Like Rome, Catania sits atop a chain of small hills, its walls barely tall enough to hide the roofs of the average wood and plaster home. The two tallest structures sat in the center of town, facing each other from either side of the main boulevard. The town hall, with its wide roof and dwindling spire, had its entrance directly across from the church with its towering, immodest doors and proud belltower. To the West rests the great Mount Etna, to the east the Ionian Sea.
With their backs to the sea, the construction of the unimpressive wall was all that was necessary to encourage raiders to look elsewhere for their pickings. As a result the people of Catania enjoyed a sense of safety and comfort even the citizens of the capital, with their rising crime and relatively disconnected society, were envious of. While Rome, with its exploding population and vaulting structures, claimed itself the jewel of civilization, Catania’s size barely held it on the threshold of citydom.
Their pier became a port and plans for a lighthouse to be built on the hill between Mount Etna and the sea were quickly drawn up and financed. One began to notice the same fishermen who’d spent years in their father’s boats now strolling the boulevard, twiddling their finery as they drank and shopped. With the success of the port came a boom for the town and soon there were three cobblers, two tailors who despised one another, and four bakeries, each shop filled with apprentices, their fat masters barking orders. For the older citizens each day was whiled; for the younger, ample opportunity tugged them this way and that. The wealthiest citizens spent their days much like the rest, but with more expensive wine.
Comfort breeds confidence in itself, and so Catania sat atop its Earthen lump, its citizens united in their unthinking certainty in the comforts of tomorrow. So when rumblings of conflict were heard, Catania collectively scoffed at the rumors in the same manner as children who have outgrown fairy tales. When Malta was taken, only the sailors frowned. But when Palermo was conquered overnight, the folk of Catania began to tremble. Rome sent soldiers to secure the south, and Catania whistled and cried, “Rout those Carthaginian dogs! Repel their foul grasp!” But, unknown to all but the thin boy on horseback who raced to deliver his message to the front of the ranks, Syracuse had already fallen. It would not be a fortnight later that those same soldiers, each lacking their shield-brother, limped the now-silent boulevard in the
opposite direction. The sailors had long since departed, but at the sight of the injured soldiers the fishermen too stuffed their families into their father’s boat and followed suit, all fleeing north.
God’s favor was mentioned less and less by the pharisaic and increasingly so in the mutterings of the meek. The town met that night in the town hall, but it was all quite pitiful. Smaller conversations eventually became shouting matches which halted soon after they began, the futility of their situation drying up debate.
“Escape into the hills?” was suggested by one man, but a yank on his arm from his wife put an end to that idea; everyone knew her sickly mother, and everyone had a sickly mother. Escape by the roads, at least on foot, was simply useless. They hadn’t a chance of reaching a stronghold before Carthage arrived. And so, while some hunters elected to ply their craft, that night the town chose to remain. All night the town’s priest and old-money citizens had eyed the large doors at the end of the hall, as if expecting Carthaginian soldiers to burst through at any moment, but as the town made its decision the priest walked to the center of the hall and raised his hands, causing a hush to fall. The priest had noticed a natural lull, and with it the chance to elevate himself – and the Lord, of course.
He spoke thusly. “People. My people. We are beset. Godless yokels seek to conquer and destroy this land, our blessèd corner of paradise, for Catania is, I’m sure you agree, second only to Eden in its comfort and beauty.” The priest paused, noticing his audience beginning to fidget with their collars, blowing down their shirts. His throat grew thin from the sweltering heat, a droplet of sweat dripping from brow to eye, coating it in a thick film. He struggled for a moment to continue, hands clasped above his head, but once he spat out the first words the rest tumbled from his maw without thought:
“We are... We are Beset! From the south they march to us, brandishing sharpened teeth and spears alike. In the West they sweep bodies aside like the dust they think we soon will be! Now we must look to one another, and to God, for strength; for if the western army takes Sicily, where Rome has concentrated our forces, then we will have a very difficult decision to make, indeed. Do we kneel to Carthage? Do we feed, clothe, and bed those who have killed
our brothers? No, never, I say-” here he was cut off by fervent cries of “never!” and “to the last!”, but with only one raised palm regained control. The Priest was huffing now, his jowled face red and splotchy, the room being filled with the hot breath of a passionate, fearful people. He continued more calmly, “No, I say. Our children will not be slaves, nor our wives whores to Carthaginian dogs- God will not permit it, this I know, for I have prayed and he hath given wisdom unto me... This wisdom I now share with you, my brothers and sisters, my belovèd flock. If we now
pray and beg his strength for our brethren, if we all now commune with the Spirit and give ourselves unto him, we will be delivered. Now, let us...” The last word died in his throat as he exited the frenzy he’d entered as the heat overpowered his senses, and noticed the hundreds of heads facing downwards already, a thousand hands clasped tight as they all fell to their knees before him. The priest shut his eyes as well, but rather than pray he silently marvelled at his own performance.
The Catanians, eyes squeezed tight and drenched in sweat, did as they were instructed. Though the hall remained stifling all through the night, hours passed before most felt comfortable leaving. When they did they were greeted by a gentle breeze and the soft blues and purples of an early twilight sky. They returned to their families comforted by the fact that, had the walls of Sicily grown by a stone for each prayer, even the combined forces of the great Cyrus and Alexander would have been repelled. The next day the town was still feeling the effect of the homily, and since the Carthaginians first landed the first normal day was held, interrupted only by cries of “Hail Sicily!”, as if they’d already sent the invaders back across the sea. None did better business than the taverns and the tobacconist, and that night the throats of the townspeople filled with smoke, songs, and wine.
Morning came with a message on horseback: “Sicily has fallen.” Doom was but a day’s march away. Children were tasked with going door to door to notify the town of the meeting to be held at noon to discuss their defense. Catania trembled, and as the Sun ascended the people began to stream towards the hall. Some began to wonder why the faces of their wealthier neighbors were missing from the crowd – Upon reaching the main boulevard they understood.
A line stretching from the flimsy North gate was composed of the remaining horses of Catania. They trotted along, each pulling a bisected cart towards the horizon. The front half of each cart contained the owner’s family, while the rear was loaded with valuables. Men brought the desk inlaid with gold and ivory their fathers had plundered overseas. Women brought their jewelry and favorite finery to avoid embarrassment when in Rome. An imported armoire, stacks of shoes and paintings, treasured books, a preferred vase, enough easels so the children wouldn’t have to share if they chose to paint the same river, even toys and games to keep the journey interesting, as well as enough food for a village – all these delights and more, but not one neighbor filled the other half of the carts.
The cart-riders did not see the faces of their neighbors, looking only at one another with pinched faces, tense, an air of expectancy, particularly in the last to pass through the gate. But there was no anger, no calls of revenge. The people merely gathered at the gate to watch, shoulders slumped, the dirt blackened with tears as those they had shouted alongside only a night ago plodded away. Though the procession moved slowly, no townspeople gave chase. As the privileged few passed peacefully they relaxed, and as they shared cheese and wine and jokes between carts, the meek listened as chuckles echoed up from the valley and attempted, unsuccessfully, not to recall the loyalty they’d shown as servants, friends, and neighbors.
A dry wind blew and their minds fumbled for hope, a wretched hope born of abject conditions and requiring a thorough denial of logic and circumstance. They whispered these hopes to one another without conviction, and as if summoned by their anguish the priest arrived, seated atop a donkey and wearing full regalia. He said nothing, but armed with a painted-gold scepter and a solemn expression, he parted the people like Moses, not looking down as he passed when they stretched out their hands to rub the cloth of his billowing white robes between thumb and forefinger, his gaze fixed on the cart line.
Once he’d passed the gate he spurred the donkey to a canter. The people watched as he vanished behind the slope of a hill, then reemerged, before catching the rear of the caravan behind the next hill. Spirits began to lift as the procession ceased to emerge from behind the hill, minutes passing, and all the town held its breath, thinking him to have succeeded in his mission of retrieval – but when a horse appeared with its horizon bound burden shared with a donkey, the people did not wait to catch sight of the priest pulling bread and sacramental wine from his robes to share with his new traveling companions.
They turned away as one, spitting in a fruitless attempt to rid themselves of the bitter taste which coated the tongue of each Catanian. A few curses were muttered but no solace was found in speech, so knowing any defense was useless and without another word uttered, Catania unanimously decided to spend its final hours cavorting. Wine flowed in equal measure to tears, drunken songs were led by church mice, and the buck-toothed anxiety of youthful affection made great strides, all aided by the handy excuse of an impending doom.
Two lovers stumbled their way from the tavern to the empty church and climbed the belltower, determined to love and make love beneath the stars until the Carthaginians set fire to their refuge, at which point they would, hand-in-hand, leap and dash themselves below. They had begun to make good on their promise but cries from below bade them look out. The sun had set and left behind an inky black and bellflower hue, wispy clouds like stained glass barely illuminated by the lidded crescent moon. Small fires dotted the hills and valleys to the south, the only evidence of the massive armies marching ever nearer. Palm found palm as war drums beat, and the lovers averted their gaze, looking to the north to catch sight of the last cart, caught in the moonlight, rounding the far edge of the great mount.
What was there to do but cling to one another? To shut eyes and kiss cheeks even as the earth shook? Were the Carthaginians so great as to cause such a rumbling?
Not one Catanian, not even the lovers, saw the eruption, but everyone invading and fleeing trembled and looked up, turning as though a primeval hand wrenched their necks, forcing them to catch full sight of the heavens being scorched by the earth. Etna coughed black dust and flaming rock thrice as if clearing its throat to quiet a room, then lay silent until the priest drew a shaky breath. At this, points of light poked through that tower of darkness which rose above them all, and voluminous rivers of blindingly bright magma sped down the mountain and flowed through the valleys, filling in the network of glens, melting armor and easels alike. The lovers watched as their town was surrounded by moats of magma, and while the Carthaginians sounded horns of retreat, deciding to go northwest and ignore the town, no Catanian, rich or poor, would see the Coliseum that year.