“I have been a corpse from even before the time I bore you twins, while you were celebrating your marriage to the sister of the man who wishes to turn himself into our torturer. From that moment on, I have been a dead woman. From that moment on, I suffocate, and I return to life only in your presence, rolling like a barren sphere toward the grave, or soaring like a golden orange from the Garden of the Hesperides, tossed from the hand of the handsome hero–all as your caprices dictate. My willpower is stolen from me by yours, enslaved by your destiny since the time we conceived a woman and a man, a sun and a moon, when first you lived with me in Alexandria. You, Mark Antony, my guide and my destroyer, once again you have lost me and this time for ever.”
Defeat, Marcus Antonius Dionysus Osiris, befell us long before the events in the Gulf of Ambracia, south of Epirus, facing the promontory of Actium. There we planned to make our move as soon as the enemy fleet gave us an opening. To provoke this, we sent out Publicola, pretending to be a rowdy boor, to attack them. But then I released to the winds the sails of my squadron’s sixty ships and, loaded with the treasures of the Lagids, I fled the Peloponnesus to avoid a pointless sacrifice. With abrupt swiftness you followed me, chasing me in a quinquireme. You ordered the other 180 ships in your fleet to do the same. On board your ship you had Alexander of Syria and Artavasde, king of Armenia, the last of the Arsacids, son and heir of the great Tigranes.
When you and your men came aboard my vessel, the “Antony” –its purple sails aloft, swollen by a favorable wind–Artavasde witnessed your foolish outburst of rage at not having won the victory. You blamed the advice I gave you–to wage war at sea and not on land. It was wrong, I admit, but you could have ignored it, General, and relied on your own strategists.
After your show of fury came silence. For the three days it took us to reach Tenarus, you refused to speak. You broke silence only to answer (and then merely in the form of a question) the shouts of a cocky, strutting youth who wagged his spear at you. His chest bare, his sinews bronzed by the sun, he humiliated you, saved from our rage by our bad luck. In his light Liburnian ship he had overtaken us, his hair and beard unornamented but for sea-salt and sand. Seeing you hunched up and motionless, your face hidden in your hands, elbows on your knees, he plucked up enough courage to shout at you, all bravado, befouling you with ugly epithets.
“Who are you to be pursuing Antony?” was all you said. With a few astute commands you could have captured him and, if your frame of mind had not been so enfeebled, you would have had him strung up for far less an impertinence.
“I’m Eurycles, son of Lacares, blessed with the luck you so badly need. I am here to avenge the death of my father.”
You did not explain to me that Lacares had been convicted of theft and then beheaded on your orders. You were still refusing to speak a word to me. Somebody else had to explain things to me before I understood that outrageous scene.
With these words Eurycles, the son of a thief, turned his ship around and attacked another of our contingent, carrying off its load of silver, more out of greed than a sense of honor. It was typical of a man who dared no more than shout that he wanted to avenge the insult to his family’s name; his squalid inherited character proved how just had been the death sentence passed on his father. On the periphery of the battle, under the pretext of vengeance, the rascal stole from us; he sullied his hands with theft, like the vile devourers of carrion that stalk their prey in cowardly style only after the battle is over.
While the coward behaved this way, you did not stir an inch. You remained seated near the ship’s keel, elbows on knees, your face in the palms of your hands. I could not take the reins and avenge this humiliation because the shame you were inflicting on us had shattered my will to act.
As for those who witnessed your reproaches, your anger, your stony silence, I hereby give the order for their decapitation. I had been planning this ever since we disembarked at Tenerus. There I visited the shrines of Demeter and Aphrodite. Jupiter’s temple I avoided, for they say it contains the entrance to Hell. I want no record to remain of that degrading scene, where you were the acrostolium on the prow of my ship, the “Antony,” exposing us in your weakness to so much humiliation that even a common thief, without brains, honor, or money ventured to attack us.
Those witnesses have been silent for one year, but what guarantee is there that they will be so for two? Hence, I order their execution. From that order I except you, Diomedes, for your eyes are not eyes; you are the hand with which I write these words: Behead the witnesses! I especially want Artavasde dead.
And yes, it’s true, Mark Antony, you didn’t want to take me to the confrontation with Octavius. You wanted me to stay in Alexandria. But I bribed your general, Canidius, to convince you of the advantages of taking me to the battleground. I allowed him to export, tax-free, 10,000 sacks of wheat and to import 5,000 ceramic jars. Hence he found the means to make you see how much you needed to take your Cleopatra to the scene of the battle.
If Diomedes does not know this–and I can see by your eyes you don’t–it’s because it was his own secretary who presented Canidius with the terms I sealed with my own signature. I wasn’t thinking about war; I just couldn’t bear, Antony, for you to be far away from me, to see you stolen again from your Cleopatra by the charms of a Roman wife.
I came back to the “Antony” to make that notorious return crossing. All the while, you, Antony, bent over, almost kneeling, sunk deep inside yourself, you were humiliating us both, all because of that sickly, second-rate weakling who had pursued us. Meanwhile that nobody, Octavius, was crowing over a victory that neither he nor his clever Agrippa deserved credit for. Standing high on the stern, he relished the thought of the praises his poets would lavish on him in the near future.
And you, Antony, did nothing but freeze into a stone. Mark my words, you were committing the worst of disgraces, the foulest of your crimes. There you were, transformed into a stone copy of a thinker, a bad-luck symbol aboard my ship, when you should have been acting the astute strategist, combining intelligence with daring, taking risks, giving the lie to everything your enemy wanted from you: that you had accepted defeat, that you had admitted his triumph, that you had accepted your overthrow and finally your departure from this life.
It was you who gave him the one thing he was seeking, a victory he did not deserve. You let your personal anguish deny access to you, to me, to Egypt, to our men, to my people, to our children.
With your head in your hands, motionless, stony in your rage against me, you made a gift to that ignoble creature of the entire Nile and its seven mouths–the Nile, “the Father of Life, the secret god who rises from secret shadows, the deity who floods the fields, who quenches the thirst of the flocks, who gives drink to the soil, who allows seeds to grow, the pasture to green, who provides delicious victuals. Along the Nile the wheat flows regularly to the granaries. Through it everything comes to new birth, everything receives nourishment, and the land tingles with joy.” You surrended to Octavius the date palm and the sycamore, the crocodile, the birds, the papyrus, the lotus flower, Upper and Lower Egypt, the red crown and the white crown, and the psen that unites them both. You handed over the dark soil, keme, that generates life on the banks of the river, and the reddish sands, dasre. You gave away the dark country, with all its fertility, and the golden country of the desert, dense with the memories of Hatseput, of Prince Sebeki, of the Theban king, Ahmes, of Tutankhamen in his war chariot. You bestowed on a despicable soul all the baggage of our dead, the pyramids gilded by the sun. You gave him our floods, our winters and summers. And worst of all, along with yourself, you handed him the surrender of our gods, Atum-Ra, the father of all the gods, and after him, Su, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Set, Isis, Neftis, and Toth, the god of wisdom. Along with you there died everything we hold beautiful, nefer like the goddess Hator, kind as well as beautiful, tut, menej, and tehen.
You have permitted the man who schemed our overthrow to ready himself for writing his name on our temples, glory superimposed on glory, usurping what is rightly ours. You made him a gift of total control over Judaea, a control you so often denied to me. You surrendered Nabatea, Cyprus, and Ascalon. You bestowed on him our sages, astronomers, philosophers, poets, the library of Alexandria, the automata that Architas built in the shape of a wooden cock pigeon that flew. You showered him with our treasures, not only those that hands can touch and eyes can see, but those that only the soul can appreciate. You made him a present of the power of Greece, the power that we Lagids claim as our rightful inheritance. Enough!
You sowed the seeds of a conflagration, total and definitive, upon our two bodies interlocked in love’s battles, and upon the indomitable Eros, the only god by whom you and I can be enslaved.
Defeat overtook me early. Even before the swallows nesting on the poop of my galley were attacked by others, late arrivals with savage beaks. On seeing the abandoned nests of their predecessors, they vented their fury on them as well, ripping them apart–a frightful omen. Before, the morale of our army declined at the first victory of Agrippa. Before, at our camp on the peninsula of Actium, you had Iamblicus, king of Arabia, put to the torture for his disloyalty. Before that, you had a Roman senator executed and embittered the spirits of our men even more. Before the fall of Corfu, before losing dozens of ships at Leucadia, before the disasters of Patras and Corinth.
With all that happening, what did it matter that we had already detected the treason of Domitius Enobarbus, though you had appointed him governor of Bythinia? We had also guessed at the treason of King Amintas, even after you had given him the throne of Bactria and Kabul. I paid him my respects by issuing a coin to commemorate his coronation. It bore the legend “Of the great, victorious King Amintas,” though his only victory consisted of being named king by Mark Antony, and then only because he fascinated me with his description of the frontiers of Bactria, to the northeast, where on a chain of hills there stands a line of artificial prominences built in unsettling shapes out of huge, unbaked bricks and whose walls have a thickness equivalent to the height of ten men. Then followed the treason of King Deiotarus of Armenia, then that of Danidius, who was to be commander of the legions.
What did it matter that the cavalry and our fleet had surrendered to the crude seductions of Octavius? That your generals had scurried like lambs seeking the refuge of the farmyard, the minute they heard the name of Rome? That there were enough deserters to make up an army against us? What difference did it make that, thwarting our last chance of success, the quadriremes and quinquiremes I had had transported overland to the Red Sea were put to the torch by the treacherous King Malchus of Nabatea, by whose side you had only recently fought against Octavius?
You and I would have recovered everything, if we had still possessed our old vigor–if we had not allowed ourselves to be beaten by our greatest enemy. Worse for us than all the desertions was the scandal that befell Publius Ventidius, your master general, the sole Roman ever to bring the Parthians to their knees–it robbed you of him forever. With Publius Ventidius at our side, we could have crushed Agrippa to dust! And Agrippa is the only real strength that Octavius possesses.
While these betrayals were working against us, one thing did even more damage–a recurrent dream that haunted me in the small hours of the night, just before the sun rose. In it, my father Auletes, usually so kindly, turned solemn and cold, rebuking me and fixing on me an angry stare. My Caesar was seated with him at the same table and he, too, rebuked me with uncharacteristic wildness. Reclining by Caesar’s side, as though he were his equal, was Apollodorus, my trusty Apollodorus, and he turned on me as well, glaring fiercely. He was the only one of the three I dared address.
“What makes you all so angry with me?” I asked.
“I am more than just angry with you,” he replied. “Once too often you have spoken like an imbecile. An imbecile. An imbecile.”
Then I would wake up.
This nightmare had a more powerful effect on me than all the betrayals that followed the battle of Actium. Now even in the depths of my mind, those who had once loved me most were deserting me.
Before you misunderstood my words, Antony, the words I dispatched from this mausoleum, before you snatched up your sword and with tears in your eyes implored one last favor of your faithful slave Eros: “Put me to death. Pierce my heart with this point, rip it out of my chest with its sharp edge, tear me asunder till I am only an unrecognizable lump of flesh” –before all that, you were already the incarnation of darkness. You were the blood that formed the slippery mud on which the sphere I mentioned to you went sliding toward the grave. You were the breath of life to me. You were also my death. Something welded us two into a third being that was neither you nor I, and I do not mean the notorious beast with two backs, the fleshy animal of desire.
You read the opening of my letter: “I am dead, my king.” Without understanding my meaning, you shouted: ‘do it, Antony. Do not delay one instant. Fate has robbed you of the only reason you had for wanting to live any longer!” You entered your bedroom and, opening your breastplate, handed a sword to faithful Eros, saying: ‘stab me here. I follow Cleopatra, the greatest of the Lagids, monarch of the world’s oldest kingdom and my beloved! More than the pain of her loss is the shame of knowing myself a greater coward than she!”
Eros, handsome, noble-hearted youth with his clear gaze, bravely brandished the sword but then, without shedding a tear, he plunged it into himself.
“What have you done, my loyal Eros?” you asked, as if unable to believe the fearful sight.
Eros made no answer. With fixed, wild eyes, he stared at you, struggling to reach the land of the dead with all possible speed.
“Well done, Eros. You have shown your master how to do what you did not have the heart to do.”
Then you, Antony, sighing and grieving, took a dagger and stabbed yourself twice in the lower stomach. Your words turned to screams as Diomedes, my secretary, entered the room to tell you that Cleopatra was summoning you, that I needed to see you. I have told you, Mark Antony, that I cannot breathe outside your presence. When did I ever fail to call your name? Even today, when your lungs contain no air, I speak to you, I call upon you: “Come, breathe through me. Give me what the water gives to the lotus flower!”
Diomedes, who is both wise and practical but turns pale at the sight of blood, put to good use what little of the Seleucid inheritance he received from his mother. They stripped you naked and carefully loosened the dagger held tight in your frozen fist. With the serene calm of a Syrian, a calm we Lagids find so irritating, he ordered you to be bandaged immediately so that your intestines would not obtrude through your wounds. He had them cover your body with blankets and fasten you to a stretcher.
“And if you’re lying, Diomedes, what then? Without my queen, I will thrust that dagger a thousand times into my body until not one recognizable piece remains.” You had stopped screaming and weeping, but your lips were now babbling.
The industrious Diomedes must now have had to bend over you, to understand the words of a brass-voiced man who so many times had inspired armies to invincibility. Your voice was the first thing that left you as you went to join your ancestors. Alone, it crossed the Lethe, shaking the leaves of the poplars, startling the birds of the riverbanks into flight, and silencing the barking of dogs. Who else but yourself had the power to rob you of your voice on the road to the land of the dead? Your voice, so strong and attractive, should reside today among the living, and he who stole it away would be here to restore me to power. But it has gone. And at this very moment your voice is listening to the words of Nu, the triumphal palace overseer, chancellor in chief of the dead: “I am the deathless inheritor, the exalted one, the powerful one, he who brings rest. I made my name bear fruit, I will set it free, and you will live with me, day after day.”
Inside your body, my king, your destruction stalked its slow and silent way to its end. The great warrior could now enunciate no strategy for his defence. Where the interwoven tissues of your body should have maintained an unseen order, senseless floodgates opened and let out sluices of murderous blood. Partitions cracked asunder. The tense warp and woof was reduced to sheerest linen, spindly and textureless. Over your lungs an assault was gathering to burst them apart. Your inner enemies learned of your speechlessness and abused your frailties, and took your defenses by surprise.
They brought you to me. I am shut up tight in the temple of Isis. While my defeat was gaining ground, I had them build a mausoleum worthy of Cleopatra. Surrounded by my treasures, I am safe here.
Sooner or later the Romans will be able to capture it and think that in doing so they possess the immortality of Egypt. But they will never exhibit me alive, chained like a slave to the chariot of the man who will delight in parading his victory through the streets of Rome. They will publish a false account of Cleopatra, manipulating her image to disguise the truth about a civil war Octavius waged solely to settle a score with his fellow-triumvir Antony. They will not trap me. The Roman mob will not make me an occasion for mockery and contempt. I know the truth of what I say. Did I not see Arsinoe, my sister and enemy, paraded through Rome in chains of gold in the procession to celebrate the victories of my Caesar?
Here, Mark Antony, let me escape, let me postpone the arrival of your body and journey back to Rome. Let me share in the memory of the five triumphs my Caesar celebrated. Let me step up into the chariot, exulting over my rival Arsinoe, and there let me join the celebratory retinue.
Foreigners had been accommodated in tents in the middle of the roads. All Rome lived the excitement of the triumphs both day and night. There was a gladiatorial combat, and plays were staged in many districts, with actors performing in numerous languages. There were games at the Circus. On chariots drawn by teams of horses, youngsters from noble families performed feats of acrobatics and the so-called Trojan game. There the finest of Rome’s youth, wreaths crowning their hair, some carrying two javelins and others with a quiver on their shoulders, galloped in two even files, split up into two teams, and acted out a chase, lances at the ready. They then performed a second charge before dividing up again into two fighting teams and finally setting up the formation known as the Trojan squadron.
For the sea-battle they had excavated a lake in the lesser Codeta, part of the Campus Martius, and there biremes and quadriremes of the Tyrian and Egyptian fleets confronted each other with vast numbers of combatants. The crowd was so enormous that some people were asphyxiated, while others were crushed to death, two senators among them.
The procession crossed the Campus Martius, passed by the Circus Dominius, attended by massive throngs. It went along the Sacred Way to the Forum and ended up at the Capitol, by the light of torches carried in candelabras attached to the flanks of forty elephants.
As Arsinoe walked along the Sacred Way, secured by chains of gold, the crowds watched in silence, out of respect for Egypt. I made sure they saw that my own gaze, as well as that of my attendants, was turned away from the wretched sight. I had ordered my followers to bribe as many as they could to do likewise, as Arsinoe passed. With so many gazes averted, my Caesar had to free her from her chains, to maintain the tone of celebration, and he withdrew her from the procession. He saved her from the death she had every reason to expect and sent her to live in isolation in the Temple of Diana of the Ephesians. There she stayed till once again she conspired against me and I had no choice but to deal with her as a dangerous enemy.
Although she was hardly a person to reckon with, I arranged the silence that surrounded her as she walked in chains through Rome, to maintain the prestige of the Ptolemies. Her ally was the eunuch named Ganymede; he sported that name as a joke, for he was an ugly brute, never suited to be a prince of Troy or a cupbearer of the gods, and no eagle on the face of this earth could have wanted to snatch him away. Arsinoe died a virgin, never knowing the pleasures of sexuality. She was never a true member of the House of the Lagids. She was a short, skinny thing. Her body was fragile; she had an unprepossessing complexion, like skin stretched tight over a drum. It emphasized her staring, colorless eyes, the only real feature in her nondescript face. Her hair, dark and brittle, seemed to grow out of the skin of a long-buried corpse. In the corridors of my father’s palace, I heard tell that she was not his daughter, that her mother had had a fling, and that the ugly creature was the fruit of this frivolous, lukewarm pastime. A child conceived in passion is born with fire in it, born with color, born full of life, but Arsinoe was like one delivered in the Underworld. I mentioned your eyes, Arsinoe, as your distinctive feature, but your father, whoever he was, must have been half-blind, for he bequeathed you no light, bestowed on you no radiance. You were born gray and hostile. It was as a gray thing they paraded you in chains along the roads of Rome. Like a graceless animal, bred on dusty soils. So what if it did not grieve me to see one who claimed to be my sister walk in chains? It grieved me more when the axle of my Caesar’s chariot snapped, while the procession entered the district of Velabrius, just as he was about to receive their acclamation. I protected you once, Arsinoe, with bribes meant to guarantee you a measure of respect, simply because you bore my father’s name. Yet they had every right to exhibit you, for my Caesar vanquished you and with justice displayed you as a trophy of his wars. Whoever may boast of defeating me will have no chance to exhibit me, for he is not the real conqueror here. My defeat came long before, and it is I who will deliver myself to it. They will not parade me in chains of gold. Our conqueror will get no parade in Rome, no mob to celebrate his multiple triumphs.
The door of Isis’ temple has been sealed tight, so I am out of the reach of Octavius’s vile minions and others that have believed the stupid chatter he attributes to a Cleopatra who is neither I nor anything like me. This fellow with water in his veins set the gossip going to justify his destroying people he had envied for years. For Octavius, with his squeezed and plunging voice, bony, bleak, and abrupt, knows well he is my inferior, that neither his mind nor his body nor his glance nor his understanding of the world could ever outdo the qualities of a certain foreign woman, a Greek from Egypt, forbidden by Roman law to wed a Roman citizen, but the greatest of the Lagids, the last Pharoah of glorious Egypt. And it goes without saying that he is inferior to my Antony. His own poetasters have confessed it:
No noble deed Octavius did
“gainst Macedonia’s throne.
The spoils of victory belonged
to Antony alone.
Envy lent its energies to this spindly nephew of my Caesar, to the usurper who challenged the clause in Caesar’s will that required his son be taught by the best tutors Rome could supply. Octavius is a small man; he wears elevated shoes to add height to his appearance. He is stingy. When gifts are exchanged at the festival of Saturn, others give presents of silver and gold, but he offers sponges, pokers, pincers, and other knicknacks. He is graceless; his puny presents are accompanied by curt notes that say one thing and mean another.
Once again I have postponed your arrival, Antony, by all this talk of the loathsome Octavius. But time is racing by, and with it the last hours of my life. Once more, to the point.
Here in this Temple of Isis I am secure. I designed it to keep intact and undiminished the dignity of my person. But there has entered the one thing that could harm Cleopatra–my Mark Antony on his way to death. There, in front of the doors you presented yourself, my emperor, my husband, my accomplice, my happiness. We had barred the doors to protect ourselves, so we had to lug you up by the ropes with which they had tied you, Charmian and Eira, my faithful maidens, and I. Six arms could barely raise you. You were heavy, rapt in yourself. Your eyes tried to find me but they were more occupied with the vision of the Underworld. They were saying:
Step back, you servant of the timeless gods.
You come in search of this, my living heart.
“Tis not for you to take. Here I advance
And lo, the gods accept my offerings,
Prostrate themselves to honor me and mine.
These words lent a superhuman weight to your body, as they marked your entry into death. We pulled harder still on the ropes, for I had to be beside you in your last snatches of life. The closeness of your body stole the breath out of my lungs. You stank of blood, you the most manly of men. You smelled like a cloth soaked with the menstrual blood of women for month after month. I had to let go the rope, and Charmian and Eira were left to drag you through the window.
“What did you do?” I asked you. “You fool, so imprudent, so ignorant and hasty!” while pale and disfigured, like a bad portrait of yourself, you babbled I don’t know what nonsense. You were weeping, Mark Antony, you had renewed your laments over my death. Not even the sight of me could convince you that I was alive. Diomedes had scaled the wall after you, wanting to help where no help was possible. The remedies he had provided proved of little use. You were soaked in your blood. Olympus, the doctor, came in on the heels of Diomedes, but we all recognized that his visit was futile. We removed you from the stretcher and made you comfortable in my bed. I took off my robes to cover you. You asked for wine and I gave you some. You drank it at a gulp. Lying beside you, I embraced you. Glueing myself to your body, I kissed you. Your mouth was cold and dry. I made you promises. I spoke rebukes. I called you my emperor, ally, enemy, slave, guiding light, taskmaster. I told you how deeply I loved you, and I called you a noose around my neck, a suffocating force, my madness and my ruin. I called you my grape and fig, serpent and lion. I recalled our last, magnificent journey to Athens, then the decorations, lights, and celebrations of our first meal together, the joke we played at a party on the King of Armenia. Once again I criticized your wrongheadedness in leaving Herod in power in Judaea, and your idiotic debauchery in Leucocome, where you had scurried after being thrashed by the Parthians. I made a point of describing the sleepless night we passed together in Antioch, after you were widowed and had remarried, a night that centuries will never forget. We made love that night, till daybreak, without feeling one moment of weariness or satiety.
Vesper got drunk tonight and now he dreams,
The Great Bear’s stars have not traversed the night.
The moon still stands where first she showed her beams,
The Pleiades and Venus keep in sight.
Hold fast, brave Night; serve Love, the best of gods . . .
Plunged in that recollection, I abstained from life in the present and lived in memory, for no other source of happiness lay open to us. We were stretched out, the two of us, on the bed I had them bring to the Temple of Isis. Here, speaking to you, clasped to you, I spent the night, suffocating, like you, in blood. Some dream-vision came to taunt you, and to restore your serenity, I sang to you. Even when I knew that no breath of life remained in you, I still clung to you. Then I fell asleep, cradled in your rigid arms, pressed against your stone-cold breast, abandoned by the tide of your being. We were three on that sodden bed: your sword, the triumvir, and Egypt’s queen. We were three: my death, my life, and your corpse. We were three: my memories, my desire for you, and my rage. We were three: Mark Antony’s Rome, the Egypt of the Nile, whose pharoah I am, and the Greece of my ancestors of which you are a citizen, an Athenian. We were three: the mother of Caesar’s only son Caesarion, the daughter of Auletes, and your parents’ son. We were three: the war that Rome declared on us in the voice of that beardless youth, the war that blazed between us two, and the peace of our embracing bodies.
‘do not leave!” I wanted to shout at you. ‘do not leave. Let me find you one last time, let me embrace you, let me fasten my lips on yours. Raise yourself a little. Kiss me while your kiss is still alive. Let the breath of your soul race to meet my mouth and heart. Let me drink of your love and I will preserve that kiss as if it were you! You go in search of the king of inhuman gloom, but I am alive and follow you I cannot!”
Blood gives birth to roses,
Tears to anemones.
I weep for my Mark Antony
And my golden memories.
I dreamed with my head propped on your chest. And once again the two of us were living out our timeless intoxication with life. It was night and, disguised as beggars, we were dancing in the streets of beautiful Alexandria. We went from house to house, pleading for wine and music. Exactly the way we did when we were making every effort to produce our first child. You were kissing me, and it was your kiss that awoke me, a kiss that left your true taste in my mouth, a kiss from your still-warm mouth, your true mouth, your living mouth, a kiss that invited me to lose myself in you, to follow you, drawing me toward the irresistible joy of your body, to final oblivion and to the fullness of our divine condition.
Now I must speak to you again. Listen, Mark Antony, to what I have always wanted to tell you. No, my maidens, do not wash from my naked chest the blood in which I am dressed. Do not comb my hair or try to perfume me. There is no costume more fitting to my words than Antony’s blood. These words will sit well with my disheveled hair, with my blood-stained skin, hands clad in dry, crackling blood. Diomedes, turn your face away if I disgust you; but do not move far from Egypt’s pharoah, for you must hear the words she speaks. You must note down everything I now say. Our time is short. Let them bring you water. If you need to eat, make sure your assistants write down everything, without omitting a single word. These are the last words that your queen, Isis Cleopatra, will speak. Write! Time is flying. No, do not touch me! Do not put fresh clothes on me. So what, if my face is stained, my tangled locks matted with dried blood? I realize it is improper to let myself be seen in this state. There is no need to repeat it. I am dyed with the wine of the great Mark Antony. Let no one say again I am defeated. The truth is, I am not! Let me be just as I am, drenched in him, in what he kept deep within himself, unseen by the world, in what forced him to return to me. You must understand that I am dressed in what once gave him life, draped with the hidden currents of his flesh, his secret knowledge, the source of his desire for me, the spell that made me beautiful for him, the thing that made him mine. Out of it we two formed our invincible unity as well as our mutual betrayal.
Let’s begin, Diomedes. Otherwise my history will serve as material for Roman lies. All of you, who met me, who knew who I was and what my deeds were, the glory that I added to my ancestors and to Egypt, you will either die with me or keep silence about me. If anyone lives and dares to speak for me, may his tongue wither! But nothing will remain of my true story unless we make haste. My treasures will be reduced to crude ingots to be sent to Rome. Likewise they will treat my work, my achievements, and my family. They will mint coins with the legend “Egypt in captivity.” They will consign to oblivion the woman I once was. Ready, Diomedes? Let your ink be of a quality that defies the centuries. Only a few hours remain. Begin!
I, Cleopatra, the last of the Lagids, Pharoah of Egypt, descendant of Alexander the Great, of the goddesses Philadelphia, Arsinoe, and Berenice, of the gods Soters, Adelphos, and Euergetos, preserve here my authentic history. The Romans will shatter to fragments all my achievements and my virtues. They will disfigure me and no one will remain to contradict them. With me, my world collapses. Everyone who knew who I truly was will depart. With me, the Egypt of a thousand years crumbles to dust. Alexandria will cease to be a city of land and sea. My children, my counselors, ministers, administrators, the priests of Egypt and of the Greek pantheon–all will be converted at one stroke into foreigners, refugees, pariahs. We have been outmaneuvered by a lesser rival. Rome cannot bear comparison with Alexandria. The usurper who commands Rome’s army is a ridiculous child whose veins run with the sticky liquid of his envy.
Foul Envy touched his bosom with a hand
Besmirched with urine, stuffed his heart
With crooked thorns, breathed in it gall
And through his bones and round his sour lungs
Dispersed a venom dark as any pitch.
It was not, I repeat, the Romans who defeated me. We, the Egypt of Cleopatra, the triumvir Mark Antony, we were their superior by far. Our defeat came not from Rome. They will boast that they conquered the Nile. They will write that they triumphed in battles. It is not true! No! A nightmare has been the real source of our defeat. Merely saying that for five years I have been a corpse, does not do it justice. No phrase can precisely define the meaning of our warring and our decline, for never was I so alive as then, never so possessed of fire and light. Mark Antony, you dragged me along the channels of a delta where Destiny never intended me to go. You quenched more than one of the goddesses’ stars in the uncontrollable torrents of your whims. And I? I wove myself into you in a web both rare and bizarre, on which there came to be traced what I will now attempt to decipher. I pluck at that web’s corners, the one nearest, facing the sun. On it appears a saying of Io:
O youth, you found a cruel suitor there.
What you have heard is scarcely a beginning.
I do not wish to drown myself in tears or reach my end without first telling of our hours of greatness, of our triumphs and glories. I will begin at the beginning, before we became those tireless lovers of life, before the world lay at our feet, before I restored Egypt’s glory and ruled it as the greatest of the Lagids, before my dream of seeing East and West united under one crown twice became a possibility. I will not mention the chariot drawn by lions that you drove in Rome, while Caesar was visiting me in Egypt, though I am sorely tempted to linger on its description, and along with it, your character and the road we trod together. I will begin, as I said, at the beginning.
With my children, I am the last of my line. They will be dragged to Rome and married to freedmen or treated as slaves. I wish them an early death. But I myself must escape oblivion. The Cleopatra that Roman propaganda changed me into is a vacillating substitute for the real, decisive Cleopatra; the false image that Octavius constantly fashions of me, he makes in order to give himself the courage to war on me. I must elude the death brought on by history’s forgetfulness. No fate is worse than oblivion; it is the completest form of death that can befall a queen.
I never kept a record of public events, the way my Caesar did. I did not jot down phrases to jog the memories of others. I let the poets and historians be responsible for that, without an Aulus Hirtius at my elbow, to eavesdrop on my words and deeds. But I now know that when Egypt falls and the Ptolemies are no more, all those rolls of papyrus will end up under water or in the fire. The papers of Mark Antony, including those that Caesar left in his keeping, will be burned. My own story, told by its protagonist, artlessly, without the skill I have admired in those touched by the Muses–may some god deign to protect it. Then one day, when the hatred of the man who wants to represent himself as my conqueror–though he never has been or will be–when his hatred has passed away, then others in a far-off time will testify to my glory and my fall. My account will be faithful to the facts.
Urgent need will help me where literary skill may fail. On stone, hard stone, I should carve what I want to say, but time forbids. Ink will record what I tell to you, Antony, you who touched me and tasted the saliva of my mouth, and to those yet unborn. Your ears still hear me, Antony, still are nearby, and cannot leave till I accompany them. I am their missing part, their key component. Without me, they will never rest, will remain a mere shadow of themselves, cannot depart. Here they stay. I should not speak in a loud voice as if declaiming to you, like that other queen who in defeat wailed her woes to Darius: “Can he listen to my voice from the underworld?” A murmur will suffice for your understanding, for Cleopatra is flesh fitted to the labyrinth of your two ears, the one thing your body lacked since birth. Without me, you cannot leave, for your condition is defective. When my story ends, we two shall go together.
It’s you to whom I speak: you who shared my linen bed, and those who may not dwell in Africa or Asia or Rome, who may listen to me beyond the regions of Gaul and the wild, turbulent Atlantic. Listen! This is what I was. These were my deeds. The last hours of my life I will spend in relating my history. Can a better death be imagined?
To weep, to moan our lot, when needs require
We stir the hearts of friends, is time well spent.
Even more so in my case, for my time cannot be weighed in the common balance, for in itself it forms part of the booty that belongs to him who, in his arrogance, stupidity, and error, believes he is my master. My time is more precious now than ever, it gives me joy to start upon these memories. Something akin to life itself gathers to my heart and touches me and warms this chilly flesh. Suddenly I am alive, and I recall . . .
First published in the Spanish language by Editorial Debate. Copyright ” 2002 by Carmen Boullosa. Translated from the Spanish by Geoff Hargreaves. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.