Friday, January 27, 2017

Prester John, Chapter 12 (Part 2)

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Chapter 12 (Part 2)
All the trailing threads of Lucius’ plan were converging onto a single point, like the radiating spokes of a spider’s web. And there he was, sitting in the center, playing the cords like a master weaver.
The appointed day had arrived—that night would be the first night of the new moon, and their plan to take Ariston down would wheel into action. Alexander had played his part well, or so it seemed. He had gone down into the city, made contact with Ariston, and then reported back to the brigands at the hideout. From Alexander’s telling, Ariston’s response to the bait was exactly as they would have hoped. Alexander had seen greed and self-love and anticipation in Ariston’s eyes—so the trap was set. But Lucius had dealt with Ariston too often to rest on any sense of assurance. Ariston was a wolf, and there was a chance, however small, that he had seen through Alexander’s ruse and was planning his own way to finish his unfinished business with Lucius.
So Lucius was making his way back down the dusty trail into Smyrna, to walk around and see if anything struck him as amiss. He was wrapped in the common cloak and hood of a traveler, and he now sported a patchy beard, which he hoped would make him unrecognizable to the magistrates. There were only a few travelers on the roadway that day, and Lucius kept his face lowered whenever anyone passed. The sun blazed down hot on his head and shoulders, and he could feel rivulets of sweat running through his hair, but he dared not drop his hood.
One traveler, though, had given him pause. Just a few hundred paces after he started out from the hideout, he saw a tall, lean figure loping up the pathway toward him, coming from the city. He knew at a glance who it was, even at that distance.
The deacon’s lithe frame seemed to glide effortlessly up the rugged road, eating up distance with each long stride.
For one desperate moment Lucius considered speaking to him, calling out his name, begging for forgiveness. But another impulse won the battle in his heart, and he ducked out of sight. Polycarp strode past him, up around the bend in the road that would take him by the brigands’ hideout, no doubt on his way to visit the churches in Ephesus. He wondered for a moment what his fellow brigands would do to Polycarp, but with the deacon’s gentle spirit and no money to speak of, Lucius was sure he wouldn’t be detained for long.
He continued down into the city, and was walking into the outlying communities well before noontime. As he made his way past the little house that held the church where Ariston had tried to play his tricks, he heard the familiar sounds of antiphonal prayer rising on the wind.
A surge of longing blasted through his heart. He looked up at the sun, still not yet at its zenith. And today was Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day of assembly. Perhaps his own church would be having its midday prayers and agape-meal. Perhaps he could go there, and hear the precious words, and take the bread and wine.
No, that life was gone. Murdered by Ariston. And he, like a ghost, was being called back to old haunts—but he could never really go back.
He trudged into the center of the city, up to the very walls of the house where his old church, the main Christian assembly in Smyrna, was having its meeting. He slumped down there, at the edge of the street, listening to the prayers and chants within. They washed over him like the cold pools in the baths, shocking and enlivening his skin, all his nerves tingling with the glory and agony of awakening to their pain. He sat there for nearly an hour, holding back the tears that rimmed his eyes, and letting the words fill him up with one final plea that he himself could no longer speak: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
            He sat there until he heard the service ending; Justus’ rumbling voice issued a solemn benediction. Lucius stood and dusted off his cloak. He tried to put the past out of his mind, and set his gaze down the street that would take him to Ariston’s house. Then, if nothing looked amiss there, he would go back to the brigands’ hideout and lie in wait for Ariston.
            Just as he was about to step away from the house-church, though, his eye caught a familiar form walking up the street, coming from the direction of the docks.
            How could it be? He looked again, and again his eyes discerned the form, the face, the graceful walk of the woman he had adored long ago, in a different world, when he had been Lucius Caelius Pius. She carried herself with consummate grace, just as he remembered—here was the offshoot of the Flavian dynasty, of the emperors now plunged into ruin, the daughter of the consul Flavius Clemens, martyred for his faith, and the sister of Flavius Domitian the Younger, whom Lucius himself had slain.
            He was frozen in place as he watched her advance; her aspect, bright with hope, her hair and eyes, as dark as a midnight forest. Yes, it was Flavia, the Flavia he had loved and longed for, the Flavia who had favored him with friendly smiles and long gazes that made him hope she too was penning a story in her mind, a story about more than just smiles and gazes. And here she was, not in Rome but Smyrna, the victim of his first crime walking into the middle of his plot to commit a second. Lucius felt as though he were in a dream, or as though perhaps the world had slipped over the narrow liminal threshold into a realm of everyday miracles; he half-expected to see angels, ancient heroes, and mythical beasts appearing from around the other corners of the street.
            She was walking straight toward him, though still some distance away. She had two servants along with her, one on each side, and they appeared to be making for the house right where Lucius was standing.
            There was nowhere to go. He couldn’t make a dash to try to hide in the crowd, because she was close enough now where she might notice any such burst of desperation. So he ducked inside the open doorway, finding a darkened niche to shadow himself and hide. He was near enough to the large atrium where the Christians were meeting that he could hear some of their pleasant chatter, but if he stepped in amongst them, he would be recognized instantly. No, he couldn’t afford to be seen, either by Flavia or the Christians. With his plans for that night already in motion, he didn’t want to deal with the revulsion and rejection that he knew would come his way.
            A few moments later, he saw Flavia and her two servants slip past him, through the doorway and down the open-air corridor to the atrium. They hadn’t noticed him hiding there. He paused to listen for a few moments, to see if he could hear about what they were doing in Smyrna, but they had moved on towards the center of the atrium, and all he could hear was the bubbling, indecipherable cacophony of the Smyrnaean Christians greeting their newfound sister.
            He made ready to slip back out the door, but he heard something that made him pause. Two voices had drawn near to the corner of the atrium by the exit, not far from where he hid, and they were both voices he knew.
Justus, and John the Elder.
            “I have a question for you, Justus,” said the older man.
            “You may ask me anything, Elder. You know that.”
            “Yes, I know. And it’s good to be back here in your company, if only for a short time. But I recall leaving a certain deposit in your care when I left here the last time. I’d like to inquire after it.”
            “A deposit?” came Justus’ bemused voice. “Elder John, I don’t recall you ever giving me money to hold for you.”
            “No, no, not money,” John chuckled. “The deposit was our young friend and new believer, Lucius Tiro. I don’t see him here. Where is he?”
            “Ah,” said Justus, and Lucius winced, hearing the disappointment in that tone. “I’m afraid that he abandoned us. He lived with us for a few weeks, and we taught him the ways of discipleship and faith. Truly, he seemed eager to learn, and joyful in knowing Christ. But then he disappeared. Polycarp knew that he had had contacts with some worldly young men in the city, and it seems that they prodded him on to a life of sin. Polycarp saw him go, he tells me, and warned him about the consequences of his choice, but he went nonetheless.”
            Lucius heard John’s voice next, and there was a touch of anger in it: “Justus, I entrusted that young man into your care, your household! How could you let him slip away?”
            “Don’t lay all the accusation on me, Elder,” said Justus. “I admit my flaws and failings, and maybe another man would have done better, but I did try to lead him in the way of Christ. He simply chose not to go. We heard later that he was actually a known murderer, living here under an assumed name. And he murdered again, the night he disappeared—he was nearly caught by the magistrates, but now I’m told that he’s the captain of a band of brigands, preying on travelers on one of the southern roads.”
            Then John said something that made lightning shoot through Lucius’ veins.
“I have to go find him.”
            “No, Elder, no,” said Justus. “I don’t know exactly where his hideout is, and it’s far too dangerous anyway, especially for a man of your age.”
            “No, no, I have to go,” said John again.
            The two voices continued arguing, but Lucius had heard enough. He had to get out of there, had to run away, had to find some refuge from the forgotten lions of his old lives, all suddenly converging to hunt him down and make the kill. All thought of Ariston and the trap he had laid was gone from his mind; the only thing he knew was that he had to get away—away from Flavia, away from John. He felt his mind teetering on the brink of insanity, driven there by the hunting-hounds of some great menacing fate, determined to pursue him to the death.
            He ran. Out of the shadows, out of the house, out into the blinding sunlight of the street. And he kept running, straight back the way he had come, back up the dusty road into the hills that were his last remaining refuge. And as he ran, he prayed, crying out for God to deliver him from the screaming shrapnel of his former lives.
            Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

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