Marcus Valerius was one very bored soldier. The enthusiasm he had previously displayed at becoming a proud Roman centurion was rapidly disappearing under the hot Palestinian sun. It was past noon, two hours into his watch at the tiny military outpost between the villages of Cana and Nazareth. He had been assigned this posting, as an inexperienced recruit, so that he could ‘develop his skills as a soldier’. Starting from the bottom up was how he saw it.
The outpost was no more than a few small buildings where he and four other cohorts slept, ate and watched the travellers pass by. It was perched on a bluff overlooking the road which took a sharp turn to the North a few stadia away. Usually the dusty road was busy with traffic. You could never see who was coming until they turned the bend and hove into sight. There might be Syrians on horseback, wagon trains of supplies to and from Capernaum, camels and their Egyptian riders, all kinds of local Galileans: Samaritans, both good and otherwise, and many, many travellers on foot.
But today it was all very quiet. Barely more than a handful of people had passed by and Marcus Valerius had little to do. He propped his spear and shield beside a large rock and wandered round his assigned post. Occasionally he took out his short sword and made a few practice thrusts, some imaginary enemy coming to mind. A quick campaign in Gaul, or even Britannia, was needed to put some excitement back in his life. But he had been posted to Palestine and he had to do his time. There were always squabbles to be sorted out between the local inhabitants, taxes to be collected and, in general, law and order to be enforced. Marcus had come to think of himself as more of a policeman than a soldier, major criminals being dispatched to Jerusalem to be dealt with by the authorities in that city.
He cooled himself in the shade of a tree and waited. The heat and general lack of activity had made him reflective. And so, the arrival of the next traveller caught him unprepared. He didn’t actually see him coming down the road from Cana because of the bend that hid him from sight. But he certainly heard him!
The singing was loud and discordant. And the singer was very drunk. He rode into sight, seated precariously on a donkey. The animal was loaded on either side with baskets of fruit. The rider would occasionally reach into the baskets, extract an orange, study it carefully as if he wasn’t sure of what he was transporting, then toss it nonchalantly over his shoulder so that it landed with a dull plop on the ground. He swayed on the donkey’s back which resulted in the poor beast wandering all over the road.
Marcus Valerius straightened himself, picked up his spear and waited for the man and donkey to reach him. As they drew opposite, the couple stopped, whereupon the rider promptly fell off the animal. Marcus grabbed the rope that circled the donkey’s neck, which halted any idea the beast might have had about fleeing. He led it to a tree and tied it to a branch. Then he turned his attention to the man who was making feeble attempts to rise. Marcus took a handful of not-too-clean tunic and hauled the fellow to a semi-upright position.
He was young and obviously worked at some menial task. His tunic was soiled and tattered and his sandals were in desperate need of repair. In one hand he clutched a leather water bottle which he waved in the air, and from which he took constant sips. Marcus propped him up against a rock at the side of the road where he promptly slid into a heap, his legs giving way beneath him. The soldier looked down at this sorry sight.
“Tell me now, traveller, what has caused you to be in this state?” The heap on the ground gave no coherent answer, just a lot of giggles and more waves of the water bottle.
“What’s your name? Where have you come from?” Marcus tried again but it was obvious he was not going to get much from the man in his present condition.
“Wait here,” he commanded, not really expecting the other to go very far, and he walked over to the well that supplied the little outpost. Filling a bucket, he returned to the man lying on the ground and tipped the contents over him.
“Water! That’s good!” the man spluttered, shaking his head from the dousing. He managed to raise himself up into a sitting position and tried to get his bearings. “Do that again,” he requested. Marcus Valerius obliged with another trip to the well.
“It tastes like water,” the traveller informed the Roman soldier when he had regained a modicum of sobriety.
“What did you expect?” came the terse reply.
“It’s not like the stuff up the road.”
“That’s because all local waters taste different. Salts, minerals, they all change the taste.”
“There are no salts or minerals in this,” said the traveller, waving his water flask.
“If it’s water, there will be some,” Marcus informed him.
“Take a sniff.” The flask was held out by a dirty hand. Marcus took it tentatively and held it to his nose. There was no ‘lack of smell’ which could possibly have signified water was present. Instead, over the odour of leather, came the sweet aromatic smell of wine. He tipped the flask carefully and caught the few drops that appeared. He raised his hand to his lips and licked at the liquid. It was wine; good wine, from what he could tell. Not just the ordinary local brew but something considerably more superior.
“You have wine in this flask,” he informed the man who was still sitting on the ground, waiting for a reaction from the soldier.
“Well done, centurion!” Marcus was temporarily promoted to the aspired-for rank. “And how did it get in there, do you imagine?”
“You put it in there, obviously,” was the reply.
“I thought I put water in there. But that isn’t water. It’s good stuff. Took me by surprise.”
“How do you mean ‘took you by surprise’?” Marcus wondered how this individual could afford wine of this quality. Perhaps he had stolen it.
“It was in the water jugs,” the man explained. “At a villa in Cana. I stopped to deliver fruit – there’s quite a wedding going on – and they needed oranges. So when I was finished and they sent me on my way, I stopped at the gate. They always have jugs of water there. The master leaves them for travellers; anyone passing can fill his flask. I went to fill my flask, the jug was empty and I told the man checking the guests at the gate. He took it to the well and filled it with water. I watched him do it. I filled my flask from that jug and got on my donkey and left.” He waved at the animal standing patiently under the tree. “It was only a ways down the road that I took a drink from the flask. Imagine my surprise. Wine! So how come wine got in the well?” He passed a hand over his lips, and then settled himself more comfortably on the ground. “It’s good quality, too!”
This long explanation seemed to tire him out and he closed his eyes. Marcus could see his head drooping as the residual alcohol caught up with his brain. Further information from this source would not be immediately forthcoming.
Being responsible for keeping law and order in this part of the world was part of Marcus’s job. After considering how to handle this situation, relatively minor as it was but intriguing, nonetheless, he called on another member of the garrison to accompany him up the road to the village of Cana. He chose Caius, the biggest and burliest of the group, because a single Roman soldier, however well-armed, was fair game for any band of brigands he might meet on the journey. Cana was about a mile and a half to the North and about half an hour’s brisk march.
The villa at which the wedding was taking place was not hard to identify. Cana was a small village and the villas, all six of them, were scattered around its approaches. The first villa the two soldiers came to seemed to be deserted for the day, no sign of life. The next villa, however, was a hive of activity; shouting, laughter and music all coming from the compound within the walls. And there, on a stand just outside the gate, were the two water jugs, just as the orange merchant had described, available for all passers-by to help themselves. At the gate, an old man with a donkey laden with flagons argued with a guard, the stream of annoyed conversation never ceasing.
“I’m the wine merchant. They asked me to come and bring more wine. I do their bidding, load up my animal, and what do I find when I get here? They don’t want the wine after all. They have more than they can handle. They say someone just supplied a better lot. For nothing.” He threw up his hands in disgust. “They completely undercut my prices. And I have supplied this house with wine for years. Can anyone tell me what’s going on?”
The guard at the gate watched the two soldiers approach.
“Do you mind if I try the water?” Marcus asked.
“Please yourself.” Roman soldiers were not the most favourite people here in Galilee. Marcus took a sip from one of the two jugs. Water, pure, clean and cold. He tried the other container. It was almost empty but the contents were definitely not water. The wine was good quality, too.
“Is it usual to put wine out here for the travellers?” he asked the guard.
“I don’t know anything about that,” was the sullen reply. “It must have got mixed up when they changed the jugs.”
“Someone said it came out of the well like this,” Marcus continued.
“All I do is check the guests as they enter,” said the guard, and as another two visitors walked up to the gate he unrolled a scroll. They were allowed entry only when he was sure they were on his list.
“Well, I need to look around,” Marcus told him. “I have reports of a strange occurrence and I need to check it out. It’s just routine, but all these things, big or small, have to be reported back to the Tribune. So I have to go in and see what is going on.”
The guard did not take too kindly to this but in the present time of Roman occupation the soldiers were going to get their way, anyway. Grudgingly he took a step back.
“You have to check your weapons. I can’t let you in, armed to the teeth. It’s a wedding, for goodness sake; no-one here is going to start a revolution.”
“A Roman soldier never surrenders his arms.” An indignant Marcus drew himself up to his full height. The plume on his helmet waved proudly in the breeze.
“No weapons – no entry.” The guard moved to block Marcus’s path. At the same time a group of four well-apportioned young men appeared, seemingly from nowhere, to lounge nearby. Marcus conferred with Caius who had already agreed to wait outside the gate. Finally he handed over his spear and shield.
“And the sword.” Marcus laid it on the ground.
“And the dagger.” It was handed to Caius. “Now you may enter.”
Marcus walked into the courtyard. Open tents had been set up as a protection from the sun, and guests milled around chattering and visiting. There was a tent completely stocked with all kinds of food from roast lamb and vegetables to grapes and oranges. And, of course, flagons of wine. Marcus could see the bride and bridegroom in another tent, surrounded by friends and relatives. But his priority was the well. He located it in one corner of the courtyard, and after peering into its depths to ascertain the water level, he lowered the bucket.
“Best water in the area!” A deep voice sounded behind him. Marcus hurriedly drew up the bucket, sniffed the contents and took a sip. It was good and it was no different from the water in the jug at the gate.
“I am Matthew. Welcome to my villa and my son’s wedding.” Marcus turned to see a handsome man in a long white garment. “We don’t usually see the emissaries of Rome here. Do you come on a business matter? Or has there been some sort of a problem? With all the guests on this happy day I hope nothing untoward has happened. So, how may I help you?”
Marcus took another drink from the bucket of water. His brisk march from the military detachment had left him thirsty. He considered how to approach the topic that needed investigating.
“We have just come from the detachment up the road. An orange seller, very drunk, as it happens, came past about three hours ago. He had a rather peculiar story about wine in water jugs.”
Matthew waited for Marcus to continue.
“The jugs outside..”
“Yes, they are for the travellers,” Matthew answered.
“They always contain water?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Then you should check one of them. It certainly has contained wine.”
Matthew looked puzzled. “The water comes straight from this well. The servants are responsible for keeping the jugs full. I wonder if….” He thought for a moment, “There’s someone here you should talk to. I’ll see if I can find him. Just wait and I’ll send him to you.” He gave a little bow, turned and hurried off in the direction of the crowd.
Marcus took this opportunity to take in his surroundings. The guard at the gate continued to check the visitors who came for the wedding celebrations. In another part of the compound a number of women, who were obviously in charge of matters, issued orders to servants. Guests were eating and drinking in another open tent and Marcus felt a momentary stab of hunger. He watched as a young man, wine cup in hand, detached himself from a crowd and walk towards him. He was dressed simply in a long robe, cinched at the waist. A pair of dusty sandals gave evidence that he had travelled a fair distance earlier that day.
“I bid you peace and welcome!” he said to Marcus. “Matthew told me you would like to talk to me.”
“Yes,” said Marcus who wanted to get to the bottom of the matter quickly. He explained again about the orange seller. “What can you tell me about this?” he asked.
“Well,” the other began. “With all the guests here someone had miscalculated the amount of wine we needed. It had almost all gone by midday. The celebrations have been going for two days now. So Mary, that’s my mother who is helping to organise this event, told me about the problem when I arrived. I called the wine merchant who usually supplies the villas with wine but did he come? No, he was delivering elsewhere.”
“But you did send out to the merchant?”
“Yes, of course. In fact he’s out there at the gate now. A bit ticked off, I think.”
“He’s planning to lay a complaint,” Marcus said. “He told me that someone has reneged on his contract. Wants to lay charges.”
“Really.” The young man raised an eyebrow.
“So what did you do to get him all annoyed?” Marcus went on.
“I don’t think I did anything. I just solved an immediate problem because my mother kept nagging – and she does go on sometimes. Anyway, I didn’t think anything would happen. I mean, changing water into wine! I was rather surprised when it did. And…”
“Just hold on a moment.” Marcus held up his hand to stop the flow. He looked dubiously at the young man from under his helmet. “We get reports of things like this happening all over the place. They never amount to much and the character involved is usually long gone when we get there. So your claim is water into wine?”
“Yes,” the enthusiasm continued. “And I’ve also discovered something else; it works the other way, too! It’s interesting watching the reactions. I can change it all back for you if you think I should.” He handed the soldier the cup he was carrying. Marcus took a sip, then a longer, more appreciative swallow. When he put the cup down he regarded the stranger with a respectful look.
“No. No, I wouldn’t do that.” He drank again, deeper this time. “No, I would leave things as they are. May be you’ve got something here. This is very good stuff. But you could turn it back into water? That is, if you wanted to?”
“Well, yes,” was the reply. “It wasn’t too difficult doing it the other way. I practised on a mug, just to see if it would work. It can cause quite a stir at mealtime – wine one minute, water the next.”
Marcus was silent, considering the implications.
“Ever thought of doing this on a bigger scale?” he asked.
“Well, that’s always a possibility,” came the reply, “But it could put the local wine industry out of business. I suppose they could always diversify if they had to. I’m told that olives and figs do quite well around here.”
“Just a minute.” The soldier stopped the proceedings as he remembered why he was here. He became more official. “We started with a simple problem, a drunk and disorderly orange merchant and now we have progressed to the suggestion of bringing down the local wine industry. I think you may have encouraged this.”
The young man looked crestfallen.
“I was only doing what I was asked to do. Would you let your mother down in a crisis?” he asked the soldier.
Marcus hesitated. He was torn between filial loyalties and the desire to see law and order in this part of the country.
“I’ll have to make a report about this,” he said, finally. “It will go all the way to the authorities in Jerusalem. They can look into it again if they see fit. So, if you could keep these…” he struggled for a word, “incidents… to a minimum, then probably not too much harm has been done. Meanwhile I’ll bid you ‘Good Day’.”
He gave a little bow and turned towards the gate. The wine had been very good, he thought; perhaps he would check the water jugs outside the villa once again.
“By the way,” Marcus spoke to the guard as he retrieved his spear and shield, “what is that fellow’s name?”
The guard thought for a while, trying to place him among the guests. “It began with a ‘J’, Joshua? Joseph? Jesse?” he ventured. He looked down at his scroll. “There it is.” He pointed a finger at a name. “Jesus. From Galilee.”
“Jesus. A Galilean. Well, I had better send in my report; the authorities in Jerusalem want to know every little thing out of the ordinary that goes on.”
Marcus sheathed his sword and dagger. Caius closed up in formation and the two soldiers prepared to march back down the road. Another guest arrived at the gate and the guard, without looking up, went through the process of checking him in.
“Name?” Marcus heard him ask.
“Lazarus.” The reply was clear. The finger read down the list of names.
“Right. There we are. Welcome, Lazarus. I remember you now from the last time you were here.”
Lazarus walked on through the gate. The guard straightened up and stretched, bored with his duties after so many hours.
“Ah, Lazarus,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the receding figure. “The life and soul of so many parties. Once he’s gone, we’ll probably never see the likes of him again!”
Jonathan Dean was born and educated in England. He came to Alberta in 1968 and taught in the public school system, introducing his students to quality literature. He has written many stories since then and hopes to epublish a collection later this year. In 2008 he produced the audio programme ‘Stone Soup’ for Voiceprint. This series of original stories and poems from current authors across Canada won a Gold Medal at the annual International Association of Audio Information Services at Cincinnati, Ohio in 2009. He is an occasional reporter for the Lethbridge Herald newspaper, a keen gardener and enthusiastic home chef.