Ephesian Hills, Asia Minor
Mid Autumn – 77 A.D.
High up in the Ephesian Mountains, a pair of bloodshot eyes stared aimlessly out of a small tumbledown structure, that at best, had been cobbled together, and subsequently patched over the past few decades.
They belonged to a boy who sat cross-legged, aimlessly tuning a flute he’d recently finished carving. As he progressed slowly, the squeaking sounds seemed to take forever to reach the few panting sheep loosely grazing nearby in the hot airless sky.
To the casual observer, it would have appeared a tranquil setting — a shepherd boy merely playing his flute while minding his flock. But the casual observer would have been entirely wrong.
The air hung thick as a blanket. It was midday in high summer, the fourteenth day of the Emperor’s month and the sun, without a single cloud in the sky to oppose its reign, was burning tyrannically overhead.
Sagaciously, the wind finally managed to challenge the sun’s oppressive reign. It began by openly playing with the brush and dust around the boy’s feet, but it couldn’t manage to entice him out of his tiny shelter — much less his trouble-locked mind.
Finally, the tuning stopped, and the squeaking gave way to a tune. The music seemed remarkably sweet; and even the wind seemed to approve of the pipe, offering its swirling dance as payment to cool his furrowed forehead. He was thinking hard, his concentration absolute, his mind racing through the myriad of problems he now faced.
At almost nine years of age, he was now the eldest in a family consistently devastated by illness and death. Only four children remained and considering what he’d gone through himself, it was surprising he even managed to retain a semblance of youth.
He was all skin and bone, which probably accounted for the fact he was almost always hungry. His blonde hair (which was cropped short) and fair skin was unlike his siblings – a legacy no doubt from one of his mother's many visiting soldier ‘friends’ as she called them. Other than the fact that one of his eyes had been severely damaged in a mock sword fight as a child and was now ‘wonky,’ his eyes were still his most remarkable feature. They were an impressive steel-blue and seemed to sparkle inwardly with a life of their own. His mother explained it away by telling everyone he had ‘seen the other-light’ — whatever that meant!
As if to shut off his thoughts and lift his spirits, his mind began subliminally searching for every happy song he knew. But even though he started to play most of his favourites — some even continually, the tunes kept mellowing as his mind repeatedly wandered back to the crushing blow he’d received from his mother late last night.
As the memory once again took hold, the final tune seemed to stutter in the air just at the point where he fought to push back her stinging words. “... look, it's not my fault, I just can't do any more for you…”, she said as she hotly threw down her spatula, “…and the cost of keeping this family together, well it’s just too much for me … especially as I’m on my own”!
As the memory took hold fear rose again out of its sheath. As cold and probing as a knife in the hands of a skilled assassin, steady in its awful intent; probing, slashing the air around him, quickly penetrating his defences. His mother continued, “... and it's no good looking at me with those eyes, Karp”! Her dark eyes fixed on his as if daring him to speak — or even move. “Even if the pig-of-a-man you called father ever does sober up and come back to us, it still won't make any difference! He was a lazy good-for-nothing brute of a pig when he left, and he'll still be the same lazy good-for-nothing brute of a pig if he ever returns!”
His defences now breached; his mind painfully worked towards the climax of the conversation. The Fear that enfolded him knew it had beaten him and simply handed him over to her sister Despair to finish off. Despair took over longingly, hanging in the air around him almost palpably, her wispy tendrils wrapping themselves around him, revelling and gloating as she worked to free all his unhappy memories. She was a Master, dragging out his Mother’s wounding words in staccato. “I … just … won’t get … another chance … for life like this … again! Marcellus wants me — he wants…” and here she paused and opened her eyes and looked back down at them all sitting, staring, mouths wide open — dumbfounded, “… He wants me, and ‘just me!’ The last two words were echoing back from the shattered walls of his broken heart. She looked into her children's eyes and after regaining her composure continued quickly, “… he wants me so much he’s arranged for me to move into his house with him tomorrow …on my own”! “…On my own." Despair’s blade once again sliced down in a vicious arc and found his poorly defended heart just as before.
Two small tracks ran slowly down his dusty face. She’s been away before, he told himself – often in fact, and she’d always found her way back, sometimes beaten, sometimes drunk and covered in vomit, but she’d still come back!
“On my own,” he muttered. “On my own,” he shouted “ON MY OWN!” he finally screamed. Dropping his flute at his feet and lowering his head into his hands, he finally let his emotions go and began sobbing.
“And now what?” He shouted into the air above his head through tear swollen lips. “Gods,” he screamed into the air, “how do I keep this family together without her?“
“Gods, hear me!” His high pitched voice faltered to a shallow croak. “Surely there's some way to keep my family together! “Oh gods, where are you when we need you”?
He still had his head in his hands when he slowly became aware of something stinging the back of his hands. As if in a dream, he dropped his hands from his face and ever so slowly began to focus. His thoughts finally cleared as the dawning realisation hit him like a fist in the stomach … sand?
Sand — and wind? Think! Sand — and wind! You fool while you’ve been so absorbed in yourself, look who’s come to visit? A sandstorm! “Oh no, gods, no … NO GODS! NO” he screamed.“I DIDN’T MEAN IT!”
The wind had picked up tremendously while he’d been deep in thought, and as he’d not been attentive, the sheep he was supposed to have been looking after had scattered, looking for shelter.
“Oh no!” … NO GODS! NO…” he screamed again as running he snatched up his pack and started to search for his flock.
The second he stepped outside the wind began scooping up and clawing vast chunks of sand into his face with the roar and sheer ferocity of a rampaging Lion. Unable to see or even breathe at times, he tried desperately to protect his face from the barrage of sand and dust by frantically trying to wrap his scarf around his head and face as he ran.
Finally, as if through an understanding of the Lion’s defiant roar, he became aware of the danger all around him.
He was on the plateau of a cliff; there were steep edges all around with thick waves of wind-driven stinging sand masking his path, and yet he was running around like an ignorant fool!
Panting with exhaustion, he finally stopped running and tried checking his bearings, he squinted desperately swivelling his head trying to orient himself by anything familiar.
Hearing nothing but the sand and the howl of the wind, he spun on his heels trying to catch any sight or sound of the sheep through the howling storm.
Finally, he pulled down the scarf from his mouth and in desperation, let loose a scream — right into the Lion’s mouth. “MY SHEEP — HEAR MY VOICE, WHERE ARE YOU?”
“Nothing wants to stay with you!” The Lion seemed to spit back furiously into his face as the wind continued in its terrible intensity.
At this rebuke, his resolve died. His shoulders slumped, and his scarf slipped from his face just enough for the wind to again begin filling his mouth with sand. The Lion’s rasping tongue was now set to obscure his breathing.
Even though all his senses warned him not to, he began again walking blindly forward into the blanket of swirling sand.
His feet sent the warning message as fast as they could, but by the time it reached his brain, it was already too late. The ground just seemed to give way under him, and he found himself falling...
As he began his slow cartwheeling, adrenaline and fear started fighting for him at the same time. His hands shot open in desperation; fingers automatically splayed for anything to break his fall.
His head hit the outcrop of rock with such force, it spun him in the opposite direction. Luckily, this slowed down his fall and sufficiently reversed his trajectory, so that when his belly hit the protruding tree branch, he only felt a gut-wrenching thwack to his middle rather than being torn in two.
He couldn’t focus, but he could feel himself sliding off the branch. His fingers still splayed. Clawing, grasping for something – closing on anything to hang on to.
As the shock of falling abated and the adrenaline rush died down, every part of his body seemed to take the opportunity to scream out its hurt. The competition for the part that hurt the most was fiercest between his right shoulder, his knees and his forehead. His shoulder felt like it was on fire, and he knew by sliding side-to-side, and attempting to find a foothold, he had more than grazed his knees and could feel the blood flowing down both his legs. He still couldn’t focus his eyes but could taste fresh blood oozing into his mouth from some wound high on his forehead.
After a while, his ears popped. Even though the wind was howling a gale in his ears, the loudest noise he could hear by far was the thrumming sound of his broken breathing and pounding heart.
He guessed he'd fallen over the cliff, and he just didn't have the strength to pull himself back up. His only other option was to let go and trust he'd somehow land on a ledge... but how far down would it be? He didn't even dare look.
Despair had done her job very well and now handed him back again to her sister Fear. She rode on the wings of the wind all around him and seemed to amplify the Lion’s merciless roar right into his heart. He understood the message very clearly — I have beaten you!
“Gods...please...help...me,” he whimpered in desperation as he felt his sweating hands losing their grip on the branch.
Trust me, I'll catch you
Ephesian Hills, Asia Minor
Mid Autumn – 77 A.D.
Relentless, the wind began buffeting him as he hung there — the Lion was losing patience. He could feel his muscles tiring, his palms were sweating, and his grip on the tree root was loosening...
“Any gods help me...” he sobbed, even quieter this time.
Suddenly, a powerful voice seemed to break through his fear from somewhere below him, challenging not only the fierce, sharp wind but also his sobbing defeat.
“Just let go, son,” it said. "Trust me, I'll catch you.”
By now his heart was beating fit to burst, and at the unexpected sound of the voice, his grip on the root tightened by reflex. He continued to stare at the rock face, not daring to meet his Nemesis. He needed to respond, and so he desperately tried to put courage into his voice. He was shocked to hear his ‘best effort’ come out as nothing more than a defeated whimper.
“Are you a god that can help me?” In the time it took for a reply to come back, his hands had already begun to loosen their adrenaline maintained grip. He was losing his strength … the Lion’s mouth would be open now to receive him!
The voice seemed to sense the loss of strength within his body, and in a firm yet gentle tone said, “I’m no god, but I will catch you ... it's all right to let go. Come on now, trust me! Let go!”
His body was already beginning to shut down from all the strain. Waves of nausea lapped him as his hands fearfully released their grip ready to cast him down into their terror-filled waters.
A pair of firm, yet gentle hands caught him very quickly. Through the waves of nausea and spasms of unconsciousness, he felt himself being gently taken along a torch-lit tunnel somewhere away from the sound of the Lion’s roar. His mouth kept trying to form some sort of noise, but no matter how he tried, he just couldn't do it! It was as though everything in his body had stopped functioning.
He was being carried in the cradle of a man’s strong arms, his gaze staring upward straight into his face… fixed and locked onto the eyes. Those eyes looked so ... so ... different! As the man brought him deeper into the cave and away from the Lion, his eyes seemed to speak to him. They caught the torchlight and seemed to shoot stories to his heart, stories of great sorrow and yet seemingly great joy that they'd seen.
His own mother had often told him that his own eyes sparkled with fire when he became excited, but he somehow knew that these eyes were different. These eyes flashed as if reflecting light from within – as if they were somehow alive and independent. It was as if something… no — someone else was living inside him — with him.
A revelation came as he passed into unconsciousness again — this was a ‘holy’ man!
He came to with the acrid taste of blood dripping from his forehead into his mouth. Adrenaline continued frantically pumping through his body, and he started mumbling incoherent questions at the man “ … is my mother here … have you seen my flute … can you please help me … I’m hurting … do you have my sheep?“ The calm and reassuring voice cut through his fearful mumblings saying, “Don’t worry son, it's all right. You don’t need to struggle, I’ll help you.”
Finally, he found himself being laid on something soft just as stomach-churning nausea began washing over him again. His eyelids were drooping with exhaustion, and he desperately wanted to sleep, but the room was spinning violently. He kept trying to get up to stop the sickness from rising, but only managed a limp thrashing motion on the covers.
The pain throughout his body was reaching its crescendo when the holy man appeared with a damp cloth. He was mumbling something as he gently began cleaning the wounds on his forehead and then — peace! The calm and gentle hands seemed to usher the most pleasant sensation of well-being. This flooded throughout his whole body, and the last thing he remembered before he drifted into oblivion was the holy man’s soft voice thanking his father.
Ephesian Hills, Asia Minor
Mid Autumn – 77 A.D.
Karp awoke to the sounds of sheep bleating. In fact, these weren’t just any sheep. He knew he could hear the sound of his sheep bleating! “Nero!” ... “Nero!” He called as he half ran, half stumbled into the light.
“Good morning, my young friend,” said a gentle voice from somewhere behind him. “I trust you slept well?”
Dim memories flooded back and jostled for position at the sound of the voice and he slowly turned to again face those living eyes. There was no fear now, just burning childlike curiosity.
The eyes belonged to the most unusual person he'd ever seen. He seemed richly dressed for a desert man. His robe was wholly made of cotton and not wool like his own. His dark hair was short and well kept, not long and matted with filth like most of the holy men he'd seen around town. He wasn't tall, and then again he wasn't small. He could not place his age either, his skin didn't seem particularly old, but then again, it wasn't young. In fact, if it hadn't been for the visible scar tissue of an old burn down his right arm to his fingers, he would have been perfect … just perfect — and that smile!
He came to himself with a jolt and realising his unfulfilled duty, immediately bowed his head to the ground and fell to his knees in front of the holy man as if to pay homage. “Forgive me, sir, I am just an ignorant boy. Thank you for saving my life, sir.”
The holy man said nothing; he just got down on his own knees in front of him and cupping his chin in his hand, gently lifted his head from the ground until their eyes met again. After what seemed like an eternity, he carefully grabbed hold of his shoulder and lifting him back to his feet gave him a hug he could have remained within forever — wanted to be part of forever. It was an embrace that somehow spoke directly to his heart of compassion, kindness, and protection — real fatherhood.
“Sit with me," He said pointing to a long crude bench. "In my language my name is Yochanan,” he said as he turned to hold the boy at arm's length while staring into his eyes. Sensing the boy would struggle with its pronunciation quickly added, “And in yours, it is simply John.” “And what may I call you, my young shepherd?”
“Err...” Karp began slowly. He tried to think what his name was, but those eyes and the way they flashed as they stared into him. “My name … my name … is … err … is Polykarpos sir,” Karp finally offered. And then as if thinking better of it he quickly added “… actually, it’s just Karp sir. Everyone just calls me Karp.”
“Karp,” John repeated slowly as if tasting the name. “A unique name ... and extremely fitting for such an extraordinary young man.”
“Sir,” Karp stammered on trying to change the subject, embarrassed now by this open show of affection and attention. “May I please ask how did you get all my sheep together? They never listen to anybody, much less a stranger — especially Nero and Agrippina!”
John held back his head and laughed aloud. “It goes to prove I've had expert teaching from an excellent shepherd! In fact, if you think this is a great achievement, you should have seen him work with fish!” At this remark he laughed even louder, so much so he fell off the bench seat down onto the ground, finally patting a patch of earth beside him so Karp would come and sit too. “Karp,” he finally managed to speak out, “may I now ask you a question? In fact, I've many questions I would like you to answer.”
“Of course sir,” Karp replied.
“Firstly,” John began. “Why do you call those two sheep by the names of the late Emperor and his Mother?”
Now it was Karp's turn to laugh. “Well, sir, they seem to boss all the other sheep around, and never do quite what you'd expect them to. They're just so lazy, so vain, so irritable.”
Once again, John started to laugh. In fact, to Karp’s utter joy and amazement, he roared aloud and rocked backwards with such force he lay prostrate with tears of joy streaming into his ears. Looking up from the ground, he spluttered finally, “Karp, you are indeed the bearer of many blessings to me from my Lord.”
John did not know then just how true this statement would be, or how quickly it would be brought about.
Carrying the blessing back
Ephesian Hills, Asia Minor
Mid Autumn – 77 A.D.
It was a whole week later when Karp set off for his home in the outskirts of Ephesus. He wanted to stay with John longer, but he found that being with him was splitting him right down the middle — one part of him wanting to stay, the other just wanted to run! Oh, John seemed harmless enough. But he did keep on about something he called Karp’s eternal soul, (whatever that was). And someone with another foreign-sounding name who had died horribly by crucifixion somewhere far away. Actually, no. He wasn’t dead anymore, and now he was everywhere! But you couldn’t see him with your eyes – that is unless he let you, but you could see him with your heart … all very confusing for a young Ephesian shepherd boy!
Anyway, he assured John he had to leave, as by now his family would be wondering where he was, and John agreed to let him go, but not without some special ‘holy man’ prayers first.
It wasn’t like anything he’d heard before in the markets. There was no chanting, candles, smoke, or strange objects. Just lots of words that didn’t make much sense to him. What did strike him though, was that as John had pronounced a blessing on him, ‘something’ happened – although he wasn’t sure quite what! While Karp’s eyes were closed (more through a sense of fear than respect), he did feel something stir within him, he could actually 'feel' it! The shock was so intense that it made him open his eyes and look down as if expecting something to be crawling on him but saw nothing. As the prayer continued, he squinted his eyes, pretending to close them; if this was a magic trick he didn’t want to be caught out! Again something stirred within him, and he held his breath sharply. It was as if something was trying to rise up in him and 'listen'. Was this the eternal soul John was talking about? Did it know what was happening? Did it need to hear?
It was all too much for him, and he had to get away. And so with a lot of hugs, food for the journey and promises to quickly return, he left.
If Karp had been carrying a pot full of gold or jewels, he couldn’t have felt better. He went with the ‘blessing’ of his newfound friend, the holy man, still ringing in his ears.
Actually, he didn’t know what a blessing really was, but he recognised that something had changed. Whenever his mind tried to open up again to the negative thoughts of his mother leaving his family, the sheer positive ideas and unlimited possibilities of that blessing just seemed to cancel out everything else. He somehow knew whatever happened, everything would ultimately be all right.
As he walked ahead of his sheep down the mountain, he inhaled sharply and deeply of the musky summer air — so much was different, and not with the mountain, he realised — it was him! For the first time in his life, he actually felt hope!
His belief in the holy man and the power of his blessing was absolute. Look how he’d healed him — and without any strange magic or stinky potions; and there were no scars either! He knew he’d tasted blood, but when he searched his body, there wasn’t even a scratch. “He’s really special, you know,” he said turning to the flock of sheep following him, the tone of hero-worship in his voice. “The gods really answered me this time,” he said, thumping his chest with pride, his voice drifting off in thought.
Life was finally going to be good. The gods had sent an angel — a messenger, to bless him and now, well, everything was going to be different. Even his flute playing seemed to sound different, somehow better. He felt elated. “Even you lot are better behaved,” he laughingly shouted to his sheep.
The journey home through the valley and the lower forest was a blur. Usually, he would have camped there for the night; there were good grazing and enough wood to be found for his flutes. But today he quickened his step and led the sheep home quickly. He just had to get back and share his good fortune — his mother would have to stay home now — she wouldn’t ever have to think about going anywhere again — her son was blessed!
He ran through so many scenarios of how he would share his blessing he made himself dizzy with joy. He would buy a large house for them all — no, not just a house, a villa! A large villa! With servants! Yes, many servants! He thought of how he would bless his family. First, he would buy a horse for his little brother Baebius; and not just any horse, “a stallion,” he said aloud clapping his hands with joy. “And for my little twin sisters Aricia and Cercina. They will have …” he began, and then thinking about their beautiful little faces, he finished “... anything and everything they want,” … and laughed aloud again.
The thought of how he would get the money to buy all these presents never even entered his mind. This blessing somehow convinced him he’d be rich – and very soon!
By the early light of a new day dawning, he finally came down off the mountain following a shale-ridden rabbit’s trail he knew. He felt extremely secure, controlled, even content … and entirely unprepared for what he was about to witness.
Rushing now onto the main path to his home, he took no notice of the birds circling overhead or the acrid smell of fires burning themselves out. He was focused on getting to his home through the flatlands ahead. He was determined to get there and share his ‘blessings’ with his mother and family as soon as he possibly could. Then she’d stay.
A few feeble sounding cocks were just beginning to crow by the time he’d reached the outskirts of his small village. He should have guessed then something was wrong when his nose didn’t catch the scent of any morning bread being baked — but he didn’t. Or when there was no fresh fodder for his sheep in the communal stalls — but again he didn’t. And what about when Hesiod wasn’t up and at the forge stoking his fire — but he didn’t. Moreover, if he’d had looked up from the dirt road even once he might have guessed something was wrong. Then he would have seen the remains of so many funeral pyres lining the way — but he didn’t!
He was so focused on getting home he never realised while he’d been away the area had been revisited by a particularly abhorrent evil. And because he’d been away with John, he’d escaped the dark kiss of death as cholera slithered through the murky village streets. Nothing escaped the venom of this loathsome snake, even those who somehow survived its embrace were left permanently weakened and remained scarred for life!
In fact, it wasn’t until he finally managed to push open the stuck door and stood framed in the doorway of his home that the dawning of realisation finally broke through to him. The escaping flies and the fetid smell hit him hard, and looking around from corner to corner he was again reminded that death was no stranger here. The shock was starting to take hold. His eyes were filling with tears and shapes were beginning to blur as he shakily surveyed the dark space of what had once been his home. Nothing moved now apart from the carpet mass of buzzing flies that had been disturbed at his abrupt entrance. As he slowly sank to his knees, the room began to relay the story of what had happened.
The twins had died first; he could guess that much by the fact their bodies were neatly wrapped in cloth strips and placed upon the hearth altar near the family gods. His mother either never left or must have come home as soon as she learned death had again returned and then … it looked as if she had died next.
As his senses continued to take in the horror, he saw his little brother’s body and slowly hunching over it fell onto his face onto the hard earthen floor of the room. "Oh Baebius," his voice croaked. "My poor little Baebius.” He could see how his little brother had tried his best to wrap their mother’s heavy body himself, the strain had apparently proven too much, and he also succumbed to the dark kiss. His brother remained unwrapped, fallen where he lay. His little arm outstretched towards his mother, his face contorted and mouth open as if in a last call … a cry to whom? Was it to his big brother? His big brother who wasn’t there to protect them!
Most of the townsfolk had all died within the same week — the week that he wasn’t there. The week their big brother was being ‘blessed’ and wasn’t there to protect them!
Many of the sheep had to be sold to pay for the priests and their funeral expenses. And it was an extremely sad, lonely, hurt, and confused boy who greeted a lifeless morning on only his third-day home in Ephesus.