by Patricia Court
Scipio’s siege on our city will end today. We are all in agreement, even as Roman ballista balls and crossbow bolts continue to smash the last of the thatched roofs of our houses, to pound Numantia into dust. No more starvation. No more disease. No more humiliation.
I find my best friend kneeling in front of her house, eyes turned toward the sky, watching for a winged goddess who will never come. As I open my mouth to call out, she lifts her husband’s falchion to her throat. The blade slices. I race down the rubble-filled street and reach her just as her body stops convulsing. I kneel, cradle her head in my arms, whisper her name. Will we meet again? Will our souls be together even if my body still walks?
The pebble facade of her house cracks in the heat of a fire inside. The bodies of her husband and child lie in the flames. She belongs there, too, but I’m so weak I can’t even drag her emaciated remains to the pyre.
I know I should cry, but most of my friends are dying this way today. And I envy them. They’ve chosen freedom. And if the Numantine curse strikes them, and their corpses walk… There’s nothing to be done about that.
Nothing to be done.
Except to get their bodies to the fire. Ashes cannot walk.
The first corpse walked shortly after Avarus’ ill-advised attempt to make peace with Scipio, the Roman general. We killed Avarus and his party for their treachery. And we did not burn their remains. And that night, the body of his younger brother rose, hungry for our flesh. The curse of the Numantines had returned after so many generations.
My husband appears at the corner. His tunic is in tatters, and the bite on his shoulder festers. He holds out a piece of raw flesh.
Another volley of stones and darts rains down. I abandon my best friend and run through the onslaught to the cobbled step where my husband stands. I don’t ask him whose liver it is. I take it and sink my teeth in.
It’s rotten. My stomach tries to retch. I haven’t eaten in a week. My body longs for the meat, even as my mind and throat rebel.
The traitorous ambassador wasn’t the only one to rise. The curse spread soon after, when hunger forced some in our powerful city to eat our fallen brothers and sisters. There is no way to know who carries the curse, until the corpse rises. And if you’ve eaten the tainted flesh, your corpse will rise, too.
I had always resisted eating human flesh until now. I had preferred starvation.
The first bite stays down. I look at my husband, and nod. He wraps his arm around me, and we walk together toward the gate. I throw away the rest of the liver.
More fires burn now. That’s good. Perhaps they will cremate our dead. Perhaps those who died today will be spared.
During the siege, we successfully herded five of our walking dead outside our walls. I was there for the last one. He chased me up the central street. He bit my husband, who was trying to keep him on course for the city gate. I climbed through a window into a house by the gate and the dead man I had admired as a great warrior shambled outside our wall, inside the wall that Scipio built to surround our city. And then, he just circled between the walls until the Roman crossbows sliced him to pieces. Five cursed corpses, and not a single one managed to bite a Roman. Not one.
There are only a few hundred of us assembled by the gate, all dressed in rags, most bloody. We smell like the dead.
The gate opens. Beyond, the Roman wall blocks the view of our precious, rolling landscape. The towers go silent. We stagger outside and assemble.
An old Roman with an entourage strides up to us. Is this Scipio? Is this the man who so feared us that he burned our fields, slaughtered our goats, planted spikes in our river, and walled us inside our own city to starve instead of facing our woefully outnumbered warriors honorably on the field of battle?
Scipio looks into our eyes, and hesitates. What does he see? Does he somehow sense our plan?
Scipio speaks to a man beside him. I never learned their language. They nod, and look back at us. Other Roman soldiers laugh and cheer, but Scipio and his lieutenant — there is fear behind their eyes.
Does Scipio know? Can this depraved man sense that this is not a surrender, but an attack?
Everyone here has either been bitten or has consumed the tainted flesh. We all carry the curse. And now, we will inflict the curse of the Numantines on the Romans.
When we die, our corpses will rise. We will be scattered behind Roman walls. We will be inside their cities. Some of us will be in Rome itself.
Roman captives and slaves don’t live very long.
And when we die, Numantia will rise again, devouring Rome from the inside.
Patricia Court lives in Fresno, California, with several bottles of good merlot.