model of the Pools of Bethesda outside the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem
photo from bible-history.com
Nissim had staked out this base of operations before that kid had been born, and no upstart was going to take it from him. He poked the kid, hard, with the knot end of his olive wood cane. “Move along.”
The kid faced him, although there was no way he could see out of those clouded eyes. “But I need to be closer to the water. Other people always get there first and–”
“Bah.” If it hadn’t been a feast day, which always put Nissim in a good mood, the kid would’ve gotten another taste of the cane. “Dov, did you hear that? This kid’s trying to use the line I invented on me. Me.”
“What?” The kid looked honestly puzzled. “What line?”
Nissim went through it as though reciting a dull list. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I’m making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
“That’s it exactly,” the kid said. “Except I have no one to tell me when the angel stirs up the water and my family is coming back for me today and….” He trailed off as Dov and a few other nearby professional beggars laughed.
But Nissim was going to do this kid a favor. “I’m going to give it to you straight. Feel my legs.” He lifted his robe past his knees to display the twisted and scarred flesh and held the kid’s hand there. “This happened working on the tunnel to supply these pools. Rock slide. So I know. The Pools of Bethesda are fed by a gusher. Do you understand what that is?”
The kid snatched his hand back. “No.”
“That means that the water doesn’t flow smoothly.” Nissim didn’t bother keeping his voice low. He didn’t care who heard him. “The spring gushes out and then stops, gushes out and then stops. There is no angel. It’s nature.”
“So the healing?” The kid’s mouth was pursed like he’d eaten a sour berry.
Nissim looked to his left. “Ze’ev! How many times you made it first into the pool?”
Ze’ev closed one eye while he counted. “Five, including last Passover.”
“And how are your legs?”
“Quit teasing me,” Ze’ev said. “Got a huge haul that Passover, though. Those brothers who made sure I got in were so happy to watch me move around, they praised the Lord by giving me lots of silver.”
Some of the men laughed, and Dov called out, “Yeah, well, next time you haul the old wolf out of the water. He’s heavy.”
The men cat-called back and forth for awhile, but the kid leaned closer to Nissim.
“So it did work for awhile.” The kid was not giving up his hope easily.
Nissim sighed. “You’re not getting it. It looked like he could move because the water held him up. We had to wait ’til he convinced those brothers to leave before getting him out, or they’d know they were tricked.” He said his next words slowly, so they’d sink in. “There are no healing powers.”
The kid was as still as a Roman statue. “Then why are you here?”
“For the pilgrims,” Nissim said. “They come to wash their sheep or themselves before heading in to Jerusalem for feasts and sacrifices, and it makes them feel righteous to give to the less fortunate. We make it easy for them by being where they need to go anyway.” He put his meaty right hand on the kid’s shoulder. “Believe me, it’s better to know the truth.”
The kid shrugged off Nissim’s hand and scooted away.
“What’s up with the flood of true believers lately?” Dov said.
“It does seem like they’re thicker on the ground these days,” Nissim said.
Dov rubbed at a groove in the floor with his thumb nail. “Do you even remember what it was like to think the water would heal you?”
Nissim recoiled. “You used to believe?”
“When I first came,” Dov said. “Ten years ago.”
“Did you listen to anything I said to that kid? I knew it was a fraud from the beginning. I dug these tunnels. I know this spring.”
“No need to get heated up about it.” Dov held his palms open in a peace offering.
“Thirty-eight years I’ve lived with these.” Nissim slapped his knee.
Thankfully, Dov knew better than to give him any sympathy. “Think your brother’ll come in today?”
Nissim blew out a hard breath. “Hope not.” He rearranged himself against the wall of the arch. “But I’m not holding out much hope for that. He always keeps the feast days.”
They raised their eyebrows at each other in commiseration.
“Get back to your spot,” Nissim said. “Sun’s fully up. They’ll be coming soon.”
As Dov dragged himself back to his usual place, Nissim closed his eyes and rested the back of his head against the stone arch. He could hear muttering and yelling coming from closer to the water: the sound of outraged true believers. He didn’t enjoy dashing their dreams, but it was like lancing a boil. Someone had to do it. Sure, it hurt, but it’d be worse if the boil were allowed to fester. He’d watched more people than he could count refuse to start begging, and then waste away until they died, waiting for those waters to heal them.
Someone stepped into his light. There hadn’t been footsteps coming from the entrance, so it wasn’t a pilgrim. “Get out of my sun,” he snapped. “Can’t I have a moment’s peace?”
Whoever it was cleared his throat.
Nissim opened his eyes. It was a man like any other man: long hair, beard, rough wool clothing, sandals, belt with a good-sized water skin attached, no apparent physical problems, so he was probably a traveler. A potential donor. Nissim exhaled slowly and slumped his shoulders, shrinking into himself, giving the impression of weakness, but before he could deliver his line, the man spoke first.
“Do you want to be healed?”
“What?” Nobody had ever asked Nissim that before.
The man sat back on his haunches and held Nissim’s gaze. The look on his face wasn’t exactly challenging, but it wasn’t the pitying look Nissim was used to getting, either.
A prickly flush traveled from Nissim’s chest to his jaw. He glanced at the water. If the man was going to offer to carry him over and make sure he got there first, this was a convoluted way to go about it. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stir- stirred up–”
The man made a dismissive gesture at the pools and shook his head, no.
“But without anyone to help me,” Nissim forged ahead but he could barely get through it all, “someone else always steps ahead of me.”
“Do you want to be healed?”
What did this man mean, if he wasn’t talking about the water? He didn’t say anything else, but the longer Nissim locked eyes with this stranger, the clearer he heard the man’s voice in his head. It said, “We both know the pools can’t heal you, but do you want to be healed?”
Nissim squeezed his eyes shut. His heart pounded. He’d made himself cry dozens of times to impress onlookers, but this was the first time in over thirty years that he felt that pressure behind his eyes when he didn’t will it. He’d been begging for most of his life. What would he do if his legs worked again? Would his brother take him back?
He swallowed hard past the knot in his throat as he imagined rejoining his family, working in the olive groves, contributing to the running of the household again. His leg itched. He reached down to scratch it.
Damn legs. And damn man asking him impossible questions and making him think about what it would be like. This life wasn’t so bad when he had no hope of anything different. Of course he wanted to be healed. He also wanted to be wealthy and have his pick of young girls, but that wasn’t happening, either.
He slapped at his calves. Why did they have to choose now to hurt? The skin felt hot and tight, like he’d left them uncovered in the sun too long.
The man was still waiting for an answer.
Nissim glared at him and barely nodded his head.
“Stand up,” the man said, in the most ordinary, matter-of-fact way. “Take your mat and walk.”
A bitter sound escaped Nissim’s throat. So the man was one of those nuts who thought he could heal people. All the man was doing now was smiling. Nissim should’ve noticed it earlier. Only crazy people would calmly ask such a cruel question. It was his fault that he got taken in by it. “Hey, Dov,” he leaned to the side so he could see around the man, “we’ve got a live one here.”
The man grinned at that, stood, and left without another word.
Nissim’s legs were still burning and itching. Did a bunch of ants get under his tunic? He scraped the fabric back to check–
He couldn’t breathe.
Where was that man? What had happened? Nissim craned his head around, but the man was gone.
Finally, he gasped. This was a dream. He closed his eyes and counted to seven breaths before looking at his legs again. There they were. They weren’t pretty, but they weren’t twisted anymore. Would they remember what to do? After so many years of lying fallow, would they be strong enough?
He put his hands first under his right thigh and moved it into a bent position. The knee pointed straight up at the sky. Nissim almost laughed. The same thing happened with his left leg. His feet rested squarely on the stone floor. Squarely. As if they hadn’t spent almost forty years bent at that horrible angle. He pushed against the floor until he was in a crouch, but he didn’t pick up his hands until he was almost sure his legs would hold him.
Pilgrims were streaming past him now, and his friends were making their cries, but none of it made an impression on him.
He tucked his elbow into a seam in the arch and leaned into it with all his strength. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his upper lip as he flexed his thighs and forced his body up. Black dots crowded his vision and made him dizzy, so he had to rest against the wall for awhile, but that soon cleared. And he was standing.
He expected to hear cheers and shouts, but everyone was so busy with their own pursuits, that nobody noticed he was upright for the first time in anyone’s memory.
So he did the rest of what the man had told him to do. He bent over, rolled up his mat, picked it up and put one foot in front of another, gingerly at first, but soon more confidently. He couldn’t stop watching the movement of his legs: he was walking.
“Hey!” Someone grabbed his sleeve. “You can’t do that.”
“I know.” Nissim grinned. “But I can now.”
“What?” It was one of the religious leaders. “You can’t carry your mat on the Sabbath.”
Nissim stared at him for a heartbeat and then laughed.
“It isn’t funny.” The leader’s bushy eyebrows shook in his indignation, which only made Nissim laugh harder. “You can’t work on the Sabbath. The law doesn’t allow you to carry that mat.”
“Tell that to the man who healed me.”
The leader bunched Nissim’s sleeve tighter in his fist. “What did you just say?”
“Don’t you recognize me? I’ve been sitting at that arch for over thirty years. I don’t know your name, but you’ve given me food and wine every feast day for ages. Without my believing it was possible, a man just came, healed me, and told me to pick up my mat and walk.”
“Who would say such a thing?”
Nissim shrugged. “He didn’t stick around.”
Neither did the leader, who rushed off as if something terrible had just happened.
What should he do now? Go to his brother’s? His legs were feeling good, but were they strong enough to walk across the Mount of Olives? They probably couldn’t handle that yet. But they could handle walking into Jerusalem. He had enough bits of silver that he could even pay the temple tax to see what everyone raved on about.
Being upright in a crowd was different from being seated while the crowd passed by. Before, strangers would avoid him, as if touching him would give them his lameness. Now, he was jostled and elbowed and almost tripped several times. He made his way over to a wall.
He wanted to yell at these people, “Watch it! I was just healed. Thirty-eight years I sat by the Pools of Bethesda, waiting for the waters to heal me, until a man took pity on me and spoke to me, and that’s all it took. Look at me now. I’m walking like any one of you. But ask any of the men by the pool and they’ll tell you that this morning, I was one of them. Now, I’m one of you.”
Maybe he should give such a speech. Imagine how much silver and food and wine people would give him. Then he’d really be able to come back to his brother with–
A man stepped into his line of sight. It was the man. Nissim raised his arms and prepared to announce to everyone who this was and what had happened, but the man wasn’t smiling.
“Now you are well, so stop sinning.”
Nissim dropped his arms and squinted up at him. “Sinning?”
The man nodded.
“But I’m just standing here.”
“Stop sinning, or something even worse may happen to you.”
And then the man walked away without explaining what he meant. “Hey! Come back!” Nissim pushed through a few people, but his legs weren’t strong enough to follow the man.
The leader who’d scolded him at the Pools grabbed his sleeve again. “Was that the man?” The leader barely waited long enough for Nissim to confirm it before taking off after him, a bunch of cronies in tow.
Nissim was left standing in an archway at the Temple. Should he go straight to his brother’s? Or stick around here to see what business he could drum up out of this healing? Or go back to the Pools where people knew him? And what did the man mean by sinning?