Human Cargo

Mark 10:42-45 — The Tales & Adventures of John Mark

Human Cargo

In the cabin of the ship’s owner the moon’s faint light bled through open window along the back wall. A skittish breeze lifted the edge of a thin cloth that served as its curtain. In doing so the faint breeze carried the rank odor of emptied bowels and bladder — the owner’s chamber pot. The illumination of a single tallow candle cast upon the face of thes rotund man seated behind a writing desk. To call the room a cabin is to veer towards exaggeration for the space was no larger than the tent I once used to travel with the Teacher. Still, with its low ceiling and cramped feel, I sensed in I was being watched by someone other than the man behind the desk. With a prolonged examination, I saw no others, only a single bunk and it unkempt. The centurions who had hauled me aboard remained in the hallway, no doubt keeping watch to ensure I did not try once more to flee.

Without acknowledging my presence, the ship’s owner pulled the candle closer. On his desk lay a scroll similar to those I had seen used in synagogues back in Galilee. Using the tip of a long, silver pointer and with the intensity of someone searching for something of great value, he read silently to himself.

Only when he reached a line mid-way down did he stop and summon a guard from the hallway. “Take care of Aristarchus and be quick about it.”

The centurion remained next to me, our shoulders nearly touching. “And what would you have me do with him, sir?”

“Carry him out and slip him over when the crew is not looking. Once a crew falls under the spell of rumors and suppositions there is no accounting for how they may react.”

With the help of the second centurion, the pair placed it on a long, wide garment on wood flooring near where I stood. Only when they riffled through the material on the bunk did it become clear to me that the source of the foul smell was not from a chamber pot but that of a man stretched out on the bunk. Upon death the body had emptied itself and filled the room with a stench that even to this day I cannot forget.

“We will remove him by way of the galley, sir. Only the cook shall be in the area and should I have my way he shall not know of what we carry.”

“See to it he does not.”

A knife of some kind had been thrust in the dead man’s chest. An oily, red stain soaked his outer cloak. Eyes part-way open and fixed in a lifeless stare revealed the youthful state of the deceased. I gauged him to be not much older than me.

“The crew must not know of the circumstances surrounding the death of my aid. I mean to find the culprit and soon.”

“Understood. The crew merely suspects Rastus died while on deck fending off the pirates. We shall see this remains their belief.”

Once the pair of centurions exited the room with the body,  the ship’s owner shifted his gaze towards me. “Aristarchus was my personal assistant. He went before me, stood watch outside my cabin, tasted my food, and checked this cabin before I lay down each evening. More than that, he is my sister’s youngest. When I returned from dispensing with those pirates I found him where he lay. No doubt that dagger was meant for me.”

I said nothing, merely listened. Did the owner of the ship think I had killed his relative? Was this why I stood before him?

With the back of his knuckles he rubbed his chin. “Your presence off the stern of my ship, what am I to make of it?”

“I . . . am not part of those who attacked this ship if that is your implication.”

“No? You were found in the water clinging to the safety line and not more than a moment later Aristarchus was found dead in my cabin. My window looks over the rudder. You could have easily thrust him thru and jumped without notice.”

“I assure you, this is the first I have been in your cabin.”

“Cast from shore and adrift by accident, were you? Happened upon this ship by good fortune, did you?”

“My crime, if there is one, is that of someone seeking to steal aboard as a stowaway. I only meant to secure passage to Caesarea.”

“And if this ship is bound for Rome?”

My heart sank. The girl had seemed certain the Asklepia was bound for the coast of Tyre and Sidon. Had she deceived me also?

“Our departure this evening was kept secret,” the ship’s owner continued. “Not even the crew knew of time we would cast off. It was for secrecy that we moved to next harbor before raising sails. Had their been a spirit of mutiny among the crew I hoped to discover it before we put out to see but none made a move to indicate any but loyalty to our mission.”

“And if I may ask, what is your mission?”

“You may ask and now have, but with the death of Rastus your character is suspect. In a word, I do not trust you.” He leaned back in his chair, looking me up and down as if to appraise me. “This much I will disclose: our intent is to sail across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia and land Myra in Lycia. And yet before we can raise sails here were about to attacked by pirates.”

“You have my word that I have no part of their wicked scheme.”

“The word of a murderer means little.”

“Perhaps it is your crew, sir. Could they not be the source of this ill luck that no befalls you?”

“‘Ill luck?’ Pirates do not arrive but with planning. A man stabbed in his bed is not ill luck. The men who brought you to my cabin say that you meant to come aboard to deliver an important message for the owner of this ship. Speak it plane and be gone. I wish to dispose of this matter and you before we come under assault.”

I wondered how best to deliver the Teacher’s words. I sensed that to say the wrong thing might cost me my life. And yet I could only speak the truth. To do otherwise would be to deny my Lord Jesus Christ.

“As you well know,” I said, “those who regard themselves as owners of another person lord it over them, often treating them poorly. I myself have witnessed slaves brutally beaten for simply failing to bring a cup of water with speed. Such treatment of others should not be. We are all created in the image of the God who created the heavens and earth and sea and all that is within. To treat our neighbor as one might oxen or cattle is affront to our creator.”

“Your creator, not mine. My god is Mercury, the god of trade. He is good to me, as I am to him. Great he has made me, for with little I began. I have amassed great wealth and intend to gather even greater goods with the delivery of this ship’s cargo.”

“If you wish to become great, you must serve others. This is the wisdom of the Teacher. Whoever desires to be called great must be slave of all.”

“You speak as a fool, for who but a fool would relinquish command of ship and crew in order to serve as a galley slave?”

“Though his throne is in heaven, the Son of God did just this and more. He gave his life as a ransom for me and you and all who will accept his gift of mercy.”

“Do you propose to teach me how to command this vessel?”

“I only wish to make known to you that the punishment for anyone who steals another is death. Even if the victim is sold or still in their possession, the one who steals an individual for the purposes of making a profit from his life and work must die.”

“There! Your words convict you. You speak for the slave and in doing so you admit that you intended to harm me.”

“I confess no such thing. I am merely speaking the truth.”

“What is truth but what a man thinks truth to be.”

“There is but one truth and he is Lord of all.”

“Lords and truth, slaves and free men. Defend the slave do you? Then with the slaves you will remain until we dispense with this attack. Centurion!”

From outside two centurions rushed in, taking me by the arms.

“Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution,” I said as calmly as I could. “For we are not to rule over man or woman with harshness. In Christ Jesus there is neither slave nor free.” With the pair of centurions pulling me out the door and into the hallway I added, “We are all one, all the same, all sinners in need of saving. Even you, sir. Even you.”

A moment later I found myself on deck where all about the crew of the Asklepia fought with the marauders who had boarded the great ship. From within the blackness of sea and night flaming arrows streaked towards us, catching in her sails. I only had but a moment to witness the carnage and in that short time I could see that the pirates held the advantage. Then a deck hatch was quickly opened and I was let down, the released, dropping into the ship’s cargo hold with the rest of the slaves.