Per tradition and necessity, I am untouched by man.
“Aurora?” Sofia asks. “What’s a virgin?”
I close my eyes. My head aches. It’s the chlorine.
The full moon is the only illumination in the shadowed natatorium. The sacred flame of Vesta flickers in my lantern but doesn’t reach my bare feet. Midnight traffic clogs the city streets forty-three stories below. The drivers are ignorant of the ancient ceremony unfolding in the penthouse indoor pool above their heads.
“Ask Mater,” I answer without looking down at the nine-year-old girl standing beside me. Sofia has only been in the Atrium Vestae for one day. She is the replacement for another Vestal, Priya—my dearest friend—who turned thirty and retired last week.
I’m twenty-nine. I’m next.
“Mater said it means no man has touched us, but I used to play tag with boys at school!” Sofia’s fidgeting with her white stola. The traditional Roman robes are miniatures of mine, but while the coarse white cloth hugs my curves, Sofia’s mantle hangs off her straight form. “Doesn’t that count?”
“What about when my dad kissed me goodnight?”
“Are you sure? Have you ever kissed a boy?”
“No,” I say, and it is the truth. “But I know that doesn’t count.”
Sofia nods to herself as she considers this information.
“Aurora?” Sofia asks again, and it’s all I can do not to hurl myself into the pool. I hate kids. There hasn’t be a child Vestal apprentice for a decade. Just my luck getting saddled with training the new one. “What happens if Hyperon-”
“The Traveler,” I correct.
“What if the Traveler comes back and we’re not virgins?”
“The Traveler must return to Hades.”
“And Hyperon would live in Hell?”
“Hades isn’t Hell.”
“It’s not?” Sofia’s voice hitches with hope.
“Mater says my mom and dad are in Hades now,” Sofia whispers. Her young voice trembles in a way that takes me aback and makes my heart ache worse than my head.
For the first time, I meet Sofia’s eyes.
“Hades isn’t a punishment,” I say gently. “It’s just where the dead go.”
“But Hyperon isn’t dead.”
“Living mortals can cross the River Styx to Hades, but can only return to the living if a virgin welcomes them back. That’s why we wait at the water’s edge when Travelers descend to Hades, and why we must remain pure and never leave the atrium.”
“I know,” Sofia whispers. Her face is grim as she studies the vacant water. “Mater said I have to be home-schooled now.”
The ache in my heart intensifies.
“The world’s not safe for girls,” I say, repeating what Mater — the head priestess of the Atrium Vestae — drilled into me when I was a child Vestal apprentice. “We stay inside the atrium to ensure our purity until we retire at thirty. Then we’re given payment for our years of service.”
“Ashaki says they find us husbands, too.”
“Yes,” I say, my stomach suddenly queasy.
My mind wanders to Priya.
“Aurora?” Sofia asks one final time. “Do you like being a virgin?”
I open my mouth… but find I cannot reply.
For the first time, I don’t have an answer.
Fortunately, at that moment, the smooth water at the center of the wading pool begins to ripple. A whirlpool begins. The sound of rushing water echoes in the natatorium. The water gains speed and expands in size until the swirling vortex almost touches the pool’s edge.
And then, from the depths of the whirlpool, the head, shoulders, and finally torso of a man appear.
Despite emerging from water, his gray hair is dry. He looks exhausted as he hoists a burlap sack up on his shoulder. I’ve never seen what Travelers bring back from Hades. It’s forbidden for me to ask.
The Traveler steps from the whirlpool and submerges himself in the water up to his knees. Instead of making his way towards the stairs, however, he waits.
I set the lantern down and wade into the pool.
The Traveler, a man named Hyperon who is kind to Sofia but avoids my eyes out of respect — and, I suspect, because he has trouble keeping his gaze solely on my eyes — thrusts his hand forward.
I extend my own hand to bring him ashore, as is tradition. As is my duty. As I have done every full moon for twenty years, and has been done by Vestal Virgins for a millennia, and as they will for—
Hyperon’s eyes widen.
I look down. My outstretched hand is inches from his, but Hyperon does not take it. He doesn’t seem able to. Hyperon’s fingers tremble and flex as he makes noises of effort, but his hand remains trapped in the air, unable to take mine.
Confused, I look at Hyperon’s face.
His skin is crimson.
“You…” he hisses.
He abruptly shouts in pain. I stumble backwards and look down. His outstretched fingers are clenched together as though squeezed by an invisible claw.
Hyperon is yanked to the water and dragged backwards into the whirlpool.
“You!” he shrieks, his revolted eyes on me as he struggles against the unseen force. “Harlot!”
The whirlpool swallows him and immediately collapses, leaving behind only waves.
Sofia screams. My mouth hangs open in silent shock. I fall to my knees with a splash. My heartbeat is frenzied. This has never happened to me. In twenty years, I have never failed to bring a Traveler back to the land of the living.
I stare at the place where Hyperon disappeared beneath the water.
No, not beneath the water. My skin erupts in goosebumps. He’s in Hades.
“What happened?” Sofia cries. I ignore her.
How? I think, my mind spiraling for answers. I am untouched by man…
And it is true: I, Aurora the Vestal Virgin, am untouched by man.
Suddenly, I know the answer.
Last week… Priya’s final night in the atrium…
My stomach plummets.
By woman, however…
“Shit!” I hiss. “That counts?”
A private investigator from the Jersey Shore, Carolyn A. Drake is currently living her best east-coast-transplant life in Denver. She has a BA in English and has had a number of short works published by small press publications, including Mad Scientist Journal and Horror Tree. In 2018, her short horror fiction entitled ‘The Five Deaths of Margaret Ann Campbell,’ was made into an audio production and featured on the award-winning No Sleep Podcast. Check out her website, www.CarolynADrake.com, for short stories and podcast audio. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Carolyn_A_Drake, and on Facebook @WriterCarolynADrake.