmer weather, food stalls covered the area, but they’d been abandoned, shutters hammered into place against the storm.

Behind a row of wooden huts, which still carried the faint scents of roasted meats, a misshapen body lay. Blood had spilt from the man’s head, forming a pool swirled with dust. His eyes held the shock of impact, a disturbing gaze that made Ovid feel as if the man still experienced the collision. Normally, Ovid might look away, but for the presence of the praetor, he endured.

“He was a tender of the flame,” said Praetor Atticus, nodding towards the final cylinder at the top of the lighthouse, from which a flickering light reflected upon the darkened clouds. “The third one in the past few months. Normally, this kind of event wouldn’t be brought to my office, but the aedile in charge of the lighthouse is a friend, and he’s had to double the workers’ pay to overcome their fears.”

The root of the problem rumbled through Ovid’s enormous belly. It was doubtful this aedile was a friend of the praetor. More likely, he had paid sums for the position, allowing him to siphon off coinage from those foolish tourists who wished to climb to the top, and in turn paid the praetor.

Ovid swallowed, his throat constricting as he recognized what was about to be asked of him.

“I’m afraid I cannot,” said Ovid, his fear of the lighthouse overcoming his fear of the praetor.

“It’s not a choice,” said the praetor. “There can be no further interruptions to the smooth workings of the lighthouse. I require a solution and that is you. Besides, I have responsibilities this eve, as the fleet will be arriving with dignitaries from Rome, otherwise I would perform this job myself.”

Though he was no fan of horseflesh, Ovid pressed himself against the haunch of the praetor’s mount. “Juneus”—he received a glare from his superior for use of his first name—“I beg of you, find another magistrate, release me from this duty.”

Praetor Atticus sidestepped his mount as if Ovid’s moods were contagious. His lips wrinkled as he spoke. “Enjoy the climb, for it may help you reconsider your disappointing personal decisions. And fear not, Magistrate, the journey shall be fruitful, for the guilty party is already known. Lurcius Tiro is the man you shall arrest. He is a keeper of the flame.”

“What is the method of the murder?” asked Ovid.

“What matters is that the guilty is punished. Bring him to my office,” said the praetor, who took another look at the boiling sky and kicked his mount into a trot towards the mole.

Magistrate Ovid was left with the dead body. “I shouldn’t say this, as not to offend the dead, but why did you have to fall from the lighthouse?”

He mused about the circumstance of the fall, shivering away his imagination each time it threatened to show him the brief, terror-filled flight.

Ovid was startled when one of the soldiers who had been guarding the body came forward.

“Magistrate—?”

The soldier’s eyes held fears and questions. He avoided the body, which Ovid found odd, since it was clear by the scars on the soldier’s arms and the nicks on his shield that he had seen battle.

“Is there something you wish to tell me?”

The soldier cleared his throat, leaned back to view the top of the lighthouse momentarily. “The praetor, I heard . . .”

“You heard nothing,” said Ovid. “That was meant to be between him and me.”

“Yes, but it wasn’t Tiro.”

Ovid wished the soldier hadn’t come forward. It was easier to follow the praetor’s direction and arrest Tiro as requested.

“Who was it, then?”

The soldier tugged uncomfortably at his crimson tunic. “It’s the gods, Magistrate. They’re unhappy with us. Many strange things have been happening at the Pharos. Three men falling to their death is a sign that this monstrosity should not stand. It’s an affront to the gods.”

Ovid agreed with the soldier’s assessment that the lighthouse should not stand, though his opinion was not based on the whims of the gods, but of the fallibility of man.

“I will take your recommendation into account,” said Ovid, trying to appear bothered, so the soldier would return to his duty, but the soldier persisted.

“I’ve seen it,” said the solider breathlessly. “The wrath of the gods, like a fire on the brow of Zeus gazing downward. I heard the wailing, the cries of his eagles right before this man fell.”

Ovid stared at his feet, hoping the soldier would go away. This task was onerous enough without the superstitions of a soldier. Eventually, the man got the hint, apologized, and returned to his station.

When large, scattered drops of rain impacted the fired clay tiles on the garrison building like a drummer warming to a full double-time beat, Ovid prepared to hurry under cover, but then he noticed something in the man’s fist, fell hard to his knees, and pried it loose. There was a tuft of a feather in his hand. Ovid’s mind went first to the soldier’s comment about an eagle, but quickly dismissed it when he realized the feather was from a simple pigeon. As the rain turned to a full-throated roar, he tucked the feather into his belt and hurried inside.

The garrison was a long hall filled with neatly arranged shields, armor, and weapons on shelves. Soldiers in tunics lounged around the marshaling room, laughing and drinking. The storm had chased away the tourists and with them, the soldiers’ responsibilities.

Magistrate Ovid approached the nearest soldier when a buffet of rain that blew in through the windows forced the men to scurry for the shutters. To Ovid’s surprise, Praetor Atticus burst through the archway on his mount, threw himself off the horse, and handed the reins to a soldier.

“The storm caught me before I made it back to the city,” Praetor Atticus said as he wiped the water from his face.

Seeing an opportunity to shed his responsibility, Ovid said in a loud voice, “Then you can make the arrest of the keeper?”

The soldiers, upon hearing this, made secretive glances. This was clearly news to them.

“Do your duty, Magistrate,” growled the praetor.

Magistrate Ovid pressed his hands together at his waist to hide their shaking. “You said that you would do this yourself if not for your responsibilities.”

Caught like a lion in a trap, the praetor glared at the soldiers. He speared Ovid in his sights.

“Very well,” said Praetor Atticus. “But since you are here, you will make the climb with me.”

 

They took the inside passage into the heart of the lighthouse. The structure had three separate sections, one on top of the other. The lowest, tapered, square section was hollow, with a ramp that circled the inner wall. Supplies were sent up on a platform that rose through the center, pulled by a winch and pulley system. The second part—stacked on the square lower part—was an octagonal building where the keepers lived, and stored the supplies necessary for the flame, while the final cylindrical section housed the furnace and mirror that created the lighthouse’s most important feature.

Thunder echoed through the central structure, rumbling like a vast beast who endlessly hungered. Workers sorted supplies, preparing a wagon-load for the journey upward, while squat surefooted horses nickered as the storm battered the lighthouse. Ovid was surprised at how few workers tended the structure.

Praetor Atticus found the foreman, who was counting cords of wood stacked along the wall with a mien of disappointment.

“Where is the platform?” the praetor demanded.

The foreman, who had not seen them approach, turned with a trite rebuke on his lips until he saw the markings of their offices.

“The platform has been out of use for months,” said the foreman, looking as if he was trying to find a reason to flee. “We’ve been hauling supplies up with wagons.”

“Where is Aedile Priscus? How could he let this happen?”

The foreman wagged his eyebrows upward. “He’s staying with the keepers. Funds have been scarce and no one has been paid in two months. Workers disappear nightly for lack of coin. He went up a few months ago to ensure the flame stayed lit.”

Praetor Atticus rubbed the back of his neck, glanced up the ramp. His mind seemed to work through a difficult problem.

“Come, Ovid, we should get moving,” said the praetor as he marched towards the ramp.

Lanterns placed at regular intervals along the ramp winked as the winds created a tumultuous atmosphere. Rain blew through windows and turned to mist, gently falling upon Ovid’s upturned face.

The slope was moderate and within a dozen strides Ovid was cursing it. The praetor marched ahead, setting a relentless pace that made Ovid regret trapping his superior into the journey. If he’d been alone, he could have taken a leisurely pace.

Before long, his thighs burned and his robes clung to his body with sweat. Halfway up, the way became slick as the storm-side windows vomited water onto the ramp. At first, they were able to traverse the wet stone, but on the north side, where the storm winds were worse, a waterfall flowed across the path. The stone was worn, indicating this problem was not new.

“Damn this storm and curse that foreman for not shuttering the windows. Their incompetence has cost our progress,” said the praetor.

“I agree. This is a tragic result. We should go back down. Lurcius Tiro can be arrested another day,” said Ovid.

But Praetor Atticus marched into the water as if the elements obeyed his commands. Between the swift-moving stream and the polished stone, he was yanked off his feet, slamming hard on the bony tip of his elbow. The water carried him towards the edge like an aqueduct chute. . . .

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2018. The Lightness of Man by Thomas K. Carpenter

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