“Fucine was spoken in the dry country. It is the language of witches. It shares words with High Aeolic.”
Addendum excised from Sir William Colt Hoare’s Hints to Travellers in Italy, 1815.
MARRUVIUM was the chief city of the Marruvii, a mountain people who rebelled many times against Rome. The city was established as a colony after their final pacification. Today it is a little provincial town, San Benedetto dei Marsi, which has not much to recommend it to the young tourist. The tiny church of St Agnes of the Serpent has a gloomy charm, and the town lies almost at the shore of Lake Fucino, which offers picturesque aspects, despite its evil reputation. The Emperor Claudius identified the lake as a source of the mal aria, to which the reader will recall I lost a valued friend in the Pomptine Marshes. Horace identified it, rather, as a source of witches. I wonder now whether Horace’s assessment might not be the correct one, but I should not run ahead.
Lake Fucino has been reduced many times, though it creeps back when the drainage fails, so that even now the locals refer to its margins as ‘the dry country’. A bronze bearing an antique inscription in the tongue of the Marruvii was found in the dry places, and is now kept in the church. The priest is severe on its dangers – it has been touched by the lake-witches – but nevertheless will show it to the curious, for a small donation.
On the matter of the witches. They are seen in dreams, particularly when one dreams before a cracked and uncovered mirror. On nights of the greater moon they arise from the lake and generate unwanted multiple births, inspire follies of passion, and blend flesh to flesh. The locals turn for protection to St Agnes, but I have seen that they also make poppets – of two heads and four arms – to placate the lake-witches.
As to why I came to San Benedetto dei Marsi: I had heard in Rome that the inscription of the bronze employs a script not seen elsewhere, and I wished to study and record that script. My informant was correct that the script was unusual, and I have retained the notes for study; but I can attest that the script survives in a book, which a woman of the area was kind enough to show me. The book, she said, was not for sale, and I have given my word that I will not speak further of the woman or of her companion. I was permitted to examine the book. It is not from the time of the Marruvii – it is much later – perhaps of the vintage of Charlemagne. The woman and her companion told me wild tales of its origin, and of the witches of the lake, and I had ceased to pay close attention when they warned me of the dangers of the book. This tale at least was true: the page-edges are sharp as a barber’s razor, and I cut my hand badly and had to bind it with my handkerchief.
I thought to find a doctor lest the wound go bad, but the doctor was lost to drink, and my host directed me to the sanctuary of St Agnes. I would not choose a priest as a physician, but the sanctuary has been a place of healing since, I am assured, the time of the Romans, and the cut was very deep.
Still when I came there the priest would not bind my injury, averring that wounds are holy to Agnes. He promised to draw the poison from my flesh and I sat upon the altar steps and he set his mouth to the wound and my senses failed me. When I awoke the priest was in a shouting rage, and would not minister to me further. In my dizziness and fear my Italian had all but abandoned me, but I understood this: ‘the Twins! You have kissed the Twins!’
My wound did not turn, and I will have a story to tell with the scar. Perhaps after all there was a virtue in the mouth of the priest. When the moon is full I still dream of San Benedetto dei Marsi, and of the drawings I saw in the knived pages of the book.