Marcia’s face was shrouded in a blackened veil, her long black tunic falling way beneath her knees. Her dark hair was pinned in a bun, her face pale and waxy.
She clasped the hand of her youngest sister, who carried a small yellow bouquet in one hand and Marcella’s hand in the other. The younger daughters were dressed symmetrically, with no veil but with black tunics and their hair falling below their shoulders. Their mother walked, veiled and dressed in a black stola, with small yellow blossoms tied in her hair. Their father marched near the front of the procession, his shoulder slumping under the weight of the open litter, on which the body of Seneca Marcius Felix lay at rest.
The litter was draped in black cloth and yellow blossoms, and was carried by three other men. Marcia, her sisters, and her mother walked at the back of the torch lit procession, along with the professional mourners and friends of the family. Marcela sniffed and pulled Marcia down to her height, whispering something in her ear. Marcia shook her head and held her finger to her lips. As they passed under the city gate and reached the catacombs, they laid the litter on the ground. Marcia closed her eyes, drowning out the sounds of the mourners, the confused squeals of the animal that was to be sacrificed at her father’s grave.
Their grandfather was dressed in his best toga, and in his hands lay honeyed cakes, to feed Cerberus, the three-headed hound that guarded the gates to the underworld. Beneath his tongue lay a single denarius to pay the ferryman as the dead make their way across the river Styx to the underworld. Marcia shivered. Many times her father had haunted her with the tales of the underworld, and how she would be judged and sent to Tantarus if she lied or misbehaved. Her heart warmed at the thought of her grandfather in Elysium, and to walk its heavens.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see her father. His eyes were creased with loss, but lightened as he caught her own. Tacita kissed her husband on the cheek, and led Marcia and her sisters away, leaving her father at the catacombs for the cremation.
* * *
Marcia sat cross-legged on her bed, fiddling with a strand of loose hair. Marcela sat in the corner with her doll; humming a sweet tune her father had taught her. Marcella was sat on the floor, her back lent against the lemon yellow wall. She sighed and let her head drop onto her knees. The girls were still dressed in the funeral wear, but Marcia’s veil was draped over the foot of the bed, and Marcela’s bouquet lay by her feet.
Marcia uncrossed her legs and stood up. Cautiously, she made her way around the bed and sat next to her sister. Marcella looked up, and shuddered. “I just can’t believe he…you know.” Marcia nodded and shrugged. “It is bound to happen some day to all of us. We just have to …”
“Oh that’s cheery.”
“I was trying to help!”
“I don’t need your help!”
The room fell silent. Marcela stood up and crept out of the door, leaving the two fuming girls pressed against the wall. Marcella bent her head again, and when she rose fresh tears had welled in her eyes. Marcia sighed. “Sorry.” She mumbled and picked at her nails. Marcella sniffed, but whispered an apology, and left
Marcia sat alone for a while, until her mind readjusted. She tried to remember the last time she had spoken with her grandfather, and recalled the evening but three days ago in the garden. Marcia frowned. She remembered the way her grandfather had acted, as if he was hiding something.
She recalled what he had said, that one last time. “Find them. Please. Find them,” she whispered. Who were ‘them’? Her mind raced as the sun lowered in the sky. Her stomach growled, but still she was not torn away from her thoughts. However, hunger soon got the better of her, and she vowed to ask her father about Seneca in his study, after raiding the kitchens. Gradually, she eased open her bedroom door and padded along the landing that overlooked the garden. The sun had already set, and the cooling twilight breeze echoed through the villa. Marcia shivered, wishing she had brought her shawl. Slowly, she edged her way past her sisters’ rooms, gasping at the coldness of the tiles. She skipped down the stairs and glided through the garden.
Marcia glanced at the serpent bench, and a single tear rolled down her cheek. She sniffed, and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. She scampered across the stones and through to the kitchens. Marcia eyed the shelves eagerly. She stepped up onto her toes, peering over the fireplace. She shivered, sending her feet off balance. Marcia’s feet swerved from under her as she let out a shriek. Desperately she reached for the shelves, bringing down pots of olives, baskets of cherries and plates of fresh fish clattering down into a heap on top of her.
Marcia lay still, holding her breath. Her ankle twinged as she tried to get up. Out of the darkness came a candle light, a pale hand gripping its stand. Marcia’s father shook his head at his daughter, frowned, and then let out a bellowing laugh.