“Octavia, do not hold your threads so clumsily; you are not an animal,” Cassia said. Her young mistress frowned and then suddenly threw the ball of dyed yarn on the floor.
“Cassia, you may be my slave but I cannot weave even to a quarter of your abilities,” Octavia said with derision. “Weaving is useless; why must women get all the dull jobs?”
Cassia clucked her tongue reprovingly and handed Octavia the yarn. “Try harder,” she suggested. Octavia’s temper flared. “How dare you tell me to try harder! I work like a horse and weaving is so dull! How dare you!” Angrily she threw the ball of yarn at Cassia and stormed out of the weaving room.
Outside the breeze ruffled the olive trees and clouds raced across the blue sky. The marble courtyard was surrounded by pillars and a center fountain. A statue of the Roman goddess Venus releasing doves was the centerpiece of the fountain and water streamed from the birds’ beaks. Venus was smiling wistfully and she seemed so real, even as the centerpiece of a fountain. The courtyard was spacious and the ground was marble, with images of the Roman gods. Ivy curled around the intricately carved pillars, and plants were arranged in a pattern around the fountain. Three sides of the courtyard were edged with pillars and led to the house. The fourth side opened up into the road and forest. Birds sang and Octavia had never felt so lonely. Her mother and father were too insistent upon her marriage and the servants didn’t care the least bit about their stubborn mistress. Octavia had always been headstrong and that itself was a lady’s crime.
“Aaa-choo!” the loud sneeze rang across the quiet courtyard. Eyes wide, Octavia whirled around and crept towards the moving bush…
“Aaaaakkkkk!” Octavia screamed as a young boy her age sprung out of the bush. Octavia fell backwards, landed hard on the bricks, and promptly tore her new linen tunic.
“Shh, I’m sorry to scare you. I’m Julius and you are Octavia,” the boy declared. He had an easy, commanding manner that pleased Octavia instantly.
“Where are you from?” she asked, as she shook Julius’s hand. He was treating her like an ordinary boy and she was thoroughly enjoying it. No more curtseying and bowing and proper manners to clog up a good conversation.
“Oh, just next door. But I detest practicing arithmetic so I… escaped the slave,” Julius admitted. He reddened a little and grinned embarrassedly.
“I love doing that!” Octavia agreed.
“But you know what I really love is poetry. It’s so rhythmic and flows beautifully.”
“You are fortunate you can read. I have never been taught,” Octavia sighed. She had always longed to read; it seemed like such an intelligent yet exciting pastime.
“I could teach you,” Julius suggested, his dark eyes twinkling mischievously. Octavia gasped. Surely he knew no girls or women were allowed to be educated in that way? “I could meet you every day after lessons at this olive tree,” the young boy continued, his voice steady. Octavia glanced across the sunny courtyard and then crept further into the shadows. Nobody was around, but the idea of defying Roman custom was frightening as well as exciting.
“So what do you say?” Julius pressured. He grinned at Octavia.
“Why do you trust me?” the girl finally asked.
Her companion’s face reddened as he averted his gaze. “I’ve been… watching you and you don’t seem like the type to just go along with whatever is expected of you,” Julius muttered. He bit his lip embarrassingly and looked up at Octavia.
“You’ve been watching me? How can I trust you not to turn me in?” Octavia demanded.
“My word is the only thing you have and that should be enough,” Julius said firmly.
Lowering her voice, Octavia finally whispered, “All right.”
* * *
Over the next few weeks, Octavia learned the Roman alphabet and began to read simple words. Julius scratched the symbols in the dirt and slowly Octavia began to read. “I’m going to bring you scrolls when you get good enough. Right now they’re too complicated for you,” Julius said eagerly. Octavia was too cheerful to be offended and agreed that scrolls would be too challenging.
So in just a simple courtyard under a tree a boy taught a girl his age how to read. These secret lessons became little pockets of joy to Octavia, whose life had steadily gotten worse. Her parents were becoming insistent upon her marriage, and her weaving lessons were becoming more and more difficult. One day Julius managed to sneak a simple poetry scroll from his home so Octavia could truly begin to read proper material. It had been a lonely day for Octavia, and her mother had gotten truly angry at her stubbornness.
“This is your destiny, marriage and women’s work, and yet you still fight against me!” her mother had yelled. But as the breeze ruffled Octavia’s dark hair and she haltingly stumbled through the scroll, her worries of life faded away.
“I think you can truly read now!” Julius exclaimed after Octavia managed to read the poem twice.
“I’m not so sure… I keep mixing up my letters!” Octavia said in frustration. As she knelt in the dirt, scanning the scroll, she pounded her knee and moaned. Suddenly Julius snatched the scroll and dashed off into the small forest between their houses. Surprised, Octavia started to stand. Then she heard footsteps.
“Octavia, my daughter, what are you doing in the dirt? Get up,” her mother commanded. Octavia felt dizzy with fear. Would her secret passion and friend be discovered? “My dear, you look so pale… are you well?” Mother exclaimed. Lifting her long white dress, she leaned forward and touched Octavia’s face.
“I’m fine, just getting fresh air, but I dare say I felt a spider on my back,” Octavia lied. Her heart was pounding and she felt clammy as she shakily stood. “There is nothing, but come in and lie down for you are so pale,” her mother finally said after she checked her daughter. Octavia nodded, but inside anger boiled up as her fear evaporated. These moments with Julius were rare; Mother had just cut short her first lesson with a scroll! It was all Octavia could do not to scream and cry in rage.
When Octavia was settled on a mat with wine and fruit at her side, her mother finally left. Octavia was so frustrated and furious that her hands shook as she drank the wine. The wine wasn’t very strong, but after eating fruit and finishing the wine, Octavia felt drowsy and lay down to sleep.
When she woke, Octavia found someone peering down at her. She opened her mouth to scream, but a hand clapped over her mouth. “It’s me, Julius. I don’t think we can meet again soon, but keep this,” Julius whispered. Octavia sat up and turned to thank him, but he was gone. Something hard was digging into her chest and she pulled out from under her a scroll! Gasping, she unrolled it with trembling fingers. Quietly she struggled to read the words aloud.
You are a good friend and reader. I thank you for your faithful companionship and our lessons together. I hope my gift—reading—comes in handy soon. To the point, I am sorry to say my family is moving away to a distant city: Rome. It is the center of the Roman Empire and a much more useful living place to my father who longs to be a senator. Rome is busy and exciting, but I will miss you. Please continue to read; it will serve you well in your later years. Maybe one day girls can freely learn to read scrolls without shame. Octavia, you are a fine companion and a rare joy to me. I treasure each moment we had together. My moving is hard for me to bear; but please do not fret. Our friendship was great but sadly short. Octavia, for me, please keep reading. I miss you greatly.
In best regards,
Octavia looked up and let the tears slowly roll down her cheeks. Her only friend was gone forever now; why did he have to leave? Nothing could make up for Julius and his gift of reading. Octavia had never felt so empty and alone. As she wiped tears from her cheeks, she cradled the precious scroll. At last she hid it in her bedroom. She could not bear to read it once again now that her only friend was gone to the faraway Rome.
* * *
Octavia was broken after Julius’s departure. Rome might have been on the other end of the earth; she would never see him again. Octavia became unnaturally quiet and obedient. She ate very little and often went into her room for long periods of time. Her mother worried constantly about her and her father paid a doctor to check her. But she seemed physically fine; it was her shattered soul that pained her. The next few years in Octavia’s life were the most painful and lonely. She began to work harder at her weaving; Julius’s move had forced her to accept her true destiny. Without her friend Octavia had given up hope of living a different life. No, she was bound to be an ordinary Roman woman. In fact, she would have given up reading if Julius hadn’t continued to write letters each week.
Desperate for her faraway acquaintance, Octavia took these letters as glimpses into Julius’s new life. These windows of Rome forced her to read constantly and slowly begin to practice writing. Hope filled Octavia when a letter arrived saying Julius had a surprise for her. She hurried out into the garden and began to write in the dirt. What if Julius was visiting? Then he would see that she could also write!
Painstakingly, Octavia scratched out letters and words. Thank you. Garden. Rome. Mother. Octavia. Friend. Visit. Each word had to be carefully wiped away, but seeing her own writing made Octavia full of pleasure. Slowly her stubborn spirit flooded back, and though her parents were relieved they also sighed a little, for an obedient Octavia was a rare joy. Days flew by with every spare moment outside writing in the dirt. Soon Octavia’s mother complained that her daughter’s dress was soiled every day from her bending in the dirt.
One day Octavia was on her knees alone in the courtyard, writing a pretend letter to Julius.
I have learned to write! Now I can respond to your lovely letters. Thank you for being such a good friend and faithful…
Something jumped out of a bush, startling her. Hardly daring to believe it, Octavia stood up and smiled at Julius. Looking exceedingly pleased, Julius said, “You can write?”
“I taught myself through your corresponding letters,” Octavia replied. Julius’s look of surprise made all the effort worth it. As he bent down, he spotted Octavia’s dirt letter.
“Your handwriting is very neat. I’m so glad you learned to write yourself. Can I come into your house? My father is Senator Titus and I doubt citizens would refuse a senator’s son,” Julius suggested. Octavia nodded eagerly and they hurried towards the house. Motioning for him to be quiet, the young girl crept to the doorway. She heard voices.
“Senator Titus, next door!”
“Such lovely girls would make good friends for Octavia!”
Octavia spun around and beamed at Julius. “You’re moving back?” she mouthed. Julius nodded and Octavia hugged him. Then she threw open the door to the sitting room.
“Mother, Father, this is my good friend Julius. He is Senator Titus’s son, perhaps you’ve heard of him?” Octavia inquired. The room fell quiet and Octavia realized that Julius’s whole family was sitting with her own in the room. They turned to look at Octavia. She felt heat rush to her cheeks as Senator Titus chuckled softly.
“Well, it appears our children are already acquainted,” Senator Titus observed. He drank some wine and smiled kindly at the two children in the doorway. “Ah, and that reminds me,” said Titus as he stood up. “We present your family with a gift in thanks of your kindness and welcome. Please accept these scrolls.”
Octavia felt tears of joy prick her eyes as Senator Titus’s wife handed her father many scrolls. Words to read! Scrolls! Poetry, philosophy, stories, legends, essays, knowledge… something beyond happiness filled Octavia. It was ecstasy, it was elation, and it was the pure bliss of knowing that she would have material to read. Julius poked her and smiled mischievously. “I knew you’d like the idea… that’s why I suggested it,” he whispered.
Delighted, Octavia felt a smile crack her face and she whispered, “Thank you for your gift, Julius. Not just the scrolls, but your gift of reading.”