‘The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts.’
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
1809 – 1892
The rain had started an hour ago, and there was no sign of it stopping, but the old man didn’t mind. Neither, by the look on his face did his grandson.
“So who is she Granddad?” the young lad asked, passing back the old worn photograph, the blacks bleached to grey and the whites stained yellow with its age. The old man accepted it, peering into the two dimensional image, eyes narrowing to keep it in focus.
“I think,” He answered slowly, “that she was my first love.” He slipped the photo back into his wallet and locked eyes with his only Grandchild.
“You don’t have to look at me like that Bobby.” He said, and the teenage boy quickly studied the gas-fuelled flame of the fire beside him, his grandfather sighed.
“This was a long time before I met your Grandmother, a long time.” Bobby glanced back at the old man, then at the wallet that contained the photograph that he held in his frail hand.
“So,” the boy repeated softly, “who is she?”
“Her name was Elizabeth,” his Grandfather began, “and it was raining like this the day we buried her. We had been born in the same hospital… within hours of each other… and she died two weeks before our fourteenth birthday.” The man paused, noticing the shocked expression on his grandsons face, he anticipated, answering the unspoken question.
“Yes.” The old man drew the word out to a sigh. “Fifty years ago today…
“The rain was so heavy it turned the ground to sludge beneath our feet, making it difficult to stand. I remember looking around the group of grieving people, their tears being washed away by the constant rain, but for the life of me I can’t remember one of them, their faces are blotches of grey to me now.” He shook the wallet in his hand for emphasis. “As faded as this photograph.”
He closed his eyes tight, brow wrinkling as his hand moved to his face, rubbing his eyelids with its heel.
“When I was first told she had died of pneumonia, I thought it had been some bizarre kind of sick practical joke, I prayed inside that it was, even though all the while I was more than aware, even at the tender age of thirteen, that no-one would play such a prank.” The boys Grandfather opened his tired eyes once more, his hand dropping to the chairs arm before he continued. “I could actually feel my heart rip inside I hurt so much, but this moment, fifty years later, I can’t even remember her face without the photo to remind me.
“Time takes everything from you in the end Bobby, you have no choice.” He paused, searching for the words, “time just steals it away.”
“There is one face it hasn’t stolen yet though.
“Everyone left after the service, including my father. He’d give me time to collect my thoughts, and I always loved him for it.
“Even the gravediggers wouldn’t come out in such a downpour, so I thought I was standing alone, but I wasn’t.
“The man seemed to step out of no-where, and if you would’ve seen him, you’d never believed he could change a life so. He was a short, thin man with his bony chest clearly visible through his soaked shirt. His face was thin too, its dark skin sunken at the cheeks and temples, stretched tissue like. His eyes were of dirty blue, and hair of filthy blonde that was cut short and uneven.
“He stepped forward, his boots slipping in the thick mud, and he spoke to me. ‘Did you know of her?’ he asked with a voice that was as thin and reed like as his body, and I answered that I did. ‘Oh!’ He exclaimed, his gaze buried with her in the grave.
“’Did you?’ I asked back, studying him much more closely. He shook his head from side to side, rainwater flying from his hair, his answering contradicting the swollen red of his eyes.
“So for a while we stood there in silence, silence but for the continual rumble of the rain on the muddy earth, we were like two old friends comfortable in each others presence.
“Then we began to talk.”
“’I’ve stood by many graves in my time boy.’ He said to me, a wry smile across his lips, his head tilting upturned to the grey sky. ‘And every time it seems to be raining.’ He concluded as he turned away, moving toward the shelter of a nearby oak tree.”
The old man paused, moistening his lips with the tip of his tongue, eyebrows knitting together in a faint look of consternation.
“What’s wrong Granddad?” Bobby asked his expression, unknown to him, echoing his Grandfathers. The man looked back into his Grandsons eyes, not immediately answering, instead seeming to battle some internal doubt.
“I wanted to explain to you why I went to him, why I abandoned the graveside, but I don’t think I can.” Grandfather’s eyes pierced the boy as he spoke, pinning him to the wall like a butterfly. Bobby rested his elbow on his knee, first and middle fingers pressed to his forehead in a pose of contemplation. His Grandfather shrugged and smiled.
“All I can say is that he had an odd,” he paused, rubbing his eye with his knuckle, then continued, “power about him.”
“Under the cover of the huge oak tree, the little man shook his head, water flying off in all directions as I approached. Is stopped a few feet from him and, as he brushed loose strands of hair from his eyes, he watched me uncertainly, his eyes narrowing to fine slits.
“’Curiosity killed the cat my young man.’ He said to me in his vulnerable voice, the wind threatening to rip it away.’ I can see your questions in your eyes my young friend,’ he continued with a smile rising like dawn across his face, ‘they queue up like virgins in a whorehouse.’ And he burst into a weak, whining laugh.”
“I simply stood and watched, the humour striking cold fear into me rather than amusement, before his laugh was replaced with a rocking cough that shook his spindly frame.”
“’What’s wrong with you?’ The frail man asked weakly after the fit has passed sufficiently. ‘That normally sends any child-man into a giggling frenzy.’”
“His stormy blue eyes narrowed once more as through my own fresh tears I told him about Elizabeth.”
Silence suddenly filled the small front room. Bobby sat before the gas fire, his legs folded beneath him, his body still as stone. The boy lifted his head from his supporting hand and listened to his Grandfather’s uneven breathing.
“So”, asked the boy softly, “what did he say?”
The old man jumped at the sound of the boy’s voice, his eyes focusing on Bobby’s form, his face falling blank.
“Sorry?” He said in mild confusion. “What was that?”
Bobby repeated the question and his Grandfather nodded as he shifted in the over padded leather chair.
“’Do you wand to hear a story boy?’ The strange, skinny man asked me bluntly as I stepped further under the umbrella of leaves that hung over our heads. I made my way to the oaks trunk and leaned against it wearily, feeling like all the energy of my body has spilt out with my tears. Either I had nodded or he decided to tell me anyway because that’s when he started his tale.
“’You have to imagine a different world to this one boy. This not only happened long ago, but in a land far from here, a land that consisted of desert of almost infinite size. It was a difficult and unrewarding life, but in some ways it was richer in its simplicity.”
“’The Roman Empire occupied this land, whether they ruled well or not I can’t say.’ He looked at me oddly, apologetically biting his lip. ‘The Empire was similar to the British Empire at its peak; there were many stories of them both, most of them conflicting. Even those who experienced it couldn’t decide on their morality. In this land the Romans had a tenuous grip at best, the locals were too strong a spiritual people who often took more note of their prophets and wise men than the words of their appointed governor, but nothing was found to be done about this. This ancient land teemed with its holy people, every province having its own council of elders who answered to the highest authority in the land, and it wasn’t the Romans. In this countries capital the high council reigned, aware and responsible for all major decisions. However, even though they carried absolute power over the populace, there were others equally respected.
“’When Anna came down from her solitary existence within the hills the people of the capital would stir, knowing the unusual was about to happen. On this day, unknown to all, the world would change.”
“’It was the tradition of these people to present to this council their first-born male children, as they were considered holy.”
“’When Anna arrived at the councils temple she, without pause, approached a couple with a newborn son. The wise old woman gathered the child into her arms and announced to all ho would listen that this child, through the grace of God, would redeem all in the Holy Land.”
“’Everyone heard, and all that heard listened to her words, knowing that what she said was true, for they had all had their visions, dreams and Angelic visitations.
“’The man and wife returns to their home with the child, where he grew and learned, every year returning to the Holy Capital at the feast of Passover. One year, twelve after the boys birth, his parents found him speaking and discussing with the doctors and priests of the Great Temple.”
“’News of his young wisdom spread, the boy becoming a prodigy and those who craved control becoming afraid, by his thirteenth year he was perhaps the most powerful man alive, but it would be his downfall. Eventually the corrupt power mongers wanted him dead. So the powers that be, calling him a twisted, blasphemous madman, brought him to us and we killed him.’”
The old man stopped his recital and watched as the boy’s face fell into shock.
“He said ‘we’”, the boy squealed, “You said he said ‘we’, the man, the holy man, he was Jesus wasn’t he?”
Bobby’s Grandfather nodded, closing his eyes briefly as he did.
“Was he mad? The blonde man I mean. Was he insane?”
“I don’t know, the old man responded calmly, “I’ve never known to this day. He recounted how Herod, then Pilate himself saw the man before his death.
“’Despite Pilate’s strange reluctance the man was ordered to Golgotha, the place of the skull, the small hill that served as the execution site.’ The thin man said to me with such an expression of pain on his face that I never doubted that he believed he was there.
“’Every step of the way he was hounded by the soldiers, draped in the purple robes and twisted crown of thorns, mocked and cursed even as the stakes of wood was driven into his wrists and feet.
“’His clothing was torn from him and quartered as keepsakes for the soldiers. His captors squabbling as he hung there, his blood falling like rain onto the hard caked earth. Either side of his suffering form killers and thieves died, all around him they died. Mixed with their howls of pain were cries for help and mercy, but not mercy from us, no, but mercy from him, the one who called himself the Son of God. I had fashioned a plaque that was fastened above him. ‘The King of the Jews”, it read. Around us a crowd had gathered to pay witness, a silent sombre collection of souls from far and wide. Nine hours later he was dead and, as we stared up at his tortured form one of my comrades said; ‘It was the truth, this man was truly the Son of God’, and I laughed at him and, in a final act of contempt, slammed my spear into the corpses side.’
“The man’s voice broke as he glared as he looked at the sky of black clouds that covered the cemetery like a blanket.”
“’That is what my heart looks like boy’, he said to me, ‘a black cancerous mass.’
“My gaze followed as he walked toward the oak next to me, his back resting against the rough bark of the tree, his eyes staring into Elizabeth’s grave.”
“’Three days later he rose from his cavernous grave’, he continued, staring into the pit in which he lay, ‘and that night he visited me in a dream. Telling me that God had seen what I’d done, and that he was disappointed in me. That’s exactly how he said it, ‘disappointed in me’. With incredible, kind sadness he told me that I’d outlive the oceans, mountains and the very sky itself. When I awoke the next morning everything had changed. I didn’t realise it at first, but when I noticed old scars fading, I knew that the dream wasn’t simply just a dream. When I undressed for bed that night my skin had turned to a flawless dark enamel and I found that I would not sleep, could not in fact, so I sat awake watching, horrified as the pores on the back of my hands closed up, disappearing. By morning my heart had stopped, so had my need to breath. In the days that followed I found that all food revolted me so I couldn’t eat, but that was fine because I no longer needed to. Discovery after discovery, each scaring me more than the last.’
“The skinny man took a step closer to me and I found myself flinching back away from him Bobby, the look in his eyes scared me so.”
“’I couldn’t list them all for you’, he said to me, ‘I haven’t the time.’ He finished and a cold shiver ran through me.”
“I haven’t the time, I thought to myself, and suddenly I was very afraid.”
“’I’ve had two thousand years of discoveries”, he continued, ‘twenty centuries of confusion and countless funerals in the rain. All along thinking to myself, ‘When will he let me die? When will he set me free?’”
“’He held up his hand for me to see, pulling his sleeve back and tracing an invisible line across his wrist.’”
“I severed my hand once, taking it off clean with a hatchet. The next second, a blink later it was back again, leaving no blood, no scar. I thought I’d imagined it, until I saw a streak of blood on the hatchets blade’.
“With that he let his hand fall to his side again. My fear had turned to terror, not because when he’s showed me his wrist I’d glanced at his hand, and it was as blank as an unplugged T.V.” The boys Grandfather leaned forward as he spoke, brushing his hand down the arm of his chair. “It was a smooth as this varnished wood Bobby my lad.” He said as he sat back.
Bobby absorbed this uneasily, wondering if he was the victim of some elaborate practical joke, but knowing he wasn’t, his Grandfather sat opposite him, soberly watching his reaction.
“So?” Bobby asked his Grandfather and the older man took a deep breath.
“I think that’s where he was intending to finish, a story like that would have no ending I would think.” The man said in a near sigh, his eyes moving to the dancing flames of the fire, then he smiled.
“But I never let him off that easily.”
“’So why do you do it?’ I asked him, my curiosity fighting my fear. He looked back at me blankly. ‘The funerals’, I elaborated.
‘Why do you go to the funerals?’
“The man shook his head and glanced at Elizabeth’s open grave.”
“’I don’t know’, he answered slowly, ‘death is a mystery I’m forever alien to now perhaps.’ He tore his eyes from the pit of muddy earth and pierced me with his gaze instead.”
“’The worlds cruelty is this; We’ve no real comprehension of anything outside ourselves, we’re prisoners who are captive within our own puny heads’ The man pushed himself away from the shelter of the huge oak tree, stepping out into the downpour, and I followed, hypnotised by his apparent pain.”
“’I’m lonely boy’, he spoke so quietly I could barely hear, and ‘my body is nothing but a barrier.’ He squeezed his eyes closed, grimacing. ‘Am I making any sense?’ He finally asked me, confused and took a step closer.”
“’Isn’t the same for us all?’ I asked back. ‘I mean we all hide the truth, sometimes we have to.’ I opened my mouth to speak some more, but found that the words I’d already spoken made little enough sense.”
“’I don’t understand what you mean.’ I finally admitted.
“’God exists’, he stated, his eyes showing gentle amusement at my confusion, ‘I know, I am his proof. One day you will die and he’ll accept you into his arms; you’ll walk in paradise. He’ll know all there is to know about you and he’ll still love you, but me? I haven’t even the comfort of suicide.’”
“Soaked through to his thin skin the man moved to the graves edge and pointed it with one bony finger.”
“’Don’t dare grieve for her. Death saves her from a pain that no mortal could ever truly grasp. Age means nothing, old isn’t always wise and the young are not always foolish.’ With that the man turned and walked away, and I thought the encounter over until he turned and glared over his shoulder at me with such jealously I thought I’d burst aflame.”
“’Be thankful that you’ll die one day.’ He moaned before turning away a final time and walking from the cemetery out of my view, though never out of my mind.”
Bobby sat back in stunned silence, his Grandfather slipping the small photo from his battered wallet again, gazing into it lovingly.
“And that was it!” The boy asked incredulously.
“That was it” The man replied, smiling at his only grandson.
“But what does it all mean?” Bobby asked. “Why did you tell me?” He finished, waiting for an answer, and answer, but the old man just smiled.”
“I can’t answer those questions Bobby, the first ones way beyond me and, as for the second, I tell stories because I like to tell stories, nothing more to it really.”
“Do you think he was mad?”
“No I don’t”, the boys Grandfather answered, “I believe that somewhere out there”, he pointed to the rain-streaked window, “he stands, watching a funeral in the rain.”
Bobby’s gaze followed the pointing finger to the window and as hard as his mind worked, as bluntly as logic tried to intrude, the teenage boy found that he believed it too.