Sunday, July 13, 2008
WALKING ON WATER
A stranger, arriving in town for a few days to do some business, was surprised to see an old man on a downtown corner giving away water. The old man had a set-up just like any hawker’s, except that beside his table he had a large bucket with a ladle hooked over its edge and a sign in front of the table that read, “This water guaranteed to cure everything.”
The curious stranger, approaching the water-giver, had to wait his turn as passers-by stopped for a cup. When the last passer-by had left, the stranger asked the old man, “This is some special water?”
The old man shrugged as he poured the stranger a cup of water. “Yes and no. It is just ordinary water out of the tap. But it is also extraordinary water, able to cure any ailment known to man.” He waited for the stranger to try a taste of the water but the stranger held his cup without drinking.
“How can it be both?” the stranger wondered aloud. “Both ordinary and extraordinary? Either it’s just water—or it isn’t.”
“Not at all,” the old man replied, pouring a cup for a young woman who looked extremely hot and harried. “Isn’t a sunset both ordinary and extraordinary?”
The stranger waved that analogy away with some undisguised irritation. “That’s just a play on words. With sunsets, all that means is that an everyday event can also be beautiful and even awesome. Here you seem to mean two completely different and contradictory things, that this is ordinary water that couldn’t possibly cure anything and that at the same time it is extraordinary water that can, what, cure cancers and brain tumors?”
The old man nodded. “Absolutely. And gout. And fatigue. Everything.”
The stranger shook his head. “So, they seem like two different things, don’t they? The ordinariness and extraordinariness of a sunset and the ordinariness and extraordinariness of this water?”
The old man shrugged. “By the way,” he said suddenly, “you can also walk on this water! Isn’t that amazing?”
Shock registered on the stranger’s face, replaced after a moment by a small smile of glee. Now that, he thought, would be child’s play to verify. Whether or not the water could reduce a brain tumor was a claim that would take some investigating. But that you could walk on this water? That ought to be easy to prove or disprove!
“I would like to see that,” the stranger exclaimed. “Very much so! Can I see that?”
The old man shook his head sadly. “Ah, but that only happens on Tuesdays. Today is Wednesday. You missed it.”
“Yes, indeed! You should have seen all the people walking on water. It was amazing. It would have made your heart swell.”
The stranger, who prided himself on having feathers that were not so easy to ruffle, nevertheless found himself growing agitated. He could feel his left hand tremble as the old man served several passers-by who had descended on the table.
When the old man finished serving, the stranger asked, more loudly than he had intended, “Was—did someone record it? Many people must have been moved to record such a sight?”
“Oh, no doubt!” the old man agreed. “But of course I had no need to see the recordings. I saw the real thing.”
“Yes, yes, of course--” The stranger pulled at his hair. “So, if I came back next Tuesday--”
“Are you in town that long?” the old man wondered, smiling a small, knowing smile that disturbed the stranger even more than the water business. “I’m surprised that there’s enough business in this place to keep you a full week.”
The stranger said nothing. How had the old man known that he was a stranger in town and here on business? And that he had only planned on staying a few days? He tried to make his face a blank, so as not to reveal anything else about himself, but suddenly doubted that he was doing a very good job of it. Was his face such an open book? He’d never thought so before, but now he wasn’t sure.
The old man poured himself a full cup of water and accompanied his drinking with small sighs of satisfaction. “It’s especially good for blindness,” he murmured after a moment. “The blind see again between five and ten minutes after drinking just one cup of this water.”
That was too much. “You’re shameless!” the stranger exploded. “Really! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Making these outrageous claims? That your water cures everything—even though it’s just tap water! How do you sleep at night?”
The old man calmly waved the charge away. “I think you missed the small print,” he said. He pointed to the sign in front of the table. “Did you read the bottom?”
The stranger, his face flushed and his heart pounding, looked where the old man pointed. Indeed, right there at the bottom, under the claim “This water guaranteed to cure everything,” in small print that was however not so small as to be completely overlooked, he read the following caveat: “If you believe.”
“If you believe what?” the stranger exclaimed.
“Why, in the power of the water to cure, of course,” the old man said mildly. He shook his head. “I would say that you don’t have such a belief and so for you the water wouldn’t do much of anything. Not even quench your thirst, I bet.”
The stranger could find no words to communicate his outrage. People from all directions descended on the stand and claimed their cup of water. One elderly woman gave a spontaneous testimonial to no one in particular: “This water saved my life! I had a tumor that no doctor could cure and it completely vanished after just two cups of this water!” People crowding the stand make approving and wondering noises. The stranger could take no more. He turned on his heels and fled.
The old man noticed him leaving. “And don’t forget to come back on Tuesday!” he called after him. “Everybody will be walking on water—you, too, if you’ll let yourself believe!”
So frustrated was the stranger that he felt like pulling out his hair or poking out his eye. He cut his business trip short by a full day, costing himself some business, and got back on the road as quickly as he could. When he was far out of town he stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. The pretty little restaurant sat nestled among some trees beside a burbling brook. He ordered a glass of decent wine and read the menu as he sipped his wine. Slowly his good spirits returned.
The pretty waitress came back to take his order. Now in fine spirits, he said idly, “That creek there,” he said, a smile in his voice. “Anybody able to walk on it without falling in?”
The girl’s eyes opened wide. “You know about that?” she said. “People swear there’s an odd boy with one arm shorter than the other who can walk on that water—but he only does it when nobody’s around. He has this sixth sense about when people are around, so he is never spotted.”
The stranger looked at her in horror. “And you believe that? But just think about it!” he exclaimed. “What you are saying is that no one has ever seen him walking on water!”
“No, no, they have!” she replied defensively.
“But you just said--”
Cold as stone, she raised her pen and pad. “Are you ready to order?” she said. “By the way, we’re out of meatloaf.”
“Please,” the stranger implored her. “Just answer me this. Why would you believe something so preposterous?”
The girl looked at him with a most imperious look. “I mean,” she said, “when you’re not watching, anything could happen. How do you know what’s happening when you’re not looking?”
The stranger slumped back in his chair. After a long moment he raised himself up and said, “I’ll think I’ll have the meatloaf.”
“I told you, we’re out of meatloaf,” the waitress replied severely.
“Right. But I figured that around here you could be out of meatloaf and also have some meatloaf,” he said, laughing hollowly.
“That ridiculous,” the girl replied. “I’ll come back when you’re really ready to order.” She turned away and gave the stranger her sturdy uniformed back.