Chapter 38: The Mission

Paul stayed late at Stephanas’s house and ended up spending the night in his guest room. Very early the next morning, he stopped by the shop to quietly pack his few belongings and then walked across the city to Gaius’s house. The offer of a new home was a kindness. But it was the thought of a proper bed that made Paul’s decision to leave behind his mat on the shop floor.

Later, when it would no longer surprise him, he learned that Gaius had given his former tenant one day’s notice to vacate the house.

“But I have a lease!” the tenant sputtered, waving the document at Gaius while hired muscle loaded his furnishings into carts. He was a wealthy man, not accustomed to such treatment. But he was new to the city and without influential friends. Gaius figured he could do little harm.

“Quite so!” he responded in high humor, tapping his cane and urging his men to hurry. “You have a lease … a perfectly legal and binding document. But I own the judge who will hear the case, if you’re foolish enough to press charges.”

In the end, the poor man took his refund on the rent and followed the carts down the road, muttering vile imprecations under his breath and pausing every few steps to turn and throw a few back down the street towards Gaius.

When Paul confronted him with this, months later, Gaius simply shrugged. “It was my house. I needed it. More to the point, you needed it. Where would this congregation be without the home I provided?”

“We’d have found a way.”

“Perhaps. We’ll never know, will we?” He seemed completely unbothered by the incident and dumbfounded that Paul should blame him rather than showing proper gratitude. “I gave him his money back for the month! And I’ve gone without the rental on this property ever since! You should remember that, Paul, before you criticize me.” And he tapped his cane once to drive home the point.

Paul walked away, so angry he did not trust himself to speak. It was only one of the incidents that marked their deteriorating relationship, one of the last.

But Paul was not aware of those circumstances when he pulled off his knapsack and set it down in the great hall. “This will be perfect, Gaius,” he said after a quick tour through the house. “A place for worship. Rooms for teaching. Beds for Timothy and Silas and me. This will do very nicely indeed. Thank you.”

Gaius waved away the thanks. “It’s nothing, Paul. The least I could do. Now, if you will excuse me …” He held up his hands in apology. “I have business to attend.”

Paul watched him leave thinking, God uses all sorts of people.

Alone, Paul wandered from room to room, blessing each in turn, praying that God would use these spaces for his purposes. He lingered longest in the kitchen and in the grand hall where, already, he could envision the new community at worship. He’d just carried the knapsack upstairs to a bedroom and laid out his blanket and shawl, his meager belongings, and his razor, when he heard a voice calling below.

“Paul! Are you there?” Prisca stood in the courtyard, surrounded on three sides by the high walls of the villa, her back to a wall that shut out the street. She called again, looking for some sign of life through shuttered windows. Paul opened the shutters from his bedroom and stepped out onto a veranda that ran around the second floor, overlooking the courtyard below.

“Here! Up here!” He smiled and waved, and saw at once she was upset. “What is it, Prisca? Wait! I’ll be right down.” He ran to the stairs and took the first few two at a time—until his back reminded him of his age and, at precisely the same instant, he imagined himself catching a heel and tumbling down to the hard tile below. I won’t be any help, he chided himself, with a broken arm and a cracked head.

He slowed his pace and, reaching solid ground, walked across the hall to open the door.

Prisca stood there with red eyes. She’d been crying. “We kept waiting for you to come home. I came down to the shop this morning and you still weren’t there.” Her tone was reproachful. “Then I saw your things were gone, and I realized you must have come here.”

“What is it, Prisca? What’s the matter?”

“Stauria. She was gone when we got home. Aquila went looking for her. He was out most of the night. But no sign of her anywhere.” The words came in a tumble.

Paul looked puzzled. “Well, that’s disappointing. But we’ll find her, Prisca. It’s all right.” He squeezed her arm. “She’ll turn up again.”

She pulled her arm back. “There’s more. She stole from us, Paul! She took some clothes and food.” The tears started again. “She took the lamp stand Aquila’s parents gave us at our wedding.”

“Oh, I see,” Paul said quietly, gathering her in and letting her cry for a few moments.

“How could she do that, Paul?” she mumbled into his tunic. “We were trying to be kind. I let her sleep in my bed! How could she steal from us and sneak away in the dark?”

Paul said nothing for a long while, just held her until the tears stopped.

“Let’s sit down,” he suggested gently, lowering himself to the front stoop and pulling her down beside him.

“How could she do that?” she asked again, really wanting an answer this time.

But Paul didn’t give it for a while. He studied her instead, thinking about the two women—Prisca with face and hair that fairly shouted health and contentment, Stauria with her scars and dark-ringed eyes and beaten-dog demeanor. Prisca with her home and husband, Stauria with the clothes on her back and a pimp.

How could he make Prisca see that, in the chasm between those two lives, a lamp stand could go missing every once in a while?

He took a deep breath. “Do you remember teaching me about Corinth, Prisca? You knew the city and I didn’t. Well, let me return the favor. Let me teach you about Stauria. I know her and you don’t. I’ve known her for years, in a dozen different cities, with a score of faces. But to show you Stauria, I have to show you something about yourself. Could I do that?”

She nodded slowly, uneasily.

“You believe your life has been hard. A dead mother. A negligent father. Those troubles in Rome. Grinding out a meager living at the shop. Not as hard as some, certainly. But hard enough. Right?”

She blinked at him a couple of times and then nodded again.

“You’ve known some pain. I grant you that. But you’ve also been sheltered, Prisca. In ways you can’t even appreciate.”

She drew back. “Sheltered? I hardly think that’s the right word, Paul. You didn’t know my father.”

“True enough. But I know that, wherever your father traveled, you always had the benefit of community. You told me about the women who took you in, who took care of you because your father would not, because you were young and motherless and Jewish. Do you know what a blessing that was?”

“Well, yes. I’m grateful to them. But that doesn’t mean I was sheltered.”

Paul smiled. “And when your father died, you were given another home, with a tailor and his family. They married you to their son. Do you know what a blessing that was?”

She was more subdued now. “Yes, I do. I’m grateful for that too.”

“Have you ever had to fend for yourself, Prisca, or live only by your wits? Have you ever been truly alone?”

She frowned and looked down at her hands. “No,” she said reluctantly. “I guess not.”

Paul let that sink in for a moment. “At every point when you were vulnerable, when life could have crushed you, someone was there to protect you, to provide for you. Someone showed you kindness and love. You’ve been sheltered, Prisca—by God and by the people he has put in your life. Yes, you’ve seen some hard things. But you haven’t lived a hard life. Not really.”

“Perhaps that’s true,” she whispered. The admission cost her though. It meant revising how she viewed herself. There were some pains she’d taken pride in, scars she counted on to prove her resilience against great odds.

“You have to see that so you can see something else.” He went on, trying to be as gentle as possible. “You believe in a God who watches over orphaned children. You believe people are decent for the most part, that they can be trusted. You believe in love. You have hope for tomorrow. And, because of that, you act in certain ways. You return kindness for kindness. You give people the benefit of the doubt. You think honesty is a virtue.”

She wrinkled her brow. “Of course I do. Who doesn’t?”

Paul smiled. “Stauria. She’s the one who’s lived a hard life. And I mean hard, not because there’s been pain—we all have pain—but because she’s had no one to shelter her. She’s had no community, Prisca, no kindly matrons, no tailor with a spare son. Whenever she’s been vulnerable, people have taken advantage of her, used her, profited from her. No one’s shown her kindness and love when she needed it. They’ve shown her the back of their hand.” And then he added quietly, “Or some other part of their anatomy.”

Prisca winced.

“When she was orphaned, where was God? When she was dragged into the soldiers’ camp, where were the decent people who could be trusted? She doesn’t believe in love because she’s never seen it. And when she thinks about tomorrow, it’s not hope she feels—she gave up hope years ago. It’s dread. Cold, absolute, undiluted dread.”

He shifted around to face her. “Do you know what’s left for someone who’s as far gone as Stauria?”

She looked at him with dread of her own.

“Soon she’ll be offering herself on the side of the road, at the edge of the forest, baring her rump in broad daylight for anyone who has two obels.”

“Paul, please,” she begged.

“No, Prisca,” he took her by the arms and forced her to look at him. “She’ll do anything, degrade herself in any way, in public places, under bridges and in alleyways, in the rain and the cold, for enough coin to buy a cup of wine. And when she’s completely used up, when there’s nothing left of herself to sell, she’ll crawl off into a ditch and starve to death. That’s what tomorrow means to Stauria.”

She buried her face in her hands and began to cry again. Paul loosed his grip on her arms and leaned back against the door, leaving her alone for the moment.

But not for long. “You showed her kindness. But she doesn’t trust kindness. You offered her friendship. But she’s never had a friend. You left her alone in your home, in your bed, with your new sandals and your lamp stand. But she’s never had a home, and she doesn’t realize that the lamp stand meant family and happy memories to you. She’s hocked it already. It means only food and a couple of days off the street to her.”

She nodded her understanding and cried a little longer. Finally she wiped her eyes. She looked up, struggling to find a smile. “I really was fond of that lamp stand,” she said.

It caught him by surprise. He laughed. And once he started, he couldn’t stop. He laughed until the tears came. Prisca laughed with him, both of them crying and laughing at the same time. Paul held his side and leaned against the door, hurting. Prisca kept repeating the line—“I really was fond of that lamp stand!” Each time she said it, they laughed harder, until finally he covered her mouth with his hand and shook his head, pleading.

When they were too exhausted to laugh more, they sat side by side on the stoop, not daring to look at each other. And when, at length, Prisca thought she could trust herself again, she put a hand on Paul’s arm. “What should we do?” she asked.

Paul wiped his eyes and stared down at the dirt at his feet. “I guess I’ll go looking for her.”

“And what will you do when you find her?”

“I’ll tell her it’s all right, that she’s worth more than a lamp stand.”

Prisca patted his arm. “That’s good. You tell her that for me.”


II

He’d told Prisca that Stauria did not know what the lamp stand meant to her. That was not strictly true, he realized. As he thought about how he would approach her, how he could persuade her to come back with him, he recognized that some part of Stauria would be ashamed of what she’d done, that she could not face Prisca without setting things right. Only the chance to return the lamp stand would convince Stauria there was a way back, that she might be forgiven.

So, for the rest of that day, and all the next, Paul scoured the shops and vendor carts of the agora and the north market—looking for a square silver lamp stand with a relief of the Temple on the base. Timothy and Prisca helped him. “You saw it sitting on our table,” Prisca reminded them, sketching the details in the dirt for Timothy. “It’s very distinctive. There’s not another like it in Corinth.”

“She’d want to turn it around quickly, I think,” Paul told them before leading them out into the city. “But she’d still need a good price for it. Check the jewelers and import stores first, then the hock shops and the cart merchants.”

Timothy found it late the next day, sitting proudly on the counter of an antiquities dealer—a man who dealt in rare and exotic artifacts.

“It’s a fine piece, isn’t it,” the shop owner remarked when he saw Timothy’s interest. “Very old and beautifully worked.” He hefted the lamp stand and held it up to the sunlight, pointing out the detailed workmanship.

“How did you acquire it?” Timothy asked innocently.

“Oh, this piece has a very colorful history indeed,” the merchant purred. “It comes from Parthia. You can tell by these markings.” He pointed out the Hebraic engravings. “Notice the relief on the opposite side—a portrait of the ancient palace of Darius, so I’m told.” His tone was hushed, reverent. “It was taken as plunder by a centurion of the Seventeenth Legion, one of the few survivors of the battle of Carrhae more than a hundred years ago. Handed on from father to son for four generations. Until the last of the line hit hard times and came to me years ago. I understand that he sold everything—slaves, land, even children—before he could bring himself to part with this fine example of Parthian craftsmanship.”

Timothy worked hard to suppress his smile. “And what price have you set on the piece?”

The merchant cast an appraising eye over Timothy, noting his youth and cheap boots. He set the lamp stand back on the counter with a sigh. “Sadly, the price on this beauty is far more than you could afford. Perhaps I could interest you in something else? Something less … expensive?”

“How much?” Timothy insisted.

“Well,” the merchant calculated quickly. “I’ve grown quite fond of this stand myself. I don’t think I could part with it for less than a gold aureus.” He was looking at the lamp stand. But he kept Timothy’s face in his peripheral vision, anxious to measure the reaction.

Timothy’s eyes widened. “But that’s almost two month’s wages, more in the provinces!”

“Yes, I know,” the merchant agreed soberly. “As I told you, it is a very nice piece.”

Timothy swallowed hard. “I’ll be back before sundown. Keep it for me until then.”

The merchant’s eyes widened. “You’ll buy it? You have the coin?”

“I know someone who does.” And Timothy left the shop to look for Paul.

He found him along the Lechaion Road, trudging patiently from shop to shop. “I’ve found it!” he announced with glowing eyes.

They turned together towards the North Market, Timothy filling him in on the merchant and the price as they walked. Paul couldn’t help smiling.

“Ah!” the merchant exclaimed as he saw Timothy returning. “This must be your friend with the deep purse! A pleasure, I’m sure.” He shook Paul’s hand greedily and then held up the lamp stand for him to examine. “It is such a fine piece, don’t you agree?” He started into his sales pitch again, but Paul cut him off.

“My young friend here,” he nodded at Timothy, “is not very good with numbers. He thought you said the price for this was a gold aureus—a ludicrous sum, of course.”

“But notice the workmanship!” the merchant protested. “Think of the history it represents!”

But Paul was in no mood for his banter. “You’ve had this lamp stand all of two days. You bought it from a whore and a thief who stole it from its rightful owners. I doubt you paid more than four denarii for it. Now, what’s your price?”

The merchant sputtered. “You are mistaken, my friend. This lamp stand has been in my possession for years. I paid almost as much as I’m asking just for the pleasure of …”

Paul cut him off again. “We can do this one of two ways. Either you name a reasonable price, or I’ll bring the city magistrates here and have the owners swear in their presence that this is stolen property.”

The merchant held up his hands in horror. “Sir, there’s no need to involve the authorities in this. There has been some sort of misunderstanding, that’s all.” He calculated again, quickly. “Why don’t we agree to twenty denarii, and call it good?” He beamed at Paul, the very picture of genial civility.

“Why don’t we agree to five?” Paul countered.

The merchant looked mortally wounded. “Why, sir, I couldn’t possibly …”

Paul turned to leave.

“Twelve!” The merchant squeaked. “Twelve denarii.”

“Six.” Paul turned and looked at him steadily.

“Oh, you’re killing me!” the merchant moaned. “You’re taking food off my table!”

Paul shrugged. “Seven.”

The merchant countered, “Eight.”

“Done!” Paul agreed.

The merchant wiped the sweat from his face with one hand while Paul counted out the coins into the other.

Paul nodded for Timothy to take the lamp stand and tipped his head towards the merchant. “A pleasure doing business with you,” he said as he left the shop.

“May your teeth rot and fall out,” the merchant whispered as he watched them leave.


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[Beginning of the novel]

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