I am an augur. I am not an augur. I am an excellent augur, a terrible augur. A banished augur.
I saw it coming. That’s why I was banished to the Villa Flaminia at Baiae, why they stripped me of my curled staff of office. It was ripped from my hands, with a certain glee I might add, by my cousin, the delightful Flavia, who, according to my aunt Fulvia, was always meant to be the augur instead of me because Flavia is all things wonderful whereas I am not.
The augur uses the staff of office, the lituum, to mark out the area of sky, the templum, that will be used to take the auspices. In our youth, at our test, the birds flew into my templum, not hers. Ossifragae, bearded vultures no less – half a dozen of them.
I was given the lituum, to the incandescent rage of my family, and that’s when I started seeing fires. The first, at the inauguration of the new amphitheatre built by our beloved Marcus Holconius. The augur inaugurates. My lituum marked out the templum, and as all waited for auspices, inside its confines I saw the house of Holconius in flames.
I spoke what I saw. Those are the rules.
The crowd panicked, the inauguration was almost cancelled, then lightning flashed to the left of the amphitheatre and three crows crossed the templum. Everybody relaxed.
Holconius never looked me in the eye again.
Then came the burning of the new mill. Claudius, the owner, had sacrificed to Ceres, goddess of grain, and had come to ask for auguries. I marked out my templum. And saw his mill aflame.
What could I tell him? To sacrifice again, to Vulcan, god of fire, but I could see he no longer trusted me. He remembered my vision of Holconius’s house aflame. Everybody had eyed me a little askance ever since it failed to happen. But I could smell the singed corn husks around Claudius’s mill; the burning oatmeal dust clung to my throat.
Claudius’s mill did not burn.
After that, rumours took flight, soaring through the city like hawks after prey, and I found myself called on less frequently, then not at all.
The day the messenger came from Caesar to tell Marcus Holconius that he was elevated to senator, the auguries were bad. I saw him receive the glad news outside his house as I exited the temple of Jupiter. He turned, elated, and saw me. As if dodging a blow, he flinched, and I heard thunder rumble. There was no blow, but I saw what he did not – a flaming missile hurtle towards him as if fired from a ballista. He exploded into flames, like the sacred vessels when taper touches oil. I heard his screams and had to slap my ears to stop the horror, which I knew was not real because I could see the living, breathing man back away from me.
Of what could I warn him? That he should watch for fire from the heavens? How does one prepare for that?
So, on this day of Holconius’s inauguration prior to his departure for Rome, I am banished so I cannot taint things with my eye of doom.
My cousin Flavia holds the augur’s lituum. She will officiate. Last night I saw Flavia burn, her golden hair aflame and her blue eyes wider than ever in her terror.
“Come with me,” I’d said to my family. “The auspices are terrible. Abandon this day.”
Outraged that I wanted to destroy the day Flavia had been waiting for her whole life, they turned from me. I came to Baiae alone.
They’re in the square now, celebrating and feasting. Flavia’s headdress is of beaten gold. Augurem Aureum, I’ve already heard her called. The Golden Augur. And she is. She radiates light, like the sun. Like fire. Flames, flicking and darting around her face and head like golden snakes, making her scream.
A rumble shakes the Villa Flaminia. Not thunder, but the earth shaking so hard it knocks me off my feet and shuts off the vision. The waters in the cove below chop and heave like a wine pitcher slammed down hard. Another rumble detonates across the bay like a punch to the belly.
Then I see it. With my eyes, not my mind. A black cloud surging from the mountain behind our town like a great tree of ash, branches stabbing the sky and launching flaming missiles down the trembling slopes. Balls of fire tumble towards my home, my people, and they must realise what is happening, that our mountain is exploding, because even from this distance I see them like ants, frantic, scattering, as Pompeii comes alight. Not with the fires of celebration, but with roofs aflame, trees on fire, people fleeing as their clothes, hair, skin catch alight.
I see them up close in my wretched mind’s eye. Flavia runs, robes ablaze as the deluge of rock, burning earth and poison air rushes down the slopes in a catastrophic tide to engulf them.
The molten earth overtakes them; their screams are silenced.
I will put out my eyes. I will tear my ears from my head and my tongue from my mouth. I will walk into the flames of my burning home, blind, deaf, dumb. I will not see these things again. I cannot.
But I have not moved from here. Three days now. Across the bay, Pompeii is silent, black. Fires still smoulder in the bones of those become stone. I see them.
There is a messenger in the hall below. From Caesar. I am pardoned. It seems the Pompeiians were not sufficiently favoured by the gods to understand my auguries. Rome is more greatly favoured. Rome wishes to re-inaugurate the banished augur.
Augur Ignis, Augur of Fire they call me. Six bearded vultures flew over the house this morning, to the left of where I watched Pompeii burn. A good auspice. My heart screams inside my chest. I will see these things again. One does not ignore the auspices. Augur Ignis I am.