Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Deeper Waters, Part Two

The three of them sat silently with their faces to the lake’s cold breeze.  The sun was approaching its full height, and shadows were scant.  The sound of the sail in the wind played counterpoint to the waves lapping on the ship’s prow.  Another boat lapped along not far away.  It belonged to his friends, partners in the struggling business.  They had also had a fruitless night.  When Simon had told them they were going out one more time with the teacher, they shrugged in a Why not fashion and headed out beside them.

The teacher was gazing out into the water now, like a boy on a boat for the very first time, waving a grand Hello to the other boat.  Simon couldn’t help but smile at the oddly innocent look of wonder on his face.  This is the man who took a shot to the face and preached a sermon about it, he thought, and shook his head.  

“You haven’t done much fishing before have you?”

Jesus turned his attention to Simon.  “Only from the shore.  My cousin and I used to use a hook and line when we were little.  Never used nets before.”

Despite his best efforts, Simon couldn’t help beginning to like this man.  And he still kept glancing at that welt under his eye.

“Would you like to try it?” asked Simon.


“Of course!”

“Yes!  I’d love to!”

“Well, rabbi, you just tell us where to throw them, then.”

The preacher peered over the side of the boat.  “Here.  I think this is deep enough.”

“Very good.  We’ll drop them here then.  Just watch me first, and then you can have a go yourself.”

Andrew and Simon stood to take down the sail and retrieved their nets, each automatically turning to “his” side of the boat.  Simon tied one end of the rope to his right hand, and gathered it in loops in his left.  

“Like so.  See?  And then, one fluid throw like this…”

Simon turned at the waist and threw the net out upon the sea in a surprisingly graceful motion.  Andrew did the same, and the nets fell with an almost simultaneous splish.  There was a momentary circular grid on the water as the nets descended slowly from the surface.

“Got it?” Simon asked, turning his head to the rabbi.  

The rabbi was truly entranced by the fisherman’s skill.  He chuckled.  “We’ll see!”

Simon smiled again, and pulled in the empty net.  “Are you right-handed or left?”

“Uh… Both.”

Simon raised his eyebrows to his brother.  Andrew shrugged and smirked.

“Right for this, I think,” said the preacher.

Simon proceeded to tie the end of the rope around the rabbi’s left hand and helped him loop it in his right.

“All right.  Now, one nice swing and release.  Go ahead.”

The rabbi turned at the waist, swung out, and released… too soon.  The net fell impossibly close to the boat in a half-moon shape, and he began to laugh.  “Perhaps I’ll leave the fishing to you,” he said.

Simon noticed there was not a shred of embarrassment in his voice.  He admired that.  “And I’ll leave the preaching to you.”

Simon, as he regathered the rope and net, watched the preacher carefully.  “I noticed that scratch under your eye,” he said.

“I know,” said the rabbi.

Andrew turned and looked from Simon to the rabbi.  He had not, until now, been as observant.  But there it was: a thin, red comma beneath the teacher’s right eye.

Simon cast the net again, and again watched the grid disappear into the calm waters.  “What you said this morning about, how did you put it?  ‘Turning the other cheek’?  You really did that, didn’t you?  I mean, that wasn’t just some kind of illustration, was it?”

“Only inasmuch as the illustration is real.”

The fisherman appreciated that there were no attempts to dismiss the accusation for the sake of false humility.

Jesus spoke quietly.  

“Strength isn’t always what you think it is, Simon.”

Simon had no response.  He held the net’s rope thoughtfully and silently.  He knew they weren’t going to be catching any fish today, especially at this time of the day and in this spot, but he was glad to be out in the boat with this preacher.   

Suddenly his hand was burning.  The rope was disappearing into the lake.  An astonished cuss filled his mouth as he quickly grabbed it with both hands.

“Andrew! Help me here!”

But the rabbi was there before Andrew could secure his own net and respond, and Jesus was pulling with all his strength alongside his new shipmate.  Simon’s disbelieving eyes grew wide as the bulging net drew closer to the surface.  

“My God!”  Andrew stood staring at the two of them, his own rope held dumbly in his hands.  He was nearly pulled overboard when his own rope ran away from him with an unexpected zhip.  His eyes grew wide and his language limited with stupefaction.  “Net… Fish!”

Simon and the teacher were still attempting to pull their own net aboard, but as it began to break the surface and take on more weight, Simon could tell the old nets wouldn’t hold.  More hands were needed.  He called across to his partners in the other boat, waving his free hand frantically.

“Hey!  Hey!  We need your help!  You won’t believe this!”

Andrew also called out.  “Fish!”


By the time the fraying (but somehow still holding) nets were drawn, the three men sat with flopping tilapia up to their knees.  Their boat, and their partner’s boat, were resting dangerously low in the water, and water lapped over the edges onto the squirming fish.

Simon sat incredulously staring at the black-eyed rabbi.  Never in his life, nor in the lives of anyone he knew for that matter, had he ever seen such a haul of fish.  It had been a difficult season, and in one haul, they had caught more than they had all year.  This wasn’t just a good catch.  It was a life saver.  

He knew this was no coincidence.  He wasn’t a brilliant man, but he knew a miracle when he saw one, and he knew that this man, somehow, had been in charge of it.  He realized he was staring, and turned his gaze from the preacher to the shore.  It was approaching quickly now.  

There were astonished gasps, and many things declared “Holy” when the fishermen on the shore saw the haul.  Simon, who would ordinarily have been laughing and hooting with the rest of them as they began the work of sorting, worked silently.  He set his eyes on the rabbi.  The teacher was throwing himself into the work of sorting the hundreds of fish that had been caught, right alongside the rest of the men.  He was sharing a laugh with Andrew.  Simon, however, was grappling hard against the tears that fought their way to the corners of his eyes.  His heart was held firmly in his throat, fighting as it was to escape his mouth in a bawl.

His thoughts seemed to be swirling in disconnected memories and feelings, but they were all connected, somehow.  They were connected with the rabbi he had disregarded just a few hours ago.  In fact, he seemed to be at the very center of them.  The pain of losing Adah, even the joy of finding her in the first place, was strung like a net and a rope from that preacher, and Simon was caught in the center of it.  

It was something about the ease with which he seemed to invite friendship that reminded him of these things, of her.  There was something holy about it.  That was it.  That was the connection.  Holiness.  That was the net, and the preacher had cast it as gracefully as Simon tossed his own fraying net.  

Here he saw Adah’s smile for what it was, and what it always had been: Pure.  Undefiled.  Holy.  Every moment of tenderness glowed in his memory with this holiness.  The water trickling from her nose when she’d burst out laughing, cup to her lips, at that first embarrassing meal with the family.  Her hands as they worked at an everyday task.  Her eyes when she said something as common as a casual good-bye.  Sacred.

Then he remembered himself.  He remembered every cruel word he’d spoken since her death.  Every “shut the hell up” he’d said to his brother, a brother whose love for him had only been surpassed, and just barely, by Adah.  He saw himself drunk at the tavern, fists blazing, each blow to a stranger’s face a testament to his own weakness.  He saw himself for what he was:  Defiled.  Hateful.  Broken.  Sinful.

Yet here he was, counting fish, in the presence of Love itself, and a thought came to him as a swelling tide: This is the holiest man I ever met.

He stood, his hands visibly trembling, and approached the rabbi.  His legs began to quaver and he fell to his knees, fish still flopping at his feet.  Tears broke upon his cheeks, pouring down upon his beard like oil.  Jesus knelt with him, and held him. Simon’s heart, at long last, escaped his throat, and it wept and wailed in the teacher’s arms.  

“Please,” Simon sobbed, “Please leave me, Lord!  I’m a sinful man!  I’m a wretch.  I’m nothing.  I don’t know why you came here, I don’t know why you even said hello to me, but please, go!”

Jesus spoke quietly in his ear.  “No.”

Another wave of tears came over the whimpering fisherman.

“I see it all, Simon.  I see who you are.  I see who you’ve chosen to be.”

Simon’s eyes cleared for a moment, and he found himself staring into the eyes of Jesus.

“I see you, Simon.  You were meant for more than this.  More than being in bar fights or even fishing for musht.  There are deeper waters than these.”

Simon’s heart beat loudly in his ears.  He felt it thrumming in his chest, until his grief seemed to give way to something else.  He felt hope and fear swimming in circles within him.  He was afraid, for the second time today, that he just might do anything this man asked of him.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Jesus. “Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.”

Simon wasn’t sure what this meant, but he knew it was true.  After all, he’d just been caught.

He left everything, and followed Jesus.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Deeper Waters, Part One

It had been a long, frustrating night.  His own reflection in the water seemed to mock him, and he washed his nets in a sneering silence.  The sands shifted around Simon’s feet with each movement, and he let them slowly become entrapped as he worked.  It felt good to be locked in like that, and the sand was cool.  The shallows of the sea lapped at his knees.  The sun had risen now, but remained diffused and hidden in morning cloud.  Its light was pale and yellow.

He had always prided himself on knowing how and where to detect the shoals of fish, knowing where they sought out the warm currents in the cool waters, and his pride had been insulted with each empty net.  In the hull of the boat, now resting in the shallows, was an empty bottle.  The ratio had been two or three swigs for each fishless net.  This was below average for such a night, and his brother, who had spent the long night watching him take those swigs, was thankful that a hangover wasn’t worsening an already sour mood.  

As the morning burned on and the sun rose above the haze, however, his mood did sour.  What did the souring was the crowd of people gathering at the shore.  Most of these people had camped there last night in anticipation of seeing a popular personality, an itinerant preacher that was amassing quite a little following.  He’d heard of him, heard stories about him, knew he was a cousin to the big-bearded baptizer his little brother had lately become enthralled with.  But he had given him little thought beyond a passing interest.  People always had to have a celebrity to idolize, a preacher to follow, a politician to worship.  This man seemed to be all three.  Ultimately, though, he was just another famous name, and his time would pass.

Simon lifted his head from his work on the net, and saw the man the crowd was gathered to see.  He did his best to make sure the preacher knew he couldn’t care less, and continued working on his nets with his back to the preacher as he addressed the crowd.

Andrew, however, was enthralled.  He stood staring, his nets absently hanging in his hands.  Simon was determined to make up for his brother’s lack of detachment with his own unswerving aloofness.

He heard the preaching stop for a moment, and heard footsteps sloshing in the water behind him.  He continued to feign ignorance, studiously minding a knot, until he felt a tap on his shoulder.  He rose from his knot and turned with a sigh, unlocking his feet from the manacles of the sand.

“Yes?” he said.  “Can I help you?”  Help was exactly what he was hoping not to give.

“Hello.  Yes, you can.  There are a lot of people crowding around here, and I think it would be easier for everyone to hear me if I could address them from your boat.  Perhaps you could put it out just a little and I can preach from there?”  He pointed to his right.

Simon huffed.  His little brother had sauntered over now, obviously eager to offer assistance.  

“Of course!” said Andrew.  “That would be fine!”  He ignored the look of death Simon shot him.

Simon stared down the preacher for a moment, still pretending not to know who he was.  “What’s your name?”

“I am Jesus,” he said.

“Jesus, I am Simon.”

“Simon.  You’re a good man,” smiled Jesus.

Simon harrumphed, and gave the slightest smirk.  “Come with me.”

Andrew scampered along next to the rabbi Jesus, as the three made their way to the boat.  

“Been fishing?” asked Jesus.

“All night,” answered Andrew.

“Catch anything?”

“Didn’t catch anything but a buzz,” Simon said with a sigh.  He always loved that line.

“Sorry to hear that,” said the rabbi.

Simon and Jesus climbed into the boat.  Andrew gave it a push and hopped aboard as it drifted from the sands.  Simon’s tired but able arms rowed the boat into place as Jesus stood with one hand on the mast.  

“Is this all right...?” Simon asked, intoning inwardly, “...your Majesty?”

“Perfect,” Jesus said with a smile.  He sat down to address the crowd as Simon dropped anchor.

As the preacher sat down to address the crowd, Simon noted a small scratch below the rabbi’s left eye.  Probably a parchment cut from studying his Torah too closely, he thought.

The preacher started to preach, and Simon allowed his tired thoughts to drift upon the water.    Rabbis, no matter how famous, consistently bored him.

His eyes were following a lone fish, which seemed to taunt him with the flick of its tail, when a phrase caught his attention.

“If your neighbour strikes you on your right cheek, don’t retaliate.”

Simon sniggered.  Another milquetoast rabbi telling men not to be men.  Just what we need.

Jesus turned to Simon.  “Help me for a moment, would you?” He motioned for Simon to stand as he himself stood.  

Simon was caught off guard, but tentatively came to his feet.  The boat rocked a little with his weight.

“If your neighbour strikes you on your right cheek,” the rabbi turned and whispered an instruction to Simon.  “Backhand me.”

Simon was taken aback with the instruction.  But with a nod from the rabbi, he feigned a slap across his face.  The crowd chuckled uneasily at the sight of the human boulder bullying the slim teacher.

“Don’t retaliate,” he said to the crowd.  “Turn to him your left cheek, also.”  He faced Simon squarely, and offered the other half of his face.

Simon held up a fist as if to strike him.  That’s when he noticed again that scratch under the preacher’s eye.  It wasn’t just a scratch.  There was some swelling.  A welt.  It was not so noticeable that the crowds of people could see it, but once he realized it was there, there was no mistaking it for what it was.  

This man had a black eye.  

Simon’s fist dropped.  His jaw dropped along with it.

This rabbi wasn’t giving this advice as an abstract idea.  He had actually done this.  Recently.  Probably within the last twenty-four hours.  He had been slapped across the face, looked a man in the eye, and offered him a free shot, without retaliation.

Simon’s head began to swim with scenarios in which a kindly rabbi could invite such abuse.  He stood there, his mouth still agape, when the preacher addressed him again.

“Thanks.  You can sit down again.”

Simon came to himself and sat down.  More scenes of a kindly rabbi facing down a slap in the face and punch in the eye came tumbling into his brain. With each scene, he felt a sense of awe for this little rabbi.  He remembered himself in the tavern the other night.  He remembered the black eyes he himself had administered to several patrons, and he remembered how such altercations usually began.  They began with his strength, his respect, or his honour being questioned.  His response of a swift fist was meant to ensure that his strength was displayed without delay.  But here was a show of strength, of respect, of honour, that didn’t raise a fist.  Rather, it raised his head.  

Simon listened, enraptured, to the rest of the sermon.  He couldn’t take his eyes off that black eye.  This was a man who had no lack of strength.  He was a man who was strong enough to offer his face to a pummeling and walk away the victor.  That black eye was a mark of authority that surpassed every tassel or gold-encrusted trinket worn by the highest of priests.  When the rabbi was finished, Simon sat still, cocooned in himself and his thoughts.


Simon snapped back to the world around him.  “Huh?”

“Thank-you,” the bruised man said.

“Oh.  Yes.  That’s alright.”

“Didn’t catch anything last night, eh?”

“No,” Simon said, slowly coming back to himself.  “Didn’t catch anything but a bu…  Nothing.”  His eyes were still trained upon the rabbi’s welt.

The rabbi smiled.  “Would you do me one more favour?”

Simon eyed him with a strange feeling in his gut.  He had a bad feeling his heart would have trouble saying No to whatever this black-eyed teacher would ask of him.  

The rabbi Jesus held him in an easy but unrelenting gaze.  “Put out into deeper waters.  Lower your nets for a catch.”

Simon smirked.  A great preacher this man may be, but a fisherman he was not.  “Sir, we’ve been working hard all night and caught absolutely nothing.  They’re just not out there today.”

The rabbi simply grinned as if he’d been fishing his whole life.  Simon grunted, and looked again at that black eye.  His suspicions were correct.  He couldn’t say No to that black eye.

“For you,” he said, pointing wryly at the preacher.  “We’ll lower the nets and see what we can find.”

He drew up the anchor.  “Come on, Andrew,” he said, “we’re going out for one more catch... for the preacher.”

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


“Ah, shit!  Another tear!  Dammit!”

Simon watched the hard-earned haul of fish disappear into the water as he attempted to pull them in, his powerful hands now powerless to gather in the multitude pouring out of the tattered net.

“I swear to God if the old man doesn’t get us some decent nets I’m gonna quit!  Dammit!”

“You know, you should have quit about fifteen times by now,” his brother said from behind him.

“Oh, shut the hell up, Andrew.”  Simon threw the frayed net, and four straggling fish, into the hull of the old boat and sat with an audible thud. His back was to his younger sibling, and Andrew watched his silently fuming brother.  Simon’s large frame always seemed a little larger when he was angry, with his hands resting childishly on his hips.  The wind tossed his dark hair about, giving to Andrew the apropos effect of his brother’s head being engulfed in a kind of black flame.  

The voyage back to the shallows was a silent one.  When the water was waist-high, Simon threw himself out of the boat, and stomped and splashed his way up the beach, the dark flame unextinguished by the water.

Andrew, still seated in the hull, had once again been left to clean up Simon’s mess.  He smiled sardonically and rowed in until he reached the soft thud of the shore.  He hopped out and pulled the boat partway into the sand.  Reaching inside, he carefully pulled out the net, and stood for a moment, watching the four fish take their last useless gasps.  He carried the net to the beach and sat, thoughtlessly fingering the frayed cords.  He did all of this silently and without complaint.  

He was used to his brother’s rants.  They came often and furiously, especially when he’d been especially venturesome at the tavern the night before, and was nursing a low- to- mid-grade headache.  Last night’s excursion to the tavern had been particularly venturesome, and had ended with a black eye for just about everyone but Simon, though he was definitely nursing his wrist today.  Andrew was fairly certain Simon’s headache was no mid-grade ordeal.  It was a throbbing, blinding penance inflicted on him by a body that was sick of being mistreated.

Andrew was patient with his brother, perhaps to a fault.  Though he was long past the age when the younger idolizes the older, Simon still held a place of honour in Andrew’s mind, like an heir to a throne.  Although the “throne” in this case was a struggling business and a leaky boat.  Besides that, Andrew was fairly certain that when the time came for Simon to ascend, he would gladly abdicate, and Andrew had some ideas about how to rescue the faltering kingdom.  The first idea involved spending significantly less of the earnings on alcohol.

But there was another, stronger reason Andrew was patient with his brother.  Her name was Adah.  She had been perhaps the most beautiful woman Andrew had ever known.  She and Simon would have been married 25 years today.

He remembered the first meal he had eaten with Adah as a member of their family.  He was  still quite young, no more than twelve, and it seemed to him that Simon had married into royalty.  He remembered Simon making a terrible joke, and Adah spitting her water through her nose.  She was very embarrassed, but kept laughing through her apologies with an ease that was completely endearing.   To a twelve year old little brother-in-law, she had become a legend: a gorgeous woman who blew water out her nose and laughed like an angel.  Perhaps she was a goddess.

Over the years, he heard much more of that laugh.  It was free and boundless and always betrayed her attempts at stifling it or being polite.  Sometimes she hid it behind her hand, but this only brought attention to her laughing, green eyes.  Her joy, so often, had been a perfect foil for Simon’s temper.

When she died, however, that joy did not become the stuff of consoling memories for Simon.  Rather, the lack of it became a constant reminder of all that he had lost.

Her death had been tragic, and unexpected, though slow and painful.  Such a disease rarely came to one as young and vital as she, but it had come nonetheless, and Simon became a widower at the age of thirty-five.  Simon had always been prone to moodiness and a simmering vexation, but it had been tempered nicely by his wife’s ease.  With her death, his capricious nature was tainted with something that turned it from an almost laughable quirk into something truly destructive.  Bitterness had taken hold of Simon somewhere deep in his blood, and, like the disease that took Adah from him, it grew with an alarming intensity.  Over the years he seemed to become an ill caricature of his worst traits.

Most distressing to Andrew was how Simon had lost his faith in God.  He had lost his faith, though not his belief.  He lost his faith the way a man loses faith in a friend who betrays him.  In such a relationship, the two may see one another from time to time, perhaps even exchange hellos and pleasantries, but the friendship is dead, lost forever to a dreadful silence.  To Simon, God was a faithless friend.  He went to synagogue and said hello, shaking God’s hand from a distance with a look in his eye that said, “Never again.”

Now, Simon had once again exploded over a matter which shouldn’t have mattered at all.  Andrew, lean and and still youthful despite the crows feet creeping into the corners of his eyes, watched his older brother, large and older than he should have been, stomp up the beach toward home.  He knew that the night would bring another adventure at the tavern.  He knew that he, Andrew, would need to watch over his brother, that he would have to remove Simon before he repeated the previous night’s story, or was tossed out by the management.  He knew that Simon would very likely take a swing at his little brother, and that by the time Andrew had brought him stumbling to his bed, Simon would be crying in his arms like a baby.

“I miss her so god damn much!” he would weep.

“I know,” Andrew would say.  “Get some sleep.”

Andrew thought of all of this in the space of a few seconds.  He sighed, and slapped his knees in a kind of concluding rite to his moment of contemplation.  Inspecting the worn twine of the torn net more closely, and certainly with much clearer vision than his brother, he quietly set himself to the steady work of mending.