A bowl for the Broken Man
By Herman Labuschagne
Glentana, 16 July 2013



From a discussion thread which started as follows:

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is getting started. 

Give this a try: 
-Grab a book, or magazine or something with writing on it. 
-Close your eyes 
-let the book fall open to any random page 
-let your finger drop to the page
-open your eyes

The closest 3 words to your finger is the start of your story. 


Source: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/983627-first-words 

Picture source: Ecce homo! by Antonia Ciseri., 1871., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eccehomo1.jpg








































My prod-phrase comes from a published newsletter which contained the words “Demonstrations reached a…”


The story:


Demonstrations reached a pitch such as the city had never known before. It was thought that the tumult would have died down by morning, but this was not the case. Despite the night’s freezing cold a large number of people had remained around the courtyard of the palace all night. By dawn a warm wind had arisen from the desert. That was unusual, this time of year. This, and the strange amber clouds that filled the sky. It was not natural weather at all. The first flash of dawn cast an eerie glow across the landscape that made everything looked unreal, like a Greek painting. The bonfires below were fanned by the dry winds so that angry yellow sparks streaked into the crowd, causing some to wrap their garment around them with white-eyed looks of concern. There seemed to be an air of expectation about the square.


Upon the high balcony the young boy’s knuckles whitened as he strained to raise himself high enough to peer across the sandstone railing. He had to strain to put to use what little strength he had, for beneath his robe his legs were thin and unresponsive. Limbs that had never functioned since the day he was born. Still, it did not seem to bother him. He was used to his infirmity. Anxiously, his intelligent brown eyes surveyed the foreign scene. The figures below looked strangely haggard, even though some were clothed in grand finery. It was evident that many among them had spent the entire night there. The boy regarded the crowd with fascination – this strange and exotic multitude with which he was never allowed to mix. They seemed to represent all the multitudes of the earth, he thought. Some were there just out of curiosity. But some were there with out of passion. And it could be seen in the hardness of their faces. The determination of their jaw. They had the light of murder in their eyes. He even thought he could smell them. The animal-like smell of a predator.


Then, all of a sudden all faces turned into one direction as the titter-tatter of a brass bugle could be heard. A sigh of approval escaped the crowd, and everyone strained to look into one direction. From the small courtyard behind a wall, the sound of rapidly marching feet could be heard. Then the double doors burst open and the soldiers poured fourth – like bronze-clad ants with crimson feathers upon their helmets. In the reflected morning light their polished spear points shone like icicles.

“Make way! Make way at once!” a voice could be heard.

The crowd obeyed with an excited murmur and allowed the soldiers to quickly form a double row that lead all the way to the exit of the large courtyard.

The boy craned his neck to see better, but he had chosen his vantage point unwisely. He should not have asked to be carried out to the main balcony, where a row of Cyprus trees obscured the small courtyard’s door somewhat. He was disappointed for he had so much wanted to see this man of which everyone had been talking for days. If only he could see a glimpse of him…


When the double row of soldiers had succeeded in clearing an avenue between them, the prisoner was finally lead out. The boy could still not get a clear view of him, but what little he could see was enough. He had seen convicted men before, but this time he could not help but gasp. He had never seen a man so completely covered in blood before. His face was swollen to the point where it was utterly impossible to recognize any of his features. His naked body was glistening with dried blood all the way down to his feet, and his muscles seemed to be shaking with involuntary spasms of shock and exhaustion. Unconsciously the young boy’s hand went to his mouth. The crowd too, was momentarily checked into silence by what they saw. But only for a moment. When they were sure of who the prisoner really was, they broke into a thundering roar of approval. The sound of it sent a flock of roosting pigeons skywards from a loft with clattering wings. No-one seemed to notice this small occurrence, for all eyes were on the haggard figure before them. In the background the boy could not help but notice a group of dignified characters that were standing on the opposite terrace. They were resplendidly clothed in rich, gold-embroidered finery. Despite the distance, the boy could clearly tell that they were pleased with what they saw. He knew some of them. Especially the oldest one, who had occasionally made representations to his father. Even at a distance it was clear the he was smiling. A thin, razor of a smile that cracked his bony face like break in a sheet of ice.


The crowd obviously wanted to see more, but the soldiers were in a hurry. There were more soldiers waiting outside the courtyard and they were eager to escape the narrow confines and densely-packed crowd. When the centurion gave the signal, the prisoner was shoved forward violently. He stumbled forward a pace of two, but despite his weakness, he did not fall. In that moment, however, he looked up. And as he did so – for barely a second – his eyes fell upon the young boy that was hanging onto the balcony with whitened knuckles. In the tiny moment that their eyes met, it was as if something made time stand still. It was as if even the pigeons in the sky paused in mid-flight for just the briefest of heartbeats. And then the moment was gone as the crowd began to shove so hard that the soldiers had to lock arms to keep them back. The prisoner was hurried along, but he was clearly so weak that he could not walk at more than just a staggering pace. He did not look up in the boy’s direction again for the view between them had once again been obscured by the heads of many.


Upon the stone balcony the boy felt his throat constrict. He did not understand the emotion that gripped him. He only knew that he suddenly found himself gripped with the most overwhelming sense of compassion that he had ever known. He, how had been born a cripple and a weakling, for the first time found himself confronted with one who was weaker then himself. He felt a nameless sympathy for this broken figure of a man before him – a sympathy so great that it brought hot tears to his eyes. For a moment he cast around him desperately. Then his eyes fell on something that seemed to make sense to him. A small bowl of water that had been left standing on the balcony where his father had addressed the crown the previous day. He did not know how it came to be there for he had not been present at the time. All he knew was that the injured man below must be in need of water. And that he was moved by the deepest desire to make sure that the injured man would received it before he was lead out of the courtyard.

“Gaius!” he said in a tone that conveyed his urgency.

“Master Lucius?” came the reply of the dignified man behind him.

“Take this bowl of water and offer it to the prisoner, quick as you can. Quickly now!”

“Master?” the tall, elderly eunuch frowned, not sure that he had understood correctly.

“That bowl,” the young boy said, as he pointed toward the bowl of precious Sidonian glass. “I want you to give the water to the prisoner to drink before he leaves the courtyard!”
The elderly figure surveyed the boy silently for a little while and then nodded. He was not sure he understood the reason. The circumstances were unusual. But he knew that the boy’s father allowed his crippled child most liberties, and he himself felt no reason to refuse. The timid boy with the melancholy eyes seldom imposed upon him and had always spoken to him kindly. He would obey this command if it is what the boy really wanted.


There was a delay below while the captain of the guard and the centurion had a discussion. They decided that it was too crowded in the courtyard to bring the beam in. They would keep it ready for the prisoner when he is lead out of the outer gate. The centurion nodded and was just about to issue an order when a tall figure forced his way through the crowd and tapped his shoulder. He bowed his head as he listened, and then briefly looked up at the balcony. Recognizing the sickly young son of the procurator, he quickly nodded. Then he motioned for the soldiers to step back a little. The boy tried to raise himself so that he could see more, but it was almost impossible. There were too many heads that blocked the view. At least he was able to see that that Gaius was lifting the bowl. Whether the stranger drank or not, he could not make out. But it seemed that he did. The pause lasted for only a few seconds. Then the tall man stepped back and the gap was filled by the centurion and two other soldiers. At his signal, thirteen bugles sounded. As one man the crowd roared with joy. The bloodied prisoner stumbled drunkenly as he was pushed forward. Outside the courtyard, hundreds of people had been waiting all night – and when they heard the sound from within, they too, took up the cry of satisfaction. They had waited many hours for this moment. But now the moment had arrived!


When the outer courtyard’s doors were thrown upon, a roar arose such as no-one in the city had ever heard before. As more and more people heard it, they too, took up the cry until it sounded across the ancient buildings like the roar of many waters. Across town dogs were barking, and more pigeons took to the sky in a panicked effort to escape the commotion. Far on the western horizon angry clouds were building – towering up into the sky into a frowning bank that was lit up by the early sun like a vast column of fire. At that moment the sun broke across the ancient walls and skipped across the city like a silent avalanche. The boy lifted his small hand above his eyes to shield himself from the rays. He had hoped to catch a very last glimpse of the mysterious prisoner before he left the courtyard, but in this he was disappointed. All he saw was a golden light before the soldiers bundled the captive man through the heavy gates. Within the courtyard the dust slowly rose beneath hundreds of feet, so that it shimmered. The battlements cast eerie streaks of light that pierced the golden dust cloud like spears that jutted down from heaven. It created the most unnatural scene the palace had ever borne witness to.


When the elderly eunuch reached the top of the stairs to the balcony again, he found the boy silhouetted starkly against the dramatic skyline. His night robe hung smoothly down his frail figure. For a moment the old man stared uncomprehendingly. And then his mouth slowly fell open. A second later his grasp went limp. The precious bowl within his hands fell to the ground in what seemed like very slow motion. When it struck the marble floor it shattered into a thousand pieces. Jagged fragments with razor sharp edges that flew into all directions at once. At the sound of this, the spell was broken at once. The young boy turned to see his old servant still round-eyed and speechless with shock, so that the sight of him caused himself some panic as well.

“What’s wrong, Gaius!” he cried.

Slowly – very slowly – the old man raised one long arm, and pointed at the boy with one knobbly old finger.

“Master Lucius!” he gasped. “Master Lucius… your legs, Master Lucius…!”

There was a long delay during which he kept on pointing in frozen animation, before he softly gasped: “You are standing, Master Lucius!”

For a moment the boy did not seem to comprehend his words. And then he looked down at his own legs. As he did so – for the first time in his life – he became aware of the sensation of cold stone beneath the soles of his feet. With great surprise he looked up to where his calves protruded from his robe – calves that no longer seemed emaciated and thin – but rounder and healthy. Then – virtually trembling throughout his entire body – he slowly removed his hands from the railing of the balcony until he was standing free and unsupported.

“Gaius…?” he mouthed the words silently – questioningly.


When he turned around again most of the crowd had left the courtyard. He wanted so desperately to get one last look of the procession, but there was nothing more to be seen except the blinding sun. The old man closed the gap between them with slow, reverent steps, as the broken glass crunched beneath his feet. Then the boy fell into his arms like a small child. He was sobbing with the aching emotion of someone who had both lost and gained the most precious gift in the world, all at the same time.