The First Oasis
Everyone had been on guard, constantly scanning the surrounding dunes for the dark shapes of men on their ungainly beasts. We were jumpy and on edge as we traveled north. Now, with this vision in our sight, we cheered hoarsely. Before we arrived at this paradise in the middle of nowhere, in expectation of a possible ambush, Decimus sent Ibrim ahead to skirt the tree line and check for Bedouin tents. We had been fortunate so far or, less likely, as Abzug suggested, had frightened them all away. Ibrim must have regretted volunteering to be our scout, yet he rode off without a word. When he returned, he couldn’t promise that there weren’t Bedouins inside the oasis, only that it was quiet and appeared uninhabited. For several moments, as it grew larger and larger, we rode silently, wishing our mounts could move faster. Among other things, this small parcel of land, which sat on a small hill, provided us with the advantage in case we were attacked.... That is, Caesarius cautioned, if they weren’t already there.
When we arrived on the edge of the oasis, our first concern was our horses and mules. After watering them sparingly with the large water flagons draped over their saddles, we let them forage on the grass in a nearby meadow now that the supply of oats was so low. After gobbling down our own provisions, and, as Decimus insisted, drinking only a few swallows from our flasks, our next order of business was the internment of our two friends. No one, including the animals, had been surfeited nor had our thirst been slacked. Wearily, we gathered together rocks we could find and left a pile over each grave. It seemed unfair to bury Vesto and Enrod in such an isolated place. Even though it was peaceful, quiet, and cooler here, they would be forgotten. No one would visit their graves. Caesarius and Aulus carved their names on the trunks of palm trees nearby, Decimus said a few words, and told us to rest a spell before getting back on the road. Silently, I prayed for my fallen comrades, wondering if it was true, as the Pharisees and rabbis thought, that infidels went to Gahenna instead of Paradise or, as Decimus suggested, the Elysian Fields.
Aulus and most the auxilia rode ahead to inspect the interior of the oasis, while the remainder of us stood watch upon the horizon. Where we had prudently paused, there were mostly bushes, acacias, and stunted palms. No one expected that we might find a well or other water source. Soon, however, we heard cheers in the distance. Apollo appeared at edge of the tree line, waving his red cap. By a stroke of good luck, the oasis proved to have an active spring and, as we also hoped, countless date palms with their fruit lying on the ground. More importantly, as Decimus and Aulus suspected, there were no Bedouins inside the oasis. Many times, Caesarius explained to me, travelers were forced to dig into the ground or eat a quantity of dates and any other fruit available for moisture, which often bound one up or turned his bowels to water. Now, after being so frugal with our flask, we could drink our fill and rinse off the grime of travel. What struck me as unclean was the fact that men and animals drank from the same bubbling pond, and yet I drank alongside of my mule. Decimus instructed us to fill as many flasks as we could. As was their nature, Ajax and Apollo jumped in and splashed around like children. I sat beside the water, dangling my feet, feeling at peace again but also very tired. While our animals continued to munch on the grasses on the ground, Fronto and Ibrim stood guard at one end of the oasis and the Greek and Egyptian patrolled the remainder of the refuge.
After eating handfuls of ripe dates, an action, we would later regret, we were, as Decimus promised earlier, allowed a spell in the shadows of the trees, listening to the bubbling spring and contemplating on the journey ahead. At this point, I sat in a shady area, thanking the Lord for protecting us on my behalf. This notion had grown stronger in my mind with each mile. How else could I explain it? Of course, the Lord didn’t protect two of our companions. Jesus had told me that His ways were mysterious. I couldn’t believe that it was, as Caesarius said fatalistically, just their time. Why these good men and not Apollo, Ajax, or Ibrim? All I knew was that at the first imperial station I had, in what I thought was a dream state, saved my fellow travelers—good and bad, from a massacre. Now, once again, I had escaped death. We had all escaped death at the hands of a savage people, who had simply been tricked by a Roman ploy. Was the Lord protecting my companions and myself and would he continue to do so? Had this all been some kind of test for me by my unknowable god, the others being carried along by blind fate? Or was this, as Ajax claimed before, another fluke. With these thoughts swimming in my head, I closed my eyes and fell into a deep, untroubled sleep. I awakened from my nap to the voice of Decimus, who was shaking me sternly, “Thaddeus, we have only so much daylight. It’s time to go!”
“I-I’m sorry I fell asleep,” I said, struggling to my feet.
“Stay with the group Jude,” he chided. “We have to be extra careful from now: no wandering off or daydreaming on your mule. Are you all right lad?”
“Yes.” I nodded.
After being robbed of needed sleep, I felt as if I was in a daze.
“Listen,” he said from the corner of his mouth. “I want no more of that nonsense I saw on the dune. What was that, Jude? The men think you’re addled in the head. You have nothing more to prove!”
Guiding me by my elbow through the trees like an invalid, he questioned me about killing the Arab, worried that this deed, which was done to an unarmed man, would further addle my mind. He didn’t scold me for this act, since he had cut down a few himself. Nevertheless, I told him the truth (the man had already been dead before I stabbed him.) He laughed heartily, replying within earshot of the other men idling in the shade, “You were still quite brave Thaddeus in leading that charge.”
As I climbed onto my mule, I was surprised that no one criticized me for my tardiness. Rufus sat moodily below an acacia tree, staring into space, until Aulus gently roused him with the tip of his whip. Apollo, Ajax, Fronto, Ibrim, Abzug, and the veterans were already mounted with anxious looks on their faces. Geta’s report of seeing a stranger in the distance had shaken them. As Geta remarked later, “if you see one Arab, another must not be far away.” Everyone was reluctant to leave our refuge. Decimus reminded us that there were probably countless oases on this road. Unfortunately, we had to travel an indeterminate distance to reach the next stop. Between now and then, we were at the mercy of nomads roaming the dunes.
There were, in fact, several sightings of Bedouins in the distance. They appeared and reappeared as heat chimeras, reminding Ibrim of jinns, in the way they skirted the sand. Jinns, he reminded us, could be either good or bad spirits. So far, Geta pointed out, they had proven to be bad. I wanted to ask the optio if these outriders posed a threat, but thought better of it. Instead I tried to make conversation with Caesarius about his service for Rome. The old man, however, was close-mouth this time, perhaps because he was worried about poor Rufus or what lie ahead. Because of the great expanse between our procession and the potential foes ahead, Decimus allowed us to talk freely, even though, as Aulus cautioned, voices traveled in the wind. While our scout chattered with Fronto about the difference between the Galilean Arabs and the men slaughtered back on the dune, I heard Abzug explain to Aulus the difference between his own people, the Syrians and the Arabs, who worshiped stones, animals and trees. The Syrians, we were informed, though more advanced than Bedouin and shepherd gods and goddesses, worshipped Baal and Astarte who demanded sacrifice of children and women to prostrate themselves in temple rites. Ibrim, however, admitted that the religion of his people in Galilee was no better than the primitive jinn-people of the sand. Unlike the shepherds living near my home in Nazareth, who claimed to worship the Most High, Ibrim was just another pagan like my other traveling companions. He boasted to Abzug that his people had a thousand gods, more than any other people, even the Egyptians. Apollo, like many Alexandrian Egyptians, had married a Greek woman and worshiped Olympian gods, and yet he took issue with Ibrim’s claim. Egypt, he bragged, had ten thousand gods and demigods, many of them animals, such crocodiles, monkeys, and cats, and the list was still growing. When the Greeks and then the Romans conquered Egypt, their gods and goddesses were also added to Egypt’s pantheon.
At this point, the discussion took an interesting turn. Ajax, who was a rustic Greek and the son of slaves, commented from the back of the march: “What does it matter how many gods men store up. They’re made of wood and stone.”
“Aye,” agreed Abzug, “they’re not real, none of them—even that bugger Zeus.”
“It’s so simple.” Geta went them one better. “The gods didn’t make man; man made the gods.”
“And if they existed at all,” observed Fronto, “why’re innocent people murdered and half the empire enslaved?”
“Bah,” Langullus grumbled, “you miss the point—all of you. The gods have nothing to do with it. It’s in man’s nature to do horrible things!”
I was actually impressed with their views. What Ajax, Abzug, Geta, Fronto, and Langullus said was true. Manufactured by men, the pagan gods offered their worshipers nothing: neither blessings nor moral guidelines. According to the rabbi in synagogue school, our god watched over the faithful and offered them eternal life. Jesus often talked about this on our walks. Most of the Galilean Jews believed this, including the strict Pharisees in my town. I wanted to share my thoughts with them, and yet as I opened my mouth, I felt a sharp nudge. “Psst, psst!” Caesarius whispered. Placing a finger before his lips when I looked his way, he murmured sternly. “Hush, I know you’re tempted, but you stay out of this. They don’t understand your harsh, invisible god!”
Perking up my ears, I heard Ibrim mention, in a mocking tone, the deification of Julius by Emperor Augustus and the fact that Tiberius had also made Augustus a god. Caesarius poked me again, as Apollo explained Egyptian’s ancient practice of Pharaoh worship in which the priests made kings into gods. Though Apollo, like Ibrim, was attempting to make a point, Ajax scoffed at these examples of men’s’ folly, declaring, “Men can’t make themselves gods. I watched some of those self-made gods. Rufus told me what Caesar did to their people: he murdered half of them in order to conquer Gaul. The Romans in Galilee told me about Augustus too. No one knows how many of his own citizens he killed to get to the throne. Romans claim to be civilized. Hah! I’ve watched their priests stick their hands into the guts of dead sheep and pigs slaughtered by the hundreds to foretell the future. How sick is that? It’s all lies and trickery. If I had my way, I’d burn all of the Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and Syrian gods and let men think for themselves.”
“Did you hear that?” I whispered to Caesarius. “That sums it up—the Gentile yearning for faith!”
Caesarius frowned severely at me. In total agreement, in progressively louder voices, the men rebuked their homeland’s gods, but the loudest voice was the Greek, who lumped his native Greek pantheon into the same group as Rome’s cold, lifeless gods.
“All right men,” Decimus announced with a chuckle, “we get the point. We have an issue with our gods, but what you said about Caesar and Augustus was an exaggeration, Ajax, and a bit treasonous I might add. Rome lives by tradition, which includes reverence for its gods. It’s our duty to respect them. At least we don’t offer our children up in sacrifice as did the Syrians or burn men in wicker cages like the Gauls. Caesar and Augustus put a stop to these practices, and I commend them. I don’t like priests and holy men. Most of them are liars and thieves. Yet we Romans leave other people’s religions alone, even the Jews, though we had to kill many of them.” “Who knows?” He raised his hands to the heavens. “I don’t know if there’s a first cause as that Greek fellow Plato once said or, if the gods listen to men at all, but I hope our friends, Vesto and Enrod, find the Elysian Fields Virgil promised. It would be nice not to wander the earth as a shade and not suffer the torment of the Greek hell, but we won’t find out until we’re dead.”
There it was again, I thought, clapping my hands, the Gentile yearning for faith!
“Keep silent Thaddeus.” Caesarius murmured discreetly. “You wanted to learn how pagans think about their religions. They already know about yours. Listen and learn!”
“Yes,” I replied sincerely, “I’m learning the Gentile mind.”
Illumination is the word Jesus would have used, for I saw most clearly the weakness in pagan religion and how divorced their gods were from mortal lives. Though they avoided the subject, they had all been affected by the incident on the dune. They had, like myself, seen their own mortality and were troubled about the deaths of their friends. They made a mockery of their false gods and played the atheists, but I had seen their superstition on the road and at camp. I understood those moments clearly—that unsaid undercurrent: the desire for a righteous god, the need for a solid, understandable faith with laws and principles, and an after life—the reward for being good and faithful, which none of their religions had.
Decimus, who reined in his horse, gave me a warning look similar to Caesarius’ scowl as Apollo began toying with me from the rear of the procession.
“What about you Thaddeus?” he called through cupped hands. “Your religion has only one invisible god. How puny is that?”
“He has no room to talk,” Ajax huffed. “I remember his tales about Joshua and those other fellows murdering thousands of men, woman, and children, even their sheep, goats, and cows.”
“Bah!” Langullus grumbled. “Those are stories to frighten children, told by old men, fearing death, especially that story about Moses parting the sea.”
I raised my hand, as I had done in synagogue school to get the rabbi’s attention. I was offended this time by Langullus’ characterization of our sacred scriptures. Perhaps to keep me silent, Caesarius came to my defense.
“Thaddeus doesn’t have to defend his god,” he snapped irritably. “His god may be cruel, prevent men from eating pork and shell fish, and make them mutilate their members, but at least he expects them to behave and treat their neighbors well. I can’t explain that business with Joshua—it’s dreadful, but his god has given his subjects rules to follow, expects a woman to be virtuous, and even protects slaves.” “If I were forced to pick a deity,” he announced, looking around at the riders, “I might choose his invisible god.”
I wasn’t sure if Caesarius even meant his last words, especially after casting aspersions against my god and religion, but he had deflected Apollo’s question and saved me from responding to the Egyptian’s taunt.
Decimus look back at the horsemen. “We know what Thaddeus believes. We’ve heard his stories. I have a problem with his god’s prejudice. With the exception of Thaddeus, all the Jews I’ve known have rejected our ways. Even though we protect them, they refuse to provide conscripts for our legions. With the exception of putting criminals to death Jews rule themselves. Though we respect their strange religion, they spit on our gods. We defile them if we enter their homes. Yet Rome forgives these stiff-necked people. At least they don’t roast men in wicker cages, as did the Gauls or burn innocent children as Syrian priests once did. Rome has stopped most of these fowl practices. We protect Jews from their neighbors and leave them alone. It doesn’t matter what a man believes, just so he behaves himself and doesn’t inflict it on anyone else. We let Jews live apart as long as they pay their taxes. Religion, whether it’s from the Druids we wiped out, those filthy Syrian priests, or the Jews we killed in Galilee, requires order—that’s all,” “or else!” he added, socking his fist.
Though addressing the group as a whole, he had been speaking especially to me. In his blunt speech, so typical of Romans and the Gentiles in general, it summed up his thoughts on the subject. He turned in his saddle and gave me a nod of approval for holding my tongue. In spite of his insensitive wording, he had, in his own way, defended my faith. From this point on, I must do as Caesarius counseled on this issue: keep my mouth shut.