A History and Fantasy of Murder
There is a great and colossal despair in my heart when I write
your name. For suddenly I question if the person to whom it refers
is real, or lives as but a ghost in my imagination. My hand, though
it scratches onto paper each successive word, is weighted heavily
with the assumption that you shall surely never read them. Why,
then, do I even bother to address it? Why not simply write, and
then burn, these words? Why not simply abandon my writing forever?
Mordanticus shall not be receiving this letter. Never again shall
I visit him to hand him my scrolls. For I am wary of him in a way
that is at once frightening and sickening. I wish to strangle him
or stab him with a soldier’s sword. I long to see him a corpse.
Where am I? I am stymied. I am obstructed. I am chained and immobile,
yet desperate and flailing in agony. Why, O Lysicles, must I continue
so obtusely to write?
I suppose it is a compulsion. One that cares little for the audience,
and wishes only to find its expression. That I have flattered myself
these past few years with the fantasy of some future audience is
irrelevant to and independent of the extraordinary need to set it
down. Therefore I report it, for no other reason than to have it
expelled from my body and my soul.
“It was I who killed Gryllus,” said Decentius. The admission
came from nowhere; was preceded by nothing. We sat together on the
riverbank, staring across at the distant shore. The sun was sinking
I turned to him in amazement, yet could say nothing. I was dumbfounded
to hear such a name from my past; aghast at hearing it spoken from
the mouth of Decentius; astonished at the news that the man indeed
“He was monstrous,” spoke Decentius. His voice was flat
and without expression. “Deranged. He effected before my very
eyes a crime of such unspeakable cruelty that I was overcome in
my rage. I drew my sword, stabbed him, and, with the help of those
who had witnessed it, buried his body in the woods.”
There was a long silence then, until I finally managed to croak
out a single word: “Why?”
“He spoke of you. Of Antinous, whom he had discovered and
cultivated from the wilds. He spoke of his love for you. His ardent
commitment to your future. His—”
“That’s a lie!” I interrupted. “Gryllus
had nothing for me but a violent and self-satisfying lust. He was
cruel and unsavoury. I despised him.”
“I know,” replied Decentius. “He said as much.
Nothing, of course, of his own deficiencies, but rather of your
continual disdain for him.”
“When was all this?” I asked. Decentius considered,
and answered, “It was just after your inspection. Gryllus,
who had suddenly lost you to the Emperor, wandered into my company,
and told his peculiar tale about an astonishing boy named Antinous.
So enflamed was he; so unsteady and disturbed, that I found myself
marveling at the possibility of such a mythical youth. And then,
on my first posting at the Palatine, I encountered once again your
name, whispered among a pair of passing courtiers. They spoke about
the boy, Antinous, who had captivated the Emperor. I was terrified.
For Gryllus had indeed promised me I would hear your name again.
And then, like a smirking specter from beyond the grave, there it
was on my very first day: Antinous. I resolved to illumine for myself
the mystery, and sought my posts in such a way that I could discover
to my own satisfaction the reason for your fame. My appearance,
therefore, outside the office of Mordanticus, was not a random accident.
I had maneuvered myself to be there.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked him. For confusion
still reigned paramount in my soul. He sighed heavily, and continued:
“Gryllus spoke of your letters. Of his secret and appalling
thrill at reading them. Of knowing your private thoughts concerning
I shook my head, still unable – or perhaps unwilling –
to comprehend. Decentius continued, “He had a contact at the
Palatine. Someone who was in a position to receive your letters,
and allow Gryllus to access them.”
“Bellator?” I asked. Decentius didn’t think so:
“I questioned him. I posed as an investigator in search of
Gryllus. I asked after the letters and he told me to whom he had
forwarded them. He was not lying.”
“Mordanticus,” I finally said. The weight of that name
caused it to plunge from my head into the pit of my stomach. I felt
suddenly very ill.
“I could not confirm it, Antinous, because I could not read.
But now, having finally learned the Greek, I have watched and observed
on the various occasions when you have delivered your letters. I
have seen him place them with great showmanship upon the pile that
is bound for Antioch. I have watched your hopeful and trusting face
leave his office. And I have been on duty at nights, when my fellow
guard has gone to relieve himself. The lock to his office door is
a pitiful mechanism, easily bypassed. Thus, newly literate, I have
inspected the pile to Antioch. And your letters are never among
them, Antinous, even on the very days in which Mordanticus has accepted
them from you.”
“But why?” I demanded. “Why would he do such a
“Do you speak of Hadrian in your correspondence? Do you report
on the conversations you have had? The words that are uttered by
him? The courtiers with whom he converses?”
I am quite sure that my face paled long before it nodded. Decentius
looked grave, and spoke: “In you, Antinous, lives the promise
of a most perfect kind of unwitting spy. For on the coming day in
which you are formally admitted into Hadrian’s bedchamber,
just think of the information Mordanticus must imagine he shall
soon be gleaning from you.”
“Is he plotting treason?” I asked. “I doubt it,”
replied Decentius. “More likely, he has identified in your
writings a means to effect his own political ambitions. They provide
him with a definite tactical advantage as he maneuvers himself within
the Palatine and in the loyal service of Hadrian, whom I know for
a fact he admires. There is nothing grand about his plans. There
is merely his personal career in mind.”
“What a fool I am!” It was a wail and an accusation;
a cry of hopelessness and horror.
“Do not blame yourself, my friend,” said Decentius.
“It is Mordanticus who has wronged you, and you can hardly
be expected to understand, at so young an age, the complexity of
people’s motives or the scope of their deceit. What is far
more important is that you immediately stop handing him your letters.”
“By the gods, I shall stop writing them!” I exclaimed.
But Decentius placed his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it. He
smiled at me, “That would be a tragedy, for I should very
much like you to continue the marvelous record of your life. If
this Lysicles is so worthy of your love and your honor, you must
not abandon him. Rather, write each of your epistles with the expectation
that you shall one day deliver the lot of them in person.”
Although it was a very noble sentiment, I was persuaded more by
the earnestness of his eyes than by the loftiness of his words.
And so I returned home and began to write upon this parchment. It
is, my friend, a very dubious letter, for I despair of it ever reaching
your hands. And yet I have written it nonetheless.
Behold: It is complete. But I’ve no one to whom I may deliver
it. Is that not pathetic? A.