Sunday, March 29, 2015

THE LEGIONARIES - An Original Short Story by Lewis Smith

It was April in Judea, and the nights were still cool in the foothills around Jerusalem.  Three Roman legionaries, each a veteran of ten years or more, sat by a small fire under the shade of a grove of olive trees.  It was dark and quiet, and they talked quietly among themselves to fend off sleepiness.  At dawn another trio of soldiers would come to relieve them, and none of them wanted to face the flogging that sleeping on watch would cost.  Pontius Pilate was a good prefect, who had whipped the Judean Legion into shape when he arrived several years earlier - but he was also a strict disciplinarian, and since being wounded in a battle with Zealots earlier in the year, he had developed a wicked temper.

          A short distance away, a larger group of men were camped in front of a sealed cave.  Members of the elite Temple Guard that worked for the High Priest, they had been given the primary duty of guarding the tomb of the eccentric preacher who had been crucified that Friday.  Caiaphas had detested Jesus of Nazareth and seemed convinced that someone was going to try and steal his body if the tomb was left unguarded.  He had approached Pilate and asked for a guard, but the Prefect was still in a foul temper over being manipulated into crucifying the strange Galilean. He had told the High Priest to see to the matter himself. But then Pontius Pilate had second thoughts, and told his primipilus centurion, Gaius Cassius Longinus, to dispatch a few legionaries to keep an eye on the tomb and its Jewish guards in case anything untoward happened.   Decius, Tiberius, and Carmello were given the thankless task of staring at a tomb all night.

          So now the three soldiers sat and stared at the fire, occasionally standing and walking to the edge of the light to stare at the Jews, who were numerous enough to rotate shifts, so that five or six could remain awake while the others slept.  The two groups did not acknowledge each other in any way; the Romans regarded the Jews as uncouth, fanatical barbarians, and the Jews regarded the Romans as a brutal occupying force in the employ of a foreign government that they hated.

          “I’ve been here five years,” said Carmello Antonius, “and this was the strangest Passover I’ve ever seen.  I know that this Jesus wasn’t a bloodthirsty Zealot like Bar Abbas, but he scared me.  I’ve never seen anyone that could draw bigger crowds.  If he had ever given the word, he could have had all the Jews in the province out for our blood.”

          “I think that is why he had such a huge following,” Decius said.  “I went with Longinus when Pilate ordered us to go hear this Jesus last year and make sure he was not a threat.  Anyone can scream ‘Kill the foreigners!’ around here and get a few people to listen.  Jesus challenged the Jews to love each other and love their enemies.  It was a much different message from the usual rabble-rousing tirades they are used to.”

“But what about the miracles?” Lucius Tiberius asked.  “I keep hearing these stories about lame men walking and blind men receiving their sight.  Was there anything to that?”

“I know that Stichius, Longinus’ manservant, was at the point of death and this Jesus supposedly just said a few words from miles away and the man was back on his feet again the next morning,” Decius replied.  “All the other stuff I don’t know about, but I know Longinus was convinced Jesus had performed a miracle.”

“I knew that old beggar that used to sit by the pool of Siloam,” volunteered Carmello.  “He’d been paralyzed for years, legs like little sticks, completely useless!  But I saw him after that Jesus fellow healed him, and his calves were as big and strong as mine!”

“That’s impossible!” snapped Tiberius.  “I can’t believe you would fall for that!”

“I didn’t fall for anything; I saw it with my own eyes.  I knew the old man; his legs were withered and useless one day, and as strong as mine the next!” Carmello insisted.

“If you insist,” Tiberius said, his tone still disbelieving.  “But here is what I don’t understand – how could the Jews turn on the Galilean so quickly?  When he rode into the city a week ago, they were ready to crown him as their king.  I was near the city gate, and I have never seen a crowd so worked up!  Then, by Friday, the same crowd was howling for his blood!”

Decius snorted in derision.  “Who knows why Jews do anything?” he asked. “We’ve had this province for nearly a hundred years, and they are no closer to being civilized than they were when Pompey Magnus decided the Republic needed this gods-forsaken place.”

Carmello nodded.  “They are a fickle lot, true enough.  I don’t know what Longinus sees in them, to be honest,” he said.

“Longinus is a good soldier, but he ain’t been right ever since he married that Jewish girl,” said Decius.  “And Cornelius is just as bad!”

“How long until dawn, you think?” Tiberius asked to no one in particular.  “I want to get back to the barracks and get some sleep.”

“Another hour at least,” Carmello said.  “So, what did you make of all the goings-on Friday when they nailed this Galilean up with those two Zealot bandits?”

“An earthquake and an eclipse the same day,” said Decius.  ‘Ill omens, according to all the ancients.”

“That was no eclipse,” Carmello said.  “The sun wasn’t obscured a bit at a time – the whole thing grew dark all at once.  I’m telling you, I think it was related to this Jesus’ death.  The gods were not happy to see him killed!  I was out there on the crucifixion detail with Longinus, and I don’t mind telling you I was scared.  I thought the earth was going to tear itself in two right there at the foot of the cross!”

“One of the Jewish merchants I know – fellow by the name of Asher, a decent sort as Jews go – told me that the big veil in the Temple that hides their Holy of Holies from prying eyes, was torn in two from top to bottom at the same instant!” Decius interjected.

“An earthquake could do that naturally,” Tiberius said.  “But some of the other stories – why, I heard people saying they had seen men who died years ago up and walking around Jerusalem!”

“That’s what you get for listening to these superstitious barbarians,” Decius said.  “It was an earthquake, nothing more.”

“Yet it started at the moment that Jesus character died,” Carmello said.  “He threw his head back and hollered ‘It is finished!’ at the top of his lungs, then slumped down dead.  Then suddenly the ground was shaking so hard I couldn’t stand up, and lightning was striking everywhere, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky – the sun was black, but I could see every star, just like we can right now.  Old Longinus was even more scared than I was – he’d been keeping tabs on this Jesus for a while, and I think he more than half believed some of the stuff Jesus said about himself.  He started sobbing that we had killed the Son of God!”

“Well, he is killed, that’s the main thing,” Tiberius said.  “Whatever or whoever he was, he’s food for the worms now.  You fellows did make sure he was dead, didn’t you?”

“I drove my spear clean through his heart before we let his friends take the body for burial,” Carmello said.  “He didn’t even twitch, and the blood that came out was all mingled with water.  No doubt he was dead.  I don’t even know why we are out here.  Is old Caiaphas really afraid he might come back?”

“He thinks this man’s disciples will steal the body, and then say that he’s come back – which would be just as bad, from the priesthood’s point of view,” said Tiberius.

“Since when are you privy to the Jewish High Priest’s council chamber?” asked Decius.

“I was in the Prefect’s office when Caiaphas’ messenger asked for a guard,” Decius said.  “Those were his exact words.”

“Is that a shooting star?” asked Carmello suddenly.  A bright ball of light was streaking down from the heavens, growing larger and brighter as it drew near. The Jewish soldiers near the tomb saw it too, and were pointing and jabbering in their native tongue.  The ball of light didn’t flicker out, like most shooting stars – it grew bigger and brighter, lighting the entire garden in an eerie whiteness.

“It’s going to hit us!” shrieked Decius, covering his eyes.

Over their heads, the ball slowed down, and then suddenly split in two.  Instead of a blinding white globe, two oblong shapes slowly lowered to the earth at the tomb’s entrance.  When they touched the ground, they began to assume manlike forms.  As the two sets of guards watched in wonder, one of the white figures reached out and touched the massive stone that covered the entrance to the Galilean’s tomb. A pulse of light so bright that it obscured all else shot outwards from the tomb, and all the guards – Jews and Romans alike – collapsed to the ground like dead men.

The garden was silent.  The stone now lay flat, ten feet from the entrance to the tomb, and the figures, now resolved into tall men wearing robes of blinding white, positioned themselves at either side of the door, like an honor guard. As the sky began to lighten in the east, a third figure emerged blinking into the garden.

Decius, Carmello, and Tiberius lay still on the grass, unmoving, breathing softly.  A pair of bare feet, deeply scarred above the instep, stepped over them as the owner of those feet stepped forth into a new day – and a new age.
I wrote this short story last fall as part of a contest I was entering.  It features the same setting and some of the same characters as my upcoming novel, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE.  If you enjoyed THE LEGIONARIES, check out my current novel,THE TESTIMONIUM, and pick up THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE when it is released on May 19!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Crazy Busy, Busy Crazy!

OKAY, I went eleven days without updating this blog!
That's AWFUL!  But it's been an interesting eleven days . . .

   I got a chapter and a half written on my new book over Spring Break, as well as completing and sending in the back cover blurb, glossary,  and cover art ideas for my upcoming historical epic, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE (Due out May 19!!!)  The weekend before going back to school, I decided a little recreation was in order - so I journeyed back into the hallowed land of Tamriel to play some hours on my favorite video game of all time, THE ELDER SCROLLS V:   SKYRIM. 
   School started back up on Monday, but it wasn't just any school week - it was Enrichment Week, in which we give the high school kids a week off from their regular classes and let them choose a week long seminar course from about a dozen or so different offerings - everything from Basics of Aviation to Gourmet Cake Baking.
  I had six students that wound up in my Archeology 101 class.  We spent one day in the classroom, learning all the terminology and issues surrounding prehistoric archeology in America, then spent the afternoon watching some dig videos and practicing identifying various stone tool forms using Texas Field Guides.
  The ground was far too wet to dig, thanks to recent rains, so we spent Tuesday out searching the Sulphur River gravel bars for artifacts and fossils - we found more fossils than artifacts, which is very typical.  Wednesday was pouring rain, so we went to the new Perot museum in Dallas and looked over their very impressive exhibit halls (no archeology stuff, though!).  Thursday we went out and searched gravel bars again with little result, and on Friday it was pouring rain again - and the kids had a half day anyway - so we watched RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to cap off the week!  Fun was had, stuff was found, and things were learned.  I call that a success.
   Friday afternoon my wife and I set out for Springdale, AR, for the annual Ozark Country Indian Artifact Show there.  We had a great time, and I sold 13 copies of THE TESTIMONIUM as well as seeing some amazing Indian relics!  The reception for exhibitors at the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville is really fun.  But best of all, I got to spend a weekend away from home with my sweetheart of some thirty plus years now!
   So this update isn't particularly literary, but I do invite you to tune in next Sunday night for a VERY special update - an original short story by yours truly that is also a teaser for my next novel.  See you then!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Spring Break - something teachers and students alike both look forward to so much every year.  Winter's dreary march ending, sunshine peeking out from the clouds, the world beginning to green up around us, and best of all, a straight week with no alarm clock intruding on morning slumber!  This year's break got off to a dubious start, but I have managed to get a number of literary projects started/finished/worked on thus far.
   The day before our break began, school was out for yet another snow day. Five inches of the beautiful white stuff this time, which made my barefoot run around the yard even more fun than the last one! But it did throw our exam schedule into a state of higgledy-piggledy, and made Friday a busy day to say the least - giving one exam, allowing students to finish another, and getting everything graded and in the computer before leaving for the day.  But, by 3 PM, I was done, and nine glorious days of freedom stretched ahead!
    Saturday my old friend Jerry and I headed up to the Sulphur River in quest of artifacts and fossils, and managed to come home with some of both: I got two solid points and one pretty, colorful flint knife, plus several fossilized vertebrae from mosasaurs and ancient fish, while he got one arrowhead, two preforms, a knife, and a nice selection of fossils as well.  I hiked nearly  six miles, so I was exhausted when we finally got  back to the truck.
    When we got home, I began work on a project that wound up taking most of my weekend, aside from church: I re-read my upcoming release, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, and made up a glossary for all the Latin terms I used in this historic epic, due to be released soon.  By Sunday night I had re-read the entire novel (you folks are in for a real treat, I promise!) and put together a glossary that ran about four pages.  In between I had church Sunday morning and a few sundry errands to run, but most of the day was spent reading and defining terms.
    Monday I wanted to get back to LOVER OF GOD, my current novel, but after a hiatus of nearly three weeks, I decided to read it from the beginning, throwing in some edits here and there, and above all making sure the story flowed nicely from beginning to end as I re-immersed myself in it.  However, this process was interrupted when I had to take a church member over to Rowlett for a minor surgical procedure, and also by my night class, since PJC is on a different Spring Break schedule from my day job at GCS.  So most of Monday passed with not much writing getting done.
   Tuesday was another gloomy, cloudy day, so I spent a good part of it reading and editing, with one significant interruption in the middle: I went to a meeting of Greenville's Book Club to hear legendary reviewer Rose Mary Rumble give one of her performances.  This lady is a marvelous speaker, and she was giving her summation of a book called AMERICAN FUN: FOUR CENTURIES OF JOYFUL REBELLION.  The club president did allow me a couple of minutes to get up and introduce myself and talk about THE TESTIMONIUM, and after the meeting, I sold three copies to the ladies there.  But the best part of it, for me, was that Mrs. Rumble agreed to read and review THE TESTIMONIUM!  She is one of the most demanded speakers in Texas, and certainly Dallas' most famous reviewer, so this was a very exciting opportunity for me!  I have no idea how long it will be before she gets the book read and reviewed, but this was a big time break! And, to sweeten the pot, the local Hastings Store had sold a couple more copies of my book, so I re-stocked their shelves and pocketed a little more money for the day!
  I got home around five or six, and sat down to finish reading up and editing LOVER OF GOD.  By 10 PM, I had read all the way up to the point I left off three weeks ago, so I began writing in earnest - I had left off in mid-chapter, with Marcus waiting to have a private interview with the High King of Parthia.  By midnight I had finished Chapter 15 and shot it off to my faithful Beta Reader, Ellie, to get her comments.
  This morning I woke up and found that she had read the chapter over breakfast and loved it!  Her commentary was so inspiring I sat down and started writing the next chapter, in between making posts in a FaceBook debate over whether or not slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War and helping my wife move furniture so she could do some painting in the TV room..
   So here I am, after a run to town for some errands,  getting ready for church tonight, pecking away at that next chapter, checking my Email to see if my FB opponent has made another post, and then I realized "Hey, I haven't updated my blog in a week!"
   So next I sat down to do that - and hey, now it's done!  Back to my book!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

It's All About Character(s)

What makes a book memorable?  What makes the difference between a book we read through one time and think, "Well, that was fun!"  - but then we toss it in the Goodwill sack and never think of it again, and the books we pull down from the shelf and re-read again and again as the years go by?  There are lots of authors out there, and many of them have sold a LOT more books than I have (but hey!  I'm just getting started here, OK?).  I can tell you, though, what makes the difference in my mind.  I suspect this makes the difference for a lot of people besides me, too - it's the characters in the books.  Ultimately, if we like the people on the page, we will like their story.  If the characters are unlikable, no matter how good the story is, it's hard to motivate yourself to read it a second time.  Let me pick two writers we all have at least a passing familiarity with: Stephen King and Michael Crichton.
  Crichton was one of the smartest people ever to pen a best-seller - I read that his IQ was near 160.  But can you name a single character from one of his books that evoked a strong emotional reaction in you? (The movies don't count - Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill were far more engaging on the screen than the characters in the JURASSIC PARK novels.)  Crichton had a gift for cranking out engaging plots, and his understanding of science was phenomenal - but not a single book of his I read had a character that I liked.  Or that I hated, for that matter.  His characters were simply vehicles to carry the story forward, no more.  Thus his books are ones that get read once and discarded, while the movies - which developed the characters far more than he did - are perennial favorites.
   Stephen King, on the other hand, has a gift for great characters.  Some of his books are far better than others, and he has written a couple of books that I actually hated (CHRISTINA and INSOMNIA, if you must know), but even in those works, there was at least one character that I found to be completely credible and sympathetic.  Even his villains have a human side that lets you pity and abhor them at the same time ("Trashcan Man" in THE STAND comes to mind, for one).  I think many of King's works will be read a century from now, because if there is one thing that Shakespeare taught us, it is that memorable characters will stand the test of time.  The people in King's earliest novels are just as engaging today as they were when he created them forty years ago.
   One reason I never completed a novel until I was nearly 50 years old is the fact that it took me that long to understand humanity well enough to create characters that were fun and believable.  Of all the things reviewers have said about my first novel, the thing that makes me proudest is when they talk about how likable my characters are.  I know that I liked them all!  I had fun creating them, and it broke my heart when I had to kill off some of them in THE TESTIMONIUM (some spoilers below, so if you haven't read the book yet, please go buy a copy and read it before finishing this post!).

   Giuseppe Rossini was a fun person to create.  His is the first perspective in the story (if you don't count the prologue), and I tried to shift back to his point of view now and then as the novel progressed.  I knew about five chapters in that he was going to be one of the victims of the terror attack at the lab, but I didn't know he was going to die until I actually wrote that chapter.  Even then, I pulled back from the computer and stared at it awhile to see if there was any other way for those events to happen.  I liked Simone Apriceno, and hated to see her go, but Rossini's death was very difficult to write about, and the funeral chapter nearly killed me.
    Josh is my literary alter ego, as anyone who knows me will recognize when they read the story.  His passion to defend the Gospels, his intense affection for Isabella, the love of his life, his impulsive nature, his love of Indian artifacts, Dr. Pepper, and B-movies are all straight from me. Of course, as my alter ego, I could make him the person that I want to be rather than the person I actually am (hence his skinny physique and dream job!).  Isabella is  partly based on my wife, partly on some other women I have known over the years, and partly my imagination as to what Josh's perfect match would be like.
   Oddly enough, perhaps my favorite character in the story is Father MacDonald, who fascinated me at the time and continues to do so as I spin out the plot of a future story in which he will be the main character.  I am a staunch Baptist and have serious theological differences with the Church of Rome, yet in creating and fleshing out my Vatican scholar, I have come to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for all the good things the Catholic Church has done over the years.  Plus Duncan is such a funny old curmudgeon that his dialogue always makes me smile!  (I envision him as a much younger Ian Holm - circa 1989 in HENRY V or 1996 in THE FIFTH ELEMENT.)
   As for my upcoming work, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, the title character is one that I think people will find very fascinating.  As I read over the historical sources on Pilate's life, I saw a great dichotomy between the Gospels, where he is shown in a sympathetic light, and the works of Josephus and Philo, where he is represented as a cruel, grasping tyrant.  The common skeptic's explanation is that the Gospel writers were trying to make a good impression on Rome, so they painted the Roman prefect as Jesus' reluctant executioner, while the Jews who wrote about him later were more truthful about his wicked nature.   I wondered, as I read these different accounts - what if they were both right?  What if Pilate were a man of considerable talent and honor, who also had a vicious streak that the Jews got on the wrong side of?  That is the man I have portrayed, and while you may not like him, I think you will be fascinated with him.
   The other character in PILATE that I had a lot of fun with is Rome's much-maligned Emperor. Tiberius Caesar.  Suetonius and others have portrayed the second Emperor of Rome as a cruel pedophile, a tyrant, and a monster.  But the earlier sources give a different picture, of a talented but morose individual who had a very hard time being happy, even while he ruled over a good chunk of the world.  While I have stuck pretty close to the actual events of Tiberius' reign, I have also tried to picture him as a man who could be admirable at some times and despicable at others.  I am anxious to see what my readers will make of him!
   Character matters in our lives, characters matter in our writing. I hope you will find mine worthwhile.