Chapter 57: The Mission

This time when she came to the house, she did not bother with the alley door. She didn’t look up and down the street in search of prying eyes. She simply knocked at the front entrance and slumped against the wall to wait in misery.

Tertius opened the door and had to catch the woman as she stumbled in. He held her upright and walked her to a bench in the atrium, sitting her there while he hurried off to find his mistress.

Moments later, Hester rushed towards the slumped figure, worry written all over her face. She sat on the bench beside her friend.

“Abi. What is it? Oh, my dear, what is it?” But she knew what it was before asking. She’d known all along this day would come.

Abi looked up at Hester with eyes that managed to convey pain and confusion, fear and disbelief all at the same time. Yet the eyes were dry. There had been no time for tears yet. The shock was still too fresh.

“Obed has thrown me out,” she said in a monotone. She might have been complaining about the wet weather or loose cobblestones in the streets. Her voice was calm. She spoke the words without inflection. I can’t find decent lentels. The hem has come out of this robe. My husband has thrown me out.

Hester held her hands, waiting for her to continue. Abi looked around the atrium as though she’d never seen it before, like she needed details of stone work and column capitals to distract her from what had just happened. “He discovered I’d been coming here, you see.” She smiled at Hester, a thin trembling in her lips. “He hit me,” she moved her hair back from her left ear to indicate where, “and demanded to know why.”

“And you said?” Hester prompted.

Abi looked down at their hands, joined together in her lap. “I meant to say you were my friend. That’s what I planned to say if he ever found out … that our friendship was too precious to throw away.”

Hester patted her hand. “We are friends. And I’m very thankful for it.” She hoped her tone would be a comfort.

Abi smiled again. “But it didn’t turn out that way. I told him I believed as you did, that Jesus was the Messiah of God.” Her hand moved from her lap back to her ear. “He hit me again.” She chewed her lip, apparently trying to decide whether her ear or her husband’s anger hurt worse.

Her eyes were still dry. But Hester’s were not. The tears brimmed over and washed down her cheeks to fall, soundlessly, on her robe.

“He dragged me into the street then. He announced to everyone passing that he was divorcing me. Said it three times to make it legal.” She shook her head slowly, thinking perhaps it had all been a dream. Hester rubbed her hands as an encouragement. “There was no discussion about it. Nothing to honor the years we had together. Just ‘Get out!’ I asked where I was to go, what was to become of me. He told me I should have thought of that before.” Her voice was still flat. Her story unfolded without emotion, though Hester detected a catch in Abi’s throat in what followed.

“I asked about the children. He said they were no longer my concern, that I would never see them again.” She blinked hard at Hester, almost conscious of the enormity of what had happened, until her eyes found a crack in a flagstone paver, diverting her again. “Perhaps when he calms down … perhaps he’ll reconsider? He was very angry.”

“Yes,” Hester agreed to soothe her. “When he calms down.”

Abi turned those dry, tortured eyes towards Hester once more. “What’s to become of me?” she asked again. The shock was wearing off. The first glimmers of reality were beginning to show.

Hester did not know how to answer her question. So instead, she drew Abi to her feet. Calling to Tertius and asking for a bowl of wine, she led her friend to a guest room and put her in bed. She sat there beside the bed, the two of them sipping from cups and telling stories of the past, until Abi drifted off to sleep.

Even then, Hester did not leave her bedside. She knew, when Abi woke, she would be needed.


II

“Well! It’s happened again!” Berekiah took a seat in front of Sosthenes’s desk. The servant closed the door as he left to give the two men some privacy. “Obed’s wife has gone to join Crispus and the others.”

Sosthenes nodded. “Yes. I heard. Obed’s wife. Abi.” He studied the surface of his desk, greatly saddened by the news.

Berekiah pressed on. “We’ve lost another member of our community to them! What are you going to do about it, Sosthenes?”

Sosthenes gave him a level gaze. “You mean what will we do about it. This is a community problem and will require a community solution.”

Berekiah pointed at Sosthenes’s nose. “Yes. But you are the leader of our community. The responsibility ultimately rests with you.” He almost smiled. Berekiah enjoyed watching Sosthenes turn on the spit.

“And, so far, I’d say you have a great deal to answer for. Crispus and Hester.” He began to tick the names off on his fingers. “Archippus and his household. Jesse. The widow Marna. The household of Poppius. The sons of Zeriah.” He looked up from his fingers. “And now Obed’s wife. Too many people, Sosthenes. Too many defections. And this last one—not a god-fearer, not a hot-headed youth. A wife and mother. A woman, for goodness sakes! Think of that! A woman making such a decision, against her husband’s will. That ought to put the fear in our men.”

Sosthenes knew that was true. He gave Berekiah a sympathetic look. “Not worried about your own wife, are you, Berekiah? It wouldn’t look good for you if she ran off to become a disciple of Jesus.”

There was no hint of sympathy in Berekiah’s answer. “I have my household well in hand, I can assure you. But the same cannot be said for others. Obed’s wife will give other wives ideas … and other husbands anxiety. We have to do something!” He brought a meaty fist into his palm with a smack.

Sosthenes watched his visitor for a long time before responding. “Yes. I’m afraid you’re right. Do you have any suggestions, Berekiah? Or are you here simply to state the obvious?”

A flicker of irritation flared in Berekiah’s eyes. “As a matter of fact, I do have a recommendation or two. First, we make the divide between the two groups formal and public. We have expelled Saul. But we’ve said nothing about Crispus and the others. Leaving a door open, no doubt; a way for them to return. But people are leaving by that door. Nobody’s coming back.”

“So … expel everyone who’s gone with Saul? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes. And more. Put them ‘outside the camp.’ Forbid association with any of them. Threaten to throw anyone who talks to them out of the synagogue. If there is no contact, there can be no contamination.”

Sosthenes pondered that for a moment. “Crispus and the others are still loved by many. Drawing a line might force more people to cross over.”

“Perhaps. At first.” Berekiah shrugged. “But not many, I think. We have no choice, at any rate. It’s either amputate and start to heal, or let the wound rot and fester.”

There was a certain logic to that, Sosthenes had to admit. “What else?”

“We need to refute Saul’s teachings. We’ve ignored him since he left, hoping people would forget his stories, his twisted claims. But that’s wrong-headed. We need to counter his teachings … demonstrate his heresy … show people how dangerous a man he is.”

Sosthenes leaned back in his chair, thinking hard. “So. Counter Saul publicly. Bring out the scrolls and show the error of his ways.” Sosthenes eyed his ambitious companion carefully. “Do you have anyone in mind for this task?”

“I thought we might work on it together.” Berekiah looked back at him innocently. “Though, if you want the job for yourself, it’s yours.”

“Yes, I see.” Sosthenes leaned back in his chair and wiped a hand across his desk, erasing some non-existent smudge. “Anything else?”

“Actually, there is. I think one of us should pay a visit to Crispus. Convince him to stop fishing in our pond. Warn him. Threaten him, if that’s what it takes. But this poaching has to stop. If the reports are true, he’s lost his scruples about associating with Gentiles. Well, let him cast his net in the agora. But he stays out of the synagogue!” Berekiah hit his palm again.

Sosthenes let the fleshy, menacing sound die away. After a moment, he said, “I doubt a visit will do much good. Crispus isn’t easily threatened.” He stared pointedly at Berekiah’s still-clenched fist. “And he’s not going to back off just to do us a favor.” Sosthenes smiled thinly. “I don’t imagine he feels himself under any obligation to us.”

“Nevertheless, it’s worth a try. One of us should go.”

Sosthenes waved a hand. “Try if you want. But it’s a waste of time. As to your other ‘recommendations’—I’ll consider them.” He shot a warning look at his visitor. “But we act together, Berekiah. More to the point, you will do nothing without my consent. Do we understand each other? I don’t mind your little games, Berekiah—your ambitions and maneuvers. But these matters are too important for such nonsense. Don’t use this as a tool to advance your cause.”

Berekiah stood to leave and let his face take on a wounded expression. “Sosthenes! You misjudge me. Of course we work together.” But what he thought as he walked from the study was, You’re an impotent fool!

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]


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