On the morning of Lupercalia we went first to the temple of Pan. It was here we paid tribute to the god of shepherds and nature, he that watched over all animals, including the beloved wolf, Lupa, for which this festival was named.
I was lucky, for I was among those of the Brotherhood, we the high priests who would be anointed with blood of the goat and dog. In the temple we raised our voices, shouted prayers to the hooved god, knelt in praise. We then passed wineskins, drank in camaraderie and offered the robes off our backs in sacrifice.
When devotions had ended, we marched down the cobbled streets wearing only our loincloths. In the village we met Calpurnia, of Juno’s temple. She held an alabaster jar and inside it, etched in parchment, were the names of every unwed maid in the city.
Calpurnia shook the jar. “With the blessings of Juno and in hopes Cupid smiles upon you. May you have the maids you desire, gentlemen,” she said. She held out the jar to me. I was first to choose, for that year it was I who represented Romulus.
I thrust my hand into the jar, twisting and extending my fingertips, all the while silently praying to Pan for a good match.
When I pulled up the parchment I saw the name: Lucretia. I knew of her, a modest girl, daughter of a widowed grain farmer. She claimed no fortune nor dowry yet her beauty had always astounded me.
“Lucretia.” Calpurnia smiled, ruby lips etching her white teeth. She raised a hand, beckoned to the girl who stood, arms crossed, her rain colored garments flowing in the February wind. She was lovely. But would she have me?
Lucretia glanced at her father who nodded and motioned her forward. The girl smiled, moved with an awkward grace and stood before me. “It seems, my lord, I am yours for the duration of this festival,” she said. She gave a stiff curtsey and I bowed before her. “I shall unite with you after the anointing,” she added. Before she moved to Calpurnia’s side her gray eyes caught mine. There was a teasing glint, a passing smile. She tossed her hair. “Be aware, Sir, I am of the cult of Diana.”
It was an odd custom, the drawing of names from a jar. All matches were left to the Fates and the Gods. Yet in the case of Lucretia, I knew Pan had favored me.
When the Brotherhood had finished selection all the men of the village moved forward. Calpurnia dispensed names. Some were pleased and some appalled. “Take heart,” Brother Julian counseled Cicero, who had received the name of the plainest girl in all of Rome. “It’s only for a fortnight.” He winked. “And you, Brother Marcellus. You have been given a great gift. Lucretia is a beauty among beauties and the purest in the land.”
“Too pure for words,” Cicero added. “But also wild. It has been said no man will ever tame her.”
“Tame her?” I answered. “It is not my desire to tame her. Is it not said, the wilder they are the better they shall breed?” It was a bold claim on my part, and somewhat vulgar. I should be so lucky as to bed her. The cult of Diana were sworn virgins, every last one of them.
With the other high priests I proceeded to the cave of Lupercal. It was there that Lupa the she wolf had once nursed Remus and Romulus. They were, the legend says, abandoned by their natural mother and then suckled to health from Lupa’s teat. Later they founded our great state of Rome, and indeed it was only one fierce as a wolf that could be worthy of such a founding.
The sacrificial animals were brought to the cave. Two young goats and a dog. With my blade I sliced their throats.
Brother Julian took my knife. He cleaned it with a cloth of wool that had been soaked in milk. He then drained the animals’ blood and anointed the forehead of each priest. “The blood of life,” he said solemnly. “May your women prove fertile as the earth.”
Once anointed, we proceeded to skin the hides off the animals. We soaked the hides in lukewarm salt water and vinegar, toughening them into the februa strands, those that would be used to strike the women.
“Remember to hit softly,” Julian cautioned. “So they not be afraid. We want them eager for more. Their loins will then spill with their own milk to bring you sons and daughters.”
The next morning, armed with our februa strands, all the men of the village lined up for the run. The women laughed and gossiped, whispering in each other’s ears. They leaned like soft willows along the buildings and aqueducts. They were quarry, waiting to be caught by we the hunters.
Lucretia was nowhere to be seen.
Calpurnia chimed the bell and the februa run began. Swift on my feet, I softly struck as many maids as I could reach. “To make you fertile, to make you bountiful, to ease your pain in childbirth,” I chanted along with the other men. The women, although feigning pain, deliberately stood in our way. Only those that were touched by our goat hides, so said the legend, would be able to bear children.
After the run Calpurnia led us to the great dining hall. Before we entered she took hold of my shoulder. “Marcellus,” she said, “Have you not seen your young maid?”
“No Madame,” I answered, “and of it I am quite disappointed.”
“Remember she is a child of Diana and therefore not easily moved.” Calpurnia tilted her head, smiled broadly and rested her gaze across the dining hall. “There she is. Not too proud to attend the feast. Go to her, boy!”
I bowed to Calpurnia, made my way across the hall. At the end of a long oak table sat Lucretia, a goblet of wine in her hands.
“Brother Marcellus,” she greeted me. “Please accompany me.” She patted her long, sun brown hand on the bench I quickly sat beside her.
“I missed you at the run of februa,” I said, stammering slightly.
“The hide of goat to insure fertility?” She scowled, popped her gray eyes at me. “Surely you do not believe such a lame custom?”
“We of the Brotherhood, my lady, are instructed to believe in such.”
“The Brotherhood is falsity!”
“You heard me. Falsity I say!”
“I beg pardon my lady, but the fertility of goat hide is our custom and our belief. In this I have been trained and in this hold the title of Romulus Luperci.”
“Luperci!” she sneered. “When he meal is finished, I shall take you to the wood.”
Although the venison and goat’s meat were tasty I barely noticed them. My thoughts were only upon Lucretia. When the feast was finished the mummers aligned for the evening’s entertainment. Lucretia took my hand. “Now,” she said.
“What of the pageantry my lady?”
“Rot the pageantry!” she nearly screamed, gray eyes blazing. “Would you not rather see the vast pageantry of Diana’s wood?”
I could not refuse her. Together we slipped from the dining hall. She led me through the streets of Rome, past the coliseum and the temples, past the merchant’s square and the emperor’s palace. She led me far into the forest. The grass was stiff with winter’s frost. Night had fallen and the Quickening Moon shone bright and full. In the distance stags and deer pranced freely, pausing to watch us as we passed. Finally she reached a myrtle tree, its enormous branches full with tiny buds.
“Here,” she declared. “Remove your loincloth.”
Her lovemaking was passionate and strong, with the timing and precision of one who has never in her life been a virgin. No blood spilled beneath her. She smiled, arched an eyebrow, stretched a finger across my cheek. I dared not question her.
“Not all the women of Diana are virgins,” she offered. “Do not let it perplex you, Marcellus.” She breathed in my ear, climbed atop me again. I was young, virile and not yet spent.
We made love four times before the yellow sun poured its rays through the trees. I fell asleep in her arms.
When I awoke she was gone. The myrtle tree stood, now towering and ripe with flower.
The air was hot, steamy as the bath houses in summer. The grass had grown thick around me. I stood up, my legs stiff and depleted. In the far distance I saw a new wheat field, golden with stalk. On wobbly legs I walked.
The landscape of the forest had changed. Orange and lemon trees towered above me, fruit falling off their limbs. Flowers of every genus sprouted from the ground. Tangled vines extended before me like tentacles of octopi, heavy with purple grapes. I trudged on.
In all seriousness, I knew I must get back to the temple of Pan. My duties as Luperci were not yet complete. But Lucretia? What had happened to her? Surely she had returned to the village, to her father. I decided, right then and there, I would ask her father for her hand in marriage. It was only fitting. Such a wife she would make — beautiful, ravishing, unstoppable! I wondered if she was already with child.
At the edge of the forest I tripped over a mass of gray fur, a curled body, soft and warm against my sandals. Clumsily I fell to the ground. Lucretia had exhausted me and I felt very sleepy and dazed. In my stupor I rubbed my eyes, not believing the blurred sight before me.
It was a wolf stretched out on the grass. Five tiny pups suckled her teats. The wolf lifted her head, gray eyes glinting. She bared her teeth, white and pearly against her jowls, but not unkind.
The wolf sat up, lapped her tongue against my cheek. “Your intentions are well, but you need not marry me, Marcellus,” she said. “I have no dowry and besides, my duty is forever to Diana’s land. Rest assured you have served your role well. Now we shall part forever.”
I crouched down beside her. “I will have you,” I said quietly. “You are a shifter, a child of Diana. I see that now. But nonetheless I will have you.”
The wolf stood upon sturdy legs. She tilted her head, perked her ears as if she meant to say more, but then in a flash she bolted into the forest. The five tiny pups scurried after her.
There was a rustle in the trees and I looked above me. There in the branches, the god Cupid stood, half naked, holding his bow and arrow. He winked at me and in one swift movement he shot his arrow, hitting the wolf straight in the back.
She then transformed. She was Lucretia, gray eyes, hair in disarray, her simple dress the color of rain, clinging to her sweaty body. She walked toward me.
“Brother Marcellus,” Cupid called from the tree. I looked up. He hung like a sloth, sultry smile on his face. “You will love her, and she will love you. But there will always be a wildness in her and you will never completely tame her. Do not try.” He then vanished.
Cupid was right. My wife was a night prowler, forever chasing the moon, quick of temper, insatiable for sex. My daughters, all five, and the sons that followed would never be completely tamed either. We had grandchildren, great grandchildren, and more after that, generations that lasted long after the Feast of Lupercalia was forgotten. Our ancient festival was swallowed up in the more ‘civilized’ traditions of Valentines and chocolates.
Ever after that all descendants of Lucretia and myself were thought to have bit of the wolf-blood within them. Our descendants scattered to all corners of the world.
If you, dear reader, have been drawn into this story, or if you have gone giddy under a Quickening Moon, or if you have ever fallen truly, madly and inexplicably in love by the shot of Cupid’s arrow — well then, you just may be one of those descendants!