Here is Chapter Seven.
As they neared the cave, there was no doubt in any of their minds that they had found an important site. A small gathering of people sat around the entrance. Father Garcia asked one of the men close to the opening, “What happens here?” The man turned to them, “It is said that a holy man washes the sins of the faithful here.” The crowd quieted as they watched a man leave the cave. His hair was wet and oily. He furtively rushed away from the crowd, not deigning to answer their questions. One person from the front of the huddled line of sitters was allowed into the cave
The team could hear a muffled voice from inside the cave. It seemed that they had a wait ahead of them. Tad spoke to the man who waited in front of them, “My name is Tad and we are travelers looking for holy men. How did you hear of this man?” The man looked at Madi and then at the rest of the team with a wary eye, “My name is Petros. I heard about this man from a traveler. I am in contact with many travelers in my profession. You don’t appear to be travelers. You look like…” he paused and looked at Ambigo’s feet, “shepherds.” Ambigo felt a tiny surge of pride and wondered at it inexplicably.
Simon intervened and sat next to Petros, “We were set upon by robbers when we came to this area. A shepherd family took us in and clothed us. We were very lucky to have encountered them.” Petros looked at their dress and turned his eyes to Madi’s scars. Madi’s unseeing eyes filmed his every movement. “Why do you search for holy men?” It was clear that Petros did not trust them. Father Garcia also sat down and fielded the question, “Why do you search for holy men?”
Petros looked at Father Garcia strangely. Ambigo recognized the calm that fell over Father Garcia’s face. “The Loser Speaks First,” he thought to himself. It was clear to Ambigo that Petros thought they were in a staring contest, but in actuality, they were in a contest of will. He watched Father Garcia closely to see how he won these matches. Father Garcia allowed the silence between the two of them to spread to the onlookers.
Under the eyes of the waiting crowd, Petros fidgeted. Father Garcia kept his gaze on the man. Petros looked away, but Ambigo knew that the contest was not over. Father Garcia consciously opened his bag and took out Marit’s delicious goat’s cheese. The pungent scent of it made Ambigo’s mouth water and he wanted a piece. Father Garcia ceremoniously gave a piece to each of the team members. Jaime tried to refuse, but Father Garcia silently pressed it upon him. Never saying a word, he worked his way back to Petros, offering him a piece of cheese in mime. Petros took the piece and mumbled a surprised, “Thank you.”
The team quietly ate their food while they waited. The line was slow and only one person at a time was allowed into the cave. Father Garcia finally spoke to Petros, “So, why do you search for holy men?” Petros took tiny bites of the white, crumbling cheese, “In my work, I spend time alone and I see many travelers. The travelers give me strange and exciting ideas and my time alone is spent thinking about them. The most interesting ideas have been coming from this man, so I thought I would seek him out. Maybe he will have enough ideas for me to last many days on the Sea. Why do you search for holy men?”
Father Garcia took in a breath, “That is a story that started long before I could consciously understand it. When I was ten years old, I was taken from my home to a far away country. The men who took me told me the truth about my family. It was so traumatic for me that I devoted my life to God. I am searching for a man who has been found to be particularly holy in the eyes of the Lord.”
Ambigo was surprised at Father Garcia’s answer, but he nodded in agreement with the rest of the team. For once, he was part of the team and this Petros guy was the outsider. Petros responded, “How do you know the man is holy in the eyes of the Lord?” Ambigo would have faltered. Ambigo would have talked about legends and myths and rumors. Instead, Father Garcia spoke as if it were a fact, “This man is the Son of God.” Petros shrugged his shoulders, “We are all the children of God. What makes him so special?”
A sharp pain of sadness hit Ambigo’s chest. “Yes, yes. We are all children of God. What makes Jesus the Chosen One? Why does he get to be the favorite?” An old question from his teen years revived within him. The seeds of his atheism were voiced by this untrusting man. Father Garcia responded, “Because he volunteered to be sacrificed for our sins.” Ambigo kept quiet at the stock answer. It was Petros who had more questions, “Your sins? What have you done that is so evil?”
Father Garcia laughed, “Not just my sins. Your sins. The sins of all of mankind.” Petros was quiet for a moment, but he responded after thought, “One man can pay for the sins of all the men?” Father Garcia nodded. Petros looked at Madi’s scarred legs crossed under her. She had been filming the cave and the people who entered and exited, but she turned her body to face him. Petros spoke again, “This is the man you seek in the cave?” The team spoke in near-unison, even Ambigo cried out, “No!” Father Garcia answered, “No, no. We believe the man in the cave to be a cousin of the man we seek.”
Petros eyes narrowed, “So, you don’t seek all holy men, just this Son of God.” He folded his arms. The accusing silence extruded from his skin and eyes. It was Jaime that broke the silence before another game of “The Loser Speaks First” could start, “We are interested in all holy men, but we are searching for a rabbi from Nazareth. He has the most interesting…ideas.” Petros did not take the bait and looked at Jaime’s useless eyes, “All of you seek the same man?” then he turned to Madi, “You seek this man?” Instead of nodding her head, Madi responded verbally in order to keep filming, “Yes.”
Petros looked to Ambigo, “You, outsider, you seek this man?” The pain shot through Ambigo’s body silently. Outsider. Somehow, this suspicious man could see that he was different from the rest of the team. He looked Petros in the eyes and answered truthfully, “Yes, I seek this man. He is why I am here. He is why my feet are dark and calloused.” Ambigo held the gaze, but Petros probed further, “You believe him to be the Son of God?” Ambigo answered honestly, “No, I do not. It is enough that Father Garcia believes.”
Ambigo could tell that his answer was enough for Petros, but his words from the future rang out to him, “To Adventure! May we be the first in a new branch of Archaeology!” He felt like he needed to justify his answer further, “Petros, I am also a man of ideas. In my work, I prove ideas to be true or false. I am seeking this man in an effort to prove whether he is the Son of God or not.” Petros cocked his head to the side and gave Ambigo a long look. Father Garcia added, “But first, we need to find him. Have you heard of a rabbi from Nazareth who has been gathering men?” Petros turned toward Father Garcia and shook his head, then returned his gaze to Ambigo. “What will you do with this rabbi when you have proved that he is not the Son of God?”
Ambigo’s eyes flicked over to Simon. “What would I do if I had documented proof that Jesus was a charlatan?” He thought to himself, “Would I show it to the world? Would I even care? Would my life be any different? Nope.” Ambigo knew that if he had proof that Jesus was a fake, he would just return to his lab and wait for the next time he received the call. His life would be the same. He didn’t even care if the truth was hidden and none of the Christians found out. “That’s not really my concern. The enjoyment is in the proving, not in the proof.” Petros snorted, “You sound like a Greek.” Ambigo shook his head, “I am a man of thought, not feelings. I am a man of observation, not intuition.”
Madi and Jaime participated in synchronized squinting. Petros scanned the team and tried to turn away, giving them furtive looks every few minutes. Each time a person left the cave, they silently scurried away. Another would be allowed to enter and the wait continued. Simon observed the pattern, “It doesn’t look like they will let us in together. They’re only letting people in one at a time.” Madi was quick to answer, “I’m not going in.” Jaime turned toward her, “You have to. We have to be redundant.” Petros listened to their words, but kept his body faced toward the cave. Madi whispered to Jaime, “Listen, Jim, I’m not going in there alone.” Jaime responded, “You’d give up a chance to be baptized by John the Baptist?!” Petros started at the name. Madi hissed at him, “I’ve already been baptized.”
Father Garcia broke the uncomfortable silence that hung over the team, “I will insist that they allow Madi to come with me. They will allow it.” He was so calmly sure of himself that the rest of the team relaxed. “I don’t need to go in, though? Do I?” Ambigo was sincere. Tad looked at him incredulously, “You don’t want to go in?” Ambigo shrugged, “Why should I?” Father Garcia answered, “Each of us is going in.” Simon fidgeted, “Even me?” Father Garcia nodded, “If only one of us returns from this mission, we need to be able to tell the story.” Ambigo laughed, “I don’t think they’ll want to hear my version of it.” The team laughed, but Father Garcia quieted the laughter, “Your version may be the most important of them all.” Ambigo could feel the sun beating down on his ears and head. He felt a tiny lump of gratitude grow in his chest and saw Petros steal a glance at him out of the corner of his eye.
Simon passed around a small jug of water. Father Garcia offered a drink to Petros. After trying to pretend to ignore them for so long, he blushed when he took the jug from the priest’s hands. “They warned me that I would have to wait a long time, but I didn’t believe them.” He swallowed the clean, cool water, “Sometimes travelers exaggerate their journeys.” The team smiled and Petros passed the jug onto Ambigo with a fearful look. Ambigo tried to put him at ease, “You said you meet a lot of people in your line of work, but you didn’t tell us what you do.” Petros forehead crinkled and his leathery skin held the creases even when he released the frown, “I am a fisherman.” Tad chuckled to himself, “That explains the time alone.”
Petros smiled for the first time among them, “My wife thinks that I am a fisherman so that I can make money for her, but I am a fisherman so that I can have time alone to think exciting thoughts.” The team politely chuckled. Ambigo queried, “So, where do you fish.” Petros brought his knees to his chest, “The Sea of Galilee.” Father Garcia and Tad drew in a deep breath. Ambigo noticed their excited intake of air, but was unsure of the significance. Petros looked from face to face and he noticed something had changed. Ambigo wanted to keep the conversation going, but he couldn’t think of a question. He just kept looking from Father Garcia to Tad to see what he should do. Finally, Madi spoke, “Are you Peter, son of Jona?” Petros’ eyes opened wide at the sound of his full name. His fearful gaze turned to Ambigo and then to Father Garcia. He stood up, but Simon stopped him from leaving.
A wet and oily man left the cave and it was Petros’ turn to enter. The guards removed him from Simon’s grip and escorted him in. Ambigo was confused. He asked in English, “What’s going on?” Everyone answered in English at once and it sounded like a cacophony of answers and questions, “That was Peter.” “The Rock.” “Was that Peter?” “That was Simon.” “I was named after that guy.” “I can’t believe we found him so quickly.” “Where’s Jesus?” “Didn’t he go to see John the Baptist with Jesus?” “I thought he was a follower before he met Jesus.” Ambigo had trouble separating the answers from the questions. The one question that spoke louder than all the other questions came from Jaime, “What do we do?”
They quieted and looked furtively at the crowd that had been so quietly waiting their turn and now were animatedly watching them speak in a strange tongue. Father Garcia was the first to whisper, “This has complicated things. Now we have two very important people here. We need to give both of them our full attention.” He asked the group, “It appears that Petros has come here alone. Would you agree?” The team nodded. Petros hadn’t spoken to anyone else during the hours that they waited. Ambigo scanned the gathering, searching for someone who may have been interested in their conversation. The crowd was studying them intently, but none of the individuals seemed fearful as Petros had.
Father Garcia continued, “Then we have to take our turns with John the Baptist and carefully,” he paused on the word and looked to Simon, “detain Peter to find out what he knows. We’ve scared him.” Father Garcia crinkled his brow, “He seemed very nervous before we realized who he is. Didn’t he?” Ambigo nodded and responded, “He was very suspicious of us. Remember how he said, ‘So you’re not looking for all holy men, just this Son of God?’ He just seemed paranoid before we ever talked to him.” Ambigo glanced at the crowd behind Father Garcia’s heads. Their whispers had sparked more curiosity than their strange language.
Father Garcia continued, “Ambigo, you will be the first to talk to John the Baptist. I planned on going in first, but I think it would be better for someone else to be there when Peter comes out of the cave. Are you willing to go first?” Ambigo shrugged, “Sure. I don’t care. I didn’t want to go in at all, but if it’s a stall tactic, then I’m fine with it.” Father Garcia nodded, “Now, Simon, it is essential that you be very gentle with Peter when he comes out. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but every person that has come out of that cave is very emotional. They don’t want to even look at anyone when they come out of there. I want you to keep him with us, but gently. Am I understood?” Simon snapped to attention and quietly responded, “Understood, sir.”
“Everyone, we can’t ask him a million questions at once. Let me talk to him. We have to keep this quiet. He’s already spooked. He knows we know who he is. Does anyone know how long he has been in there?” Tad said in a deathly serious voice, “I’ve been timing him on my stopwatch. He has been in there four minutes and forty-eight seconds, sir.” Ambigo crinkled his forehead, “Stopwatch?” The team burst into laughter. After all that panic, it felt good to hear someone tell a joke. Ambigo could tell that the crowd dismissed them as harmless tourists.
Father Garcia wiped his eyes and tried to contain his laughter, “If only we did have a stopwatch with us. It would make things so much easier.” Tad smiled, “Tell me about it.” He tapped his small satchel and rolled his eyes. “It almost makes me wish I opted for the surgical option.” Ambigo listened to the laughter and looked from one face to another. Once again, he was confused. He was about to ask, but Petros came out of the cave. He was wet and humbled. The fear had left his face and the smile returned when he found the team laughing gleefully.
Simon put his arm around him like an old brother and expertly switched back to Aramaic, “Simon Peter, son of Jona! We can’t believe our good fortune in seeing you here. If we had known who you were, we could have done away with all the formalities of meeting. Our sister Madi heard about you at the water well. Your wife tells many good tales about her noble husband. They travel far.” Petros uncomfortably endured Simon’s brotherly hug, not realizing how quickly Simon could turn it into a chokehold.
Petros was safe in the arms of Simon. The guards at the cave seemed impatient at the delay. Father Garcia nodded to him, so Ambigo stepped inside the dark and sweetly smelling cave of John the Baptist.