This is a sample chapter from my upcoming novel, “Come. Follow Me.” It has two follow-up novels, already completed. Still negotiating with publishers.
Eliza was the first one to leave the villa the next morning. Caleb and Yael were off doing something else that day, and it was time for her to use some of the coins she got from the synagogue in Caesarea to help the men in Rome’s prisons. The sun had barely risen, and she was already arriving at her third stop of the day. It was still early, and she stood at a small table in front of a large set of wrought iron gates that led down into the city prisons.
Behind her were two men carrying a fully cooked lamb. Each man had one end of a long spit on their shoulder, and they were in a hurry to deliver it and get back to work. They had a large order to fill for another event that afternoon, but Eliza had paid extra to have this meat ready first thing in the morning and even paid a delivery surcharge. The men carrying the meat had been up nearly half the night preparing the animal, and they were ready to drop it off and return to the tavern.
For her part, Eliza carried a large bronze urn filled with red wine. She also carried a full backpack filled with hot potatoes cooked in the coals with the roasted lamb. She also bought several loaves of fresh bread on the walk over here.
Sitting in chairs behind the table were two Roman soldiers. Behind them was the only way in and out of the prison. Long before Caesar came to power, the Roman authority decided that prisoners would be kept underground, below street level. They were out of sight and out of earshot of everyone except the guards who worked there. She had heard stories from her aunt that prisoners often wake up early and are hungry. She wanted to minister to their needs today, and that meant arriving when they were hungry.
The guards looked at her and engaged her without her speaking.
“Woman, you are the first one here today. Your Name? And who are you here to see?”
“I am Eliza from the house of the centurion of Caesarea,” she said. She raised her hand so the guards could identify her ring. She held it near her necklace so they could see the heirloom in the background. They nodded, acknowledging that she was adorned with enough jewelry to not required any papers. They nodded at her that she was cleared to enter.
“What are you here to do?” they asked as they approached her. They were required to search her backpack before they allowed her to enter.
“Can you not tell? I am here to serve and feed the men below and help meet their needs,” she said.
“Meet their needs, huh? Are you going to have sex with them?” said the older one. Eliza looked at the younger man and watched him shake his head in disgust as the older man went through her pack of potatoes, looking for contraband. She decided to tell the younger man a riddle.
“A free man and a man in prison each traded places on the first day of the week. The free man spent a day in jail, and the imprisoned man was free on the streets. The following day, they returned to their rightful places and their routines. Interestingly, each man spent the rest of the week telling everyone they met how the other man lived.” Once she finished, the younger guard finally spoke up.
“What is the point of that story?” he asked. Her training from Dor guided her next words.
“It is a riddle,” she said.
“What does it mean?” he asked.
“What do you think it means, Young Roman?” she asked. The guard looked down as the older man ridiculed Eliza again.
“Perhaps it means we all have our place and must find it? I don’t know,” he said. Eliza looked him deeply in the eye and saw hunger in him to know what it meant. She smiled, then spoke.
“How about you think about it while I am gone? When I come back up, tell me what you think it means, OK?” she said. The younger man nodded. “Why not? I will probably not have anything else to do,” he said.
“OK, Palestina. You are free to go,” said the older man. Eliza closed her backpack and picked up her urn to begin her trip down the stairs into the dungeons below Rome. She started singing a song as she faded from their view.
“Wait! I am coming with you,” said the younger jailor.
“I will make sure that no one assaults you or reaches out and contaminates the food you are carrying,” he said.
“And you want to figure out the meaning of the riddle, don’t you?” she said. The young man looked down and hesitated as he answered her.
“Uh, yeah, that too,” he said.
They reached the bottom of the stairs, and all the vivid descriptions her aunt gave her came to life. This was just like she told her it would be.
Despite the lack of light or hope, for that matter, Eliza felt at peace. She knew that down here were some of the most demonic forces she would ever face, and there would be some mentally ill men who sought to harm her. But she remembered that her aunt met the Apostle Paul in this place, and Paul gave her a focus that no one ever replicated. Eliza felt like she knew what she was getting into. This was the ultimate battlefield of good against evil, and Eliza was wearing the full armor of God. She prayed as she walked deliberately in the direction she knew no one else would go.
As they continued with only a torchlight to guide them, they passed a hallway filled with jail cells perpendicular to the main one they were on. Many of the inmates looked out from behind bars and saw them coming, and they whistled at her. She knew to expect that, and some wanted to know if she would extend sexual favors to them. She looked down the hall at them and smiled, secretly praying for each man as they heckled her. After she passed several such rows of cells, she reached the end of the hallway and turned left.
This is where she wanted to be. All the other rows were meant for those who had committed lesser crimes and would be released. This row of cells at the far end of the dungeon held the men who were given life sentences, and they were kept the furthest from the street level. Rome didn’t care if these men ever left prison.
This was death row. Cells were on each side of the hallway, and the inmates could see each other. Eliza speculates that there were 40 or so men serving life sentences. There was a table in the hallway meant for people like her performing humanitarian services. She wondered if her aunt or even Paul had been this deep.
The rules for caring for inmates on death row had not changed in hundreds of years. Each inmate was fed once a day, except on Saturday, when they would eat twice. Food consisted of stale bread, a piece of meat, and some soup. Their chamber pots were cleaned out twice a month. They were given one blanket every two years, and each received new clothing and sandals once a year. Baths were administered monthly. The men were taken out naked and in shackles during the middle of the night, and slaves bathed them in the public horse stables. Most of those who survived for more than a year look emaciated and learn to live with the least amount of physical activity to maximize the calories available to keep warm in the cooler underground environment. Few lasted more than five years, and most succumbed to heart and lung diseases common to underground men. Most suffered from skin ailments due to a lack of sunlight, but recently the men were taken to a courtyard for “sunning” a few times a week, weather permitting.
She put her urn of wine on the table and took off her pack. She had brought with her a clean piece of cloth, and she laid out all the potatoes on the cloth, so they could see what they were getting. She knew that this would be the best meal that any of them had eaten in a while. Many of them had already started thanking her before she started serving them.
She laid out a larger piece of burlap on the table, and she told the men to put the lamb on it, and as they did, all the men began to clap. Some reached their hands out from behind their bars, trying to get the first piece of hot, seasoned meat.
“OK, Palestina, can we go?” asked one of the workers from the tavern.
“No. I paid for delivery. No one has delivered anything yet. Once you give each man a share of the meat, then you can leave.”
Her rabbi personality emerged, and she started giving the strangers around her directions. She told the two men from the tavern to start serving at the far end of the row of cells and give each man a potato when they gave them a hunk of meat. She pointed at the guard from above ground to help her give each man a cup of wine. She took out four cups from her pack and filled them to the top with wine. She took two, and she told him to take two. He complied, but he shook his head and engaged her with a sense of disgust.
“Why are you wasting wine and really good meat on these men? They are starving to death, and all of this will result in nothing,” he asked.
“I see you have been thinking about what I said.” She offered. The guard looked perplexed.
“Uh, no, I haven’t. This seems like a stupid idea to give the good stuff to the bad people.”
“Does it? Don’t we also give the bad stuff to the good people?” she said.
“What are you talking about?”
“We teach our children bad ideas about how to treat each other. We take from the poor and give to the rich. We give them bogus ideas about what is good living, and we fail to teach each other how to care for each other.”
“Yeah, I guess I agree with that. But it is strange to see a woman alone here, working to feed men doomed to die here.”
“You will also die one day. Perhaps you will be above ground. Perhaps you will be here, with me, below ground. Is that any different? Even if these men die today, they will have food in their stomachs and feel full of what I am about to teach them. There is a provider of meat that will forever fill their desire to eat and be full.” The guard looked up attentively. Then, he shifted his gaze to the dirt below his feet, watching the light from the touches flicker in the dirt. The air was damp, and he could feel himself breathing.
“I told my family yesterday that life is nearly meaningless for a man who works in the prison. The pay is excellent, but my parents cannot find a woman for me to marry. I want my own home one day, and I would like to have children, but I can’t do that working here,” he said.
Eliza smiled at the man, and she sensed the Holy Spirit. Just like her aunt promised, he was alive in the prisons of Rome.
“Come. Follow me,” she said. The man turned his head to the side.
“What are you talking about, woman? Do you mean drop everything and do what? Like, walk behind you or something?”
“Yes,” she said in a calm voice. She made it a point to smile at him and maintain eye contact.
“I will teach you how to feel joy in a life of serving others, and I will teach you about the source of all of my joy so that one day, you, too, can teach others like I am about to teach these blessed men,” she said.
“Blessed men? That sounds crazy! I am a Roman citizen and a soldier. How do I tell my family that I am leaving with a Palestina in search of happiness? They would think I have lost my mind.”
They remained quiet after that, serving the men in each cell. The guard was amazed at how quickly the men would allow Eliza to anoint their heads with oil and bless each of them. Many of them talked to Eliza, yet none of them seemed to heckle her. Once they were done, she told the guard to open all the cells. She sat down at a table and took out a pile of small parchment, an ink pot, and a quill.
“I want to transcribe letters for them to send back home,” she said.
“Woman, you are crazy! They will kill you. That is how they got here!”
“Perhaps. But they know they are dying. I am here for them. If my Messiah can die and save me from my sins, I am certainly willing to write letters to their loved ones for them,” she said, pointing at the starving men.
Her aunt taught her that most of these men would want to write home to their parents, for if they were married, their wives would often have left them and returned to their families of origin. Some had no wives, and a few had been imprisoned for pleading guilty to a crime they did not commit to get their families out of debt.
“Are you sure?” he asked. Every man was listening to them now.
“Could you let one man out?” she asked. Before he could answer, she pointed at the smallest man there.
“How about him? Could you let him out while I tell a story?” she said
The guard paused. He was uncertain how to handle this impasse.
“How about I make your dreams come true instead?” She took out her necklace and removed it. She handed it to him. She closed his hand around it and stepped back.
“The diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and silver in that necklace are worth about 10 talents of gold. Take it. It is more money than you will earn in a lifetime, even if you are promoted to run this prison. Then, flee from me. Go now, sell it, and buy that house at the top of a hill. Find a wife and grow old and fat with her. Have your children and be the king of that hill.” Eliza crossed her arms over her chest and turned her head to the side. Her dark brown hair all fell to one side. He stood there, speechless.
“I promise you that necklace has enough value to do all of that. Ebreet jewelers made it, and the workmanship is perfect. It was made for me by men who cared deeply for me. They mentored me and taught me a lot about what love looks like. Take it,” she said. He looked down at the necklace and then back at her.
“How can you offer me this?” he said. She knew the only answer was not to answer. She needed to let the Holy Spirit do His work.
“I cannot take that. It would be a bribe to take it.”
“Yes, it would. And for accepting a bribe of ten talents, your centurion would throw you into this prison if he didn’t kill you first.” Her tone was not that of a braggart but that of a confident woman who knew the value of her proposition.
He could only stare at her, motionless, with his mouth partly open. She lowered her hands and walked towards him. She took back her necklace and put it on. She reached over and took his hands.
“Do you want to know what the fable meant?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. Eliza could tell that he was hungry for the answer.
“Here is the point of the tale. No one likes everything about where they are. Both the prisoner and the free man know they are sinners. Both know they do very bad things to each other and themselves. They love to talk about each other because they know their best efforts to change themselves always fall short of their intentions. In the same way, a jailor cannot be a good man any more than these prisoners can. And the jailor cannot be a bad man any worse than these men.”
She waved her hand at the prisoners, raising it at the end of her motion as if she were introducing them as the next emperor of Rome.
“What I do is teach people the solution to that dilemma.”
“Will you teach us?” said one of the inmates nearest to her.
“Of course I will,” she said. It will be an honor,” she said. She stood up, reached out, and held the emaciated man’s hand as he began to cry. And she cried with him. She took the key from the jailor, opened the cell, and embraced the man like he was her brother. She knew he would be dead within a week, but that didn’t matter. The kingdom of God was at hand.
“I want what you have,” said the jailor.
“And what is that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, and he began to cry.
“Come. Follow me.” Her words pierced him like a razor-sharp spear, and he could feel the burn in his gut.
And with that, the man began to shake his head and made no effort to hold back his tears. Uncertain as to what was happening, he opened all the cells, and the inmates stepped forward. Eliza held and touched each man and cried with many of them. They were all affection-starved and desperate to connect.
By the end of the morning, the jailor had made three trips up and down the stairs, bringing fresh water and clean clothing on each trip. He had spent much of Eliza’s money at the Roman markets, and now all the men had clean clothing, thick blankets, and full bellies. Eliza was right; being alone with the men on death row posed no risk.
Eliza wrote many letters that day, and her hand was tired when it was time to leave. She told the men that this was the best day she had had since arriving in Rome.
And 41 people were baptized into the faith that day.
And Eliza had her second disciple.