Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Two Rocks In Each Shoe

Chapter 1: The Abyss

Showto stood on the edge of the abyss and screamed. A wave of noise echoed outward carrying with it pain, suffering, longing, and resignation. His rheumy eyes surveyed the dark crevice that he stood above, trying to penetrate the darkness that started mere feet below him. The fever in his mind had him in a death grip now, pushing and prodding thoughts towards his consciousness. End it the sickness said, one step and it can all be over.

Showto had come so far. He had observed the rights carefully and had fought with everything in him to get here. He had lasted this long on sheer will power and determination. This is where it was going to end though. He knew that now. He knew that the next step would be the last one of the thousands that it had taken him to get this far. He had tried.

The stones in his feet were small. He had watched the elders put them into his boots. They were tiny but jagged and sharp. The miles that he had walked with those four stones now represented a span of time he no longer could count. On his first day with those stone his anguish was born and Showto had nursed that anguish until it was part of his own blood. His heel and toes, instep and arch had been torn with over the miles. Often he wished that he could break his oath and remove the stones, expel them from his body and this universe of masochistic walking. At this point though they were all he had.

The pain switched from side to side as he committed his sliding saunter for miles upon miles towards his destination. The stones, or boulders, as they sometimes felt like, told him that he was still alive. When he was beyond thirsty and wanted so badly to stop and sit for awhile the stones would drive him on. They told him that he was still alive when he was delirious from the pain. There was a moment of pleasure in the relief of bringing one foot off the ground and settling his weight on the other. These were fragments of the tiniest pleasure before returning again to agonizing pain.

He kept thinking along the way that he could not stop his pace, that if he continued on his shredded feet, with his grinding joints, and the tears in his overused and un-rested muscles, he would be rewarded. He would be reunited with the ones he loved and he would have earned his place in the village.

Standing now at the edge of the abyss he remembered some of the walk. He had crossed long deserts, plains and mountains that went on forever. When his feet had become infected he had poured oil into his boots and fat from animals he killed. He had been stalked by wild animals and what seemed to be a large group of men who shouted at him from very near, then very far away. He had never tarried too long in any place but had kept up a pace and had passed into the mountain range that he was in currently. The climbing took its toll on his weakened body . He had slipped and fallen more than once. He had been through valleys and back up into the heights of the mountains.

Now on the precipice and through the fever he listened. He reached out through the pain with everything in him, trying to get a small grip on reality and his place in it. He heard the voices again, then realized that they were in his own head. He pushed them away and dug deeper into the void of his mind that mirrored the one below him. He reached into the dark and heard something like the ringing of a bell. Below he heard the faint sound of water. Whether it was real or not he did not know but it sounded real to him at that moment.

Showto stepped off the side of the cliff and fell down into the darkness. The pain in his feet softened a bit and the release erased, if only for a moment, his mind from the shackles of the pain he had endured along his trail. He felt rather than saw something solid rising up to meet him and before he hit it he smiled and said, “Alisanee.” Then he knew no more.

Chapter 2: The Marriage Contract

Showto tuned his head around when he heard the laughter behind him. For a moment he was blinded as the sun was just setting to the west. The lake seemed to be on fire as it reflected the burgundy, purple and auburn clouds above it and the rays of the dying sun across it. The laughter came from Alisanee as she watched him shovel mud into pots. He heard her soft musical laughter and saw her framed with the lake and sun behind her and two things occurred to him at the same time. The first was that Alisanee was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. The second was that she probably waited until this exact moment to laugh knowing how she would look against the blazing sky.

That moment was locked in his mind forever and from then on a day never went by without him proposing to Alisanee. They would walk and talk for hours and Showto would always end the day by telling Alisanee that he loved her and that one day he would marry her. Alisanee would always laugh and say “we shall see” with a wink and a smile. One day while they walked along the edge of the village Alisanee turned to Showto and asked him, “Do you want to have a child of your own someday?” Showto thought for a minute and said that he would only want a child if it came from Alisanee. She asked him if he understood the marriage contract as it applied to the man of the house. Showto said he had a basic understanding of it but had never given it much thought. Alisanee sat Showto down and said, “Then I will tell you all about the marriage contract of our village.”

“Only two people who want to have children may enter into marriage. The fitness of the tribe is due in part to the size of the tribe. Capable women must bear a child if they are called upon to do so. I have been called.

“A woman must marry a man based on a need for a new child in the tribe. On bearing a child many things must be taken into account. First and foremost is where and how the resources that the child will need will be brought into the tribe without upsetting the equilibrium that the tribe has with its surroundings. “

“Also it is law in our village that if a man has a child, the day after the child’s fifth birthday the father must quest to the far coast. The trip is extremely dangerous and no one but the elders know where the father goes and what he has to do to get there. What we do know is that only one in forty men return from the quest. No one in this village speaks of this because it is the nature of our tribe and it is not questioned.”

“The father leaves for three reasons. The first is to allow the son to be trained and to receive all of the tools he will need to be useful to the rest of the tribe. He can only do this without the interference of the father. He must study with the different craftsmen here. Each one of them will bond with the child as his father, teacher and friend. Ultimately this makes the tribe more intimate and connected and is very beneficial to the tribe as a whole.

The second reason is that after a father bears a child he must make way for that child by leaving and letting the child have his home and his belongings. That way the tribe, nor the environment we live in, will be burdened with the extra person. This system has worked for centuries and because of it we have a perfect society.

Finally the third reason is for the man himself. To leave the safety of the tribe is a great burden upon the man. If the man returns from his quest then he is questioned by the elders. This is done in secret and no other person will ever hear of the quest outside of the elders. If the elders decide that the quest has been fruitful the man takes his place among them as a leader and is returned to his family. If the elders do not like what they hear, the man is banished for all time on pain of death.

I am saying all of this to you Showto so that you may understand what you are asking of me. I do love you as well, but I also know that by returning your love I must someday lose you, maybe forever. So after hearing all of this, is it still your choice to marry me?” Showto did not hesitate but quietly said, “One moment with you as my wife is worth more to me than anything else I can imagine.”

Chapter 3: Awakening

Showto raised his weary head. His body ached and was bruised and bleeding in more places then he could count. He looked about him and realized that it was the afternoon of the next day. He had slept and during his sleep his fever had abated. He had fallen into a river in the canyon and somewhere along its path it had released him and swept him ashore. He looked down towards his feet and realized that if he continued to wear his boots with the rocks in them, he would never return home. He would never again hold his son Marasu nor kiss Alisanee again.

Showto leaned over and with a rock cut at the tight cords that held his boots to his feet. The boots themselves were covered in mud and stained red by the blood he had lost. It took him hours to cut away the leather. He used the rock to separate the leather from his skin. In some places he could not tell what was skin and what was leather. It took him until the next day to complete the process. He lost consciousness again and again but awoke and started cutting again, finally getting the sole of one boot off and then the other. The small rocks covered in skin and blood had to be pulled out of his feet with his own fingers. At the time he felt a very real sense of loss and wondered at it. These small rocks had given him so much pain but the feeling of that pain had sometimes given him enough hope to go a bit further. He wrapped the stones in a small bag he made from the bits of leather and tied it around his neck.

He spent days washing his feet in the icy cold mountain river. It flowed fast and he would leave his feet soaking in it until they were almost frozen then pull them out. He crawled up the bank and found a stick and he began to fish. He tied pieces of boot leather together so that he could spear a fish then pull the spear back while sitting and with time he regained his strength.

For two months he sat by the river contemplating his current position, wondering if he should head back to his home and the anger of the elders or keep pursuing his quest. Showto wanted more than anything to see his family again, but he was also curious about what was at the far coast. He had been travelling for over a year already and knew that he probably had at least another year to go. It would also take him around two years to return to his village. This was supposing he made it that far even without the debilitating rocks in his boots. He had noticed the bones of men along the trail as he had been travelling. Many of his former tribesmen had not even made it this far.

So he thought about these things as he lived on the bank of the river. In the end he decided that he would have to continue on because he had sworn to do so no matter what. A thought in the back of his mind gave him a small glimmer of hope: he had sworn to complete the quest at all costs. He had never been asked to swear to keep the rocks in his boots nor did he ever offer up that promise. The elders had made sure that Showto understood the rules of the marriage contract on the day he was married. On the day that his son, Marasu, was born the elders again came to him and asked him if he remembered his promise and he had told them he had. The day of Marasu’s fifth birthday the elders had come to him for the third and last time and asked if he was ready to fulfill his duty. They had given him the many rules of the quest and had told him that it was inexcusable to turn back before reaching the far coast. They had put the rocks in his boots telling him that they would help keep him on his path but they had never said he could not take them out.

So after the third month Showto rose and walked away from the bank of the river and continued on his quest. He walked for months on end, occasionally seeing the bones of another traveler. Some bones had been cleaned and bleached by the sun and others looked more recent.

One night as he made camp he looked behind him and there on the ridge was a campfire, a small fire to be sure, but one that could easily be seen from miles around at night. Showto crept back towards it, careful to not be seen. He came upon the ridge and observed a man that he had known from his village. The man was talking quietly to himself and was sweating profusely. His legs were red and his veins showed clearly in the firelight. His head rolled back and forth and Showto knew that the fire had cost the man a lot to build. He had the fever and by his breathing he would not last the night.

Chapter 4: Marriage and a Son

It was the happiest day of Showto’s life. The first of two happy days that would mold Showto, change him into the man that he had always hoped he would be. Marrying Alisanee was like a dream that he hoped would never end. However as soon as the ceremony started he knew that their life would be cut short soon enough.

The Chieftain asked Showto, “Do you willingly enter into this marriage knowing full well your responsibilities to your wife, your children and to this tribe?”

“I do.”

“Do you understand and accept the laws of child birth in this village and embrace them wholeheartedly, knowing that this union is in keeping with the traditions laid down by our forefathers so that this tribe may continue upon this earth for all time?”

“I do.”

“Alisanee, do you understand and accept the sacrifice that your mate will bear in the name of loving you and this tribe for all time?”

“I do.”

“Do you understand that by entering into this marriage your husband will, upon the fifth year of your child’s life, be forced to leave this village and that he may never return?”

“I do.”

“You have both spoken before your fellows; by entering this marriage not only do you make a pact to each other but to all of the other members of this tribe. I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

That night Showto and Alisanee made love quietly and slowly for the first time, touching and holding, slowly exploring each other’s bodies and sealing the pact that they made to each other.

This was the greatest time for the both of them and they spent every day together, worshipping the time they spent together knowing that one day it would come to an end. They searched for each other early in the morning as if sleep had deprived them and held them apart. They worked side by side and spoke softly to each other and grew in each other’s love.

A year passed and Alisanee had a boy who they named Marasu. He was the envy of the village and all who saw him squinted their eyes as if looking at sunshine. He laughed, and ran, and sang. He spoke seriously with others and listened intently to his father. Showto imparted everything he could to his son and loved him every day.

On the eve of Marasu’s fifth birthday the elders came to Showto and asked him to follow them. He did as he was bid and walked with the elders along the road to the fields. Mancuso, the head of the council of villagers said the following:

“Showto, for generations past we have written the history of our tribe. We have been here before other civilizations and we are here after they have gone. We live simply and we provide not only a fair existence to ourselves but to the world around us. As your son takes his place among us it is up to you to sacrifice your place for him. For this reason we have devised a quest for all men who bear a child. You must travel from here tomorrow morning, taking nothing with you, and head into the morning sun. You must not speak to anyone while on this quest nor allow yourself to be seen by others. You must travel east along the road you will see until you come to the great waters on the other side of this land. When you come to this great water you will find a sign with a wooden box attached to it. Inside the box will be a special small leather bag with jewels inside of it that are priceless. If you make it back to this village with those stones you will become an elder. So it has been for more years than can be remembered. If you fail in this task and do not bring back the new jewels you will be barred from entering this village and from ever seeing your family again. Most do not return for reasons you will understand along the course of your journey. You will either succeed or fail. Either decision is up to you. Now, here are your stones to carry to the other coast. They will help you stay on your path.”

The elder dropped two small stones in each of Showto’s boots. He wrapped the boots in leather straps so that they would not fall out. He said, “Go to your wife and son now, tonight may be the last time you see them.”

Chapter 5: Signs to Nowhere

After the man died Showto left and was tearful. Although he could not remember the man’s name he mourned him as if he were his brother. To Showto he was. He carried with him the same burden as Showto carried now: the thought that he might never see his beloved family again.

The next morning Showto left and continued travelling east along the road. Toward the afternoon he saw a shiny sign along the path and as he approached he read the words on it out loud. “You are almost there.” The sign gave Showto a new sense of purpose and sped him along. He found more signs with messages like “keep going” and “Don’t give up.” He drove himself for days running to see the next sign and its message. Within a month he crested a mountain and looked below. There stretched out before him in mile after mile of liquid blue was the ocean. The path led him down but before he could approach the shore he heard agonizing cries tear through the air. He crept forward to see a man next to the last sign that simply read, “You are here.” Beneath the sign was a box which had an engraving on it. Showto could not see read the engraving and soon gave up to listen to the man as he lamented.

“It was a trick! A lie! A filthy murderous ruse! No jewels, No jewels, No jewels!” Showto saw that holes had been made all around the sign and its box. The man screamed on into the night and it took all of his watcher’s forbearance not to come to his aid. The man had a beard and his knees were raw and bleeding. Rags were hanging off the skin of his ankles and what remained of his feet looked as if they had been cauterized. He was mad with delirium and fever and stayed that way for two days. During that time Showto watched as he dug holes around the sign looking for jewels. The jewels that he needed to take back with him, the same jewels that Showto needed as well.

Showto had no idea who this man was or for how long he had been gone from the village. After two days of watching the man dig until his fingers were stumps he woke up on the third day to silence. From his perch he looked down to the beach and saw that the man was tormented no more. Slowly he walked to the sign and looked at the box below it. Engraved in the top of the box was one word, “jewels.” He looked inside and found that the box was empty.

Showto spent days looking around the beach trying to find small anything that matched the jewels the elders had told him about. He searched north along the coast for two weeks finding nothing but holes and bones, hHoles where other men had dug, and bones where they had died and the seabirds had eaten their flesh. He travelled south from the sign and found nothing but the same thing. He sat by the sign for over a month after first seeing it and contemplated what he would do next.

He had made it here even if he no longer had stones in his boots. He would not stay here and dig holes aimlessly like so many others did before him. It was obvious that no stones were here to be found. He decided to not waste another moment, and he stood up just as the sun rose from the east. He told himself that if he could help it, he would not walk towards a sunrise for a long time. Just like that Showto turned around and headed home. He walked for months and months. He ate and slept when he felt like it and did not hurry or tire but kept a steady pace. He made great time as he was no longer hobbled by the stones and by and by the miles ahead grew smaller and smaller.

One day Showto came to the top of a hill and saw an old man. The man saw him and he put a finger to his lips signing that Showto should not speak. This seemed natural to him as he had not spoken to another person in over three years. The man motioned for Showto to wait where he was and promptly left. Hours later the man returned with other men who Showto recognized as they approached. He wept openly as Mancuso and the elders of his tribe approached him.

For hours the men did not speak yet they gave Showto food, water and clothing and sat and watched him as he ate. One of them took the small bag from around his neck and emptied four blood stained stones into his palm. At that moment Mancuso looked at Showto and said “Welcome home.”

Chapter Six: Wisdom

The elders began by asking Showto questions.

“When did you remove the stones from your boots?”

“When I realized life was not worth living if all I did was inflict pain upon myself.”

“What do you think was the importance of not speaking during the quest?”

“So that I could realize the value of words.”

They looked at each other and asked him to tell them his story from the beginning to the end. He spared no detail and had no shame in telling of his failures as well as his triumphs. They slept in on the hill together and in the morning Showto continued. As the night was approaching Showto finished telling his story and the elders asked him some more questions.

“Why did you not help the man who was digging for stones”

“He had his health and his reason at one point and had traded them in for an unachievable task. He would not listen to what his own eyes and ears and heart were telling him. He definitely would not have believed me so I chose to let him walk his own path.”

“Why do you think we keep the stones journey a secret?”

“It is for each man to decide the path that he will walk. Letting the information out among everyone would create novelty and chaos in our village instead of balance and harmony we have based on individual sacrifice for what one wants in life.”

At this point the elders stood and wrapped Showto in white robes and led him back to the village. The village cheered at his approach because they knew a new elder approached. Showto walked slowly and carefully among them until he saw his wife standing before him. The moon was rising behind her and cast a glow over her light brown skin. Her hair was waving in the small breeze and when Showto beheld her he thought to himself that he had never appreciated life and his wife so much as he did at that moment. He knew without a doubt in his mind that he would love her forever.

Marasu, for his part grew up strong and wise with the tutelage of the tribe and his father. He was well respected in the village and late on a summer’s evening as the sun was sinking in the west he turned and faced it while looking out over the lake. The lake seemed to be on fire as it reflected the burgundy, purple and auburn clouds above it and the rays of the dying sun across it. Walking out of the water of the lake came the most beautiful women he had ever seen. He knew at that moment that he would love this woman for ever…

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