The Gift: A novel

My project for A man finds himself alone on a paradisical island where has has no need to work to support himself. His life is spent transforming the island.

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Location: Los Angeles, United States

I am an awkward, stubborn, slightly insane woman who would rather talk Plato than Prada, rather watch Frank Capra than Carrie Bradshaw, and rather listen to Norse myths sung in Icelandic than anything currently on the radio. Yeah. Told you I was weird.


Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Chapter 12 Beati pauperes spiritu

Cobb's eyes drifted across the figures in front of him. They were as tall as any man, and stood in shallow niches in the wall.
Above his head, across the top of the wall, slithered a serpent, writhing in a lifelike fashion. He saw that it had a star emblazoned on its forehead. To his left, in the first space, stood a proud looking man, who shared the space with a looming tower. The tower stood on a carved bit of earth, which was labeled with the word “Shinar.” On closer inspection, the carved earth was etched with fine cracks, which threatened to divide it. The next space held a young girl, of beautiful face. In one hand she held a spindle and a bundle of thread. In her other hand, she held a large spider, which had spun a web between her fingers. An owl, etched shallowly into the background, appeared to be swooping down to snatch up the spider. The niche in the middle of the wall held the form of a beautiful young man. He held a set of reins in one hand, but the other end of the reins seemed to be in the process of being consumed by flames. In fact, the entire floor of the niche was covered in flame motifs, and directly below the niche, on the wall's surface, was carved a sun symbol, making it appear as if the young man stood on the sun itself. To his right was a niche that held no human figure, but rather the shape of a city wall, with the gate closed and barred. A bit of the horizon could be seen in the far distance behind the wall, and the rough shape of a wooden horse was etched into the clay.
Cobb started a bit as he examined the final image. It was nothing from religion or mythology, but a figure familiar to anyone who knew the first thing about history. It was the figure of a rather short man, wearing a military costume and a ridiculously large hat. Any schoolchild would instantly recognize Napoleon. He beckoned Dranger over to the wall. “Look at this! I haven't got the slightest clue what these other people are, but this guy is Napoleon!” Dranger nodded, surprised and baffled.
“Why Napoleon?”
“Not a clue. But maybe if we can figure out who any of these other figures are, we can find out what it means.”
Together, they moved over to the first image. The sculpted man's face was cruel and haughty. Dranger's eyes strayed to the tower by his side, and nodded slightly. “Ok, this one I think I know. I don't know the guy's name, but this,” he pointed at the tower, “is the Tower of Babel.” He scanned the rest of the wall quickly. “Pride.”
“Pride, these are images of people who were too proud. I don't know most of them, but Napoleon and the tower of Babel give it away.”
“Nothing. Something I heard in Sunday school as a kid.”
They turned their eyes back to the wall, exploring the bits of wall that stood between the niches. The entire thing was patterned with a peacock feather motif. In a few places they found scraps of writing. Beneath the snake was written “Oh, how thou art fallen, O Lucifer!” and underneath the niches was written “Remember O man, dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.”
they took a few steps back to take in the whole wall. There it stood, massive and immovable, a monument to human pride.
“Hey, man.”
The teenager looked up, and caught the eyes of his friend. He slouched against the wall, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Hey. 'Sup?”
“Nothing, man.” He dug into a shirt pocket, and drew out a cigarette. He offered it to the kid lounging against the wall. Ray Cobb took the small white roll, and lit it. He held it between two fingers, lazily, with a calculated nonchalance. The other teen stood casually, shoulders slumped, eyes shifting to the side, trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening around him without appearing to take any interest.
Ray lazily scratched his back against the rough brick wall, and studied the toes of his shoes. The laces hung loose, and the shoes barely stayed on his feet.
Just then, a girl, barely older than sixteen, entered the concrete courtyard and began walking across the basketball court to the buildings on the other side. She looked up, casting her eyes on Cobb. His eyes flickered downward for a moment, then met hers. He looked away quickly, but his companion noted his uneasiness.
“Hey man, you oughta get her to notice you. You're slick,man, you know she wants you.” Cobb smirked slightly, and levered himself away from the wall. “Aw, come on man, I don't like her like that.” “Give it up man, you're gone all nuts over her. You gotta go show her that she can't twist you around her little finger.” Cobb grunted, the jab irritating him. He started walking, planning his path to eventually intersect with hers. As he came closer, she smiled. He smiled in return, but his eyes were dark and stormy.

“Hey, sweetie, you going someplace?” He threw his arm around her shoulders, drawing her close. She seemed uncomfortable, but didn't draw away. “Yeah, I was just going to go pick up my test results from the office. They said that they were in today.” He put an arm around her waist and pulled her closer to him, and leaned down to kiss her roughly. Time seemed to slow, and his senses seemed to become more acute. He heard his friend laughing in the distance, and the catcalls of the other guys on the courtyard. She pulled away from him, looking frightened. “what's wrong with you, Ray? This isn't like you?” He grabbed her arm and tried to pull her in again, but she twisted away. He reached out for her, then stopped short, a sharp pain spreading across his face. He stared, disbelieving. “You slapped me, you little--!” His hand closed on a handful of her shirt, and he yanked her towards him. His hand behind her neck forced her face to his, and he kissed her again. Then he pushed her away, and she stumbled and fell, scraping her knees on the asphalt.
“Run man, the teachers are coming!” He heard the yell and began to run mechanically, not really seeing where his feet took him. His friend jogged up beside him. “Hey man, that was great, you showed her what a real man is like!” He laughed raucously, and ran off between the buildings. Cobb stopped for a moment to catch his breath, and take in what had happened. He had not intended to be quite so rough, but she had slapped him! He couldn't let it get around that any little girl could slap him and get away with it! He took a deep breath, and straightened up, then turned and walked away.
Cobb shuddered at the sudden memory, and an unexpected grief pierced his heart. He had enjoyed the fear he had seen in her eyes; he had enjoyed the feeling of power. But now he would give anything to live that moment over. He saw her in his memory, standing there with tears in her eyes, hair coming down to cover her face. He bowed his head slightly to hide the tears that suddenly sprang up in his eyes.
“Hey, Stanley!”
The boy did not turn around, neither needing to see who addressed him, nor wondering what it was that he wanted.
“Hey come on, Manly Stanley, I wanna see you fight me.” He still did not turn, but picked up his pace a bit more. “What, are you afraid of me? Surely Manly Stanley's not afraid of poor little me!” The other boy caught up to him and pushed him. He absorbed the punch and did not turn around.
“Oh, did I get your name wrong? You're not Manly, so you can 't be Stanley. How about Stranger Dranger? Naw, that takes too long to say. By the time anybody'd get that whole thing out, you'd already have run away.” The smaller boy lashed with a wild punch that barely clipped the other boy's shoulder.
“Oh, so he does fight sometimes?”
The boy punched Stanley, and knocked him to the ground again. “C'mon, fight me, Manly Stanley!”
The younger boy, pushed to the limit of endurance, got up slowly, eyes blazing. He waited until the bully laughed again, and closed his eyes for a brief moment. In that instant of unwatchfulness, Stanley struck. The punch landed on target, and left the other boy doubled over, gasping for breath. Stanley continued to rain punches and kicks on him, until the other boy began crawling away, sniffling and dripping blood from his nose. He saw that others were beginning to come out of the buildings now, and knew that the bully feared an injury to his pride more than any bodily injury he could inflict. So he hit him again, and heard the other students laugh, some chanting “Fight! Fight!” He kicked the bigger boy one last time, and then moved away into the crowd, calmly wiping his hands on his shirt. He knew with a calm happiness that the name of “Manly Stanley” would no longer be an insult.
Dranger winced slightly at the memory. He had explained to the teachers, when they inevitably questioned him, that the other boy had been bullying him and others unmercifully. He had simply put a stop to the torment. No-one questioned him too much; everyone had known about the bullying, and were simply glad that it was over. He learned, over time, how to cut bullies down to size with sarcastic quips, designed to shame the bully in the eyes of any observers. He had never been bullied again. But neither had he had many friends again. Admirers, yes. But few people cared to come very close.
He bowed his head, staring into the dirt at his feet, wondering for the first time if perhaps there had not been a better way to defend himself.

Turning to the trees, the two men climbed the large tree, stepping easily from branch to branch. It took them a bit longer to cross to the next tree. They discovered that the tree could only safely hold one of them at a time, so Dranger stepped into its branches while Cobb stayed in the first tree with the packs. Dranger clambered through the branches to a spot from which he could drop down on the far side of the wall. He did so, then called for the packs. Cobb tossed them over one at a time, then began the crossing himself, dropping down beside his companion. As he straightened up, he saw another carved figure in front of him. Lifting up his eyes, he saw that it was another angelic figure, This one, though, instead of having a dead tree trunk for a core, had been shaped around a living palm tree. The fronds of the palm formed the wings of the angel, spread across the narrow path. A carved scroll at the base of the figure held another scrap of verse:
“Now, o man, no longer full
Of yourself, but empty and pure,
Your path is an easier toil,
And your victory sure.”
The sun stood high in the sky at the hour of noon. As they passed under the wings of the angel, each man felt the fronds gently brush his forehead, as if in benediction.
Arthur stood back and surveyed his work. The first statue stood in its niche, and seemed to be secure. He had spent three months building the wall from stones and clay, and another three dredging up enough clay from the riverbed to coat the wall thick enough so that the niches would not weaken it. He had then picked the logs he would need for the statues, and embedded each in the floor of a niche. From there, he planned to construct each statue normally. The first one, Phaeton, was now finished. It stood in the middle of the wall, secure in its niche.
He began adding the clay to the second statue, which had he decided should be Arachne. He had found a tree which had branches that would serve beautifully as cores for the arms. He had noticed that as the years progressed, he had to spend less time searching for particular trees and stones. In his twelve years on the island, he had spent so much time looking for materials that he now know what many of the trees and stones looked like. He had only to establish the basic shape of tree or stone that he would need, and he would know on exactly which foot of the island contained the perfect item. He knew the island from north to south, east to west, every stream and boulder, and nearly every tree. He had even found ways to construct filters for the river that collected bits of clay that might have floated out to sea normally.
He plastered the clay onto the wooden form for an hour, then decided to let that layer dry and bake before adding another. He checked the sun's progress, and decided that since the first statue had turned out so nicely, he would take the risk of working on all of the other statues at once. He applied a layer of clay to each in turn, then as the sun approached its apex, he went back to the stream to take a drink.
He filled his drinking jug, and walked back to the wall. He was always amazed by the sheer size of it, even though he had watched it grow.
He sat beneath the spreading branches of a large tree that stood just to the left of the wall, stretching out in the shade.
“You realize that everyone thinks that we are completely mad, to spread out a picnic blanket in the snow.” Her voice was full of mock solemnity.
“My dear, if I cared what anyone thought, I would go mad. However, I take no care for public opinion, and therefore, I get to enjoy the rare pleasure of a picnic in the snow with the fairest rose of womanhood.”
Rachel laughed, and began gathering her things.
“I have to go get ready now. I need to warm up and get into my dress.” She smiled, and stood up, brushing off her hands and skirt. He lay there in the snow, enjoying the laziness of the afternoon, unwilling to get up. He smiled up at her, enjoying the play of light across her hair. “Awww....Are you sure? Not even five more minutes?” She laughed, and shook her head. He rolled over and wrapped his arms around her knees until she lost her balance and tumbled onto the blanket beside him, still laughing. He laid his head on her shoulder, and smiled. “Not even two more minutes?” “No, good sir, not even two more minutes with a scoundrel such as yourself!” She leapt to her feet with the grace of a gazelle and ran off across the snow, still laughing. He got to his feet slowly, and brushed himself off. He explored the church grounds for a while, enjoying the cool clean smell of the garden in winter. He settled into a pew a few minutes before the concert began. He adjusted his tie self-consciously, checking the dress of the others in the church, afraid of being overdressed. Just then the ensemble filed in, the crimson gowns of the women glowing in the candlelight, and the men's slicked down hair shining in the dim light. At his first sight of her, he forgot his fashion concerns, and waited in anticipation for the music to begin. As the group sang, he could not take his eyes off her face. It glowed in the candlelight, her joy in the music visible to all in the audience. Arthur listened, captivated, as her sweet alto swept out over the sanctuary, sounding out the harmony with a voice as clear and sweet as a panpipe. He watched, unaware that his face shone with a light equal to that of the one he watched.
After the concert ended, he went to stand with her, mingling with audience members at the small reception. One lady approached them shyly, but gained confidence as Rachel smiled at her.
“My dear, I just wanted to tell you, it was such a joy to watch you sing. Your face shone so brightly, it was almost like seeing the music as well as hearing it. “
Rachel blushed and dropped her eyes, but her smile deepened. “Thank you!” She embraced the woman lightly, her gratitude evident on her face. She smiled, and waved as the woman moved away to mingle elsewhere.
That night, as they walked under the stars, he had taken her hand. They walked in silence for awhile, breathing the cool night air, and exhaling clouds of steam. He put an arm around her gently, and whispered in her ear. “Thank you for the picnic in the snow. We may both be mad, but I would rather have everyone laughing at me and be with you, than to win the approval of the world, and be without you.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and gently kissed his forehead. “I am glad, Arthur. I would never be able to live up to everyone else's expectations. Pride is a hard master, but one that need not be served.” He smiled at her, admiring the light of the stars that were reflected in her eyes.
He got up from the shade, and checked the statues. Still too damp to add more layers, he concluded. He looked up at the sun, and gave thanks for a woman who would not be mastered by any expectations, and who had freed him from the tyranny of his own pride. He began smoothing clay on to the wood that would become the face of his Angelis Umilitas, but saw only the face that had glowed in the candlelit concert.

copyright 2004 Elizabeth J. Weaver


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