The Falling Sickness
At Ptolemais, I had, for the first time in my life, seen Mare Nostrum from afar, and then a ways further, as we turned north, glimpsed snatches of its emerald surface. On our way to the first imperial way station, however, as the road curved inland, the hills of Lebanon blocked our view. As I write these lines, I remember a bard’s verse: “The sea, the sea, yon I see lost horizon in reverie.” It was a poem written to a lost love, and yet, as I think about that moment, it captured the mood. One day a ship would, as a method of travel, become as important to me as a horse and Roman road. During this period in my life, the lure of the ocean had already fastened itself in my imagination. Jesus, during his travels with Joseph of Arimathea, told my family and me about the Great Sea. I envisioned it many times in my mind, and I couldn’t wait until I saw it again.
Earlier, on the map Decimus showed us, the first imperial way station near the town of Ecdippa appeared to sit by the shoreline, but it was actually a league or more inland. Alas, until we reached Tyre, this would be true for Acre and other wayside stops as well. Yet, on the way north, as we followed the Roman highway, the familiar smell of sea grew strong. I was reminded once again why I wanted to see the world. The notion of being a passenger on a ship, like the ones Jesus sailed in, swam in my thoughts. Though we were close to a beach, rows of trees hid the view of the Great Sea, so that I saw patches of blue here and there, an occasional sea gull flying overhead, until my dulled senses were awakened, my nostrils intoxicated by the salty air and smell of cedar and pine. I wondered if the others felt the same way. What a grand sight it was for me—my second glimpse of Mare Nostrum as the Romans called it, as the shoreline came momentarily in view: a rocky panorama bisected by ragged white breakers that divided the land from the sea. We were, the optio reminded us, still in Syria, and Acre, the town we were approaching had, as Ptolemais, no substantial Roman presence. Its citizens, Decimus explained, were under the jurisdiction of the governor and protection of the garrison at Tyre, but that was over a half days ride from this town. The fact was, there was, as at many stops in our journey, no official Roman protection for several leagues. Instead of hostile Jews we might find hostile Syrians. It all depended on how we behaved ourselves. We were guests, the optio admonished; we must act the part. The difference this time was that it wasn’t a village on the other side of a hill. We would be riding directly into the seaside town. Instead of hostile Jews we might encounter hostile Syrians, many of whom loved strangers, especially Romans, no better than Jews.
Fortunately, we would arrive in Tyre without serious incident. Perhaps the one exception might have been an event that challenged the misconception of my prowess as a Thaddeus, the Reaper. At our stop in Acre, our purpose was simply to water and feed our horses and, during a brief rest, eat a frugal meal. Out of earshot from the optio, members of the auxilia insisted that I test my skills. Ajax suggested I shoot the bow and Apollo offered me his knife. With the spear he gave me, Fronto good-naturedly egged me on, and Ibrim offered to teach me how to use the sling. Since this was the weapon David used to bring down Goliath, great pressure was brought on me by the Arab. As a one-time shepherd of Galilee, he had learned enough of my people’s history to make sport of me. After a rock toss to decide what weapon to use, it was agreed that I would toss the dagger. The rope to the wooden pale sitting on the community well was cut and the pail was placed as my target on a tree stump nearby. This mischief had occurred, as it had before, when Decimus and Aulus were absent. While we watered our horses, they left with the wounded Enrod to find a local physician in town. During this interval, Apollo taught me how to hold the dagger and aim it at the pail. He insisted that this would be an easy task for Thaddeus, the Reaper. Bored after the long ride, everyone cheered this diversion. Though disappointed with the choice of weapons, Fronto and Ajax, as well as Abzug and Langullus, lined up with their own knives waiting for their turns. A handful of townsfolk watched from afar, glaring with displeasure at the rowdy men. Caesarius tried pulling me away from Apollo’s clutches, but everyone else, including Vesto, offered encouragement. Caught off guard with the absence of my protectors and overwhelmed by the group’s enthusiasm, I followed Apollo’s instructions to hold the tip of the knife and raise it just so, certain that my weapon would go whistling past the mark.
Luck (or was it God’s design?) could carry me only so far. Time was suspended for me, the world fell silent as I prepared to throw. Where were Decimus and Aulus? I thought frantically. I was on the verge to tell everyone the truth: I was not a hero; I was a coward. What was taking them so long? Then, before the knife left my fingertips, I heard the shrill voice of the optio and Aulus cursing in a loud voice: “There at again—testing the poor lad. Pausing as a statue, I looked to the heavens, muttering thank you, thank you, thank you!” “Thaddeus,” Decimus barked, “put down that weapon!” “I told you to watch him,” he scolded Vesto. “That jug was attached to the well’s rope. It’s a communal well. I leave you men for one moment. This is how you behave?”
“We’re just havin’ some fun,” grumbled Ajax.
“How’re you feeling?” Rufus approached his brother with concern.
“A trifling matter,” Enrod waved with his free hand. “Ol’ Ibrim’s potion worked. The physician just changed the dressing. I was already on the mend.” “Thank you,” he said, bowing to the Arab. “I’m in your debt.”
“It was my pleasure,” Ibrim returned his bow.
“Thaddeus, did you hear me.” Decimus asked, standing in my line of fire.
Frozen in mid-air those seconds, the dagger fell to the ground as Rufus inspected his brother’s bandaged hand and sling. My moment of glory had passed.
“I told you it was fluke,” Apollo grumbled.
“Yeah,” snarled the Greek, “he must’ve been sleep-walking.”
“Awe, he could’ve done it,” Fronto slapped my shoulder. “He has the eye.”
“Not a chance,” scoffed Geta. “A knife is much harder than a spear.”
“Even I couldn’t do that,” Ibrim snorted. “That’s a tricky toss. I tell you, the proper weapon for a Jewish boy is a sling.”
“Enough with the weapons,” growled Decimus. “We must reach Tyre by nightfall. Enrod’s on the mend, our mounts are rested. Let’s eat our noonday meal and hit the road.”
I sighed loudly, which brought on more snickers from Ajax, Apollo, and Langullus, who, in spite of his fine words, appeared to resent my saving his life. Begrudgingly, Geta seemed to have accepted me in the group, as had Abzug and Fronto. Like my friend Caesarius, the Gauls appeared to have accepted me from the beginning. It seemed obvious to me that Ibrim, who began teasing me again with his offer to teach me the sling, shared Apollo, Ajax, and Langullus’ prejudice. When Decimus saw the sling in Ibrim’s fist, he charged forth and yanked it out of his hand.
“Enough, I say!” he cried, tossing it aside.
“A thousand pardons.” Ibrim bobbed his head. “No offense intended.”
As Decimus looked around the group, Ibrim retrieved his sling, giving me a wink as he tucked it into his shirt. We were given only a few moments to eat our snack of moldy bread before climbing into our saddles. Aulus and Vesto had already mounted their horses. Before mounting his stallion, the optio looked with great irritation around at the group.
“You men expect Thaddeus to work miracles? I don’t know what happened at the imperial station. Maybe Geta was right, and Jude was sleepwalking. But this nonsense stops right now. The fact is Thaddeus wants to be a scribe. Marksmenship is only part of being a soldier. He needs more training. Let’s not rush matters. Give him time. He’s just a lad.”
“Sounds fair to me.” Abzug nodded.
“Yes,” Fronto agreed, “even a natural needs growing.”
Geta frowned thoughtfully. Rufus and Enrod grinned. Ibrim stepped forward impishly, munching his bread, a sly look on his face.
“A scribe, eh?” He cackled. “That’s a noble profession. A soldier scribe’s even better.”
“Bah!” Apollo and Ajax grumbled under the breaths.
Caesarius stood on the right side of me. Rufus, his arm on his brother’s shoulder, stood on my left. Along with Decimus and Aulus, these men would remain my closest companions in the days ahead. Now that everyone had finished his snack and the subject of my marksmanship had been squelched, Decimus, astride his horse, gave the order to proceed. After we climbed sluggishly onto our mounts, the three Roman regulars shepherded us back into formation and onto the road. Caesarius came alongside of me that moment, reached over to pat my thigh, announcing for my benefit, “The sooner we get on the road the better!”
“Aye.” Rufus turned in the saddle and nodded. “I like Tyre. That’s a real city. You’ll like it, too, Thaddeus. They have Greek, even Falernian wine, and all kinds of fine food.”
Murmurs of approval followed this declaration. Caesarius gave me quiet counsel again, scolding me for not saying no to Apollo in the first place. Once again he reminded me that I should make up my mind before we reach Antioch on whether I wanted to risk being sworn into the legions and live up to the legend of Thaddeus the Reaper or accompany Decimus, Aulus and Vesto back to the fort. Because we were in a more gentle climate, Decimus allowed us to chatter freely, even exchange friendly banter (usually aimed at me), if we kept our voices low. This was, I would learn, the normal routine for soldiers on the march. There couldn’t be dissension in the ranks. More importantly, voices were carried in the wind. In Galilee we had been worried about bandits and insurrectionist, but in Syria our only concern were the occasional gang of brigands. This close to the ocean, the sound of the sea blowing through the trees and scream of the gulls drowned out our chatter. In fact, I could scarcely hear their conversations. Caesarius leaned over in the saddle as he talked to interpret their mood. My actions by the well had confused some of them, he explained. It was not so much the fact that I hadn’t tossed the dagger; it was the look on my face: fear and indecision. As I cupped my ear to hear them discuss my timidity—nay cowardice, Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto rode up and down the line of horsemen, keeping the line tight, in two-by-two formation, with a wary eye on Apollo, Ajax, and Ibrim. After riding ahead to scout out the road, Vesto galloped back to say that all was well—the road was clear. This gesture or ritual would have meant little in Galilee where a bandit might lurk behind every hill and stand of trees. It seemed on close inspection as he rode past, that Vesto was tipsy. Like my father, I had also acquired a taste for the vine and was thankful and relieved when Caesarius pulled out a flask of wine from his vest and offered me a drink.
“Here,” he whispered discreetly, “you need this.”
“You’re a true friend,” I said, gulping it down and passing it quickly back.
Just that moment Aulus galloped by, saying nothing as he looked my way. After a short while, Caesarius let me have another swig. This time, to his dismay, I guzzled it down greedily. My head swam, and I smiled foolishly at myself. I was, if I wasn’t careful, on the road to becoming a drunk. This hour had been stressful for me. My miraculous state at the imperial station had been given a name by none other than Geta, my onetime critic. I had been a sleepwalker. My ambition, which the Arab had defined for me, was to be a soldier scribe. Both of these definitions were illogical abstractions to me. There was no such thing as a soldier scribe, and I was still grappling with the miracle at our last camp. Whether or not members of our group accepted either of these definitions would not be settled at this stage in our journey. We had not traveled that far to our destination, and yet I had become a legend only to prove at Acre my cowardice when put to the test.
During our journey to Tyre, we encountered a herd of sheep crossing the highway and a suspicious band of horseman riding in the opposite direction, but nothing more serious until our next stop. The sheep, who appeared suddenly from a grove of trees, spooked the horses and mules, and when the men rode past us, we kept our hands on our swords. Then, as I listened to the chatter of the men, and reflected upon the events of the past two days, I began feeling light-headed. I wondered at first if it might be the wine, but the sensation I experienced seemed to be set off by the commotion around me. During the short period when we watered our horses and let them forage in a farmer’s field of wheat, Ajax brought up Geta’s suggestion that I had been sleepwalking when I killed those men, which was very close to the truth. The Greek seemed happy to dispel my feat. Apollo, however, disagreed, claiming to have seen children and adults sleepwalking, which I was not doing when I slew those men. Often, he pointed out, such sleepers moved aimlessly forward, their eyes closed, stumbling stiff-leggedly, bumping into things, having no control over the dream they found themselves in. When they awakened they had no memory of their dream. Rufus, Enrod, and Abzug disagreed with Ajax’s assessment too. A sleepwalker could not have used the sword as I did or have thrown a spear as I had done, Rufus argued. Langullus was living testament to that. My eyes had been wide open, Abzug reminded Ajax, and I didn’t stumble. I fought like a gladiator.
Though I kept silent, I nodded mutely, recoiling at this characterization. Apollo, Rufus, Enrod, and Abzug were correct, and yet part of me wished Geta was right. I had seen my brother Simon sleepwalk before, and it was nothing like my experience at the station. When the Greek reminded them of the expression on my face and how easily I tumbled back into slumber, this caused Geta to nod. Had I known I was awake, Ajax insisted, I would have panicked and been killed outright. This was true, of course, which made half of Ajax’s argument true. I wasn’t certain if Geta really believed I was sleepwalking and I was uncertain what Langullus believed, but I saw Fronto and Ibrim shake their heads and frown at Ajax’s insistence I did it in my sleep. The truth was I hadn’t behaved like a sleepwalker. I knew, recalling with perfect clarity, what I had done. Normally, I was a coward. I had killed all those men playfully, like a child’s pretend game. A cold shudder shot down my back with this reminder. The dizzy feeling had come over me after we pulled off the road worsened. Caesarius reached over and steadied me as I climbed off my saddle and joined the others at the farmer’s well. Patiently waiting for their turns, the optio and his men watched the horses and mules. Now, as we stood around the well drinking our fill, I found the argument about me unbearable. Ajax was pointing out how illogical it was that a wet-behind-the-ears Jew could have done such a thing unless he had been asleep. Ibrim returned to his earlier belief that I had been possessed by a jinn, while most of the others, including Apollo, called it a miracle. According to the Egyptian, almost mockingly, “A god, perhaps the great Zeus, himself, known to be perverse when it came to interfering in human destiny, gave him power.” Only Fronto thought I might be a “natural,” with a killer instinct born of necessity that few men had.
I liked none of these alternatives. If I was, as Fronto believed, “blessed” with this gift, I was cursed because I had to prove it again and again. I certainly wasn’t, as Apollo claimed, empowered by a pagan god. On the other hand, if I didn’t live up to the legend, I would be branded a coward. My dreams of travel and adventure would be over. I would have to go home and follow my father’s trade. Caesarius, more concerned with my comportment, gripped my shoulder, muttering a curse at them, as he led me away.
“Jude…Thaddeus,” his voice broke in, “are you all right?”
“He looks pale,” said Enrod, surging forward, with his good arm, gripping my waste.
Rufus, Abzug, Fronto, and Geta surrounded me, as I was guided to a tree stump by the road. Decimus and Aulus, who had been busy with the horses, ran over finally, as I began to collapse. A phenomena was overtaking me which I had not felt sense I was a child. My parents had hoped that I had outgrown it, but I sensed with great dread that it was coming on again. The world spun around my head, voices grew faint, and faces grew dim, yet for a moment I felt much better as I sat on the stump. Decimus was asking Ajax if he were jealous of me. Why did he try to debunk what he saw with his own eyes?
“Ajax—all of you,” he said hoarsely. “I wished Thaddeus had never had to do such a thing, but if he hadn’t, we might all be dead.” Looking around the group, he again demanded silence on the subject of my prowess with the spear and sword. “You especially,” he pointed at Ajax. “Your hatred of Thaddeus has blinded you,” “and I don’t believe in the gods, Apollo,” he turned to the Egyptian. “Whatever happened back there at the imperial station can’t be explained. Let’s leave it at that!”
At that point, Ajax exploded in anger at Decimus “high and mighty” ways, but the words were garbled as I slumped forward finally onto the ground. I would never know what was said next, but I would find out later as I came to what happened to me, which was the worst time for such an event. My father had warned me that this condition might return, and that I might fall off my horse and injure myself or collapse at a most embarrassing time. Fortunately for me, only a portion of his prophecy came true. I had not been on my horse and had only a short ways to fall. Caesarius and Rufus gave me the details of what occurred when I was fully conscious. Before this point, after I was rolled over and a piece of wood stuffed between my teeth, I began to awaken from this state. I caught snatches of their reaction and heard great concern from my friends after I pitched face forward and tumbled onto my face, twitching and foaming at the mouth.
“You see, I told you,” exclaimed Apollo, “he’s touched by the gods.”
“Perhaps it’s an evil jinn,” Ibrim suggested.
“Or he’s mad,” Ajax sneered.
“Nonsense,” Decimus said, with great irritation, brushing their looming faces away, “I’ve seen this before. The lad’s ill. Can’t you men see that?”
In less than a moment, it was over. My eyes were open and my body floated below my audience. Brushing them away impatiently, Aulus’ beefy jowls and flushed face loomed over me as he pulled the stick from my mouth.
“It’s the falling sickness,” Caesarius said almost reverently. “Caesar had it. Many great warriors had it. This points to great things.”
“Well,” Vesto decided, clucking his tongue, “this explains his great feat.”
“Vesto!” Aulus scolded, wiping my face. “I expected that from them, not you. All of this has been too much for him. We’ll never be able to explain what happened back there, but this puts an end to his soldiering.”
“But Caesar had it,” my friend was adamant. “I tell you, it portends great things!”
“It’s true!” Apollo looked around the group for agreement. “They made Caesar a god. In my people’s civilization this was one proof of divinity. This changes everything in my eyes.”
“That might’ve worked for Caesar and Pharaoh.” Decimus sighed with resolution. “It won’t work for a Galilean Jew. With such an affliction, Thaddeus can never join the legion. He would be in harm’s way. Most soldiers are superstitious, but they don’t understand the falling sickness. I don’t understand it either. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, Caesarius, even you. What would happen if your pet is marching along on his hoped for steed and he tumbles off and breaks his head. How would Aurelian act if, during Thaddeus’ interview, he had such a fit? We have a long way to go, men. This isn’t good!”
By now, the fog of my falling sickness had cleared enough for comprehension. The full impact of Decimus words crashed in on me jolting me into a sitting position. In my weakened state I began weeping copiously. It was over, I thought, my face buried in my hands: my dreams, my ambition, my future as a scribe and interpreter. I would go home and learn to be a carpenter like my father. My fate seemed sealed.
“Now look what you did.” Caesarius sat down to comfort me. “You could’ve waited until he was stronger for that news!”
“Hah,” scoffed Decimus, “you thought he should go back too. Until that miracle, most of you did. I don’t want him to get himself killed. I know how this might be received by the first centurion in Antioch and the prefect. They’ll send him home. If he doesn’t return with Aulus, Vesto and me and waits there hoping he’ll become a scribe, he’ll be cast out alone.”
“We want the same things,” Aulus murmured thoughtfully to Caesarius. “He’s still a youth, barely old enough to hold a sword. He has his whole life ahead of him.” “Thaddeus,” he said, pulling my hands away, “not everyone has to join the army. You can still be a scribe. This friend of your brother you told us about, Joseph of Arimathea, might give you employment.”
“I...I tried so hard.” I simpered. “Why did this have to happen now.”
“Cry baby,” Langullus muttered. “Take it like a man!”
“Shut your scurvy mouth!” Vesto growled.
“Listen...I remember a young man,” Geta remarked, gazing into the distance. “Every time he got really upset, he had the falling sickness, like Thaddeus here. There’s nothing divine about it. I’ve grown to like Thaddeus for his goodness, not his expertise with the sword or spear. At first, because of his holier-than-thou air, I despised him. Now, I trust him. He has a kind heart. I don’t think he would ever betray or slight a friend. Trust, like truth, is hard to find.”
“Aye!” Rufus, Enrod, and Fronto chimed.
“Well,” Abzug studied my face, “maybe there’s a cure. I’ve heard about a place where they cure almost any disease or malady—a Greek island. I visited it once.”
“You mean Kos?” Decimus made a face. “Charlatans—all of them. A good physician is hard to find. You sure won’t find any in the legions. They wouldn’t know what to do with Thaddeus’ problem.”
“It’s more than that,” Ajax said with finality, “it’s his manners. The fort’s no place for Thaddeus. If this happens there, they’ll torment him. He won’t last a week. It’s not his fault, Decimus. He’s not cut out for it. Before he’s sworn in, he should return home!”
Vesto gave him a cynical look. “I thought you hated him. Do you really care?”
“I don’t hate Thaddeus,” Ajax scowled. “I didn’t like him, perhaps. I sill find him hard to take, but I think I understand him now. It’s a Jewish thing. They’re a high-strung people those Jews. They’re always in revolt. When we captured that band of Judah, the Galilean’s, they wept and gnashed their teeth, but they were still a brave lot to challenge Rome.”
“I’m a coward.” I said in a whisper. “I never wanted to be a hero or legend. I just want to be a scribe and see the world.”
“Humph, you don’t need the army for that,” grunted Langullus. “Join the navy. They’ll take any warm body with arms.”
This surly, embittered man had given me an alternative to the legion. I muttered my thanks.
“One thing, though” he added, pointing to my tearstained face, “you mustn’t do that. You must take it like a man—soldier or sailor. They’ll toss you overboard.”
“Bah! I would never join the navy.” Apollo made a face.
Vesto shook his head vigorously. “That was bad advice, Langullus. A Roman galley would destroy Thaddeus.”
“Yes, Langullus,” chided Aulus, “that’s no an alternative, none at all. You want him rowing a galley or swabbing a deck. What if his ship sinks? There are a lot of dangers at sea. He’s safer in the legions than on a stinkin’ boat!” “Thaddeus,” he said, giving me a kindly look, “what’s wrong with being a carpenter? The swordplay and spear toss back there showed great promise but you don’t have to follow it through. Any one of those cashiered veterans would trade places with you. I might myself, if I could find myself a Jewish wench.”
“True enough,” agreed Langullus. “We just don’t understand you. We killed so many of you people it doesn’t seem natural having you in our group. Why in the name of Jupiter and Mars do you want to join us?”
“He told you.” Decimus grew impatient. “He wants to be a scribe.”
“Aye,” Caesarius jumped in, “he wants to see the world. His weapon is the pen, not the sword. ”
“What a waste!” grumbled Apollo.
“It must’ve have been a fluke.” Ajax shook his head.
“Fluke, nothing,” blared Fronto. “He killed six men, he did, and hit that tree dead center. How do you explain that?”
“We can’t,” the optio grunted, “no one can. Get over it.” “Listen up men,” he shouted, clapping his hands, “mount up and move out. We must reach Tyre before nightfall.”
Caesarius and Rufus helped me climb shakily onto my mule. Everyone fell quickly into double file, following the optio back onto the highway leading us north. A strange quiet fell over the riders, as if something momentous had happened. I also sensed disappointment in the group. As the optio led our small band, Aulus rode up and down the ranks, and Vesto galloped ahead to inspect the road, each man sitting on his horse or mule chewing on his thoughts. Caesarius, who like most of my traveling companions, had my best interest at heart, broke the silence. Bending over to check my pallor, he whispered discreetly, “You are special Thaddeus Judaicus, that I know.” A moment later, as I thought about what he said, I shook my head, uttering, “I’m not special, Caesarius. I’m a fool chasing a dream.”
“Fool you may be,” replied Rufus, “but you’re not a coward. You might be afraid of failing, but in battle you fight without fear.”
That was an accident, I thought, shaking my head. I froze back there during my test because I was afraid—period! I almost blurted out loudly that moment “I thought I was asleep at the imperial camp when I killed those men. I’m not invincible. I’m a coward!” It would be much better if they believed Geta’s original statement that I was sleepwalking. It had already been established by Ajax and my own experience that sleepwalkers move mindlessly forward, trapped in their dreams. If I tried to explain that I thought I was acting out my fantasies in a lucid dream, some of them, who know what this phenomenon is, would know for certain I was a coward. Coming from Apollo, who had been last on my list of friends, his statement on my behalf seemed ludicrous, and yet from the back of the company of riders, in a loud clear voice, he spoke many of their minds when he declared, “Like Caesar, Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper, is touched by the gods!”
“Aye!” Abzug, Ibrim, Rufus, and Enrod heartily agreed.
“He’s a natural, I tell you,” came Fronto’s refrain.
“That doesn’t mean he has to throw his life away,” Aulus exclaimed. “There might be greater things in store for Thaddeus than the army. He could be a merchant’s scribe or anything he wants. Why join the legions?”
“Because,” the words leaped foolishly out of my mouth, “Jesus said it was my destiny. I can’t fail him. I won’t fail him. After all my fine words to my family and friends, I must not fail. I cannot fail!”
“Then you’re a fool,” Aulus spat, “if a wet-behind-the-ears Jew like you thinks he won’t fail. I’ve failed, every one of these men have failed at something in their lives. By the Fates, our Emperor, that miserable bugger Tiberius, is the biggest failure of them all!”