I pulled open the city gate with my white flag unfurled, billowing out above my head. Outside the walls the Volsci were lined up in ranks on the Campus Martius, maybe a thousand of them I battle gear I prayed to Fish they would honor the sign of ceasefire. The minute they saw me, their choruses were quelled, and their drumming was tamped to a muffled beat.
“Vive Pax Tiberna!” I shouted.
“Sextus the Learned, ” he said, and I must admit I was flattered by his recognition. My reputation had been growing in the region ever since my royally funded sabbatical to the library in Alexandria. I fancied myself a philosopher by trade.
One of the joys of reading the Pushcart volume has always been the joy of discovering something surprising, something different done incredibly well, by someone whose name is unfamiliar.
This story didn’t start off all that promising for me. The opening paragraphs quoted above set up some kind of war story in an ancient setting generally analogous to Rome, which is fine, but isn’t something I’d automatically list as my favorite type of story. I don’t think it’s by accident that Stapleton dropped that “I prayed to Fish” in there, because it’s a sign of things to come. It is, indeed, a war story in an ancient setting. But it’s so much more.
I’m going to be circumspect in my comments; I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it. For me, most of the delight was in my surprise at every new twist, every one of which felt completely inevitable but was also completely unexpected – just like they tell you in Writing 101. The story picked up momentum as it went, accelerating with event after event, discovery after discovery, until I was almost out of breath.
Partly, I’ll admit, from laughter. Though it takes its time revealing its sense of humor, the story gets more and more hilarious, and every bit of humor is firmly rooted in plausibility. This quality of one thing leading to another then to another and another in rapid succession, with every event arising from and building upon the one before – an effect I call “tumbling” since I don’t know if there’s an actual term for it – reminded me of Julian Gough’s “How To Fall In Love Properly” from Pushcart 2012.
The story starts with the Volsci about to attack Punicea. All-out war is averted by Sextus the Learned of Punicea, who you’ve already met; he also serves as the first-person narrator. Sextus, at the behest of King Tarquin, negotiates for a more controlled war: a trio of warriors from Punicea, the Horatii, will battle the Curiatii from the Volsci:
When the Volsci saw us fully assembled, a trumpet sounded, and the three Curiatii strode forth from their midst, identical triplets, the only difference among them their colored mantles, gold, silver, and white. As radiant as the sun, they were beauteous and strength-filled rumored to be lovers of ladies, and not truly of Volscian stock, or even Mediterranean, but foundlings, left in the Tiber to drown by a roaming tribe of the warlike peoples of the North.
One of the many things this story does so well, in addition to inevitable surprise and accelerating pace and building humor, is the seamless incorporation of what seemed to me to be authentic aspects of ancient times. When I looked up the author, this made perfect sense: Stapleton, now a PhD candidate in Comparative Lit, holds a couple of Classics degrees as well as English. The foundlings left by “warlike peoples of the North” is one such example; the naming conventions, another, though the one false note in the story comes, in fact, at the expense of Sextus, when someone refers to him by the nickname “Sexy.” While cute, it wasn’t worthy of this story, which provides far more nuanced and meaningful humor. May all my missteps be so circumscribed and easy to overlook.
It’s a densely plotted story after a leisurely start, with twists and turns every few paragraphs. There’s war, a secret love (or perhaps treason), murder (or perhaps vengeance), the deity Fish, and the wise-elder character named Nupa:
Now Nupa began to speak, but he was so old, and his voice so brittle, that no one could hear a word of what he was saying. Still, we dared not interrupt his speech. He surveyed the crowd and rambled on until he fell into a deep sleep.… No one seemed to know if his speech was finished or not. Everyone was afraid to ask, so we stood sheepishly, waiting.… Then he croaked out in a voice like a cackling bird, “Fish fangs, shark bites, dangerous seawater,” or something to that effect. He repeated this litany at least a half-dozen times, then slumped on the sacerdotal shoulders of his brethren and fell asleep again. That was it.
We all turned to one another in puzzlement. What in the name of Fish did that mean?
It’s fitting that this story originally appeared in J Journal, published by CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which only publishes works that reflect, or stem from, justice in some way. At the core of the plot is the civil law code written by Sextus for Punicea, and the relationship of justice, mercy, and mitigating circumstances.
And that’s where, beneath the humor and giving it weight, the center of the story is found: in the intricate legal question raised by certain events. Though this is by no means a courtroom drama, it affords the irresistible opportunity to head in that direction, should one desire. Can justice be administered blindly, based solely on facts? Should it? When do mitigating circumstances come into play? If a situation is unanticipated, must not a just Law be able to accommodate it? And what about mercy? Perhaps inevitably, it all comes down to the lawyer and the source of his salvation. Maybe this is related to what Micah wrote 2700 years ago: “And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” But then there’s how he handles his loyalties in the aftermath, to keep things real.
It’s the first Pushcart Prize for J Journal; it’s always nice to see a new litmag break into the club. And I’m going to scour the bushes for more by Paul Stapleton; I think he just may end up on my list of favorite writers. j