Friday, 3 August 2007

Intervention: Short Fiction

"They went ashore and looked about them. The weather was fine. There was dew on the grass, and the first thing they did was to get some of it on their hands and put it to their lips, and to them it seemed the sweetest thing they had ever tasted."

Vinland Sagas

The Aftermath of a Storm

Dampness hung in the air that night, left over from the incessant rains of morning and afternoon. Fat, heavy drops sat on the fabric of the tent, pulling its shape down into lethargic sags. Inside the tent, Sean felt the cool chill of moisture saturating his clothes, his sleeping bag, even his skin. While aware that the damp would distract his sleep, something about the world's immersion in a single, primal element thrilled him deeply.

He sat cross-legged on his sleeping bag, which he had folded open so that the soft, drier inside was on the top. The tent was small and cramped, but he spent little time in it. The weak, amber glow of his flashlight illuminated the letter to his parents, a rambling, unpracticed chronology of the events of his trip.

Yesterday we finished the portage from Lake Witika to Lake Red Trout. It was 3 1/2 miles long. Then we canoed down Bass River until I think about 5:00. As usual, we pitched our tents and had supper. After, we had a prayer meeting and then put on skits. Today it was raining, and the organizers decided not to go any further because the water is very rough and the campers are not used to fast water. Also, we are ahead of schedule, so we can afford a day behind. I hope it is not raining tomorrow so that we can keep going.

The tent glowed from within: a faded glow that splashed images and silhouettes on the canvas. There was a shapeless lump at the corner, the projection of his knapsack. There was the flattened, diffused giant of himself, spread out along the back of the tent. There was the sarcophagus of the guitar case opposite the knapsack. There was, near the top and above the door, the swinging cross, dangling from a cord attached at the very summit. Sean wrote obliviously in his warm cocoon, hardly listening to the sawing crickets and chorusing peepers.

His muscles burned slightly as he wrote. The day of rest had given his arms time to seize. He kept going in spite of this, as he always did. Though he had never practiced writing much, he had no worse than average marks in the local high school, and vaguely aspired to continued education. Quickly he ran out of things to say, and folded the letter up and pushed it inside an envelope. They would likely reach Little Creek in two days, and he would mail the letter once he was there.

Sean stretched a little, and suppressed a yawn. He shut off the flashlight. They were not allowed watches, but he knew it was still early, not time for bed. He unzipped the tent, stuffed his feet into the rubber boots propped outside, and moved out into the darkness.

Again he was struck by the perfect wetness of the air. The suffocating cologne of wildflowers, the rich chocolate of fresh earth, the ancient sting of pine needles, all were dissipated and cleansed by the clear smell of the water. He closed his eyes on the blackness and reflected on the water of his faith: the baptism as a symbol of purity and salvation, of starting clean with God. It felt good to be standing in God's world, standing with the baptism in the air. He began to pray thanksgiving.

The patter of some small creature returned him to the world. He had been tired, of course, and his prayer had lapsed into a sort of standing slumber. He opened his eyes, and looked toward the source of the noise. A shape, a little larger than a cat, was moving quickly about the gloom, exploring the area after the rains had let up. Sean squinted, and thought perhaps it was a raccoon. Hoping it would come closer, he stood quite still.

As it approached, he saw what it was. After a moment of blissful admiration, his driving arteries seemed to stir the nerves on his back and arms in to a disarray. Abject fear threatened to course through his blood and infect him with paralysis. Shutting his mind to these thoughts, he whispered a brief prayer, and began to back into his tent, into the arms of his Lord.

All his hopes collapsed when he heard the snort of the mother bear on his other side. He turned quickly, just in time to see her see him. She was smaller than he had thought a bear might be, yet she still loomed large, very large. Only her outline was visible, yet this leant her teeth a deadlier point and her claws a heavier fatality. She panted, a sound like a cough and a sigh which reverberated around him with the force of a full-lunged roar. She stood, and he cowered below her.

He knelt, thoughts of Androcles and St. Francis surfacing in his mind, staring up, up, at the moon of all things, and he was confident that his life would be saved by God.

The Windows of the Heavens

A heavy, brooding sky steatched above the sea that was once desert. Wooden boards and struts protested under the movements of the water, which swelled and swooned in great waves. The oiled deck was slick in the great, driving rain. He stood under cover of the roof of the upper deck, but still felt more water than air on his skin. Through the rain, Noah's son could see that the newborn ocean was rising steadily, and the peaks of two of the surrounding hills had already drowned.

He turned and stumbled into the ark, smelling already of straw and animal waste and fur. The noise from the inside, squawking and mewling and snorting and panting, almost competed with the volume of the tempest outside. One of the lurches earlier in the storm, when the water was lower and the disturbance higher, had sprung open the stalls of some of the animals. In confusion and fear, however, the great cats paced about the bleating sheep without causing any extra trouble: no creature was calm this night.

Twenty minutes of rocking and tilting, of herding goats and leading lions, of watching the wet steam off of his clothes, did not relieve his stomach's tension. He went again to the upper deck, to breathe fresh air and to get some glimpse of the horizon, perhaps. This was not all in vain, as his gorge settled after a while. Furious waves, though, tossed the craft from side to side, and he found himself moving closer and closer to the edge. Fearing that he would lose his footing, he caught hold of the raised lip of cypress, and gazed into the water.

No living thing, no errant fish or squirming eel came into his sight. A rough swell buffeted the ark, and he prayed fervently that He spare him even after all of this. Just as he uttered his conclusions, some moon-coloured flotsam fell over the crest of a nearby wave. He peered out at it, hoping to make out some sort of artifact, some thing to make this nightmare seem somewhat less horrific.

The next swell hid it for a moment, but then brought it even closer to the edge of the ark. Still he could not see it, so he strained his eyes again. It was not until two more waves had come and gone before he identified it, and then he wished he had stayed indoors.

It was the pale, pink flesh of a corpse from the village beneath them now.

He went back inside to tend to the animals, and to prepare his soul more fully for the journey to which he was committed.

"Throw Me into the Sea"

Amid the howls of the wind and the arguing voices of the mariners, the ocean's spray lashed the face of the captain. He led and pushed the Hebrew across the deck of the ship. Their skiff was crashing through the storm-tossed Great Sea, the hull quaking under the strain. Frustrated and angry, he cast the traveller to this crew. Perhaps this man could call on his god to spare them a thought a deliver them from perishing.

The superstitious men quarreled and debated in the darkness, and eventually drew straws. The short one chose the Hebrew, and they all turned on him. Afraid, recalling the passenger's entrance on the boat and his admission that he fled from his own god, the captain asked what they could do to atone for his grave mistake.

As great waves rocked the skiff, the Hebrew explained that he had angered his Lord and that he was the reason they were visited by this storm. Shouting above the wind, he said, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you."

Some of the seaman moved forward, but the captain waved them away. He shouted them to work, and took up an oar himself to row the ship back to Joppa. Leaden waves frothed over the boat and tempestuous winds drove against it. His muscles burned against the course of the water, but it was to no avail. The crew obeyed at first, but it soon became clear that the sailors' last act would be mutiny if he did not call them into action himself.

He muttered a prayer to whatever god it was that the Hebrew worshiped, and cursed that god with the next breath for giving them this task. Staggering forward, across the seasick deck, he glowered an apology, and hoped that the passenger would not haunt him later. Then, with the help of two crewmen, he took the traveler to the edge of the deck. They grasped the rail with one hand as they tried to put him into the waters, but the Hebrew struggled at the sight of the furious sea. Nearly wasted, the captain called to whatever divinity was out there that this murder would not be taken upon them, and forced the sinner into the deeps.

What shape loomed from those waters, the captain did not fully appreciate. His legs went weak and his insides liquified at the sight of the open, fleshy maw and black, staring throat that reached out of the waves and caught the Hebrew as he hit the water. That groteque apparition closed its mouth and sank beneath the iron wetness before the captain even understood what had happened.

He sank to his knees and prayed confusedly to many gods that the blood would not stain his hands, and the sea was calm when his eyes had opened.

A Strong East Wind

Briny drops were carried off the sea by the brisk wind that channeled across the muddy bed. They were passing between the mountainous, sheer walls of water on their left and right, each churning mass towering high above their heads and stretching behind them and before them for miles. The air stung with both its uncanny speed and with its saltiness. Above, the night sky was a tumbled mass of cloud, obscuring the stars.

The former slave stared and stared, unable to comprehend what surrounded him. The brooding, frothing waves seemed to threaten to fall, despite the mad shrieking wind. Ahead of him and along side him, he saw the confused and staring faces and his fellow slaves, the open-mouthed and crazy-eyed pack animals, the terrified and squalling children.

A flash of memories assualted him, a wave of understanding and context.

Glaring haughty from its place in the hard blue sky, the sun lashed a whip of heat far greater than those carried by the men urging him along.

Cracked and calloused, his hands felt relief in the shallows of the Nile for a moment, before handling the scythe again.

A prophet, a freedom fighter, called upon Israel to rise.

Ebony clouds of locusts, floods of red, armies of frogs marching from the water, all descended upon the sandy city.

Dry, dusty weeks of wandering blurred in the wilderness.

Gold flashed off the buckles and weapons of the Pharaoh's soldiers were beacons across the desert.

He was pressed forward by thos ejostling behind him, the multitudes of terrified peasants. Stumbling and tripping in the mud and clinging weed, he tried to catch up, but found himself falling behind. Thought of the marching, flint-faced warriors spurred him on. Donkeys hawed and chickens gossiped around him. A pushing cart knocked him sideways, closer to the foaming wall. He gazed transfixed at the oddity of nature, the water held back by the buffeting wind, turning on itself and swirling confusedly. From deep in the black waves, a pale fleshy carp swam toward the break. It nosed forward, curious and carried by the pressing current. Suddenly, it was swept back in a curling eddy, but not before giving an open look of fishy confusion. He understood.

Behind him, someone shouted out that the Pharoah was still approaching, had come into the sea behind them. A woman moaned and screamed. Another spoke words of encouragement. Some tried to wipe the splashing foam from their animals. Children queried. Men wept. None dared look back.

Above the wind, above the squelch of feet, above the curses and the prayers, he could hear another noise. It was the sound of nothing and of everything, and muffled the stomp of the approaching army. Something about its quality was like a sharp wind off a rock, or like the crackle of flames. Knowing and yet not knowing what he would see, he turned around to face it.

Obscuring the shore at the far end of the corridor of air carved through the sea, a swirling, spiraling pillar of fire, cloud, and smoke followed their progress. It towered upwards, climbing up to brush the stormy sky above them with volcanic orange. The grey and black plumes of ether that strayed outward were underlit by the bright flames inside the column. Lightning cracked about as it twisted and moved in the air, blocking the Egyptians, driving the Israelites, and holding the sea apart. He dropped to his knees, cowed and senseless by the sight of this awesome construction.

The water raged above him, flecked him with foam, as he stared with burning eyes on this piece of the heavens come down with terribly vitality. He could picture the soldiers marching into their watery graves, the fish whisked away, the confused people wandering forward, and knew not what to pray for.

The Aftermath of a Vision

Retracting from the vivid prayer and the rush of ancient memories, Sean saw the pale moon bob in the sky, peeking among the waves of clouds. He saw the moon, slightly waning, in the cycle that it moved along throughout all time. Wetness touched his knees from the grass, and his node and ears from the air.

The bear moved toward him, panting and huffing. He turned, and for a moment saw the bear illuminated as with fire. His prayers turned ashen on his lips, and he found that his faith did not fail, but his understanding did.

She was black on black, and her breath came out in white plumes like a dragon's. Lumbering, remaining on all fours but hopping up at times like she meant to rear back, she was nearer now than before he began to pray. Clearly afraid for her cub, clearly confused by the alien creature, she would no less follow thousands of years of blood instinct and not back down.

Sean remained on his knees. He turned toward her, and stared up into her eyes. He meditated on her claws, on the muscles bunched beneath the fur of her forepaws. He imagined the bare, black nose in her face, the coarse pink tongue between her teeth. He could not see her, could not understand her, but somehow he got closer to understanding her as he sat in the dark than he would have believed possible.

She came closer still.

He lowered his head, and brought to his mind the image of his family, and his friends, and his home. He thought briefly on what he was proud of, and what he was not. He gave thanks. And then he spoke.

"Not my will but yours."

For how long he knelt he never knew. At some point, he heard the crickets saw again, and the peepers chorus. The dampness was cold against his knees, and the stiff rubber of his boots pressed into his shins. No claws had come down on his back, and no teeth had scraped his head.

He opened his eyes and looked up. The bear was not there, nor her cub.

Above, the moon still winked from the sky.

Sean stood, and wiped grass from his pants. He tasted the water on the air, the water infused into the world.

Taking off his boots, crawling back into the tent, taking down his cross, trying to sleep, he thought and puzzled and prayed.

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