In college, I used to go to these cheese and wine parties that were supposed to be Latin practice sessions, at least until we were all drunk. The group of friends who hosted them would go around saying ‘Salve’ to everybody and handing out Solo cups full of boxed Chardonnay, and then cluster up to make stilted small talk about their Latin homework or the television series Rome, which they were all following eagerly. I got to know them because I took historical linguistics with one of them and Middle Egyptian with another. They had Latin names, which stuck long after the class where they had been assigned: the linguistics guy was Telemachus, the girl from my Egyptian class was Octavia. Bacchus and Skippioulixes were from rich Detroit families who had sent them both to the same prep school, leaving them with strange, formal manners and a shared scatological sense of humor. Of all of them, I remember Agrippina best; she only made it one semester into the Latin sequence before she decamped to take French instead, but we all kept calling her by her Latin name, and that is how I still think of her, even now.
There are three such parties that stick in my memory. The first chronologically is also the least clear, because I was eighteen and still learning to drink. I remember the first half hour or so. The three boys lived in the top half of a stuccoed, two-story duplex, in what was essentially a converted attic. No one else had shown up yet, so it was just the six of us sitting in the living room, under the low eaves, in the still and unmoving September air. The whole state was going through a second summer. My mother, in her latest email, had sent a picture of the dogs lying belly-up in the dirt with their tongues out, undone by the heat. I was homesick already. The Latin boys had pulled the kitchen table into the living room and laid it out with fancy snacks: three kinds of cheese, celery sticks and radishes with an orange dip, the gourmet-store brand of potato chips, and a plastic mixing bowl full of edamame, which I had never seen before and thought was some leathery, furred variety of snap pea.
“Salve,” Bacchus said, handing me a cup of wine. “Vinum tuum est.” He was blond and very ruddy. I had never met him before, but he grinned invitingly at me, as if we were already old friends.
“Gratia,” I said. “Amo domicilium.”
“Hey,” Bacchus said, and crinkled up his face. “You’re not in our class.”
“I’m studying on my own,” I said. “Didn’t have room in my schedule.”
“Natalie’s taking Egyptian with me,” Octavia said. Bacchus looked impressed; it made me feel both cocky and terrified, a combination of feelings I had rarely had together.
“And I’m taking Greek too,” I added, suddenly emboldened and wanting to brag.
Bacchus looked me very seriously in the eye. He frowned for a moment. “Latin, Egyptian, and Greek,” he said. “Like Cleopatra.”
“Salve, Cleopatra,” Telemachus said, and bumped his Solo cup against mine. Then everybody else did too, and that was how I got my Latin name. They called me that all night, as more people showed up and we all got drunker and drunker, and then it stuck. I remember sitting on the arm of a couch next to Agrippina, who was wedged into the corner, and leaning half over her while I explained the Egyptian dual noun to the top of her head. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. Her thick curly hair smelled like strawberry shampoo, and her face was always a little sad, even when she smiled, with a trembling at the corners of her mouth and eyes that seemed to predict oncoming tears. When she got up to pee, I followed her to the bathroom without really meaning to, just as if she had me on a string.
“Excuse me,” Agrippina said, and shut the door behind her.
“Oh,” I said. “Cool.” I was too drunk to be really embarrassed. I wandered over into the kitchen to wait for her. The sink was full of dirty dishes and the floor around the trash can was sticky under my shoes. In the fridge, there was just Vitamin Water, bottom-shelf vodka, and a dried out, half-unwrapped Jimmy John’s sandwich. Agrippina was gone a long time, and by the time she came back, we had all moved on to shots; the rest of the night is a blur.
For a while afterward, I felt shamefaced and awkward around Agrippina, who turned out to be very smart and not sad at all, just afflicted with occasional migraine headaches. That was what gave her the look of overwhelmed emotionality that had so intrigued me. I learned to spot them coming on by the watery look in her eyes, and the way she reached up under her hair and pinched a certain nerve at the base of her skull, sometimes grunting softly as she did so, and biting her lip. I still found it appealing, though I knew it meant she was in pain, or perhaps because of that: it was as if I could see right into her head, where she struggled and raged against some interior enemy, invisible to the outside world.
These days, my Latin and Greek are pretty rusty. When I’m called on to use them, which isn’t often, I lean heavily on my reference texts and the input of my colleagues in Ptolemaic studies. My own expertise is in court literature of the New Kingdom, much of which has not yet been translated, or only translated into German, and then, badly. With my current project, The Lamentations of Ptahmose, I am blazing a trail by necessity; no other scholar has taken on this challenge in any language. The text is extant in only one copy, badly decayed and full of missing words and lacunae, so that whole stanzas of the story are indecipherable or easily misunderstood. I saw the single surviving manuscript once, in the papyrology collection of the Brooklyn Museum. They kept it sandwiched in glass to show the writing on both sides of the scroll. That close, you can see feathering at the tips of the brushstrokes, and the places where the scribe dipped his pen too long and left a splotch of ink. The final passages are pieced together, some of the fragments so small they contain only a single character—‘I,’ or ‘sh—,’ or ‘[bird].’ You can see right through the empty spaces, a beige wall in one direction, another scroll on display in the other. I stayed for a long time, taking it in.
The text is unexpectedly political, though its protests are often couched in metaphor. In the early stanzas, the scribe expresses his unhappiness at the chaos infesting the country, his concern for the sanctity of the royal office, and a number of subtle, implicit criticisms of the sitting pharaoh. He speaks with an affected, hyperbolic sense of scale—or at least it seems so to the modern reader—“your humble servant cannot sleep,” he says, “any more than the fisherman finds rest when the tides are out of sync,” as if his own body and the rhythms of the political state are inextricably bound up. I have always felt that one’s whole heart and being must bear on translation as on the composition of a new work. You have to feel as the scribe felt so that your words become a mirror of his. And so, the longer I work on The Lamentations, the more I feel my own world out of whack, mis-ruled, disharmonious.
On the day I saw Agrippina again, I was making a fourth pass through the Fisherman section, in which the narrator compares justice to a fish, the pharaoh to a noble fisherman, and Egypt itself to the Nile, feeding always into the afterlife—demonstrating, of course, that a king’s good intentions are worth nothing if his actions are not in harmony with the larger rhythms of life and statehood. I had found it one of the most difficult passages in the book, since the full revelation of its meaning—a powerful bit of dramatic irony—hinges on the realization that the metaphorical pharaoh is traveling up- rather than down-stream.
Over the years, I had tried a few different solutions to the Fisherman problem. In my last round of edits, I had begun to render the names of the wharfs between which the fisherman travels simply as South Wharf and North Wharf, trusting the reader to remember that the Nile empties north into the Mediterranean Sea. I was happy with this for the most part. But a translation is a living animal, and there is always room for improvement.
“Just as the fisherman rose to take the sails in hand,” I read, “there came a mighty wind”—and here I corrected ‘came’ to ‘was,’ and ‘mighty’ to ‘great,’ finding my previous reading too Biblical in tone. I skipped ahead. “The South Wharf was ten times as far as the length of a fishing-boat”—I saw at once the opportunity to say simply ‘ten ship-lengths’ and save considerable trouble and confusion. It was that kind of thing all morning, like whittling a block of wood into a shape. By the time I stood up for a break at one-thirty I was finished with the Fisherman and had moved on to the following passage. My ass was numb on one side and my neck twinged.
“It’s alive,” my officemate said.
“Oh,” I said. “Hi, Ashley.”
“Did you eat yet?” she asked. She was laughing at me, I could tell.
“I don’t think so,” I said. I was still clearing the fog from my head. I know what the other graduate students in my department think of me. Talented, perhaps, but impractical; a Don Quixote tilting at windmills; slow to publish, too awkward to impress at conferences, constitutionally unsuited for fieldwork and without the people skills needed to teach effectively. And yet, I believe I’m where I need to be, or at least, I can’t imagine abandoning The Lamentations.
“Lunch?” Ashley said. She was already standing up, twisting her hair back and clipping it. I closed my laptop. Through the office window, the roof of the building next door was dusted with dry snow, shifting around in the wind.
“Sure,” I said. We put on our coats and hats and walked to the strip of restaurants on the edge of the quad. The wind was bitter. It was real February-in-the-Midwest kind of weather. Ashley and I wedged ourselves through the front door of a sandwich place and into the counter line, chatting idly about the chili, whether a cup was big enough or should we get bowls. Over by the window there was a table of conference attendees with big orange badges around their necks, packing up their laptop bags and shrugging on their coats. I saw her hair before I knew it was her. She was unfolding a knit scarf, turning to laugh with a fiftyish woman in a purple sweater.
“Who’s that?” Ashley said.
“Hang on,” I said. I got out of the line and walked toward her, drawn forward by the tips of my fingers. I touched her elbow lightly. The woman in the purple sweater raised her eyebrows at me, and Agrippina turned, surprised, and looked me in the face. She had an expression I had never seen before.
“Salve, Agrippina,” I said.
“Jesus, Natalie,” she said. “Hey.”
I wasn’t sure what to say next. She had a little silver ring in her nose, which was new.
“What are you doing here?” she asked me.
“I’m a grad student,” I said. “There,” and I pointed across the quad to the Languages building where my department’s offices were.
Her face softened. “Good,” she said.
“Yeah, well,” I said. “Uh, the program is a better fit.”
“That’s great,” she said. There were freckles, new ones, across her collarbones and the top of her chest.
“Did you see,” she said, “that Bacchus got—”
“Yeah,” I said, “married to that Norwegian girl?”
“And moved there,” she said. “I’m sure he fits right in.” She smiled. Her front two teeth on the bottom had grown a little crooked, overlapping each other. I picked up her hand and held it between both of mine. It was soft and tacky with sweat; I felt its drag across my palm scream straight to my brain.
“Is she talking to you?” Agrippina asked.
“What?” I said. Behind me, Ashley was at the counter, waving me over.
“I think you have to go,” Agrippina said.
“No,” I said. She took her hand back and fussed with her badge, untwisting the cord and flipping it around.
“I’ll see you,” she said. “I’m in Philly now, but I’m moving to Columbus in the summer, probably. If your number’s the same, I’ll let you know.”
“It is,” I said.
“Cool,” she said. “Go, order.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. Ashley was stalling the guy at the counter until I could get over there. I ordered a bowl of chili and a half-sandwich; I was suddenly hungry.
“Hey,” Agrippina said, calling back to me on her way out the door. “Vale, Cleopatra.” Her hat was pulled down so close over her face that all I could see was her nose sticking out over the scarf. I waved, and she ducked out. For the rest of the day, Ashley looked at me funny, and a couple of times called me ‘Cleopatra’ in a teasing voice, as if she wasn’t sure if it was a joke or not. I think I was supposed to be embarrassed, but I wasn’t; it was good to be Cleopatra again, after so many years.
Agrippina kissed me in the kitchen doorway halfway through her twentieth birthday party, when the cake was all gone and the first wave of party crashers had wandered in looking for free booze. She smelled like white wine and the lavender aromatherapy oil that she had taken to putting behind her ears during periods of high stress, like midterms. I touched my tongue to the hot, wet inside of her lip while she pressed me back against the doorframe.
“What was that for?” I asked, when she pulled away. She shrugged.
“Okay,” I said.
“Come here,” she said, and led me through the crowded hallway to her room. She was subletting from Skippio, who was in Oxford for the semester and had left behind all his wall decorations: hand-drawn signs from some ecological protest, album covers thumbtacked up over the bed, a couple of postcards taped to the side of the bookshelf. Agrippina laid me down on the bed and put her hands under my shirt, along my ribs and up under my bra at the sides.
“Why now?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Jamie,” I said.
“I just want to,” she said. Her mouth was pink and soft, and her eyes were clear, not angry or far away. I put my hands in her hair and pulled her in. We kicked the quilt off the bed together and stripped out of our jeans. She held my head close against her the whole time so I had to do it by feel, moving my fingers blindly, listening. After, she seemed relieved. She took huge breaths that shook a little on the exhale, and then she flipped me onto my back in the corner between the bed and the wall and let me show her what to do. I sweat so much my back stuck to the sheets. My mind was empty, I didn’t think.
“Okay?” she said.
“Wonderful,” I said. My heart took a long time to slow down. Outside, somebody turned off the music in the middle of a song and then started it up again with something different.
“I want a cigarette,” she said. “Do you have cigarettes?”
“In my jacket,” I said. We got dressed and went back out to the party, which had picked up a little; the front door was half-open, and people were tracking snow puddles up and down the stairs.
“Hang on,” Agrippina said, grabbing my arm. “You’ve got—”
“What?” I said. She was picking something out of my hair: little feathers, half brown, half white, and very soft.
“From my pillow,” she said. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” I said, and took her face in my hands, and kissed her. She opened her mouth for me. I wanted to drive her whole body hard into the wall and keep her there, caught between my two arms.
“Come on,” she said finally, trying to pull me further down the hall.
“I want to kiss you,” I said.
“You can kiss me on the roof,” she said, so I went; there was a little ledge with a railing around it, and we climbed out and sat cross-legged shivering and looking down at the people in the street walking home from the bars. I kissed her neck and her jaw while she smoked. I felt, for the first time, like a part of me was walking around inside another person, where I couldn’t get to it, all by itself there in the dark.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked her.
“You,” she said, and smiled at me. She stroked the back of my hand lightly with her fingertips.
“Really,” I said.
“I’m all over the place,” she said. Her voice was far away, but she kept touching me with the one hand, like an apology. When she finished the cigarette, she put it out in a clump of snow on the roof and flicked it out toward the street. It arced up over the porch and landed somewhere in the yard. Inside, everyone was playing flip cup, all jammed into the kitchen around the only table in the apartment, and we drifted over to the crowd together and stood at the back to watch. Telemachus was winning. I kept turning my head to the side to look at Agrippina, like there would be something there to see. She had closed all the doors on me. Months later, we were lying in bed and I asked her why she had kissed me that night, if it was going to make her so sad, and she wouldn’t tell me; I thought that maybe she had to not know, in order to keep doing it.
In March, Agrippina texted to tell me that the Columbus job had fallen through, and she would be staying in Philly another year at least.
‘I’m sorry,’ I texted back.
I had promised my advisor a full draft of The Lamentations, which would be the backbone of my dissertation, by the end of the month; but lately my translation seemed to be going backwards. The more time I spent with it, the less finished it seemed, until I was questioning my most basic decisions: should the narrator’s title be rendered simply as ‘scribe,’ or did the story demand a more nuanced interpretation, such as ‘petitioner’ or ‘critic’? Could his occasional departure into rhythmic, syntactically unusual speech be arranged to mimic modern free-verse poetry, or was I fundamentally misunderstanding the purpose and context of these sections? I worked more and more feverishly, often taking my laptop and a lexicon or two to bed with me. The night before my meeting with my advisor, I printed a copy of my current draft and combed through it with a green pen, hoping for a breakthrough that would bring it to life; I worked for hours, and woke to meaningless scribbles, a big splotch of green ink on the bedspread, and a blinding headache. I could barely stretch out in bed, because of all the books.
Eileen had two cups of coffee on her desk in a cardboard carrier. Her office wasn’t the best one, too near the administrative offices for real prestige, but it had a beautiful view and she had decorated it nicely, even putting a lacey paper tablecloth on the little seminar table in the corner. Through the picture window behind her, the clocktower dripped snowmelt down into the statue pavilion, big dazzling raindrops that caught the sunlight and distracted me.
“You look like you need this,” she said, handing me one of the coffees.
“I’ve had a lot on my mind lately,” I said. She let me take a few sips before she leaned her elbows on the desk and looked me in the eye, telegraphing that what she was about to say would be serious.
“You’re done with The Lamentations,” she said. “Stop tweaking. I’m taking it away from you.”
“It’s just the last couple of stanzas,” I said. “I do really have to dig into some of the botanical terminology because I feel like I’m misunderstanding the figurative—”
She held up her hand. “You can come back to it later,” she said. “After you’ve turned in at least one of the critical chapters.”
“But how can I have any confidence in my critical work,” I said, “when I’m still not sure what the story means? How do I know I’m not wrong?”
“Take that risk,” Eileen said, “and come back in a month.”
She didn’t even small talk me after that, to soften it; she was that kind of woman. I went back out into the hallway with my half-full coffee and stood for a moment looking at the white painted moldings swirling along in the corner between wall and ceiling. In the elevator, a couple of undergrads looked at their phones companionably. I was mulling over the Parable of the Wa-Bird, a multi-stanza poem-within-a-poem nested inside the larger frame story of The Lamentations, whose significance had long been intractably mysterious to me. An as-yet-untranslatable bird, possibly some kind of duck, lands on the bank where a washerman is plying his trade. This wa-bird has an omen-like unreality, never eating or sleeping, refusing water. He watches over the washerman like a personal god. The washerman’s family grow strong even on their meager rations; no beast or crocodile or spiteful floodwater can harm them. One day, the wa-bird flies away. Reeds grow where he stood. The last three lines of the story are broken off, and when the scroll res