Knucklebones a story, Irish American Post, Winter 2014
He was a big man who could move quickly for one off his immense size. He was an Irishman with bulging muscles, reddish hair and a gold chain with an amulet of his god Lugh around his nick that symbolized that he was a Celt of high birth. He was able to get his legs walking rapidly more than most men, especially when he was in a hurry to get somewhere. On this occasion, on the road leading away from Jerusalem, he was making tracks to escape.
No, he wasn't in trouble with the Roman legion who occupied the city in the name of Tiberius Caesar, and he hadn't upset any of the local authorities as well. He wasn't even running away from a bad gambling debt, or the arms of a too willing young damsel.
Jerusalem had depressed him. Land of milk and honey or not, the city was a depressing speck on the face of a dismal desert as fear as Fearghal Scotus was concerned. It was a place he vowed he would never go back to even if there was Roman money to be spent to witness his prowess as a wrestler in the Pit of the Gladiators in the Greek sporting stadium. He would always follow the promise of gold to Gaul, Syria or Egypt but never again would his shadow darken the gates of the sacred city of the nation of Israel.
Fearghal was no politician, or colonist or a thief. He was a honest man plying his trade wherever there were crowds that appreciated the ancient art of self-defense thrown in with large doses of Germanic brute force and Celtic mayhem. He didn't care if the natives liked him or not, but this lot was one that needed sorting out for their sour demeanor and their disdain for the outsider from the western fringes of the known world.
Adding insult to injury somehow they pulled him into their world of injured pride, rebellion and messiahs written about in their ancient Hebrew language. It was all well and good but he had his own demons to wrestle with. Wasn't he on the run after getting chased out of Ireland by a land greedy relative who happened to have more clan members on his side than on he was able to muster?
He hadn't liked the first of this tribe that he had met on the road from Nazareth to Jerusalem. He happened to be at a rest stop where he realized he had plenty of wine but not enough bread. A group of unfriendly travelers had stopped near him and gabbed away in the tongue of their King David while they ignored his presence. Outright hunger made him approach where he was clearly unwanted.
"I'll exchange wine for bread," he said three times: once in Latin, once in Greek and once in the argot of the region. He gestured and pointed to indicate his desire. He received only odd looks for his efforts.
"Do you mean you would like to trade?" asked a handsome young man with very light features and almost blond hair. He was the first Jew to ever smile at him. His Greek was understandable and crisper than his own.
"I am happy I can understand you," said the Celt.
"Please join our fire and our repast."
His companions were not pleased with the offer but the Irishman decided to accept just to irritate them. Besides, there was something pleasing and gentle about this man that made him take a shine to him immediately. Fearghal remained silent as he followed the others in their eating rituals. He listened to words he could not understand but he was impressed by the passionate manner of his new friend in his chanting. He accepted the broken bread and the goblet of wine that made the way around their circle. The dusk began to settle in and he got up to move. He was beckoned by a big man who spoke to him in the messy lingo of the region.
"The Master bides you to stay in our camp as it will mean more protection for you against lions and bandits."
The young man bide the Celt to unroll his blanket close to him.
"You're not a Roman or a Greek," he prodded gently.
"Master, surely you can see he's a barbarian German from beyond the Rhine. Ask the Caesars what their opinion is of his race," said a tiny dark man with shifty eyes.
"I'm from Scoti as it is labeled in Latin. We call it Eire, or Ireland. I am from the clan of Fearghal. It means 'men of valor' in my tongue."
"Relatives of mine operate a tin mine in Cornwall."
"Aye, a stone throw away from us. They are Celts too."
"My mother was born there to a Jewish father and a …."
"Master, it is late."
So that explained his fair skin and his light hair.
"I have an uncle there by the name of Stephen," said the young man.
"In my tongue the Greek name of Stephen is rendered as Stiofan. My name is Stiofan Fearghal," proclaimed the foreigner in a boasting mannerism that was common among his people.
"It is a fine name, Stiofan Fearghal."
n the morning they all marched together into Jerusalem where Fearghal parted company to find the quarters of Longinus and the other Celts in the pay of Caesar for the protection of Pontius Pilate, the hack who ruled Palestine in the name of the Empire. He was more than a little sad to wave his farewells to the half-Cornish wanderer.
There is no written record of how many matches Fearghal won or lost during his stay in Jerusalem to entertain the Roman centurions who patrolled Palestine for pay, room and board. There is a good chance that he had more than a few friends who wore the gold plated armor and wore the red capes of Rome were Celtic Irishmen or British: one of them was Longinus, a captain of the guard. Oral legend has it that whatever winnings Fearghal had raked in he immediately lost to wine drinking, as well as to the curious dice game known as knuckle bones. It was reverses in gambling that wound up with the Irish wanderer carrying the tool box of a one of the carpenters on the Friday that three Jewish outlaws were to be crucified on Calvary, the 'Hill of the Skulls', the location set aside for public executions.
Fearghal was in the middle of the procession that weaved its way through the city. His throbbing head and the growing heat of the day made him indifference to those who struggled with their own wooden crosses, the soldiers who whipped and prodded, or the crowd of natives who lined the pathway and heckled at all in the procession with equal venom. It was only when the peak of the hill was reached and crosses, ropes and nails were spread out upon the ground for the victims that the grossness of the occasion began to dawn upon the wrestler.
"Fetch me my hammer, Fearghal Scotus!"
"Be quick there, my Celtic cousin!" joined in Longinus, all business now.
He approached the cross on the ground he recognized the man spread out for his punishment. The man, beaten and bloodied, looked up into his face.
"Why is it you, my friend."
Stiofan Fearghal?" the woeful man whispered for his ears only.
He turned his back from the outrage and faced the mighty crowd that attempted to surge past the Roman shields and spears to get a better look at the torture of this one man. Their energy was wasted as his companion of the road was lifted high in the air for all to see. He was soon joined by another suffering prisoner on each side of him. Conversation was carried on between the crucified but he could not hear the words for the braying of the crowd and the crude jokes of the Romans.
"Get on the action over here, Fearghal!" Longinus shouted to me at the pierced feet of my friend. "Maybe your luck will change with this roll of knuckle bones."
He was not sure how it transpired but he was the winner who took all and walked away with the robe that had been stripped from my man's body. It would be the only wages he would walk away with in his sojourn in Jerusalem. Before he moved away he looked up at his friend with pity and compassion. The look was returned with the same level of grief. The wanderer was almost relieved when Longinus approached the cross and pierced the man with his long spear.
"It is high time to bring this to an end, me bhoy!"
Fearghal wanted to help take the man off of the cross but he was discouraged by his fellow Celts who said that the Jewish friends of the man would view it as an act of pollution. The body would be attended to in the strictest of privacy and in accordance of their religious laws.
Fearghal slept in the barracks of his friends that night as a huge thunderstorm crashed in the sky above and pelted the parched earth below with rain and hail. It was remarked upon how none of the seasoned veterans had ever witnessed such an upheaval in nature in all of their long years of service in the Orient. The Irishman was too numb and confused to pay much heed to the uproar all around him. However, he was relieved to find that the morning was fresh, clean and sunny. He made haste from the city with the intention of reaching a friendlier place like Lebanon or Syria.
There are several written accounts of how wanderers upon the road outside of Jerusalem encountered a man who they recognized as an old friend and teacher only after seeing the damage that had been done to his hands and feet. Fearghal Scotus never came across these accepted by church authorities as testimonies of proof. He wanted no more to do with the place or the people. He only stopped his walk northward to rest for the night and to build a fire for his lonely repast.
He was looking off into the sunset when he felt a presence behind him. He jumped to his feet and pulled out his long knife. However, it was only the visitation of another lonely wanderer. Fearghal pointed to the cooking fish on the fire and waved his visitor over. The man was mostly silent except for some softly spoken prayer as he and Fearghal passed the meal and wine back and forth. On the last pass of the wine the man let his hand linger long enough in the flare of the fire for the Irishman to see the gaping hole.
"You poor fellow," said Fearghal, immediately making a connection between his guest and his recently executed friend.
The Celts have always been a people wide open for miracles and myths.
"Stiofan, you have something of mine."
Fearghal was confused until the man nodded toward his pack. The first thing that was rummaged out was the robe of the crucified man. The visitor calmly put his hand out and the wrestler handed the cloth to him.
"I was holding it for you, my friend."
"I knew you would preserve it for me." Curiously the recovering man reached over and kissed Fearghal. Then he lightly touched the golden chain wrapped around the wrestler's bull neck. "When you arrive back to your fair Ireland in the west tell them about me."
The next thing Stiofan Fearghal Scotus was aware of was that the sunrise had replaced the sunset and that his fire had gone out. His friend had vanished without leaving behind a trace or a track. He immediately checked his luggage for the robe but it was gone to verify that he hadn't been dreaming or drunk. If he needed any final proof of identity of the rambler Fearghal found the amulet of his foreign god Lugh had been replaced by a figure that resembled a cross.
Like the Odyssey of the Greek Homer, the mostly forgotten book of The Annals Of Annally testify that Fearghal Scotus voyage homeward took him many years and rewarded him with many adventures. He was an older man of almost sixty when he was granted permission to return to Ireland by the High King of Tara. He built himself a home on the moist and rich soil of his ancestors almost exactly in the center of Ireland in what is now known as the County Longford.
The rumor was hot and heavy that the drifter had returned with pouches full of silver and gold coins. However, it was the returnee's tales that attracted more attention than his alleged treasure. The Celts are a race enchanted by stories, and Fearghal was chocked full of them. There was one glorious story, in particular, that became the most popular of all of his yarns: it included a stranger met on the road, a crucifixion, a toss of knuckle bones and the return of a robe.
"Let this serve as proof!" he would conclude his story as he held up the golden cross.
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