Saturday, October 24, 2015

From darkness into light - a story, part one

Bartimaeus woke to total darkness. He always did. He was blind. Even so, he knew it was morning. He could hear the quiet sounds his mother made nearby as got breakfast ready and the smell of the fresh flatbreads she was baking and the smoke of the charcoal fire she cooked them upon. He curled up deeper into his cloak on the thin mattress on the floor. He did not want to get up. But he knew he must. With a groan, he sat up.
'Good morning, Bartimaeus,' said his mother softly.
'Good morning, mother,' he said back, just as softly. He did not want to wake his younger brothers and sisters who still slept, breathing softly and deeply under their own cloaks.

He got up and went over to give his mother a hug. He walked as quickly and confidently as one who could see, for he knew well every inch of his home. He poured himself a beaker of water from the pitcher. As he drank it, the smell of warm bread drew closer and he knew his mother was holding out a piece to him. He reached out his hand and took it.
'You are amazing,' she said. He could hear the smile in her voice. 'Sometimes I almost believe you can see.' He smiled back.
'With hearing, and smell, and touch as good as mine, who needs eyes?' he said. His mother laughed. But he didn't mean it; not really. He would have given anything to be able to see her smile, see her face when she laughed.
'I must go,' he said. Munching bread, he went swiftly back to his mattress and picked up his cloak. Gathering it around him, he moved to the door.
'Must you?' said his mother. He paused.
'We've talked about this,' he said. 'You know I must. With father gone, we need the money.'
'But begging, Bartimaeus!'
He shrugged.
'What else can I do? I'm blind. There is no work around here that I can do. And all those small mouths we have must be fed.'
'I know,' she said with a sigh. 'But you were such a fine scholar. Rabbi Jonah says you know the scriptures better than anyone your age, even those who can see to read. You practically know them by heart.'
Bartimaeus sighed.
'But there's so much more to study than the Scriptures to be a Rabbi. And there's no way for me to read them. We have to face facts, mother, without sight, this is the best I can hope for. And let us be grateful for what we have. I may be blind, but I'm otherwise strong and healthy. And people are kind; being a beggar may not be what I'd prefer, but people won't let us starve.'
'You're such a good boy. What you say is right – we should thank the Lord for what we have. Little though it is, it is enough. But I can't help wishing that by some miracle you could have your sight again.'
Bartimaeus smiled.
'Maybe I'll meet Jesus of Nazareth. He has worked many miracles – he's made the lame walk and even brought the dead back to life and he has given sight to many like me. Say a prayer that he walks past me on his travels this day!'
'I will,' she said. 'But people say strange things about him, Bartimaeus. That he's the Messiah and Son of God. The scribes and the Pharisees don't like him.'
'Of course they don't,' said Bartimaeus. 'He challenges what they teach. But they should read their Scriptures more closely. I think he is the Messiah; could one do what he does and not be who people say he is? I don't think so. Anyway, I have to go!' And grabbing his stick from by the door, and wrapping his cloak about him tightly against the morning chill, he went out.

The sunshine on his face told him the day was off to a bright start. He strode briskly on, his stick out before him to warn of any unexpected obstacle, but otherwise his pace as near as quick as if he could see. He had a map in his mind of all around him: the small village in which he lived, the road to Jericho where he was headed, and the city of Jericho itself. Blind since childhood, his senses of hearing, touch, and smell were so keen that he often had as good an idea as what was going on around him as those blessed with their eyesight. In fact sometimes better – at night when there was no hint of light from moon or stars he had often marched on at full speed, while his friends stumbled and tripped in the dark.
'Darkness is my friend,' he often said. 'I live in it always; and when there is no light, I am as good as any man – better, for I need no light to find my way or go about my business.'

His village was only a mile from the city and he covered the distance quickly, guided by familiar sounds and smells along the map in his mind. In the city he settled himself down in the spot he would beg, in a doorway near an alley not far from one of the city gates. He folded his cloak into a cushion to sit on and took a small wooden bowl from his satchel and placed it on the cobbled street before him. There were not many people passing yet; it was too early. But still, several who did pass paused to drop a small coin into his bowl. The sound of each chink told him what kind it was. Most were small copper ones, a couple larger. Not much, but if people's kindness continued at this rate, he would certainly have enough money to feed his family that day.

There was a lull of passers by. It was the time for morning prayer in the synagogue. Most, he supposed, were there. He wished he could be there also, worshipping. But he could not afford to leave his spot. Instead, he recited psalms in his head from memory.

As he did so, he became aware of two men approaching. From their footsteps one was large, the other small. The large one walked with a stick – no, there was no sound of a second footstep along with the thump of wood on the ground. A man with one leg, or at least badly lame in one leg, walking with a crutch. They were murmuring between themselves; the small one waved his arms about a lot as he spoke. Bartimaeus could tell from the sound of his clothes flapping. No, he waved only one arm about. Perhaps the other was injured, crippled in some way, and held close to the body. Even without sight, he could tell who they were – two other beggars. They both smelled of stale wine and the sweat of many days of not washing.

'What are you doing here? This is our spot!' said the small one. His voice was high and shrill. Not local going by his accent. Probably from Jerusalem.
'Peace, brothers,' said Bartimaeus. 'This is where I sit everyday.'
'Well, not any more! This is our spot now, so you'll move along if you know what's good for you, blind boy. There's two of us, and if you could see how big my friend is here, you'd know to be really afraid.'
Bartimaeus held back a smile. He could tell from the sound of his breathing that the other man was tall, at least a head taller than his friend. And the sound of his weight shifting on the the ground before him told him he was heavy with it. Probably more fat than muscle, he thought; the short walk across the square to where he sat had left him panting a little.
'Come on, shift yourself,' said the short one. 'We know who you are – Bartimaeus, son of the Greek Timaeus. We asked around. Well, life is tough enough for beggars around here without having to share with foreigners like you, so clear out!'
'And yet do not the Holy Scriptures say to share with the alien and stranger among you?' said Bartimaeus.
'What? What are you talking about?'
Bartimaeus sighed. It didn't sound like these two were the kind who spent much time in the synagogue. Why was he not surprised. He fought down a flash of anger – he didn't want to leave this spot. It had been his place for a long while now and it was a good one. But it would be foolish to take on two. They might be cripples, but they could see; fighting them wasn't a good idea. With a sigh, he picked up his bowl.
'All right, I'll go.'
'And you can leave that. Our spot, our money.' Bartimaeus could hear the sneer on his face. Anger boiled within him. Wasn't it enough that they should take his place, without trying to rob him as well? He thrust the bowl, coins and all into the satchel he wore.

'The money is mine.' He rested one hand on the corner of his cloak, and placed the other near where his stick lay. He had a good idea what might be coming next. The little one took a step back and he sensed the big one raising his crutch. With a grunt and a whoosh he brought it down with such force that he would have broken bones if Bartimaeus had still been sitting there.

for part two, click here

(C) Rev Patrick G Burke 2015

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