Here is how they say it began: purple sails and a wide, white sky. Oars skimming silver above the river like dancers. The low thrill of flutes, and the air so thick, so heady with incense, that you could stick out your tongue and taste it.
Here is how they say it began: a goddess. Dark-eyed and lazy-limbed beneath a gold-spangled canopy. A Venus in waiting, attended by lovely girls and winged boys, knee-deep in rose petals. Gracious – as if she had not been summoned at all but was bestowing some great favour upon Mark Antony with her presence before him in Tarsus. As if she were already his Queen.
Here is how they say it began: a man, alone. Left waiting like a fool in an empty marketplace while the city emptied itself onto the riverbanks, desperate for a glimpse of her. She came to Caesar in secret, but for Antony she is all spectacle. Laughing away his invitation to supper, she beckons him instead to a feast glittering with a thousand lights.
But what I remember is the scratch of the rope beneath my soft hands. Fingers that were used to smoothing balm across my mistress’ skin, or painting soaring wings of kohl around her eyes, straining to keep the line taught as we sailed. Pulling faces at Iras as she struggled to control the rudder and looked nervously towards the water’s surface. Mouthing “Crocodiles” and watching her shudder, though I was fairly confident this river was safe from the beasts, so far from the green depths of the Nile. Wondering whether, if we had not spent the previous night cartwheeling under bright stars and tipping wine into one another’s open mouths, we might now be permitted a position on the royal couch, perhaps enjoying the cool waft of ostrich feathers, fanned by young cupids. Remembering that for today we are heavenly nymphs and letting grace glide across our faces once more. Swatting at mosquitoes.
And Antony. Shorter than I recalled, bull-necked and broad. He reached for our Queen like a drowning man.
Here is how they say it went: obsession. A woman who left men hungry. Isis reborn, who could stretch out her hand and make gods of mortals, then roar with laughter at a soldier’s wit.
Here is how they say it went: effervescent nights. A pearl dissolved in wine like starlight. A dead fish dancing on a hook. Ten thousand sesterces drowned in a single feast and twice that every evening after. A winter spent squinting beneath the Egyptian sun.
Here is how they say it went: a dutiful Roman wife abandoned. And another. The pull of Alexandria, a thread that drew Antony back again and again, as our Queen smiled and added to her kingdom: Phoenicia, Coele-Syria, balsam-rich Judaea. Little gems pressed into her hands like a lover’s kiss.
Only we saw the work it took. Iras’ fingers swollen with the constant tug and pull of setting our mistress’ hair just so, of crowning her with emeralds and carnelian. The way each moment without Antony (he is still abed! He goes to war!) was a diamond to be snatched, a shining opportunity to conduct the business of the state. Taxes, the harvest, the price of grain: the sweet voice that had drawn two powerful men like flies to honey, now turned crisp, slipped through languages with ease. Joking in Egyptian, scolding in Greek.
Then back to entertaining, divine once more. Admiring my careful creation of a goddess from red ochre, malachite and lapis lazuli in a small bronze mirror. My Queen’s eyes meeting mine across its surface, before her head drooped onto my hand. Her low whisper, “Gods, Charmion. I am so tired.”
And Iras and I, arm in arm, whooping like jackals. Iras and I, giggling, tormenting the poor old soothsayer after a banquet. “Tell my fortune! No, mine!” His heavy words dropping like stones into our laps: “Your futures are exactly alike.” We put our heads together, delighted, and whispered what we had always known: we are the same. We are the same.
Here is how they will say it ended: with a betrayal. Rome shrieking itself apart once more, a rabid wolf. Egyptian ships in flight at Actium.
Here is how they will say it ended: with a death. Antony, bloody and butchered, calling for a drink: Dionysus to the last. Our Queen weeping over his body, cheeks shredded in her grief. Reading her destiny in his glassy eyes: a long walk on foreign soil, ankles chained and stained with the dust of the Eternal City. A triumph for her enemies culminating in her supplication, forced to her knees before a young Roman with a hard mouth, the son of a man she used to love. Her children – Caesar’s boy and those she birthed to Antony – offered up to the scorn of the crowd like a libation. The roar and swell of it. “No,” she says, “I will not do it.”
Here is how they will say it ended: with a basket of figs. My favourite fruit. With a small hiss from the serpent hidden beneath, and sharp teeth in soft skin. Iras’ brave face at the bite, and our Queen laid out in all her finery. Octavian’s men, hammering down the door, too late to find anything inside but death, and me, stumbling in its wake. My hands’ clumsy attempts to adjust my mistress’ diadem, as venom flooded my veins like ink, just enough breath left in me to spit it out. “Yes, it was well done.”
That was how it ended, they will say, with a victory of sorts. Antony and Cleopatra, entombed together, immortal after all.
I don’t know about that. All I know is how Iras’ hand reached for mine as I fell beside her. The way the light faded from her black eyes: a pearl in wine.
Written by Hazel Atkinson