The Second Oasis
We arrived at the second oasis without another incident, and yet the relatively short distance from out last battle and our next stop took a toll on the men’s nerves. In spite of its desolation, the desert was proving to be a dangerous place. Danger lurked in the horizon and behind each dune. No one spoke a word. I could see fear and apprehension on everyone’s face. This time, because of my illumination, I didn’t include myself in this group. This time I wasn’t afraid. I couldn’t shake the conviction that God had a purpose for me. I even attempted, in my light-headed state of mind, to console a few of the others as we began setting up camp. Decimus and Aulus both scolded me for my airs. Using my logic against me, the optio asked me why my god had not spared Vesto, Enrod, Geta, and Langullus. Caesarius, who had lost two of his friends to the Bedouins and was afraid that he might be next, thought it pretentious that I gave credit to the Jewish god. His rebuke stung me most of all. The big test, everyone believed, would be tonight. “We’ll see about your invisible god!” Abzug jeered.
There were several questions in our minds. Who were these men clad in dark with veils over their mouths, some on camels, others riding fleet-footed horses, brandishing spears, bows, and large two-handed swords? Would they attack us this evening or, were they like many peoples, too superstitious to fight at night. This seemed unlikely to us. It didn’t stop those cavalrymen from attacking us in Ecdippa. If so, would a larger band of nomads attack us this time? Even if they don’t attack at night, we still have to ride a long distance to Raphana in the coming days. So it was that in spite our relative good fortune, we were, as we rode into the second oasis, plunged into gloom.
Our depression, a mixture of fear, weariness, and sadness for our dead comrades, was relieved somewhat as we explored the forest of palms and acacias and discovered another bubbling spring. As several of us explored the oasis, it stretched on endlessly through a forest palms an acacias. There was, in addition to date palms, grasses for our horses and mules. As we moved further into the interior, the ground arose progressively, over an outcrop of ancient rock. To our astonishment, on the top of the hillock, sat the ruins of fort.
“Look!” Ajax pointed excitedly. “Those are bricks. That looks like walls.”
“Thank you Lord.” I cried, running up the slope. “This is perfect against attack!”
“A fort in the middle of nowhere,” Rufus mumbled with awe. “Who would’ve guessed?”
“It has promise,” Ibrim said thoughtfully, “but it looks awfully old and crumbly.”
“It’s in pretty bad shape,” observed Apollo. “There’s no shade up there. Most of wall has been breeched.”
“I wonder who built it,” I said, raising up a brick. “It doesn’t look Greek or Roman. You think the desert people built this?” I looked Ibrim.
“Thaddeus, my young friend?” Ibrim laughed wryly. “You people think I’m an expert on these nomads, but I’m a Galilean, like you. My ancestors, like my family, live in tents, as do all desert people. I don’t think the men in black built this fort. I bet it’s much older.”
“Aye,” Abzug said, fingering a crumbling brick. “Apollo’s right, it’s in bad shape.”
“Let’s go tell Decimus,” I squealed with delight. “We’ll let him decide!”
When we told the other men about our discovery, there was a mixed reaction. Our own vote had been taken: Ajax, Rufus, and my enthusiasm against Apollo and Abzug’s doubt. Whereas the Egyptian and Syrian saw it as a hot, uncomfortable place to camp, Aulus and Caesarius were worried about its location. It might be to well hidden, they argued, which would allow Bedouins to sneak up on us unawares. Decimus and Fronto, however, disagreed. The Thracian thought it was better than being on the fringe of the oasis, where attackers could spot us from afar. The best defense against unseen forces, Decimus said tutorials, is to be invisible. In our case, against potentially superior forces, it would be much better not to be seen at all. Sight unseen, therefore, the optio, who had the last word, decided that we would fortify our discovery with palm and acacia logs.
After leaving me to watch the horses and mules and Abzug and the weary veteran to stand watch, Decimus followed the others back to the ruins. When they returned, after Decimus’ inspection, I could see disappointment on most of the other men’s faces, as they considered the task ahead, but resignation in his dark eyes. It was true, as several of them believed; it was in bad shape. Aside from a few crumbling walls and the remnants of an ancient building inside its boundaries, it would not, as it stood, offer much protection against attack. Nevertheless, after hastily taking care of the animals, eating handfuls of bread and dates, then burying Geta and Langullus inside the ruins, we went about the task of fortifying our position with palm and acacia trunks around the perimeter of the walls, packing sand and dirt in the recesses of the logs. Our wall was about the height of Fronto in the portion facing the trail through the trees and was reduced gradually as it disappeared into the dense underbrush, which we tried to clear. Without being able to use fire—the usual Roman method of clearing brush, an action that would alert nomads of our presence, we had to use our shovels and swords. It was a filthy, exhaustive task that, because of thorns and sharp twigs, rent our clothes and scratched our skins.
When we were finished we had created the “Fortress of Palms,” as Ibrim dubbed it, and felt some satisfaction in our efforts. Not only were we encircled with cut logs atop the mud bricks; at various sectors of our fort, the men sank makeshift poles into the earth, tying saplings crosswise and draping palm leaves on them to create shady nooks. Apollo and Ajax had been resentful of my last task as guardian of the animals, but now, with the horses and mules enclosed safely inside the fort, I had a chance to show them all how hard I could work. At home in Nazareth working beneath my father as a carpenter’s assistant, I had been lazy and willful, but under the optio’s watchful eye, I moved in a flurry of shoveling and hacking as we cleared the brush around the back wall and then, as Fronto used a Bedouin sword to cut down additional saplings for lean-tos, followed safely behind him shoveling away the debris. I vowed those moments never to be caught in a place where I had to do this kind of chore again. My arms, legs, back, neck, and head ached. I trembled with fatigue, barely able to shovel the last few cubits, until, when Decimus called a halt, I collapsed on the ground with the others, as a second group of men, who had been guarding our stronghold, took over and finished clearing the less overgrown sides of the wall. Poor Fronto fell immediately asleep. It would take both the burly Romans to cut the logs now. Caesarius and Abzug had been given guard duty during the first shift and would help Decimus and Aulus finish clearing the brush from the walls. I wondered fleetingly those moments, as Apollo and Ajax wearily patrolled the perimeter, if Caesarius would survive our trip. He was too old for such hard work. This was a miserable, god-forsaken land.
Lying beneath a lean-to alongside my friend I regretted my decision. I had no business being here. I was a carpenter’s son. I wasn’t a warrior. This was a fool’s errand. I was, I thought giddily, as I guzzled water from my flask, too young to throw my life away, and yet here I was with this bunch: Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper, scarcely knowing my own name. I don’t remember falling asleep this time. Suddenly, in broad daylight, I found myself in the same oasis (or so it seemed), awakening from another nap, though I was really in a lucid dream. The only fear I had for these strange experiences was the message, not the scenes. Because of the current crisis in the desert, I was therefore apprehensive. I looked around at the fortress we had built of palm and acacia trunks, knowing that almost everyone was asleep. Glancing to my left, I saw a great horde of darkly clad warriors climbing over the wall, with sabers held high. Through their keffiyehs, their black eyes gleamed with hate. When I tried to shout a warning to my friends, my throat seemed paralyzed, so I ran around the stronghold in an attempt to physically awaken the sleeping men by nudges and pokes. Before long, as I stood there gazing in horror, the Bedouins rushed upon them. Swarming into the fortress like jackals, they butchered the slumbering men. With visions of the slaughter I had witnessed today, I saw this reenacted upon Decimus, Aulus, and the others, all cut down one by one as they stood their ground or tried to flee. Then, as the killers withdrew, I was left with a vision that was not an abstract prediction of things to come but a message that meant life or death.
When I awakened, Aulus was nudging me with his boot, and Apollo was standing over me, a smirk on his tanned face, the glimmer of the setting sun giving the men, fort, and trees around me an eerie, unearthly glow. I knew for certain, because of aches and pains, that I was awake. Sweating partly from the sweltering heat, I sat there beneath the lean-to thankful that it was just a dream.
“Get up Thaddeus, night is ending,” Aulus’ voice faded as he continued rousing the other men, “those blackhearts must be superstitious. We’re going to have a quick meal. We’ll be on the road before sunrise.”
“My-my,” the Egyptian said wryly. “You look frightened Thaddeus. Did you have a bad dream?”
The prophecy came straight into my head that moment: “They’re going to attack at daybreak or soon after. We can’t wait until sunup. We must leave now in the darkness.”
“How do you know this?” Apollo frowned severely. “Did that come from another one of your dreams?”
“Yes, Thaddeus,” Decimus chided, “shame on you for sounding the alarm. Early this evening, you were telling us how safe we were going to be. Did you have a nightmare lad? Is that all this is?”
“I-I had a vision,” I struggled. “I saw something terrible.” “Please believe me,” I cried, rising shakily to my feet. “These nomads are angry at us. Apollo, Ajax, and Rufus shouldn’t have beheaded those men. Maybe they found them. When the sun is up, they’ll attack.”
“Pick up and leave?” Aulus scratched his head. “After all this?” His arms swept the new fort.
“It’s not a bad idea,” Ibrim stepped forward. “The desert people are afraid of the jinn and won’t attack at night. We shepherd Arabs, who tend sheep, can’t be afraid of the dark. I’ve had my doubts about Thaddeus, but after Ecdippa I trust his dreams. We have enough time to get ourselves ready and be on the road.”
Caesarius joined Ibrim’s vote of confidence by simply nodding his head. Rufus spoke his first words since the last attack: “Thaddeus once saved our lives. Why would he lie?”
“We built this silly fort for nothing,” Abzug groaned.
“I think I sprained my back.” Fronto shook his head.
“It’s not for nothing,” Decimus snorted, “they could attack at any time. We had to be ready.”
“They won’t attack,” I shook my head emphatically, “until daylight and then it won’t matter, since we’ll be outnumbered. Time is running out.”
I could scarcely believe it. Most of them were accepting my vision. Its message had been simple. I had added pure logic to my argument. My dream had said nothing about the desert spirits. Perhaps, I thought with a shudder, Bedouins here didn’t believe in the jinn. I looked around and could see doubt on everyone’s faces, then gradual agreement. Even Decimus, the author of our labor, nodded faintly. Apollo and Ajax scowled in disbelief, yet also managed a nod. It seemed like an exercise in futility to all of us, especially since it weakened us physically and dampened our spirits. For all we knew, they might not come at all. We had cut down numerous trees and reshaped the ruined fort into an impressive stronghold. Unfortunately, it had been a waste of time. Now, we had to race against time in order to put distance between our selves and the nomads in case they decided to attack.
“How many hours do we have left?” Caesarius asked calmly.
“Quite a few,” Aulus pursed his lips. “The men have only been asleep for a few hours. I haven’t slept a wink. How are we ever going to stay awake?”
“That’s were Aulus’ whip comes in handy,” Decimus replied half-seriously. “More important, men, is your common sense. Strap you selves onto your saddles. I’ll show you how. I think this is the worst of it. Eat what’s left our rations then prepare your mounts.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Aulus raised an eyebrow, “but who’ll keep you awake?”
Lackluster laughter rippled through our group. There was nothing humorous about our predicament. I scarcely remember striking camp, climbing onto my mule, and entering the road north. Decimus instructed us to fasten one hand to the saddle, keeping the other free to hold the reins. Of course, this method hadn’t helped poor Enrod very much. The Gaul had been worn out after holding his reins with one hand, which is one reason why he was so easily killed. Rufus had recovered slightly from his addled state of mind, and showed us the Gaulish method to keep a rider awake. This alternate method involved, brining the rope under the saddle and around the rider’s waste, which would cause the horse or mule discomfort. Aulus had brought extra rope along for the tents, but some of us agreed that this would be too great an irritation and burden for the exhausted animals. Other than just letting the sleepy rider drop off his mount, there were no other choices. While half of the men tried the Gaulish method, the other half, including myself, relied on the old way. Off we went, ten weary travelers, strangers in a strange land, Decimus leading the way with torchlight, with only the moon, partially hidden by clouds, to light the road. If the Bedouins overcame their fear of the jinn, we would be slaughtered like sheep.
By the time we reached a sudden patch of greenery off the road, we had traveled many miles. Decimus took a quick head count, as we filed into the oasis.
“Now what do we do?” Abzug asked in despair.
“We die of thirst and become bleached bones,” cried Apollo, “all because of Thaddeus’ silly dream.”
“We should’ve stayed where we were at,” groaned Ajax. “What good is that stupid fort? What a waste of valuable time!”
“Oh, someone will use it,” Aulus shrugged. “It’ll make it a nice stronghold for the Arabs.”
“It could’ve been a trap too, right Thaddeus?” Rufus gave me a nudge.
I wasn’t sure if the Gaul was being sarcastic. The other men were serious. Abzug cursed me under his breath. Ibrim and Fronto wouldn’t even look at me. As Decimus and Aulus explored the oasis, Caesarius placed his hand on my shoulder and guided me to a tree. While the sun rose and filled the small grove with light, one by one the grumbling men fell asleep. I slept what seemed like another dreamless nap. Jesus had once explained to me that it’s impossible not to dream and that you simply don’t remember the experience. All I know is that, I awakened with Caesarius shaking me rudely, and could hear Aulus calling hoarsely through cupped hands, “We found a well! We found a well!”
Like children, oblivious of our poor horses and mules, we frantically followed the sound of Aulus’ voice. Through a tangle of rushes, acacia saplings and overhanging palm fronds, we navigated, arriving in a corner of the oasis where to our surprise there was, in fact, a well built of dressed stones, with a wooden arch and bucket, and date and pomegranate trees nearby.
Looking up at the sky, I wondered if this wasn’t another one of God’s gifts. I kept silent for the time being, just thankful we could fill our flasks. Decimus scolded us for not bringing along the horses and mules. Though ready to collapse, myself, I volunteered to go back, which shamed many of the others into assisting me in leading the animals to the well. Very cleverly, Decimus and Aulus, at Caesarius suggestion, dug a long trough near the well, lined it with palm fronds, so the thirsty animals could line up for a drink. Meanwhile, we filled our flasks, drank our fill, topped them off, and then congregated around the well for a frugal meal.
“It seems impossible,” I said, selecting my words carefully, “to find such a thing in such a desolate place!”
“It’s not a Bedouin well,” Decimus concluded. “It’s built too well. I’ve seen such masonry in the major cities, never in the desert.”
“Aren’t the desert people protective of their wells?” Apollo asked, peeling a pomegranate. “This is a nice place for an ambush. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Too late to worry now,” snorted the optio. “This isn’t a Bedouin well; it’s Roman. The engineers must have built this.” Wiping his stubbled chin, he looked down into the well, adding thoughtfully, “There’s also a hospitality rule about the wayfarer. Isn’t that right Ibrim? Don’t you Arabs welcome the stranger in their midst. Why did those men in black act the way they did?”
“Humph,” Ibrim grunted, as he sharpened his dagger, “something caused their ire. The hospitality rule only applies when you enter a camp or village. I’m not sure it includes wells in the desert, but I agree with you Decimus. This has to be Roman well. It’s certainly not one of ours.”
“Yes,” Aulus agreed, “it’s very strange, very strange indeed.”
“It’s miracle,” I blurted, “like the incident at Ecdippa and the other things happening to us!”
“What things?” Ajax sneered. “You mean our two battles we fought in which four of our men died?”
“Yes, Thaddeus,” Abzug jumped in, “we can’t explain what happened at Ecdippa, but the remainder of this trip hasn’t seen any miracles. Those two battles we fought in which four of our men were killed certainly weren’t miracles, nor was that exercise at the last oasis in which we used up our time and strength. Your god isn’t only invisible, he doesn’t make sense!”
“Enough!” Decimus raised his hands amiably. “Who can blame Thaddeus for his belief? It’s a miracle, if you ask me, that he’s still alive.” “Think of it,” he added, standing up and looking around the group, “a wet-behind-the-ears Jew, who killed six men after the short training period I gave him, also alerted the camp, preventing the rest of us from being slaughtered, survived two more battles, in which he killed three more men, and now, driven by a dream sent by his god, we leave our stronghold and find a Roman well.”
Had the optio been making fun of me? I wasn’t sure. If so, Aulus, Caesarius, and Fronto, nodded in agreement.
“Perhaps to save you,” Caesarius spoke considerately, “your god has watched over us. I just don’t understand why he wasn’t watching a little more closely. Langullus, Geta, Enrod, and Vesto are dead and we came very close to meeting the shades ourselves.”
“It’s like I said,” persisted Abzug, “he doesn’t make sense. He allows men like that Joshua fellow to destroy their enemies, which include innocent women and children, yet allows those vermin to almost wipe us out.”
“What about that flood Thaddeus told us about?” Apollo snapped his fingers. “He wiped out the entire world! Who, I ask you, deserves such punishment? Not only does he allow Pharaoh to enslave his people, he forces them to wander the desert for forty years and become the footstool of Babylon, Greece, and Rome.”
“Good grief,” I groaned, “how did you remember all that?”
“You stepped into again!” Decimus wagged a finger. “You’ll never learn!”
“I’m sorry,” I exhaled resignedly. “The truth is Apollo, your doubts are my doubts. I’ve often wondered why God is so mysterious. I’ve never liked the story about the flood and Joshua. I much prefer readings from the Psalmist and the Prophets.”
“Now there’s that word God again,” Ajax pursed his lips. “Not the gods, but God. What makes you think there’s only one god?”
“He’s right Thaddeus,” Ibrim said placing the dagger he had sharpening back into its scabbard. “My people have thousands of deities, both good and bad—not one tyrant god. I much prefer the Greek and Roman’s gods they are more civilized. Zeus or Jupiter might come down and rape a virgin now and then but they would never wipe out entire peoples.”
After all that had happened, I was still the wet-behind-the-ears Jew with a strange god. Nothing had really changed, and yet I was filled with the illogical notion that I had planted the seed. Apollo’s memory, like Caesarius sharp wit, surprised me. Nevertheless they were died-in- the-wool pagans. This would be hard to change.
“What did you expect?” Caesarius whispered. “No miracle, real or imagined, will penetrate our thick skulls. Your invisible god is unknowable. You said so yourself. You can tell us stories about your religion, but you can’t explain him. You should never have told those men those stories from your holy scrolls. They will use them against you whenever you bring this subject up.” “A lesson to be learned,” he murmured, patting my knee. “.... Next time the urge comes upon you to talk about your god, remember these moments. You have been scolded many times, and yet make the same mistake again and again.”
While he chided me, the other men were dolled out more snacks from our stores. Abzug and Ibrim were given the first watch. Decimus and Aulus had slept little for the past two days and, like the remainder of us, curled up on the ground without making camp and fell soundly asleep. I was greatly troubled as I drifted off into slumber.
As I slept, I dreamed I was back in Nazareth, walking beside Jesus in the hills. After awhile of hiking to my brother’s favorite spot to a cliff overlooking the Galilean plain, he held out his arms as if to encompass the whole world, shouting in a booming voice the words of Isaiah, prophet of the Messiah:
“And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, who shall stand as a banner to his people. The Gentiles will seek him, and his resting place will be glorious. Thus sayeth the Lord, ‘Behold, my servant whom I uphold, my elect one in whom my soul delights! I’ve put my spirit upon him, and he’ll bring forth justice to the Gentiles. You shall raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the remnant of Israel. I will give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you will be my salvation to the ends of the earth!’”
Even in my dream it didn’t occur to me that he was talking about himself, his resurrection, and impact upon the world. He was Jesus, my big brother, and that was a distant time. Someday I would learn the truth. I would never have believed I would play such a part in his plans. For the time being, I was that wet-behind-the-ears Jew, tagging along with a band of rough-talking, ill-mannered Romans and auxilia soldiers on what had turned out to be a perilous road. Even then, in my dream, which I sensed was prophetic, I stood beside my brother without a clue.