“Bethesda” connotes a place of healing and mercy – but I could never see the logic of it, myself. In the Gospel of John, verse 5, the eponymous Pool of Bethesda was a place where miracles were strictly rationed, where only one customer could win a miraculous healing, by being the first to make a splash when an angel troubled the water. That never made much sense to me, partly because it seemed like the one who could hit the water first would be the one who least needed healing. And what about the rest of the poor sods, the also-rans? The whole idea hardly seemed fair, or kind; in fact, it felt downright cruel. My opinion of that particular passage of the Bible follows, in fictional form.
Well, folks, it’s a beautiful afternoon
down there on Earth, beside the pool of Bethesda –
sun shining, not a cloud in the sky.
And I gotta say, it looks like a really
exciting bunch of competitors we’ve got today, too,
lots of newcomers as well as
good old crowd-pleasers
hunched and twisted under the arches,
waiting for the race to begin.
First crip into the water gets healed!
The great viewing stand hangs in the air between Heaven and Earth, hidden from mortal eyes behind the blue of a perfectly clear sky. The latter effect is either a miracle or something to do with ectoplasm-catalyzed refraction; whatever it is, it works like one-way glass. The immortals remain invisible while having an excellent view over the Sheepgate and the porches surrounding the pool of Bethesda, and beyond them to the rest of the noisy, noisome conurbation of Greater Jerusalem. The I AM is not in the viewing stand, but He does not need to be, since He sees all things. No doubt He will be watching from wherever when the time comes. Gabriel and Asmodeus are already lounging in the archangels’ private enclosure, Michael is wafting in that direction to join them, Lilith is directing the lesser angels and demons to their places and making sure they all have programs.
Below, amid the arches of the colonnade, the competitors sprawl on their bits of bedding or sit propped against the hard stone. The sighted are watching the still pool with varying degrees of hope and despair, while the blind are listening for the smallest lapping of water. Some of those waiting around the pool are not actually infirm, but are able-bodied friends and relatives who keep certain competitors company through the long days of waiting, always hoping to render physical assistance at the crucial moment. They have already proven their worth in the early morning struggle for places; many of the suffering who occupy advantageous spots near the pool’s edge are those with strong-armed brothers or virago mothers, able to push the weak and unprotected out of the way.
In fact the early morning scrum has been carefully watched, to help in drawing up the form sheets. Today, the best judges of form are all talking up Simeon the Pegs, second-runner by the merest tip of a stump in the previous race, strong enough to make the course without assistance, and clearly hungry to win this time around. But one of the newcomers, Miriam of Hyrcania, also has the punters talking; it is not actually she but her child who needs healing, and the woman is fast on her feet, good with her elbows, and well prepared to intimidate the cripples. Then there is the eagerly anticipated performance of Matthias “The Snake,” always a great hit with the crowd; plus the good old standbys Susannach the Footless, Mad Manny, Old Abdiggan and the one known in Bethesda simply as Twitcher, plus a host of others. Altogether, it looks like being a splendid race, with a number of potential dark horses to keep it interesting.
And it will begin at any moment, at the Duty Angel’s discretion. A hush falls in mid-Heaven as the punters wait and watch and weigh, assessing the field, deciding on their favourites. Susannach, or the orphaned boy with scoliosis? The beautiful blind maiden, or the ulcerated widow with two hungry children sharing her mat? Twitcher or The Snake? The hydrocephalic baby with the well-muscled father, or Old Abdiggan, who is hiding leprosy beneath a tattered blanket? Nor is it entirely a disinterested debate—many who might wish well to The Snake, for example, would still not wish him to win, because then he would never have to race again, and he really is most entertaining.
And now, slowly and very deliberately, conscious of its dignity, the Duty Angel is beginning its descent towards the waters of the pool far below. The actual moment of troubling the water has to be carefully chosen, and could yet be a long time off. The Duty Angel will often hover above the pool for hours, waiting for a suitable diversion to attract the eyes of the hopeful—otherwise, the first tiny ripples will produce such a rush that all sport will be lost. On the other hand, it is not a good idea to allow any kind of pattern to emerge. The racers are crippled, not stupid. For a while earlier in the century, any sign of an apparent diversion would send half of them plunging into the pool willy-nilly, long before the Duty Angel got anywhere near to troubling the waters. Nowadays, the Heavenly Racing Commission works on the principle of irregular reinforcement: sometimes a diversion, sometimes not, just to keep the competitors off-balance; and the days on which the Duty Angel descends are also carefully randomized.
The time is approaching mid-afternoon, and the sun has driven many of the competitors back from the pool’s edge into the shade of the arches. Ironically, this has pushed some of the weakest out of the shade into what will be quite good positions for a fast plunge into the waters if sunstroke does not get to them first. Quite a few of the competitors are sleeping now, lulled by the heat. Silence and gentle snoring have replaced the quarrels and conversations of mid-morning, the few jokes and the many complaints. Nothing, of course, not even sleep, can interrupt the moaning of those in chronic pain, the periodic shrieks from the acute cases.
But not everyone is asleep. Miriam of Hyrcania sits awake with her back against a pillar of the south-side colonnade, her baby muffled in a light cloth in her lap. Until the child is healed, she will allow nobody but herself to see his little face. The shocked inbreaths, the bright compensatory talk, the furtive glances that are worse than frank stares, these all pain her too much on his behalf. It is for his sake that she has left her husband, abandoned her other children, and walked all the way from Hyrcania to sit with him under the stone arches of Bethesda. Sleeping, he snuffles like a piglet through his incomplete nose.
Simeon the Pegs, tough old soldier that he is, has managed to secure his usual patch of territory on the narrow colonnade that runs down the centre of the pool. Both his legs end just above the knee. His mere survival should have been enough of a miracle to last him a lifetime, but he is greedy for another. Last time he came so close, so close. For the thousandth time he surveys the competition, weighing their chances against him and hating them all.
Twitcher has the palsy; was born with it, has lived with it nearly twenty years, will die with it unless someday he manages to win this race. He is too palsied to speak much, but he does indeed have a name: Calphas of Hebron. His relatives dump him in the morning and haul him away at dusk; meantime he lies on his pallet and twitches so violently that the others tend to give him a wide berth, which is useful for not getting stepped on or picked on. He has just wakened from a dream of being tall and clean-limbed, like his brothers, rambling in a flower-strewn field with a pretty woman—unfortunately, what has wakened him is the stench from his own napkin, a stench he and his neighbours must live with until the evening. Jerking in great body-wide spasms, he watches the water and tries to remember the woman in his dream.
The hydrocephalic baby dies quietly in her father’s arms. The father, dozing, does not notice. Miriam of Hyrcania does notice, and thinks: Good – one down.
Mad Manny is not so much mad as brain-damaged. He was hit on the head by a toppling chunk of masonry in the Siloam Tower disaster, and now he speaks barely better than Twitcher, is prone to fits of weeping and outbursts of rage, and has a permanent and unsatisfiable dripping erection. He begins weeping now in huge gasping bellows of grief, rather too loudly for his neighbours’ comfort, until one of the able-bodied wakes up and threatens him with a fist. Manny continues to weep after that, but he weeps without noise.
Susannach the Footless actually does have feet, but they are no more than twisted spurs of bone angling off from the ends of her legs. Jacob of Kidron, groaning beside her, has an abcessed infection that has eaten away much of his lower left jaw, and delivers exquisite pain from the touch of his own breath blowing through his mouth. Sarai from the Bethlehem Gate is an acute case brought crosstown by desperate relatives, stinking gangrene spreading up and down her left leg from a compound fracture of the femur. Without a miracle, she might last through the evening, but certainly not until morning.
And so it goes, every heap of rags hiding a dream of wholeness, a rage to be the one. The program that Lilith is distributing enumerates the following:
- four acute cases, including two advanced septicaemias, one strangulated hernia, and the girl with gangrene;
- four birth defects, various;
- four cases of cerebral palsy;
- five lepers;
- six certifiable lunatics;
- seven hemiplegias/paraplegias, various origins;
- seven withered limbs, various;
- nine epileptics;
- ten cases of blindness, including four trachomas and six of miscellaneous origins;
- twelve lung cases, including five cases of consumption and seven of various forms of pneumoconiosis;
- twelve skin diseases, including boils and itching rashes;
- twenty-four other, including arthritis, scoliosis, spinal tuberculosis, organ failure, dental abcesses, growths, goitres, cancers, major burns and scarring, stroke damage, heart weakness, deafness and the results of miscellaneous trauma injuries, including loss of one or more limbs.
Up in the viewing stands, anticipation rises like smoke from an altar. As the moment approaches, many of the immortals are keeping eager eyes on The Snake; the poor bastard is no more than a torso with a head at one end and genitals at the other, but my, how fast he can wriggle! He has strong teeth, too, which he uses to great effect, and twice in the last year he has come close to winning the prize. Here and there in the viewing stand, wagers are being laid—but the viewers, to be honest, are mostly here to enjoy the scrimmage, and do not give a toss who wins.
Afternoon passes its peak, but the Duty Angel decides no diversion is needed—the dulling, crushing, soporific heat has become diversionary enough. Most of the competitors are open-mouthed and sweating in unrestful stupor; even the wakeful are teetering on the edge of unconsciousness. Two of those lying unprotected in the sun are dead. Others have added second-degree sunburn to the ailments of which they wish to be healed. The Duty Angel floats a hair’s breadth above the surface, watching for just the right moment to dabble its toe in the water…