I, Saul, page 6
When they finally arrived just before noon, Luke said, “I pray the love of the risen Christ be with you on the rest of your journey.”
The woman quickly looked away, but her husband bristled and turned back. “What did you say?”
“You didn’t hear my blessing?”
“I heard it. I’m just astonished you would say that aloud when the emperor is putting your kind to death every day.”
“Let me tell you something, friend. I will not deny Christ. I am not ashamed.”
“Then you are a fool. Don’t be talking like that in Rome. And don’t call me friend. Life is hard enough as it is.”
“My blessing stands.”
“Please!” And with that the man hurried back to his perch on the wagon.
Luke prayed silently for the couple as the wagon slowly made its way down to the docks. He headed past the great warehouses and down a side street to a long, narrow, one-story stone building. The front was occupied by a small office, while light horse-drawn carriages and two-wheeled carts hauled by oxen accessed the back. The cursus publicus served Rome by loading the light carriages with government documents and the slower carts with the mass of mail for the general populace.
Luke presented the letter to Timothy with the proper fare and asked whether there was any correspondence for him. “I live in Rome.”
“You know better than that, sir. All the mail for the capital is sorted there. Give us a few days.”
“I don’t suppose I could ride back with one of your carriages?”
“Not if I want to keep my station. Old man like you bounces out onto the roadway, and how do I explain it?”
“One of the slow wagons then?”
“We’re not a transportation enterprise, sir. Anyway, you could walk back faster. We load those conveyances to their limit. Just stand at the side of the road looking forlorn. You’ll find travelers sympathetic.”
As it happened, Luke waited less than an hour in the blistering sun before he was picked up by a slow-moving camel caravan bearing spices and dried fruits. The aroma alone made the trek pleasant, the tangy and bitter spices mixing with the sweetness of the fruit. Luke had never been comfortable swaying atop a camel, especially as the second rider, but the driver shared his sun shield and eventually suggested that Luke climb down and ride in the wagon next to a plump old woman.
She did not appear to appreciate the company, nor did she seem open to conversation. She dozed for most of the trip, but when she roused, Luke asked if the pleasant aroma was fig cakes. That made her smile. Supporting herself with a thick hand on the side of the jostling cart, she rummaged deep into the inventory and produced a fistful of dried, sticky fruit. She spent several minutes pressing and forming it with her palms. Finally, clearly pleased with her handiwork, she presented it to Luke and then found the ingredients for another. When he reached for a coin, she waved him off and pointed to her mouth, as if suggesting he try it.
Luke silently thanked God for the provision and prayed for protection against whatever might have been on the woman’s weathered hands. The fruit seemed to burst into liquid in his mouth. Luke closed his eyes, hoping she could see his rapturous expression. When he opened his eyes, she was beaming.
The caravan left Luke miles from Panthera’s house and farther from the prison, and he had missed his midday nap. Wanting to reach Paul no later than sundown, he set off walking toward the carcer. Much of the route was uphill, and Luke felt every step.
He arrived at the prison later than he wished, and torches had already been lit at the entrance. The air had cooled, and as Luke stood drawing his cloak tighter, Primus quickly approached, bare arms apparently insulated with enough muscle to protect him.
“Something for you tonight, friend,” Luke said, slipping the man a chunk of cheese.
Primus sniffed it. “One of my favorites, and the perfect addition to my dinner. I feel unwarranted honor.”
“I’m so pleased.”
Primus leaned close and whispered. “You are, aren’t you?”
“Pleased? Yes! I want you to enjoy it. I’m grateful ….”
“Indeed, it seems so. Anything else I can do for you, Doctor?”
“There might be something in a few weeks. Inconspicuous passage inside for two other friends. I don’t know whether either or both will be able to get here, but if they do ….”
“I shall do my best for you, sir. Just give me fair notice.”
WEDNESDAY, MAY 7, 6:00 P.M.
Augie wished he was already aboard the flight to Rome. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Roger.
As he hurried into the hospital that had housed his father for more than a year, he wondered what the difference would be with Dad in a coma, as opposed to the way he’d been for months—virtually unable to speak and certainly not interested in seeing his son. How many evenings had Augie sat with his mother, trying to draw out the old man?
Dr. Knox had been moved to the intensive care unit, so perhaps this was more serious than Augie had thought. What would his mother think of his leaving the country, even for only a few days?
The room in ICU bore the sign: “Edsel Knox, ThD. NO VISITORS.”
That was nothing new. Difficult as it had been for Dr. Knox to make himself understood following his stroke, he made clear he wanted to see no one but his wife. After a year of pleading with him to make exceptions, Marie finally gave up. But neither did she obey his demand to keep Augie away. His heart ached for her now as she emerged, eyes red.
“I’ve been praying all day,” she said as he gathered her in his arms. “Come see him.”
Machines hummed and hissed, and Augie breathed in the ubiquitous odors of disinfectant and alcohol. There was barely room for a second chair, but Augie pulled one over and sat. Edsel Knox looked much the way he had when he was conscious—perhaps a little more gaunt and drawn. At least now there was a reason he couldn’t meet Augie’s gaze. If this did portend the end, would Augie be able to grieve a man who had never seemed to do more than tolerate him?
“Son,” his mother said, “I know he wasn’t easy to live with, but—.”
“You knew that better than anyone, Mom. What was it? What made him so …?”
“He wasn’t always that way,” Marie whispered, leaning forward to lay a hand atop her husband’s. “Do you think I would have fallen in love with a man like that?”
“I never remember his being any different.”
“I’m sorry, August. I hope I never made you feel like that.”
“Are you kidding? If it hadn’t been for you ….”
“I fell in love with his mind,” she said. “Once he got a verse or a passage or a doctrine in his head, he could recite it, explain it, defend it, whatever anyone wanted. In class I sat in the front row so I could get a good look at him and hear every word.”
“You’re the only student I’ve ever heard say they could stand to listen to him at all.”
She smiled knowingly. “His presentation was dry, but there was a treasure trove of information there.”
“You didn’t sit in front so he’d notice you?”
“Maybe. And he did. But he didn’t speak to me until graduation when he couldn’t get in trouble for fraternizing.” She chuckled. “The first thing he ever said to me was that I had wasted my time getting a seminary degree.”
“Because you’re a woman.”
“Exactly. I told him I had no intention of becoming a pastor, that I just wanted to be trained for whatever God called me to. But he just said I now had way too good an education for a Sunday school teacher. I could have slapped him.”
“Yeah, that sounds like you.”
“I just laughed and told him maybe I’d marry a seminary grad and be able to hold my own. I had no idea my calling would be to be his wife.”
Augie suddenly felt claustrophobic and stood, moving toward the door.
“I’d rather not leave him, August
“He’s fine. Look at the readouts. We’ll be gone just long enough to get a bite.”
He walked her down to the cafeteria and they talked as they ate.
“I’ve never met anyone like Dad,” Augie said. “Other kids’ fathers had fun with their children. I mean, I’m grateful he wasn’t an alcoholic or an abuser. But I swear, I never saw him smile. Did you?”
Mrs. Knox looked away as if trying to remember. “When we were dating he had plans, dreams. He would smile when he talked about teaching at Dallas or Southwestern someday.”
“What? My whole life I never heard him say word one about either of those places without a smirk or a scowl. He wanted to teach there?”
Marie fell silent. Finally, when she had finished eating, she said softly, “I can’t tell you the number of times he applied to each. He couldn’t figure out why he never even got an interview, and it embittered him. But I knew.”
She nodded. “I shouldn’t say, August. I don’t want to be disloyal.”
“You can tell me.”
“He doesn’t know that I know.”
“How many times did Dad apply to Dallas or Southwest, really?” he said, following her to the elevator.
“Almost every year for many years, as recently as last year. He thought it would lend him some credibility, gravitas he called it.”
“He had all the gravitas he needed.”
“Your father wanted to be legitimatized, August.”
Augie shook his head. “I never got the impression he cared what anyone thought.”
His mother shot him a glance as they exited the elevator. She put a finger to her lips as she opened his father’s door. “We’re back, sweetie,” she said, laying a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Augustine and I will be right outside.”
In the hall she said, “August, the longer he went without respect, the darker his moods became. It was him against the world.”
“So why did he never get a nibble from the other schools?”
Marie looked up and down the corridor and whispered, “He had me check the mail every day for a letter from Dallas. I called him as soon as it arrived, and he insisted I read it to him over the phone. When I got to ‘I regret to inform you …’ he told me to just throw it away.
“I was disappointed for him, August, but I was also relieved he asked me to stop reading, because the letter went on to say that since he had applied so many times, the dean at Dallas felt it only fair to tell him the whole truth. They had planted a student in one of his classes for three weeks, and he had evaluated your father’s teaching.”
“Oh, no. I’d love to see that.”
“I kept it hidden among my things. Your father must never see it.”
“Your things? What else is there?”
“Soon you’ll know,” she said. “I need to be back in there with him.”
Augie slipped into an empty waiting room and called Sofia.
For three weeks after the citywide fire had finally been extinguished, Luke invested himself heavily in helping the injured and dying. Primus Paternius Panthera’s mother had rallied to where he believed she would enjoy several more healthy years. A grateful Panthera assured Luke he could use the guest room for as long as he needed.
“Will you remain in Rome after, ah, your friend’s demise?”
Luke didn’t want to tell the guard that he had grown disillusioned by the Roman church and those who had abandoned Paul in fear of the emperor. Nero’s evils acts against Christians were known throughout the city. Yet hadn’t God called the followers of Christ to contend for the gospel, even to the point of death if necessary?
Luke told Panthera only that he did not know yet what he would do. “More than likely I will return to serve in Ephesus or some other city where the church remains strong. For now I feel God has called me to Rome. I want to pour myself out as an offering, the way Paul refers to his own death. Oh, for a faith like Paul’s!”
The guard looked embarrassed, and Luke wondered if he had said too much. But Primus said, “I am impressed with Paul. Such courage in the face of his sentence.”
“What of his message?” Luke said. “Surely by now you know it by heart.”
Primus looked away, which told Luke that he—like all the guards in Paul’s proximity—had heard Paul urgently preach from the end of a chain in the black pit. “I was raised to revere the gods,” he said.
“You know Paul worships the one true God.”
Primus nodded. “He makes that clear, and there is no question he believes it. That alone makes him admirable.”
“But not believable?”
Primus studied the ceiling.
“Panthera,” Luke whispered urgently, “these gods, do they love you? Forgive you? Would they die for you?”
Primus shifted his weight. “They’re supposed to have created the world and now superintend the affairs of men.”
“Tell me, friend, do these gods actually exist? Are they real beings?”
“How can we know? I believe they are real if one believes in them.”
Luke cocked his head, brows raised. “By that reasoning, if one does not believe in them, do they then not exist?”
Primus sighed and shrugged. “You are too clever for me, Doctor. Leave me to my beliefs.”
“Ah, I care too much for you for that,” Luke said, but Primus’ look told him the conversation was over.
After his visit to the prison that night, Luke stopped at an inn for a cup of wine on his way back to Panthera’s. The proprietor, who knew him from his work with the fire victims, said, “A man came asking after you today. I told him I didn’t know where you were lodging.”
“Dark-eyed, trim, about fifty?”
“That was the man. Carrying a large satchel. Looked weary from travel. I suggested Flavia’s.”
The innkeeper shrugged. “There are not many other places.”
Flavia Sabina was the widow of a senator who had left her a rather large home she had turned into little more than a brothel. The formerly handsome estate was now a rundown box full of small rooms rented by the hour, the night, or the week. The proprietress cared nothing about who stayed or for how long, let alone what their business might be—provided they paid in advance.
Luke found her lazing about the dingy foyer of the place. “Only a couple of closets left,” she said. “Cheap.”
Luke asked if she had rented a room to a Timothy of Ephesus.
“How would I know?” she said. “Names and hometowns are nothing to me.”
Luke described him.
“Upstairs, last room on the left,” she said. “If you’re staying with him, that’s extra.”
Luke assured her he was not and hurried up the stairs. He knocked at a thick, creaky wood door.
“Who goes there?” came a whisper.
“Timothy, it’s your friend!”
The door swung open to a tiny room lit by a dim lamp, illuminating Timothy’s disheveled hair. He wrapped Luke in a huge bear hug and lifted the old man off the floor. “How soon can I see Paul?”
“Tomorrow evening, but where’s Mark?”
“He’s on the way from Troas with Paul’s scrolls and books and parchments. Should be here within the week.”
“You didn’t bring the parchments?”
Timothy pointed to the bed, where Luke sat, and the younger man squatted on the floor. “Only the cloak made it to me. We got conflicting reports on the whereabouts of Paul’s documents, so Mark is searching personally. I can’t stay until he gets here. I am obligated to the brethren at Corinth on the way home.”
“That’s not exactly on the way.”
“Nonetheless, I must go.”
“Paul will be so pleased to see you!”
“I can hardly wait.”
“Neither can Paul.”
“Will I have any trouble gett
Luke told him of his relationship with Panthera. “We will have breakfast at his home in the morning.”
Timothy rose and dug Paul’s cloak from his cargo. Luke fingered it, remembering it well. Thick and smooth and warm, it had been a gift from the believers in Troas. Roman soldiers had wrenched Paul away from there so quickly that he had not been able to take it with him. He told Luke he had longed for it on the prison ship, and now even more. Stifling as the dungeon was during the day, it proved frigid at night.
The next morning after breakfast, Luke tried to slip Primus a coin on their way out “for the extra meal,” but his wife rushed to refuse it. “Your friends are our friends, Doctor.”
Timothy helped Luke on his rounds that day, fetching water, helping carry patients, and running any errand Luke needed. When the sun finally began to wane, Luke and Timothy set out for the prison, stopping to eat and to buy foodstuffs for Paul and for Primus.
Primus was conferring with fellow guards who stepped away as Luke and Timothy approached. Primus called out, “So you have brought an assistant!”
“I have,” Luke said.
The three passed through the front gate and up to the entrance, where Primus led them past more guards and down the long corridor with the crowded, awful cells on either side. Luke had forgotten to prepare Timothy for this and heard the younger man gasp as they hurried toward the hole leading to the dungeon.
The guards there seemed to come to life and puff their chests as Primus and the visitors entered. “These two are authorized to visit the condemned,” he announced.
“By the front gate guard,” Primus said evenly, his tone grave. The others backed off.
“Would you aid my assistant after I’m in?” Luke whispered as he approached the hole.
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