Written March 14th, 2010
Epiphany of a Rich Man
by John Everett
Call: What is it I cherish? What, in this whole world, do I hold
in my heart? My taste has grown fat and my wallet feeds it.
Furs, gems, purple dies, silk. My house has swallowed them up.
Just as Tantalus I can never reach that for which I thirst.
Response: I am a fire.
Call: I desire silver, but am not satisfied. I desire gold, and have it.
Have it? My money pouch overflows with coins! See how
Caesar never ceases to smile on their obverse.
There he sits proudly in all these circles which refuge have taken
within my sac strung of asbestos brought from beyond the farthest reaches of the empire.
They give each other company, and still I profess that they are lonesome.
Response: Who can ever hope to put me out?
Call: For generations my family has enjoyed the best of this world.
No strangers to luxuries have we been and
from my birth I have been accustomed to soak in the splendor of my wealth.
If there was a fine wine, I have tasted it.
If there was a woman of beauty, I have kissed the nape of her neck.
But to what purpose have my actions clung?
What legacy have they left, and for whose benefit?
Response: Can Claudius, with his men of water, hope to douse me?
Call: For none, I tell you. Only for a moment these pleasures have caressed my mind,
then they have left as quickly as they came.
Great Virgil wrote a poem, and it is still sung.
Augustus built his Aram Pacis Augustæ and it stands today.
But what historian will record my actions?
I, the man who thinks only of himself.
Response: It only craves. The more it receives the more it craves. And all the while it spouts great plumes of smoke for all to choke upon.
Call: A man beseeched me to reconsider my goals. To gather what I was
given and give it to others, he said, was my calling. Imagine that!
To give up my things would be to give up the only life that I have ever known.
My existence has been defined by the things I own.
The slave who kisses my hand kisses the glistening rings around my fingers.
Oh, were those rings not there; why, my knuckles
would cry out to be held within a warm ring’s embrace.
Response: But what if the fire is fed? Does it ever stop lusting? No. The fire burns and destroys all until it is put out.
Call: But what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?
These words I heard from my wife. She, who was announced to be my wife at her birth,
enjoyed not the gifts I showered upon her. She did not splash her face
with fine unguent at dawn’s break, nor did she allow a facial coat of fine
chalk to be applied by a slave girl set about for that very purpose.
Response: Even fire, which is fueled by things of the earth, sends the tongues of its flames toward heaven.
Call: I ask her why she does not wear her necklace of shiny pearls and
she tells me that it weighs her down. Our bodies come
from the earth, same as those pearls, but the soul shall not return to the earth
as the body will. The spirit fights to fly skyward,
and if we weigh it down with things of the earth, its wings will tire
and it will fall, past the underworld, to Tartarus,
where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Response: If even fire flies to the sky, what excuse have we who set our eyes earthbound?
Call: When I considered this, I could see my life from the
eyes of the plebeians, and the slaves. How foolish that I could think they
were below me, when I was weighted down by all those things I had.
Without such trifles to burden their souls these poor people
were actually above me. But oh how I have abused their bodies.
While I grew fat on oysters these wretches lived on porridge!
Come, take a peacock from my garden! I can stand to dine like this no more!
Response: The fire must be quelled or it will be my end.
Call: The money that sits in my purse is wasted on parties in my own honor.
Oh that such money were in the rough calloused hands of a man
who earns his meager restitution. Take this coin! Buy vegetables.
Buy fish! Anything but that horrid porridge you have to down
every day! To think of how the money that I spent on
only myself can brighten the day of countless others.
Response: The fire is out; the steam refreshes me.
Call: My purse is scrawny, and I do not care. I have enough money
left to pay the rent of an insula. The rest is within
the hands of my Roman brothers, being spent to fill hungry stomachs.
I look at my house one final time. It is so large that the
weight of its stones would surely make my wings snap. Large
enough is this structure that it could house many families.
I say “valete” to my freed slaves and walk to
my new home with my wife across busy streets.
Response: I am a firefly.
Resolve: We will live an honest life now. No other man will be
made my footstool again. No slave will suffer the lashes of my whip,
and no beggar shall be scolded for holding out his gnarled hand.
That life is behind me. Now that I am free of my mundane chains,
I can learn to fly. To live for others is what I have learned to value.