The old blind man sat in the filth of the street, holding a badly chipped clay pot, his eyes clenched to well-practiced slits, patiently waiting for the charity of strangers. As he watched the people bustle through the market square, he gritted his sparse yellow teeth every time one of them dropped something into the threadbare begging sack the little lame boy across the street held out so pitifully.
The boy was the worst kind of amateur. The blind man had studied him with contempt in the several days since he had appeared. He watched him kick his legs around to change position every few minutes, then get up and walk home at dusk each night. It amazed him that nobody else had noticed. Why should that Johnny-come-lately get all the good charity with his sloppy act, when a seasoned professional went hungry? It was downright infuriating.
The blind man had staked his claim on street begging years earlier. He had walked into town, led on a short rope by a stolen donkey, which he had almost immediately bartered to the innkeeper. The animal had been worth a meal of rancid mutton and a stinking bed that had previously served as a sort of central office for the town’s inveterate harlot, until a dispute over incorrect change that day had gotten her stoned in the street for prostitution.
The next morning, when the innkeeper discovered the donkey dead in its stall, he chased the blind man into the street, beating him with a rod. The welts had been good for business. The blind man’s begging had never been so fruitful.
The blind man shook his empty pot and listened to the nothingness failing to rattle around in it. He would give his right eye for a few more welts, right about now.
He spotted a wealthy fat man in a crisp linen tunic and brightly colored robes, swaggering toward him. Finally! As his mark approached, the blind man cocked his head a quarter turn to avoid the appearance of looking at the man.
“Help for a poor blind man?” the blind man said, holding his dirty hand out to the air just past the wealthy man. “Charity for the blind?”
“Don’t you have a family to take care of you?” The wealthy man eyed him incredulously.
“No,” said the blind man, still sizing up the fat man, “My wife and sons all died of a plague. I am alone. Alone and blind. And terribly poor. Will you help me?” His voice quivered and fairly dripped with self-pity.
He watched out of the corner of his slitted eye as the wealthy man scooped a pebble up from the ground with a malicious smirk and tossed it into the pot. Even to the untrained ears of a man who had pretended so long to be blind, the pebble sounded nothing like a coin.
“Oh,” said the blind man as another thick group of people shuffled past behind the wealthy man, “thank you, kind sir. Thank you, and may your kindness be rewarded a hundredfold.” Then, addressing the passing crowd, “This generous man has offered me a great kindness, the first one of the day. And because of him, I will not starve today. Will someone please come and look at the treasure he has placed in my pot? From the sound, it must be very valuable.”
“Yes, old man,” said a deep voice behind the wealthy man, “I’ll look at your new treasure for you. If you’ll give me a share of it.”
The crowd began to gather around the blind man, murmuring about treasures and gifts for the poor. The blind man bit his lip to keep from smiling at the squirming rich man.
“Of course, young man,” the blind man said, “I will gladly give you fully half of whatever this kind man has placed into my pot.”
A young, muscular man who dwarfed the fidgety little rich man pushed past and reached into the blind man’s pot. The chubby rich man tried to push his way through the gathering throng, but the young strongman gripped his shoulder and held him in place.
The young man pulled out the pebble and inspected it with a grim expression. The fat little man tried to break away from his grip, but he could not.
“This is the great treasure this generous man has given the blind man!” The young man held the pebble high in the air for all to see. “Such generosity!”
The crowd roared with laughter.
“What is it, son?” the blind man asked, focusing his slitted eyes on a spectator thirty feet to the right of the pebble. She was an attractive young woman, and he found himself quite taken with her.
“This man has tricked you,” said the young man, “tricked a poor old blind man, whose life is already filled with nothing but difficulty. I am sorry. Your treasure is nothing but a pebble from the street.” Then, to the wealthy man, “Shame on you!”
“I will die today, after all!” the blind man wailed, “Is there no kindness left in the world?”
The crowd began to murmur disapprovingly. The attractive young woman just watched with a pleasant smile and attentive eyes that made the blind man a little nervous. He waited for the noise of disapproval to reach a crescendo before beginning to weep openly.
“Stone him!” shouted a voice from the crowd.
“It was a mistake,” the rich man shouted to the crowd, “a mistake! I meant to give him this.” He held up a dull copper coin from another city.
“Not good enough,” shouted the same voice, “let’s stone him!”
“No!” the wealthy man shouted back to the crowd, “No! I‘ll give him this whole bag of silver. Just let me go.” He held up a heavy silk pouch, then loosened the string on it to show its contents to the strongman whose grip was grinding a bruise into his shoulder.
“That’s pretty good,” shouted another voice in the crowd.
“Let’s stone him, anyway!” boomed the first voice.
“Yeah!” A third voice joined in. “Stone the cheap bastard!”
“But! But! Wait!” the rich man stammered, dropping the silver into the blind man’s pot, pouch and all. “I have gold, too!”
He held up another pouch. The blind man couldn’t help but smile at the sight of the sweating rich man just inside his periphery, and focusing unnoticed on the beautiful young woman’s placid smile was a rare treat, despite her unnervingly probing eyes. It was shaping up to be a good day, after all.
“What else you got?” the first crowd voice demanded.
A rock flew past the rich man’s head, straight toward the blind man. With an awkward twitching motion, the blind man spun his torso to get out of the way of the rock. The beautiful woman’s eyebrows almost levitated off her face. Then, she settled again into a knowing smile and winked at him.
“Wait!” said the rich man, “If you don’t kill me, I’ll give it all to you fine people!”
“That’s fair!” said the first crowd voice.
“Give over!” said another.
The rich man loosened the string on his bag of gold and cocked it back to launch it into the crowd, but at the last moment, he stopped. Instead, he jammed his hand back into the blind man’s pot and lobbed the bag of silver, creating a metallic rain of silver over the crowd.
In the frenzied melee that erupted around the falling coins, the rich man broke free of the young muscleman and darted away from the throng. As the fat man ran, looking backwards, the blind man seized an opportunity to get a little revenge. He stuck his leg out and tripped the rich man, sending him tumbling headlong into the street.
Soon, the rich man’s uncoordinated stumble-run had made good his escape, and the mob had dissipated just as quickly. The blind man returned to his vocation.
“Help a poor blind man?” he said to the first person to approach him. Looking up from her sandals, he could see that same knowing, placid smile. It was her.
“I will help you,” she said. Then, she took out a crust of bread and slowly bent forward with a sultry shimmy, exposing maximum cleavage to the blind man. He barely noticed the tink of the bread she dropped into his pot.
The blind man caught himself staring directly at her ample bosom, but it was too late. She looked down at her own bosom, then back at him and winked again. With a shiver he jerked his head back to a convincing blind man’s quarter turn away from her.
“Thank you, dear child,” he said, “there is still goodness in the world.”
Without a word, she sauntered over to a group of a baker’s dozen beggars in filthy robes. That was all he needed. First, the lame boy, now these thirteen able-bodied men to horn in on his action. He didn’t have long to wonder what their game was.
He could see the woman whisper something to one of them, a nondescript man in his late twenties with a confident smile that burned through his unkempt beard and became an outright laugh as she continued to whisper. She gave him a quick lover’s peck on the cheek and led him by the hand back to the blind man.
“Help for a poor blind man?” the blind man said nervously, as they approached.
“The power of my god will help you, brother,” the bearded man said in a gentle voice, never losing his smile. “You will see today.”
“That’s nonsense,” the blind man said with a wave of his hand, “I am blind, and that’s the end of it. Go away.”
The other twelve beggars surrounded the blind man, entirely covering him with their shadows.
“My god calls for this miracle to be done for you today to glorify Him,” the young man said in a voice intended for the crowd.
As the crowd gathered around, despite the blind man’s protestations, the young bearded beggar turned his back and dug his fingers into the ground, pulling out a chunk of dirt. He spat into his palm and rubbed his hands together to make a loose, foamy yellowish mud.
“Hold him down,” he instructed his followers, as he walked slowly toward the blind man.
At once, the blind man’s arms and legs were in the steely grip of the twelve followers. He kicked and fought in vain. He forgot to squint and look a quarter turn away when he saw what the man intended to do with the nasty spit-mud.
“No!” the man shouted, “Please! Somebody help me!”
“Heal him!” the familiar stoning-happy voice called out. “Then he’ll stop being such a pain in the ass!”
“Yeah!” another voice called out, “Do it!”
A moment later, the blind man had fingers in his eyes, grinding the gritty, stinging mud into them.
“Owwww!” he howled in pain and fear, “My eyes! Stop! It burns! Stop it! Please!”
The crowd murmured in anticipation. The muddy fingers finally relented, and the woman brought the blind man a cup of water from the well.
“Rinse your eyes,” the would-be healer ordered him.
The blind man splashed the water into his eyes and wiped them on his sleeves. Then, he repeated it a number of times, before relaxing back into his trained squint.
“Can you see anything,” the young, smiling man asked.
“No, you crazy bastard,” the blind man shouted, “I’m blind!”
“Hold him down again.” The young beggar gathered up another plug of dirt and made a show of preparing to spit into his hands again.
“No!” the blind man said frantically, “Wait! I can see. Just a little. You all look like… Like dim shadows of trees walking around.”
The crowd murmured excitedly as the details made it from the nearest to furthest. From putting spit-mud in the blind man’s eyes to putting his eyes on a muddy spit, the story changed and became weirder with each retelling.
“Well,” the crazy beggar said, stroking his beard, “It’s a start.”
The healer hocked up a snot ball that made the crowd groan. He held one of the blind man’s eyes wide open and spat into it.
“Ewww!” the stoning-happy voice yelled, “That’s just wrong!”
Another snot ball went into the other eye.
“All right! All right!” the blind man shrieked. “You win! I give!”
“Release him,” the crazy beggar said placidly.
The blind man took the fresh cup of water from the woman again and frantically washed the snot out of his eyes.
“What can you see, now?”
“Everything,” the blind man said bitterly. “I can see everything. You, your girlfriend, your twelve minions, the crowd. Everything! Are you satisfied, you sadistic son of a bitch? Are you?”
The crowd cheered. A healing had occurred.
“Praise the stranger!” shouted one voice above the rest.
“Praise whichever god he worships!” shouted another.
“Hey, buddy,” shouted the stoning-happy voice, “You think you could fix my hemorrhoids?”
The crazy beggar waved the crowd down.
“Maybe we could go just one more round.” He stooped and picked up another plug of dirt and turned toward the blind man. The blind man screamed in wordless terror as he approached slowly, menacingly, grinning wider than ever.
“Just kidding,” the crazy beggar said, dropping the dirt and turning back to be swallowed up by the adoring horde and crowd-surfed into the inn.
The blind man watched until the inn door closed behind them. For the first time in years, he had his eyes wide open and focused straight in front of him. It was liberating. Perhaps a miracle of sorts had been worked for him today, after all.
“Get up out of the street,” a stern voice said behind him. “You’re not blind anymore. Quit your begging.”
He turned just in time to be hit squarely in the mouth with a broom wielded by the innkeeper’s wife. Picking broom straw from between his teeth, he stood and walked across the street to the little lame boy.
The strongman reappeared from between the street vendors’ kiosks. The blind man nodded at him as he approached.
“What do you suppose we should do, now, father?” the strongman asked.
“Well, we can’t stay here,” the blind man said, watching the little lame boy change the position of his legs again, “maybe we should get into the traveling miracle business.”
“Help for a little lame boy?” The filthy little boy put on his best sad eyes and held out his begging sack. “Please?”
“What do you mean,” asked the strongman with a blank face.
“Just watch,” the blind man said. Then, he turned to the little lame boy.
“Little boy,” the blind man said to the little lame boy in a voice that was a caricature of the crazy beggar’s, “I’ve felt the power of the stranger’s god. That same power will heal you today, too.”
“Oh, I’m sure it can’t,” said the little lame boy, “I will be like this forever.”
“Well, we’ll just give it a try, just the same,” the blind man said, hauling back his foot.
“Heal!” the blind man yelled at the little lame boy, as he kicked the boy squarely in the crotch.
The little boy howled in pain and balled up into a fetal position, rocking back and forth. When the boy seemed to begin to relax again, the blind man pulled his foot back again.
“Are you fully healed?” he asked the little boy. “Or do you need another go?”
“Ohhhhh,” said the strongman, “I get it, now.” Then, turning to the little lame boy, “I’d just get up if I were you.”
The little boy got up to his feet, and began to waddle away clutching his groin. The strongman grabbed his bag as he passed by.
When their attention was away from the little lame boy, he stopped and gave them and obscene hand gesture before moving on.
“Look!” a voice called out from the inn doorway, “It’s another healing! He wasn’t even over there. This guy is good! Somebody buy him another round!”
“We could travel to Jerusalem, father,” said the strongman, “It’s a big place. I’ll bet they could use a miracle or two there.”
“You might just be right, Barabbas,” the blind man said, “You might just be right.”
HUSTON LOWELL lives in Eastern Missouri with a wife and a house full of kids. He has written screenplays for three award-winning indie films and has had his work showcased under various pseudonyms in venues across the webverse, including most recently Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k) and the 19 October 2010 front page of WeirdYear. His favorite author is Rodney Whitaker, and his favorite color is red.”