The pigeons’ wings beat a rhythm in the air as they whooshed over the flat rooftops and up into the bright blue sky, becoming whirling black dots against such a backdrop. I traced their swirls and dives with my eye, until they swooped down to a bare space on the ground and settled there for a moment, strutting about like our Roman conquerors. Then a man’s hurried trot across the courtyard sent them into the air again and away over the city. I leaned my head back against the rough wall behind me and stared across the square at the hurrying people, shaded colonnades, and clear, still pool.
Yusef shifted on his mat, raising himself up on one elbow as he placed his other hand over his squinting eyes to peer at the pool. For his sake, I hoped he would see the stirrings he hoped for; but I knew he would soon settle back down on his mat with his eyes fixed on the pool. I’ve known him for nearly seven years now, and waited with him often during that time, but I’ve never seen the waters move.
I closed my eyes against the bright sun, wishing Yusef would agree to wait over in the shade. But that’s too far from the pool, he says. So here we stay. He’s counting on me to get him to the water’s edge if the waters are stirred. His faith amazes me; thirty-eight years he’s sat here, watching, waiting, and still he believes he’ll be healed someday.
He wasn’t always like this, a gaunt, sunburnt man laying on a dirty mat in a public square. He used to be the best stonemason in Jerusalem, renowned for his work. He apprenticed under my grandfather, just as my father and I did. When my father was toddling around the shop, Yusef was a young man already becoming known for his skill with stone. He built some of the fanciest mansions in Jerusalem, with stones so carefully cut and fitted the seam is hardly visible. Then, just as my father was learning to handle the chisel, Yusef’s accident happened. He was working on a great new palace at Caesarea Philippi and fell from the top of a wall. His apprentices carried him back to Jerusalem, writhing in pain and unable to walk.
His legs are useless now, mere sticks that drag behind him. His hands are still big and strong and could hold a chisel, but he can’t sit or stand in the shop. Since he could not work, his money soon ran out. Now he lies by the pool of Bethesda, a helpless beggar waiting for a miracle.
He’s seen the waters stir, three times in the thirty-eight years he’s waited here. I wasn’t here any of those times, so he dragged himself with his hands across the rough stones. Each time, another person reached the pool before he did, and the waters held no healing for him. He says he saw those others healed, and he still believes he’ll be healed too, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
And so I sit with him, on Sabbaths and the days when I have no work. If today the waters were stirred, I would be breaking the Sabbath rules by carrying him to the pool. But if that happened, I should delight in making the sacrifice that would cover my sins. Too many years have I sat here watching Yusef beg and wait.
The pigeons winged back over the courtyard, swooping low, but they didn’t land, for a group of men crossed the courtyard. I turned from pigeon-watching to people-watching. The man who seemed to be leading them was dressed like a rabbi, but his friends did not look like students. One, while he wasn’t dressed like a tax collector, still had the snobbish attitude of one. A couple others looked, from their rough clothing and wind-burned faces, like fishermen. An altogether motley group, I decided, wondering what they were doing together.
Yusef grunted as he pushed himself up to his elbow again, and I glanced at the water. It was still. Looking back at him, I found that he wasn’t looking at the pool, but at the rabbi and his followers. They were coming our way, and Yusef gave me a desperate look.
“A blessing,” he whispered.
I rose and walked towards the rabbi, and when he looked at me, I had a feeling that anything could happen today. “A blessing for my friend, rabbi,” I asked him.
The look he gave Yusef was full of compassion, and he asked me how long he has suffered for. Then he squatted down in front of Yusef’s mat, letting his body block the sun. Yusef blinked up at him, and he gently asked, “Do you want to get well?”
What a question to ask, I thought, for wouldn’t anyone want to get well? But there was a look on Yusef’s face that I have never seen before, and his tone was respectful, hopeful, as he answered, “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. When I am trying to get in, someone else gets in ahead of me.”
The rabbi stood up and said, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk!”
I was about to tell him that Yusef couldn’t do that, when Yusef did just that. The legs that had lain useless on the mat for thirty-eight years folded and pushed his body upwards. The feet that had only dragged along the ground now pressed firmly and took a few steps. His back, which was twisted and weak, became straight and strong. I stared up at him. I’d never had to look up at Yusef before, and I wasn’t sure I believed my eyes. But the look on his face – the look that said that what he’s waited for had come!
I could only sit and stare as he bent over, rolled up his dirty mat, and took a few steps. Then he skipped a few steps, and then he ran across the courtyard carrying his mat. I looked around for the rabbi. He was nowhere in sight. But I saw what had happened.
Biblical fiction based on the story in John 5.