THE HOME FARM
Paulus perched on the roof, watching the dust swirl in the distance. Something or someone was galloping to their lonely farm. He slid down the tiles and raced up the hill to meet the horseman.
"Son," said a quivery voice, "I've missed you."
Paulus stammered, "G…ood morning sir." He had a flash of memory of his father leaving for war five years before. He had been tall and dressed in a golden breastplate with plumes in his helmet. Could this really be Father? An old man with bleary eyes and sunken cheeks wearing a helmet trailing tattered ribbons?
Then Paulus' Mother came, screaming, "Husband, husband!"
"You could help a Roman soldier," Father said to Paulus.
Paulus grabbed the horse and held it steady as Mother helped Father to the ground. Claudia, Paulus' older sister ran up, squealing in joy, and helped Mother drag Father and his bundles into the house.
"Father, you look ill," Claudia said.
"I'm all right, now I'm home," he replied, limping into the hall. He bowed to the little statues of ancestors sitting on ledges along the wall.
Only then did Paulus know that his family was together again. "Pluck the bird we were keeping to sell," he yelled. "Stoke the fire. Father is back."
"See," Mother said proudly. "He's such a good son."
"Son, you've become a fine young man."
A smile grew on Paulus' face. At age 10, he had been the man of the house, while Father was away. He poured wine for his father.
"You got all my letters?" Father asked.
"Yes," said Paulus. "Mother showed me a map of where you were."
"It's been a long trip home. Pirates ambushed us on the sea. Our ship was almost taken but we fought them off. My leg was slashed with a sword." He patted his thigh.
Mother pulled up his tunic to see. "It's a wonder you're still standing." She hurried off to get ointment to soothe his wound.
"Every land we went," Father went on, "the Roman army was always victorious. We even built a great city in Africa. But it was marvellous to come back to port and the final march across the mountains and into Rome." He went on and on as they ate dinner, describing beautiful cities and his voyages, until finally, he could speak no more.Tears filled his voice and his eyes.
Paulus began to worry what their farm must look to him after the magnificent sights he had seen.
"We managed to keep our vegetable garden going," he said handing Father more radishes, "but there hasn't been much feed for the animals."
They finished eating and Mother cleared away the food. Paulus went out to find Adolphe and help get the last jugs of wine from the cellar. The old servant slowly lifted the trapdoor and teetered on the steps. He looked sad, Paulus thought, and he seemed to have aged even more in the time Father had been home. Paulus unstoppered a jug, wondering if things were going to change.
As he came back into the dining room he heard Mother say, "We've only just managed on the money you sent."
"But everything will be right now you're back," Claudia interrupted. She kissed Father and went off to get her beauty sleep.
"I won't be able to farm for a while," said Father. "Perhaps we ought to sell off this useless land and find fortune in Rome. I've become quite an expert in working leather."
Paulus felt his heart thump. He looked out at the farm through the window. Fields went to the horizon. The ones close to their house were planted with vegetables and barley. He knew and loved every hill and tree that followed the stream. Most of all he loved the animals: the old ass, the few sheep and the hens.
He quietly went out and measured some corn for the hens. He had done his best to look after them but Father was the head of the family, and if he wanted to move to the city Paulus knew they would have to go. For a moment, he looked in at his parents huddled around the candle. Mother looked happy. Father poured more wine and talked and talked. Paulus scattered the feed in the yard and tied up the gate. The hens squawked and pecked until it was gone and then settled on their roosts. Paulus sat on a stone step watching.
Then he moved on to Ploddy, the old ass. Even he looked sad, gnawing the rail of his pen. Paulus felt teary. The feed box, mended with sticks and bits of rope, was empty. He filled it and watched Ploddy nuzzle and snort while he ate. Paulus rubbed his eyes, determined not to cry. He sat on the gate, which was propped up on a tree stump, trying to think of a solution. The darkness got blacker and he shivered. He reminded himself he was glad Father had at last come home, but he was worried about the farm.
ROAD TO ROME
The next evening, Paulus and Adolphe slowly penned the animals. They could see Mother setting dinner on the stone table outside.Claudia was carrying pots and making Father comfortable. The setting sun filtered through the leaves of an olive tree and made speckled shadows. It was like a mosaic picture, but Paulus knew it wouldn't last as long as it took to make one. There was going to be a discussion after dinner about moving.
As Father lay on the couch, Nona came, too, and fussed over her only son. Mother began to pour wine from the jugs, and to break up the chicken and onions on platters, but still Paulus watched.
"Come on, aren't you hungry?" Mother called out.
"If you don't come, I'll eat it all," Father said. "So much better than the army food. Did I tell you about the weevils in the flour?"
"Many times," Paulus muttered, washing his hands in the water trough. But he listened as he ate his chicken. Then, Paulus waited to hear what would happen.
"Adolphe managed to get some grain sold most market days," said Mother, "but the blade on the plow is blunt. It almost broke last time it was sharpened."
"We would find a better life in Rome," Father answered.
"Tell us again, what it's like," Claudia asked, excited to hear of other places.
"One day I'll show you all what a wonderful city Rome is. There are new temples and bridges, and the forum is busy day and night with people."
Paulus didn't want to know about Rome but he cheered up when Father began to talk again about the warring in Africa and long marches through many countries.
"We saw so many strange sights," Father told Paulus and Claudia, showing them the bumps and welts on his hands. "People thought we were a strange sight as we laid stones for the great roads we built. On and on they went, to the horizon, always leading to Rome."
Rome again, Paul thought. Always Rome. He went to bed.
Some weeks later, when Father's leg was stronger, he went out with Paulus to check the farm.
"We should get a good price for those fields," he said.
Paulus proudly showed him the vegetable gardens. He had planted some seeds Father had brought back with him. They were sprouting. Grape vines were fruiting. They had hired a man to clear and plant a small area of grasses for the animals.
"We'll soon be selling but we must leave these sheep and Ploddy in good condition."
"But, Father," Paulus said "we can't leave the animals. I'll miss them."
Father didn't hear. "Just wait until you see the city. I've left you all out in the country too long. Off you go to your lessons. We might find a good school for you in Rome."
Paulus tried to study but felt hot inside. When Adolphe fell asleep he went out, climbed onto the roof and looked out over the farm.Again, he was the first to see a horseman coming to visit. He slithered to the ground and ran to Father who was in a far field, pacing and measuring the stony ground.
Father stopped in mid-stride and hugged Paulus, "It's a sign, I know. It must be Aurelius, one of the soldiers in my battalion. He owns a large farm near here.He'll give me good money and we'll be able to go to the city at last."
Paulus wriggled out of his grasp and stayed behind, kicking the stones. One struck Ploddy who brayed in protest. Paulus rushed over to him and rubbed his coat, tears falling down his face. He just didn't want to leave. He climbed onto Ploddy's back and they wandered over the fields. Couldn't Father see what a good farm they had? Vegetables and fruits, more than they could eat themselves, were beginning to grow. Barley ears were waving in the breeze.
"What do I want with a good education?" he asked the ass. "I know everything I need to know about animals and running a farm. Adolphe has been teaching me Greek and philosophy." He looked up as he heard Adolphe calling. "I was just walking Ploddy," Paulus said rubbing his eyes. "I forgot about lessons."
Adolphe grabbed him by his ear and led him inside. A fresh clay writing pad was waiting for Paulus to scratch his letters on. He stopped squirming and picked up his pen.
That evening Father couldn't stop talking about his new plans. Aurelius had offered a good price for the farm.
"We'll cart everything to the city. I'll be able to buy a small business and eventually build a great house in the greatest of all cities. We'll get a small flat to begin with but before long we'll be out of there, you'll see."
"My brother wants us to visit, too," said Mother. "He's just built an enormous villa."
Nona looked proudly at her son. "You'll be able to find a rich husband for Claudia in Rome," she said.
Before they ate, Father chose the best food and wine and laid it out on the altar in the courtyard. He knelt and thanked the ancestors for giving him the chance to go to Rome. Paulus secretly prayed that they might one day come back home.