Dozens of panhandlers and petty thieves daily haunted Bethesda, famed for magic cures. They inveigled a living among the multitudes of ailing sufferers who flocked there for the healing supposed to occur to the first person entering the pool when the angel stirred the waters. That was not to easily done! So many invalids were stationed round the pool edge that most people could not even see the water. Some of the ill had been there half a lifetime or more and had still to see the angel.
While the crowds waited for the tarrying angel, the burr knew exactly how to extort sympathetic alms from well-to-do Jews who had some incurable but not too life-threatening ailment. Wagging a useless-looking arm or leg, she would hop and limp about shamelessly until she got what she was after. Before long, some man or woman, thinking themselves less hurt than her, would be moved to give a copper.
By hook and mostly crook, her takings kept them both alive. But it was never enough to encourage Noahdiah to think of escape back to Nazareth. Rather, it had to be someplace she could start anew, where she wasn’t so known. But where? And how? As for her two leptons, all she had to her name, she had forgotten them. They were sewn up somewhere in her hem, and put out of mind long ago.
Growing accustomed to life on the street and in the gutters, Abagtha’s daughter gradually hardened to verminous dirt and degradation. She thought nothing anymore of sleeping night and day in the open with the burr and several others of their kind. They shared whatever bread crusts came their way.
Dreams proved less adaptable. She tossed fitfully in the Temple sewer, or wherever else the band of street women sought repose, such as under the arches of the viaducts that connected to the temple mount. Often in dreams she saw herself going from door to door as she had done in Nazareth of yore, only to see a fearsome elder rise up. He’d shake a big club in her face and shout some old saw like “Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he become weary of you and loathe you!”
When, in such dreams, she haughtily protested the unfair allegation, she found she could emit only high-pitched squeaks reminiscent of Widow Legion. Another recurring nightmare had to do with a poor mother of a large Nazarene family, whose husband was permanently laid up. Coming to Noahdiah in her dream-house of a pillared, Herodian-styled mansion, the mother threw herself at Noahdiah’s gilded slippers. She covered them with tears as she cried for help.
Noahdiah squirmed on her makeshift bed of rubbish as she saw her glittering, perfumed apparition lift a gilded foot and kick the woman’s hands away. Then she heard her voice roughly upbraid the wretch, with words to the effect, “What is all this fuss, good woman? Time and chance happen to us all! Garner wild onion, mustard, dill, and most noble rue. They grow profusely in our fair land, do they not? No one needs starve when Providence so faithfully supplies the efficacious, wild herb for our dinner bowl. As I always said, ‘Through sloth the roof sinks in...’”
Sometimes she woke up completely soaked in sweat, not perfume. It took her a long time to calm down and go back to sleep. She couldn’t get over the image of herself shaking a long, ruby-beringed finger at the starving scarecrow of a Jewish mother while her other hand rested idly in a golden dinner bowl of fresh grapes.
Hating to entertain such things even in sleep, Noahdiah was afraid to lose consciousness. But sleep she must. The torment continued, however, night after night.
“Why do you think you were appointed governing Prefect in this country?” his wife challenged him one bad day in the Fortress Antonia.
Pilatus stared without appreciation at his ranting, rhetorical spouse. But, since her money was still considerable and necessary to his career, he knew he must appear to listen.
“And a dog in the gutter has more regard for religion than you do!” she continued, with a rising voice that carried down the pillared corridor where she had intercepted him. “Even if the chief priest must go to you for his vestments, must you be such a boor as to make him prostrate himself like a foot-washer before you issue them to him? No wonder they hate and despise you!”
Pilate smiled inwardly at her hyperbole, so typical of females. The chief priest did not actually crawl on the floor before him. He only bowed seven-fold after presenting a suitable gift of money. After all, was he not Roman governor, with the power of life and death, as good as a king or chief priest?”
“If you are responsible for any more trouble, I have powerful friends and I will divorce you in the Senate!” declared Claudia Procula Pilate. “And I’ll leave you not a penny for you to live on, wherever they exile you! This is my last warning!” For this the Prefect was not exactly prepared. Her last warning? He cocked his head slightly as if he needed to hear her better. But as he examined her expression he could see there was no impulsiveness in what she said. Clearly, she and her lover Sejanus had conspired and decided to make this announcement. He turned away, to give himself a moment to think. His hand idly played with the fruit in a bowl on a marble, gilt-legged table--fresh grapes of Samaria, the first and best the local market had to offer at that season. Of course! he thought, recalling that the Jewish Feast of “Shukkah,” or “Pukkah” or some such fool thing, was drawing near [he had confused the festival with the common bird called ‘chukkah,’ which preyed upon ripe fruit such as peaches and apricots]. All Jewdom would be presenting their offerings of “first-fruits” at the Temple.
A man of ruthless action once he had decided on it, Pilatus seized the gold dinner bowl with blunt, hairy-knuckled fingers (his barber never seemed to be able to keep up with his body hair!). He dumped the grapes on the marble floor and waved the gleaming vessel before Procula’s widening eyes.
Now this bowl, unknown to Pilatus, had been old King Herod’s, cast from the golden eagle he had set at the entrance to the Temple. That imperial image, thought blasphemous by the Jews, had incited a bloody riot against King Herod and had been quickly removed.
“Well, my dear, if it is as you say, I need to rectify my good name with the chief priests and elders. So to proclaim my good faith, my high respect for their sacred office and Jewish hocus-pocus in general, I will fill this nice, little gew-gaw with fancy coin and have it deposited in the Temple treasury along with the Jews’ traditional bread-loaves. Well, what do you think? Isn’t that a stroke of Roman genius?”
Procula tapped her gilded foot and bit her lip. Her bundling husband who thought himself so intelligent was always thinking of strange expediencies, or extraordinary ways out of difficulties of his own making. Could she trust this latest ruse to work? After all, it might be more of her good money misspent and thrown down Fortress Antonia’s enormous cloacus maximus. “You had better succeed in this, my lord, or I swear you will soon join Herod’s son in Vienne-on-Rome or some other such beastly, provincial hole!” she replied with disdain. “Only do not cover one blunder with a worse sacrilege. If you truly desire to avoid another riot and your recall to Rome, make certain there are absolutely no Roman images on the coins! The Temple accepts only money without images as holy tender.”
The diplomatic side of Pilate bowed before his wife. “I understand fully and completely, my dear! Absolutely no coins with images! I will go over every coin just to make sure. There won’t be a chance of an error, I can assure you! Not one chance! I swear it with a most solemn oath before all the gods of Rome!
Their combined efforts worked well and harmoniously. Other street women who followed them shared in the bounty. There was often enough to go round and keep body and soul together while the festivals continued and moneyed crowds with pockets remained ripe for picking. After the pilgrims went home, it was a different story, of course. Then they were thrown back on the local citizenry, who had seen it all too many times to be taken in again.
Jerusalem locals knew all about their beggars, pickpockets, and other criminal classes. They had little time for street women. Authorities were even less tolerant of rabble. Noahdiah was terrified the first time soldiers (actually Temple guards) came at them in earnest. With clubs the guards pushed and propelled them out of the Temple’s vicinity. Yet at another time the same ruffians appeared repentant, bringing an ox-cart full of provisions, and the women (helped by a legion of thieves) gorged for days.
Romans, too, were ambivalent in their attitude. Generally hostile to anything or anyone Jewish, they considered street women trash and not worth notice and so left them mostly alone. But they carried swords and had used them on occasion, not only to clear the Court of the Gentiles of thousands of rioting Galileans but some of the neighboring streets as well. Good Jewish blood had choked Roman drains all that day and the next.
Unknown to Noahdiah, the chief priests were responsible for any persecution they might experience. As guardians of the sanctity and purity of the Temple precincts, they sought a clean, orderly parish for the sake of incoming tides of pilgrims. Periodically, they forgot old laws regarding treatment of the poor and needy in the interests of their highly lucrative office. Then the temple guards, clubs in hand, made a cruel sweep through areas where street women and other beggars proliferated. Many a beggar lost half his or her wits to a sacerdotal clubbing.
Keeping an eye out for guards, Noahdiah and Widow Legion went to work one fine Sabbath at the Pool of Siloam. Noahdiah’s burr had not yet begun her wonderful act when something stranger occurred. A blind beggar Noahdiah had seen sitting in the places they frequented, one who had been blind since birth, was healed by merely washing some clay off his eyes with the magic waters!
People everywhere soon shouted the news and the whole city ran to see the man and talk to him.
“Was there an angel in the water?” Noahdiah wondered, though Bethesda was the pool with the angel. Other people asked the same thing. But, no, they had not seen any angel, yet something incredible had occurred. Mystified, Noahdiah joined the throng who eagerly sought more information.
Fortunately, the source had not disappeared. The man walked only a few steps, rejoicing in his healing, while crowds jostled and sought to ask him all sorts of questions.
Noahdiah and visitors to the Pool who had known the man as a beggar, said, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” In reply others said in awed tones, “Yes, it’s the man,” Still, skeptics laughed, saying, “No, but he’s like him.”
Hearing the scoffers, the man in question paused and looked about the crowd with amazement. He pointed to himself. “I am the man all right!”
This was a direct challenge to skeptics. A burly, black-bearded Pharisee and butcher stepped forward aggressively, as if to seize his throat in his expert grip. “Then how were your eyes opened?” he growled. “Now don’t embroider the facts. Tell me exactly how it happened or you’ll rue the day you saw me!”
The miracle man smiled broadly at this representative of a powerful class of religious leaders, who controlled synagogues and business and much trade, leaving the Temple to the Pharisees and the government to the Romans and Herodians. “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to the Pool Siloam and wash,’ so I went and washed and received my sight.”
Other Pharisees joined in sarcastic laughter. They said to the man, “Where is he then--this man we know is a Samaritan and a demoniac?”
The man was taken aback for a moment. He looked templeward, then seemed confused. “I don’t know,” he admitted, turning the palms of his hands upwards.
The Pharisees then turned round with triumphant smiles to the people. They held up their hands in the same way as they aped the man. “You see what proof he has! And even if a miracle has occurred, it is unlawful, being performed against the Holy Sabbath!”
Noahdiah pushed out of the crowd and went to find Widow Legion. The name of Maryam’s roaming, aberrant son provoked old disgust. She felt the need to return to her own life, lean as it was. But the burr was nowhere to be found. Growing frantic, she scoured the precincts of the Siloam Pool without success, and then the neighborhood quarter, and after that, Bethesda. Acquainted with every beggar’s haunt and sty, she knew in time she would come upon the half-wit tumbleweed, but in her heart she sensed something dreadful had happened--that her clinging burr was no more.
Noahdiah passed a begging-station at King Herod’s viaduct, noting the same old faces plus one she did not recognize. This was a good spot, for good reason. Since busy shopkeepers in the Valley of Cheesemakers were less inclined to tolerate sticky-fingered beggars during festivals, beggars usually kept clear of profit-hungry tradesmen and concentrated on traffic going to and from the Temple. The major viaduct leading from the Upper City to the Temple had spacious arches where beggars could find sanctuary, as long as they kept an eye out for temple guards.
After wandering all over the city, she found her way back to the viaduct and stopped to rest. Multitudes of pilgrims passed by, either to seek lodgings in the city or its environs or place their loaves in the Temple shofars as a sacrifice. It was very easy to tell who had sacrificed and was in no mood to be importuned by a beggar. But Abagtha’s down-and-out daughter was in no mood to beg anything but information. Wherever she spotted a thief she knew or a fellow beggar, she asked, but so far they could tell her nothing, except to advise her to look beneath the viaduct.
Exasperated, she did and each time found only the same faces and the new one she did not recognize. Off again she’d go in a circuit of the city. It was growing late. Crowds thinned down to a trickle as people hurried for shelter. Despairing, Noahdiah decided to try the viaduct arches one last time.
“Dearie!” a voice called to her.
Of course, it was the idiotic burr calling to her! More annoyed than relieved, Abagtha’s daughter flew to berate the burr for all the trouble she had caused her by wandering off. She could not believe her eyes when she was confronted by a total stranger, a maiden (or so she appeared) who spoke familiarly to her.
“You have passed me by many times, my friend!” the maiden remarked chattily. “I wondered if I offended you, for you always went away without speaking to me.”
“Are you moon-struck?” Noahdiah cried. “I do not know you!”
The maiden stared at her, then arose. She was wearing rags, and an additional pile of more or less dark widow’s garments lay at her feet. She moved close to Noahdiah, but the widow was angered and alarmed. “How dare you say you know me! We have never met in this city or anywhere else!”
The harsh words drew instant tears to the maiden’s eyes. She lifted her hands to Noahdiah. “My dear friend! You won’t forsake me in this strange place, will you? I don’t even know how I cam to be here. I just remember talking to a man who said his name was Yesh--”
Noahdiah clapped her hands over suddenly burning ears, and her whole body shuddered. “It is not as you say!” she cried. Noahdiah opened her eyes, stared at the incredible creature in front of her and closed her eyes again. It was some time before she could resolve to sit down under the arch, unaware she was seating herself on some sweepings of donkey dung and rotten fruit.
Slowly at first, sharing only a few bits of information, the women began to talk, with Noahdiah plying most of the questions. “Where are you from originally?” Noahdiah asked, for obviously the maiden had her wits restored. “What is your name? How did you come to look the way you do now?”
“Well, first he told me to wash my face, so I did, in the big pool. I must have been lying, for some reason, on the ground, for I was quite dirty. I then looked up to speak to the man again, but he was gone. so I walked many places, asking for him, and some said go to the entrance of the Temple and wait, for he often passed this way, they said. Temple men came and drove me off. I was tired, so sat down here, and then I saw you go by, again and again. I was wondering when you would stop to talk to your old friend.”
Stunned, Noahdiah gazed at the girl, examining her bright, clean countenance and flawless complexion as she spoke. “But where are you from? Do you have another name?”
The maiden laughed artlessly. “I don’t remember.” Then the name, “Sela,” came to mind, and she pronounced it with a strange accent. Noahdiah, hearing it, knew it wasn’t a person’s name. It was a place, the rose-red desert capital of the wealthy Nabataean Arabs, set far off in the mountains bordering Idumaea, the late King Herod’s native land.
The maiden seemed jolted by a thought. “Oh, I can see everything now! It’s all very clear. I lived in a fine, tall place with many rooms, not here in this city, but far off in red mountains near a great desert and wilderness, and this is my name. I’m Mariamne. Do you like it?” She paused, saying the name softly several times while Noahdiah cringed, since it was a variant of “Maryam.” “My father is the king and my mother is queen,” the idiot went on.
Noahdiah could not take it in. She looked away and saw the petty thieves that shared the arch. They were hanging on the maiden’s words, some with her own amazement and disbelief showing in their faces. Several sprang to their feet and backed away, as if the girl’s madness might be contagious.
“You are very mad, poor girl,” said Noahdiah. “I don’t believe I know you after all.”
Saddened, the widow rose and turned to go, but the mad maiden flung herself at Noahdiah’s filthy feet sobbing. “I cannot bear to let you leave me in this place! It’s all strange to me! I know only you and Yeshua!”
At the mention of that name, Noahdiah’s soul revolted. She could not bear hearing it twice in a day and fled away from the arch, making for the Valley of the Cheesemakers--a good place to sink into near invisibility. The deep ravine between the Temple mount and Herod’s Citadel was crammed with hundreds of shops that soon swallowed up the lone widow.
She slowed down when she thought she was safe enough and could not be followed. Her breath was labored. She had not run like that for years. She continued, intending to keep on until she reached the Golden Gate, the exit nearest her, so that she might leave Jerusalem for good. But her old legs were weak. Her gait was so slow she had not reached the gate when the burr caught up. “You little sinner, get away from me this instant!”
Noahdiah groaned at the sight of Mariamne. “You must be a devil to torment me so, when I don’t know you!”
Noahdiah’s words seemed to cut through the maiden like piercing arrows or javelins. She cried out in sharp pain and anguish. “My friend, you’re right. I was possessed, by devils, a multitude of them as the Master Yeshua said. But don’t leave me in this city!” Mariamne cried with Widow Legion’s great, quaking sobs.
Passers-by stopped, drawn by the commotion. Roman-armored sentries called out to the two women. But Noahdiah could not help herself. Deathly, core-sick of cruel, heartless Jerusalem, terrified by her loss of the supporting burr, she simply could not handle this person who claimed to be the Widow Legion and “Mariamne” from Sela at the same time. She screamed the worst things she could think of to drive the mad thing away. But for all her efforts she only succeeded in drawing attention from a hundred people, who leaned out of windows and looked out doorways.
The two women, with a rag-tag retinue of spectators and curious sentries, continued down the street toward the Golden Gate. They were never to reach it. Pilatus’s chief man, second in command under him, intended to be in Sebaste by daybreak. He had taken a chariot from Fortress Antonia. Everyone but the two women could tell from the noise that some mighty Roman was headed for the same gate, hurrying to exit the city before the closing and barring of the great brass doors for the night.
Noahdiah herself did not know why she suddenly swerved toward the gutter, as she did not hear the careening chariot in her distracted state. She only stood and saw two things happen as if they were one event. The maiden who called herself Princess Mariamne was standing in the street, calling Noahdiah’s name and something about a golden bowl. Then two teams of horses and a consular chariot thundered straight over her and continued on out the massive gate.
Noahdiah, in a daze, slowly shook her head, and people began asking her questions. “Are you not her beloved mother?” a man wanted to know. “Say so, is this your daughter?” another, who was Greek in culture, cried. “Yea or Nay?”
Noahdiah could not find the words, for no Jew and Jewess answered anything “Yea or Nay” directly; unable to do that, she tried to shake her head, but her brains were still so rattled, she failed that too and stood dumbly gazing at everyone.
“Those terrible Romans have slaughtered your lovely daughter, the fruit of your sainted womb!” a woman exclaimed with heat. “None of us Chosen People are safe anymore these days!” an old man wheezed in complaint. “What are we coming to? O my, my, my!”
“Death to the infidel Romans for all their crimes against our holy race!” a man of action and patriotism, a zealot, foolishly declared in public as another man made note of it and took his description. “It is time, my brethren, to rise up and be counted as men of Abraham, Moses, and--”
Fine words came cheap in the Holy City. Even the zealot did nothing more than spit toward the Fortress Antonia after his little inflammatory speech. Grumbling at the week-long defilement they would incur by helping, men reached to remove the victim from the street to a place by the side.
“Where do you abide, my good woman?” a millionaire Jew and dealer in spikenard happening on the pathetic scene inquired from a safe distance. “Here, please be so good as to take my entire yearly Temple tithe of consecrated money!” he said as he tossed her some silver coins marked “United States of America” and sandwiched copper that had been refused by a shopkeeper when he tried to buy cheese with them.
“Alas, may Heaven above note my sacrifice, and take all mine too as a memorial!” a fashionable woman with painted eyebrows wept, adding a few bone tokens that would have gained her admittance at the Roman theater.
Soon a little pile of alms was collected. The tearful, sighing crowd, desiring to retire for the night, felt their call to charity discharged and began dispersing. Several men offered to carry the victim to Noahdiah’s house after an old rug was volunteered from one the adjoining shops to wrap the body.
“I have no place of my own here,” she had to tell them after dazedly gathering up the alms from old habit. “You see, I am a pilgrim on my way to the Temple.”
The men looked disgusted. “Then we’ve defiled ourselves for nothing. You can’t go to the Temple now, after being touched by the dead!”
“Oh, but I didn’t touch her,” said Noahdiah. Still of a protesting mind, she mumbled on, saying she wished to have nothing to do with her, since it was no daughter of hers, but no one heard.
“Whether you go to the Temple or not, you must tell us where to take her!” another demanded.
“I have no place in this city,” Noahdiah repeated helplessly.
“Well, then, this unclean cadaver must go immediately to Potter’s Field. It cannot be left like this in the street. The dogs will tear it and our holy city will be polluted.”
By this time, the Syro-Roman sentries, losing interest, slunk off. The dead Jewess had been pretty enough, but fate had intervened.
“Well, I’m not going to haul the body! Let someone else do it!” “Nor am I going to do it!” said another. “My wife will be wondering what happened to me, when I don’t come. So you fellows do it, since your’re sinners and need to make recompense of some sort!”
The men began to argue more heatedly, shaking their fists at each other. Seeing the beginnings of a brawl, a peacemaker stepped forward. “Holy Brethren, we cannot leave a mother of Israel like this!” one cried. “Does she have no menfolks of her family or tribe who can take the body from here and stand vigil for her this night?”
Noahdiah shook her head. The implications of all she had witnessed in the last hour were again sinking in, overcoming her shock at the sudden death. She was too overcome to even talk, and, even if she had managed to protest again, the one pleading for her prevailed, and three men hoisted the body and headed for Potter’s Field. There was nothing else to be done, the men realized. It was either Potter’s Field or open their private homes to be defiled by the presence of a dead person. The Golden Gate was closed for the night, however. They would have to go by way of the Camel’s Eye, which was just wide enough to a single person to slip through at a time. Somehow, they managed to get the body out, and then it was a difficult walk in the dark to the cemetery. As soon as the men found it, they lay the body down and departed.
Somehow the presence of the Dead had affected the men, and they grew more tender-hearted, but not enough to do any more. “May God protect you, mother of Israel,” one said. “I’m sorry, I must get back to my wife and family. They’ll be worried by now.”
Though deserted by city folk, the widow was not left alone for very long. The countryside was full of hymn-singing pilgrims with pious, big hearts, who camped in vast numbers in the clefts of the hills and valleys all around Jerusalem. Lamps and bonfires lit up the ravines and hillsides, discouraging the prowling jackals, wolves and hyenas. Everything was well-lit, except in Potter’s Field, which remained conspicuously dark.
Families of Nazarenes were nearby, but Noahdiah couldn’t know that, and if she had, she wouldn’t have called to them for aid. Instead, it was a lone Samaritan woman, who had no right or valid reason to be anywhere near Holy Jerusalem, who came directly to Potter’s Field. She didn’t seemed surprised when she held out her lantern and shone it on Noahdiah’s face.
“God sent me to this city to help you,” Basemath said simply. She set her lantern down and pulled things from her donkey’s loaded panniers. A little later she offered more explanation. “In a vision I saw you clearly, and that you would be lying with your daughter outside the city in a dark valley filled with graves.”
Hearing this, Noahdiah gave up all further thought of protesting her fate, and accepted the fact she now had a daughter, albeit a deceased one who had sorely troubled her with Yeshua and a miracle during her last moments.
Basemath lay warm blankets around Noahdiah, and then they sat, waiting for the night to end.
In the morning, before the pilgrims had begun to stir in their makeshift camps, Noahdiah stirred beneath the warm night-cloak lent by the Samaritan. “I don’t understand,” she said to Basemath. “I don’t understand how you, a woman of Samaria, would help me, a Jewess.” She might have added that she did not understand how a man’s eyes might be restored after a life of blindness, after she had seen him day after day, a blind beggar with blank, ivory-white eyes. And she could have added how she did not understand how the one who was dead and lay by her feet had declared that she knew her.
A whole lifetime spent on the wrong road can take a considerable amount of time for withdrawal. Noahdiah began to weep. Pilgrims who had already been to the Temple, who were visiting relatives whose graves lay in the field, thought she was weeping for her dead daughter. But she was really weeping for all the things she did not know, or had refused to know until it was too late.
Now, before Mariamne could be properly buried, the body, according to custom, had to be washed and anointed. The Samaritan quickly assessed the situation, then sighed. “I can see now that the things I brought are what the Lord intended for you and your daughter, and not for Him as I thought. Oh well! They are sorely needed here!”
Without explaining her strange words, she hurried to tear rents in her clothes and put some ash and dust on her head. She then handed the astonished Noahdiah some prepared food. “Eat!” she commanded.
Noahdiah took the food without protest.
“I must go and find help,” Basemath added, and bustled off toward the nearest camp of pilgrims. Within minutes she returned with several matrons and two professional mourners, all hired for the task because they were not related to the dead and were under no obligation to defile themselves. They had only come because they were being well paid. Moreover, they had already sacrificed their bread-loaves at the Temple.
As Noahdiah obeyed and ate some of the Samaritan’s food, the women took charge of the complex funerary preparations. First the body would be washed and rubbed with oil and sprinkled with perfume that the Samaritan had brought from her own land. After that they would wrap the dead one in grave clothes--linen strips that the Samaritan took from her baggage. Last, they would insert fragrant spices between the cloths and the body to take away the taint of death and before burial the head would be bound with a napkin of fine linen. For all this the Samaritan had come amply provisioned, for God had prospered her since she had sent turned out her “husband” and his plea had been turned down by the elders in her behalf.
Suddenly, one woman cried out with surprise. Noahdiah, sitting off to one side, absorbed in her troubles, scarcely took notice at first. The women had been peeling off the tatterdemalion’s rags in a small tent for privacy, removing layer upon layer of robe remnants. Finally, they reached what should have been an undergarment, but whatever the garment was meant to be, it was royal: gold brocade thickly encrusted with magnificent gemstones and several ruby-studded nose rings.
Basemath called to Noahdiah and kept calling until she looked into the tent. Her eyes almost started from their sockets. Seeing the royal garment, she seemed to see everything else at the same time.
“Yes, she is my daughter!” she cried, claiming her altogether without any more doubt and feeling joy surge within her at the same moment. “She is! She is! And she must be buried in her fine robe, for whatever she did to come to this place she is truly a princess.”
The helping Jewesses and Basemath did as the old mother of Israel instructed, while they were a bit surprised at the outburst. The royal robe was laid aside while the body was washed, oiled, and perfumed, then put back on before the linen strips were applied.
The little charity money given to Noahdiah paid for the burial itself. The men who dug the grave took the money, and there was not a penny left over. The professional mourners, hired for the day, took up their stations and began to ululate in the time-honored way.
“Forgive me, dear friend of Israel, ” said Noahdiah to the Samaritan. “I have no money left of my own to give you for your help and what you spent.”
Basemath looked at the widow with surprise. “I knew that before I came. God told me you would not be able to repay me, though your daughter was so very, very rich. And now what will you do? For you are a pauper and it is a cruel thing to have no man and be poor!”
“But I am immensely rich!” the widow suddenly exclaimed. “I had eyes, but I was truly blind. Now I can see! And I can see I am richer than far-off Caesar in his golden palace!”
Basemath stared at the old woman uncomprehendingly.
Noahdiah noticed and laughed, her first in many hours, days, and weeks. “You shall see too,” the Jewess said quietly. “God will sometime reveal it.”
Then Noahdiah turned to go. She thanked Basemath for all her comfort and timely ministrations. “Truly, you were sent of God. You helped give me eyes to see! O praise the Highest! Praise Him for his faithfulness to deliver those that be bowed down in places of death and darkness!”
Then the Jewess did a strange thing. She bowed low before Basemath, who was not only the younger woman but a Samaritan.
Now Noahdiah, though she had not touched the Dead and been ritually defiled, feared to tell anyone where she was going.
Basemath watched the widow depart, soon shrinking to a black dot among a multitude of black dots, all scurrying up the hillsides to be first through the gate piercing the walled horizon. She could hear the trumpet call from the Temple. Being Samaritan and ritually defiled (two indemnities that were equally insurmountable, far as the Jews were concerned), she could not go and present an offering, if she valued life and limb. So she turned toward another mount, the one of olives and oil presses where she had heard the Master was wont to stop and pray on his way to the sanctuary.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims thronged the mazes of steep, narrow streets that led in any way templeward, for it was the last day to present sacrifices. All, except for Noahdiah, carried stout, homely loaves of bread, wrapped carefully in new cloth to maintain ritual purity and freshness; and none paid the shabby widow any attention they were so intent on their own affairs.
It was a joyful congregation that assembled in the vast Court of the women where the treasury chests were located. A full fifty days and one had transpired since Passover, and this day was the culmination of the Festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost, though first-fruits ordinarily would continue to be brought the rest of the summer, until Succoth.
A wealthy perfumer’s young daughter was just leaving her home in the Upper City, stepping into the street and encountering the disapproving looks of neighbors, when Noahdiah left the immense courtyard in from the Temple Mount and started up the grand staircase.
Shadows of Herod’s citadel towers darkened the street where the perfumer’s daughter hurried on her holy errand. Her father was very ill and expected to die. Lacking available sons (who were studying abroad in Rome, Alexandria, and Athens), he had given his daughter detailed instructions that she was anxiously trying not to forget. The virgin maiden might have taken servants. But the Temple was not that far, and they were needed to look after her father. In her hand she clutched an alabastron, a tall-necked pitcher of her father’s best myrrh. Her other hand grasped a parcel of two loaves of bread, tied with a silver cord.
Living next the edge of the Cheesemakers’ Vale, where her father had a fine shop, it took little time and effort to cross over to the temple viaduct. She was almost there when two upper-class, elderly dames, neighbors to the wealthy perfumer, recognized her.
“How dare she!” hissed one to the other. “She’s no doubt delivering an order of perfume to that abominable foreign woman--Claudia Procula, I believe the Roman’s paramour is called.” “Oh, no doubt she is!” the other opined. “It ought to be put on the Temple altar rather than an idolatress’s skin, don’t you think?”
With tears and flaming cheeks, the perfumer’s daughter passed them by and continued on.
Once his wife looked out and saw a great, spreading pool of blood redden the golden temple square, from thousands slain by his troops. She never forgot. She was always tormenting him with threats that another such folly would be the end of both marriage and career.
Pilatus smiled at his sleek reflection in a polished metal mirror held up by a blond-haired German. He had taken special care with his clothes, eschewing the military armor and tunic for a dignified but not ostentatious robe and toga--purpled, of course, in a broad swath across the breast and along the hem. As his wife’s maid-servants oiled and combed his short, auburn hairs into place over his thin spot, he gave the mirror to the German and sighed with contentment.
Suddenly, he startled his attendants by clapping. A fully armored bodyguard, a tow-haired Thracian, entered the private chamber with a golden bowl heavy with coin. Directed by the commander, he set it on a table in by the open window.
Inspecting the coins and humming an army camp tune, Pilatus ran his stubby fingers several times through the money, sifting them for any sacrilegious strays. Satisfied that all care had been taken, that none bore images of god or beast, he rose from his blue, senatorial chair. He turned away from the window and paused to rub his backside, which, for some reason, was always too hot after sitting in that chair.
At that moment a blue butterfly flew in the window and alighted on the bowl. A maid saw it, marveled at its size and color, but swiftly waved it off the bowl, and it flew away out the window.
“You, take the bowl along!” Pilatus ordered the Thracian.
Then the Samnite strutted from the apartment with his usual show of overwhelming Roman force and will. Everything was ready, he knew, so he might as well get on with the distasteful errand. His aide carrying the golden bowl, Pilatus descended from the tower, glumly receiving salutes from Germans and Thracians in the halls and corridors. He reached the ground floors connecting with the Temple courtyard.
For a moment he considered the direct, underground passageway. The dead king, Herod the Great, had thoughtfully installed the tunnel so that his Jewish subjects could never trap him in the courtyard. But Pilatus thought better of it. He knew the mere sight of a Roman suddenly popping up in the Court of the Gentiles, out of the hatch of a Herodian vomitory, would not only be undiplomatic but might incite another riot. No, he would take his red-painted, consular chariot. Even if it meant a silly, round-about trip by the Upper City-to-temple viaduct, he had decided to do things in a way they could not possibly go wrong.
Of course, he would not himself go in with the offering. His own Roman honor would have been impugned. But a public spectacle of his paying respects to the religious sensibilities of his subjects would cost him nothing. It would gain him a certain favor in the eyes of the people and perhaps the chief priests. His aide would tender the bowl to the Doorkeeper of the Temple, who in turn would deposit it in Pilatus’s name in the Temple treasury. What could be safer than that?
With self-congratulation of this sort, Pilatus climbed up into his waiting chariot, as noble and Roman in looks as a son of the Samnite Pontii could be with generations of training. He need not hurry. Nevertheless, he enjoyed himself and the spectacle he was making as he let himself be driven at break-neck speed.
But no, Maryam was not there to shame her for her base treatment of her. Nor was there anyone else she knew or that might have recognized her from the crowd the night before. She was greatly relieved. What she had to do was something she did not wish to explain to prying eyes, especially those of many fellow Nazarenes who had good reason, she knew, to hate her.
Having come that far at great risk to herself, she yet felt her inner resolve flag. Surrounded by so many Temple guards, priests, reverend doctors of the law and learned scribes, high walls and pillars, fear nearly cause her to stagger like a drunken woman on the low flight of steps leading to the platform where gifts were offered.
A long line stretched in front of her. Still fearing apprehension by sharp-eyed Levite sentries and guards, she tried to look like everyone else, while she waited her turn to present her offering. The wait was agonizing, for any moment someone might recognize her as the woman with the dead daughter and declare her and the holy place defiled.
No one, she knew, would ever believe her--that she had not touched Mariamne in her death nor spent the night with her beneath the same roof (unless the night sky counted as a roof!). They would all naturally assume she was lying to avert a stoning her act deserved.
Having removed her offering from her hem at the bath, she was ready. There were thirteen big gilt chests, or shofars, for receiving offerings, each shaped like a ram’s horn trumpet. Finally, the last people in front of her moved aside. As she went to slip in her offering under a guard’s watchful eye, a Temple doorkeeper carried a golden bowl heaped with gold coins across the Court of the Gentiles.
Tears streamed down her face as she saw her chance. She moved to the shofar nearest and felt her knees buckling as if she were standing before God Most High. “Merciful and Holy God of Israel!” she prayed silently as she removed the money from her mouth. Into the shofar she slipped two copper leptons, not half a cent, as the smallest acceptable offering.
The trembling widow turned away just as a rich man, at another shofar, thrust in a brocaded bag of money, plus a seven-branched gold menorah and some ornate vessels of gold and silver. The people saw it and gasped in wonder and awe at the man’s generosity and piety. They were even more astonished when yet another richly-attired man had his servants toss in a chest of gold and jewels, after flipping the lid so all could see it was a king’s ransom.
“We can plainly see how much your master loves God and God’s holy temple!” a priest said in the hearing of some reverend doctors and scribes. “Would the others had such piety and love of God this temple would be made of gold, not mere stone as the heathen themselves use for building temples to their abominations!”
At that moment a plainly-dressed Galilean turned to a follower. He quietly observed, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them, for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.”
With eyes averted and holding her breath, Noahdiah saw no one and heard nothing as she hurried out and headed for the Temple gates. She was in such haste that she bumped against some people coming in.
“Why, it’s old Abagtha’s daughter!” a woman cried out.
“No, it can’t be she--this is an old beggarwoman! some common sinner!”
Noahdiah tried to get round them, but a man stepped into her path.
“Don’t you recognize us, Old One?” Bar-Simon said.
Forced to look up, Noahdiah gazed at the basket merchant from her hometown.
“Yes, I know you all,” she said. “And I am Abagtha’s daughter.”
“But look at her!” one cried. “God must have dealt harshly with her for what she did to us in Nazareth!”
Noahdiah then sank down, mumbling at the basket merchant’s feet.
“What is she saying?” the Nazarene family wondered. Even passers-by gathered at the strange sight of the old woman bent at the feet of a man.
“Please forgive me, for the love of God!” Noahdiah suddenly cried out in a tormented voice. “Forgive me, lest I perish from shame!”
Everyone was astonished and didn’t know what to do. The spectacle seemed most disgraceful in such a holy place as the temple. People crying out for forgiveness in the Temple precincts? Many hurried off, reverend doctors covering their faces. Even the basket maker tried to leave, but Noahdiah clutched the hem of his garment. “Oh, forgive me!” she groaned in unspeakable anguish.
“Woman!” the man cried, beside himself with embarrassment. “God has been very hard on you! Do you not have shame, exposing yourself like this so publicly, with the reverend doctors and scribes looking on?”
“You have said so!” she wept. “I brought it on myself.”
“Then I forgive you. I’m not perfect myself. Only let me go, for the honor of my fathers!”
Noahdiah released his garment, and the Nazarene family could not get away fast enough.
The old woman rose with a radiant face--forgiven! forgiven of gross thievery and deceit! She would have liked then to ask forgiveness of a thousand more she had wronged over the years, but at least this was a beginning. Tears of joy streaming from her, looking like an angel or someone reborn or snatched from the grave’s edge, she passed the Levite doorkeeper bearing Pilatus’s gleaming bowl without noticing.
The Governor stood conspicuously in his chariot on Herod’s fine, wide viaduct. He ran a nervous hand over his blue-shadowed, close-shaven chin as he considered the lapse in protocol. Would it really matter if he forewent the loaves? he wondered. Gold and silver were what the priests valued, he reasoned. Bread was simply superstition and ignorant tradition. What did the chief priests do with so much bread anyway? he wondered. Stuff their gullets with it night and day?
He had just finished dismissing the overlooked detail when he became aware of a shabby, old Jewess staring up at him. She seemed to be crying about something, and Pilatus was not surprised. He knew he had given many Jewish mothers much to cry about. But he was not in the mood to have this particular day spoiled, so he issued an order to another aide, who stood by him in the chariot.
The Thracian was fully armed and carried an additional truncheon for setting people in their places if they proved a nuisance to the Governor.
Pilatus had no understanding of Galilean Aramaic, which sounded the ultimate in uncouth, barbarian babble to his Latinized ears. The woman’s slurring words were absolute gibberish to him. But she suddenly switched to crisp Greek koine, which he also spoke fluently but could not write.
Before his aide got to her, she gave a nice, little speech. “‘Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire--’” She was interrupted by the Thracian’s truncheon as it smashed her face. Most amazing to Pilatus, the old woman continued speaking.
“‘You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters--’”
The truncheon descended once again. The woman’s recovery was slower this time. Her nose broken and her scalp split, blood poured in streams down her front. Pilatus’s eyes bulged as the woman continued after the slight interruption. “‘--the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived on the Earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter--’”
The furious Thracian struck the woman twice in a row with all his strength. Her skull should have been crushed or split wide open. Incredibly, she clung to the low stone wall that lined the viaduct, spitting teeth and blood, before she continued.
“‘--you have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.’”
With a barbaric cry invoking some northern wargod the enraged mercenary struck and pushed at the woman. She toppled over the wall just as the perfumer’s maiden daughter approached.
Dropping her loaves and alabastron, she cried out in alarm and rushed to the wall. Close by a pool of the widow’s blood flew and shattered the alabastron. Precious myrrh ran and mingled with the blood, filling the air as it did with a cloud of wonderful fragrance. As for the loaves, the silver cord had snapped, and they lay tumbled amidst the blood and perfume.
Pilatus stared as his well-trained soldier returned, his truncheon gummed with scalp and hair. Leaving the chariot, Pilate pushed through the gathering crowd, which now he noticed. Twenty feet beneath him lay the mouthy Jewess face down on the pavement. The body was surrounded by terrified beggars who hopped up and down and pointed at him, all crying out that he had slain a “mother of Israel.”
A “mother of Israel’? Pilatus wondered. What was that? Could a whole nation have one mother? The question went unresolved in the confused, troubled moment. It was pandemonium on the viaduct from that point. Dozens turned to hundreds of people, then thousands. Pilatus, looking anxiously about, decided to return at once to Antonia.
“No, wait!” he shouted to his driver who fought to control the chariot’s rearing horses. A Temple doorkeeper was running down the viaduct, gesturing wildly to Pilate.
The Levite’s face was flame-red as the chariot. He shouted, “You have defiled our holy place! You infidel! You placed a golden bowl in the holy shofar with an image of your abomination!”
“Hold!” Pilatus cautioned his Thracian, who drew a sword to cut down the impudent Jew. The multitude’s mood was very ugly around the chariot and it was beginning to rock from the press of the crowd. There were many cries of protest as the Levite’s inflammatory message spread across the viaduct and into the city. The news was flying throughout Jerusalem, and Pilatus could feel the thunder of massed feet heading his direction and a hot blast of scorching fury and vengeance down his neck.
Instead of more bloodshed and riot, Pilatus wavered. Should he act an unconquerable Roman in the circumstances or retreat in honor? It took no more thought. He decided to return to Antonia as fast as Roman dignity permitted.
It was a wise decision on his part. If he had tarried another moment, his path would have been fatally blocked. Temporarily cut off from his forces, he would have had to face an enraged Jerusalem and half the population of the countryside.
But even if he got away, he had to complete his journey on foot after his chariot momentarily slid in a pool of donkey urine and struck a street cistern King Herod had thoughtfully erected for the people before his miserable death.
“O fool, Sejanus is going to sack you now!” Procula hurled at him. “You’ve disgraced not only me but Rome again! I don’t care what he does to you! Recall and exile are too good for you! As for your vaunted membership in the Friends of Caesar, you can count that vanished with the winds! Caesar would as well take a biting serpent to his breast than you at present!”
She then flung out from his chamber and he was alone again. But he couldn’t think, so he went down to the Court of Pavements where he issued judgments on this and that thing every third day of the week. From habit he paused by the golden statue of Julius Caesar, Founding Father of the Empire. He took a pinch of incense from a box and threw it on the smoking altar. For Pilatus the gesture was perfunctory. He cared little for deity, even the first emperor’s.
“Was it really true?’ he idly wondered, gazing up at Rome’s founding father. “Did Caesar actually change his name from ‘Coxie’? What a strange name! What language did it come from?” Pilatus had heard the gossip so many times he was beginning to believe it, yet he had not mastered enough linguistics to deal with the question. He went and sat on a stone bench. Except for a few guards, the place was as empty as it would ever get.
To relieve his turmoil a bit, he continued deliberately with this subject of the first Caesar’s name. Language aside, he had experience of a sort. He recalled how he had heard some centurions in camp once discussing the emperor’s former name. How he had come to Rome a stranger from the countryside, when it was a dusty, sleepy village. Within a few years he had changed everything.
A military, architectural, judicial, and linguistic genius, he built Rome up to a supreme power in the world. Whereas before his reign everyone had spoken the same language, he divided the world by nations which he named Egypt, Gaul, Britain, Spain, and so on, and by languages which he had chosen. Latin, of course, was Rome’s official language of law and government.
Greek became the international language of business, philosophy, science, and literature. And so on. Aramaic, of course, wasn’t good for anything but the Jews and related principalities who liked to trade back and forth on the backs of donkeys and camels. Amazingly enough, it all worked to bind the empire together in but a few years.
Divided by language and the frictions of nationality, they could individually overwhelmed and then ruled by one iron hand.
Every Roman schoolboy knew that the great Founder suffered a stroke on coming out of the Temple of Mars, which doors were never shut since war was always going on somewhere. His enemies and jealous rivals in the Senate, waiting for the chance, stabbed him to death. Assassinated, Julius Caesar’s unshakable legacy endured. Octavian, then Tiberius his nephew took up the reins of power and purged the Senate and continued things as they had been established.
Pilatus, with another perfuntory gesture, threw a pinch of incense on the second altar as well. The statue was even bigger than his uncle’s, and made Tiberius look young and handsome, though he ascended the throne when he was a fifty two year old libertine. The Governor glanced up at Tiberius’s features. If recalled, he knew a much different face would confront him--not lean and boyish but swollen with sloth, suspicion, arrogance, dissipation, and... Pilatus rose from the bench and rubbed his backside. Although it was in the shade, the stone was burning hot.
“How like this confounded country!” he thought. “Even the stone burns to the touch!”
He glanced at the first statue again. To his view it was the source of all his present trouble. Caesar had accomplished more than any man in the world, yet his genius had not prevented religion from arising. Though he commanded everyone to worship himself, Julius failed to see he could not enforce the state religion, which most people found too formal, cold, and uninspiring. No, people were bound to break away and found all sorts of niggling little pieties of their own--like the local Jewish religion! And by any way it was measured it was the most stiff-necked, inflammatory, and narrow-minded of the lot!
Where, he wondered, did they get their “Holy Torah”--the so-called Jewish scriptures? Proscribed by Rome as soon as its existence became known, illicit copies circulated everywhere, rendering eradication impossible. Now with a “Holy Book” to back up their idiocy, the Jews could claim God had told them to behave in their customarily outrageous manner toward Roman law and order.
It was regarded as so dangerous by Roman stability every prefect was ordered to continue the purge and burn every copy that could be found. Yet for every copy seized, a hundred popped up elsewhere! That, in a nutshell, was the Hydra-headed problem of religious, fanatical Jewdom! They were, he was fully convinced, absolutely intractable and ungovernable.
It would be best to let them fight it out amongst themselves to the last man, then step in later and re-colonize with some other group. Sejanus and Tiberius, however, would never listen to such sage Samnite advice, particularly from a governor of a tinpot principality like Judaea!
They simply demanded peace and cash. Send them tax revenues and keep up law and order and Rome would let him remain at his post indefinitely. If he couldn’t do the impossible, they’d get someone else. It had happened to three others before him, and now it was about to happen to him!
Clenching scrappy Samnite fists that settled every problem he had known int he past, Pilatus gazed up toward the other commanding figure in stone, the towering figure of Tiberius bestriding the world. How he would have liked to get his hands around that swollen throat and squeeze--squeeze--and--better yet, let the throat be that snake Sejanus’s!
Pilatus smacked his fists together so forcefully they could have flattened a child's skull.
How on earth had that hog got on the bowl in the Temple anyway? He had not seen it. And he had to take a Jew’s word for it! And what was so wrong with pigs? He himself found pork-fatted dormice a delicacy--when he could get it, that is.
Again, religion, he decided, explained it. Once people get deity mixed up in affairs of ordinary life, then there was no stopping the flood of stupid constructions people put on things! Religion! Isis, Mithra, Demeter, Dionysius, Jupiter, Fufluns--there had to be at least a thousand divinities, and they all had priesthoods, temples, festivals! It was all nonsense! Just a ploy for priests to rob the people of every denarius they had!
But the Jewish religion was the worst, the most fanatical and nonsensical of the lot! Why, he had heard an entire room in the Temple was devoted to the Jewish god, but there wasn’t one image of him provided. Imagine that! The room of the Jewish god was completely empty except for a candlelabra. How could people be so stupid and blind as to believe in an invisible god you couldn’t get your hands on? Yet this invisible divinity was supposed to involve himself in human affairs--though no one had ever seen hide or hair of him!
Overhead, unseen by the meditating Governor, who was too absorbed in these sober and philsophical reflections to notice, a blue butterfly slowly circled.
Despite Pilate’s latest gaffe, months passed without word from the Emperor on the case. Though it was a matter of record that the Governor defiled the Temple twice, once with blood, then with an offering stamped with a blasphemous image, both inciting riots, things went on pretty much as usual.
Festival followed festival on the Jewish calendar, and Roman troops played interminable Morris games on the Court of Pavements or stood like marble statues at attention when the Governor sat to decide on some infraction of Roman law. Commuting back and forth, Pilatus’s wife spent her time in Caesarea and Jerusalem. When one city bored her to tears, she fled to the other, then back again in an ever-constricting social circuit that seemed to get ever tighter like a noose.
More Jews had been killed, of course, in the disturbance over Pilate’s golden bowl before things quieted down. The bowl was ground into dust by the Temple authorities and flung into the Valley of Gehenna, the flaming garbage pit outside the city. Elaborate purification rites were ordered by the high priest and the whole Temple gone over with scrub brushes.
But somehow, in the very air, the taint of Pilatus’s heathen act lingered, like a poison cloud over Jerusalem.
The incident left the city tense and edgy. In both camps, no one knew what might happen next. Perhaps, that noxious cloud of past death and future doom was the reason Pilate’s wife never slept well at the Fortress Antonia.
“Now Romans have to put up with her!” she thought wearily. “I have enough trouble without Herod’s wife’s ghost! What was the old saying of the barbarians? ‘The devil take the hindmost, fog and fen the green ghost’?”
Royal daughter of a family of Jewish priest-kings, her severed head was reputed to haunt and wail dolorously down the long stairwells at night, looking for her murderer, presumably, in order to punish him. Though Procula not yet heard her, a dozen or more guards swore to their commander on oath they had heard the sound of a chariot passing on street pavements inside the fort, then a woman’s cry.
One night fast approaching Passover, Procula lay awake for some hours high in the foremost tower. She wondered how it would go for her husband at the Galilean’s trial in the morning.
Since she would not be attending, she had grave doubts about how he might handle the affair of this “Messiah” from Nazareth. But she had another worry. For some reason she could not get King Herod’s wife off her mind. He had ten wives, the legal limit, and numerous offspring, most of whom he murdered.
There were so many names, therefore she knew only a few. But “Mariamne” constantly rose to her thoughts, until she wondered if she were liable to meet the spirit of that name. There had been a sighting of her ghost recently, hovering flaglike about the parapets of Antonia the night before.
Pilatus, who firmly believed in such apparitions, had the guard stiffened outside their private chambers.
“What a donkey court it was!” she thought. Soldiers who claimed to have seen the ghost had been called in. Pontius interviewed the men with rapid-fire questions that confused and muddied the whole question. “What did the specter look like?” “Was it male or female? How was it dressed? “Did the phantom say anything, or mention my name?” “Speak up, confound you!”
The night sentries all stammered their replies as best they could. But Pontius was not at all pleased with their responses. He sent them packing with several, characteristic oaths more worthy of a Samnite hill-farmer’s barnyard than the apartments of an imperial governor. And he ordered them punished.
“How can you treat your fellow equestrians so basely?” Procula confronted him immediately afterwards. “They don’t really deserve the floggings you’ve ordered.”
Despite her withering smile, Pontius had bowed graciously and smiled.
“The bloody fools were too vague and contradicted each other! Since you’re not exactly Roman, you don’t know how it is with us. When a Roman reports to his superior, commanding officer, he ought to have prepared himself! First one said she was young, with a pretty face, and had an Arabian nose-ring! Then the other declares, no, she was dressed like a beggar-woman, hunched over like an old hag, and was making high-pitched demands for leptons, for alms, while calling herself a ‘mother of Israel’!”
“So you claim to be Roman, do you? Why, you’re as Roman as I am! But that isn’t at question here. They all agreed on one point. She named you!”
“Rubbish!” chuckled Pilatus. “King Herod’s wife was strangled years before I set my Roman boot on this jackass’s rump of a country. How could she know me?”
So Pilatus refused to hear any more from her on the matter, still rankled by her first slighting reference to his less than Roman origins. Yet he ordered the guard doubled near their chambers!
The view was twice spoiled for her. She could not look at it without seeing the dark, red stain of blood that her husband had spread across the Temple courts in the first bad incident of his administration. The memory haunted her back to bed. She sat shivering in the crimsoned silk and brocaded bedclothes. Although it was spring, at the time of the Passover, Antonia could still be cold and cheerless as a stone ossuary at night in the mountains of Judaea.
She might have gone to the door and called a guard to fetch more blankets or bring a brazier of hot, red coals to warm the chamber, but she loathed the sight and manners of Pilate’s Thracians and Germans. Somehow they always reminded her of wolves, the fair-coated packs that roamed northern forests. For they too had light-brown or golden pelts. Lately, it had become high fashion for noblemen and women to bleach hair to lighter auburn or stain it red with henna, in daring imitation of northern barbarians. But she herself detested the fashion. She wanted no resemblance to a race that gloried even more than Romans in spilling blood.
Pontius, of course, had suddenly bleached his hair auburn around his bald spot according to the latest style. He appeared jauntily with his new look on the Court of Pavements one morning and startled the Jews assembled to complain of his increased tax levies. The unostentatious Jews never curled or tampered with natural hair except trim the ends off squarely. So Pilatus’s whimsy was interpreted as a grave sign of Roman decadence and moral lapse, understandable in a godless oppressor of religion. His silly coiffure, along with blood, lettings, furnished the talk of the town.
“Idiot!” she could not help crying out. “His forebears made a most grave mistake when they left their hill-country farms for Rome!” She put her hands over her face and stifled the bitter laugh that rose to her lips. It might have turned to tears, but the anger in her heart kept her frustrated instead of weeping. And she had so many wrongs to frustrate her! Just the same, she tried for a long time to think of a suitable prayer and a suitable god. Nothing came, however, though her heart ached and her mouth turned parched and dry trying to form the right words.
Procula tried again to sleep, but she felt chilled to the bone. How she wished she might call her Greek maids, brought over from the staff at the Citadel palace. But she knew they were terrified by Pilate’s golden wolves. They would never get back to sleep after helping her find more blankets. So she pulled a rug from the stone-cold floor, one of Galilean make that was Tetrarch Herod Antipas’s charming Hanukkah gift to her, even if it served to give considerable spite to Pontius every time he noticed it. More tapestry than carpet, she spread it across the bed. The moonlight and light from an oil lamp picked out innumerable, little gold and silver threads in each grouping of three trees on a hill.
Thinking it might help, she propped herself up with pillows, then counted the groups of trees and hills until her eyes gradually closed.
A high-pitched cackle erupted near the bed, and Procula flung backwards to get away.
“Dearie, don’t be afraid,” the intruder chuckled. “Dearie, you are my little sweet dearie.”
“Help!” Procula called out as she edged away. She did not believe what was happening, but she felt helpless to control the madness that overwhelmed her. Suddenly as it started, there fell silence, then the pounding of a heart began.
Procula clapped a hand to her heaving breast, but the sound throbbed in her ears, filling the chamber with thundering beat after beat as if a Cyclops with its breast torn open had gotten in. Then she saw it--the most dreaded sight--Mariamne's head!
Moonlight again poured in the windows, the rays pooling on the porphyry floor, and she heard far-off dogs or a jackal barking under the full moon.
Utterly bewildered, Procula shook from cold and shock as she waited in bed for something to happen. But no one leaped to cut her throat or do her any harm. She gathered the tapestry around herself and left the bed.
Going to the nearest window, she looked out. Below her, hundreds of golden glows moved in regular, murmurous patterns back and forth across the Temple’s pavements as Levite guards made their rounds.
Beyond, over the colonnades of Solomon’s Portico and the Temple Wall, black outlines of mountains sparkled, their ravines particularly full of lights as thousands of Passover pilgrims kept vigil in camps.
Drawing a shuddering breath of the cold air, she turned back to her room, wondering if she should call out the guards or maids.
What would they think of her? she wondered. She had seen nothing, she told herself.
She hated the thought of prying, questioning eyes upon her, so late at night. Calling barbarians into her private apartment was an intolerable thought.
Gritting her teeth and tightening her jaws for self-possession like a Roman, she went back to bed after a few moments up.
Sounds carried very far on a still night. She knew Pilatus, in an adjacent chamber, would probably laugh and say she had heard an owl or nightjar passing by the window. An insomniac, he usually spent half the night in his blue chair, slumped over at his writing desk. After that he would throw himself, fully clothed, on his army cot bed and snore a couple hours, before rising and beginning his official duties at dawn like a good, solid Roman.
One thing she knew: sleep was impossible. Even a far-off cock crowing three times startled her and wrenched her nerves cruelly. Counting the cockcrows, she sat up against her cushions and began to await the dawn rather than risk another frightful nightmare. To have something to do in the sheer deadness of the early hours, she took an ivory comb to her hair. She would have liked to call for a lamp and a mirror. But any noise might awaken her husband, she knew, and no one could disturb his slight, uneasy slumbers without provoking a fit of rage.
Even without the mirror, she knew what she would see. She was not a young woman in looks anymore. The dusty heat and wind of Judaea had taken their toll on her famous complexion.
But she still had beautiful hair! Sleekly black with bluish highlights, she let it serve as a fine contrast with her bone-pale skin, and then her silver eyepaint and scarlet lip rouge showed to best advantage. To bleach her hair would have spoiled everything, she knew.
Sejanus, she had heard, had gone with the latest fashion.
His dark Etrurian looks had been changed to conform, and though still handsome he was no longer quite the man she had loved to look upon. If only she had been five years or so younger when they met! She wouldn’t have looked twice at Pontius, back then an “up and coming” army officer!
The combing proved somewhat soothing to her rattled nerves. Procula finally let the heavy gold and ivory comb droop and began to rest more comfortably. Her thoughts turned to religion, which they did increasingly since coming to Judaea, a land where everyone, rich and poor, powerful and insignificant, seemed obsessed with it. Could she find a synagogue that would allow her to visit as a benefactress? she wondered idly. Perhaps, she might inquire of its elders the proper addresses to the Godhead, since her own stock of gods and phrases had so miserably failed.
They weren’t the only things that had failed her, she reflected grimly. “I cannot bear remaining with this idiotic Pontius another year!” she decided. “The absolutely dreadful riots he causes by his cruelty and mishandling of his subjects’ religion and tradition, the dread I suffer constantly of what he may do next--”
Indeed, she was feeling more and more helpless, the longer she stayed with him. It seemed life was predestined to go a certain, fatal way, and she was a mere spectator. At last, from exhaustion, she slept. But she dreamed. A man, Jewish in garb, rose up before the sleeper, then was dragged by the guards away to a hill shaped like a skull. Three trees stood on it. Soon he was one of the wriggling forms stretched upon them.
“Where are the guards? The guards!” roared the man who was afraid only of spiders, the Emperor, and ghosts. The guards rushed in, for they had been only a few steps away when they saw their commander rush out of his door only to disappear into his wife’s quarters.
“I seen it!” Pilatus bellowed, his bloodshot eyes rolling upwards in the light of the soldiers’ lanterns and torches. “I tell you, the head of that little she-devil Herod killed was just now in my room!” He raved on, his naked, hairy chest heaving with gasps. “How she does it, flying about like that through the air I don’t know! One moment she looks like a pretty wench, with a full body. The next she’s just this head in the air--look, I’ll show you!” Forgetting all Roman dignity, Pilatus began stumping madly around the room, demonstrating his version of the ghost’s appearance and disappearance, using a sheet drawn up round his neck for everyone’s benefit. The Governor’s strange, undignified performance might have gone on longer but for his guards. He must have seen their expressions, for he suddenly stopped.
Procula sank to her knees in the dawning light, her face white as fine ash on the altars below. She could not find an atom of breath for her lungs in the stiff, frozen air of that tower room. She watched Pilatus and his wolves hurriedly exit to the next room to search for the apparition.
Shamefacedly, Pilatus returned a minute later, to inform Procula that he was going to bathe and dress and go down to the “Pavements,” as he called his open-air court. “As for what I saw, it was a mere figment, a product of dormice and Samaritan grapes eaten together on an empty belly, my dear!”
Procula heard him out but did not look at him. She breathed slowly and determinedly as she clutched the bedclothes round her shaking shoulders. Despite the fact she had heard two voices, not one, she knew it was best to hold her tongue. The moment the brute was gone, still distraught, Procula ran her hands almost tearingly through her hair and looked about her for an answer. “What is this all about?” she finally groaned.
The vision she had had before Pontius’s hair-raising escapade still blazed in her mind’s eye. She could see a strange light shining on the man she knew was the Galilean, as he stood before her husband on the Pavements for trial. As for the commanding voice that came with the dream, was she expected to save the Galilean? Yet she knew her powers did not extend to the Pavements. There men were mighty, subject to no woman, however highborn and in the good graces of the emperor’s favorite. There Pilatus, glorying in his Roman perogatives and imperial might, could do what he pleased, and to interfere with him was courting humiliating retaliation.
Yet she could not get the command out of her mind: “Do not touch my Anointed!” Wondering desperately what to do, she thought of writing to her aunt, but that would take weeks. Instead, she would have to appear somehow in court and make a statement. No, it simply would not be allowed. She’d be disgraced and humiliated for nothing! Well, then, couldn’t she just catch him before he went down to work and tell him in person? No, he’d laugh! He’d laugh like he always did and say something maddeningly diplomatic to throw her off.
Suddenly, when she thought her head would burst, the answer came: a letter to her husband, carried in by one of his bloody, golden wolves. Thowing aside the bedclothes in her frenzy, Procula staggered away from the bed. She closed and bolted the chamber doors and sank down at a writing desk. In a few, breathless moments her work was done. She sealed the parchment with the emperor’s own seal--a facsimile delivered to her keeping by her old friend. With Tiberius’s imperial name on it, the letter would not fail to command her husband’s immediate attention.
As for appropriating the forbidden seal, it was doubly dangerous for a woman to act as signatory. Yet she could not allow him the chance of ignoring her message. What might happen after that was almost unthinkable, if the vision was not her own fancy. A few moments later, a German wolf stalked off to deliver the letter.
Then Procula sat down on the edge of her bed to rest her trembling body. She thought of calling her badly frightened maids to begin her toilette, but her shock at what she had done was so overwhelming she couldn’t fact any more people. “He must not make another mistake!” she cried to herself in a whispered voice, over and over.
The guard returned after a time. He reported through the door that he had served the letter to his commander. Stifling the mingled fear and loathing she felt deep within her for such brutes, she feared something even greater. She unbolted and swung open the doors and faced the blond wolf.
“Did he say anything when you handed him the letter, or give you any word for me?”
The barbarian looked at her unsmilingly, not a trace of emotion in his cool, blue eyes. “No, my lady, he said nothing, and then he washed his hands.”
“Return at once to your duties!” she barked a little too sharply for a noblewoman.
The German spun about with mechanical precision. His glittering body mail covering him from chin to toe made the sound of silver coins clinking rhythmically as he marched away.
Great sticklers concerning time and scheduled events, a modern Greek invention--the time-keeping water clock, stood in a place of honor, a covered portico of its own. Pilatus had bought it in Athens, then had it shipped to the Fortress Antonia soon after his tour began. A second item was just as important to him: the blue chair. For that embellishment of his court he owed his wife.
Appalled that the judgment seat of the Governor was a rough-hewn, Jewish-style bench or stool, she had scoured the shops and, finally, in Sepphoris, found just what she sought. Roman in style, it suited Pilatus’s taste too and was thereafter set in the Court of Pavements whenever he presided.
The remaining item of any note was the Governor’s ring--a signet with a red gemstone of unusual brilliance. He was just as attached to it as the chair. He had picked it up himself from a gem dealer in Rome, just before he met Claudia Procula and began to rise in government circles. But the Governor himself proved to be the major attraction in the court at Yeshua’s trial. His bleached hair was so strange a sight to Jewish eyes it provoked a mixture of horror and suppressed mockery.
Hesitant to declare capital punishment for an obviously harmless, country bumpkin of a Jew, Pilatus temporized as long as he could. He knew how to play one powerful faction of Jews against another. That was a supreme Roman gift--inbred or learned. It was also to be expected of a man of cunning and political talent who feared another general insurrection.
As Pilatus sat in the blue chair on the elevated platform while everyone else stood, it seemed to take on warmth and burn beneath him--the same sensation, in fact, the ring afforded him at various times. He shifted uncomfortably as he asked the Galilean to declare whether he was King of the Jews as charged.
“You have said so,” replied Yeshua without looking up.
Knowing enough about the Jews' rhetorical way of questioning and answering questions to realize this was as direct a “Yea” as any "humble" Jew could properly make, Pilatus could see in Yeshua’s reply the total absurdity of the whole affair of this man's alleged claim to be "King of the Jews," especially when the man’s polite answer bred an instant storm of protest from the chief priests and supporters--a most ridiculous response because he knew they knew just who was in power, Rome, not them. Furthermore, Rome would never, never, never be dethroned by miserable, religion-minded people like the Jews, no matter what "king" they managed to cough up!
So the charge carried absolutely no weight with Roman law and rule, as things stood in the world.
When the hubbub was squelched by Pilatus’s lifting of a hand and the thumping of a lictor’s iron standard, he turned again to the defendant, because he had to properly wrap this case up with the legal proprieties, didn't he?
“Are you aware there are many things they testify against you?” Pilatus continued, barely able to stifle a yawn.
Following court procedure, Pilatus had the charges listed read out by the court scribe. Again, Yeshua said nothing to defend himself, not answering to a single charge. What was he to do with such a man? He thought, "First, he admits to the main charge, in so many words--or rather, as few words as possible!--then refuses to defend himself in any way! Yet failing to find fault with someone’s claim to being “King of the Jews”--why should claiming to be "King of Jews" mean anything so important to Rome that he deserved capital punishment?" Unable to resolve the case in a clear-cut, Roman ay, Pilatus twisted all the more in his fine chair.
Yeshua gazed back, eye to eye with the Roman. "Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?"
Pilatus was taken aback. At the first questioning about the charge, the man wouldn't speak about it. Now he was answering back with real, kingly assurance, something even Pilatus knew he could not muster up in the presence of his superiors, legates from Rome and such. His eyes wavered, looking into Yeshua's. "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You up to me. What have You done to provoke them to bring criminal charges against you?"
Yeshua answered, keeping Pilatus's eyes fixed in his own steady gaze, despite the bruises and wounds inflicted on his face by the chief priest's father-in-law's servants. "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered to the Jews, but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm"
Pilatus got his second breath, for he saw a possible charge in the man's own testimony. "You are a king?"
Yeshua did not waver an instant as he replied, "You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears My voice."
Pilatus's eyes rolled upwards. This was the last thing he wanted to hear--a philosopher spouting off. Why couldn't the man just answer a simple question with the simple facts?
"What is truth?" Pilatus scoffed in Yeshua's face. How could he not scoff? He knew that Truth was Rome, Truth was Rome's power and might and the invincible army, and everybody knew that! Everybody but the Jews!
As the curtain hanging on two golden poles was being withdrawn by two soldiers, they did not take care to roll it up there and possibly annoy Pilatus but started away with it between them, and Yeshua's hand as he moved aside from their path brushed it, a hand that had just touched blood on his face.
As for Pilatus, at the moment when he should look his best, sweat poured unaccountably down his forehead and his blue-stubbled jowls that never looked fully shaven due to his thick hair roots. A handkerchief of fine Nazarene linen was brought by a slave. Pilatus mopped his brow and the back of his neck as he sensed the crowd’s increasingly ugly mood. A tower guard stepped up with an unexpected message, stamped with Tiberius’s own official seal.
The trial ground to a halt while Pilate opened it. Rattled by the way things were going, he nearly ripped the message in half, but he read: Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.
“Who gave this to you?” Pilate hissed to the guard. “I’ll have you crucified if you don’t tell me!”
“Your wife, Your Excellency!”
“Has she gone mad?” he thought. “Appropriating the imperial seal can get her the death penalty if he hears of it and objects!”
Instantly, an idea crossed his mind. He smiled grimly. But the trial was at hand. Vengeance would have to wait a bit. Pilatus stuffed the precious, incriminating letter into his robe and sprang up from the chair. It had scorched him unbearably. His whole backside felt on fire. At the same moment, he knew he could no longer sit in judgment on the issue before him, it was so impossible and outrageous.
Suddenly, he was struck with inspiration when he saw that the trial was going nowhere but circles. “I don’t care if he claims to be their king until the geese lay golden apples instead of eggs!” he thought. Let these Jews decide it and take responsibility!”
So the chief priests and elders, with their claque of rabid supporters, were given the choice. Since it was the Passover and customarily a prisoner was granted clemency by the Roman governor, he had a wonderful way out of his nasty impasse. He gave an order for a certain man to be brought from the dungeon. He considered that no party as religious as this could possibly malign the character he had in mind.
Presently, the notorious prisoner called Bar-Abbas, a murderer and a thug, was hauled forth from the fortress cells to stand alongside Yeshua of Nazareth, the claimant “King of Jews,” “Messiah,” “Son of God,” and other things on the docket. Everyone knew, Pilatus was well aware, that the defendant had committed nothing approaching Bar-Abbas’s crimes.
They snatched the tainted bait, however. “Release Bar-Abbas!” the Jews shouted up at Pilatus. “We choose Bar-Abbas!” Stunned, Pilatus slumped down on the blue chair. “We want Bar-Abbas!”
Well, what was he do now? They demanded the man he had offered in Yeshua’s stead.
“Then what shall I do with Yeshua who is called the Anointed, the Messiah?” Pilate shouted down at the crowd. Since they had forced this unpleasantness on him, Pilatus was determined to make the plaintiffs pay, so he derisively employed Latin terms to a Jewish audience.
“Why ask us? It is your obligation to decide these things. Crucify him!” the chief priests and Pharisees cried back at him in more cultivated Latin than Pilatus’s.
Pilatus colored, though the biting irony was lost on him. Rather, he was angry that Jews would dare to demand anything from him. They weren’t just asking, though he had put the question to them. No, by the tone of their voice, by the very grammar, they were commanding him to crucify the Galilean or risk consequences.
And why crucify Yeshua? Crucifixion was not the only way to execute a criminal, of course. He could be flogged to death. He could be held in the dungeon until he expired from the brutal conditions and disease. He could be hung, or driven through with a sword.
He could be poisoned with henbane or hemlock. There were many easy and convenient ways compared to crucifixion.
Crucifixion, unlike all other forms of capital punishment, was reserved by Rome for the very worst traitors. It was meant to degrade and punish the miscreant to the greatest possible degree, serving an additional purpose of thoroughly demoralizing any followers the man might have. But so refined an instrument was not to be wasted on mere Jewish Messianic pretenders. What would Rome say if he crucified a Jewish nobody just because some local priests demanded it? They wouldn’t like it at all.
It suddenly came clear to him in a flash. So, when the Jews demanded crucifixion, they weren’t thinking of Imperial Rome’s honor. No! They wanted this proof that the man was condemned by God! Only crucifixion could do it for them. It was public, official, and utterly shameful. That was their religious way of putting this threat to their authority out of the way! Crucified, the Galilean’s claims to Messiahship would be laughed at forever after.
Most reluctant to be their miserable pawn, knowing the whole extent of their game, Pilatus hedged.
“I find no guilt in him. Why, what evil has he done that he deserves crucifixion?” he challenged them.
“Let him be crucified!” they shouted all the more, rocking Pilatus’s platform with thunderous uproar.
Switching temperatures, the chair seemed to grow cold as the grave. He felt a deadly chill glazing his forehead and damp neck. He let a few moments pass, seeking a way out of his predicament, but the chair was freezing his very bowels to a solid. His thoughts, racing, chased each other into whirling darkness. “What if--would Rome think?--this is absurd---a riot may--innocent--Bar-Abbas is nothing but a--I’ve got to get out of this speedily!”
Suddenly, the issue was decided for all time. A priest cried out that they would inform Caesar that his Governor did not care that the defendant was inciting revolt against Rome’s rule. Further, this Governor was reputed to be a Friend of Caesar and was scarcely acting like it if he let this blackguard slip the knot of justice!
The bald threat hit home in his gut. It brought an instant end to Pilatus’s humanity and indecision. He no longer cared what happened to the man. After all, everyone knew that no one retired alive from Caesar’s select club of friends. Disgrace Caesar in any way, you were expected to take poison immediately.
Pilatus was not willing to test the chilling threat that still rang in his ears. He rose from the icy blue chair, his body shaking from a numbing chill extending to his feet. A flash of pain went through his brain and he felt very dizzy. A moment later, he recovered, still standing somehow. Recalling his official business, he called for pure, fresh water from his aqueduct. The court was out of order as the chief priests and their minions continued to shout and scream for crucifixion.
Pilatus felt the urgent need to do something, for another riot was beginning, and he had gained nothing but the mob’s contempt and threats by delaying the death penalty and crucifixion. For his own sake, it was high time to act decisive, to act Roman in a way he imagined senators of the old and exalted patrician class might act in a tight situation where nothing was to be gained by sacrifice.
Performing a ritual lustration before the seething crowd, he dipped his hands in the bowl held by a soldier, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”
“What’s going on?” he said to the nearest guard. The Thracian looked at him uncomprehendingly. Pilatus repeated his question, highly annoyed. The guard still could not answer and looked terrified when Pilatus grew enraged. He stormed down from the blue chair to the pavement. People rushed past him, trying to escape whatever had befallen them and their tongues.
Two priests pulled each others hair and clothes, they were so upset with each other.
“What is happening?” Pilatus shouted to his guards, and they gave him the same dumb look the first had given. “This can’t be,” thought Pilatus, mastering his jumbled sanity. He turned sternly to his chief guard, a veteran soldier of the northern campaigns. “Take the condemned prisoner, Yeshua the Galilean pretender, away and crucify him!” he ordered the man.
Now that was simple enough! Any soldier could have understood it and obeyed in a moment! Yet the fellow stared at him, as if he had not heard a single word! Pilatus was now beside himself, just as the crowd was. But he repeated the order, and got the same response: nothing! He screamed the order, but they only looked terrified and held their ground.
Beginning to be frightened, thinking he might have gone mad, Pilatus strode from the pavements into the street, passing the garrison at the entrance. He found the street full of the same kind of chaos.
People shouting and carrying on and nobody seeming to understand another soul. Feeling like he could tear out his own hair from frustration, Pilatus whirled about, intending to return to his fortress. He dashed back into the court and found the guards had let the condemned man go. For he was nowhere to be seen. Bar-Abbas too was roaming freely about, pushing down this priest and that and grabbing his gold-laden purse.
Pilatus turned to his guards who were watching this happen and doing nothing. He shouted commands at them, but they just stared at him. Pilatus this time did yank out some hair, then looked at it in his hand as if he were gazing at a bouquet of roses. Suddenly, throwing the bleeding tuft of hair, he rushed away, toward the tower where his wife waited his decision. But he was never to reach it, just as he was not to know neither exile nor suicide.
There was a deafening roar, that swept him off his feet. Then his hand was yanked upwards with such force he left the ground entirely. It was fortunate for him he was not yet under any roof, or he would have shot through it as the his body rocketed skywards. Within seconds, the blazing red star pulling him skywards burned away his hand to a black cinder and he fell back toward the distant earth.
Meanwhile, the blue butterfly was just as amazed at the phenomenon. He flew to other cities of the empire to see how things fared. As soon as he reached a city, the same thing broke out instantaneously. Chaos erupted and people began fleeing. All Roman social and military order utterly dissolved.
Rome, mighty Caesar’s city, proved no exception. And Capri? He found the Emperor, just as Pontius Pilatus had one, shouting vain nothings at his servants, who were unable to comprehend a single imperial word.
He could not loiter there without lawless ruffians thinking to take his wagon from him, so he wondered what best thing he should do. Go forward into the thick of the country, from which the people were fleeing, or away to some other land? He decided that a cause that could drive out all the citizens of a country was bad enough to work evil on him too. Turning south, he followed along with the people.
Hoping he might hear a word he could recognize, he listened hard. He had given up when suddenly he heard what he thought was perfect Sumerian. He looked for the source and found a man’s plump, dark face staring up at him.
“Morning of fragrance!” Zu responded. “Hitch away as you please! I am glad of company of a man who handles the mother tongue so ably as you!” Further talk convinced them of the astounding event, that hey could understand each other when no one else could.
“My name is Silvanus Tertius Claudius. And you, kind sir?”
“I am the sub-keeper of the tablets of the temple of my city. They called me Zu.”
“‘Eagle’ the bird of the gods?--a curious name for a man! How do you explain your parents’ choice?” “Yes,” Zu nodded. “But there are worse things that can name a man. And my parents did not name me. I was given to the temple, a child sacrifice. But they had more than they needed, so I was not allowed to please the gods by being burnt with the other infants. The priests, who thought my eye was fierce as an eagle’s, kept me and named me. I grew up to serve the temple after much hard schooling at the priests’ hands and whips. It was a good life for the clot of pigeon dung that I was.”
“Rome has fallen!” Silvanus Claudius cried. “We’ve lost everything! I am a pauper, except for what I have been able to carry out on my donkey! I was very rich, but I lost everything else. I had many vineyards, estates, and fine houses in the chief cities. No steward good with numbers could tell me all my worth, it was so much. But now it’s all gone! Wiped out in a single hour!”
Zu was overcome by the account. He wept with the man. “You can join with me in some business I may start in the land where I am seeking refuge!” he assured his new friend. “I will buy your donkey and goods, and we will be together in a shop or some small trading venture. For I cannot let you suffer this hardship alone!”
Silvanus Claudius was overcome by Zu’s offer. “I don’t know. I can’t think of starting over, after being so rich. I think I would rather sell the donkey and my remaining goods, drink all I can, then throw myself in a river rather than try to start over. You see, I was the heir of all I had. I never had to work for a penny of it!”
“Well, if you change your mind, my offer still stands,” Zu sighed. “You seem a good man to me, and I can’t see good men ruined. Now what cause all this to happen? You haven’t told me.”
They had plenty time for Silvanus Claudius to tell what happened to his country, far as he knew it.
Although the rich man had resided in princely houses in Alexandria and Pergamos and Rome and Antioch, he really knew very little about the kingdom of Judah, and so he atrributed the cause of the break-up to economic and social collapse.
The suddenness of it had disarranged the minds of the people, so that their tongues were affected to the point where no sense could be made in ordinary conversation.
It was an affliction that had seized upon the whole empire of Rome, for everywhere he had travelled the same confusion and chaos prevailed. Once mighty cities were left desolate, and the inhabitants were all on the high roads seeking the best way out.
The poor rich man looked at Zu as if he had not even thought about such things.
“Would you stay in your country if no one in could no longer understand a single word someone else uttered? How could anything be done? Who would deliver your bread and take your money? Who would sell you food in the markets? Who would defend you from a robber? You cannot run a country without understanding one another.
It cannot be done! And as for my wife--she ran off before this happened with a man I thought was my friend! And our two sons? They were never dear to me, and always took issue with me when they were grown, demanding this portion of my wealth, and that portion--so that I was heartily sick of them!”
“Yes, that is so. But where have you lived, so that you can speak to me and I can understand. I am a Roman citizen, and I speak Hellene. At least I used to speak it. Of what people and country are you, if you are a stranger here? Your robe and manners are strange to my eye.”
“The most ancient and blessed land of Shinar is the land of my birth, though my country has long been ruled by the Babelites and the Assyrians, who are not of my people."
The man’s eyes showed he knew something about Shinar. “Is Ur one of your chief cities, along with Lugash, and Kish? I recall my old teacher, when I was in school as a boy, teaching me something about your country. It was far-off, toward the northeast, he said, and caravans brought fine carpets and jewelry and dried dates and figured tiles and carved ivories from there to Rome. They were very expensive, of course, with all sorts of tariffs and taxes added on to the price, but we rich families could afford Shinar’s nice things. In my room I had something very nice from Shinar--an ivory goat climbing a golden tree. It made me laugh, for the eyes were so big and black on the white goat that he looked alive to me. That is all I know.”
“This must be a curse of the gods upon you all. What impious transgression could you have possibly committed aginst them, to bring so much sore judgment upon you? “
Silvanus Claudius looked affronted and surprised. “Transgression? A sin of hubrius against the gods? That could not be it. We had countless temples and altars, all well attended and provided for, in every city and town. Our gods were well taken care of. Treated so well, there certainly was no cause for their taking offense, I can assure you.”
Zu was a man of cunning wit, even if he was only a priest of Shinar. He knew perfectly well that a disaster of this great scope affecting everybody beyond the ordinary order of things meant that the gods had to be involved. But this Roman did not have a philosophical mind, and he could not see it, though the thing was beyond dispute.
“They’ve sorely provoked their gods somehow,” concluded Zu. “There can be no other explanation for this happening to all of them. The sky doesn’t crack and fall down for no good reason.”
Later, after they made ready for sleep, and the oxen were tethered to the wagon, and all was checked and tied down against thieves, Zu tried again. “I cannot imagine what gods you made angry, or what offended them, but offended they surely were. Now what gods do you have here?”
The Roman rattled off the names of a dozen or so, and then he had a little trouble with the names of various new deities flooding into Rome from the provinces--Rome accepting even the barbarians' crude deities from the far western provinces, gods tha bore greater resemblance to brute animals than anything human. “Nobody believes much in the old gods of Rome anymore, at least in my circle, but the uneducated, common people still do believe, and there is a new religion too that has a god that is stirring up the Jews and--”
“Well, it is a sect of a people we call the Jews. The mass of the Jews and their temple authorities do not sanction the new religion and its god. But its believers continue promoting the god, even though it has no image.”
Zu was shocked. “What a scandal! No image, did you say? How can sacrifices for the commonweal be presented, if there is no image to receive them?”
The Roman chuckled. “Yes, that really is a strange case. Even the Jews, who have a big temple in their chief city, Jerusalem, had no image. Their god was invisible. And this new sect continues the tradition in part. Only their god, they claimed, was a living man.”
Zu nodded his head. He understood this now. A divine-man, a god-man. His religion was full of such beings. “Well, why did that upset the temple authorities? Please explain, dear Silvanus.”
“After my wife left me, things got out of hand. I only know what my servants were whispering about one day. I heard them saying the Jewish priests of the temple hated the believers in Yeshua, I believe his name was, because he claimed to be the ‘Messiah,” or the long-promised savior-king of his people and nation.
This Messiah was both man and divinity. He would appear and sweep all us Romans out of the land of the Jews, and then even proceed to Rome to sit on the throne! Fortunately, it was nipped in the bud. The Jewish authorities themselves arrested the man, claiming he was an imposter and insurrectionist against Rome, and they demanded his executioon from the Roman procurator in the province of Syria where most Jews reside because the chief temple and their holy city are there.
Do you wish me to go on? This was tedious to me at the time. My servants were whispering back and forth while I was lying by the pool when it was so hot, and I was annoyed enough to have them all whipped for it, but my house steward caught them at it and sent them off on various errands.”
“I see, I see,” replied Zu. He asked no more that night.
“I can’t say. I haven’t heard. I just know the Jewish court tried and condemned him in a trial, then handed him to our procurator, since they do not have ius gladius. It was up to the procurator to either crucify him or set him at liberty if he was innocent of the two charges of the arraignment.” Zu somehow knew better. His heart could divine to the marrow of many things that left other men rubbing their hands together or combing their beards with their fingers. “He’s been wrongfully put to death,” Zu muttered to himself. “He was a true son of the gods, and the gods are now are very angry over his death. There can be no other reason for the calamity visited upon an entire nation such as this Rome.”
“Should we stop here or go on?” Zu asked his fellow traveller. Having only one donkey and few goods of value, his friend thought it best to stop, rather than spend all his substance on travel. Here he might at least set himself up in a little business, if he was careful to get good prices on his goods and his donkey. If he did that he might earn enough to feed himself and not starve.
Zu considered the good, economical sense of stopping, yet he felt uneasy. He knew he must press on, to find the end of his journey, which he felt was not Tammu. “I’m for going on, friend,” he told the Roman. “I can give you a little gold to help you, and we must part if we must. But I will not remain here.”
So they parted at Tammu, weeping tears on each other’s shoulder. Now all this time Zu had declined to discuss what he carried in the wagon, yet it made no difference. Trust had built a bridge between the two men that nothing could sweep away. They had become brothers on the long journey.
Alone, but thinking quite a lot about what he had discussed with the Roman, he eventually reached Nathasta. There it seemed right for him to remain, and he sold his wagon and oxen, and hired a small house for his lodgings which was not far from the chief temple. Here in a great, civilized city, his trade of scribe stood him in good stead.
The keeper of the temple archives hired him to work with the many tablets they had from Shinar and other such lands. They had hundreds of such tablets, so his work and living were assured him. He would not starve when his money ran out, and would probably end up comfortably.
As before, it asked again, “Take us to your rulers, so that we can give them an important warning.”
As he should have said the first time, which might have saved him much trouble, he replied, “Your humble servant is a mere sojourner here. A stranger cannot go to the ruler in the court. I am not rich, nor an important merchant, nor an ambassador. I am sorry, but I cannot gain entrance for you to approach the throne.”
“But our knowledge of the enemy star will save your world. You must tell your rulers this, and then they will come and listen to us.”
Zu knew better. “No, you may be learned beyond men, O Golden Mouth of the Tablet Vessels, but they will not admit to your being more lealrned than they, since you are foreign to this land, just as I am foreign to this land. You ask an impossible thing.”
The White Vase fell silent on this point, though on other points he learned many things from it. It also sent an eye into the two Green Bronzen Vessels, and some of their secrets were made known to Zu in turn in order to help him.
“We must wait here then. But evenso, we will give you wisdom so that you can leave this place and go to the other stars with our warning. Will you be our ambassador, since we have failed so far here to convince your rulers?”
Zu, feeling restlessness in his spirit, agreed to go and bear the White Tablet’s warning to the stars. With the great wisdom he was given from the two companions of the White Vessel, he fashioned a sky-chariot that could ride upon the clouds.
The white Tablet of Destiny urged him to build it, so he--as Zu understood it--could serve the desire of the gods who had fashioned the White Tablet.
The task was stupendous, requiring knowledge and applied skill in rocketry and propulsion systems--but Zu had a mind and a body to do stupendous things, and he succeeded in making a sky-chariot after the fashion of the one in a green bronzen tablet.
Since he was allowed to design his own sky-chariot's form, he gave it the shape of his ceremonial court dress, all the better to make it pleasing to the gods of heaven.
The beams he used were iron, not wood, cast in the foundries of the Musk Cat Works, which made them to his specifications. Since they were costly, he could never have afforded to have it done, but the White Vase instructed him how to extract gold from gold mine tailings, which were free for the taking, and he kept the secret to himself and obtained all the gold he needed. His ship was two lines long, or 284 feet.
As the White Vase instructed him, he loaded it with long-lasting provisions. “You may always return to this world for more when you see it is becoming necessary,” he was told.
“With the strength of your ship’s power, you will be able to travel very far in a short time.”
His power source was that potent, apparently.
A handful of dust, dust of certain ores he had ground up finely and poured inside a block of crystal the White Tablet showed him how to grow, would supply his sky-chariot power. The crystal was to be connected with long wire-reeds that led to his cabin atop the sky-chariot, and there he could move switches that unleashed the power-producing dynamo and make his sky-chariot-ship thunder and smoke and then shoot at great speed from one star to the next. Other noble ores he ground to dust in a mortar and applied with white-hot fire in a special furnace the White Tablet had shown him how to make.
With the furnace he constructed round the sky-chariot he backed on the glazing agent that afforded his skychariot a coat stronger than iron by many times.
The White Tablet said it was the likeness of “Ct-20, or ceramic titanium,” only more lasting. The closest that Zu could come to it in translation was “Pot’s Glaze of Titan Flesh.”
Still another guided him to whatever star he chose on his great star map on the ceiling of his driver’s cabin. Surrounded by servants whom he could call upon with a tiny switch or button, though most operated without him having to watch them, Zu felt assured that the sky-chariot was able to carry him anywhere he wished without fail.
Everything was provided, even a turban full of feathers for protecting his ritually-shaven head against chills.
There were even several round, many-grooved, reflective disks to look into while he took a nice little brush for grooming his eyebrows...what hadn’t been thought of by the holy priesthoods who had fashioned and filled the three Tablets of Destiny? As for the pillow filled with a white, powdering substance called “Portland Cement,” that would do nicely to rest his head when he took his ease.
And a thing with stiff papers sticking out by the the hundreds? That would provide a goodly fan to refresh his face whenever he riffled the papers with his thumb.
As for a tiny cup with a strange, mouse-like creature painted on it, he was certain the object was meant for spitting into, since it was hardly the size of a man’s drinking vessel. Mice, he knew, were vermin, and any verminous taste in his mouth could be gotten rid of conveniently with this little cup.
Taking what he wanted and knew he could use, leaving the rest for posterity, Zu laid up things aboard the sky-chariot for every possible need.
It never occurred to anyone left behind to look for Zu, the missing cuneiform expert, among the stars. But that was exactly where he was speeding, thanks to the White Tablet, in his priestly court robe-styled starship.
Opening a port, Zu was so kind and helpful as to throw out a tablet fixed to an air-inflated bladder. The bronzen tablet was an account he had inscribed of his wanderings to that point and his whole venture in the building of the star boat.
He had left a copy with the temple archives in Nathasta as well. There was no excuse now for people to mistake his business, he thought.
For ages the people would remember him and what he had tried to do, though, sadly, they were not willing to receive and learn by the three Tablets of Destiny just yet. Well, now he would go and inquire of the people among the stars if they would hearken to the words of the White Tablet of Destiny which warned of a certain wicked star coming to spread its wickedness and then slay and destroy.