Read an Excerpt
A Novel of the Man Who Brought Christianity to the Western World
By James Cannon
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2005 James Cannon
All rights reserved.
In the thirty-second year of the reign of Caesar Augustus, a cruel winter struck the lands and people of the eastern provinces. Snow filled the Cilician Gates, the only pass through the fortresses of the Taurus Mountains; there, traders and porters starved, and their camels and horses froze and died in harness. Drifts of snow blocked the Roman highway that wound southeast from the Gates through the foothills and across the fertile plain to the capital city of Tarsus. Rings of ice bound ships at their docks in the Cydnus River and closed the channel to the sea. The busy streets of Tarsus were silent, empty, for there was no food in the central market. Citizens of property doubled the guard outside their granaries. At the palace of the provincial governor, the imperial augur sacrificed a bull and cried out to the sky-god: "O Jupiter! End your terrible wrath. Bring back the sun to the heavens you rule."
In a clay hut in the quarter of the city set apart for Jews lived a rabbi and his daughter. Mordecai was bent with age but strong of spirit; Abigail was virginal, comely, and resolute as only a child reared in solitude can be. As they huddled by their meager charcoal fire one bleak Sabbath morning the daughter placed her hand on the old man's arm and pleaded: "Go not into this snow and cold, Father. You are ill."
Slowly the old man rose from his chair. "I will go to the synagogue," he said. "It is my duty to invoke the God of Israel to deliver my people from this prison of cold, to comfort them in this hour of peril. I must convince the fearful that this cruel tempest, like every storm of life, will soon pass."
In vain she shook her head, in the manner of the younger judging more wisely than the elder, but having less authority. "Then also will I go." So they wrapped themselves in their worn robes and began to make their way across the narrow street to the stone broadhouse where the Jews assembled to honor their God. For the old man it was a struggle through the snow, a step, a breath, another step, another breath, all the while clutching his daughter's arm.
On the low platform before the Torah, the rabbi raised the ancient scrolls with trembling fingers. Hand to heaven, he beseeched the Lord to return the sun and its warmth to the land. To the anxious twoscore before him he entreated: "Endure the affliction of cold as since the olden time we, the chosen, the twelve tribes of Israel, have endured defeat, exile, and slavery. Remember the promise of God: 'Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee.' "
As night clothed the city in a translucent shroud of freezing mist, father and daughter returned to their hut. Inside, to Abigail's surprise, Mordecai led her to the little room where he pored over his dusty scrolls and heavy books. With a nod he motioned her to the seat opposite him, and after a moment of silence he said, "Abigail, as I must fulfill my sacred duty to my people, so also must I fulfill my duty to you."
"What do you mean, Father?"
"Daughter, I have contracted for your marriage."
The young woman's full lips parted in astonishment at her father's words.
"This is against my will, Father." She spoke each word in deliberate measure, eye to eye with the old man, clenching her fists and striking the table, again, and then again.
Outside, the wind whispered at the eaves. The flame of the oil lamp, dancing in the drafts of the cold room, reflected in the young woman's dark eyes as tiny fires of anger.
Mordecai held out his bony hand to his daughter and in a grave voice tried to reason. "My dear Abigail, it is for your good that I do this."
Abigail watched the tears course along the web of wrinkles of her father's familiar cheek and into the thinning wisps of white beard. The old hand trembled. The once strong voice wavered in weakness and anguish. She was not moved.
"Why is this your choice, Father? Why am I not permitted to choose my own husband?"
"What do you know of men, my daughter?" His words were spoken not in scorn but sympathy. "What have you seen of men except for me and your brother Enoch?" He buried his face in his hands and murmured, "Woe! Had your mother not died when you were born, it would be different now ..." His voice broke, and he began to weep.
Abigail knew that her father spoke the truth. She had never talked with any man of her age. She had never been permitted to go alone to the nearby well, where custom allowed young girls filling their water jars to talk openly with each other, and with young men. Rarely had she been to the marketplace by herself. In a moment of sadness Abigail thought about her lonely childhood — a solitary small girl in a dark house dominated by the daily ritual, where bearded men intoned long prayers and endless recitations; and she, this child, attended by Danuta, her mother's handmaiden.
Memories bore Abigail away to a time past. She was five, sitting in this very room, attentive, absorbed, as her father first explained the marks on the page of a book. A new world opened in her mind, and still another when Enoch taught her Greek and brought her manuscripts from his school. Left to herself, Abigail had filled her days with scrolls and books, reading, copying, not only the Torah and the Prophets, but also Hammurabi and Homer and Sappho. With quill and papyrus she began in childhood to devote long hours to the journals of her meditations and dreams. She lived in her imagination; of the real world beyond her father's hut and synagogue, she caught only glimpses.
"Who is this man whose wife you would make me?" She made no effort to conceal her anger.
"He is Isaac the tentmaker," Mordecai said, his voice brightening. "He is the most able of his trade in this great city of Tarsus. He prospers by buying the finest Cilician wool and felting tents for travelers to east and west. He grows his own flax to weave sails for ships that travel the seas to Judea and Egypt. His leatherworkers make saddles and harness for the Roman legions that keep the peace of Caesar Augustus. So well has this Isaac served the Roman armies that the emperor has conferred on him, a Jew, the high status of citizen of Rome. Few of our tribe in this city have been so honored. Yet every Sabbath this Isaac comes to the synagogue. Every month he gives money; it was he who paid for the new roof to our building. He helps poor widows of our community. Daughter, no Jew in this city is more generous, or has more to give."
"So," Abigail said with a shiver, pulling her cloak more tightly around her shoulders, "like a tethered she-goat, I am to be sold to this old rich man."
"Rich he is, but not too old."
"How old?" she asked quickly.
"Not yet does he have forty years."
Abigail leaped to her feet. "Father! I am but eighteen. Why must I be imprisoned in another house of an old man?" She stopped, realizing she had hurt her father; but it was too late. She could not bring back her impulsive words, nor did she fully wish to.
"And why does this Isaac want to buy me?" she went on. "Danuta has told me that rich men can buy pagan virgins from Africa and Persia for a handful of shekels."
"Isaac wants a son," her father replied. "He wants a wife who can give him a son and heir. In this he is like all men. Long ago he spoke to me of his desire. He is of the House of Benjamin, as we are. He seeks a strong and healthy woman of our tribe who would favor him with a son. But no marriage broker has found him a woman he considers worthy."
"How came him to know about me?" Abigail asked.
The father hesitated, prompting her to guess what was to be his answer. "I speak in truth, daughter," he said. "Some time ago, I noticed Isaac looking at you in the synagogue as I read from the scrolls of the Torah. Sabbath after Sabbath I observed this. When next I saw Isaac alone I asked him if he had found a wife. He had not, and I told him that I had seen his eyes on my daughter."
"Thus you offered me for sale," Abigail said.
"I observed his interest," the father replied. "I saw that Isaac hesitated to speak to me, so I spoke to him."
"Would this Isaac the tentmaker pay you well for me?" She deliberately put an edge of cruelty into her voice. "What is the bride price you have set?"
The old man bowed his head. "Daughter, this marriage that I have arranged is the best I can do for you. I am a poor rabbi with no dowry to give you. Your brother is a struggling student of Torah and the Prophets; the meager bread on his table his wife earns at her potter's wheel. He cannot shelter you." He began to wheeze and cough, his cheeks drawn in and his eyes bulging as he struggled to get his breath. She waited in silence.
"You, Abigail, like all Jewish women, have a sacred obligation to bring children into the world. God expects you to give life to sons and daughters, to nurture them, to teach and train them so that our tribes may continue and flourish. Isaac is a good man who wants a son. He is worthy of you, as you are of him. He is generous and will provide well for you. I will have a contract of marriage drawn so that you will live a good life with a fine house and many servants and share all that he has."
"Chattel I am," she said bitterly. "To be sold for silver, like a lamb to be sacrificed."
Into the stillness of the room the north wind intruded, rattling the shutter secured against the cold of the night. "Why, Father, do you speak of marriage at this time, when you are ill and we are beset by this storm?"
Straightening in his chair, the old rabbi said calmly, "Because I am dying, Abigail —"
She rose from her chair, fell to her knees before him, and began to sob.
He brushed his hand over her shoulder. "My time is near. You know how long I have endured this pain that comes and goes in my chest. Now this bitter cold has brought on such an attack of asthma that every breath has become a struggle." He coughed deeply, as though he were strangling, then closed his eyes and hunched his back to regain his breath. "Any day now I will die — and I must know that someone will care for you."
She placed her hand on his forehead. "Father! You are burning with fever! O Father, Father, do not leave me." She rested her head on his knees, closed her eyes, and began to wail, her sobs ululating in despair.
"Weep not for me, my daughter, for my life has been good, and death I do not fear." He raised his head and with dimming eyes looked long into the lamplight. "In my youth I made a covenant to serve God. This I have done." His voice was low, little more than a whisper. "Here at our synagogue in this great city I was given knowledge of Torah. Here I taught the Commandments and statutes to our people, and here I lived as Torah decrees, in purity and simplicity. Here I have kept my covenant. And here my soul will be lifted into the heavens as Elijah ascended on God's chariot."
As the lamp burned low on the table beside them, father and daughter held each other in silence. Outside, the cold wind shrieked and moaned, intoning its own kaddish for the dead. At last Mordecai raised his head. "Help me to my bed, daughter. I must sleep now."
After she had helped her father to his cot and kissed him, Abigail walked slowly to her own room. She had long known that her father was ill. The hunched shoulders as he fought for breath, the fits of coughing she heard in the night, the feeble steps: She had watched the signs increase even as she denied the reality she must now confront. This fever, she had felt with her own hand. At one moment she was stricken with fear, fear of being alone, a spinster trying to survive on the pittance of alms given to poor Jews in the city; the next moment she cringed from another fear, of betrothal to an old stranger who would invade her body and command her life.
As she drew aside the curtain of her room she saw the glow of lamplight; there at the foot of the bed stood Danuta, her swarthy face all angles and shadows, her head and shoulders wrapped in a black shawl against the cold. She was pretending to rearrange the worn bedclothes.
"You know," Abigail said.
"How long will Father live?"
Danuta paused to reflect. "When will the storm end? Your father will cling to life until he has delivered his people from this wilderness of ice."
Abigail bowed her head, brushed the tears from her eyes with her sleeve, and rested her cheek on the handmaiden's shoulder. "O Danuta, why?"
"Change is destined," Danuta consoled her. "In the many books you have read to me, one chapter ends; a new chapter begins. So it is with life. Your father's mission in life ends so that yours may begin."
"Begin? Sold into bondage? How can you say that, Danuta? Sad as I am that Father is dying, I cannot overcome my anger that he has contracted for my marriage."
"He is bound by love and duty to provide for you," Danuta said.
Abigail began to pace back and forth, beating her hands against her breast, compressing her lips to hold back tears. "Why is it, in this enlightened age, that only a man can choose his course in life? In my heart I know that a woman is equal to a man, and often superior. But in reality a woman is treated as chattel, goods for sale." She struck her fists on her cot.
Danuta waited in silence.
"Long ago," Abigail continued, "I learned that by the Law given to Moses a father rules his child, but why must it be that he makes the choice when I am to become a wife?"
"It is a woman's lot to be chosen rather than to choose," Danuta said. "Women are blessed above men. God appointed us to create life, as he did in the beginning. He did not trust men to carry out the sacred duty of giving birth to a new soul and being."
"What shall I do?" Abigail said. "My father says that this stranger, this Isaac, wants a son, and that he has chosen me to give him a son. To be the mare who delivers his colt."
"It is the way of all men to want a son," Danuta replied. She spoke carefully, for long ago the rabbi had told her that he hoped, when Abigail came of age, to arrange her marriage to the wealthy Isaac. Danuta had suggested a younger man of the community, a shipwright, but the father had replied, "No, Abigail is too learned. She is a woman of merit and promise. Poor, she was not meant to be." Then he told Danuta that she must play her part in bringing about a transaction for the family good.
Danuta put her hand on Abigail's shoulder. "Men believe themselves to be superior," Danuta said. "They fight for kingdoms, but every king kneels before a woman who may give him a son."
Impulsively Abigail put her arm around the servant. She remembered how the sage and strong-willed Danuta had mothered her as a child, beguiled her with tales of the Sea People who were Danuta's ancestors, consoled her when she first came to be in the way of women, and counseled her in all things. Now she must ask Danuta the question she had never before dared ask.
"What is it like to be with a man?" Abigail's eyes were intent, searching. "Is it painful?"
"At first it is, yes," Danuta said. After a moment of reflection she continued: "But if a man is strong and at the same time gentle, it can bring great pleasure to the woman as well as to the man. Remember always, always, that giving pleasure brings pleasure."
Again Danuta paused before she spoke again. "Our secret as women is to give pleasure to accomplish an end. I was a young slave in Byblos when my master first took me into his bed. I was little more than a child, yet I learned quickly. I found it useful to become my master's favorite concubine. Give a man joy in the night and he is your slave in the day. When, after some years, my master came to favor a younger girl, I entreated him to permit me to earn my freedom by initiating his oldest son and heir into the wonders of a woman in the night. Once that was done, he handed me a purse of gold and signed the parchment that set me free."
"Must we be slaves before we can be free?" Abigail asked.
"All women are slaves to circumstance," Danuta replied. "Yet each of us can earn the freedom we most want, if we will it." She paused, looked into Abigail's eyes, and repeated: "If we will it."
Abigail folded her arms and began to pace the floor again. "What do you know of this Isaac?" she asked.
Taking care not to reveal the inquiries she had made for the rabbi, the maidservant said casually, "I have seen his servants buying in the market and I have walked past his shops and fine house. A mansion it is. He must have great riches."
"And is he tall and handsome?" Abigail asked, her voice filled with scorn.
"No," Danuta replied. "He is not so tall as you; but then, you are tall for a woman. Nor is he fat. The front of his head is bald as a melon, but the back is thick with black hair. He has no beard. He is not like most merchants, plain of dress, for this Isaac is always arrayed in a toga of fine white linen, as befits his standing as a citizen of Rome. Yet pompous he is not." She stopped for a moment before she continued: "When I have seen him, he appears to be ever in a hurry, speaking rapidly, constantly waving his arms as he bargains."
Abigail was silent, swiftly creating in her imagination a merchant of the streets, busy, voluble, coarse, and unlearned. Would so rich a merchant be greedy and stingy, or — as her father said — generous? What would it be like to dwell in a mansion, to have many warm clothes and even silks and jewelry? If this tentmaker was so busy with his shops and workers, perhaps she could do as she pleased in his fine house.
Excerpted from Apostle Paul by James Cannon. Copyright © 2005 James Cannon. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.