01. 06. 2018. 18:58

György Spiró: Captivity (Excerpt #4)

translated by Tim Wilkinson

“I do love traveling in February,” he declared. “It’s still possible to get around by daylight, unlike the journeys to the other feasts. In the summer months, you are guaranteed to fry.” – We are pleased to bring you the fourth and last excerpt from György Spiró's Captivity, translated by Tim Wilkinson.

The black-bearded man asked if those reconstruction plans were accessible somewhere. Matthew said that he had seen them in the home of a Latin acquaintance of his, who had them on loan from the local public records office.

A soft question was then raised as to whether the wagoner was deaf, at which Matthew laughed before replying: no way! A deaf cart-driver cost a lot, with the wealthy paying as much as twenty thousand sesterces for one, but since drivers had to be relieved along the way, it would be quite impossible to engage that many deaf cart-drivers. But they should feel free to talk aloud in his presence, and that of those who would follow, because the cart-drivers were hardly in a position to pass on whatever information they had gleaned to the relieving cart-driver as they did not have enough time: they had to turn back immediately.

The conversation was conducted in Greek, and the delegation had every reason to suppose that the wagoner knew at least a smattering of Greek, but he did not react to this exchange in any way and instead dozed on the box.
It did occur to Uri that maybe it was not they who were carrying the sacrificial money but another group, and by another route, less conspicuous than them; they were nothing more than bait. Because it was written all over them that they were Jews—not so much their clothing but because they were not permitted to shave, unlike Romans, who since the end of the republic had forsaken beards so that hordes of plebeians and slaves made a living out of barbering.
Another question was raised as to whether the leader was carrying any object that qualified as a weapon. Matthew shook his head: no. Experience had shown that is was more hazardous to travel with a weapon than without. “Those that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” Matthew quoted the proverb, adding that anyone who traveled with an armed escort was unnecessarily inviting attention from evil-minded parties.
By that point they had covered a good few miles along the Appian Way, on which military sentries were posted every three miles—not that there was any need for them, as there had been no war on Italian soil since the time of Hannibal, but it did no harm if everybody saw that in Rome a military dictatorship held sway. Pedestrians, soldiers, and carters showed up on the road every now and then, but they did not give so much as a glance at a wagon loaded with Jews. Uri marveled at how well the road was built; considering that they were plodding along on a wagon drawn by oxen, he might even have been able to read, had he brought any scrolls with him. He regretted that he had not thought of that in the excitement, but then he realized that the others would take it the wrong way if he were to immerse himself in reading; they might well suppose that he held them in contempt and sought conversation only with a person who was cleverer than they were—the author.

He had never been outside Rome before, and the endless strip of the Appian Way fascinated him. The others must have been feeling much the same, because one of them—Iustus was his name, he had introduced himself—remarked that his father, when he had been in slavery as a youngster, had worked in road gangs and never tired of declaring what painstaking work they had carried out. Uri squinted at him through narrowed eyes, and it struck him that this was someone he already knew by sight: he belonged to the same congregation. He was a small, weedy, quarrelsome person, uneducated and limited. One did not need much culture to be a road-maker; it was the sort of trade that strapping young guys went in for, but plainly Iustus had been driven to it because he was stupid. Maybe he was employed as a gang leader or purchasing agent. I’m at least as fit for the journey as him, Uri thought to himself with relief. Then he was struck by the unpleasant thought that Iustus might very well be acquainted with Joseph and, should the occasion arise over the coming days, might take the chance to spread gossip about him to the others.

Iustus related that a road would first be marked out by spade in accordance with the surveyors’ directions: the earth would be tamped down, a trench would be dug on both the right- and left-hand side to drain the rain, because if the rain froze, it would crack the road; then the surface would be covered with two layers of stone flags, the gaps being filled with a material they called cement, which was composed of three parts gravel and one part lime mortar. The best limestone comes from Puteoli, but it did not always work out; gravel is sprinkled evenly on the flags—something to which special attention is paid—then a further layer of flags is laid on top of that, with the gaps filled with gravel, all of it stuffed down in such a way that it should have a little camber to both left and right, again to ensure that the rain runs off. The flagstones are hacked out by slaves in the quarries and transported from there ready for use, stacked on top of each other.

“Where is this Puteoli?” the black-beard queried.

“Off to the south,” said Iustus. “It’s a big port, one hundred and forty-three stadia from Rome.”

“We won’t be stopping,” said Matthew, “but we’ll be passing by.”

Iustus went on to relate that his father had put on a tremendous amount of muscle with the road construction, but there came a time when he badly strained his back while working and from then on, for the rest of his days, he was only able to get around with a stick. As his master could not sell him, he let him emancipate himself inexpensively. “So, my father sired me with his stick,” declared Iustus, in rather poor taste.

If it was only Iustus’ father who gained his freedom, then he cannot be a Roman citizen himself, Uri figured. Were all the rest citizens? he wondered. Not that the authorities were particularly interested which people left Rome for Jerusalem, but he was still somewhat comforted by the thought that there was someone in the delegation who was legally of lesser worth than himself.

Going south, they stopped at a hostelry, not so much to eat as to have a drink, wash their feet, and pray. A Jewish male, wherever he might be, had to wash his hands and feet and pray three times a day. Matthew brought out a big brass bowl from the inn, drew water into it from the well, then set the bowl on the ground. His companions stretched their backs, massaged their feet, and one by one followed Matthew in stepping to the bowl, fully clothed, dabbling hands and feet in the water, then stepping out. Uri, being the youngest, went last and so, by way of ritually washing himself, dabbled in everyone else’s filth. They then turned to the southeast and, after affixing the tefillin, a leather box with straps attached and a portion of the Pentateuch inside on rolled-up parchment, to the forehead or left arm, they prayed for a while with repeated bowing. Matthew emptied a cupful of fresh water into their jugs, and they drank water; they each had a bulky jug, one of those crudely finished articles sold by the dozen and surprisingly heavy given how little water they held. Uri had no difficulty imagining himself drinking from something a bit more genteel. Matthew took the brass bowl back and climbed up onto the box while they clambered onto the wagon, stuffed the phylacteries and jugs back into their sacks, and set off again.

Uri broke off a piece of matzo and started to chew it, because the middle of his chest had started to hurt, and a bit of matzo was always good for that. Now even Matthew held his peace, maybe even dozed off, but Uri was ruminating on whether he too should introduce himself, and he could not make out why, after Matthew had introduced himself, his other companions, with one exception, had not introduced themselves in turn, as would have been proper. Or had the Elders already told Matthew about the people who were traveling with him? If so, what could they have said about Uri? He feared that his companions knew each other, even though they had given no sign of it, but they had plenty of time to get acquainted even if they belonged to different congregations, they were grown-up working men after all, but they did not know him, by sight at most; they probably did not even know that he was Joseph’s son. Well, Iustus would tell them, and no doubt ply them with baseless lies.

He regretted that his father had not gone with him to the meeting-place and helped him get acquainted with his companions. Could it have been his father’s way of showing that he trusted him and was treating him as an adult, or on the contrary, conveying that his fate was of no interest? But then, if the latter were the case, he would not have given him all that advice, and he would not have wakened him at dawn, even before it had started to get light. It occurred to Uri that this had been the second night running his father had been sleepless, and he felt a twinge of remorse; his own nocturnal torments did not cross his mind.

His head drooping, he jolted on until he suddenly awoke to the fact that they had stopped. Matthew jumped down freshly and happily.

“I do love traveling in February,” he declared. “It’s still possible to get around by daylight, unlike the journeys to the other feasts. In the summer months, you are guaranteed to fry.”

They had turned into a hostelry, where they greeted Matthew as a familiar figure. They rinsed hands and feet in a brass bowl, prayed again, then sat down at a long table, and before long were served with food: freshly baked fish, with bread and wine. The innkeeper was Latinian, but he knew precisely what he could serve to Jews: Uri ate the fish and the bread, but he offered the wine to the others because he only drank water. That statement was received with silence, though nothing insulting had been intended. Matthew, picking up on the sudden tension, took the wine from him with thanks and downed it.

Uri had figured they would be spending the night at the hostelry, but that was not what happened: their sacks on the ox-drawn wagon were shifted onto an ass-drawn trap, and after relieving themselves and praying anew, they set off on foot, still headed south. Matthew drove the ass while walking beside the trap; the others dawdled along in its wake.

Before long, Uri’s legs began to hurt, and he carried on with clenched teeth.

The basalt rocks of the highway felt atrociously hard and unyielding. He had no desire to lose touch with the others, who, it seemed, were used to physical burdens and marched along effortlessly, but all the same he fell a few paces behind. He was wrapped up in his own cares and it was only after a fair amount of time had elapsed that he noticed his companions, in knots of two or three, had stepped up to Matthew at the front and were engaging in quiet conversations with him. When this happened a third time, he noticed that they were casting sly looks his way after falling back slightly from Matthew. He quickened his pace, even though both his feet were now hurting and his back was aching too. They are whispering about me, he thought.

He made an effort to reduce the pain and throbbing to a dull tingling, looking up to the sky where instead of shining stars he saw only dim, overlapping, gleaming circles and the moon, a larger and broader patch than in his boyhood days, with an indefinite, blurred outline, and he made a silent supplication to his Creator, asking him what his plan had been in leading him on this journey. Why did you not send someone else on this dark, deserted road, my Lord?

Matthew suddenly stopped, handed the traces over to Iustus and waited for Uri.

“Are you still up to it?” he asked.
“I can take it,” Uri said.
“We’ll go on a bit more before we call it a day and get some sleep.”
“I can take it,” Uri said.
They carried on without a word, Matthew treading by his side.
“I don’t want to offend you,” Matthew said finally, “but no one can figure out why your family picked you for this journey.”
“I don’t know either,” said Uri.
“Never mind,” said Matthew. “You’ll get stronger along the way.”
“No doubt,” said Uri.
They walked on.
Uri noticed that three or four of his companions were treading closer than they had been before. He thought it was a good opportunity to introduce himself. Speaking as if he were only seeking to inform, he reported that he was the son of the merchant Joseph, his mother was named Sarah, and he had two younger sisters; he did not know what else he could say about himself.

“So, your father,” the black-beard started, “he’s the one who delivers silk to Agrippa, too, is that right?”

That disconcerted Uri even more.
“I don’t know; I have no knowledge of my father’s business affairs.”
That assertion was met with a reproachful growl. That was not the answer he was supposed to give; he should have been working for his father long before now.

“I know that is not how it ought to be,” he pleaded, “but my eyesight’s not good...”
“Trading doesn’t require good eyes, only a brain,” the thickset one declared. That was true but no comfort to Uri.
“So you know nothing about your father’s affairs,” Matthew summed up. He may simply have been trying to end an unproductive and embarrassing conversation, but Uri sensed in his words a note of scorn, and he was anxious to make a good impression on such a strong and determined man.

“What I do know is that my father raised a lot of money for Agrippa.”

That announcement was received in silence. Uri gathered that everybody knew about the loan, probably more than he did.

“And so,” said black-beard, “that is why Agrippa persuaded the Elders to let you come with us?”

Uri said nothing. He could not be blamed for this unsolicited, awkward privilege. They probably think we are currying favor with Agrippa, he thought, and that we pay off everybody, even though we are penniless—but then no one would believe that.

“I have never seen Agrippa,” he said bitterly, “but perhaps he heard from someone that I know a lot of languages.”

As soon as he said it he realized that he had made an even bigger mistake than before. Right at the start of the journey, he had already committed the one error that his father had warned him against: flaunting his knowledge when he should have been keeping quiet about it.

“Let’s see now,” the thickset one seized the opportunity. “Which languages do you speak?”

There was no going back, so Uri reeled them off. There was a stony silence as they trudged after the ass trap.

“There’s no point in learning Egyptian and Hebrew; a complete waste of time,” said Matthew. “And Latin is not a necessity either. Greek is spoken everywhere. Aramaic could come in handy if you plan to roam around in the country, but there won’t be time for that now: as soon as the feast comes to an end we shall be heading back.”

As an ex-seaman, Matthew obviously spoke a number of languages, but for him that was a matter of course and so of no value. I failed to win his sympathy, Uri concluded, and that rankled; he would have liked to have that strong and resolute man on his side. Instead, I have given the others a reason to hate me.

He walked with gritted teeth, his head bowed down to make clear there was no point asking more questions. The others drew away, then Matthew pushed ahead also and took the reins back from Iustus, who had proven expert in road construction. Because it really was him, the stonemason and house-builder, Uri had meanwhile assured himself, the one to whom Matthew had temporarily handed the reins, was the same as the Iustus whose grandfather had reported to Gaius Lucius’s father that Uri’s grandfather had been stealing when his grandfather had never stolen anything. That was something his father had told him once.

He was half-asleep by the time Matthew called a halt, unharnessed the donkey and tethered it to a tree. They took from their sacks the tefillin, bound it to their forehead or arm, said a prayer while facing southeast, then lay down, each placing his sack beneath his head. There was no water with which to rinse hands and feet, so they rubbed them with soil instead, as that was considered clean. No one asked Matthew if he had aimed for this coppice deliberately or had failed to reach the intended hostelry. It was on my account that progress was so slow, Uri reflected; that is not going to make them like me any better.

He had almost fallen asleep when he noticed that the others were whispering with Matthew. They’re talking about me; they want to get rid of me. I’m the problem.

So what?



Previously on HLO:

György Spiró: Captivity (Excerpt #1)

György Spiró: Captivity (Excerpt #2)

György Spiró: Captivity (Exceprt #3)


Originally published as Captivity, translated by Tim Wilkinson, Restless Books, 2015.

Copyright © Restless Books