Face down on the saddle, unable to move anything but my head, I tried unsuccessfully to see if my captors were on the cobbled concrete Roman highway or were on a different road heading into an unknown land. Through the mesh of the net covering my face, I studied the ground, which was difficult in the noonday shadows. When I raised my head, all I could see were sand dunes, which was not unusual in the desert. If we were still on the Roman highway heading west or south, we might remain in the boundaries of the empire. If, on the other hand, the nomads took one of the caravan routes, our destination might be Persia or Arabia, outside the boundaries of Rome. This would have dire implications for a Jewish youth. At least they had not pulled off the road somewhere and tortured or sacrificed me to their pagan gods.
“Voice—where are you?” I cried mutely. “Is this what God has planned for me?”
Despite the rocking motion of the mule and ceaseless chatter of my captors, I dozed off from my misery, but was jerked awake by a bump in the road. My cheeks, chest, stomach, and legs were soaked with the sweat of the mule. With the perspiration pouring into my eyes it was becoming difficult to focus on the ground. Along with the noon hour shadow below, I had to contend with the dust thrown up by the horses and mules.
“Where am I voice?” I whispered deliriously. “Please explain why I was netted like a fish and tied face down on the back of a mule. Where you speaking on behalf of God or am I losing my mind?”
Already before my abduction, I had switched between talking to the voice who appeared recently to me and the Lord as if they were two different spirits. After all, I assumed the voice was talking on behalf of God. Visions had haunted my dreams or so I thought for many years, speaking enigmatically, showing me nonsensical and silly things. Some of the visions seemed to happen when I was wide-awake, and, during my journey to Antioch. At no time, was the voice or previous vision concerned with my mission as Jesus saw it. The vision I had at Ecdippa, after lapsing into my dream of the crosses, had led me recklessly into a second dreamscape or so I thought where I slew six men in defense of my comrades. The voice, however, had only been concerned with my safety and cared not a wit about the other men. None of my dreams had anything to do with the goal Jesus had set for me. That was my folly. Now that I had plenty of time to think about it, I realized that my oldest brother had merely humored me in my foolishness. “Since you’ve decided this course of action,” I remember him saying, “learn the heart of the Gentiles.” It was never a mission from the Lord, Himself, as he made it seem, which made me wonder if Jesus had really been speaking on behalf of God. I had felt some comfort, even excitement in my first vision of the journey, especially when it appeared as if I was invincible to my foes. Yet I wasn’t invincible. I had been foolish and just very lucky, and my mission, if that was what it was, had been a fool’s errand. My own ambition, blessed as it was by Jesus and my father, had dealt falsely with me. I had failed! Light-headedly, the thought flittered through my mind that the voice in the desert hadn’t been from the Lord at all—it was really a jinn. I laughed hysterically then wept bitterly. After an indeterminate period of time, I grew delirious.
“Where are you?” I cried in a parched throat. “Why have you forsaken me?”
Now that I had reached the bottom of despair, the voice remained silent. Perhaps the Lord, I thought grimly, was simply testing me to the limit of my endurance. If nothing else, I prayed, keep me in Roman territory. Is that asking so much? I didn’t want to wind up a personal slave to one of these Bedouins or, worse, become a eunuch in a Persian court. All my studies and natural inquisitiveness about the world had become a curse to me those hours. My imagination ran wild. As time dragged on, I prayed deliriously for deliverance. When the daytime shadows shifted with the afternoon sun and the dust cleared enough for me to see the ground, I got my answer. The road below was not a Roman highway; it was a caravan trail. My captors were traveling north. What my eyes beheld was so terrible I sobbed uncontrollably until one of the Bedouins struck me with a whip.
“Shut up, you Roman pig!” he said in a guttural voice.
“Oh, is he crying?” a second man taunted. “Does he want his mother’s teat?”
“We should’ve made an example of him to those fellows in the cave,” declared a third man angrily. “We have to bury four of our men. One of them, my brother Yassif, was beheaded.”
“Hah, Uthman, can you blame them?” A fourth Bedouin laughed. “We wanted their horses and mules. Half dead from weariness, hunger and thirst, those men were beaten by the desert, yet they made a stand. I would fight someone trying to steal my animals too.”
“Hamid is right,” a fifth man exclaimed. “How many bleached bones have we seen in the sand, both man and beast? We’re lucky to find so many horses and mules. Now we have something more valuable than those beasts—a youth, barely a man. On the block he’ll bring a fine sum!”
I wished those moments I couldn’t understand these men. They spoke a dialect of Aramean similar to Galilean. For a brief moment, I thought I had an advocate in Hamid. He seemed sympathetic to our plight, but then the fifth Bedouin reminded me of my fate: I was going to be a slave. From this revelation until we stopped that evening at the Bedouins’ camp, I was beyond normal grief. I had been horrified with the news, but now I was numbed by shock. One of them cut my bindings and, while I was still trapped in my net, jerked me rudely off the mule. This action caused Hamid to stomp angrily to the scene.
“Awud, you idiot!” the fierce-looking nomad with a patch on one eye roared. “Are you trying to damage this slave? He’s not worth camel piss if you break an arm or leg.”
“I’m sorry, Hamid,” Awud bowed apologetically. “Those pigs killed my cousin Akhman, slit his throat.”
Pulling off the net and extending his hand, Hamid said in a gruff voice, “You all right? I won’t let those jackals hurt you. I’ll get you something to eat.”
The tone of the man, who had every intention of selling me as a slave, belied his motives. For the time being at least, in his own uncouth way, he treated me well. The first thing he did to show me any civility was to splash a pale of well water over my sweating frame. An old woman, at his prodding, brought me a dish filled with lentils and a piece of meat, he identified immediately as boar. Boar was, I understood, another name for pig. This, my friend Ibrim once explained to me, was the favorite meat of wealthy nomads tired of lamb of fowl. Hamid had therefore treated me as he would an honored guest. As I glanced around the goatskin tents and mulling Bedouin men, women, and children, I realized I was in a tribal settlement. It was, I recalled, the custom of nomadic people to be charitable to strangers, but all I saw in these folks was hostility. A few of the women even walked up and spat in the dust in front of my feet as I sat on a folding chair gobbling down my food. This action, Ibrim also told me, was a grave insult to visitors. Yet, through it all, Hamid and several of his men stood guard around me so that I could dine in peace. Another woman, in abject submission to the tribal leader, even placed a flask of wine in my hand, bowing politely as she backed away. I immediately tilted it up and guzzled it down as quickly as I could, my intention to get blindly drunk in order to blot out thoughts of my pending fate.
Hamid growled at the men and women giving me threatening looks, standing over me possessively with arms folded as I drank to oblivion. Drunk I would be easier to watch. I could think of no other reason for their kindness after the barbaric treatment doled out to me today. Only Hamid and his friends were interested in keeping me alive. Though treating me courteously when ordered to, the other inhabitants of the settlement hated me on sight. The custom of hospitality to strangers passed down to Jews and their kinsmen by our mutual forefathers did not apply here. These people identified me as Roman, a people not welcome in this land. Perhaps the Roman conquerors had mistreated these people. It seemed evident, after my experience with the men in black and men in white, that all of the desert people were up and arms with them now. Ironically, I wasn’t even Roman nor, for that matter, had been most members of Decimus’ band. The most obvious difference between my current treatment and the ancient custom of hospitality was the manner in which I was brought into their camp. I had been, from the moment I was captured, a slave. I was not a visitor. I was, like the stolen horses and mules, their property. My only satisfaction was the fact that I was not dead. In this knowledge there was hope. I would live, I told myself, scanning the cloudless sky. If I wanted to, I would eat pork and do what I must to survive. I didn’t need a voice or vision, and I didn’t need God! I had been frightened. Now I was angry.… I was also very drunk.
I don’t remember what happened next. After almost emptying my flask, I finally passed out, awakening in the dark chained to a post on the outskirts of the camp. My head felt as if it might explode and I felt deathly sick. In retrospect it seems strange to me that my captors allowed me to become so intoxicated. It might have killed me if I hadn’t vomited all over myself.
“Ah, the Roman pig is awake,” a voice rang out. “He puked out his guts.”
“Clean him off, Uthman,” Hamid ordered crisply. “In a few hours it will be fist light. I want to get past the Roman frontier and on the road to Ecbatana before mid-day. That fancy outfit we nabbed will make him more presentable. Let’s get him out of those filthy clothes!”
Another pale of water was tossed onto to me, causing me to gasp. Nothing, however could have jolted me more than what Hamid had just said. I had heard about Ecbatana from my friends. I was being taken to a slave auction in Persia. Despite my will to live, I wondered if I might not have been better off if I had been killed in front of the cave as Abzug had been, instead of being sold as a slave. My only option at this point was to somehow escape on the way to Ecbatana. Otherwise, I faced a fate worse than death.
Hamid threw a pelt over me to lessen the morning chill, but I felt nothing those hours. As I waited for first light, I was physically and mentally numb. When the sun began its ascent, the heat would rise progressively, the chilled desert would be warmed, and the dust and sand would blow into my eyes and mouth. Jesus once told me to take each day at a time. Tomorrow would take care of itself. This sounded like rubbish as I sat chained to a post. Idly, feeling strangely tranquil a moment, I studied the night sky. The one saving quality about the desert so similar to Galilee was its canopy of stars. How could something so beautiful look down upon this desolate land? What part of the firmament did heaven sit? Was this just fiction for gullible minds? I wondered those moments, glancing abstractedly at the guard taking his turn to watch over me, if it was possible that the sacred scrolls might have been written by delusional men. I had been sheltered in Nazareth all my life sharing in my family’s simple faith, walking in the shadow of my saintly brother, trusting what Jesus, my father, and the synagogue school had taught me about the law and the prophets, but now everything had changed. The short time I spent with the men of the Galilean Cohort had changed my world. On the day my journey began, Jesus suggested that I learn the heart of Gentiles. I understand now what he meant. What I learned in the company of soldiers was illuminating, but not inspiring. They were crude and capricious fellows. Some of them displayed a cruel streak toward me. For much of our journey north I had felt like an outsider. Even after that night I slew six men, I was considered an oddity. Some thought I was sleepwalking or momentarily possessed by a spirit, which Ibrim called a jinn, while most of them shrugged it off as a fluke. The battles we fought after that, in which I showed hesitation yet managed to kill two more men, proved that it was not just a fluke. Perhaps, I had killed those other men in my sleep, but I had been wide-awake in the desert. I knew I could fight. I could kill to save my life and the lives of my friends. With Caesarius, Decimus, and Aulus help I began to fit into the group. I learned not to wince at the men’s crude humor and not question what I ate. It had been difficult being the wet-behind-the-ears Jew. In spite of everything I did and no matter how hard I tried, that fact never seemed to change. Nevertheless, I had grown found of this bunch. Now they were gone, and I was alone. I mourned for the men killed in the desert and those poor fellows who sought refuge in the cave. Decimus had been seriously wounded and might already be dead. The desert had claimed seven of his men, and, because the others were without horses or food, it might claim them too. Of all my friends, who died during the journey, I grieved for Caesarius the most. He had been like a father to me. Though he hadn’t died in battle, his death was the saddest of them all. He was an old man in poor health when we began our trip to Antioch. The rigors of the journey had worn him out and squeezed out his last ounce of energy, until there was only a shell of a man.
In the past two days, I had been warned of this event. The details hadn’t been there. In fact, the voice spoke in generalities, but the message had been clear: I would suffer and yet I would survive. Where was the Lord now? I wondered. How was I to keep my faith when the world around was in chaos? Why had God allowed my friend Caesarius and the other men to die? Why was he allowing a band of dirty Bedouins to hold me captive in order to sell me as a slave?
Finally, as I sat contemplating my fate, I dozed off. When I opened my eyes, the first rays of sunlight waxed in the horizon. I heard two voices in succession, the first one in my mind and the second directly overhead, as someone unlocked the shackles on my wrists.
“Jude, Jude, God hasn’t forsaken you,” the voice chided, “don’t forsake Him!”
“Up, up, it’s time to go!” Uthman growled, jerking me to my feet. “Gotta get you
into your new get-up—real pretty-like. We can’t have you looking like a Roman pig!”
“Uthman,” Hamid called from a distance, “bring him to Saida’s tent. I want his wounds dressed and him in that outfit quickly. We must be on the road to Ecbatana before sunrise. That wind might kick up at the pass. It’s important we make it through before dark.”
With no more said, I was ushered rudely into a smelly goatskin tent where the toothless hag Saida stood holding my new clothes. The two men immediately stripped off my clothes, leaving me shivering with embarrassment in only a loincloth as the old women prodded and nudged me into a colorful pair of pants, fancy tunic, and silver threaded turban. I must have looked like a clown, but at that point I no longer cared. For the time being, I was alive and valuable property to Hamid and his men. I wasn’t dead nor would I be starving as my friends, now stranded without horses and food. After a hasty breakfast of goat cheese, bread, and well water, I was overjoyed to be placed back on my mule. Such a simple, yet fortuitous thing in my state of mind caused me to break down as I bent over to embrace my old friend.
“Gladius,” I cried, “old faithful friend—it’s you!
“He’s crying again,” Uthman complained. “The bastard’s lucky to be alive!”
“There now,” the one-eyed bandit patted my knee, “we’ll find you a nice, fat merchant who’ll treat you good.”
The words escaped my mouth, “I don’t want to be a eunuch. I heard about what those Persians do to slaves.”
Uthman and Hamid laughed heartily. The hag cackled with glee.
“Ho-ho, why would they cut off your balls?” Hamid wiped his good eye. “Only royalty do such things. You just better hope they don’t make you a gladiator. That was pretty impressive swordplay back there. Your best chances are to keep your mouth shut and pray you’re a house slave.”
“A house slave?” my voice croaked. “Is that good…or bad?”
“Good,” Hamid waved a bejeweled hand, “at least better than being trained for the arena or turned into a eunuch to guard a prince’s harem.” “Don’t worry,” he said, motioning for the procession to begin, “my guess is that you’ll serve a rich merchant or magistrate. By the way, the worst slaveholders are the Romans. They would make a gladiator of you for sure!”
To make sure I wouldn’t try to escape, which I had hoped to do, Awud, the meanest of the Bedouins, tied my writs to the horn of my saddle and placed a rope around my neck. This meant he would jerk me along, I would have no control over my mule, and, if I tried to break free, be strangled as he dragged me along the ground. To impress upon me the importance of not budging, he struck me in the leg with his whip, and growled through clenched teeth, “Stay put, you Roman pig!”
It was still somewhat dark when our caravan of stolen horses and pack mules, and sundry goods taken from murdered travelers headed east. I learned, as we detoured onto a caravan road, that these cutthroats had their eye out for more booty from other unwary travelers. Akhmid, a portly Bedouin, sporting a turban similar to my own, discussed such a prospect to Hamid. Because they had sold the last batch of Arabian camels, they needed more of these animals to auction off in Ecbatana. This would be the most ideal goal, Hamid agreed. What was most desirable objective, however, Uthman reminded his leader, was human cargo, like the Roman pig. I was thankful that these nomads preferred horses over camels for their own use. I shuddered at the thought of myself balanced on one of those animals in my getup like some oriental potentate, a prime target during one of their raids. At least I would be well protected as valuable cargo by these men. To make sure I was safe, a warrior rode on each side of me at times, shielding me from harm but also preventing me from foolishly trying to escape, an effort that would amount to suicide with the noose around my neck. My earlier notion of somehow getting away seemed absurd when I considered the odds. I counted twenty-six men in the procession, all armed with bows, lances fastened with banners onto their saddle bags, and carrying an assortment of swords, including Roman blades and shields taken from my friends. My fate was sealed. Had Decimus’ men faced this group of warriors on even ground, not one of them would have survived. Considering the fact that my friends might starve, I realized this could still be true. What irony! I thought, as I watched the sun rise in the east. It seemed paradoxical that an outcast like me should be the only survivor among seasoned soldiers, and that I was labeled a Roman pig by my captors when, in fact, I was actually a Jew. Now I was going to become a Persian slave. What would they do if they found out I was circumcised and not a Roman at all? Would that make me more valuable to my new owner or would it make me worthless in Gentile minds?… Soon I would soon find!