Jonathan Chesterton burst from the house, angry tears coursing down the boy's cheeks, spotting his blue blazer. "Damn him," he thought. "Damn, damn, damn him to hell," he gasped. "I ... I wish he were dead. That wouldn't bother him, though. He's as cold as death now. Always right. An ice cube ... a bleeding ice cube for a heart. He doesn't love me. And ... and he didn't love mother. He didn't even cry when she died."
The boy walked to the edge of town and stood on the shore of a pond skipping stones, shedding tears, speaking hard words.
He jumped when a hand touched his shoulder and a black shirted clergyman spoke his name. "Jonathan," he said, "your father will be looking for you."
* * *
Mohammed ben Sheik slid a worm over the hook. His hair was as white as the fat puffs of clouds that raced overhead. But his eyes were clear and his fingers surprisingly nimble for a man who would soon be three quarters of a century old. He worked the worm up the hook deftly and cast the line to his left, sat down and looked over at a tall, middle aged man with the remarkable name of Flaccus Chesterton. Both men sat on the grass of the river bank beneath a large willow. The sun, low in the east, but now beginning to rise, slipped random shafts of light through the branches. A breeze stirred. It was a good morning to be alive.
At least Mohammed Ben Sheik thought it was. The breeze washed over his body like water and delighted him. It bore with it the scent of morning glory and mint. The sun played on the ripples of the water. The morning was a gift from the Almighty and the Arab's heart rejoiced that even at seventy-five he was able to embrace such a gift.
However, the Englishman, newly come to America, shifted over and over as if buried beneath the grass were the fabled pea which once annoyed a princess. He wore a frown on his face. Finally he spoke.
"Cannon Wallace sent me to you. He instructed me to ask you to tell your story. I do not understand." Pride and sorrow struggled on his face. Finally pride conquered. "And I came to you and you asked me to meet you here this morning. And I am here and you are here and you are fishing. Damn fool waste of time if you ask me. So what is this story Mr. Sheik?"
The Arab smiled: "A bit like dipping in the Jordan seven times, is it?"
Flaccus Chesterton rocked on his fanny, shifted his fanny and finally leaned back against the willow, sighed and sat still.
The Arab began to speak.
"When I was a boy the Iman of our village praised me above all the other boys of the village. By the age of fifteen I had memorized the 114 Sura of the Koran. I was, the Iman told my parents, destined by Allah for great things. And so I thought I was.
"My father was a rug merchant and he trained me to manage the business. He did not regret it. Whatever I touched turned to gold. 'By the blessing of Allah', my father would say, 'I have had this son. And by his hands I have become the wealthiest man in this village.' "
"When I was twenty I made my pilgrimage to Mecca. And by that trip my mind was steeled: I would do the will of Allah day by day, moment by moment.
"And so I sought to do. I married and my wife, God rest her soul, bore me three sons. I taught them to read. I schooled them in the Koran. I took them to Mosque each evening during Ramadan where we could reflect upon the will of Allah. Regularly I taught them daily submission to the will of Allah.
"It was when my eldest son was twelve that my mother was widowed. My father rushed from our store after a customer. In his haste he did not see a car driven by a tourist. And he was struck. For fourteen days he lingered, coming in and out of consciousness. I would sit by his bed and consider the wretchedness of the heathen tourist, and read to my father from the Koran. I would read of the future blessedness of paradise. At first my father responded well, but as the time approached he would demand: 'Where is Allah now? What does he know of my suffering? What does he know of any suffering?' I did not speak of this to anyone. It was a thorn in my heart. But my mother, on the day my father died, overheard.
"And the questions haunted her. She could not eat, she could not sleep, she could not pray. But one night she slept. And she dreamed. And in that dream she saw John the Baptist. He is a great man to the Muslim, a prophet. And John said to her: 'Follow Him to whom I bear witness.' And my mother pondered this, though with more peace than she had had for weeks. And, she became a Christian."
Flaccus Chesterton sat and a breeze blew his hair across his forehead. His face was distinguished by thick, sun lightened, brown hair, sea green eyes, high cheek bones and ruddy cheeks. He was an elegant looking man. He was tall, seventy-six inches tall, lithe, his form carried with pride, his face frozen with the same. But just now the face had begun to thaw. He looked to the Arab, his interest peaked in spite of himself. He waited for him to continue.
But Mohammed did not notice. His hands tightened on the pole and his face struggled with a great sorrow. His eyes peered deep inside himself. Tears traced his face.
And then his bobber disappeared. The pole was bent to the water. The Arab returned. And stood and reeled. For two minutes he stood there playing the fish, reeling and letting the fish run.
And then, bursting from the green water, her dark green body twisting, her mouth agape, falling into his net was a great bass, at least twenty inches long. The fish was swollen with roe.
Gently he took her, thrashing in his hands. And he murmured to her: "oh, it was not you I was after. And yet, here you are. In my hands. And what shall I do with you?" And with those words his hands eased out the hook and he placed the fish back into the river.
He reached for another worm, baited the hook and cast the line.
"My mother had become a Christian, and not a timid one at that. She came to me and before my sons spoke to me of Jesus - God's Son she called Him. But I refused to hear her. I remember only that she said this: 'He knows our suffering, and He shares it.'
"But those words were not enough. My heart burned. My mother had became a heathen. I stopped my ears and sent her from my home. I went to the Iman. In smoke and fire, I went. And my fury focused on this woman who had once been my mother. 'Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar' I repeated over and over as I walked to the Iman's dwelling. 'God is great, God is great.'
"When I arrived he opened the door, but I would not enter until he answered my question: 'Does not apostasy bring with it death?' His eyes narrowed and he hissed: 'Yes.' I then entered the house and told him the whole matter.
"Within 3 days my mother was dead. But I did not care. She had broken faith. And Allah, the giver of the law, and the sender of the prophet was avenged."
The Arab sat silent. He was short and stocky, his face the color of an acorn. His clothes were sturdy, clean, wrinkled. He was not an elegant man. But around his eyes were deep lines that betrayed great suffering. And in his eyes was the light of wisdom. His posture spoke humility.
A breeze flickered and the Englishman felt it. He stirred, breathed deeply. It was fresh, scented. It gave him, ironically, joy. And the sense of irony that he, in the midst of this dark story, knew joy, only sharpened the strange poignancy of that joy.
The still green water about the bobber stirred. The bobber dipped beneath the surface and then returned. The Arab reeled it in. The worm was gone. "So, you are nibbling, my little one. Let us see now if we can catch you." He reached for a worm, slid it up the hook, cast and resumed his story.
"My father's business became mine, and in my hands the hard blossom I had already coaxed from the stem - this blossom bloomed. Indeed, after five years the stem had become a tree and it was covered with blossom. I had become the wealthiest man in all my country. And next to the Iman I was the most respected man in our village.
"My sons became grown men. The oldest one married. And to my great joy he determined to help me in our business. I became a grandfather. The blessing of Allah had filled my house. It ran like water - and the water flowed from a fountain too deep to ever end.
"But in the center of this golden blessing a dark spot formed. Like rust it began to nibble. I hardly knew its coming. But within a year of the birth of my first grandson there was at the center of my life a great hollow, and beneath my golden joy was a pain that never lifted. It was a pain that spoke of emptiness and whispered of a god who was not there, of a prophet who was deceived. It was a pain that accused me of being a whitewashed tomb.
"Of course I would not hear this. The voice of my heart I muted with great business. And on those days when I went to reflect in the Mosque I would busily recite the Koran and seek any failure on my part. I could find none. But one word I could not mute. Garbed as I was in my golden well being I could not suppress my father's question: 'Where is Allah when we suffer?' "
Suffering - there was that word again. It pressed itself into Flaccus Chesterton's mind. It placed itself beside the one word that had driven his life: duty. And now it made him uncomfortable. And this thought accompanied and increased his discomfort - not that he had suffered, but that he, in the pursuit of duty, had made those about him suffer. The Arab resumed his story.
"It would be interesting if I could tell you of a great shattering that followed. But that is not so. For me there was no sudden light at the gates of Damascus.
"What happened was that my certainty, my pride in myself was eaten away bit by bit. And one day 1 opened a box containing my mother's belongings. In it was a New Testament. I took it - there was no command to do so - I simply took it and read Paul's letter to the Romans.
"And when I had finished my heart gave up the ghost of my old life. I saw my righteousness as tattered rags, unfit to appear before the Glory and I knew with a certainty that the goodness I needed to appear before his Majesty must come to me as a gift. I surrendered to the Lord whose goodness was his suffering. To the One whose goodness counted for me.
"Secretly I went to an Armenian priest and was baptized. It was a strange and humbling thing to go to the Armenian, perhaps as strange as it seems to you to be listening to me.
"Anyway, it was after the baptism that I knew what true joy was - joy that did not depend on my worldly goods, or on my goodness."
Flaccus Chesterton's eyes blurred. He shifted. Tears lined his cheeks. And the pride of 40 years fell like thawed ice to the ground. He did not know what to say. He was ashamed. He stared into the water and saw the bobber disappear.
"I think you have a fish."
The Arab reeled and a fine bluegill broke the surface. He took it from the hook and put it on a line.
"Yes, yes," he said, "this is what I have been after." He laid the pole down and continued.
"When I returned home I found the doctor at the house. My wife had been taken with a fever. The doctor gave her medicine and then left. But the medicine was not enough. She had, I now suspect, burst an appendix. But in the three hours that she lived I spoke to her of Jesus. In three hours she came to know what had taken me years to know. And she went from me with joy. I baptized her myself, not knowing what else to do. And when I had finished she spoke her last words. "He is with me. In my suffering, He is with me." And the she died.
"My wife", the Arab sighed, "how I miss you, you who were bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, you who bore my sons, and for all those years bore the weight of my pride and yet loved me."
This was too much for Flaccus Chesterton. He rose to his feet and great sobs tore his body. He leaned against the tree and put his hands to his face.
"Oh, Jesus", he sobbed. "Oh, Mariam." He gasped. "Jesus, Lord, Jesus, Jesus. Oh, my dear Mariam.
The Arab rose and placed his hand on the Englishman's shoulder. Together they stood and wept. And when they were done the Arab sat with the Englishman on the bank of the river, baited the hook and cast it. He gave it to the now silent man and spoke: "Now, you are ready to learn to fish." And then he took up his story again.
"The funeral was the tricky part. I had the Armenian priest bury my wife. My sons were horrified. I explained to them as best I could. But when the funeral was over I knew that I must flee. And so I came to America."
"Your sons - what of them?"
"Two of them - they are very wealthy. They now are the rug merchants. And the youngest one, well, he lives in Arizona. He too fled for his life, God be praised."
They sat there for an hour in silence. The Englishman caught several fine bluegill. Then the Arab looked at the Englishman.
"Do you understand what I have said to you?"
"Be a fisherman, then. Go home to your son."
Faces marked with pain appeared to Flaccus Chesterton as he walked home, and incidents shaped and powered by his pride. He remembered his wife, his son, those who worked for him. And his heart was ground to powder. But as he walked this thought also occurred to him: "It took an Arab named Mohammed to teach you of Jesus." And in this thought the strangeness, the goodness, the mercy of God were revealed. And Flaccus Chesterton took heart. And he knew joy. And as he neared his house he laughed until he cried.
Mike Frank © 1993
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