An Apparition of Caesar in the Bedchamber of Brutus
By Sofia Genco-Billington
A heavy night. Moon-sick and sweating with rain. Brutus lays naked and alone on his bed, watching water rush past the open shutters. He traces the shadows as they run across his legs. Every so often, a gag rises in the back of his throat, his mind pestered by the day’s squashing and squelching and pushing, the sound of cloth against mosaic, the gaping faces of warriors streaked with a thick gauze of blood leaving a ghastly trail. Every way he tries to lie is wrong; every surface is an oxen’s velvet belly, begging for sacrifice. Would sleeping be disrespectful? Should he pray? Would, like the slaughtered cattle, he moo and cry and crawl away like the herds of Helios? Crawling lead by a single, shaking finger.
The moment had been gruesomely simple, Brutus thinks. As reliable as these things can be. Swiftly done and the mess left behind for somebody else to clean. Then why was it raining? Some people die on hot days and the sun still sets in the evening with stoic responsibility. Why did it feel like Rome was heaving? Brutus tries to banish his mind, his thinking, off to some other place. Rationality lay in sleep, and rest.
Again Cassius, he had bellowed, you need to get him again.
As simply as he had departed, he arrived with even more ease. No noise, no indication. Brutus wishes a god had warned him, told him not to glance over in the corner by his wet and soiled cloak, to freeze his eyes away from the outline of Caesar in the dim, as true and as imposing as stone.
Horror embraces him. Into the night he mutters the name of Caesar. Who speaks in return.
‘Come here.’ Caesar says, unfeeling. ‘Come here and talk with me.’
He is draped in red cloth. A fine red cloth trimmed in gold. His hair is soaked, as though from walking in the rain, and the front has split into wet little spikes that drip droplets of something maybe red, maybe black, over the planes of his cheekbones and into his eyes, his mouth. He won’t blink, wont snap away his gaze. Brutus doesn’t know if Caesar can see him, is he blinded by pain? He looks above Brutus as he moves closer. Then, his eyes roll round and for the first time in that tropical night, Brutus grows cold.
‘Did you see?’ Caesar asks, simply.
Brutus weeps a cluster of apologies.
‘Did you see what they did, or did you turn your back and count the cracks in the wall Brutus?’
Caesar is Hector, blackened with dirt, two eyes in the dark, yet if Brutus is Aeneas, he will stay and perish in Troy.
I saw and I did nothing I know I am sorry I would do anything, but you were dangerous, too strong, we were scared, I know.
‘I was the empire.’
I know it.
The ears of Brutus crackle with the noise. Caesar is in his walls. The rain muffles itself in reverence.
‘I slept in loopholes under blankets of technicality.’
What are you doing here?
Caesar looks no more real than his face on the coins, yet Brutus understands that it is him. Comprehends that somehow, he has trod through groves of fruit trees and stone paths in the rain to be here, now, dripping watery blood into the stone of Brutus’ Villa floor.
‘Do you understand what I have done?’
Yes, yes I do.
‘I ate the law. I was it. I bought the senate the beautiful jewels that it wanted, kept it happy and well fed and on a tight rein, champing at the bit I put into its mouth. I made love to those I needed and slew those that meant nothing and many of them, Brutus, meant nothing.’
Caesar stops, grabs Brutus’ wrist, and raises it to his face. His body is not yet cold. His grip is searing.
‘And yet…’ His eyes wander. ‘You know that your name means dull?’ he says. ‘While dull you may be, it would be hilarious to state what wasn’t dull, wouldn’t it Brutus? Very funny indeed. I found you funny, sometimes. Others you were arrogant.’
Caesars mouth is dark, dark hole.
You were hungry for power, stammers Brutus.
‘I hungered for nothing else. Now count.’
White and mangled in the dizzy moon, Caesar barely has a chest. It is broken marble and hellish.
‘Count.’ He says, gesturing oratorically to the wounds.
I can’t, there is-. There is-
Far too many. Brutus sobs.
He sees metal sparks behind his eyes. His hands tingle and sweat prickles across his back. The rain, the hollers of the mob, thunder off to the distance. Ante proelium.
‘Then point to which is yours.’
The smell of hot metal and wet clay clasp either side of Brutus’ head. He wretches. He shuffles, closes his eyes, and points just between Caesar’s shoulder blades at an ugly gash, a clumsy one that is serrated and panicked.
‘I was already dead by then, you know.’
Brutus’ eyes are clamped shut, his arm tremors violently.
But I wanted to be you.
Brutus cries heaving sobs, throwing himself to the ground like a sailor who has watched his ship be wrecked against the rocks, splintering into the foamy sea. Wine dark and treacherous. A choral wailer with no robe to tear at. Stripped on the floor, a completion of the cycle.
All that is left of Caesar is a black, round-ish stain on the floor and a scar on Brutus’ back. A parting gift he would tell lovers and friends was from an arrowhead. A near miss. Mercy on the part of Apollo. But it burns like fire in the night.
Darkness would become malicious. Prosper Brutus would never again sleep facing the corner of the room. If the gods would not protect him, he felt, in the end, it was best not to look at all.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Death of Caesar, 1867, Oil on canvas, 85.5 cm x 145.5 cm. The Walters Art Museum; Baltimore, Maryland, USA.