Andronicus lifted the cloth from his beloved’s forehead and placed it in the bowl of cold water. With his left hand he brushed back the few hairs which had managed to stray across the sleeping brow. And bending down, he placed his cheek against the soft cheek of his love – still hot. As he wrung the cloth and replaced it, he whispered, “Zonen, please wake up. Come back to me. I need you.” Then, to the ceiling, he added, “Holy One, if you’ll listen to the prayers of a gentile, please give him back to me. You know, I love your people. Please, I need him.”
Now he removed the cloth from Zonen’s chest and shoulders. He placed it in the cold basin, wrung it between his hands, replaced it. Smoothing it over the shoulders and the slender rib cage, he began to cry. Four days ago he’d been touching those same shoulders as he and Zonen made plans to spend the summer equinox at Caesarea by the Sea. Then, on the first evening of the week, Zonen had complained of a tingling in his fingers. By the next day he was in bed with the fever, and now he would not wake up.
Andronicus removed the next cloth, willing the fever to come away with it. He was a centurion, the emissary of Rome to the city of Capernaum. He commanded a battalion of men, mediated disputes, chose life or death for prisoners. But now, he only wished he could imprison this fever and keep it from stealing his love.
He’d called the physician the first morning, but the man wasn’t hopeful. “Our first priority is to bring down the fever. Boil some water with mint, then cool it in the well. Place cloths dipped in the water over his body. Keep them always wet. That should help, but I must warn you, this is not the sort of fever that will leave easily. The tingling in the fingers is bad.” When Zonen had failed to wake up the next day, the physician had told Andronicus he should return to his duties. “The slave is beyond hope. Let him sleep in peace.” The physician hadn’t understood that Zonen was not the sort of slave who could be replaced. Zonen had been with Andronicus twelve years. No one in the world mattered more to him than this man.
Andronicus draped the last cloth over Zonen’s feet, squeezing them in his hands. He began to massage the soles with his thumb, remembering how Zonen loved to have his feet rubbed. He would plead, “Rub my feet, please. I’ve been on them all day in the garden, and they’re just aching to be rubbed.” Or, when Andronicus would insist on rehashing the political intrigues of the day, “That’s very interesting, dear. Can you rub my feet while you talk?” Now there was no need to talk. He simply massaged and watched the slow movement of his lover’s chest. Each time Zonen exhaled, Andronicus would hold his own breath and pray, until Zonen inhaled again. One more breath. One more breath. He was stretching Zonen’s toes, when the house slave came into the room.
“Sir, there is a friend here to see you.”
“The Hebrew, Shlomo.”
Andronicus sighed. “Tell him to wait, I’ll be there shortly. I need to wash my face and put on a tunic.” The house slave left the room, and Andronicus rose. He kissed Zonen on the lips. “Love, I have to leave for a few minutes. Don’t go anywhere.” He tried to say it lightly, like a joke, but he knew if Zonen could hear him, then he could also hear the fear in his voice. He stepped through the door and called for Severus, one of his slaves, to fetch a tunic and a fresh undergarment. Then he walked to the washing bowl.
A short while later, Andronicus stepped through his front door, the bright sunlight blinding him for a few moments. He sheltered his eyes with his hand and looked across to the small building he had built to greet his Hebrew guests. The men of the local synagogue were careful not to partake of the hospitality of gentiles, but his good friend Shlomo, one of the local Jewish leaders, had assured him that this structure, separate from the house, would be acceptable to even the strictest Jew. Andronicus never offered them wine or food, as he did his Roman guests – they wouldn’t have accepted it anyway. He tried to follow the food laws of these people and their One God, and he never ate food sacrificed to other gods, but he still new his kitchen would never be clean enough for their mouths. He was a gentile, however righteous he tried to be.
As his eyes adjusted to the harsh light, he could make out the face of his friend Shlomo waiting for him in the shelter. He smiled and thought to raise his hand, but it was too heavy. He was glad for the distraction, but he knew he couldn’t leave Zonen for very long. He would need to get back to change the cold cloth on his forehead.
“Hello, friend,” Shlomo called from the shade. “Have I caught you at a bad hour?”
“No, I have some time.” He sat down on the bench opposite the Jewish elder. Shlomo was several years older than Andronicus. His full beard was showing gray, and the skin around his eyes was deeply wrinkled from years of smiling. He had been the first person to call on Andronicus when he moved to this small fishing village seven years ago. At the urging of Andronicus, Shlomo had told him everything he knew about the last centurion assigned to this post. He had also introduced Andronicus to some of the intricacies of dealing with these strange Hebrew people. When Andronicus had offered him wine, he’d jovially declined, while letting him know that such an offer would be an offense to some in these parts. He had a way of making a person at ease, even when telling them how foolish they were – an attribute Andronicus cherished and relied on in the following years, as he learned the political intricacies of this post.
Today he offered Shlomo no drink, but he did call the house slave for himself. “Son, fetch me a skin of wine. And some bread, please.” He couldn’t remember having eaten anything yet today.
Now he turned his attention to Shlomo. “Friend, what can I do for you?” He inhaled deeply and tried to bring himself to this place, away from the dark inner room where he’d just been.
“I simply came to greet you. You were not in the market yesterday, or this morning. I thought you might be ill.”
“No,” Andronicus exhaled, “I’m not ill. I’ve been busy with household things.” He prayed Zonen would forgive him for diminishing him. He also prayed Shlomo wouldn’t ask what things he was busy with.
“You need a wife, young man. You shouldn’t be doing household work, that’s what women are for. If there’s one thing I love about Roman ways, its this idea of economics. Such a grand plan – let the women take care of the household, and we men can be free to run the rest of the world.” Shlomo chuckled and stroked his beard.
The house slave arrived with the wine and a loaf of rosemary bread. The bread was fresh from the oven. “I don’t need a wife, I have Philip, here, to bake my bread.” He turned to the lad, “It smells great, thank you.” Then he returned his gaze to Shlomo, “It’s a shame you won’t eat with me, that boy bakes the best bread in the whole city.” The sun and the smell of the wine and the bread was beginning to raise his spirits a bit, but he knew it couldn’t last long. Not with Zonen lying inside in their bed, dying of fever. He sipped at the wine and tried to make himself comfortable on the hard bench.
“Are you sure you’re not sick,” Shlomo questioned. “Your spirit is dark, today.”
“No, really, I feel fine. I just haven’t stopped to eat all day.” As soon as he said it, his stomach knotted as he realized he’d left an opening for Shlomo’s prodding mind.
“What has kept you so busy that you would forget to eat?”
Andronicus didn’t know why he cared so much what this man thought of him. After all, Andronicus was a Roman citizen, a centurion, wealthy. He’d traveled the known world. Shlomo had known nothing but this small fishing village on the outskirts of occupied territory. Why did it matter what this short brown man thought of him? And yet it did matter. It mattered greatly. This man was a wise and good friend, and though they’d never eaten a meal together, he thought of him almost as his father by the sea. He hesitated. “I have a sick slave.” Then he explained, “I felt responsible for him. I’ve been with him.” Would that be enough?
“Mmm.” Shlomo nodded. He folded his hands and looked out at the boats rising and falling in the sea.
Andronicus reached for the bread and tore off a piece. It was warm and aromatic, but he chewed without noticing. Before he swallowed, he took a sip of wine to help it down. He followed Shlomo’s gaze to the fishing boats. A little farther out, he could see a merchant’s vessel. He thought about his beloved, sweating in the cool inner room, wishing he could return to him and kiss him and place a fresh cloth on his forehead. He dreaded the day they would part for good. The ship in the harbor reminded him of the merchant who first sold him Zonen, of the day they met for the first time. The merchant had tried to tell him what a good worker Zonen would be. He’d made Zonen show his muscled legs and arms. But, Andronicus knew better. Zonen wasn’t made for physical labor. He was made for love. It was his face that had captured Andronicus- the dark eyes and the grin. Andronicus took another sip of wine and ran his fingers through his hair. He’d paid far too much, but it had been worth it. He sighed. Even if Zonen left him today . . . but he didn’t want to think about that. He inhaled deeply and reached for the bread.
“Is it Zonen?” Shlomo asked.
Andronicus looked up at his friend. He was staring back, lips firm, hands on his knees. Andronicus didn’t know how to respond. His hand froze awkwardly, with the bread close to his lips. He opened his mouth and nodded his head. “Yes,” he said and then ate the piece of bread.
Shlomo watched as Andronicus chewed carefully and then swallowed. “It is difficult when someone you care for is sick,” he finally said.
“My wife had the fever three years ago. I thought she would die. But the Holy One, blessed be He, brought her back to me. It was the darkest season of my life, while she was ill.”
Andronicus exhaled deeply. “Zonen’s been sick for three days, and today he won’t wake up. I’ve had the physician in, but he has no remedy. I’ve been praying to your god, and I even had a soothsayer in to read the entrails of a dove, but he wouldn’t tell me what he saw. He wouldn’t even take my money.” Andronicus put down his cup and leaned in to his friend. “It’s been three days. He won’t wake up. Is there some prayer I can say that will make your god listen. I’m afraid I’m losing him. I’m afraid I won’t get him back.” Andronicus stopped. He needed to control himself – this shelter was too public.
Shlomo waited a short while before responding, “You need a healer. These Roman herbalists and soothsayers only make things worse.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late. By the time we find one, he’ll be gone.”
“Do not lose heart, son, if he is still breathing then there is still time. His spirit has not gone to Sheol. Now, I heard my wife talking about that Yeshu, the Nazarene. He has been preaching near here. Ada went to listen to him yesterday. He is an excellent healer of all sorts of ailments. Once he healed a demoniac right in the synagogue.”
“Yes, you told me about that. And didn’t he heal the mother-in-law of one of his men? She had the fever.” Andronicus was beginning to believe they could make this work. “How will we find him? Do you think he’s far off? I’ll have the slaves carry Zonen, bed and all, so we don’t have to move him. It’s a wooden bed. Not too heavy.”
“Stop, son.” Shlomo put his hand out. “You cannot take Zonen out in the sun, you will kill him.”
“But I can’t have the healer in my house. You’ve told me how strict he is with your people. I could never have him in my house.”
“I will speak on your behalf,” Shlomo reached out and touched Andronicus’ arm. “Son, you may not be one of the Chosen People, but you are righteous nonetheless. You pray to the Holy One, blessed be He. You are kind to our people. You even paid for our synagogue. Besides, I’ve heard stories about this Yeshu. He’s been seen in the houses of tax collectors.”
“That may be so, but at least the tax collectors are of your people. This man doesn’t know me as well as you do, and even you partake of my hospitality out of doors.” Andronicus looked around at the columns surrounding them.
Shlomo smiled. “You do not know us as well as you think you do. I would eat off your floor before I would enter the house of a tax collector. Besides, this is a special situation. I will bring him, and he will enter your house, and heal your servant. You will see. I will even go in with him. Do not concern yourself with our ritual cleanness, we will worry about that later. Today we need to heal Zonen, while his spirit is still with us.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am sure.” Shlomo smiled and squeezed Andronicus’ arm where he still held it.
Andronicus inhaled, “Well, if you can find this man and convince him to come to my house, then I believe he can heal Zonen. I hear he speaks to your god like a father.”
Shlomo stood. “Then I’m on my way. He will come. Do not worry.” His brow furrowed, “Tend to your servant, son. Go on.”
Andronicus turned to go inside. Then he stopped and watched his friend out of sight, before turning again toward the door. Behind him, Philip stepped up to the outside table and began to collect the wineskin, cup, and bread plate. Andronicus called to him, “Philip, when you’re through there, bring some fresh cold water to our room. And some soap.” He thought he should wash Zonen before the healer arrived.
By the time Philip appeared in their room, Andronicus had begun to straighten up Zonen’s dressing table. He hid the bottle of perfume behind the mirror, along with the jar of rouge. The hair pick and razor were standard masculine instruments, though a little elaborate in design. He was grateful Zonen kept the pitch he used for hair removal in the kitchen. It had to be heated before use, and Andronicus hated the way it seemed to get on everything. He was arranging the small collection of rings on a platter when Philip spoke, “Master, here’s the water and some soap.” His voice lowered, “You’re not preparing to wash him for burial?”
“No.” Andronicus turned in astonishment. “No! Nothing like that. We’ve sent for a healer. I wanted to make him presentable.”
“A Jewish healer? Will he come?”
“Shlomo thinks so. Will you help me clean up in here, while I take care of Zonen?”
“Certainly, sir. What would you have me do?”
Andronicus looked around the room. “To begin with, get rid of that purple and gold drape on the couch. Pick up the clothes. Then, fetch one of my undergarments. I’ll need to dress him.” He turned to his beloved. “I’ve called for help. Stay with us a little while longer.” Then he began to pick out Zonen’s hair. It was red with henna. He’d loved the color, when Zonen first did it; now he wished it were it’s natural dark brown. He stroked Zonen’s soft cheek and his hairless arms, and wondered what the Hebrew man would think of those. “Zonen, what are we going to do,” he whispered. “This is hopeless. That man will never set foot in my house. And even if he does, will he deign to heal you? He’s a prophet of the Holy One of Israel.”
Andronicus began to deliberately remove and replace each of the cold cloths. “Please, God, don’t let him die,” he prayed. “He’s righteous, too. He never yells at the other slaves. He has no temper at all. He’s always giving money to beggar children. Please, if anyone is to blame for his station, it’s me. Don’t punish him. He’s the kindest, most loving person in the empire.” He thought about the day Zonen came in from the garden with an injured sparrow. He’d insisted they feed it and let it mend it’s wing. Of course, it had never flown again. But Zonen had kept it in a cage and fed it fancy grains for three years, until it finally died of old age. “You kindly fool,” he breathed. Then, he began to weep, bending his head and wiping his eye on his right shoulder. Then the other on his left. He sniffed loudly through his nose. “What will we do, love?”
A few minutes later Philip entered with the undergarment. “Here, master.” He handed the garment to Andronicus. “I’ve started the other slaves to work on the rest of the house, beginning with the entrance hall. Do you have any idea how long we have? Do you think I should get a basin for foot-washing, or will they allow that?”
“I don’t know,” Andronicus answered, but he didn’t look at Philip. He was staring at the wall. After a few moments he spoke with force, “Philip, I know what I want you to do. Go and find Shlomo and that healer, Yeshu. When you find them, say you come from me. Apologize for the inconvenience, then tell them not to come. Tell the man Yeshu he can perform the healing from a distance. Just like I tell you to fetch a bowl of water or go get a garment, and you do it, he can tell the angels to tend to Zonen and they will. Tell him, I’m a centurion, I know about giving orders. Tell him to make the order for Zonen to be healed. Only, be sure he doesn’t come here. Tell him not to trouble himself with coming to my house. I’m not worthy to have him in my house. Go on, lad. Go. Tell him.”
Philip turned and left the room, and as Andronicus began tousling Zonen’s hair, he could hear him ordering the slaves to stop their work. Then he heard him leave. “Severus,” Andronicus called. “Severus, fix some soup and bake some bread. Zonen will be waking soon, and he’ll be hungry.” He bent and kissed his beloved. “I’m waiting for you. Come back to me, love.”
Then he waited.
Later, as the house began to fill with the smell of rosemary bread baking, Andronicus lifted the cloth from his beloved’s forehead. He bent and placed his cheek against the cheek of his love – it was cooler. He brushed the hairs from the soft forehead. “How are you feeling love?”
Zonen stirred. “I’m hungry,” he croaked, “and thirsty. Is that Philip’s rosemary bread I smell?”
“It certainly is.” Andronicus smiled. “But, Severus is baking it. I sent Philip on an errand.”
Fifth-generation clergy who grew up in Zambia as the child of Wesleyan missionaries, Rev. John Tyler Connoley is co-author with Rev. Jeff Miner of The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-Sex Relationships. He earned a master’s degree in religion and master of divinity from Earlham School of Religion and currently serves as conference minister in the Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ.