I Tried My Best

I tried my best

A Short Story by Mary C. Wallace

    “The clouds, strange. They’re gathering again. Not as dark as they were there though. Here,…hm. They never really get… although, they did last year. True. I’d almost forgotten. If only,—what’s the use. I’ve been over this a hundred times. More than that I daresay. Every day. Since–that…day.       “I tried my best. I tried to listen. She had a presentiment, when?  A month or so ahead of when He even arrived there?  And you know full well what happens when she gets that way,–and STILL…I didn’t completely, well, it wasn’t really disbelief. It was more incredulity of such a possibility. I mean, it was outrageous!  But not to her. She knew. She knew and she warned me. I listened, and did as best as anyone could’ve considering my position at the time…and the given circumstances. I certainly wasn’t about to extol His good qualities over His bad. That wasn’t my place, although, my authority could have—but I mustn’t think that way. What’s done is done.     “O, another headache is upon me. (rubbing his brow) That’s strange, too. I never had one before I went to that bedeviled swamp!  By the gods!  I was free of them right up till the time I first met Him!  So what in the mighty name of Mars was it that changed so?  (And why do you ask the same question of yourself day after day, Marcus?)     “The people of Judaea, together with that King of theirs, what was his name?  Oh, yes, Herod. All they know is that I was relieved of my office. And that because an attractive, robust, and it sickens me to say it was a Roman, decided to interbreed with a sniggering Samaritan’s daughter!  Could I help it if that whining father of hers was offensive with every word he uttered in my presence? He just kept going ON and ON about his d*** daughter being defiled by one of my Centurions!       “Only he didn’t say Centurion. He had the temerity to apply the word ‘pig’ to one of my most honorable, most laureled and endeared of my defenders. And I just ‘happened’ to advise him that his precious little Samaritan piglet had sought sanctuary with our Roman Officer–a Guardian and Centurion!  And why?  Because she wouldn’t be married to a man forty-seven years her elder who weighed three hundred pounds more than she did. And who could blame her!  A maid of only sixteen?  Not I, certainly. We, and that was a ‘Caesarian We,’ refused to hear any more of it, and so, showed him out.       “Was it MY fault that the simpering cur would lead a pack of those akin to him to dare ascend the Mount and foment an uprising in outrage for her loss?  Did it fall to me to keep her and the alleged Centurion from getting on somewhat more than fraternally after she was given quarter?  No. No, it was not. I even hailed them at their wedding feast,—and again, just moments before their galley set off for Rome. How…” (very heavy sigh, then a hard swallow) “…how was I to know that Neptune would turn to them a blind eye, and allow them be shipwrecked in the shoals off Sicily?        “Lucius,–you were as though my own son to me!  Claudia could bear none for me!  Our children were of my brother’s seed, and no one–no one, in the whole of the Roman Empire knew; knew that they were his, except for you. Ah, Lucius, how I would have you here with me now, this night!  I need your happy smile to cheer me, your honest words to guide me. There was no one that I ever listened to like you before…not even her. Not even when she came to me. After they brought Him to the Praetorium, till I came to the bench, the all hallowed and ever-revered judicial gabbatha!     “There was something different about that Man, Lucius. This I was aware of as I saw it in His walk, and yet not. In His conformation, and not there either. Oh, but in His countenance, yes—His eyes!  It was in His eyes. Grey eyes, bright and… deep, penetrating. You wouldn’t anticipate that from eyes as fair as those. There was–something; something rarified…. Something–not of that land. Nor of this one, for that matter. Not of this earth, and yet…    (momentarily distracted)    “The sky to the west is growing darker and it’s, it’s not even the hour of one yet.       “Outwardly, He was as human as anyone else. Yet,—how else would He have been subjected to the torments He sustained, and then…still have stamina to go on, if THIS were not so of Him?  One must consider His perpetual silence, Lucius.  That—that is what frustrated the guards who governed the measures applied to Him that day, and what most surely incited them to emphasize their torments upon Him. That business when they….        “Oh, just let it go, Marcus!  That was them!  Not you!  But I was responsible!!  I was their Commander!!  I’d just no idea!…they’d never done anything like that before! (he closes his eyes, desperately fighting the images with a thrash; slowly he comes out of his purgatory)        “No one knew. No one saw, other than me, that is. That night, off the coast of Sicily. I heard Him call my name from the foredeck up above, Lucius. Claudia said I was mad to go topside in such a storm as raged that night. That look in her eyes—like some desperately driven prophet forced to warn her public of imminent danger. She knew–oh yes, she knew. But I had to see for myself. So—I turned away from her, and went up.      “The wind was calamitous, churning the sea up into treacherous waves that pummeled our ship. Against an unforgiving rain I forced my way over to the starboard rail and grasped hold, lest I be thrown into the black heaving maelstrom below.       “Peering out into the darkness, the heavy rain biting into my hands and face, I could see nothing. Nothing but the night and the sea. I did my best.       “Then I heard my name again. It came from a rocky outcropping just up ahead. Just where our ship was headed. And there, there!  I saw Him!  It was impossible, Lucius!  Not in that gale. Not in that almighty siege. (the hint of a wry smile threatening his Roman gods) Almighty?  All mighty. And yet that “all” not like ours in any way, shape or form. Just—Him. Him alone. Standing on that rocky outcropping. For how long, I—do not, could not say. For only a moment before…but that was just not conceivable. Claudia would say my fever had returned. For how could any man have gotten out there, onto that treacherous crag without a ship. Oh, but for Him, He needed no ship. And for me, it was no fever.      “He was—can I still not find the words?  With my own eyes I SAW!…I saw. HIM!  He stepped down onto the shoals. Then…out, into the water!  Walking. What ancient tribal chicanery had me rapt and spellbound?  Such is not possible for any man!  Oh, but there it was again!  For any ‘man,’ for any all–mighty man. Yet to concede this would be to resign Zeus and Mars, Diana and Venus. I simply could not tear my eyes away.      “The captain had clamboured on deck and spotted me, then hurried over. He shouted there was no way to avoid the shoals, then tried to convince me to get my wife and follow him and the others aft to board the skiff they kept secured for crises such as these. But I—I just laughed, and told him to get the others and come nigh. Come and watch their salvation at the Hands of a Dead Man!  The look of disbelief and horror I was met with just then told me what he really intended, so I made it an order from the aegis of Caesar himself. He began to beg my mercy–I only became more determined, and insisted with even greater authority. So – very – fearful, he finally obeyed. They came. They held each other tightly as they looked at me, full of terror the lot of them. I turned to them once, and once alone, Lucius.       “Hear me, Citizens of Rome!  Behold!  Your deliverance, at the behest of One Who was dead!  And Who is alive again!      “Aghast as I turned away from them and extended my arm towards Him, the women began to scream, the men, their mouths open wide in shock, as all of them had been among the guard who’d attended His Crucifixion. Only they couldn’t see Him. They could only see a madman, driven so by a fever that had nearly taken his life.  They started crying out to Apollo for my healing, believing I’d gone mad from from the burning, some kneeling and bursting into tears with their frantic orisons. The women started to back away from all the men as a group, perhaps thinking to make for the skiff. Still, all who were there, either in homage or retreat, witnessed what happened next.      “He was but thirty feet from our ship, Lucius,  when He passed His Hand with its very visible wound over the sea, and instantly the wind fell to a gentler breeze. Seeing only me with my arm outraised towards Him, two women fainted on the spot, the Captain had a heart attack and died a moment later, and three of the six remaining men cried out, ‘Blessed be Pontius Pilate, Ruler of the Seas!’  By this time Claudia Procula had come up to see what was keeping me, and He had yet another demonstration in mind.       “He raised His Hand to the heavens and announced, “See what My Father has created for you, that you may give glory and praise to Him from this day forward!”  The embracing resonance in His Voice captivated all who heard and they looked up in great wonder, and I was among them, enthralled as the darkness peeled apart up above us like a great curtain revealing the searing kelvins of everlasting day.       “He struck His Hand into the water and outward against our ship, an action of which I couldn’t help but take advantage.      “Away!” I shouted at the sea and rocks as the force of His thrust drove our galley away from the crag, out into safer waters and on to Rome. When I turned back they, together with Procula, gazed upon me with abject reverence and awe.       “When I finally arrived in the Court of Caesar, I found Tiberius dead and Caligula on the throne. When he reviewed the document of my dismissal, and heard from the others on the ship what had transpired, his reaction was altogether otherwise from what Publius Quirinius of Syria had deemed was out of bounds. A world apart from where Tiberius, and his rumored Christian leanings would have had me fall on my sword, the gossip of what I’d done had reached well beyond Judaea by that time.       “Caligula instead, welcomed my seeming ruthless capacity for quashing the nettlesome Samaritans whose uprisings arose with an increasing frequency in that part of the Empire. Oh, he inquired after the display of ‘miracles’ in consideration of what the others had told him. To keep from ascending to Olympus before him and incurring his wrath, I told him it was easy to dupe such spineless fools, when they think of fleeing an event they have no knowledge to control. A simple matter of ‘applied physics’ I told him, that the ship would naturally heave away from the rocks because the wind was from the north. But also that it was obvious there’d been an earthquake. If one were educated in the School of Neptune, it would be more than apparent one had occurred offshore only minutes before from the way the tide was surging around the shoals that lay just before the rocks. But then, none had known of that, Lucius. I had learned of it from my uncle who had told me about the shoals being there when I was a child. He’d been under Marcus Vispanius Agrippa at the Battle of Naulochus under Octavian, then later died at Actium.  After that, Caesar had made him a God. This pedigree, together with my recent valor in Jerusalem for the sake of keeping the  Roman peace has now garnered me a different horizon.       “So different, different from that day…THAT–day. In the Praetorium, when they brought Him back , after they’d flogged Him, and crowned Him…were you there?  I see it so clearly. I told Him to speak, that I had the power to kill Him or to set Him free. And Him?  Do you know what He said in reply?  He said I would have no power over Him if it had not been given me from above. Above. True!  But not from Zeus. Nor from Mars. Nor from any of them anymore. They fell so silent. Thereafter—there was only One, Lucius. Only Him. He had said to me at one point that He prays—to His Father Who Is ‘above,’ but when I asked Him which one He was, when I said I couldn’t see Him, and looked back at Him, His eyes grew so wide. They were brimming with tears as He said,       “Look again, Marcus Pontius. Look and see this day when you were but sixteen.”  This puzzled me a moment, as I was at a loss as to how He knew my first name. Procula had heard I’d gone out to the gabbatha, and fearing that I’d condemn Him raced out to stop me. She entered into the back of where we were standing facing each other, just as the air before me turned into a vast glade of dazzling sunlight. There, within a too spectacular array of winged beings who shimmered brighter than a thousand suns, was the olive grove that stood before the bridge across the Vellaprus, just outside the boundary of Beneventum. I’d gone there to meditate the day before I volunteered to enter the Roman Army. As I strode up toward it this young lad emerged. He had a captivating air about him. He looked to be about the same age as I and seemed rather innocent, almost fragile, so unaccustomed he appeared to be to conversation. When I asked him his name he only stared. Then, without further inquiry he broke into the most radiant smile. I was somewhat wary at this, as the boys I’d been used to grappling with would use such guile to draw an adversary in, only to pound him to the ground once they grabbed hold.      “This, however, was not the case with this young man. He waved me closer, and when I cocked my head in circumspection, he just v a n I s h e d.   Gone. Just…gone. On the ground where he’d been standing was an olive branch. Only when I went to look at it, I saw it wasn’t from the grove before the Vellaprus. That variety didn’t grow there. In fact, it didn’t grow anywhere on the peninsula. I kept it. I picked it up and I kept it. He slipped my mind over time. Then, when I was granted the Prefecture of Judaea, that’s when everything…everything began to unravel, Lucius.      “It was on an evening walk with Procula outside the city walls of Jerusalem shortly after we’d arrived. Several Centurions accompanied us as we’d been informed there were zealots who weren’t afraid to attack officials from Rome. We happened upon an olive grove out there. A garden, actually. It was called Gad Smane, with these magnificent, ancient trees. It was a stony place, and very dry, and was situated across the Kiddron Valley in such a way as to occlude one’s view of the city proper. We looked around briefly, then went on a little farther to the north, some one hundred yards. Here there was a cave with a grotto, and nearby an olive press. One of the Centurions told us he’d heard this area was referred to as Gethsemanei, a place name very like the one with the garden. It was secluded, but to me it seemed somewhat oppressive. Then, for no apparent reason Procula burst into tears. I asked after her sudden disposition and she could only say she felt so very sad, as if someone had died right where we were standing. I suggested it was because the area was gloomy, and that we go back to the garden further below. Once there her mood picked up right away. When I looked around to take stock it struck me, THESE are the trees akin to the branch that young man left behind so long ago in my home village. Procula was confused at my preoccupation and became miffed when I wouldn’t explain myself. I took a branch back with me to compare. They were the same, Lucius!  But how!      “Presently, the verdant glade below the hill whereon the grove in Beneventum stood, and where I’d walked so fascinated dissolved into a sea of stars before me. The winged beings that accompanied that frieze then came to hover next to Him. And I, in looking once again upon Him, saw a divinity in Him that was not there before!  It lasted only a matter of seconds, and yet it seemed to go on for hours before it disappeared in a swift and silent drumbeat.       “You,” I said, “it was You there that day!”  He simply said ‘Yes.’  “Why?” I asked. “Why did you come?  Why to me?”      “Because of now,” He answered softly, a hallowed reverberation in His Voice.       “And I’m supposed to sentence You to death?  I think not!”      “You have no choice,” He said, “it is what you were born for.” The timbre in His voice was so—forgiving.      “What I was born for?  When we met, were You yet upon this Earth?” I’d asked with considerable humility. But He, He wouldn’t answer. And so I asked, “Are You even here now?!”       “At this, He took a step closer, and put His right hand aside my face. Oh—OH, Lucius!  What He showed me then!       “Please,” Procula whispered faintly, stepping forward, “please!”  She needn’t have feared for me. It wasn’t I who was to die that day.       “And so, rather than making me a General as would be befitting of my training and experience, Caligula has decided instead to relieve me of my military command, and redesign me, Lucius.       “I’m to be his Consul with all the power that Caesar himself wields, and he has such complete confidence in me, that he’s assigned me to Judaea. It is to be the Seat of all the Eastern Territories, and as its Consul I’m to promulgate, enact and enforce a system whereby all, Romans, Greeks or Jews, and comprehensive of others as they happen to wander through, are compelled to swear allegiance to their Roman Emperor.      “Caligula ran the gamut on what, and how, he expects me to silence all the growing ‘difficulties’ arising from these Christians. He hasn’t the vaguest idea, however, that Claudia Procula and I now sail to Joppa to meet with Simon, Cornelius and their leader, Peter, now that He has returned to His Father. This Cornelius, a man whom Peter is said is in charge, so to speak, of a large group of non-Jewish Christians, will meet us at the port and take us to find safe shelter among them, and the next day we’ll be made formal members of this nascent society. Hide quoted text      “As for Caligula and the Everlasting Roman Empire?  They’ve not even a talent’s worth of persuasion to stop what He’s set in motion, Lucius. What He stirred up in me that day…THAT day.       “I’ll do my best.”       
Original Story by:
       —Mary C. Wallace

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