The sun was pressing down as hard as it could on the Earth that day, till it felt that my eyes might burst into flames. When my mother asked me to get water from the town well, thoughts of a thousand better things to do buzzed in my head. Then my stomach rumbled, anticipating the tasty soup she’d make for dinner.

So I ambled outside and slowly untangled the braided leather thongs on each of the goatskin water buckets. Hanging the buckets on the wooden yoke and hoisting it to my shoulders, I stood there awhile, dipping this way and that, pretending I was a giant walking on a long rope stretched between the sun and the moon, using the yoke for balance as I crossed the sky. To make it extra hard, I closed my eyes, and that’s when a story popped into my mind. I had heard it many times before from my friend the carpenter, who lived next door. He had built small chairs for the village children so that we could come into his shop, and sit there listening to his stories while he worked and we dug our toes into the sawdust and woodchips. This story was one of my favorites, and with the first line echoing in my head, the next was already surfacing.

Once there was a frog who discovered a nice, deep, dark, cool well and decided he liked it so much he would keep it just for himself. So he set about scaring all of the other animals away. He would sit on a rock ledge way down inside the well, right at the water line, puff up his chest, and roar out a threat that echoed and swelled as it rose up the steep walls like a thunderhead in full voice:

I am a most terrible monster!
I make the lion turn tail and run!
I crush the camel under one foot!
I clean my teeth with the eagle’s beak!
I have taken power of this well for myself!
I . . . am . . . in-vince-able!

Hearing this bold assertion, animals of all sorts gathered nearby. One by one they found the courage to creep up to the wall of the well and peer over.

Each time an animal approached, the frog would slide into the water and bob up and down, causing the water’s surface to ripple, distorting the reflection of the creature above. Hearing the threat and seeing what appeared to be a terrible monster, each animal hastily withdrew.

First to try his luck was a plucky rooster who hopped up onto the stony rim of the well to see what the fuss was all about. In midflight he was greeted by the frog’s next booming challenge:

I am a most terrible monster!
I make the lion turn tail and run!
I crush the camel under one foot!
I clean my teeth with the eagle’s beak!
I have taken power of this well for myself!
I . . . am . . . in-vince-able!

Crowing as if he had landed on hot coals, the rooster sprang backwards, flapping his wings as he fell against the ground. When he scurried back to the other animals, they asked what he’d seen. He just stood there shaking, saying nothing, not a peep, like a ghost.

Next a cow, a dog, and a goat tried it in succession, and they, too, ran in panic back to the others. Finally a sweet young donkey couldn’t stand it anymore. She had to know what was making all that bother. She clopped up, loud as she could, letting that watery monster know it wasn’t the only big thing in the world. Peering into the shadowy well and hearing the threat, her ears stood straight up and she, too, turned and ran. Braying, her tail stretched out behind her, she crashed smack into a clump of bushes before turning to look back, only her trembling ears and wide eyes visible through the leaves.

This went on all morning. By noon nearly every animal who used the well, and some who normally didn’t, had taken a turn. They huddled together nearby, reliving their screams, each reporting something more fearsome than the last.

The whole time, a small, chestnut-brown monkey sat on a stone at a safe distance watching the parade and observing the antics, scratching first her head, then her belly, then her head again. At last it was her turn to look into the well, and she did so with great fanfare, striding up to the wall with enormous steps, then bounding up onto the ledge, and of course making her monkey faces at the water below. With each funny face she laughed louder and louder, not so much at herself as at the foolish animals who had scared themselves half to death by looking at their own reflections in the shimmering dark water.

Then the monkey made a noose from a rope of woven vines, and she carefully fished out the frog-who sat blinking in the sunlight that bore down on the dusty clearing. Woefully he continued to proclaim his monstrous wrath:

I am a . . . a most terrible . . . errr, umm . . .
I make the, the lion turn tail and . . . I, uh . . .

The monkey then called to the other animals to come up close and face the source of their fright.

"After all," the monkey told them, "You weren’t completely wrong. Had you taken the care to catch a good look at him—well, he is a teeny tiny bit awful-looking, isn’t he?"

Chuckling as I always did at the end of this story, I hefted the wooden yoke and buckets back onto my shoulders and looked down the road toward the well. The midsummer sun was merciless. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and the streams and waterholes were nearly all dry.

The air shimmered in the distance, and I thought I could hear bells clanging and a low singsong chanting. I shook my head to clear my ears and realized with relief it wasn’t me but the dirge-like voices of people approaching the well from the other side. At first, I couldn’t understand the words. So, I took a few steps down the road, the buckets swishing. As I began walking, the voices grew clearer.

"Unclean!" they wailed slowly. "Unclean! Unclean!"

Fear stabbed me. What was unclean? The well! Could the water be polluted? We depended on that well.

I walked faster. The chanting was growing louder. Passing Yeshu’s workshop, I glanced in. My carpenter friend was looking up, his eyes wide. I stopped and waited for him to put his tools down and come out.

He entered the road walking fast already, rushing right by me as I hurried to catch up. "What do they mean by ‘Unclean!’ Yeshu?" I shouted out. "What’s unclean? The water?"

He said nothing, but the set of his jaw told me how determined he felt. But about what? By now I was breathing hard. "Yeshu?!" I repeated.

Looking down, he reached over and effortlessly took the yoke from my shoulder onto his. Freed from the weight, my heart gradually slowed as I caught my breath.

"They are calling themselves unclean," he said, staring down the road toward the ragtag group of people milling in front of the well.

"Yeshu, I don’t understand."

He seemed to be thinking out loud as he walked. "These people have a disease called leprosy. No one knows what causes it. The sickness is terrible, and the dread and rejection it brings makes the suffering even harder to bear.

"Fingers and toes rot on the body and fall off. Even a person’s nose sometimes. Soon you’ll see for yourself." He quickened his pace, and I had to break into a trot after every few steps, just to keep up.

"Everyone is afraid of them," Yeshu went on. "Afraid of catching the disease through touch or even through the air. These people are cast out by their neighbors and even their families, and condemned to wander from village to village. Unable to work, even when skilled. Homeless. Begging, and picking through trash for a scrap of food or a rag to wrap around their wounds.

"On top of everything else, they’ve lost their names. People call these wretched souls ‘lepers,’ as if leprosy was their mother and father. Or their home village. Those fortunate enough to escape this affliction force those in agony to warn of their approach with bell and voice. Adding to the injury, the sufferers must condemn themselves to live as outcasts. Those who choose to walk along in silence, who do not loudly brand themselves, could be stoned to death!

"So that’s what you hear, Daavi. That and the pain of being shunned by others whom they have no desire to harm."

"What are you going to do?" I asked him.

"Whatever I can," he answered.

By then we were close. I could clearly see the band of strangers, standing together facing us. I forgot to look at the road and nearly tripped and fell. What I saw was more awful than anything Yeshu could have described.

They were painfully thin, these people, with stringy, long hair and tattered clothing. Many limped on sticks, holding in the air the stub of a foot bound in dirty rags. Some carried others who were aged or more severely crippled. They continued to slowly wail out their searing song: "Unclean! Unclean!"

I felt Yeshu wince as he gripped my arm.

Then I saw a boy, not much older than I, looking out from behind a woman’s shoulder. I’ve never forgotten him because he had one blue eye and one brown, and I hadn’t ever seen blue eyes before. He held a hand to his face, with several fingers missing. I felt overwhelmed with guilt and pity, and—yes—horror.

That was when I became aware of a crowd forming. My parents’ friends, our neighbors, folks I saw every day were shouting, "Go away! Shame on you for endangering innocent people. Get away from our well!"

Some even picked up stones and threw them. But the forlorn group would not fall back. They began pleading for water, and for food.

I looked around for Yeshu. He was gone. For a moment I thought, "Could he be shrinking back? Was he feeling fear, too?"

Then I saw him over at the well, filling my buckets with water. He hefted the dripping buckets to his shoulders and began walking toward the band of outcasts. I frowned, torn in half. A voice in one ear whispered, "How could you have doubted him?" In the other ear I heard, "But what will Mother say when she hears I let Yeshu use our buckets for this?"

The townspeople were aghast, but no one had the courage to challenge this tall, willful carpenter. As Yeshu approached, the outcasts began backing away. Stones and taunts would not move them, but fear of physical contact with a "clean" person did.

"Put the water down over there!" one shouted. "Don’t touch us!"

"I was touched by you the moment I saw you," Yeshu answered, smiling wryly. "If I am to share someday the burden you bear so bravely, so be it." He nodded his head once, firmly, then blurted out as if the thought were forming on his lips, "It would scar me far worse to do nothing!"

They stared back blankly, befuddled.

Then Yeshu brightened. What he said next revealed he’d found, in his mind, a middle ground where it was safe for these forlorn souls to approach. He asked, "Do you have water pots?"

Quickly, they produced partially broken pots and weathered gourds from inside their ragged packs. Yeshu walked from person to person, filling the outstretched containers to the brim. All of them drank as though they had not tasted water for a week.

Yeshu filled their containers again.

After he finished, he turned to the townspeople. "Bring me bread," he asked. "Please. Even if it’s a week old."

No one moved.

"For the love of God, lend a hand. These people are starving," he implored. "How many of us haven’t struggled through a famine? Or a bad harvest? We have all known hunger." He waited, then said, "The Jubilee Year is coming. We can start early . . . today!"

Still no one moved. Most just stared at the ground.

Yeshu’s face began to color. I could tell by the way people were standing that if he shouted they would all run.

"Yeshu," I called to him. "I’ll round up your story group."

He understood instantly and relaxed, nodding slightly.

I ran through the town, rallying kids to bring Yeshu all the bread they could find. A mob of children soon formed at the well. We knew where every scrap of bread was, including pieces that had sat on a shelf for an entire phase of the moon. Many of us would have less to eat that night than we usually did, but it would be worth it.

Yeshu handed out the bread, dropping the hardest pieces into bowls of water that the outcasts extended to him. As soon as the bread softened, they snatched it up with cupped hands and slurped it down. Yeshu laughed, and they laughed back. Some had no teeth at all!

Then I saw the carpenter’s shoulders rise and settle as he took a deeper breath and let it out. People in the crowd probably thought he’d been standing out in the sun too long when, one by one, he went up to each person in that group of lost souls and gave them something worth more than bread and water.

He touched each one.

This man on the shoulder. That woman on the hand. The young boy whose eyes had met mine—one eye brown, the other blue—received a stroke on the cheek. The boy smiled broadly and leaned his head back, showing his face to the sky.

"God bless you!" declared an old woman after Yeshu had embraced her and moved on to the next.

Yeshu returned and took her by the shoulders. "God continually blesses all of us," he said. "The question is will you bless me?"

She stared at him for a moment, her mouth agape. Then she reached out and blessed him, touching her hand to his forehead. The entire, ragged group cheered, and we kids joined in.

I glanced back at the crowd of neighbors who now seemed like strangers to me, and it was then that I saw my father. He was standing behind everyone else, his back against a wall. He seemed anxious, almost cornered, and there was a look in his eyes that I had never seen before. Pain too sad to bear. His face was gray, and his shoulders slumped. I turned to see what Yeshu was doing, and when I looked back for my father again, he was gone.

Searching the crowd, I could see people I had known my whole life, standing rigidly silent, their eyes hard as stones. They seemed farther away, smaller.

That silence lifted soon enough. Many townspeople would complain for days afterward about Yeshu’s foolhardiness. A delegation was even sent to talk to Mama Maria, his mother and the town midwife. "He shows no respect for rules!" they said. "Now we will be overrun by every filthy leper from miles around."

Mama Maria would have none of it. "Unclean is in our minds," she replied, her jaw set firmly. "It’s a way of seeing, not being. None of us gets through life without illness. Illness is not a mark of sin." She shook her head adamantly. "It’s a sign of bad fortune.

"You know my son has his own way of looking at the world. Why not ask him to explain?"

But they just went away grumbling.

As for me, I walked home that afternoon feeling like the hero of the Great Bread Raid. But that bravado soon faded. Late that night, falling asleep in bed, all I could think of was the boy I had seen, holding his scarred and wounded hands to his face, and looking at me with his one blue eye and one brown.

I wondered, "Was he sleeping now? If so, where? What kind of life would he have?"

I wished I had gone up and hugged him.

When sleep finally swept over me, I dreamt I was lost in a dark forest. I was so immersed in the deep darkness, I could not even catch sight of my own hands or touch my face to reassure myself that I was still there.

All around me, I could hear people milling aimlessly about. But when I called for help, the only thing I heard was their footsteps as they hurried away.

The next morning I went to visit Yeshu in his workshop, and I told him what I had felt the day before, and what I had dreamt. He looked into my eyes for a long time, saying nothing. Finally, he stood up and went to the window. He pointed to the remains of a goat carcass across the road.

"Guilt and pity are as useless as that rotting heap," he said. They are feelings that will paralyze you just like that poor old goat with its bloated belly and its legs stuck out stiffly."

"But I feel terrible," I said. "That boy with one blue eye and one brown—I wish I had gone up and hugged him, or given him my cloak or something. I felt bad for him. And now I just feel awful, like I failed him . . . and myself."

Yeshu tilted his head slightly to the side.

"When we see ourselves feeling such guilt or pity," he said, "we need to find other sentiments that can lead us to actually do something useful." He paused and looked me in the eye.

"In order to accomplish that," he went on carefully, "sometimes we have to look inside ourselves and ask our hearts to muster the compassion to leaven our outrage."

Yeshu was seeing what I had been unable to see, that my guilt and pity were covering over the deep anger and fear I had felt at seeing that boy and his companions in such misery.

"But how?" I asked. "How can I do that?"

Yeshu’s gaze flew over my head to the horizon. I watched his lips move slightly inside that thick beard, as if he were testing different words. Then his eyes returned to mine.

"First, learn to recognize injustice. Don’t turn away! Feel the anger that comes. Then ask your heart to help you begin molding that white-hot rage into love."

He walked back over to his workbench and picked up a freshly cut and reddish-hued cedar board. I watched and waited. He held the board straight out and sighted along its edge for a while. "It’s like using a blazing oven to make dough into bread. Or firing clay into water pots."

Summer showers swept across his eyes. "Heat is like rage. Both can be used to make something."

I strained to understand, while Yeshu thought aloud a little longer. "The love that we add to the mixture has to lead us to act. And the action must be constructive. Love and compassion channel what begins with a burning rage, so that the rage has value. Do you see, Daavi?"

I listened hard, but all I could do was fix on the flock of words that were circling something too big to grasp.

Yeshu saw my blank look and, setting the board down on his workbench, picked up a chisel and a wooden mallet. Often when he was searching for words, he would take up a tool and begin using it. For a long time he worked in silence, shaping the board so that it would fit into the other pieces of the door he was making. After a good while, he leaned on the bench, still holding the tools, and stared at the scarred surface of the bench top.

Then he looked intently back at the tools and said, "When I was growing up, my father, my Abba Yosef, taught me that life is a craft just like woodworking. But what I’m talking to you about doing is very hard. Much harder than making a cedar door. Harder even than building a Temple for God. Turning rage to love and love to action is a skill one learns by doing. And it helps to have a good teacher, don’t you think?"

I nodded at him, and a smile pushed its way across my compressed lips.

His eyes brightened. "I’ve had many!"

"We are all of us still learning," he went on, "how to craft acts of love from rage. It hasn’t been done perfectly yet. Or at least only rarely. But when we get it right, it will be like the most beautiful door you’ve ever seen. A door to an inn when you are tired and weary and, rather than turn you away, the owner welcomes you in. A door that is opened when you knock on it. A door into the heaven that is within us all, here on this Earth."

Yeshu was quiet for a long time. Then he laid the mallet and chisel down again, side by side, and began pacing back and forth through the wood chips and sawdust on the workshop floor.

"Those people we met yesterday—what they really need is fairness," he told me, "not charity. They need wells of their own rather than a few drops of our water to wet parched lips; worse yet, drops that had to be begged for."

He locked his fingers together in front of his chest. "Until the day arrives when they can return home and live among their own people, they must have not just wells, but land and farming tools so that they can live in a decent place together and feed themselves."

He stared out the door and down the road toward our town well. "One day we will help them do this, you and I." He glanced back at me.

When he said that, whenever he said anything like that to me, although I felt pleased and special, ready to set off down the road that had been laid out, a moment later it seemed like walking over a cliff.

If only I could have seen into the future.

That night I had a second dream. It was dusk, and I was all alone in the desert. I felt deep hunger, and thirst. Suddenly a lone figure appeared before me and I tasted bread in my mouth. And cool water on my lips. I closed my eyes and opened them again.

It was the carpenter.

Charles David Kleymeyer

Charles David Kleymeyer joined Madison (Wis.) Meeting in 1970 and has since attended Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and Langley Hill (Va.) Meeting. An author, performing storyteller, and international grassroots-development sociologist, he fashioned this story from his novel-length manuscript about a boy who grows up next door to Jesus. Another story from the same novel, "God is in the Mouth of the Wolf," appeared in the April 2004 issue of Friends Journal.