by Jonel Abellanosa
He walked with his dignity intact towards the wooden ladder, the captain’s assistant on the boat’s deck waving his hand. He carried his rectangular bag others through decades had called a medical bag. The leather’s brown matched his felt hat and pants that showed two inches of flesh above his shoes, which seemed to push him with a mild discomfort. He was thirty-seven years old, but his unkempt sideburns and beard gave the illusion he was much older. His slight stoop ironically provoked suspicions that he had left a life somewhere, questions of whether he was a father or uncle persisting in each new place. No one else had ever seen him smile, but he was also never known to be angry. He was the constant object of taunts and ridicules, not because his presence was annoying. Even if no one saw him wear anything else, no one had complained either of body odors. Offensive smells from his person were exaggerated and false. He was never known to make himself the neighborhood’s burden, living, in the most recent life he left, in a small room with bathroom and toilet. He was always observed to pick up throwaways and trash, as though the ground transfixed his eyes along his quiet way. Townsfolk hated him for many reasons, like because inanimate things levitated in his presence.
The first time it happened in the most recent town of his new life was the noontime he had arrived. After disembarking the jeepney from the wharf, he ordered lunch. He was going to eat alfresco, in front of the eatery’s counter where tables and chairs were set up under yellow parasols. As soon as he sat and put on the plastic table, a porcelain plate of rice and a bowl of fish stew, two spoons and a fork on the next table rose and floated in the air. Two teenage boys were stunned, wide-eyed. When he saw the levitation, he picked up his leather bag and left, leaving his food untouched. After he crossed the unpaved road, the spoons and fork dropped to the table, horrifying the teenagers who left their food unfinished.
As much as possible, he’d minimize trips to the supermarket, buying supplies in bulk, hiring bystanders to carry home some bags. In another town, consumers raced out of the supermarket when bottles levitated. He had stopped going to church, for fear a levitation might panic churchgoers. In another life in another city, fleeing parishioners caused injuries after the gold-plated crucifix on the long table rose and floated in the air as the priest raised the host for consecration. When it became widely known his presence would cause things to float in the air, he began to suffer discrimination. If authorities didn’t step in, he would have suffered severely from attacks.
I remember the late afternoon when I approached him, extending my hand, sure he was aware of my presence as the discreet observer. In the center of the ancient temple’s ruins, in the citadel on a rocky outcrop, we exchanged a few words. He introduced himself as Malchus. He was thirty-seven years old. I asked him what he did for a living, as if I didn’t know.
“I’m a healer. A cursed healer, because people don’t want to be healed.”
The sky wrinkled with sunset’s pinks and blues. In the city below, Nazi soldiers unloaded trucks of ammunition and weaponry, set up command posts, machine guns on piles of sand-filled sacks.
One dawn he was summoned by the city’s co-censors. Water drawn from the second largest river was no longer adequate to supply a growing population. The drought had caused major sanitation issues that had contaminated existing water supplies. They had to build an underground structure that would bring water either through terracotta pipes or masonry conduits laid along a channel in a tunnel, driven into hillsides or mountains to tap aquiferous strata. The underground conduit would run more than ten miles to the city, the channel’s walls to be lined with carved tufa stones. They’re in a time constraint due to worsening sanitation problems in the city that had started making people vomit, disgorge diarrhea and fall sick with high fever. The earliest signs of an epidemic had claimed four lives. Their biggest temporal problem was the transportation of huge rocks from the limestone quarry more than fifty miles away.
Garbed in a white robe, Malchus turned to the direction of the quarry and closed his eyes. Masses had gathered to witness the feat, as Malchus’ power to levitate had stirred curiosity from all corners of the growing empire. Soldiers, stone masons and engineers at the quarry site were stunned speechless as humongous limestone blocks lifted one by one, following a trajectory in the air towards the aqueduct’s construction site. Hours later, the blocks started arriving at the collective gasps of onlookers. It wasn’t the first time I witnessed him display his power for public consumption and awe, but it was the most incredible example.
In a cafe in the Mediterranean city the Nazis occupied, he told me, while we sipped pleasing artistry from ground coffee beans, the story that found its way to the Gospels. He said that more than a century after he helped in building the aqueduct, he lived in the land of Abraham and worked as a servant of the high priest. In the night of deepest hums and darkest undertones, he went with the arresting party to the garden of Gethsemane.
“While soldiers tied ropes round the man’s body, one of his disciples struck and cut my ear with a sica. The arrested man asked the temple guards for permission to come near me, as I grimaced with pain. With his hands tied, the man picked up my ear and restored it in its place. He whispered one word to my healed ear. The word ‘heal’.”
It isn’t clear if he recognized me, discreet in the innermost circle of disciples, nor have I ever felt the need to ask. They called me the beloved apostle. He remained in the garden of olives as temple guards led our Lord back into the city behind the walls. He looked downcast in the merge of shadows, as if his guilt were measured in cups of bitterness. I remained like countless of the disciples, hidden in a dark patch the full moon cast on the ground. My fascination felt like a skeletal tree sprouting leaves.
In another dawn of another century, another town woke to the ghostly sight of a park, which didn’t exist prior to that moment. Its visual and magnetic prominence came from its circumference of benches carved into perfect shapes from boulder stones. Pink and light violet wisterias stood in familiar places, surprising no one, but the ground was now covered with well-trimmed grasses. The speechless people, like wraiths in the early morning mist, touched the stone benches with measured reticence, sat and pressed palms against smoothened surfaces. Children and their animals looked surprised, as if they moved about or stayed put in a dream.
When lucidity of mind returned, they questioned each other, unanimous they had no idea where the benches came from, how the ground became a carpet of grass. The place now looked like a park. They remembered their wish to build a place where they could while in leisurely manners, memorialize the day of the sun, which they revered in places of worship. They wished to give children and animals a playground, a place of learning under trees.
It wasn’t long before they remembered Malchus, the thirty-seven-year-old man they chastised verbally, whom they taught their children to hate. The town’s laughingstock who kept to himself. The man who had to often run halfway towards home, to escape rocks and spittle, rotten tomatoes and banana peels. The man who had been wounded several times on the head, but whose wounds mysteriously vanished. He maintained a clinic of healing an hour’s walk away from his house, a place that in his decade-long stay only two families dared to visit. A daughter of one family was healed of incontinence, which she suffered since birth, her uncontrollable defecation often a source of family conflict. The father of the other family was rid of a huge lump in his chest, large as a ripe guava. He said Malchus removed the tender ball in his chest without causing any wound, without blood flowing. Their stories were met with ridicule. The two families were ostracized. Stories of levitations plagued the town’s peacefulness, accounts of carriages and horses rising to the air and floating in his presence making the rounds in angry gatherings. Several of the carriages were destroyed upon landing, several horses injured. This time the townsfolk were divided – others felt remorse and wanted to make amends. They were unanimous in deciding they should pay him a visit. They marched, hundreds of them, towards the limestone road, alongside which Malchus lived in a rented house.
They called for him to come out, promising not to hurt him. They just wanted to ask him about the park. Some of them thanked him aloud, apologizing for their ignorant cruelty, which provoked angry rebukes from those who still hated Malchus. Tension grew till they could no longer stop the strong urge to barge into the house. To their speechless shock, they couldn’t find him.
They searched the town for weeks, which turned into months, turning into years and decades. One day the story of Malchus became legend. Parents would use the story to scare children into obedience. Teachers would invent versions to make students study seriously, tales of murder and gore woven into its darker elements. I wandered back to this town centuries later, and found the tombstone in the park, in the center of the circle of stone benches, with these inscribed words:
Herein lies Malchus, healer
Builder of Dreams
He woke trembling, his naked body soaked, his breathing labored as though in his dream he chased or was chased. A shaft of moonlight through the window illuminated his thighs, the white blanket’s folds and creases casting shadows. He started sobbing, wiping his face with the back of his hands. He broke into a cry and buried his face in his palms. He mumbled syllables, the smell of saliva strong.
He turned and pulled what I thought was a large dagger from under the pillow. I was surprised at myself that I never noticed it before, the cunning deliberation he must have taken to hide it from me. I recognized it as the sica used to cut his ear at the garden of Gethsemane. The sica was the weapon of choice of the zealots during Pilate’s time as procurator of Judea, because it was small enough to conceal behind clothing, but the blade large enough to be fatal with just one wound.
I had to step out of the darkness to interfere. When he saw me, his cry became audible. He spent a long time in my embrace. I could feel his heartbeat, the sorrow that smoothed past his body’s serene limp.
When the sun peeped, I went out to buy ten eggs, two loaves of bread, a couple of chicken wings, red onions and garlic, potatoes and half a pumpkin the vegetable vendor cut in cubes. I used the small fireplace to make chicken soup. I diced the remaining garlic and red onions and cooked some omelets, sliced loaves.
He regained some strength after a few sips of chicken broth. He ate with verve. I told him I knew a place where he could continue painting his sunflowers, where he could draw in the peace of a floral wind and gentle sunlight.
That century, he discovered he had an innate artistic talent. It was the most tumultuous three decades of his life. I had to transfer him several times, find other places where he could regain peace of mind, as he developed this sudden and unpredictable urge to scream. It was scarier when his scream was soundless. He’d mention or mispronounce the name of Yeshua, several times calling, Raphael! Raphael! It was scariest when he held the sica while he cried. I never tried getting it from him. I’d sensed the danger I could create if I took by force the thing that seemed to hold him back. It was ironic, as I noticed that the more he gripped the huge dagger, the more he seemed in control of himself. He’d go for days without bathing. I had to shave his beard and sideburns. He’d be incoherent sometimes when I was forced to start a conversation, his smile wry, his eyes aslant as though he watched but saw nothing. He’d binge-eat for days, going to the marketplace and ordering grilled meat and bread good for five persons.
He hadn’t healed anyone for decades – the first time such a deficit persisted a long time. As if he couldn’t heal while producing art, as if he couldn’t produce art if he healed. Knowing his lives, I quickly noticed there were no taunts, no jibes, nor insults, verbal abuse, from others in this his life as an artist. No physical attacks and prejudice in the decades he wasn’t healing. Neighbors were friendly to him, city dwellers welcoming, townsfolk all arms and smiles. In moments he offered his healing touch, people hated him. When he stopped healing people loved him. As if healing brought a curse that paradoxically brought balance, which doesn’t explain his neurosis. With darkness and light setting equal footing in his psyche, he should be a stable soul.
When he was creating paintings and pastel drawings, he’d be at peace. I could hear a deep hum from inside him as he painted, something in his breathing shaping his art. He painted starry nights, an old mill, his own bedroom, a Café with a billiard table haunted by tormented souls. The man in white, in the middle of his painting, looked like the doctor who examined his mind, or the man looked like him. It wasn’t difficult to recognize his allegory of himself as his own healer. He’d write later in that life about, “how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside,” that he had become absorbed “in the immense plain against the hills, boundless as the sea, delicate yellow.”
As we agreed, he called himself Vincent, and called me Theo. My role in those decades was to be his brother, sending him money from a distance we agreed to maintain, so he could enjoy creating art without worrying how to pay rent and secure basic needs, able to buy what he needed to pursue a life dedicated to art. I’d send him art supplies like paints and brushes, easels and palettes, wooden frames and canvasses. I’d pay him a visit, so we could maintain the story we peddled in public without inviting suspicions. It was a very difficult life to live, keeping up with his sudden outbursts, keeping up with the constant change of address.
One night he severed his ear, and we had to invent the story that he was distressed upon learning I was engaged. That in a fit of rage, he cut off his ear because he worried over our relationship as brothers, prospects of losing the financial support I gave him.
In the century when a couple of big wars showed what humans are capable of, in the century when the world watched the most peaceful revolution in history powered by people of fortitude topple a murderous and corrupt dictatorship, a new phenomenon started showing related to the person or presence of Luis. We were in a mall, in the country’s most advanced city. He wore an Adidas jogging overall, a neon blue Nike jogging shoes. He was enjoying life like a ripe mango, uncharacteristic but welcome.
After seeing a healer, the bloody devastations and depravities in war fronts at the European theater, he just shut off one late afternoon, swearing he’d never heal again. More than four years I watched him embrace the wounded and maimed, before laying hands with prayer. He healed wounds with touch, but he couldn’t prevent countless deaths. I witnessed him evolve from crying to silence, and it took a very, very long time. To say by then he was a broken man would be centuries, if not millennia, late. Hatred from neighbors and others had returned full force, intensifying. The psyche is understandably burdened during wartime, people aren’t who they’re supposed to be when faced with existential crises. This requires infinite patience. A couple of times I had to spirit him posthaste to another place, as authorities had framed him from rumors of crimes he never committed. Countless times, his name had to be changed. For millennia I thought he as healer was stoic, assaults to and slanders against his person unable to move him. That his understanding of how things worked was itself a self-reinforcing sufficiency. It wasn’t physical attacks and brickbats that made him shut himself off. Something deeper made him decide never to heal again.
I reasoned with him that for thousands of years he’d remained faithful to the healing art, despite everything. His decision to stop healing would hardly change anything external, for sure, I said among so many other words, reminding him his power to heal is a gift – but the gift isn’t for him. As I noticed in a previous life when he didn’t heal for three decades, hatred against him was nonexistent, if not for the mind’s aptitude for recall. But I know him, and I refuse to believe he arrived at such a momentous life decision because of petty things. It must be the human heart’s capacity to harden after too much human-to-human depravities. I believed something snapped inside him beyond salvation.
Something I hadn’t witnessed had emerged. I suspected it had something to do with his newfound happiness. We rode the escalator to the third floor, where the most advanced gadgetry and smart toys enticed. The entryway was cavernous, flanked by digital boxes with magical sounds, sharp and flickering lights like bat eyes. As soon as Luis set foot in the arctic chill of technological advancements, cell phones and iPhones started ringing like a chorus of loud frogs on a rainy night. Lights flickered nonstop. I noticed no levitations, but electric keyboards, guitars, basses and drums played cacophonous notes. Panic wasn’t far behind, mall personnel failing to quiet down the chaos of lights and sounds. They pulled wires from outlets, unplugging everything they could find, but the fast-moving visual and aural confusion persisted, elevators up and down swamped with scared faces.
I noticed his crumpled brows in the taxi on our way home, anxiety he seemed to have mastered showing hints of resurgence. I knew better than to ask. I kept quiet and let it play out. Inside our rented house, he focused his gaze at the T.V., which seconds later came to life, History Channel showing an archaeology documentary. He went to the counter with the aquarium and pulled the plug from the power extender. The T.V. blacked out. He gazed at the T.V., gripping the plug’s connector in his palm. Seconds later the T.V. came to life, and then without the remote control, the channel changed from History Channel to Fox Channel to AXN to Foxlife. He rushed to his room, slamming the door shut behind him. I slipped through the wall and saw him crying, his face buried in his hands. I willed myself to vanish, to leave him alone.
One recent day, I noticed I’ve been misunderstanding Luis. Gaps and blanks attend to my evolving understanding of his new powers. I’ve been sinking for days in self-interrogation. Am I losing omniscience? I can still teleport myself at will, in an instant be where Luis occupies space in the illusions of time. But is my emotional attachment to his choices still as strong? No doubt I can still feel it when he’s about to do something, even if I’m halfway across the world.
The temptation to violate his mental privacy has become unbearable. I wonder if he has found a way of circumventing my stranglehold of his emotional and psychosocial makeup. I’ve been trying to figure out gaps I might have overlooked. I’ve been haunting this coffee shop outside the Basilica, engaging my selves in four-way conversations, alert to telltale feelings that signal a possible emotional turmoil confronting Luis some place else on the planet.
For days, I’ve been wanting to fly back to our birthplace in the Pleiades star cluster, spend some eternal moments reacquainting myself with my fellow workers for the universal good — Michael, Uriel, Gabriel, Saraqael, Raguel, Remiel and Sophia. I miss their versions of light and darkness, our conversations and intellectual mazes. It feels like a great expanse, a wheat field, this longing for their company. I still feel their presence as watchers holding me tight to my best virtues.
I miss my place at the table among equals. I miss them, my siblings who like me, have been tasked to shape God’s ongoing creative impulse, deployed in parts of the universe where we uphold the Divine Will. I’m grateful to have been given dominion over the planet Earth, a dying planet because of greed. Luis may only be one of my nurtured human apprentices, but he takes a lot of my time, a great portion of my concern reserved for his well-being, a good part of the story I’ll one day tell belonging to him. I’ve grown fond of him, like a biological brother. One day a couple of years ago he started calling me Martino, calling himself Luis.
I’ve no idea when humans will understand that goodness always prevails. I was walking on the busy street that led to the rotunda, when I caught sight of Luis walking towards the hospital’s entrance. I got worried if someone he loved was confined. I willed myself to become invisible.
I found Luis among the poorest. I remembered that he’d know my presence because of his powerful sense of smell. I should camouflage my presence, as I had an idea what he was doing, and I didn’t want my presence to make him fake his intent. I searched for rubbing alcohol, finding a stock in the nurses’ station. Still invisible, I bathed myself with the sharp smell.
It was a long time since extreme poverty and suffering shook me to my core. Most of the patients were asleep. There were only three stand fans, barely enough for patients to experience comfort. Some of the loved ones folded huge cardboards to use as handheld fans. I smelled leftovers in early putrefaction, foods untouched, drinking water starting to stale. Sufferings shaped countenances of others, who were there not as patients but as caregivers. There are hard lessons, suffering, unfortunately, the great teacher. I’ve been seeing this gathering of attendant souls, who might understand their times will also come. I couldn’t do anything, powerless against free will. Powerless when it comes to choice human beings make.
I felt my eyes shimmer, hints of tears souring my jawbones, when I neared Luis and saw him with eyes closed, his hand on the stomach of an old man. I wanted to hear his thoughts, but I knew he was praying for healing.
Jonel Abellanosa lives in Cebu City, The Philippines.His works have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Dwarf Stars and Best of the Net Awards. His poetry and fiction have appeared in hundreds of magazines and anthologies, including Agape Review, The Cape Rock, Muddy River Poetry Review, Chiron Review, Invisible City, The Lyric, The McNeese Review, and The Anglican Theological Review. His poetry collections include, “Songs from My Mind’s Tree” and “Multiverse” (Clare Songbirds Publishing House, New York), “50 Acrostic Poems,” (Cyberwit, India), “In the Donald’s Time” (Poetic Justice Books and Art, Florida), and “Pan’s Saxophone” (Weasel Press, Texas). He is a nature lover, with three companion dogs – Yves, Donna and their lovechild Daisy.