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.

My Photo
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 17: Beati Pacifici

They spent a few more hours wandering slowly through the clouds of steam, but finally emerged, dripping and exhausted. They slumped to the ground to rest in what now felt like the cool air. Cobb yanked his handkerchief off his face, gulping huge breaths of air. Dranger untied his handkerchief and used it to wipe the sweat from his face.
The sun was now low in the sky; Dranger marked it to be about 6 pm.
After resting for a moment to catch their breath, they moved forward down the path, looking for a good place to spend the night. They found what they were looking for around the next curve of the trail, as it rejoined the mountain wall. A second wall, complete with a row of statues, stood before them.
"Well," said Dranger, after a moment. "Let’s get over this thing, and camp on the other side. We’ll have a wall to our backs, and it’s as good a stopping place as any. " Cobb assented, and they moved toward the wall.
Five figures filled the niches in this wall, much as they had in the previous monolith. The first figure, on the far left, stood with his hands braced against the sides of his niche. He seemed to be supporting the weight of the niche, and even breaking through it. Fine lines and cracks surrounded the figure, as if he were tearing apart his prison. His eyes had been gouged out, and his hair was long and wild, twisting in heavy ropes across his shoulders.
The second figure was so odd that they spent some time examining it. He appeared to be dressed in heavy furs, with a metal helmet that sported two large horns. "Viking," chuckled Cobb. He had long hair and a thick wild beard. Around his neck was draped a serpent; the snake’s head rested on the figure’s breast, and a thin green line dribbled from the serpent’s fanged mouth to the breast of the man. There, the furs were eaten away, and the poison dripped onto his bare skin, which had been painted red and raw. In one hand, the figure held a sprig of holly; in the other, a miniature boat. The boat had been filled with the bones and skeletons of small animals, and their skulls decorated the hull.
The central figure was large and muscular. He held a helmet under his arm, one that looked as if it could have been dug up from an archeological dig. His left leg was twisted at an awkward angle to show his ankle, which was run through by a single arrow. His hair hung long around his shoulders, and had been painted a bright yellow.
The fourth figure was, like the second, dressed in furs. This figure, however, had almond shaped eyes, and a small mustache. The wall behind him was etched with a rough map, of what appeared to be Asia.
The final figure, however, was instantly recognizable. He was a small man, with short hair and a precisely trimmed mustache. He wore a military uniform with the unmistakable swastika insignia on an armband. Behind him, on the wall of the niche, was engraved a Star of David engulfed in flames.
The men moved to the left side of the wall, trying to identify the figures. Dranger, having had a few years of Sunday School, recognized the first figure as that of Samson. The second figure was a complete mystery, but Cobb wagered a guess that it simply represented the Vikings in general. The central figure was also a mystery, until Dranger remembered something. "I used to read a few myths when I was a kid, always liked the battles and stuff. I think this is Achilles. See the heel? Ever hear of an ‘Achilles’ heel?’ " Cobb nodded. "That’s what this is. He was immune to all weapons except in his heel. So an archer shot him there to kill him." The fourth figure was also a mystery, until Cobb saw a small bit of bark held loosely in the figure’s hand. Cobb pulled it free, gently, and saw a hurried scrawl: "Alright, so you figure out how to portray Atilla the Hun!" The two men laughed for quite awhile over that one, then carefully put the bark back in place. They found no reason to examine the statue of Hitler, knowing exactly who and what he was.
The mountain wall, on their right, was not so steep here as it had been at the other wall, and the men were able to scramble over it to the other side of the wall. There they made camp as the sun went down. They ate some of their beef jerky, along with some fruit from the island trees; they found another stream trickling down the mountain, and filled their canteens. They made sure to drink more water than usual, knowing that they had lost a good bit of water in the sweaty heat of the steam cloud.
They finally laid down to sleep, each man staring up at the stars for a long time before drifting off.
"Hey, Ray."
"Will you thow me again how you can thtand on your head?"
Cobb looked at the little girl standing in front of him. She was eight years younger than he was, only about four years old. "Aw, come on, Sally, you don’t wanna see that old trick again. You’ve seen it a hundred times."
"But I thtill can’t do it mythelf, and I want to thee you do it."
He grinned. "Alright then, here you go." He leaned over, planting his head firmly on the ground. He kicked his feet up into the air, and pulled himself into a perfect headstand. Sally squealed and clapped her hands, jumping up and down. "Go, Ray, go!"
Ray laughed, and kicked his legs crazily. Sally dissolved into giggles, and crouched down to look him in the face. "You look thilly, Ray!"
He grinned and stuck his tongue out at her. She laughed again, and hid her face. Ray kicked his legs a little bit too hard, and lost his balance. With a shout he tumbled down, legs and arms akimbo. He rolled over and looked up, just in time to see Sally throw herself onto his stomach.
"Oof!" he whooshed, as the air was forced out of his lungs. "When did a squirt like you get so heavy, huh?" He lifted her off of him and sat up. "Sisters aren’t supposed to be heavy."
Sally giggled and sat down beside him. "Thank you, big brother!" She picked a dandelion that was growing nearby and handed it to him.
As they were walking back to the house, he stepped on a loose rock and twisted his ankle slightly. Cursing, he kicked the rock away, and hopped around on his good foot. Sally came up beside him, quietly. "Thit down, big brother." He looked at her for a moment, then sat, quietly.
She knelt beside him and rolled up the cuff of his jeans. Bending over, she kissed the ankle and tied a long strand of grass around it for a bandage. "There," she said. "That’th better."
Cobb rolled over in his sleep, smiling slightly. Nearby, Dranger slept too, also dreaming.
"Hey, cutie, time to get up!"
The young boy opened one eye sleepily. "It’s too early to get up, mom."
"Nope, just on time I’m afraid. Time for school."
The boy groaned and pulled the blanket over his head. His mother pulled it down again, and began to tickle him. He squirmed, but couldn’t help laughing. Finally, he rolled out of bed and began the onerous process of getting dressed. A few minutes later, after a quick breakfast, he was walking down the street to the bus stop, his mother’s farewell still in his ears and her homemade lunch in a paper bag clenched in his right hand.
Eight hours later, a small morose figure trudged the same route home again. He no longer carried a paper bag, but instead held a wet cloth to his right eye, which was swelling into a beautiful bruise.
His mother met him at the door. "Oh Stan, a fight on your first day?" He nodded, not looking up. He dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a rather rumpled note; scowling, he handed it to her. She scanned it quickly, and sighed. "Stanley, what was the fight about?" He shrugged. "They were teasing me, and I wanted to make them stop." She sat down on a kitchen chair and motioned for him to do the same. "I know you know this already, so I’m only going to say this once. You don’t ever start fights. Ever." The corner of her mouth twitched into a slight smile. "But you always finish them." She ruffled his hair, and put her hand on his shoulder. "Promise me it won’t happen again?" He nodded sullenly, and kicked his legs against the legs of the chair. "Hey." He looked up. "Smile a bit, ok? One fight isn’t the end of the world. "
He did smile then, mirroring her infectious smile.
Even in sleep, and after she had been dead for nearly forty years, his smile still mimicked hers.
A gibbous moon hung in the sky, casting the whole area into sharp relief. A tall tree stood guard over the two sleeping figures, spreading its branches over them like protective wings.
Arthur ran his hands over the completed statue of the Norseman, enjoying the grooved feel of the stylized fur. He stepped back to admire the entire wall. All the figures were complete, and he was pleased with them. Samson had proven the most difficult. He could not figure out how to get the natural cracks into the clay for a long time. Finally, he had decided to build the floor of the niche first, so that it would provide a solid foundation to stand on. When it was finished, he had packed in damp clay to form the walls, and, when it was partially dry, he had stepped into the niche himself, and heaved up on the walls and ceiling with all his might. A system of cracks and fractures had been created, and the walls deformed in very natural ways. When the niche was dry and baked, he had sculpted Samson, in the very same pose he had assumed, and placed him inside the niche. It looked for all the world, he thought, as if the clay structure had created the cracks himself.
He had finished the structure ahead of schedule, and decided to take a month off of creating to practice other things that he had too often let fall into disuse. He turned to the strip of wood that he had left sitting in the shade. It was long and flat, and tapered to a point at one end. The other end was rounded and smooth; he sat down, and began wrapping the rounded end with the pelt of an animal he had killed that morning. The pelt was clean, but not yet quite dry. When it dried and shrank onto the wood, it would be permanently attached. He smiled, and hefted the crude sword. It did not have the best balance that he had ever felt, but neither was it terrible. It would serve, for an aging man fighting only opponents in his imagination.
He stood, blade in hand, facing a small tree that stood nearby. "Sir, defend yourself!" he laughed, waving the sword at the tree. He moved surprisingly quickly, the exertion of working on the island having kept his muscles in excellent shape. His movements were a bit clumsy and unskilled, but he began to remember the proper movements as he practiced.
"Alright class, that’s enough for today!" The fencing teacher removed his face guard, and his students did the same. They laughed amongst themselves as they took off their gear and stowed it away in the proper cabinets.
The professor called all the men together in a circle, and spoke to them. "Now remember, young sirs, you are to be young gentlemen. You have all signed up for this class to learn swordsmanship, under the conditions that you will also learn to be chivalrous and courteous. Knights, stand to attention!" His voice rang out crisp and clear, and each young man straightened up, clasping his hands behind his back. "For what do you fight?"
"For the honor of the realm, and the love of a good woman, sir!"
"Who is your enemy?"
"Those who come against the land or seek to dishonor a lady!"
"Very good, I salute you!" He looked around the circle and laughed. "Alright, alright, you can go now. Enough ceremony for today."
"Man, he’s a real character, isn’t he," laughed Arthur. "I’d heard that he had a few screws loose, but all this stuff about being knights...Seems like he means it!" His friend nodded, grinning. "It’s nice to have a professor mean something for once, isn’t it? I mean, all the others just want to teach you how to doubt and question. I guess that’s got it’s place and all, but it’s nice to hear someone talk about things worth fighting for again." Arthur nodded. "Yeah. Whatever screws he’s got loose, I wouldn’t stop taking his class for anything."
"So, what’ve you got on your schedule today, man?" Arthur shrugged. "I dunno. Going to see Rachel at some point, but I’ve got a lot of work to do first. She’ll have a fit if she thinks I’ve started slacking off for her sake." The other man laughed. "Man, you are so lucky. My girl throws a fit if I’m not slacking off for her sake!" Arthur joined in his laughter, then picked up his book bag and began walking across campus.
He heard jeering behind him, coming from one of the other students in the class. "You’re a wimp, man! Do you just do whatever the harpy tells you to do?" His face reddened, and he turned toward the sound. "Repeat that remark, Mr. Taylor, and you will regret it." The other man stepped toward him, smiling a bit unpleasantly. He spoke in a voice that was overly polite. "Do you do whatever your woman tells you to do, sir?" Arthur straightened his back, and stood as tall as he could. "I attempt to do only what is good, true, and beautiful, sir. Since my lady is all three, I often do what she asks me to do. I see no threat to my manliness in that. But, if she is able unman someone from a distance, so that all he can do is toss out insults to her honor..." He smiled, and shrugged. "I see no threat in that."
The other man’s face flushed, and he stopped smiling. "Ok, you pompous ass, enough. You think you’re a real knight, ready to defend your lady’s honor and all that. Well, so am I! Enough of this sniping back and forth. I challenge you to a duel."
Arthur paused. "What kind of duel?" The other man shrugged slightly. "Just a fencing match. One on one, you versus me. If you want, I’ll even arrange it with Professor Harrington, so that it’s all done with ‘utmost honor and courtesy.’"
Arthur nodded. "Done, then. When should it be?"
"Tomorrow, 6 p.m?"
"Works for me." He bowed slightly. "Tomorrow at 6, then, sir. Prepare to defend your honor." The other man bowed stiffly and walked off to consult the professor, setting up the time and place for the duel.
The next day, a crowd had gathered. Professor Harrington paced in the middle of the circle of people. "Alright gentlemen. The two participants have explained the situation to me, and I have agreed to sponsor this challenge. However," he raised his hand and looked around sternly, "I have told the university that this is an extra credit class session; that means that I am responsible for whatever happens here today. I expect you to fight with honor and chivalry. I must insist, however, that you duel with the face guards on. If the lawyers here ever found me letting you duel without at least that much protection, I would soon be out of a job, and we all know what a tragedy that would be." He smiled quirkily, one corner of his mouth turned up under his dark mustache. "Alright then , gentlemen, do you have your seconds?" Each man nodded, and pointed to a friend. "Alright then, take your positions...And...Begin!"
The young men circled each other warily, foils held at the ready. Each had gone the whole nine yards, rather enjoying the idea of a real duel. Professor Harrington had, in fact, encouraged them to take the duel as seriously as possible. Each man had a simple cloth coat-of-arms pinned on his shirt, and Rachel had given him a silk scarf as a favor; he had tied it around his left arm. She had painted his coat-of-arms, proclaiming him useless at anything involving fabric. Acknowledging the truth of her words, he had left her to her work, and had not seen the design until that morning. It was a scarlet ground, divided into one upper section and two lower sections. Across the top section was a shining sword, labeled as Excalibur. The lower halves sported a unicorn, and on the other side, a winged horse with a golden bridle. Arthur had laughed, acknowledging the appropriateness of the symbols. It was now pinned to the back of his shirt, and shone in the red light of sunset as the fight began.
The red sunlight glinted off the foils like blood as they flashed out to strike. A thrust, a parry, no hit. And again, and again. Finally, Taylor dropped to one knee, striking out quickly, and scored the first hit. Arthur rubbed his leg where the foil had struck, and backed away.
"First hit is mine." Taylor grinned, a bead of sweat running down his neck. "Get ready to lose."
"First and only hit, sir." Arthur spun quickly, increasing his speed. Taylor parried rapidly, but began backing away from the onslaught. Soon, however, he was a bit overzealous in his parry, and Arthur’s foil snuck in under his arm, scoring a sound hit on his stomach. Taylor backed away, still holding the sword at ready.
"Let’s end this," Arthur murmured, and attacked with a new ferocity. He could still hear Taylor calling Rachel "harpy," and "your woman;" the memory of the words spurred him on to fight with greater energy. The next two hits were scored in fairly quick succession, and Professor Harrington came running into the circle to end the match.
"Alright gentlemen, you have bought fought well, and avenged your honor." He smiled. "In fact, that duel was a pleasure to watch; you’ve both improved your swordsmanship dramatically since the beginning of the semester. Now, bow to each other." They did so, both breathing heavily. "Very good. Alright, everyone dismissed!"
"Mr. Taylor!" Arthur called. He turned and faced him, sweat running down his face. "A good fight, Mr. Taylor, thank you." Taylor smiled, and extended a hand. "Definitely. And I apologize for my words. They were uncalled for, and you defended your lady’s honor admirably." He paused, pulling off his gloves. "Perhaps you’d like to join me and Katie for dinner sometime? " Arthur nodded, smiling. "Sounds good. Let me know when and where?" Taylor nodded, and walked across the circle, taking the hand of a pretty blond girl. Arthur put away his gloves and mask, then walked across the circle himself. He could see the last light of the sunset shining in Rachel’s eyes, and didn’t want to miss a moment of it.
He finished his mock fight with the tree by relieving it of the weight of a few leaves, then laughed and lowered the sword. With a dramatic flair, he bowed to the tree, and put the sword away for another day. His muscles were tired, but he was content. He had discovered that a good round with the sword helped him exorcise the frustrations of the day.
The moon was rising as he went to sleep, and he slept soundly, without dreams.

copyright 2004 Elizabeth J. Weaver


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is meant by "words divided by tons"

6:44 PM  

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