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Aurea and the sea

· The saint of the month recounted by Antonella Ossorio ·

Aurea looked at the sea. She had a great temptation to slip off her shoes, to lift her tunic and to dip her feet into the water but she suppressed it. She was only a little girl and yet she knew the rules imposed by her condition: it was her mother who had taught them to her having learned them from her own mother who had learned them the same way. As the last link in the chain, she knew she had to remember those precepts in order to pass them on – with the clear knowledge that she had never violated them – when she would be a mother in her turn. The first precept: a little girl of noble birth is bound to be accountable to her entire social milieu. She was thus forbidden to behave in a manner that would cause an offence to her family name and, indirectly, to the empire. In this particular case, with the blessing of her family and of Claudius II also called Claudius Gothicus, she was barred from what was permissible to fishermen’s children.

Jacques Callot, Aurea (17th century)

She sometimes imagined she was one of them; taking a run, diving in, riding the waves, or straddling a dolphin like Orion; and, having come home, listening to stories of storms and monsters of the depths from the lips of a father whom she imagined as having her own face, but furrowed with deep wrinkles. In fact she knew little or nothing about seafarers; having grown up in comfort, she had only a vague perception of how hard their lives must be. However, having come across several of them there, on her beloved beach of Ostia, as she faced those men with faces baked by the sun, with cracked hands and bent shoulders, she wanted – young as she was – to take care of them. She wanted to protect them, to give them a break from their suffering. If she could, she would have hosted them in the palace with all honours – not the one in the Regola district where she was born, for far from the sea they would suffer from nostalgia, but in the Ostia villa, surrounded by an immense property they would be at their ease. Aurea aspired to a world of equals, without wickedness or inequalities but feared that this was destined to remain a mirage. The second precept: a Roman little girl of a noble family does not mingle with the common people. The third: in her time she would become the bride of a patrician chosen for her by her family and would raise her children in the manner most pleasing to her peers and to the gods. Lastly, there was the fourth precept, which summed them all up: never conceiving the rash idea of abandoning the furrow ploughed out by her forefathers. So it had always been, so it would always be, only a lunatic or a subversive would dare to affirm the contrary. Nonetheless she was surprised to find herself longing for a different life. What a misfortune to have such vivid dreams if you are the only one to do so.

Aurea gazed at the sea. She slipped out of her shoes, she raised her clothing, she immersed her feet in the water. Only a few years earlier carrying out these simple actions had seemed to her as arduous as climbing a mountain. However her decision set her free. Having violated every precept, she set out on a path from which she had no intention of deviating; and she would be patient if it proved to be paved with shards: were she to cut herself she would treasure every wound. She no longer felt like a black swan for it seemed that the city and the empire were swarming with freaks. In the belly of underground caves they were meeting to challenge the established authority in the name of a Nazarene who had died on the cross more than two centuries earlier for preaching the advent of a world inhabited by equals. Embracing his cause was a risk, a leap into the void. A magnificent madness to be carefully concealed so that her loved ones would not be involved. A distant memory suddenly flashed across her mind.

“Father, why did you call me Aurea?”. “Because, Chryse, you are our golden daughter. “Chryse?”. That is your name in the Greek language. It was the name of an island that no longer exists”. “And where did it go?”. “It disappeared. It sank into the sea”.

Not everyone is called after a piece of land that sank. Was her irresistible attraction to that liquid in perpetual motion due to this? Nomen omen, the name was a prediction. But she did not believe in fate: no longer, ever since she had understood that everyone is the arbiter of his or her own destiny.

From her cell Aurea could no longer see the sea. But she knew it was close, she felt its call. First exiled from her family’s villa in Ostia, then imprisoned and tortured, she became simply a lump of suffering. Yet she did not give in. As many times as she was asked to deny her belief she refused, and even when her ability to speak failed she limited herself to shaking her head. She felt compassion for her tormentors: in a just world no one would be reduced to being an instrument of pain. She was thus not afraid and was far from imagining that in reality it was rather they who feared her. Her braveness quickened the rough soldiers’ pulses: that small woman was a stronghold as frail as it was unassailable. Too bad for her. In proving so stubborn she signed her own death warrant.

There it was they came to take her away. They led her outside, they dragged her… where? The light blinded her but it was enough for her to smell the wind: she was familiar with its scent and never had it seemed so sweet to her. They hoisted her on to a boat, they tied a stone round her neck: one push and Aurea went down. Like the island whose name she bore, she sank. The sea welcomed her, it was within her, the one was part of the other. A little further off a fishermen was casting his nets. He suddenly felt protected and comforted. And he laughed and cried, without knowing why.

Antonella Ossorio was born in Naples where she has always lived and worked. The author of numerous texts for children and young people, published by Einaudi, Rizzoli, Giunti, Electa and other publishing houses, for a long time she ran writing workshops for children and training courses for teachers. Her latest novel (La mammana, 2014) marks her debut in fiction for adults.

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