Friday, November 25, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 23: Safe Returns

             Cassius was on his knees, searching the desperately the still water for any sign of life.  Nothing stirred, and in the cloudy blackness of the ocean there was nothing to see.  It had been only moments since he realized that Tarsus Cole had passed beyond his sight, yet those moments felt like an eternity.  Any time now, he expected Adulatio to say that Tarsus Cole had failed. 
            Then, he felt it: a surge, in the pit of his own stomach like the rising of the tide.  It was a sensation he had never experienced before, but he was struck by the thought that this must have been what mortals felt when in the presence of the gods.  An instant after the feeling struck him, he saw it - a light, small and golden, shone deep in the black of the Crystal Sea.  Even from where Cassius knelt watching it, on the other side of the ocean, it felt warm and became warmer by the second.  The light was growing bigger too, and was moving fast toward the surface of the water.
            Cassius smiled, and inched back from the railing of the ship.  He turned to face a grim Adulatio, staring down at him intently.
            “You feel it,” Adulatio guessed.
            “I’ve seen it,” a self-satisfied Cassius answered.  “My chosen has succeeded.”
            The words had just enough time to escape the demigod’s lips, when an explosion of seawater rocked the ship to one side.  Cassius scrambled to his feet as the Defiance bobbed from side to side.  He turned back to the railing and gripped it for balance, waiting for the ship’s rocking steady.  Though as his body tossed about on a bobbing ship, his eyes were fixed firm heavenward. 
            Floating above the deck of the Defiance, bathed in golden light, was Tarsus Cole.  He looked the same as he had when he jumped into the sea not half an hour ago, and yet, this was clearly not the same man who dove in after Malthir.  His demeanor was sure, and his eyes were haunted with shades of the UnderIsle that now lived inside him.  Yet Cassius cared not for the struggles Tarsus endured, he only cared about the outcome; and that outcome was gripped tightly in Tarsus’s hands.
            “Hail, Tarsus the conqueror,” Adulatio’s voice boomed.  “Welcome back to the world of the living.”
            Tarsus said nothing, but descended slowly.  He touched down onto the deck of the Defiance and brought the sword to his side, tightly gripping it in one hand.  “I did not expect to find you here, my lord Adulatio.”  Tarsus gave a slight bow to the god he had not seen since that night with Finnian in the Good Shepherd all those months ago.
            Tarsus rose to his full height, looking the golden god directly in the eye.  Something was different.  He did not feel the pull in the pit of his stomach that the gods usually instilled in him when they were near.  He did not feel the intense desire to serve and praise, the way he had before.  For some reason, he felt unchanged in Adulatio’s presence.  He felt himself; with all the jumbled thoughts, feelings and inclinations that came with feeling like one’s self.
            “Is something wrong?” Adulatio asked, seeming to sense Tarsus’s awareness.
            “I feel different,” Tarsus answered directly.  “Unclouded.  Clear.”
            “You bear a relic of the gods,” Adulatio explained.  “One that you have earned through trial, and the willingness to sacrifice your own life.  The sword now shields you from the influence of another god’s divinity.”
            A few sudden gasps caught Tarsus’s ear.  He turned to find Cecily and Finnian nearby, fallen to their knees.  They were the first few drops that signaled the rain; after they knelt so too did Amelia and the rest of the ship’s crew.  They all began gasping, crying, raising their hands in the air and bowing their heads to avert their eyes.
            “What’s wrong with them?” Tarsus asked.
            “They are in the presence of two gods now,” Adulatio said.  “Tis more than their frail forms can stand.  The power is pulling at them, like two children pulling on a wishbone.  Soon, they will break.”
            “How do I stop this?” Tarsus demanded, turning back to Adulatio.
            “Give me the sword,” Cassius spoke up finally. 
            Tarsus and Adulatio turned to the demigod, who was walking unsteadily from the railing toward them, with hand outstretched.  “It is my birthright,” he continued.  “Once I have it, I can save them.”
            “A lie,” Adulatio said disinterestedly.  “The sword in your hands would grant you power, but not understanding.  The answer is clear, either I, or the sword, must leave this ship.”
            “Then go!” spat Cassius.
            “I shall,” Adulatio said slowly.  “But only after I know what Tarsus plans on doing with Malthir.”
            “He will give it to me!” Cassius roared.  “It is mine!”
            “That is up to Tarsus Cole, I’m afraid,” Adulatio said, offering a contemptuous smirk.  “What say you, Tarsus?  Will you give this halfling his father’s sword, and let him take his father’s place as ruler of all Malthanon?  Or will you not?”
            “There is no other way,” Cassius fumed.  “To end my father’s suffering, someone must take his place.  You know that.  The power he commands cannot simply vanish; it must be contained…commanded.  I am the last vestige of my father’s line.  I am the only vessel fit to wield his power.”
            “Is that so?” Adulatio goaded.  The god turned to Tarsus, offering the sunsword a meaningful look.  “Is there no other you can think of Tarsus, that could be more fit to rule in Malthus’s stead?  No ambitious man, desperate to prove himself?  Someone who has already done much in the noble service of the GodKing, while those who claim ties to Malthus’s legacy stood idly by, waiting to be given that which they did not earn?”
            Tarsus gripped the sword even tighter in his hand.  He raised it close to his face, so that his eyes could take in the beauty of its make.  All manner of runes, foreign to Tarsus, etched the blade.  A history had been written on that sword, and Tarsus felt a yearning to understand it.  His eyes followed them down, along the central ridge, to the rainguard which bore the signet the GodKing that all his KingsGuard wore on their shoulders: the sunstroke, neither beginning nor ending, encircled in gold.  The crossguard was a brilliant gold, made all the brighter by the golden light that surrounded the entire weapon, and the grip was the white of ivory. 
            “Do not listen to him, boy,” Tarsus heard Cassius whispering, as though the demigod were a small serpent on his very shoulder, hissing in his ear.  “You do not wish the burden of rule.  You have done much for my family, and for that you shall be greatly rewarded.  Let your trials end here.  I am willing.  Give me the burden of the blade you hold, and I swear to you I shall be a greater GodKing than my father ever was.”
            Tarsus kept his eyes on the sword.  He never imagined he’d be faced with this decision.  He knew it was inevitable, but it always seemed so distant.  He, Cecily and Finnian were always so focused on what needed to be done to find Malthir that the idea of what to do once the sword was found had never been something they truly considered.  Nevertheless, here he was.  He had found the sword, and now the burden of choice was on him.
            Yet he knew the right choice to make.  It came to him instantly, for this was a problem that always had a clear solution.  The question for Tarsus was not what to do, but whether he had the strength to do it.
            “Adulatio,” Tarsus said, looking intently at the god.  “Will you honor and uphold my decision, whatever it may be?”
            “You seek protection,” Adulatio surmised.  He turned to look at Cassius coldly.  “From him.”
            “Yes,” Tarsus said.
            “NO!” Cassius wailed.  “If you betray me, sunsword, I swear that there is no protection this dandy god can offer you.  He will leave, and I will bide my time.  In the dark places, in the uncertain moments, I will dwell.  And I will catch you there, and take back what is mine.”
            “Enough!” Adulatio proclaimed.  “He has earned the right to choose.  And I offer my protection over that choice.  Tarsus, do what you will with the sword.  Your decision will be upheld, and no lesser god will interfere.”
            “Good,” Tarsus said, squeezing the grip of the sword tightly again.  He closed his eyes and bowed his head, bringing the grip to his chest and placing it over his heart.  “Malthus,” he prayed silently, “I don’t know if you can hear me, but grant me strength.  The strength to do what is right.”
            Tarsus raised his head, eyes open, and turned from both god and demigod toward his friends.  He stepped in close to Cecily, who looked up at him with the lifeless, reverent eyes of someone not in control of their own being.  Tarsus bent to his knees, to be level with her, and took her forearm with his free hand, raising it to her breast.  In her hand, he placed the grip of Malthir.  Then he closed her hand around the grip, and let go of the sword he had done so much to claim. 
            Cecily’s eyes went from a wide-eyed stare to an alert gaze.  Discernment was coming back to her, just as it was leaving Tarsus.  The two of them had a quickly fleeting moment of recognition.  In an instant, they shared the joy of reunion, the pain of realization, and the gratitude of dedication.  Then, the moment was gone, and Tarsus was lost.  He let out a sigh and bowed his head.
            Cecily rose, Malthir in hand.  She looked upon Adulatio and Cassius, standing not far from her.  The pair looked back at her; Cassius with wrathful contempt, and Adulatio with mild surprise.  She looked at the men and women of the crew, all on their knees with heads bowed.  She looked down at her friends, Tarsus and Finnian, and heard their meek voices begging her to show them how they could be of service.
            “So you are to be GodQueen then,” Adulatio said airily.
            “I do not pretend to know,” Cecily replied in a sure and commanding voice.  “I will do what I was asked to do by my GodKing.  I will return this blade to Him.  What happens after that, none can say.”
            “You are wiser than I thought,” Adulatio said, clearly impressed.  “Malthus chose well in you.  Tarsus chose well to trust you.  And I would do well to honor you.  You are the caretaker of Malthir now, and I will watch over you until you have passed it on to its rightful master.”
            “And you?” Cecily asked of Cassius, pointing the sword at him.  “Will you take us safely back to Malthanon?”
            Cassius glared at Cecily, “That sword is mine!”
            “That may yet be decided,” Cecily said.  “I have no wish to keep it.  Only to return it.  Let Malthanon bestow it on whomever he deems worthy.”
            “You have nothing to fear from Cassius,” Adulatio said easily.  “He will see you safely back to the city.”
            Cassius glared at Adulatio for only a moment, before offering a half bow of his head to indicate that he would do as he was commanded. 
            “Good,” Adulatio said, bringing his hands together.  “Now I must depart.  Take care, young maiden.  I am sure we will see each other again…in Malthanon.”
            With a flash of bright light, Adulatio was gone.  The crew of the ship Defiance raised their heads, as one, and looked on Cecily and her sword in reverence. 
            “Back to your posts, all of you,” Cecily commanded.  Amelia, and the rest of the crew immediately stood and retook their positions on the ship. 
            “Is my birthright not enough for you?” Cassius asked derisively.  “Now you take my ship as well?”
            “For a little while,” Cecily said sympathetically. 
            “Where to, my lady?” Amelia’s voice echoed from the forecastle deck.
            “To Malthanon, Amelia,” Cecily answered, her voice booming without the slightest effort of a yell.  “It’s time to go home.”

Saturday, November 12, 2016

CONFESSION

  Father Atropos sat stewing in the cramped confession booth.  One more confession, and this Saturday would be over.  Normally, he’d look forward to this time so that he could review his homilies for Sunday mass.  But not today, because once Father Atropos took his final confession, he would no longer be the priest of the St. Francis parish.  
            “We’re bringing in Father York,” Atropos reflected on his conversation with the bishop that very morning.
            “Can you tell me why, Father?” Atropos asked.  “York is too young to lead a parish.”
            “I am sorry Johann,” the bishop had.  “But we’ve received complaints.  Parishioners feel you are too austere and traditional.  They are leaving St. Francis.  A change needed to be made.”
            Atropos fumed at the recollection.  He worked tirelessly to uphold the beautifully rich doctrines of the faith, and he demanded no less effort from his parishioners.  Were all the rites, sacraments and dogmas hard to abide?  Of course they were, but that only made those who were committed to following them more worthy.  They should not be changed or, worse, thrown out altogether.
            But it seemed that it was in fashion these days to allow people a sliding scale when it came to their commitments.  It pained Father Atropos to think of his parishioners in that way.  All he had ever wanted was to share the glory of God with his church.  But he only knew one way to do that: the Catholic tradition.  If his stringent commitment to it was truly the reason for his dismissal, then so be it.  He would leave quietly, knowing that his faith would not conform to their fashion.
            “Excuse me?” Atropos heard from the other side of the curtain that blocked his view of the confessor.
“Kneel,” Atropos said, waiting for the silhouette to comply.
The man awkwardly got to his knees, shifting around to find the right position.  He tried putting his hands together, as though to pray, then decided against that and let his hands rest.
            “Sorry, I’ve never, uh…” the stranger’s voice quivered as he searched for the right words.
            “This is your first confession?” Atropos asked, getting to the point.
            “Yeah.”
            “That’s fine,” Atropos said in a tone that intimated it was not fine.  “Tell me about the sin that brought you here.  What did you do wrong?”
            “That’s the thing, uh, father,” the voice beyond the curtain offered hesitantly.  “I haven’t actually done anything wrong.”
            “We all sin, my child,” Atropos tried to offer paternally, though he spoke more sternly than he intended.  He had little patience for people who refused to admit their own mistakes.
            “I know!” the jumpy voice came back.  “Everyone screws up.  I know that in my brain.  Problem is, ever since I was a kid I’ve been monitoring myself.  And I…honestly, I just can’t remember ever committing a sin.”
            This was ridiculous.  Father Atropos’s mind, momentarily distracted from his own troubles, reeled to figure out what was going on.  He could only deduce that this man was playing a joke on him.  He’d been pranked before.  Apparently, believing strongly in something, anything, made one an easy target.
            “Listen here,” Atropos said with quiet fury, “I am in no mood for foolishness.  This is a house of God, and you are disrespecting it.  Leave now!”
            “Sir, I swear I’m telling the truth,” the voice pleaded.  “I know how insane it sounds.  I know at some point, I must have sinned.  And I came here so you could help me figure out how.”
            “Why?” Atropos demanded.
            “Because…” the panting voice paused, and the man’s breathing began to quicken.
            The priest watched as the silhouetted stranger raised his head to look at the ceiling, then brought it into his hands.  He shook his whole body from side to side, as though the feeling of the word “no” was buried deep and now fought to escape.  He was at war with himself, and Atropos could only stare in growing concern.
            “I have dreams father,” the man finally said, letting his hands fall.  “You’re going to think it’s crazy, but I’m starting to think they come from God.”
            “Tell me about these dreams,” Father Atropos said, clinging to the obvious question like a life raft.  He was torn: the confessor sounded insane, but also genuinely desirous of help.  In thirty years of service, the priest had never heard a confession like this before.  He decided to wait and listen, hoping that God would offer a direction in the conversation.  For Atropos strongly believed that God was always talking, but to hear Him meant one needed to always be listening.
“It’s actually just one dream, on repeat,” the trembling voice began, dropping in register.  “An angel visits me.  We talk for a while.  Then, before the dream ends, he tells me something that can’t possibly be true.  He tells me that I am the son of man.  That I’m Jesus.”
            Atropos’s eyes bulged so far out of their sockets that he thought they might burst.  In his rage, he reached instinctively to yank the curtain away and scream at the heretic on the other side.  But he stopped himself just short of the pull.  He remembered his training.  He was an emissary of the Catholic faith, if no longer one of this church.  He could not succumb to blind anger; no matter how justified he thought it.  He had to be better.
            “What you have just said, is heresy,” Father Atropos said calmly, a simmering fury beneath each word.
            “No father…”
            “I am no father to you!” Atropos snapped.
            “I know.  God is,” the man beyond the curtain replied.  He said it reflexively.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it…”
            “Stop,” Atropos commanded, taking a deep breath.  He had to remind himself that he was a priest.  Even without a parish, he was a priest.  “God is your father.  Just as he is mine, and all the world’s.  Forgive me.  I lost control for a moment.  I know that you sincerely believe what you’re saying.”
            “I do!  That’s why I came here.  Because something in my gut tells me that this might be true.  And just the idea that it’s a possibility scares the shit out of me,” the confessor concluded.
            Father Atropos took another deep breath.
            “Oh fuck,” the man let out.
            “How long have you had this dream?” Atropos moved on.
            “Every night for as long as I can remember.”
            “Why have you never shared it before?  With your priest or bishop?” the father demanded.
            “Because…” the silhouette shifted again, “I’m not Catholic.  I’m not even Christian.  I’m Jewish.”
            Atropos’s body fell back in his chair.  “Jewish?” the priest was in shock.  “Practicing?”
            “Yes sir,” the confessor declared.  “All my life.  I’ve never strayed.  Never wanted to.  I love my faith and the tradition.  And now, I love passing it all on to my kids.”
            “You have children?” Atropos felt like his brain had turned to mush. 
            “Two,” came the man’s reply, an audible smile through the answer.  “Jonah and Leah.”
            “And a wife?” the priest pressed.
            “Yes father.”
            “No need for that,” Atropos said.
            “It’s more for me than for you, if that’s alright,” the confessor said sheepishly.
            “Very well,” Atropos relented.  “Does your family know about your dreams?”
            “No.  I mean…how do you tell people something like this?” the man asked genuinely.
            “You told me,” the father offered.
            “I had to tell someone,” the man confided.  “Between the anonymity and, ya know, him being your guy, I figured this was the safest way to go.”
            “In the dreams, does the angel tell you to do anything?” Atropos asked, consciously taking a more clinical approach with his questions.
            “No,” the man answered simply.  “He just asks me stuff.”
            “Like what?”
            “Normal stuff,” the confessor clarified.  “He asks me about my day.  How my kids are doing in school.  He asks if my wife sticks to her diet.”
            “And what do you do?” Atropos continued.
            “I answer him.”
            “So the two of you just talk?” the priest inferred.  “That’s it?”
            “That’s it father.”
            “Does he always tell you that you are the messiah?” the clergyman asked.
            “I never said he called me the messiah,” the stranger answered.  “He never uses that word.  Makes sense to me.  He’s probably one of those Old Testament angels.”
            Silence.
“…cause I’m jewish…” the man petered out, “But yes, the dream always ends with him saying the same thing.  ‘I rejoice for thee Jesus.  I rejoice that in this life, the son of man has found true joy.  The joy denied thee before, and perhaps after.’”
            “My god…” Father Atropos whispered.
            “I know.  But they really do talk like that,” the voice offered a chuckle.  Father Atropos did not chuckle back.  “Man, O for two.”
            “How can you make jokes about this?” the priest admonished. 
            “What else can I do?” the dejected confessor asked.  “I’m either crazy, or the chosen prophet of a religion different from mine.  Either way, I don’t see how this ends without me losing everything.”
            “You could just be a man with a recurring dream,” Atropos suggested.  “Why not continue keeping it to yourself?  It doesn’t seem to disrupt your life in any way.”
            “But what if it starts to?” the man asked readily.  “What if the conversations turn into commandments?  What if I get asked, or told, to do something I don’t want to do?  Do I ignore it?  If I am crazy, does that make me worse to the point of having to be institutionalized?  And if I am…the other thing, does that mean I’m damned for refusing the ways of God?”
            Atropos brought a hand to his chin.  The immensity of the stranger’s situation was suddenly clear to him.  
The confessor was grappling with questions shaped over years of dwelling on every possible outcome to every possible action, and the conclusion was always the same.  Either to insanity or to divinity, he was caught between two forces bigger than himself.  For now, both seemed content to let him be.  But if one of them came knocking on his door, he would have to open it.
            Atropos understood then why this man had come today, of all days, for confession.  The stranger believed in something that no one else would.  He believed in something that, if spoken aloud, would ostracize him from his own community - from his own family - from his own faith. 
Atropos could relate.  Over the years, he had grown so sure in his belief of what Catholicism was meant to be.  But with each passing year the faith became less and less familiar to him.  Now, he was one of the old guard, clinging to a tradition that the world had passed by.  He had been laughed at.  He had been ostracized.  And today, he had been cut off from the only family he had ever known.
            “My son…” he searched himself for what he could say to comfort this man.  But there were no verses that seemed appropriate anymore.  There were so many things he was thinking and feeling in this moment: so many ideas that were alive in him.  But he had to speak.  This stranger was waiting for him to say something.  Finally, Father Atropos opened his mouth, unsure of what would come out.  “I do not know what God has planned for you.  But I do know this…things change.  What the world needed when Jesus walked it is not what it needs today.  Today, it needs more.  It needs you.  It needs your wife and your children, and all of those who are willing to live well and do good…and find joy in one another.”
            “Wow,” the voice beyond the curtain said. 
            Father Atropos agreed with the sentiment. 
            “Do you mind if I ask you one more question?” the man pressed.
            “Of course,” Father Atropos replied.
            “Do you think I’m crazy?”
            Atropos let his eyes wander over the pulpit, visible from where he sat.  He ran his gaze over a huge wooden cross with a wooden Christ nailed to it.  He did not look away when he answered.  “You may want to seek some counseling.”
            Silence.
            “That was a joke,” Father Atropos said, offering a titter.
            “Wow,” the man returned with a single laugh.  “You’re bad at jokes.”
            “I don’t think you’re crazy,” Atropos shared.  “But I do think you should talk to someone.  Your family, some trusted friends…”
            “I kinda like the cranky priest option,” the confessor interrupted.
            “Sadly, you caught me on my last day,” Atropos said easily; much more easily than he ever thought possible. 
            “I’m sorry to hear that,” the man returned.  “You really helped me.”
            “I’m glad.”
            Atropos saw the silhouetted man stand on the other side of the curtain.
            “Thank you again father,” the visitor said.
            “Peace be with you, my son,” the priest offered.
            “Shalom Aleichem,” the confessor returned.