The young boy sat on the low, dusty stone wall and watched the old man move slowly down the narrow street.
“Karpus!” one of his playmates called. “What are you doing? Get up and play with us!”
“Not just now,” the sober eight-year-old called back. “I have something to do.”
Knowing Karpus’ whimsical ways, the other youngster shrugged and ran quickly back down the street, away from the eight-year-old and the object of his attention.
Karpus knew exactly what he wanted to do today: talk to this old, decrepit man. He had heard the men in the marketplace refer to him as the “Beloved Disciple,” and while he knew what a disciple was, he had very little idea of what “beloved” meant. Of course, he knew that his elders were to be respected at all times – storge was the Greek term – but this man elicited more than just respect from those around him.
It was devotion – yes, that was it! Somehow, people were devoted to this ancient figure. Like when the boy and his father Antonius would worship at the Temple of Homer. His father always bowed low to the attending priests and treated them with the utmost deference, even when the younger ones – always cockier than the older guardians of the shrine – seemed to take their duties lightly. They would rush the prayers and burn the sacrifice carelessly. Their incense was always on the skimpy side, and they never lingered long enough to assure his father of the god’s blessing. Karpus was bored most of the times he accompanied his father, but he had been taught to be a dutiful son, and he would never disappoint his father by showing his boredom.
Something was awakening in Karpus regarding the gods, however. He questioned everything he had been taught about them. Why didn’t they always answer his father’s prayers? Why were they always doing things his own father taught him never to do? Why did he feel nothing akin to his father’s devotion when he went to the temple with him?
In a mysterious, simplistic way, Karpus felt that this old man had an answer – maybe even the answer. People whispered and gossiped about the followers of the Christos all the time, mainly because they seemed eccentric, even a little mad. But Karpus knew they held a secret; he believed it lay in the sign of the Fish – ichthus.
Karpus’ memory took him back to his fifth birthday – a day for celebrating amongst the people of his culture. Babies and toddlers died all the time, some from disease and some from accidents, but a child who had reached five years in this life was congratulated and embraced. His mother Penelope and his father Antonius proclaimed that the gods had smiled on them, granting their firstborn the ability to survive. And so they had solemnized his name – “Karpus” – “fruit” – affirming their hope that he would be the first of many children in their household.
Somehow, the gods had not seen it in the same way as Karpus’ family had. Another child came along the next year – another boy – but the child had been born prematurely and died within a few hours. Karpus vividly remembered the wailing women gathered in the anteroom, and the men walking solemnly in and out of the courtyard, bearing wine and fruit and bread as an offering to the family’s household gods. His father had accepted his guests with dignity and restraint, but Karpus saw and heard the deep disappointment in his father’s voice. Why are the gods so angry at my abba? the little boy had thought. He worships them all the time, and yet they let my baby brother die. Somehow, this question had loomed large in the boy’s psyche, and even now – three years later – he burned with a need to know, to understand.
Karpus got down from the wall and started to follow the elderly man, who was already far ahead of Karpus on the street. Fortunately, the man had stopped to talk to a man many years his junior, so Karpus had a chance to catch up with him. He noticed that though the man moved slowly, his head was raised. In the quiet street, Karpus thought he heard the old man saying something as he walked along.
Suddenly, the man stopped and turned around. He looked right at Karpus and smiled.
“A pleasant day for a walk, don’t you think?” the man said. Karpus was caught totally off guard.
“I…am…sorry…sir,” stammered the boy.
The man chuckled. “It is a strange thing to say about such a beautiful morning,” he said.
“I…meant…I…mean” the boy began again.
“Do the morning hours always affect your tongue like this?” the man said with mock seriousness.
Karpus saw the amusement on the man’s face and started to relax. The man stretched out his hand and gently laid it on Karpus’ shoulder.
“Let us begin our friendship again. I am John, the lowly servant of Jesus the Christos. I serve as shepherd of the followers of the Way. And you, my young friend?” he said.
“I am Karpus, son of Antonius the merchant,” said the boy.
“And what does your father sell?”
“He sells cloth, reverend Father.”
“Hush, lad! The Christos taught us never to give exalted titles to people who are no kin to us.”
The boy was embarrassed. “I only meant…” he said weakly.
“Fear not, Karpus. My purpose is not to chide you; my purpose is to teach you.”
“I have no money with which to pay you, reverend…” and the boy stopped, frustrated that he had almost erred again.
“The knowledge of the Christos is free to all,” said John gently. “Will you come with me as I buy my daily bread?”
“My father will be expecting me soon.”
“But I would like to know…” he started, but then the boy’s shyness took over completely.
“…More?” said John.
John chuckled. “Only if you stop calling me ‘sir.’ I am Brother John – nothing more.”
“Can you come visit me during the rest hour this afternoon?”
The old man turned Karpus around so that he could direct him to his abode.
“I live back the way we came. Follow this street until it bears to the left. You will see a narrower passageway on the right. Walk ten pechys down that passage and look for the Sign of the Fish on the doorpost of a grey door. Knock and you will be admitted.” The old man turned to go. “And now, young friend, if you will permit me, I must attend to my flock.”
Karpus’ young mind did not understand the metaphor. “You have sheep in the city?”
John laughed. “Sheep…fish…there is quite a menagerie for me to shepherd for the Lord Jesus!”
They both laughed. Then John turned and resumed his walk to the marketplace.
Karpus looked at the old man until his form blended with other people at a nearby intersection. Then the boy looked upwards.
“I want to know You – whoever You are.”