320. Arrival and Landing at Seleucia.
6th November 1945.
The town of Seleucia appears in a beautiful sunset like a huge white mass on the edge of the blue water of the sea, which is placid and pleasantly bright, while the breeze plays among the little waves under a cloudless sky that blends its cobalt blue with the purple of sunset. The ship is heading under sail towards the remote town and is so flooded by the splendour of the setting sun, that she seems ablaze with lights of joy for the arrival now close at hand.
On the deck, among sailors no longer busy or worried, there are passengers who see that their destination is approaching. The injured sailor is sitting beside John of Endor, who is much more emaciated than when he left. The man's head is still dressed with a light bandage and he is as pale as ivory because of the blood he has lost. But he is smiling and he speaks to those who saved him and to his companions who, as they pass, congratulate him on his return to deck.
The Cretan also sees him and entrusting his post for a moment to the coxswain, he comes to greet his "very good Demetes", who has come back on deck for the first time after being hurt. "And thanks to all of you" he says to the apostles. "I did not think he could survive, after being struck by the heavy beam and by the iron, which made it even heavier. Demetes, these people have really brought you back to life, because you were as good as dead, and not once, but twice. The first time when you were lying like a bale of goods on the deck, and because of the blood you were losing and of the waves that would have washed you overboard, you would have died and gone down to the kingdom of Neptune among Nereids and Tritons. The second time because they cured you with their wonderful ointments. Let me see your wound."
The man undoes the bandage and shows a smooth healed scar, like a red mark from his temple to his nape, just under his hair, which appears to be cut, probably by Syntyche, to keep it out of the wound. Nicomedes touches the mark lightly: "Even the bone is healed! Marine Venus did love you! And she wanted you only on the surface of the sea and on the shores of Greece. May Eros be gracious to you, now that we land, and assist you to forget your misfortune and the terror of Thanatos as you were already in his grip."
Peter's face displays his feeling on hearing so many mythological embellishments. Leaning against a mast, with his hands behind his back, he does not speak, but everything speaks in him fastening a biting epithet on heathen Nicomedes and his heathenism, and expressing his disgust at the whole of Gentilism.
The others are not less disgusted... Judas of Alphaeus is frowning as he normally does when in a bad temper, his brother is moving around showing a great interest in the sea. James of Zebedee decides that the best thing to do is to leave them all and go below deck to get the bags and the loom, Matthew is toying with his belt and the Zealot imitates him, busying himself exceedingly with his sandals, as if they were something new, and John of Zebedee is hypnotised contemplating the sea.
The contempt and annoyance of the eight apostles is so obvious − and the mutism of the two disciples sitting near the wounded man is just as clear − that the Cretan becomes aware of it and he apologises: "It's our religion, you know? As you believe in yours, we all believe in ours..."
No one replies and the Cretan wisely decides to leave his gods in peace and descend from Olympus on the earth, or rather on the sea, on his ship, inviting the apostles to go on to the prow to have a good view of the town that they are approaching. "There it is, see? Have you ever been here?"
"I was here, once, but I came by land" says the Zealot gravely and dryly.
"Very well! So you know that Seleucia is the real port of Antioch. The sea-town is at the mouth of the river Orontes, which is also gracefully suitable to receive boats that can go up the river as far as Antioch when the water is deep. The town you see, the larger one, is Seleucia. The other one, to the south, is not a town, but the ruins of a devastated place. They are deceiving, but it is a dead place. That chain is the Pierios, after which the town is called Seleucia Pieria. The mountain top farther inland, beyond the plain, is mount Casius, and it dominates like a giant the plain of Antioch. The other chain to the north is the Amanus. Oh! You will see the work the Romans have done in Seleucia and in Antioch!
They could not have done anything greater. A port with three basins, which is one of the best, canals, jetties and breakwaters. There is not so much in Palestine. But Syria is better than other provinces in the Empire..."
His words fall in deathlike silence. Even Syntyche, who being Greek is less squeamish than the others, sets her lips, and her face becomes more than ever as sharp as a face sculptured on a medal or a bas-relief: the face of a goddess disdainful of earthly contacts.
The Cretan notices it and he apologises: "What do you expect! After all I make my money from the Romans!..."
Syntyche's reply is as sharp as a sabre-cut: "And gold blunts the sword of national honour and freedom", and she says so in such a way and in such pure Latin that the man is dumbfounded...
Then he dares to ask: "But are you not Greek?"
"I am Greek. But you love the Romans. I am speaking to you in the language of your masters, not in mine, which is the language of our martyred Fatherland."
The Cretan is embarrassed while the apostles silently rejoice at the lesson given to the praiser of Rome. And the Cretan changes the subject and asks by which means they will be going from Seleucia to Antioch.
"On foot, man" replies Peter. "But it is evening. And it will be night by the time you land..."
"There will be a place where we can sleep."
"Of course. But you can sleep here until tomorrow."
Judas Thaddeus, who has seen that they have already prepared everything necessary for a sacrifice to the gods, to be offered likely at their arrival in the port, says: "It is not necessary. We thank you for your kindness, but we prefer to land. Is that right, Simon?"
"Yes, it is. We also have our prayers to say, and it is... either you and your gods, or us and our God."
"Do as you like. I would have liked to do a good turn to Theophilus' son."
"And we would have liked to do one to the Son of God, convincing you that there is only one God. But you are a rock that will not move. As you can see, we are on the same standing. But perhaps we shall meet again one day and you may not be so persistent..." says the Zealot gravely.
Nicomedes makes a gesture as if he wished to say: Perhaps. A gesture of ironic carelessness concerning the invitation to acknowledge the true God and forsake the false one. He then goes to the pilot's place as the harbour is close at hand. "Let us go below and get the chests. Let us do it by ourselves. I am dying to get away from this pagan stench" says Peter. And they all go below with the exception of Syntyche and John.
The two exiles are close to each other and are watching the breakwaters that are coming closer and closer.
"Syntyche, another step towards the unknown, another tug from the happy past, another agony, Syntyche... I cannot bear it any longer..."
Syntyche takes his hand. She is very pale and sorrowful. But she is still the strong woman who knows how to encourage people. "Yes, John, another tug, another agony. But do not say: another step towards the unknown... It is not right. We know what our mission is here. Jesus told us. So we are not going towards the unknown, on the contrary we blend more and more with what we know, with the Will of God. It is not even right to say: “another tug”. We are being united to His will. A tug separates. We are being united. So we are not being pulled apart. We are only parting with the sensitive delights of our love for Him, our Master, reserving super-sensitive delights for ourselves, transferring love and duty to a supernatural level. Are you convinced that it is so?
You are? Well, you must not even say: “another agony”. Agony presupposes impending death. But by reaching a spiritual level to make it our abode, our atmosphere and our food, we do not die, “we live”. Because what is spiritual, is eternal. We therefore rise to a more lively life, an anticipation of the great Life in Heaven. So, cheer up! Forget that you are the man-John, and remember that you are destined to Heaven. Reason, act, think and hope only as a citizen of that immortal Fatherland..."
The others come back with their loads, when the ship is entering the large port of Seleucia majestically.
"And now let us make off as quickly as possible, to the first hotel we come across. There must be some in the neighbourhood, and tomorrow... by boat or by cart we will go to our destination."
The ship docks by directions given by whistling and the gangway is lowered Nicomedes approaches the departing passengers.
"Goodbye, man. And thank you" says Peter on behalf of everybody.
"Goodbye, Israelites. And I thank you. If you go along that street you will find lodgings at once. Goodbye."
The apostles come down on this side, and he goes in the opposite direction, and while Peter and the others, laden like porters, go to rest, the heathen begins his useless rite...