5th November 1945.
The Mediterranean is an enraged expanse of green-blue water, with very high foam-crested billows clashing one against the other. There is no thick fog today. But the sea water, pulverised by the continuous pounding of breakers, is turned into a burning salty dust that penetrates even into people's clothes, reddens eyes, irritates throats, and seems to spread like a veil of salt powder everywhere, both in the air, making it opaque as thin fog does, and on things that seem sprayed with bright flour: the minute salt crystals. That happens, however, where there is no pounding of billows, or where the waves do not wash the deck from one side to the other, crashing on to it, rushing over the ship's side, then falling again into the sea, with the roar of a waterfall, through bilge drain holes in the opposite side. And the ship rises and plunges into the water, a twig at the mercy of the ocean, a mere nothing compared to it, squeaking and moaning from the bilges to the tops of the masts... The sea is really the master and the ship its plaything...
With the exception of those manoeuvring the boat, no one is on the deck. There are no goods either, only the lifeboats. And the crewmen, first of all the Cretan Nicomedes, half-naked, rolling like the ship, run here and there, refitting and securing, a difficult task because of the flooded slippery deck. The locked hatchways make it impossible to see what is happening below deck. But I am sure that they cannot be very happy down there!...
I cannot make out where they are, because there is nothing but sea around and a remote coast, which appears to be a mountainous one, with real mountains, not hills. I would say that they have been sailing for more than one day, because it is certainly morning, as the sun, which appears and disappears among thick clouds, is shining from the east.
I think that the ship is making little progress, notwithstanding that she is tossed about so much. And the sea seems to become more and more precipitous.
With a frightening crash a part of a mast, the precise name of which I do not know, breaks off, and in falling, dragged by an avalanche of water which collapses on the deck together with a real whirlwind, knocks down part of the ship's side.
Those below must feel that the ship is foundering... And that is proved, after a moment, when a hatch is half-opened and Peter's grey haired head juts out. He looks around, sees, and closes the hatch just in time to prevent a torrent of water from falling through it. But later, in a moment of calm, he opens it again and jumps out. He clings to supports and watches all hell let loose and he whistles and mumbles commenting the situation.
Nicomedes sees him: « Away! Go away!» he shouts. « Close that hatch. If the ship becomes heavier, she will sink. We are lucky if I do not have to throw the cargo overboard... Never seen a storm like this! I'm telling you, get away! I don't want landlubbers in my way. This is no place for gardeners, and...» He cannot continue because another wave sweeps the deck drenching all those on it. « See?» he shouts to Peter who is dripping wet.
« I see. But it doesn't surprise me. I am not capable only of looking after gardens. I was born on water, of a lake, that's true... But even a lake!... Before being a gardener I was a fisherman and I know...»
Peter is very calm and he knows how to be with the rolling of the ship perfectly well with his sturdy legs wide apart. The Cretan watches him while he moves to go near him.
« Are you not afraid?» he asks him.
« I wouldn't dream of it!»
« And the others?»
« Three are fishermen like me, that is, they were... The others, with the exception of the sick man, are strong.»
« Also the woman?... Watch! Look out! Hold on!»
Another avalanche of water invades the deck. Peter waits until it is over and then says: « I could have done with this coolness last summer... Never mind! You were asking what the woman is doing. She is praying... and you had better do the same. But where are we now, exactly? In the Cyprus channel?»
« I wish we were! I would sail to the island and wait for the elements to calm. We are just off Colonia Julia, or Beritus, if you prefer so. Now we will get the worst of it... Those are the Lebanon mountains.»
« Could you not go in there, where the village is?»
« It's not a good port, reefs and rocks. It's not possible. Watch!...»
Another whirlwind and another piece of a mast falls striking a man, who is not washed overboard only because the wave carries him against an obstacle.
« Go below deck! Go! See?»
« I see, I see... but that man?...»
« If he is not dead he'll come round. I cannot look after him... You can see!...» In fact the Cretan has to have eyes in the back of his head for the sake of everybody's life.
« Give him to me. The woman will look after him...»
« Anything you want, but go away!...»
Peter creeps as far as the motionless man, gets hold of his foot and pulls him towards himself. He looks at him, whistles... He grumbles: « His head is split like a ripe pomegranate. The Lord should be here... Oh! if He were! Lord Jesus! My Master, why have You left us?» There is deep sorrow in his voice...
He loads the dying man on his shoulder, being drenched himself with blood, and goes back to the hatch.
The Cretan shouts to him: « It's quite useless. Nothing doing. See!...»
But Peter, loaded as he is, makes a gesture as if to say: « We shall see» and he presses against a pole to resist a new wave. He then opens the hatch and shouts: « James, John, come here!» and with their help he lowers the wounded man, then descends himself securing the hatch.
In the smoky light of hanging lamps they see that Peter is bleeding: « Are you wounded?» they ask him.
« No, not I. It's his blood... But... you may as well pray because... Syntyche, look here. You told me once that you know how to cure wounded people. Look at this head...»
Syntyche leaves John of Endor, whom she was supporting, as he is suffering a great deal, and goes to the table on which they have laid the poor man, and she looks...
« A bad wound! I have seen the like twice, in two slaves, one was struck by his master, the other by a stone at Caprarola. I would need water, a lot of water to clean it and stop the blood...»
« If you want just water!... There is even too much! Come, James, with the tub. We will handle it better in two.»
They go and come back dripping wet. And Syntyche with wet cloths washes and applies compresses to the nape of his neck... But the wound is a nasty one. The bone is bare from the temple to the nape. And yet the man opens his eyes vaguely and grumbles while gasping for breath. He is seized by the instinctive fear of death.
« Good! Be good! You will recover» says the Greek woman comforting him with motherly love and she speaks to him in Greek as Greek is his language.
The man, although stunned, is amazed and looks at her with a faint smile upon hearing his mother tongue and searches for Syntyche's hand... man who becomes a child as soon as he suffers and looks for a woman who is always a mother in such cases.
« I am going to try with Mary's ointment» says Syntyche when the wound bleeds less.
« But that is for pains...» objects Matthew, who has turned deadly pale, I do not know whether because of the rough sea or at the sight of blood, or because of both.
« Oh! Mary prepared it, with Her own hands! I will use it praying... Will you pray, too. It can do no harm. Oil is always a medicine...»
She goes to Peter's sack, takes a vase out of it, a bronze vase I would say, opens it, and takes a little ointment, which she warms on a lamp in the same lid of the vase. She pours it on a folded piece of linen cloth and applies it to the wounded head. She then bandages it tightly with linen strips. She places a folded mantle under the head of the wounded man who seems to doze off and she sits near him praying; the others also pray.
The storm is still raging on the deck and the ship is pitching awfully. After some time a hatch is opened and a sailor rushes in.
« What's the matter?» asks Peter.
« We are in danger. I have come to get incense and offerings for a sacrifice...»
« Forget about such nonsense!»
« But Nicomedes wants to sacrifice to Venus! We are in her sea...»
« Which is as frantic as she is» grumbles Peter in a low voice. Then a little louder: « You, come with me. Let's go on deck. Perhaps there is work to be done... Are you afraid to stay with the wounded man and those two?» The two are Matthew and John of Endor, who are worn out by seasickness.
« No. You may go» replies Syntyche.
While getting on deck they run into the Cretan who is endeavouring to light the incense and who attacks them furiously to send them below, shouting: « Can't you see that without a miracle we shall be shipwrecked? It's the first time! The first time since I have been sailing!»
« Just listen: he will now say that we have cast a spell!» whispers Judas of Alphaeus.
In fact the man shouts louder: « Cursed Israelites, what have you got on you? You dogs, you have cast a spell on me! Go away? I am now going to offer a sacrifice to new-born Venus...»
« No, not at all. We will sacrifice...»
« Go away! You are pagans, you are demons, you are...»
« Do you hear that? I swear to you that if you let us do what we want to do, you will see the miracle.»
« No. Go away!» and he lights the incense and he throws into the sea, as best he can, some liquids that he had previously offered and tasted, as well as some powders, which I do not recognise. But the waves put the incense out and the sea, instead of calming, rages more and more, washing away all the paraphernalia of the rite and nearly sweeping away Nicomedes as well...
« Your goddess is giving you a beautiful answer! It's our turn now. We have One as well, purer than that one made of foam, but then... Sing, John, as you did yesterday, and we will follow you, and let us see!»
« Yes, let us see! But if it comes to the worst, I will throw you overboard as propitiatory victims.»
« All right. Come on, John!»
And John strikes up his song, followed by all the others, including Peter, who usually does not sing, as he is always out of tune. The Cretan is watching them, with folded arms and a smile that is half angry and half ironical. After the song, they pray with their arms stretched out. It must be the « Our Father» but it is in Hebrew and I do not understand it. They then sing louder. They thus alternate songs with prayers without fear or interruptions, although they are struck by the waves. They do not even hold on to supports, and yet they are so self-confident as if they were one thing with the wood of the deck. And the violence of the waves really begins to abate slowly. It does not cease completely, as the wind does not drop entirely. But the storm is not as furious as previously, neither do the waves wash the deck.
The face of the Cretan is a poem of amazement... Peter casts sidelong glances at him and continues praying. John smiles and sings louder... The others follow him exceeding the roar of the waves more and more clearly as the sea calms down into a normal motion and the wind begins to blow favourably.
« Well? What do you think of it?...»
« But what did you say? What formula is it?»
« That of the True God and of His holy Handmaid. You may hoist your sails and sort things out, here... Is that not an island?»
« Yes, it's Cyprus... And the sea is even calmer in its channel... How strange! But that star that you worship, who is it? Venus, isn't it?»
« You should say: that you venerate. We worship God only. But She has nothing to do with Venus. She is Mary. Mary of Nazareth, the Hebraic Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel.»
« And that other thing, what was it? That wasn't Hebrew...»
« No, it was our dialect, the dialect of our lake, of our fatherland. But we cannot tell you, a pagan. It's a speech addressed to Jehovah, and only believers can learn it. Goodbye, Nicomedes. And don't regret what has gone to the bottom. A... spell less to cause you misfortune. Goodbye, eh? Are you dumbfounded?»
« No... But... Excuse me... I insulted you!»
« Oh! It does not Matter! The effects of... Venus' cult... Come on, boys, let's go to the others...» and smiling happily Peter goes towards the hatchway.
The Cretan follows them: « Listen! And what about the man? Is he dead?»
« Not at all! We may give him back to you safe and sound very shortly... Just another trick of our... spells...»
« Oh! Please excuse me! But tell me, where can one learn them in order to be helped? I am prepared to pay for that...»
« Goodbye, Nicomedes! It's a long story... and it's not allowed... Sacred things are not to be given to heathens. Goodbye! Fare you well, my friend!»
And Peter, followed by all the others, goes below deck, smiling. Also the sea is now a pleasant sight, a fair mistral now favours navigation while the sun is setting and a slice of the waxing moon looms in the east...