Inhabited by the Word – a short story (183)

The group left the lake behind and pushed further into the bush. They needed to make camp, but staying by the side of a lake was too obvious. The thick ice made the water virtually inaccessible anyway. There were seven in the group, in various states of health and fitness. If you were to cast a group on the move, you would not cast a group like this. Among them there were no weightlifters, no action stars and no lanky beauties. Only two of them could have even been described as young, Dorcia was about twenty and Andy was fifteen. Phoebe, who had a persistent cough, as well as Eunice and Matt were all over 50.  Mary and Simon were somewhere in between, but nobody new exactly and it hardly mattered. Dorcia walked with obvious stiffness; you could see the lump of a bandage under her winter layers.

By most standards the group appeared leaderless, which is to say, nobody barked orders and none of them new this country particularly well. Only a few could even tell the full story of how they had come together. They usually just said they “met along the way.”

The group moved through the trees, away from the lake. Then Simon stopped—he turned his head to the side, tilted his ear upward. “Shhhh,” he said. They stopped. Legs in mid-stride, sentences cut in half. The silence was perforated by the hum of a motor.

“It’s an airplane, spread out. Get under something.”

Then, for a moment, there was chaos. The group scattered, buried packs in the snow, crawled under the limbs of pine trees, backs pressed to trunks, eyes searching the open snow for anything left behind, anything with unnatural color or anything that might reflect sunlight.

The sound matured into the noise of a single-engine prop plane. As it approached the far shoreline, the pilot banked hard to the right. The plane followed the lake’s edge, tracing the ragged circle in less than a minute.

Mary hissed, “We shouldn’t have walked across the lake.”

Someone, laying under the brushy limbs of a fallen tree whispered back, “The snow was rock solid. We didn’t leave a sign.”

The airplane began a second circuit around the lake. This one a bit larger than the first. And then a third and a fourth, spiraling out.

“They must have seen something.” That was Simon. He had been a ranger. He was the most recent addition to the group.

Several weeks before Andy and Eunice were on water duty. The group never camped directly beside a river or lake. This was remote country, but there were occasional patrols. Rangers watched the rivers, creeks and lakes. So the group camped in dense stands of trees. They used small fires and always extinguished them before dark.

The group needed water and the slope of the land suggested where Andy and Eunice could find it. They took a pack, an old bucket and a collapsible water jug. As they moved down the slope, they began to hear the rush of rapids. As they neared the edge of the gully, Andy slowed suddenly. Eunice stopped and watched him. Andy dropped to a crouch and slunk forward. What he had heard was grunt, almost a whimper, the sort of noise an animal could make, or a person. The two moved cautiously forward stopping behind the last poplars above the river.

They saw the figure at once. He was lying by the river, at an opening just below where the water dropped several feet over a rocky ledge. The figure was partly submerged. His gloved hands clung to packed snow. Ski poles were still tethered to his wrists. The tail on one ski periodically broke the water’s surface.

Eunice recognized him as a ranger, but Andy had already bolted from the cover of the trees. He ran, slid down the last bit of bank. Before Eunice could move, Andy was at the man’s head grabbing the back of his jacket. The ranger’s face was waxy and nearly blue with cold. Andy stomped his heals into the snow, leaned back, pulled and just managed to drag the ranger’s waist over the edge of the ice. Then Eunice was there and together they pulled the man further up the bank.

In minutes the two of them had the man in the cover of the birch. They found an emergency blanket in the ranger’s pack. They found a lighter and a homemade block of fire-starter too. It took more than an hour, but eventually they got him to stop shivering.

As they walked him into the group’s camp, worried faces turned first to relief then to surprise and then, some of them, to anger.

“Why is he here?”

Eunice put the water jug down in the snow. She told the story and then sat down. The group’s attention turned to Andy.

“He would have died.” Andy said.

Mary who responded, “Everyone dies sometime. Maybe it was his time. Now we’re involved. And we can’t trust him.”

“His name is Simon,” said Andy.

Simon said nothing, just sat on his pack, arms around his knees. Rangers had been captured before. The stories were horrible.

The group was silent for a time. Then Dorcia began to tell a story. Most of the others had heard it before, but for them it hadn’t come to mind. Dorcia knew the key phrases of the narrative by heart. She told the story as though it enveloped them. After she finished the group was silent again.

Matt spoke up, “If he’s staying we’ll need to check his gear and burn anything that might be tracked.”

Phoebe turned to the ranger, “Simon, you can stay if you want. We’re heading north. We’ll tell you more as we go.”

Weeks later it was Simon who helped them evade the searching airplane. He knew what the pilots looked for on the frontier. He knew their protocols, knew how hard they would try to find people slipping through the far reaches of the warlord’s territory. He wouldn’t have been there it if wasn’t for the story. The words had drawn him and given him hope. In Dorcia’s retelling of the ancient words he had caught a glimpse of himself as something else: a pilgrim instead of a warlord’s utensil.

The group maintained their course. North, always north. They deviated only here or there, where the ice wasn’t solid or where thought there might be patrols. A couple of times they saw evidence of roving anarchist bands. They were extra cautious then. The threaded their way north between chaos and coercion.

Over time their bodies grew used to the rigor. It began to seem almost natural. Waking up, doing the necessary chores, then following the red needle north, it became almost a tradition. The repetition churned its own momentum through the cold.

One evening, after the fire had been smothered and the blackened wood scattered, the group stood in a circle. Hunched against the cold, they watched the first stars appear.

Andy said, “I think we should go west. Not forever, just for a little while.”

Matt and Eunice responded as one, “But Andy, it’s going north that will save us.”

Phoebe added, “That’s what the old poets said.”

“I know,” said Andy, “I know. But I’ve just got a sense.”

The group talked long into the night. Dorcia came out on Andy’s side. She pointed out that the old stories contained lots of examples of pilgrims needing to make detours. She had learned to trust Andy’s sense of things.

In the early hours of the morning, they finally decided that they would head west. For how long, they didn’t know. But they would head west until things became clearer.

Late in the afternoon of the second day they came across the fishing camp. It hadn’t been used for years. It was set back off the lake. Under huge pines, it was hardly visible from the air. Mary and Matt approached the building first. They watched it for a long time to see if anyone had claimed it.

Satisfied, they went in through the back door. Immediately to their left was a pantry. It was still fully stocked. The guides had probably stocked it in anticipation of a whole season of fishing: canned fruit, boxes of energy bars, dehydrated meat. The tourists never came.

Matt stepped back outside and motioned for the group to join them. That night they had their first feast of the journey. They stayed for two days, eating, fixing their gear, enjoying the simple pleasure of sleeping under a roof. Then, knowing that there was nothing to be gained by staying, they moved on. North again.

In time the days began to lengthen. The snow was deeper, but they saw more of the sun. The left the tall pine forest behind and made their way through spruce and birch. The rolling terrain gave way to frozen marsh. Each member of the group found their role. Certain tasks came easier to one than to others. They drew satisfaction from keeping the group moving. They grew more at ease in their surroundings, confident in what they had been given and what they could do.

One morning the routine was stopped by the sound of Matt’s shovel clanking off a tree trunk and skittering across the packed snow. It was only a small folding shovel, like those people once kept in their cars for emergencies. The clatter seemed to dishonor the winter silence. The jaw muscles in Matt’s face bulged.

“Just because you bankrolled the start of this little venture doesn’t mean you get to tell me what to do!”

Phoebe’s reply was quick in coming, “If it wasn’t for me you never would have made it to the end of the road Matt. You never could have afforded the bus ticket. You wouldn’t have anything.”

It was true. The bus companies had kept running for a few months as the government wilted. Phoebe was smart enough to see that her money wouldn’t be good for long, so she called a little group together. The plan was more Andy’s and Dorcia’s then hers, but without her it never would have come to anything. They bought gear and bought bus tickets. They took the bus to the end of the road.

Now Matt seemed to have lost the vision.

“Every day I hear the same stupid complaints from all of you. Do you know who is healthy here? Nobody! Health is a luxury. We don’t have it. Dorcia has been hurt from, when?, basically the beginning. We’ve all had frostbite. She’s partially snow blind. All I have is this silly little First Aid kit. So, no, Phoebe, there is nothing I can do for you. Just shut up and suffer! That’s all any of us are ever going to do anyway—just suffer. Nothing, no pilgrimage, nothing is going to save us.”

Phoebe looked Matt in the eye: “Matt, do your job! This is not a vacation. Do your job!”

Matt cursed and walked off into the trees.

“He’ll catch up,” said Eunice. “Let’s get going.”

By lunch the tension had only eased a little. They ate energy bars in silence. They chewed slowly and were careful to tuck the bright foil wrappers into their pockets. Matt was at least partly right. All they could see was suffering.

“So tell me again, how will we know when we get there? What does the place look like?”

Andy answered, “It’ll look like . . . well, it’ll feel like . . .” He trailed off.

“We don’t know,” said Matt. “We may as well be looking for the golden city. We don’t actually know if there is any end to the power of the warlords. The refuge is a myth. That’s what I think.”

Then Dorcia repeated the old words, a poetic paragraph about refuge and peace. It always sounded new. Mary reminded them of Andy’s vision. Phoebe began to tick off the horrors they had fled.

But when it was time to go, Matt refused: “I’m no pilgrim. I didn’t sign up to ride the Mayflower to the North Pole.”

He picked up his pack and walked south. They watched him go. Except for Simon. Simon followed him and tried to reason with him. He told Matt what he knew about the rangers and the elites who controlled them. He followed Matt for several hundred meters, urging him to reconsider. But Matt had made up his mind. Simon dumped the contents of his pack on the ground, grabbed a few things and stuffed them in Matt’s pockets. Matt walked on.

Simon returned to the group. They trudged north. Eunice broke trail. The band of pilgrims climbed a small rise and headed toward the horizon, propelled by the red compass needle, together, inhabited by the word.

*   *   *

I presented this short story in place of a sermon on a Sunday when I thought few people would be listening. Our assigned text for that day was Colossians 3:12-17.

It was once common to think of the life of faith as a ‘pilgrimage’. Now we tend to use the word ‘journey’. Both words are valuable, but the former is, I think, less individualistic. Pilgrims face common challenges. They also have shared resources.

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