In the weeks following Jesus limited healing of Nehemiah, I decided that I would trust my oldest brother and give him the benefit of the doubt. Since Nehemiah was once again, at Abner’s insistence, stationed in a sick bed at Samuel’s house, Simon was my playmate again and, because Jesus was watching James and Joseph’s every step, they now left us alone as we scampered in the hills. With Roman soldiers appearing every now and then, Simon and I pretended that we were soldiers too, carrying pretend spears and swords, fashioned from olive branches and limbs. In spite of Papa’s demand that we go no further than the orchard, we felt safe now that we were visibly protected by Rome.
Thanks to Regulus and his superiors, Longinus and Cornelius, we and our neighbors now had protection continuously all hours of the day. There were, in fact, three shifts of guards—day, evening, and midnight—and several zones of security in our town. Other than the bandit infested main road leading from Nazareth to Jerusalem, the trail in back of our property was considered the most dangerous part of our town. Because of this, Longinus provided our zone with the greatest security. Along with the mounted sentries patrolling the road in front of our house, there were men patrolling on foot at three different sectors in our zone: the area surrounding our house and yard and the grove in back of our propriety, a middle region, which included most of the hills in back of our house as well as the Shepherd’s Trail, and a third sector of guards, which, in cooperation with other zones, patrolled the entire perimeter of Nazareth. Regulus, the optio in charge of our zone, had introduced us to some of his men the day we helped Ezra’s daughters carry wool to the shepherd’s camp. There were, I would discover, twelve different guards in our zone, paired up into three sectors and three shifts. The most visible representatives of Roman authority, of course, were our daytime guards Falco and Priam. Trudging back and forth singly, together, or in the company of the optio during his rounds, they would often malinger long enough to mooch a meal or mugs of wine. Because of the protection they provided to us, my parents felt obliged to placate all of our guards with food and drink. Though Regulus had forbidden us from taking food to sentries after sundown, we would, if the daytime and evening guards didn’t stop by themselves, bring them food and drink. Mama would also leave baskets of food and drink for the midnight shift at the back door, which, more than likely, wound up being devoured by day and evening guards.
I’m fortunate for a having a memory capable of remembering names, though I’ve found faces less easy to recall. With the exception of Regulus, Falco and Priam, our Roman guards were a motley selection of slackers, many of whom were seldom ever seen. Most of the sentries we met in the hills or on the trail displayed undisguised contempt and even hostility toward my family, and yet I feel compelled to honor the roster of Regulus’ men, who, willing or not, drunk or sober, stood watch over our lives. Other than Falco and Priam, the most visible guards were the daytime guards when we brought them their lunch. Gratian and Leto, who patrolled the hills, warmed up to us slowly, but the perimeter guards, Diblius and Zeno, who frequented the shepherd’s camp were often drunk on Arab wine. Less often we caught sight of Arturius and Justus relieving Falco and Priam in the early evening and occasionally, during the change over, accepting bread and wine. Rubrius and Dracho, who were Gratian and Leto’s reliefs, after being introduced once by the optio, vanished forever from our sight. All the other night guards—Malchus and Probus, who relieved Arturius and Justus, Decius and Horatio, who relieved Rubrius and Dracho, and the remaining perimeter guards who followed Diblius and Zeno’s shift (Hector and Octorius and then Balbo and Salvio), were likewise seen only once that first day Regulus’ crew mustered in front of our house.
From the day the Romans marched back into town to begin protecting us from agitators, bandits, and Reuben’s band, it was obvious that the other zones in town didn’t share our level of security. There were, we counted, the mounted legionnaires and infantry marching into Nazareth, forty-two foot soldiers and ten horseman, commanded by only three optio, who reported to Aulus Longinus, the First Centurion of the Galilean Cohort, who commanded similar contingents in nearby towns. The centurion explained the security plan to Papa one day, as I eavesdropped. According to Longinus, thirty men were spread out in two man teams across town, as twelve horsemen continually rode the perimeter and streets of town, but the largest portion of sentries were now guarding the area directly around and in back of our house in order to protect our town’s most vulnerable zone. Relief guards, covering three shifts, would arrive at evening and midnight intervals, which tripled the actual total of men assigned to each town. Our sector had a total of twelve men under Regulus, our own “personal” optio, who, when not riding the perimeter of Nazareth with other optios, made sure his sentries were walking their posts. The other two optios, Felix and Virgilius, had similar duties. Each of them supervised two of the remaining four zones (consisting of the remaining eighteen sentries) scattered throughout Nazareth, which covered a much larger area than our sector yet were in closer range of the horseman on patrol. Occasionally, Longinus added, the three optios would make random checks upon their men at night and the early morning, as he, himself, did on occasion. As long as the prefect was concerned about general security, the Cohort would divide its manpower between several problem towns in Galilee, but, because of the close proximity of the bandit gang to Nazareth, our town was assigned the greatest number of men.
Though Rome had much more important reasons for its security measures in Galilee, the Roman presence had increased from a monthly show of arms to its present occupation after the night Reuben and his friends became incendiaries in our town. It almost seemed as if our protection of Mariah, which caused such anger in Nazareth, had started it all. Just as the townsmen blamed us for the Roman presence, most of the guards appeared to resent my family’s special status with the prefect. I had only contempt for the townsmen, but I couldn’t blame our guards. It seemed to be a waste of manpower for so many legionnaires used to killing barbarians and guarding Rome’s frontiers to be isolated, especially in one small corner of town. If nothing else, I suspect they were frightfully bored watching over us, especially the evening and midnight patrols. Ezra complained to Papa recently about some of night guards, who, according to the shepherds, gambled, drank wine, and took turns sleeping during their watch. James and Joseph claimed that some of the daytime guards committed these sins too, but, when asked by Papa exactly who these slackers were, they gave him blank looks. In spite of their hatred for the Romans, the notion of informing on Leto, Gratian, Diblius, or Zeno, who we so often brought food to, seemed risky, even perilous given the surly looks they gave Joseph and James.
Like Jesus and my parents, however, I understood our guards’ attitude. We didn’t take it personal, as did many Nazarenes. Most Roman soldiers stationed in Galilee were tired of outlaws and rabble-rousers. They disliked all Jews, not just us. Whereas James and Joseph, like most townsfolk, feared and resented our Roman occupiers, I admired soldiers in general and had great respect for many of the Romans I knew. Though he wouldn’t admit it, Simon was also excited by the Roman presence and had grown found of some of our guards. While Nehemiah recovered from his illness and Uriah remained forbidden to visit our house, Simon was all I had. Thanks to our Roman guards, we felt safe enough to roam beyond the boundaries of our yards. When were weren’t scampering in Samuels orchard, spying on the sentries on the trail or pretending to be soldiers, ourselves, we searched for new adventures in Nazareth’s rocky hills.
One sunny day, after we brought Diblius and Zeno their lunches, Simon and I decided, in the spirit of adventure, to explore a path I discovered at the edge of the trees. It was from sheer idleness and boredom that I chose this spot. In spite of our apparent safety with the Romans here, we were scolded if we were caught beyond our property line. The exceptions, of course, were the times we brought the day guards their lunch. The restrictions set by Regulus limited us to our front and back yards and the grove of olive trees in back of our house, but we disregarded these restrictions when the mood suited us.
Today, I had to talk Simon into following me down the trail. We found it lined with prickly cactuses and thorn bushes and almost aborted our descent. After being scraped and prickled a few times, we found the trail widening slightly at one point as we descended into a narrow ravine. Gnarled and stunted olive and oak trees stood as shadowy sentinels on the surrounding slopes. A shaft of light breaking through the trees overhead lighted the way but also highlighted the darkness ahead. At the same time I felt my heart pounding with anticipation, I grew light-headed with high expectations and felt that familiar prickling at the back of my neck when I was doing something reckless and foolish, a sensation that indicated both excitement and dread.
“I’ve never seen this place before,” Simon said fearfully. “Where did those trees around us come from? Is this part of our grove?”
“This is our special place, Simon. Come on,” I cried, charging recklessly ahead, “let’s see what’s at the end of this trail!”
When the trail dipped sharply downward into a shadowy hallow, I slowed down and helped Simon make the descent. Hand-in-hand we moved carefully down what appeared to be steps, until we were at the bottom of the hallow, looking up at a tangled bramble of cactus, thorn bushes, and trees. It was a great adventure for both us, especially now that we discovered that our special place actually had steps.
“I wonder where this leads.” I looked up and down both sides of the ravine.
“I don’t know,” Simon muttered in a quivering voice, “but it’s spooky down here.”
“It’s not spooky,” I replied, “it’s just dark.”
“I dunno, Jude, maybe we better leave.” Simon now had a trapped look.
I couldn’t blame Simon for being afraid. It was, in fact, dark at both ends. We would need lamps if we wanted to explore any further. As I scanned the immediate area, however, I felt a surge of excitement. What I thought was a natural depression in the earth had walls on each side, which I recognized as manmade. There was, I could tell, brick and mortar piled neatly on top finished slabs of stone and what appeared to be carvings in the stone.
“Look Simon,” I cried, running over to touch a slab. “Do you see this? It’s a man with horns, like the one drawn in Jesus’ caves. I bet the Evil Ones, the townsmen speak of, built this place.”
“Jude, I think we should leave.” Simon gripped my arm.
I nodded mutely. Here, buried away in a Nazarene hill, was the evidence of the old religion that our ancestors tried to destroy. I heard Papa talk about the Evil Ones, whom I would learn one day were called Canaanites and later Phoenicians, whose religions demanded the fiery sacrifice of children to Moloch or Baal. Back then I only remembered Papa expound his theory to Mama that these ancient heretics and blasphemers worshipped the devil and that some of the townsfolk, including Nehemiah’s Aunt Deborah, were practitioners themselves.
Excited but terrified by this discovery, it was I who led the way up the stairs, with Simon clamoring and whimpering in back of me, the sunlight above streaming down in condemnation against what was behind.
Upon our emergence back into the orchard, scratched, bruised, and out of breath, we stumbled into Leto, one of the trail guards, who spotted us as we exited our secret path. Leto drew his sword, crouched down with his shield, and snarled, ready to do battle with our dark shadows, until a stream of sunlight fell on Simon and I and Leto realized his mistake.
“Hey, you boys aren’t suppose to be down there,” he snapped. Sheathing his sword and slinging his shield over his back, he beckoned us to follow him. “Come on boys, Regulus and Longinus want you children to stick around your house.”
As we followed the portly soldier, I was certain Simon and I would get in trouble this time if we told Papa about our discovery. To be in the orchard would be all right, but to be hiking into unknown territory would be unacceptable to him.
“I don’t know how we can explain this to Papa,” I whispered to Simon.
“Then lets not tell him,” murmured Simon. “Leto found us in the orchard. Papa said we could go there. Let’s just leave it at that.”
“Yes,” I said, nodding enthusiastically, “he doesn’t need to know about our secret place!”
Leto turned us over to Priam, who had been lolling beneath the large oak tree on the boundary of our property. I immediately told him the story that Simon and I agreed upon and Priam ruffled our hair, thanked Leto, but said nothing at all about the episode as he led us up the path to our house.
“Our you going to tell our parents?” Simon looked up sadly, a tear forming in his eyes.
“Why should I do that?” He patted Simon’s head. “According to Regulus, your Papa said you could go into the trees. You sure got scratched up in there. You boys tangle with a jackal or wild dog?”
“No,” I replied brazenly, “we thought we saw a berry patch near the orchard. We found cactus and thorns instead.”
I had sinned grievously by Jesus’ standards. Priam eyed us knowingly, a smile playing on his chiseled face. We thanked him for his clemency and both sighed heavily with relief. I felt guilty for my lie, but it seemed better to tell a little fib to Priam than lie to Papa about where we had been. Simon and I were always getting scratched up. Most of our injuries were on our knees and elbows, which we got once or twice a week. When we entered the house, everyone else was gathered around the family table. We expected that we would have to do some explaining about our whereabouts now, but once again, as we approached our family, a crisis would eclipse the current event. Our scratched knees and elbows mattered little after what Papa said.
“You Aunt Elizabeth is very sick,” he said, holding up the letter.
Mama was weeping, but James, Joseph, and the twins seemed bored by the present meeting. Aunt Elizabeth had been sick for a long time. This must have meant that she was going to join her husband Zechariah, which, after all the death we had heard about in our parent’s families seemed to be the natural order of things. Simon and I once more sighed with relief, finding stools by the table, folding our fingers together, and giving Mama sympathetic looks.
“Are you going to visit her soon?” Joseph asked, with a faint yawn.
“Will you leave us to tend the shop?” ventured James.
“No.” Papa shook his head. “Elizabeth means a lot to us. She’s a very special Aunt; someday I’ll explain to you why. . . . All of us are going this time—even the twins.”
Mama and Papa exchanged smiles. Jesus had a troubled look on his face, as the rest of us whooped with glee. We remembered how generous our aunt was in imparting food and gifts. Sepphoris was an exciting place, and Elizabeth’s yard was filled with all manner of flowers, fruit and trees. Of course this time was different—our great aunt was sick, so we quickly hung our heads as we murmured excitedly amongst ourselves. Jesus, who knew things about the future, had probably seen something dark up ahead. I tried to dispel this thought as I envisioned the journey, but this notion stayed with me as we sat planning our trip.