Friday, April 08, 2011

Old Nets

The nets were old, almost as old as the boat they sat in, and the boat seemed to hum a grandfatherly song as it rocked and creaked in the shallows.  John set a young hand on the greying wood of the mast, felt its smooth, worn grains and cracks beneath his fingers, and pondered a strange day.  A strange and beautiful day.  And it was only a few hours past noon.  

It had begun with a sermon from the seashore.  That in itself was not terribly unusual, but the crowd grew large enough that the rabbi had preached from a boat.  It was a sermon that stayed with him.  It was a strange sermon about a kingdom, and repentance, and there had been something about not having to worry about tomorrow.

He considered this as he watched the other hired men gathered at the shore.  They were sorting through a haul of fish that rivaled anything John had seen taken in by a fleet of fishing boats, let alone the two meager vessels that made up this struggling company.  The haul was miraculous indeed, but it was probably as much a miracle that the ancient boats had made it back without sinking.  Zebedee’s sons, John and James, had been in partnership with the other brothers, Simon and Andrew, for some time now.  Their struggling businesses had found one another like two cripples with complimenting handicaps, each helping the other to walk just a little farther.

The simpler days of a man building a boat and taking some nets to make a living lay dead in the ground with their dear old granddad, whose boat they now sat in.  Low yields of fish and constant boat repairs were hurting them.  Taxes and tariffs were killing them.

And so, the partnering of James and John with Andrew and Simon was a tenuous and somewhat strained relationship, but a necessary one.  Andrew was reliable enough, and had some keen business sense that had been a great help to Zebedee and his sons, but his brother was another matter.  Simon was a decent fellow, most often.  Reliable to a point, until he needed a drink, and an affable fellow until he had one.  After that he was nothing less than an ornery, disagreeable sonuvabitch.  But to be in business with Andrew was to be in business with Simon.  Thus they had survived a difficult few seasons, and thus they hoped to survive a few more.

“John, this one’s tangled to hell.”  

James, John’s older brother by four years, handed John the mess of a net.  He was never good with such intricate endeavors as detangling.  His hands were adept at casting and pulling and hauling, but they, like the rest of him, were a little too pudgy for finer work.  He set himself instead to what he thought was the simpler work of repairing frayed nets.

John felt a swell of gratefulness for that frayed net, and the strange intuition of the itinerant rabbi.  The old nets, like the creaking boats, had held together.  Miracle number three, John thought, and remembered that line about not worrying about tomorrow.

He looked upon the scene around him, from the bustling shore to the boat in which he stood.  His brother sat across from him, already completely occupied with his net.  Behind James, his back turned to them and his face to the sea, was his father, ever-present, though often quiet.  It was easy to forget he was there sometimes, and John realized he had just now, in fact, done this.  Zebedee’s head, grey-rimmed and bald, was bowed, his hands engaged in an unseen task.  It somehow gave him a certain look of holiness, as though he was in the midst of a deep prayer.  John smiled to himself at this, as his father, though faithfully religious, was far from holy.

He returned his eyes to the task at hand, and sighed deeply at the tangled mess of his net.  This would take a while.  Somewhere in the center of those tangles he saw some movement, and realized there was one last musht tangled up in the center of it all.  He suddenly felt queazy.  

Sometimes, a thought seems to come from the pit of a man’s stomach, a truth that rises up from the place of his appetite, and it’s too true for a stomach to handle.  For John, it was the thought, the truth, of that feebly flopping fish in the center of the net:

That’s me.

John was still a young man, just nineteen years old.  He had had grand thoughts about how his life would be.  But with each compromise of practicality, of necessity, a net had been drawn more tightly around him, and the dreams of youth had slowly but inevitably been given over to the realities of staving off poverty.  Zebedee and his sons were not yet poor, but this had only remained so with great effort.

These thoughts entangled him, until he heard a terrible wail and moan rising from the beach.  He looked up to find the fourth miracle of the day.  He was almost getting used to these miracles, but what he saw now was something on par with the parting of the Red Sea.  Simon, their friend and partner in the fishing business, their friend because there was no word for someone who you simply didn’t want for an enemy, was wiping snot from his dripping nose and wailing in the arms of the rabbi. Simon, who had knocked precisely four teeth from three mouths at the tavern a few nights ago, was crying like a toddler.

“James.”  He elbowed his older brother and pointed.  “Look.”

“Hooooly…” James trailed off.  “What is going on there?”

“I don’t know,” John responded in a kind of wonder.  “He’s not drunk.  At least he wasn’t ten minutes ago.”

On Simon’s third drifting moan, their father turned and looked as well.  His lips parted and his brows furrowed.  “What in the hell?” he said.

Simon and the teacher stood, Zebedee and sons unabashedly staring at the scene. The teacher’s hands were on Simon’s shoulders, and he seemed to be telling him something of great importance.  They embraced, and the teacher and the fisherman began walking along the shore toward James and John and their father.  Simon was recovering in sniffs and sharp breaths.  They drew near, and the teacher, Jesus, gave them a wave.   It was a wave less childlike, though no less innocent, than the one they’d gotten from him while they were out on the lake earlier that day.

They were, indeed, both bemused and amazed by the man.  He had preached that morning about repentance and a kingdom, and his words had stayed with John like a new song.  Something about his words, and the man himself, was like an invitation.  Even his exuberant wave was an invitation to joy, and even now he couldn’t help returning it with a smile.  He and James waved back.

“Why don’t you come, too?” the teacher called.

John’s heart leaped into his throat and began to pound madly, though he didn’t know why.  But his heart knew, and it was pouncing like a dog at the door when its master is near.

“Us?” John called.

“Yes, both of you.  Come with us.”

“Come where?” James asked.

“To follow me,” Jesus said simply.  “To be my disciples.”

John laughed.  “Are you serious?”

“Of course.  You’re both good fisherman.  Follow me, and you’ll be catching people.”

It sounded like a feeble joke, but John’s heart knew it wasn’t, and that heart was still thrashing at the door.  

John looked at the tangled net at his feet, the fish in the center of it now gasping for its last breaths.  He looked from the net to his brother, who stared back with a look of alarm on his face.  He looked from his brother to his father, who was now standing there with his hands on his hips, sweat dripping from the dome of his pate.  His father, the quiet man, held his eyes with a squint.

“You should go.  Both of you.”

John thought he knew his father well.  This surprised him.  Miracle number five.

“But the…  the fish, the business…,” John stammered.

His father dismissed this with a wave.  “You think I didn’t hear his sermon this morning?  You think I didn’t see the looks on your faces while you listened?”

John and his brother were silent.

Their father lifted his hand toward the fish on the shore. “I think we got enough to see me through for a while.  I can hire an extra hand or two.  I know you, John, and I know there’s more to your soul than a fisherman’s son.  There’s some kind of light in there that’s more than I can reckon.”  He turned his eyes to James, the elder.  “You need this, too, James.  You’re a good son.  But there’s something greater in you that you haven’t found yet.  I think you can find it with this man.  I’d be proud to have the both of you go with him.”

James opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t find a word.  John couldn’t either.

“I love you, boys.  Go on.”

James and John shared a look that said everything it needed to say.  John took his knife from his belt, began to slash a line through the middle of the tangled mess at his feet, and in a moment the net was tangled no more.  He reached in and his hands found the fish, barely alive as it was.  He drew it from its confinement, and tossed it gasping into the open water.  It darted away with surprising speed.

The day was strange and beautiful, and the nets were old.

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