An aged dog, tethered to a stake in the ground and forgotten, listless and languid in the afternoon sun. He sat there as such, rubbing his whiskers and watching the shadows grow. He had been here for a very long time, and could remain for an age to come.
Thirty-nine years ago, he was 24. He thought he was an adult then. He was mistaken.
He took for himself a girl. She was old enough to excite him, and young enough to love him. He thought he was in love, too, or something close to it. He was in heat. When he discovered that he’d impregnated her, the air around him became palpable, pressing the life from his lungs.
He deserted her, and ran for the big city. He hoped he would be lost in the crowd. His first night in town was spent at a brothel, where he began the evening laughing in the company of strangers. He fell asleep weeping in the arms of a prostitute.
Between drinks, he looked for work in the new town, finding it at a small cabinet making company on the south side. When, on his second day, he arrived for work a strong morning wake-up on his breath, he was able to hide his condition from his boss. He could not hide it from the blade he was carrying or the steps he was attempting to descend.
His injuries were extensive, but with his money spent entirely on forgetting the mother and child he’d abandoned, he had little interest in medical care. It didn’t take long for him to lose the use of his legs. His right hand, infected from a deep gash and lack of proper bandaging, was not much better.
The proximity of his injury to his act of abandonment was not lost on him. He was guilty. He was punished. He wandered the streets, and haunted the jails, hobbling as he could on crutches, or shuffling along on his calloused knees.
It wasn’t long before he found the community pool. It was a popular place to be for those who were going nowhere. Tramps and beggars, cripples and creeps. They congregated here. For the disabled, it was a place to be among people who understood. For the drunks, it was a place free from judgement. Upright citizens often called upon the authorities to “clean up” the place, but seldom to any avail.
It was known as Mercy’s Place, a name held in irony by the upright, but not by the residents. It was a mercy to be among people that didn’t mind what you were, or why you were there. It was a grace to be free among the fettered, without shame.
It also helped that these were thought to be miracle spring waters.
“Watch for the water when it woozshes,” a friend told him. “If it moves a certain way, like, ‘wooozsh’ like that, it’s an angel jumping in the water. If you’re the first one in when it woozshes, you’ll be healed. My friend knew a guy who lost a foot. He got in the water when it woozshed, he got his foot back. Cuz God loves us, huh?”
A good tale for the simple-minded, he thought. God become superstition. On the rare occasion when it looked like an angel was troubling the water, he sat and watched the lucky one jump in. He never did see any limbs grow back, but the rumour persisted.
In the back of his mind, however, never close enough to confess it in words, he believed something of the story. He would sit on his mat, legs useless and slumped beneath him, staring at the spring, the sun sparkling upon the waters. The thought, the feeling, always persisted, that there was something to his friend’s words. Maybe not the part about angel jumping in, or even about getting healed, but something.
“If I ever make it in, I’ll know…”
His mind would again travel to the child he never met, whose birthday he never even knew. He thought of the mother, nursing a newborn alone. It was always this way in his mind. The child always an infant, always out of focus. The mother always alone. Neither child nor mother aged a day in 39 years. Their place was as stationary as his seat on his mat.
And there he sat, forever held in place by the weight of a burdened mind and a heavy heart.
He was an old man now, and old beyond his years. His legs withered sticks, his hand a fist so gnarled it was practically a club. These days, however, he sat closer to the pool than he used to sit. On the rare occasion that the spring waters woozshed, he shambled as quickly as he could to reach the edge. It was always the same, though, with the old man left wheezing and breathless while the quicker man splashed in the angel’s wake.
From time to time, some well-meaning souls came down to Mercy’s Place, offering a meal or clothing, sometimes even a little conversation. Today was such a day, though not on the typical day of the week. He ate a simple, mildly tasty meal, as a volunteer sidled up to sit with him.
“Hello,” said the volunteer.
“Hello. You’re not supposed to be doing this today, you know.”
“Some people think that.”
The old invalid gave him a wry look. “ ‘Some people?’”
“Don’t worry about it,” the man said, and changed the subject. “Are you from around here?”
“Nope. Been here a long time, though.”
“Almost forty years,” he said, his eyes occupied with the space around him.
“Wow. You’ve been here by the pool all that time?”
“Pretty near. I like it here,” and he took a sloppy bite of his lunch.
“It’s nice,” the volunteer confessed, taking in the sunshine on the water. “I’ve heard that the water here is good for you.”
“That’s what I hear.”
“You must know about the angel jumping in?”
“Yeah. That’s why we’re all here. Everybody’s waiting for a miracle.”
“Do you think it’s true?”
“I don’t know. Heard plenty of stories. But I’ve been here a long time and I’ve never seen it for myself.”
“Hm. But do you think it’s true?”
“I don’t know. I suppose it would be nice for it to be true. Angels taking a swim in the water and all that. It would mean that maybe God is actually watching out for us. Maybe it means he likes us.”
“Do you think he likes you?”
“I don’t honestly know. I’ve done some pretty unforgivable shit in my time. It’s why I am the way I am. I wasn’t born this way, you know. I don’t have a palsy.”
“Well sometimes you’re lame because that’s how life is,” he said. “And sometimes you’re lame because you made a terrible, sinful mistake, and that’s how life is, too.”
“You think you made a mistake?”
“Bad. I’m still paying for it. These legs, this hand, payment to God. I suppose I’ll be staying right here until I die.”
“Do you want to be healed?”
To the surprise of both, the old man began to cry. “Young sir, more than anything. You know I sit right next to that damn pool every day, just waiting for that angel to jump in. Isn’t that stupid? But every time it happens, it’s when I’m too far away. I don’t have anybody to carry me, and while I’m trying to drag my bony ass down there, somebody else always gets in first.”
“Oh, it’s nonsense,” the old man sniffed. “I just… I just want it to be true. I think if I got in there, and I was… Well it would mean… It would mean I was forgiven.”
The man put his left hand on the cripple’s shoulder, his right upon the shriveled hand, and looked him in the eye.
“Get up,” he said. “Take your mat and go home.”
The old man sniffed again. “What?”
The volunteer stood.
“Stand up. Take this old mat, and walk.”
He twitched his right hand. He stared at it. He stretched it out.
“Oh… God.” He stared at the volunteer. “You can’t…”
“I can. Stand up.”
The old man looked up at him. He shook his head, tears filling the crevices of his beleaguered face. “You… You don’t have to do this… I don’t…”
“I know. I want to do this.” He offered his hand. The old man took it, and as he did he felt in his feet a sensation he had missed for nearly forty years: strength. It flowed into his calves and thighs, and before his thoughts could catch up to him, he was standing, and sniffling in the arms of a lunchtime missionary.
The missionary turned him around. “Go ahead,” he said. “Walk.”
He did. Not with the trepidatious steps of a newborn, but the easy gait of a man waking after a long nap. He walked to the edge of the pool, looked back at the volunteer, and shared a smile. He walked back into the embrace of the man who made him walk.
“Thank-you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” replied the man. “Don’t forget your mat.”