George A. Blair
Copyright © 2012
George A. Blair
Sometimes he wondered if he was just one person. There was, for instance, the John he hated--most of the time: the one who boiled with rage and got into fights, and who found one of his most satisfying "magic moments" in the feel of his fist against flesh, and the sound of the special thump of it, and the cry of pain--especially the cry of pain--when it happened, and who even enjoyed, in a strange sense, the feel of another's fist against his chest and even his head, as long as he was winning the battle.
Then he did not feel the pain; that came later. In a fight, he felt like the real, true John, and it was only later, when he saw the damage he had done, and his playmate crying and running home, that he realized that this was not, could not be himself, not really. He did not want to cause pain and suffering--except in the midst of the fight, or perhaps at the beginning, when his mind saw everything through a red haze.
That same John was the one who would be doing something that was going badly, and would reach a point where he would scream and throw things and break whatever he was building, and then sit there crying about it. On these occasions, his father would say, "Very well, John, you have broken your toy. Now you will have the task of fixing it as well as you can. You cannot do anything else until this is done."
"I cannot! I cannot!" he would scream, stamping his foot.
"You can try as hard as you are able," his father would return, "and then go on with whatever you were trying to do with it."
"But it does not work!"
"Then you may leave it--after you have restored it."
"Prove it to me by trying. But I want proof, not simply sitting there and ranting."
Which of course would cause a further rant, which his father would contemplate with maddening calm, and then say, "The sooner you start, the closer you will be to finishing."
And John--even that John--knew, after weeping and screaming, that it was no use; he would be able to do nothing but survey the wreckage he had made and make gestures at fixing it. And he also knew that if he could not fix it, after a few hours of continued defeat, he would be given a reprieve. It was unfortunate that his father was a fisherman; it gave him infinite patience, something John knew he eventually had to learn. But he hated it.
As time went on, his brother James, four years older, could often spot when a tantrum was coming, and would get himself behind John and grasp him in a hug, trapping his arms so that he could not move. He would scream and kick, but James was safe behind him--and there was something about the feel of James's body against his that was magic in its own way, and often, after a struggle, brought the crisis to an end.
"There. Is it over?"
"I suppose," John would say sulkily, not willing to admit that James had subdued him, and not knowing whether he hated him or loved him for it. There was something strange going on there, which he did not understand, and did not trust.
And sometimes, especially when he began to become a man, he contemplated going into a tantrum just to have James grasp him; but he suspected somehow that there was something wrong with this, something dangerous, and he never dared deliberately to attempt it. There were enough occasions when he became frustrated and lost control that he did not really need to pretend doing so. He never spoke of this mysterious feeling, and could seek no guidance about it.
In any case, he hated that John, the John he wished, in his sane moments, did not exist. But there was also John the fisherman, though for a long time he was too young to do more than play at fishing, with James in the little boat that Joseph and Jesus had built just for them, when James had become a man. James rowed at first, because he was bigger, and John, who was only nine at the time, could not manage the oars yet, even though the boat was tiny; so John took the--also tiny--net as they went out onto the "Sea" of Galilee, which was really a huge lake, following their father Zebedee (but not too close, because he was seriously working, and the fish were not to be frightened), so that he could keep an eye on them.
And John--clumsily, it must be said--threw out the toy net, as he had seen his father do in the big boat with the hired hands--and once he had actually caught two fish in it! "I did it! I did it!" he cried, and James shushed him from behind (John was in the bow, and James, of course, was facing the stern) and his father and the others made angry "Quiet!" gestures from the big boat. It seems they had run into a huge school of fish and they too were making an enormous catch. That was one of the most magic of his magic moments. He never forgot those two fish. Yes, that John was the real John.
Or was it? There was--or were--also the John of the other magic moments: those strange times when he lost himself completely in something--or perhaps found himself there, or found something that engulfed him.
In the draper's shop, for instance, that his mother took him to one time when she had to go to buy some cloth for something she was making, which was a material she could not spin herself. The colors! The reds and blues and that reddish purple that he saw in certain flowers!
He stood entranced, and reached out his small hand to feel the cloth--which was so soft and smooth; it was the tactile equivalent of the colors his eyes saw. And there was even some velvet there, a lovely green, furry thing, like a grassy field made of threads. He lost himself in the sheer sensation, and had to be dragged out of the shop by his mother, looking back at the rich profusion he was leaving behind. She said to Zebedee that night, "What a strange, strange boy! Who ever heard of a boy being entranced by cloth!"
And once he went to the market where they sold flowers, and it was the same, except the shapes and the smells!--so different from the smells of the lake and fish, which were magic in their own right--added their dimensions to the colors and textures, and John--that John--was transported. Whenever they were at the market, he would wander over to where the flowers were sold, and drink them in as much as he could. His mother looked on with wonder and a touch of worry--which was alleviated when he came home with a black eye and bloody knuckles, and replaced with a different worry.
And there was, of course, the magic time of watching his boat (James's too, of course, but that did not count) be built. How the carpenter carefully sighted along the boards to be sure that they were straight, and showed his son Jesus where to put the curved ones so that they would match the curvature of the hull and not put strain on the wood; how the two of them--cooperated is the only word--with the wood and the other materials rather than fighting them to make them do their will, with the result that they helped the boat come together, as if this was what they wood itself wanted.
Joseph, John observed, discussed things often with Jesus, who was a couple years older than James, but still beardless; and it was usually a real discussion, not simply teaching the boy but getting his opinion, and frequently following it--though Jesus never acted as if he were teaching his father. It was just that he seemed to see things that his father did not notice.
When the boat was nearly done, Jesus called John over as he was placing a plank in the center of the bottom, above the ribs, for the sailors to use to keep their feet out of the bilge. "This is the John board," Jesus said, showing him where it was going. "When you get into the boat, you step on this board, lest the boat tip, and then go along it to that one up there (pointing to the bow), where you will man the net (putting just the slightest emphasis on "man")." And the board became magic also, something John recognized whenever he entered and felt it beneath his bare feet.
Joseph's wife Mary (and she was magic) came down from Nazareth while they were busy with the boat, to supply their food and other needs. John's parents let them stay in his house rather than the tent they had brought, or having them traipse all the way up the hill back to Nazareth every day. It made things the least bit cramped, though their house was larger than most, as befitted their prosperous position in Bethsaida, but they all got along well, and the evening meal was full not only with talk of fishing and the size of the catch, but of the boat and how it was coming along. The women, of course, compared notes on how to supply the food and clothes, and on the best way to care for the house and the animals (the carpenters' donkey came down with them--and Mary rode him back when she needed something or other--but the other animals were left in Nazareth, where the neighbor tended them.)
John, who was not exactly shy, but who had a hard time with other people (especially groups of people), found Mary very easy to talk to; even more than his mother. It was not that she understood him (no one understood him, least of all himself), but she accepted him absolutely, and acted interested in what was going on in his head. He mentioned to her his experience at the flower market, and the draper's shop, and, unlike his mother, she did not act as if he was "strange," and let him go on and on about the different pieces of cloth, and how they were magic, until finally his mother came by and said, "John, that is enough! Let the poor lady rest a bit!" and then, turning to Mary, she remarked, "He would keep you all day, once he starts on one of his favorite subjects."
John's face flamed with chagrin, but Mary said, "No, it was very interesting, really; I had something like the same experience, and it brought back to me the first time I went to the florist. I nearly could not breathe! And the smells!" It made John feel as if he was not really alone, and perhaps was not very strange after all, or if he was that it did not matter. He too got lost in smells, and not only the smell of flowers: the smell of the water in the lake, or the rain, and even the smell of fish, the smell of the wood of the boat, the smell of earth after a rain, the smell of the grain during harvest. He would stand there in the field, breathing in the green blood of the cut wheat and the grass for the animals in winter, and marvel at it--and then go into the barns and granaries, where it had transformed itself into a new, ripe something-or-other; and he could understand how the oxen would want to eat it. (He tried eating it himself, and was suddenly glad he was not an ox.)
There were sounds, too, that pulled him into them, and took him into a different world, where his body was only a shell and his spirit was in its proper element, whatever that was. Something as apparently simple as the lowing of cattle off in the distance, punctuated by the barking of a dog, with the obligato of the birds flying above, the soft percussion of the horses' hooves in the dirt of the road off at a distance, with a whinny every now and then to answer the dog. It fit together somehow, and it meant something--something even more mysterious than the psalms in the synagogue.
And those made him cry, sometimes, because they had words, and the words did mean something--something infinitely beyond him--and occasionally the tune and the notes of the lyre and flute said the same thing, and he was overwhelmed. He could not stand it.
"John! Hush!" whispered his mother, as he broke down in tears that he tried to keep silent. And she would shake her head at the strange, strange boy, and thank the Master that he was basically an obedient boy, or he would have been impossible to rear.
John once overheard her discussing him with Mary, who said, "Fear not. He will do well. He will perhaps do well at many things. From what you told me about the synagogue, you might consider having him study to be a rabbi. I suspect that he will not be happy, finally, as a simple fisherman."
"But he loves it!"
"True. But it satisfies only a small part of his soul; his soul, I think, is very large, and as he grows and learns, it will satisfy him less and less, or I am much mistaken."
"A rabbi! We do know Annas, who looks some day to be the head of the Sanhedrin; he is very well connected. I had never thought of such a thing! Do you think he could do it?"
"Try teaching him to read, and see if he takes to it."
John did not hear what his mother replied, he was so excited at the prospect of being able to decipher the scrolls with their strange marks. That was the magic of magics! But how would he learn to read? Who would teach him? His father could read but a few words, and only the words he needed for his fishing business, and he could barely decipher "Hear, O Israel, The Lord your God is the only God" because he knew what it meant, not because the words spoke to him.
Everything spoke to John--the landscape, the smells, the colors, the sounds, and now marks on papyrus would begin to speak! And with real words! Words that one heard with one's eyes! Incredible!
But he said nothing about it, especially to James, who might be jealous; he was the elder brother, after all, and it might all come to nothing. But he hugged it inside himself, and longed for it, especially on the Sabbath in the synagogue, when the music and the words spoke mysteries to him.