Governor Varus walked imperiously down the line of prisoners. Though the scene about him was chaotic and the air filled with the screams of men crucified and prisoners branded, his manner was quiet and civilized. To all intents and purposes, he appeared to be picking out his midday meal. He of course spoke no Aramaic, and his comments and questions to the prisoners were echoed by a local interpreter, who hovered nervously at his side.
Varus held a baton, the symbol of his rank behind his back. The baton came forward from time to time and tapped a man, always a man, on the shoulder, and each time, Varus said quietly in Latin, “Crucify him.” The sentence was directed to the legionary who walked one pace behind him, recording the sentence onto a small tablet. When he reached Yohanna, Varus stopped.
“What is your name?” asked the interpreter gruffly, his manner hardening from obsequious to bellicose as he addressed Yohanna.
Yohanna’s mouth opened, her lips quivering, but she fear locked her words inside her heart. The interpreter slapped her across the face with the back of his hand and spun Yohanna around. As she staggered, Varus caught her and gently pulled her up. Slowly, he turned and stared calmly with his reptilian eyes into the face of the interpreter.
“Flavius,” he asked the legionary with the slate, not taking his eyes from the interpreter, “Do we have any other prisoners who can translate?”
Flavius traced down his list with his stylus. “Three.”
Varus gazed coldly into the interpreter’s eyes. “Bring one to me.” Varus tapped the interpreter with his baton, “And crucify him.” He pushed the horrified interpreter backwards with the baton.
Varus smiled benignly at Yohanna.
“I shall keep this one.” He smiled at Flavius. “She has large bones and good muscles.”
Strong hands grabbed her and pulled her roughly from the line over to a brazier full of iron shafts. A soldier gripped her forearm painfully with both hands. Yohanna gasped, then winced as the hot metal seared Varus’s mark into her wrist.
Meanwhile, the basket floated serenely, and bumped gently into a pool closed in all sides by rock and papyrus rushes. The wadi was closed and isolated, totally silent except for the splashing of another small stream falling into the the pool from somewhere higher in the rock.
From within the green depths of the thick tropical vegetation two beautiful and menacing yellow eyes gleamed with interest at the bobbing basket. The baby inside the basket gurgled and the ears of the leopard flicked forward. The cat sat still until the basket came to rest against the rocky bank, then she slowly raised her front paw and slunk forward, one slow careful step at a time. Whiskers pointed forward, she settled into a crouch to await the perfect moment to spring.
The baby cried out. The ears flicked forward and the leopard approached the basket nervously. She stopped to catch a smell which would tell her what kind of animal the strange object was. As she came close, the leopard stretched herself higher, craning her neck, to avoid being bitten by whatever the new wicker animal was. Baby Miriam stopped crying as the face of the leopard appeared in her field of vision, and reached up to the great cat. The movement piqued the leopard’s interest, but the cat warily reached into the basket and poked the baby softly with her paw to make sure this animal wouldn’t bite back.
She sniffed the basket, her nose a whisker away from the wicker, then suddenly the cat grasped the basket in her mouth and with a quick tug pulled it from the water. She batted it with her paw, then pulled back to observe the results. There were none. With a quick lunge, she picked it up in her mouth and dragged it into the underbrush.
The mallet swung down. The interpreter screamed as the metal spike punched through the flesh of his arm and pinned it to the wooden beam. He screamed again as the second swing of the mallet nailed his other arm to the beam. Two legionaries pulled him roughly to his feet and lifted the beam into a slot on an upright pole. The man screamed in agony as the spikes ripped up through his arm to the wrist and he dangled briefly from his arms His scrambling feet found a purchase on a small wooden ledge nailed high on the upright pole. Perched awkwardly in a semi-crouching position, his legs doubled up under him, he cried hysterically, his body wracked by pain. His blood spurted onto the soldiers who crucified him, and they grunted in the satisfaction of a job well done.
The slave train began to move, and Yohanna, her wrists tied behind her, and joined to the rest of the captives by a chain, walked stoically past the man as the two soldiers nailed another spike through both of the man’s feet into the upright pole. Even though her heart was broken, no tears dripped from her cheek. Not daring to look up at the men crucified in rows along the road leading from Sappho, in desperation, she intoned a psalm the old woman had taught her:
“Holy Mother, full of Grace
Hallowed art thou amongst all women.
Blessed are your children
For we are the fruit of thy womb.
Holy Mother, Queen of Heaven
Hallowed art thou amongst all women
I beseech thy blessing in this,
My hour of need.
Holy Mother, First Daughter of the Moon
Hallowed art thou amongst all women
Give me this day the milk of thy Breast
And the warmth of thy lap
And protect me from evil until I return to thy womb.”
The words brought her comfort as she repeated the verse. The rhythm of the litany matched her footfalls and blocked out the screams of agony and cries despair of the dying nailed up to and hanging from crosses lining both sides of the road. The words distracted her mind from her anguish, and eased the pain of the march by making each step a beat in praise of Ishtar.
Holding each other with their forepaws, the two leopard cubs rolled in a single ball kicking and growling. They had just begun to move around in the darkness of the cave within the last few days. They unlocked their grip on each other and scrambled in fear to the back of the cave at the sound at the cave entrance, and stared in wide-eyed fright, until they recognized the smell of their mother. The she-leopard gave a welcoming growl and dropped the basket in front of her children. She pawed at the basket and pulled the baby from it. She was intrigued by the smell: part blood, part amniotic fluid. Despite her carniverous nature, her maternal instincts, and the spirit of the Holy Mother, took control of her, and she began to lick the child gently with long laps of her raspy tongue.
The baby squirmed into the warm fur and reached out with her tiny arms. She nuzzled through the fur, her mouth half-open searching for a nipple. The little mouth opened and closed against the leopard’s body. The two cubs bounced across the cave and pushed in beside the child, mewing for attention. The baby rolled as one of the cubs pushed under the mother’s tongue. Wedged in by the two cubs, the child’s mouth closed on on one of the mother’s nipples and began to suck.
Yohanna’s throat was parched from walking in the dust behind the main force of Varus’s army. The old woman beside her chatted incessantly, and from her she learned she was now a slave- one of the spoils of war. She had been lucky , the old woman said, to have been chosen by Varus as part of his share of the booty. He was interested more in the commercial value of his slaves than their use for sexual purposes. The warriors were cruel to their slaves, and would think nothing of slitting a woman’s throat after or even during rape. If they survived the campaign, she would be taken back to Caesarea for sale, either in the local market, or transported back to Rome, where a healthy young slave like her fetched high prices. So the woman said.
The train stopped and voices began to buzz. There was news from Yerushalem. Sabinius, who had been given command of Yerushalem, was surrounded by Jewish revolutionaries. Word was, she heard in the buzz, that thirty thousand armed men waited for Varus in the holy city. Consternation spread through the armed men, and a subdued elation sprang into the hearts of the captives.
“They will save us!” whispered the old woman to Yohanna. “The Lord our God be praised!”
The elation was short-lived. The male captives were separated from the women and slaughtered on the spot. A detail of Nabateans overseen by a single wizened centurion herded the women and children away from the military column, which began to move on without them. They were turned back down the road in the direction they had come from.
“Where are you taking us?” the old woman asked one of the captors.
“Back to Caesarea to be sold in the market!” sneered the warrior, “That is, if you can walk that far!”
The old woman held up her head defiantly. “I’ll walk to Rome and back!” she challenged, “And still have enough left in me to dance on your grave!”