The Yew at Fortingall

‘Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets.’

Numbers, xi. ch., 29 v.


Dear Brother Suetonius,

Greetings from the edge of the world, believe it or not, my birthplace, here in the farthest reaches of the Empire. I came up yesterday with a detachment of the legion from the fort at Kalendrium.  I was curious to revive the memories of my childhood.  Did I ever tell you that my father had been Caesar’s envoy, charged to treat with the local King Mettalanus?  The King occupied a fortress at the end of a very long, gloomy and savage defile.  There is a monk’s cell by a river at the foot of an escarpment, and a village, more a shanty town of miserable hovels, if the truth be told.  The people are reserved, yet friendly enough, and happy to deal.  Trade is our only interest, not conquest.  Why would we wish to conquer this desperate wilderness?  The winters are protracted, cold, wet, and wretched.  The landscape?  Steep mountains separated by narrow lakes.  The gods only know what lies further to the north.  There are scatterings of remote tribes, endlessly warring with one another.   Rumour has it there is a large island shortly across the sea where the sun sets, but the 59th legion has no wish to explore there.

For the moment, it is summer, and everything is lush green profusion.  There is a tree here, a yew.  It is very old.  The natives say it has already been here for a hundred generations, but can that be possible?  Would that not make the tree older than the earth itself?  And how could people know such a thing?  Children have always climbed this yew – I did so myself!  We played under its protective foliage, as did our fathers.  And the next generation will do the same.  Hence the tree becomes the stuff of legend.

So, yesterday being a hot and sunny afternoon, I wanted to sit in my old familiar place.  Sure enough, a swarm of ragamuffins were playing a game around the yew’s broad trunk.  They were excessively noisy.  I shooed them away.  You know I am quite patient with children, but I confess I was already irritated.  There is a species of mosquito peculiar to these parts, which thrives in a warm and humid atmosphere, causing an intensely itchy eruption of the skin, a scrofulous inflammation, which, if unchecked, can drive a man to insanity.  I fear my pelt to be particularly sensitive to this intolerable affliction.  Why, had I been in Rome I might have been cast out as a leper!

Once the children had retreated I sat down in the shade with my back to the trunk.  A voice very close to me said, “You ought not to send them away.  They are what keeps the tree alive.”  I started.  The only living creature I could see close by was a tethered white colt, grazing peacefully by a hedgerow.

A tall young man in a rather fashionable white robe, unbidden, sat down beside me.  You may imagine I was minded to censure him for his gross impertinence, but I did not.  I was completely taken aback, because he addressed me in Aramaic.  Instead, I remarked, “Pestiferous urchins!  Their incomprehensible and incessant jabber would drive any man to distraction.”

“Really?  I find the cadences of their speech to be soft and beguiling.  I believe theirs is a very ancient tongue.”

“As ancient as this tree?  They say it is as old as the pyramids.  And they are indeed from the realm of prehistory.  You have travelled in Egypt?”

“Once.  My parents took me.  But I was very young, and have little recollection.  There was trouble at home, in Judea.”

“There’s always trouble in Judea.  You’re a long way from home!”

“As are you.”

“What brings you here?”

“The Imperial Fleet.  A hewer of wood can always find work on a ship.  My father has allowed me to travel before I return home to start my career.  I believe our scholastics call such a break between study and work, an hiatus.  I have walked upon this island’s green and pleasant southern reaches.  Mind, I think I prefer this more rugged, northern wildness.  But, like you, I am soon to return across Mare nostrum.  Perhaps we will travel aboard the same vessel.”

“You seem to anticipate my movements.”

“You are required to take the post of prefect at Caesarea.  You lack enthusiasm for the task, because the peoples of the east are fretful.  They are born to trouble.  Yet for you it is a step closer to Rome.”

“You must not believe everything that is written in the military gazettes.”

“I never read them.”

“Then you should not gossip with the soldiers in the taverns.  But to what station do you yourself aspire?  What are you going back to?”

“My life’s work.”


“The construction of household furniture, or indeed of ships, has been important to me.  Someone who exercises the faculties of mind and spirit should also be practical, and live in the real world.  The head controls the hand, but the hand also informs the head.”

“And how do you intend to use your head?”

“I will embark upon my mission.”


“To teach.”

“Is that a life time’s work?”

“I anticipate, three years.”

“What will you teach?”

“That which my father tells me.”

“Do you always do as your father instructs you?”

“He is very loving.  He allows me great freedom.  Yet in some things, we are of one mind.”

“And whom will you teach?”

“Whoever cares to listen.”

“All right.  I’m listening.”

He smiled, and absentmindedly drew patterns with a finger, in the dust.  “My time has not yet come.”

“What will be your teaching method?”

“I will tell stories.”

“To what end?  What is your purpose?”

“I am going to turn the world upside down.”

Suetonius, I remember at this point I took a deep breath and let it out slowly through pursed lips.  I suppose I should have told him to shut his mouth, but the truth is I rather liked this young man.  He had a combination of strength and vulnerability quite unlike anything I’d ever come across.  I merely said to him, “My young friend, we can sit here, you and I, on the edge of the world and talk metaphysics to while away an idle afternoon, but when we return to the centre of the world, I strongly advise you to be guarded in what you teach.  The emperor Tiberius is a benevolent and humane ruler, but he would not wish to have the world turned upside down.  He believes in tranquillity and cohesion in a world in which each knows his place.  If you insist in inverting the social order, then some people must be cast down, just as others must be elevated.  Who would you elevate?”

He rapidly enumerated a list; he’d clearly thought it through.  “Those who are sick at heart, bereft, downtrodden, disenfranchised, yet still forgiving, sincere, calm, graceful under pressure, especially when reviled under false accusation.”

“Ha!  Good luck with that.  And who would you topple?”

“I wish ill upon no one, though I confess I have difficulty with people who are smug in their own sense of righteousness.”

“Yet you seem so sure of yourself.”

“It is a paradox I need to resolve, before I return home.”

“You had better tell me one of your stories, and I will tell you whether you should look forward to your ministry.”

He began without preamble.  “A certain young man held a modest position in the administration of a great empire.  He was not prominent, but he was ambitious and hard-working, and determined to do his best and to see how far he could go in accessing the centres of power.  He believed in the sovereignty of the empire, and its divine rite to propagate its culture, even if that meant utilising warfare as an instrument of policy.  If he was commissioned to work in a remote location, he would perform his duties as best he could, always in hope of acknowledgement and reward.  Part of his responsibility was to govern in a colony as a suzerain, there to quell unrest, and to administer justice fairly but dispassionately.  The protection and the prosperity of the empire were paramount.

“One day a man was presented to him, on trial for his life, on charges of sedition.  He listened to the charges.  The activities of the man in question did not sound terribly seditious.  Frankly, they sounded trumped up.  There were being brought against the accused by his own people.  The accused was characterised as an enemy of the state, and yet the man in the dock seemed the absolute antithesis to anybody’s notion of how a violent terrorist might look, or behave.  It occurred to the bench that the people who were bringing the charges rather resented the fact that the accused was not a political activist and revolutionary.  When they realised that this man chose, in fact, to be meek, they turned against him.  There is nothing more revolting than the baying of a disappointed mob.  The bench wanted to find a way to let the man walk free, but he could see that that would incense an already angry crowd, and the last thing he wanted was trouble.

“The dilemma was compounded by the fact that the accused seemed quite indifferent to the ruling of the court, whichever way it went.  He made no plea.  He offered no impassioned defence.  He was content to let events run their course.  The bench sensed that the accused recognised the dilemma set before it, the dichotomy of natural justice as opposed to expediency, and that he even sympathised.

“In the end, the bench prevaricated.  He handed the affair back to the representatives within a locally devolved council, telling them to exercise their own judgement.  He literally washed his hands.  As a result, the man was put to death in a particularly cruel and ignominious manner.”

At this point, the man who was telling me this story drew a chiasmic sign with his finger in the dirt.  “Now,” he said, “you must tell me what you think of this imperial procurator.”

“I say he is a rascal.  He allowed an unruly throng to kill an innocent man.”

“What should he have done?”

“He should have offered the accused the clemency and protection of the empire.”

“And, since he failed to do that, what should become of him now?”

“He should be granted no privilege, save that of falling on his own sword.  So how does your story end?”

“The governor, in time, came greatly to regret his role in this extraordinary episode.  He did, as you say, contemplate falling on his sword.  But he did not.”

“Do not tell me he went on to amass power, wealth and status!”

“These were indeed within his grasp.  Yet to him they had become worthless.  In the end, he made a long pilgrimage, back to his original home, perhaps to sit under the rich green foliage and in the protective shade of an ancient yew tree.  It was in such a place he came to realise that I had already forgiven you.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t follow the last bit.”

“Probably my fault.  Work in progress!  My stories are too abstract.  I think they need to be closer to the soil.”

“I have a notion your stories will sell like hot cakes, yet nobody will understand them.  Now I’m going to have to go.  These mosquitos make a madman of me.”

“You are plagued?”


“Here.  Take this.”  He produced a vial from his robe.  “It is a concoction of local herbs.  Bathe tonight, apply this across the inflammation, and sleep.  Your malady will be gone by dawn.”

“You are a very interesting fellow.  But you must take care.  I hope we meet again.”

“Depend upon it.”

“Next year, Jerusalem!”

And you know what, dear brother Suetonius, I woke the next day, and my affliction was gone.






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