by dave ring I. After more than a year of darkness, months of watching staff wander alone, dusting amphora, occasionally polishing my display case, the rhythms preceding this plague year have resumed. From dawn to dusk, strangers visit. They stare at me from behind the thick black rope suspended from two knee-high pylons. They marvel at my sculptural form—could I really be a human, someone preserved by ash? Visitors tend to think that they are witness to my actual body, not a simulacrum. The placard explaining how Giuseppe Fiorelli poured plaster into bone-filled cavities in the ash is often ignored. They misgender me constantly, the fault of the culturally myopic archaeologist who typed up the card that accompanies my display case. But it is good to be regarded again, even by ignorant eyes. Would I have accepted the gift of eternal life if I had known that it would result in centuries entombed in ash and decades in a glass coffin? Perhaps, yes. But it is hubris for me to pretend it was ever my choice to begin with. Just as my spells and exaltations had been little warding against a mountain, my protestations found no purchase against your wicked mouth. Even though I wailed and cursed your tongue, I must confess, I have never regretted knowing the taste of it. II. FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: A second “sorceress box” has been uncovered from the remains of the ████ ███ in Pompeii. As with the first, the box itself has decomposed, but the bronze hinges and ivory closures remain, and the shape of it was well-preserved by volcanic material. Numerous objects were found within, including pieces of bronze, bone, and amber. The box also held a carnelian knife and a bone amulet carved to resemble Aphrodite depicted with a beard, male genitalia, and wearing women’s clothes. Shortly after its discovery, staff of ████ ███ reported that the knife and amulet have gone missing. Security footage from the day of the theft appears to have malfunctioned. “Our specialists had only just begun to examine the contents of this incredible find, and though its discovery identifies vital linkages between this site and those previously uncovered, we are of course alarmed and dismayed that it could have been stolen from our institution. Such an extraordinary artifact can only shine a light on the lost biographies of Pompeii," says Director Sabine Vigliante at a press conference. “Full recompense shall be demanded from those who have taken it. Anyone with information regarding the theft is encouraged to contact our staff at the number below. No further questions please.” III. The fires of this not-death follow me still, but my devotion to Sweet Aphroditos burns brighter yet. Would that I had birds to consecrate to his name! Even as mere love failed me, faith in him sustains me. And the insufficiency of my worship is an unending indignity. Throughout the years, I often imagine your fate, dear heart. Just as I summon up our time together, your terrifying beauty. Your keen awareness of your own iniquity. The low timbre of your voice as you grovel; the play of moonlit shadows on the musculature of your back as you press your strong brow to my dirty feet. This too sustains me: that someone so mighty once sought abjection from my hand. IV. Four cracks wake me in the middle of the night, and transform not only my body but my resolve: The first is the glass. It rings like a bell. The second is the plaster shell that houses my bones. It startles me. The third is the sob that wracks you, dear Sabine. It stuns me no less than a blow between the eyes. The fourth is the clatter of the carnelian blade against the floor, newly sanctified with your blood. You loom in the garish fluorescent light, the last thing I comprehend for quite some time. The knife lies obscured amidst the debris and remains of plaster dusting the amphorae until it is discovered the next day. A stolen artifact, simply discarded at the scene of a perplexing crime. I can only imagine the press release. V. The flesh you conjured for me cools slowly, steam spiraling from my pores in the crisp mountain air. Is this new shape any more true than that plaster skin I wore for time innumerable? I can’t decide. The weight of Aphroditos’ idol against my untested palms is scalding even as it grounds me alongside the feelings that come from once again being made of meat: lungs that become swollen with air and a pulse that demands to be fed. I allow you to clothe me in strange fabrics and apologies. Perhaps I should be angry with you. Instead, my spine quivers, this meat permitting itself to recognize the possibility of an incipient pleasure. Come, Sabine. We’ll celebrate in proper order. First, we shall scour this hillside for a shepherdess. Then we shall pluck winged things from the sky and dedicate them to my patron, who guided you to me. When we are sated and Aphroditos has been honored for this new shell, we shall decide upon your punishment. I suspect it will be delicious.
dave ring is a queer writer of speculative fiction living in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Hidden Ones (2021, Rebel Satori Press) and numerous short stories. He is also the publisher and managing editor of Neon Hemlock Press, and the co-editor of Baffling Magazine. Find him online at www.dave-ring.com or @slickhop on Twitter.