By Bryant Burroughs
The man squatted three rows deep in the olive trees on the slopes above the village. He scanned a small circle of women gathered at the well.
Where is she? he fretted, squinting in the early morning sun.
The dawn mist offered hope to the land and trees and villagers, but none to the crouching man. Pain and loneliness had invaded his days, and hope had fled far away.
We were supposed to be Aaron and Anna, Anna and Aaron for a lifetime. How can I live cut in half?
The red sores and splotches had attacked the day after Anna had held his face in both hands and whispered, “I’m pregnant.” It was the last time she had touched him.
The splotches of unclean terror spread rapidly. A taut swath of red scored across his forehead and forked to scar his left cheek and behind his ear. His hands – the hands that had caressed Anna – the hands that would have comforted his baby – would never touch Anna or the child. He was banned, forced from home as polluted. Anna had wept bitterly when the village leaders drove him away, shoving him with shepherds’ staffs all the way to the olive grove in which he now crouched. They hurled stones and threats until he retreated at a run, away from the woman he loved.
Now he was alone, empty, cut off from love. The scars of leprosy marred more than skin. They marred the heart.
Suddenly the branches above shook from side to side, pelting him with a rain of olives. Pitching forward with his face and arms flung to the ground, he shouted, “The day will come when God will shake the nations,” calling up words placed in his heart by the long-ago prophet Haggai.
And heal me, he added. Please heal me so that I can go home to Anna.
“Quiet, Aaron, you fool!” a voice behind him urged. “You know you’re forbidden to be here.”
That’s not the voice of God, Aaron thought as he turned over. It’s Simon.
Another tree two rows away shook. “Get back here!” the urgent voice ordered. “If anyone sees you, you’ll have more to worry about than those scars of yours!”
Aaron hopped to his feet. “Simon? Is that you?”
“Of course it is!” responded the voice. “Who else would be watching out for you? Who else would be this near to you?”
Aaron crept toward the shaking leaves.
Although Aaron and Simon were neighbors and best friends, they did not embrace. They could not. The Law was clear. Lepers – even childhood best friends – were to be driven away, never to be seen or touched again.
“Here, friend,” Simon said, pointing to a bowl of soup and a crust of bread on the ground. The pock-marked man glanced at his friend, then threw himself at the food.
“I have water there, too.” He watched as Aaron devoured the bread and tipped the bowl to drink in gulps. Simon wished he had brought more. “Do you get much food?” he asked.
Aaron shook his head. He couldn’t begin to answer such a question. How could I possibly describe life as a leper? he thought. It’s a living death.
“Sometimes good people leave food at the edge of a village or farm,“ he answered, leaving out that often he ate after foxes and rats had scavenged. If was good enough for rats, then it was good enough for lepers.
Simon cleared his throat. “I have news, Aaron.”
“Is it Anna?” reacted the red-scarred man, dropping the empty bowl. “Tell me! Is it Anna?”
“No, no, my friend, Anna is well.” He wasn’t sure how to say the rest. “I’ve seen something. Something that may be good news, hopeful news.” Simon began pacing between the trees. “It began when I heard rumors – fanciful tales, really – about a healer who walks around the whole of Galilee. A healer who cures everyone he touches.” He glanced at Aaron. “Even lepers, Aaron, even lepers.
“I had to see for myself. I walked down toward Capernaum, stopping in every village to ask how I could find the healer I had heard about. People told me stories about the healer, and some claimed to have been cured by him.” Simon paused, remembering their stories. “How could I ever forget those people? The father with an arm around a son who had been mute and afflicted for years. A widow who clasped her only son and wept, describing the moment the healer had returned him from death.”
Aaron’s anxious voice interrupted. “Simon, what happened? Did you find this healer? Did you?”
Simon gazed at his friend. “Yes, I did,” he whispered. The more he told his story, the more he felt he was describing a dream. After a few hours’ walk that day, hours filled with unbelievable stories of an indescribable healer, he had stood on a ridge overlooking a wide valley. Below him, two crowds of a hundred or more people had walked toward each other on the valley’s sandy road. The crowd moving from his left had been composed of adults, mostly men, but also a surprising number of women. It had been the other crowd that caught his attention. It had moved in a strange way – slow and halting.
He slid down the hill through the scrub brush for a closer look at the slower crowd. It was an astonishing sight: parents carrying infants and toddlers; people of all ages who could walk only with a limp or supported on the shoulder of a loved one; litters carrying those debilitated by some sickness; the blind being led by the hand. It was a band of the afflicted.
Yet there was something else. The crowd radiated a joyous hopefulness, as if anticipating good things about to happen. In fact, the crowd was singing! The lame and blind and sick were singing in hope.
Simon paused in his story. Aaron stood transfixed, barely remembering to breathe.
“Then the two crowds stood in front of each other,” Simon continued slowly. How could he possibly describe what he saw next? How could he describe the indescribable? “Then a man stepped into the singing crowd. He went from person to person and touched them. And he healed every one. No matter the sickness, all were healed.”
Aaron couldn’t help himself. He burst out: “Did you see any lepers in this singing crowd? Did you see any lepers healed?”
I have to tell my friend the truth, Simon thought. False hope is worse than no hope.
“I don’t know. Perhaps. There was a small group of men clustered at the edge of the crowd. They were all wearing rags. Maybe they were lepers.” He saw his friend grimace darkly. “But this I know, Aaron,” he firmly continued. “The healer touched all those rag-clothed men, too, and immediately each man began leaping in the air and clutching each other, their heads thrown back to the heavens.”
What had to be said had been said. It was a wild story, Simon admitted to himself. But no wilder than the stories he’d heard in Nain and Cana and nearby hamlets, wild stories about a man who healed everyone he touched.
The mist had evaporated in the sun. The women had returned home from the well. The two friends were alone. It was Aaron’s turn to speak.
“This healer, this man who with a touch cures any ill, in which direction was he walking?” His words were so quietly uttered that the breeze rustling through olive leaves nearly blew them away.
“He was walking away from the sea. Perhaps toward Cana. I heard he has family there.”
“So near,” Aaron mused. Three miles. Four steep ridges.
He made his decision. “Tell Anna I was here. Tell her that I hope to return whole. And, Simon, if I am not made whole, I will not come back.”
“Go find the healer, friend,” was all Simon could say.
God, please help this man, he prayed silently.
Aaron set off at a run up the slope. Driven by hurt and hope, he vowed that when his bursting lungs yelled “stop!”, then he would walk. He vowed that when his blistered feet yelled “no more!”, then he would crawl. He vowed that if he couldn’t crawl, then he would wait beside the road and hope that the healer walked that way.
Two ridges were behind him when his lungs demanded air, and he slowed to a labored walk. His mind raced faster than his feet. How will I find the healer if he is in a crowd? Simon said that nothing stood out about the healer’s appearance. Who should I ask for? I don’t know his name. Will he be disgusted by me? Will the crowd throw stones to keep me away?
The sun was high when he saw a crowd moving toward him. It took only a glance to spot the man who was his only hope. Of course! The healer had to be the man surrounded by waves of children.
He summoned his breath, roused his legs, and sprinted straight toward the man. The crowd was spooked by the sight of a scar-faced man clad in rags spurring full-tilt toward them. Many people stepped back while others fled for safety.
Aaron threw himself to the ground, raining tears on the healer’s feet as if hope were washing from his soul all the hurt he had endured. “I know you are the healer,” he cried out. “I know you can heal me. If you would heal even a leper, please heal me!”
He felt the grip of the healer’s hands on his shoulders, lifting him to his feet. Waves of energy seemed to course through his body at this first human touch since he had been driven away from home.
The healer fixed Aaron’s gaze on him and moved a hand to Aaron’s chest. “I bring you good news. I have come to heal more than affliction. I have come to cure souls, for everyone – everyone – is a leper in their souls.” At these words, a force rushed through Aaron’s body a second time, as if a violent windstorm had blown him about and then dumped him into an icy river. The jolt shocked his heart and every bone, muscle and nerve. He would have collapsed were the healer not holding him.
The crowd gasped. Aaron slowly raised both hands to his face. His skin felt smooth – no ridges of scars, no hills of sores. His skin was smooth! As smooth as he remembered Anna’s to be.
The healer moved both hands to Aaron’s arms. There were light outlines in the skin on both forearms. “I leave you these shadow-scars for the sake of your soul. Remember this day,” he said. “Now go to the temple, and show yourself to the priest. And then go home to your Anna,” he smiled. “If you run fast, you will be home by sunset.”
Bryant Burroughs is a writer and lives with his wife Ruth in Upstate South Carolina with their three cats. His work has appeared in online literary sites such as Agape Review, Clayjar Review, Pure in Heart Stories and Faith, Hope & Fiction.
Bryant's other work on Foreshadow:
The Widow Whose Son Lived (Fiction, July 2022)
The Youngest Day (Poetry, November 2022)
The Widow's Psalm (Poetry, February 2023)