Friday, October 28, 2016

The Day The Heavens Tore // Short Story

This past year I happened across the works of Elizabeth Goudge and was completely smitten with her storytelling. After reading her Damerosehay trilogy I went a little crazy collecting as many of her books as I could get my hands on, I admit. There's something distinctly special about everything she put out, though. All of it is captivating and quaint without losing relatability, and all so deeply penetrating that you can't set them down unchanged in some way. Anyhow, I was particularly taken with her short stories and grew a taste to try my hand at it. Will was extremely supportive of my efforts, so in a fit of inspiration my first try ended up being a retelling of one of his favorite stories that I typed up the night before his birthday. It isn't so much a short story as it is a micro story but it's a start and Will was pleased with it, so there you have it.

“Wretched fools.”

He stood watching them come up the mountain like ants. Hundreds of them, all so small and insignificant from this vantage point. “If only they saw that of themselves,” he muttered, but even as he spoke a sharp thorn of pity throbbed in response. Though small and insignificant, they were cherished enough for him to be standing here watching them swarm upwards. Important enough to be fished from the pool of blood and rot this land, their home, his home, had become.

Home. His eyes roamed the stretch of land that lay about him like the billowing folds of a drying cloak. Slowly, he greeted every hill and field and shaggy city outline with both the familiarity of old friends and a twinging of sorrow. The drought had clearly taken a toll for the ripening fields and proud olive orchards, contrasting strips of rocky outcrop and green fertility were all mellowed to monotone brown. Even the outline of the great river was unusually reduced and mucky. His eyes closed in tempo with a deep-breathed sigh. Oh to be back home tilling the once-fertile fields or stomping out the dance of the grape harvest. This business he was about was an exhaustively nasty sort with no immediate fruit like that of his former life. Every season held its share of work that yielded fruit he could hold and taste for himself, not at all like this shouting to ears that didn't listen and thundering of curses that ripped right through the simple graces of that former life. If only... if only he could go back for a bit, just to work off this perpetual exhaustion in his heart. . . .

A bright flash suddenly caught the corner of his half opened eye. Turning, he was just in time to see the spectacle of several hundred strangers in bright finery and fluttering robes nearing him from another angle in as dignified a manner as the rough ground would allow. Eating from the king's own table was clearly something they had made good work of, He mused, watching their laborious progress. Their bangles and trinkets clinked in a merry confusion that heavily contrasted the void of darkness in their eyes that bore straight ahead of them. Purposing to not avert it, he pulled himself up and quietly faced them with steel assurance despite the cold tingle creeping up his back. In that brief moment of wandering amongst his own thoughts, he had forgotten that it wasn't his business that he was about.

“All are here.” The annoyingly nasal voice could belong only to one person. Turning round, the stranger spotted a portly figure in bright clothing standing among a small throng of attendants, his bulbous nose quivering in childish annoyance. The heavy load of jewels and precious metals on the stubby body glimmered artificially in the sharp purity of the morning sun. Ignoring the little man, the stranger turned to face the crowded mountainside. The loud confusion that had been so nauseatingly deafening moments before stilled as his piercing gaze swept over them for many long, uncomfortable moments. Everyone in the crowd could feel it, even those who couldn’t climb to be near enough to see. Not a birdsong, not a twig crackle, not a stone drop could be heard. Then his voice shattered the silence like the first white fingers of dawn across the darkness of night:

“How long will you live in the middle?”

It wasn’t a powerful statement in word for it had been repeated too many times to be seriously considered, but the weight of it fell like a boulder that thudded its way down the mountain side, sending residual poundings of anger and fear and hope.

“If the Lord is God then follow Him, but if Baal is god then follow him.”

How simple it all sounded when put like this! A simple choice of the obvious. Yet he knew that again the statement held no weight. The icy darkness in the eyes Baal's priests was echoed in most of the faces he met these days; the whole lot of them were walking dead men in need of a spark of life to set them aflame again. That was the whole reason he was here, after all.

A nasal sniff of discomfort and a few huffs of disgust could be heard from the brightly colored cloud of individuals. But otherwise, silence reigned supreme as the glazed eyes of countless imprisoned souls continued to stare at the silhouette of the man on the mountain top.

The stranger’s gaze softened as he looked at them, so cold and lifeless.

“I alone am left…” Turning to the brightly colored crowd whose faces remained as stone, the darkness deepening in the icy depths of their hatred, his tone warmed with challenge as his own eyes flickered with deadly wisdom, “Give us two bulls and we’ll put it to an open test right here before you. Two sacrifices but no fire. You call on your god and I will call on the Lord. The God who answers by fire, let him be God.”

There. He had offered them the very key from their prisons. Something that had been very tight somewhere within him eased a bit; he had obeyed. He, the mouthpiece of the true God had once again spoken the Word. Mercifully there was no time for thought beyond these mortal victory cries, for the fire of his challenge had lit mockery in many of those eyes. But was it? . . . Yes. A hungry flame of hope also leapt out as eagerly as the answering murmur of assent: “It is well spoken, let it be done.”


And so it was that perhaps an hour or more later, one altar of rough mountain stone stood illuminated by bright sunlight and a thrill of expectation.

Around this one altar, the people pressed expectantly, quiet. Then, the swaying began. One voice steadily rose like the rung of a ladder before linking itself to another, then another, then another. A wordless chanting expressing deep, evil things steadily rising overhead. Voice after voice after voice, rose until all four hundred and fifty of that bright cloud of priests held their voices in a thick ascension. There was a crescendo. . . then death himself seemed to suddenly rise from the depths of their dark eyes. Up he leapt, rung after rung of their wavering chant before pausing at the highest point. Hovering above the listless crowd, he stretched a heavy hand and pressed steadily.

The stranger's strength quivered beneath the pressure, though he did his utmost not to show it. He had felt these things before of course, but this was the first time he had willingly faced them in a long while. More swaying, more pressing. The chanting now dipped and rose with a life of its own, wildly dancing like the desperate flames of the many starving hill top pyres that had consumed so many innocent lives in shameless eagerness and screamed for more. But now it seemed it was dancing on the brink of his own soul. Leaning more heavily on the stone pile beside him, The stranger's stomach rolled in nauseous fear. He was the mouthpiece of God, yes. . . but the last one. There had once been many before they were cut down by the fiercely misplaced dedication of their own countrymen. Was this how they had felt when they too had faced death? The stranger tucked his head to his chest. He was not the one to gain victories here, how could he? How different was he from the dozens of others who had come, declared, and died declaring? He wasn't different at all. He was a mouthpiece, simply a mouthpiece.

The inner battle of humility raged as fiercely as the one around him so that he barely noticed the goings on of that sickeningly bright cloud of lost souls. Fittingly, it was the puffing of the pudgy man that cut through the stranger's inward battle. Somehow he found himself emerging from the deafening clash of pride and meekness with his eyes trained on the fat little chest as it rose and fell in heavy sequence. It was so annoyingly alive, so obnoxiously evil, so frustratingly idiotic. “Such a waste… such a waste… such a waste.” The condemnations fell in pattern with his breath; the breath of life that was not his own. Ah yes, that was right, it not his own. Clasping trembling hands and standing a little taller in fresh humility, his inner struggles fell silent to the glory that flooded his senses in the momentary abandonment of himself.

It was then that he noticed the goings on before him.

The cloud of brightly clad fools were leaping and tumbling over each other; shouting, chanting, clearly perturbed. Even with the fresh cloaking of humility, the stranger couldn’t help himself: “Perhaps he is busy? Maybe you ought to cry a little louder so he can hear you above his business," he offered. Despite no acknowledgement, the jumping became a little higher and the shouting a little louder. A sad sight really, much like children making the most of the last few moments of play. There was a flurry of fabric as robes were whipped back and knives began slashing wildly across already disfigured skin. Blood flowed in abundance, defiling the ground with every quickly devoured drop, everlastingly feeding its greedy sodden mouth. The hoarse chanting seemed to take new form as the wildly slashing knives danced on, "more blood, more life, more, more, more more . . . ." It was a song from the gaping throat of death itself. This was the replacement of the sweet, melodic hymns of Yaweh's priests that had brimmed with life even before the grisly offerings made to grasp them from the very place they now stood.

The great gold sun passed that invisible middle line across the sky, and shadows shifted and sank deeper. The blues and golds and purples of evening began to glimmer into being on the horizon when the stranger finally stretched his cramped limbs and stood.

“It is enough. Come near.”

The confusion fell silent as he slipped off his outer robe and turned to the outcrop of stone he had leaned on all day, regarding it with familiarity. An alter of the Lord, ruined and forgotten but here all along. Slowly, he set to work with capable hands. Heaving and pulling under the added weight of many watching eyes, he lovingly restored it. Twelve stones for the twelve tribes, the wood, the bull. It didn't take long. But as the flaming sun of evening framed the crude altar, the stranger rattled all hope that seemed to lean on him by dropping to hands and knees and shoveling a deep trench around the thing. He couldn't possibly?... “Bring water.” Deadened eyes now sparked in very living shock as he soaked the whole of the sacrifice, altar, and trench three times. Stepping near the alter once more and dropping a prematurely peppered head of hair, he spread exhausted hands in humble trust.

“Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be made clear this day that you are their God, that I am your servant, and that you have turned their hearts toward you again.”

There was a brief moment of silence, breathing, and the deeply buried reaction of many heads raising as one.

Then, Yaweh answered.

Directly above the rebuilt altar, the seemingly blue vastness of sky twisted, crumpled, then ripped as if by unseen hands. From beyond the dome that closed in the world and all its inhabitants, an unearthly fire of pure sheen fell thick and fast. Nobody seemed to see it hit, but everything, everything, on the altar and around it burned as quickly as the fire fell and in such brilliance that all watchful eyes felt seared from the inside out.

As quickly as it had happened, it was done.

Panting a little, the stranger turned and faced the full mountain that was still trembling with shock, once again allowing his eyes to wander. These people were terrified. Today, Yaweh had reminded them that He wasn't legend and that He wasn't pleased. But that holy fire had done more than offer them a good scare, it had sparked a repentant fire of hope. The worshipful reverence in which they fell on their knees and the misty eyed declarations of “The Lord is God!” spoke to that. He turned to the bright cloud of fools, the priests of baal, the princes of rot, and still they held stony countenances and eyes that belched thick hatred. Well, as the Lord would have it in this case, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

“Take them.”

There was hardly light now. Deepening evening, but a clear one. Still, this exhausting day was unfinished for there was still a drought to be resolved. “Wretched fools,” the stranger again muttered as he strode up the mountain, but still he felt the thorn of compassion that had pierced him earlier. Compassion not being a strong gifting, it was definitely not his own. But as locked as his soul still was within his lacking humanity, his spirit was too busy basking in the echoing splendor of his God to waste energy on annoyance.

Pausing for a breath, the stranger pulled himself from his thoughts to observe his surroundings. There was so much more life present now: Birds crooning gentle lullabies, the rustling of small animals about their evening business, a few insects whispering soft hymns. All seemed caught up in habitual praise, as if all that happened there that day was simply an ornamental high note in the grand chorus they lived daily. It was restful to be in the midst of, despite the high strung joy of it, and there was nothing more that the stranger wanted than to sink down and meld into the scene. But rest remained elusive as his work lay unfinished. Sighing a little, he gathered himself and continued a forward stride.

Reaching the top, the stranger sank in weary appreciation. The alter still lay visible, the black stones visible in the deepening shadow. All the splendor of the day's victory was still so fresh that the difficulty facing him now was not the actual petitions for rain, but simply the lack of resplendence about it. A humble task to carry through the larger glory. So humble, in fact, that he had to work hard at pressing his mind to the ground in God's holy presence and wait patiently for the right words without irreverently falling asleep or being otherwise distracted. "Even a mouthpiece has a mind," he muttered, realizing himself already straying into the at-hand difficulties themselves. For the second time that day, the peppered head sank in reverent humility and pleading. Then again. And again, and again, and again.

With every new offered pleas, the stranger's glorious high tipped and poured over. Was he too tired? Not offering the right words? Too distracted? So beneath the prophets who walked before him that one act of God through this man was enough? No, he chided himself, this is how the Lord would have it, for this business of His was so far beyond the stranger's own frail frame, and what He had begun, He would also finish. He had sent the fire, He would send the rain. So the stranger dipped his head in deeper pleading, deeper assurance in spoken promises, again and again.

When the peppered head rose for the seventh time, bloodshot eyes directing a patiently waiting servant to look for signs of rain yet again, the offered tidings were not a surprise: “A little cloud out of the sea, the size of a man’s hand.” As if the cloud were a hurricane, the stranger rose in certainty. He knew this was the answer and accepted the momentary smallness of it. But if the smallness posed problematic for any possible observer, it didn't for long. The evening light was suddenly obliterated as the cloud gathered force as a dark, swirling storm. Sweeping in at a furious pace, the wind set the air to tingling with the electricity of anxious anticipation. The rain was indeed coming.

Again Yaweh had answered. First with fire, now with rain.

Was He, perhaps, finally purifying His land, His people clean?

Setting all nagging questions aside, the stranger leapt with new energy, gathered up his robe… and ran.

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