TRUTH IS ON THE MARCH
NOTHING CAN STOP IT NOW
Malmquist slammed the straw pillow with his hand. “Fuck!”
Attica walked in. “Quid agis? Esne bene?”
“Do you have a candle? I can’t see the writing clearly in here. It’s too dark,” he said as he responded to the message on his tunic.
“A candle. You know, light. Fire. A candle.” He depicted a candle with his fingers.
“Mentula sagittandi?” She masturbated an imaginary cock.
“No! I don’t mean a hand-job. I mean a candle, with a flame.”
She returned with a candle. The grimy cubbyhole illumined, the tunic now spelled out:
I’M NOT EASY
BUT WE CAN DISCUSS IT
“I’m fucked. I’ve lost the connection and it now seems to be mocking me. Oh, of course, you wouldn’t understand.”
She pointed to her sundial watch. “Hora est.”
“I want more time.” He fished a coin out of his pocket.
Her warm hips expanded into his as she sat down on the bed next to him. She reached under his tunic to stroke him. “Ne quid tibi vis?”
“Pertundo tunicam,” said Syria, poking her face through the doorway. She pointed at Malmquist’s erection.
“You’re beautiful,” he said, stroking Attica’s hair. “The problem is I can’t deal with shaved pussy. I need hairy.” He reached over and pulled Syria into the room by her skirt. He lifted it up and ran his fingers through her thick black pubic hair which creeped up to her belly button and down her inner thighs. He gave Syria a big thumbs-up. “Now that is a fucking forest.”
Syria laughed. “Futuitur cunnus pilossus multo melius quam glaber.” She gestured to the bed with her eyebrows. “Agamus?”
“No, you’re too lanky for me. I prefer Attica. But I need a condom. Who knows what flesh-eating STDs are lurking in there that I don’t have any immunity to. You guys have condoms?”
“You know, a condom.” He mimed pulling a condom over his penis.
“Aha! Vagina. Vagina sua ovium?” said Attica.
“I do want your vagina, but not without a condom.”
“Est pretiosa.” She left the room.
Syria pointed to the latest message on Malmquist’s tunic:
SHOWING THE VAGINAL AREA
“Mutata verba. Quid est hoc? Vagina?”
“Don’t pay any attention to that.”
Attica returned with a lamb-intestine condom dangling between her thumb and forefinger. “Vagina.”
“What? That’s not a vagina. That goes in your vagina.”
She pointed to her groin. “Vulva.”
“Yeah, your vulva. The condom goes onto my cock and into your vulva and your vagina.”
“Pone vaginam in vulvam,” she gestured at the condom.
“The vagina in the vulva? Yes, the vagina is inside the vulva, but you put the condom, not the vagina, into the vulva.”
“Vagina,” she repeated, pointing to the condom.
“Whatever. Anyway, we can buy these natural condoms too. At least I used to see them at Walgreens but not anymore for some reason, probably because they don’t protect against HIV. But then you don’t have AIDS here yet.”
“A whole denarius for that? That’s ridiculous.”
“Look, I only have this.” Malmquist pulled out another coin.
“How about we exchange. I give you massage, you give me condom? I can massage you,” he said as he pushed the air with his hands.
“Oh, I have an idea. Do you know how to squirt? Female ejaculation. I can teach you.”
“Not me. Female ejaculation. You.” He pointed to Attica’s groin. “Here, lie back. But I need to clean my hands. Water. Aqua.”
“I have two millennia of highly evolved bacteria on my hands that’s going to seriously fuck her up unless I wash it off. Yes, aqua.”
“Aqua!” Syria shouted in the hallway.
A dirty little boy dressed in rags appeared in the doorway with a basin of water. He looked confused. “Lavo?” he said, pointing to Attica.
“Now I need soap,” said Malmquist, presenting his hands. “Soap.”
“Sapo? Non habemus.”
“No soap? I have to wash my hands.”
Syria produced a glass vial containing oil. He removed the stopper. “What’s this? Perfumed oil? You can’t use oil to wash off bacteria! They don’t understand this at the baths either but at least they have soap.”
He scrubbed his hands with the water and wiped them off on his tunic. The boy was dismissed. He applied a few drops of oil to his hands. Lying next to Attica, he opened her legs, played lightly with her vulva until it was damp, and inserted four fingers. He stimulated her rhythmically until her hips began to buck in sync with his hand.
“Vah!” she yelled as a burst of lubrication sprayed out. “Eximius! Quomodo facere quod?”
“Aqua!” stared Syria in amazement.
Another boy appeared, a tall teenager, also dressed in rags and bearing a basin of water. “Aqua vis?”
“Ah, cara!” said Attica, who sat up, startled.
“Nolumus,” said Syria to him. “Vide.”
“She’s so beautiful,” said Malmquist, spellbound.
His face was heavily made up. The garishly drawn eyebrows failed to sully his eyes, which were of the clearest azure, piercing even in the dull light. Blood — or something the color of blood — glossed his parted lips. Rich blond curls protruded from his shawl. “Quis est?” he asked.
“Credimus ex Germania.”
“Aut Britannia,” said Attica.
The boy stared at Malmquist in silence, before kneeling before him and intoning respectfully, “In vestras potes ducere sedes, quae tibi jucundo famularer serva labore.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Te amo,” he said as he caressed Malmquist’s cock.
“Cara, ipse pauper servus,” Syria told him.
“Tace!” he snapped at them, his calm eyes still fixed on Malmquist. Then he pulled up his tunic to reveal an erect penis, pierced with fine gold chains and gems embedded in rows along the shaft. “Solis putas esse mentulam tibi,” he cooed.
“Oh, no, you’re male. Who the fuck are you?” said Malmquist.
The boy pursed his lips in a pout and sniffled, before yelling at Syria, “Ut hic et nunc e!”
“Exi hic nunc!” Syria commanded Malmquist. As he exited the brothel she whispered a warning, “Imperator.”
Malmquist returned to the Caracalla baths and his job in the massage room.
“Plumbarius redibat,” his fellow slaves remarked in startled amusement.
“Ubi eras?” the boss yelled at him.
“Mind your own fucking business. Who’s next?” His hands were at the ready for a female customer.
“Ah, ipse est ille?” said a naked middle-aged woman being attended to by another slave. The gold bracelets on her wrists and ankles presumed wealth, and she spoke with authority. “Volo.”
Malmquist replaced her masseur and began working on her, spiralling his hands up her thighs toward her groin.
“Ego iam exspectat. Audivi peritus es,” she told him. Pointing to his tunic, she asked, “Quid enim dicit? Quid est lingua?” It now read:
THE WAY BACK INTO ONLY
YOU THERE MALMQUIST?
WE HAVE IN CUSTODY
CHINESE LADY ZHANG
“Oh, great, I’m back online. It’s English. How would I say that in Latin? Anglicus?”
“Anglicus? Non audivi praeter hodie.”
As Malmquist worked one hand close to her groin, inserting his fingers as the vulva dilated, he wrote back with the other on the tunic: “WTF IS SHE DOING THERE?” The woman pulled her legs back, and her hips rolled in sync with his hand. “O, mi deus!” By now quite practiced, he was able to maintain a steady rhythm on the woman while glancing at Melynchuk’s response, which came back promptly:
TELEPORTED BY TUNIC
WE WANT TO DISCHARGE
BUT CHICAGO WON’T TAKE
HER WITHOUT NANOCHIP
He made the mistake of writing back on the tunic with fingers dripping with the woman’s lubrication. There were sparks and smoke and the fabric disintegrated where he touched it. The acrid smoke jolted his nostrils. “Fuck!” he shouted, wiping his hands off on a rag. Now the others were curious about the changing script. One slave went up to him.
“No! Don’t touch it. Please.”
Two others held Malmquist’s arms while the slave wrote on the tunic. The entire room, boss included, burst out laughing at the words: “PEDICATUR QUI LEGIT.”
“Resume!” the woman ordered Malmquist.
As he returned to the massage, he found himself pushing the air. The table had shifted. They were still laughing at him. The woman was again looking at his tunic, which now read:
MALMQUIST YOU THERE?
WHO WROTE THE LATIN?
He replied: “HALLUCINATING WORDS EVERYWHERE, NOT JUST ON TUNIC. JUMBLED MULTICOLORED ENGLISH, LATIN.”
The massage table shifted once more and he staggered backward. “Tu aeger,” said a slave to him who took over the lady’s massage. Losing his footing, Malmquist grabbed onto an empty massage table and scribbled back another message before the table disappeared: “I’M ON ACID. SOMEHOW INGESTED LSD. NO IDEA HOW. STRONGER THAN ACID.”
“E tu chi sei?” asked another slave, one he didn’t recognize.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed. All the tables had shifted, and gone was the Roman lady. Those on the tables had moved as well, no longer the same bodies as a moment before but a whole new room of patrons.
He dashed out of the room and briskly made his way out of the Caracalla grounds and along the Appian Way to the Forum, and then on to the Diocletian baths. In the gift shop there, he tried to purchase a new tunic with his Roman coins. The cashier shook her head as she fingered the strange coins. “No.”
“Look,” he said. “Do you realize what these are? Real coins from Ancient Rome.”
“Antica Roma?” the girl said. She grabbed the coins and in a whisper bid him leave.
“Not so fast. Look. A denarius.”
“Non è il denaro.”
“Yes, it’s a denarius. Silver,” he said as he bit the coin.
“Argento?” a coworker chimed in.
“A real denarius.”
“Non il denaro. Falsi monete.”
“Penso che significhi un denario, non denaro,” the coworker said.
“Yes, denario. Denarius. Your ancestors’ money. Now give me some money for it.”
Reluctantly she handed him a few coins and waved him away. “Fuori!”
He left the shop and entered the baths, depositing his new tunic in a locker in the changing hall and himself in the tepidarium, changing spots from time to time in the pool so as not to draw too much attention his way — an unaccompanied slave. He soaked his dirty tunic in the water and draped it over his head like a towel, further obscuring his identity from anyone among the thousand or so present who might happen to recognize him. Yet it wasn’t all that long that the dynamics of the bathers altered. Some looked upset, some pained; others looked around in a confused state. A general murmur grew louder and one by one people left the pool. He could hear the same few Chinese phrases being repeated — “Shui bei toudule”….”Ren zhongdule”….”Shui you du.” Whatever their meaning something was happening, and whatever was happening spelled trouble.
He got out of the water, disappeared into the vast hall’s crowd and slipped into the laconicum, wearing his tunic in the sauna to dry it off. The large sauna was crowded with naked men and prostitutes and slaves attending to their masters, though the steam obscured the space and made it intimate. He could see one Chinese male glaring at him, while another sitting next to him with a blandly obscure face stared at his groin and laid his hand on his thigh. Soon the man bent forward and fellated him. Malmquist took off his tunic, draped it over his head and closed his eyes. Then he took his turn with the man. The man shuddered, and cleaned up Malmquist’s face with a towel. “Wo ai ni,” he whispered. “Ni shi shei de nuli?”
Pretending to be deaf, Malmquist signaled his desire to leave together with the man. They went to the changing hall, where he retrieved the new tunic from his locker, departed the bath block and made their way out of the grounds in silence.
“Ni buhui shuo zhongguohua ma?” the man finally said.
“I don’t speak Chinese.”
“You speak English?” said the man, surprised. “Not Italian?”
“Why you speak English? Where you from?”
“What’s your name?”
“Jeff. What’s yours?”
“That’s a Chinese name?”
“You call me Julius. You are not slave?”
“I’m slave to a rich woman named Zhang.”
“I want nice big man slave like you,” he said with a placid smile as he brushed against Malmquist. “Come stay with me tonight. Not safe for you here now. You heard trouble?”
“Big pool poisoned.”
“Poisoned? How? With what?”
“I don’t know. I don’t use big pool today. Somebody in sangna said.”
“We just in sangna.”
“Oh, the sauna. Who poisoned the pool?”
“Must be angry slave.”
“What kind of poison? I was in the big pool. Am I going to die?” said Malmquist in a rising panic.
“Make people crazy poison.”
“What do you mean?”
“People screaming, afraid, act like mad people. Jingshenbing, you know? Look, see cars take people to hospital?” He pointed at the convergence of police vans and ambulances at the outer gate, where they had now arrived. Hundreds of Chinese bath patrons, many crying, were being attended to by medical personnel, Italian soldiers in Roman army outfits and higher-ranking uniformed Chinese police. “I’m so glad I don’t go in pool. You seem okay, no? You okay?”
Malmquist was pale.
“Hei!” a Chinese officer shouted at them. “Ta shi ninde nuli ma?” he asked Julius.
“Women zhengzai xunzhao yige wuren peiban de nanxing nuli.”
The policeman kept looking at Malmquist’s tunic as they spoke. Malmquist managed to glance at it but was only able to make out the words “ZHANG” and “OPERATION” before his paramour whisked him away. “Zanmen zou ba! We leave now. We stay here trouble.”
“What will happen to the slave if they find him?”
“Oh, he be killed immediately.”
Julius lived alone in a small apartment near the baths. Malmquist sat with him on the couch as he turned on the TV, a holographic display a few meters in front of them, and pulled out cans of Coke — they still had that — and snacks, seeds. Julius bit the shells off the seeds with little machine-like movements. They watched the news in Chinese. It was all about the Diocletian pool poisoning.
“Have they found the person who poisoned the pool?”
“They now review security cameras for suspicious slave.”
“How did he manage to poison so many people at once?”
“Some kind of drug. They don’t know what kind of drug. They say no any drug so strong. New drug. How long you stay in pool?”
“An hour at least.”
“Why you not with your master? Where you live?”
“Palatine Hill. She’s temporarily out of the country.”
“Balading? Yes, rich slave have more freedom.”
Malmquist spent the night with him in bed. Early in the morning, Julius was already up and nudged Malmquist awake. “You must leave now. Police go house go house, you know? Check every house. You go back to your house. You not in your house with your master, very serious. Go now.”
Malmquist quickly crossed the city in his new tunic, which presently read:
EVERYONE FELL IN LOVE
WITH SNOW WHITE
I IMMEDIATELY FELL FOR
THE WICKED QUEEN
Upon reaching the Palatine Hill he sped up his pace, sensing someone following him. He checked the tunic once more in case a new message from Melynchuk was forthcoming. The writing remained gibberish.
THEY SAY THAT WE ARE
BUT I SAY WE ARE JUST
BORED WITH REALITY
He knocked at the door of Zhang’s domus. A minute went by with no response.
“Hei!” someone shouted his way. Down the street a pair of Chinese men in togas were approaching and pointing at him. Then the door opened and a sleepy-eyed Zhang let him in.
“You’re back? I thought you were stuck in America. New Gary.”
“Just got back.”
“I fly back.”
“How did they let you go?”
“Oh, they let me go fast. Chicago police. Chinese Consulate find me just in time. They want to give me operation, put device in my brain. You imagine that? Chinese Consulate tell them they do that we send them all to Xinluoma to be slaves. They put me on plane right away.”
“My god, Jeff, what happened to you?” said Delilah, who had appeared as well.
“I don’t have time to explain. Here, take this damaged tunic and repair the holes. Whatever you do, don’t wash it in water. It’s contaminated with some kind of extremely potent psychoactive LSD-like substance but stronger. I’m still fucked up from it. I wore it in the big pool at the Diocletian baths and thousands of bathers are now tripping and have no idea what’s going on. I’m a suspect and if they catch me I’m dead. You’ll probably be okay if you wear it, just don’t get it wet. Don’t masturbate with it on. Now give me the other tunic you wore here.”
“She won’t give it to me. She won’t let me go back.”
“I need her tunic,” Malmquist implored Zhang. “They’re looking for me. If they catch me they’ll take me away. They’ll kill me.”
There was a loud pounding on the outer door. Zhang looked at the security monitor. “It’s the police. A lot of them. Why they come here?”
“They’re coming for me. I’ll explain later. The tunic!” he implored.
She quickly fetched it and handed it to him, and glanced again at the monitor. “What do I tell them?” she asked.
He was already gone.
* * *
Forthcoming (September 2017):
The Kitchens of Canton