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The Exercise of Virtue.

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The awareness
Of things ill done, or done to others' harm,
which once you took for exercise of virtue.

T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding."

The woman paused in her walk as the Galilean voices caught her ear. A large, straggling group of men, obviously Jews, were coming down the street.

"… Still don't understand why we came to Tyre, of all places. That's like going for a quiet holiday in Sodom." That was a large, burly man. One of the others, a slight, younger man, barely more than a boy, said, "Don't be daft, Peter, it's not that bad. I'm quite surprised, actually. It's not that different from Jerusalem, really. I mean, the people may be mostly dogs of Gentiles – is it true they let dogs eat under their tables? That's disgusting – but they still look like normal people."

Typical, thought the woman, just typical.

"What were you expecting, orgies in the street?"

The boy flushed, but said nothing, and instead another man, who seemed to be the leader of the group, said "I told you why we've come. I want to get away from the crowds pestering us, so we can talk."

The burly man said "Teacher, I hate to break it to you, but we're in the middle of a big city."

"People stand out less in a crowd, if the crowd don't know who they are to start off with, whereas a group like ours looks a bit conspicuous in rural Galilee. These people don't know who we are, and they don't care. Why should they?"

The woman rolled her eyes. Got that right, she thought, and yet – there was something about the man that was compelling, even though she couldn't quite pin it down. There had been some wild stories about a Jewish miracle worker in Galilee, she remembered, probably mostly exaggeration, like most rumours. She thought of her daughter, lying alone while she did the marketing with a few scrimped together coins, because no-one wanted to help look after a child like that. They said she was possessed… She screamed, threw things, soiled herself and didn't care. Once she had thrown herself in the fire. The woman had tried everything. She'd even ask an arrogant Jewish prophet, if there was the slightest chance...

The young man was speaking again. "Then the Gentiles don't matter?"

"I didn't say that. I told you. Scripture says salvation comes from Israel, and I think that Israel must be put in order before it can do any good to anyone else."

And what about everyone else in the meantime, thought the woman, and turned away impatiently, as one of the men said, "That's a relief, actually, Jesus, I mean, even if we cast out every demon and preached to every sinner in Israel, we'd probably be busy for the rest of our lives, but if we had to take on the whole world…"

Jesus. That was the name the rumours had mentioned.

And after all, what had she to lose? She'd been sneered at and pushed away so often, what was one more time? She stepped out into the street, and shouted, as loudly as she could, "Jesus! Jesus! Help me!"

They kept walking, but she followed them, still shouting. She heard a voice mutter something like, "Here we go again," but they turned, and the miracle worker was standing in front of her. His face was not exactly unfriendly, but stern and set, and in that moment she knew it would be no good.

She might as well try, though, now she'd made a spectacle of herself calling out after strange, foreign men in the street.

"Woman, what do you want of me?" He had a nice voice, she thought irrelevantly, even if his manners were dreadful.

"It's my daughter," she found her voice would not stay steady, "she's possessed. Has been for years, nothing's done her any good. She's suffering so terribly. Can't you help her? She's – she's a prisoner of this thing, and I would give anything to set her free. But I can't. Nothing has done her any good at all. Please, sir. Please."

He was silent; she could see a struggle in his face, and for a moment she hoped. Then his face settled back into lines of sadness, and her hope died. It was the face of a man – it was usually men, for some reason – in authority who was about to tell you that he was very sorry, really truly sorry, but there was an important reason why he had to go away and forget you, and leave you in this pit of despair. She'd seen it so often, on the faces of priests and doctors and magicians. Sometimes they really were sorry, sometimes it was just an excuse; she suspected this one was really sorry, but that didn't help her daughter.

"I can't help you," he said, "I can't. I can't. It's not my job." His voice rose a little; the miracle worker seemed to be feeling guilty, and to be unused to the feeling. His companions exchanged glances. The woman said nothing, only looked at him.

"I – look, it wouldn't be right, would it, if you were to take your daughter's bread from her and throw it to your pet dogs and leave her hungry?" He really did look unhappy, and a wave of impatience suddenly overcame the woman, impatience with everyone who believed these stupid rules about who belonged and who didn't, and then felt guilty whether they kept them or broke them, when it was always other people who actually paid the price.

And dogs. Dogs! As if Jews knew anything about dogs. Or Gentiles. Suddenly, her anger gave her words. "Yes. And even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' tables." If 'master' sounded sarcastic, she thought, then good.

The miracle worker stared at her, his mouth slightly open, looking like a sailor fresh on shore leave who can't work out why the ground won't stay still beneath him. Then his face cleared, and he laughed, which was the absolute last reaction in the world the woman would have expected. It was such a warm, clear, genuine laugh that the woman could not help but be disarmed, though the situation didn't seem to call for laughter in the least.

"You are a very clever woman," he said, "and because of that your daughter will be healed." He shut his eyes, briefly but deliberately, and for a moment the woman thought she could feel something stirring around them, like a breath of warm wind from the desert. Then the miracle worker opened his eyes again, the feeling was gone, and she was suddenly conscious of the confused faces of the man's companions.

"Thank you," he added, and as she looked at him in surprise, he added, "No. I mean it. You were right and I was wrong. Thank you." And again, she would have expected a man of obvious power, if he said something like that, to sound guilty, or irritated, or grudging, but his voice was genuinely cheerful.

There was no reason to bother about a wandering Jewish prophet's problems, though, when she had a daughter to look after.

"You'd better be getting home," he said, as if he'd read her mind. "She's asleep now, but she will wake up soon, and then she will be hungry. Take her some figs."

The woman stumbled a thank-you, and set off home, wondering, as he did, how he had guessed that her daughter, in the days before she had been sick, had loved figs. She did find her daughter well, and in the excitement and joy she spared no more thought for the Jewish healer until much later that night, when her daughter was in bed, sleeping peaceful and relaxed for the first time in all those horrible years.

There were lots of people, she thought, who could cast out demons or heal. But a man who was pleased to be shown when he was wrong… Well, someone like that could do anything.