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.


Monday, November 29, 2004

Chapter 16: Agnus Dei

It was hot and wet inside the thick cloud. The smoke had turned out to be largely steam, but there was enough ash in it to make it difficult to breathe. They pushed forward, handkerchiefs tied over their noses and mouths, straining to see anything through the haze. Suddenly Dranger held up a hand and took a step back, almost bumping into Cobb.
"What is it?" Cobb’s voice was slightly muffled by the thin cloth.
"Drop-off. Gotta work our way around a different way."
Cobb looked over his shoulder. Sure enough, directly in front of them, the mountain wall which had been their guide suddenly dropped away into a pit. A small stream of water poured down the sheer rock face and plunged into the pit, creating the clouds of steam. Through the blinding steam, they caught glimpses of red, where hot lava seemed to be making an appearance on the surface.
Dranger pointed to his left. "I think we can get across that way." The path wandered away from the side of the mountain and appeared to be a safe way around the pit. They followed it carefully, testing each step to make sure that they didn’t fall into the pit.
Suddenly, a figure loomed up out of the mist in front of them. After they recovered from their original astonishment, they moved closer to it, recognizing another statue. This one, however, departing from the beauty of the former statues, was twisted and grotesque. It held its hands over its eyes and screamed, in what looked like rage. But what made the statue most disturbing was, perhaps, the system of scars and marks that marred the entire surface of the figure, as if its creator had become angry with it and destroyed his own work.
On the neckline of the figure’s robe was inscribed the phrase "Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, misere nobis; dona nobis pacem."
On the robe itself was scrawled another verse:
"Look here, travelers, at this:
Wrath makes him deaf and blind,
And Hic Jacet Draconis,
As you soon will find."
Cobb ran his hands along the rough cracks in the figure, fingers catching slightly at the rough spots.
He ran his hands over his arms and chest, checking for cuts. There were plenty, but none seemed serious. The bruising was worse, by far. He staggered out to his truck and got in, locking the doors behind him.
"He got what was coming to him," he said, words slightly slurred. "Stupid S.O.B. deserved it. Deserved it!" he shouted at the steering column, which showed no signs of disagreeing with him. Laughing, he started the vehicle.
The evening had started normally enough, with the juke box blaring old country favorites. He had sat down next to a pretty girl and started flirting. Pretty soon, her boyfriend had returned from shooting pool, and took offense at the developing situation. Cobb had tried to get the girl to come home with him, but she had insisted on staying with her boyfriend. Cobb had lost his temper then, and determined to show them both that he was the manlier man, had punched the boyfriend. The fist fight that ensued had been enormously entertaining, he thought, and had enjoyed it immensely. He couldn’t quite remember how the fight had ended, but he was conscious enough to make it to his truck, so he could only assume that he had won.
As he threw the transmission into reverse, the lights of a police car came into view around the corner, followed closely by those of an ambulance. The police car screeched to a halt, blocking his truck, while the ambulance pulled up to the front door of the bar. The police pulled Cobb out of his car, and handcuffed him. As he was being pushed into the police cruiser, he saw out of the corner of his eye a stretcher being carried out of the bar to the ambulance. The face of the man was just visible between the hurried figures of the EMTs, but was completely covered in blood. They loaded him onto the ambulance, and drove away, sirens flashing.
Cobb tried to look at his hands, before remembering that they were cuffed behind him. He flexed them tentatively, and realized that they were badly bruised; a few bones in the fingers might even be broken. He didn’t remember the fight being that serious, just that he had enjoyed it. He sank back into the cushioned seat of the cruiser, still wondering, as the car pulled away.
He flexed his fingers automatically, even now remembering the pain of the broken bones. He wondered suddenly where the other man was, and if he had suffered any permanent damage. He wondered if he had ever married the pretty girl in the bar. He hoped so. It would have been a shame to fight so hard for a girl you didn’t get to keep.
He pulled away from the statue, stepping back to look it in the face again. Its face was twisted and scarred, yet it reminded him more of his own face than that of the man he had attacked. He ran a hand over his own cheek, feeling the small scars that crisscrossed his face, remnants of many fights and "adventures."
"Wonder why I did it," he wondered out loud.
"Did what?"
"Oh...just stuff. Beat a guy up real bad one time, just wondering where he is now, why I thought I had to beat the tar outta him."
"Because you are a warm-blooded animal with too much testosterone for your own damn good. Someone infringed on your territory," he eyed Cobb, then amended it. "Or, as is more likely, you wanted someone else’s property. Natural selection took its course."
Cobb stared at him. "That’s idiotic. If it was all natural, then why’d he bother to get mad when I acted like an animal? I couldn’t help it, right? So, then, what’s the point of anything?"
Dranger shrugged. "Man, you answer that, and you can out all the philosophers out of business for the next hundred years."
The steam rolled around his body in waves of heat, making the clay even more slippery than usual. The mud slipped out of his hands and fell onto the path, and he had to get on his hands and knees to find it. He had knocked a good few lumps of it into the pit below.
"Some paradise," he grunted. "Only if Paradise is a sauna."
The lump of clay slid around in his hands as he pressed it into place on the statue. It slipped briefly, then finally fastened on to the existing clay. He wiped the sweat from his brow, leaving a wide swatch of clay across his face.
He reached down for a new lump of clay. As he raised it to the statue, a bead of sweat ran into his eye and he shook his head to dislodge it. The movement, however, loosened his grip on the clay. The lump slipped out of his hands and landed on the statue.
Arthur growled in frustration. "Naturally! The one time I don’t want a piece to stick, it does!" He dug his fingers into the clay, ripping it off the statue. His fingers left deep gouges on the figure, like claw marks left by an animal attack. This further marring of the figure infuriated him. The wet heat of the steam, combined with the frustration of the slippery clay and the disfigurement of his statue was too much for his temper. He attacked the only target within range: the statue.
His hands dug deep into its torso and face, digging out huge chunks and jamming the clay into new locations. Blindly, he lashed out at the figure, pummeling it with his fists.
Suddenly exhausted, he stopped his attack, and stepped back from the statue. He saw the damage done to it, the disfigurement that it had suffered, and he began to cry. The tears slipped down his face, blending with the clay and sweat that were already present.
The boy crouched down behind the bush, looking out over the park with what he took to be a hunter’s practiced eye. His bait lay before him: a handful of crumbled bread crumbs, dug out of the bottom of the family bread box. His weapon lay beside him: a butterfly net, patched in many places, but still useable.
He waited, knowing that his game would come. And come they did, flocks of them. The pigeons landed near the bread crumbs and began pecking at them. He grabbed the net and began moving it slowly. He raised it, keeping it out of sight behind the bush, and took careful aim. Then, with a shout, he slammed it down in the midst of the pigeons.
Most of the birds had taken to the air upon hearing the shout, but one was left behind, trapped under the net. It flapped and cooed desperately, feathers flying.
Arthur held the handle of the net flat against the ground as he got into position to grab the bird. He slid a hand under the net and clutched the body of the bird. He held it tightly, and got his second hand under the net, trying to hold down the bird’s flapping wings. He pulled it out of the mesh of the net carefully, trying not to catch its head on the netting. The bird, craning its neck frantically, began pecking him on the hand.
"Ow!" he yelled. "Stop it!"
He shook the bird, yelling at it to be still. The bird continued to struggle, but Arthur held tight. Finally, after receiving a particularly nasty peck on the hand, he shook the bird again, angrily, for a long time. When he calmed down enough and stopped shaking the bird, it was limp in his hand. He folded its wings gently back against its body, but it did not move.
Frightened, he set it back down on the ground, but it simply slumped over. It was quite dead. Arthur began to panic: he had never killed anything bigger than a bug before. The bird lay there, neck stretched out pathetically, eyes open and staring. Its wings sprung out from its body at bizarre angles, feathers askew. Death had disfigured it, and Arthur began to cry, desperately, willing the bird to come back to life.
He shuddered again, remembering the bird’s neck, twisted out of kilter and hanging limp. He looked back up at the disfigured statue, and cried again. But soon he got to his feet, wiping the tears away, and began to work again, smoothing out the distorted clay. But he kept the warped shape of the figure, and used it as a pattern for the work. It was a reminder, he told himself, never to let anger take over.

copyright 2004 Elizabeth J. Weaver


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