Chapter 4: The Mission

The soldiers stood at her door, their eyes cold and watchful.

“Where is he?” the older one demanded, while the other—the larger one—glanced around the room behind her, staring finally at the darkened archway leading to the apartment’s second room.

“He’s not here,” she said, her shaking voice betraying her terror. She took a deep breath, an effort to calm herself.  It didn’t help. “He’s gone to the market. I needed some beans for supper. He may not come back for a while.” I’m blathering, she anguished. Shut up! 

The soldiers looked at each other. The older one unbuckled his helmet and tucked it beneath his arm. “We’ll wait then,” he told her, shoving his way past her into the apartment. He strode around the room with a swagger born from long years of city duty—too little time facing competent enemies, too much time frightening helpless women. He nodded to his companion who poked his head into the second room that served as their sleeping quarters and then gave his optio the all clear.

“We’ll wait,” the soldier repeated and motioned with his head for the other one to stand guard outside the door. He placed his helmet on the table and unbuckled his sword and dagger. “Now, what can we do to pass the time?” he asked, turning to look at her with a hard smile.

She glanced at the door and the window. She thought of the dagger hidden in the other room. But her mind was screaming, Run Aquila. Please run. 

__________

She woke, as she always did, when the soldier reached for her.

Each night the same dream, a nightmare fueled by her fears rather than actual memories. But the shaking that racked her when the dream finished was real enough. And the sense of dread that haunted her for the rest of the day. She slipped from the sleeping mat to banish the dream in prayer.

Hear O Israel!  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart …  

At first, the words poured out of her in a panicked jumble—until the pace finally slowed as her breathing began to quiet. She turned to the Shema out of habit. It was, after all, the prayer with which she’d begun and ended every day of her life.  There was comfort in the ancient words, a talisman against all the dangers she could imagine but could not control. She repeated it again and again, until the shaking subsided and the vision of the soldier’s cruel face was replaced by the calming presence of the God of her fathers.

As she prayed, the light strengthened, creeping through the high window to wrap her kneeling figure in a golden glow. Prisca was a woman of modest stature, who hid behind an unimposing frame the heart of a warrior.  She was pleasant enough to look at, though no longer young, and avoided unwanted attention by drawing her hair back severely and covering all but her face in the thick robes of her people. 

Her face was sufficient, however, to convey an impression of her inner force.  The eyes gave the first hint of the woman’s character—dark and dancing, smart and quick.  Her mouth curled easily into a smile, but, in its resting state, communicated a firmness, a stubbornness, that gave others pause.  Her brow was smooth and unlined, although above her nose, two vertical wrinkles bore evidence to a fierce concentration.  And around her eyes and mouth, the skin was finely etched by the marks of a ready humor … or a familiarity with suffering.

She was a Jewess, of the Diaspora, marooned on pagan shores by the determined opportunism of her financier father.  As a young child, she’d wrapped her fingers into the wool of his cloak and followed him from city to city—through the provinces of Asia and Macedonia and Dalmatia—always farther from the Holy City, as though the ocean on which they sailed knew only an ebbing tide.  Her father, though mobile, was not successful.  After a few months in a city picking low-hanging fruit, they would drift away to seek their elusive fortune elsewhere.

Prisca never knew her mother, dead soon after giving birth. In her place, a series of Jewish grandmothers in the succession of Jewish enclaves visited by her peripatetic father oversaw Prisca’s care and education. The little waif would appear one Sabbath at synagogue—without a mother, disheveled and afraid—and the older women would cluck and fuss and scold her father until he handed the child over to their maternal care.  They need not have clucked.  He would have loaned out the girl gladly enough without much persuasion. In fact, the older she grew—looking more like her mother with each passing year—the more distant her distracted father became, in the end bestowing on Prisca a kind of cold tolerance she came to accept as her constant discipline.

He died when she was fourteen, leaving her the clothes she wore, a threadbare bag filled with little more than souvenirs of homeless wanderings, and the papers documenting a dozen loans to Italian businessmen.  They, of course, on hearing the news of the moneylender’s death, promptly forgot any obligation to his estate. 

Once more, it was a kindly matron who took her in, comforting her in the loss of her father by arranging a marriage with one of the poorer families of the Hebrew community, newcomers from the province of Pontus.  For pity’s sake, the family agreed to forego a dowry. 

The match, with the gangly youngest son of a tailor, was, she always thought, the single greatest kindness God had shown her in all the long years of her short life.  The boy and the orphan surprised themselves with laughter and passion, and grew to love one another with a fierce, eager affection.  They shared work, laboring side-by-side at the cutting table and the finishing room.  They shared devotion, each a pious worshipper of the one true God. 

And when, after a few years in the warm bosom of the father’s home, it became evident that the old tailor possessed more sons than business, they shared the long journey to Rome, determined to make a life of their own.

What they did not share was children.  Despite their frequent and enthusiastic couplings, Prisca never experienced any quickening in her womb. 

One more discipline to endure.

In the strengthening light of the spring morning, Prisca set aside the familiar, life-long words of the Shema and took up simple, strangely intimate words more recently committed to memory. 

Our Father in heaven, help us to honor your name.  Come and set up your kingdom, so that everyone on earth will obey you …  

That’s how her friends back in Rome taught her to pray, the followers of the Way, the ones who told her about the Carpenter before the soldiers carted them off.

For months now, she’d prayed the new prayer—in the evenings with her husband and early in the morning before Aquila woke—though the words still seemed awkward to her. In truth, even her new faith seemed awkward now. Her friends gone because of it. She and Aquila forced out of Rome because of it. Making a home among strangers in Corinth because of it. She carried the sufferings of the past months like a burden. The weight of it left her exhausted.

Her eyes moved from the ceiling to the sleeping figure of her husband, and she felt a rush of warmth.  God of Israel and all those who call on your Son, watch over my husband. Protect him from rashness and the pride of courage. Give us a quiet life here in Corinth. I beg you.  Her eyes closed and the tears rolled down her cheeks. The nightmare threatened to surface again. She wondered if she would ever be free of a sense of dread.

“Stop it!” she said out loud, wiping at the tears on her face, irritated by this daily torrent of self-pity.  With a set of her jaw, Prisca rose from her knees to face another morning.

“The Lord be with you, Wife,” her husband murmured sleepily, awakened by her outburst.

“And the Lord be with you, Husband.  Though why the Lord should concern himself with such a slug-a-bed, I do not know.”  She moved to the mattress and wrapped Aquila in a warm embrace.  “I suppose it is a measure of his grace that you always sleep so well and so long,” she sighed. 

“That may be true, Prisca.”  He settled into the folds of her arms.  “But his greatest grace to me is always you.”

She stroked his hair, enjoying the quiet moment. 

“I know,” she smiled.

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[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.