Odysseus prepares to leave Troy, victorious at last. The war has endured ten years, and ten years it will take him to voyage home. Divagations and diversions will hinder his progress. When his ship passes the isle of the Sirens, he commands his men to block their ears with wax and bind him to the mast so he can safely hear the beautiful singing that lures sailors to their shipwreck deaths.
Troubadour, sing us those stories we know, how Alexander cajoled his men to go beyond one more range of mountains, how Robert Johnson at the crossroads sold his soul to the devil for a supernatural musical skill.
The trade routes bring treasures rare and wondrous: frankincense, pepper, cinnamon, silk. Bacchus, Buddhism, blessed gospel; so, too, the black death, haunting the ships that wait in the harbor. Basho. Squanto. Marco Polo. Orfeo. Recite the names we know — recount the travelers’ tales, the filament roads that web the globe. We are aborigines singing the land into being, tracing our journey through songlines.
In a Roman piazza, I’m searching for the bus that will take me outside the city to the catacombs. The guidebook specifies the number 118 bus. I search frantically around the piazza, only to learn at the information kiosk that the bus number is actually 218. The former — well, yes, signore, sometimes there is a number 118, but you need to take number 218.
I settle on a parked number 218 with other passengers; after awhile, however, a uniformed man boards the bus to tell us that we need to transfer to the bus behind us. We all get up, file off the bus and find seats anew. A short while later, a different uniformed man boards to tell us that we must transfer to yet another bus that is just pulling up behind us. This time, though, not everyone gets off. The native Romans remain seated. Certainly they know best, I think. So I decide to stay seated.
Then the other bus departs.
I wonder if I’ve fallen into some torment of Hades. Like Tantalus doomed to endure apples always just out of reach, am I doomed to board busses that never depart? An hour has now elapsed since this motionless journey has started. Unbelievably, another uniformed man boards the bus to tell us that we must transfer a third time! Even the Romans, accustomed as they are to delay and inefficiency, groan “Ehi!” as we move to the fourth bus.
Eventually we leave. It’s a relief to be moving at last after so much stasis. I’m seated beside a young Japanese woman in a daffodil yellow smock who speaks no Italian. Oddly enough, I had seen her the day before in one of the museums. I wonder how she can get around by herself without speaking the language. Unfortunately, she does not speak English either, and it’s been too many years since I learned Japanese to remember anything other than “good morning” and “hurry up, please.” I smile at her and nod my head; she smiles in return.
The bus passes beyond the ancient city walls and the ruins of an aqueduct. The buildings gradually thin out, replaced by groves of trees. The driver announces the stop for San Sebastiano, and both the woman and I get off — apparently we’re heading to the same catacombs. The bus stop is inconveniently a ways from the church, so we endure a harrowing walk along a winding road with blind curves and dense shrubbery lining the road. Cars whiz past us close enough to give me a shave. We look at one another anxiously, and I can tell she’s thinking the same thing: Will we be staying permanently?
Orpheus, who tamed wild beasts with his playing and silenced the Sirens on the voyage of the Argonauts, descends into the underworld. Ishtar descends through the seven gates. Beatrice leads Dante through the nine circles of hell. These are the stories. We descend into tunnels carved through limestone beneath the basilica of San Sebastiano and the Roman countryside. Life is motion; rest, its death. Paintings of quails, doves, a mockingbird, a peacock decorate the empty tombs: the spirit in flight on its final sojourn. The small bird that helps them in their crossing. Winging out of my memory, the words I set to music a decade earlier, a line from Linda Gregg’s The Ghosts Poem: “the dead in layers.”
When we emerge, blinking, into daylight, I nod goodbye to my silent companion and head beyond the catacombs, where the rush of vehicles is replaced by the bright singing of birds. Crumbling Roman tombs line the old Appian Way. A caved-in columbarium, scattered marble, lines of cypress like sentries. For over two thousand years, people have trod this road. The countless footsteps of armies and pilgrims. Virgil came this way, retracing the legendary journey of the Trojan warrior Aeneas. Saint Peter followed the Appian Way into Rome to spread the gospel.
In patches, the asphalt skin is worn away to reveal the smooth, skeletal paving stones. I find a rhythm now in my walk, a steady drumbeat that plays counterpoint to my body’s other rhythms: the pulse of the blood, the rise and fall of the breath, the mitochondrial motion within cells. On either side of me, open fields and hills beyond. The marble slabs that mark the tombs slump and tilt, rooted in their place. That is not what I have come for. The road stretches away into the distance, lines converging to a point. I want to keep walking forward, absorbed in this rhythm, moving inexorably toward that distance.