Barbarians, by Rebecca Rees

“Nymph or Goddess. Italian, 17C. White Sicilian marble, jasper and verde antico mosaic draperies all’ antica. Mounted on an apollino base. Probably acquired by the 3rd Marquess of Hertford.”

My story starts with an argument, or rather a dim and distant memory of one.  I was sitting by the lake somewhere down in Hellas when my sister came running across the sunlit fields, long blonde hair waving like summer wheat, and lips bursting with the latest romantic gossip from Olympus.  Enough of this, I said. I’m down on Earth to escape this nonsense. What do I care about some jumped-up Trojan prince and his contest? The Age of Lead has descended, the barbarians are at the gates, and the powers that be have their mind on higher things – like which queen of Heaven deserves an apple. An apple! They’ve been nothing but trouble since the dawn of time, but do gods learn their lesson? Like Hades they do. If I was in charge I’d ban apples, and pomegranates too while I was at it.

You’re just a bitter, cynical witch, said my sister. Why did they make you a Nymph? A Harpy would be more like it.

I was interrupted in my reply by the ringing of metal on stone. Faint at first, then louder and louder. My sister’s sentimental face smeared and spiralled out of view, the sunlight dimmed and receded into a cold darkness and I was alone. Only a dream! I’m back in the temple, I realised, opening my eyes. The air was full of stone dust, the floor covered with chippings of marble, and the sound of metal on stone struck an icy shiver through me. The barbarians were here, smashing up my beloved columns and statues in an ecstasy of destruction. I couldn’t see them yet but a clamour of excited male voices in Latin – the vilest Latin I’d heard yet – confirmed my fears. As a nymph and a virgin and all the rest, it behoved me to get the hell out of it. My sister may be the pretty one, but she’s not here now and Roman soldiers aren’t known for being picky.

Like a cornered animal I struggled to get up, but my limbs wouldn’t move an inch. I’m bound, I realised, and cursed myself for letting myself be captured unawares. Were we out late with Bacchus last night? My memory was hazy. I sifted through its further reaches for the shards of what might have happened, and braced myself for the bitter end – or worse.

I was truly starting to panic when the voices resolved themselves.  Young, male and boisterous, but not angry or vengeful as soldiers would be. A boy in his late teens strolled into view, wearing rough casual trousers of no style I’d ever seen. Something didn’t feel right about this invasion.

“Still think she looks like a man in drag,” said one particularly obnoxious voice close by.

“That’ll suit the English Marquise,” responded the boy. “We know what his tastes are.”

Vulgar words in a vulgar language. I pitied whatever poor creature was the subject of their scorn. Then a hand tweaked at me somewhere unmentionable and I swiftly glanced downwards to see thin, bony fingers pulling away from a marble sculpture. My eyes travelled up to see where the marble stopped. It didn’t.

There’s no war, I realised. This isn’t the temple, and I’m not bound. I’m in a much more permanent captivity; the paralysis of marble. I have been snatched from my life in blissful Hellas and reborn as a statue in a workshop, and these repulsive peasant boys are the sculptors. They haven’t bothered to give me my legs back – always the best aspect of me, now gone for good. I suppose they lacked the talent. All that’s left of me is my upper body, a fragment of my gown, and a face which was obviously the subject of the last thrown insult.

At least my sister can’t see me now, I thought.

“Bring in the second one!” someone shouted. “Get Master Antonio. I bet ours is as good as his.”

So the master sculptor made my sister, while his low-bred apprentices made me, I realised as the whole workshop sprang to attention. She’s going to adore this small detail. The world has changed – how much so, I have yet to understand – and I am eternally doomed to be the plainer twin. I think on balance I’d have preferred the barbarian hordes.



About claire collison

Writer, photographer, creative facilitator, and breast cancer survivor, I am currently Artist in Residence at the Women's Art Library (WAL) My first novel was a finalist in the Dundee Book Prize, and my short stories and poetry have appeared in print and online. In 2015 I was awarded second place in the inaugural Resurgence Prize, the world's first eco poetry competition, judged by Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. This blog began as a space for words generated on my walking/writing workshops at the Mary Ward centre in Bloomsbury - Writing the City (WTC). WTC has since grown to include many other venues, including the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Barbican, the River Rom, Southwark Woods, Aylesbury Estate, and most recently, as part of Walking Women festival, An Intimate Tour of Breasts. I have worked with Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, as the recipient of the first Max Reinhardt Literacy Award, designing teaching resources; and for The Photographers' Gallery, helping school children develop visual literacy as part of 'Seeing More Things'. If you would like me to design a workshop or walk for you, please be in touch!
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