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  • Writer's pictureNijay K. Gupta

STRANGE ENCOUNTER | Episode 6: "Live a new life."

This short-form fiction series is set in Rome in the late first century AD. You can read the previous episodes by clicking the link below.


[From the previous episode: Hermes leaned over and said, “I have a secret that I dare not tell anyone, but if I can trust you I think that you ought to know. Once you know, there’s no going back. You could get into trouble just knowing me. Can I trust you?”]

Felix started to sweat and he recognized the rumbling of anxiousness in the pit of his stomach. His immediate reaction was: this man is dangerous. So, Felix wanted to blurt out, “You need to leave now!” But instead, Felix sat there silently, wrestling with how to respond.

He considered the reasons for hearing him out. First, Hermes was about to answer the questions Felix had asked himself for weeks and, second, Hermes had already done so much for Anna. Felix even leaned over to see how Anna was doing—she was resting peacefully. As Felix looked into Hermes’ eyes, he saw a softness beneath Hermes’ rough exterior. Felix’s gut was telling him to trust Hermes, and to carry and keep his secret. Felix nodded his head, inviting Hermes to share. 


Normally, Hermes tried hard to keep his scars covered, but in this conversation, as he noticed Felix staring, Hermes pulled up his sleeves to show them more clearly.

“I was in the Roman army, Legion X Fretensis, mostly stationed in Arabia in my time.” 

Felix glanced at some of Hermes’ scars, which were barely visible on the parts of his arms and legs not covered by his clothes. Normally, Hermes tried hard to keep his scars covered, but in this conversation, as he noticed Felix staring, Hermes pulled up his sleeves to show them more clearly.

“Yes, most of these are wounds from my army days, but I didn’t fight in battle. These are from training and the rough conditions of where we were stationed. I was not a soldier. I was a veterinarius [an animal doctor]. I mostly patched up horses that were injured in skirmishes, and I kept our loadbearing animals healthy and well-fed.”

The pieces started to fall together for Felix. He turned his head and again glanced over at Anna.

Hermes answered Felix’s next question before he could ask: “Yes, that’s how I learned about the vinegar and honey remedy. I don’t know exactly how it works, but we’ve been using that trick to heal wounds for years. Caesar spares no expense to keep soldiers and their war animals healthy and strong. So, we have the most tried and true techniques.”

Felix started rambling with excitement: “That’s amazing! Asclepius sent you here to heal Anna; I don’t know if horses and humans need exactly the same treatment, but it’s good enough for me! It all makes sense now, your little mystery bag of equipment, your knowledge, your confidence, boy do I feel lucky…”

Felix was blabbing on, paying no attention to Hermes, who was becoming aggravated by Felix’s increasing volume.

Hermes interrupted, “I was a deserter!” 

The room fell into a chilling silence. 

Felix’s eyes grew big as he took in those words. The hairs on his arms stood straight up, and he felt a tingle in his body, the tingle of fear. “What?,” Felix asked. He knew what the words meant, but he’d never encountered a deserter before. And Rome didn’t take kindly to deserters, especially if they were caught on the run. 

Hermes knew from Felix’s shocked demeanor that he knew all too well what this meant. Suddenly Felix started acting in the same mysterious ways he’d questioned in Hermes. He jumped up from his chair and inched towards the windows, scanning the road for listening ears. Felix kept his eyes on the road, but spoke to Hermes in a sharp whisper. “You're an animal doctor, right? How could you be a deserter?!”

Hermes sat back in his chair, and had a distant stare, as if reliving his past.

“We were stationed in Arabia, as I said. Our camp was attacked. It was just about sundown. It’s all a blur as I try to remember it, but I clearly recall the shouting and screaming, it spooked the horses I was checking on. A troop leader was running from tent to tent yelling “All hands!” I didn’t have any weaponry in the medical tent. I stepped out of the tent, and there were people everywhere, a cacophony of commands, yelling, battle cries. Someone was yelling for my help; apparently the medical corpsmen were all busy. I should have gone over to him, I should have helped…but I froze.”

Hermes’ eyes were welling up with tears as he felt the shame of the day coming back to him.

“Next thing I remember, I ran. I ran away. I abandoned my cohort, I left them to die. I could hear the agonizing cries of my comrades as I fled. My mind wanted to go back and help them, but my feet kept moving further and further away from the sounds of metal swords clashing. Deep into the night I had made it to a village a few kilometers away. I traded my legion pendant for a night’s stay at a small inn there. Apparently the inn-keeper snitched on me, because a troop commander showed up early in the morning and put me in shackles. He was one of a few soldiers that survived the attack on our camp. Another was our centurion Baculus. When Baculus showed up, I knew I was in big trouble. His boss, our legion commander, was notoriously brutal towards deserters; he often called for execution. So, when I saw Baculus, I knew this was the end, and, frankly, I deserved it.” 

Felix felt deep compassion for the man before him, sharing his deepest, darkest secret. He handed Hermes a towel to dry his watery eyes, but Hermes put his hand up in protest. 

Felix was touched by Hermes’ story, but he was hung up on the word Christos. He had never heard that word before.

Hermes pressed on with his story. “When Baculus stepped into the room, he dismissed the guards, and we were alone. I expected that this was so there would be no witnesses for the severe beating I was about to receive. I turned my head away, expecting the first blow. But instead… Baculus unlocked my shackles. I looked at him with bewilderment. Baculus looked into my eyes, and he must have seen my fear and confusion. What I saw in his eyes were maturity and compassion. That’s not how I would describe your typical centurion. With a firm voice, Baculus said, ‘For abandoning your troop, you deserve punishment and death. But God is a gracious God, and today I pass his mercy on to you’.”

Hermes took a moment to let that information sink in for the still stunned Felix. Then Hermes continued.

“Baculus peeked into the hallway to make sure no one was around. ‘Go now,’ he said. ‘In the eyes of Rome, you are a deserter. But seek Christos [Christ] and you will live a new life. I will send the guards to look for you in the village westward, so you must travel east.”

 Veterinarius, the road ahead will be dark, but if you wake up, the light will shine on you again.

Felix was touched by Hermes’ story, but he was hung up on the word Christos. He had never heard that word before. Was it the name of a foreign god? Felix wondered if he had misheard it, and perhaps Hermes had said Chrestos, a common slave name. But surely Baculus didn’t worship a slave…did he? Felix realized that while his mind was wandering, he was missing the rest of the story. So, he snapped back into attention. 

“Baculus scribbled a note quickly and shoved it into my hands. ‘Go to Rome, find this man, he will help you. Stay in the shadows. Go now!’”

Hermes snapped out of his memory trance and looked Felix straight in the eyes. 

“I started on my way, but I turned back and whispered, ‘Will I see you again?’ Baculus frankly replied, ‘If we are together again, it can only mean you were caught, so I hope this is the end. Veterinarius, the road ahead will be dark, but if you wake up, the light will shine on you again.’ And I took flight. I didn’t know what he meant…at the time.”

Felix had so many questions. What a tale! But this was a wanted man.

This short-form fiction series serves as companion to Dr. Nijay K. Gupta’s book Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling. Stay tuned for Episode 7.


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