D M M VAL M F
| LEG X FRET |
LEG VI FER EM
ANN LXIX H S E
M VAL F POSUIT
The letters are still sharp, unmarred by the ravages of time, as if cut into the stone just yesterday – though it has been ten years, to a day, since I wished you goodbye for the last time, before Marcus lit the pyre.
It won't be another ten years before we meet again, Beloved, I can feel it. I feel it in my ancient, creaking bones, but stronger still in my heart.
I have been dreaming a lot of you, lately. Last night, I dreamed of the day we first met.
. . . . . . .
Do you still remember that day? I will never forget it. I will forever remember the cocky young optio who, seeking distraction after a long, hard day of conquering the world, took my arm and led me away, a laugh on his lips and the taste of cheap wine.
Not your fault, really. I was out so late into the night, too late for any honest girl to be about. I had lost track of the time – having helped a child into the world, firstborn son of a childhood friend – and though it was dark, I thought a few streets down the hill would be safe enough.
No, truth to be told, I didn't think about that, at all. I was envious of Yael, for having a good husband – and now a son, to boot – while I had none. So I didn't notice you – can you imagine that, Beloved? I overlooked, overheard, I was totally unaware of half a dozen half-drunk sana soldiers on leave – until you grabbed my arm.
I was so shocked and surprised, I didn't even think of fighting. I often wondered in the years to come, if I had screamed that night, would it have sparked another revolt, another uprising? They seem to breed so easily back there.
You took me to a room, I never knew where, and there and then became the first man in my life.
Did you know what you did, then? I never asked you that. Maybe you did. You left before I woke, with coins – a generous sum – piled next to my cloak, to take or leave as I saw fit.
I took them, feeling horribly ashamed. Then I crept home in the first light of dawn, expecting damnation for my dishonor – but no one noticed it. My uncle scolded me, but then he always did. He never suspected anything. Everyone assumed I had stayed the night with the newborn mother, as I would have had I spent a single thought about it, but in that case… I would have never met you.
For days and days to come, those coins were fiery coals in my pocket, tangible proof that I had lost all and any prospect of marrying a respectable man some day, before I reconsidered. I would never get a proper marriage, my uncle wouldn't pay for it, so who would want me, anyway.
At least, I argued with myself, I had once felt a man's embrace before I grew old and ugly, a serving slave in all but name in my uncle's house.
. . . . . . .
Then I saw you again, on the marketplace, standing guard in full armor. You looked so cold and cruel and yet majestic, like a heathen idol or – what a blasphemous thought – one of the Cherubim guarding the Holy Ark. You seemed so young and strong, next to the graying man who – I would learn much later – was your centurion.
He sent you on some errand and I went way out of my way to have you pass me by. I told myself that you had smiled at me. I don't know, did you?
For months that was all we had, half-imagined looks and smiles across a busy street.
Then came a riot, an argument in the Street of Butchers turned ugly by the vicinity of blades and blood. I slipped and would have been trampled, when people panicked at the sound of Roman authority restoring order, if not for the iron-clad figure stepping over my prone form.
You saved my life that day, I know you remembered that.
. . . . . . .
You offered me a hand, afterwards, though I was smeared with blood and rotting offal from the gutters, and you smiled. If you had left it with that smile, the tale still could have ended there.
You didn't, you told me that I needed a bath, immediately, and took me along, despite your comrades' sneers and questions what you wanted with a stinking carcass like me. You took me to the Roman garrison – if I had realized that sooner, I think I would have run, or tried to, at least – and left me standing in the middle of a courtyard to ask a steel-haired, steel-muscled matron to help me getting cleaned up.
If you hadn't looked so very much like a boy begging his stern grandmother for sweets, I think I would have passed out from fright. She sent you away with some angry words but she was kind to me.
Later I realized how small the bathes, set aside for the officers' wives of the garrison, were compared with the big ones for the troops or even the public ones. Then, they seemed extremely generous to me.
The elder woman, Procilla was her name, oh dear old Procilla, guided me through, lent me clean clothes and showed me where to wash the worst off my own. Then she put a cup of watered wine in my hand and sat me down for a few quiet words.
"You have been seen leaving with a Roman soldier for the garrison," she said, "your folks are going to give you hell for it, won't they?"
I tried to deny it, even to myself and when she offered me an alternative, "I'm not as young as I once was, I could use someone to give me a hand", I declined and fled.
She was right, of course. My uncle beat me worse than he ever had, my aunt screeched of shame and dishonor, and in the end they threw me out of the house into the falling night.
On hindsight, if I had waited out my uncle's temper and crept back in the morning, begging for forgiveness, I would have been granted it, I think, for in his heart of hearts my uncle was not an evil man.
I never found out. I stumbled into the shadows and strong arms encircled me. I gasped when you grasped already bruised arms and you said, "Hush, hush, it's me, Marcus."
That was the first time you ever told me your name.
I barely noticed, then. I broke down crying, both in physical pain and mental anguish.
A straying cloud revealed your face for a moment and mine, which must have been a frightful sight, all swollen and bruised, for yours became an ugly mask of fury.
You let go of me, reaching for the dagger at your belt and there was murder in your eyes.
A nameless fear assaulted me. I do not know what I feared or for whom, but I begged you to just take me away from there, and after a moment you did.
It wasn't Procilla who greeted me, or us, this time, but a man her age, battle-scarred and unforgiving. He listened to your tale – what you told him I never knew, for you gave your report in Latin, not the Greek I reasonably spoke – with a face like granite and started to lay into you with a viciousness that needed no translation.
I don't remember fainting, just waking up with my head in Procilla's lap, while she tore into both of you men like a lioness protecting her cub.
I stayed with her from there on, obviously. At least, until you obtained your superior's permission to marry me.
. . . . . . .
You were so happy when you made centurion, early in spring in the second year of our marriage. You laughed and you loved me and then you went to celebrate with your friends.
You got so drunk that you still couldn't walk straight in time for your next watch. The primus pilus was so furious, I thought he would have you executed on the spot.
Instead he put you in command of the punishment detail, that most hateful unit, executors and executioners of Roman law. Charged with the execution of condemned criminals, they were hated by the people and despised by their own comrades.
It was the most terrible time of my life. The men you commanded – had to keep in line, mostly – were such horrible brutes. I feared they might kill you.
I feared you might become like them. You did, to a degree, you became rougher, more quickly angered, more given to drink.
. . . . . . .
Until the day before the Pesach feast. A horrible thunderstorm was brewing that day, the sky turned pitch-black around noon, but the storm wouldn't break, rain wouldn't fall until late afternoon. When it did, though, the earth shook with thunder and the wind was so fierce it ripped the heavy, hallowed curtain in the Temple in two.
I was so afraid lightning would strike you, on that terrible bleak hill outside the walls. Maybe it did. You were withdrawn and quiet when you returned that night.
"I killed an innocent man today," you said. It had never bothered you before, killing was part of the job for a soldier and wondering about the other guy's guilt or innocence only got you killed, you proclaimed.
On this memorable day, it was different.
"One of the condemned," you said, "should not have been executed. A wandering rabbi, gentle as a lamb, it wasn't right that such a man should die," you said, "die a slow and terrible death in front of his mother."
You killed him yourself, I heard later, you took the spear – no, the javelin, I can hear you say in your most exasperated voice, spears are for auxiliaries, real soldiers use a javelin – anyway, you took a soldier's weapon and put it through his heart to end his suffering.
You changed again after that fateful day, changed for the better. For the rest of my days I was, and always will be, grateful to Yeshua ben Yussef, whose death has saved your soul.
. . . . . . .
Even the primus pilus noticed the change and some weeks later he put you on another post that took you to another legion.
I followed you, I left the land of my forefathers behind and never looked back. I bore your sons and our little darling Marcia – her oldest is slowly growing into a beautiful young woman, and Marcus, Marius and Quintus are all practicing their most intimidating Don't-mess-with-my-daughter glares on behalf of their niece. Hopefully, I will still see her wedding, though. Or maybe we will watch it together, Beloved.
Marcus will make centurion soon, I'm certain. And Marius, he looks so much like you did when we met for the first time. When I saw him in full optio uniform, a few months ago, my heart felt like breaking with pride and longing. Longing for you, Beloved.
Soon we will meet again, soon.
A/N: The inscription at the start reads (hopefully, my Latin is nonexistent): To the shades of the departed. Marcus Valerius Longinus, son of Marcus, of the voting tribe Pollia, centurion of Legio X Fretensis and centurion of Legio VI Ferrata, veteran, 69 years of age, lies here. His son Marcus Valerius set (this tombstone) up. Standard formula for a Roman epitaph.