Chapter Six: The Dinner Begins
Alban down at the head of the table and clapped his hands. A moment later, Shalott came bustling in with a large tray. On it sat four bowls of soup. She gave me mine first. "What's in it?" I asked Shalott.
She stayed silent. It was Alban who answered. "Bits of bread, cheese, and unions. I forgot to mention that we would be having soup as a first course."
"What about the liquid?" I asked.
"Venison broth," he said. "Is it good and kashrut?"
The command to separate meat and dairy is not one explicitly stated in the Torah, but it is a tradition long accepted by my people. There was no need to explain this technicality to my hosts. So I subtlety waved my hand over the bowl and the venison broth transformed into chicken broth. It was so small a change only I knew.
"Now it is," I said.
Alban nodded happily. "Now, It is a custom of mine to grant one request to each wanderer who dines with me. As the saying goes, even half my kingdom, if you wish for it."
"That sounds like a dangerous custom for you," I said.
"I suppose it is. Fortunately for me, no one has asked for half my kingdom yet. But what is your wish?"
I looked at Shalott, who was setting down the other bowls. "I'd like your slave, Shalott—"
Before I could finish the elderly lady and Arab gasped in unison. Their hands started shaking. Shalott looked at me with a mixture of hope and horror.
"So, half my kingdom it is then," Alban growled. He looked like he had just discovered an orgy in his latrine.
"Perhaps want you mean is," the lady hastily, "is that you'd like a slave like Shalott."
"His gracious lordship can surly find you a slave just as beautiful," the Arab said.
I rolled my eyes. "No, what I mean is that I'd like your slave Shalott to join us at our table tonight."
"I've spoken with her a little and found her to be very intriguing," I continued. "Wherever our conversation tonight leads us, I believe she will enhance it. I'd like her to sit with us tonight as an equal."
"As you wish it," Alban said happily. "Shalott, fix yourself a bowl of soup and join us."
She did not need to be told twice. She scampered off without bowing. Alban paid no more thought to the matter, but took slurped his soup.
When the lady and Arab were sure Alban was not paying attention to them they mouthed the words to me, "Quick thinking!"
I just winked back at them.
Alban drank some more soup. "You've completely forgotten your manners, Lord Alban," the elderly lady said. "The gods must be thanked for our feast."
I was shocked at her outburst. She had been so cautious with him up to now. I expected him to roar in anger, but instead he sheepishly muttered, "Ah yes, the gods."
"And what gods do you plan on thanking?" I asked.
"Athena, for one," she said. "Diana, too."
"But those are Greek, and this is Britannia."
"But I am a Grecian priestess," she said. "Those are the ones I serve."
I looked to Alban. "What about you?"
"I don't care much for the gods of the Celts. Ceridwen, Dagda, Cernunnos. None of them ever came to my aid. Everything I built came from my own sweat and tears, not from them."
"And as for myself," the Arab said, "I greatly admire the gods of the Greeks. They seem to be much more powerful than the deities of my own people."
I nodded at him understandingly. The elderly lady stood up and spread her arms out side. But before she could speak, I stood up as well. She looked at me puzzled. "Only I need stand for the blessing," she said.
"I will not eat the food blessed by any other god than my own," I said.
"Tell me His name," she said, "and I will add Him to my pantheon."
"No," I said. "He will not be marched around in a pantheon. He is unique. Holy. Set apart."
"What do you mean?" Alban asked.
"My people the Jews are monotheistic. We worship our god, and Him alone. No others."
"You are a guest in this house," she said sternly. "You will obey our customs."
By now Shalott came in with her own bowl of soup. I motioned to her and she sat down on my right hand side. I continued: "I know my custom seems strange to you, but I assure you, that if we only pray to my god tonight, we will all find ourselves infinitely more blessed."
"Are you prepared to put your god to the test?" Alban asked.
"I am not putting Him to the test. I am simply following His Word."
"Such boldness," Alban mused. "Such courage."
"Such insolence," the Greek priestess said. She looked to Alban and said, "If this ass will not bow his head to the gods of Greece, then throw him out!"
"Tell me about you god," Alban said to me, ignoring her. "What is His name."
"His true name is not one to be spoken lightly. To even use His name in casual speech is to take it in vain. So we refer to Him with titles, one of the most common ones being Adoni. It means "Lord" in Hebrew.
Alban raised an eyebrow. "Are you suggesting that I am not the lord here?"
Without skipping a beat I said, "In comparison to the Lord of the universe, no. You are not."
Alban leaned back in his chair. "You've been traveling all over the world, you say?"
"And you've had that same attitude, wherever you went?"
I nodded again.
Alban looked to the priestess. "If this man's god has been preserving him this long, maybe we should pay homage to Him." She opened her mouth to object, but Alban held up his hand. "Just for tonight. And you are free to say your own private prayer to yourself."
"Believe me. I will," she said. "But don't come crying to me if an earthquake comes to swallow the rest of you." She sat down, but I did not.
Alban nodded to her and looked to me. "How would your god have us pray?"
I bowed my head. Everyone, save one, followed me. I spoke: "Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam, hamotzi lehem min ha'aretz."
"And what does that mean," the lady asked.
"'Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth the grain of the earth.' It is customary to call back 'amain.'"
She pressed, "And what does 'amain' mean?"
"It means 'truth.' It means you agree with what has been spoken."
"Truth!" Alban proclaimed.
"Truth!" Shalott and the Arab followed.
At this time I realized that my knapsack was still on my back. I felt the weight of the treasure within it shift. I had kept it with me all this time and was not going to part with it now. So I took it off and sat it down in the only unoccupied chair. So the table was like this: Lord Alban sat at the head. The elderly priestess at his right. The Arab at his left. I sat at the foot; the "second head," if you will. Shalott at my left. My treasure on my right. Six chairs for five people and one sacred object.
"Now please, my guest, Alban said. And he struggled to remember my name. "Yeshua, isn't it?"
I smiled and nodded.
"Ah yes, Lord Yeshua. Please tell us about yourself."
"I would love to, but the rest of you have not yet told me your names."
I did not what to repeat the trick I had none with Shalott with these people. I was no magician, and I did not want them thinking I was.
"You're right," Alban said. "You should know whom you're dealing with tonight." He gave a toothy laugh. "I will start."
"I am Alban, lord of the town of Verulamium, as well as the outlining fifty miles."
"And how did you come by your lordship?" I asked. "By conquest or by birthright?"
"Birthright. I'm of Roman blood. My ancestors were the first to sail here from Rome."
"Ah yes, the Romans. No hard feelings then about your defeat?"
Alban waved his hand dismissively. "That was a long time ago. You personally had nothing to do with it."
Alban was wrong. Dead wrong. But he did not know that. Not yet.
"Besides," he added, "every nation of blood on its hand. Especially Rome. Yisrael is certainly no worse."
I chuckled. "But if Rome is destroyed, how is it you still have power?"
"Just because Rome is gone doesn't mean my influence is. I still give the peasants protection. They still give me a portion of their harvest. And I protect them from all invaders. So tell your people not to get any bright ideas." He laughed.
I was about to ask him if had a family, but I remembered the priestess' earlier comment about my wife and child dying. All I said was, "I'll be sure all my friends get the warning." And I laughed, so he knew I was joking too.
I looked to the priestess next. "Will you tell me your name?"
"Hypatia," she answered. "Hypatia of Alexandria."
"And how is it you know Alban?"
"He visited by university in Alexandria a few years back."
"Out of sheer curiosity," Alban said. "I did not have the time to stay in Egypt for a long amount of time, but I wanted to see it up close."
I scratched my head. "You mean Alexandria, Egypt; not Alexandria, Greece?"
"Alexandria, Egypt she said. "I was raised in Athens, but Egypt is where I teach."
"Teach what?" I asked.
"Name it," she said. "Astronomy, mathematics, Greek philosophy. In short, anything and everything!"
"Greek philosophy?" I asked. "Which kind? There are many Greek philosophies, and many of them contradict."
Hypatia gave me the closest thing to a smile she had so far. Like the two of us were sharing a secret joke. "We are strictly neoplatonic. Not that you would understand what that means." She was only being halfway condescending. Really, she was testing me. Like a teacher.
"Plato," I said. "I'm well aware of him."
"How?" she asked. "You've lived behind a steel wall your whole life."
As a matter of fact, no I haven't, I thought. But what I said was, "Actually, Platonic thought crept into Yisrael over three hundred years ago."
"Really?" she asked. "I did not know that. Is it still there?"
I shook my head. "We got rid of it a long time ago. We never found much use of it."
I was the one who had removed it. I was the one who never had much use for it.
She wagged her finger at me. "It might behoove you to think again."
"You think so?"
"A foreigner like you would not be out of place in my university. People travel from all over the world just to receive my blessing."
I certainly knew what that felt like. "Does it ever get frustrating?"
"It can, but most people are harmless. Everyone wants a little more knowledge, a little more wisdom. And they have their superstitions on how to get it without having to put forth the effort. But only a few people try to chisel off a piece of the wall to take home with them. Most people just bow down and kiss the bricks."
Alban piped up. "And she invited me to have dinner with her when she saw that I was practically making love to them."
"Alban had a certain charm to him," Hypatia said. "He was sweet, unlike so many men I have to deal with. And he had brought me a rose on the off-chance he'd actually get to see me."
"I guess you could call it a premonition," Alban said. "Or a bit of foresight from the gods."
"In any case, I couldn't help but to invite him to my private quarters that night," Hypatia said. Realizing the connotation of her words she spoke sharply, "We could converse."
"I've gone back to visit her several times since then," Alban said. "And she has come over several times to see me."
I kept my eyes on Hypatia. "But this is a long way from your school in Egypt, isn't it?"
"It definitely is," she said. "But fortunately, my school is managed by competent people. I can afford to take some time off if I wish to travel the world. It will still be there for me when I return."
I thought of my diamond-encrusted palace in Yerushalayim, but only for a moment. I asked, "So you're here briefly?"
"Yes. I will be returning soon."
"Goodbyes are always a pain," Alban said. "It just isn't the same without her here." Then remembering the man on his left he added, "or Mustapha. He keeps me on my feet."
The Arab, Mustapha, had been mute this whole time, trying to find an appropriate moment to speak. At the mention of his name he smiled. "Ah yes, Abū al-Duban Mustapha," he mused dramatically. "I am no rich lord, no great scholar, only a trader."
"Traders are important," I told him. "What are your wares?"
"My wares are objects of tin, copper, brass, and air."
The others were looking at me, not him. This was obviously some joke they were in on. I played along. "Air?" I asked. "How could you trade an object made of air?"
He rolled his eyes playfully and twirled his mustache. So I went on:
"Objects of air, why! They cannot be tasted, or touched, or kissed, or smelt! How could one possibly be of any use? Tell me, trader! Tell me, Abū al-Duban Mustapha. Do not keep me in suspense!"
Now suitably flattered, Mustapha resumed. He padded down his chest. "Let me see, I think I have one here somewhere." His eyes lit up. "Ah yes! Here it is!" Out of his sleeve he pulled out a long imaginary idem. "It's speaking, Lord Yeshua, don't you hear it?"
I tilted my ear toward it. "No, I don't suppose I do. Perhaps you could tell me?" I knew he was going to tell me a story. I had used similar gimmicks to entertain small children.
"It says: There was once a wise mystic with a hundred followers who imitated his every move. The mystic would often entertain himself by jumping up and down, making silly noises, and rolling around in the mud. His followers would do the same without question. One day, one of the mystic's neighbors came up to him and asked what all these people were doing. The mystic answered his neighbor, 'These people believe that if they follow in my footsteps, they will achieve enlightenment!' The neighbor then asked if any of them would ever achieve it. The mystic answered him, 'Don't you see? The few who get up and leave! They are the enlightened ones!'"
And we all laughed. Apparently it was a new joke they had not heard before.
"I have another object," Mustapha said as he pulled another from his other sleeve.
"What does this one say?" I asked.
"It says: There was once an old miser who had a gigantic vineyard of grapes. One day a group of children came to his door, wanting to know what his grapes tasted like. Seeing that they would not leave him alone unless he complied, he handed them each one grape. They complained, saying that they should not have so little when he had so many. He said to them, 'What difference does it make? They still taste the same, no matter how many you have!'"
We laughed again. Mustapha then proceeded to pull an object out of the lower part of his robe. "This is my most dangerous object. It tells the long story of a handsome young man, much like myself, who found snuck into his chieftain's harem one day, and all the mischief he wrought there!"
Hypatia rolled her eyes. "Men will be men."
"Sneer if you must, but I tell you! It is the most profitable story I have."
"Of course it is," I said.
"One trick I like to play is to begin telling the story, drawing the crowd. But then I stop the story, just as it gets good. And I will not resume until everybody buys one of my trinkets."
"And it works?" I asked.
"Every time! Is there any doubt?"
I shook my head and had some more soup. "I want to hear your own story, though. How did you join these two?"
"Sheer luck," he said. "I was making my way through Egypt, trading and entertaining as I always do. They were part of my audience one day."
"It was during one of my visits to Egypt," Alban said. "We saw that he was able was able to keep crowds enthralled all day in the hot sun. We were curious."
"I recognized Hypatia as soon she walked up," Mustapha said. "I had seen her a day earlier on the steps of her university. But I knew she didn't want attention drawn to herself here. She stayed in the back and kept her head down. The gentleman with her"—looking at Alban—"gave her his hood to cover herself. So to be courteous I pretended not to notice her.
"But that doesn't mean I didn't have fun with her. I too know a little about Greek philosophy. A lifetime of traveling through the Mediterranean will give you a good knowledge of all things Greek. So I told a few tales of the life of Socrates. I said some sayings that are attributed to Aristotle. But when the sun was setting and I was ready to wrap-up, I made sure I won Hypatia over with my last joke."
"I set it up with exclaiming how blessed I was to be standing so close to the University of Alexandria! How happy I was to finally see it up close! Then I said, 'Don't clap too hard for me, friends. Hypatia grows stoic each day. She might not approve.' The crowd roared with delight, including her."
"And me," Alban said. "As Mustapha dismissed everyone, we made up our minds to invite him over for dinner. I guess you could call that the first meeting of the Gentle Philosophers. We liked his company so much we invited him to another dinner. And another. And another. Now here he is."
"This is my fourth time here in Britannia," Mustapha said. "Hypatia and I came over together."
"And I take it you'll be going back with her, too?"
"Only partly. I have some trading to do in Africa. I'm sure it will make a nice story when I'm done."
When Mustapha was done I turned to Shalott, but she blushed as she avoided their gaze. I had already learned her backstory, and she was not ready to speak at this table yet. So all I said was, "This soup is delicious. The perfect thing to break my fast with."
Two full seconds passed before she murmured, "Thank you," in her quietest voice.