The Life and Times of Billy Ryman (a harmony of Christ’s parables) Chapter One
CHAPTER ONE: THE FIELD
Billy and Sarah Ryman had been married almost a year before the adventure began.
Having fallen in love at Sarah’s eighth-grade graduation, Billy proposed when they both began driving, during their sophomore year at Woodrow High, the only high school in the small Kansas town. Actually, Billy proposed during driver’s ed, which made Sarah’s instructor quite angry. Her instructor was also her father, which may have had more to do with it than the timing. Sarah had a plain sort of prettiness about her, and Billy knew they were a perfect fit. All he wanted was to give her the best life possible, and he didn’t want to wait. But the happy couple consented to delay their nuptials until after high school—because of their marked maturity—and were wed on a summer Sunday in July.
Billy began his new job the following morning.
In charge of a hundred sheep on an old farm adjacent to a wooded glen, Billy liked taking the sheep out into the woods and letting them snuffle around. The sheep would play games with one another, and it always made Billy feel like he was leading a kind of animal party, like he was the chaperone for sheepish speed dating.
On a certain day, a veritably sunshiny day with little breeze in the wood, Billy began counting his sheep and calling them home. He did this the same way each time, working his way mentally backwards through the quadralphabetized names of his flock—
Zephrym and Zeezle and Zebbubu and Zamm,
Yaddle and Yuhu and Yaller and Yontoo—
but when Billy got down to Antigone and Alfred and Aimee, he realized he was missing someone.
Billy came to the glen with a century of sheep, but now had only ninety-nine.
Billy began to search in earnest, leaving the ninety-nine sheep and calling worriedly for Alfred. Trusting his flock to watch over themselves for a moment, Billy scrambled through the wood. But it took him more than a moment to find the missing sheep. The search took him most of the day and all of his energy. He came first to a humid swamp, and was scared, and then to the top of a mountain, and was awed, before finding a path that opened up into a bright field, and was comforted.
For there, sitting calmly and chewing on fresh grass, was Alfred. Though he looked unhurt, Billy decided he would carry Alfred back through the wood. His relief was so great, he wouldn’t mind the extra burden.
But when Billy leaned down to pick up Alfred, he saw something glinting in the light. Leaving Alfred for the moment, Billy reached into the earth with his hands and began to wrest and wriggle something from the ground. It was hard and round, perhaps the size of a baseball, and when Billy finally managed to spring it loose he was quite surprised at what he’d found.
I don’t have time to tell you how Billy knew it was a pearl—about how his father (God rest his soul) traded in rare gems and minerals as a hobby for many years, or about how his grandma used to drag Billy through his father’s old things and make him rehearse the special properties of each stone, or how his secret hobby as a resentful adolescent was to mix up his father’s gems from their proper places and confuse them with gems of little value, only to later regret it and spend all night putting them back—only that he knew, and he was correct.
This pearl would fetch a tidy sum at market, or on eBay, and Billy had now only one problem: the pearl was not his. Being a person of some conscience, Billy realized the pearl belonged to whoever owned this field. He buried the pearl once again in the earth and, gathering Alfred in his arms, ran all the way back to the glen. Breathless, Billy set Alfred down and let that self-satisfied ram lead the remainder of the flock back to the farm. Then Billy went inside to do some internet research and was surprised to learn that the same person who owned the sheep owned the field.
Billy set an appointment with Mr. MacIntyre and went to see him the following morning. They sat outside, the young and ambitious Billy facing the shrewd and somewhat spindly Mr. MacIntrye over lattes on the patio at Starbucks. They got right down to business. “You want to buy that field?” Mr. MacIntyre asked, squinting at Billy. His eyes were already narrow, and when he squinted, they nearly disappeared into tiny slits on his long face. “Whatever for? It’s in the middle of nowhere.”
“How much, Mr. MacIntyre?” Billy asked. “I just want to know.”
“I’m not going to give it to you for free. You’re a nice kid, but there’s a reason things cost money.”
“Yes, yes,” Billy said, interrupting. “I understand, but how much money?”
Mr. MacIntyre thought for a moment, adding with his fingers, gauging Billy’s feverish interest, multiplying the worth of the land in his mind. For he was not a kindly farmer, but something of a miser. “Five thousand dollars,” he said at last. “You bring me five thousand dollars, Billy, and I’ll give you the land on special.” He crossed his arms and sat back, the sun catching the glint in his eyes that gave Billy an uneasy feeling in his gut. He promptly dismissed the feeling as caffeinated jitters from too many lattes.
“That’s special?” Billy asked, momentarily forgetting that the pearl was easily worth several million dollars. Though not quite as much as the famed Pearl of Lao Tzu, Billy’s pearl was something extraordinary and possibly would be valued somewhere between twenty and twenty-five thousand carats. “I don’t have that much money,” he complained.
“Then work for it!” Mr. MacIntyre said, storming off and leaving Billy with a lukewarm iced latte and a thatch work of discarded green straws on the table.
Billy thought for a moment, then went and told Sarah all that had happened. She suggested he find himself a second job.
So he did.
During the day, Billy continued as a shepherd, but at night he became a fisherman. He would wade out into the waters of the nearby lake and haul in fish with nets. The ugliest, stinkiest part of this job was separating the good ones in baskets on the shore and throwing the bottom feeders and baitfish back into the lake.
The other stinky part of it was not being home with Sarah at night. In the first year of their marriage, they had developed a little bedtime ritual. It started accidentally—Sarah and Billy reached for their toothbrushes in unison one night and laughed. Another night, they simultaneously lifted their pillows to fluff, sharing a smile over this second moment of perfect timing.
Over time, it became habit. One would wait for the other before picking up a toothbrush or fluffing a pillow, and they would share a laugh and a kiss before drifting into dreamland.
Fishing at night meant Billy wasn’t home to share the bedtime ritual with Sarah, and he missed it. He would think of Sarah, brushing her teeth and fluffing her pillow alone, while he dragged the smelly nets onto shore.
It was hard work, but between the two jobs Billy was able to save five thousand dollars over the course of about eight months.
Then he bought the field.
Then he sold the pearl.
Then he bought everything else owned by Mr. MacIntyre for the highly overpriced sum of two hundred thousand dollars.
Then he and Sarah began to sow the fields with seed.
Pearl of great price
Treasure hidden in a field
The fisher’s nets
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com