Nino Ricci

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Excerpt from Testament by Nino Ricci

I first saw him in the winter of that year at En Melakh, a town of a few hundred just north of the Salt Sea . He had come in out of the desert, people said-from the look of him, his blistered face and the way his skin hung from his bones, he'd passed a good while there. He had set himself up now just off the square, squatting in the shade of an old fig tree; I had a good view of him from the porch of the tavern I'd put up in across the way. Some of the townspeople, no doubt taking him for a holy man, dropped bits of food in front of him from time to time, which he accepted with a nod of his head but more often than not couldn't seem to bring himself to stomach, letting them sit there in the dirt for the flies to collect on or the dogs to snatch away.

Though the town lay on the Roman side of the frontier, the soldiers of Herod Antipas often passed that way when they travelled up from his southern territories. At the time, I was awaiting an informant we had among Herod's men on his way back to the court from the Macherus fortress. The holy man had appeared perhaps the third day of my wait, simply there beneath the fig tree when I awoke; from the joyless look of him I thought he might have been cast out from one of the desert cults, the way they did sometimes if some bit of food should touch your hand before you'd washed it or if you missed some pause or half-word in your prayers. His hair and beard were scraggly and short as if they'd been recently shaved for a vow-they gave him a boyish appearance but couldn't however quite take the dignity from him, which seemed to sit on him like some mantle someone had laid over him.

He wasn't wearing any sandals or cloak. I thought surely he'd had some cave out there to hole up in, and some brush for fire, or he would have frozen to death in the cold. Even here in the valley the nights had been bitter, the little heat the sun built up over the day through the winter haze vanishing the instant dusk fell. I waited to see if he planned to weather the night in the open or repair to some cranny when darkness set in. But the sun dropped and he didn't move. My tavern-keeper, a mangy sort with an open sore on one of his knuckles, brought a lamp out to the porch and a bit of the gruel he passed off as food.

'He's a quiet one, that one,' he said, with his low, vulgar laugh, trying to ingratiate himself. 'Nearly dead from the look of it.'

Not ten strides from the man some of the boys of the town, coming out after their suppers, began to get up a bit of a fire, spitting and holding their hands up to the flames and keeping their talk low lest the holy man overhear them. The orange haze their fire threw out just reached the man where he was, making him seem like someone at a threshold, someone turned away from the room of light the fire formed. Get up and warm yourself, I wanted to say to him, feeling I was out there with him in the cold, with the wind at my ankles and just a few bits of bread in my belly. But still he sat. It occurred to me that he was perhaps simply too enfeebled to rise, that his hapless look was his own hunger-dimmed wonder that he could sit there as his life ebbed away and not be able to lift a finger to save himself.


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