a novel


George A. Blair

Copyright © 2008


George A. Blair


'Open it."

"It is but wheat, like all the others."

"Open it."

"Why must we be delaying at this? It is wheat. Nothing but whe--"

"Do you wish the delay to be prolonged? Do you wish that I probe all of your sacks?"

"I wish to ford the river, that I may sell my wheat."

"Then let me assure myself that you have nothing but wheat to sell."

The man glared at Matthew, but grudgingly opened the sack, and Matthew took his slender staff and plunged it in, moving it about to probe everywhere within it. While he did so, the man said, "You see? It is nothing but wheat, as I said."

Matthew looked at him with suspicion, then turned back to the small wagon. "That one in back. Take it down and open it."


"You do not hasten your departure by complaining. Do it."

The man reluctantly climbed back on the wagon, climbed over the sacks to the back, and reached for one. "No not that, the one beside it." He reached to his right. "The other side. That one." With a look of disgust, the man yanked and pulled, and finally extricated the sack, which he lowered over the side of the wagon, jumped down and opened. Matthew probed this one also.

"Very well. Two denarii."

"Two denarii! That is two full days' pay! It is fully a quarter of what I can sell the rest for!"

"I am aware of that. It is also the tax Rome exacts for this quantity of wheat."

"I do not believe it. I cannot believe it! I think that the rumors about you tax-collectors are true. Rome requires a certain amount from you, and you charge whatever you think you can wrest from the poor fools who are under your power, and you enrich yourself with the difference!"

"You may think what you please. It is false, as it happens, but whether false or true, you must pay that amount, or you will not cross the river this day." Actually, it was true, and the amount Matthew was demanding was close to five times what he would need merely to send to Rome--but a man must live, after all.

"Some day, one of us will slit your throat!"

"And then what? Do you think that that Roman soldier is simply idling over there by chance? One who does me harm will be found, as you are too well aware, and then he and ten others in his family will long for their throats to be slit while they hang for days on a cross, stark naked for the world to laugh at as they foul themselves with their own feces, pleading for a drink so that they will choke, and not to have to wait for death slowly and slowly to overtake them. You have seen them thus, have you not?"

"One day, Rome will be driven out. And then crucifixion will be too good for the likes of you."

"Yes. I have heard that. Often. I can wait."

Matthew held up his scales. Muttering, the man counted out two silver pieces and put them on, while Matthew checked carefully to see that he had not filed any silver away from them. He then put them into a large leather pouch inside his robe. "You may go. Next."

Another man driving a donkey-cart came up to the booth beside the river. "What have you this time?" asked Matthew.


"All barley?"

"Yes. All barley."

"Take down that one and open it."

The man, looking at Matthew venomously, climbed up on the cart and pointed to the sack. "This one?"

Matthew was about to say Yes, but noted that he seemed a little too eager to take down that sack. "No, the one two sacks behind it."

The man sighed. "Very well." He tugged out the sack and lowered it, then opened it for inspection. Down went the probe and around and around. "Nothing else seems to be hidden in here."

"Nothing ever is. How could it be? We are all too poor to be able to bring anything but what we have sweated and labored over ourselves."

"Of a certainty. I know you people. You are all starving. How odd that you never have enough to eat, and yet are sleek and muscular."

"How could we be anything else, if we must work so hard to keep the Romans fat? And I do not notice you lacking enough to eat."

"I earn my money, just as you do. If you think this occupation is easy, then try it. Rome is always looking for more tax-collectors. Of course, you would have to learn Greek."

"I would not try that 'occupation' if they forced me at sword-point! Slopping pigs is better! What I cannot understand is why any Judean would do this: torture his own countrymen for the sake of money! And if there were no Judeans who would sacrifice their country to Rome, Rome would have no power over us and we would all be free!"

"And if stones turned to gold, we would all be rich. Rome is here, and one either resists or lives with it."

"If one chooses to call that 'living.'"

"Eight ases," said Matthew, tired of the conversation.

"That is an outrage! It is half a denarius! For barley!"

"It is the tax."

"So you say!"

"Who else is to say it? That man?" He glanced once again at the soldier, standing, bored, by the riverbank.

"Even if he could speak Hebrew or I Greek--or Latin, I suppose--he would say nothing."

"True. Then will you pay, or will you stay on this side?"

"Where are your scales?"

Matthew brought out his scales, and the man placed his coins on one pan while Matthew put the standards on the other. The weights balanced, and so Matthew scooped the small coins into his pouch, which got through the tedious process another time, and the man led his donkey into the shallows of the river, shaking his head and looking at the few coins left in his hand, as though wondering how he would survive until the next harvest.

As he continued with the others who wanted to ford on this day--a lovely day in late Spring, with the trees deepening the green of their leaves and the flowers in the fields blossoming as if they remembered the snow covering the ground once during the winter and wanted to bury the countryside in white again--he reflected on what unutterable torture all this was. If he did not hate them all, because he knew they were all trying to cheat him--that is, Rome, to cheat Rome--and was not convinced that some of them managed to outwit his attempts to detect their smuggling, it would be impossible to bear it. But the satisfaction when he caught one, as he did yesterday, and, calling the soldier over, forced him to pay triple the exorbitant tax he had originally quoted, made up for the days when all was routine. The look on the man's face was a delight to behold.

Yes, they were poor, all of them. They were despicable in their poverty. Why did they not learn, and find a way to become rich, as he did, so that they would not all have that look of constant suffering and worry? He would go home soon--the sun was beginning to decline--and have a sumptuous dinner prepared for him by his slave, and bathe, and then sleep in a soft bed.

"Two denarii," he told the man.

"Two! That is impossible! I have not the money."

"Then leave three of the sacks."

"I cannot do that! What I sell barely feeds my family as it is!"

"Then sell none of it. Or sell it on this side of the river."

"You know I cannot sell it here. Why else would I be coming to you for you to rob me?"

"Then leave the three sacks. I am doing you a favor, since now I must find someone to buy them."

It turned out that the man did have the money after all, as Matthew knew he would--since both of them were aware that if Matthew were shrewd, he could probably gain more than the two denarii from selling the sacks. The man, of course, complained at length, but he did not bother to listen. Eventually he left.

As the sun sank toward the horizon, the line of people waiting to ford the river dwindled to nothing, and, though there was yet an hour of daylight, Matthew nodded to the soldier, who came over.

"We can go now to the governor's bankers to deposit the money," he said in Greek.

"After which I suppose you will wish an escort to your home," said the soldier a bit haltingly. Evidently he was recently from Rome and his Greek was a little shaky. Matthew looked at him with scorn, but was careful not to make it too obvious.

"It is in the agreement, as you know. We tax-collectors would not be here long to supply your great country with what it needs to function if we did not have your presence by our side."

"It is all one. I must go from one end of the day to the next in this tartarus somehow, until my term of service is over and I can return to a livable world." Matthew raised an eyebrow. He had not yet heard a Roman soldier utter more than six words at a time, still less one who had difficulties with the language. Clearly, this guarding of a tax-collector had provoked him to the limit of his endurance. He looked at the sunburnt face and the hair the color of burnished bronze peeking out from under the helmet. He was reminded of young Pontius from years ago.

But now he knew more about Romans. Not from the south of Italia, then, he speculated; perhaps from the mountains in the north, which would explain at least part of his antipathy to what Matthew considered the rather mild heat of Galilee at this time of year.

Matthew spoke to his two assistants, who closed the booth and locked it and left, and, with his arm around the leather sack inside his cloak, making no attempt to hide what he was doing or how heavy it was, he and the soldier strode across the fields reasonably briskly in spite of their both being tired. It was always well to get the money into safe keeping as quickly as possible.

Before very long, they reached the Roman headquarters in Capernaum, which Matthew and the soldier entered, and, with little more conversation than grunts, deposited the money that was owed to Rome, Matthew making sure that the accounts were accurately recorded. He then turned back to the soldier with the remainder of the money (which still weighed a good deal), and the two of them departed for his house.

The next day, the same soldier happened to be there, as Matthew once again examined the farmers and merchants who wished to travel across the river; and once again the soldier escorted him to the headquarters in Capernaum and to his home; but this time without a word.

For three days that same soldier appeared; and on the fourth, as they left the headquarters for Matthew's house, he looked at Matthew holding the still rather heavy pouch under his cloak. "Someday, you know, they will kill you, seeing how you leave here," he said, seeming to take some satisfaction in the thought.

"Then you will die also. That is why you are here."

They walked on in silence. After an interval, the soldier, who evidently had decided to start a conversation, said, "How does it feel to be hated by absolutely everyone? I cannot imagine it."

"You ask this? You? If there is one thing every Judean hates more than me, it is the likes of you."

"Well yes, perhaps, but I am hated only"--he fought for the words--"among you, and even then I have comrades in the barracks. Besides, I did not choose this. Believe me, I did not choose it. And after five years, I will have to endure it no longer--possibly, we shall see--and will be among those who love me. But you: what you are doing is voluntary, and never will you be able to wash yourself of the stench you carry with you. You might just as well have a white stripe down your back. No one will come near you unless forced." So the man had an imagination also. Matthew thought that he could even like him, if it were possible for him to like anyone.

That thought prompted the answer, "You will learn in not too many years that 'love' is a delusion, and everyone carries a stench of one sort or another, as you so picturesquely put it." The soldier looked puzzled at "picturesque," the Greek for which he had not heard before, so Matthew paraphrased, "So well; so colorfully, so vividly." He grinned and nodded, asking the word again, and repeated it to himself several times, as if tasting it. "In fact," Matthew went on, in almost a friendly tone, "those you think most love you are the ones who have concealed the dagger within their cloaks. I have seen it too often. No, trust in hate and you will never be disappointed."

"I think I would prefer to trust in love and be disappointed than to spend my life hating as well as being hated."

"Your life will probably be a short one, then."

"There are not many signs that it will be long, in such a place as this. But if I die, I die. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."

So he was educated also, since this sounded like a quotation from somebody or other--and clever, Matthew reflected. He clearly did this not only to show that he knew literature, but to test Matthew and find out whether he could speak Latin as well as Greek. "Who wrote that?" Matthew asked, to show that he could recognize a quotation when he heard one.

"A poet of a couple of generations back. A man named Quintus Horatius Flaccus."

"All very noble-sounding," Matthew replied, and now, to show that he did know Latin (in fact, he had even heard of the author), he added, "and I suppose a comfort to people like you. But I personally would not find it particularly pleasant or honorable to die under any circumstances, whether it is for my fatherland or not."

The soldier grinned again. He could see what Matthew was doing. Then he said, "You are not a Roman," as if that settled the issue. They continued walking in silence for a while. As they neared his house, Matthew asked, "Will you be the one assigned me tomorrow?"

"I know not. I go where they send me. There are worse assignments." He looked at Matthew, and added, "Not many."

"And I have had worse guards," Matthew said, and then after a pause of the same length, "Not many." Another grin.

As they came this time up to the fence around Matthew's house, which was in a field empty of trees so that anyone approaching would easily be able to be seen, two dogs appeared on the opposite side of the bronze--expensive, but necessary--fencing. They were silent, since they recognized their master, and were aware that he always had another with him; but they had embryonic menacing growls in their throats as they looked suspiciously at the soldier through the bars, in spite of the fact that they had seen him with Matthew for three days now. "You will be safe now in your prison with them as your guards, I assume," said the soldier.

Matthew was a bit taken aback. After a slight pause, he said, "Your name?"

"Do you ask so that you may send a false report about me?" he answered.

"You need not tell me if you wish not to do so."

He reflected for an instant. "They would not believe you in any case. I am called Longinus--and yes, I know, you are Levi." He paused a moment, and then added, "And I have heard rumors that you were once called Matthew." Matthew turned sharply and looked at him; he had not used the name since he was in his teens. The soldier took note of the look as a confirmation of his guess, and then continued, "Levi the tax-collector. Once called Matthew. Your name--your new one--is often spoken in these parts, frequently accompanied by an outpouring of--what is the word?--saliva. But I will leave you now to whatever dreams may come."

He turned away, and then back, with a small smile. "Incidentally, I am instructed to tell you that your friend Pontius sends his greetings--Matthew."

"I will not go back," retorted Matthew. "I would kill myself first."

"I think you need have no fear," answered Longinus. "Rome finds you much more useful here than in your former position, whatever it was. Besides, I was told to stress the word 'friend.'"

Matthew said nothing, and as Longinus strode off across the countryside, he was humming to himself, apparently satisfied that he had accomplished a mission.