Chapter 62: The Mission

Sosthenes woke to absolute darkness and excruciating pain. Every muscle screamed. He would have screamed himself if he could have done so without flexing his stomach and chest and jaw. Cautiously, he wiggled his fingers and toes, a tentative exploration of the damage he’d sustained. They work, praise God! His fingers rubbed the fabric of a blanket and he realized he was lying in bed. Home! Someone must have carried me home.

But the voice that greeted him was unfamiliar. “You’re awake, Sosthenes! Good. You need to drink some water.”

He felt a hand cradle the back of his neck, raising him to put a cup to his lips. He clenched his teeth against the agony of movement and took a few painful gulps. “Who are you? What are you doing in my home?” Sosthenes asked as his head was lowered back to the pillow.

“I am a friend,” the voice answered. “After what happened in the agora, I thought you might need a friend.”

Not unfamiliar. He knew that voice. But he could not put a name or a face to it.

“And I’m afraid you’re not at home,” the voice continued. “I picked you up in the agora and carried you to the closest place I knew. You needed immediate attention, I’m afraid. And, besides, I don’t know where you live.”

Sosthenes moved his hand carefully to his eyes, feeling at the bandages that swathed his head. A cold dread seized him, squeezing his heart. “Is something wrong with my eyes? Am I blind?”

He felt a hand take his and move it away from the bandages. “No, your eyes are fine. But you have some nasty cuts around them that required stitches. And your nose is broken, I’m afraid. We’ll remove the bandages in a couple of days, once the healing’s begun.”

He started to drift off again, but the voice caught him. “Is there anyone we should send a message to, Sosthenes? Anyone who will be worried about you?”

He remembered the faces in the agora. He thought about his lonely, empty house. He whispered, “No” before falling back to sleep.


II

“I think you should try sitting for a while.”

That voice again! Sosthenes felt hands under his armpits, raising him to sit against the pillows propped at his back. He could smell candle tallow. It must be night.

“There. How does that feel?”

“I’m sore,” he groaned. “They really worked me over, I guess.”

“Yes, they did.” The voice was sympathetic. “No way to treat an elder of God’s people, the leader of a synagogue.”

“No,” Sosthenes agreed, probing his teeth with his tongue, checking for looseness. “Though I have no one to blame but myself. What a fool I was!” And he thought about Berekiah, realizing there was one elder, one leader of a synagogue, he’d like to work over himself.

“Could you eat some broth?”

Sosthenes smelled it now over the burning tallow. “I’ll try.” He held out his hands for the bowl.

“I think you’d better let me,” the voice said. He felt a spoon at his lips and opened his mouth. He swallowed a time or two, as much as he could, and then motioned he’d had enough.

“How long before we take off these bandages?”

“I’ll change them in the morning. You can test your eyes then, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“And how long before I can walk and get around on my own?” He grew embarrassed, feeling the urgings of his bladder.

He heard a soft chuckle. “Oh, in my experience, it will be a few more days yet.”

“Are you a physician?”

Again the chuckle. “No, but I do have some knowledge of these matters.”

Sosthenes tried to ignore his need to urinate by thinking of other things. “So you were at the agora? You saw what happened?” His head was so groggy. He could barely get the words out.

“Yes. I had an excellent vantage point. I saw it all.”

“How long ago was it?”

“Day before yesterday.”

By the temple. No wonder my bladder’s bursting. “So what did you think about our little disaster with Gallio?”

“I think you walked into an ambush. Berekiah set you up, didn’t he?”

“Yes he did. I never saw it coming.”

“He’s playing a pretty dangerous game, putting a lot of people at risk.”

“Berekiah cares only about himself and his own advancement. He’s quite willing to risk us all to get what he wants.” He felt a wash of anger, and then realized he was too weary to sustain it.

“Well, caring only about self is a common disease these days.”

“Yes it is. But not you. You’ve been very kind to me and I’m grateful.” He wanted desperately to sleep but was afraid he’d wet the bed if he drifted off.

“Hmmph!” the voice grunted. “Think nothing of it. Now, are you going to ask me?”

The question surprised him. “Ask you what?”

“How to pee when you’re laying flat on your back.”

Sosthenes flushed. “I-I-I do need to go,” he stammered.

“Well,” said the voice, “that’s why God invented chamberpots. There’s one beside your bed. Let me help you use it.”

Sosthenes thought it was the most helpless moment in all his long life.


III

When he woke next, he lay for a long time, listening. He heard no sound. He smelled no candles. “Hello?” he called. “Is anyone there?” No answer.

He touched the bandages on his face. He flexed his arms and legs. And then he lay still and decided to use these precious moments of clarity to begin the hard work of taking stock of his shattered life.

For as long as he could remember, over all the long years, he’d been part of a community, part of a people who had nurtured and defined him. He’d grown up to the comforting rhythms of those people—the daily prayers, the weekly worship, the feasts and rituals that punctuated the yearly calendar. He’d found his wife in that community and, decades later, leaned on the community when he’d buried her. His life, for so long, had revolved around the synagogue and the Jews of Corinth who gathered there each Sabbath.

But no longer. He’d failed them and they had rejected him. He didn’t know whether Berekiah would have him formally expelled from the synagogue. He doubted it. But how could he go back? How could he ever feel an honored part of that community again?

He’d seen their faces. While Berekiah and his cronies did the physical damage, the rest of them stood and watched. They could have intervened. They could have protected him, defended him. But they didn’t. They watched instead.

Sosthenes remembered their faces. The faces of men he’d known for years. The faces of men he’d trusted and worked with for decades. These were his peers, his friends!

Or so he’d thought.

How could he ever go back to them now? How would he ever erase the memory of their watching? Sosthenes was counting how much he’d lost, what those few moments before Gallio had cost him, when he heard a door opening. “Hello? Whose there?”

“Ah,” the voice said. “So you’re awake. I left to run some errands, see a few people. I would have said something, but you were sleeping. I didn’t want to disturb you. Sleep is the best thing for you now.” Sosthenes heard footsteps approaching the bed. “Any improvement?”

“Yes, I believe so. It still feels like somebody ran over me with an ox cart, but I think I’ll live.”

“Good. Could you stand a sponge bath? It’ll make you feel better. And smell better.”

Again Sosthenes heard the low chuckle.

“Yes, that would be appreciated.”

He heard water being poured into a basin and then footsteps approaching him again.

“The water’s cold, I’m afraid. There’s no fire in the apartment to heat it.”

“That’s all right,” Sosthenes assured him. “I can stand it.”

He felt the covers being stripped away from his body and smelled the sour odor of dried blood and old sweat. He felt the first cold shock of a sponge on his chest.

“You’ll carry some bruises for awhile, I’m afraid,” the voice fussed.

He felt strong hands probing his ribs, searching for tender spots.

“I don’t think you have any broken bones. This doesn’t hurt too bad, does it?”

Sosthenes winced as the fingers poked him. But there were no sharp pains. Just the dull ache of the bruises.

“Here,” the voice placed the sponge in his hand. “You may want to wash your private parts. I, for one, would prefer you do that yourself.” The chuckle again.

He washed himself and held up the sponge when he was finished.

“Now,” said the voice. “Let’s turn you over and get the rest of you.”

When he was clean, the voice said, “I need to change your bedding, if you’re up to it.” Sosthenes nodded. “You’ll have to help me a little.”

He felt an arm go around his shoulder and put his own hand around the man’s back to lift himself as much as possible. He felt the thin fabric of a tunic and, beneath the fabric, a hatch of bumps and lines. He moved his hand further down the back. Wherever he touched, there were the same rough blemishes.

And suddenly, he remembered the face that went with the voice. He gasped and stiffened.

“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”

“No,” Sosthenes croaked. “I’m fine.” But he wasn’t. Not really.

When the bedding was changed at last and Sosthenes lay once more under the covers, propped up against the pillows, he said, “Perhaps we can take these bandages off.” He touched the strips of cloth that covered his eyes, wet now with the tears he could not hold back.

“Maybe that’s not a good idea, quite yet,” the voice said after a brief pause. “It may be easier if you keep the bandages a few days more.”

“That won’t be necessary, Saul.”

He heard a sigh and then the scraping of a stool and footsteps. He felt the bandages being unwound. He blinked at the unaccustomed light. Paul took the sponge and wiped Sosthenes’s face, careful around the stitches and his nose. He leaned in close to scrutinize the scars and grunted his satisfaction. “Good thing I make a living stitching hides. I don’t think a surgeon could have done better.”

He sat back and the two men examined each other for a long, uncomfortable period.

Sosthenes spoke at last. “Why are you doing this for me, Saul? After what I did to you?”

Paul shrugged. “I was there. And there was no one else.”

“You could have left me. My friends did.”

“True.” He smiled. “But that’s not what Jesus would have done.” He wanted to say more, to tell the story about the Samaritan, to talk about loving the enemy. He wanted to explain about the cross to Sosthenes, something that made their own differences seem trivial. But he looked a little closer at Sosthenes and decided to wait.

Sosthenes was staring up at a high window that permitted light to stream into an otherwise shadowed room, blinking at its brightness, thankful for the way it burned his eyes. He watched as motes of dust moved from the shadows into that column of light and followed it up towards the window—like souls finding illumination and rising from the darkness to God.

It’s funny how a simple beating can show pride and stubbornness for what it is, he was thinking. All it had taken for Sosthenes to reconsider Saul and his difficult message was a little scorn, a little humbling, and a little kindness.

He replayed the synagogue debates as he watched the light and wished he were not so old and burdened, that he might become a mote, leaving the shadows behind and floating up into the warmth beyond.

They sat in silence for a long time like that—Sosthenes watching motes of dust and Paul watching him.

Until Sosthenes said, “I’m tired. I’d like to sleep, if you don’t mind. But when I wake, I’d like you to tell me again about your Jesus, Brother Saul. I’m afraid I wasn’t really listening the first time around.”

It would be the first of many conversations.

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[Beginning of the novel]

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