For years, when teaching medieval history, I created imaginary scenarios and hypothetical situations for my students to help them understand what it felt like for the common man to merely “stand on the ground” in the year 325 AD. These imaginary scenarios coalesced into “Blasphemers,” a short story I wrote for my students so they could better understand the legalization of Christianity, the ancient Christian sense of piety, and the thin veil that separated earth and heaven in the medieval mind (but also in my mind).
I offer this story to everyone who teaches late antiquity or medieval literature. If it seems good to you, feel free to give the story to your students and lecture through it.
“Blasphemers” is originally part of a collection of short stories which can be purchased here.
Part I. When I was twelve years old, my father and mother took me to see a criminal get suspended over six starving jackals, then slowly lowered as they tore him apart. My father was a provincial governor and dutifully made public appearances at such shows, but cursed their vulgarity in private. The morning of my first attendance, we all fasted from our usual meal. On occasions when my father entertained guests from the capital, I would hear of these shows and the tens of thousands who attended them, and the deafening roar of the crowd as men and women were helplessly eviscerated. My father’s guests were generally of the opinion the shows were quite terrible, but that the empire was in desperate straits and something must be done to appease the gods who were daily blasphemed by the ignorant and superstitious.
By the time I was twelve, I had seen a few prodigious things and assumed the shows would produce similar feelings as those wonders. Once, while jingling a few silver coins in my hand in the market, a filthy man asked me if I wanted to see something portentous and I said I did. He took me into a dark alley, lifted his dress and revealed he had six fat teats on his belly, just like a pig. He looked over his shoulder, then his face approached mine and he whispered, “The empire will soon fall!” and then ran as though chased. I didn’t know what it would mean if the empire fell, though I assumed it meant I would become a soldier and get tied to the mast of a ship and hear the sirens. For years to come, I thought of the fall of the empire with a deep sense of yearning.
You may think I was naïve to imagine seeing an execution would tease out that longing, but you would be wrong.
Living in Tusculum, twenty kilometers from the capital, our largest theater sat no more than five hundred people, and on the day in question, less than a quarter of the seats were filled. On a trip I had once taken to the capital, I saw the great Coliseum and stepped inside, but it was empty. From that time forward, when I thought of the Tusculum coliseum, I always imagined being at a great distance from the condemned as they were torn apart. When I finally found myself in our little theater, though, I was half a stone’s throw from the condemned men and could clearly make out the features of their faces.
My father was displeased and remarked to my mother, “What good does it do for me to put in a public appearance when the public does not even bother showing up?” My mother’s face was dire, either bored or apprehensive, I could not say. A clown juggled three dead rats and a few in the audience called out bawdy jokes. One of the condemned had a mild and bored expression, sometimes raising his eyes to the heavens as though incredulous of the clown and perhaps the entire spectacle in which he was about to play a part. The other man had been badly beaten and shook like a wheel ready to come off a chariot.
Finally the clown was called off and a man in white began to read out the crimes of the condemned. The bruised man burst out, in the middle of the accusations, “I recant! I recant! I worship Jupiter! I deny Jesus the Nazarene!” The man in white nodded and several centurions unshackled him and led him out of the theater. The calm man looked at his feet while the bruised one was led away.
“Staged,” said my father, definitely.
“What?” asked my mother.
“They stage these little shows. The first man is nothing more than an actor, typically a drunk who is paid to recant of crimes he didn’t commit and a faith which he never had to begin with. It adds a little pressure to the second man, who is truly guilty. The second man is more likely to recant if he’s just seen another of his kind recant. Or so it is thought. But the criminals are wiser than that. I don’t know why we persist with the drama. There are probably ten Christians in the audience now whose impiety only grows when they watch our failed, amateur ploys to break their spirits.”
The man in white continued reading out the crimes of the remaining man, who was part of the Nazarene sect and refused to worship the gods. While the man in white read with great verve, the guilty man spoke dully and evenly, “No, I won’t recant. The gods are meaningless… Only the Christ. Only the Christ.” I thought a man defending the honor of a worthless cause would not speak so dispassionately, though I was wrong. At last, an icon of some emperor was presented to the man. A slave added a tiny pot of fire before it and then tossed the condemned man a small sack of incense which landed at his feet.
“Sir,” said the man in white, “you appear of sound mind and body and these good people do not wish to see a dignified creature such as yourself disemboweled by the teeth of beasts. We ask a pittance of you. The immeasurable cosmos precariously teeters upon the cracking bricks of common souls like yourself, and while soldiers risk their lives far from their families to restore order and peace, all the empire requires of you is a token of your gratitude that the divine Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus Augustus cares for his people so deeply. If you will but deposit the incense into the fire and venerate the icon of Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus Augustus, we will refresh you with a draught of fine wine and send you on your way. If you so desire, you may even return to your worship of the Nazarene this very day and credit him with the soundness of mind he granted you to do what is surely and obviously reasonable.”
The condemned man sighed, “I will do nothing of the kind.”
The man in white sighed, as well.
My father said to my mother, “In the last year, one in five has recanted. We pay these speechmakers to persuade them to reconsider. Apparently, Jupiter is far more pleased to see them recant than to see them torn apart.”
The condemned man was then strapped into a metal harness and led up a high scaffolding. As he gazed into the sky, his face was suddenly illuminated like the thick surface of a lake reflecting the morning sun. A few in the crowd murmured, and my father said absently, “I’ve heard of this…” while shielding his eyes.
As I watched the condemned die, I thought back to the filthy man in the alley who told me the empire would soon fall, but I now knew that the fall of the empire would not mean my enrollment in the military, nor would I be tied to the mast of a ship and hear sirens. The fall of the empire would look like the dangling red and white threads of the condemned man’s torso, or else it would look like the sudden noonday brightness in his visage, or else the fall of the empire would somehow look like both.
Part II. I wish I could say I accepted baptism for the sake of piety, but by the third year of the reign of Constantinus, it had become obvious that a governor could accomplish precious little without being the friend of the emperor.
When my father was absent from Tusculum, I assumed many of his duties, and when he returned from the capital, or elsewhere, he would say, “Felix, the whole order of the cosmos is being turned upside down. What was great and heavy is now on the bottom, and what is weightless is raised up. That sounds quite obtuse, I know, but I am often speechless at the shape which the Roman world has assumed… Is assuming, I should say. Every child is now older than his father. Older than his grandfather, as well. In a single minute, a year is come and gone. These changes have come to pass so quickly.
Stay with the old paths, son. It is an undignified, ungrateful generation emerging all around you. Filthy, backwards, desperate to destroy every ancient thing. I may not have always presented myself as the most pious man in the empire when you were young, but as I grow old, I am increasingly grateful for the gods, for our benefactors.”
He always spoke this way right after returning from the capital, but when a shrine to Romulus was pillaged— a shrine which our family sponsored, and which was sacred to farmers south of Tusculum from time out of mind— my father did not pay to have it repaired. He condemned our faithless generation, wondering how long he would live and what travesty of taste and bad decorum he would be forced to bear witness to before dying, though the shrine lay in ruins, tattooed with crosses.
My father was still a decade away from retiring from public life when I told him my wife Claudia and I were to be baptized. More than a few noble sons who had given their fathers such news were promptly written out of the will, though my father rubbed his brow and threw down his glance, whispering sadly, “Is there some advancement which attends it?”
In due time, I would inherit my father’s title of governor, though he and I both knew that a better salary and a finer residence could be acquired by favor of the emperor.
“In the last year I’ve had many conversations with the bishop Julius when he passes through, visiting his followers. Years ago, I assumed the Nazarenes were ignorant. That it was a mad peasant religion. And I heard they drank human blood and had sexual congress with their own sisters, and I thought it was all some heresy of Bacchus. But they are, in fact, far more sophisticated than my own teachers, and I say that not out of ingratitude for all you paid toward my education, but in a spirit of pure surprise. There is a holy man of the Nazarenes who lives in a grove of lemon trees between Tusculum and Rome and he floats two feet off the ground when he prays, and I have heard credible reports of a similar nature about the Nazarenes from more men than I can count. The Christians are neither sophists, which I know because of their miracles, and neither are they magicians and demonists, which I know because of their profound discourse.”
My father waived his hand disparagingly and said, “Be that as it may, I asked if there was some advancement in it for you and you did not answer.”
“Yes,” I said, a little ashamedly.
“Then you need not fear for your inheritance. Were you in some fever of ideals, I would think you nothing but an impressionable young man getting caught up in some new wind of doctrine.”
“I do believe it, though.”
“You believe that the God of Cicero became a man and that he loves you, just like a little girl who dotes on a generous father?”
I was a little surprised and my father nodded at me sarcastically, “Yes, I know a little of their beliefs.”
In the evening, I reported to Claudia that we would not be disinherited and she was relieved, but embarrassed of her own sense of relief. She confessed that her relief was nothing more than her lingering desire for worldly goods. She was far more committed to the principles of the Christians than was I, and often walked some distance to speak with a wonder-working recluse about the divine nature. While kneading dough, she sang paeans to Christ and when speaking with friends, I often noted how she incorporated little turns of phrase from Scripture into her conversation.
At times, I felt a coward for caving to the spirit of the age. At other times, the Christian discussion of the divine was so bizarre, so dazzling, I found myself involuntarily shaking my head in stupefied appreciation. On holy days, my wife wept and beat her breast, then stepped out onto our little porch to alternately gaze at the sky and then hang her head in shame. Claudia never asked me why I did not do the same, but neither did she decline the bracelets and combs I brought her from the capital. Of all the women in Tusculum who worshipped the Christ, she was the most extravagantly dressed, and the bread she made for the poor was the toughest and most tasteless.
When we were baptized, I so badly wanted something numinous and heavenly to occur that I was in a bad humor the rest of the night. Often I had heard stories of demons tormenting catechumens in the days prior to their baptisms, some men suffering excruciating headaches or seeing visions of Cerberus or feeling as though the bones in their feet were being crushed. The gods did not think my conversion a significant loss, I bitterly remarked to my wife.
“I prayed nothing of the sort would happen to you,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you would have promptly unenrolled your name from the list to be baptized, and then a week later the angels would have begun torturing you, which would have been even worse and more confusing.”
When I asked the bishop if angels did indeed torture men, he laughed but would not answer. A week later, my father asked if, given “all that has happened”, I wouldn’t mind returning a locket which bore a rare and somewhat secret image of Apollo that he had gifted me when a boy. When I came into their home to give it back, my father was out and my mother spoke many things to me which I had to ask her to repeat, for it seemed as though she was speaking underwater.
“That was the strange, uncanny thing you wanted to happen, was it not? Look, you have your sign,” said Claudia.
“It was an annoyance,” I said, incredulous.
“Well, pray you do not receive any more signs.”
Part III. I did not see my father for many months after I was baptized, for he made himself scarce to me or else was on business at the capital. Travel was not foreign to my schedule either, and when both my father and I were away from Tusculum, a local priest by the name of Marcus acted in my stead. My father may have known of this or he may not. If he did, he buried his outrage, and if he never discovered it, so much the better. The local priest was the best educated man in town, a fact which provided no little embarrassment to the faithful Romans. He also had a reputation for meekness and generosity which meant all but the bitterest old pagans thought him a tolerable heretic. Even those who could not stand Marcus nonetheless appealed to him to settle disputes with their neighbors, if he was in a willing mood, for his judgments and admonitions were often uniquely satisfying to both parties.
In towns and cities near Tusculum, the public square bore signs of the sea change my father often fretted over. Little votaries devoted to the gods were toppled and never set aright. A gilded bell outside a brothel sacred to Aphrodite was stolen, reappeared outside a church but two miles away, and the magistrate did not care enough to request it be returned. Such stories were as common as daisies, though more than a few of the old temples remained open and operational.
While I had little interest in the holiday since my conversion, I decided Saturnalia would be a good occasion to check in on my father, as he had a longstanding habit of uncorking a new cask of wine on the first day of the celebration and daring his friends to supply the need to uncork a second before the festival ended. His humor would be good, my mother would have purchased a little cheese imported from Gaul, and the slaves would sit in the courtyard playing festive tunes on their whistles.
I was not disappointed. After I was served, my father gaily remarked, “Whole world is turning upside down, my boy.”
“Any desire to be turned upside down with it?” I asked.
“No, no. I’m much too old for that. If I was a young man, I might, but that’s your lot.”
In the year since I was initiated into the mysteries of Jesus Christ, I had found the religion a far more sentimental affair than I had anticipated. The women, in particular, cried often, and the faces of the men were softened in a way I couldn’t help thinking quite servile. If there was anything glorious about a man’s brow and jaw before he converted, the baptismal font seemed to round off those distinctions. The last time I saw myself in a mirror, however, I was taken back at how little seemed to have changed. The man whose martyrdom I witnessed at the age of twelve had proven a rare and unusual testimony to the manliness of the Jesus cult, but shortly after that man died, the martyrdoms had all but ceased in our province.
“Father, your age has nothing to do with it. Men far older than you or mother convert every week.”
“I couldn’t commit my whole soul to it,” he said blithely.
“You learn,” I replied.
“Do you? What do they say about me among your kind?”
“Very little,” I lied.
“I find that hard to believe. It may have been twenty some-odd years ago now, but I’m quite sure there are still a few in your cult who remember the dozen priests I had condemned. The last time I met with the Tusculum Christians was in court— oh, eight years ago. I had been ordered to return a small field to them which I had acquisitioned. They certainly remembered me then. I could see it in their eyes.”
“They pity you.”
“Oh, do you? It hasn’t transformed you yet, has it? Some of them go off into the hills and read until they are nearly blind. Others visit the sick. What is it that you do, son?”
The wine had so loosened his tongue, I feared it might fall out of his mouth.
“I pray. I fast on the appropriate days. I practice the cult as the bishop prescribes. I confess my sins and accept forgiveness.”
“I would like to come and hear you all confess your sins,” smiled my father, and then, “Are you very vague, or do you get down to brass tacks? It’s nothing so nebulous as ‘I gazed,’ is it? Do the men give the names of the women they dream about?”
I smirked, “They do not. I’m afraid you’ve missed your chance, father, as that kind of confession was given up years ago after fights broke out. Some say public confession of any kind will soon go away and we will confess our sins to the priest alone.”
I took some satisfaction in being able to confirm his worst suspicions, yet not appear phased. Father sipped his wine and nodded contemplatively.
“So what do you confess?” he asked.
His tone was changed and he no longer sounded glib or superior.
“Before you answer,” he said, “I want you to know that the true cult is carried on to this day. Perhaps it is no longer as glorious as it once was, and the imperial funds for Sol and Jupiter have all but dried up, but I would remind you that humiliation is an aspect of the divine which my people have always acknowledged. Prometheus suffered in Hades for quite some time, and as man’s greatest patron, he might be understood as a kind of man who was also a god. Like your Jesus, let us say. It might be that the truly pious are being made to join Prometheus in his humiliation for a time, although we know that an immortal god will become mortal to save us. Perhaps your people and my people have simply switched places for a time.”
This interpretation of the Prometheus myth was quite clever, but not his own. In the last year, such a sermon had circulated commonly among the skeptics of Christ. I once heard the priest Marcus scoff at it and then lay out a reply, but I could remember none of that reply now.
“An ingenious interpretation, father,” I conceded.
“What do you confess?” he asked in the same earnest tone adopted a moment ago.
“Cowardice and sloth. Lack of faith. Lack of commitment. Greed. Jealousy.”
“The soon-to-be governor of Tusculum tells those to whom he will soon give orders that he is greedy and jealous?” my father asked.
“For now he does,” I said, making a note in my mind to speak with the priest about this sooner than later.
“And what is ‘lack of faith’? Is that not a strange thing to vilify?”
“I mean that I do not trust Jesus Christ as I ought to. I doubt His goodness and behave as though I am alone in all the world. I would like for all the world to involve myself with the Christians for entirely selfless reasons, but Jesus Christ is surprisingly hard to love. It is quite easy for me to see that He loves Claudia, and even that He loves you and mother and everyone in Tusculum, even those who claim to be His enemies. However, I have great difficulty believing that He loves me.”
“Why?” asked a genuinely curious father.
“Because I have spoken to good men before and I know that I am nothing like them, but I believe that I could be if I truly tried. What I really need to do is sacrifice something to Him. It would not make Him happier with me, but it would make me happier with Him.”
This was all partly true, and I amazed myself to have confessed it all to someone outside the Church. I had not ever been so honest when confessing my sins among my friends who were legally obligated to forgive me. My father owed me nothing, but in my youth he had often spoken of good men and how he longed to be like this or that philosopher or general or warrior. I knew he was sympathetic with my desire to be like a good man.
“Come back to the old paths and you won’t suffer from such nonsense,” was his reply, though.
Part IV. In our second year of marriage, Claudia gave birth to Julian and my father and mother had a reason to love us once again. The boy was healthy, born on a portentous day, and fat as a melon by the time he was two months old. As often as I looked on him, I said a prayer of thanks. When he had a miniscule fever, I did not sleep. When I thought of him, I was righteous and safe. His little body was a reed basket and I was the infant Moses rescued inside.
Claudia attended to him hourly and refused any help from the nurses my mother sent to visit our house. Secretly, I knew my parents doubted Claudia’s ability to take care of a child. They were not willing to make themselves busybodies around our home, although they were willing to send paid spies. Few women of means cared for their own children, so it was unusual for Claudia to do so, and my father had heard stories that Christians starved their infants twice a week and so he feared for Julian. I told him Claudia fed his grandson more than two dozen times a day, though I doubt he believed me.
“We see eye to eye on very little, my boy, though now you have a son,” said my father one day as he held Julian on his lap.
“So I have a son,” I replied, “and what has that to do with us not seeing eye to eye?”
“Is it not obvious? I can give you my title now, boy. The family line is secure.”
Gazing on my father dumbly, he smiled and kissed Julian’s cheek, then looked back at me. Still I said nothing, but judged the heft of his words in the palm of my mind. Claudia had suddenly ceased some noisy work she was performing the next room over.
“You can pour all the public funds into whatever kind of building projects you’d like. I thought you’d be pleased,” he said.
“Well, father, ‘surprise’ hardly describes my reaction to hearing you announce your retirement from public life while bouncing my child on your knee. You have given noble service to the empire for over two decades—“
“Is that a fact?” he asked, contentedly.
“Will you bring up our disagreements at every turn? Let me praise you for what you have done well.”
My father inhaled deeply the scent on the top of Julian’s head.
“Oh, fine. Sorry for being a bore. Praise me to the stars.”
We drank deeply and I fell asleep happier than I had been in many months, though I woke in the night to the sound of Julian coughing. The cough was deep, thick and sudden, for Claudia swore she had heard nothing of the kind during the day.
“What is it?” she asked me.
“A cough. Nothing more,” I said, though I saw the boy’s face purple once.
A fitful night followed and he did not sleep for more than a few hours at a time, waking himself with his hacking and choking. Exhausted, I ordered a nurse at sunrise though she did not arrive until well after lunch. I gave her instructions, as did Claudia, and then we slept until the evening. We awoke within minutes of one another and lay in bed, listening to Julian cough in the next room.
“I’ve never heard an infant cough like this,” I said.
“I have,” said Claudia, and there was no hope in her voice.
“I’m going to send for Father Marcus. I want him to bring his holy things. I want him to pray for Julian.”
Marcus arrived late in the evening with a small leather bag filled with vials of water and oil, a codex of some kind, and a few rags. He held Julian in his hands and made the sign of the cross all over his little body while the boy’s coughing was nearly so loud as to drown out the prayers the priest said.
“Can we pray for him, too?” asked Claudia.
“Have you not prayed for him already? Of course,” said Marcus.
“Can you save him?” I asked.
“No, only God can save him. He may recover. He may not. If he recovers, God has done it. If not, God weeps alongside you.”
I had heard of holy men who could be consistently depended upon for healing miracles and it galled me that such men lived out in the wilderness where they could do almost no one any good. The priest Marcus was of no more holy value than I was. I could have prayed for the child and wished for mercy without anyone’s help.
“What about the holy man who lives in the lemon trees on the way to Rome?” I asked.
The priest sighed and said, “He’s of no use to you. He’s a rebel.”
“I’ve heard of that man curing the sick,” I said.
“I have cured the sick,” said the priest directly.
“You said only God cured the sick,” I hollered.
“I said only God could save him.”
A fresh spell of coughing broke out and we all looked to the child and then I slowly turned back to Marcus.
“How many children are sick?” I demanded.
He grimaced and would not meet my gaze, so I repeated, “How many?”
“A few,” he confessed.
“Any dead?” asked Claudia.
The priest made the sign of the cross over his own healthy lungs, but in the end he said, “Not yet.”
He left and Claudia berated me for insulting a holy man. In the atrium, the child coughed in the arms of the nurse and we argued near the front door.
“How likely is God to cure the son of a man who insults a holy man?”
“That man is no holier than I am,” I explained, gesturing at the door the priest had just used.
Claudia’s mouth was left gaping and she steadied herself, searching for something proper to say.
“You’re angry. You know that’s not true.”
“You understand less of this religion than I do. Ours isn’t a vindictive God who kills the children of blasphemers. That’s what Jupiter does. That little I understand,” I said.
“What if he dies? What if he suffocates while we sleep? What if he’s covered in flies in the morning? Who will you blame?” sneered Claudia.
“The devil,” I screamed, slapping my own face with my palm, and then screaming again, “My God! I don’t know! I don’t understand any of what we do. I don’t understand the prayers. I don’t understand the rituals. I wish I did, and I wish it made such sense to me that I could weep for the beauty of it as you do, but it’s all a great mystery to me. But I’ve seen strange things and I’ve heard of miracles and I want someone to do a miracle for me tonight.”
At this, there was a knock at the door just two feet away from where we stood and we both gasped and grabbed for one another. My mouth was agape and still ringing from where I had struck myself. Claudia pressed herself into my neck and trembled out the words, “Perhaps it is an angel.”
“Who is it, friend?” I asked.
“It is your father.”
Part V. “I heard about Julian. I have come to explain something very important to you, son. When you were three years old, you suffered from such a terrible fever that you had visions of dogs and slept for days. Your mother and I took you to the temple of Asclepius— the same little temple which miraculously stands to this day not five blocks from here— we paid the priest a few coins and he prayed to the god of healing on your behalf. The morning after, you were healed. When you were seven and ate a poisonous fruit, again we took you to the temple of Asclepius and paid him a few silver coins, he prayed for you and two days later, you were recovered. Let me remind you that your friend Martinus was not taken to that temple and he died shortly thereafter.
Felix, your grandfather Flavius was taken to that same temple, even the same priest. I do not know how old the priest is, and perhaps he is no less immortal than the god he serves. When your grandfather fell down a flight of steps in his fifty-eighth year, I and my brother Commodus carried him to the temple of Asclepius and your grandfather was walking again not two weeks later. When your great grandmother was a girl, an axe head flung from its handle struck her squarely in the liver. I swear to you by the gold your people stole from the temple of Jupiter in Rome, a priest of Asclepius prayed for her and she lived four more years.
These are the old paths to which I have begged you to return. This is tradition. This is righteousness. This is the longest and most venerable religion on the face of the earth, son.
Now, I see that you are a deeply religious man. You cannot see it, but I can, because I am not of your religion. It is very strange that you are willing to confess your faults so openly, and that you trust your god to rule in your stead after you have humiliated yourself and degraded yourself before the people you govern. I do not have such dignity, and I am willing to call it dignity, though very few of the old faithful would do so. It is a strange dignity, but I can see a light in it. I have studied your Christ and His followers and I think you are more like them all than you know.
Son, I think you might believe your god would be insulted if you brought your child to Asclepius. You suspect your god does not love you, but your suspicion would be confirmed if you did something so impious. Son, I beg you to reconsider. If your god is truly the god of the universe, the only true god, then he can be jealous of nothing and no one, for all is his. Even Asclepius is the servant of your god!
Now think about this, my boy. Do not be insulted! I speak from the depth of my heart! Think about this. Perhaps Asclepius is the servant of your god, just as much as the priest Marcus is, but Marcus is a new servant of god and Asclepius is an old servant. Do not turn away! Let me say just one more thing.
Perhaps Asclepius has power just as Diocletian had power. Was Diocletian wicked? Of course. But was his power real? It was. He could put to death or spare from death. He could be appeased. His power was not dependent on anyone having faith in him, neither did it depend on him being kind. What if Asclepius is the same way? What if, though a demon, his power is none the less real than the power of Diocletian? Would you not show your humility by taking Julian to Asclepius? Would your god not honor your humility? You could reveal to everyone just how generous your god is and that his power flows through whatever means he chooses. Is that not reasonable, son? Is it not reasonable? Is your god not waiting for you to honor your father and mother?”
The boy was coughing horribly from the next room and my father fell on me, sobbing, “I only want his little life spared! I do not want him to die! The priest is waiting. Before I came here, I roused the priest and he stands waiting at the temple. I have paid him exorbitantly and he waits patiently. Julian can be saved! He can live. Please, Felix!”
He whispered in my ear and kissed my cheek, then stood away from me ashamed of his own desperation.
“Get the boy,” I said to Claudia.
“I will not aid you in taking a dying child to a demon,” she spat.
My father hustled me out of the doorway and towards the nurse and Julian.
He said to me, “Let her keep her pride. We will save the child, and though she take no part in it, she can believe as she likes or repent as she likes. She will be disgusted with you until she holds the boy in her arms again, healthy. Someone must get something done, Felix. Someone must make things happen.”
I wondered if Claudia might stand in the way of the door, but when she was absent from the passageway, I knew she had retreated to our bedroom to pray. The night air startled Julian and he took several sharp stabs at breath before commencing again with the cough. I could scarcely see, and my father led me blindly down little streets until he said, “Here it is. This is the place.”
My heart leapt when I saw the place was real, that there was a little light pouring out the door. The temple was only a little larger than a closet. The priest was not standing at the door, as I had seen him do many times before.
“He is inside the temple,” said my father.
But as we rounded the corner of the doorway, we saw the old man slumped over on the floor, clutching at his chest and gasping wetly.
“Stand up!” cried my father, bending low and clutching the man by his robes.
As his breath slowly escaped the old man, my father pleaded, “Stand up! One final rite, Gaius! One last little prayer for my boy! One last prayer for healing! One last prayer for this little lamb!”
“Save him,” I cried to the heavens, “Save your servant Gaius, Lord!”
Claudia rushed upon us and fitted herself into the tiny booth of a temple wherein all four of our bodies were now pressed together. She looked down upon the priest of Asclepius slumped on the floor, now motionless, and sighed in relief. Bending low, she made the sign of the cross on his forehead, then on his closed eyes and his cheeks. She made to step backwards out of the booth, but tripped over my father’s leg and fell on the road outside.
“You,” I said in amazement, “did this, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t touch him,” she retorted.
“I never said you did.”
Part VI. Julian survived the night and could pass a few minutes without coughing. Some of those peaceful passages were sufficiently long than I began to fantasize the sickness had suddenly and miraculously gone, but then it took up again and I cursed and complained. This happened many times over the course of the morning until my anger was so expansive it could no longer be bottled up in my miniscule house, so I left in a rush to find the priest Marcus. My stomach had turned green in the darkest hours of the night, and at dawn I began vomiting. While unfeigned, I hoped my awful appearance would warrant an extra measure of grace.
“She prayed the priest of Asclepius would die and he did. How can a good God answer a prayer for one man to die and yet not answer another prayer that an infant should live?”
The priest Marcus replied, “Is your son dead?”
“As you have said yourself, not yet.”
“And neither are you, but you will be someday, as will your son. If God did not love St. John enough to spare him from death, there is little hope for you. You need to meditate on the certainty of your own death rather clutch at the possibility of a long life.”
“A glib saying,” I snorted.
“If your son dies before you do, come and accuse me all you like. Complain to me every day until one of us perishes. But I have a dead father, a dead mother, a dead wife and a dead uncle. I would gladly give all I have to hear my father cough again just once, simply because I might speak the word ‘Christ’ to him. You are so blind, though, that you shamelessly confess you were willing to offer your son to a demon.
As far as I am concerned, there is but one man left who can help you, though now it is you who need saving and not your son. You have blasphemed God. I do not know if your wife prayed that the priest of Asclepius should die, but I do not care, for it is a great mercy to be done with that tired old huckster. Too often the weak have been persuaded, like yourself, to return to the sickness of a devilish empire, and that man was more than happy to take money and souls, too. As soon as the pagan storytellers are gone, we will live in peace.”
“Fine, then. Who can help me?”
“Nothing else I said was of interest to you. Very well,” muttered the priest.
Exasperated, I hollered, “My child is dying. What do you want from me? What do I do?”
“You’re a blasphemer. You need to confess to a blasphemer. South of Tusculum, three miles from the city gate, there is a stand of trees at the top of a great hill. There is an old priest there to whom I deliver the Eucharist once a year in the week after Easter. Take Julian and go see him.”
I protested, “If it begins to rain on the way, Julian will certainly die from exposure.”
“Yes,” said the priest Marcus, “that is probably true. You should pray, then, that it doesn’t begin to rain. There is not a cloud in the sky. I would say the odds are good your prayer will be answered.”
“Can he help my child?”
The priest said, “As you go to him, why don’t you pray to God and try to convince Him to spare your own life so that your son can grow up with a father? You are guilty, but your child is innocent, and perhaps God will hear you for the sake of your child. The cancer of your blasphemy already makes your flesh stink, and your lack of repentance is a stench in my nostrils. You should think it a great mercy if you do not die on the way.”
Again, I slapped my face repeatedly with my palm and yelled, “Huh? Huh?”
Getting down on my knees, I took Marcus’s hands in my own and said, “What do you want from me? I have no faith. I admit it freely. I am a fraud. I have said so over and again. I wish it were not true, but you will either help me as a fraud or… you have no choice. You must be merciful!
My life is not like your life. I have a wife and a child and the entire empire leans on me like a teetering wall. It is difficult for me to care about God. I never think of Him. He has given me these people to take care of. The souls you care for are weightless. I care for bodies. I care for heavy bodies. Is it not enough that I can admit to all these things? Be merciful!”
“I am having mercy on you! I will tell you what you want to hear. Your child will not die. Now leave.”
“My child will not— how do you know, though? I don’t believe you.”
“I know!” he shouted, casting me away from his hands, and then, “Why come to me at all?”
Part VII. With Julian in my arms, I marched from the priest’s cell with the attention of a growing crowd as I moved toward the south gate of the city. A centurion particularly loyal to my father asked if I needed an accompaniment and I did not respond. Hours later, I realized my mother had also passed me on the way out, but I could not recall what she had asked.
“Where are you going?” called one of Julian’s nurses.
“I am taking Julian to a holy man. Tell my wife I will return when the boy is healed or dead.”
I was exhausted and knew I could not maintain my anger for the next several hours, so after the city gate closed behind me, I simply wept onto Julian’s blithering, rasping little face. Had I thought of it before leaving, I might have given him a bit of wine and he would have quickly fallen into a deep sleep, but now the cough was so severe and so thick it sounded as though a rag was lodged in his lungs.
Aloud, I prayed, “Do you see how I will not let this boy go? Perhaps when I am dead, Lord, You will likewise hold my body and not let it go? Don’t judge me as I’ve judged others. Judge me as I’ve judged this little boy.”
The first several miles outside the city gates were farmland and from time to time a bent body in a field far away righted itself and turned in our direction to watch us. I could think of a hundred men whose souls I would rather take to the Judgment than my own. I had enjoyed the life which went with my body, but I would much prefer the eternal verdict which attended the soul of a good person, like Claudia. I wondered if I could borrow the soul of a good man for an hour at the Judgement, because I doubt the Christ lends out His soul to people who have cared first and foremost about their own bodies and their own reputations. Although, I have cared for my family. I have cared for them a little, an embarrassing little.
When I could no longer see the city gates behind me, I took note of the hands which carried the boy. Cradling him more closely in my left arm, I held my right hand up and observed it in horror. Dark grey skin now covered my knuckle, my wrist, and all the way down to my elbow. Folds of skin had been rubbed open, like wet parchment, and the pink flesh beneath was viscous with blood and pus. Shrieking, I cradled the child with the other arm and saw the same and worse on my left hand. The tips of my fingers were wilted, scabbed, and my fingernails were thick, cracked and crumbling off.
“What have you done to me?” I yelled to the heavens, hurrying my pace toward the hill, which had just come into view.
“Merciful God, remember your servant Oedipus!” I yelled.
“He was witless! He had no idea what he had done! He was blind at birth! Are not all men blind at birth? Is man not forever condemned to realize today what he ought to have been doing yesterday? Every man is born too late! Will you have mercy on me as a man born too late? Do not put a stumbling block in my path, Jesus!”
Like a leper, my body fell apart with every step I took toward the trees. Thick peels of skin flopped free of my legs with each planted footprint. When I took a breath, I heard muscles in my chest straining like the mast of a ship in a heavy storm. The child’s cough would abate, then revive, abate and revive. I began systematically wishing away the cosmos. I wished that I had never been born, nor Claudia. And I wished the Empire had never existed, nor any empire. The Sun, Moon and Stars were worthless now, as were the angels and the cherubim. I wanted Julian to be the only man who ever lived and for God to love him. Then I wanted to be with Julian and God, too, but I repented of the thought and wanted only Julian to be loved by God. A soaring fever granted double vision, and I veered off toward a mirage for many slugging paces before a moment of clarity, then staggered back the opposite way.
“Son, I do not know if you would be better off with me or without me. I have asked God to spare my own life for your sake, but it is a prayer I can only offer half-honestly. I am a terrible man, and yet I do not envy any child who grows up without a father. So no matter what becomes of me, I will pity you. I will either pity you in this life or I will pity you from the next life. If only you could have burst from your mother’s forehead fully formed. Your mother is good.”
I delivered these soliloquies to his spluttering, dying face. The ascent to the top of the hill brought bright pain to my legs and my back. Julian coughed from his sleep. I had not slept in several days. Small hallucinated animals darted under the rocks in my periphery and thick undulating ribbons of heat warped my view of the trees above us. Flesh was falling from my body like thick wet leaves.
At last, shade washed over our bodies and I sat down on the cool earth, setting a bundled Julian to the side, and finally examined my decomposing corpus. Only once before had I seen leprosy such as this, and then it was an omen of the death of an emperor. Little pain plagued me now that I was at rest, though the nauseating odor of my own flesh induced a flinch every time I took a breath. In our respective conditions, there was no way back to Tusculum for me or Julian. Either a miracle would descend upon us or we would both die in the stand of trees.
Perhaps a thousand trees populated a plateau at the top of a hill which rose a hundred meters over the farmland below. For years I had prayed for a long life and a peaceful death, though the former now seemed out of the question. How strange for a man to finally arrive at the moment wherein he knows which of his prayers God has decided to answer and which He has finally declined. Three days! But three days ago, Claudia had nursed Julian in the cool of the evening while I drank wine in the courtyard and we had laughed at how many ways the world had changed since we were born. I wept for just how near that moment was, yet irrevocably and finally gone. I would have gladly turned what little of my life remained over to an executioner that I might die a martyr’s death.
“Don’t come near me!” called a hoarse voice from deeper within the grove of trees.
“Who are you, father?” I called back, taking up the sleeping Julian again.
“A blasphemer, unworthy of all human company!”
“There’s nothing you’ve done that I haven’t done many times.”
A little way off, cloaked in shadow and hidden by brush and low hanging branches, a desperate figure stood and yelled pathetically, “Stay away!”
“The priest Marcus sent me to you. Have mercy on me! My child is on the verge of death!”
“An old blasphemer can’t help you.”
“Be that as it may, will you touch my child? Will you pray for him?”
Annoyed, the hermit replied, “The priest Marcus could do that. Why did he send you?”
The figure emerged from the brush and stood so that I could see him. A moss of white hair loosely clung to the crown of his head and a torn, knotty feral beard hung down to his belly. When I began walking toward him, he held up a hand and said, “Why did he send you?”
“I’m a blasphemer and I was told I could only be forgiven by a blasphemer. Hurry, I’ll be dead in an hour.”
The old man moaned incredulously and informally plodded toward us, muttering to himself in prayer.
“What have you done?” he asked.
“I took my son to the temple of Asclepius to be healed.”
“What did you do that for?”
“I was afraid he would die. I thought Asclepius could help me.”
The old man laughed and said, “Asclepius visits me from time to time. He haunts the woods, the gutters beneath old bridges in desolate places. He isn’t welcome in cities anymore. Or the desert. I have not seen him in six years, though. He leads a helpless young woman around on a leash and offers her to anyone who will have her. She is not real, though. She is an irascible mother bear. Asclepius is quite helpless. He could not have helped your son.”
As the old man drew near, he held out his arms and took Julian. Shushing the child’s cough, he drew back the swaddling which partially obscured Julian’s face and blew at him as though banishing the dust from an old statue. After making the sign of the cross over his eyes and his forehead, he handed him back and shrugged.
“Your stupidity has made him well,” he said.
Receiving the child back, I bent an ear low to his mouth and heard nothing but the soft, dull whistling of sleeping breath. I laughed and looked at the hermit, who shrugged, then I lay my ear low again to his ear. I placed Julian on the ground and prostrated myself before the old man who sighed and performed the same gesture of reverence in return.
“Have mercy on me, too, father,” I said, holding up my hands.
“Sit down,” he said patiently.
He told me a story.
“Many, many years ago, before Constantine, I was a priest of Christ and so was my brother. One night, my brother was arrested and accused of being a Christian. I knew he would never deny God, but I also knew that I would. I was glad I had not been arrested. I was glad it was him and not me, and I hated myself for being glad. Knowing they would feed him to the beasts, I got drunk and lay in the street, slapping myself and beating myself, cursing myself, bruising my own face and my legs and my stomach.
In the morning, a centurion asked me if I would like to win myself another tankard of wine. He did not recognize me. I said I needed more wine and he led me to the theater in Tusculum. At the theater, they told me, ‘You will stand alongside another man who is accused of being a Christian. You will play the part of a Christian, and when the judge asks you if you will renounce your false religion, you will do so quickly. You’ll get your pay when you leave the theater.’ And I agreed, and the last I ever saw of my brother was in the arena that day.
After drinking the wine, I fled the city. I was furious with God for asking my life of me. I had always known that I would never stand up to the martyr’s choice, and I had always prayed that God would never ask me to do so. ‘Not all of us are asked to bear witness at the cost of our lives. I am weak! I would not pass the test! Please don’t ask it of me!’ I had prayed such a cowardly prayer for years. I might have asked God for the courage to pass the test and to make a good confession of Christ before the wicked, but instead I begged Him to allow me to remain a lukewarm servant.
For years, I lived like an animal. I prowled the farms outside the city after sundown. And then the demons were exiled from Tusculum and they prowled the fields after dark, as well, and sometimes they would catch me and throw me to the ground and trample on me. Once, while being so abused, I called out to God to save me and the demon departed. Then, an angel led me to these trees and told me I should continually pray until I was reconciled to the world that I had insulted and sullied with my blasphemy. I have been here doing just that ever since.”
The sun set, darkness rose up around us and I fell asleep before the hermit finished his story, or he might have finished it as I dreamed of an eagle carrying my cracked yellow body high into the air, then flying out over the very middle of the sea and letting me loose. The morning broke before my fall and I opened my eyes to flowery patterns of light filtering through the leaves of the trees. It seemed little time had passed since I closed my eyes, but it may have been days. Julian lay on my breast, still deep in sleep. My hands, my arms were smooth, and my fingernails round and clean. I sat, held the little boy to my heart and wept.
Beside us lay the dead, leprous body of the old hermit. The muscles on his legs were torn back in concentric roles of sticky white flesh, like two old papyrus scrolls left out in the rain. So, too, the remainder of his body looked like the unfinished enigma of a spirit daydreaming of the human form. Yet his eyes were closed lightly and his lips happily parted, as though even the dead receive a little spoonful of something from their angels before their journey back to God begins.