Here is Chapter Four…
A few years before the big earthquake hit Los Angeles, Ambigo had an undergraduate student in his lab that was Mormon. The young man was two years behind the rest of the undergraduates in the lab because he had served an LDS mission. Once, Ambigo and he were working late in the histology lab. The young man sliced specimens and Ambigo was selecting the slides.
Their conversation had covered all the general small talk of the day and when the usual topics ran out, Ambigo finally asked the question that he had wondered about his new lab assistant, “You’re a smart guy. How can you believe in God?” It sounded like a brazen question, but the night had been long and discussion of the thinness of the organ slices can only go so far when there is a large volume of work ahead.
The assistant sucked in a lungful of air and blew it out slowly. Ambigo wondered what he was thinking and whether he would get an answer. A stillness filled the room and the rhythmic sound of the histology equipment came between them for a moment. When the young man talked, Ambigo was more than ready to hear what he had to say.
“That’s a long story.” The young man mounted a thin slice of tissue onto a slide and sealed it. “I guess I shouldn’t tell you this, but I really didn’t believe in God before I went on my mission. I just went on my mission because it was the right thing to do. You know, my dad never got to go on a mission. He was just so happy when I told him that I was going. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone that I really didn’t have a testimony. Sure, I bore my testimony lots of times. Heck, I said, ‘I know this church is true’ so many times that it felt like saying ‘Amen’ or something.”
The slide was placed aside to dry and the assistant went back to slicing the tissue. There was an anomaly and they were trying to get a good slide. “When I went to the MTC,” he paused and explained, “That’s the Missionary Training Center. It’s in Provo, Utah and they train you to go on your mission. If you’re going to a foreign country, they teach you a new language and stuff. Well, when I went to the MTC, they basically told me that they couldn’t teach me anything about Yapese. It wasn’t a written language and it was only one of the four languages that were spoken there, so they just gave me the normal training and put me on a plane to the island. I was supposed to learn the language while I was there.”
The assistant took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. He was staring off into space and Ambigo realized that his undergraduate wasn’t in the histology lab anymore. He was far away on the islands of Yap in Micronesia, reliving his experience. He saw the young man shake his head slightly and continue with the story, “I flew in on a tiny prop plane with two Peace Corps officers. They were going to spend two years on the island just like me, except they were there to build houses and stuff. None of us knew the language. The experience I had was like nothing I’ve ever had since. Within a few weeks, I knew the language. It’s a very difficult language to learn and I was able to talk to people in just a few weeks.”
There was a pause and the assistant looked to Ambigo for a response, “What did you do to learn it so quickly?” The young man shook his head, “I talked to my companion only in Yapese. I fasted. I prayed a lot. Learning the language so quickly was nothing short of a miracle. They were small islands. I saw those Peace Corps guys tons of times. They never did learn the language. I did in only a few weeks. My prayers were answered and my faith in God is secure. I KNOW my church is true.” The intensity of the last phrase hung over the room in silence. Ambigo never broached the subject again with the young man and soon he graduated, leaving Ambigo with arguments that were never approached.
It made perfect sense to Ambigo. The young man had been thrown into a new environment and insisted on learning the language. Learning the language was fundamental to his goal of converting the islanders, whereas the Peace Corps officers could build houses and cleanse water supplies no matter what language they spoke. There was less urgency for the Peace Corps officers than for this young man. He had been sent there to bring the word of God to the islanders. He couldn’t do that without learning the words.
It was just another example of logical thinking gone awry. The young man saw a miracle, but Ambigo saw the power of the human mind to adapt. The missionary saw the finger of God and the doctor saw the beauty of intellect.
Over two thousand years before he would question his assistant about faith, Ambigo awoke to the sound of his name. He could hear Madi’s halting Aramaic answer, “I don’t know him well. I met him only two days before we came here. He is said to be a great healer.” She was talking to the woman of the house, who responded, “He has been a great asset to the house. Armoni said that he would have lost one of the ewes if it hadn’t been for him. He is the only one of the group who I know nothing about. They are up all night with the sheep and sleep all day.” He thought nothing of the fact that he could understand them. He feigned sleep while the two of them talked.
“This, Ambigo, if he is a great healer, could he heal my Armoni?” Ambigo heard Madi draw in a breath and hold it. Her response was heartfelt, “I’m sorry, Marit, I don’t think he can.” The click of the shuttle was their only conversation for a couple of moments and Ambigo started to fall back asleep. “This, Jesus, that you seek. You say he is also a great healer. Could he heal my Armoni?” Ambigo waited for the answer, which came quickly and without hesitation, “Oh, yes. He could. He can make blind men see. He can make cripples walk. He can even bring a man back from the dead.” The sound of the weaving filled the room.
Ambigo could not hold it in anymore. He spoke to the woman who had fed him generously for the last two weeks, “Marit, I can’t stay silent. This man we seek is only a man.” He directed his gaze at Madi, who squinted at him, mouth wide. “We have heard many stories about him that may not be true. That’s why we’re here. To find the truth.” The lady of the house and Madi just looked at him. Marit’s hands continued to weave without ceasing, but Madi was still. Marit was the first to break the stunned silence, “You speak. Until now, all I heard from you was ‘food’ and ‘sleep’ and your strange language and now you speak to me in sentences full of words and talk about truth. How can you talk about truth when you’ve lied to me?”
She looked to Madi for an explanation, who spoke in her stilted command of the language, “We did not lie. I…” She said no more and the two of them glared at him with accusing eyes. The shepherd boy, Armoni stirred and sat up, “He has been getting better. He said, ‘I am hungry’ yesterday.” Marit left her weaving to attend to Armoni, shielding him. “‘I am hungry’ is very different from ‘We’re here to find the truth.’” She looked again to Madi for answers and Madi squinted at Ambigo, “The followers of Jesus speak in tongues. We have witnessed a miracle.”
At that point, his words failed him. He wanted to say that Armoni had talked to him nonstop during his waking hours for two weeks straight. He wanted to say that he felt like an outsider being the only one of the group who didn’t know at least a little bit about the language. He wanted to say how desperately he needed to be able to communicate to Armoni when the ewes were in danger. He wanted to say that he had already learned Latin when he was a child, so a third language shouldn’t be that hard to learn. He wanted to say that he had worked on learning the language, asking questions as much as he could and using gestures to get his point across.
Instead, an angry red filled his vision and he could only spout, “It’s not a miracle,” at Madi before storming out of the tiny, but recently stabilized home. He stomped past Father Garcia, who was making sandals for the team members. He called out in English, “Ambigo, what are you doing awake?” Ambigo rushed past him and screamed the favorite curse of his shepherd companion in a combination of English and Aramaic, “You Jesus Freaks! If they put your brain in a chicken, it would run straight to the butcher!” Father Garcia dropped his tools and followed after Ambigo, who was heading up the hills to the sheep.
Both of them passed Simon, Tad and Jaime, who were building a fence around Marit and Armoni’s property. After securing the foundation of the house, they had moved on to building a fence to corral the sheep in times of strife. When they saw Ambigo rush away from the house several hours before he was supposed to be awake, they started to follow, but Father Garcia motioned to them to stay back and let the two of them talk alone.
The priest followed Ambigo’s dark and calloused feet in silence. The two of them headed to the flock of sheep that were grazing happily after a long and noisy night of birthing lambs. Some of the older lambs were bouncing around the flock making Ambigo think about popcorn. By the time he reached the sheep, he was calm and ready to talk to the priest. He sat down next to flock and Father Garcia sat next to him.
They were both quiet for a long time. Ambigo knew this technique. He had always called it “The Loser Speaks First.” It was like a staring contest. He lay down on the prickly grass and pretended to rest. He wasn’t going to be the loser. He was going to let Father Garcia sit there all day and he was going to sleep with the sheep.
Father Garcia had left his tools at the house. This game would have been so much easier to play if he had something to distract himself while he waited. Father Garcia called this game, “You Can’t Force Me To Confess.” He had seen it most often in the confessional. A parishioner would come into the confessional and then refuse to speak or would speak too much of inconsequential things. Father Garcia learned that there was no way for him to force the parishioner to make a true confession. All he could do was wait quietly and find ways to distract himself.
In the confessional, he could pull out his rosary using it as a tool to ease his mind. With fellow priests that had made surprise visits to his office, he would arrange papers, organize books or dust until the words came forth. All he had here was an open field and a herd of sheep. He decided to look for hoof rot.
Father Garcia knew nothing of sheep, but his family had raised a llama when he was a child. It used to be his job to make sure the llama didn’t have hoof rot. He didn’t even know if hoof rot was a real ailment. For all he knew, his father had given him that job to keep him away from the real work that needed to be completed.
That was all before he found out. When he was ten years old, the men from the United States came and took him and the rest of his family away from his home. It was then that he learned the truth. He thought back to those days in Peru and his gentle llama when he inspected the feet of each sheep.
Father Garcia knew that his technique was working when Ambigo started watching him instead of pretending to sleep. Soon, the doctor was following him around, watching him look at each hoof. The silence of the game became a burden and Father Garcia felt the urge to speak, but he held himself, concentrating on sole and wall of each hoof. The ground was dry, so he was pretty sure there was no risk of infection, but he had found a job to distract himself and he wasn’t going to let the silence break him.
Finally, Ambigo spoke in English, “I’ve seen Armoni do this. He said something about sores. I didn’t really understand…” Father Garcia breathed a sigh of relief at Ambigo’s voice and responded, “I’m looking for hoof rot. It typically happens to animals in marshy areas, so they probably don’t have trouble with it here. Maybe it’s worse in the winter, I don’t know. All the sheep I’ve checked have been healthy.” The air was cleared and both men breathed freely. Father Garcia was able to gently breech the subject, “I promise you. I will not run straight to the butcher.”
The two men laughed out loud. Ambigo’s eyes crinkled with mirth, “Is that what it means? All I could gather was that I was stupid when he said it to me. What does it mean again?” Father Garcia translated the insult verbatim, “You said, ‘If they put your brain in a chicken, it would run straight to the butcher!’ I didn’t even know that medical science had advanced that far.” They both laughed again.
Things quieted and Father Garcia stopped looking at the hooves, safe in the knowledge that a rampant case of hoof rot wasn’t invading this herd. “What happened?” Ambigo sat next to him, looking forward at the animals. “I don’t know. I was sleeping and I heard my name, so I listened to Madi and Marit talking about me. Marit asked if I could heal Armoni’s leg…” Ambigo looked down at the ground in shame. Father Garcia knew that the proper surgeons and physical therapists could heal Armoni, but they were over two thousand years away from proper anything. “I could, you know. Well, maybe not me, but I play golf with a guy who could.” Ambigo was quiet.
“What did Madi say?” Ambigo pulled a couple of strands of the course grass and started weaving them together nervously, “She said I couldn’t.” Father Garcia nodded, “How did that make you feel?” Ambigo tossed the woven strips of grass aside, “I don’t know. It was true. I can’t help him here. It’s a delicate surgery. I wouldn’t risk it here even if I had the ability. Plus, he gets along just fine. He doesn’t need it.” Father Garcia shook his head, “You didn’t answer my question. When Madi told her that you couldn’t heal him, how did that make you feel?”
“I did answer your question. I said, ‘I don’t know.’” The silence floated over the grassy hills and evaporated in the sunny sky. “I guess I felt powerless. I guess I’m going to be feeling that a lot here.” Father Garcia nodded and lay back on the lumpy grass. None of this sounded like it was enough to cause the reaction that he had seen from Ambigo. He pressed, “Then what happened?”
Ambigo stood up and looked down at the priest lying on the stiff grass, “Then Marit asked if we found Jesus if he could heal Armoni and Madi said yes! Father, we don’t even know if this man truly exists. How could she give Marit hope like that? It’s like lying to her! I couldn’t let her do that, so I told them that Jesus was just a man and we don’t know for sure if he could heal Armoni. Then they both got mad at me because I was able to understand them and then Madi said that it was fucking miracle! She said that Jesus made me speak in tongues! She doesn’t even fucking know how hard this has been for me. You guys all got that speed course in Aramaic from Tad, but I came here cold and then I was stuck on this damn hill,” he kicked at the dirt, “with nothing but sheep and a kid who talks nonstop! I swear to God, he fucking talks in my sleep!”
The last word of Ambigo’s angry discourse echoed quietly off the opposite hill. Father Garcia let the eyes of the wary sheep convince Ambigo to sit down again. The priest sat up and tried to summarize, “So, we can safely say that Jesus didn’t make you speak in tongues, right?” Father Garcia heard a deep chuckle grow within the doctor’s chest, “No, he didn’t.” He nudged the doctor’s arm, “It’s only been two weeks. You’re telling me that Armoni has taught you to speak Aramaic in only two weeks?” Ambigo pulled his knees up to his chest and shrugged, “He never,” he paused for effect, “stops talking.”
Father Garcia lay back on the prickly grass, “So how do you explain it?” Ambigo set his jaw and looked at the flock, “I learned how to say ‘food’ and ‘sleep’ the first day. I can’t explain it…” Then the priest saw a flash in Ambigo’s eyes. It was if the man was remembering something from long ago and making a connection to those events. “I guess I needed to learn it. I’m a doctor. Ninety percent of my job is communication. There is a big difference between my ‘stomach hurts’ and my ‘chest hurts.’ They both look the same when you pantomime them, but they are completely different ailments. It’s inherently essential for me to learn the language in order to complete this mission. It’s more important to me than Madi or Jaime. All they have to do is observe and record. I have to be able to communicate. I know it was fast, but it’s not unheard of… And it’s NOT a fucking miracle.”
Father Garcia observed the pink clouds floating over them, gently protecting them from the sun. “It’s certainly a testimony of the intellect of the human mind.” Ambigo threw himself back on the grass, looking at the clouds. “Yeah. It’s not a miracle. It’s a manifestation of the human ability to adapt.” The two of them watched the clouds drift by in silence until they heard the familiar voice of Marit, calling them to dinner.