He sat with head down, shoulders slumped, his helmet laying on its side on the ground beside the scrub rock. In his right hand was a wooden-handled coarse brush that had seen plenty of use. He sat staring at the ugly object in his left hand: a flagrum. Two of them – stiff, stinking and repulsive from a recent scourging. It was like he hadn’t heard his name, although his legionnaire bud stood only a dozen feet away.
The soldier’s grimy features turned and his troubled gaze slowly raised to meet his superior’s eyes. “What?”
“Whaddya doin’, sittin’ like—-” Then the burly Roman noncom saw the look in the young recruit’s eyes. Scanning the ground before him, Slug saw the gore-caked whips and flagellum from a scourging laying there beside the rock, the wooden tub of soapy water and the rough brushes. He also saw the puddle of vomit off to one side. Taking a couple of steps closer, he tried again.
“Look, man, I know what that job’s like. NObody I’ve ever known likes it. We’ve all had our turn at it. The newest recruits always have to clean ’em. You know this, right? It’s a filthy job, a GI party for one. You get other guys’s blood and junk all over you, the stench stays with ya, sometimes you get sick, gotta go clean yourself up . . . Personally, I don’t even like being on scourging and crucifixion detail. In fact—” Here Slug glanced around to make sure nobody else was close enough to hear. “–I puked the first couple times I done it. I get it. But look, ‘Tonio. The centurion sent me out to make sure these were gettin’ cleaned up because there are a couple more scheduled today. He wants them ready. An’ if they ain’t, you and me might wind up on the wrong end of ’em! You feelin’ me, here?”
The young Roman army boot was silent for a couple of beats. Then, taking in a shaky breath: “I was on weapons cleanup detail three days ago, too.” Salogino spread his brawny arms wide in consternation, his brow starting to settle into that ferocious frown and dead gaze that NCOs in every army have mastered. Then it registered.
“Yeah. The whips and stuff they laid that Jesus guy’s back and legs open with? I got stuck cleaning them off, too.”
“So? You’ve had to do that before, just like you’re supposed to be doing now!”
Antonucci was again silent for a few seconds. “This was different. I’ve had blood on my hands before. I ain’t that squeamish. I mean, you and me have fought shoulder to shoulder; you know I ain’t no pansy. But this–this was different. See, I touched HIS blood. I’m tellin’ ya, it was different. There was something . . .”
Reaching down, the troubled young soldier picked up one of the grimed, disgusting cat-o’-nine-tails, laid it over the ugly, stained flat boulder and began dipping the brush in the soap and scrubbing the leather and metal caked with what was once living flesh.
As the Roman sergeant turned on his heel to report back, he heard his recruit’s voice again: “. . . I don’t know, man–it was almost like his blood was touchin’ ME.”
© D. Dean Boone, March 2017