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Volume 7, Issue 6: Pictura

Pliny the Ox-Eyed

Wes Callihan

"Pliny the Elder was a single-minded man," said the lecturer, "devoting every possible moment to study, dictation, writing, or hearing authors read. He had great concentration, great will-power, great singleness of purpose. He knew what he wanted to do, set his mind to it, and let nothing distract him from pursuing his intellectual goals. Is there any evidence that he was married? Hardly!" The lecturer allowed himself a civilized snort. All the evidence—that is, from his nature and habits—suggests that no woman would have been able to distract his attention from his studies long enough."

There was silence a moment. "I wonder if I could have distracted him," said the student in the front row, batting her eyes at the lecturer.

"P-P-Probably so," he stammered, and dismissed class hurriedly.

The sun had set and still the sound of loud argument came from the villa. The slaves glanced at each other and groaned; they would be traveling home in the dark again. The roads were good, true, but it was nevertheless difficult. Their master had promised them an early start, but as usual he couldn't resist what he considered a challenge, and one of the other guests at the dinner party had disputed his assertions about the potency of some African herb. There would be no early start tonight. The slaves leaned back on their bench and sighed, and one bitterly cursed the host for inviting that man.

Inside the cook was no less unhappy, for his food was growing cold as a result of the heat of this argument. Everything had been done properly tonight, which was somewhat unusual, so that he had looked forward eagerly to the expected compliments, but none were forthcoming. The guests did not even notice the dishes untasted on the table as they ranted at each other, waving their arms and howling at each other's obvious stupidity. The cook returned to the kitchen, bitterly cursing his master for inviting that man.

Octavia was upset. She sat in a chair in a corner, no longer interested in the dinner, the food, or the guests. She had been ignored for the last half hour, though she knew, without the slightest bit of vanity, that she was the prettiest woman in this district. She knew it, because her husband told her, her sons told her, her neighbors' husbands told their wives who told her; but this man—she bitterly cursed their host for inviting that man, that opinionated man, that argumentative man, that beast who didn't know what a dinner party was for, who didn't pay the usual compliments to beauty, who monopolized the conversation on the assumption that everyone wanted only to understand in excruciating detail the minutest facets of the growth processes of seaweed in the Tyrrhenian Sea! She fumed. She snorted. The argument raged. She bitterly cursed their host for inviting that man, and she swore by the gods that she would never, but never, invite to her own dinner parties that man, that beast, that wretched Pliny.

Pliny! His name made dinner hosts from Gaeta to Salerno shudder. No one who had once had him to dinner was likely to repeat the mistake. The man was so single-minded about precision in the tiniest details, so devoted to constant learning, and withal so assured of the soundness of his own already-acquired knowledge, that he left more people, especially women, in a rage at the end of a long evening than not, though he had not the slightest idea that this was the case.

And yet, for all that, he was somehow still well-liked, not least because Vespasian loved his company, but also because he really was, after all, an intelligent man, a conscientious politician with respect to his duties to those he represented, and furthermore, as the women pointed out, he was not bad-looking. And hadn't he taken his brother-in-law's son under his wing, even adopting him, after the boy's father had met with disaster at sea? All in all, though Pliny was an obnoxious bore to anyone who made the mistake of opening any real subject of discussion, he was a good man.

He had his Greek slaves read to him from books of history and science while he was bathing, so that no precious time that could be used for learning would be lost. He had a particularly patient servant copying rapidly while Pliny dictated his own thoughts as he rode along in his sedan chair when it became impossible to avoid traveling to Rome. He read to himself while waiting for Vespasian to see him. He listened to the poets while dining when at home. Nothing, it was said, could distract Pliny. No one had greater powers of concentration. And, many people added while on the subject of this remarkable man, for these very reasons, no woman could ever attract his attention away from his studies and as a consequence he would never marry.

The slaves, the cook, and Octavia fumed. The argument raged, with Octavia's husband, Servius, becoming heated, and Pliny as oblivious as ever to the turmoil he was causing, arguing without the slightest personal heat. Octavia stormed out to the kitchen and shouted at the cook to send the Greek slave girl, Clymene, in with the wine.

Pliny was leaning over the table to emphasize his point to Servius, who was red in the face. "But don't you see that you simply can't think that, when I've demonstrated with the most reasonable proofs that you are quite simply wrong through and through?"

Servius was about to explode when an arm blocked his view of Pliny. Pliny tried to push the arm away, for it was merely an obstacle to his argument, and all obstacles must be eliminated. The arm was soft and smooth and stayed firmly in place, for it was pouring the wine into Pliny's goblet. He stumbled over his words and looked up to see where this interference had come from. Large black eyes looked into his and the Greek girl said softly, "Pardon me, sir, I'm sorry to have interrupted you." She smiled at him.

Pliny's mouth dropped open as he stared at her, confused momentarily; then he tried to resume his argument. He looked back at Servius, but his opponent, stunned by the lateness of the hour and the too-excellent wine, had quite suddenly dropped his head on the table in a clatter of dishes, and to all appearances was out cold. Pliny had lost the thread of what he had meant to say, and he turned to rebuke the girl for her interference, ready to argue and reduce to weeping rubble what he was certain was another obstinate female , and indeed she had not left his side, but seemed to be waiting for him; and when he looked at her, she smiled at him again, her dark eyes extra-large, saying nothing, and he suddenly found he had lost his composure and he stammered. "Well, by all the—by the—" he began, but she cut him off.

"Your friend seems to have fallen asleep, sir." Her voice was quiet. "Shall I remove his dishes?"

"Yes. I suppose; oh, take them away." She moved to do so and began walking out with her armload of dinner clutter.

"I—wait!" he called after her. She returned. He marveled at how she moved. He tried not to marvel at how she moved.

"Yes?" she asked, standing quite patiently and quietly before him. He opened his mouth, then shut it again. He shook himself, told himself the wine must be going to his head, forgetting he'd had none.

"Oh, take them away, then. I don't know what I was going to—" his voice trailed off watching her move away. He frowned and shook himself again, and shouted to no one in particular, "A slave! A slave to read to me! Time is being wasted!" He rolled over on his couch and finally remembering that he was hungry, he reached a morsel of bread from the table and waited for a reading slave to show up. It was quiet in the house. He realized how very late it had grown. His slaves would be asleep in the outer porch. He hated to wake them, for they were always so grouchy. He looked around the room. All the guests had left or fallen asleep. He frowned. Where was the slave? Precious time for learning was passing by! Why could none of these confounded people understand?

The slave came. It was the Greek girl again. He gaped and choked on his bread. When he'd recovered, he said, "You're the only—the only—I mean, you—my?—you're—"

The girl laughed, and in spite of his sudden and odd mental confusion he wondered why no one had ever told him that a girl's laughter can sound like wind and running water. He shook himself again. Wind and running water?! What was happening to him? Why did this fool girl keep showing up and making him act like an idiot? Why—but he was interrupted again by her small hand resting on his arm, and she said, "I can read to you if you like."

He nodded his head dumbly, the touch of her hand a wonder.

The next day he sat alone by the sea and found he could no longer concentrate on his reading.

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