Sylvia wiped her sweaty brow with the back of her hand. She dipped her fingertips into the marble fountain and relieved her discomfort by plunging both feet into the refreshing water. How she longed to be able to swim on this hot day. It wasn’t fair that her four brothers got all the fun.
“Sylvia! Oh Sylvia!” came a loud voice. “Help me with the babies! Do you not want some lunch?” A middle-aged frowning woman strode out, juggling two small children whose angry voices raged like the thunderstorms that often poured out their rage on the city of Pompeii.
It was August of 79 AD and a miserable time to be alive. The heat was unbearable, at least to the young girls, who were not old enough to frequent the public baths alone. As she shouldered Lucius and Marcella, her young brother and niece, Sylvia thought of how nice a bath would be just now. She tried to banish the thoughts of cool water and a quiet atmosphere as the two babies began howling again.
Sylvia spun round. “Flavia!” she exclaimed. “Where have you been?”
Flavia relieved her friend of Marcella and answered laughingly, “Visiting my uncle. He has received an import of fine silks and would like your opinion!”
Sylvia flashed a brilliant smile. “All right,” she said happily. “When shall I come over?”
“Right now, of course!”
“But what will I do with the. . .”
“Babies? Oh, bring the babies! Old Helen will be sure to have something for them!”
Sylvia hurried after her friend, panting as Lucius seemed to become heavier and heavier. Through crowded streets the two girls and their charges jogged. They passed the busy marketplace where a fruit vendor tossed them some grapes. They rounded the corner and came upon the public baths. Sylvia looked hopefully at her friend, but Flavia shook her head. “No stops!” she said sternly, reading her companion’s mind.
At last, the girls arrived at the house of Marcus Flavius Primus, Flavia’s only uncle. Old Helen, his faithful servant, came out to greet them and bore off the now-smiling babies to play in the garden. Sylvia and Flavia hugged Flavia’s Uncle Marcus and followed him into a dimly lit shop. “I have just received some fine silks from Persia!” he said. “They ought to bring a good price. What do you girls think of them?”
Sylvia blushed and said happily, “I think they are the most lovely in all Pompeii!” Suddenly, she stumbled backwards against the rolls of cloth, upsetting one.
Flavia and her uncle laughed.
“Sylvia, you silly thing! The finest silks in Pompeii will be ruined at that rate!”
But they were not laughing long. Flavia lurched suddenly and fell to the ground. Then her uncle was thrown from his feet.
“Not another earthquake!” said Marcus.
Sylvia heard the babies crying. Her first thought was of them. She got to her feet with difficulty and staggered out of the room. Clutching furniture and walls, Sylvia managed to make it to the kitchen where old Helen was curled up in the corner with Marcella and Lucius. “Helen!” she whispered, fearfully. “What’s happening?”
Helen shook her head. “We’ll be all right. It will soon stop.” Marcella whimpered quietly.
Flavia came crawling into the room, her rosy complexion hidden by a rag which she held to her face. “Sylvia! Helen!” she coughed, grabbing Lucius. “Mount Vesuvius! Hurry! Come see! Hurry! We must get away!” With another fit of coughing, Flavia stumbled out of the room.
Helen’s lip began to tremble and her face to drain color. “Come on!” shouted Sylvia. “No time to waste!” She led the trembling old nurse outside along with the howling babies.
But neither Sylvia nor the nurse was prepared for what they saw next.
A violent tremor shook the ground, and Sylvia lost her breath as she hit the hard ground. Stinging pains were pounding her back and legs and the smell of smoke nearly choked her. Her brown curls were filled with what seemed to be little round stones. Then she looked up.
Sylvia stifled a gasp. Men, women, children were running, some without clothes, some dripping wet, others covered with ash and soot. The fruit vendor from early that morning was racing past her. Two soldiers, eyes wide in fear, fled down the street. Her own mother and aunt were rushing past now, turning every now and then to look back. Her father, Uncle Marcus, and a priest from the temple were fleeing with all their might. They didn’t even notice her lying on the side of the road. The family chickens were winging their way through all the commotion. Everyone was running, running towards the harbor.
She noticed that the sky was dark and full of smoke that seemed to be rolling ever closer. But when she lowered her eyes, the worst sight of all met her eyes. Mount Vesuvius, the huge mountain beneath which the town was nestled, was spewing ash and pumice all over the place, and it showed no signs of ceasing.
Sylvia screamed as small bits of pumice came hailing down on her from above. Where was Flavia? Where were the babies? Where was Helen? What would she do? She curled up on the corner of the street, her heart filled with terror. It will stop sometime, she reassured herself. It will stop sometime.
Suddenly, a strong arm grabbed her by the shoulder and jerked her to her feet. “Come on, little girl. It isn’t safe here. You’ll be buried alive!” Sylvia shrank back in fear. The man hurried on. Sylvia, by some instinct, began to run also.
Amidst the cries of horror and astonishment, Sylvia heard a dismal wail from the other side of the street. “Help! Help!” it cried. “My mother is gone!” Sylvia was touched with pity for the child. She stopped running and turned to the direction of the voice. The crowds of people had become even thicker and the stampede was even more awful.
Dodging between the frantic multitude, Sylvia made her way to a small boy in a white tunic, rubbing his eyes and sobbing disconsolately. Sylvia stooped down. The boy still didn’t take notice. She enveloped him in her arms. “Don’t cry. I won’t hurt you. Come here, I’ll take you to your mother.”
She tore a small piece of cloth from her dress and covered the boy’s face to protect it from the ash. Then, mustering all her strength, lifted him up to her shoulder and began to run again. The boy, who was no more than a baby, really, beat his fists against Sylvia. “Put me down! Put me down!” he cried, kicking at the same time. Sylvia took no notice. She knew that if she heeded his pleas, he would never see his mother again.
Once a terrified slave, blindly running, knocked her down and sent her sprawling. He ran on without so much as a glance downward, his only thought to get to the harbor. Sylvia rolled over and got up, keeping her pace. But gradually, her strength began to fade. Her arms were weakening and the child was getting heavier every minute. Her legs shook, her pace slowed, her head throbbed. Finally, she dropped in the streets, too exhausted to continue.
Sylvia never knew what happened between that time and when she woke up in a cool bedroom. Maybe it was all a dream, a nightmare too awful to think about. But no, a gray blanket of ash still covered her body Sylvia dismally recalled the terrible adventure. With a sigh, she rolled over and hid her face in the fresh sheets. She heard someone murmur, “She’s awake,” and a familiar voice saying, “Poor dear! What an awful experience for one so young!” She sat up in bed with a jerk, and recognized Helen, Uncle Marcus, Flavia, and family. Then, with a smile she saw the little boy and a young woman. Somehow, she knew everything would be all right.