Voice in the Desert
That hour, as I lie down next to my friend, I prayed for Caesarius’ health, the safety of our shrinking band, and a speedy arrival at Antioch were I would join the legions or return home. As I slept, I dreamed I was back in Nazareth again, this time alone, walking on the path that leads to Jesus’ favorite spot. As I looked out upon the plain of Galilee, I heard a voice shout “Be strong, keep your courage, and remember that you’re faith will shield you, no matter what you see or hear. Fear not Judah bar Joseph: tonight your real journey begins!”
Jolted by these troubling words, I looked up at the darkening sky and ran down the trail, filled with foreboding. When I awakened, sweating in the humid heat, I expected our camp to be overrun by nomads and utter chaos all around, but the surrounding scene was peaceful, though uncomfortably warm, and the sun was just setting behind a distant hill. Despite this calm, I knew what was going to happen. Rising up quickly and bracing myself on the side of the well, I tried not to awaken poor Caesarius or the other sleeping men. Just that moment, however, as I decided what to do—alarm the entire camp or talk discreetly to the optio, Decimus walked up to me, a tired smile on his face.
“Look at the workmanship,” he whispered, inspecting the wooden rim and stone base. “I assumed this was Roman. Now I’m certain!”
“Really?” I sighed, glancing at the well. I could care less at this point. Decimus was exhausted. His hands trembled as he placed them the rim. Following his fingers to a small inscription not readily apparent, I saw Roman numerals and the S.P.Q.R. seen on Roman standards. This struck me as absurd. In the Kafars’ oasis it was quite out of place.
“That look familiar, lad?”
“Yes,” I tried sounding enthusiastic. “The numerals indicate the date, and the letters stand for Senatus Populusque Romanus: the Senate and the Roman people.”
“Right!” he slapped my shoulder. “You amaze me Thaddeus. With the greatest optimism, it was built by Roman engineers when this highway was made.” “That proves,” he said, leading me out of earshot of the sleepers, “Abinadad’s claim was false. This station belongs to Rome. It’s beside the point, of course. We have to leave soon, but that inscription proves that Nabataen dog was lying.”
“Sir...Decimus,” I stammered, “I had another dream...”
“Now, Thaddeus,” he groaned, “no more of this—”
“A voice warned me that something dreadful is going to happen...”
“It’s going to happen tomorrow...”
“Tomorrow?” the optio laughed sourly. “We’re going to be on the road tomorrow, putting distance between ourselves and those jackals after traveling in the night. We know there’s danger, Thaddeus. We don’t need your god to tell us that.” “What will be, will be,” he added, spreading his palms. “Your last prediction made good sense to Aulus and me, but the other men resent your predictions. After doing all that work back there then winding up on the outs with the men in white, we’re no better off than before. Calling everything that happens a miracle doesn’t help. To most of the men Thaddeus, it appears as if your god is stingy with his miracles. Why are there four dead men now? Who would’ve guessed we’d be attacked crossing the desert? I made a terrible decision, yet your god was silent. When that rockslide forced us to travel the desert, why didn’t he give us a sign? Where was your god then?”
“It’s not all or none, Decimus,” I argued gently. “God is unknowable. More often he lets us make our own decisions. Though I find it hard to believe, myself, I heard a voice this time and plain, unambiguous words. We must not wait until the waning moon; we must leave in the early evening to allow us time to arrive at safer ground.”
The optio looked at me in disbelief. “Are you daffed? Those men are exhausted. I’m exhausted. We need some sleep. You need some sleep. You’re not thinking correctly, Thaddeus. Stop having these foolish dreams. I believe events, both good and bad, are caused by men, not the gods. If your god is so helpful, why’re you a conquered people? You Jews have remained under the boot of one nation after another. What has your all-powerful god ever done for the Jews? I can’t explain your so-called miracles. Strange things have happened to you that you think were caused by your god. All I know is that I can’t trust him. Now you’re telling me that we face another disaster? When will it stop, Thaddeus? What your telling me now, if I choose to believe it, is hopeless. We can’t make it through the desert in our present shape. What was the point of even telling me this?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, hanging my head, “I was just trying to help. I wish He’d leave me alone.”
“Your invisible god really gave you this message?” Decimus raised an eyebrow.
“Yes.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I’ve had visions for many years, but this time a voice spoke plainly to me.”
I struck me that moment that he half believed me. He had lodged a complaint about God; he never said he didn’t believe him. Like most soldiers, he was just superstitious enough to also accept half of the truth, but was too stubborn to acknowledge my invisible and unknowable god. Had my god sat on a pedestal and been carved in stone, with a proper name like Jupiter or Baal, it would make more sense to his logical mind. I had tried. I had failed. The voice promised me I would survive tomorrow’s attack. What worried me was what might happen to the others during the noise and carnage that followed. That evening, after I had shared our rations of bread and dates with Caesarius, Rufus, and Ibrim, I relieved Abzug of his watch, taking my turn watching the horses and mules. Meanwhile, Ibrim, Rufus, and the ailing Caesarius patrolled the oasis’ perimeter. Decimus, after all was said and done, turned out to be just another typical hard-bitten Roman soldier. I was torn by what I knew and his fatalistic response. I was also worried about Caesarius. I prayed those hours for our group, but it wouldn’t change God’s will. My efforts to convince the optio this time had been unsuccessful...It was now up to the Lord.
During the long hours, I paced back and forth on my watch, taking time to water the horses and pack animals and give them all as much grass I could forage from the forest meadow. Jesus had taught me how special were all of God’s creatures. I cringed, as he did, at the thought of the temple sacrifices, and I had always had special compassion for horses and mules. As I caressed my own mule, I was reminded how much more difficult this journey was for him, and yet the horses and mules might be better off if the nomads did, in fact, raid us tonight. They would be sold to merchants or used in the desert people’s camps. At least they would be properly watered and fed and wouldn’t wind up becoming bleached bones in the sand. Rufus and Ibrim, who patrolled the perimeter, checked on me a few times during my watch. We chatted a spell about the journey so far and our prospects for survival. Though there was a note of humor in the little Arab’s tone, the Gaul was deadly serious. Rufus, like Decimus, was fatalistic. “No one could know the future,” he had said grimly, “not men nor the gods.” For Ibrim, it depended upon the whim of the jinns. I felt worse after their visit, realizing that everyone in our group probably shared their mood. It might have dulled my wits, but I could have used a flask of wine during my watch. As I waited for the waning moon, numb with fear and indecision, I was surprised to hear Decimus voice: “Up, rise, get on your feet. We must put distance between ourselves and this place!”
My words seemed to have had an effect upon the optio! I tried not to make eye contact with him and appear to gloat, but I was greatly relieved by this news, and I ran to discuss it with Caesarius. In a way I was filled with misgivings. For the old man, who needed more rest, this was bad news. Everyone would be irritable. If they found out this was my idea, I would fall even lower in their esteem. We would be riding in the darkness again, guided by torchlight into unknown country with the possibility of running into more nomads up ahead.
“Are we in danger?” I heard Abzug ask.
“I didn’t say that.” Decimus replied.
“Why can’t we wait for the moon?” Fronto asked groggily. “It’ll be many hours until sunrise. Those buggers are afraid of the dark.”
“Precisely,” Decimus clapped his hands. “We’ll have the jump on those superstitious dogs. Get your heads straight, make water, and be in your the saddles within the hour.”
“You forget,” I heard Aulus say, as I searched for Caesarius, “most of these men are superstitious too. It makes it that much harder for them to ride in the night.”
“It’s fear of the jinn,” explained Ibrim. “The jinn commit mischief at night.”
“It’s not the jinn,” Aulus snapped, “and it’s not the gods, it’s men!”
“There are no gods,” grumbled Rufus.
“Caesarius!” I called through cupped hands.
“Keep it down, Thaddeus,” scolded Decimus, “let’s not push our luck.”
When I found Caesarius, he was already by his mule, brushing the animal with palm bark. For a man who killed many men, most recently Jews, I was moved by this gesture. His reputation belied the gentle soul I had come to know. I was heartened to see him up and about, ready for another lap. He had lost much weight, his face looked haggard and his hands trembled continually, and yet the gleam in his eyes was encouraging. The old veteran appeared to have one last surge of energy, which I prayed would last him until we reached Raphana. When we were safe in that city, I would try to talk him into staying put, not that he would listen. After all, who would hire a broken down old soldier. He would, as in Antioch, unless he could obtain a menial job, be forced to begging. I didn’t envy him for his future. He was my friend. I just wanted him to live.
“Are you all right?” I placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Good as expected,” he grunted, as I helped him onto his mule. “Are you ready to travel, Thaddeus?” he asked, settling into his saddle.
“Ready as ever.” I smiled bravely. “We’re traveling in the middle of the night.”
“Did you eat something lad? We’re not stopping for awhile.”
“Yes, I ate. It didn’t stay down.”
“Did you fill your flask?”
“Uh huh, two of them”
“Did you make water and do your business?”
“Several times.” I laughed, climbing onto my mule. “Too many dates and dried fruit.”
“You’re scared Thaddeus; we’re all scared.”
As he went down the list of traveling necessities—sword, dagger, shovel, and blanket... the other men were climbing onto to their mounts and being asked the same question by Decimus. Rufus and Abzug appeared suddenly in front of me, wide-eyed, tightly clutching their reins. Behind Caesarius and me were Apollo and Ajax, grumbling under their breaths, while Front and Ibrim, bringing up the rear, sat quietly on their mounts, and Aulus and the optio, both holding torches, rode at the head of the procession but as our journey began north, took turns riding in the front and in the back of the procession. Everyone had double-strapped their reins on one hand in case they fell asleep during the trip. Because the moonlight was brighter than expected, a third and fourth torch were not yet needed. Looking back at the dark silhouette of the palms, myrtle, and acacia trees, I shuddered at the prospect of encountering those men again. That idyllic refuge belied the dangers of the desert. To allay our fears, the optio talked in a low voice to the men.
Fronto asked a question on all our minds, “Why are the desert people angry with the Romans? It couldn’t just because of a couple of dead men; it has to be something more serious.”
“I don’t know,” Decimus chose his words carefully, “it might be that murder in Raphana, but that wouldn’t explain why the Arabs attacked us the way they did. It seems to be all of them now. Frankly, I think the Roman highway cut through this desert was a big mistake. The desert people are very independent. They’ve never knuckled under to Roman rule.”
As Decimus held his torch, the glow on his beefy jowls and sparkling dark eyes, reminded me of the Romans I saw riding through Nazareth past my home. The torchlight made Decimus and Aulus look fierce and other-worldly. I wondered if this was how those poor Canaanites felt when Joshua and his warriors used this ruse. A change had already begun in me in spite of my recent actions and words. After killing all those men, righteous kill or not, I knew I could do it again. Apollo had told me that each time you killed a man it was easier the next time. Apollo had been right, and so had Aulus, who told me not to attempt to wound a man, for a wounded foe was sometimes more dangerous than one whole. You must kill him before he kills you, he had said with great conviction. Joshua, Gideon, and David had learned this, and they grew to be fearless in battle. The Lord was with them. Though I would never compare myself to our people’s heroes, I knew that the Lord was with me too...so far!