Here is Chapter Six…
By the time the team fulfilled their obligation to Marit, they felt like they had earned so much more than clothing. The day they were set to leave, she loaded them with food, bedding and supplies. “Thank you so much for all that you have done for me.” The group stood at the edge of her homestead. She ran up to them to give Madi a final hug, urging her to be careful. Madi assured her that Simon would protect her.
Father Garcia approached Marit, “I have one final gift.” He held up a lop-sided set of sandals. “These are for Armoni. I think they will help him walk a little easier.” Armoni looked at Ambigo for direction. Ambigo nodded to him, even though Father Garcia’s sandals were just as much of a surprise to him as they were to the small shepherd boy. Armoni took the sandals and Father Garcia showed him how to tie them around his ankles.
The sandal with the thick heel was placed on Armoni’s crippled leg. When both sandals were secured, Father Garcia urged him to stand. For the first time in his young life, Armoni’s crippled leg reached the ground. “Try walking without your crutch,” Father Garcia encouraged. Atrophied as it was, the crippled leg was weak, but it held his weight. He still limped with the new sandal, but with practice, Ambigo knew that he would be able to walk with both legs as well as anyone else.
Marit fell to Father Garcia’s feet, kissing them. She mumbled through her tears, “Dear sweet Father, you have cured my Armoni! I hoped that you would find the man you were searching for so that he could cure my precious son, but look! I brought the man into my house.” Father Garcia tried to help Marit up, but she clung to his legs. “Marit, Marit. I haven’t cured Armoni. I’ve just given him some sandals that help him walk easier.” Then to Armoni, “You will have to make yourself some new ones when you grow older, but for now, these sandals should help your weak leg grow strong.”
Ambigo’s chest filled with gratitude with each faltering step Armoni took with his shrunken leg. Soon, that leg would be just as strong as the other, but for now, he felt joy just seeing the young man who had taught him to speak finally walk without the aid of his makeshift crutch. After learning so many words, he couldn’t speak and when Armoni looked at him in rapture, all he could do was nod at him.
If they thought leaving the homestead was going to be hard before, it became so much harder for them to leave after Father Garcia’s gift to Armoni. Marit returned to the house and brought out every scrap of food that she had. They refused her extra gifts, thanking her for everything she had already given them. Ambigo patted Armoni on the back while he walked around them, testing his new-found mobility. “Look Ambigo! I can run!” Armoni ran around them tentatively and Ambigo was overflowing with joy. He put his arm around Father Garcia, “Thank you.”
“Marit, we have many miles to walk before we can rest tonight. We need to leave now or we will not arrive in time,” Simon was the voice of reason. Ambigo choked back his tears. Madi and Marit hugged once more, “Thank you for coming to me. You have blessed me far more than the clothing that I have given you.” She hugged Father Garcia and kissed his hands. Jaime had been filming the homestead, but quickly followed after Simon, who already headed out. Tad and Ambigo started walking away, leaving Madi and Father Garcia to remove themselves from Marit’s clinging embraces.
The team was quiet as they walked, each of them thinking about different aspects of their stay with the small family. The straps of his new sandals cut into Ambigo’s feet and he wondered how Armoni’s feet would feel tonight after a day of walking. He contemplated removing the sandals and continuing barefooted. He had traveled all over the rough hills of the area for a month on bare feet. This nice stretch of road would be a pleasant change to the sharp rocks and prickly bushes of the hills.
“I just realized that this is probably the road we were walking on the night we arrived.” Ambigo commented to the group in English. It was the first English phrase he had said since the disagreement at the fence. “My feet are much stronger now. I could walk this thing barefoot without flinching. Remember how tender our feet were before?” The group chuckled in agreement. Madi responded to him, “You were the only one who didn’t stare at me.”
The team became quiet in shame, but Madi continued, “You didn’t look at me once. You purposely kept your eyes away from me.” They were silent. None of them offered apologies. Madi finally spoke again, “I don’t know what’s worse, being stared at or purposely ignored.” They continued following Simon’s military march.
Minutes ran into each other before Ambigo finally spoke up to defend himself, “You had already shown me your scars. You know, I was naked too. I didn’t want anyone staring at me, so I didn’t stare at anyone else.” He tried to lighten up the dark mood that had settled over the team, “It was kind of cold that night. I would hate to think that any of you saw how much the cold affected certain aspects of my naked body.” Simon chuckled. “Don’t sweat it, Doc. We were all worried about our own shrinkage.” They laughed. Tad added, “It was easy for you. You didn’t have to beg a priest for clothing in your birthday suit.”
Jaime quietly returned to the earlier subject, “I’m sorry I stared at you, Madi. It’s just…” his voice quavered, “It’s just horrible. Did you do it to yourself?” They kept walking at Simon’s pace, but all eyes were on her, “No.” Simon spoke, “I saw some ritualistic scarring when I served in Sudan, but they were these cool designs. Nothing like your scars. What happened?” Even though he asked the question, he kept his brisk walk along the road, knowingly leading the team to their destination.
When Madi finally spoke, she had the full attention of everyone on the team, “I already told Father Garcia all of this, but I guess you guys need to know. Wow, I just don’t know how to start this.” She was quiet and her eyes followed her feet. The scars on her legs peeked out of the rough tunic that Marit had so lovingly woven from the wool from the sheep that Armoni had so faithfully watched. “I know that evil exists in this world. I have seen Satan work through the hands of mortals.” They listened to the sound of their feet crunching the stones on the trail.
Madi was quiet for so long that Ambigo assumed she was finished. That was all he was going to learn about Madi’s past. Hundreds of cigarette burns, maybe thousands, were white with age and overlapped each other. He contemplated how old she would have been when they were given to her. They covered almost every inch of her body. Only her beautiful face and delicate hands and feet were spared. Her dark skin ended at her ankles and wrists and was replaced with circular, white lumps.
“That’s it? That’s all we’re going to hear? ‘There is evil in the world’? What happened to you?” Jaime released a barrage of questions at her, but Father Garcia responded, “It doesn’t matter what happened to her, Jaime. What matters is how she dealt with it. Tell them how you survived it, Madi.” Simon and Tad crunched ahead of the team, but Ambigo could tell that they were listening intently. Ambigo brought up the rear because his sandals were cutting into his feet. Once again, he contemplated removing them. Madi walked in front of him. She had been watching her feet, but at Father Garcia’s bidding, she raised her head.
“Well, I learned pretty quickly that if I cried or screamed that I would just get more burning. It was really hard to keep quiet at first.” They walked quietly, but Ambigo could tell that she would continue when she was ready. “There was a little girl at school who decided to save me. I can’t remember her name, but she was blonde and so beautiful and she said that if I just took Jesus into my heart, that he would save me. She had heard that I was Muslim and someone had told her that all Muslims go to Hell if they don’t accept Jesus as their Savior. Every day at school, she would tell me that if I would accept Jesus, he would save me.” Ambigo saw her head bend toward her feet again.
Jaime’s brow wrinkled, but Father Garcia indicated to him to stay silent. Madi raised her head again and continued, “The funny thing is, she was right. The minute I took Jesus into my heart, he did save me. Well, not really save me, but it got so much better after that. I was still stuck, but when the burnings began, I would concentrate on the Baby Jesus and the pain would go away.” She walked with the sound of the footsteps for a few moments. Ambigo considered removing his sandals for the fiftieth time that day, but the sight of Madi’s scarred legs kept them on.
“When they did my adjustments, I didn’t really focus on the Baby Jesus. The older I get, the more sophisticated my meditations are. Now, I really just contemplate Jesus as the eternal force of good. I don’t even think of him as a man anymore.” Tad kept his pace, but turned and looked back at Father Garcia. The priest indicated that he wanted silence. Madi continued, “I don’t know what I’m going to do when we find him. I always pictured him white. Everyone we’ve seen so far has been dark like us. What if he’s ugly? These eyes refuse to film an ugly Jesus!” She was laughing at herself and the rest of the team followed suit.
After a few minutes of quiet footsteps, Jaime spoke, “I know you’ve tried to explain it to me before, but I just don’t know how it works. You just think about Jesus and the pain goes away?” Ambigo had thought that the conversation was finished and was surprised at Jaime’s question. Madi talked to him softly in a conspiratorial tone, “I tried to teach you this before, remember?” Jaime nodded, but his question still hung between them. The rest of the party listened intently. “I don’t know, Jaime… This is a hard thing for me to describe. When I was little, all I did was think about the Baby Jesus that you see in the nativity scenes on people’s lawns during Christmas. That baby was just reaching his arms up to me. I imagined that he would hold me and protect me from…” Madi delayed and no one on the team needed instruction from Father Garcia to keep quiet. “From the burning.”
They walked further and Simon took the fork in the road to the east. They followed without comment and waited for Madi to continue. “I just imagined the Baby Jesus holding me. Since I had only seen Jesus as a light-up nativity baby, there was this light all around him and coming from within him. I just felt surrounded by the light. It was like my body wasn’t connected to me anymore.” She fell silent.
It was Simon who spoke up, “Dissociation.” He continued his military step to the east. Father Garcia prodded him, “What did you say, Simon?” Ambigo felt the straps of his sandals cutting into his feet, but he kept pace with the rest of the team. “Dissociation. It’s what happens to prisoners when they are tortured. It’s not really something you can teach to someone, Madi. It only happens in extreme cases. Sometimes they look like they’re dead because their breathing and pulse slow. I’ve never seen it. Torture’s not my preferred method of negotiation. Plus, you go to the point of dissociation and the subject is useless for information. You could cut their dick off and you won’t get a peep out of a dissociated subject.” Ambigo shuddered at the thought. “Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never really gotten a subject to that point. That would be a failure in my mind. You’ve got to keep them conscious, tired, hungry and under threat. Actually hurting them just shows them how strong they are.”
The team was silent for several miles. Ambigo thought about the questionable military career of Simon and wondered what might happen to this mission if something turned ugly. Ambigo’s feet called out in pain and he finally stopped, “Could you guys wait for a second? I’ve got to take these things off.” He reached down and untied his sandals. There were red welts where the leather had touched his feet. “I got pretty used to walking barefoot on the hills with Armoni. I think I’ll just go barefoot for awhile.” They all paused, looking at Ambigo’s feet, red and welted on the tops and sides, dark and calloused on the bottom. Ambigo wrapped his sandals up with his bedding and stood up to continue.
Jaime looked at Ambigo with squinted eyes, “How come I never dissociated, Dr. Thomas?” Ambigo flitted a furtive look to Simon, “I’m not as well-versed with dissociation as Simon, here, but as a doctor, it really sounds like she went into shock. Of course, most patients die of shock if they’re not treated.” Ambigo stood up and Simon continued to lead the team, “If you put your subject in shock, that’s definitely a negotiation failure. Dissociation isn’t shock. It’s a psychological separation of the mind and the body. The mind no longer registers what the body is experiencing. Some subjects lose consciousness, others can stay conscious and even answer questions, but they can’t feel their bodies. Sometimes it mimics death. The heart rate slows and respiration drops to next to nothing. If you get them to that point, they’re useless. Plus, if they learn how to dissociate once, then it’s that much easier for them to get there the next time you torture them. It’s creepy if you ask me. There’s no need to put a subject through that. Don’t feed them for a week and they’ll tell you everything for a Twinkie. No scars. No proof of torture except they lose a little weight.”
They trudged along the path quietly. Ambigo wondered about the Basque Separatists that Simon had been “negotiating” with when he was called away to this mission. He shuddered to think about what the military was doing to people in other countries and maybe even his own. He took in a large breath and blew it out in a loud puff. Madi spoke first, “I don’t like to have a name for it. Makes it sound like a sickness or something… dissociation.” The team walked quietly and let her take in the knowledge of it. “It’s not a sickness. It’s a miracle. The power of Jesus kept me safe all of those years and even now, he protects me from harm.” She sounded as if she was trying to convince herself. She turned to Ambigo, “What do you think, Dr. Thomas?”
He looked into her steely eyes and noticed how they didn’t even follow her gaze anymore. She appeared almost blind to him because she would turn her whole body to face him instead of just looking out of the corner of her eye. It was a symptom of the implants, but it still gave him the impression of a blind person. He could tell that she wanted him to agree with her. If she could convince the atheist doctor and scientist that it was a miracle, then it would really be a miracle and not a psychological disorder.
“I’m not a psychologist, Madi. I’ve never even heard of dissociation until today. It sounds like the military has done a lot of research on the subject, though.” He shuddered at the thoughts of “subjects” enduring “negotiation” in the name of science for the military. “Evolutionarily speaking, it would be a benefit to the human species if we evolved a method for dealing with pain in intense situations. The human mind is a fascinating thing. It can filter out almost anything. When I walk into the necropsy room, I can’t even smell formaldehyde anymore. My sense of smell hasn’t been damaged; my brain just filters that smell out when I find myself in a laboratory situation.”
Ambigo thought of his laboratory. He had four years and eleven months until he would be back there. How much would they discover by the time he got back? Nothing. He would be back tomorrow. He wondered if he would be able to smell the formaldehyde when he got back. To them, he would have been gone for less than a week, but it would be five years until he saw his lab again… if ever.
It was obvious that nothing that Ambigo said eased Madi’s mind. He didn’t believe it was a miracle. He believed it was an evolved facet of the human mind to filter negative input. After a mile of silent walking, Madi finally spoke, “I don’t care what you think. The Baby Jesus saved me.” She was near tears and her voice broke at the word Jesus. Jaime turned and looked at Ambigo with ire. Ambigo shrugged at him, unable to justify his own beliefs.
Father Garcia settled the matter, “Madi, when you told me about your experience, do you remember what I said to you?” Madi sulked behind Simon’s footsteps, keeping time with him. “You said you understood me.” Father Garcia corrected her, “I said that I had experienced something similar. When I was a child in Peru, I broke my leg on a hike with my brothers and sisters. It was the kind of break that turns your stomach because my leg just hung there, both bones broken. Just thinking about it makes me feel a little light-headed.” Father Garcia paused. They followed Simon quietly, waiting for Father Garcia to continue. “They had to carry me down the mountain to get back to my parents. My favorite sister, Maria, told me to concentrate on the grace of God. She described the light of God and told me to imagine it flowing through me and protecting me.”
Simon came to another fork in the road and knowingly led the way. They rushed to keep up with him. Father Garcia spoke again, “By the time they got me down the mountain, I was safe in the arms of Jesus. They tell me that the doctors set my leg without anesthetic. I don’t remember any of it. All I remember is the light of God all around me. God’s grace has visited you, Madi. To those who have never experienced the grace of God, it is difficult to comprehend.”
Ambigo waited for Father Garcia to qualify it. He waited for the voice of reason to speak up. No one on the team uttered a word. All he saw was knowing nods. It was obvious to him that the young Father Garcia had been in shock when they set his leg. He had lost consciousness completely and it was lucky that he didn’t die on that mountain. Ambigo considered the argument, but he looked at Madi’s tearful face. “Let it be,” he thought to himself. “What does it hurt if Madi believes the hand of Jesus protects her when she’s in pain? Nothing. Just let it be.”
Madi started humming the tune of Amazing Grace and before long the rest of the team was singing along with her. Ambigo listened in silence. His discomfort at being the only person on the team who wasn’t obsessed with Christianity had increased ten fold. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now, I’m found. Was blind, but now, I see.”
There was a slight pause and Ambigo thought that they were finished, but in unison, they started the second verse, “”Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” Jaime’s voice faltered at the third verse, “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”
To distract himself from the singing, Ambigo concentrated on placing one painful foot in front of another. “The Lord has promised good to me his words my hopes secures; he will shield and portion be, as long as life endures.” Father Garcia and Tad stopped singing after that verse, but Madi and Simon continued, “Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil, a life of joy and peace.” Only Simon sang the seventh verse, his voice ringing out in front of him, leading the team, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.” They were alone with their footsteps and the team was quiet in the wake of the hymn.
Ambigo seethed, but he held his tongue. He had forgotten what it was like. When he was a teen, the nuns and priests at school had seemed like an antiquated carry-over from once religious times. When he stepped out of high school, he thought he had left that sort far behind him and for the most part he had. In medicine, the religious matters were handled by the hospital chaplain. In the laboratory setting, religion was unspoken. The research was about stopping the virus, not about morality or divine intervention.
Over the last few years, Ambigo had convinced himself that God was dead. Only housewives and the sub-intelligent believed in God anymore. Suddenly, he had found himself with a team of highly intelligent and trained individuals. They were artistic, talented and intellectual…and they believed in God. Some of them believed in him so much that they were willing to risk their lives to prove the existence of Jesus Christ. He didn’t realize that he was on a crusade until that very moment and at that very moment, he felt very tired.
“So where are we going?” Ambigo felt like he was the only one following Simon blindly. Jaime’s voice responded, sounding young and screeching, “Yeah, Simon, are we there, yet?” Ambigo growled at him, “Hey, give me a break! For all I know, you guys had a briefing on the places that we’re going to search for Jesus and the entire team memorized the complete topography of Israel.” Father Garcia interceded, “I believe it is time to rest, Simon.”
Simon immediately halted the march and started to set up camp. Father Garcia answered Ambigo’s question while Tad dug a fire pit, “We are going to a cave that is thought to be the site where John the Baptist baptized his followers. Simon is very familiar with the topography of Israel, because he served there. The rest of us are just as lost as you are.”
Madi spoke confidently while gathering dry wood for the fire, “I’m not lost. I know exactly where I am.” Tad’s eyes glittered with mirth, “Oh, yeah? Where are we?” Madi giggled to herself and replied with stateliness, “We are right where we are supposed to be.” She broke into peals of laughter. Ambigo watched the team laugh among themselves and was glad to see them relaxed.
Each of them automatically started some sort of job to set up camp. “Am I supposed to be doing anything?” Ambigo felt lost without a job of his own. Jaime spoke first, “Well, Doctor Baker said that he would be so busy looking for medicinal plants that he wouldn’t be able to help with camp set up and break down.” Jaime pointed at Ambigo’s medicine pouch, “Looks like you’ve been able to do a lot of collecting already.” Ambigo blushed. “That’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I’ve found quite a few useful plants.” He patted the pouch that Armoni had given him. Ambigo hadn’t understood Armoni’s words, but he knew that the boy had wanted him to have the pouch to hold the plants he had been collecting.
“It doesn’t seem fair that everyone has a job, but I don’t. What can I do?” He scanned his memory of his Boy Scout days. “We don’t really have tents to set up, do we? I can tie a really good knot.” His list of merit badges ran through his mind, but he couldn’t think of anything that he could do to help. Father Garcia placed his hands on Ambigo’s shoulders, “Why don’t you sit down and take care of your feet?” Ambigo looked down at red welts covering his feet in a criss-cross pattern. Simon agreed with the priest, “First rule of being a soldier is to take care of your feet. Keep ‘em dry. Keep ‘em clean. There’s a creek just over that small hill.”
Once again, Ambigo felt isolated from the group. Everyone had a job to complete to help the team except him. “Why don’t I go get some water? We need water, right?” Simon’s eyes lit up, “Yes, we do. He rummaged through the supplies that Marit had given them and the utensils that Father Garcia and Jaime had carved during their sojourn. He produced a jar for Ambigo to fill, “Just make sure you gather the water before you put your feet in it. I don’t want to be drinking some stinky feet water.” They laughed and Ambigo felt like he had made his first step toward being a proper team member.
After crossing the hill, he filled the jar with enough water for the team for the night and tomorrow morning. He placed his tender feet in the water, allowing its coolness to wash over them and sting the red welts. He examined the soles, looking for blisters or cuts. They had weathered the day’s walk well. It was the sandals that had caused the most damage. He felt ungrateful for the sandals that Father Garcia had made for him. He promised himself, “Tomorrow, I will try again. Maybe I’ll grow calluses where the straps are.”
On his walk back, he felt refreshed. He carried the jar on his shoulder back to the camp. “There he is!” Tad smiled at him and relieved him of his burden. He placed some water over the fire to be boiled. “You didn’t drink any of that, did you?” Ambigo laughed and shook his head. They shared a light dinner and slept the well-deserved sleep of the hardworking.