by Matthew Bissonnette
It was the fifth century in a province of the Roman Empire which had once been Syria; a land of vast desserts and foreboding mountains. The harsh dessert was vast as wind blew clouds of dust along the sandy dunes and across the stony mountains which dotted the land. New settlements had begun to appear across this pitiless land; cobblestone streets and buildings made from cement; each settlement had been built exactly like each other and all where identical. Yet in a unimportant corner of this land during a gloomy summer's day as a cold rain fell from the sky, an old man sat atop a pillar; as he had been there for thirty years.
Appius walked along the barely paved road among a land of vast barren plains; he seemed melancholy and simply looked at the flimsy sandals on his feet as he walked. He was tall and had the build of a man who had achieved a hard body through years of labor and toil; a man in a red tunic with short auburn hair and blue eyes, eyes which seemed to be full of sorrow.
As Appius walked along though, paying no heed to what was on the road ahead, though he was startled when a firm voice suddenly spoke out.
"What brings you to my pillar Roman?"
Appius stopped and looked ahead. A few meters down the road was a tall stone pillar beside the path. The pillar was ancient and cracks had begun to fracture the stone slightly. Atop the pillar was a small wooden platform; atop the platform was a withered old man. The old timer had on a tattered old toga which seemed to have accumulated an untold worth of time's dirt and dust. But yet the frail old man with dark skin looked at Appius, Appius did not see the eyes of a old man but someone who seemed to have the eyes of someone young and enthusiastic.
Appius just stared at him for a moment then asked, "who are you old man and why do sit on that pillar?"
The old man looked up into the sky and raised his hands into the air. He loudly said, "I am Simeon, and I sit here as I have for the past thirty years because I want to prove my devotion to he who watches us all."
Appius looked away and and lowly said, "I take it you are a Christian old one."
The old man, Simeon, nodded and asked, "since you look like you hail from Rome itself and are not a native of my land, should you not be too since all your people now are?"
Appius looked towards the horizon. "My father, a centurion like myself, still believed in the old gods, though since such beliefs are dangerous these days I have never told another that fact of my youth."
Simeon looked at him then asked, "so why do you tell me this?"
Appius stared at the old man and replied, "you are an old hermit that sits atop a pillar, who will you tell and who would listen."
Simeon smiled and seemed distant suddenly. "You pray to the old gods yet there is none there to answer your prayers; you pay homage to gods who will never repay you for such loyalty since they exist only within your thoughts."
Appius asked, "is your God any different?"
Simeon's expression then went blank and very suddenly the rained stopped and Appius looked around. The old man said, "the one true master of all and everything hears everything and sees all, even the darkest and remote corners of this world is seen by him. My master is not like your masters, my master seeks tributes more difficult for one to provide then a sacrifice or a festival; only through torment and suffering does he come to appreciate one's devotion to him."
Appius looked at him sure he was speaking to a madman man, when the old timer said something which started to change his mind.
"No matter how far you run, you will never escape."
Appius, somewhat surprised, looked at Simeon for a moment then asked, "how did you know I was attempting to escape from something?"
Simeon looked up into the sky again as the rain suddenly fell like before. He said, "you dress how a Roman does and who most definitely is not of my land, and your sandals look worn like they have walked several thousand miles. And you always look either at the ground or forward, never behind. May I ask you what you are trying in vain to flee from?"
Appius frowned then asked, "first, have you really been up there for thirty years?"
Simeon stood and looked down at the brooding man, the old man then explained, "my master came to me when I was young when another told me of this most compassionate overseer of everything; and I was told that it was only through suffering that one could impress he who sees all. Through fasting and other torments I came closer to him and his kingdom. My suffering brought me renown and a reputation as one who closely walked with our oh so wise creator."
"Why did you end up on that pillar then?"
Simeon laughed then went on. "Countless men came to me, asking for miracles or advice, yet I dare not advise them for how could my wisdom only become seemingly ignorant compared to my master's wisdom; as for miracles all I could provide for seekers was bitter disappointment. I needed to escape them and prove to my master that I was devoted to him. So alone on this pillar I have been for near thirty years now."
Appius flatly replied, "your master sounds cruel, asking so much of you."
"He has a wealth of mercy if you ask for it, but the road to gain his respect is long and difficult. If it where to be easy then anybody could gain his favor. My life spent suffering is what has won me his approval; and yet still I feel it is not enough."
Appius then looked at the path behind him, something he had never done before he started his journey. He glumly said, "I told you I was a centurion like my father was before I."
Simeon nodded. "Though my master has disdain for the shedding of blood, he concedes that this world is full of flaws. So what brought you to my pillar centurion?"
Appius still looked at the distance behind him and he told his story.
"I fought a battle on the frontier of the Empire, and watched countless men who I called friend fall and lay dead upon the blood strewn ground. That was the first of three losing battles that I barely survived. When I was ordered to fight a fourth, I could only think of my wife waiting for me on the farmstead which I one day planned to return to. So in the dead of night, I fled my post and traveled across the Empire; now a deserter headed for home."
Simeon said, "I deduce that it is not battle you flee, but what you found at the end on your long journey home."
Appius frowned and looked solemnly and the old man and said, "a rich land owner stole my lands, and my wife fled to the city of Rome while I was gone to survive on handouts of grain. I found her, on the last day of her life, I found her. A gaunt skeleton of the woman I loved who was stricken with leprosy; living in the slums of Rome. She died in my arms, I was fortunate enough to find the woman I loved just on the day she died."
Simeon then looked very seriously at Appius then said, "what more evidence do you need of master's compassion."
Appius, angered, yelled, "he was compassionate enough to let me watch her die!"
"No," Simeon replied calmly, "had you found her a day or a month earlier, then you would have had to watched her slowly die knowing there was not anything you could have done. And it been the day after, then you never would have spoken with her. But you found her on her last day so she could tell you goodbye."
Appius's eyes seemed full of anger yet also pain. "Why, why could I not be home with her now, like how it once was."
Simeon looked at him and said, "because our master's world is not perfect even though he may be, he does not feel joy from your torment though; and if you would listen he may want to help."
Appius grunted. "Can he give me my wife back?"
Simeon shrugged and replied, "no, but he brought you to me so I could help you find his endless mercy."
Appius firmly told him, "I am only in this forsaken land because I have been wandering aimlessly through the Empire for the last seven years. I don't know why, and I don't know even where my path leads."
"Your path leads where all men's paths lead, to what ever awaits us beyond our mortal life. But my master is wealthy when it comes to being merciful, and if you should ask for his mercy then one day you shall see her again."
Appius felt something move deep within himself, the faint hope he would see his dear wife again, but it was brief. Though he asked, "how can I see her, she is gone from me forever?"
"Is she," Simeon replied, "or does her memory travel with you everywhere you go, why does her remembrance fill you with grief?"
Appius solemnly looked at the path behind him. "My life has been difficult, but she made my life more tolerable; even my most terrible hardships seemed bearable when I was with her. Now all I have is the empty void in my mortal existence her passing left. But no matter how far I walk, I am still only two steps away from that alley in Rome where I watched her die."
Simeon then said, "wanderer, why don't you look at the path ahead and tell me what you see."
Appius looked at the path ahead, the barely paved trail which twisted through a barren land which now a cold, bleak rain fell upon. He closed his eyes and muttered, "I know not what waits on the path ahead, I just know I'll walk it alone; without my beloved. I see nothing."
Simeon told him, "wanderer, look ahead again."
Appius opened his eyes and looked ahead. Far down the path, far away the clouds in the sky parted just enough so a vein of light cascaded through the clouds and the sun illuminated the path in the distance as he watched. And at that moment he suddenly remembered when he first saw her so long ago; then thought of when she died in his arms. Then the clouds obscured the light and it was gone.
Simeon explained, "my master knows compassion, that is if you truly warrant such mercy. Perhaps your path to finding that which will ease your grief will be much easier then the path I took to win my master's respect, just try and be a better man; that is all he asks. Take the higher path, which can be hard; but reach its end and she will be there."
Appius still thought of that brief hint of sunlight during that gloomy day and he turned to Simeon and asked, "you are not lying to me?"
Simeon looked up into the cold rain and replied, "If it where to be a lie I told you now, then I have spent the past few decades atop this pillar for nothing."
Appius asked the old man, "this master of yours, is he real?"
Simeon then grinned and looked farther down the path. "I sometimes think my master enjoys to jest with I, never showing me enough to convince a dog faced cynic yet always hinting so that I continue to try and win his favor. He sees all we do in this one life we are so blessedly given, and knows what you desire to find further down that lonely road which you have wandered; and if you take that higher road which I spoke of then she will await at your road's end."
Appius looked at him and asked, "did he bring me here today, so you could tell me all this? To give me hope?"
"I do not know, but many come seeking my advice, you are one of the few I have bestowed it upon. I don't know why, but you seemed to be in need of some directions; and told finally that your destination is where your road began; in the arms of your wife."
Appius then started to walk on but said as he left, "I know not of how much you said is truth and how much is foolishness, but I'll try to take that higher road; no matter how hard it may be if she waits at the end. This path I have walked alone since she died, for the first time it does not seem so meaningless, I thank you for the little hope you have given me old man."
Simeon said loudly as Appius walked away, "any hope bestowed upon you was not a gift from I, but from my master. And you have never walked that road alone, for he always has walked right beside you."
Appius walked on. From that day he did not grieve when he looked at the path behind him, for all the sun filled memories for his life with her where there. And when he looked ahead from that day, he felt that she would be waiting for him where ever it ended.
As for Simeon, the old man just sat atop the pillar under the rain, sitting their like he had for the past thirty years.