A Boy’s Tale, Chapter 2

Photo is of the house reputed to be that of John Mark and his parents, the site of the Last Supper.

Photo is of the house reputed to be that of John Mark and his parents, the site of the Last Supper.

In case you missed Chapter 1 last week, it’s here: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1/

 

II

The next three weeks were thick with preparations and, in what seemed like no time at all, it was time to go. Most of our trips to Galilee had been in summer, but since the wedding feast was set for late February (a choice that I found hard to fathom), some adjustments to our routine were required. Among other things, it meant taking an extra donkey to bear the added bulk of cold-weather necessities.

Packing for the trip was simple enough – we were experienced travelers – it was everything else that took time: sending word ahead to friends and relatives where we planned to stay over, ensuring the welfare of the shop, finding a diplomatic way to delay my upper-level course in the study halls of the Temple (a coveted appointment not easily gained, and one I could only pray would await my return), preparing the appropriate wedding offerings, choosing gifts for our hosts along the way, and seeing to the thousand other little details attending such a long, complex journey. In all, we expected to be away for nearly a month.

I wanted to take the best of my animals along to show my friend Legolas, but when that was overruled by my mother, I carefully stowed them to safely await my return. Over the course of several years I had managed to craft more than eighty pairs, male and female, out of the tablet clay Papa stocked in the shop – everything from crickets to peacocks to those elephants (with real ivory tusks formed from a broken stylus Papa had discarded). I was very proud of my collection and fully expected, as I pushed them as far back under my bed as I could, that more would be added upon my return. Dragonflies with mica wings, I had already decided, would be my next triumph.

The last few days before we left were the most hectic, especially for Mama, who baked all the breads and packed all the food. And, because we were blessed to live in Jerusalem, there was also shopping to do for the relatives and it seemed they had all submitted requests. Papa said if it didn’t stop we would have to hire another donkey to carry it all, but we managed, in the end, to make do with the two.

It was on a Wednesday, one week to the day before the much anticipated wedding, when we waved goodbye to Aaron, Papa’s shop manager, and were finally on our way. The sun was already high in the sky, and I was well past ready to leave.

The day’s walk, 126 Roman stadia to Bethel, our first overnight stop, was a comparatively short one. We could hope to make about 180 to 200 stadia on a good day if we left early enough and the weather was favorable, so the hilly road leading us north out of Jerusalem was merely a warm-up for longer days to come.

It was a route we knew well from years of practice. The second day, from Bethel to Sychar, presented the most intense challenge – an endless trudge up rocky hills with cliffs rising up on one side and deep, forbidding canyons on the other. But, that only served to make the third day seem like a stroll, as it was all downhill from the top of Mount Gilboa to the town of Jezreel on the edge of the Megiddo Plain. Once there, we would spend two nights, including the Sabbath, with Great Aunt Tabaitha before ultimately – following another day’s walk – reaching Aunt Martha’s house in Nazareth on Sunday.

This plan allowed for a full day of recuperation and would give us time to take care of any last-minute wedding preparations before going the short distance to Cana on Tuesday. The festivities were to start at the traditional time, Wednesday noon, and continue for a full week. Since all of Mama’s family had been invited, we were looking forward as much to the extended family reunion as to the ceremony, itself.

The air was cold, but the sun was warm and we were loosening our cloaks even before we reached the Damascus Gate, the main portal both for those going north, as we were, and those going west to the seaport at Joppa. Even in mid-winter, the road was heavily traveled, so once the city wall was behind us, we dutifully took our place in line for the first hour or so until the congestion eased. The oxcarts ahead of us seemed to move, oh, so slowly, and we took advantage of the lull to talk through our plans once more and satisfy ourselves that we had left nothing behind.

Eventually, the bulk of the traffic, headed for the coast, turned off to the left and we were able to quicken our pace to a good rhythm. We were truly on our way at last, and there was nothing more to be done but walk, anticipate the joys ahead, and relish our time together.

As the hours passed, we saw fewer and fewer travelers, and just as we were getting comfortable with the idea of having the road more or less to ourselves, we began to hear something or, more accurately, to sense something that gave us pause. It was a low-pitched tremulation that was there, and yet not; an almost inaudible sound. It seemed to be coming up from the ground, and at first we thought it was the beginning rumblings of an angry earth. More felt than heard, it made the newly sprouted hair on my arms stand straight up, but as we saw no reason to hold up, we continued on.

The unsettling effect remained constant for some time so that we came to dismiss our concerns about a quaking, but it did not abate and, little by little – as the murmur grew to a grumble grew to a roar – at last we began to understand. It was an army, it was on the march, and it was coming toward us! Faintly, at first, we began to discern the beats: drum drum, drum. Drum drum, drum.

We were astonished. We could think of no reason for an army to be coming our way, but there could be no doubt about what we were hearing ever more clearly: many horses, many carts and hundreds of troops. Drum Drum, Drum. Drum Drum, Drum. Every beat grew louder, and then louder still, and I remember at one point shouting to Papa that it must be around the next bend, but still nothing came into view. Finally, after rounding yet another hill, a great cloud of dust rose into the sky before us, turning the blue into a pinkish-gray and finally confirming what we already knew.

“Oh, my stars!” Mama said, and we all three pulled our scarves up to cover our noses just as the procession, and it was truly a procession, rounded the bend.

The first to reach our position were two Roman Centurions astride impressive mounts, erect and proud in their highly-polished finest. “Make way for your new Governor!” they shouted every few feet to no one in particular. Scouting the road, they scanned the landscape with piercing looks and, for a moment, the one nearest to us stared right into me. I’m sure my eyes were wide and I must have seemed anxious because, at the last possible instant, he threw me a wink before shifting his gaze and moving on. “Make way for your new governor!” they shouted again. Drum, Drum, DRUM! Drum, Drum, DRUM!

We quickly found a place beside the road to wait, but the dust was thickening and both of the donkeys were doing their best to bolt into the surrounding hills, so we moved even further back to a rocky knoll where we could watch without choking.

For quite some time we stood there as a seemingly endless stream of Roman excess passed by: tall riders in crimson cloaks affixed with golden fibulae, a large corps of infantry, ox- wagons brimming with goods, and, most impressive of all to my youthful eyes, no less than four ornately decorated litters borne by enormous Nubian bearers and draped on every side with weavings to shut out the cold and the curious.

I was slack-jawed. It was easily the most spectacular display I had ever seen and I was more than happy to stand and watch. Following the two heralds who had shooed us out of the way came another horseman bearing a great banner on a pole. It was topped by a beautifully cast golden eagle with wings spread wide that rose just above the thickening dust cloud. I could make out each perfectly formed feather in the bright afternoon light, and made a mental note to add a pair of eagles to my menagerie.

Following far enough behind to be unaffected by the dust of the first three riders, five senior Roman officers in full regalia led the main group. I was fascinated by the Roman military in those days – what boy wasn’t? – and was quick to discern the Legate and First Tribune leading the way. Between them rode a man without any insignia, but whose superior demeanor made it plain he was in charge. All of Judea had known for weeks that the new Governor was sailing from Rome to the port at Caesarea, and I was pleased to be the first of my friends to see him, though, if the man in the center really was the Governor, he was much younger than I would have thought. Two more Tribunes followed just behind, eyes alert, protecting him from the rear.

In the intense sun, the gleaming bronze of their hilts, helmets and shields threw darts of light through the rising dust like tiny leaves of sunlight dancing on every side. And, even though the governor was quite close – passing only a few feet from me – I was struck by the impossibly vast gulf between us. He was from a world I could hardly even guess at and, from his perspective so high on his horse, I was not even there. Drum, Drum, DRUM! Drum, Drum, DRUM!

Only a few feet behind the vanguard followed the litters, each accompanied by a group of six slaves, four carrying the load and two to relieve them. Though I had seen litters moving through the city, I had never really, until that moment, considered the finer points of long distance travel by such luxurious means.

Even as we watched, at the sharp command of an overseer trailing behind who I had not previously noticed, the six carriers on all four litters rotated their positions without missing a step. First, the two bearers who were trailing each sedan moved up to relieve those carrying the rear poles. Once they were fully supporting the weight, the two they had replaced swapped sides to balance the strain on their arms and moved forward to relieve the pair holding the front poles, who then completed the dance by fading back to refresh their energies until their turn would come again. It was beautiful to watch, but seemed an outlandish extravagance to my boy’s eyes, regardless of who might be reclining behind those heavy tapestries.

The main body of about four hundred foot-soldiers marched just behind the litters, moving past in ranks of four, and even the dust in the air began to shake to the rhythm as the drums reached our position – DRUM DRUM, DRUM! DRUM DRUM, DRUM! DRUM DRUM, DRUM! – two rows of drummers had been placed at the front of the ranks, two rows in the center, and one at the rear, presumably to ensure that all could hear, though that seemed an absurd concern from where we were standing.

At least two dozen oxcarts driven by household slaves and overflowing with all manner of furnishings and other goods followed the foot soldiers. One especially memorable wagon was entirely dedicated to moving a huge, brightly-colored, and apparently very heavy statue of the Roman goddess Aphrodite – in all of her glory but none of her clothes – riding right out in the open! She was impossible to miss, and I could easily anticipate the murmuring tongues she would unleash upon her arrival at the city gate.

Lastly, came the cavalry, impressive and intimidating. The horsemen rode past us in double file astride enormous, beautifully-tended beasts. There must have been at least a hundred, though they stretched so far back beyond the bend that I lost count. Held to the pace of those walking ahead, of the ox-carts and litter bearers, the powerful mounts seemed anxious to move more quickly, but their riders knew their steeds. I watched fascinated as some leaned forward to caress and cajole their impatient partners, while others sat erect and held the reins tight and close, moving sharply to dissuade any hint of disobedience. There were lessons learned as I stood and watched, and not just about horses.

And then it was over. The sound of the drums was already fading by the time the final two riders passed us by, and the sun had visibly shifted, not noticing.

“Well, well. Pontius Pilate,” Papa said, once the dust had finally settled enough for us to return to the road. “It seems our new Prefect has arrived.”

“Well, he can’t be any worse than ‘in-Gratus,’” Mama said, “and anyone would be better than Antipas.”

“At least Antipas is a Judean,” Papa responded. “I’m told that Pilate is a dilettante, a Roman soft-sole through and through, and you saw how young he looks! He knows nothing of us, our beliefs, our history, our culture. Who knows what he will do. Judea is not Rome, where religion is a pastime for the idle. For us, it is life, itself. I predict our new governor may have some surprises in store.” He said it without a smile, so I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic or concerned. There was a little of both in his voice.

The previous Roman Prefect, Valerius Gratus, had served for 11 years – nearly my entire lifetime – but had undermined himself with the people, and especially my mother, by lording over the Temple priesthood and demanding arbitrary changes on a whim. Mama’s ire had been particularly roused when he removed the popular High Priest, Annas, who also just happened to be the uncle of Mama’s childhood friend, Salome Zebedee. Salome’s husband – everyone just called him Zebedee – had been in the fish-curing business with my grandfather in Capernaum, and my uncles continued to sell their daily catch to him.
Mama must have been thinking about all these things as we walked, for she soon said, “I wonder if Salome will be at the wedding. Her sons are all grown now. Maybe I can get them to talk some sense into those brothers of mine!”

The dramatic Roman spectacle we had just witnessed kept us talking for the rest of the day. We considered every detail of the litters with their brocades and shiny slaves, the steady beat of the drums, the glimmering horse mounts, and a hundred other details. The only thing not discussed was the painted lady, who, when I forgot myself and mentioned her, earned me a thump on the head from Mama.

We also found that we had all arrived at the same unavoidable truth: our new Prefect, riding so tall, was not the least bit happy about his Imperial assignment. Mama said he looked like he had just taken a deep swig of milk gone bad, and couldn’t get the taste out of his mouth.

Since the death, twenty years earlier, of King Herod the Builder – who, to his credit, had completed the reconstruction of the Temple, but then nearly bankrupted the nation with his compulsion to pile up ever grander palaces for himself – the leadership of Judea had been uncertain at best, and disastrous for the most part. For the first decade, more or less, a succession of inept Herodian sons, each in turn, abruptly took the throne by dispensing with the previous one. They were an unhappy bunch who thought nothing of taking each other’s lives – or wives. Finally, Caesar Augustus became so weary of it all that he dethroned the whole lot of them and placed Judea under direct Roman rule. Pontius Pilate would be the fifth Roman to take on that responsibility.

In a classic case of “the last shall be first,” the only one of the late King’s sons who had managed to survive the purge of his brothers was the youngest, Herod Antipas, and that was largely because he had inherited the lesser provinces of Perea and Galilee, which kept him well away from the family drama taking place in Jerusalem. As a result, he was nearing his twenty-fifth year of uninterrupted, relatively unmolested, rule. And this was true notwithstanding the fact that, in true Herodian fashion, he had so recently scandalized everyone – from the Emperor to my mother – by taking Herodias, who was both his niece and the divorced wife of his, by then, exiled and sole surviving brother, Philip, to be his own.

We were so engaged that time passed quickly as we walked and talked, and we were already nearing Bethel – we could tell from the increase in traffic – when Papa said, perhaps a little too loudly, “Silas, the head scribe of the Temple, told me the Emperor has given Pilate leave to rein in Antipas.”

“Shush, Elijah!” Mama said under her breath as she smiled broadly and nodded to a family passing by in the opposite direction. Then, once they were well out of earshot, she turned to him and said, “You never know who is listening, Elijah. You must be more careful!”

It was a time of many whispers; a time of many ears.

 

© 2015, George Thomas Wilson, all rights reserved.

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