Pontius Pilate’s Troubles

[Editor's note: Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, novelist, and essayist who is a laureate of many awards, including "Encounter: The Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize"™ (2020), sponsored by the Canadian charitable non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE) with the support of the NGO "Publishers' Forum" (Lviv, Ukraine). The following is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel "An Angel and a Donkey with Poems about Fire and Water."] 

By Vasyl Makhno

Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea, was awakened by the chill of the morning. The guards had just extinguished the torches on the fortress walls. Carried by the wind, the smoke from the burning tallow reminded him of his first days in Caesarea. It was the smell of the air around the tent camp where the Roman legion was initially stationed. It smelled like camel hair. He went over to the window; a few dozen griffon vultures circled above. Yesterday, on his orders, two rebels had been executed. Now, watching the birds, he knew that the criminals had given up the ghost. Indeed, the vultures were narrowing their circles so they'd be the first to get to the spoils before the burial team arrived to carelessly cover the corpses with stones in shallow graves. Anything they left behind the foxes would carry off in the night. While individual rebels were easy to catch on the roads and in the towns, the order sent from Rome to build a road posthaste to connect Caesarea and Syria demanded considerable effort from the prefect. He transferred responsibility to his assistant Lucius Alfenus, whom he had summoned for a conversation yesterday and instructed to organize an escort for the cartographer Parmanion and the two engineers, Cletus Aurelius and Titus Cyceron. It was he who would have to report on the state of mapping Galilee. Looking up at the clear blue sky, he reasoned that they wouldn't get by without the locals who'd have to be driven to build the road. But first and foremost he needed to send that Greek cartographer and the engineers newly arrived from Rome out to appraise the terrain. Booming commands drifted over from the military camp. Apparently the junior officers were taking the soldiers out for drills and were shouting to encourage their subordinates.

Pontius Pilate had arrived in Judea a few years ago. His first disappointment with the unfamiliar land wasn't long in coming. Strong winds raised a wall of dust from the African sands. Along with the brown air, an increasingly disturbing silence exacerbated by internal anxiety and hypertension had to be endured for fifty days. Every morning, standing at the window, he breathed in the heavy yellow air and then felt cachectic all day. Neither compresses nor rubbing his body with olive oil helped. Apathy and alarm spread among the officers and soldiers in the garrison. Unaccustomed to the sudden changes in weather, the guards dozed off, exposing the prefect and garrison to the danger of a surprise attack. It all held one advantage: for a month and a half, neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees disturbed him with their requests or complaints. The khamsin put an end to trade in the province. The lethargy of all living things rolled through the towns' empty yellow market squares. Fortunately, the centurion's troops had stores of food and wine in the fortress. Pontius Pilate spent entire days lying in a hammock, writing letters to the emperor and his brothers. He informed the emperor of the road-building plan, his brothers of his misfortunes, the nasty local climate, and his stomach upset caused by the water from the local springs. He decided not to tell Vitellius, the legate of Syria, of his plans any sooner than necessary. "That old fox," as Pontius Pilate called the legate, "will sniff it out anyway, but not from me." When twenty days had passed since the arrival of the sandstorm, Pontius Pilate called for the cartographer and engineers to find out how much the construction would cost and how many workers would be needed. After seeking counsel, he was convinced of the need to raise taxes. It was clear this decision would cause discontent, but he, the prefect, had a large enough army to quell any rebellion. On his orders, the surveyors would leave as soon as the brown haze disappeared from the horizon and it was easier to breathe to ensure the lines drawn for the future road were accurate. The two imperial provinces of Judea and Syria still had no proper roads, primarily for the movement of troops, but also the easy passage of trade caravans. Pontius Pilate outlined his plan to the emperor and received his support. He imagined the sour look on Vitellius's face when he heard about it. Quite soon ships were to deliver a few hundred slaves to work in the quarry and on the construction. It had been decided to use the local stone from which the Jews had built their Temple, homes, and defensive walls. There were never enough laborers in the quarries they extracted the rock from, but it was also concluded that there were towns and villages along the construction route from which they could recruit extra hands. The prefect had asked the chancery to prepare a tax decree, but since the storm hung motionless in the air, for the time being the papyri with the prefect's orders lay on the table and every day the maids had to shake them free of the sand accumulated overnight. Pontius Pilate wiped his face with a towel offered to him by a servant and for the first time in thirty windless days felt no scratches on his skin — the khasmin had ended. Mediterranean winds had brought the long-awaited freshness and the soldiers had again been taken out of the barracks for drills. A few detachments had been sent outside the city to check the aqueducts and report back if the Jews were up to no good. There had been cases when criminals sat out in the mountains and then came into town under cover of the sand winds armed with knives and attacked the lookouts. The prefect was informed that the aqueduct was in order and that nothing suspicious had been noticed on the roads into the city. The next day the town came back to life and the streets, empty until then, again filled with people. Shops opened up and the trade caravans the khamsin had stopped on their way began drifting in. The streets smelled like donkey and camel manure. He again summoned the engineers and, brushing the final grains of that year's khamsin sand from the blueprints, asked them to talk. The centurion Mardarius, whose unit would have to travel the entire route marked on the drawings, was present for their conversation. The governor was rightly wary of engineering errors and did not have full confidence in the cartographer. Mardarius would set off at the head of the unit that, in addition to the soldiers, was to include the cartographer and the two engineers so they could see it all with their own eyes.

No sooner had he lost sight of the unit than a dispatch came about the arrival of the two ships of slaves sent by Rome to help build the road. They had mostly rounded up rebels from various provinces, driven them all to the nearest port, and loaded them on the ships. Pilate read the letter in the quiet of early evening. "I'll have to send the slaves to the copper mines," he thought, listening to the barking of foxes, "for Mardarius and his men won't be back for at least a month." The ships had dropped anchor off the coast of Caesarea. The dead had been dealt with during the voyage — tossed overboard — so no pestilence would be spread to the others. The survivors had already been sorted at the port. Those who were fit were sent to the mines, while the others were sold off. They were led out of the city along a narrow street, and then the column moved north. But the unexpected happened: they stopped along the way to drink from a stream and within a week the majority of the slaves had died of intestinal disorders and the rest were so debilitated that they were left to die among the rocky hills. While Pontius Pilate racked his brains over where to find new slaves for the mines, the gods performed a miracle. The border guard unit that monitored the northern frontiers of the province engaged Antiochus's troops in battle and captured nearly one hundred enemies who were immediately sent to the mines. The ore they extracted was sufficient for local needs and delivery to Rome. In the ports, the ships were loaded with wheat, ore, and spices. Some came in with soldiers and slaves, while others left bearing goods, metal, and ore.

Mardarius's unit was made up of tough, experienced fighters. It had been decided to take the garrison's hardiest riders and swiftest horses to traverse the rocky, roadless terrain. Leaving Caesarea, they spent the first day marching along the coast. The cartographer checked the markings on the map against the surrounding topography and the engineers considered the possibility of laying a road. Walking along the seashore, they saw fishing boats, while mountain ranges beckoned up ahead. When they reached the first obstacle, steep mountain outcrops, the engineers consulted with Mardarius and decided to turn right to see if they could go around the rocky hills, for if not they would be forced to tunnel through the rock. Night overtook the detachment when, having ridden around the mountain ridge, they saw flickering fires before them. The cartographer named the village whose lights they were, and Mardarius gave the order to pitch tents. The centurion didn't want to enter the village under the cover of night so as not to startle the villagers and thus cause trouble. Mardarius supped with the engineers and cartographer and having called for the principal, gave the order to post a guard. The soldiers lit torches.

Anointing his feet every day had not led to any improvements, so Zephaniah went on staying at Matatyahu's and sleeping on the roof. When a light flashed in the distance, he assumed a caravan must be camping there. Mardarius got up with the first roosters and walked about the tents and lookouts. The horses, huddled together in a herd, had suffered through the nighttime cold. "The cold winds doubtless blew in from the Galilee mountains," the centurion observed. It had gotten really cold overnight. The principal reported that one sentry had been bitten by a snake and was weak. Knowing it was impossible to turn back, Mardarius decided to enter the village the cartographer had spoken of the night before. After laying the injured man on a stretcher and setting out, Mardarius and his soldiers caught whiffs of morning smoke and heard the snapping of dogs' jaws. It was not Zephaniah, soundly asleep on his back, who first noticed the Romans, but the short-of-stature Zacchaeus. The omnipresent Zacchaeus couldn't sleep, tossing and turning all night. Ever since Matatyahu's long-hair goats had started disappearing from his fold, he was afraid it could happen to his small herd too. "There's no comparing it to Matatyahu's," Zacchaeus worried. "Those few goats didn't even make a dent in his herd." For Zacchaeus, who was struggling to make ends meet, even the smallest loss would have been felt. Of course, neither Zacchaeus nor Matatyahu could have imagined the goats were being stolen by the Essenes who lived near the Judaean Desert. A plague had descended on their livestock, causing many of them to drop dead. So when they learned Matatyahu's village had food, they bribed Zeev to sell them young sheep and goats. With a sorry look on his face, Zeev said that desert predators were descending on the pastures and tearing the unfortunate grazers limb from limb. Yet the next day when his inventory turned up a few billy and nanny goats short and he went to that dangerous place Zeev told him about, Matatyahu found no traces of blood in the places the slave indicated. Matatyahu decided to keep a close eye on his folds now that doubt as to the truth of his slave's words had crept into his heart. So every day Zacchaeus woke before sunrise, ran out to his yard, relieved himself, and then counted his herd with his index finger. He touched the goats' ears covered in long hairs.

Mardarius's riders hadn't yet made it to the village before a winded Zacchaeus managed to run around to every neighbor's house. The arrival of the Romans never boded well for the Jews. When someone was able to warn the others of the danger approaching, the Jews would arm themselves with knives they kept to slaughter sheep and goats for the sacrifice. A pile of stones lay on every rooftop, gathered like the olive harvest and prepared in advance. Ducking his head under the stone archway, Mardarius rode into the village on his piebald mare first. Four soldiers followed him carrying their comrade, who had been bitten by the snake and was now wrapped in a rough cloak of camel hair. Having been warned by Zacchaeus, the villagers all stood on their roofs and waited. Mardarius waited for his entire unit to pass under the arch and then jumped from his mare and loudly asked for the village elder. Matatyahu answered him from up high, about a block away. When the Jew came down from his roof and approached the Roman commander, he saw one soldier shivering as though from fever. Not waiting for any questions, Mardarius told him about the night's incident and asked if there was a doctor in the village to examine the patient.

"Tell them to come down from the rooftops," Mardarius said to Matatyahu, making it clear that the detachment would drop off their sick comrade and then be on their way.

Matatyahu called for Zeev. Mardarius went out onto the roof; two soldiers carried the stretcher behind. They saw Zephaniah sitting among stones and olives spread out on a cloth. Mardarius drew a short sword.

"Who's this?"

"A traveler, Zephaniah. He's from the other side of the Jordan."

"Why didn't he obey the order?"

"He has an injured foot."

Mardarius examined Zephaniah from afar, trying to spot any cuts on the Jew's body that would give him away as a rebel and one of those hiding out in the mountain caves.

"I'm returning home," Zephaniah affirmed.

"Where is your home?"

"Over there," Zephaniah pointed to the west. He tried to stand but couldn't get to his feet and collapsed.

"So, what's wrong with your foot?" the centurion asked, as if he hadn't heard Matatyahu's explanation a minute before.

"I sprained my ankle coming down the mountain path."

After a moment's thought, Mardarius ordered Zephaniah to take care of the sick Roman soldier. As they were departing, Mardarius told Matatyahu, "We'll be back in a week." The riders and the few donkey-drawn carts left the city of Manasseh's sons before lunch.

Vasyl Makhno

Originally appeared in Ukrainian @Zbruc.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Ali Kinsella