The Iron Ring

By Esther Gittel Edelson

My heart thumps with excitement as I stand before Theodorus’ door and straighten my new toga. The garment that signifies my freedom is awkward for me, but I wouldn’t want to miss seeing the expression on my friend and mentor’s face. We’ve been praying for this day for years.

I knock; Theodorus flings the door open. His eyes go wide, and he grasps me by the shoulders.

“It’s done?”

“Yes,” I assure him, a silly grin plastering my face, “it’s done.”

“Baruch matir asurim!” he roars, and enfolds me in a warm embrace. His 11-year-old twin sons join in exuberantly.

“Amein!” I say when I can get a breath again. “But…my toga…”

The symbol of my new status is getting crumpled. Can one become attached to a semicircular length of cloth?

“Ah, take the silly thing off,” Theodorus says with a grin. “No formality here.”

He ushers me inside. “Priscus’ son give you any trouble?”

“None at all,” I say, allowing the voluminous folds of cloth to fall to the floor. “The will was very clear, legally sound. The bequest was unimpeachable.”

“Yishtabach Shemo,” Theodorus exclaims, raising his hands in praise.

“Yishtabach Shemo,” I echo fervently.

Theodorus’ wife, tears in her eyes and a wide smile on her face, picks up the toga, folds it carefully, and slides it into a basket.

“Thank you,” I tell her. “Thank you all. Without you…these past eight years…”

I choke up and can’t continue.

When I was 14, a youthful indiscretion brought me afoul of a Roman patrol. Condemned to slavery, I suddenly found myself in a strange city, among strange people, cut off from everything I knew.

At the neighborhood fountain one day, I heard Theodorus’ wife speak to the twins in Hebrew, and I approached her. The next day Theodorus came to my master’s carpentry shop. He befriended me and advocated for me. He introduced me at the synagoga, when I was allowed to go on Shabbat, and made sure the community asked after my welfare.
“So what will you do?” Theodorus asks now.

Anxiety clenches my gut. I twist the new iron ring on my finger—an adornment that only free citizens wear. “I… I don’t know,” I stammer.

There was security in knowing that my master had the day planned out: which commissions we would work on, when to stop work for the day, when to go to the baths, when to eat, when to sleep. Now… I must make my own way.

“There’s a ship leaving for Caesarea in three days,” his wife says. “I heard some men talking at the market. The last one this season, they said. The seas are getting too rough.”
“No, don’t leave!” says the taller twin, clutching at my arm.

“We’d miss you!” his brother chimes in.

I’ve watched them grow up—used to give them rides on my back when they were small. Some evenings, when I had a bit of free time, we’d snatch a quick round of knucklebones. They’re like the little brothers I never had. They cling to me, and I relish the warmth of being adored.

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