Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Mule vs Volcano

When I go into schools and stay on to do a writing workshop, I almost always set a task of writing a story called ‘Escape from Vesuvius’. There were at least 20,000 people living around the volcano in the first century AD and I reckon each one of them had their own story. We always start by listing the seven plot beats which I have adapted from Hollywood script guru John Truby. Sometimes we start with the hero’s weakness – or Achilles Heel – which will give us the lesson learned AKA step 6, The Knowledge. At St Lawrence Junior School yesterday we were running short on time so we started with his problem: volcano! Acting as the show-runner in a TV writers’ room I got the kids to brainstorm ideas for our hero’s gender, age, name and skills. We voted on them and quickly mapped out the basic plot. If possible I try to get them to come up with a subtitle and in this case we voted for Mule vs Volcano. We had just enough time for a few of the children to read their first paragraphs and they were great. 

But this morning I took a few hours to write my own version. Here’s what I came up with. 

Escape from Vesuvius: Mule vs Volcano 
by Caroline Lawrence 
(with the help of year 4 from St Lawrence Junior School)

It started like any other day. But that was the day I learned an apple can save your life. 

I woke at dawn, slipped on my tunic and splashed water on my face from the jug beside my bed. Then I let myself out of the front door and ran to the baker’s shop. Although our baker makes deliveries, I like to run whenever I can. Most afternoons I train in the palaestra of the Stabian Baths but I like to run first thing in the morning too, when the world is still cool and fresh and the sun is just rising. I run barefoot along the smooth pavements of my town, Pompeii. The soles of my feet are hard as leather. I usually take the long way round to the baker’s, then come back with three warm round loaves under my arm.  

My name is Maximus and I am sixteen years old. My household is small. Just me and my aged parents. We used to have a slave but never got around to replacing him. Our needs are few. My mother can only walk a few steps at a time but she weaves happily in her high-backed wicker chair while my father teaches me to speak eloquently in Greek as well as Latin. 

In the evenings I read passages of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey to my parents. My favourite story is the one at the end of the Iliad where Achilles chases Hector around the walls of Troy. I always hope that somehow this time Hector will escape, but of course he never does. The words of the poem are etched into my brain like letters in a wax tablet. That story is like one of Plato’s forms: it exists somewhere outside our world, on a higher level. 

Sometimes when I run, I recite that passage. It is as if I am Hector, running from Achilles. 

On that fateful day, I was having a lesson with my father in the garden. My mother sat nearby, in the shade of our apple tree. She was making thread from a drop spindle, turning a clump of wool into fine strong yarn.  

It was almost noon when we heard shouts coming from outside. I hurried out into the street. My neighbours were pointing north, and I saw something like a fat white thread of wool rising up on the horizon.

My father came out a moment later, leaning on his walking stick. 

The smell of rotten eggs filled the air and soon ash was falling. The sky was getting darker, as when clouds gather. 

That was when I remembered the dream I’d had the previous night. The white-hot ghost of Achilles had been chasing me. 

I knew it was a warning, sent by the gods.  

‘We must go!’ I told Pater about my dream. ‘We must get away as fast as we can.’ 

‘But how?’ he replied. ‘I can only walk with the help of a stick and your mother can barely walk at all.’ Then he grasped my shoulders. ‘Son, you are fast. Save yourself. Run! Your mother and I have lived a good life. If it is the will of the gods, we will die a good death.’ 

‘No!’ I cried. ‘I will not leave you.’ 

If had been strong I might have carried my parents, one under each arm. But despite my name I am not powerful. I am fast, yes, but also skinny. 

Then I had an idea. ‘Your old chariot!’ I cried. ‘I can pull you in the chariot!’ 

When my father was young, he had raced chariots and he still kept his favourite in our storeroom. It was made of wicker, leather and beechwood and was very light: like a basket on wheels. 

‘Put on all your jewellery!’ I cried to my mother. ‘Pater, get anything valuable that we can easily carry! And bring some food!’ 

A moment later my aged parents stood in the small chariot as I pulled them out the front door of our house. 

Ash covered the pavement and street. People were already fleeing, carrying their belongings on their backs, holding children by the hand. Some had cushions tied to their heads to keep off the falling embers. Others wore napkins over their noses and mouths to keep out the ash. 

I hurried back inside and soaked two cushions in water from the fountain, then tied them to my parents’ heads. For myself I soaked my hooded woollen cloak in water and put that on. 

Then I grasped the two side beams of the chariot and pulled. 

At first it was easy enough, but soon I was coughing and wheezing. I was not used to pulling the weight of two people, even old ones who are not very heavy. 

As we reached the town gate, I had an idea. 

At the stables we could hire a horse to pull us. 

But as we reached the stables, I saw others had the same idea. 

The only animal left was a stubborn looking mule with a badly swollen front left hoof. 

‘That one’s Podagrosus,’ said the stable owner. ‘I’ll let you have him for a thousand sesterces. But I doubt you’ll get him to move.’ 

One thousand sesterces was a huge amount to pay for a lame mule, but I had no choice. I reached into my belt pouch and pulled out ten gold coins, almost all our savings. The stable owner greedily took them, then bit one to make sure it was pure. A moment later he was hurrying out of the stable. 

Left alone, pulled the chariot over to the mule, hitched him to it with a wooden yoke lying nearby, then grasped his bristly mane and tugged. 

‘Come on, Podagrosus,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’ 

The mule gave me a sideways look but did not budge.  

I took my father’s walking stick and beat his rear. 

It was like beating a marble statue of a mule. The creature did not even twitch. 

‘Stop, Maximus!’ called my mother, who has a soft heart. ‘Here!’ She reached down the front of her stola and pulled out a red apple. 

‘Look, Podagrosus,’ I said, holding it up. ‘A nice juicy apple, fresh from the tree in our garden.’ 

Podagrosus took a step forward. 

Holding out the apple, I backed through the open doors of the stable and onto the street. 

Podagrosus followed. 

I had done it! 

Suddenly the mule lunged forward and closed his teeth on the apple.

‘Ow!’ I cried. ‘He almost bit my hand off!’ 

‘I have one more,’ said my mother. ‘Use it wisely.’

‘Think, Maximus!’ I told myself. ‘Think!’ 

Then I had an idea. ‘Mater,’ I said. ‘Do you have any thread?’ 

‘Always!’ She pulled her spindle from down the front of her tunic and I took two arms’ lengths of strong woollen thread. I tied one end to the stem of the apple and the other to the end of my father’s walking stick. Then I stuck the other end of the stick into the yoke of the mule so that the apple hung about half an arm’s length before his nose. 

Podagrosus limped forward, always going for the apple but never quite able to reach it. 

By the time his swollen foot prevented him from going any further we had made it beyond a spur of the Milky Mountains near Stabiae, and I knew we would be safe. 

‘Well done, Podagrosus!’ I said and gave the tired mule the apple he had been straining after for three hours. ‘I promise we will take good care of you for the rest of your life. And all the apples you can eat.’ 

The End

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