A Charitable Woman
The woman came along with a covered basket, stopping by their bench, turning as if to talk to them. They met her with suspicious silence. In Antioch strangers are dangerous. One keeps to one’s family, neighborhood, tribe, and place The stranger, hesitant but not ill at lease, was also dressed in a loose black dress, but hers was of closely woven, finer cotton, trimmed with white flower embroidered linen on the cuffs, collars and bottom hem. This was, by the standards of the seated four, a sign of wealth. The approaching woman was about forty, a Syrian herself, with her skin unmarked and uninfected. She was well fed, yes, one arm was deformed and the hand a claw, but by local standards of health that was little enough. Too rich, the four concluded, to be begging. A procuress? Each of the four knowing their ugliness knew they were hardly candidates. A trickster of some kind? Quite probably, but what tricks could get what from such as they?
On guard nevertheless, wary, but not afraid for they were four. It was daylight on the main avenue, although in Antioch passers by would rarely assist a victim. (On the other hand if there seemed a good riot brewing, there were those to join in. . Thieves rushed to such an occasion, were a man on the ground even for a minute he would be missing his money pouch, sandals, even his tunic.) Here, near the sacred city center, a policing patrol of soldiers would always be nearby, although such police were highly selective in their assistance, a rich man deserved their service, a poor man would be contemptuously ignored. What could he offer by way of thanks? Antiocheans were a practical bunch, want something? Pay for it. The four women stared at the stranger. Let her try her tricks; she was only one and a woman. The four could beat her to a pulp if need arose. Undernourished, ill as they might be, they were trained in the warfare of the alleys, indeed if their man beat them too much, too hard, each had given such a man what for.
“Please forgive me, sisters, I wonder if you could help me? My basket is heavy. I have a long way to go to my mother’s place. I have more food in the basket than she or I need, bread, apples, some tasty pork; greens could for the table or a soup. It is the custom of my religion to share. I wonder then, would you be so kind as to take some of this food? My religion bids me do this, my God directs me.”
Beetled eyebrows, eyes squinting inspection, lips curled down in hardness, yet a quiver in the cheek muscles, nostrils widening, pupils dilating opening the mind to this event, for yes, the stranger had taken the towel from off the basket. They could smell fresh baked bread, as the stranger pulled out pieces of spiced pork from the basket held in the crook of her deformed arm. Four pieces of meat, each of the four, none strangers to critical assays, could see that one piece, each a good few ounces and spicy smelling, might be her own. Suspicion, attraction, they stared at the stranger
“ I know it’s unusual, but really I have plenty to share. It’s true what I told you, my God tells me we should do this. Here” she held her good hand out with the meat in it before them. She raised her arm, moved her hip sideways to support the basket at an angle, towel to the side, its contents visible
One woman: “What’s in it for you, this giving??
The second woman: “What trick is this?
The third woman, “What kind of a religion is that? Never heard of such a thing”
The fourth woman reached out and grabbed a piece of pork. She clutched it in her lap, looked at her “sisters” assessing their intent. They stayed hesitant. She grabbed for a second piece of pork, would have gone for the other two if she had believed her hand able to hold them all.
The other three screeched and grabbed for their piece, any, all pieces The stranger, her hand open as one would feed a dog morsels, soothed them, did not move entirely away. Three hands tussled greedily over the palm; other hands began reaching for the basket. The stranger moved that back a bit, not to tease but to be sure its contents would not spill or wildly pilfered. She had obviously been through scenes like this before, knew the calming words and safeguarding maneuvers.
“Sisters, if you each share equally, no one is cheated, all get something, you, like me, will then be sharing with your sisters.”
The stranger had now placed the basket out of reach. They had to listen to her
“You asked what I get out of this? I enjoy the good we all have in us. By following my God’s teaching, I am happy, as are those around me. And when I die I will have eternal life, not as immaterial spirit, but as I am now in the flesh, but in Paradise and made healthy, with no withered limbs. There I shall be always content. My God promises me that through Jesus the Christ.
For the four, these were astonishing ideas.
“You asked about my religion. We call ourselves Christians after our Christ who died on the cross for us all, so that we could be forgiven, so that we would learn the love he taught us, so that forgiven our sins by the sacrifice Jesus made. we could see in him the meaning of our own suffering so through him we could have eternal life”
One woman said, “I’ve never heard of Christians. We do know the Jews. They killed my great grandfather when their high priest sent an army to Antioch to punish us. Jews have riots here; the Jews rebelled against the Romans. If you are like a Jew you are dangerous. Are you like a Jew?
“No and yes. We honor what they knew, and wrote and their god Yahweh. Our Christ was one of their wandering rabbis, but they would not listen to him. We do listen. We are no longer like the Jews. We have no armies, we don’t war with Romans. We believe in peace and brotherhood. Our God loves everyone if they but let him”
Another woman spoke, “Does your religion give you the food you gave us. Does it feed you”?
“No, only if I were hungry, then brothers and sisters in my assembly would care for me But we are supposed to work, none of us shirk or beg. In work itself is redemption. There is honor in toil.
The sister with the bloody cough asked, “Do you have magicians who can heal sickness, or doctors to give away herbs?
“Yes and no. Our God heals. Our Christ, when in the form of a man did wonderful cures, raised the dead, made water into wine. But even with our God there is no certainty, for he judges whether we deserve his help In any event our assembly tends to one another, no one sick is ignored or alone. And if we die it is not at all bad, no, a good, for we will have eternal and happy life. Think of it, we will all be with the people we love whenever they died.
And so, having told you this, shared with you” she put the basket in front to them, saying “Don’t take it all sisters, for if you do there will be none left for others like you. You see, don’t you, that in learning to share you learn love for all people, all of us children of our God?
Four pair of reluctantly restrained hands took only some of the greens, one apple each, small portions of bread. It was not easy such control, but they had now what they did not have before. None thanked the stranger, but there were grunts of acknowledgement. Antioch is not a city for gratitude.
The stranger was leaving. “Our assembly is here” she gave them each a map, there were many in her basket. It is a fine big house, there, you see, east of the near the Jewish quarter, between where Greeks and Syrians live. You are welcome to visit, If you feel what we know is there, God’s presence, you will likely want to stay, to join us. I tell you yours will be a better life and death for it” The stranger smiled, turned and walked away.
The four astonished women on the bench shook their heads. Two threw the map away, one crumpled it but put it up her sleeve. One placed it inside her dress, between dry hanging paps. One said, she was snarling as she stuffed her mouth with the basket’s treats
“The bitch, made us looks like beggars”
The second woman said, no snarl but lip’s corners down turned, “I wonder what she’s really after? Follow this map to her place and get robbed I’ll bet. Anyway, it’s not in my neighborhood. To go where you don’t know is to ask for trouble. “
The third woman was silent. It was the fourth, the one who had stored the map between her wanting breasts, who tilted her head back a bit, looking upward at bronze Calliope,
“But don’t you see? She believes something and it is good”
The one who had not spoken, who was chewing on the pork, was getting up off the bench, gesturing to her sisters to rise,
“It’s time to give offerings to Tyche. I will give her the penny I planned. The food the woman gave us is too good to part with. “
They got up to walk toward Tyche’s temple, not at all far away. One woman, the one misty eyed, for these were cataracts and in a few years she would be blind, stopped, for she was listening to the music of the fountain, She was the one with the map stuffed in her dress, the one who had recognized serenity, cocked her head, “I hear soft singing, do you hear her?”
The others did not
“Its Tyche the Muse. I don’t call her “Calliope” as the Romans do, that is my Tyche who is one of us, Syrian and Antiochean. Our Tyche is singing of her city. Don’t you hear?
Heads shook. But the one who listened to the goddess heard her singing from the fountain, its clear waters carried from Daphne, heard singing and the song was marvelous melody. Any one hearing the song of Tyche was blessed. She was evolved from her ancient Chthonic days to become bronze and beautiful now in the Forum, no longer a huge vulva-carved fearsome great stone, all menses and seed-smeared, reigning in a cave. She was mostly a singer and symbol now of place. She was looked to still for protection, but nowadays less so than armies for the reality of Roman might was better. Now that she was an abstraction sculpted and personified, she sang more freely, for she need claim no powers but of song, or, as here, to tell a tale or two.
Three women in black shook their heads. They heard no song at all. The fourth insisted, “But I can hear her and she is lovely. She is singing of fountains and flowers, an orchard of peaches nearby. It is such a fine melody and, oh my, it make the picture of what she sings blossom in my head. What a wonderful beginning to this day after all, a bit of rest, a charitable woman giving bread and meat, now Tyche singing with words putting bright pictures in my head.”
She gave her offering gladly, smiled, and was almost cheery as she went off to work
You see, I changed my mind after all. And yes, I am here, Tyche speaking. A goddess is, after all, still a woman who can change her mind. Why not be heard today? Why not add a bit more that is lovely to a day already made good by the charitable woman? A charitable woman is an exception worthy of my praise. Antioch is famous for love, but its form is Eros and, but for close family, rarely other. Amorous loving is the elaboration of passions, selfish at heart, whereas charity is an embracing, all-generous thing. Even a goddess can be inspired by it.
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