Chapter 5: The Mission

While she finished with a disinterested customer and straightened the leather goods on display in front of the shop, Prisca studied the stranger across the street from the corner of her eye.

He was a small man, compact and lean.  Small hands, short legs. Small everywhere except for his head, which looked as though it had been lifted from a bald giant and stuck onto his reed of a neck. She noticed that he leaned to the left, his neck canted to the right, as though his head were too heavy for the rest of him and his whole body bent with the effort of keeping it in place. He was dressed like a laborer and had the dirt of the road on him. He looked lost.

But he was staring at her.

“May I help you?” she asked at last, when there were no more samples to straighten and his steady gaze began to irritate her.

“Ah, Sister.” He moved closer, in a slow, unthreatening way. “May the God of  Peace be with you.” He said the words quietly, in Aramaic.

She started, astonished to hear the home language from such an odd source. A Jew?

He laughed. “I don’t look like one of the chosen people, do I?” He spread his hands in an embarrassed gesture to display his worn tunic, his dirty cloak and smooth-shaved cheeks. “I do have the learning for it, though,” and he tapped a finger against his temple. “And I assure you, Sister, that I have the heart for it as well.”

There was, in his gaze, an intensity that made her uneasy.  It occurred to her that he could be a salesman or a con—he’d said no more than “Hello” and already she was drawn to trust him.  From the start, she was on her guard.

“You, on the other hand, are certainly a daughter of Israel.” He gestured with both hands at Prisca who was suddenly conscious of her heavy robes and veiled hair. 

She felt the irritation again.  So he reads clothes.  Two can play at that game

“I wear these robes to honor my heritage.  Where is your beard? Why don’t you wear the tassle and the payos? What kind of Hebrew are you, to be dressed like that?”  Her tone was rude, distancing—not the kind of deference a Jewish male would expect from a woman of his race.

“Well!” He pretended shock. “I see you’ve lived among the Gentiles for a while. You’ve certainly taken on some of their habits.”

She was ready to be truly angry with him then, until she saw the corner of his mouth twitch and realized he was working to suppress a smile. “As to what kind of Hebrew I am … well … it’s a complicated story. Perhaps when we know each other better….” He was suddenly careful.

He shifted after a beat into Greek. “May I meet your husband?”

Prisca studied the stranger for a moment longer and then called to Aquila in the back of the shop. “Husband! There’s a man here to see you.” She did not take her eyes from the stranger as she called.

Aquila was kneeling on the shop floor trimming hides.  When he rose and came forward, the hem of his robe was still tucked into his belt, his knees were blackened with dirt, and the trimming blade hung from his hand.  He stood blinking in the sunlight while his wife straightened his robe and relieved him of the blade. Knives and knees, she thought, shifting her irritation to her absent-minded husband, do not make the best impression.

“God be with you, Brother.” The stranger spoke first. “I am Saul of Tarsus.  Most recently from Macedonia.”

Her husband took him in with a glance—his clothes, his bare cheeks—and, being a more trusting person than his wife, immediately stuck out his hand. “And God be with you, Brother Saul.  I am Aquila.” The two men shook. “This is Prisca, my wife. And we are, most recently, from Rome.”

“Ah!” Saul’s face lit up. “Rome! I’d love to go myself. There are …” He paused, choosing his words. “There are some people in Rome I hope to meet one day.”

“Some of the best people in the world live in Rome, brother Saul.  And some of the worst.”  A shadow crossed the tailor’s face.

The two men stood in the street making small talk, Prisca watching them as they chatted. So different yet strangely akin, she realized. Aquila, with the name of a Roman and the full beard and traditional garb of a Jew. Saul, a man with a Hebrew name but the manner and look of a Greek. Her husband, tall and strong and handsome. The stranger, tilted and thin and (to be polite) not handsome. Yet both of them had an open, welcoming way about them.  Both had the same calluses on their hands and bore the look of men accustomed to hard work. Even their laughs sounded similar.

It would be my luck, she thought, that the two of them become fast friends.

Aquila, as she knew he would, invited the stranger to share their midday meal. The three of them sat on stools in front of the shop, eating crusty bread, olives and cheese, listening to tales of Saul’s travels—tales, she learned later, that omitted all the truly interesting parts.  He spoke of Philippi and Thessalonica, of Athens and the walk to Corinth.

“Last night, I slept in a grove of trees outside the walls,” he pointed to the northeast, “and spent this morning wandering around the city. Until I met you.” And he smiled at Prisca.

“I was drawn to your shop, Aquila, partly because your lovely wife adorned the front of it.” He bowed his head toward her with an amused look, as if to say, I know you don’t trust me, Prisca, but you have nothing to fear. “But also because you are leather workers. An honorable profession in which I happen to be trained and quite skilled. You wouldn’t need an assistant would you?”

Prisca shot her husband a warning glance, which he caught but ignored. 

“As a matter of fact, Saul, we’re turning out a dozen tarpaulins right now. For a long-hauler on the Argos route. I really could use some help. We can’t afford to pay you much. But you’re welcome to sleep in the shop and take your meals with us. Until you land on your feet, of course. Until you find something better.”

Saul beamed.  “You’re a good man, Aquila.” He sat back on his stool and wiped a sleeve across his mouth. “Thank you. Thank you both for showing hospitality to a stranger far from home.”

But Prisca did not want the man’s gratitude.  Something about him, she thought. I can almost smell the danger on him. Not that he seemed threatening. Just that he’d known trouble, that he attracted trouble.  He’s not dangerous, she realized. He’s just dangerous to be around. Yes. That’s it.

So she brushed the thanks aside with a story from the Torah, a memory of ancient Sodom.

“Our father Abraham offered hospitality to strangers once. And then watched a city burn.” She raised her chin at him.  “You’re not an angel of the Lord are you, Saul? Sent to destroy Corinth for all her wicked ways?”

He squinted at her for a moment, wanting to reach past the distrust.  When he spoke, his tone was gentle.  “Just the opposite, Prisca.  I’ve come to save Corinth.  All it takes is ten righteous people.  And I think I’ve found two already.”


It took only until the evening of the next day for Saul to discover their secret.  A far shorter time than Prisca had anticipated, though from the moment they let this little man into their lives she’d known he would find the one place she did not want him to go.

They were closing up shop for the night, taking down the samples and fabrics, the tables and frames that fronted the street.  Saul was thanking them again, telling them how much it meant to have a place after so much wandering. 

Aquila didn’t mean to slip.  He was just making conversation.

“It’s nothing, Saul. The least we can do. I heard a story once—about a Samaritan who helped a man in need.  If a Samaritan can do that …” He shrugged and smiled.

But Saul straightened, suddenly still, watching the two of them with an interest that made Prisca shudder. “A Samaritan, you say? And a beaten man on the road to Jericho?”  Saul saw the flicker of assent in Aquila’s face.  “How did you hear that story, Aquila? Who told you about the Samaritan?”

The tailor looked at his wife, cautious for the first time since meeting this stranger, anxious not for himself but for her and her fears. “Just something I picked up somewhere, Saul.  We can talk about it later, perhaps.” He spoke to Saul but his gaze did not leave her face.  He could see the cold dread spreading over her. He could read it in her eyes.

Not here, Husband. Not now. We are new to this place. We must be careful. I can’t stand another Rome. We don’t know this man.

At last, Aquila turned back to Saul—weighing him, calculating the risks.

“Please, Aquila,” Saul said in the same low voice. “I’d like to know.  Where did you hear the story about the Samaritan?”

“A friend of mine, a friend in Rome, told me about it.” Aquila kept the tone light. “He heard it from a rabbi back in Galilee … a rabbi who loved to tell stories, they say.” Under the words, Aquila was thinking, This is just innocent talk. A dropped hint. A whiff. A peek. No more. Just enough to see how you react, Saul.

“I know that story. And I’ve heard of this rabbi.” Saul said it easily, no trace of caution or hesitation in his voice.  He seemed curious. Interested. “I’ve heard people say remarkable things about him. Strange stories. Strange claims.”

“Hmmn.” Aquila pondered that, wondering what Saul had heard, wondering how strange he considered the stories to be.  “I’ve heard talk as well. Apparently, some people think the rabbi is actually a prophet, a messenger from God to our people.  A few are even claiming he is the Anointed One.” Aquila smiled, and watched. His eyes did not waver from Saul’s face. Some people. Not necessarily us, you understand. Some people think such things. But that doesn’t mean we do. Some people were thrown out of Rome for making these claims. But don’t assume Prisca and I left for that reason. That’s not necessarily true.  People move from Rome for many reasons.

What are you thinking, Saul?  What do you know?

Saul raised an eyebrow. “And what about you, Aquila? What do you think about this rabbi?”

Prisca reached over and placed a hand on her husband’s arm. She did not want him to answer the question.  She did not want him asking for trouble again. She wanted this Saul to go away and leave them alone. She wanted a bit of peace and quiet after the long nightmare they’d endured. She put her warning hand on Aquila’s arm.  But she knew, as she did so, it was a wasted gesture.

“Why,” he asked her later, “if we were willing to witness in Rome when our lives were on the line, why shouldn’t we tell the truth to a stranger in Corinth?”  He was right, of course. And she loved him for his courage.

But, in the space between Saul’s question and Aquila’s response, Prisca wasn’t thinking about courage and witness and truth telling.  She was remembering cold eyes and betrayals.  She was remembering how much such questions had cost them in Rome.

Aquila answered in a calm, steady voice. “Me, Saul? I think that rabbi is the one the prophets foretold. I think he is God’s Messiah.”

Prisca stared off into the evening sky.  She felt a breeze from the gulf touch her face, smelled meat cooking on a vendor’s fire, heard the sound of children running down the road.  Each sensation seemed like an intruder on that single moment, notable because it was so out of place, so incidental, to a conversation that could ruin their lives. 


She turned her eyes back to Saul and waited for judgment to fall. 

But Saul’s eyes were brimming.  He reached out to place his hands on their shoulders.  Lifting his face to the heavens, he whispered, “O Father, thank you for your tender mercies.” And then, looking back to the tent-maker and his wife, he said, “I believe that too, my friends.  With all my heart, I believe that too.”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

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