Garments of Red: A Short Story of the Christian Martyrs
“Why can’t Christians fight Romans?”
“Juvid, listen to me–”
Young Juvid dropped to a squat on the reed mat and shook his hair from his face. Behind him, the hanging curtain door swung to a standstill after his stormy entrance, beams of hot sunlight flashing about the cave through clouds of dancing, golden motes.
His old friend Lisiam creaked up from his writing position at the small table and silently waited for the intense eyes to settle.
“There are hundreds, thousands of zealots just waiting for someone to lead them into battle,” Juvid continued, throwing his arms out in frustration. “They’re hidden in the hills about Rome, lurking in caves like criminals, struggling to meet in secret. What has the Apostle told us to do? Nothing!”
“You must understand this, Juvid.” Lisiam pressed gnarled fingers to a wrinkled brow. “Because I am getting too old to keep telling you. Tell me what would happen if we were to fight?”
“Severus’ legions would come against us.”
“And we would all be rounded up and killed. What chance have we against the hand of the empire?” Lisiam pushed aside his stylus and tilted the olive oil lamp so the flame swelled.
“We could run!”
“Thousands of slaves and plebeians, running away?” Lisiam retorted. “We’d only be rounded up and brought back.”
“We can hide.” Juvid leapt up and stormed about the cramped room, glaring at the cloths and baskets hung in crevices.
“Lisiam, I refuse to believe that the Master wants us to just let the Romans come marching in and take us all, unresisting!”
Lisiam sat back and glared at him. “Who knows better, you or the Apostle? If we gather a force of Christians, we’ll become another enemy to the empire, a threat like the northern and western barbarians. Then we will be wiped out. But, by our submission to martyrdom, we are raising a great question in all of Rome.”
“A question? What question?”
“What is this faith for which thousands are dying? That is how we spread the Word—by making them wonder. And Juvid, believe me, they are wondering.”
“Wondering? Can’t you understand? We are dying!”
Lisiam stared at the flame. “Understand Juvid, when the time comes, they are ready.”
Juvid stood. “Well, I’m not giving myself up. I will plough my own gardens and reap my own fruit. And the only way to do that is for me to carve my path from Roman blood.”
“You’re still a child, Juvid,” Lisiam frowned. “You need to pray for the grace of faith. I pray that one day you’ll see the light.”
But Juvid was gone, bursting through the striped curtain, back out into the blinding, midday sun.
* * *
“The Romans,” a woman screamed, “the Romans have found us!”
The entire population of the hamlet surged to their feet to flee up the hillside where the cool dimness of the caves offered protection. Thundering troops of horseflesh and hot iron flooded into the ravine, shouting, swinging their short-bladed gladii through their red cloaks. Stabbing with torches, they ploughed into the caves. Archers rounded the rest into a circle of threatening spears under the austere auspices of golden eagles. Horses snorted in the billowing dust. Within an hour, everyone had been roped together, the cords biting viciously into their wrists. Soldiers shoved sobbing, fearful people into lines with their spear hafts.
Juvid crouched in a shadowy copse of musty palms with several of his friends panting about him. “See! This is what I warned Lisiam about!” he fumed. “They’re all going to die!”
“What can we do, Juvid?” young Jahaziel demanded.
“Nothing! We can’t fight! Let’s go north and join the zealots in Rama. They can use us.”
Jahaziel started with shock. “Look! They have Michaia! No! They can’t take her!”
“Wait–” they all barked but he leapt out crazily and skidded into a legionary, struggling for the gladius.
“You’re not taking her!” he yelled.
“O Lord, be our strength! Let’s go!” Juvid shouted.
As they rushed out into the sunlight, Jahaziel was speared through the spine. He collapsed with a jerk. Whining arrows slit the air. One thudded into Juvid’s thigh. Another sent a friend staggering back, dead. Within a moment, the silhouettes of the shouting cavalry surrounded them.
Juvid lashed out, grabbing a rock and hurling it at a prancing stallion. “Kill me here!”
A tribune snarled something in Latin. Juvid struggled to keep from screaming as the legionaries hauled him to his feet. The tribune pulled up part of Juvid’s tunic with his sword and glanced at the wound. He spoke in Aramaic, “Put him in the cart. He’ll be condemned by the governor like the others.”
Juvid’s mouth went as dry as dust.
* * *
“What is it that you see, and I do not?” Juvid’s whisper lifted hollowly from the darkness. The only light that lit his white face came from a grate opening into the hot sands of the arena. Metal rang from gladiators. “You understand something I don’t. After all we discussed, after all I fought for, why, how am I here?”
Lisiam crawled into the patch of light, bruised and scuffed. “I can’t say, my young friend–”
“Lisiam.” Juvid ignored his leg for a moment and shot out a hand to grasp Lisiam’s shoulder in a desperate grip. “I don’t want to die here.”
Lisiam pried his fingers away and shook his head, searching Juvid’s eyes with his own. “When will you understand,” he said softly, “not everything is up to you.”
Juvid leaned back and nursed his wound. The whole world couldn’t understand the great feeling of emptiness he felt. Not anger, just nothing. What made it worse was that everyone around him seemed to know something, to understand something he couldn’t. It confused and terrified him that soon he would share their fate, and yet did not share their vision. Why?
A scream came from the arena and the crowd outside thundered with excitement.
The doors were yanked open behind them. Whips slashing right and left, the leathery jailors barreled through the prisoners until they reached the arena gate, unlocked it, and threw it open.
“Up, up! Into the arena. Move!”
Juvid clung to the window bar in the darkness. “I’ll not go!”
A husky guard grabbed his arm and lugged him out into the bright daylight a short distance from the gate. As Juvid hit the ground, the stinking sand of the stained white plain burned into his skin like needles.
He lashed out and grabbed the bronzed heel of the jailor. “I’m not going to die here!” he shouted.
The jailor snarled and jabbed his whip butt into Juvid’s face. “Afraid to die for your faith?” he growled. “You weak little coward, just like your ‘King of Golgotha’!”
Juvid froze. The Christ had been insulted. A bubbling boil of white fury exploded within him.
As the jailor reached down to tear away his death-like grip, Juvid surged up and latched his hands about the jailor’s neck. The jailor’s eyes bulged in his red, stubbled face. He raged and spat as Juvid hauled himself up, digging his fingers into the throbbing windpipe, choking the breath from the pig who had dared to insult the Master.
“Juvid, let him go!” Lisiam shouted behind him.
Juvid shook the jailor who thrashed from side to side like a rat, jabbing with his whip and flailing with his fists. The other jailors turned at the sounds of hoarse choking and raced back. The Romans in the auditorium laughed uproariously.
“Juvid!” Lisiam leapt upon the youth and tugged, sending all three of them sprawling onto the sand.
Juvid unlocked his fingers only when rawhide strips slashed into his face and back. The throttled jailor staggered away, gasping for air.
“Beasts!” Juvid shouted, his mouth filling with blood. “You wouldn’t dare insult the Rabbi to His Face!”
The jailors rushed back into the cellblock and locked the gate behind them.
“Juvid–” Lisiam began.
“They insulted the Master! How could I let them?” Juvid demanded.
Lisiam struggled for an answer as Juvid fought to regain his breath. Juvid suddenly noticed the agonizing pain in his leg; the bandages had loosened and blood ribboned into the sand. He paused. The arrow studding his bleeding thigh seemed a familiar image. It reminded him of the Christ nailed to His Cross.
“Lisiam,” he asked, “did the Master wish to die?”
“He chose to give Himself up?”
Juvid turned to him. “I don’t want to be here,” he faltered, “but…I am.”
He looked up at the vast rows of spectators. Farther down the high marble walls rose the bastion of the Emperor’s Box, hung with rich purples and gold, festooned with flowers and ribbons. Septimus Severus, the imperial divinity, reclined languidly, sucking on a chilled red grape.
Severus stood, raised his hand, and called out like a reverberating god, announcing the next spectacle.
Juvid stared at the crowds, the feeling of emptiness changing within him. Something stirred inside—a fierce pride, a violent love stronger than he’d ever felt for anything before. As he watched the laughing spectators, he met the eyes of a young Roman, no older than him. The youth was watching Juvid closely, clutching his green toga in trembling knuckles. The young man glanced about to make sure no one was looking, then placed his hands together in a prayerful manner, and leaned his chin on them.
Juvid saw the youth’s lips moving slightly. He’s praying for me?
Juvid glanced over at his friend. “Lisiam, I’m afraid to die, but, I…”
He felt different. He still felt the fluttering of fear, but it seemed as if a gentle hand had prized open a door inside him, spilling a wondrous ray of hope and a joy.
“Release the lions,” Severus commanded above them.
The gates groaned open on onerous hinges.
Lisiam had said that not all Christians were called to sacrifice themselves. Not all would see an arena. Many would preach the message of self-sacrifice, not just show it.
Lisiam took him by the shoulders and smiled a shaky smile. “My young friend, let us be in Paradise this day.” He wrapped Juvid in a tight embrace.
Juvid buried his face in Lisiam’s shoulder, a final thought blossoming in his mind.
The martyrs’ task was to show the empire that there was a reason to live and to die. The thousands of martyred Christians were a different kind of apostle—the kind who died that others might learn to live. It was the greatest act of love possible – their lives given for His.
A burning fire enthused him.
Let it not be as I will, my God.
He almost laughed a shaky laugh, for the icy fear was gone. Relief was sweet and intoxicating. He whispered prayers he had not prayed for a long time, exulting in the strength that came to his hungry heart.
Crazed with the scent of man, the shaggy, starved lions stumbled into the arena with deep broiling roars.
Lisiam started chanting the Fourth Psalm of David. One by one the others joined him. Juvid sang as fiercely as he could, watching the young spectator pale and continue to pray.
Their song built and echoed until they battled with the Emperor himself, the wind tugging their clothes and hair, sand drifting about their feet.
Fascinated, the Romans watched as the lions bounded heavily toward the cluster of Christians.
Juvid closed his eyes unsteadily, his body shaking uncontrollably. His mind remained as bright and clear as a star; “…the light of thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us: thou hast given gladness in my heart.”
By Dominic de Souza
(Read more of the works of Dominic de Souza at his website, Catholic Author)