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  • Will Britt

Hoi Polloi

Expanding on Mark 5:1-20

(cf. Matthew 8:28-34 and Luke 8:26-39)

We reached the other side, our little craft wallowing through the now-calm Sea of Galilee, her waterline still uncomfortably near the gunwales. We ourselves remained a bit shaky from the adrenaline dump, though each tried not to let it be noticeable as we climbed out of the boat, clothing still dripping. The usual feeling of relief at reaching land washed over us, and we thanked G-d for a safe journey, though with sidelong looks at Y’shua – after all, it was this astonishing prophet-rabbi, clearly G-d’s instrument, who had kept us from capsizing.

We had to haul the boat up high enough on the bank that we could prop it and together push it partway over, letting the water we had taken on stream back into the sea. The bank was steep, and the tipping was a strain, but the cooperative labor helped reorient us after our bouts of fear. First the gale, then the awful, somehow casual power over the gale, which had been almost worse; yet the day’s terrors were not done.

When we at last turned from our efforts, having made fast the now-empty vessel and left it to dry in the sun, we were confronted by a lonely graveyard, the slope rising steeply into rugged hills gaping with tombs. I suppose we had already registered, vaguely, that Y’shua had proceeded a bit inland and was talking with someone while we finished with the boat. But everyone always wanted to talk with him; there was nothing unusual about that. What it was this time, though – a great hulk of a man, naked, scarred, and actively bleeding in several places stood just beyond the nearest scraggle of trees, eyeing us warily. He twisted his head from side to side, keeping us in sight but refusing to look straight-on. As we watched in startled horror, he picked up a large fragment of shale from the ground, considered it a moment, then abruptly let out a stream of curses and broke it on himself, opening yet another gash in his hide and letting loose a roar. Y’shua said something to him gently, as if coaxing a frightened sheep, and suddenly this monster was bounding across the distance in that way the haunted have, with fixed look and uneven, unnervingly swift gait. We were just turning to fetch the oars for weapons – I think Cephas had seized one already – when he suddenly stopped, not a man’s height from Y’shua, and threw himself on the ground. Y’shua spoke again, too softly for us to hear. The man raised his head and fairly bellowed, “What do you want with me, Son of the Most High? Swear by G-d you won’t torture me!”

Later, we learned from the locals – and from him, although his memory was spotty – that he was infamous on that whole side of the sea. He certainly needed no tormenting from Y’shua, had that been on offer, for he had been tormenting himself for some years, ever since a pair of Roman legionaries had chosen his house to quarter at on their way through the Ten Cities. Unfortunately, two of his sisters had been staying with him at the time, and he, being young and perhaps foreseeing the danger, resolutely tried to turn the soldiers away. They had beaten him nearly senseless, bound him in a corner, and left him to watch while they repeatedly raped his sisters and his wife. His oldest son, all of nine but at some point no longer able to bear the scene, tried to drive off the soldiers and was brutally beaten, slipping into a coma and succumbing to his wounds some hours after their eventual departure.

The man blamed himself for failing to protect his family and, as his body healed, began obsessing about the soldiers’ return, which he grew convinced would happen any day. He began to see legionaries round every corner, and he spent increasing amounts of time training his body for a showdown. Although his sisters had gone to live with other family members, relations with his wife and remaining son deteriorated; he took to drinking and sparring with other young men. At various times, either his wife or the town’s elders would put their foot down, and he would spend a week or two in a rehab program, but it seemed like nothing could rein him in. He found himself increasingly restless, feeling bound simply by being inside – and he had sworn to himself he would never again let himself be helplessly bound. When even the other young troublemakers of the surrounding towns would no longer fight him, he spent more and more time alone in the hills, growing steadily stranger, physically stronger, and more paranoid. By the time we met him, he had been living among the tombs for many months, his voice echoing his son’s name through the wilderness; charitable villagers would sometimes leave food at a certain place, but there were also ghastly rumors that he stole and ate pigs from the swineherds operating in the area. I do not know what truth may have been in those stories, but the herdsmen were thoroughly terrified of him.

Apparently, Y’shua had been trying to exorcise his demons while we were boat-tipping, and things had come to a head just about the time we came upon them. We held our own counsel so long as the man remained on the ground, prostrate in front of Y’shua, but you may be sure both oars were out of the boat, now, clutched tightly as we approached.

In one of those surprising moves for which Y’shua was so well-known among us, he abruptly changed tack and asked the man’s name. This should have been humanizing, yet initially it only increased our horror, for although the man no longer shouted his response, something else more chilling happened to his voice. After a long look at the ground to one side of Y’shua’s feet, he said quietly – indeed, barely loud enough to be audible – “My name is Legion.” And then each subsequent word in his stilted sentence emerged in a slightly different version of his voice, punctuated by a violent twisting of his head: “because… many… are… we.”

We ourselves had drawn close enough by this time to see the man’s eyes, and when he finished on that ‘we,’ he finally looked straight up at Y’shua with the emptiest, most despairing gaze I have ever seen. It was as if he looked right through the one standing over him, looked far beyond, out into the depths of the sea.

There was silence for a moment, and then Y’shua repeated, quietly but firmly, that all those many would have to leave the man in peace. Rising into a crouch, the man twitched his hands nervously in the dust and jerked his gaze in the direction of the massive numbers of pigs grazing a little farther along the slope. He now begged Y’shua not to make him leave the area, calling it his home, alleging that the tombs were full of buried children with no one to watch over them, repeating himself over and over with little inflectional changes to his voice, muttering sometimes right over his own words, leaving no opening for a response – as if he intended to carry on the conversation indefinitely by himself. But at last he seemed to come to some new resolution, for he thrust a finger in the direction of the swine and glanced up at Y’shua once more.

“Them,” he said, in a trembling voice, though his hand did not shake. “At least let us have them, and we will let him be.” This last was a whimper, incongruous with his great bulk.

When Y’shua nodded gravely, the man suddenly leapt to his feet and ran a few steps in the direction of the herd, then stopped, clutched first his stomach and then his head, and finally sat down, his face in his hands, neither noticing nor caring what he sat on. The pigs, however – some few of whom had looked up in alarm when he began rushing toward them – now began to spook in a sort of slow wave, gradually communicating their terror through the whole herd, growing noisier and noisier, beginning to fight and even to trample each other, until all together, in a great, cascading stampede, they raced headlong into the sea, some 2,000 strong.

The herdsmen, crying out in disbelief and anger, ran down to the beach to wait for the pigs to emerge – for I am told that pigs, though filthy animals, are in most circumstances quite capable swimmers. To their dismay, however, these pigs swam as if possessed, farther and farther out toward the middle of the sea. Truth be told, we did not pay the escaped swine much attention after that, being occupied with the one who was no longer Legion, but the herdsmen certainly reported later, to anyone who would listen, that none of their pigs ever returned.

Once again, we found Y’shua and he who had been reduced to one already in conversation by the time we reached them, our attention having been captured much longer than theirs by the cavalcade of pigs. Y’shua was telling him he had grieved long enough, that the time for turning mourning into fullness of living was now at hand. Remarkably, the man held his head up and looked steadily at Y’shua, no longer through him; although he wept, the unnatural, vibrating tension seemed to have left his body. When we offered him what clothing we could spare, he accepted and dressed himself – much to the astonishment of the villagers, when they later found us all sitting and talking, the man slowly and painfully relating what of his lamentable tale he could remember.

Of course people came. Drawn by the story of the swineherds (for these are famous liars), great numbers came from the towns and the surrounding wilds to check up on their admittedly fabulous account. Nevertheless, what seemed to trouble the locals far more than the herdsmen’s economic loss was the personal recovery. They could not get over the man’s evident return to sanity, and after he had told the day’s story four or five times, over the inevitable interruptions, we could see them eyeing Y’shua with at least as much suspicion as they bore toward the man himself. Something in those glances, I must admit, felt familiar; we had not been quite able to look at him without fear ourselves earlier that day, after he told the very winds and waves to shut up. Somehow, this liberation felt more like the kind of thing we had seen him doing before.

At any rate, it soon became clear that we would not be welcome in the neighborhood. Y’shua had granted the request of the man’s demons not to banish them from the region, and perhaps they had family dwelling there, to judge from the rapidity with which we were banished from it. It was certainly understandable that, as we climbed back into the boat, the recently simplified gentleman wished to come with us rather than face the hostile looks of those who still feared and mistrusted him. But Y’shua insisted he stay and make peace with his own community, bidding him proclaim the mercy G-d had shown him.


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