Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Black Tree" (Part 1)

        A cool, westerly breeze joined a quake of thunder in announcing the arrival of storm clouds. The gray mass had already stretched its tendrils over the village of Kosmos and was now creeping towards the morning sun. Nora’s blonde hair tickled her nose after a small gust knocked a few locks loose from their place behind her ear. She wedged them back and continued up the stairs to the village courtyard. She kept her leather satchel pressed against her flank while she watched the storm clouds challenge the sun. The sunlight eventually faded into cold purple as the storm’s gray shroud advanced on the rays. 
        She arrived at the top of the stairs to see the familiar sight of the leafless tree peering at her from the center of the courtyard. It was a monstrous tree from hell, hideous and glorified. Due to its position in the courtyard, the highest location in Kosmos, it beckoned all wandering eyes to heed it. Its rotund trunk twisted to lofty heights, dispersing its limbs and branches with the ambition of a monument. Its fruit and bark were black because it fed on the filth of the villagers, like compost.
        The villagers’ filth stained Kosmos--the streets, buildings, furniture, and especially their clothing. Every morning the black liquid would ooze out of them like sweat, leaving drops and streaks on everything they touched. Once it dried into dust, they would gather it into leather satchels and bring it to the tree because that’s what kept them safe from the Breathers, who thrived on the fruit. They were the monsters that lurked beyond the walls of the village; every night they crept over the village walls to satisfy their hunger.
        Nora wasn’t a rebel, but her dreams were restless. The walls of Kosmos were built high enough to only allow a view of the sky; no treelike or distant horizon was ever seen. The walls prevented most dreamers from dreaming of life beyond the walls, but they didn't stop Nora. She kept her dreams to herself, like a good citizen, and silently performed the filth ritual with her head down and mouth shut. 
        As Nora crossed the courtyard, a string of lightning weaseled overhead, followed by a few pops and cracks of thunder. It gave her an excuse to look at something other than the spindly giant, whose presence tightened her chest with each step she took towards it. Still a ways from the behemoth, she prepared her satchel, unlatching it, so she could spend as little time in its presence as possible. She eyed the filth heaps left from the other villagers, and kept her gaze on them until she was close enough to contribute her pile to theirs.
        She held her satchel out from her chest and turned it over. The dried filth rustled against the leather and streamed onto the sacred ground. As her dust joined the rest, a plume erupted into her face, causing her to drop the satchel. She covered her mouth and swatted the dust cloud from her face, but she stopped when she felt a stream of liquid run down her swatting arm. 
        It was the black liquid, seeping out of the pores on her arm. With a quivering hand, she brushed it off with repetitive strokes, but it kept bubbling out.
        “You’ve always been one to put on a show,” a young man said behind her, “but climbing up here just to squeeze out a few drops is a bit much.” 
        “Shut up, Lukis, it just happened.”
        He reached down and picked up one of the tree’s fruit, which had fallen from ripeness, and studied it. “Have you ever wanted to taste the fruit?”
        “Come on...” Nora said to herself, ignoring him; her quivering redoubled. “Why won’t it stop?”
        He squeezed the fruit, letting the black juice drain from his clenched fist. “Look, Nora, I know we disagree on many matters,” he threw the fruit down and turned to her, “but because you’re my sister, I need to tell you.”
        “What is it now?” she asked, still focused on her arm.
        He looked up at the tree. “Freedom is upon us.”
        Nora remained focused on her arm. She took a long breath, sighed, and gently massaged it one more time, and waited. The black streams gradually subsided. “Lukis, not here.” She paused to be sure her arm was done dripping before grabbing her satchel and walking away. 
        Lukis trotted up to her side, with his head leaning forward for her to see. “Pretty soon everyone will see the truth,” he said. “Ivan says the Breathers--”
        “I don’t want to talk about him. He’s reckless.” She examined her arm again, which was red from the rubbing. Another rumble of thunder tickled her feet as she walked across the courtyard.
        “The filth, the tree, the Breathers--it’s all a conspiracy.”
        “Not so loud, Lukis.”
        They descended the stairs without speaking, passing a few other villagers with satchels like Nora’s.
        “I don’t care who hears me,” Lukis whispered as they neared another villager. “We’ll be free from this dump. But as I was saying, Ivan has this idea--”
        “I told you already; enough of him.”
        “The tree is the real reason we sweat black,” Lukis said.     
        They came to the bottom of the stairs and turned left, towards their home. A man wearing a crimson colored cloak and carrying a spear in his right hand--a Kosmos official--was patrolling nearby. He was heading towards them, with his eyes scanning the street.
        “The tree is the problem,” he said, glancing at the official, then raised his voice, “cut it down and we’re all free.”
        Nora groaned through clenched her teeth to warn him. She resisted the impulse to smack him, which would rouse a ruckus.
        “The Breathers will lose their hold on us,” Lukis said.
        The official looked at him with his long, skinny eyebrows furrowed. He held out his free hand in a signal to halt. “You, there. What did you say?”
        Lukis stepped up to him, but Nora grabbed his arm.
        “The Breathers...” Lukis said in a lighter tone.
        “What about them?” Being taller than Lukis, the official peered down at him with a frown. 
        Lukis mirrored the frown, a clear challenge to the official’s authority.
        “Hm?” The official stepped closer, bringing his left hand to rest on the hilt of his sword, which was previously concealed underneath his cloak.
        A flicker of lightning stretched over the sky, and the thunder cracked only a moment after.
        The official looked to the sky with a slow lift of his chin. “Storm’s coming,” he said.
        “Yes, sir, there is,” Lukis said in a deep tone.
        The official looked back at him and repositioned his hand on the sword’s hilt, as if to unsheathe it.
        Nora tugged at Lukis’ arm. “Let’s go.”
        Lukis kept staring at the official for a moment, but then he lowered his eyes with a sigh.
        “I advise you to keep quiet about our lords,” the official said, with his hand still fixed on the sword hilt. “You wouldn’t want others to get the wrong impression.”
        “Come on,” Nora tugged at Lukis again; this time he followed. When they were out of the official’s earshot, she leaned over. “Fool!”
        “He’s the fool, working for them.”
        “You’re welcoming death, with antics like that.”
        “They deserve it. They deserve what’s coming...the storm.”
        Nora looked up at the clouds. “What about it?” 
        “No, not that storm; the storm. The one that will free us.”
        Nora shook her head and quickened her pace towards home.
        The easterly sun was now buried under the gray sky. The breeze had also quickened, throwing light debris and clouds of dried villager filth along the street.
        They were only a few houses away from their home when a man ran out from behind a building and stumbled into the street. They both recognized him, but Nora was the one who cringed.
        “Ivan!” Lukis said with a smile, which fell to a frown when he saw Ivan’s wide eyes. “What’s wrong?” 
        Ivan trotted up to them. “They’re coming,” Ivan said; his voice was hoarse from exertion.
        “Who?” Lukis asked.     
        “The Breathers!” 
        “But it’s daytime!” Lukis said with a puzzled frown. 
        “No, Lukis, they found out.” he grabbed both of his shoulders, “they found out about our plan.”
        Nora sprinted for their house.
        “Nora!” Lukis yelled, running after her.
        “You’re the death of us!” She yelled back. “Both of you!”
        “You need to stay with us!” Lukis yelled, closing in on her.
        “Stay away from me!” She kept running without looking back. 
        Lukis reached out and grabbed Nora, then threw her to the ground. “Trust us!”
        “Pah!” She smacked his leg, but he didn’t flinch or budge.       
        “Nora, you must come with us,” Lukis said. 
        “You’re a fool, Lukis,” she said through her teeth.
        Ivan ran up and, with Lukis’ help, pulled Nora to her feet. She squirmed and kicked, but their grip was too strong. 
        “Calm down and they won’t suspect us,” Ivan said in her ear. 
        She glared at Lukis. “What about Mom and Dad? Have you forgotten about them?”        “They should be safe,” he said.
        Should?” She leapt at him, but Ivan restrained her. After a few more swings at him, she sighed, slumped her shoulders and dropped to her knees.
        They pulled her to her feet again and were able to escort her down the street and into an alley without another protest. Lukis stopped at a root cellar, which was nestled against the foundation of the building on the left. He unlatched the metal lock and swung open the double wooden doors. 
        “Let’s go,” he said.
        “No!” Nora screamed. “Not in there!”
        “Silence,” Ivan said, “you can’t let them know where we are.”
        “You’re with us now, Nora,” Lukis said.
        “Guards!” She yelled, “Gua--”
        Ivan clenched her mouth shut. “You’ll get us killed!”
        “Nora, inside,” Lukis pointed into the cavernous cellar.
        She dropped to her knees again. “Leave me here,” she said.
        “No,” Ivan said, “you’ll understand soon, just trust us.” 
        He tried lifting her up again, but she writhed free of his grip and laid herself on the ground. Lukis stepped up to her and helped Ivan drag her to the cellar. He hopped down into it and then dragged Nora in behind him, where she laid motionless on the floor in a defeated heap.
        “You’re safe here, Nora.” He said, then turned around and used his hand to feel his way along the cool, moist wall of dirt. “Ivan, where’s the lantern?” he asked without looking back. “And did you fill it with oil?”
        The shelter went dark as the wooden doors slammed shut behind them. 
        “Ivan?” Lukis asked. “You in here?”
        The metal lock rustled into place on the other side, sealing them inside. 
        “Sorry, brother,” Ivan said, his voice came from the other side of the doors.
        “Ivan!” Lukis yelled, leaping at the doors, pounding it. “What are you doing!”
        Ivan’s only response was his wet footfalls fading from earshot.
        “Nice friend, that Ivan,” Nora said, still laying on the ground.
        Lukis pounded again, harder and louder. He went to hit it again, but stopped and exhaled. “I don’t understand.”
        A thunder clap rumbled the wooden doors, and raindrops were soon pattering outside.
        “Ivan!” Lukis resumed pounding.
        “Lukis, no!” Nora said. “You’ll attract attention.”
        “Oh, so now you’re concerned about that?” He pounded harder.
        He lifted his fist to pound again but stopped when he heard wet footsteps outside the door. Lukis stepped back, grabbing Nora’s arm, who then grabbed his. The metal lock rustled again, and the door swung open. 
        Three Breathers stood in the alley, towering above them in black cloaks. Their pale, wrinkled faces peered out from their hoods with the semblance of eels.
        The one in the middle, presumably the leader, flicked its right hand, long and gnarled, as a signal to the other two. Without hesitation, they leapt into the cellar, grabbed Nora and Lukis, and heaved them onto their shoulders. They kicked and pounded, but the fiends held them tight. 
        The captors exited the cellar and strode into the downpour outside. They followed the leader into the street and towards the stairway that climbed to the black tree.
        A moan rose over the sound of the rain and wind, then slowly drowned them with its demanding pitches. The ground vibrated with each pang. As if the storm had a breaking heart, the reverberating moans fluctuated with sobs of passion--or anger. 
        “What is it?” The Breather carrying Nora asked in a hoarse hiss.
        “The tree calls,” the leader said, turning to its comrade, “It demands their black sacrifice.” It looked at Nora, then smiled. “Their lives.”

To Be Continued...

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Embarrassed by Jesus

I wonder if Jesus’ disciples were ever tempted to buy an “I’m with Stupid” T-shirt.

The following conversation occurred after his famous temple-clearing episode (John 2:13-17): “So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’” (2:18-20).

So if the violent spectacle wasn’t enough to make Jesus embarrassing, he followed the ordeal up by insisting he could build a new temple in three days--apparently by himself (“I will raise it up”). 

Granted, in verse 21, John clarifies that Jesus was talking about his own body, but this was written many decades after the fact as a way to clarify that Jesus had been speaking metaphorically about his death and resurrection. In other words, the people who heard Jesus’ metaphor must have thought he was either a lunatic or a comedian, since, at the time, they had no conception of the bigger picture. 

I wonder what his disciples thought? Would they not have had some doubt concerning the mental state of their Master? If they were out of the loop on the bigger picture on other occasions (Matt. 15:15-16; 16:5-12; Mark 8:31-33; John 13:6-9; 15:15), could this spectacle at the temple have been another example?

Raise the temple in three days? Really, Jesus?

I can hear John now: “Hey, James, does the Jerusalem market sell an ‘I’m with Stupid’ T-shirt?”

If Jesus didn’t want to be ambiguous, why didn’t he just speak plainly? “I will raise my body up in three days.” What’s so hard about that? It’s as if Jesus wanted to be embarrassing. He concealed his divine agenda under the cloak of provocative metaphors, but for what purpose? Why couldn’t he just use sensible, Sunday-School-savvy metaphors? Perhaps there’s more to meets the eye; perhaps there’s a bigger picture.

In John 6, we find one of Christ’s most provocative metaphors, which illuminates the Jews’ complete inability to see the bigger picture: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:54-56).

Makes us wonder: who is this guy?

In the 21st Century, we can sift Christ’s words through the lens of over 1,980 years of church history, so we understand his metaphors, but, as we read through the Gospels, we must get in the habit of imagining what it was like to hear Jesus in person. 

The effect he had on his hearers was unparalleled. His metaphors were quite shocking. Immediately after the “flesh/blood” discourse (6:22-59), in verses 60-61, we find Jesus’ disciples expressing their confusion: “When many of his disciples heard [his words], they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this?’” 

What about us? Are there times when we take offense at Christ? 

Embarrassed, even?

As society increasingly turns its dark eye to the Church, believers must dig their heels into the Word and not cower away when those fingers of mockery and disapproval are directed at us and our beliefs. Still, the fingers that seem to dig deepest are the ones that point out the more embarrassing tenets of our faith. These tenets are often the hardest to defend.

It’s encouraging, though, to remember that many people throughout history scoffed at many scientific theories before they became hard facts. We can likewise view the embarrassing convictions that Christians hold in the same light: ask anyone on Earth, and he/she will say that the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, and the Trinity are all embarrassing suppositions; but ask anyone in Heaven and he/she will say they’re hard facts. It’s all a matter of perspective.

We must cling to the conviction that God, being on a completely higher existential plane than us, has a perspective that makes sense of what presently embarrasses us (Isa. 55:9; John 6:63).  One day we will look at these embarrassments in retrospect and scoff--not at the beliefs themselves, but at our own ignorance about the bigger picture. 

Perhaps those “I’m with Stupid” T-shirts weren’t meant for the disciples to wear after all...nor were they meant for us.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Outdoorsman's Diary: Where Are the Matches?

The predicament of that camping trip wasn’t deliberate--just a symptom of youth. Fire has a way of keeping the attention of all but the most severe cases of ADHD. Needless to say, its hold on a 17-year old male is paramount. 

Along with two other hooligans, I enjoyed the experience of “roughing it” in a large patch of “almost wilderness” near our hometown on many weekends throughout our High School years. One of our favorite “activities” was the construction of “torches.” We would take bark from birch trees, which is highly-flammable, and wrap them around large sticks. Upon ignition, the bark would roar into an inferno. Fortunately, for Smokey the Bear’s sake, there was a lake nearby, so we could extinguish our flames by sailing them through the air, like enflamed javelins, then letting them sizzle into the water.

Easy, clean fun.

The predicament happened on one of our camping adventures. Dusk had fallen and the three of us sat around the campfire. With no torches left, my friend decided it was a good idea to light matches and throw them around at random or simply watch them burn down. It’s just one of those things that a 17-year old hooligan does to stay occupied.

I guess a KISS tribute band happened to be playing in the nearby town that evening, so we had a “relaxing” evening of enjoying the delightful sounds of nature intermixed with the screaming lyrics of: “I want to rock ‘n’ roll all night! And party every day!” Once the sounds of KISS faded, we watched the campfire dwindle before we weaseled into our individual tents. As usual, I fell asleep with the fear that the curious bears of MN would be bold enough to try to eat our food--or us. 

At dawn, obviously glad to survive the bumps in the night, I emerged from my tent and relished the crisp, cold autumn air. The morning sun seeped through the pine needles and gave me some warmth, but I was still shivering. So I gathered firewood to start a warming fire, which would also be used to cook out breakfast (this was before we decided it was a good idea to purchase PocketRockets).

My camping compadres, the hooligans, were still nestled in their sleeping bags dreaming of hot showers and flush toilets. So I silently let them be as I did my morning chore. My stomach growled in anticipation for the yummy meal of “omelet-in-a-bag” that awaited, so I hurriedly finished piling the firewood and began searching for the matches...

Where are the matches?

I scrambled through the campsite paraphernalia, but the little red box was nowhere. Recalling the match-lighting ceremony of my friend the night before, I whipped open his tent with a not-so-cordial, “Where are the matches?! WHERE ARE THE MATCHES?!” I rummaged through his bags, frantic and desperate.

After I effectively woke him up with the thrashing, my friend unveiled the horrid fact: “I burned them all last night,” he said with a grunt.

That was our only box of matches, and my friend used it for simple fun. In that moment, my stomach, compelled by the realization that breakfast was doomed, decided to form a coup. If my skin hadn’t held it in place, my tummy would have certainly ripped out and attacked my friend in an attempt to avenge its own hunger. 

None of us had skills in primitive fire-lighting, so if we wanted a fire (and we did), the only option was to hike back to my car, parked a half-mile away, and use its cigarette lighter to...MAKE A TORCH! My friends laughed at the idea, but I insisted it would work.

Since it was my car and my idea, I was the chosen one. After finding a good piece of birch bark, I constructed my torch and hiked off to my car. 

I sat in the passenger seat of my ‘91 Plymouth Acclaim as I repeatedly used the cigarette lighter in an attempt to ignite my torch. The process proved difficult, since the lighter failed to output enough heat to ignite the birch bark. I tried a dozen times, each time failing. Then, the cigarette lighter decided to break, but I still managed to use it for another dozen attempts.

Despite the failures to ignite, a large volume of smoke was produced from the persistent effort. The fumes seeped into every hole and orifice on my body. As I coughed and swatted at the plumes, I saw a familiar truck slow down on the road nearby. It was my Dad’s work truck. He and my brother in-law were on their way to work and happened to drive by as the pillars of smoke seeped out of my car. Their appearance proved to be a perfect coincidence (minus the fact that I appeared to be smoking a cig or something worse), since it was likely that one of the truck compartments might contain a lighter or box of matches.

They came to a stop, rolled down the window and watched me exhale a draught of smoke. So, obviously, my first order of business was to convince them that I wasn’t a closet smoker. After this was accomplished, I told them about our predicament. As expected, there was a spare lighter in the truck’s glove box, so they (warily) gave it to me and continued on their way to work.

I now concocted a devious idea; it was within my power to prove my camping compadres wrong.  They doubted my torch-lighting abilities, and now they would get a taste at what I was made of. With a wide smile, I walked back to the outskirts of the campsite, stopping behind a large ridge of bedrock--out of view from the hooligans.

Using my Dad’s lighter, I successfully ignited my torch. Once the flames grew to the proper height, I unleashed my inner Olympic-torch-bearer, climbed the ridge of bedrock and trotted towards them with the flame roaring beside me.

The first thing the hooligans saw was smoke, followed by the flame. Then, with a spectacle of unparalleled grandeur, with the morning sun to my back, my gallant physique emerged with the glorious torch in hand. I strode into the campsite like a triple-crown stallion, showered with laud and praise. In that moment, I was their savior, their flame-bearer, their breakfast-bringer. I welcomed their cheers and their exclamations of disbelief as I laid the flame at their feet. 

Stories like this remind me to see the bright side of predicaments, no matter how trivial or severe. In the more severe sufferings of life, Jesus reminds us to “take heart” because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). As we navigate through the world, we take comfort in the knowledge that we’re not bound by the whims of chance or fate, but by the sovereign hand of God (Rom. 8:28). I consider trivial predicaments, like this story, to be little “schoolteachers” that prepare us for the more difficult tumults. Mild predicaments allow us to soak in the principles that they’re trying to teach us. Then, once those difficult trials come, we can draw on those principles as a way to be reminded that we can, in fact, “take heart” because our Lord has overcome the world. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Outdoorsman's Diary: God Does Have a Sense of Humor

Hunting for a prolonged period of time has a way of imparting a mild form of psychosis on hunters. Due to the constant attentiveness that’s required in the pursuit of game animals, we begin to see stumps and logs transform into rabbits, grouse and whitetails if we look hard enough. This psychotic condition worsens as more time is spent not seeing game, since the less we see our game, the more we hallucinate to make up for it. 

For many hunters, the hunt continues into the “real world,” as thoughts of the woods, with its smells and sights, linger through the work week. It's rare, though, to actually exhibit signs of “hunting psychosis" by having hallucinations of game animals throughout our ordinary days--we are generally fully recovered from a weekend hunt by the time we make it to work on Monday.

Even so, I thought I had an unfortunate episode of hallucinations last fall, when, on a Monday morning after a weekend hunt, I saw a ruffed grouse dozing on the pavement of a city street in the middle of the night--and no, it wasn’t dead. 

Anyone who knows anything about grouse know these birds will never sleep on the ground, let alone on a city street in a town with a population over 12,000 people. It just doesn’t happen; they normally roost in evergreens at night, due to the protection of their dense foliage.

Is this nighttime sighting of the grouse a sign of psychosis? Well, most would assume so, but I’m telling the truth! I saw it! As with all those “big fish stories,” I feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle as I proclaim the veracity of this story. 

What’s truly remarkable about this grouse story, however, was not where it happened to be roosting. Nor was it the fact that I had just returned home from a three-day hunt. 

No, the most profound part of this ordeal was that only 30 seconds before I saw the bird, I had this thought: “Man, I wish I would’ve seen more grouse on that hunt.”
Immediately after I thought this, I turned the corner and saw a pile of leaves that looked “funny.” I slowed down and stopped close to it, shining it with my headlights. I saw the shape of a ruffed grouse laying in front of the leaf pile, and as I squinted to look harder, its head popped up and eyed me rudely (after all, I did wake it up).
I got out of my car and walked right up to it, and it didn’t fly away. I wasn’t sure if it was injured, so I nudged it with my boot to see if it would fly away--but it didn’t. I saw movement down the sidewalk a few yards from me, and when I looked towards it, I saw a cat creeping towards me (or the grouse, rather). This feline would have surely tackled the grouse and had an early breakfast if I hadn’t shown up. 

I nudged the grouse again and it flew into a nearby house, flapping like mad against the siding, before falling to the ground. I ran up to it and nudged it again, but this time it flew away to unknown lands, presumably to live at peace--far away from cats, headlights and boots. 

Or...perhaps, he flew into hunting lands, where he would soon meet his demise... 

Regardless of what happened to that grouse thereafter, I found myself laughing after it left. Here I was, delivering papers on my early morning route on the first day after a weekend of grouse hunting, and a grouse was plopped down where it shouldn’t be. I had just been thinking of grouse hunting, and this specimen presented itself in such a way that I couldn’t legally shoot it (on an average hunting day, this grouse would've already been dead and in the bag).

I knew then that God has a sense of humor. This confirmed my long-held suspicion that God loves to surprise us with quiet forms of goodness. What gets me the most is how all the elements worked out in this story, seemingly for the sole purpose of my amusement. 

With all the tumults in the world, sometimes its good to remember the subtle surprises of God. If the God of the universe truly cares enough to poke us with tidbits of goodness from time to time, how much more will he handle the courses of this world? 

Perhaps that was the real lesson of the grouse: we can find peace with God and “roost” in circumstances filled with imminent danger. It reminds me of what David said: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows...Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psa. 23:5a, 6). This grouse seemed to be at peace with the obvious danger of the city street and the roaming felines. 

Of course, the bird was too dumb to actually possess such spiritual maturity, but that doesn’t mean it can’t teach us something about what it means to trust God in the midst of evil environments. Regarding these evil circumstances, the Apostle Paul says, “we rejoice in our sufferings” (Rom. 5:3) because it produces “hope” in us. This hope allows us to trust God as we undergo the tumults of life. As we abide in the “city streets” of evil, with dangers looming around us, we can rest in hope, knowing there’s more to life than meets the eye.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

"The Tragedy of Tippy Cumber" (Part 2)

--------> For Part 1, click here <--------        

         “And a formidable one, too,” Cru said, eyeing him slowly, “since he obviously taught Mera well.” He pivoted and headed up the glade’s slope.
         Tippy trotted up beside him. “What do you mean?”
         “What do you think of her?”
         “She’s great,” Tippy said, “almost unbelievable.”
         “I agree with you there, man. She’s great at what she does, which is make herself believable.”
         “I better fill you in on what’s going on,” Cru said as he examined his bowstring. “Sun Land is what could be called a ‘universal dream world,’ where men like you and me find it by chance in their sleep. As you know, everyone sleeps at different times around the world. Sometimes, though, we may take a nap and then come here at a different time than when we would normally. But once a member of Sun Land, always a member; I can’t remember the last time I had a dream that wasn't here.”
         “Why only men?”   
         “We don’t know, it’s one of the mysteries of this place.”
         They came to the path and followed it as it ascended the slope and wound through the oaks.
         “The important thing you must know is that Kurr, the lord of Sun Land, gives his daughters to torture us.” 
         “She’s one of them, yeah. When the first men came to Sun Land, they were greeted by hordes of women that met every one of the men’s desires, and they thought it a paradise, as you can imagine.” He adjusted his quiver and exhaled like one with bad news. “But of course, the men soon found Sun Land to be far from bells and whistles. We got a glimpse of the women’s true intentions when the first man was killed (but most people will say he simply went missing) in Lamoor Forest, where the women live. Most of the men ignored the implications of his disappearance, but some, myself included, believe Kurr’s daughters to be utter evil. We call them ‘companions,’ and they stick to us like glue; when we come here, they’re always waiting for us.”
         “Mera’s my companion?”
         “Indeed. Most companions are unnamed, but we all know hers because she’s ruthless--an excellent deceiver. A month ago, she successfully lured a man, Steve, into Lamoor. We’ve been waiting for his replacement since.”
         “So...I’m his replacement?”
         “Yeah, you’re getting it,” Cru said, looking at him with a smile. “Once a companion succeeds in luring her man into the forest, a new one is brought here to replace him.”
         Tippy looked around the glade. “Where’s Lamoor Forest?”
         “Don’t worry, it’s not here,” Cru said, following his gaze. “It’s just outside of the town I’m taking you to now.”
         They came to the edge of the glade, where the gradual slope turned into a large hill of grass. The path climbed up the center of the hill and narrowed slightly, due to the long grass that overhung the trail, then disappeared over the crest.
         “I mentioned, ‘the guys,’ and ‘some of us,’ earlier; I was referring to the Rebellion. You see, most men who come here love it--they’re the ones who ignore the dangers of Lamoor. They don’t see Sun Land like we at the Rebellion do. We’ve come to despise this place, and as more members of the Rebellion happened to cross paths in the real world, our coup snowballed into what it is today.
         “Due to the nature of Sun Land, being a dream, the Rebellion had to coordinate in the real world and devise a way to make our move against Kurr. We found a date and time where the other men--we call them the Others--wouldn’t be dreaming because they would obviously try and stop us. It was a lot of work, but we managed to find a tiny window of opportunity, which is why we must hurry. Many of us have taken days off of work to make it today, and used pills, like we did, to force ourselves to nap.”
         “You’re attacking now?”
         “Obviously,” Cru said as they stopped at the top of the hill, which overlooked a square-shaped hedge of buildings with a square courtyard in the middle. On the far side of the town laid a wall. In the center of the wall was a closed gate, and beyond the wall was a dark-green mass of trees. “There’s Lamoor Forest,” he said, pointing to it.
         “Wait,” Tippy said as something came to mind, “where’s your companion?”
         “Knocked out, like Mera,” he said, “I did it as soon as I came here.”
         “Where’d you get the bow?”
         Cru chuckled. “Kurr and the companions are smart, but they’re ignorant of our ability to sneak around and plan things, both in the real world and here. The Rebellion’s worked for a month making weapons and hid them.” He descended the hill, followed by Tippy.
         They came to the buildings and Cru led Tippy through the nearest alley, which was narrow and filled with random yard supplied. He stopped before emerging into the courtyard on the other side and turned to Tippy. “Just so you know, our attack hinges on you.”
         Tippy frowned.
         “Our leader, Barth, will explain.” He turned and stepped into the open courtyard.
          A few men hollered to him from the other side, and he made his way to them. Tippy, grappling with what Cru just said, slowly stepped out too.
         “Ah, Tippy!” a short man in a ponytail said as he grabbed his arm in a firm, but friendly grip. He wore a hard leather chest piece and matching greaves. “I know you from the Wall of Souls.” He pointed to a black wall to the edge of the courtyard on their right. “Everyone’s name appears on it when they enter Sun Land.”
         So that’s how Cru knew I came here.
         “I’m Ty,” the man said with a smile. He nodded towards the opposite side of the square. “Let’s go.”
         A group of a dozen men huddled in front of the building to the right of the gate. The building’s door opened, and they filed inside without a word. Ty and Tippy were the last to enter, and before Ty closed the door, he held up three fingers and mouthed, “Three bows,” to someone outside.
         “Everyone’s companions knocked out?” A loud voice asked inside the crowded room.
         A wave of affirmations responded. 
         Cru came beside Tippy and nudged him. “See that man in the gray tunic?” he whispered, pointing to the man with the loud voice, “He’s Barth.” 
         “Neil and Mark getting the weapons?” Barth asked.
         “Yup!” Ty said.
         “Where’s Tippy?” Barth said, eyeing the men in the room.
         Ty and Cru each grabbed one of Tippy’s shoulder and pushed him to the center of the room.
         “Ah, welcome, Tippy Cumber,” Barth said, “to the Rebellion.”
         The men voiced a wave of deep mumbles and raised hands.
         “Cru, did you fill him in?”
         “Yes sir!”
         Barth stepped up to Tippy. “Well, Tippy, are you ready to lead us into Lamoor Forest?”
         “It’s simple,” Barth said, spinning on his foot to face away. “We don’t get new guys here very often, and as it is, you came at the most opportune time.” He turned back to Tippy. “You see, we’ve been planning this coup for a month--ever since poor Steve died. We agreed on having Nate lead us,” he pointed to a young man in mail armor, “since he was the newest member here, but you are now a far better candidate. When your name appeared on the Wall, everyone in the Rebellion was notified and Cru, being your neighbor (a remarkable coincidence, to be sure) immediately connected with you.”  
         “What do you mean by 'better candidate'?” Tippy said.
         “The magic of Sun Land, the same magic our companions use to deceive us, finds its source in Lamoor. Most of us won’t stand a chance attacking the forest on our own because of how long we’ve been exposed to our companions enchantments and their deceptive beauty. You,” he placed his hand on Tippy’s shoulder, “have literally just arrived, which makes you beyond perfect.” He narrowed his eyes and peered at Tippy. “You haven’t let her enchant you, have you?”
         “No, no,” he said, holding an expressionless face.
         “Good.” Barth’s face resembled that of a father approving his innocent child. He then looked to a man near him. “Get Tippy his armor.”
         The man twitched his head to each side and stepped close to Barth. “Uh, he’s too big.”
         Barth glared at him, then eyed Tippy and sighed. “Fine.”
         “Here’s a helmet, at least.” Another man said as he emerged from the crowd. He held a metal helmet with a long nose guard. 
         Barth took it and placed it on Tippy’s head. “Perfect?”
         It’s too small. Tippy smiled and tapped it in response.
         Barth walked past Tippy and stopped at the door. “Everyone be sure to protect Tippy at all costs!” 
         The men whooped in reply.
         Barth smiled and looked at Tippy. “Spear, bow or sword?”
         “I don’t...” Tippy said.
         “What’ll it be?” Barth said, louder.
         “Uh, sword.”
         Barth gave a quick nod, then unlatched the door. “Time to destroy this accursed dream world.” He swung it open and led the mob into the courtyard, where two men were waiting outside with armloads of weapons. “Give Tippy the best sword!”
         Tippy was filed out with the whooping men and was handed a short sword. The momentum of the mob carried him towards the gate. Two men ran up to it, heaved it open, and a draft of cold air seeped into the square, as if to warn the Rebellion of the dangers lurking in the forest.
         “Rally behind Tippy!” Barth hollered. “Keep your eyes fixed on him!”
         The men raised their weapons in unison, chanting. Tippy was shoved to the front, where the cold draft was strongest. Although the sun shined on the courtyard, the Lamoor Forest was unnaturally dark. Instead of oaks, as in the glade, the forest was riddled with evergreens. Past the gate, a narrow pathway led down a slight downgrade into a narrowing trail. 
         Tippy couldn’t move, but it wasn’t from fear. The ache in his bones had only grown bolder since he left Mera in the glade. It made the current task seem wrong. 
         “Let’s go!” Barth roared behind Tippy.
         The horde of men chanted again, but Tippy remained motionless. He clenched his sword, bent his knees, and with a single motion, spun on his right foot and shouldered Barth to the ground. Behind Barth was Ty, who had a dumbfounded expression. Tippy shoved him to the side and charged through the mob. He nearly made it through before some of the men grabbed at him, but with wild desperation, Tippy swung his sword and hacked at their arms. He ripped his helmet off and blindly threw it behind him, where it apparently struck someone and ushered a moan.
         He broke free of the mob, leaving the injured men howling with rage and pain. Tippy brought his large body to a speed he never knew possible as he dashed across the courtyard. He could hear the thunder of voices and angry shouts behind him, but it only spurred his leg muscles to work harder.
         He wedged through the narrow alley and ascended the grassy hill. He glanced behind for the first time and saw most of the men still pursuing him. When he reached the top of the hill, panting and sweating, he scanned the glade for any sign of Mera.
         She should be awake! It’s been a half hour? Yeah.
         He craved her touch, the coursing tremors and the voice of vanilla. He needed her strength and her presence. “Mera!” he shouted, eyes searching for her green dress and oak-bark hair. 
         “Mer--” An arrow struck him in the back. He crashed to the ground in a mass of sweat and pain.
         Three men dove at him, clubbing, kicking and cursing him. One of them had a rope and began tying him up, but a loud, sustained gust of wind interrupted them. They held their hands up against the elemental onslaught, squinting their eyes to see the source of the gust. Tippy glanced up, and was relieved to see Mera. 
         She was holding her hands out in front of her, as if controlling the wind. Her face was contorted, her eyes glowed green and her skin was darkened and shiny like a cloven obsidian stone. With a loud pop, the three men attacking Tippy flew backwards through the air; two were thrust against nearby oak trees, thereby falling unconscious, while the third rolled a few times on the ground before scrambling away.
         Mera lowered her arms, which made the wind stop. She exhaled with a loud sigh, loosened her shoulders and closed her eyes with her head canted slightly upwards. 
         “Mera!” Tippy exclaimed.
         She remained silent; her only movement came from her heavy breathing. 
         More of the men filtered into the glade, shouting and whooping. Tippy panicked and rolled to his knees and tried to stand up, but Mera grabbed the back of his neck and heaved him to his feet. She pushed him towards the men.
         “Ah! Mera!” he cried, “Wha--?”
         “There he is!” the men shouted. 
         They ran at Mera and Tippy, but she swatted the air and another gust of air threw them all backwards. 
         She pinched Tippy’s neck harder, making it burn.
         “What are you doing?” he said with a squirm.
         She pushed him harder. “Move.”
         They climbed the grass hill, where more men were waiting. Like their comrades, they were thrown aside by Mera’s elemental magic. Once at the top, she threw Tippy down the backside, which sent him rolling until he crashed into the siding on the nearest building. Before he could react, she grabbed him by the neck again and ushered him through the alley and into the courtyard.
         The rest of the men, with Cru, Ty and Barth included, congregated in the center of the courtyard. They watched motionless as Mera controlled Tippy, a man far larger than her, with ease as she marched him across the square. As if they knew her power, they all remained in place without making any advances on them; nobody talked, either. The only sound came from Tippy’s grunts as he continued to squirm in his companion’s grasp.
         They approached the gate to Lamoor Forest, which was still open. When Tippy realized Mera’s intentions, his heart sank. “No!”
         “Yes,” she said.
         “Why?” he squealed.
         She pinched his neck harder, oozing blood. “You’re the one who’ll pay for this uprising.” 
         He tried digging his heels into the ground, but it was in vain, for she merely kicked the back of his knees to keep him walking. 
         They passed through the gate, which closed behind them with what seemed to be a magic of its own. The cold forest air crept over him like the first winter storm: cold and unwanted. Tippy was undone; his eyes watered and head slumped. 
         Mera led him down the path, which narrowed as it came to a swamp. The farther they went, the colder the air became. The shadows in the swamp, formed from towering evergreens, were far more than eclipsed sunlight; it seemed like true, materialized darkness.
         Mera released Tippy and threw him to his knees, then she walked around to his frontside. She stood there in silence, as if taunting him with her betrayal. A deep groaning came from somewhere behind her. It rattled Tippy’s head with its deep reverberations.
         He glanced up at her with wide eyes, but then his heart shrunk. She was no longer the Mera he remembered, but a twisted form of flesh. More loathsome than a witch, her gnarled face and sunken eyes personified death itself. “Poor, poor Tippy Cumber,” she said with a smile. Her voice was no longer vanilla; its stench made Tippy feel like a sun-baked carcass had been placed over his head.
         The groan returned, but this time louder--closer.
         She kneed him in the side of his face, sending him reeling onto the swamp moss. “Here lies Tippy Cumber,” she said, “the fool with a hollow soul.”
         A small twig cracked nearby--in a different direction than the groaning.
         Mera looked towards it, then quickly returned to look at Tippy. She grabbed her head and ripped at it with a loud whimper. “Tippy!” Her voice was vanilla again. Through her hands, Tippy noticed her face returning to normal. “Tippy, please!”
         “What?” he asked, barely audible.
         “It’s all my father! He made me do it!” She stooped close to him. Her witchlike features were gone, and her face was more radiant than before. She kissed him, which sent the warm tremors through him again. 
         Another stick snapped.
         She grabbed his face with both hands. “I’m so sorry. It’s my father’s fault, I swear!” 
         He was about to speak, but she placed her finger over his mouth.
         “I’ll always be yours.” She stood up, looked towards the twig snapping and darted away in the opposite direction.
         Tippy tried to move his head and watch her, but it was frozen in place. He tried moving his hands and feet, but they were also immovable. The moss on the forest floor crept up Tippy’s sides and slowly enveloped his legs and arms. 
         Whatever had made the groans made a final groan, softer and less menacing, before going silent.
         Without a sound, the twig-snapper appeared above him. It was a man, clean-shaven and bald. He wore a tattered wool suit coat and slacks. “My name is Karis,” he said. He spoke with a rich somberness, like he was speaking to someone on their deathbed. “Remember that name so you’ll know its me the next time you see it. You’ll need to hear what I have to say, but I can’t tell you until your awake.”
         The moss had now submerged Tippy’s body, and when it reached his eyes, he woke up in his house; he had fallen out of the chair and was now on the floor. After a long series of steady breaths he sat up and saw Cru sitting on the nasty couch, glaring at him.
         Cru opened his mouth, but paused and lowered his head with a slow shake.
         “Shut up!” Cru threw the pill bottle at Tippy, which struck him in the chest and bounced to the floor. The pills rattled inside it as it rolled to a stop on the hardwood floor. Cru leapt at Tippy and pressed his hands into his chest. “Don’t you realize how hard it’ll be for us now? You better pray you’re banished from Sun Land because you’ve just pissed off everyone--everyone. If they see you again...” He gave a final hard press, then stormed to the front door. “You know,” he stopped without looking back at Tippy, “I thought you were gonna die--being taken into Lamoor. Somehow you lived; consider yourself lucky.” He whipped the door open.
         “Who’s Karis?” Tippy asked quietly. 
         “Never heard of him,” Cru said before slamming the door behind him.
         Tippy slumped his head and remained motionless for more than an hour. The hardest fact to grasp was that Sun Land was real; he felt it in his bones, which still ached for Mera’s touch. He disregarded her recent malicious antics and convinced himself she was forced to hurt him, as she said. As the night progressed, the ache worsened, but he ignore it by eating more noodles. 
         He then moped aimlessly around the house until 2 A.M., when he finally collapsed on his bed. Before he drifted off, he entertained the hope that Mera would be waiting for him in Sun Land. He woke up at 9--late for work. In the midst of scrambling to get ready, a realization sank in: he was banished from Sun Land. 
         He worked for another month until he was fired for consistent tardiness. Cru and Tippy continued to avoid each other, but this time their mutual avoidance was obviously justified. The ache for Mera continued to weigh on Tippy. He sought for every trace of her in the dirty magazines, websites and venues where superficial beauty is flaunted and paraded for the ravenous eyes of men. The images on the page and screen gave him a temporary solace from the ache in his bones, since admiring the beauties gave him warm tremors similar to those he has with Mera. He grew to relish the women--women he considered to be shadows of his Mera. 
         Yet the ache would always reappear. He spent the greater part of his savings on all the smut that promised the ever-elusive relief from the ache. For three months he indulged in the temporary relief. Yet with each bout of disillusionment came the emboldening conviction that only Mera would satisfy him.
         After searching on Craigslist, he found an advertisement for a woman willing to make money with her body. He was appalled at such a move, but the ache surmounted his wits. He grabbed the phone, dialed the number, and within the hour she was in his house. The relief she offered was, again, only temporary. He cycled through the Craigslist women for the next month, in which he spent away the rest of his cash. Yet each time the ache would return and remind him more vividly of Mera.
         When he couldn’t afford another Craigslist escapade, he stumbled into the local bar with his last twenty-dollar bill. He secluded himself at a corner booth and drank a single glass of his favorite lager. After the last draught, he stared at the empty glass, contemplating a bold move.
         He went to the bathroom and saw a notice above the urinal. Its first lines read: “Charis Church: Newness for the broken. It’s only by charis (Greek for ‘grace’) that the human soul finds its peace.” 
         Charis...that guy? What’s his name? Karen? No, Karis. He chuckled. The Ch is pronounced like a K, I get it. It would be a church. He left without bothering to read the address or service times, although he did agree with the flyer on one point: he was broken. On the drive home, Karis and the church flyer pressed on his thoughts, and twice he nearly turned around to take a second look. I wonder what that Karis guy had to say? Ah! Probably just to feed me propaganda. He turned on the car radio and drowned his curiosity in classic rock.
         Once home, he filled a glass of water, found Cru’s bottle of pills, and swallowed them all. The world blurred, and he slumped onto his nasty couch and embraced the shadow. He smiled and closed his eyes, heart dancing at the thought of seeing Mera’s face and holding her hand. The ache in his bones finally faded as sleep numbed him.
         A week later, the police found Tippy’s door unlocked and followed the stench of death into his living room, where his body laid on the nasty couch. Although Cru resented him, he was the one who noticed Tippy’s inactivity and called the authorities. Tippy had no family, so there was no funeral. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in a small cemetery near Rockford.