It's always the same dream.
Always a preacher, never a priest. He had a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time, and, as fate would have it, he missed the big encounter while out buying bread for supper.
Afterwards they all seemed a little more worried than usual and someone spoke up: maybe we should hide for just a while. You know, just until it's safe.
He didn't believe any of it for a second but secreted himself in the cloistered, claustrophobic, straw-strewn room with the others. Maybe it was a friendship kind of thing - to - to be honest, a fear of being alone - or maybe some part of him felt it just might be true, and you know how the Guard can get just anywhere these days, and it couldn't really hurt anything since he'd already given up his career and his family for this crazy cause, and what else is there? His life?
Anyway, so he's sitting at the foot of this table they've crammed into the cramped second floor of an ally's townhouse and trying not to worry about their food because it's been a week and despite their best efforts at conservation and dunamis, only two loaves and no fish remain. And all of a sudden there are footsteps in the other room, but no one's heard the door open. Were they all drunk? Did they miss the characteristic creak that is meant to warn them, to give them a little time to scamper out of the window, and are they all going to jail? Is this where it will all end? They stare in shocked silence, all of them astonished to have made it this far.
And now their visitor is at the door and they are wondering all of them the same thing - is it all over?
A harried Didymus wakes up to the shrill trill of a guardsman's whistle. His ragged outfit and haggard cheekbones accentuate the ramshackle atmosphere of the streets; tall buildings define narrow roads filled with the squalid sort of human life that this city breeds by the millions. The Guard keeps the poor and homeless in check to the best of their collective constabulary ability; but it's a losing battle and everybody knows it. So this man is understandably miffed when Didymus mumbles, rotates his body slightly, and groans, but refuses to move.
"You there. Yes, you - you filthy wretch - get up!" exclaims the Guard in his best stentorian voice.
Our hero twitches a little and raises his head to address the rather short man who attempts to tower over him in the hastily-donned accoutrements of the entry-level policeman.
With a partially concealed smirk, Didymus pulls himself to his feet and conversationally interrogates the Guard with a few phrases he used to toss about with friends: "Shall I take that ill-fitting armour to be the breastplate of righteousness, and that the helmet of salvation, and those the manacles of faith, wherewith you shall cart me to some Imperial prison?"
The Guard is taken aback but hardly outwitted. "Vile scoundrel, are those rags wrapped around your feet the sole supporters of some misbegotten gospel of peace? And is that flea-ridden tunic your Pontific garment, with which I suppose you intend to rule the spirits of men?"
Didymus bites, hard. "Better to be ruled by a shabby street prophet than by a two-bit intellectual coward who lets his wives push him around." It is true: in this, the fourteenth year of Claudius, everyone knows that his niece-wife Agrippina, like his three former spouses, exerts full control over the feeble historian. Someday she and the Praetorians will have no need for him, the fortunetellers gossip.
But this Guard is a realist, not a cynic, and galvanized by this scathing criticism of an indirect superior, he latches on to a sticking point he has just heard. "So," he ponders, "you're a preacher? Just whose teachings do you suppose you know well enough to retell to the masses?"
The risen zealot swallows. Unlike Druidism and Judaism, his sect isn't technically suppressed; but his fiery invective isn't exactly the best-received among the dwellers of these harsh and uncaring cobblestones. Distant promises of salvation in the next life are rarely appealing to those who would rather remedy their present troubles, and his cult hasn't yet settled on a consistent social justice agenda. Still, he thinks, he's done a fine job of spreading the Word, particularly in light of how little earthly guidance he's had in the matter.
Finally, mingling trepidation with confidence, he confesses affiliation: "I'm a Christian, actually. Is that a problem?"
The Guard relaxes a little. Mostly harmless, he knows these fellows are, although a little fanatical. "That's fine, then. Move along," he orders, and as an afterthought, "and rinse those rags."
"I'd be glad, officer," Didymus agrees. After a slight mental calculation, he adds, "Tell me: have you heard the Word?"
"Sure I have. Messiah is coming; sell your houses quick and feed the poor or you won't get to sit at his left earlobe." Realizing that he is about to be proselytized to, the Guard regains his hardened air in the hopes of frightening away the intrepid, middle-aged street prophet.
Realizing that he is about to proselytize, Didymus sighs a little on the inside. Sometimes the monotony is a bit much to bear. Guardsmen are a refreshing challenge, though, and he gladly performs his duty here. "You should know, officer, that I am Didymus, the twin among the Twelve. I willingly led the group back to Judea in the face of death when my Christ went to resurrect Lazarus, and I will not be scared off."
The gruff Guard grimaces. He isn't going to get out of this one's deluded homily and he kind of likes this fellow's style, so he listens on, staring intently if disinterestedly at this gaunt shell of a man who seems to grow in stature as he speaks. You can hear the reverent capitalization in his voice:
"I tell you, I saw Him bring that man from the next world to our own. He journeyed back to a land where He was hated and nearly stoned to death for the sake of a friend's life. I saw Him work miracles of healing, and I was there when He walked upon the waters of the great sea. I was there in his only acrimonious moment, when he drove those usurious villains from His temple. I watched him," the man enunciates slowly and clearly with the voice of a bystander recalling a tragedy, "doubt His very life in Gethsemane. Truly, officer, He loved all of us more than His own life, which He readily gave in exchange for the liberation of our own. By His gift we have been made free."
"Hold it," the Guard interrupts. "If we're so liberated, then why do I still arrest children for stealing apples? Why are these back alleys filthy and why is nobody fixing up the houses? Why are there people starving and crying out for a 'Savior' they've never seen?"
"I don't have an answer for that," Didymus answers. This truth he suffixes, with a cryptic smile, "for my God works in mysterious ways."
The Guard is not satisfied. "That's not good enough, my vagrant friend. If you claim so much about this man, I expect concrete proof. Something I can touch. You know?"
"Certainly. I was like you once," Didymus replies as though by way of explanation. "Everything had to be tangible, tactile, there were no sacred mysteries, and He only compelled faith by way of His power. But it can get so hard, when He is so far distant, to remember..." And Didymus begins to explain his dream, all of it, how it starts and how it ended and -
But the Guard will have none of it. The spell broken, he shoves Didymus to the ground and retraces his route.
"Wait just a second, sir. One thing: do you believe? Could you believe?"
But the Guard only hastens his pace. Didymus shakes the dust off his imaginary sandals in the coldhearted martinet's path.
He is consumed by hunger and world-weariness. Surrounded on all sides by spent, scavenged garbage and trapped in the endless maze of cavernous tunnels that comprise the city, he suffers an acute longing for the golden days of the movement as Daedalus regards the morbid details of his entrapment, as the beached sailor yearns distantly for open sea. Didymus remembers, indeed can never forget, the carefree thrill of those days, when they would walk from town to town with throngs of faithful admirers and cure the ailing while they preached His word. What, he wonders, went so terribly wrong? How did we get here and change nothing? Why do they still not believe? To this his last question he knows the answer; it is for the same reason that he does believe and the Guard never will. It is a question of corroboration.
His musings and his aimless wanderings cease temporarily when he accidentally attempts to occupy the same stretch of filth as an old, vaguely familiar acquaintance.
"Hello, my dear," the half-remembered woman croons sympathetically. "Would you like to buy an apple?"
"Greetings, fair damsel," Didymus says to the woman who, though his own age, retained the appearance of a twenty-year-old until well into her thirties. Naturally, she has not kept it; the rats have given her a scarred cheek and the thieves have obliterated the vestiges of her natural innocence. If she had a few more teeth, or if she had been born into a wealthy family, or if her mother had not been trampled by a horse escaped from an Emperor's carriage - but these are all hypothetical questions and do not explain the way she is, the way things are. Before he can respond to her solicitation, she speaks again.
"I heard," she simpers, "that you tell great stories. Come on, mister preacher man, tell me a story and I'll give you an apple. Quid pro quo, honey, everyone's doing it."
It's unusual these days for Didymus to get requests to talk and he's happy to oblige. "You've heard, perhaps, of the miracle of the loaves and the fish, when He turned some scraps into a meal."
The Apple Seller nods, smiles. "I see where your mind is, dear."
"What isn't as well-told is the story of how He got home. He was in grief, you see, for Herod Antipas had just decapitated His beloved companion the Baptist, and perhaps He was torn by the exertion of satisfying so many that day. Whatever the cause, He bid us journey home by boat while He remained in solemn meditation for the night atop a mountain. Late that same night, though, as we traveled furiously against a stormy sky and contrary winds, He appeared far off, walking towards us across the open sea. And our Peter called to him, saying 'Lord, if that is you I see, let me come to you', and he did.'" Didymus looks up expectantly, signaling the conclusion of his tale.
"Yes," intones the Apple Seller, "that is a rare story, and I admire your openness in sharing it. But you missed the point, Thomas; you left out the part where Peter saw the turbulent waves underfoot and heard the whistling winds above and stumbled, and You-Know-Who had to hold his hand to carry him to safety. Don't look so surprised. Peter told me everything, after. When I was with him."
Of course, thinks Thomas called Didymus. While they spent those seven days holed up in someone's attic, deathly afraid that someone might deem them important enough to hunt down and imprison, they had not all been together - Peter, Judas the Betrayer, and Lord knows who else had been missing. Peter had remained with probably the last woman he'd ever lied to, the one he met around an open fire where he claimed not to be a disciple to save his own skin.
"But Thomas, darling," the Apple Seller continues, "it's hardly fair to expect anything of me for the telling of a story I already know. Try again," she urges with a mellifluous voice that is impossible to refuse.
"All right," retorts Didymus, aware of the challenge. He begins with the panicked meeting in the square after the spectacle of the trial. He tells her about the bread-buying and the secretive hiding-out. He relates the omnipresent fear that gripped their ranks and the silent dinners and, on the seventh day, the solemn ceremony with bread and wine because they didn't know what else to do in His memory. Finally he comes to the night of the seventh day, when He came again. She looks up, startled out of a trancelike state that she had entered during his makeshift sermon.
"You mean to say He came back a second time?"
"Well," Didymus responds sheepishly, "I suppose you could say that. It was actually sort of a personal visit - He wanted to make me believe."
The Apple Seller is suddenly even more interested. "How? What did he say?"
"He didn't," Didymus admits. "He took my hand, and placed it in the holes in His side, and I knew."
She is crestfallen. "That's it? No mystical revelation, just a tap in the chest?"
"Well, he did add another line to that list of Beatitudes: 'Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.' And it's the truth, I swear it: all of it."
"No," rejoins the Apple Seller, shaking her head, "that won't do. It won't do at all. I needed something to touch, not just another straw in that haystack of 'Blesseds'. I need the needle from out of that haystack and now it's perfectly clear that you don't have it."
"But I tell you," cries Didymus, "I saw Him! He was there! Why do you need to find spiritual vindication when I am right here? You should know it too, for you were right there! You were with Peter the whole time, and you learned nothing?" Passers-by in the slim streetway are staring now as they push around him.
"I learned from Peter that I should never trust the words of men," says the Apple Seller in the same resigned tone. "And from Thomas, now, I am learning that words will never offer anything real." Raising her voice, now, she accuses: "Of course, the Christ came to clear up one man's faith, so now he can go tell everyone. What makes you special? Why did you to win this honor? And why are you so damned bad at sharing it?"
"I don't have an answer for that," Didymus answers as he has a thousand times before. "My God is an awesome one, but He works in countless mysterious ways."
"I don't buy that for a second, son. And you've just barely bought yourself this apple, but your God will never have my respect." She hurls the shriveled fruit into a nearby trash heap. Didymus decides that retrieving breakfast is more important than hunting down the lost lamb; one day she will find her way or she will not, and he is hungry now. Even the devout cannot live on Word alone.
While chewing his daily meal, Didymus wonders whether he would believe a decrepit, clearly mind-addled man who ran up to him on these streets and started spouting gibberish about some invisible Savior who was coming "real soon now". Probably not, he tells himself. Probably I would want to believe it more than anything in the world, probably I would give him the benefit of the doubt, but undoubtedly I would ask him for some proof.
Corroboration, positive proof, is in short supply. What to do now in this city which, like the empire it represents, is crumbling to pieces from disrepair and doubt? Didymus takes the easy path: he falls asleep.
His dreams are different for once, and he sees new prospects: he is fleeing this empty place and building a new ministry with his own hands, a solid testament to the veracity of his word. And then he is back in that second story attic as, trembling, he turns the handle of the door to see who lies ahead.