After hours, perhaps days of lying in the dark, moldering in a grave of agony, I concluded that the flogging I’d received bore no resemblance to the torture of being shut off from the sight of everyone I loved. Separated by the other followers of Jesus during the riot before my arrest, I began to believe they’d fled and left me like garbage in Gehenna. If I died in this unholy place, who would remember me? My sons would deny a mother bound up in prison for sorcery. My husband had already expunged me from his memory. Even God appeared to be an empty space at the other end of my prayers.
Buried alive in the darkest part of Ephesus’ prison, time meant nothing. Without sun or moon, coherence or humanity, how can the days be counted? Occasionally I gained consciousness and drew in the air thickened by sweat, urine and decaying flesh. A fit of coughing drove my back and legs deeper into the blood-soaked ground, grinding dirt into the raw gouges left by flogging. The miracle of my continued existence did not impress me.
Without light, my sense of hearing intensified. The dark hole swelled with the sounds of rape, murderous threats and the incessant wheezing of a prisoner. And always, always the mortar of moaning between the bricks of screams. Mixed together the reverberating echoes hollowed me out. This will destroy you, I thought and slipped back into oblivion.
I woke to the jerk of my arm from its socket as someone dragged me across the prison floor. Broken pottery clawed at my wounds, pulverizing what little relief I found while inert and insensate. No moisture for tears, no vigor to protest, I merely blinked uncomprehendingly up at the circle of light under which I came to rest. Hot piss suddenly thundered across my face. Until the liquid filled my gullet, I did not know the extent of my desiccation. Like seawater, I wondered if urine quenched thirst or made it worse. Either way, I did not avert my head. The jeer of guards punched through the opening in the ceiling. When my husband publically discarded me, I thought I had suffered the greatest of humiliations, but nothing prepared me for the shame of this.
Once the stream stopped, my eyes scrambled up the stone walls to the source of the faint light at the apex of the circular chamber. I must have been flung into an old cistern with the hole in the ceiling the only ingress or egress. Many inhabitants of the inner cells were known to never receive a trial and simply die of starvation, forgotten in the rot. I had a better chance of averting death by being torn apart by wild beasts than surviving the ravages of the inner prison where the worst of criminals languished.
Too soon the full eclipse of the stone over the hole annihilated the nitid world beyond. Whoever had heaved my limp body to lay under the opening in the roof intended me to thrive, to gain sustenance in a place with little nourishment. I tried to give thanks but my tongue resembled a caterpillar far more than an instrument of speech. Thus the identity of my caregiver (can such a word be used given the calamity?) remained anonymous. I was a stranger to myself as well–no longer Junia, just a pile of throbbing, pulpy flesh. Only the fear of death snagged at what was left of my being.
So, this is what passed as living.
A mush of sounds from above thrust me back into a consciousness I didn’t even know I had lost. The stone covering the cavern opened gradually to expose a patch of the world I once belonged to.
“Her. She’s the one you seek.”
I blinked vacantly into the shaft of light piercing the thick shadows.
“Junia, are you there?” I knew every intonation of the voice. Hearing Priscilla once again chiseled back the mountain of torment under which my body lay. For the last ten years I had worked closely with her and her husband, Aquina. Not as a tentmaker or leatherworker in their shops, but as a fellow servant of the Lord. Nine years of preaching and healing in Rome, two years in Corinth and now several years in Ephesus raising our voices together in praise of Jesus and all that we had witnessed. She hadn’t forsaken me!
The bones of my hand rose like a distant flag of surrender.
“She’s alive!” Priscilla exclaimed.
“A fine lady with a heavy purse has taken pity upon you.” The jailor’s laughter bounced off the chamber walls. “Why she wants to risk her life for you only speaks of her stupidity! Upon my life I have been charged to hold you Jews firmly, but the magistrates didn’t say anything about what I can do with your visitors!”
After a scuffle and harsh words, silence ensued. Priscilla, you shouldn’t have come. It’s too dangerous. By visiting the prison she risked being detained for interrogation or worse. I remembered her long neck and sculpted cheeks. Her black hair shimmered with one long tendril of white hair. Wherever we traveled, heads swiveled to study her tall, lissome figure. If she suffered for my sake, I might go mad with grief. I waited for the sounds of violence to begin and insanity to take hold of me.
“Lower the basket!” the jailor demanded at last.
“I will send down provisions if you place my comrade into the carrier,” Priscilla directed her voice into the dark. “But be careful with her!”
The emancipated and nearly dead around me stirred with leaden excitement. The more vigorous among us shouted their assent. In response, a bier of sorts began to descend the shaft of light. As the rancid breath of my fellow prisoners drew closer, I expected my limbs to be plucked like the feathers off a chicken destined for the cooking pot. Instead, hands approached me reverently, as if I was the bowl of weak soup of water and greens irregularly dropped down into the pit. A fervent plunge toward a rare allotment of food only left shattered crocks and slop which seeped into the putrefied earth. This had taught the prisoners tender movements.
I did not care how clammy, grubby or sore-ridden their hands were. I did not care that I rose to a lesser hell while they remained behind, with only the hope of a last meal. I prayed for strong arms to reel me to the surface, to pull me from my feverish state, to staunch the purulent wounds covering my body. Only later would I grieve for those left behind, and all the others I could not save.
Once cleared of the dungeon’s aperture, I emerged into the outer prison. “Junia!” Priscilla shrieked. Being all one wound, distorted out of any human shape, how did she recognize me in the brief moment before the guards heaved the basket onto their shoulders? She accompanied me with a continual patter of motherly distress as the carriers moved my woven ark. The rough wicker ground the debris from the prison floor deeper into my inflamed and ulcerated wounds. Without a sound I succumbed to the searing white light that burned through my body.
When I opened my eyes once again sometime later, I wore a soft flax robe and bandages that covered vast stretches of my body. The pulse of my blood bludgeoned my head preventing me from fully appreciating that I now smelled of lilies and lay on a blanket spread over fresh straw.
Priscilla knelt on the floor slick with blood and piss and squeezed my hand. “God gave you a brave heart,” she whispered. Then speaking more loudly for the others to hear she said, “God has restored her, but she suffers greatly.” The chamber echoed with praises and sympathy.
My makeshift physician slung her arm under my neck and slowly raised me up so I could survey the surroundings. Feeble light from a slim window high up the wall partially illuminated the vaulted room. In a palace, this chamber, the size of a nine-couch room, would have been ample for a moderate banquet. Instead, shackled to the walls or feet locked in stocks, prisoners crammed against each other. I slowly swiveled my head from one corner to the next and examined each of the prisoners like a person who sought out their own dead among the bloody and disheveled bodies of battlefields. In the midst of bones waiting to poke through the skin of the starved, flesh corroded by iron fetters, and the squalor of long captivity, I recognized Paul.
“I marvel at the grievous yoke you have born, but be heartened, for you are honored to be a prisoner of Christ. God has deemed us all worthy instruments of his purpose and crowned us with his love.” Thus began Paul’s sermon on the virtues of suffering for the Lord.
Unable to follow more of his words, I continued to search the room until I found my dearest friend fully cloaked in her masculine disguise as Andronicus. She stood and held her hand out to me. “Junia,” she whispered. I tried to smile, glad to discover that she did not suffer a scourging as I had. Aside from avoiding the evils of torture, it appeared that her true identity remained undiscovered. Prison life only added to the concealment, blinding everyone to the once elegant woman behind the greasy, tangled hair and filth-smudged face. In the dim light I thought I saw her smiling back at me.
While I kept my gaze on her, Paul prodded the other Christians in the chamber to sing a hymn of thanksgiving. My lengthy attention to the woman who’d became a man didn’t arouse any suspicions since for years we pretended to be husband and wife. With my steady gaze I meant to tell her how much I missed her embrace and her words of comfort. I meant to express my regret for thinking she had abandoned me. Only Priscilla’s gentle lowering of my head to the pallet broke our quiet reunion.
“If I can’t bring you the key to the prison door, then at the very least I can bring you sustenance and succor,” Priscilla said once the singing faltered. She held a cup and tipped a spoonful of the contents into my mouth. A thinned down lentil broth slid across my tongue, reconstituting the shriveled organ and coating my raw throat. I have banqueted at kings’ tables laden with lobsters and truffles. I have tasted turbots of Attica, peafowl of Media; sweetmeats, honey cakes, sugar plums. I have drunk cinnamon spiced wine from engraved glasses while garlanded with Persian roses and perfumed with myrrh. But nothing surpassed this life-saving liquor. I silently offered my thanks to the Lord for pulling me toward the light.
“Daily I grovel at the feet of the proconsul.” Priscilla held my hand. “I plead that he take pity upon all of you, that he brings you before the tribunal to be tried. I wish I could help everyone. Oh, there are so many things I wish for.”
Priscilla took my hand in hers. “With many coins I purchased your relief from the chains, but only for a time. I will do what I can to render your cruel fate lighter and more tolerable.”
How did she afford to bribe the prison keeper? Had she sold the tent-making business? I couldn’t imagine that the tools of her trade would garner very much money and the shop was only a rented space. The entire Christian community must have pooled their resources on my behalf. I forced myself to believe that something remained for Priscilla and Aquina to continue to make a living. As soon as I was able, I would find a way to restore everyone’s loss with funds from my own treasury held in the Temple of Artemis. Of course I did not believe that the goddess protected my money deposited there, but most of the Roman Empire believed she would severely punish those who violated the sanctity of the temple walls. Embraced once again by my brothers and sisters in Jesus, I determined to strengthen myself for their sakes that I might one day walk into that unholy place and repay everyone for the sacrifices made on my behalf, God willing.
Several months later I caught a glimpse of actual sky for the first time since being imprisoned. All those long days and nights I lay bound in bandages, scarcely able to draw breath in the stifling air where so many were cramped for room, I imagined seeing the sun and drawing free breath. And for a moment, it was marvelous! For a brief moment I gulped a breath of fresh air from the small window at the top of the cell before the weight of my toe wedged into the stone crevice grew too great to bear and I fell to the floor encrusted with rat droppings.
Andronicus had strenuously objected to my need to climb the wall, given my age and newly healed injuries. She should have known that years of walking at Jesus’ side and traveling the world as an apostle of the Anointed One gave me more strength than the average fifty-nine-year-old. Except for my wounded pride, I cared nothing for bruises I might have sustained from the tumble.
“Where does it hurt?” Anchored by chains to the wall, only her words could touch me.
I cringed. Andronicus needed more attention than I. Though I no longer required my lacerations to be dressed, Priscilla continued to attend to my scars as if I was still on the verge of dying. Under the pretense, she provided meals and relief to as many prisoners as possible. Free to move around the chamber when I thought the guards were distracted, I had rubbed leftover ointment on Andronicus wrists where the chains chafed, and bandaged her pressure sores as best I could. Regardless of my ministrations, the shackles wore even more heavily on her heart than her arms and legs.
Over the moans of the sick, the wails of those calling upon their children and wives, I heard the march of heavy boots and the clanking of a gate. I scrambled to my straw mat to assume a tormented posture. The ungainly gallop of the lamp light along the rocky wall and the jangle of keys announced the approach of the prison keeper with several of his minions. As he passed, prisoners covered in filth and clad only in rags groveled at his feet, begging to be released. He kicked them aside until he came to stand over me.
With lifeless eyes, I stared up at the wide expanse of Antiphilus’ balding head, the floppy skin below his eyes, his overly long nose, and scruffy beard glistening with forgotten sauces from the table. “I have been informed of a conspiracy to escape. Because I am a fair-minded person, I have come to expose this treachery myself before I lighten the witness’ penalty.” The way the prison keeper used both of his pudgy hands to point at his hairy chest exposed by clumsy dressing reminded me of a child stopping his foot to insist that he be paid heed to.
The little relish I took in this image instantly vanished when he withdrew his sword from its scabbard and rested the blade between my clavicles. “You may not obey me, but the tortures will teach you to cower.” He smiled then quickly swiped the weapon down my chest to my groin, severing the shrift and the bandages beneath. A thin, bloody line welled up around the shallow score.
Paul began to pray and plead with God. Why couldn’t my fellow apostle be quiet for once? His words only grated on the ears of the Ephesian guards, who were forced to listen to him blaze his words of faith night and day. The cruel hands that tore at his flesh in retribution only raised his strength, like a baited lion. Didn’t he understand that this was not the time to tease the gladiators?
Antiphilus ignored Paul and kept his attention on me. With the tip of his sword he flicked aside the broken bandages and the flaps of the tunic to expose my lumpy, but healed skin. My shallow breath swept over the fresh line of blood, like a light breeze drying the ink of a letter. The small, scarlet beads quickly showed signs of thickening at the edges. Now an expert reader of my scared body, I knew this gash would heal quickly.
That did not lessen the sting of Antiphilus’ glare or the disgrace ripped open inside me.
“So, this is how you repay my leniency? You play little games as if you could control your fate? I am the only god here. At night her legs are to be confined to stocks,” he directed his underlings. “And during the day she will wear a manacle on one hand and a collar around her neck, like the dog that she is. Now you can’t use your magic powers to escape!”
With a swift kick, he scattered the clean stuffing of my bed before the guards descended upon me with chains and locks. Any struggle on my part would tear at the bloody line that divided my right from my left sides. Assuming I would no longer receive Priscilla’s ministrations, I could not afford a wider wound; therefore, I willingly accepted the thick metal clamped around my neck and wrist. Once secured, they roughly threw me to the ground.
“If you despise these bonds, I shall give you as food to the beasts of the sea!” Antiphilus quickly left the chamber, leaving us to the gossamer light from the slit at the top of the wall. Those tormented by hunger scrambled to eat the straw from the destroyed mattress. Andronicus cursed them, her only way to protest in a room of possible informers eager to find slander against the emperor in even the most mild of complaints. In my beloved friend’s case, I worried that her own dejection would destroy her before the Claudius could.
“I give thanks unto God that you have been preserved.” Paul raised his arms. “We are bound so that we may suffer in Christ. In this I rejoice and am glad. As a prisoner of Jesus the Messiah, wear your chains like a lovely ornament, like a bride adorned with precious gems. The glory of being in bonds! Iron more noble and precious to us than the finest gold! For those who glory in the Lord’s work, there is no affliction, but only joy to fulfill His word.”
Though I agreed with Paul in essence, I had to close my eyes and try to find something else inside of me to listen to, another story, not just for me, but for Andronicus’ sake as well. Before, when I moved freely around the room and embraced her, I knew without looking in her eyes that she had given up the struggle for life. If she could have opened up her veins with a knife, she would have. I understood what her generous gift of her rations to others really meant: another way to escape this prison. I had to do something quickly before she fell ill with no hope of recovery.
I opened my eyes and gazed upon Andronicus’ gaunt face. She needed to remember our life before prison, our reason for facing impossible dangers. To survive, she needed to hear my truth, which was also hers. With my free hand, I pulled the severed parts of my bandages together and watched them wick up the blood of my new wound. Then I pulled my tunic closed, overlapping the loose edges like a towel at the baths. My chains clanked as I slowly raised my head and rested against the wall.
At my movement Paul grew quiet. Andronicus must have sensed a change in me because she stared at me intently with a puzzled expression. I nodded my head slightly, to acknowledge her prescience and to convey that I meant to help her. My eyes fixed on Andronicus, I cleared my throat and began to tell the tale.
“Remember when I was ordinary? I mean in comparison to what I am now. Before Jesus cast the demon from me, before I witnessed his death by crucifixion, before finding his tomb empty—before all the wonders that transformed me?”