317. Leaving Ptolemais for Tyre.

3rd November 1945. prev home next

The town of Ptolemais looks as if it is to remain overwhelmed by a low leaden sky, without a gleam of azure, without any change in its dullness. There is not a cloud, a cirrus, a nimbus sailing all alone in the closed vault of heaven. The firmament looks like a solid convex heavy lid on the point of crashing on a case. A huge lid of dirty, sooty, dull, oppressive tin. The white houses of the town seem to be made of chalk, of coarse rough chalk that looks desolate in this light... the green of evergreens seems dull and sad, the faces of people look wan or ghastly and the shades of their clothes colourless. The town is stifled with heavy sirocco.

The sea matches the sky with similar deadly dullness. An infinite, still, lonely sea. It is not even leaden, it would be wrong to describe it as such. It is a limitless expanse, and I would say rippleless, of an oily substance, as grey, I suppose, as lakes of crude petroleum must be, or rather, if it were possible, lakes of silver mixed with soot and ashes, to make a pomade with a special brightness of quartziferous scales, which however is so deadly dull that it does not seem to shine. Its gleaming is noticed only through the discomfort it causes to one's eyes, dazzled by such flickering of blackish mother-of-pearl, which tires them without delighting them. There is not a wave as far as the eyes can see. One can see as far as the horizon, where the dead sea touches the dead sky, without seeing a wave stir; but one realises that the water is not solidified because there is an underwater gurgle, which is hardly perceptible on the surface through the dark glittering of the water. The sea is so still that at the shore the water is as motionless as the water in a vat, without the slightest indication of waves or surf. And the sand bears clean marks of dampness at a metre or little more from the water, proving thus that for many hours there has been no movement of waves on the shore. There is dead calm.

The few boats in the harbour do not stir. They are so still that they seem to be nailed on a solid substance, and the few strips of cloth stretched out on the high decks, ensigns or garments, whatever they may be, are hanging motionless.

The apostles with the two bound for Antioch are coming from a lane in the working-class district near the harbour. I do not know what has happened to the donkey and the cart. They are not there. Peter and Andrew are carrying one chest, James and John the other one, while Judas of Alphaeus is carrying on his shoulder the dismantled loom and Matthew, James of Alphaeus and Simon Zealot are laden with all the bags, including Jesus'. Syntyche is holding only a basket with foodstuffs. John of Endor is not carrying anything. They walk fast among the people coming back mostly from the market with their shopping, while seamen are hastening towards the port to load or unload ships or repair them, according to their requirements.

Simon of Jonah is proceeding resolutely. He must be already aware of where to go, because he does not look around. He is flushed while holding the chest, on one side, by a loop of a rope which serves as a handle, and Andrew does likewise on the other side. And one can see, both in them and in their companions, their efforts in carrying their weights, as the muscles of their calves and arms bulge, in fact, in order to move freely, they are wearing only short sleeveless undertunics and are thus like porters hurrying from warehouses to ships or vice versa, doing their work. They thus pass by completely unnoticed.

Peter does not go to the large quay, but along a squeaky footbridge he goes to the little one, a little arched pier forming another much narrower dock for fishing boats. He looks around and cries out.

A man replies, standing up in a stout rather large boat. « Do you really want to go? Mind you, sails are of no use today. You will have to row.»

« It will warm me up and give me an appetite.»

« But are you really capable of sailing?»

« Hey! man! I could not say “mummy” yet, and my father had already put line and sail ropes in my hands. I sharpened my milkteeth on them...»

« It's because... you know... this boat is all my wealth... you know?...»

« You already told me yesterday... Don't you know any other song?»

« I know that if you go to the bottom, I will be ruined and...»

« I will be ruined, because I shall lose my life, not you!»

« But this is all I own, it's my bread, my joy and the joy of my wife, it's my little girl's dowry, and...»

« Ugh! Listen, don't get on my nerves, which are already seized with a cramp... a cramp! more dreadful than a swimmer's. I have given you so much that I could say: “I bought your boat”, I did not haggle over the price requested by you, you sea-thief, I proved to you that I am more familiar with oars and sails than you are, and everything was settled. Now, if the leek-salad you had last night and your mouth stinks like a bilge has given you nightmares and remorse, I don't care. The business was done in the presence of two witnesses, one was yours and the other one mine, and that's all. Get out of there, you shaggy crab, and let me get in.»

« But I... at least some guarantee... If you die, who will pay for my ship?»

« Your ship? Are you calling this hollowed pumpkin a ship? You miserable proud man! But I will reassure you, providing you make up your mind: I will give you another hundred drachmas. With this lot and what you wanted as rent you can buy three more of such moles... No, just a moment. No money. You would be equally capable of saying that I am mad and asking for more when I come back. Because I will come back, you may rest assured. Even if I have to come back to teach you a lesson by boxing your ears if you have given me a boat with a faulty keel. I will pledge the donkey and cart to you... No! Not even that! I will not trust you with my Antonius. You might change trade and from a boatman become a carter, and slink off while I am away. And my Antonius is worth your boat ten times over. It is better if I give you some money. But mind you, it is a pledge, and you will give it back to me when I come back. Is that clear? Hey, you of the boat! Who is from Ptolemais?»

Three faces appear from a nearby boat: « We are.»

« Come here.»

« No, it's not necessary. Let us settle the matter between ourselves» begs the boatman.

Peter scans his face, ponders upon it, and when he sees that the other man leaves the boat and hastens to put on board the loom that Judas had left on the ground, he whispers: « I see!». He shouts to those in the other boat: « It's no longer necessary. Stay where you are» and taking some coins out of a small purse, he counts them and kisses them saying: « Goodbye, my dear!» and he hands them to the boatman.

« Why did you kiss them?» asks the amazed man.

« Just a... rite. Goodbye, you thief! Come on, all of you. And you, man, at least hold the boat. You will count them later and will find that they are right. I do not want to be your companion in hell, you know? I am not a thief. Heave ho! Heave ho!» and he pulls the first chest on board. He then helps the others to stow theirs, as well as the bags and everything else, balancing the weight and arranging the various items so as to be free to manoeuvre. And after the objects he arranges the passengers. « You can see that I know how to do it, you blood-sucker! Let go and go to your destiny.» And with Andrew he presses an oar against the little pier to depart from it.

When the boat is in the flow of the current he hands the rudder over to Matthew saying: « You used to come and catch us when we were out fishing, in order to fleece us properly and you can handle it fairly well» and he sits on the first bench at the prow, with his back to the bows, and Andrew sits beside him. James and John of Zebedee are sitting in front of them and are rowing with strong regular strokes.

The boat is sailing fast and smoothly, although it has a heavy load, skimming the sides of large ships, from the boards of which words can be heard praising their perfect rowing. Then there is the open sea, beyond the break-waters... The whole of Ptolemais appears before the eyes of the departing group, as the town is stretched along the beach with the port to the south. There is dead silence in the boat. Only the squeaking of the oars in the rowlocks can be heard.

After a long while, when Ptolemais has already been left behind, Peter says: « However, if there had been a little wind... But nothing! Not a breath of it!...»

« Providing it does not rain!...» says James of Zebedee. « H'm! It looks very much like it...» There is silence for a long time while the men row hard. Then Andrew asks: « Why did you kiss the coins?»

« Because those who part always greet one another. I will never see them again. And I am sorry. I would have preferred to give them to some poor wretch... Never mind! The boat is really a good one, it is strong and well built. It is the best one in Ptolemais. That is why I gave in to the demands of the owner. Also to avoid many questions about our destination. That is why I said to him: “To make purchases at the white Garden.”... Ah! It's beginning to rain. Cover yourselves up, you who are in a position to do so, and you, Syntyche, give John his egg. It's time... Much more so, because with a sea like this, nothing will upset his stomach... And what will Jesus be doing? I wonder what He is doing! With no clothes, no money! Where will He be now?»

« He will certainly be praying for us» replies John of Zebedee.

« Very well. But where?...»

Nobody can say where. And the boat proceeds heavily, laboriously, under a leaden sky, on the grey bitumenous sea, in a drizzling rain as fine as fog and as boring as protracted tickling. The mountains, which after a flat area are now close to the sea, look livid in the foggy air. The sea nearby continues to irritate one's eyes with its strange phosphorence, and farther away it fades into a hazy veil.

« We will stop at that village to rest and eat» says Peter who rows untiringly. The others agree.

They reach the village. A little group of fishermen's houses built on a mountain spur protruding towards the sea.

« It is not possible to land here. There is no bottom...» grumbles Peter. « Well, we shall eat where we are.»

In fact the oarsmen eat with appetite, whereas the two exiles take some food unwillingly. It begins and stops raining alternately.

The village is deserted as if there were no inhabitants in it. And yet flights of doves from one house to another and clothes hanging out on roof-terraces prove that there are people in it. At last a half-naked man appears in the street and goes towards a little beached boat.

« Hey, man! Are you a fisherman?» shouts Peter holding his hands like a speaking-trumpet. « Yes.» His assent is heard feebly owing to the distance. « What will the weather be like?»

« Long sea shortly. If you are not from this place, I tell you to round the cape at once. Over there it is not so rough, particularly if you keep close to the shore, which you can do, as the sea is deep. But go at once...»

« Yes, I will. Peace to you!»

« Peace and good luck to you.»

« Let's go then» says Peter to his companions. « And may God be with us.»

« He certainly is. Jesus is certainly praying for us» replies Andrew resuming rowing.

But the sea is, in fact, already long and the waves push and drag the poor boat alternately, while the rain becomes thicker... and a blustery wind joins in to torture the poor people in the boat. Simon of Jonah gratifies it with all the most picturesque epithets, because it is a wicked wind that cannot be used to sail and it pushes the boat towards the rocks of the cape, which is now close at hand. The boat proceeds with difficulty in the curve of the little gulf, which is as black as ink. They row with difficulty, flushing, sweating, clenching their teeth, without wasting the least particle of strength in words. The others, sitting opposite them - I can see their backs - are silent in the boring rain: John and Syntyche in the centre, near the sail mast, Alphaeus' sons behind them, Matthew and Simon are last, struggling to hold the rudder straight against each breaker.

It is a difficult task to round the cape. But they succeed at last... And the oarsmen, who must be exhausted, have a little rest. They consult whether they should take shelter in a little village beyond the cape. But the idea prevails that « the Master is to be obeyed even against common sense. And He said that they must arrive at Tyre in one day». So they go on...

The sea calms all of a sudden. They notice the phenomenon and James of Alphaeus says: « The reward of obedience.»

« Yes, Satan has gone because he did not succeed in making us disobey» confirms Peter. « But we shall arrive at Tyre at night. We have been greatly delayed...» says Matthew.

« It does not matter. We shall go to bed and we shall look for the ship tomorrow» replies Simon Zealot.

« But shall we find it?»

« Jesus said so. So we shall find it» says Thaddeus confidently.

« We can hoist the sail, brother» remarks Andrew.

« The wind is favourable and we will move fast.»

The wind in fact fills the sail, although not very much, but enough to make rowing less necessary and the boat glides, as if it had been lightened, towards Tyre, the promontory of which, or rather, its isthmus, is white, to the north, in the last light of the day.

And night falls fast. And it is strange, after so much dullness of sky, to see stars appear in an unforeseeable clear sky and the Great Bear shine brightly in its stars, while the sea is illuminated by placid moonlight, which is so white that it seems to be dawning after a painful day, without an intervening night...

John of Zebedee looks at the sky and smiles and he suddenly begins to sing, pulling his oar with his song and modulating his words to the rhythm of rowing:

« Hail, Star of the Morning, Jasmine of the night,

Golden Moon of my Heaven, Holy Mother of Jesus.

The sailor hopes in You, Who suffers and dies dreams of You,

Shine, holy pious Star, Upon those who love You, Mary!...»

He sings out happily in a tenor voice. « What are you doing? We are talking of Jesus and you are singing of Mary?» asks his brother.

« He is in Her and She is in Him. But He is because She was... Let me sing...» And he starts singing with his whole heart, leading all the others...

They thus reach Tyre where they land without any difficulty in the little port, south of the isthmus, lit up by lamps hanging from many boats, with the help also of people present there.

While Peter and James remain in the boat to look after the chests, the others, with a man from another boat, go to a hotel to rest.

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