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I couldn’t help myself in Pompeii. Never in my life have I been so utterly haunted–and in the middle of a bright, sunny day no less.
The ancient city is much less of a ruin than you might imagine, and more of a poorly kept abandoned town.
Some buildings still have their original roofs attached and the last scrawlings and sketches of playful and vulgar citizens are found everywhere you look.
I couldn’t help but run my fingers along the wall, and sit and think on the benches where long dead scholars sat and thought.
I walked the same streets over and over again.
I examined the paintings on the walls, imagining endlessly the hands that crafted them, and the minds attached to those hands which could never have conceived of the world that would one day surround their art, the people who would appreciate it, or the magic silver rectangle which would capture it.
I roamed the home of the villainous senator Casca, whose blade was the first to fall on Julius Caesar.
I spent at least twenty minutes staring in awe at the bones of a family and their slaves where they had slowly starved to death after being trapped in their home by the fall of heavy ash.
I bowed my head before the honored gods of a doomed family, the tiny idols in their altar, still standing where they failed almost two millenia ago.
The restricted areas of Pompeii are poorly restricted. Flimsy, rotting wooden gates are meant to bar tourists from wandering to areas not open to the public. But, as I’ve said, I couldn’t help myself. I looked around me and, when I was clear, pressed on into the narrow corridors beyond the gates.
I wandered the backrooms of Pompeian homes, crouched next to broken vessels, and examined bits of graffiti tourists less daring than me don’t get to see. I sought out beautiful pieces of art that one could just barely glimpse in the distance from the tourist path, and found my way into areas totally sealed, except for a small hole where a bit of wall had disintegrated. I climbed half collapsed stairs which led to a crumbling second level where I looked out over the sun-baked ruins.
I laid my pen and notebook on an table still standing and wrote. I wandered in ancient kitchens which led to concealed gardens.
In the hidden spots of that dead city there is much of interest to be found, and I wandered where I was not supposed to be for hours.
As dusk settled on the little city below Vesuvius I took no notice of the darkening sky. Pompeii closes at sunset, and as hordes of visitors made their way to the exits, I continued on my trespassing way oblivious, unaware of, and unseen by, the workers ushering people towards the exit. Suddenly, or so it seemed, it was dark.
In those streets, where hundreds perished in blinding agony, no light, save the moon and stars, fell to guide my path. So removed from the modern world, it was silent, except for the slap-slap-slap of my boots on the cobbled roads. Everywhere I looked, I was alone with the ghosts of Pompeii.
Alone and lost. Utterly lost. I walked in circles. It was too dark to read my map. The only lighting I found was when I passed an exhibit, where the twisted shells of charred corpses, frozen eternally in their last, writhing moments of searing agony, were laid out for all to see.
Chest raised in a last, strained, ash-filled gasp–no sculptor could so clearly convey pain and despair.
Adults curled futilely as fetuses–neither Lovecraft, nor Poe, nor King, nor any storyteller could so perfectly craft horror.
The longer I walked, the deeper the moon-thrown shadows fell on me, and I could form no distinct vision of the ruins. In some spots, where time and misfortune had little weathered the buildings, it may as well have been a living town slumbering before Monday for all I could tell.
My pulse quickened, and I felt each cool breath drawn between my lips. I began to run. But running only obscured detail, tripped up my memory, and I soon found myself in a section of the city I had not yet seen.
Pitch black. Long alleys. Silence and wind.
I am not a superstitious person. In fact, I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits–I am a materialist in my rational brain, but my imagination doesn’t know that. I had spent the whole day in my mind, soberly picturing life in the old Roman city, living it in my thoughts. Rationality had abandoned me, and terror began to wind itself about me, tightening on me.
Only curiosity kept my head on straight. As I wandered in search of an exit, I saw even more of Pompeii than my day’s explorations had allowed. Despite the unsettling fear I felt, I seriously considered tucking away in a dark corner, in a closed off section, and spending the night.
Almost two hours after they had closed I found myself on a wide boulevard which seemed to lead away from the center of Pompeii. I followed the road until I saw a modern gatehouse, with a guard inside, obliviously watching television. It looked like a place they might receive deliveries, but I didn’t investigate. I hightailed it out of there, ducking under the gate, and bolting past the guard lest he should think to question what a tourist was doing in there so long after closing.
I ran long and hard, all the way around the city until I reached the train and sat down under electric light where the ghosts of Pompeii, with whom I had communed in private, could not follow.