Heavy mist pelted his face and drenched his hair as Publius Fabianus inhaled the briny sea air at the prow of the Minerva. His feet ached. He had not moved from his spot at the front of the ship for two hours, determined to be the first to sight the island that was to become his home. He ran his fingers slowly along the smooth wooden rail, pausing to trace the shape of several rudely carved letters, the markings of some long-forgotten person who had wished to be remembered. As the double-masted vessel sliced through the choppy waters of the great sea, Publius stood firmly, feet wide apart to absorb the pitching of the great ship beneath him.
He squinted into the haze and thought that he saw a gray, indistinct mass on the horizon. He blinked and stared, and then was sure. The oppressiveness of the haze could not extinguish the hopeful fire in his heart as he caught sight of the island that was to become his home.
“Land, ho!” shouted the helmsman from above. Publius smiled. He had seen it first. Melitene.
With the helmsman’s shout other passengers began to make their way to the rail to catch a welcome glimpse of land. A young girl, no more than eight years old, shrieked joyfully as she half ran, half skipped toward the prow, wanting a peek at the island for herself. Publius beamed as he observed the child’s unabashed delight.
The joys and simplicity of childhood, he thought. Gone forever are those days for me.
“Laelia! Come away from the rail!” shouted a woman, obviously her mother, a hint of panic in her sharp, high-pitched voice. The girl’s shoulders slumped as she turned obediently and trudged slowly back to a tiny woman whose face was obscured by a dark, hooded robe. The woman grabbed her daughter’s hand roughly, while Publius caught snatches of her voice admonishing her daughter about the dangers of the rocking ship and the great sea. The child hung her head and turned in a final attempt to see the island before she disappeared below. As the mother followed, Publius noted her slow, stoop-backed walk. He wondered if her back had been damaged from an injury or if the stoop came from some metaphorical burden.
From the time of his childhood Publius had always wondered about people’s stories. He would sit by himself, watching people interact, and make up fantasies in his head about them, one of the many things that, as an only child, he had invented to entertain himself.
Publius turned again towards the island and sighed, wondering when he would get the chance to choose his own life story. At seventeen he was on the cusp of manhood, yet his father seemed unable to acknowledge the fact and still made most of his decisions for him. For the past few years, he had begged his father to allow him to attend school with other boys his own age. His father had continued to pay private tutors to shape his education, telling him that if he were ever to become a propraetor himself, he needed the most learned teachers possible. He had had a hundred imaginary conversations in which he told his father that he did not want to be a propraetor—that governing a people was something of which he was entirely incapable. But dreading his father’s disappointment, he had never had an actual conversation.
During the past few months, without being able to pinpoint any specific event, Publius’ thoughts had turned to more serious, more “grown-up” musings. While he still played the “guess the person’s story” game to entertain himself, he had recently come to realize that his stories had become less fanciful, more realistic, and melancholier. No longer did he imagine a grizzled stranger to be a foreign king, living among commoners. Now he saw a man who was down on his luck, or who had recently suffered a great loss.
Increased awareness had forced him to come to grips with the realization that not everyone lived in luxury as he did. Now, when stories of violence and unrest came to his ears, he worried about those involved. No longer was he secure in the feeling of, “My father will take care of it.” He was sobered by recent awareness of what human beings could do to one another. Continual questions swirled round and round in his head. How can this world be fixed? Is there a purpose to life? Why can’t we humans ever seem to get things right? Questions, questions, but never any answers.
* * * * *
Publius studied his father Trebonius, who had just come on deck to see the island that he was about to govern, unaware of Publius’ presence just a few feet away. While he loved and respected his father, Publius had become convinced that he did not have the answers he was seeking. Trebonius had been the propraetor of three previous provinces in Publius’ lifetime. He often wondered if his father was in the right profession. Trebonius always spoke to his son about the values of virtue, restraint and self-discipline, but seemed to have given up on practicing any such semblance in his own life. Publius remembered that his father had once been impressive, not just in the way that every child sees his father, but truly impressive. He had been tall and muscular, with chiseled features and thick dark hair. When Trebonius had entered a room, people took notice. Yet years of indulgent living, fine foods and flowing wine, mixed with too little exercise had relegated him to mediocrity. Publius blamed the stresses and worries of trying to govern a people for the resigned slump of his father’s shoulders and the deep lines in his face. He now looked much older than his forty-one years. And it wasn’t only Trebonius’ body that was showing wear. Publius observed that his spirit was diminished as well. Idealism had been replaced by resignation.
Publius, who even as a small child had sometimes been allowed to sit in on important meetings, remembered clearly the enthusiasm and zest with which his father had once lived and governed. During his first governorship, Trebonius had tackled every problem with fervor, vowing he would not rest until he made the province a better place to live. Throughout his childhood, Publius recalled scores of advisors, wise men, and philosophers visiting their home. Trebonius had listened, examined, debated, and implemented changes that he was convinced would fix society’s ills. He was always disappointed when things failed to improve—or worse still, had further deteriorated. Publius vividly remembered a night when he was twelve years old. A messenger had arrived with troubling news for his father. Trebonius sighed, turned to Publius and said, “Well my son, that didn’t work. Do you have any great ideas? I only have several terrible ones, from which I must now attempt to pick the least terrible.” His father resumed pacing the floor, running his hands nervously through his thinning, graying hair. With each new governorship, the streams of advisors had gradually diminished. The last home they had lived in had been as empty and cold as the marble floors that filled it. His father now seemed reconciled to the fact that he could do little of permanent value anywhere he governed.
* * * * *
As the island of Melitene grew larger, so grew the sense of dread and hopelessness inside Trebonius. He had tried to paint his most recent assignment in a positive light with his wife, Alexandra, and with his son. But in his heart, he knew that this was a demotion, a last chance assignment on an island wrought with disease, poverty, and crime. A broken and run-down propraetor for a broken and run-down people, Trebonius thought bitterly. He wondered if those were truly his own thoughts or if they were echoes of Alexandra’s acidic words. He could hardly separate the two anymore.