Witness of Saul, River Jordan, A.D. 28 (Excerpt from The Lyra and the Cross by Elizabeth L. Sammons)
Published with the author’s permission.
Set in first-century Israel, this chapter is partly an awkward stealth mission, and partly an uneasy reunion of childhood friends Saul, Stephanos and Irini. The book opens years before, when young Saul found the meaning of his life upon meeting a great teacher at the Great Temple in Jerusalem. However, that same day shattered the world of Stephanos and Irini with the sudden death of their father. Irini’s choice to travel the Mediterranean world in the guise of a boy as assistant to her brother in their book trade has kept her safe, but it as also profoundly marked her notions of gender roles. Saul’s awareness of not fitting into larger society, combined with a bitter-sweet communion with friends who accept him bridges time and culture in the disability experience, which is why Sammons selected this chapter to share with our readership.
Each chapter of The Lyra and the Cross is recounted by a different character, forming a mosaic of stories that create a larger narrative. In this issue’s interview with Elizabeth Sammons, she stresses the joy she felt when readers noted that her 2019 novel ‘read like a translation.’ While she employs certain stylistic devices found in scripture and Greco-Roman literature, her use of multi-sensory description and universal feelings intend to usher readers into the commonality linking an ancient culture with our own. The Lyra and the Cross Is available in accessible form on Bookshare, as well as Amazon and as an E-book.
6. Witness of Saul, River Jordan, A.D. 28
What a hard thing to set my ears on words spoken from this river as my eyes follow the chaos of flying stones! The child Cassandra has joined other children on the embankment upstream, and already she has attracted a following. Like a Roman commander, she arranges the other children into a line. Then she grasps their hands one by one, hooks her fingers to their wrists, and slings their arms to help them skip the rocks. Their yells of glee pierce the crowd.
As all Jerusalem began twittering about this preacher, Rabboni Gamaliel spoke with me privately. He urged me to be his eyes and ears and learn the truth about the river man. “You, Saul, above all students of mine, seek the truth, and you will see this man with justice, not with other men’s eyes. This is why I have asked you to go in my place and learn his intent.”
It came to pass that as I prepared to depart, Stephanos and Irini returned from their years of traveling the world together, and learning of my plans and purpose, they decided to join me.
If it were within my rights, I would have forbidden them to bring along this stone–slinging child and an Athenian whom they call “The Eagle.” But my joy at their visit after these years apart, and the patience I strive for like my teacher Gamaliel, and the child’s clinging to them, made my desire impossible.
As we left Jerusalem, Cassandra took glee in running around us. I soon grew tired of the delays her antics caused. Irini became worried, as the child gained an oddness in her stride. When Stephanos offered to take her a while, however, the girl looked up at him and smiled. “Don’t you know? I am walking this way because I don’t want Uncle Thaul to be alone in the way he has to walk. People can look at me instead of him.” Yes, she even said my name “Thaul,” as I do.
As Stephanos’ face burned, and Irini struggled for words to chide the girl, Cassandra looked up at me. “The people are not nice to stare at you, are they?”
I swooped down on this little bundle of defiance, and for the peace of Stephanos and Irini, I lied. “Don’t worry. I don’t care about people staring at me.” Then I spoke on with truth. “But as for you, Cassandra, you are like a weed in the desert. that reminds us of hope and of life. But don’t walk that way. It will make your leg hurt soon, and it might ruin your new sandals, too.”
“But what about your sandals?”
I shrugged. “Mine are much bigger and tougher than Little Weed’s.”
It was in this peculiar fashion that Cassandra made me her friend, for after this, she hardly left my side. “I’m Uncle Thaul’s Little Weed, Little Weed, Little Weed!” She made a song of what any normal child would have found a curse.
We have been here, sweating and swaying, since morning. This man John is, they say, a desert dweller. The bronzed ruddiness of his face and the red streaking his hair and beard indicate long days in places shadeless and arid.
John is repeating familiar words. “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
Irini and Stephanos take turns whispering in Greek to The Eagle before singing with the crowd. Irini’s voice edges into my ears with a sweetness I had forgotten. Her singing unlocks memories from our days as children. The three of us sometimes made music together, Stephanos on his lyra, I beating a drum, and little Irini intoning hymns of Orpheus or verses of Homer. The purity of her voice has scarcely changed in all these years. I have lost all meaning of the ancient Hebrew words in the labyrinth of Irini’s song. Not in all the years at the Temple and nowhere in Jerusalem has a single voice pierced me to the heart in this peculiar way. The word “family” rises to my lips unbidden, though no one can hear me.
Murmurings like the river itself flow through the crowd. “He is surely Elijah!”
The children have wandered into the Jordan as Cassandra copies the river man, pushing the other children beneath the water, but with a gentleness I had not expected.
I tap Stephanos on the shoulder. “I thought even the simplest Jew among us would know he is using words from the prophet Isaiah, not Elijah.”
Stephanos laughs. “Oh, Saul, if you had traveled with us to Greece, you would have tugged your locks from your head at the ignorance of the Jewry we saw, when you could recognize them at all!”
Irini nods in agreement.
Even a child could see this man’s heart written on his face. I shall surely tell Rabboni Gamaliel that John is a poor and simple man without a claim in the world to call himself “Messiah” and assuage the hope of these ignorant, needy followers.
The voice of John has grown in power until it echoes as though the stones themselves cry out. Simple as he is, I feel a stirring of wonder at the iron joy in his belief. What is Israel without such men of hope?
But can Stephanos and Irini possibly rejoice with this chanting of scripture turned nonsense? I cannot tell their thoughts as brother bends low to sister, and they whisper. Irini’s sorrow continues in the very slope of her shoulders. I barely brush her sleeve with my thumb, but Irini feels the motion. Then, ignoring our custom, she joins hands with me as in younger days, and she clasps, as I clasp back.
How many days have come and gone since anyone has touched me with willing fingers, me, the cripple not allowed even to approach an altar of sacrifice? Again, the word “family” comes to my mind, and I must speak the word aloud above the chant around me to calm my spirit. May my Lord forgive me!
The crowd presses to river’s edge, and John meets them in his dripping, water–shrunk rags. “Come, confess your sins and be clean,” he calls. I failed to notice that Stephanos and Irini have followed the crowd forward.
A shout above the rest of the crowd makes me turn as a staff strikes those standing in his way. It is The Eagle. Now past the watery crowd, he is swimming with fast, smooth strokes. Calling a Greek oath, he swings across the troubled current like a fist. His stick flashes in front of him, and in a moment, emerging on the other end, Cassandra’s head rises. He tugs the stick to safety, grasping the limp bundle of sopping clothes to his chest and releasing his staff into the current.
“Cassandra!” he cries as he swings her high, throws her face down onto the bank.
The child’s tight cough is audible as the crowd draws a breath of relief. But she sits up, shaking herself off like a dog, then clings to The Eagle, retching and trembling.
John motions The Eagle toward himself. “See how our Lord raises servants from the Greeks, from the slaves, from the ones we sometimes curse,” he calls to the crowd. “See how a man has put down his life in the river for a small child, and not his own child. Today is the day of our salvation, and indeed, the day of salvation for this man!”
In the evening, I pull out the old tent bag. I wave it in front of Cassandra. “Sleep here. But only if you promise to stay there all night and not to sleep late when we leave in the morning.”
She nods, smiling, as she grasps the tent bag, twisting like a locust as she squeezes tight inside it. The Eagle curls close beside her, no stranger to the roughness of the ground.
Desiring to have words with my friends, I have built a fire a distance from our tent, where the cool air can warm as we speak and the others sleep. “After the events of today, I believe it is the time to tell me of these Greeks of yours,” I begin, with no introduction.
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course,” Irini begins.
All of us laugh at her artful rendition of the first words of the Odyssey that humor our talk. As my eyes turn heavenward, I can imagine music from the beautiful constellation that the Greeks call Lyra shining in the night sky.
“These twists and turns have taken you far indeed, my friends,” I reply.
Stephanos speaks of our years apart, beginning with Irini’s being the one who won bread by the careful tracings from her inkwell into the night, as she copied writings for his studies and for his fellow students. My heart clenches within me.
The firelight does not allow the expression of Irini’s gaze to reach my eyes, but I recognize again that same sorrowful slope of her shoulders as during the day, when she stood below me in the crowd. It was when John clearly spoke that he is not the chosen one. When she remains silent, I voice what I must know. “Was this not a tiresome thing to you, and a burden, Irini?”
“Not a hard thing,” Irini says. Turning to Stephanos, she sighs. “In fact, it is a harder thing for me being a woman.”
But at last, she looks like who she is. The fire gleams from her hair, now parted and well oiled, from her nut–brown eyes and straight, white teeth, even from a ring of beaten gold on her finger. My eyes know the appearance of a woman whose head rises just to the height of my own heart. My lips long to unbar words to reassure her. But from a man marked imperfect of limb by our Lord, it is a mockery even to think of this thing. Yet I must choose some words eager to spill from my heart in defense of this woman Irini, who fills my eyes. “But our Lord has made you a woman, not a man to stride and scribe and hide yourself behind your brother’s robes,” I hear my tongue reply.
Irini glances first at me, then longer at her brother. “What womanly arts could I learn working in our shop and traveling all over the world with you, Stephanos?” Irini’s words and my memory hang between the sparks that divide us. “
“Indeed,” Stephanos replies. “But there are freedmen Jews here in Judaea, and many, as you know.”
Irini nods to Stephanos. “It is easier being a boy with you than a woman.” She snorts. “Not to marry a freedman who does not know Isaiah from Elijah!”
I feel her shame in my own body as smoke billowing through the door of a tent. My heart shrinks within me as she casts back to us my earlier words.
Stephanos turns to me. “I want to remain here. There are many opportunities I have seen even these few days for our trade that we have established with the Greeks and which we can well apply in Judaea, Irini and I. And we can support our new family.”
Though I greet Stephanos’ wish to remain here with joy, my dismay outweighs it with his latter words. “Family?” I demand, standing up. “You insult our people, Stephanos. How can you call an uncircumcised Greek and a gentile girl family?” As often when my voice rises, I splutter, though perhaps now it is the smoke I have inhaled.
Irini replies as a woman. “The girl Cassandra was a new orphan. How could we not protect her? She is still a lost shadow, but she will find her way with us.”
“All right, perhaps it was a good deed for the foreign girl,” I start. “But this man?”
Stephanos replies. “He was the guardsman who found Cassandra thieving from Irini.”
As he pauses, a glance shoots between himself and Irini, and I see her shake her head as lightly as a palm leaf in the breeze.
Irini goes on. “He is an honorable man. We had to help him to leave his slavery.”
Stephanos interrupts. “And today, John showed us that there is no slave or freedman…”
But his words hardly enter my ears as Irini’s face transfixes me.
“Do you remember the Temple, Saul?” she asks, and her voice is hesitant.
Knowing exactly what she speaks of, my blood switches course in my veins. “The Temple, and your face then, and your face now,” I answer despite myself. I bite my tongue to force silence from my blood.
Stranger to my pain, Irini only smiles and nods. “Yes. The wonder I knew today in the river was like that day, when you and I witnessed Rabboni Gamaliel’s words together. Saul, if you had followed us there, you would have known. I saw the sky open above us. I saw…” Her voice trails away with her hand. “I have no words to tell you what I saw, Saul!”
Her wonder surrounds me as if a motionless wind brushes my face. But even as I cannot speak to Irini of the bond from my heart to hers, even so, nor will I be able to voice to Rabboni Gamaliel this truth that they have felt in the Jordan. Yet to remain silent before my teacher regarding their witness that is beyond my grasp will make my own witness ring hollow as a clanging cymbal.
“Yes. What we lived and saw today was a thing no man can say in words,” Stephanos falters. “But I am certain of this: It is the promise we are waiting for.”
As I behold here my oldest friends, I am not sure which of all these is greatest—my weariness, my astonishment, or, I must name it now, my love. They vie within me like snakes that fork my aching tongue. My friends are helpless to understand this silent confusion springing in me like grass in the desert at first rain, this rain being their presence. Like a swelling wound, I feel my soul this night, which is run ragged with knowledge, but wrung dry with aloneness.
“Enough,” I voice after a long quiet, when only the fire sputters its syllables into the night. “Your words are like water over my head.”
I rise and begin walking toward the place where Cassandra and The Eagle lie before turning back to them. “But know this. You will be a joy on my path if you remain in Jerusalem, even if it means your living with these Greeks.”
Read the Interview with Elizabeth L. Sammons in this issue of Wordgathering.
About the Author
Doctors told Elizabeth Sammons’ parents to institutionalize her at birth; she was blind. Instead, they raised her with a sense of self-respect and wonder, along with a vast selection of books. After graduating with a Master’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University, she worked with nonprofits and schools in Central Asia, Siberia, and Europe, including service with the Peace Corps. Returning to the U.S. in 2000, Elizabeth pursued a federal and state government career until 2018, when she gave in to living life full-time as a writing artist and an international/disability advocate. Sammons’ writings and research have been featured in Ethics in Journalism, Plough Quarterly, The Columbus Dispatch, Geohistory, and Vision Aware, among others. Her first novel, The Lyra and the Cross, was published in 2019.