Servianus before being executed asked for fire and exclaimed “. . . as for Hadrian, this is my only prayer, that he may long for death but be unable to die.” — E Thayer, Roman Texts
“Where am I?”
“Where you’re supposed to be minus the gentrification.”
I remember the old Ali Pasha Cafe of nightclubs and bright lights in the heart of Gazi–the coolest place in town. Not a hint of old ghosts. No weird freaky side-shows either. Only marbled cadavers in renovation. Talking cars. Talking giant golden turtles. Featureless faces milling around. The widespread displacement of a talking marble head.
Hadrian’s head, smooth and rounded, is like a Balloon Venus only larger, much larger, Carmelina says. My tolerance origination is at a stereotypical boiling new low.
Brad Koons Oxford opening night at Ashmolean Museum is approximately in four weeks. Hesitantly, I glance around. Grab your tickets for never before seen enlarged heads and broken busts guaranteed to be cracked at the neckline! In a different reality heads to match the larger than eponymous shattered visage standing in the desert sands near a pair of ‘vast and trunk-less legs of stone’ would have been the winnable expedition find. Declaring parthia capta – mission accomplished!
Not so! Wittingly or unwittingly the image of an emperor’s head of an ancient civilization is a larger than life size distinctive statue of the one and only Hadrian the great whose heads are the only partial parts remaining, which brings the cafe to the talking point when identifying new neighborhoods. And, listen to this, it’s important, not one head, but several, if one is into playing ancient history bingo, demonstrating, that heads can and do lurk into the turn of every century, and which levers do you use to get out of the shift.
Another aspect to that, I have never seen the groundwork laid of so many births. The newspapers say from the one head pulled out of a river bed called the London capit,to the other unearthed at the temple in Egypt, a wondrous bust if I can so say of myself, worshipped in a golden god sort of way, in my judgment the capitano; not forgetting the magnificent pater familias closer home in Athens and of course quite frankly the colossus at Tel Shalem determined by the professionals themselves to be patria potestas.
Carmelina says I take too serious a view of all my birth-heads. Sagalassos could not possibly boast of a head. But they have. That’s the problem. Complete with full head of curls and a grizzly beard. Out of a bath! A Bath?! A bath–of public. So what? Come on now! Full of plebs, those dirty old days, dirty old ways. Uncorroborated truth, I am learning a new head is bound to be born every century. And if polemics are to be sustained for unique time of future happiness, a triumph at last, God I hope this is not true, a new one is just waiting to be born.
There are many who will say they have watched my birthing more than hundred times. That’s the whole point, Carmelina says. Maybe thousand births. My death in as many. I am being born without a break for as long as Ali Pasha Cafe stands in this spot. Very striking, granted! Or should I say for longer than a souvlaki shop and ouzerie-mezedopouleon serves hummus, sardeles, rega and sausage, buzzing with sound and music, nightclubs and bright lights, playing jazz and old Rembetika songs. Carmelina says she yearns for the snazzy good old days. Obviously! Even I long for them.
Often, I wonder, if someone ever pauses to pass a loving hand just once more over my enlarged head crowded with shining curls, would I spring to life, move of my own accord on my very own legs, not these faded brown bent ones, knobbed at the knees, of bamboo, or would I keel over, my occipitalis splitting open like filigreed latticework to fill the darker cavities and spaces inside. Carmelina says I have ear and crania issues, how I talk when I speak of son et lumiere. She calls the specifics Hadrian’s headaches.
My eyes tense. Hadrian’s marble head blinks in non-recognition at the water-cooler talk spinning over his head. Once the flag-bearer of charmed imperial powers life in distancia is not always perfect. Some court intrigues, some vendettas here and there. But timelines no longer exist. He could tweak his curls, grow his beard long to cover his disfigurements and mottled skin, but he cannot distend the stream of time. I hate when talk turns to dark cavities.
Carmelina is sounding distracted. She is saying how she went to the dentist yesterday and no one would believe what happened. What happened? She will not tell except to say the dentist was aggressive and the drilling hurt like hell and she yelled so loud she spat out the chalkboard screeching wheeeee-wheeeeee-wheeeeee hand-held, till her ears hurt, which drilled a small hole in the dentist’s left thumb instead of in her mouth. Then the dentist gave a loud yell to match. The thumb belonged to the a sinistra which was clamped like a horned moon over her nose in a deposed or be encompassed power struggle! Such implosion of human drama I am most familiar. Scream, yell and screech she says came to an abrupt stop, jointly. Upon my multiple heads, I believe.
Carmelina says I care most alarmingly for all those bronze and marble birthing heads, not for root cavities. I want to spend each day between their influential growths in contemplation of patricians, wealthy plebs and res publica. My complex turmoil is rebounding. Glumly I stare at the other couples sipping farm fresh ocean-red wine and butternut squash soup, talking in heavy-lipped whispers. Carmelina’s tooth-birth, the one happening in her mouth, is meant to be porcelain, marble-like, same as my head.
She reels out tooth-statistics in the sultry languorous way she has which brings to my mind great beauties. Turns out the dentist is a former boxer. My instinct is right. Gladiators in the arena wreck havoc. She will need to know skills of armed combat. But I’m short-circuiting her argument. Turns out he has a sparkling smile in-patient image going on which is part of his customer service impact strategy. My head ceases to ignite when Carmelina talks this thumbs-down way. Turns out he either does not administer one Novocain right or does not have right amounts of Novocain in stock to adequately administer. Turns out too she can no more afford a high-functioning brand new marble tooth than I can afford another new marble birth-head. I swallow hard, the swallow lumping in my broken neckline with no place to go except to back up or descend into my bamboo legs. Highly problematic! The blood in my hollowed out veins pump furiously.
Centuries old aristocratic blood, blackened in time.
The dislocation of my reality slowly sinks in. The story of Carmelina is of concern since it cannot be erased. It has a penetrating blood-sport angle. In better days we would have surely intersected at gladiator games. Recoiling from this cheerless thought of conflict analysis I tuck my heavy head between my thick brows of throbbing tomorrows. And headaches. A strange chemical complexity radiating between us is unmistakably usurping our commonsensical exploration of this topic which is inexhaustible. No tricks. Reality sucks, the tragic circumstance of her goddess-lookalike, Amazon Carmelina. Would have marked her for all time. Many births. Same as my testa.
“Did he make you pay for the session?” the crowd wants to know over dripping Turkish
coffee, drenched in almond milk, brewed in an ibrik and served in demitasse cups style at Ali Pasha Cafe, the way it was once served at the very old Athena Cafe. Age old memories hum through my dark cavities. I imagine the dark spaces in Carmelina’s tooth. A far-off look enters her eyes. I stare at her capigliatura, dark and lustrous, cascading in waves. Al Di La delectable and awakened. Where you walk flowers bloom, When you smile . . . Beyond! Far above me! The texture of the past is shaking my memories,making me sizzle. Life is after all finite. No contradictions. Only our standard marble tooth-ness and brain is limitless at the birth. Al di la della volta infinita . . .
Hot chili peppers! My Carmelina! This is her moment of therapeutic breakthrough. Hypothetically it does not happen, the settling of finances for the birth of her new tooth. I make a strangled sound. It passes unnoticed. Roman coffers were overflowing with amassed treasures. Like a pathetic shadow I am quickly looking for a way to mosey out of the rooms undetected. Me, the famous essedarii who rode chariots into the Colosseum in Rome, grounded by the hydraulic effects of the Ali Pasha Cafe.
It’s imperative to move. The Ali Pasha Cafe produces a continuous sad sort of laughter that dissipates into the ceiling painted to look like a Parthenon. That is where we are at. I am not censoring anyone. This is how it all begins. Birth is a curious entanglement of living and dying and ensnaring multiple times. A decaying tooth like a bug-eaten palm frond dying in the heat of the Mediterranean sun is evicted to regenerate a new tooth. I am overcome by Carmelina’s broadcast.
Her eyes are clear, giving Hadrian’s marble head the onceover. It wobbles–a washing machine kind of wobble when it is out of balance on its spin cycle. Hadrian forgets to smirk. Fair enough. Even if he remembered, his smirk would be lost in the voluminous folds of his hairy long face tresses, lustrous as Carmelina’s capigliatura–unseen and therefore undelivered. His bamboo legs will not hold up much longer. The woodturning bodger who made his wooden spindles and attached them for legs from unseasoned green wood could not have been as thorough in the woodcraft business as his old stonemasons. See how they managed his grand old wall jajajajajajaja the one they call Hadrian’s wall! That’s the truth.
But where else can he be found if not at Ali Pasha Cafe? Birthplace to graveyard. Mantle to crust. Limited to limitless. Nibble to claw. Knowledge spreads, exploding like a star exodus on its way to join the Milky Way as it picks up tone and tenor. Marbled Hadrian’s head standing in dignified silence in a quieter corner of Ali Pasha is dying to party with the rest in the Cafe, never mind his wooden legs.
“Now tell me about your day” swishes tooth-cavity-obsessed Carmelina before I can change my mind, and not wanting her dentist-story to lose the eloquence achieved. Should I be telling her my story? How did I nullify myself? I have half memories of barnacle encrusted seawalls. Flotillas cruising into victory with all the comfort and freedom of a luxury charter boat. Then floating endlessly. Fresh sea air. Enogastronomia. Vino e alimento. The beauty of Antinous, smooth as Carmelina. Special regattas. The fun of sailing. On the Nile. I am struck with trying to figure out the past. So I silently consider that I was never born and I have never died. I have just non-existed to exist.
“I mean in your corporeal life” she continues, sashaying towards me in a sexy kind of walk, the aroma from the brass coffee-pot spreading in a vast cloud to fill the rooms. Carmelina is wearing fishnet stockings and a gold mesh halter-top which makes me work up a sweat. At moments like this what stands out is the dark cavities we both suffer. I’m wondering if Carmelina’s tooth-dentist has a special wine powders for veteran old murmillones like myself. A sort of universalized product.
She takes up room, ensconced in my head-hollows. What could be more difficult I think than having to stand forever in a crooked leaning weak-kneed pose, techno beats rattling my curls, stirring my long beard, watching strobe lights reflect off someone else’s breast plate, hers, giving me the sweats, when I should have a shining toga and breast plates of my own, instead? Other imperatore might have canted in my shoes. God forbid! My thoughts zing to Nero and his fiddle story, now a hoax they say. Not even the music of cithara from his fingers. No music at all they say, when Rome burned.
But truth is, Carmelina cannot be trusted. Sometimes she can be persuaded. But to trust implies speaking your mind for the truth. Free speech is the fundamental mantle of truth. I can be an orator too. The connotations of mystics swirl in stately halo around my head. Staring down the reality I call it my marmo vision. The action today is electrifying, the way I’m examining things. I can be a scientist and a skeptic too.
I see Carmelina is holding a steaming white cup in which the liquid has changed. There is a green colored tea, the color of her stormy eyes when there is a thundershower, the color of the turf when I was at a certain stone wall in the far north. They’ve given it a name–Hadrian’s wall. I can see the vallum. I can see past her accoutrements of face and eyes before I start work at that tiresome wall in dead earnest. Not a barrier in sight.
“Are you happy?” she asks. I’ve been down this road before. I do not want to morph into anything like Nero and his fiddle. I do not want to see our cafe burn.
“I am as happy as the day I was born” I reply in my non-curious non-inflexion voice.
Carmelina expresses sorrow for my loss. Her eyes darken expressively. The manic idea creeps into my colossal dark parts that I am dead again, corrupted into ancient megalomaniac guilt, my marble body floating somewhere in the soupy waters of Tequilla Bay. It turns out some fishermen have even battled sharks in those muddied waters, symbolizing how strong I am to survive my own present state.
These thoughts build up into a super sucking vacuum in my marbled head, very troubling, sucking away at everything, until I think my chiaroscuro un-carved eyeballs that stare unwaveringly will also be sucked into my enormous skull. I can’t shut my eyes. Unlike most men-at-arms my eyes don’t roll. It comes with the territory of fixed lastingness–part of my birth memorabilia. At such moments I crack the darkness to force myself to think of something else. Something else. Something what? What?!
Carmelina does a little spin, her creamy shoulders waggling seductively. What?! Your bronze sun-tanned beauty or my fine Spanish horse? A braver steed never has stood alongside to vanquish our foes. Or that blasted infernal fortification northern wall fallen to thieving marauders! Or my endless battaglia, I stifle a shiver, exterminating with all speed and thoroughness every ferocious barbaro found at the wall. Oh, the wall, the wall!
Or the palisades, those puny sticks of wood blockading the waters of the rivers, wall again. Or my magnificent patera worship utensils covered in bronze! But wait! Why not count me in my very own marble head, it hurts. No? No!
How about I dwell on excesses instead, of the degradation of power, the depletion of my treasury, the multiple eruptions of Vesuvius, or at my palace-villa and pleasure gardens in Tivoli, riding away with my sea-nymph on her sea-monster? I glance at Carmelina. Excitement builds just by merely looking at her. Although there is no blood coursing through my marbled veins there are the poisoned poppies she could eat to get her skin stained ocean-red, like wine–not Carmelina, but my naughty nymph.
I look away glancing quickly at the antique movie poster of Casablancalining the walls of Ali Pasha Cafe. I don’t know why the movie practice is to hang on a wall. But if those actor stars on the walls could talk Carmelina would plant a kiss on my marble lips, rather than grappling with all that tough talk of her teeth. But she has evaporated to other tables leaving me to dwell on the unblinking harsh gaze of the eastern sun instead, blazing red, the color of the bloodthirsty wars. My fine Spanish horse fell during one such skirmish, in death leaving me his fine kapistrion, this beautiful piece of horse muzzle coated in patina of pure emerald green, I haven’t the heart to part with. I carry it deep in my innermost cavities. Suddenly I am staring intensely at my wandering charming naked soul men call hedonistic, siphoning through my dark spaces beyond time, the ones I have been plucked from again and again like a whopping gemstone out of the earth’s crust.
I glance around for Carmelina in confusion. I am being ripped. I cry out for an explanation. But none hear. My senses swim. I want to roar. My mind is scrambling the treachery and terrain of my road map to pax Romana. The slice of blade on rubble. The siege. The corpses. The crucifixions. The volley of stones. The beheading. The slaughter. The beasts of the arena. My traitorous stomach that retches and retches and can never stop retching. The silent towers. Beyond the city’s open gates my hideous wall. Stop! Stop Master of war-torn propaganda!! You wanted something else. Far too many something else of so much more sizzling through me, towering above me. Walk me though more!
I settle for Medusa. At Ali Pasha Cafe the damage has been done. The real snakes are graphic and real. Gone is her fabulous hair brighter than the sun, and her magnificent eyes greener than the Aegean Sea. My Medusa’s many snakes have long ago taken up residence on my smooth marble head, their twisting bodies halted altogether. They have become my curls, the ones I’ve harbored on my head ever since the day I was born. The pain in my head is unbearable.
Just relax! Carmelina is back. She stares hard at me like a co-conspirator, like a scientist about to squish a bug. She has her charming moments. It cannot be for the way my curls hang around my head like a Rorschach artwork blot, brimming with Medusa’s snakes. Nothing is faked. I always think time is set, that a day is a day. But that’s not true. A minute can feel longer than a day and stretches to eternity. It occurs to me then how I have cracked time. Isolation crushes me but I struggle on. Pretty heated it gets. I stare and learn. Knowledge triggers memories creating new wonders–new memories. I am suspicious no more.
“Do you feel this connection?” asks Carmelina, finger picking at the mezedes. She has forgotten her rotted tooth. The dark cavity. It is but momentary. I have known her too long.
“You mean the distant seeing?” I misconstrue her meaning deliberately.
“While you are in my thoughts,” she says giving a soft laugh. I digest Carmelina’s words like a voice from the past. I am growing clingy. Images come unbidden to my mind.
Coming face-to-face with my new-found marble head is history in reverse, a glistering experience. My memories turn dead carcasses each time it occurs, wrapped in marble skin. It is a transformative feeling that will pass. Devilishly clever the eternal enigma of my birth. Carmelina calls it a modern-day racket. Or should I say re-birth? In so many places, wherever I’ve fought battles, wherever I’ve been found, unfound, earthed, unearthed, discovered, uncovered, I’ve stood, unlike that kingly monstrosity I’ve heard of whose shattered wreckage stands for eternity in just one lonely spot on the eternal desert sands. Not so mine! How contrary! And now Sagalassos is the new view from the Ali Pasha Cafe! The ultimate experience. The very same marble in the very same mould!
Carmelina says my newer Spock ears wiggle, in a pointy way, my newer hairline crack communicates, running up my left cheek. I am newly adjusting to my newer head.
I squirm at what can crawl out after Sagalassos, from the cavities–awaiting the biggest, fanciest, gigantesque marble head of them all, next century, or the century after, waiting in the disembodied shadows, waiting to emerge, waiting to be extricated, waiting to be found. I marvel at it lying concealed somewhere, in the interstices, in the bowels beneath Vesuvius, in the quadrangle of nation states, no longer an obscure point, till one day it will be found, like the rest. Like all my glorious capolinos. Another feather in my corona. And then I am once again re-born. Part of me longs for my birthing. But over time I have suppressed the longing I feel. That is the talk at the Ali Pasha Cafe today. Not much ever changes.
From the standpoint of my marvelous marble marvels, I in turn marvel at the Cafe, at its inspiring multi-views, swollen beyond time, the pioneering nothing that it once was, just a giant hole in the ground, built upwards of corrugated steel, from inside an abandoned warehouse, surrounded by depressing Paradise Lost graffiti, no more to be seen. Yes, indisputably–the graffiti is a thing of the past, not unlike my older heads. Talk is graffiti epidemics happen to the best of us, according to Carmelina. I do not know of these
things. What’s more they say new art is always looking to be born, to flourish. But not on walls, snaps my marbled head. It is as if they hear. I gasp at the enlarged Enos and Nioro leering at me out the sun-filled windows of the cafe from the wall on the street across. It is graffiti but not graffiti they say. For comparison purposes it takes some getting used to–all that vigorous kitsch.
Action and inaction believe it or not. Screw the statistics! And then there’s me. And there will always be me before Ali Pasha Cafe, or what the locals playfully like to call before Hadrian Head’s Place. They’ve given it that new name to sync with the owner Yiannis, a loud blustery fellow of enlarged proportions, who bears an uncanny resemblance to good old Me!
But for today this is our cafe-neon with the music and bright lights, Ali Pasha Cafe, my name for this eternal place–Carmelina’s and mine, of hip punk reality, she says. In this manner I shall await to be born and re-born, truly without end. To party and celebrate each marble birth. Grab your tickets! Show starts in less than four weeks! Such comfort. My testimony to eternity. My redacted version. A re-birth of repeating motion. How wondrous is a birthing. It is to long for birth and yet be unable to die. Rest is history.
— Rekha Valliappan is a short story writer and poet published in Utopia Science Fiction Magazine, Ann Arbor Review, Lackington’s Magazine, The Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, Litro Magazine USA, Prime Number Magazine/Press 53, The London Reader, Kairos Literary Magazine, The Mark Literary Review, and other venues. Her prose and poetry have earned nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She can be found on Twitter @silicasun