I always enjoyed our stopovers in Bethel. It was the one place where we stayed in a real roadhouse, and that was only because it was run by an old Greek soldier named Legolas who my father had known years before in Alexandria. Legolas always insisted we stay for free, but Papa consistently refused and always won the argument. It was, I think, a little face-saving game they played.
[To read the Introduction and Chapter 1: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/01/31/a-boys-tale-introduction-and-chapter-1/ To read Chapter 2: https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2015/02/07/a-boys-tale-chapter-2/ ]
Between leaving Jerusalem later than planned, and the unavoidable delay of the Roman parade, it was nearly dark by the time we reached the inn on the far side of town. Nevertheless, when we finally did arrive – just as always – Legolas was waiting in the doorway, hands on hips and flashing an enormous, toothy grin.
His boy took the donkeys off to the stable while we gratefully followed our jolly host into the warm, lamp-lit room that formed the central part of the hostel. I loved Legolas deeply and was always thrilled to see him. In fact, it was Legolas’s skill with a carving knife that had inspired my own passion for sculpting.
An enormous, burly man with a deep, chesty voice and heavily matted dense gray curls reaching out from his face in every direction, he would have been a scary sight if he hadn’t been so clearly at peace with his life and lot. He laughed more than anyone else I’ve ever known, long and loud and deep from within.
The fast friendship between Papa and Legolas had formed while both were in the service of the Roman Legate in Alexandria, Legolas as chief of the personal guard, and my father as a scribe-interpreter. Papa had a gift for tongues, and could fluently read and write eleven of them – a huge advantage for a seller of scrivener supplies in a polyglot place like Jerusalem.
Legolas’s career as a Legionnaire had come to an abrupt end nearly two decades earlier, not by enemy sword or hostile lance, but rather by the strike of an asp to his right leg. Though he fully recovered from the poison after only a few days – it would have taken a great deal of venom to fell such a man – the flesh around his bite eventually festered to the point that the limb had to be removed just below the knee.
He was originally from Macedonia, but had long lost touch with his family, so when the opportunity came along to buy the inn – owned by the widow of a fallen comrade – he had grasped it with his usual gusto and made it his own.
An original thinker if ever there was one – and not one to spend the rest of his life leaning on a crutch – Legolas had devised a truly clever solution to help compensate for his loss; something that made him quite unlike any other one-legged man I ever knew. It was basically nothing more than a blunt wooden stake cut to the length of the missing leg with a leather harness on the upper end to secure it to his knee joint. It was simplicity, itself, but the result was brilliant: a substitute leg that worked almost as well as the original.
Now, one might think such a unique contraption would have been remarkable enough, but Legolas, with time on his hands, had taken it even further. Over the years, he had fashioned an entire collection of leg stakes, one for every possible need. There were plain ones and ornate ones, polished and rough ones, some for work and some for show and each carved from an even more beautiful piece of wood than the last. “Finding the right wood is the key,” he told me once. “Without the right wood, you got nothin’, because it’s only the wood knows what’s inside tryin’ to get out. I jest help it, best I can, by whittlin’ away what don’t belong.”
I was one of the few people ever allowed to see his full collection of legs. “Never let people see the whole of you,” he said. My favorite one was inspired by his time in Egypt. It was a replica of an enormous statue he had seen in the desert of an ancient Pharaoh. Carved in exquisite, minute detail from blue-blackest ebony, the shirtless figure wore a pleated skirt, false beard and an elaborate crown that went right up to the leather knee harness. Legolas had even given him black onyx eyes that made him look just a little bit evil.
It seemed a shame he could never wear it outside his bedroom, but Ramesses the Leg had to be our little secret. After all, such images were forbidden “by the law and the prophets,” and even one overzealous patron accusing him of blasphemy would have been enough to destroy his life.
Caked with the dust stirred up by the Legionnaires, we rinsed our faces and drank deeply from the water jar just inside the door before finally embracing our host. He was effusive and carried on about how much I had grown as he pointed us to our usual room, where his boy had already placed our packs and was setting out washing cloths and another large vessel of water.
We wasted no time removing the remains of the day, and soon, refreshed and wearing clean clothes, returned to the common room where Legolas was truly in his element, presiding volubly over the evening’s meal. He often boasted of the exorbitant price he had paid for his cook – previously owned by a Roman Tribune – and he had gotten his money’s worth. The food was well-spiced and hearty.
Hungry and mindful of strenuous days ahead, we ate copiously while Legolas roamed the room, moving from table to table to regale his guests with outrageous stories (Papa told me they were all made up, but I wasn’t so sure). I marveled at the way he managed, no matter how tragic the tale he told, to leave every group of travelers laughing as he moved to greet the next one. As we had come to expect, he left us until last, then came to sit just as the boy cleared our table and brought the wine.
With guests arriving from every conceivable faraway place and eager to share the latest news, the roadside inns of Palestine of those days were hotbeds of gossip, and there was not much happening in the Province that Legolas had not heard in at least two or three versions. So, I was not surprised when Mama, who had learned a bit more by then about the strange doings of my uncles in Galilee, began to probe.
“Legolas, what do you hear of this John, this ‘new prophet?’ It seems like he is suddenly all anyone can talk about? My friend, Drusilla, told me that hundreds of people are lining up on the banks of the Jordan just to get bathed by him! What have you heard? I know you know something. Tell me.”
“Well, now, he’s a sight, for one thing,” Legolas said.
“Have you seen him?” Mama asked excitedly.
“No, never laid eyes on him, meself, but his long black hair and bushy beard are the first things most folks remember. Second thing is his voice. Say it rings across the river like Zeus, himself, when he gets going good. Say he cuts a real vision.
“In a costume, he is, too, they say. Always the same. Sheepskin cloak and a homespun loincloth. Just like Elijah wore, I’m told, though I’m sure I wouldn’t know about that. One man in here even went on and on about how he’s the actual reincarnation of Elijah, himself. Humph! If he’s Elijah come back from the dead, then I’m the Queen of Sheba!”
“What else?” Mama couldn’t get enough.
“Well, the thing what’s got my attention is not so much the talk as just how many people are talkin’,” he replied. “When he was camped near the Jerico Ford I had at least two or three people a day comin’ through here either on their way to see him or on their way back, and seems to me most of the ones who had seen him – heard him – just couldn’t stop talkin’. Carried on like they never had a clear thought in their lives until he come along to shine the light. When he gets to them, I tell you, he really gets to them. Not all, mind you. A few have said it was all too much for them, too much doom and gloom, too much brimstone, too much ire. But one thing’s for sure, the man has the gift. He gets under people’s skin, you know? You can just tell. I seen it in their eyes.”
“Where is he now? Do you know?” Papa began to show some interest.
“Well, from Jerico he went upriver to the ford at Adam, and now I hear tell he’s encamped near the Pella crossing. I guess he only works on the river so he can bathe people.”
“Do you believe what they say?” Mama asked.
“Oh, Mary,” Legolas said, “You know me better than that! I don’t believe or not believe. As the old saying goes, ‘by the fruit it bears shall you know the tree.’ We may all know everything someday, but I don’t think anybody knows everything yet.”
Mama never mentioned my uncles to Legolas. It seemed to me that she was a little embarrassed, and didn’t want him to know her own two brothers had been taken in by a wild-haired preacher in a sheep’s hide.
But as I lay on my mat that night trying to get to sleep, Papa already snoring, I pondered what could possibly move them – my very level-headed, fishermen uncles – to join with such a strange apparition. Did they also bathe in the Jordan? And, what was the point of this bathing thing, anyway, in the cold of winter? I really couldn’t imagine, frankly, and finally fell asleep wondering.
© 2015 George Thomas Wilson, all rights reserved