Paul looked up from his tent, eyebrows waxed with sweat, and saw the midday sun. It haloed the sky, and beneath it, all of Tarsus shuffled as soot after a fire.
“I’m tired, father.” The ten-year-old was emaciated and shifty, lying with his back against the sand. “Can I try it one more time? Just once? Please?”
Paul caved, opening the flat of the unfinished canvas. The tent let loose a billow of hot air that consumed his face and quickened the sweat on his leathery brow. “Yes,” he smiled gently, “but only for a short while. The tent must be finished by sundown.”
The child crawled to the tent’s entrance, eyeing first the intracicies of twine that bound the creation together. Then, with a pat of his father’s hand, shuffled into the diffused light of the tent, settling in a small corner.
“Is it comfortable? Dry enough?”
“Dry as a bone, father.” And the two smiled knowingly at one another; this would be a good tent. But not there—not where the sun was unrelenting. Not where rain was absent. No; this tent was made for other lands.
But he had a home. Several seas of dunes away rested his wife, a woman accustomed pernicious sand. While Paul cut and sewed, pored over stitching and wrestled with fabrics, she kept the house. It was a modest place, fit for only a few, but it was sufficient. And while there was no need of a hearth, she suffered for room—room to build, room to read, room to think. On its best days, the wind bowed around that meager abode. But when it was persistent, you could hear it whistle through cracks and crevices. If the wind wanted to enter, it would enter.
When the sun grew tired and it bowed its head, fading into the distant hills, Paul nodded to his son. “It’s time,” he told him. With shaking fingers, the little one pulled at coils of rope, embedded in the sand. He disassembled twine; he unbonded rope. His father pulled the canvas from its dry bones and folded the fabric together. When they were ready, they set out: Paul with the fabric slung over his back, and the boy with the rope and twine sashed over his shoulder.
They entered the marketplace near sundown and settled at an empty corner where the old city stone met the marble of empire. They unraveled their tent and pitched it in the setting sun. And while Paul ambled the marketplace for a buyer, his little one sat in the entrance to the tent and surveilled the deep and dusty recesses of that city.
Finally, it happened that a man came to him—a rotund merchant, slathered in silk robes and drunk on wine. He looked at the boy quizzically, stumbling to a stop.
“Where is you father, boy?” he slurred, spittle streaming out of his mouth.
“He is in the marketplace, trying to sell our tent,” the boy confessed coyly. He was afraid of the man, and rightfully so. He shifted in his seat, legs crossed, in the shadow of the tent.
“Am I to make a deal with you?” the merchant laughed—a caustic belly rumble that thunder to guffaw. The boy did not find him funny.
“I was told the price of the tent was to be no less than 10 denarii,” the boy said when the laughter ebbed. “It is only good business.” This he remembered from his father when they had walked together to the marketplace for wine and bread. He remembered the art of negotiation and where you must hold your ground. “You must know what you are worth,” he said.
“10 denarii, eh?” The merchant winced in reflection, wondering if he might dupe the boy into a lesser price. Boys are ignorant and easily manipulated, he thought. And with a shaking of his voluminous beard, he responded: “10 denarii is far too much for such a tent. I’ll give you 5 for it.”
Now, the merchant had no need for such a thing. But he relished the conversation and the possibility of winning at negotiation, whatever the cost. What, after all, does a man of mansions need of canvas and twine? But he persisted: “No, I will say 4 denarii. That’s far more than it’s worth.”
“Sir,” the boy replied meekly, shifting again in the shadows, “the fabric itself cost us 4 denarii. And you will see, if you look closely, how keenly woven the fabric is. My father took much time and care in the making of this tent. We cannot sell it for less than 10 denarii.”
“You are a stubborn salesman,” the merchant responded. He eyed the boy again, wondering his history and pedigree. Wondering about the father and where they made their home. His eyes fluttered and he rubbed his beard. “What if I were to give you 5 denarii and a meal?”
“A meal, sir? What sort of meal?”
“Oh,” he bellowed with an aching laugh, “why, fruits and tender meat and freshly baked bread and wholesome wine.”
“You would give us all of that, and 5 denarii, for this tent?” The boy rolled the offer over in his mind. Wasn’t fruit and meat and bread and wine worth more than 5 denarii? And wouldn’t his father need to buy their dinner before coming home? So was this not, in fact, a better offer than 10 denarii?
“Oh most certainly! In my travels I have amassed many wonderful things, but too many for me to enjoy. It would be my honor to share them with you—and with this deal, we are both satisfied. What say you?”
“My father should answer,” the boy responded sheepishly. He stared at his palms as the sun made its final tuck into the mountains, wondering which his father would choose: food or money? Perhaps both? Or neither? It was growing late, and the market would soon be closed. His father was still gone, and perhaps they wouldn’t sell at all.
He looked up at the fat merchant with pearls of sweat cascading over his salty beard. But the man smiled—an unctuous smile with teeth half rotten beneath it. And the boy, for some unknown reason, ached to like him.
“We will take your offer if you can deliver both the food and the money to us now.”
The merchant shook his head with pleasure and leaned over to pat the boy on the head. It swam in brown sweat and the boy shook with the pat. But they both meekly smiled, and the merchant agreed: “I will give you the denarii now,” he said, reaching into the folds of his robes, “and the food will come presently by one of my servants. As a gesture of good faith, I give you my ring.” He struggled to remove the gilded coil from around his finger, but eventually did so, releasing it into the boy’s palm.
“We will return with the food shortly. By then, have the tent ready for us.”
The boy watched as the hirsute money man waddled away, still reeking of wine. He was pleased with himself. And he was excited to tell his father.
Paul returned a few moment later, moored in despair. “I have not found a buyer. We will have little to eat tonight, but never fear, my son. There is always tomorrow.”
His son stood, bracing himself on the bones of the tent. “Father—” he said with a weak strain of enthusiasm.
“I have sold our tent.”
Paul gasped. “You’ve done what? To whom? I told you—”
“Yes, father, but the sun was going down and it was late. Mother is waiting and we had not found a buyer. A merchant came to me and offered me 5 denarii plus food and wine for the tent. I agreed. He has already paid me the 5 denarii!”
The young boy unfurled his fingers to reveal the shining coins: 5 of them, as spoken. His father stared in awe.
“And the food? Where is it?”
“It is coming,” said the son. “The merchant gave me his ring as a gesture of good faith that he and his servant would return with it immediately.”
Just as he was saying this, the fat man appeared behind Paul, shadowed by another man with black curls and a rope for a belt. He carried a wooden crate which he dropped at Paul’s feet.
“This is the food you promised?” Paul asked.
“It is. Your son has done you a great service. And I am thankful for his salesmanship,” he winked at the child. “The food is yours.”
Paul opened the crate and saw within it a veritable bounty: apricots and dates, leavened and unleavened breads, salted meats, and amphoras of wine. His eyes teared up as he stared, but reached quickly to wipe them away. He stood tall and faced the billowy merchant.
“You have done us a generous service, sir. We are grateful.”
The man nodded, pleased with himself as an unduly kind man of commerce, and pointed to the tent. Paul and his son nodded, shuffling to disassemble it until the skeleton sat next to the skin on the stone ground.
“You are a good craftsman,” nodded the merchant, signaling for his servant to collect the tent. “I hope you sell many more.” And with that, he hobbled across the stone marketplace to some distant house where all things shine and wine flows freely.
# # #
When they had collected their things, Paul turned to his son and said: “I am proud of you. I did not expect for you to sell the tent, and I am ashamed that I was not as successful. But I am proud of you, son.” And in reply, the son shifted the coins in hands and smiled.
Father and son returned home when it was already dark. Mother was camped in a glowing corner, where she had constructed a small fire (the desserts grow very cold at night). There was no wind where she sat, and so she could focus on a bit of parchment set before her, lined with the angles of Greek and Latin.
“You’re home!” she cried, seeing Paul and their son enter the house, outlined in moonlight. They embraced briefly, and then brought in the chest. Paul explained to his wife what had happened as his eyes smiled. The son beamed and bowed back and forth on the tips of his toes. But they did not linger on the celebration; instead, they set a place for a few chairs where they could sit and open the chest and feast.
All night, they laughed and ate and drank. They told stories of grandmothers and grandfathers, and what they did for money and love in their generations. Their bellies were bursting like the fat merchant they of the day. They were, for a short time, happy.
As they were eating, the boy recalled the ring he had been given. He pulled it out from his shirt and handed it to his father. “Look what the merchant gave me! I forgot to return it. Should we return to the market tomorrow and give it back?”
His father leaned over the embers of the fire that remained and saw etched in the ring a dark cross. And he remembered the mark of the Christians from tales others had told him in the marketplace and on the sands.
“No,” he said sternly, cutting their laughter to a hush. “We will keep it and sell it elsewhere. If he had wanted it, he would have asked for it back.”
The son grimaced, wondering after his father’s reasoning, but as with all things, trusted him. And so they forgot about the ring as they continued eating and drinking and, while the moon was yet high in the sky, fell fast asleep.
# # #
The sun’s bright morning halo stretched early and wide across the sky the next morning. There was another tent to build, and so Paul rousted from his creaky bed and stretched. He looked over at his wife, sleeping peacefully. And his son, still as the sky. Slowly, he walked near to his bedside and knelt down. With the back of his sun-washed hands, he brushed his eyes.
“Wake up, son,” he whsipered gently. “It’s time to build another tent.” But his son didn’t rustle. Didn’t shake. Didn’t stretch.
“Son!” he shook his arm. But there was no movement. Again he tried, this time with both hands on his arms. His son was limp, soggy in the arid morning heat. He felt for the pulse. Nothing.
Paul panicked, jumping to his wife’s side and yelling at her: “Get up! Get up!” But she did not move either. Her chest did not rise and fall. Her eyes did not flutter. And her heart did not beat. She, too, was dead.
Paul staggered backwards into the ash of the fire, knocking over shelves and tables. He landed against the wood frame of the house which creaked. And shifted, and succumbed to the wailing wind. His eyes crossed and his breath raced. His fist clenched at his sides, and one caught an object round and metal. He lifted it to his brow, hands shaking from anger and fear, tears welling his his eyes. Between his brown fingers rested a black cross, settled in gold, bound by a ring.