Here is Chapter Nine…
“Was it him?” “Does he know about Jesus?” “What was it like?” The team bombarded Ambigo with questions in English, but all he wanted to do was run away. He was fighting back tears. He was wet and the water that had been warm in the cave had cooled down and was giving him the chills. “We have to stop him.” Ambigo tried to get past the guards at the cave, but Simon pulled him back. “No, it’s ok. Don’t worry.”
Ambigo looked to Simon. He was the one man who could get past the guards. Ambigo imagined that Simon could snap their necks like a hero in an action film. He grabbed Simon by the tunic, “We have to stop him. He uses some hallucinogenic herbs that mess you up.” Simon wrapped his brawny arms around Ambigo and held him. Ambigo struggled to free himself, but Simon kept holding him gently, but firmly. Ambigo wiggled and pushed and hit Simon until all he could do was just sob. He cried into Simon’s chest for at least a half hour.
When Simon finally released him, Ambigo flopped to the ground and pulled his legs to his chest. Petros put his arm around him and the two of them just sat in silence. The rest of the team quietly watched the two of them and sat silently. Finally, Madi gently asked him in Aramaic, “Was it John the Baptist?” Ambigo rocked his body, still clutching his knees. “Yeah. He said he was John, son of somebody or other. Zachariah or something, but after that, I’m pretty sure he’s the guy you guys are looking for.” Tad folded his arms, “Did you ask him about…the rabbi?”
Ambigo looked at Petros and then answered, “He said he has some cousins in Nazareth, but he doesn’t know them well enough to know where they are. He wondered why we came to him instead of starting in Nazareth.” Ambigo couldn’t bring himself to question Simon or Father Garcia’s choices, but he was perfectly willing to let John’s questions bring him an answer. No explanation came to him, however.
Jaime volunteered, “I’ll go next.” Ambigo unclenched his knees, “No! No one else is going in there. We don’t know what he’s burning in there. Whatever it is, it’s really powerful and could damage your lungs. I know it has…” He couldn’t think of the proper word in Aramaic, “…dreamlike effects. No one else is going into that cave. As the healer, that is my decision.”
Everyone on the team looked to Simon for a response. Simon tried to reason with Ambigo, “It’s John the Baptist in there, right?” Ambigo nodded, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s him.” Simon folded his arms, “You’d stop us from being baptized by John the Baptist? This is the only chance we are ever going to get and you’re going to stop us?” Ambigo’s stomach lurched. The confrontation was uncomfortable to him. “I know I’m not in charge here, but I strongly advise you against sending anyone else in there.” The two of them looked at each other earnestly.
Simon raised his eyes to the sky, “You can’t tell us what he was burning in there? Maybe it was just…” Simon search for the word, couldn’t find one and substituted the English within the Aramaic words, “…marijuana. A little pot isn’t going to hurt us.” Ambigo remembered the sample that John had given him. He opened his satchel and separated his medicinal herbs from the handful of herbs that he had haphazardly placed there. “Do you know what marijuana looks like? I never really experimented…” He held out the herbs for the team to see. There was hair, plant matter and an assortment of seeds. Madi picked a black seed out of the mix, “Are these poppy seeds? What happens if you smoke poppy seeds?”
“You barf,” Simon was quick to answer. The team looked at him strangely and he shrugged, “Hey, I’m military. Those guys will smoke anything.” Petros started at Simon’s admission and listened intently. “Well, my stomach was sick, but I think it was from all this hair.” The team looked at the strange mix of plant and animal material in Ambigo’s hands and admitted that none of them could identify anything. Ambigo carefully placed the mixture back in his satchel. “I wouldn’t recommend that any of you go in there. Would you, Petros?”
Petros had been inching away from the team. Ambigo’s question brought his presence to their minds again and Simon positioned himself near the reluctant saint. “So, Petros. You went in before any of us. Do you think we should go in? How was it for you?” Petros tried to slide away, but Simon placed his arm around his shoulders. An outside observer would have seen brotherly love, but the team knew that Petros was not going to be leaving them. “I’m not supposed to talk about what happened in there.” Ambigo nodded and patted his knee, “You don’t need to tell us anything about what you discussed. Do you think it’s safe for my friends,” the word felt strange to him now, “to go in the cave?”
Petros looked at Simon and then back at Ambigo. His gaze finally rested on Madi’s scarred legs. “It’s safe, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It’s not…” he hesitated, “…pleasant.” He looked Madi in the eye, “I have a feeling that you have suffered much. This man will remind you of your suffering and not allow you to shirk from your duties.” Ambigo nodded in agreement, “No one else should go.”
“I’m going in,” Madi said it with such conviction and authority that for a brief moment, Ambigo felt like she was in charge of the team. Jaime crinkled his brow, grabbed her arm and chided her in English, “Were you listening? It’s not a good idea. The guy is burning some incense stuff that messes up your mind and it sounds like he is an expert manipulator. You are not going in there.” Madi calmly looked at Jaime’s hand on her arm. She didn’t say anything, but her look alone was enough for him to unhand her. When he removed his hand, she whispered in English, “One of us has to go. We have to get him on film, even if there is a risk. We don’t have to be redundant, but I’ll be damned if we don’t get a recording of him.”
The strange language piqued Petros’ interest. He was still under the watchful eye of Simon, but he leaned closer to listen to Madi’s words. Jaime responded to her in Aramaic, “If one of us has to go, then it will be me.” Madi shook her head, “You heard Petros. This is not easy. I think the two of us know who the stronger one is.” Jaime turned his head away and the rest of the team pretended they hadn’t heard what she said. Petros stared at the scars on Madi’s legs and she allowed him to look without comment.
The team was silent for a long time. Ambigo drew in a deep breath, “You guys couldn’t hear me in there, could you? When they opened the cave, I could see you out there, but I didn’t think you could see me.” Tad shook his head, “We could hear your voice, but we couldn’t hear what you were saying. I could tell when you changed to…” he inserted the English word, “…English…but I don’t think any of us could tell what you were saying.” The rest of the team and Petros nodded in agreement. A silent wave of gratitude rolled over Ambigo and the small group was quiet again.
Father Garcia was dry when he came out of the cave. Madi was allowed in and Father Garcia didn’t try to stop her. Out of habit, Simon grabbed him in a comforting bear hug, but Father Garcia didn’t seem to need it. Father Garcia endured the embrace and waited patiently for Simon to release him. When it was obvious that Simon wasn’t going to let him go, Father Garcia gently thanked him, “I believe that is sufficient, my boy.” Simon freed him.
Ambigo watched Father Garcia closely, “He didn’t baptize you?” The dark of a blush crept over the priest’s brown face, “He said I didn’t need it.” Tad’s eyes became large at the admission, “You didn’t need it? We’ve watched at least ten people come out of that cave and none of them were dry. You’re the first one. What, did he say that you should be baptizing him?” Ambigo could tell from Tad’s voice that he meant it in jest, but a strange pallor fell over Tad’s face when Father Garcia answered, “Yeah, that’s what he said.”
The team was quiet and Petros looked to Ambigo for an explanation, but he was unable to provide one. Simon was the first to ask, “Did you tell him that he had to baptize you anyway?” Father Garcia shook his head, “No, I didn’t. I think he must say this to people who are well-schooled in doctrine. I’m just another rabbi. I don’t need my sins washed. I don’t need to go back to the ways of the Lord. I live them every day.” An uneasy silence settled between Tad and Father Garcia. Jaime pretended to film the cave, the guards and the crowd, but Ambigo could tell he was deep in thought.
It was Petros who broke the quiet that had come between the team members, “He said that you should baptize him?” Father Garcia looked sheepishly at the newest member of their team, “Yes.” Petros shook his head as if he didn’t believe him, “Did you baptize him?” Father Garcia’s eyebrows lifted, “Um, no, I didn’t. I just accepted what he said and left the cave.” Petros ran his hands through his hair. It had dried in thick curls during the wait, but the oil made it appear wet in spots. “What does the man who baptizes need a baptism for? What transgressions does he have to be cleaned?”
Ambigo saw a strange sense of panic and wonder flash across Father Garcia’s face, “I’ve never thought of it that way before. Why does John the Baptist need to be baptized?” The same panic and wonder passed over Tad’s face. Jaime acted as if he didn’t hear the discourse, but Ambigo could tell he was listening intently. Simon stayed on course with the mission, “Did he confess to you?” Father Garcia shook his head, “No he asked me hundreds of leading questions that tend to elicit confessions. When I didn’t take the bait, he said I should baptize him. I told him no and left the cave. That was it. I missed the opportunity of a lifetime, didn’t I?” The panic in the priest’s face had escalated to grief. He turned toward Tad. The other priest patted him on the back. The grief exploded in tears and the bear hug that Father Garcia didn’t need before was now a welcome comfort. Simon held him under the surprised gaze of the waiting crowd.
Ambigo felt uncomfortable at the priest’s outburst. It seemed like such a simple mistake. He even considered sending another member of the team in to see if they could elicit a similar response. Father Garcia, however, was grieving like a man who had made a fatal mistake. “What’s the problem?” he asked Tad in a hushed whisper. Tad shook his head and pulled Ambigo near him. “It’s hard to explain. A lot of us really pride ourselves on being able to get a confession out of anyone. He missed his chance with one of the most important people in church history. It’s kind of a… a failure.” Ambigo shrugged, “So we send you in and you’ll get the confession. Who cares how we get it as long as we get it?” Tad shook his head, “No way. I’m not setting foot in that cave. There’s too much hidden inside of me to let it all come out under the influence of drugs.” Ambigo silently contemplated the darkness hidden within the priest.
When Father Garcia calmed, he slouched away from Simon. Ambigo put his arm around the priest. He and Simon exchanged knowing looks and the subject was broached, “Ambigo thinks that we shouldn’t allow any other team members in there. He says that John is burning some drugs that make people talk and he doesn’t think it’s safe. Your last orders were for all of us to go in, but I think that the healer might have a valid point.” Father Garcia acted like a man who was trying to regain his balance, “I don’t know. This changes everything.” Jaime continued to watch the entrance to the cave and Tad fidgeted uncomfortably.
Before Father Garcia could answer, a loud yell came from one of the guards in front of the cave. The waiting crowd simultaneously turned to see the ensuing commotion. A bird had been beating itself against the hides covering the entrance to the cave. The guard opened the hides and the bird fluttered at his face. He waved and swatted at the bird before it finally escaped and rushed toward the sun. The crowd muttered in questioning voices. The guard resumed his stance of protection, trying to act as if there had been no bird. The questions started to distinguish themselves, “What kind of bird was it?” “Did it come out of the cave?” “What does it mean?” The answers filtered their way around the noisy group, “It was a dove, wasn’t it?” “It definitely came out of the cave.” “Ask the guard. He’ll tell you. The bird came out of the cave.” “My aunt says that birds are God’s messengers.” “Birds are filthy creatures. That woman must be a witch.”
A different sort of excitement hovered over the team. The symbolism was not lost on Ambigo. He watched in a sick fascination, expecting Petros to be confused, but Petros acted as if he knew a secret. He spoke first, “Your woman has been chosen by God.” He directed the statement to Jaime. The rest of the team had been so distracted by the bird and all its potential meanings that Petros’ words surprised them. Jaime finally took his eyes from the cave and answered Petros, “She is not my woman. She belongs to herself.”
Before anyone could argue the meaning of the bird any further, there was another disturbance at the cave. The hides had been opened again and the guard made an announcement, “The rabbi will see no more visitors today. He will start again tomorrow morning.” The team waited for Madi to leave the cave while the rest of the crowd started to set up a makeshift camp. Father Garcia placed his hand on Petros’ arm, “Do you leave for your home tonight?” The bird was forgotten, “Yes. My wife has been without me for too many days.” Father Garcia turned to Simon, “There will be no more visits to the cave. As soon as Madi joins us, we will leave with Petros.” A small glimmer of panic washed over Petros’ face. Simon nodded at the order.
The team waited as the crowd prepared for the evening. The makings of a huge fire were gathered. An excited hum surrounded the camp. It was in stark contrast to the unease that the team was experiencing. For every minute that Madi’s release was delayed, the unease grew until they were in a state of near panic by the time they agreed to confront the guards about her. Father Garcia approached the larger of the two, “We are worried about our sister.” The guard quietly ignored him. Simon nodded at him and he tried again, “We are wondering when she will be released.”
The guard looked ahead as if Father Garcia had not addressed him. Ambigo nodded at Simon and tried talking to the guard, “I understand that she may have to spend the evening until she is willing to…” he tried to think of the most delicate word for his experience with John, “…finish her… conversation with him. You must also understand how essential it is that we are assured her safety.” There was a flicker of recognition in the guard’s eyes. Ambigo thought to himself, “Just one more word and he will give in to me.” Before Ambigo could complete the negotiation, he saw Father Garcia nod at Simon out of the corner of his eye.
There was not enough time to stop them. Ambigo felt as if he was trapped in slow motion as he watched Simon deftly subdue the larger guard. At the same moment, Tad and Jaime took possession of the other man watching over the entrance. The image of Simon snapping the necks of his enemies like a hero in an action movie became indelible in Ambigo’s mind. This time, the men were merely restrained, but he had no doubts about Simon’s abilities in hand-to-hand combat. Father Garcia calmly separated the hides and entered the cave.
Ambigo stood amazed at how quickly everything had changed. Within seconds, he had gone from negotiating to watching events helplessly. Simon called to him from the struggle, “Thanks for distracting them for us.” Tad and Jaime grunted their gratitude. Ambigo shook with anger, “I wasn’t trying to distract him. I was negotiating with him, which is your job, not mine.” Simon firmly held the wriggling guard, “Well, if we do this correctly, you won’t have to do your job.” Jaime grunted under the strain of holding the other guard, “One of the team is being held against her wishes…” The burly man used the moment of conversation to break free, knocking Jaime squarely in the right eye. Ambigo and Tad jumped on him, once again getting him under control. Jaime clutched his eye, “I refuse to let anyone on our team be kept prisoner, especially Madi.”
Ambigo saw Petros within his peripheral vision as he held the squirming mound of muscles. Petros made no attempt at hiding his fear and disgust. Ambigo tried to think of the words to justify his involvement in this show of fisticuffs, but it was all he could do to keep the guard from throwing him off. They had surprised the crowd of followers. The once happy activity of setting up camp was silent and shocked.
The hides parted, calming the struggle. In the waning light of the evening, John looked even more emaciated than he had when Ambigo saw him in the cave. He raised a filthy hand and the guards ceased moving. To John’s right stood Madi, soaked from head to toe and shivering. The thin outline of her body shone through her wet clothing. To her right stood Father Garcia. He nodded at Simon and the soldier released his charge. Tad loosened his grip on the other guard, but Ambigo kept holding him. Without Tad’s help, however, the man wriggled free, elbowing Ambigo in the eye just as he had done to Jaime.
John spoke to his men, the team and the crowd, “There has been a misunderstanding. This woman is very special. She has been chosen among all others. She will stay with me for the duration of the night.” He turned toward Madi, “Do you stay with me of your own free will?” She spoke loudly and clearly without fear, “I do.” She directed her gaze at Jaime with a reassuring glance and a sudden flash of worry when she saw him covering his eye. John faced Father Garcia, “As her father, do you agree to this arrangement?” Father Garcia looked to Madi again for one final nod of approval, “I do.” John faced his men and the crowd, “Let this night be filled with joy and song! Let all grievances be put aside!”
A woman from the crowd approached Madi with a blanket to cover her and keep her warm. John opened the hides and allowed Madi to enter first. Father Garcia and Ambigo attended to Jaime’s eye. The guards resumed their positions at the entrance. The crowd slowly returned to their previous activities and soon the fight was forgotten among the festivities.