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Authors: Carol Goodman

The Night Villa

BOOK: The Night Villa
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For Nora

There also stands the gloomy house of Night;

ghastly clouds shroud it in darkness.

Before it Atlas stands erect and on his head

and unwearying arms firmly supports the broad sky,

where Night and Day cross a bronze threshold

and then come close and greet each other.



I’d like to thank my editor, Linda Marrow, for her always insightful editing and my agent, Loretta Barrett, for her continued support and encouragement. Thanks, also, to all those at Ballantine whose hard work made this book possible: Gina Centrello, Libby McGuire, Kim Hovey, Brian McLendon, Gene Mydlowski, Lisa Barnes, Dana Isaacson, and Junessa Viloria. Thanks, too, to Nick Mullendore and Gabriel David at Loretta Barrett Books.

As always, I’m grateful to my circle of first readers: Laurie Bower, Gary Feinberg, Marge Goodman, Rick LaFleur, Lauren Lipton, and Scott Silverman and Nora Slonimsky.

I couldn’t have written this book without my husband, Lee Slonimsky, who wrote the sonnet to Wilhemina Jashemski and the “Golden Verse” of Pythagoras. It was Lee’s research into the life of Pythagoras that gave me the idea to create the Tetraktys.

Finally, I owe special thanks to the late Ross Scaife, professor of classics at the University of Kentucky, who gave me the idea for the Papyrus Project. To Ross, who died in 2008, and his wife, Cathy Scaife, I owe not only the inspiration for this book but many years of invaluable friendship and encouragement.

hen the first call came that morning I was with a student, so I didn’t answer it.

“Don’t worry,” I told Agnes Hancock, one of my most promising classics majors, “the machine will get it.”

But it stopped after the third ring.

“I guess whoever was calling changed his mind,” Agnes said, relacing her fingers to conceal the ragged cuticle on her right thumb. She’d been gnawing on it when I found her waiting outside my door—ten minutes early for my eight o’clock office hours. Most of my students were sound asleep at this hour, which was why I held my office hours so early: to discourage all but the most zealous. Agnes was definitely a zealot. She was on a scholarship, for one thing, and had to maintain a high average, but Agnes was also one of those rare students who seemed to have a genuine passion for the material. She’d gone to a high school with a rigorous Latin program and gotten the highest score on the national Latin exam in the state. Not shabby for a state as big as Texas. She wasn’t just good at declensions, though; she had the ability to translate a line of ancient poetry and turn it into poetry again, and the agility of mind to compare the myths from one culture to those of another. She could have a successful academic career in classics or comparative literature. The only problem was that her personal life was often chaotic—a result, I suspected, of her looks.

Agnes was blessed with the kind of classic American beauty that you thought only existed in fashion magazines—until you saw someone like her walking down the street. Long, shiny blond hair, flawless skin, straight teeth she was born with, blue eyes—the kind of Barbie-looks I would have traded my dark hair and olive skin for when I was growing up. I couldn’t complain though; the enrollment in my Latin and mythology classes had never been so high before Agnes declared her major. There were always a couple of suitors waiting outside on the quad when we emerged from Parlin Hall, but they had been replaced this year by one in particular: a wild-eyed philosophy major who pursued her relentlessly through the fall and then became so jealously possessive of her when she finally agreed to go out with him that she’d broken up with him over spring break. I hadn’t seen him since then and I’d heard that he dropped out. Now I wondered if he was back. I have a feeling the torn cuticles and dark shadows under her eyes are his doing, but I’m afraid that if I ask her about it she’ll burst into tears. And that won’t do either of us any good. We’re both due in Main Building at nine o’clock for the Classics Department’s summer internship interviews. Which is why, no doubt, she’d camped out on my doorstep so early this morning.

“It was probably someone calling about the final,” I say, reaching toward the phone. “I’ll turn the ringer off so we won’t be disturbed.”

“Oh no, you don’t have to do that, Dr. Chase. It wasn’t anything that important…” She’s already half out of her chair. I’d forgotten how easily spooked she gets when attention, good or bad, is directed at her. It surprised me at first because I thought that, with her looks, she’d be used to it, but I’ve gathered through talks we’ve had about her childhood that her father, a Baptist minister in a small west Texas town, preached endlessly against the sin of vanity. She seems to think it’s her fault when boys fall in love with her, which has made it all the more difficult to deal with her possessive ex-boyfriend.

“Don’t be silly, Agnes, I do it all the time. Believe me, they’ll just e-mail me instead. My inbox will be filled with a dozen questions designed to ferret out the exact passage that’ll be on the exam. Anything to avoid actually reading the whole of

“But Ovid writes so beautifully,” Agnes says, her eyes widening in genuine disbelief. “Why would anyone not want to read everything he wrote? I especially love his version of the Persephone and Demeter story. I’m using it for my presentation.”

I smile, not just because of the pleasure of a shared literary passion, but because my ploy has worked. At the mention of her favorite poet a calm has settled over Agnes. She’s sunk back into her chair and her hands, released from the knot she’d wrung them into, fan open, loose and graceful, in her lap, like one of those paper flowers that expand in water.

“Is that what you wanted to see me about? Your proposal to Dr. Lawrence for the Papyrus Project?”

Agnes hesitates and I see her gaze stray out my second-story window toward the quad, where a few students are lounging in patches of shade cast by the live oaks. It’s not yet nine, but the temperature is already in the eighties and the forecast predicts it’ll break a hundred by noon. The sunlight between the trees is so bright that it’s hard to make out anything but amorphous shapes in the shade. So if Agnes is checking to see if her ex-boyfriend is waiting for her, she’ll be looking in vain.

“It’s on the role of women in mystery rites?” I prompt. Since my specialty is women in the ancient world, I’ve been coaching Agnes on her proposal.

“Yes,” she answers, tearing her eyes away from the window. “I plan to argue that the frescoes in the newly excavated section of the Villa della Notte, which was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, depict a mystery rite similar to the ‘little mysteries’ of Agrai, which combined Eleusinian and Dionysian elements.”

“And can you give a brief definition of mystery rites and of those two in particular?”

“Sure. A mystery rite was a secret form of worship that revealed some kind of ‘truth’ or doctrine only to those initiated to the rite. They usually had something to do with the afterlife. The most famous were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which got their name because they were originally celebrated in Eleusis, Greece, and although we don’t know exactly what went on because they were, well…”


mysteries. We know they reenacted the story of Persephone and Demeter. An initiate probably relived the story of the rape of Persephone, her trip to the underworld, and then the wandering of her mother, Demeter, who killed the crops and everything growing because she was so upset at losing her daughter. While she’s wandering around she comes to Eleusis, which is why the rites were there, then she goes to Zeus, who sends Hermes to bring Persephone back. Only Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds, so she could only spend half the year aboveground and the other half she had to spend in Hell—I mean, Hades…”

Agnes blushes at her slip, and I save her by nudging her on to the next topic. “What about the Dionysian rites?”

“We think they reenacted the story of Dionysus Zagreus, a variant of the wine god myth. In this version Dionysus is the son of Zeus and Persephone…”

Agnes notices me lifting an eyebrow and a little light of understanding dawns in her face, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that before! Persephone’s a link between the two myths! Anyway, Hera, jealous of her husband’s illegitimate child, gets the Titans to eat the baby”—here Agnes makes a face and mock shudders—“but Athene rescues the heart and brings it to Zeus, who eats it and proceeds to have another affair—this time with Semele, who gives birth to a new Dionysus. In the rites, a group of women, called maenads, become intoxicated with wine and reenact the dismemberment and consumption of the god—”


“Oh no—at least we hope not! I mean there is that play by Euripides where Agave, the queen of Thebes, and her women are so frenzied they tear apart Agave’s own son, Pentheus, but probably they just tore apart bread meant to represent the god and drank some more wine. Of course, if you believe Livy, the rites turned into this big sex orgy, but I think that was just prejudice because the rites were popular with women and took place at night. Anyway…”

As Agnes goes on to describe the Dionysian elements in the frescoes in Herculaneum, such as the presence of the traditional basket (
) and wand (
), I wonder, not for the first time, at a Baptist minister’s daughter choosing to study pagan religions. But then, casting off the family religion was no alien concept to me, and I suppose studying Dionysian orgies and blood sacrifices was as harmless an act of rebellion as the piercings and tattoos sported by her contemporaries. Still, her passion for the subject is a little unsettling. Describing the frenzy of the maenads she begins to look like one herself, her cheeks pinking, her blue eyes flashing, and her hair coming loose from its ponytail. She comes abruptly back to herself when she notices, as I do, that another call is coming in on my phone. The light flashes four times and then stops. My caller has apparently gotten slightly more determined to reach me.

“Excellent,” I say. “And now tell me why you have to go to Italy to study these frescoes?”

“Well,” Agnes says, taking a deep gulp of air and refastening her ponytail, “for one thing, the newly excavated frescoes haven’t been photographed yet, but, most important, they’ve also found charred papyrus rolls in the villa. The little taggie things on them—”

I suggest, providing the Greek term for the tags that ancient librarians used to identify papyrus rolls.

“Um, yeah.” She giggles nervously. “I guess I should use the Greek name, but it always makes me laugh…The
indicate that the library of the villa was dedicated to foreign religions—there are books on Mithraism, Isis worship, the cult of Cybele, Orphism, Pythagoreans—so why wouldn’t there be one that described the
little mysteries
that went on right there? And while at one time we wouldn’t have been able to read these scrolls because they were all burned on the outside when Vesuvius erupted, Dr. Lawrence is going to use multispectral imaging to see inside them…which I think is just so cool. I really think Dr. Lawrence is a genius, don’t you?”

Not Agnes, too. She hasn’t gotten caught in his web, has she?
Elgin Lawrence has a history of seducing his teaching assistants, and Agnes is just his type—and not just because she’s beautiful. He preys on young girls who are insecure. Agnes’s father might have thought he was doing her a favor by scourging her of vanity, but he would have done better to instill a sense of self-worth in his daughter.

I open my mouth to form some sort of polite but qualified response to Elgin Lawrence’s claims to genius, but I am spared such shameless equivocation by the appearance at the door of Barry Biddle, Elgin’s grant partner on the Papyrus Project.

“Hadn’t you better get over there, Sophie?” Barry asks. He’s in a suit and tie and already sweating. Although he left the Northeast eight years ago he still dresses as if he were in Boston instead of Austin. He hasn’t realized that no one wears suits after March in Austin. Well, no one who doesn’t have to. I’m in a gauzy Mexican blouse I picked up in San Antonio a few years ago and a skirt that’s a tad too short, but then I’ve always thought my legs were my best feature. Right now, they’re bare down to my sandals and tanned from spending yesterday swimming at Barton Springs. Agnes, on the other hand, is wearing a crisp seersucker suit, stockings, and navy pumps adorned with silly red and white bows…but then, she’s the one applying for the job. Barry always looks as if he’s on his way to a job interview, and though he may not know that Elgin asked me first to work on the Papyrus Project, I suspect he still feels like a second fiddle in the operation. I imagine he’s no happier with Elgin’s flamboyant style than I would have been, but then Barry is coming up for tenure next year and he hasn’t published anything of significance since his dissertation.

I stare pointedly at the clock, which reads 8:42, and then nod toward the window. “Elgin always walks up through the quad and I haven’t seen him go by yet,” I say. “You go on ahead. We’ll be right behind you.” I give Agnes a hard stare to keep her in her seat. “Tell Elgin I’m personally escorting Miss Hancock.”

I wait until Barry disappears from my doorway, leaving a damp stain where he’d grasped the wood door frame, and then roll my eyes at Agnes. She’s not looking at me, though; she’s looking at my phone, which has started to flash again.

“Someone must really want to talk to you,” she says. “Maybe you should get it.”

“If they really wanted to talk to me they could leave a message,” I say, trying not to count the flashes, but doing so anyway. It flashes five times and then stops.

“It’s just I’m afraid…it might be my fault.”

“Your fault?” I ask, sounding angrier than I’d meant to. Agnes’s self-deprecation can get on my nerves. Probably because she reminds me of myself at that age. “How in the world—” I stop when I see Agnes’s eyes fill with tears. I get up and close the door and hand Agnes a box of tissues on my way back to my chair.

“I think it might be my boyfriend…I mean, my ex-boyfriend, Dale Henry,” she manages after blowing her nose. “He’s back in town and I’m afraid he’s going to show up at the interview.”

“If he’s an ex, how does he know your schedule?” I ask, trying to make my voice kind but firm. It occurs to me that I could teach a course in this subject: How to Separate from Your Crazy Ex.

Agnes blushes and chews on her thumb. “One of my roommates called and told me that Dale came by the house this morning right after I left. Of course they didn’t tell him where I was, but apparently he’d seen an announcement about the internship interviews and he was sure I must be going there. I know he’s not too happy about me going to Italy…”

BOOK: The Night Villa
10.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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