by K. Marvin Bruce
The Roman legion storms our house at breakfast. In a beautifully executed phalanx maneuver, they advance like tin soldiers, the early morning sun glinting off the high sheen of their polished helmets and immaculate shields. They do not appear to be in a good mood.
Looking out through the lacy curtains, past our indoor windowsill herb garden, my wife wipes her mouth and asks, “What are you going to do about them?” She is still sleepy and looks irresistible in her oversized flannel pajamas with her yellow hair carelessly falling across her face like a tattered wedding veil. She looks like she could still be eighteen. She turns back to her toast, lightly buttered. She doesn’t have to be at work until ten.
“Shakespeare always seems to work well on Romans,” I comment off-handedly, trying to keep my mind on the fact that I need to catch the 7:30 train if I’m to be on time. “And it doesn’t even have to be Julius Caesar. I’ve actually found them to be partial to MacBeth.” I notice that they appear agitated, and soon the neighbors will begin to complain. I squeeze one last spoonful of juice from my grapefruit half, drain my coffee mug, and head to the bookshelves.
“They’re erecting a siege engine,” Cat casually observes.
Our edition of Shakespeare contains all of his plays. It is a bit awkward since the book has to be so large, but I’ve read MacBeth more than once, so the darkened edges on those pages provides an instant bookmark. Index finger in place, I stroll to the front door and open onto a well-ordered crowd with hatred in their bloodshot eyes. Discipline. Always discipline with the Romans. The sky is as clear as a mountain lake and the sun ripples across their lances causing bright fireflies of light to dance between their Corinthian horsetails. They look up and fall silent when they see the great tome in my hands. Diction is important with Romans, no slurring of words or unnecessary rushing. The sharp tip of a spear under the fourth rib will always remind you of that.
Once they’ve gone, I glance at my watch. “Why do they always seem to come at breakfast time?” I complain, exasperated. Cat just yawns so luxuriantly that I want to pick her up and take her back to bed, but in these days of mandatory dual incomes, that is just not feasible.
My 8:30 history class is seldom full. Those students brave enough to register for the course usually stumble in at about 9:00 and glare at me as if I were somehow responsible for the timing of the earth’s rotation. Most of them recall their lackadaisical high school history teachers who failed to make an impression on minds hopelessly fixated on sex and peer pressure. College calms them down just a bit. College is a lot like high school these days, only with beer.
The Renaissance, my 10:30, is my favorite class. The rebirth of human culture is a flower of rare beauty that I hold before my cynical eyes whenever university politics get too thick. Many of my colleagues ride this gravy train for the lazy man’s way to a non-challenging career. I have always loved my subject. Maybe a little too much. I daydream during committee meetings. The Dean glowers at me. What has been is more interesting than right now. Hell, anything would be more interesting than right now. I wish the hordes would come during these dull sessions.
Back home I wait for Cat to arrive. She keeps conventional hours, but only reappears at dinner-time. I do the cooking, always with a book in one hand. I hear the front door and my heart gives a little flutter. She is pissed off about work, but somehow that look only makes her pixie face more attractive. Like a child trying hard to be serious. A glass of sweet Chincha Valley Tabernero Borgoña and the weariness of free enterprise begins to melt away. Seeing the Romans put me in the mood for something Italian. Tagliatelle with pesto, a crusty loaf of Italian bread and zucchini on the side. Simple but impressively green.
“Remember your response the first time?” I ask in a playful banter, shoving the commercial blues further and further behind her.
A smile parts her innocent lips. “The real estate agent sure forgot to mention that little feature,” she adds.
“You sure were distressed when you saw Napoleon the first time! That was before we discovered the French love McGonnagall. Lately I’ve noticed they tend to come during breakfast. I might have to start getting up a little earlier so I’m ready for class on time.”
“Maybe we should keep a list by the door so if they ever come and you’re not here, I’ll know what to read to them.” She doesn’t look worried, just a little pensive. Her blonde hair is pulled back now, looking very professional.
“That’s not a bad idea. It has been trial and error up ‘til now, but we’ve got a pretty good idea of who likes what.”
“Some people say they always use the Bible, as if that has all the answers. They’ve obviously never been invaded by an angry Mongolian horde at six a.m.” Her smile parts the clouds.
“Who’d’ve thought they’d’ve been such fans of Kafka? The Bible would likely get you killed in that situation. Some groups like only Beowulf, others T. S. Eliot. You just need to get to know your invaders before you start reading to them.”
“I remember how you swore like a sailor the first time they made you late for work,” she laughs. She takes another sip of Chilean wine. She’s glowing now.
“We’d just moved in then. That was Tutmoses III, the Egyptian Empire, if I recall correctly.”
“What was it that conquered them?” She’s getting happier by the second.
“Milliken. The only modern writer who’s ever had a calming effect on an invasion. Funny, most of them only dissipate with readings from the nineteenth century or earlier.”
The neighbors sometimes complain, but their threats and exasperation fail to impress conquerors. They are stubbornly single-minded. I always say people should read more anyway.
The cheap wine and cheery conversation lead to wonderful results at bedtime. After a bottle of Borgoña we sleep like the profoundly dead.
Morning is too early in the day for my liking. Waking up after a bottle of wine is like being kissed by Aphrodite while being slapped by Dionysus. In the shower I wonder who will trample our lawn this morning. It is growing muddy from constant use, especially now that it is raining. Cat looks so cozy in bed, snug as a child, but she will rouse herself to eat with me; it is our morning ritual. We take turns watching out the window. I always begin my day with black coffee and grapefruit. Start a day bitter and sour and it should end sweet.
I glance at the clock as Cat yawns. The rain has never stopped them before. It is nearly time for the train. I hate to leave Cat to deal with them herself, but I can’t miss another 8:30 class. She smiles groggily and tells me she’s a big girl; she can handle Attila if she has to.
“After all, I handled you last night,” she teases.
The whole way down the block I glance nervously over my shoulder. I worry about her. I need to compile that list. If she’s watching, I can’t see her with the mist over the window.
Students crowd around after class to ask questions or complain, and I am slalomed to my next classroom and don’t have the opportunity to call Cat. To make sure she’s okay. She should be at work by now anyway.
When I arrive in our neighborhood from the train, breathless from jogging along the damp pavement with briefcase in hand, I see no signs of disaster. No fires or broken windows or bloody stains. Inside the books are all on their shelves. Did they not arrive today? I pull out the saucepans and try to concoct a special dinner. Cat smiles when she comes in.
“No invaders!” she announces. “Maybe they’ve stopped at last!”
It has been such a constant part of each day for so long that we marvel at our luck. They’ve never burst in after 7 p.m. In anxious astonishment we take each bite in nervous anticipation. The big hand nears the top. We glance out into the twilight. Nothing.
Cat is so happy she dances right there in the dining room. Spinning around in a joyous swoop she grabs my hand and pulls me up the stairs before the dishes are done. I have to admit that despite the rain, this has been a glorious day. It is getting more glorious by the second.
An enraged shout interrupts our celebration. “Damn it!” I roar, pulling on an ill-fitting bathrobe and sprinting to the window.
“Who is it, sweetie?” she asks, dejected, from the bed.
I squint into the darkening evening. “Assyrians, I think.”
“We’ve never had Assyrians before…”
She’s right. Awkwardly I fumble down the stairs into the library. Where do we begin with Assyrians? I rule out the authors we’ve previously used. They never work twice. The men outside have arms like Burmese pythons, fierce, braided beards and scaled armor. I begin with Dante but they grow only louder and more annoyed. The din is almost unendurable as they construct siege engines and prepare flaming arrows. The Hittites once tried to catapult a diseased donkey onto the roof. A swift solution would behoove me as I pull out books by the handful and begin reading to watch the effect. These dogs of war take to no literature I’d expect: Shelley, followed by Wollstonecraft, Millay, Hawthorne, and Melville – I’ve always believed Melville could stop anyone. The Assyrians rage on. Lights are flipping on in neighbors’ houses. By chance I grab Lovecraft, a writer who never enjoyed success in his lifetime. Although he doesn’t stop them, the din dies down a bit. Radcliffe has the same results. Finally my weary mind latches onto Poe. I solemnly begin “The Raven” and the Assyrians vanish.
Cat is no longer in the mood when I finally trudge back upstairs. I head to the study and start typing up the list for the front door. Instead of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, my list includes Assyrians, Mughals, and Parthians. And a list of the best literature ever composed.
K. MARVIN BRUCE has taught at state universities in Wisconsin and New Jersey; his current temporary stint is Montclair State University in the latter. He has previously published fiction in Danse Macabre XXX and XXXIII. He has been haunted by literature for as long as he can remember. Some of his best friends are Assyrians.