A Good Day
By Alexander Barbolish - Nicholson, Pennsylvania, USA - 18 February 2015
The day did not begin well for Marcus. He was awakened before dawn by his commander and told to rouse the men for action. They did not want to wake, and he had to prod them with sharp jabs and blows from his staff.
"On your feet! Full battle gear! I want the whole century assembled before I finish my morning shit!"
They stood in rigid formation for two hours before the sun rose. Marcus and the other officers moved among them, murmuring to the men, inspecting gear and weapons.
"Fall out and sharpen that sword. You may have need of it before the day is through," he said to one soldier.
Damn Pilate for being such a vacillating fool, he thought, always alternating between pleasing and punishing these Jews. When would he realize that no matter what he did, he antagonized one of their many factions?
They stood another two hours in the morning sun, sweating in their armor. By then they knew what the alarm was. They had caught a Jewish rebel, and the prefect was going to try him for treason. Dithering as usual, Pilate sent him to Herod first, who, though a puppet, was too cunning to be caught in the potential backlash of this incident, and sent him back to Pilate.
"Kill every last one of them," Marcus heard a man in the rank behind him mutter. "That’s the only way there will ever be peace here."
If only we could, he thought. Then he could leave this shithole of a posting, maybe get out of the army altogether. He thought briefly about how things might have been different.
If only I hadn’t turned to gambling to pay my debts…or at least known when to stop...to get out before his winning streak ended . . .
If only I hadn’t killed that man in Rome . . .
The gods had a sense of humor. Marcus had gambled away his money, and now he was a soldier gambling with his life. But it was simpler to focus on the present. It was simpler to blame the Jews and their proclivity for rebellion as the reason he was standing at attention in full armor under the harsh Judean sun. He did not feel anything personally against them. It was simply that today would have been a good day if this Jew had not been betrayed.
They assembled in the courtyard of the praetorium, with Marcus and several squads detailed to keep the crowd back from the steps. To Marcus, the trial was more a showcase of Pilate’s incompetence than Rome’s might. Three times he brought the accused man before the crowd, who booed and cursed and called for his death. A Roman governor does not negotiate with a mob, thought Marcus. If Pilate found the man innocent, then the trial was over.
He hated the Jews then, truly hated them as he watched them shout obscenities at the short, skinny man with the scraggly beard, his face swollen where they had hit him. Their priests whipped the crowd into a frenzy. He hated them the most. They acted so self-righteous, sitting in their temple with their law tablets and their jealous, single god. Yet here they were, calling for blood like the lowest Roman in a gladiatorial arena.
He wanted Pilate to release the man, not because he thought he was innocent. That was irrelevant to him. He wanted it because it would mean his own release. He could vent his frustration with the day and his life on this bloodthirsty rabble. He would nod to Quintus, the squad leader nearest him, and the men would close shoulder to shoulder, sword points poking out of the gaps between their shields, and drive this mob back into the alleys -- drive even the priests from their temple, the way some said this rebel had driven the merchants from its steps earlier in the week.
For a moment, he thought it would happen. He heard the governor say something about releasing the prisoner. His muscles tensed as he took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. He felt the exhilaration building and laid a hand on his sword, but the order never came. He saw a different man come down the stairs and pass through the Roman ranks to join the crowd. Confused, he turned and saw Pilate shaking water from his hands, the droplets evaporating almost instantly on the hot paving stones. Then the tribune’s order rang out, but not the one he had hoped for.
"Centurion, take charge of the prisoner and form a detail for crucifixion!"
The march through the city was a tactical nightmare for Marcus. The soldiers and the prisoner were hemmed in by the crowds lining the streets, with no room to maneuver if suddenly set upon. Marcus had only a dozen men; who knew where this rebel’s followers were, and how many? That they were armed was known. There was a scuffle when the man was captured, and one of the captors lost an ear. Marcus marched with one hand on his sword, continually scanning the faces of the crowd for anyone who looked suspicious.
The pace was much slower than Marcus preferred. The man kept falling. Either the beating Pilate ordered in the praetorium took everything out of him, or it was a tactic designed to allow his men to get in position for an ambush. Finally, Marcus had a man from the crowd dragged forward, transferring the condemned rebel’s plank to his shoulders. Quintus and two others to formed a wedge and widened the path through the crowd, using their shields and the shafts of their spears.
Marcus's anxiety eased only a little after passing through the gates onto open ground. The crowd followed, led by a group of women wailing and lamenting the fate of the rebel. The man had stopped and spoken to them. Perhaps they were the wives of his men. One woman wiped the blood and sweat from the prisoner's face before a soldier shouldered her aside. Perhaps she was his wife; perhaps they all were. After all, he did claim to be a king. Marcus posted six of the men in a semicircle to keep them and the rest of the crowd back several yards. Then the rest went to work.
Marcus had been given two other men -- common criminals -- to execute alongside the rebel. The first one screamed and passed out at the mere sight of the three iron spikes the soldiers dug out of the tool bag. They revived him, then he passed out again as the first nail was driven home. They finished nailing and he came to as they were standing him up and started screaming again. A soldier hit him with the butt of his spear and broke his jaw and the man stopped screaming, but continued to whimper.
Marcus ordered the men to work as quickly as possible, not only because it was such an unpleasant task, but also because he was worried about the fickleness of the crowd and the fact that this man’s retainers might still be planning a rescue. When the second criminal began to struggle, he was given a jab to the kidneys that put him on his knees, and Marcus himself helped hold him down while they nailed him to the wood.
The rebel leader did not struggle. Nor did he cry out except for three short, sharp exclamations of pain when the nails were driven in. As the men stood and stepped back just before bending to raise him, Marcus saw the man in profile, supine, his eyes closed as if all was right in the world and he was merely taking a nap. Then they raised him and he opened his eyes but did not cry out, even when the post slid upright into the hole, jarring his body.
Marcus was only a few yards away and the cross was not very tall, so he could watch the man's face. He looked at Marcus -- looked at him, not just in his direction. Marcus had seen many men about to die -- had seen their eyes up close when the light went out of them. This man had a look different from theirs. It was neither one of anger nor of contempt, the two most common. It was a look of calm, as if he knew something, some secret that put him at ease. It unsettled Marcus. Men who are beaten, stripped naked, and nailed to a piece of wood do not look with peace upon their executioners. He hoped the man would die quickly, but knew he probably wouldn’t; that was not the way crucifixion was supposed to work.
The soldiers moved a bit away from the crosses and waited. The people approached and milled about. Marcus watched the man speak to one of the women from the group, and to a man who was with her. Then he said something, loudly. Marcus looked at Quintus, who was fond of the local prostitutes and thus picked up more of the language.
"He’s thirsty," Quintus said.
"Give him something," Marcus said, nodding at the clay jug filled with water purified with vinegar.
"His lips are just out of reach," Quintus said. "He is not worth spilling our water."
"Do it," Marcus ordered. He did not know what made him insist.
Quintus rummaged in one of the packs and pulled out a short stick with a bit of sponge on one end. It was used to wipe after a man relieved himself in the field.
"Disgusting," said Marcus.
"It’s clean," said Quintus. "I’ll not spill our water for a dying Jewish rebel."
He soaked the sponge and went and held it up to the man’s mouth. The man sucked it dry. He looked at Marcus again as Quintus walked back -- the same look of unsettling calm. Marcus turned away.
The men cast lots for the prisoners’ garments while they waited, but Marcus did not partake. He had no use for the criminals’ rags, and the rebel’s tunic was a bloody, sweaty mess, even if it was good cloth. Besides, he was trying to curb his gambling vice. Lately, he had been discussing the ideas of the Stoics with the quartermaster, who claimed to have met the younger Seneca in Egypt. The Stoics said a man’s actions should be dictated by reason, rather than passion, that self-discipline was the way to a good life.
The hours went by. Some clouds came and covered the sun, giving the men a little respite. Then all of a sudden the rebel cried out. Quintus didn’t catch it all -- something about the man’s father. The women began crying again. Marcus waited a little longer, and then ordered the men to pack up. One of them took a hammer and smashed the kneecaps of the two criminals. He stopped at the rebel, and turned to Marcus.
"Sir, this one’s already dead."
"Better be sure," Marcus said. He looked at Quintus.
"A solidus says you can’t hit his heart from here."
Quintus grinned, took several steps, and threw his spear. It flew to the left and hit the man’s side. Marcus immediately regretted the wager, and cringed inwardly as the women renewed their wailing and blood and fluid flowed from the wound.
"You owe me a solidus," he said, not smiling.
Back in the town, Marcus regretted the wager with Quintus, as if he had crossed some sort of line. He did not know why it bothered him so much. After all, the man was a rebe -- an enemy of Rome. His body would hang there until it rotted, or be thrown on the garbage heap outside the city.
Forgetting all this, and his Stoics, Marcus went and found a game of dice and won a lot of money. He spent most of it on wine and got very drunk.
A good day after all, he thought, just before passing out in a room above the wine shop.
Awake later on, after the wine had worn off, Marcus did not notice the moonlight slanting in through the narrow window, or the vomit on the floor, or the pale body of the girl beside him. He saw only the eyes of the crucified rebel, full of pity and sadness. The gaze was haunting him -- almost as if the man was not really dead.
Even after he had sacrificed a cock and threw the solidus Quintus had paid him into the Jordan, Marcus would sometimes wake in the night and see the same face, wondering what kind of man could forgive his enemies with a look.