In darkness a throng of men moved about on the beach, talking in small groups. From the way they gathered at water’s edge, I concluded they meant to make ready in the fleet of small boats resting on sand. To where and for what purpose I could not discern, for not wishing to be discovered, I remained hidden among a stand of trees, crouching in bushes.
On the long dock jutting out into the harbor there did not appear to be any sign of a ship preparing to set sail. It seemed I had arrived too late to make my escape home.
Startled, a breath warmed the back of my neck.
“You were not at the docks as ordered,” a voice whispered. “I waited as long as I dared.”
The words of the young woman startled me. Heart racing, I wheeled to find her standing behind a date palm.
The young woman continued, “Once I learned the Asklepia meant to move into the next bay and make final preparations for her departure, I rushed here to wait.”
Without moon and stars and only the faintest of candles in windows on shore, an overwhelming darkness settled upon me.
“If our ship has sailed why are those men gathered as they are?” I asked.
“They must have spied the Asklepia slip her lines and sail to the next cove. Now they mean to attack and steal her cargo before she sails.”
“I hardly see how this improves my situation. I remain stuck on this beach with no way to escape.”
“I relieved a neighboring fishing vessel of its rowboat,” she said. “When the tide turns the Asklepia will slip away. Unless those murderous thieves reach her first. Hurry, we’ve not a moment to lose.”
Pulling me by the hand, we slipped from the cluster of palms and, crouching low, hurried to what I mistook to be a pile of rocks. At first I thought she meant for us to hide along the water’s edge out of sight behind the mound. Only as we drew near did I realize that stones had been stacked in such a way as to conceal an overturned dory at the water’s edge.
Quickly we righted the small boat and waded out, taking care to keep lapping breakers from swamping her stern. Once aboard, we found places on the two benches and took up oars. The excitement of our escape left my heart pounding, face damp with sweat.
“Do all you can to keep from splashing,” she ordered. “The out-flowing current will carry us around that headland, but it may also draw us into view of those men.”
Without making a sound, we pulled away from shore and rowed towards the tip of a low strip of land that bracketed one end of the harbor. The young woman’s warning regarding the theft of the Asklepia left me concerned, for I feared we might be mistaken as murderous men sent to steal a ship.
“Tell me, how were you able to escape the home of the leper?”
“How did you know I had become trapped?” I replied.
“From the end of the street I watched until I risked being seen by that mob.”
Though I feared our voices might carry, the young woman no longer appeared worried. I suppose by that point she felt confident we would reach the next bay without incident. Keeping my voice low I explained how I had removed tiles in the ceiling. Then how I crawled onto the roof to escape the mob charging into the woman’s home.
“Is that not also the way the paralytic was let down?” she asked. “By passing him through a hole in the roof?”
“You know of the story?”
“Only that that a man who could not walk or stand was healed with but words. Nothing like that has ever happened. Were you there? Did you witness his healing?”
I gave my oar another hard pull, taking care to dip it back in without splashing.
“The event took place soon after Jesus entered Capernaum. The Teacher had come to his home town. Many knew him as a boy, others as a young man. To find the son of Joseph now going about healing all who came to him caused many to doubt his authority and claims to be from the Father. He later explained to us that a prophet is never honored in his home town. I myself have found his words to be true. It seems those who know us best and have known us longest cannot recognize the greatness others see in us.”
“You speak as though someone much wiser than your years.”
“One cannot but gain knowledge and wisdom when walking with and listening to the Teacher.”
“Look,” she whispered. “Those men are shoving off. Row!”
Behind us rowboats launched. Avoiding waves breaking over rocks near shore, the fleet of small boats soon reached calmer water and began to close the distance between us.
Rowing harder, we ceased talking, and continued to make our way towards a rocky tip of land. Only as we made our turn did the orange glow of the moon below the horizon frame the monstrous shape of a large vessel anchored in a bay.
“That’s her,” the young woman said. “That’s the Asklepia.”
“She is large. Much more so than I expected.”
“Her cargo demands it.”
“Her cargo? What, pray tell, does she carry.”
Ignoring my question, she asked, “Tell me plain, how did the man come to walk?”
“By that evening so many had gathered in the home of Simon that there was no room left, not even outside the door. As most times, the Teacher preached the word to all who would listen. While doing so four men brought a crippled man on a mat. How he arrived at his condition, I do not know, but his countenance showed him to be someone with little hope. His friends had hope enough, though, for when they could not pass through the crowd due to its size, they made an opening in the roof.”
“How I wish I had such friends,” the young woman replied.
“I do in Jerusalem. This is why I so urgently wish to return. Some of my friends witnessed the four friends digging through the roof and lowering the man on the mat.”
“Is that when the man was healed?”
“They laid him at the feet of the Teacher. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
“What an odd thing to say to a man who cannot walk.”
“The teachers of the law thought as much. Sensing in his spirit that they doubted his authority to forgive sins, the Teacher turned to question them. I have since learned that Jesus knows the hearts of all, even our unspoken words.”
In my excitement at seeing the Asklepia, I became distracted and banged the boat’s side with my oar. It slipped from my hand, making a loud splash.
“You there,” a call came from the Asklepia. “Identify yourself!”
“Hurry now, we’ve not a moment to lose,” she whispered. “Word aboard the Asklepia is that pirates would attempt to board at the turning of the tide,” said the young woman. “Her crew fears an attack will come while the men are making preparations to get under way. We must reach her stern and remain out of sight before the crew of the Asklepia mistake us for thieves. ”
“But we are thieves,” I protested. “You stole this rowboat.”
“True. But if we do not move quickly we will be sunk.”
Two rowboats peeled away from the others. I soon saw that they were much larger and more heavily manned. Judging from their course and speed it became clear that the two crews meant to intercept us before we reached the Asklepia.
“Our intentions are noble,” she continued. “The intentions of those men in those boats are nefarious at best and deadly at worst.”
“I do not understand your meaning.”
“Keep a sharp eye out, men,” the call came from the Asklepia, “and have your weapons at the ready. The attack will come from astern.”
Aboard the Asklepia lines were pulled, sails loosened. As she had warned, the great ship was preparing to sail. And we still remained a great distance away.
On we rowed, hidden now and then by a field of large boulders running out from the tip of land. If not for those, we would have been spied by any aboard the Asklepia.
From behind the two rowboats sent to intercept us struggled against the tide. Had we rowed into the current, as they attempted, we might have been caught. But the young woman knew the ways of the water. She had taken a less direct route, choosing to allow the tide to carry us sideways, through the scattering of boulders, past the Asklepia and out to sea. I now saw that she meant to let the great ship come to us.
From far off a second voice called, “You there, stand off! Stand off!”
The Asklepia, less than a hundred yards away, groaned to life, her timbers creaking as sails were let down.
“Who are you? What do you want?” a man called from her deck. “Make your intentions known.”
From behind and much closer than expected, one of the men from the fleet of rowboats replied, “We have come to take possession of your vessel. If you abandon her, you will not be harmed. If you resist, every man aboard will be cut down.”
The main portion of the fleet of rowboats must have seen us and followed. With more vessels and men, they had quickly closed the distance between us.
For several seconds silence fell across the water. Only the lapping of our oars disturbed the stillness.
The young woman placed her hand on mine and pulled me up. “Now we will go.”
I did not understand. Go where? Only when she began to crawl over the side and slip into the water did her purpose become clear.
“Surrender or we will fire,” a man from the rowboats called.
Leaving my oar on the floor of the rowboat, I slipped over and lowered myself into chilly water.
“If you do not retire at once,” came the call from the Asklepia, every one not cut down by the sword will be hanged. I command you to disperse!”
With her anchor up, the Asklepia began to move, her bow turning towards open water. The young woman shoved the rowboat away from us, presenting it as a decoy for the fleet behind.
“We’ve come to take possession of your ship,” a man called from a rowboat. “If you give up peaceably, you will not be harmed, but put ashore. Resist and we will show no mercy.”
By swimming with only our heads above water and doing so without making hardly any noise at all, we soon placed ourselves before and slightly to starboard of the ship. On her heading she could do nothing but run us down.
“Archers to the ready!” came the call from the Asklepia.
She shaved past so close I could have touched her hull.
“There will be a trailing line off her stern… for those who may be swept overboard,” the young woman whispered. “You have but one chance to grab it.”
“What of you?” I asked.
“I will return to the dory and draw the others away.”
“No,” I replied. “We go together.”
“My home is here.”
“But you know the sea. Please. I do not wish to attempt this alone.”
She shoved me hard, causing me to become entangled in rope. I grabbed with both hands and held on. I hoped the young woman might change her mind and take the rope, but soon I lost sight of her. With great effort I pulled myself along until at last I touched the rudder. Out of breath, shivering from cold water, and frightened, my situation appeared little improved. On deck above men raced about in preparation for the attack to come. Then…
The young woman surfaced next to me, panting.
“You came back,” I said.
“Arrows will soon fly. Some lit,” she explained. “It may yet be that the thieves overtake the Asklepia. Once the attack comes, her crew will be distracted. We will attempt to make our way aboard then. If unsuccessful, we may not get another chance to speak. The man unable to walk, how was he healed.”
The whooshing of water slicing past the hull offered some cover for our conversation.
“His friends placed him at the feet of the Teacher. Addressing his skeptics, the Teacher asked, ‘Which is easier to say? “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, take your mat and walk?” But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I tell this man, “Get up! Take your mat and go home.” At this the man got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. The people were so amazed that they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
“No, I suppose they had not. Nor I. Where might I find this man Jesus?”
Before I could answer, a head appeared above us from a stern window.
“You there, identify yourself!”
Unable to speak I considered releasing the rope, but the young woman spoke up.
“I am John Mark,” she replied. “I have stolen aboard to deliver an important message for the owner of this ship.”
“You know my name?” I whispered to her.
“Tell the captain and owner what you told me,” she replied. “Tell it exactly as you told me. Then pray he spares you your life. . . . and the lives of his precious cargo.”
With that she let go of the rope and sank out of sight.