I saul, p.30

I, Saul, page 30


I, Saul

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  A couple of hours later the three men greeted Sofia and followed her to a late-model Mercedes four-door.

  As soon as they were on the road, headed toward the foot of Mount Orbelos, Georgio said, “L’ironia non è perso su di me”

  “No fair,” Augie said. “Speak English.”

  Roger said, “He told her the irony was not lost on him. I’ll bet we’re closing the loop on all of this in Trikoupis’s own car.” “It’s true,” Sofia said.

  When they arrived and walked past the Baptistery of St. Lydia on their way to the church, they passed a busload of tourists leaving the outdoor chapel. Augie said, “I’ll be right there,” and stopped to examine trinkets offered by an elderly matron. He gave her three euros for an ichthus ring no thicker than a wire, then hurried to catch up.

  The others were waiting at the stairs leading to a triple-arched entryway. They filed into the narthex, which featured a painting of Hagios Paulos (Saint Paul) holding that very church in one hand and a white Bible in the other. Next to a marble cabinet, which held candles for sale, sat a tiny priest in all black. He had tied back the long, straggly hair that protruded from a chimney pot-style hat, and he sported an untrimmed patchy white beard. He sat so still that he could have been a carving.

  Roger knelt before him. “Remember me, Yuri?”

  The old man blinked. “The voice,” he breathed.

  “Yes! You remember my voice! Imagine me with my bushy gray beard.”

  Finally Yuri focused and smiled. “Klaudios said you would come,” he managed, crossing himself right to left. “Rest his soul. I will need help getting downstairs.”

  Yuri accepted Roger’s outstretched hand and slowly pulled himself upright. The four followed him down a narrow staircase to a small office where he unlocked a cabinet to reveal a rough-hewn wooden box measuring about twenty-four by twenty inches. The initials RM had been penned atop it in lavender ink.

  “Got to be sure this is it before we haul it out of here,” Emmanuel said. “Mr. Zodiates, do you have a screwdriver or a hammer?”

  Yuri rummaged through an old metal desk and found an oversize pair of scissors.

  Roger hefted the box from the cabinet, and Emmanuel carefully used the scissors to work at the top pieces of wood. When he finally broke through, he gingerly lifted out the bubble-wrapped stack of about five hundred sheets of ancient parchment.

  “Please,” Augie said, “don’t anyone touch them.”

  As if on cue, everyone pulled out their cell phones and began shooting pictures, even the old priest.

  Finally Georgio said, “This isn’t standard operating procedure, but shouldn’t someone pray?”

  The five of them held hands and Augie said, “Father, we are overcome. We feel unworthy, yet blessed beyond measure. When we think of the man who penned these pages and what he endured for Your sake, we are reminded of what Your Son endured for us. We say with the Apostle Paul himself, who wrote to the believers in this very city: ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

  “‘And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

  “Thank You in the name of Jesus the Christ, our Lord and our Redeemer. Amen.”

  As they made their way back to the car, Roger—tears streaming— carried the box. On the flight back Georgio used a satellite phone to announce to his superiors the procurement of the memoir. They arranged a press conference for the following morning. There Roger officially presented to Italy the most valuable antiquity ever discovered.

  Roger and Augie received checks for two hundred fifty thousand euros each. “Depending on how soon you cash this,” Roger told Augie, “it should net you somewhere between three hundred thirty and three hundred fifty thousand dollars.”


  The Spectacle


  By late spring Luke had succeeded at both his most glorious assignment—helping Paul complete his personal memoir—and his most odious: keeping his dearest friend alive only so he could be put to death.

  As Luke had pored over the hundreds of pages covering many events he had personally witnessed, he discovered insights that continued to amaze him. His friend was the most cogent thinker he had ever met. Paul had a way of ferreting truth from every anecdote. And whatever God had taught him, especially during the three years of solitude following his conversion, manifested itself in ideas easily understood by any reader.

  That was why Luke insisted—much to Paul’s dismay—that every word of the memoir, even the very last pages that brought the story fully up to date, be written in Paul’s own hand. The old man insisted that no one would care. “They will know these are my thoughts and that you, my friend, served as my amanuensis at the end.”

  “I’m not going to do it,” Luke said. “This is an important document the brethren will cherish all the more because it is your own.”

  “But my hand is unsteady, my writing sloppy!”

  “All the more meaningful and unquestionably authentic.”

  And so Luke lugged sections of the manuscript back and forth with him every night. He had additions and deletions to suggest, but the actual writing was done by the old evangelist himself. Luke interviewed Paul, urging him to write every detail he could remember from his earliest days with Jesus’ disciples.

  When it was finished, Luke was filled with pride. Paul, naturally, thought it “a mess. Whatever import or gravity it carries in the beginning will be lost on the reader in the end due to the distraction of ink blotches and the illegibility of an ancient man’s hand.”

  Paul’s execution was scheduled for three days hence, so that evening Luke brought the complete memoir with him—an unwieldy stack of parchments wrapped in a bag. Equipped with plenty of oil for his lamp, he and Paul went over the last few portions page by page. “I remain opposed to the handwriting,” Paul said.

  “And you must know by now that I have stopped listening.”

  “Or caring.”

  “Don’t you dare say that,” Luke said, suddenly overcome. “Not in jest, not in anger, not even to make a point. It is too close to the end for you to even imply such a thing.”

  Paul rose, opening his arms to Luke. “Forgive me, my friend. You know how I exaggerate.”

  As the doctor embraced Paul and drew him near, he longed for him to enjoy the glorified body promised him in paradise. Paul had nearly wasted completely away. Luke didn’t know how the man could stand or walk, let alone be led miles out of Rome on the Ostian Road for his execution.

  “I will never be able to thank you, Luke, not this side of eternity. I will watch and wait for you there, and perhaps in that beautiful dominion I will have the capacity to tell you all you have meant to me.”

  “Stop!” Luke said. “I will miss you as if a part of me has died.”

  “I am a part of you, my friend, for we are closer than brothers. We are united in Christ.”

  Luke heard the scrape of the wood as the covering over the hole was pulled away. He was relieved when it was Primus who descended.

  “Hide the manuscript,” he whispered urgently. “The execution has been moved up to tomorrow. They are coming now to move you to a cell above ground tonight.”

  “You must take the parchments,” Paul said. “We cannot risk their being found with either of us.”

  “I have nowhere to hide them, Paul,” Primus said. “I remain under suspicion. I had long before arranged for my day off to coincide with your execution—.”

  “Bless you.”

  “But w
hen it was changed, I told them I wanted my day off changed too. My superiors are demanding to know why tomorrow is so important to me.”

  Luke heard voices above. “They are here already!”

  “Give me the manuscript,” Primus said.

  Luke quickly stacked the pages in the cloth sack. “What will you do with it?”

  “Hide it in the wall for now. I’ll slip in here as soon as I can and take it home so you can have it.”

  As the guards above positioned themselves to drop into the dungeon, Primus quickly slid out the block of tufa, set the sack into the opening, and pushed the stone back. To Luke it didn’t appear as flush as the day before, but no one seemed to notice. Paul beamed when his manacle was removed, but he looked unsteady as three men pulled him to his feet and then up through the opening.

  Luke followed him to a holding cell about a tenth the size of the dungeon, but torches both warmed Paul and offered him light. He immediately began to preach to the guards. When one tried to shout him down, he said, “Come now, friend. Surely you can grant a condemned man the opportunity to practice for tomorrow when I will address all who come for the spectacle.”

  Most executions of Roman citizens were done without fanfare. The condemned was dragged outside the city, and wherever it seemed convenient, a swordsman would quickly do the deed.

  The procession scheduled to leave the prison at eleven the next morning, however, would be accompanied by throngs. For weeks the emperor had daily sent tributes throughout the capital to announce the event, assuring citizens they would not be disappointed. “Nero has caught the snake by its head, and this will be no ordinary execution!” they said. The strongest man in Nero’s army would behead the man with a five-foot sword.

  Paul was to be bound and prodded along the route to where a small hillside provided natural seating and a clear view. Even people who had not heard what was to happen would be attracted by the sheer pageantry of Nero’s men in full dress.

  Luke arrived at dawn and found his friend sitting with his eyes closed, quietly praying. “Did Primus bring you the parchments?” Paul said.

  “He did not. He said the dungeon was full all night. Apparently it is being prepared for the next prisoner.”

  “Prepared?” Paul said with a sad smile. “New draperies and bed coverings? Perhaps a bowl of fruit as a welcoming gift? Wait, I know! A fresh coat of slime.”

  “Whatever they’re doing, Primus will get down there as soon as he can. But Paul, I have bad news.”

  Paul grinned. “Oh, Luke! What could be bad news on the day I am to die?”

  “I’m just so sorry. But there is no time to get word to Timothy or Mark. They had planned to arrive two days from now, and when they do ….”

  “I will be gone. Tell them I knew of their intentions. I cherish knowing I will see you all again.”

  Luke looked up, alarmed to see men lowering bricks and mortar through the hole. When he noticed Gaius, he asked what was going on.

  “They noticed cracks between some of the blocks,” he said. “Rather than replace them, they’re reinforcing the walls with a new layer of bricks all the way around. New bench. New chain. New everything. The dungeon will be about a foot narrower on all four sides.”

  Luke hurried out to find Primus, who had just arrived in civilian clothes. “You must get down there before they seal the manuscript away forever!”

  Primus rushed inside and dropped into the dungeon. He returned quickly, looking grave. “It’s already done,” he told Luke. “That block has been thoroughly covered.”

  Luke closed his eyes. “We cannot tell Paul. All that work for naught. What a loss!”

  “You can recreate it, Luke!” Primus said. “You have a good memory, and you know how he expressed himself.”

  Luke knew he could never produce anything like the original. Only dread over what was happening to his friend kept him from obsessing over the loss of the memoir. When he returned to Paul, the old man said, “You have kept your promise to spare me for this day. Just tell me again that you will not let the parchments fall into the wrong hands.”

  Luke studied the expectant eyes. “I will do everything in my power.”

  “I know you will.”

  Half an hour before the procession set out, the clamor of the troops and the crowds reached inside the prison. Luke couldn’t hide his distaste for the fanfare.

  “You hear a celebration you cannot enjoy,” Paul said. “I hear an excited crowd. If only I can capture their attention, then I can engage their minds and, I pray, win their hearts.”

  Ever the optimist, Luke thought. He tried to pray for the success of Paul’s efforts, but his eyes filled and his throat constricted.

  “Say your good-byes, Doctor,” Gaius said as he arrived with the executioner. “You will not see Paul again, except from a distance.”

  Luke’s face contorted as he turned to his old friend. “Godspeed to you,” he whispered, lips trembling. “I pray it will be quick and painless and that you will awaken in heaven.”

  “Oh, dear Luke! You need not request that last, as it is certain. Pray I will be allowed to preach, and then that the sword is swift.”

  “I love you, Paul.”

  “You have proved that in countless ways, my friend. Do not despair. Encourage the brethren, console the downhearted, but above all continue to spread the good news: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

  “Time’s up,” Gaius said. “Doctor, please step out. Paul, this is Quintus.”

  Luke embraced Paul fiercely, certain the man would never have endured this long without the extra rations he had brought him daily. What a travesty that Nero should turn his death to sport.

  Luke stepped outside the cage as the huge soldier went in and sat next to Paul. The physician was shocked at the softness of the executioner’s voice and the gentleness of his manner. It was as if he truly wanted to be of help to Paul.

  “The walk will be difficult,” he began. “Unfortunately the horsemen have been told not to impede the people, should they want to get to you. They will throw things and some will try to strike you. Just keep moving. Now, as for the deathblow itself, I want you to know that I have done this many times and know how you can make it the easiest on yourself. As you kneel, you may find it hard to remain still, but you must. I will not torture you by delaying. The blade is so heavy that even I find it hard to lift, and it has been sharpened to its maximum. If you do not flinch or duck, I will end it with a single blow. I want you to know, sir, that I have no interest in making this more difficult for you than it needs to be.”

  “How very kind.”

  “Any questions for me?”

  “Just one request. I will be preaching when I am kneeling before you. I do not expect you to wait long for me to finish, but if I am in the middle of a point, would you allow me to complete it?”

  “I’ve never been asked that before, but yes, if I can I will. I must say, most of the men I have talked with in your situation have been too distraught to even speak, let alone discuss arrangements.”

  The death walk was worse than Luke feared. Thousands had been drawn to it as Nero gloated over besting one of his greatest adversaries, claiming Paul had been the mastermind behind the arson that had destroyed so much of Rome.

  Paul was pushed, poked, jabbed with sticks, pelted with rocks, and shouted down all along the route. Luke could not understand where he found the strength to remain upright. He could only assume the man had been living for this day for so long that he was determined not to spoil it by collapsing.

  Luke prayed that the crowd would become still when the procession reached the killing ground, but he was stunned when his prayer was answered. As the people found their places on the hillside, they actually shushed one another. Perhaps they simply didn’t want to miss Paul’s demise, but for whatever reason, during the several minutes it took for them to find places to sit, the only sound was the nickering and stamping of horses.

  Paul was forc
ed to kneel on flat, dusty ground. It pained Luke to watch as Paul, hands and feet still bound, came down hard and tumbled onto his side. He thrashed trying to get up until Quintus reached under his arm with one hand and pulled him to his knees.

  The soldier ceremoniously pulled the monstrous sword from its sheath and held it aloft so the long blade gleamed in the sun. The crowd cried out, but when he lowered it they fell silent again.

  Seemingly to everyone’s surprise, Quintus stalled. He faced Paul, set the tip of the blade in the ground, and rested his hands on the hilt. Paul thanked him, lifted his head, and began.

  At first Luke could not believe the vigorous quality of his voice. It was as if the Paul of twenty years before had reappeared. Preaching from his knees, hands behind his back, he mustered the strength to proclaim loudly enough for everyone to hear:

  “Despite my circumstance, I kneel before you today thanking God Himself for the unspeakable privilege of declaring to you the gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ. I deliver to you that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day. I am the least of the apostles, not worthy because I persecuted the church of God. But by the mercy of God, His grace toward me was not in vain.

  “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God, granting salvation to everyone who believes.

  “Now to Him who is able to also save you from your trespasses and sins, according to the gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith—to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever.”

  Paul looked directly at Quintus, bowed his head, and remained perfectly still. The big man deliberately lifted the massive sword, spread his feet, and unleashed a mighty swing so fast that Luke heard the whoosh before the gruesome thud that sliced Paul asunder.

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