I stare at the goblet before me, its blood red contents mocking me, daring me to swallow and end my misery. I am not great believer in the afterlife, but somehow I feel that killing myself would not end my pain. Nothing could ever end my pain. And to make it worse, I am taking the coward’s way out. Poison. I am not even good enough for my own sword.
I close my eyes and inhale. I remember it all.
I arrived in Judea with my regiment, a young legionnaire among many.
Judea was never my choice of posting. I disliked the infernal heat, the troublesome Jews and their strange and twisted religious customs. All those rules and regulations…Straight laced hypocrites.
I was a young man of twenty summers, Flavius Lucius Donatus – a true son of Rome, loyal to the Emperor. I was ready to impose Pax Romana on the world, and I was full of youthful exuberance. Nothing would bring me down; for no force was stronger than my sense of Roman logic and reason.
I would be proven wrong.
The first few moon cycles were spent on the mundane tasks of patrolling the roads; seeing to it that the Roman highways were free of bandits and rebels. There were no major issues. But the Jews hated us.
They never said it, but we could see it every time we passed. They would shuffle out of the way, their eyes hard and proud, derision and scorn written on their faces. The conquered gazing upon the conquerors. And I was proud.
I and my unit passed through a dusty town early one morning, a nondescript hovel by the name of Nazareth. We were tired and hungry and wished to stop by for water and food.
The women were gathered around a well, as was customary for them early in the morning. We could hear their animated chatter and laughter a ways off, and as soon as they spotted us coming, they stopped. I could see the younger maidens huddle closer to the matrons – their mothers and aunts. I smirked.
We slowed our horses as we approached, the only sound being the clip-clop of horses’ hooves.
Our Captain, Caius Decimus, spoke. “We wish you a good morrow, women of Judea. Kindly fill our water skins and water our horses.”
A part of me chafed that a Roman captain chose to speak upon these women with honour. Who were they not to obey?
Some of the matrons nodded to the maidens and they began to walk toward to us as we handed our water skins to them. They did so in absolute silence, none of their eyes meeting ours, taking care that they did not touch our hands.
That was when I saw her.
She stretched out her hands to receive my water-skin and looked up. I almost fell off my horse in astonishment.
Her eyes, a clear amber, fringed by thick lashes of coal black and brows of dove’s wings, looked at me without fear. Her face, oval and perfect, could rival the finest marble carving of Venus in Rome, holding a mouth of crushed rose petals and flawless skin of carved pine. Black ringlets formed a halo around her face, covered by a heavy linen veil. It was not just her stunning beauty that caught me, but a sense of something more: an unearthly innocence and dignity. She was a common Jewish maiden, but something more; with a sense of something set apart and extraordinary.
“What is your name?” I blurted out.
At my query, the captain turned to cast a warning look at me, and my fellow soldiers looked uneasy.
She answered, her voice light and musical, “My name is Mary, Sir.”
I handed her the water-skin and she took it and turned, without a word. My eyes remained on her.
As soon as our horses were watered and the skins filled, the captain thanked the women and signaled our movement. By then, we saw the men coming out of their homes, regarding us with suspicion, unmoving. The younger women stepped behind their hovering matrons as they made way for us to pass.
We passed, and I turned to take one last look at Mary. She looked at me, her eyes clear and blank, unreadable. I saw her cast a look to her left and my eyes followed to see a young man of roughly the same age as I, staring at me with barely restrained irritation. I smiled. Ah, so young Mary had a suitor?
I nodded at Mary and she cast her eyes down.
No matter, I thought. What Rome wants, Rome gets.
I couldn’t get her image out of my head. Every time I saw a Jewish maiden, I imagined it was her. I wished desperately to see her, even if by chance.
I found myself on patrol again; on a road between a vineyard and an olive grove. I could hear people singing as they harvested the olives. There were young men and women beating branches as olives fell on large sheets. Then I saw her.
She was helping an older woman out, carrying a bundle full of olives. I slowed down.
“Go on ahead of me,” I told my two peers, Janus and Primus. “I shall catch up.”
Primus cast his eyes at Mary and chuckled. “Well, well, you do have good taste,” he said. “Not like you can do anything though – too many people. Not unless you drag her to some secluded grove.”
I felt a surge of irritation at his offhand comment. I wanted Mary, true. But I found that something in me recoiled at the thought of forcing my will upon her. She had to be wooed, to be won.
Primus and Janus rode on ahead and I got off my horse, holding the reins and walking toward her. She saw me approaching and stopped, as did all the others.
“Carry on, nothing wrong here,” I said.
The workers resumed their work, albeit slowly and more suspiciously, casting furtive glances at me.
“Good morrow, Mary of Nazareth. How do you fare today?”
She moved with grace, folding her hands and nodding. “I fare well, Sir. I rejoice in this day Elohim has made. I pray you fare well too.”
I walked to her and remained at a distance, my ardor dampened by the narrowed gaze of the old crone behind her. I looked at her again. There was something different about her; a glow and radiance I hadn’t earlier caught. She seemed at total peace with everything. For the first time, I, a Roman soldier, felt like someone else had the upper hand and knew something I didn’t.
“My name is Flavius.”
She nodded. I felt like an uncouth youth in her presence. I cleared my throat.
“May I have a word with you in private?” I asked her.
The old woman behind her gasped. Mary didn’t budge, her eyes still on mine.
“Sir, as a Jewish maiden, it is forbidden for me to be alone with any man but my husband.”
I inhaled, and stood tall. I felt a surge of pique at being refused. “And do you realize that as a soldier of Rome, I do not have to ask you to do my bidding?”
Still, she did not budge. She tipped her head to the side. “Yes, I know that. I know that it is within your power to drag me wherever you want. I am but a lowly Jewish maiden and you are Rome. But…” She looked down and swallowed. When she looked up her eyes were awash in tears. “I also want to believe that you are a man of honour and would not force a woman betrothed to be married to go anywhere against her will.”
Her tears were almost my undoing. I felt myself deflate.
“You are betrothed?”
“Yes. To Joseph of Nazareth.”
At the mention of his name, I saw her visibly soften and a soft flush appear at her cheeks. Something in me cracked. I shifted from one foot to another, attempting to balance my insides.
“I see. This Joseph…is he a man of honour?”
She smiled. “Yes. A man of honour. A man of love and a man of Yahweh. I am blessed.”
I gave a terse nod and climbed on my horse, determined that this young woman would not shake me. I looked at her one last time. “I wish you and your betrothed well, Mary of Nazareth.”
“And I wish you Yahweh’s blessings…Flavius of Rome.”
My name on her lips was like sweet ambrosia down a parched throat. I knew I would relive that moment several times over. I turned and rode away, knowing that even as I carried my body and mind away from her, I would leave my heart behind.
A few months later, the Emperor called for a census of the region. It was a time of mass movement and we legionnaires were on the alert for trouble. Jews moved from one region to another, all ordered to return to the place of their birth and be registered. Once again we patrolled the entire region, going from one place to the other to ensure order.
Families joined caravans and dust hung in the air as infants cried, mothers cajoled and men drove their beasts of burden along well-worn paths. I passed several of such scenes and after a while, all the people began to look the same. At some points, I could hear them singing as they traveled, their voices rising in unison as they praised their God.
Pah. I still couldn’t understand why they were so devoted to One Whom they could not see. Why did they worship a God they claimed was so powerful…and yet left them to bend under the yoke of Rome? I couldn’t understand it.
My mind came back to the present when I heard one of my peers speak harshly. “You there! Get out of the way. Do you not see us passing through?”
I looked up to see a man with his arm around a woman heavy with child, her head bowed. The man looked familiar. He looked up to the soldier. “I beg your pardon, Sir. I am just trying to help my wife up this donkey. She is heavy with child.”
“Well, get a move on! You are blocking the oath!”
The woman looked up and I was startled to see the tired face of Mary. She was no less beautiful than I remembered, and I felt a pang at the fact that she obviously carried the child of the man with his arm so tenderly and possessively wrapped about her. I saw the sheen of sweat on her face and could hear her Joseph croon to her, his words unheard but his tone understood.
“I bid you good day,” I said, and they turned up to look at me.
Her eyes flashed recognition and her husband suspicion. She gave a weak smile. Her husband responded. “Good day to you, Sir.”
“Help your wife up to the donkey. We will wait,” I said.
He nodded and helped her up. She turned and bowed her head. “Thank you, Sir.”
“I hope you have a comfortable place for her ahead? She shouldn’t be travelling in this condition,” I said, my tone gruff.
Joseph shook his head sadly. “We are obeying the orders of the Emperor. Each man is to go to his home. We are heading to Bethlehem and hope to be there by nightfall.”
I nodded and rode away, and it took every ounce of my strength not to look back.
TO BE CONTINUED
Written by Sifa Asani Gowon