Marcy Rae Henry is a multidisciplinary artist, una Latina de Los Borderlands and part of the LGBTQ community. She is delighted by tablas, tulips and the theremin. M.R. Henry’s writing has received a Chicago Community Arts Assistance Grant, an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nomination and first prize in Suburbia’s 2021 Novel Excerpt Contest. Some of the stories and the first 50 pages can be found online. Other writing and visual art appear in The Columbia Review, carte blanche, PANK, The Southern Review, Cauldron Anthology and The Brooklyn Review, among others. DoubleCross Press will publish her chapbook ‘We Are Primary Colors’ this year.
It wasn’t that Massimo didn’t fit in, he didn’t try to fit in. When people accused him of having more concern for animals than people and zero desire to marry, he confirmed it. Unlike his family, he wasn’t bothered by his low social status. Life was for conquering the mind, not people or animals, not rising through the ranks.
Despite his dislike for the munera, he stopped to watch acrobats, musicians and magicians on the Roman roads close to home. He used his keen eye to try and figure out the tricks behind the tricks. In doing so, he caught the eye of a magician who pulled him aside and exacted an admission that he’d caught a few of sleights of hand. Impressed, the performer began paying Massimo visits, flattering him with fruit, bread and even a new cloak. When he insisted Massimo promise never to reveal his magical secrets, Massimo wondered whether the friendship might be more self-serving than sincere.
The performer’s habit was to cheat people in a guessing game where they attempted to find a hidden object which was, in fact, removed. Though plebians hadn’t much to lose, the magician took their money and goods, winking at Massimo as if he shared in the delight of swindling others. While Massimo was thinking of a way to cut ties with a man he suspected would be vindictive, the magician was invited to perform in the colosseum. When Massimo declined the invitation to attend, the magician publicly accused him of stealing.
Guards accompanied the performer to Massimo’s house and a crowd formed as they stood, spears in hand, asking about the allegations. Grateful his family was absent, Massimo stated, ‘Anyone can accuse anyone of anything. I deny the charge and beg you to prove it.’
‘Check his cloak!’ the magician shouted. ‘This man of meager means has a coin belonging to me, wrapped in blue cloth.’
‘Please, check.’ Massimo held out his arms. ‘I have nothing.’
When the guards found nothing, the magician pointed out an inner pocket Massimo was unaware of and the guards reached in and pulled out a cloth-covered coin. Then they pulled Massimo’s hands behind his back and, despite his cries that the coin was planted, led him away as the magician added. ‘I further charge Massimo with unveiling secrets of my craft, adversely affecting my ability to make a living,’.
After Massimo was condemned to death, he sat in a dank, dark dungeon wondering if his family would ever know the truth. Would they be courageous enough to form and voice their own opinions? Would they, like many neighbors, go along with the crowd because they were lazy?
Condemnation finally made Massimo part of a select group. They commiserated and debated the advantages of rhinos, lions, panthers or bears tearing them apart. Some had elaborate strategies for poking out the beasts’ eyes. Some thought to provoke them so death would be quick. Massimo, more upset by the ultimate injustice in his life than the termination of it, hoped to shut his eyes and transition from one realm to another in silent contemplation.
When the day came, the colosseum was packed. Hoping his family was absent, Massimo was certain his neighbors were present, for they loved spectacle the way they loved scandal. The prisoners were paraded around cages of large cats who, starved for days, paced and hissed, threatening to slash each other to bits. The air reeked of wild animal, their hot, hungry breath. The Roman sun made the equally hungry prisoners feel faint. The woman among them, condemned for refusing the role of women of her day, noted how similar lions, leopards and panthers were to the gossipy bunch who’d sentenced her.
‘The cats are also prisoners,’ Massimo said, ‘forced to fight for the pleasure of others.’
‘It is their nature to attack, but not human nature,’ said the woman, and Massimo realized he’d met her too late.
Cheers rang out through the arches of the colosseum. People were ready to be entertained. First, a story told with actors, moving buildings and trees. Then, a break so people could feast. After that, animals would feast on the prisoners before gladiators came in, heavily armed, to spar with the animals.
Massimo took a deep breath before entering the arena with a hard shove. He’d never been inside the colosseum and the structure surprised him with its inner elegance and beauty, its astounding curvature. Adrenaline and an instinct for survival thwarted his plan to die observing his fading consciousness. Two cats spotted him immediately, the weakling in the arena, and leapt at him as he ran, curving along the building. He tripped and fell to the ground, crouching in a ball. As a soldier tripped over him, his spear pierced one of the cats between the eyes. Dying, he swatted at the other cat madly, killing him with a bite to the jugular. Massimo peeked through his fingers and saw two cats lying dead. The crowd went wild. Without regard for his filthy naked body streaked with sweat, he leapt up in victory, clasping his hands above his head.
One of few among men, Massimo was released. People whispered that perhaps fate had intervened because he was innocent. He didn’t give a fig for their whispers. He never returned to the stadium and, after leaving it, was left to live in his way.
Prose in this post: © Marcy Rae Henry
Published with the permission of Marcy Rae Henry