Friday, June 27, 2008

III. The Shirt


Light-headed from chill, I huddled under the blanket Gaius had given me. I shaped myself as a child within the womb, embracing my own legs, gathering myself for warmth into the long skirt of a borrowed robe, a comfort in this unusually cold weather for the end of August. The Vetti boy had been taken from me. I recall as if present to us now the faded red glow of the night sky. A brisk wind helped the boat on its journey. The raw fear chilled as deeply as the cold. Mountains had fallen into the sea in a rain of hot ash.

How do I survive this, my Lord? The hum of the vessel replied. Ten thousand shall fall beside thee, but it shall not come nigh thee. I slept.

In the morning, a layer of ash covered the decks. We were two of a dozen survivors that the ship had picked up. When we stopped at Rhegium, we learned that the mountain had continued to move itself into the sea changing the coastline forever. No trace was found of the Vetti house or of its inhabitants except us two, a child, now dispossessed, and a slave. Of all those possessions, nothing was saved except the clothes we wore.

We saw the mountain explode. A cloud rose from it – like an enormous tree. There was no shelter from its terrifying branches. We saw before we heard or felt a rushing mighty wind. I moved in the numb anguish of sudden disaster, knowing the need to save a life: not just my own, but another’s and a life, though only a boy’s, that had power over me. We were both hurled into the sea, the terrified Marcus, a child again in his panic. His money-pouch dragged us down at first. I found his dagger and cut the weight loose. We rose to the surface in a struggle. He vomited and choked. I pulled his tongue out of his throat, turned him onto his back, cradled his still boyish head against my breast with my right arm, and began to swim away from the land. Every stroke was a task. My legs brushed against him. A strange gentleness came into his features. He calmed a little and began to breathe normally. Where I had cut loose the bag, his clothes were torn and there was blood in the water. I saw that he was exposed.

The dirt and ash began to fall thumping and sizzling as it hit the water. He submitted to regular submersion to save our heads from burning. He began to move on his own. If we had not been at the edge of the disaster, we would certainly have been destroyed. The flaming fields had opened their doors and hell was seeping out from the underworld. If I had not been raised a Jew, I could have believed this pagan understanding.

This was my third disaster. How I have reflected on these things. In one year, I lost my beloved, myself, and then a whole city.

When the sun had dried our clothes, Gaius himself saw to our separate needs. He returned my purple trimmed garment to me with an invitation to attend to him in his cabin. I was at first concerned by this personal attention, but he soon put my fears to rest. He took an interest in me because he had noticed that my garment was identical in colour and pattern to another that he had seen at his house in Corinth.

I was moved at this possibility, but I was not inclined to tell him the whole story. It could have been a third copy, or a misidentification of the pattern. I had had my garment for over a year, and had never told its story. It remembers all my troubles. Now that my beloved is restored to me, and I have borne his child, I can tell my passion without the anguish it carried when I first knew it.

While in residence at Pergamum, I had worked for three weeks with a young man named Eutychus. He was formerly of Troas, and now of Epidaurus, but I knew of him then as from Ephesus. I had heard of him when I studied there with Sorenos, but I was not aware of his exceptional consideration for others. I knew too that he was spoken for, and I myself was under a vow of service. I was not looking for a husband.

During these three weeks, we taught together a group of visiting medical students. We were very different. His approach was from Hippocrates of Cos and mine based on practical issues of childbirth. His was pagan, mine from Jewish practice. (There were other schools represented. Sorenos, one of our classmates, has become the most prominent in the study of human fertility. Famous or not, I was not in agreement with his comment about the role of women’s hair in reproduction. There is plenty of evidence that bald women can conceive.)

As a Jew, I had to be careful with my teaching since the explicit mention of gods outside the pantheon is not acceptable. Healing and mercy, compassion – I mean those things that can be seen in human relations – may be named, and to some degree explained, as long as no one’s religious scruples are offended. As is usual in these teaching sessions, the Spirit demonstrates love again and again. How difficult it is to take in the extent of so many new relationships. We worked hard together, presenting case after case and comparing outcomes, every night spent in preparation, every day following in presentations and questions. We worked solidly, and though I was allowed my rest on the Sabbath, I still lost track of time. I was not prepared for the extraordinary work of the Holy One seeking us one and all together, and I found myself drawn to this man’s spirit, enjoying every word and action I observed.

My experience moved me while disturbing me. I felt myself walking by a precipice and I had met someone who could walk with me. How I wanted it not to end. Was I feeling God’s intense desire or just my own? I prayed his blessing on this one whom I was beginning to love. When will we come before the presence of God? I cannot remember a time when I spoke of our faith with such power over a period of weeks. How I hoped that this pagan whom I loved would perceive the presence of the Holy One.

I do not know how the spirit enters the bones of a child. Nor did I know how the Spirit would be manifest for this man, but that God had shown me much love in him I had no doubt. I told him of many things in our preparation hours, of mercy and prophecy, of the pleasure of God in his people, of God as Husband, of the reconciliation of all things, of the Song of Songs. His perception of the word was not strong, but the word never goes forth without bearing fruit.

The service that he embodied astonished me. There are few who exhibit such consideration, understanding, and assurance without arrogance.

On one of our trips, we were returning to the residence and he fell asleep in the carriage. The seat was not adequate to hold his head. I was behind him, and midwife that I am, I stretched my hands forward to steady his head and keep it from falling into the void. I should not have touched him. I acted as a mother might have, but his head felt to me like a beloved’s. Later he awoke but I do not think he knew I had held him except as a mother might hold a child. He was so innocent for all his knowledge.

Perhaps I was doomed to love from the beginning but I had not seen it coming. What joy I found being near him, sharing the preparation for each day, and learning so much from every case. We ate, travelled, slept, and worked in the same places. He was careful of his appearance. In preparation for the classes, he pressed his own clothes to save the laundress’s time. His spirit had already moved me. The revelation of his body aroused more than admiration. What was I to do with him already spoken for? How I wished he were my brother, so that we could embrace in public and no one would take notice. My heart remembered the Song of Songs: O ye daughters of Jerusalem, who knows my beloved? My beloved is beautiful – his head breathes a circle of peace; his belly is smooth as ivory; his legs like pillars of alabaster set in sockets of gold. He is altogether lovely.

We finished our teaching and were preparing to return to regular duties: I to my midwifery, and he to Ephesus. On the last day, the laundress misplaced one of his garments in my clothes and I inadvertently took it with me. It was beautiful, with a trim of Phoenician purple, called murex. Fortunately, he was making one last visit to the Aesclepion where I was interning and I was able to give it back. I found myself wanting to embrace the garment itself for what it had contained. Of course, I returned it. I also told him the truth about my love and that I would be leaving for Dacia to carry the messages of healing to my homeland. He graciously embraced me at our parting. This was nearly forty years ago and I remember these images even now as if all had happened yesterday. Why does God put such powers in our hearts?

A few weeks later, when I was passing through Thessalonica, I found a garment shop that was clearing older products. There on the top of a heap was one exactly like his. I laughed but decided to buy the offered gift, as a memorial from the Most High. I did not have enough local coins in my pocket, so the merchant directed me to the moneychangers. Not just the first, but the second also was closed. Finally, I found one that would change my foreign coins and I rushed back to the shop to buy that shirt before it could be sold to another.

I had accepted the parting but I could not escape the effects of love. The image and memory of the loved one was always before me. So, I thought, our images must be always before God, for we are his Beloved. To transfer the problem of this sickness is to hope for a resolution, not necessarily to find one immediately. All love must live by the full cost. We know now how we are bought with a price, but I learned this long after these seeds had been sown. I wondered if it was only I that needed or received such training.

My beloved will know, I thought, when my prayers are answered for him though I will not. He had asked, being pagan, how will I know when your prayers for me are answered? I told him that he would know when he is known by the Merciful One. I asked the same question then but could not ask it of him. That is his story. How I hoped that we would meet again and that I would know the answer.

This is how I lost my beloved, and you know how I lost a whole city. But first, to gain the city, which I did not desire, I also lost myself. Slave traders attacked our caravan on the mountain roads to Dacia and we were subdued. Because I was untouched and educated, I fetched a large price at the market in Ostia where the Vetti were able to bid the highest. So it was that I came to their house in Pompeii as a governess to their children.

The excess in which they were raised prevented them from seeing any reality except their own bellies. All appetites were filled to excess. Perhaps I am too severe in my judgment, but that vestibule image of Priapus weighing his member is indicative of their state. It dominated the entrance to the house. One could not miss it. Perhaps this is why we are commanded not to make images. It did not fit with the beautiful image that I had of my beloved, or indeed the accidental image in water and fire that I had of that Vetti child whom I also learned to love.

Marcus Titus Vetti

I blush at the memory; Artemis has not told the half of it. I was changed by that escape. All was stripped away from me. Violently expelled from one world into another through the arms of a brilliant midwife, I remember waking that first morning under a strange smelling blanket. We, the Vetti, did not grow olives and Gaius had wrapped me in a piece of padding such as we use on the estate here to separate the amphorae. I felt well oiled – the best quality too. I also noticed the wound – significant but not serious.

I was hungry. I think I must have been demanding, a part of my character that I have as the youngest of a large family. Now I appreciate how I was trained in survival. Gaius gave me three choices: co-operate, swim to shore, or chains. He was smiling so I chose co-operation. As vessel owner, I knew he had power of life and death over me. I did not see at the time that the choices kept me from clinging to my past.

As I thought about the escape over the years, I realized that in that moment, I was for the first time in my life embraced by the present. There was no gloating over my rich family and no anticipation of power in my future. And what an embrace! After my fear and choking, I found myself lifted up on the breast of a person I had despised, who with a strong stroke was bearing me to safety. I was weak from the struggle to breathe and from retching – and there were sharp pains in my loins. As the ogre who was then my saviour moved through the water, I began to relax. Her legs touched my legs and buttocks and I was ashamed of my past attitude to her. She could have safely escaped and left me to burn, suffocate, or drown, but she showed the love of her Jewish God in saving me.

As I realized this, I began to move my own legs and arms and the pain in my gut was gone. The healing movement of the water surprised me. What happened next continues unspeakable. I put it down to the Spirit snatching me from the fire and saving me by means of water. I did not have words for such a sense of well-being. It came over me, beginning around my head. I felt circled by fire, consuming but not destroying. Then though submerged, my elbows flamed as if I had grown wings. The cut in my body sang and new life extended through my loins right to the tips of my toes. All my bones rejoiced. I felt so clean, accepted, totally loved, and I was no longer at war. I was given freely what I had formerly taken without permission. And I remember Artemis asked. Can you swim yet? I am getting tired. I tried and found I could stay afloat. I think I could have flown if she had asked me. A new feeling came over me too: a desire for modesty. It was not something I had ever felt before.

I knew in that moment that I wanted to live and to discover how to love as she loved. Today we hardly speak to those of the circumcision. I have seen the anger and conflict around this in Corinth and throughout my travels for the estate. Here I was, a pagan, cut by accident and it was – no, it is the sign of my escape. I was stubborn and resistant but I wanted to find out about this Jewish God who demanded such a covenant-sign in the flesh of a man. And of course, later, I found out that the skirts of Eutychus’ shirt were a part of my story.

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