The Face of God
Chilcoat’s family settled into the work at hand, but the children’s reluctance grew as the weather worsened. The thunder became an almost constant distraction and the windswept rain made everything cold and heavy. By evening, their belongings were packed and ready for the long journey, but the weather was too dreadful to consider an evening departure.
Lannon, the eldest Larkon boy, had heard of Charona’s offer of service and came around just after dawn. He was curious as to when they were going to leave and seemed to linger, showing undue attention to her. Despite the fact that he was a notorious flirt, or perhaps because of it, she appreciated his interest but he was a year her junior and was one of her own tribe so she couldn’t really consider him as a mate.
It detracted from Chilcoat’s objectives to have the doe-eyed lad hanging around getting in the way, but he was big for his age, stronger than most, and had been on several successful hunts. As the preparations continued, it became evident that he wanted to become an extended member of their party so Chilcoat pressed him for a contribution to the provisions. He stammered a little and left in a nervous shuffle of unsure bravado. He was glad that Chilcoat accepted him, and was proud to provide a man’s share, but was unsure his father would allow him to take it.
Many of the less important details remained undone, but Chilcoat looked to the sky and felt an urgent need to get started. He stirred the fire pit looking for embers as he broke it up. The last official act was to put embers from the morning fire into a traveling pot and to piss on the fire to be sure it was out.
Lannon waited his turn and followed suit. He was proud to display his manhood and assume the position of “second man” of their little band.
Chilcoat struggled not to laugh and did his best to ignore the display as he hung the ember pot in its sling. He wedged the handle between two of the tent bundles and looked back on the camp. Chara, his daughter, complained but when everyone else had left the campsite, she reconsidered her position and came whining up behind Lannon who gave her a knowing smile. He was still on his best behavior trying to convince Charona that he was a good fatherly type.
Chilcoat smiled to himself. The poor fool is trying so hard to impress her and all he really needs to do is be here. Meanwhile, he was glad to have the young man in his family. He had brought the hindquarter of a deer that was his share of the kill he and his brothers had made two days before. He was carrying more than his share of the load and he was keeping Chara happy. What more can I ask?
As morning peeked gray over the distant hills, the small band made its way past the trash heap and onto the main trail. Tangar interrupted his hunting and stood to greet them as they passed. The storm buffeted the old man’s overcoat and he called after them, “Be well my son. I’m glad you’ve taken this burden from me. Others will follow—perhaps tomorrow.”
At the mid-day break, a small portion of the meat was prepared and eaten. The group had settled into a slow steady pace but they were ready for a rest. Everyone lay quietly huddling together amongst the bundles. Lannon pretended to fall quickly asleep and fitfully squirmed ever closer to press warmly against the curve of Charona’s back. She lay quietly and watched Chilcoat for signs of disapproval. With none coming, she enjoyed the firm cushion of his youth pressed against her.
A sudden bout of thunder roused everyone and the rain started to make everything cold again. The troop stirred without complaint and headed steadily down the path leading to the creek. Water flowed swiftly in the stream and the rain fell in a light mist making the stones along the bank slippery. In good years, the streambed would still be dry and the walk would be less treacherous, but this storm’s unrest made every step more hazardous than the last.
Lannon stumbled under the weight of his load and fell into the stream. He recovered well enough, but lost a great deal of his bluster. The children sensed his loss of stature and gave him room to nurture his bruised pride. He would recover, but it would be several days before he would regain his swagger.
By the third week, the slow march brought them to the lowland plain. The walking was easier, but the weather had improved only slightly in that time. The streams were impassable in many of the usual places but they eventually made it to the ceremonial “great-house.”
The structure bulged from the hillside like some broad flat snout overlooking the sea. Its smooth curved dome formed a ceremonial terrace that hung over a small clearing cut into the hillside. Chilcoat reflected; the skill of cutting a single block of stone, such as this, into such a form has long since been lost to our people. According to the legends exchanged each year at the “gathering,” the great temple had survived hundreds of generations without change.
Those of the tribe that could no longer make the annual journey to the cool highland pastures used the structure as a sanctuary through the summer months. They would stay inside in bad weather and would otherwise tend the gardens that spilled down the hillside.
The only entrance was a tunnel under the terrace. The squat hallway passed darkly beneath the main floor of the temple with stone carvings and small altars set up in ceremonial alcoves along its walls. The tunnel emerged as a ramp leading up a gentle curving path into the central courtyard and through the sacred herb gardens to end in front of the main altar mound. Rain drifted into the temple grounds through the opening above the plaza and collected in neatly kept furrows throughout the garden.
Tradition demanded that Chilcoat and his family stand before the council of elders upon reaching the gathering. They were to offer gifts that would pass, in turn, to the elders who were unable to provide for themselves. The roof arching overhead held the storm at bay, but gusts of wind stirred through the open terraces overlooking the sea and drove rain across their cold stone floors.
Chilcoat formed up his little band of refugees and tried to look as presentable as could be expected. They found their way around the garden mounds and up the stairway nearest the inner shrine. One last dusting and they stood proudly at the base of the altar.
One of the elders put aside the basket he had been mending and slowly made his way to the throne. With a couple of labored grunts, he pulled himself up the steps and sat on the chair.
Chilcoat stepped forward and laid a small packet atop the large smooth surface of the altar. The platform had always amazed and troubled him just a little. As a child, he had stared for hours at its smooth dark surface. It was like a highland lake when the moon shone on it on a still summer night. The deep black reflected light but was as dark as the darkest night. The elders polished it with great pride and reverence, but none of them had the slightest idea of where to find such a stone.
As was the tradition at the annual gathering, the elders opened the festivities by reading the sacred scroll and telling the story of how Vau, the mother of all life, had taken her children of Yod and imprisoned them for having spread lies on the face of the earth. “She put them in a house that was perfectly smooth on all sides. It had no doors, so they couldn’t escape and spread more lies, but it had many windows, so they could look out upon the world and see the damage their lies had caused. When they refused to repent of their deeds, She flung the house from heaven into the sea and there it drifted for many years. When She finally asked them if they had learned their lesson, they smugly replied that they had been the teachers not the students and that She herself must answer the question. She was so disappointed that She called Hea, Her husband, and the father of all things, to send a great and terrible storm to carry the house to the farthest ends of the earth where it came to rest, stuck in the side of the hill upon which they now stand.”
The people of the tribes were said to be the descendents of those children of Vau and, because She was punishing them for their lies, She made them forget the skills of how the temple had been built and scattered them among the hills. Now each year at the end of summer, the tribes from all over the island gather at the temple to trade goods and stories, exchange knowledge, and make and renew family bonds.
The elder on the throne inquired about their health and asked each person what they had learned over the summer. The children told warm tales that brought a smile to his eyes, and Chilcoat reflected on his unrest with the late summer storm. The elder nodded acknowledgement but offered no consolation for his concern.
The family left the high altar and wandered around the inner garden grounds for several minutes as the storm continued. The rain fell gently on the well-tended paths that curved through the garden. At the very center of the courtyard, a large boulder sat glistening in the rain. It had always seemed odd to Chilcoat that such an ungainly object should sit in such a place of honor. It wasn’t a nice boulder, it was jagged and broken, and even with the shimmering coat of rain, its colors were drab and without life.
Maybe he could talk some of his buddies into breaking it up and hauling it away this season. I’ll have to see if I can make it a drinking game of some kind. He rubbed his hand across its rough surface and struck it firmly with his fist. For all of its unattractiveness, it’s distinctly solid. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea to break it up. Maybe I can learn to appreciate its jagged beauty.
He remembered a time in his childhood that he had climbed nearly to the top of the boulder by shinnying up its northern face. It wasn’t anything he would try again, but at the time, it had seemed like a good idea. It earned him a scolding from one of the elders and he had to sit through a long story about the importance of the stone. He, of course, had paid very little attention, but he was sure there was something about it being a gift from Hea to remind his children of His might and glory. It had always seemed to Chilcoat to be more of a sign of His random whimsy.
As punishment for his disrespect of God’s gift, the elder had insisted that the young boy sit and visualize the face of God in the chiseled facets of the stone. Maybe that was why he disliked the stone and wanted to see it crushed. He missed many of the important games while he sat all day moving from side-to-side trying to see a face in the jagged crags and clefts of the boulder. He remembered thinking, if the face of God is to be found in the imperfections of this stone, He is certainly an ugly god.
The exercise concluded when he made up a story about a face he had imagined in the cracks of the stone. While the elder seemed satisfied with his fabrication, Chilcoat had always felt cheated, having not really seen anything. Now, as he stood gazing at the same spot he had pointed out so many years ago, he was still disappointed. He wasn’t sure if the regret was with God for being so mysterious or with himself for being so dim. All he knew was that the beauty of the stone still escaped him and he still couldn’t see the face of God etched in its rugged form.
The storm continued, off-and-on, for another week. At times, it seemed as if the sky would fall, at others, it was a pleasant autumn mist with no signs of thunder or wind. None of the elders could remember a storm that had lasted so long or a sky that had seemed so angry.
The storm had taken a grave toll. As other families arrived, he learned of births, deaths, injuries, and illnesses. The news that Teri, one of Chara’s dearest friends, had fallen into the stream not far from where Lannon had fallen. She wasn’t as lucky as he had been, the stream had risen considerably, and she wasn’t as strong as he was.
Chara was devastated; she had never known the death of anyone so dear and couldn’t be consoled. “It’s not fair! Daddy, make her come back. Make her well again...”
Chilcoat held her warmly cherishing every breath she sobbed into his shoulder. “No. It’s not fair. God has taken her to do something very special for him. She’s looking down on you right now and wants you to be happy for her.” He uttered the dogma he knew all too well. He wanted it to sound honest and warm, but it sounded hollow to him. He had heard the same thing when his folks died. It didn’t sound right when Tangar spoke the words to me then, and it still doesn’t make sense now, but it’s all I have.
It was especially empty since the tears he was sharing with Chara were really for his own loss of Tangar. A tooth had gone bad making him weak with fever, and his stubborn refusal to become a burden had all but assured his demise. Chilcoat had hidden his grief when he first heard the news. But now as Chara wept openly it felt good to join her sorrow, to draw her close and feel her pain, to hide his thin facade of indifference in his daughters tears.
Chilcoat reflected on the gruff old man that had been his father. He had had a good life, and falling on the annual trek was an honorable end for a good man, even if it was to an old man’s disease. Perhaps it is even more fitting that he should fall to the nobility of an old man’s illness. It is nobler than dying as a young fool at the hands of a challenger or under the hooves of a beast that established its supremacy. The old man had proven himself often, and lived his life wisely enough to succumb only to the greatest challenge of all: age.
As the festival progressed, Chilcoat grew weary of the activities. He knew the stories in the scrolls by heart and decided that the competitions were of less interest than they had once been. The adolescents found it great fun to wrestle and tumble about trying to get some ball, or bag, or stick away from everyone else. Now it all seemed to be just an excuse to grab and fondle each other.
The ceremonies that followed the weeks of games revolved around matchmaking and always led to the wedding ritual and displays of commitment by the newly joined couples. While he enjoyed the confirmation rite, he still felt the burden of Tangar’s loss and just wanted to be alone.
Grabbing what little smoking herb he had, Chilcoat headed up the hill above the temple. He hadn’t been on that particular trail for several years, and it seemed that no one else had either. He couldn’t help but think of Tangar as he struggled up the narrow overgrown path. His knee complained and his chest didn’t seem able to supply him with enough air. “So, Old Man you walk within me,” he grumbled.
After an hour’s climb, he sought refuge from the wind in a niche in the rock outcropping that broke through the underbrush high on the face of the cliff. Far below, he could see the roof of the temple bulging from the side of the hill like a growth on an old woman’s face. It didn’t fit the slope of the hillside, it just didn’t seem right.
He sat quietly watching the clouds gather on the horizon. The storm appeared to be gaining strength again and a thick layer of gray blanketed the sun. The rock on which he sat poked him ruthlessly. It must be part of the ugly boulder in the temple garden, he thought. It’s the same drab color and shows the same disregard for my comfort. God must have cast this stone from heaven as well.
He stuffed as much of his clothing as he could under his butt and added some dried grass from nearby. The storm would soon be upon him, but he just couldn’t bring himself to return to the gathering. He had reached a place in his life that the loss of so many, so close, had touched him deeply.
He dug through his shoulder bag and found the ember pot he had carefully stashed amongst his other things. He plucked a couple of sprigs of grass from his butt pad and twisted them together so that they would fit through the feeder hole in the pot. Pulling the stopper from the chimney, he blew gently across it while stirring and feeding the embers with the shoots.
Before long, he had rekindled a steady glow and set to work filling his pipe with herbs. He lamented the remaining quantity. I’ll have to see if I can trade someone for more, or maybe I can take a walkabout to find some. Better yet, maybe I can walkabout the temple garden. The elders always grow ample herbs. They wouldn’t mind giving me a little... As he drew the first smoke deep into his lungs, he quickly forgot the issue and watched the clouds thickening across the sun.
Something stirred in the bushes to his left. He sat frozen and watched for signs of malice. It wouldn’t do to have a snake creep up on me. The glimpse of brown fur darting through the lower branches of a nearby bush rewarded his vigil. He let fly with a stone and smirked as the rat squeaked and fled back into the underbrush. The old man again crept into his thoughts. He had always been very fatherly to him in a tyrannical sort of way. They had shared many an evening smoking and talking over the years, and now he was gone. Him and his damn rats. The rain mixed with his tears and made his grief seem more fitting.
As he struggled to stand, the stone under his foot broke loose and tumbled down the hill causing him to fall back on his hands. From his awkward perch, he watched the rubble crash through bushes on its relentless search for stability. The stone ricocheted off the rocks and crashed through the wall of a small catch basin. It slowed for an instant and then seemed to gather momentum as it bound from side to side along the ravine and lodged itself into a berm just above the temple roof.
Lying back, he looked to the gray sky in relief. It wouldn’t do to bury the temple under a landslide.
The sun peeked through a thin layer of clouds catching his eye. The perfect disk glowed brightly behind the blanket of gray, but there were blemishes ruining its perfection. Two small unblinking eyes stared down on him as he sat in his little sanctuary. It must be the herbs, he thought, as he squinted against the glare. The clouds swept by quickly and formed a stern grimacing mouth. He shaded his eyes and felt naked as he sat wet and cold in the sight of such a displeased god. For while he had, on rare occasions, been able to look upon the face of the sun and had on even more rare occasions seen spots on its face, he had never seen the spots form such a pronounced expression of displeasure.
As he gathered himself for another attempt at navigating the slippery trail, it occurred to him that the alcove he had claimed bore more than just a casual relationship with the ugly stone in the temple garden. At last, he had seen the face of God in the stone. It wasn’t in the rock itself, it wasn’t even on the hill from which it had come. He looked again at the sun as it peered through the clouds. The glaring face still stared down on him as he stood amongst the stones that had delivered His child to the shelter of the temple far below. So this is the way of God. This is His face; the subtle change of form and substance that leads to mysteries without answers.
Chilcoat longed for the wisdom of Tangar, to ask him what these signs meant, to comfort him with knowing confidence, to help him understand. His words from the scroll came back to him. “Look to the sky for your signs and know that God will give you no other sign than the knowledge that you live in heaven.”“Father—you’re gone, as you must, but I miss you so...”