Torech the Shipwright

Where the road passed through the village it dipped and became narrow, so that a man could stand in the middle and, reaching his arms out, touch the roof thatching of the houses on either side. But then the highway, in a violent effort to liberate itself from the lane, rose up into a spacious field of olive tree shadows and trodden grass, before escaping into the forested hills west of town. Torech, when he came to this clearing, found another traveler, leaning against the stone lip of a well surrounded by silver trees. A younger man--though not that young really, he was getting old--with a staff, dressed in a humble tunic. The stranger wore beneath his beard an expression of buoyancy, with eyes that glistened in the shade as he offered a sip of wine.

Torech thanked him and drank from the earthen vessel, savoring the red liquid in his mouth before he swallowed. He remarked how nice it was to set down one's legs after a hard journey. The other man smiled and said nothing--he was looking up to where the half moon had set itself up bravely in the sky.

"Let's must be sixteen days since I set off from Patara. I didn't think it would take so long, traveling these hills. They look so small from the coast. But they have the best trees for masts and hulls. Masts especially. It is difficult to find pine trees tall and straight enough."

He paused, expecting the stranger to reveal some home and occupation. But instead he called over to two young girls peaking from an olive branch at the other end of the clearing.

"Come over here Axme, and you Stezana. Here is a man who has had a long journey--why don't you fetch him some bread?"

"Over there," Torech added, pointing to where he had tied up the packhorse, "you will find white bread as good as any you could come by." And then, confidentially, to the other man: "My daughter baked it, you see, for the trip."

"Children are the light of our world."

"Yes, that was certainly true for me," Torech replied wistfully, caught by the phrase of the other man. "But now, of course, she is married. And though she only lives down the road...well, you know how it is, a husband and all. Tell me, do you have daughters?"

"Sometimes," the other man said, looking upwards as the small, individual shades of the olive leaves shifted across his face, "I think of all children as my own."

"Hmm, yes. Hmm." Torech frowned a little. What a strange fellow this was, sitting peacefully in the shade with his glistening eyes, rattling off high things in such an offhand manner. He didn't seem to be joking, though. From the south, by the look of his dark hair and thickset nose, Cypriot perhaps, or Hebrew--god knew what he was doing in these regions. "So what kind of business brings you into Silicia?" he asked, after a decent silence.

The stranger picked a small flower from the grass, and held it between thumb and finger, as if considering it. "Oh, that. Well my business is...done with. and now I'm just sort of...walking about, seeing things. I've seen so little of the rest of the world, you know."

"Bah, it's all the same," Torech said, waving him off with a cynical smile. The girls had returned. The elder, with curly hair and a lisp, broke off pieces of the bread for them, while the younger secretively unfolded a wedge of cheese from her apron; she had sea-blue eyes and gold hair, and seemed always laughing. Both of them watched the stranger expectantly.

"Tell us something more! Tell us something more!" the young one broke out at last, unable to contain herself.

"You see that light up there?" the stranger motioned, pointing to the moon in the field of blue.

"Yes, teacher, we see it."

"Is it waking now, or is it waning?"

"It's waxing, I think," the elder said, looking seriously up at the small white half-circle. "Because it is up in the evening. When we see it in the morning, it wains."

"And what if you do not see it, what then?"

"Then it is new, teacher."

"So what do we learn from this? We learn that all things have a cycle. They move from the evening to the morning, and when they are no more, that is their beginning. So it is with men."

"How teacher? Are we reborn?" The younger girl was kneeling now, and her small hand had grasped his wrist.

"We are, but not on earth," he answered, laughing a little at the sky. "Now be off with you, and let us enjoy our bread."

They fluttered off, bird-like, and left Torech eyeing the other man quizzically.

"You're a funny man, you know." He chewed the good white bread slowly, to savor it.

"I see things differently," the other agreed, not at all offended.

"You remind me of my wife's brother, a little. He was a funny fellow. Said the strangest thing when she died. I remember the exact words--he said: `Now, Torech, you've no more reason to worry about things.' What did he mean by that, d'you suppose?"

"I am sorry."

"Eh? For what?"

"I am sorry that your wife died."

"Oh, that," Torech said, with a wave of the hand, as if dismissing it--though of course he felt that sensation, like the squeezing of a fist in his heart, that always accompanied her memory. "It is two years now. Over two. It was in the late winter, and the first shoots were coming up in her field, and she worried incessantly about the blackbirds."

"Well, with God's grace she has better fields now. And her brother was right, you needn't worry." The other man's voice had risen a little, and grown more soothing, like a light-running brook. As if he knew about these other fields, this God, first hand, as if he'd met them. So that is what he is, Torech thought--a traveling holy man. One of Jehovah's followers, by the unkempt looks of him.

"You speak of another place," Torech said, siding away from the other a little, so that his shoulder was hit by a thick beam of sunlight. "But where is this place? How do you get there? It does not seem possible, to me."

"All things are possible with God, my brother." He said this softly, almost tenderly, but Torech, for all his polite manners, could not help snorting at him. The other man laughed too, but nodded his head, as if to say: Yes, but it's true!

"So which God do you mean there, my friend?"

"There is but one God," the other said. His mouth had grown serious again, and he was looking up at the feathery clouds. In the olive grove the birds and insects, now used to their presence, had recommenced their little noises.

"One god..." Torech began, considering. "Very well, but what's his name? Mithras?"


"And how are all things possible? I have seen people in the temples of Mithras, in the temples of Pan, even in your temples, teacher, and they ask for things, but return empty. They might as well be talking to a wall."

"Some fishermen said almost the same thing to me, once," the teacher replied. "They did not believe. And so to show them, I walked on water."

"You walked on...ha, you're really a funny fellow," Torech said, taking his declaration for a riddle. "But I've walked on water too, you know. I'm a shipwright, I build boats. And you get in the boat and you are walking on water," he finished, rather pleased with himself for solving it.

"They stood in the boat," the other man went on, "with their mouths wide open, and I walked across the stormy sea to them, and one of them even walked over the water to meet me, a little ways; and then they believed. But those days are over. Now...I am traveling a little, before I leave for good."

Torech nodded, not really caring anymore what the other man said. He was with his wife again--in his mind--watching, from a ship's deck, as she wove through the crowd of the market with a bowl of dates and bread, not knowing his eyes were on her. She walked so proudly, so quietly in the glare, and she was so nimble crossing the shaky plank. And he had told her she could have waited for him to come home, and she had shaken her head and smiled, saying he would have stayed away and starved, and he would have, because it was the first large ship he had built and had to be done on such and such a day. And they had both been very young. Before their son had been born, even...he could hardly remember the little tyke now, what he looked like.

Worried? No, it was not the worry, the dread, which mead his heart heavy. It was that he wanted to know what his only son looked like, what his wife had looked like (he could only half picture her) in her youth.

The other man was eating the bread now, appreciatively. As he brought it to his mouth Torech noticed something about his hands--it seemed there was a wound in the middle of the back of each of them...and looking closer he saw the same wound on the palm.

"What the hell happened to you?" he exclaimed, pointing to the hands. "They nail you up or something?"

"Yes," the other man said, swallowing. "They crucified me."

"The damned Romans," Torech said, spitting into the grass. "It's getting too much. I admire them, you can't say I don't--their ships, their harbors and legions. But it's too damn much." Even as he said this, Torech felt a little coldness about his chest--because the Empire, in spite of what he said, didn't nail a man up for just anything...for all he knew he was in the company of a cutthroat.

"People don't like to hear the truth," the other man was saying. "It reveals their own sinful lives to them."

"Yes, but if they nailed you up, how did you escape with your life?" Torech asked, genuinely curious.

"Ah, but I didn't"

"Didn't what?"

"Escape with my life," the other said, smiling meekly. "I died." He said these simple words with such truth and conviction, the shipwright could not put it down to a joke or riddle. And how had he got them, anyway, those holes in his hands?

"And how did you rise from the dead?" he said, his mouth dry.

"I woke up, and I was in my tomb. But the rock--the rock they rolled over the door of the tomb, you see--it had been rolled back, by one of my own followers. And I walked out. It was strange, being alive again. It was not like being alive before..."

"But...but," Torech sputtered, "isn't it possible, that you weren't really dead? There are stories, you know, the midwives tell them, of people who seem to be dead and are not, but are in a sort of deep sleep--"

"But I was dead," the other man said, smiling still and looking at the sky.

"Are you sure of this? That you came back from the dead?"

"Oh yes."

Torech took a long draught of the wine, and wiped his red lips. He looked at the other man, sitting with his back to the tree as if coming back from the dead were the most ordinary thing in the world, and stroked his beard.

"Yes, but what does it mean?"

"It means everything."

"Does it? I mean, granted, it is a miracle. It seems that things are possible with this God of yours, great things. Perhaps even another place, beyond the living world. But tell me something," Torech said, speaking from his heart and making great pains to choose the right words. "What about the past? What happens to the good days that have gone?"

"The old things are gone, and the new things take their place. Heaven is a much better place than earth, my friend."

He felt the other man touch him lightly, and drew away a little. "All the same, it's the past I dream of. Seeing her as a young woman, walking across the courtyard with our little girl on her hip, picking olives with me on those hot summer afternoons, the way the sweat stained her tunic about the inside of her breasts, and how she would wash my hair in the basin, the flowery smell of her, and how she was so light that she could climb the masts of my ship and tie the rigging knots, the way she would smile down and wave at me, and the, the--"

He could not go on, but collapsed against the lip of the well. The young girls had come out again, and beyond their running forms he could see a young woman, her neck and head above the ivy fencing of a chicken yard; what was behind her was too dark in the shadows for him to make out.

"Or else, I want it just to end," he muttered, and then knowing what the other would say: "Oh yes, I know--it will never end. They are all alike in that. There is always a heaven or an underworld or a hell, or this or that, there is always something. Why can't it just end?"

The other man looked at Torech, and seemed about to answer, but didn't--perhaps he could not think of anything to say. He looked puzzled, as if he had never heard such strange things before. The girls' coming distracted him, flocking around and beseeching: "Teacher, teacher--stay for the night! Please? Your friend can stay too, Mother said you could. You can have our bed and we'll sleep on the hearth. You can stay, can't you? Please?"

The teacher nodded, and the girls jumped up and down with delighted cries. The very birds seemed to be fluttering about his head.

With a curt smile Torech took up his staff. He told them he would like to stay but, alas, he had many miles to travel before dark. All along he had planned to stay in this little village, but now he did not want to sleep in a room with the strange man who had the holes in his hands. Hearing the man speak had only made him sadder, made him with for the good days again.