The young man sat in the shade of a small tree. It was the heat of the day, on a day that felt as thirsty as the dogs that lay panting in the nooks and slivers of shadow. A sparrow lit upon a ledge, its tiny beak open, too tired to sing. Few people were busy about the small town. Three men sat under the awning of a shop’s front door, not speaking, keeping an indolent eye on the street.
A man walked wearily toward him, a lone figure in the empty avenue. He was a foreigner, a soldier. The three watchmen blankly followed him with their eyes, somehow giving the impression of both contempt and apathy. The young man could see the soldier’s face shining with perspiration. His shield was strapped to his back, and over his shoulder he carried a large tent pole. With it was a simple wooden cross frame, his bedroll tied across the top and from which dangled a large pack and sundries. A metal canteen and a small cooking pot clanked noisily with each step, echoing down the silent street.
The foreigner was not an officer, just a simple soldier with a lot to carry. “Marius’ Mules,” they were often called. It was a fitting epithet for a legionary who carried his whole life wherever he went.
The young man hid a smile as the soldier, drawing closer, cursed in his native tongue and stopped under the shade of the young man’s tree. He set down his shield and tent pole, then laid down his cross and pack with a grunt and a sigh.
The young man greeted the soldier with a quick grin and his best latin, though he was self-conscious of his accent. The soldier jerked his head in a nod as he rested his hands on his knees. He took his canteen and drank deeply.
“Gods, it’s hot. I don’t know how you people do it,” he said.
“Neither do I,” the young man answered.
The soldier was taken aback by the local’s latin. “Hello” and “Yes, sir” were all that most people in these parts knew.
“You speak latin, Jew?”
“Not very well.”
“Well enough,” said the soldier, and finished the last of his water. “Get me more.”
He handed the young man his empty canteen.
The young man stood and took it obediently. The soldier watched as he ambled over to a nearby water jar, drew water, and filled it. He returned and handed back the container.
The two stood in silence for a long moment. He looked up the street. He glanced quickly from the corner of his eye at the young man, and turned to look down at the other end of the street. He sighed. A bird found the energy to chirp. He spoke.
“Take up my cross. Follow me. I’m going to Simonias. You will go with me half way.”
The young man smiled. “That’s more than one mile, you know.”
The soldier scowled. “What I have said, I have said. You will follow me half way. Do you understand?”
The young man nodded pleasantly. “Just wanted to make sure you knew.”
“I would use less of that latin, if I were you. Take up my cross.”
The young man lifted the heavy shield onto his shoulders. He took up the tent pole, and awkwardly flung the cross frame over his shoulder. The legionary was already on his way. The young man quickly adjusted his load and, in a flurry of clinks and clanks, caught up. He followed a few feet behind.
The two walked past the last shop on the street and out into the open road. Neither spoke, and the silence between them stretched on for half a mile.
The young man watched the soldier’s feet in front of him as each step kicked up a small flurry of dust. He studied the soldier’s shoes. After a solid two minutes of study, he spoke.
“Do you make your own shoes, or do you have a shoe maker?”
The soldier looked over his shoulder, and turned back to face the road. He seemed to consider ignoring the question, but relented.
“We have a man.”
The young man studied the shoes a little longer.
“They look well made. Do you need to fix them often?”
The soldier glanced at him again.
“No,” he said. “It’s one piece of leather.”
“No stitching, then?”
“Only on the heel.”
The two walked on, the sun showing little mercy as it made it’s way through the barren sky. The straps dug disagreeably into the young mans shoulders, and the tent pole was tricky to balance. There was silence, except for the scrunch of the soldier’s leather sandals on the ground, and the rattle and sway of the young man’s burden. Sweat poured from his forehead, and the salt stung his eyes. He felt the perspiration gather at the back of his neck, and travel down his spine in a refreshing trickle.
“May I have some of you water?” he asked.
“Your water. No.”
“ ‘Your water.’ Thank-you.”
They walked on.
“What is you name?”
“Right. Your name. What is your name?”
Another moment teetered on the edge of ignorance, till finally,
“Placidus. Good to meet you. I am Jesus.”
“Jesus. Be quiet.”
He was quiet.
Simonias drew closer with each step. In theory. The aching in his shoulders and the sweat that now seemed to swathe him said otherwise. The shield, wrapped in goatskin as it was, began to make an oven of his back in the afternoon sun. They plodded on wordlessly, until the soldier stopped and turned.
“You are finished. Go home.”
The young man looked at him, and looked at the road ahead.
“Do I have to?” he replied.
The soldier shook his head slightly. “What?”
“Do I have to go home?”
The soldier carefully sounded his words. The jew, apparently, had not understood him. “You are f-i-n-i-s-h-e-d. Complete. Go home.”
“I know. But you are not yet at your destiny. I can see it from here. I don’t mind walking on.”
“My de....” A momentary chuckle escaped him. “‘Destination’. You mean ‘destination’. You don’t have to come. It’s at least another hour away.”
“But may I?”
“I... You... You want to carry my cross?”
“For another hour or more?”
“If you will let me,” said the young man, shifting the weight of the shield and pack.
The soldier stood there, a bit confounded, and more than a bit bemused. He laughed.
“Alright. Come along.”
The young man smiled like a boy who was just given another whirl in his father’s arms. “Thank-you,” he said.
And the soldier laughed again. “What did you say your name was?”
“Jesus, from Nazareth.”
“Jesus. Good to meet you.”