Grace and Mercy by Ama Udofa

The man looks around. The air is thick and heavy and damp and smells of sickness. He feels heavy too, like the air–heavy but weightless. He looks down at himself and shakes his head. He’s become so used to this habit that it’s now some sort of conditioned reflex–to look at himself and shake his head.

He looks himself over again, and a wistful sigh squeezes through his clenched mouth. It’s not a long time before he time travels back to a period before this disease swallowed him and wrung the life out of him like a thick cloth after washing– vibrant, energetic, with huge arms that looked like pillars. A time of wine and roses and farm work and women. There’s a slight numbness in his left knee that suddenly forces his mind to fast-forward to the present and he is still stuck here by the sheep market, doomed to have the pool as his eternal neighbour. He’s been here for two years shy of four decades, watching days fade into nights and nights into days.

He’d lost all of his strength when he became sick. Hope is now as useful to him at this moment as a horse to a drowning soldier. He has come to make flies and fleas his closest friends. One look at him and your day is ruined. Today, like every other day, he’s seated here, waiting for what he isn’t sure of. There was not much to do except sit. Sit and watch, and wait.

He yawns and looks around. You cannot say he’s bored. Somebody that has been in the same spot for almost 40 years! Please, what is boredom? There are familiar faces; of the same people he sees every day, eyes liquid with hope, waiting for an angel.

He stretches on his mat in listless resignation. He’ll never be well again for sure. His legs are dead wood and haven’t been of much use over the years for each time he’s tried to get up and into the pool. He’s always needed help. And for ages now, none has come.

He looks around yet again (this is probably the only work he only ever does!) at the other impotent folk scattered around the pool – even then, he’s still worse off.

For a fraction of a moment his thoughts wander to the frenzy that always follows each time the angel comes and messes with the water: pushing, shoving, upending. To the frustrated sighs and expressions of grimace of those who don’t make it after everything.

If there were some sort of award for “longest serving member” or something, he’d have no competition. He’s been here long enough to know every single face, behavior, every single item and their positions in this Bethesda that he’s been forced to call home, and even where every last leaf has fallen. So it is no surprise that he feels something about the air change when some young man walks in. He’s never seen this one before so he quirks his brow warily. He’s not a relative of anyone here and he looks ordinary enough.

The stranger is walking towards him and with every step, the air is a little lighter.

Could he be one of those unfortunate lowlifes who come around to steal from poor sick people? Or could help be finally approaching at long last?

It’s almost that time of the week when the angel comes around.

Perhaps, I should beg this stranger to stick around and help me into the water at the next coming of the angel. Hope makes the man lightheaded and a little woozy.

“Wilt thou be made whole?” The stranger asks dryly jerking the man back to reality.

Oh great, one of those clowns! He reaches protectively for his begging bowl.

For a moment, he is confused. What kind of question is this one now? Okay this one has come here to mock him? Two deep breaths. The leper decides he’s going to have to play this one cool. One thing he’s learnt is to never be rude to anyone, not even unserious people. And not especially as this man might just be the one to give him that much-awaited shove. Just a bit of begging might soften his heart. Can’t be wasting opportunity anyhow.

“Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another stepped down before me.” He makes sure his reply is polite, which is difficult as the words are barely squeezing through his teeth.

His chest is a site of explosions and his heart percussion against his ribs. He can almost hear the sound of the blood gushing through his veins. Unknown to him, it is He, who sent the angel, who made the water, that has come by Himself.

“Rise, take up thy bed, and walk,” The stranger’s voice is so soft his lips barely move.

What?!

For a few seconds, everything around the pool careens to a stop. You can even hear a pin drop.

“The pool—”

“Rise, take up thy bed, and walk,”

“My God! Some people play too m—”

WAIT A MINUTE! Is it the ridiculousness of what this clown just said?

Or is it strength that just rushed into his dead feet?

Is he feeling things? Is he hearing things?

 

He wants to ask the stranger to repeat himself, just to be sure he heard correctly.

OK wait first let me just close my eyes and open them to be sure I’m not finally going crazy last last…

Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.

 

The words keep ringing in his ears.

He reckons he’s heard a lot of really ridiculous things in this life but this one is different. He looks himself over one final time, rolls out of his mat, then glares at the stranger. This better not be a prank! He wobbles a bit, steadies himself, inhales, takes a step, then two….

He stops, looks back at the stranger. Pause. Then breaks into a run, dancing and praising.

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