Here is Chapter Eight…
Ambigo felt blinded by the darkness of the cave. There was a small fire to the left, but it gave very little light. The air smelled like herbs and burnt hair and reminded Ambigo of his visit to the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. One of the guards gently placed his hand on Ambigo’s shoulder and pressed down, indicating that they wanted him to sit. After he sat down, the guard whispered into the ear of the nearly invisible man in the left corner, by the fire.
“I have been told that you are a Roman spy looking for a rabbi who has been gathering men, Ambigo.” Ambigo’s eyes slowly adjusted to the light and the man in the corner came into focus. His hair was long and wild. He was clothed in an animal skin. He was calm and still. The man sprinkled a small handful of herbs onto the dying fire and it flared up, blinding Ambigo again. He felt like he should answer the accusation, but the man hadn’t asked him a question, just stated an observation.
The scent of the herbs hit him in the face and he breathed deeply, trying to recognize them. “Was that marijuana? No, it smelled a little like patchouli, but what is in patchouli. Why didn’t Dr. Baker quiz me on this type of stuff? Why does it smell like burnt hair? God I hate that smell.” His mind wandered over the aromas and he started to regret that he hadn’t spent more time with the slackers during his school years instead of studying with the up-and-comers.
“Why are you here, Ambigo?” He chuckled to himself and responded, “That is the question, isn’t it? Why are we here? I am here because my friends are looking for a man they believe to be your cousin.” Ambigo’s eyes adjusted to the darkness again. The man was emaciated and thin. His beard was long and braided. The man tossed another handful of herbs on the small fire and it flared up again.
“Part of what you told me is a lie.” Ambigo was startled. The man was right. Ambigo didn’t consider the team to be his friends yet. He wanted to protect Madi and Jaime. He trusted Father Garcia. He relied on Simon for protection. He looked to Tad for help with language. None of them were his friends. He tried to respond honestly, “You’re right. They’re not my friends. I rely on them, but none of them are my friends. They tell me that you are John the Baptist. Is that true?” The man tossed another handful of herbs on the fire.
“I am named John, son of Zachariah. So your friends who are not your friends search for my cousin. How do they know I have a cousin?” Ambigo shook his head, “They don’t know. They look for rumors. Do you have a cousin that is a rabbi from Nazareth?” The man made the fire flame again and the cave filled with the sickly sweet scents. John answered, “My cousins from Nazareth are so distant that I have not heard of their activities. I do not know if I have a cousin who is a rabbi, but if I did, why should I trust you?”
Ambigo coughed, “You shouldn’t.” His eyes adjusted to the dark again and he held the gaze of the wild-haired man. “You lie to me again.” They were quiet together in the dark. Ambigo felt dizzy with the odor of the burning plants. “What do you burn on the fire?” The man gathered another handful and Ambigo tried to shield his eyes from the impending glare. Instead John brought his hand to him, “They are plants that comfort the grieving when burned. They open the mouths of the silent. They close the mouths of the monkeys.” Ambigo took the handful and placed it in his small satchel. It was too dark in the cave to analyze it.
“Why do your friends who are not friends search for this rabbi?” Ambigo sucked in a deep lungful of air. The smoke was starting to clear and the oxygen felt good. “I think each of them has their own reasons. They have heard stories of him and desperately want to know him in person.” John was sitting cross-legged on the cave floor. His hands rested on his knees, “Why do you?” Ambigo breathed deeply, “I search because I was asked to.” John shook his head, “Part of what you said was a lie.” Ambigo crinkled his brow. He shrugged, “I’m here because I thought it would be an adventure. I thought it would be exciting to come to this place and meet the people here. So far, it has been difficult and painful.”
John nodded and tossed another handful of herbs on the fire. Ambigo protested, “I’m telling the truth. You don’t need to keep burning that stuff.” He was blinded and couldn’t see the expression on John’s face, just a dim outline, burned into his eyes from the fire, “The plants are for me just as much as they are for you. They open my mouth and quiet my monkeys.” They sat in the dark quietly. Ambigo tried to calculate how much time the team would need with Petros before another disruption from the guards. He tried to remember what he was supposed to learn from this man.
Ambigo jumped a little when John finally spoke, “Your friends who are not your friends search for a rabbi from Nazareth. They wish to know him. You thought following them would be an adventure, but it has been difficult. You came to me because you believe that the rabbi is my cousin. Why not go to Nazareth and find the rabbi?” Ambigo shrugged and shook his head, “I don’t really know. I just follow them. I think the rabbi is traveling right now. We don’t know where he is, but we did know where you are. I don’t know how they knew you’d be here. I always imagined you at a lake or river or something.” Ambigo stopped himself. He hadn’t meant to say as much as he did.
“You know of me?” John slowly came into focus again. Ambigo tried to answer honestly, “I have heard stories of you.” John shook his head, “Part of what you say is a lie.” Ambigo knew he was right. He had heard stories of John the Baptist. He had read stories of John the Baptist. He had seen films portraying John the Baptist. So many accounts had muddied Ambigo’s mind and the man before him was nothing like the saint that had been described and portrayed. Where was the huge body of water for ceremoniously dunking the faithful? Where was the loud preaching? This was more like a…confessional.
“I have heard so many stories about you and they were all wrong.” The fire flamed up again and Ambigo tried to look away. The fire smelled like burnt hair more than ever and his stomach turned slightly. The cave was quiet except for the crackling of the fire. He was reminded of the quiet times in the confessional. Confession had been a weekly requirement at school, but he never took it seriously. He never talked to the priests about the true worries in his life. He never confessed anything more intimate than coveting. He never performed the Hail Marys that he was assigned. He just went into the confessional and killed time because it was asked of him.
The irony of the situation was that he had needed a firm voice of advice during that time more than any other in his life. He had been racked with worry over which school to attend and whether to pursue medicine or research. Instead of relying on his priest for guidance, he suffered alone. In the end, he chose the college that gave him the most scholarship money. In the end, he chose both medicine and research, spreading himself so thinly that he was never able to pursue a relationship with his parents, coworkers or even a lover. He thought about what his life would have been if he had asked for advice and followed it. Would he still be a doctor? A scientist? An adventurer? Would he be something else? A husband? A father? Would he be here today?
“…would you be here today?” John had spoken, but Ambigo had missed the first few words? “What did you say?” The man threw another handful of plants and repeated himself, “If you knew what this journey would be like, would you be here today?” Ambigo nodded, “Yes. Without a doubt. I still believe that this will be an adventure. Sometimes you have to suffer to enjoy the excitement.” John chuckled to himself, “Yes, that is true. Sometimes the excitement is worth the suffering.” The cave quieted again.
“Tell me of the suffering.” Andrea’s face flashed in Ambigo’s mind. Her dark hair and milky white skin were so clear and vivid that they brought tears to his eyes. He couldn’t help but say her name, “Andrea.” John gently queried, “Tell me more of Andrea.” Ambigo started shaking. He didn’t know if it was the herbs that had brought her to mind or all the thought of his younger years and the choices that he had made. “Andrea was a woman I loved.”
John responded, “Was? She is dead now?” Ambigo shook his head, “No.” She seemed so far away that she may as well have been dead to Ambigo, but she was very much alive. “She is wed to another?” Chills ran up and down his spine as he thought of her, “No.” He had kept an eye on her career and her personal life, even though she lived across the country. No, she was not married. “Yet, she is in the past tense. You no longer love her?” Ambigo was shaking with anger at their last fight. It all came back to him so vividly. “No. That’s not it. I still love her.”
John threw another handful of herbs on the fire, “Then Andrea is a woman you love. Tell me more of this woman.” The tears filled his eyes as he thought about her again. He started speaking in English, oblivious to John and the cave and the sweet smelling smoke, “She’s so headstrong. She acts as if her career is more important than mine. She couldn’t for one moment let me be the one. She had to be the top dog. Well, I showed her. I’m a doctor and I head the research department and I was called by the FDA to testify during the herbal remedy trials and I’m on the U.S. Medical Task Force and I’m going into the past to find Jesus and when I do, she’ll see. She’ll see that she should have married me.” John had been yelling for him to stop and trying to air out the cave. The guard came in and held him gently like a child with a temper tantrum.
He breathed in deep draughts of clean air. The guards had opened the skins that covered the cave. Ambigo could see the team trying to glance into the cave with worried looks and realized that it was so dark they wouldn’t be able to see him, tearful and scared in the arms of the burly guard. He was blinded from the light coming in from the door, but he heard John tell the guard to release him. “Leave us. He seems calm again.”
Ambigo wiped his eyes in the privacy of the darkness. “You spoke in a strange language. Can you try again?” Ambigo snorted loudly and wiped his nose on his tunic, “It doesn’t matter.” He saw John shake his head, “You lie to me. You will not be allowed to leave until we resolve this, even if it takes days. Even if your friends who are not your friends try to remove you. Even if your friends who are not your friends leave you.” Ambigo shook his head. He wanted out of the cave and back into the lab or the hospital or even back to his empty rooms where he ate and fell into sleep with exhaustion. He let the silence be his answer.
“You came to me for a reason. You think the reason was to find my cousin the Nazarene rabbi, but you are wrong. You were brought to me to resolve this issue. Tell me of Andrea. You and I will sit here until you do.” Ambigo sucked in a large lungful of air, “Andrea is just a woman who I loved.” John interrupted, “She is a woman you love. You still love her. She is not in the past. She is very much in your future, whether you want to admit it or not.” Ambigo closed his eyes and shook his head. The easiest way out of this situation would be to just tell him the story and let him think he solved it.
“Andrea and I talked about marriage, but she is a…” he couldn’t think of an Aramaic equivalent for nuclear physicist. “She is a woman of thoughts. The thoughts were more important to her than I was.” John shook his head, “Some of what you say is a lie.” Ambigo thought to himself. Her career was more important to her than he was, wasn’t it? He tried to remember. She had been accepted to the best school in the nation for nuclear physics. She was going whether he went or not. He could have gone to the same school, but they didn’t offer a scholarship. She wouldn’t go to the school that he chose and he wouldn’t go to the school she chose. “I don’t know what happened, but she didn’t marry me. She went to be with her thoughts. I went to learn to be a healer. We are still apart and I haven’t talked to her for a long time.” Ambigo thought to himself, “There, that should be enough. He should let me go with a few Hail Marys and I can get out of here.”
John was silent, “You are a healer?” Ambigo nodded, “Yes” He could see John’s eyes roll up into his head, “You have finished your schooling and are a healer?” Ambigo nodded, “Yes.” John squinted at him, “And instead of going to her and her thoughts, you travel to a far land in search of a man you care nothing of with people who are not your friends. You would rather suffer for adventure than go to her? Maybe you are right. Maybe you do not love her.”
Ambigo shook with anger and tried to answer, “I do love her. She would not have me. She didn’t want me before.” John placed a small pinch of herbs on the fire. It was such a small amount, that the fire barely changed. “You cannot afford to marry her?” Ambigo shook his head, “I have saved money.” Ambigo had hoarded his money carefully. Even if he had been unwise with his money, he would have had enough to keep her in luxury. She didn’t want luxury. She wanted acclaim of her own.
“You are not worthy of her?” Ambigo clenched his jaw. The tears were fighting their way back. “Yes, I am worthy of her. I am a famous healer in my land.” John nodded, “Her family believes you are not worthy of her?” Ambigo shook his head, “Her family has nothing to do with it.” John raised his head, “Ah, I understand now. You believe you are not worthy of her.” Ambigo stood up. He was unsteady on his feet from the herbs and the lack of oxygen. He tried to push his way out of the cave, but the guards stopped his exit.
John stood up and lifted a jug, “Sit down, Ambigo. You are almost home.” Ambigo turned toward the thin and wild-haired man, “No! I want to leave. You can’t keep me here! I AM worthy of her. I am a famous healer! I have more money than she has ever seen in her life!” Ambigo switched to English in his anger, “You know how much nuclear physicists make? Nothing! But she doesn’t want money! She wants to be across the country working in a lab bouncing atoms off God knows what!” He finished in Aramaic again, “I could take care of her, but she doesn’t want me! She doesn’t want me! I’m not good enough for her!”
John placed his hand on Ambigo’s shoulder and Ambigo knelt under its pressure. He felt warm water flow on his head and heard John, “Repeat after me. I am worthy.” Ambigo was crying and pulled away from the water and John’s grip. John’s wiry arm pushed his face against the wall of the cave and he growled at Ambigo, “Say it!” Ambigo sighed, “I am worthy.” The tears mixed with the warm water that flowed onto his head again, “I will find Andrea.” John waited for Ambigo to repeat the phrase and pushed him against the wall when he delayed, “I will find Andrea.” The warm water flowed again, “I will tell her the truth.” Ambigo repeated, his voice breaking, “I will tell her the truth.” The water hit his head again, “I will conquer my fear and ask for her hand in marriage.” Ambigo felt the strength of the words, “I will conquer my fear and ask for her hand in marriage.”
John set down the water jug and pulled Ambigo’s face from the wall. He brought out a small vial of oil and placed a drop of it on Ambigo’s forehead. “Do not discuss this with anyone. Do not allow talk about this issue to veer you from the path that I have set. You are worthy of her. Do not let your fear of her keep you from experiencing her love.” John helped him off his knees and handed him to the guard.
Ambigo blinked at the bright light and before he could stop him, Father Garcia entered the cave.