Rebellion – Jeremy Stelzner

His people have a name for it, the borderless void. The places where civilized men fear to travel. They call it midbar. The desert. Lucius has seen enough of the civilized world. He longs for the midbar.

He doesn’t remember the sands of his homeland. He doesn’t remember the desert. He doesn’t remember his parents. It’s been too long now. All he has left of his childhood in that place are the stories his brother tells him. Each anecdote another piece of a broken puzzle he hopes one day to restore.

His brother once told him the story of Lot’s wife. Her name was Idit, to his people it means the choicest. As Sodom was burning to ash, she defied God’s will and chose to look back at the destruction.  Lucius’ brother told it like this, “Papa said that some believe Idit looked back because she longed for the city’s sinful ways. Papa said he never saw it that way. He said that Idit looked back at her home as it burned because home is not such an easy thing to replace.”

God did judge her by turning her into a pillar of salt. Lucius’ brother tells him when they were young, they’d sneak away from their parents and run to the shore. They used to dip their toes in the waters where the sea meets the sand and watch the birds circling overhead waiting for just the right moment to dive toward their prey.  The shores smelt like salt.


It is a cool night. Lucius wraps his cloak around his tunic and looks down at his toes. They’re caked in muck and dirt. He smells himself. It’s been too long since he’s bathed.  It’s been too long since he slept.

Nearly morning, Lucius struggles to keep his eyes open while standing guard. Not much guarding to do at the moment as the street is quiet. His brother warned him to remain focused on his charge. Yet, Lucius’ mind keeps wandering back to that place far away, where the sea meets the sand. That place where the birds circle overhead.

An orange moonlight struggles to seep through the heavy clouds overhead. It’s dark as a raven’s tress and an ominous fog moves into the streets. Lucius knows this fog. The civilized people call it the Fog of Palatine. This fog carries with it a myth about the secret doings of those under the shadow of the Palatine Hill, the great sentinel of Rome. The story goes that those caught within the fog lose their way and wander into down the path toward Hades.

Lucius knows, like Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, this is just a story. He knows that Palatine is not the sentinel of Rome. The sentinels of Rome are not even the legions of soldiers who sleep in their barracks less than a stone’s throw from where he stands. No, the real sentinel of these people is housed in the towering structure across the street from where he stands guard.  The great Temple of Zeus. Lucius can see the massive marbled monuments crafted in his name. Two graven images twenty feet high baring his likeness on either side of the temple stairs. Those stairs still wet, freshly stained with the blood of daily sacrifice.

How many stones must it have taken to craft such a palace, he wonders. A hundred?  A thousand? A million? Where did they come from? Who placed them there? This marvel of their civilized world could not have been built by his ancestors, they were busy building their own temples. Lucius guesses they were built by those like him, stolen from their homes in the middle of the night. Taken from their families and forced into bondage.

As the morning nears the fog grows thicker and Lucius grows more fearful. He can feel a tightness in his bowels. His palms wet, and even on such a cool night with the breeze blowing in off the Tiber he can feel the sweat begin to build on his neck beneath his long, thick hair.

He leans up against the stone wall opposite the temple. His back to the underground dwelling that he has sworn to protect.  In the cellar of the Sanctuary of Hermes, this is where the secret business is being done. Hermes, only a secondary God, as if such a thing exists, overshadowed by his father Zeus- this barely visited shrine provides a perfect cover.

The sleeved tunic hugs Lucius’ wiry frame. He has no skills of diplomacy. He has no formal military training. He doesn’t even have a last name. His kind are not permitted such things. But Lucius does have something. A sharpened wooden dagger rests in the sweaty palm of his hand, hidden up the sleeve of his tunic.

The streets are quiet. The city is at rest. Even the drunks and the hustlers and the deviants have called it a night. But when Lucius listens closely, he can hear the muffled chants from within the secret cellar.  Those sounds like a whispered mythology. An origin story, like a nostalgic reflex, the chanting returning his mind to a time long ago in a place he barely remembers.

Suddenly, Lucius hears a sandal crunch on the dirt. He feels a breath on his neck. He tightens his grasp on the shiv preparing to attack.  But he’s too slow and a solid arm tightens around his neck.

“It’s too late, Roman. You’re already dead,” the voice offers gruffly.

“I’m no Roman,” Lucius grunts back, struggling to free himself of the attacker’s hold.

“Don’t I know it.”

The figure eases up. He brushes the dust off of Lucius’ tunic and spins him around.

“Germanus? I could’ve killed you,” Lucius says displaying his wooden blade.

“No, you couldn’t have.  Certainly not with that little thing.”

“You mock me, Germanus.”

“I do not. Rather it is you who mock me, brother. Germanus? You know this is not my name.”

“Don’t,” Lucius warns. His eyes dart down the street toward the legionary barracks. He whispers, “Gideon please don’t.”

“And your name is Bricha. Or do you forget yourself so soon?” Germanus is bigger than Lucius. He is stronger and more angular than his little brother. His face bearing the scars of war and loss. The gruffness of his features have frightened Lucius for as long as he can remember.

“You must not call me that brother. Soldiers may be nearby. You of all people know the consequences of such talk,” Lucius warns.

“Let them come.”

“I think you are too eager to lose a fight over something so small as a name.”

“You are wrong Bricha. A name is worth fighting for. A name is worth dying for.”

Lucius playfully pushes Germanus. He sneaks around the corner of the building and tries to peek down into the cellar.  He kneels, angling his body awkwardly in the hopes of catching a single glimpse.

“You are too late. It is already over,” Germanus explains.

“Was He there tonight? Germanus”

“Ick, that name like an ass boil newly blistered.”

“Was he?”

“Of course, He was! It has been sealed. Abraham and Leah united by the word of God,” Germanus explains.

He crosses the street unburdened. Striding easily toward the Temple of Zeus, Germanus looks up at the orange glow of the waning moon and sighs before lifting up his tunic and relieving himself on the feet of giant marbled God.

“Must you always look to start a fight, brother?”

Germanus grunts, swinging his urine stream from side to side, “Always.”

“Pissing on Zeus’ Temple- that’s a good way to start.”

“Our bodies are the most sacred temple. He teaches not to worship those things made of stone and mortar.”

“And what of Him, is He safe?” Lucius asks.

“He is finishing up and then I will escort Him back to the villa.  Do not fear, Bricha. No one will be the wiser.”

“You are all too reckless.”

“You would not say such things, brother had you heard Him speak. Tonight was Lamentations, But this do I call to mind- therefore I have hope.”

“Hope, huh?”

“Yes. Hope, brother.”

“Never heard of it,” Lucius says.

He rolls up his sleeve and taps the branding burned into the flesh of his forearm. Servus.

Germanus laughs, “So dramatic Bricha. Even as a baby our mother said you longed for drama. Listen, we are almost done here, and then we can get some sleep.”

“When will I meet Him, brother? How many more mornings must I play the role of guard dog?”

“You will meet Him when it’s time. Now be a good dog and heel. I’ll be right back,” Germanus says.

He flourishes his cloak like a magician before retreating back into the Shrine of Hermes.

Hermes, the God of speed, fast enough to fly between worlds. Lucius dreams of flight. He dreams of stealing those winged shoes and flying through the mist and over the Seven Hills of Rome back to the place where the sea meets the sand. Back home.


From the darkness Lucius hears the heavy steps of a soldier’s caligae. As the footsteps near, a flame follows. The fire appearing out of the distant fog like an apparition.

The torch closes in and Lucius tightens his grip on the shiv, preparing himself. He sees a solitary figure. His heart beat rises. Soon, the image comes into focus. The military dress, the SPQR etchings in the man’s strong arm, the sharpened blade hanging by his side. Lucius is no match for a soldier’s sword.

He steadies his breathing, watching the soldier stride ever closer. His beard is wild. His eyes are heavy. One soldier. Lucius considers his next move. His mind cycling through the dozens of possible outcomes of conflict.

Lucius eases his grip on the weapon.  The moment doesn’t call for battle, he thinks, it calls for distraction.

“You! Over there!” the soldier yells out.

“Me?” Lucius replies.

“You! Boy! What are you doing here at this hour?”

Lucius shrugs his shoulders and unleashes a healthy burp.  He coughs thick phlegm into his filthy hands and stumbles out into the street.

“Boy, are you drunk?” the soldier asks.

The soldier taps Lucius’ shoulder and he almost tumbles over.

“Drunk?” Lucius questions. He follows with a hiccup and a childish smile.

The soldier shoves Lucius down into a puddle of human waste pooling over by the entrance to the great Temple. The murky brown sludge saturates his tunic. He feels a legion of maggots feeding on the excrement beneath him.  The smell makes Lucius keel over and vomit in the dirt.

“Go home boy,” the soldier orders, “and sober up.”

Lucius looks up at the looming figure. He holds the knife and for the briefest of moments considers rising up against those who have held him down for going on ten years now. He is wise enough to know that this is not the time for such rebellion. He is wise enough to know that the time for such rebellion will come.

“Gratias tibi ago,” Lucias says.

The soldier unbuckles his balteus, pulls up his tunic and pisses on Lucius.

Once he finishes, he laughs and spits down on the boy.

The soldier’s laughter echoes down the street but the sound that returns is not his own. It is the hushed voices of Germanus and another chanting a familiar benediction from within the cellar.

The soldier grabs hold of the ivory hilt on his sword, “What is that sound?” he asks.

He makes haste toward the Temple.  Taking a knee, he peers inside the cellar window. His eyes widen. The soldier cannot believe what he sees. He must raise the alarm. He must inform his centurion.

But before he can shout out for help, Lucius has thrust his wooden blade deep into the soldier’s neck.

He presses his hand firmly against the wound. Blood spouts geyser like through his tightened fingers. His widened eyes wander the world. By the time they finally find Lucius, both men know it is over. The blood seeps down over the soldier’s arms and his chest, pooling below him. Slumping over, he stares up at his last night sky, his last Fog of Palatine.  He tries to call out for help. He tries to offer a final prayer to Zeus. He tries to dies with honor.

Lucius just stands over the gurgling soldier delightfully watching him die. Lucius lifts the sleeve of his urine- soaked tunic. He slaps the soldier’s bloodied face and points to tattoo carved into his forearm. He smiles.

Servus,” Lucius says.

The soldier burbles his final breath, the blood gently spurting from the gaping hole in his neck.

Germanus and a cloaked figure run out from the cellar.  They stand over the gory scene.

“Brother, what have you done?”


*this piece is an excerpt from a novel in progress

Jeremy Stelzner’s work has recently appeared in Across the Margin and Half and One Magazines. He teaches literature and journalism and is currently enrolled in the Creative Writing program at the Harvard Extension School.  You can reach him by email at [email protected]

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