The Gift: A novel

My project for www.nanowrimo.org 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.

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Friday, November 12, 2004

Chapter 9: Te Deum Laudamus

The day began to grow warm as soon as the sun rose completely above the horizon. It hung there, suspended above the sea, like a lamp that burned away everything that was not strong enough to resist its heat. Cobb wiped away a drop of sweat, and adjusted his pack.
"Not much farther, is it Dranger?"
"Good ways. Probably another thirty minutes or so, depending on whether or not we find it on the first try."
"But I don't think he's hiding any others, I think he was just making a point with that last one."
"So thirty minutes then."

Cobb nodded and trudged onward, freeing his foot from a tangle of vine that lay across the ground. As he walked, he could feel his mind drifting a bit. For some reason, he began to think of a hiking trip he'd taken in high school. The group had been determined to walk to the top of a small mountain in New Mexico. Cobb, as usual, had lagged behind a bit.
-----
"Come on man, keep up!"
Cobb looked up, panting. "No, man, wait up. I can't walk that fast, there's not enough air up here."
"Yeah, well, the rest of us are doing it. And we're almost to the top. See that ledge up there? It's just another quarter mile from there."
"Yeah, well, I think that's a quarter mile more than I can handle, alright?"
The teenager looked back at him with a hint of superiority. "Ok, well, come on to that ledge, and we'll leave you there, and you can catch your breath. We'll stop back by on our way down to find you."
Cobb nodded, and forced his feet to go the last few yards to the top of the cliff. Once there, he saw that it was not a normal cliff, but a very large rock that protruded from the mountain. He sat down in front of a smaller rock, and leaned against it. He closed his eyes and focused on breathing. He could feel a sharp pain in his chest. Finally, the pain began to lessen, and he opened his eyes. It was only a few short feet to the dropoff, and he pressed himself a bit more firmly into the rock at his back.
The view was astounding. There were a few peaks a bit lower than his vantage point; they were not big, as mountains go--this was New Mexico after all. But they were covered in trees, and created an unusual vista. As he watched, a large bird soared out from one of the peaks. It glided on the air as if it were completely immune to gravity.
Suddenly, with a wildness that sank straight into his bones, the bird emitted a shrill call. He recognized it then as an eagle. An answering cry came from the peaks, and another eagle took to the air. He watched them, listening to their calls. They did not hunt, nor did they fly away, they simply floated on the air, circling in and out of the peaks for what seemed like hours.
------
"Hey, hold up!"
Startled, Cobb glanced up. They stood at the foot of the mountain, facing a smal narrow pass cut into the stone. Three large steps lead up into the path. Cobb had almost walked right into the first one.
"Were you daydreaming or something?"
Cobb nodded. "Yeah, guess so."

They turned to look at the massive steps in front of them. The stone step was white and gleamed in the morning sun. On one side, they saw another tree figure, this time of an old man. He stood, with one arm gesturing up the stairs, and the other arm extended as if to stop them from advancing. Directly in front of the first step was a small pool, enclosed with flat stones and clay. Its water was so still that they could see their reflections in it. On the first step, the only one that they could see clearly, were engraved the words:

"If you wish no repentance for sin,
Then quickly leave this stair,
And do not seek to enter in.
For the way to God is there,
And halfway is no way.
So kneel here and say a prayer;
Make your confession today,
And journey upward in the light.
So go now, if you will not stay,
Or set your heart to rights."

The two men looked at each other, then back at the text. "We're supposed to confess?"
"Guess so."

They shifted around uncomfortably, avoiding each other's eyes. "Well, who's going to know? We can just climb the stairs anyway," Cobb muttered halfheartedly, not believing it himself. Dranger did not bother to respond. Finally, Cobb dropped to his knees in the grass, unsure of what he was doing. His eyes fell downward to the reflecting pool, and he caught a glimpse of his face. It was worn and dirty, and badly needed a shave. But after noting all this, his eyes drifted to their own reflection, and he paused. He had never looked into his own eyes so long, and had never known all that could be seen in them.
-------
"Come on, man, give me the money. It's not worth this." A man timidly extended his hand, handing over his wallet.
-----
"You stupid idiot!" A hard punch in the face.
-----
"I don't need this." Walking out.
----
The memories flashed faster and faster, and he buried his face in his hands, unaware that Dranger had sunk to his knees beside him.

Dranger was never sure what had caused him to kneel, but he always maintained that he could have done no differently. He looked at the intimidating statue, and its eyes seemed to burn into him. Unable to meet its gaze, he dropped his eyes and caught sight of them in the reflecting pool.


It was a while before either man could raise his eyes again. When they did, neither noticed the tears that streaked the other's face, turning the dust into mud. Without speaking, they advanced towards the first stair. It stood about five feet tall, and was wide enough for both to stand on it at once with no difficulty. Dranger knelt silently and gave Cobb a leg up. As he scrambled onto the step, he turned and extended a hand to the older man, pulling him up onto the surface of the stair. They turned to read the inscription on the next stair. This step had been subjected to fire, apparently, and was a deep black. It was not polished or smoothed down like the first step had been, but was still rough and uneven. A deep crack ran along the length of the stone, and another ran from the front of the step to the back. On the front was etched only four lines of text:

"Mourn ye now, for past things,
And cry your tears for the past,
Now go upward on eagle's wings,
And find your home at last."

Still in silence, they made their way up until they stood on the top of the blackstone, and saw before them a blood red step. At the top of the step, stood the figure of another angel, but what it was for, they could not yet see. This stone held no verse, only a short verse in Latin.

"Optimus est portus poenitenti mutatio consilii. The safest haven for the penitent is altered conduct."

As they stood on the red stone, the statue of the angel towered over them. His hands were extended, and in each was a wooden key. His wings were outspread, creating an arch with his body as a single pillar. The two men passed under his wings, and began to climb the mountain under the rays of the rising sun.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
He sweated profusely as he carried the heavy jug up to the foot of the mountain. It took a lot of seawater to leave a decent amount of white build-up, and this was a large rock. But it was almost right; this jug should be the last. He set the jug by his feet, and dipped his hand into the cold salt water. He began sprinkling the stone, letting the drops lay where they fell. As the sun dried the stone, only the salt would be left behind: a thin, white coat over the entire stone.

He finshed, and set the jug aside. Kneeling, he examined the pit he had dug the day before. It was shallow, only about two feet deep. He had collected a large pile of smooth river stones, but had not had time to place them the day before. He did so now; he went back to the stream and gather up an armful of clay. He then plastered the inside of the pit with the clay, and began setting the stones into the soft mud. He left as little space as possible between the stones, filling those spaces with smaller stones. He pushed the last stone into the mud, then looked up to gauge the position of the sun. Yes, it would hit the floor of the pit soon, and would bake it for several hours. It should be enough time.

He leaned back against the statue of the old man that he had created some time ago. He found the statue comforting. At any rate, he did now. A few years ago, he would not have dared to create it, let alone lean against it. He laughed, remembering the priest who had scared him so badly.
-------
He squirmed in his chair, hating the thought of postponing this any longer, but not wishing to see the priest either. He was ready to be reconciled to the church, but had no wish to confess his sins to the bishop of the entire diosces either!

Father Simon reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. "Arthur, I know you're nervous, and I know that you are not happy with me for making you do this. But it is too easy for you to confess to me. And you need to remember something." The priest paused, seemingly pondering his next words. "You need to remember that what you do affects the whole Church. Your errors, minor as they are, did affect us all. And so, I asked you to wait for reconciliation until the bishop came for his visit. He represents more of the church than I do, and so you must confess to him."

Arthur nodded, having heard this before. "I know. And I know I should do this. But I don't have to like it."

Father Simon laughed for a moment. "No-one ever said you should. At least, not at first. But after a while, the process of having a burden removed becomes so much easier than carrying it around."

At that moment, the bishop entered the room. He had the wildest hair Arthur had ever seen, except maybe on a few rock stars. Though he was not a large man, Arthur thought that he had never met anyone so powerful. The bishop's eyes met Arthur's, and he looked into him for a long moment, as if sizing him up. Arthur felt as though the bishop could see everything about him, and that he himself could see everything the bishop saw. It was not always a pleasant sight, and Arthur was tempted to look away. But he stood firm, and held the eye contact. The bishop smiled slightly, and nodded.

"Are you ready?"

Arthur took a deep breath and nodded. Moving across the room, he knelt on the small kneeler, and folded his hands over his chest. He could sense the bishop moving to sit beside him.

"Father, forgive me, for I have sinned."


He paused before the stone steps of the church, then slowly walked up them. He came to the altar rail and knelt. As the choir sang, he saw the priest coming closer, bearing the sacrament.

"Te deum laudamus, Te dominum confitemur"

The priest placed a small wafer in the hand of the person kneeling to his right.

"Te æternum Patrem omnis terra veneratur"

He felt a warm thin wafer pressed into his own palm.

"Tibi omnes angeli, tibi cæli: et universæ Potestates."

"The Bread of Life." He placed the wafer in his mouth and chewed slowly as the priest spoke the words, and made the sign of the cross.

"Tibi Cherubim incessabili voce proclamant: "

"The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation." He placed his lips to the rim of the chalice, and felt the burning as the wine slid down his throat.

"Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus: Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth."

As he stood, and turned to walk back to his pew in the sanctuary, he was unaware of the tears pouring down his face.

"Pleni sunt cæli et terra majestates gloriæ tuæ. "

She was waiting for him, as he moved into the sunlight. He never could decide which was brighter, her smile or her skin as the sun shone on it. She waited as he walked over to her, then turned to stand face to face with him.

"Are you glad?" she asked simply.

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak in an even tone. But the nod was unnecessary; she could tell from his face. The little worry lines were no longer there, and his eyes shone with a light she had not seen in many months. She took his hands in hers, and pulled him over to a large grassy part of the lawn, where the sun shone through plainly. Moving slowly at first, she began to twirl, still holding his hands. He stumbled a bit at first, then began to turn faster and faster. They spun, laughing at the gravitational forces that tried to pull them apart. They spun, laughing at each other, and at themselves. Finally, his hands slipped and he fell, chuckling, into the warm grass. He looked over at her, expecting to see her sprawled in the grass in the same way that he was. But she had not fallen; instead she spun outward, twirling and spinning, the sunlight flashing on her hair.

As she slowly spun to a stop, the wind caught her hair, and blew it out in a curtain behind her. The sun caught it, and for an instant, the dark brown strands glowed like amber, lit from within.

Struck by the beauty of the moment, he whispered. "And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! Her flashing eyes, her floating hair! Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise."

--------------

He gave a shuddering sigh, remembering the beauty of that moment. He had never been in a more beautiful moment than that one instant when he saw her spinning in the sun. She had seemed a part of the sun, sharing in its brightness and mimicking its celestial dance. Her never saw her from that moment on without seeing the sun in her.

"Thank you, Rachel..." he choked, then forced the words out. "Thank you for showing me."


copyright 2004 Elizabeth J. Weaver

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