The Kindness Of His Eyes

“He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them.”  Mark 2:13

The city of Capernaum became a marketplace, crowded with people who came to hear the rabbi and those who sold both the necessities of life and some of its more sordid luxuries to them. The streets were lined with vendors selling bread, wine, figs, dates, pomegranates, and goat cheese. Men sold so many pieces of the rabbi’s robe that if the pieces had been sewn together more than a hundred men could have clothed themselves.

“It isn’t usually like this, brother” said Moshe happily, hefting the bag heavy with denarii. “May this rabbi stay for many weeks, and may he draw ever more customers to our humble fishing vessel!” He turned to the crowd of people standing on the shore. “We have no more, brothers and sisters! We will return later with a full boat, God willing.” His smile and bright countenance eased their disappointment.

Moshe placed the bag of coins in a small compartment under the oar lock of the fishing boat and he and Mordecai pushed the boat off the sand and out into the Sea of Galilee. “The Sea provides for the diligent” said Moshe. “We may be able to get in one more good catch before it gets too hot and the fish go deep for the day.”

Though only healed for four days, and a fisherman for three, though his knots were untidy and he poked the net-awl through his hand more often than the net, still, Mordecai gloried in the feel of the boat moving under his feet as he stood on the deck and directed the sail to catch the breeze. He had blisters on his feet, and callouses too! He was proud of his scars, proud too of the skills he had acquired, and shamefully pleased at the way the women looked at him as he walked home from work. Women’s eyes in all the years before the rabbi healed him held only pity. Except for one.

* * *

While Mordecai her husband fished, Abigayil his wife made bread. She arose with him, well before dawn, and by the time he left she had baked a stack of flat cakes of bread. Each time she pulled a cake warm from the fire she proved her worth, and her desirability. But the feeling didn’t last longer than the time it took to put the cake with the others, and she kept baking as though her life depended upon it.

She could not help but think of her husband and how he had changed since the rabbi healed his paralysis. Fishing made Mordecai strong, and he was so happy. He had always been a cheerful man but now some heretofore undiscovered vault of joy had been opened. “The rabbi, not I, has unlocked this part of his heart” she thought. This fact galled her even more than the women’s open admiration of her strong tall husband.

“He cannot swim” she said to the empty room. “He could have given him the gift of swimming while he was at it. It would show that rabbi something if the man he healed fell off the fishing boat and drowned.”

* * *

“Abi, come! The rabbi is speaking in a few minutes, down by the shore!” Sarah rushed into the room and pulled Abigayil away from her work table. “We can stand at the back, near the edge of the crowd. You’ll be safe there.”

“You assume I want to hear what this rabbi has to say. I do not.”

“Yes you do. Don’t you want to hear the man who healed Mordecai? They say he is the Messiah!”

“No I do not” said Abigayil. “I’m busy.” She slapped a ball of dough flat and threw it down on the table.

“Then keep me company” said Sarah. She took a towel and began wiping the flour from Abigayil’s hands and arms. Abigayil sighed. With Sarah there was always a line beyond which it was futile to argue. When Sarah had finished with her, Abigayil took her cane from its place against the wall beside the door and followed Sarah out the door. Sarah took Abigayil’s left arm in her right and they joined the crowd of people pushing down the street toward the Sea of Galilee where Jesus of Nazareth was to speak.

The sick, the crippled, the demon-possessed, and the desperate were drawn to the shore, hoping this rabbi might heal them with a blessing, a touch, or even a look. They had heard stories that were almost beyond belief, but to the hopeless even a straw is worth grasping, if there is nothing else to pull them up toward the light.

Abigayil watched them push their way toward the front of the crowd and resisted the urge to warn them of healing’s more unpleasant consequences. She let Sarah lead her to a place at the back edge of the crowd. She walked well with her cane but if pushed she fell easily, and it was difficult to stand up again with a right foot and leg that were largely useless.

The rabbi sat in a boat not far from shore. Abigayil saw him look up, then he stood and began to speak.

“Listen!” he said to the crowd. “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on shallow ground, and the seed grew but burned because its roots could not go deeply enough.”

Abigayil could hear her heart beat in the silence. She looked sideways at Sarah and saw tears welling in her eyes.

“What’s wrong with you?” whispered Abigayil. “He’s talking about farming.”

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear” said the rabbi.

‘This is it? I don’t need him to tell me not to sow my seeds on the rocks’ Abigayil thought with disgust.

The rabbi continued to speak, and finally Abigayil whispered “Come on, this is a waste of time.” She pulled Sarah’s arm but Sarah’s gaze was fixed on the rabbi. Abigayil shook her head, stepped away from the crowd and walked up the street toward home. She stepped over her doorsill and threw her cane against the wall. “I will have bread ready for sale when they tire of this messiah” she said.

* * *

Moshe and Mordecai leaned against the rail of the boat and listened. They were close enough to see drops of sweat run down the rabbi’s face and wisps of his dark hair blowing in the wind. When the rabbi finished speaking and sat down, they turned, raised the sail, and moved south, away from Capernaum.

They spoke only what was necessary to move the boat to a good spot and throw out the nets.

“Moshe, did you understand what he was talking about?” asked Mordecai, after the nets had been set.

“He meant that we should work hard, and wisely” said Moshe confidently. “Now, pull!” They pulled the net closed around the fish.

“Are you sure?” said Mordecai.

“No, not really” said Moshe. “Perhaps we should ask him. You could show him how well you’re doing.”

Mordecai shivered at the thought of meeting the rabbi. What could he say? It was as if he’d been given a new life.

Moshe and Mordecai pulled the net into the boat and picked the fish up by their gills and put them in baskets in the stern. When the net was empty they threw it out again into the water, working hard, and wisely.

* * *

The man who leaned his head into the doorway of Abigayil’s home was short, stocky, and comfortably handsome. “I was told I could buy bread here?” he asked.

Abigayil looked up. “Certainly, sir. How many would you like?”

“I need twenty loaves, if you have them.”

“Twenty! I have close to that now, but it will take some time for me to prepare the last few. Please come in and rest out of the sun while I prepare them.”

The man stepped over the sill and sat on a low stool next to the table. He folded his hands inside his robe, politely lowering his eyes. “I am with the Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. The twenty loaves are for his disciples.” He paused. “I have only recently been chosen as one of them.”

Abigayil stood up from the fire and poured the man a cup of wine from the clay bottle kept in a dark corner of the room, careful to avoid his eyes.

The man continued. “I was a tax collector in this city until yesterday. The Rabbi said ‘follow me’ and I followed” said Levi, for that was his name.

“Apparently no one can refuse him” said Abigayil evenly.

“No, you cannot!” said Levi.

“I was at my booth. It was midday, and hot, though I sit—sat—in the shade of my small tent. That was a good tent. My father gave it to me the last time he spoke to me. He was not proud of my profession, and once I took it he forbade me to come into his home. He said the presence of a tax collector made it unclean.” Levi spoke quickly and without rancor.

“My box was full of the morning’s collection. I separated it into two portions; one for the Romans and one for myself. That is how it is done, and I am sorry for it now.” He looked up at Abigayil. She leaned over the fire with her back to him.

“There were no travelers coming toward the city, so I took my midday meal from my pouch and began to eat. Some salted fish and bread. This is what I have for the midday meal every day except the Sabbath, when I have some figs and a bit of goat cheese as well.” He spoke quickly, as if he expected to be interrupted, or as if no one had ever cared to listen to the small details of his life.

“As happens more often than not, as soon as I began to eat a crowd of men came into the street. I recognized some of them—Peter, John, James, fishermen from this town. The rabbi walked with them. I had seen him before, from a distance—you can’t be in Capernaum without knowing about him and hearing what people say. He came up to my booth. ‘Follow me’ he said. That’s all. ‘Follow me.’” Levi paused. “So I got up and followed.” Pause. “I do not understand what happened at that moment but I knew then and I know it now that I am compelled to do as He says.” He looked at Abigayil, tending the loaves over the fire. “I believe He is the One the prophets spoke of, the Messiah, and He will deliver us from the heavy hand of the Romans.” Levi ignored the fact that up until the day before he had earned his living working for the Romans. “Have you heard him speak?” he asked.

“Yes” said Abigayil. “I heard him speak earlier today. About farming.”

Abigayil wrapped the twenty loaves into two packets of ten loaves each. “My husband believes also that this man is the Son of God” she said. “He was healed a few days ago of his paralysis and now earns his living as a fisherman.”

Levi looked at her. “This makes you sad.”

“Yes” she said, looking down at the loaves of bread. “Yes, I am sorry for it but I am… afraid. Nothing is as it was before and I do not like it.”

She put the two packets of bread on the table next to Levi the Apostle. “We must get you back to your rabbi” she said in a tone of voice that told Levi he was no longer welcome.

He stood so suddenly he knocked the stool backward onto the floor. He blushed and set it back upright. ‘I wish I were a different man, not so shy nor clumsy’ he thought. “Yes, thank you” he said to Abigayil politely. He gave her the denarii for his purchase, adding a few above the price, took the two packets of bread and left the house. He tripped over the sill on his way out.

Abigayil put the coins with the others in the bowl on the shelf, after counting them twice. He was not only handsome, but generous.

She returned to her work. Her crippled foot ached but she told herself to ignore the pain and work harder so that she might be desirable to her husband. Hadn’t Solomon said this was what was expected of her?

“I must work harder” she said, and laid two flat loaves near the fire to bake.

Her mind wandered to the tax collector, and she wondered if her house were now unclean, as his father had believed. He was a former tax collector; was that enough? She hoped so. His eyes were so kind. And she was so scared.

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