“Of course I know that you and Rosa have a history,” Mr. Tappo said. “It was she who insisted you be our haruspex today. But I trust you’re not one to let personal feelings interfere with your duty?”
“A prophecy can’t be influenced by one’s personal feelings,” Paulus lied.
Mr. Tappo laughed—too loudly and too much. He was trying to be friendly, wanting favorable prophecies.
“Come!” he cried. “The sheep awaits!”
Not for the first time, Paulus silently cursed whoever had dreamed up the ridiculous idea of slicing open a ruminant, yanking out its entrails, and foretelling the future from the shape and consistency of its liver.
“Baah,” the sheep bleated, trotting to the far side of its enclosure. “Baah, baah.”
“Very nice,” Paulus said, because he thought he should say something.
His crappy luck—to be born into a family of haruspices. He should have been a senator or a general or something, not a guy who pretended clairvoyance and yet had spent hours and hours in haruspicy school, memorizing the scribblings and symbols on a bronze liver. How else could he know that an excess amount of blood in a sheep’s belly was supposed to be a sign of impending disaster?
“Such a sheep will give good prophecy, yes?” Mr. Tappo asked.
Paulus chose not to answer. People always wanted some hint of what was to come, a word of reassurance that the divination would turn out well. As if he could know beforehand. As if it were a haruspex’s job to tell you only what you wanted to hear.
“Some wine?” Mr. Tappo suggested.
A drunk haruspex was a no-no. Mr. Tappo knew this and shouldn’t have offered; the guy must have been nervous. But Paulus wasn’t exactly feeling free and easy, and he could handle one drink, couldn’t he?
“Rosa and Brontius will be out soon,” Mr. Tappo said, as a servant presented Paulus with a goblet of red wine. “I’ll see to the others. Please excuse me.”
Months earlier, as haruspex at the wedding of an acquaintance who’d thrown rocks at him as a boy, Paulus had dropped the sheep’s liver accidentally-on-purpose, causing the celebrants to gawk and gasp in open-mouthed horror. A dropped liver meant the very worst. If a haruspex asked the gods, “Will this couple be fertile?” and he dropped the liver, forget about it—the couple were supposed to be as barren as a desert. If a haruspex queried of the gods, “Will husband Benedictus have a successful career in the senate?” and the liver splatted on the courtyard cement, it could be said to signify husband Benedictus’s eventual assassination at the hands of senate opposition or any number of equally dire events. But Paulus couldn’t go around dropping sheep livers whenever he felt like it. Nobody wanted a diviner who always predicted disaster; people would stop hiring him. And he might not have loved shoving his hands into a dying animal, but as his father too often reminded him, he had to make a living.
Funny thing was, because he couldn’t drop a liver accidentally-on-purpose half as much as he wanted to, when he did, it gave his prophecy of disaster that much more authority.
“What an ass Brontius is,” he murmured. “What an ass is Brontius.”
However he chose to say it, the fact remained: Brontius was an ass. All of Rome seemed to be impressed by him, but what was so impressive about inheriting a successful business from your father and allowing it to remain a success by doing nothing? That’s what Paulus wanted to know. Brontius’s family fortune had come from supplying the army with helmets, although Brontius, pretentious ass that he was, favored the term “head armor.” Whatever. The guy made helmets, and funny-looking ones at that, what with those little brush-like things at the top. Ugly, if anyone asked Paulus, which no one did.
He let a servant refill his goblet and hung out with the sheep. He didn’t talk to it as he would have done in earlier days; projecting human characteristics onto sacrificial animals only made his job more difficult. But he watched the creature snuffle at a tuft of grass and nearly lost it. To snuffle the delicious cleft above Rosa’s collarbone as this sheep snuffled the earth! He had known Rosa Tappo all his life, although not until he was fourteen did he take a romantic interest in her. And then, oh how they had ridden donkeys long into the night, laughing as they had never laughed before, talking as they had never talked with anyone. Philosophy, politics, mathematics, drama, the plastic arts—what hadn’t they discussed, with every subject somehow hinting at love? Making out one night in the shadows of the great rotunda, Paulus had thought Here is my life. I have found my life. It was the happiest he’d ever been. But just as in some trashy melodrama by the playwright Theodorus, who was currently the “it boy” in theatrical circles, Mr. Tappo didn’t approve of the couple and forbid Rosa to see him. Paulus lobbied hard for running away, for discarding family ties in favor of an anonymous but love-filled existence in the provinces. He embraced what he considered to be his and Rosa’s fate, their destiny together. Rosa, however, wasn’t so keen, and after Mr. Tappo’s edict, Paulus had been reduced to seeing her only on the afternoons she visited the marketplace with her friends.
“But how would we live?” she had asked, crinkling her nose at the thought of life in the country. “What will we do for money? And think of the smell.”
Paulus didn’t understand. It couldn’t smell worse than Rome.
She told him that Brontius Antony had, with Mr. Tappo’s approval, started to court her. She initially made fun of the Antony heir—his intellectual pretensions, his flavid complexion. But then, not so much. Increasingly reluctant to meet with Paulus, she at last refused to see him altogether. Paulus felt sure that if it hadn’t been for Mr. Tappo, he would be playing a very different role at this wedding. Unless he had exaggerated the old man’s disapproval of him so as to leave Rosa free of responsibility for his hurt, his maligned heart.
They were coming—the entire Tappo family, Brontius Antony and his parents. Rosa, Paulus noted sadly, looked beautiful. But then she always looked beautiful.
“I love your hat,” Brontius said in greeting.
“Why don’t you marry it?” Paulus whispered, too softly for Mr. Tappo to hear.
Brontius stared at him. Paulus had always hated his hat. It was too tall and awkward, and he thought it made his face look skinny. How did haruspices come to wear this idiotic hat anyway? What did this hat have to do with divining?
Rosa extended her hand. Paulus took it and bowed, not trusting himself to press his lips to those fingers as delicate as the bones of a robin.
A candle, bowl of water, and patera were brought. Two servants came and caught the sheep. One of them sat down and held the animal between his legs—upright, its belly exposed, a position that paralyzed it.
“Where is the flute?” Mr. Tappo demanded.
A flute player appeared and started blowing into his instrument.
You’ve got to be kidding, Paulus had thought when he first received the request to prophesy at Rosa’s wedding. But then he’d figured better him than somebody else, and anyway, didn’t it present him with an opportunity to get back at them all, to give them a prophecy they would never forget?
“Inside this circle is the sacred,” he said, and carried the bowl of water in a circle around the sheep. “Everything outside of it is profane. The circle is the sanctuary.”
He presented the water as a libation for the gods, poured some of it out, and Rosa and Brontius washed their hands in what remained. He faced south and in a loud voice implored the gods to give omen—beseeching them, in their mercy, to be well-disposed to him, and offering them this sheep in the hope that they who inspired his divination would show signs by which he might know their will.
“I wish to know whether or not Rosa Tappo and Brontius Antony, who are to be wed this day, will be fertile. Also, Brontius has asked whether or not the emperor will approve the new helmets—”
“—he is hoping to provide our centurions at a substantial profit. Show signs here, now!”
“Carry out the sacrifice according to the law,” the two families said.
Paulus then took a knife and with some difficulty sliced open the sheep’s stomach. He reached into the wound with both hands. It was no fun. The sheep gave him a look as if to say, “Et tu, Paulus? Et tu?” He closed his eyes, anticipating the rubbery snap of sundered veins and intestines, and with a deep breath pulled out a bloody heap of innards.
“Surely that is not much blood considering the size of the sheep?” Mr. Tappo was quick to ask.
Paulus admitted that it appeared to be an average amount of blood. It was now time to drop the liver accidentally-on-purpose. He looked at the celebrants gathered around him—Brontius, Mr. and Mrs. Tappo, Mr. and Mrs. Antony. When his eyes stopped at Rosa—what lovely skin!—the liver slipped from his grasp, and before he had time to think, he reached out and caught it.
“Close one. Ha ha.”
Nervous, relieved smiles. Mr. Tappo squinted at him in suspicion.
“The haruspex gives this liver as a gift to Aplu,” the two families said.
Paulus had envisioned this moment many times, imagined the havoc he would wreak on Rosa and Brontius’s common future, but now that the moment had come, he found himself unable to succumb to revenge.
He kneaded the liver between his fingers. It wasn’t terribly firm; the “gods” would not give clear signs. He cupped it in his palm, making it appear firmer than it was as he placed it on the patera. The liver was almost uniformly colored and no part of it was excessively large or small—both good things, since he wouldn’t have been able to hide such ill omens. He studied the liver for disfiguring marks. He saw the usual black spots and creases.
“What’s that?” Brontius pointed at a dark splotch on the side of the liver.
Go make some of your ugly helmets, thought Paulus. The gall of this idiot. You never interrupted a haruspex while he was examining the organ of a sacrificed animal.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Nothing unusual.”
A haruspex had to know the difference between a true anomaly and an irregularity in size, texture, or color that fell within the normal range for a sheep’s liver. The dark splotch was, in fact, a little outside the normal range, but for Rosa’s sake, Paulus was determined for it to mean nothing.
“Prepare the fire,” he said.
Mr. Tappo lit the candle and held it under the bowl of water.
“Excuse me?” said the servant holding the dead sheep. “Can I get up now?”
Paulus had forgotten about him. The servant pushed out from behind the animal and Paulus avoided Rosa’s eye as it thumped to the ground. The water at last boiling, the candle was taken away.
“I beseech you, Turms, Lord of Words, or whatever it pleases you to be called,” Paulus intoned, “inspire me with the will of the gods. I wish to know if Rosa Tappo and Brontius Antony will be fertile and if Brontius will manage to convince the emperor that the army is in need of new…head armor. I pray that you reveal to me the answers. Be kind. Be merciful. Show me.”
He tilted the patera and let the liver slide into the bowl of water. He waited for the liver to arrange itself into significant shapes. Watching the organ shift and float in the water, he thought he saw many things—that Rosa would either grow plump with age or be adept at growing rather rotund vegetables; that either she or Brontius or one of their dogs would be subject to nervous, hysterical fits; that Brontius would either be clubbed to death with one of his own helmets or that he would, at a club, drink to someone’s health out of one of his own helmets; that their marriage would be full of silences and yet not. None of this related directly to the specific questions he’d asked, so Paulus said nothing.
Part of the liver lay underwater, representing the earth signs. He studied it and convinced himself that he saw the number three. “You will be fruitful. You will have three children.”
“And no doubt one of them will be a boy!” cried Mr. Tappo.
“As for the head armor,” Paulus said, “the gods are less clear.” He wanted his prophecy to be reasonable—optimistic (for Rosa’s sake, all for Rosa’s sake), but not outlandish in its prediction of good fortune. “Brontius, you will be protected and watched over in your business dealings so long as you remain a good husband. You will perhaps reach new levels of prosperity, but whether this is the result of selling the new head armor or something else, Minerva won’t say.”
The divination concluded, servants scuttled off with the sheep to prepare it for the family’s private feast. Brontius slapped Paulus on the back.
“Can’t expect the gods to give us too firm an affirmative, eh?” he said. “Then I might take the sale for granted and lose it altogether.”
Mr. Tappo grabbed hold of Paulus’s hand and, exuding joy like horse droppings gave off stink, refused to let go. He was still shaking it when Rosa kissed Paulus lightly on the cheek.
“Wine in abundance!” Mr. Tappo ordered.
Paulus drank steadily as he and the families gorged on tender sheep chops, succulent sheep loins seasoned with rosemary, Caesar salads garnished with shredded bits of sheep flank. More than a little tipsy, he wiped his mouth on the toga of the person sitting next to him (Mr. Antony), stood and saw that the courtyard was filling with people. Rosa and Brontius’s wedding would be well attended and much celebrated.
With the bride and groom at last preparing for the ceremony itself, the guests settling in to hear the exchange of vows, Paulus exited the courtyard through a side gate and ran the entire way home.
“How’d it go?” his father asked.
His mother, knowing how hard the day must have been for him, wore a concerned, apologetic expression. But Paulus kept running—out to the yard where he cornered a sheep, wrestled it to the ground, and slit it open with a rusty pair of shears. Thrusting his hands into the animal’s warm pulsing insides, he yanked out its liver and gallbladder along with a mess of blood and tissue and intestine, wanting to know the future, wanting to know if, in coming days, he might look forward to a love equal to the one he had lost.