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.


Sunday, November 07, 2004

Chapter 5: Miserere Mei, Domine

(If anyone is reading this--I know ya'll are, Mom and Dad, thanks!--Please please please post a comment with a critique. ANY critique. Just keep in mind that this is a FIRST DRAFT.)

The sun was slipping towards noon when the two men stopped for lunch. It was a simple affair: a few sips of water from their canteens, two or three pieces of fruit apiece. Dranger, usually taciturn, ate quietly, but pondered the sudden silence of his confederate. Cobb was usually a gregarious man, sometimes to the point of frustration, but today he ate his meal in peace, neither talking nor humming music as he often did. The silence was overwhelming, but not complete. The occasional bird twittered in the trees, and everywhere the sound of wind in the trees whispered through the air. Usually, unless the wind was gusting unusually loudly, the sound of the waves breaking along the shore could be heard as well.
They cleaned their hands in silence, then resumed their march.
"Hey, Cobb.""Yeah?""You ok?""Yeah. I think so.""Not getting sick or anything?""No. No, don't think so. Why?""You've been awfully quiet since you woke up from your nap.""Oh...Yeah, guess so. Just thinking.""Well, that's allowed. Thought for a minute that you'd left your tongue back in that hollow.""No..." he mused, then murmured under his breath, "Maybe I left a lifetime back there.""Huh?""Nothin'.""Oh."
Just as the sun reached its peak, they came across another marker. It stood in front of a field of rocks; apparently the remnants of a landslide. In fact, had the marker not been as tall as a man, they would have missed it, assuming it to be another rock in the debris.

"Weary traveller, here you find
No rest or peace from journey wild
No quiet place for body or mind.

You stand here with guilt, defiled;
Those who are pure pass through.
Your life too hurried and wild;

Your journey now is, too.
Pray as you journey forth,
And be wary as you do,

Speed will measure your worth."

Across the bottom of the inscription, a banner read "Miserere Mei Domine," while across the top danced figures in rapid motion. From where the two men stood, the shapes were not perfectly discernable, but they seemed to be images of people running; more disturbingly, some were quite obviously images of sudden death.

"So..." whistled Cobb. "Is this a booby trap?"Dranger hesitated, suddenly unsure. "I don't know," he said slowly. He examined the drawings more closely. "I don't think it means that we will die. I think it means that we'd better be quick getting over these rocks. Look, see that?" He pointed to the field of rocks. On closer examination, it proved to be constructed in a manner too odd to be merely coincidental. The first layer was of small rocks and gravel. On top of that layer was strewn larger rocks, including many smooth river rocks. The topmost layer was of very large slabs of rock, roughly shaped liked wedges.
"I think that the instant you set foot on one of those rocks, it will tilt, like a seesaw. If it tilts too far, it could dislodge other rocks---"
"And start a real rockslide. So the idea is to get from one rock to another as fast as possible."
"Exactly. 'Speed will measure your worth.'"
"That doesn't seem t0 make much sense though; he doesn't seem to think much of lives spent running around, but then makes that sort of thing the test for crossing?" Cobb scratched his head. "Yeah. I don't get that."Dranger shook his head, eyeing the rock field. "Well, there's nothing else for it." He eyed the distance to the far side. Turning to face Cobb, he asked,"You think you could heave a pack that far?"Cobb thought, shrugging his shoulders to test the weight of his pack. "Yeah, I think so. It's not that far."Dranger nodded, and began removing his pack. "Thought so. Once I'm across, toss the packs over to me, then you come across. The last thing we need is a big fat pack on our back when trying to balance on a damned teeter-totter."Cobb grinned, then slapped Dranger on the back. "Why don't you let me go first, old man?"The other snorted derisively. "Old? This is called the prime of life, you dolt." He winked at the younger man, and stepped onto the first of the rocks.

The rock tilted more rapidly than he had expected, and he stumbled off the slab to the left, managing a small leap on to another of the wedges that lay in that direction. He caught his balance, but could feel the rocks beneath threatening to slip loose. He steadied himself long enough to leap forward. And leap again. And again...

"Will one of you S.O.B.'s get that line lashed tight?" The voice shouted hoarsely above the roar of the waves. "On it, sir!" Dranger scrambled across the deck, lunging for the line that was flapping in the spray. Finally grabbing it, he clung to it tenaciously, tugging it into place, and tying the knot that would hold it securely.
All night through the storm, he paced the deck, watching carefully, making every line secure, listening to the sound of the engine. When morning dawned, the storm finally blew itself out. The captain ordered the young man to sleep, which he did the instant his head hit the pillow. From his youngest days, he had found that sleep came much easier if the body was worked to the point of exhaustion every day. Sort of like allowing batteries to drain before recharging them, he always explained.
Halfway across the treacherous rocks, Dranger paused, a deep weariness settling into his bones. He attempted to push it away, drawing on resources of strength that he had always found deep within himself when he pushed his body to the limits. But this time, the wells of endurance were dry, and he had to brace his feet to keep him from falling over. He could dimly hear Cobb shouting something at him, but the thud of his heart drowned out the words. He choked out a whisper, desperately: "Have mercy...!"
He took a blind leap forward, putting all of himself into the leap. As he flew through the air, he saw the two packs lying on the far side of the rockslide. He hit the ground hard, but the ground was solid, and it joyfully refused to shift beneath him. He lay there for a few moments, winded; somewhere through the haze of the moment, he felt Cobb's hands, checking for bruises or cuts. He inhaled deeply, clearing the haze somewhat, and sat up slowly.
Cobb rocked back on his heels at stared at him. "Man, I thought you were a goner there for a minute."Dranger nodded, slowly brushing dust from his tattered shirt. "Yeah...Yeah, me too. All of a sudden, I just..." He coughed, then sneezed and continued. "Just ran out of juice, or something. Never felt so weak in all my life." He flexed his fingers, then slowly got to his feet.
"Miserere mei, Domine," whispered the young man as he heaved yet another slab of rock into place. The logs slipped about beneath the load, and he had to work slowly to keep the whole thing from collapsing into the rockslide that it mimicked.
He wiped the sweat from his brow, and looked up. Nearly noon, then. Time to rest for awhile, since it was too hot to work. He looked at the large obelisk that lay on its side beside the rock field. It was covered in what had once been soft clay, then laid in the sun to bake. The clay was now hard, though it was also brittle and would crumble easily.
The young man hesitated. It would take some time to get the pit ready, but then it could be firing during the hot part of the day. That would accomplish something without too much physical effort during the sun's peak. He took a quick drink from a crude jar that sat beside the rock, then turned to the pit than ran parallel to the rock field. It was moderately shallow, about two feet deep, and about six feet long. The young man began to push a few large rocks into the pit; when he was satisfied that there were enough, he tossed in armfuls of wood and dried leaves, packing them down tightly. When the layers of wood were level with the surface, he ran back to the trees and found a stout branch. He wedged it beneath the stone pillar, and placing a smaller rock beneath the branch for a fulcrum, levered the monument onto the pile of tinder. He packed more stones around the sides and top of the pillar, interspersing them with wood and leaves. Finally, more tired than he had anticipated, he strode over to a covered clay container, and gingerly brought it over to the stange mound. Lifting the cover with a stick, he prodded the contents, stirring up the banked fire inside. After feeding a few bits of dead grass into the coals to liven them up, he tipped the contents of the pot onto the mound, watching as the sun dried leaves caught fire, then passed it on to the wood. He took his stick and lit the end, spreading the fire around evenly. He then tossed the stick into the blaze, and sat back, watching contentedly. As the stones heated, they would heat the clay, making it stronger, less prone to crumbling. He lay down in the nearby shade, to wait out the heat of the day. The coals flickered red and yellow, red and yellow...Red gleams through the shadows...
The haze began to clear, but still all he could see were pulses of red lights. He blinked, trying to clear his eyes. Finally, the jumbled images began to clear, and he began to notice surrounding sounds. Sirens. Oh. That explained the lights then. He tried to turn his head, and realized that he was upside down. It was then that he felt the first pang of fear.
"Young man? Are you ok?" The oddly comforting face of a policewoman peered in at the window. He glanced toward her. "I...I think so...I gotta get out of here..."
"We'll take care of that. Here, can you wiggle your toes? Yeah? Ok, fingers? Good. What's your name, son?"
"Nice name. Arthur, this is Darren. He's a paramedic. He's going to put a neck brace on you, and then we're going to get you out of there. It doesn't look like anything's wrong with your neck, but we want to make sure, ok?"
Arthur decided that this would probably not be a good time to nod. Too much neck movement. "Ok."The police officer smiled. "Good man."
Her face disappeared from view, and was replaced by the smiling young face of a man who could not have been much older than Arthur himself. "Hey there. Ok, I'm opening the door...Good, it's not jammed too badly. There. Ok, now hold still. I'm going to slip this around your neck. Now, I've got to strap it pretty tightly, and it won't be comfortable, but I promise you won't choke. Ok...Good." He called to someone behind him, and a stretcher appeared. "Ok guys, let's get him out of here..."

On the ride to the hospital, Arthur lay still, breathing deeply. The police officer sat next to the gurney, talking quietly."You had a pretty bad accident. From what we can tell, you were fine going through the intersection, but the other guy didn't see you, and decided not to stop. He plowed right into you. He's pretty shook up, mostly because he's afraid of what he might've done to you. But it looks like you're going to be ok. You must have more lives than a cat." She chuckled pleasantly. But her patient hardly heard her. His mind was adrift, contemplating the narrow scrape. "I should have died in an accident like that, shouldn't I?"The officer paused, suddenly serious. "Yes. We usually don't need an ambulance after one that bad."He continued breathing slowly, pondering her words. He treasured them, if one can treasure the spoken prospect of one's own death, as if they were jewels. After all, he should not have been alive to hear them. He should not be seeing the glimmer of headlights in the rear window of the ambulance, or smell the antiseptic air. But he was, and he did.No more rushing through life now. No more hurrying to get to the important places. Life was his, and he intended to drink it to the dregs.
The fire blazed, flickering on the still form of the young man in the shade, slowly and steadily hardening his formerly fragile creation.

Copyright 2004 Elizabeth J. Weaver


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