Pliny the Elder rushed through the streets, searching for the doctor.
Around him, the rarefied air burned, the heat of the erupting volcano sending waves of heat and ash through the normally cool and lush countryside.
He wheezed and coughed.
He would not leave, refused to leave until he had his best friend Pomponianus, and his family, safely aboard his sailing vessel, berthed at the docks. He had left Pomponianus at the baths, one last soothing dip to cool his lungs before boarding the ship.
The essentials had been packed for ages, and his crew were loading the ship while they relaxed in the soothing mineral baths that were the hallmark of Pompei. Mount Vesuvius had been angry for a while now and all the signs were that an eruption was in progress. They had time still, the mountain was barely erupting.
Suddenly he spied the thin balding man, hurrying down a side street, loaded down with bags and bundles.
“Hey! Hey Doc!” he called and rushed after the man’s flapping robes as the disappeared around a twist in the street. He sped up, his chest aching. He rounded another curve and saw the doctor bent over a man in the street.
He puffed to a halt beside the doctor and gasped for breath, waiting for the tightness in his chest to subside so that he could get the words out.
The doctor looked up, his face twisted in a grimace. “Dead.” He stood up and critically eyed Pliny, taking in his military bearing and scholarly attire.
“Surely I do not need to tell you to flee this place?” the doctor said, already turning away. Pliny grabbed his sleeve to keep him from moving and wheezed. “Medicine, I need some medicine. For the baths.”
The doctor peered up at the sky, glowing red in an unnatural twilight. Marble sized pieces of pumice bounced off the tile roofs and rolled down the smooth surfaces, piling up on the cobblestone streets.
“You need to flee, and flee now.” The doctor tried to tug his sleeve out of Pliny’s grip but to no avail.
Pliny pulled out his purse and shoved it into the doctor’s hand. “Please, the herbs for the bath. We will be quick about it, they are loading the boats as we speak.”
“Fine” said the doctor, pulling out a bag of herbs and shoving it into Pliny’s hands “and take this too.” A small vial with a wax seal and a small bag of white crystals were added to the pile. “The elixir will help with your cough. Take it with a pinch of salt.”
“Thank you!” rumbled Pliny and he released the doctor, who hurried away in the direction of the docks.
Pliny retraced his steps back uphill to the baths, gasping and clutching his chest, his asthma making his chest tight, so tight he could barely breathe. He stumbled into the baths, shedding his clothing as he went.
Outside, the chunks of pumice grew in size and quantity, becoming a steady downpour of rock and ash.
Inside the bath, Pliny sprinkled the packet of herbs over the water and sank down beside his best friend Pomponianus, breathing in deeply, the steam rising from the abandoned baths curling into soothing vapours that relaxed their lungs and eased their pains. He cracked the wax seal and they shared the elixir with a curl of salt in the crook of their thumb and sighed, eyes drooping. All was well.
English Idiom: “With a grain of salt” – Skeptically, with reservations…This expression is a translation of the Latin cum grano salis, which Pliny used in describing Pompey’s discovery of an antidote for poison (to be taken with a grain of salt).
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