A little love story for all the untouchables out there. Truly, who among us has not felt so?
It was not hope that moved the afflicted one to walk the many miles of roads to the city’s outskirts. Hope had given way long ago to quiet anger, then to depression, and then – in a way that seems inevitable for all afflicted beings, when the unbearable weight of loneliness and shame surpasses the finite strength afforded each human – resignation. No, it was not hope that moved him, but desperation.
It was early that same morning, light still pending, as he scavenged through the city’s leavings, that he overheard a conversation between two young men. Fulfilling a perpetual obligation to hide his marred appearance, he stood in the shadows and listened as the two argued. Their disagreement was over the presence of a visitor to that town – one feeling the visitor was a devil, while the other argued that the two ought to go and see the man, at very least to satisfy curiosity.
They walked on, debating as they went, and they were followed by dozens, eventually hundreds more. Men and women and whole families streamed through the shadowed view of the afflicted one, and much as conversation about the visitor’s intentions dominated the air, what captured his attention more than anything was the nature of this crowd – many pained, many in want, many shrouded in sadness.
He waited for each person to pass, then waited longer. He waited until his conscience was convinced there would be no others, then waited even several minutes more before the last vestige of resolve in his warped body moved him from the alley to the street, and he began to limp far behind the crowd, whispering to himself as he went, willing that nobody else would happen upon the road, for though the disease he carried took away much physical pain, it brought upon a wretched deformity and a deep anguish that he experienced as the entire world turned away from him, and the thought of another slack-jawed stare, of another person desperately scrambling to keep his distance from the freak, of another child crying to its mother out of shock at the sight of his deformed face – this would renew a pain more raw than most will ever understand. So he moved cautiously, prepared to duck back into the shadows should it be necessary. Still, desperation pushed him on.
Shoulders slumped beneath tattered garments, bare scalp bowed, his gait was little more than a shuffle, for his feet had ceased to look or function much like feet at all, resembling little more than uneven lumps of flesh wrapped in leather. The way he moved, he could have been carrying death itself upon his back; truly, by his society’s standards, he’d become death and would likely spread rotten, stinking death to anyone he came in contact with. Strangers knew this of him early on, even when signs of his disease were few, and then friends, and finally those who’d once called him their own – all left him alone for his body to rot, and so it did, along with his dignity and his humanity. Many years had it been since he’d known any positive human interaction, since anybody had spoken civilly to him rather than shout at him to stay away; he barely even remembered his own name.
Nervous thoughts gripped his mind, of what he might say to the visitor should he defy fate and make it out of the city without his legs giving way or without being chased off by those he offended. And who was he to think that this stranger would not himself be offended by his appearance? Certainly, the best he might expect was a distant politeness or perhaps pity. Maybe pity would be enough. He shuffled on.
After many city blocks and sightings of nervous citizens, staring from neighborhood windows at his ghastly form, sound of a distant voice speaking came clearly to his ears, clearly as any he’d heard, kindling a flame within his numbed insides. The voice was easily discerned, not due to its volume, but more so because of its unmistakable richness in comparison to the surrounding dullness. The voice was true.
The afflicted one slowed his already sluggish pace, wondering at the sensation brought about by hearing this voice echo down from the city’s adjacent hillside and into the streets, and he didn’t even know what it was saying, just that this feeling, this warmth, was something he recognized from a lifetime ago, when he was an unblemished child with a mother who adored him above all else.
Desperation became determination as he pushed himself on toward the source of the voice, and determination became acutely necessary as he began to see individuals re-entering the city’s outer streets, gasping when they saw him, doing little to hide their revulsion; the few individuals becoming many, and the spewing remarks about his appearance and the rotten stench that accompanied him, and the HOW DARE HE COME HERE!!, and he could no longer hear the voice.
The crowds parted before him, unwilling to come in contact with even the air around him. In that moment, he found he was not concerned about them or what his intrusion into their clean lives would mean for him. He only cared that he find this visitor.
Emerging from the street, happening upon the hillside, he raised his face from its down-fixed position, his one functioning eye scanning for one he feared he would not recognize, and so he may miss.
The man, source of the voice, became clear once he spotted him. Common as he appeared, ordinary as he moved down the hillside, he thoroughly held the attention of those walking beside him, still speaking as he went, hands gesturing, mouth like the sun, and piercing eyes spotted him, the afflicted one, and not avoiding his gaze, not altering his course to keep far from him – nothing made sense about him.
So obvious was his importance and his dignity, having just given a spontaneous speech for which hundreds had come miles to hear, in all the world he’d ever known, there was no reason a man like this should do anything but avoid a pitiful creature like him. Yet he did not avoid, did not alter his path in the least. He walked straight to him, sharing laughter as he walked, until he was directly in front of him, becoming silent.
The afflicted one stood before him, frail frame swaying in the breeze, and he couldn’t be sure, but he thought he may have sensed tears falling from eyes that had forgotten how to cry – tears inspired by the unmistakable impression that this one was seeing him as though he already knew him, and not as he was now – decaying into refuse – but as he once was, or even more – as he ought to have always been. Unsure of anything else to say, he poured out words he could not restrain himself from conveying, any more than a little child in pain could keep himself from crying out.
“Lord,” he said, “if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Unsettling silence. Not a sound intruded – not the slightest chatter, not the rustling of footsteps; all upon the hillside awaited a response. Many expected a courteous dismissal, some a winsome platitude. Most did not know what to expect.
“I am willing.” said the one. “Be clean.”
Not that this charismatic leader, one of true character, paused a moment to hear from a man hopelessly diseased and to speak in return – astonishment that he reached out and touched him, the untouchable one, astonishment that he actually FELT his hand upon his flesh – the first he could feel in over half his lifetime, astonishment that before the eyes of every person present, all shocked at this gesture of touch, he became that which he should have been all along, before sickness and shame stole his life away. He became whole – a miracle the likes of which no one would have thought possible or reasonable, and all the one asked in return was that he not tell anybody what had happened
This request of the Lord, spoken as he continued past him down the hillside, seemed absurd in light of what he’d done. Strangely, it wasn’t even the healing that had him dumbfounded. It was the touch.