The Gift of the Trial
I found myself alone in darkness, counting my blessings, for they were all I had to keep me from sinking.
It began on a normal day, in a normal house, on a slightly better than normal couch, where I sat. Staring out my window—a normal window. Watching the passers-by. My nerves were on edge—and yes, this too was normal. But they—my nerves—walked a fine line between annoyance and longing. Annoyance at the sounds from the people beneath, spurting and bubbling like a confused faucet. Longing for whatever the close comradery was that caused them all to communicate freely with one another.
I clutched my notebook fervently to my chest, as though I would somehow become a better writer the closer it came. And I waited. For the words to form, for that thing—whatever it was—to catch and light the burning fire that caused words to pour from my pen. Closing my eyes, I made three wishes—they were all the same.
A cry from underneath my window startled me away from the self-loathing that had almost surfaced, and snapped me back to reality.
Standing on the ground beneath my window was a little boy. And his cry had given way to sobs. It was either the pull of compassion or the guilt that comes with a sense of duty that led me off my couch, into shoes, and down the stairs. Opening the door to the sobbing boy, I instinctively crouched and asked, ‘Are you lost?’
The boy looked at me. I’d like to move on and get to the rest of the story. To skip over the feeling that rippled through me when his eyes met mine. But I can’t. Because when he did, a wave of cold rushed inside, caught hold in my belly, and spread. And I found that I was not the coward I would have thought. For though I was chilled to the depths of my bones, I did not run back inside, lock the door, and lean against it breathing heavy. Like I wanted to. And not only because I wasn’t convinced the lock would keep this child out.
‘I’m not lost,’ the boy said, his voice light and clinking like little icicles. ‘Do you want to come with me?’ he asked, and from where I was crouching, his eyes looked dry.
I felt my head rebel against the rest of me, nodding traitorously. ‘Alright,’ I said, my voice a traitor, too.
All at once the boy’s mitten covered hand was in mine and he was pulling me down the street. Pulling me past the lamp posts, around the corner, and down a side path. I almost pulled away. Oh, how I wished I had. For before I knew it, he had whipped us around an alley—the strength of him startling and far too strong for his small size—and into silence. Not a kind of nice silence, that wraps around you as you fall asleep like a warm blanket and the beginnings of dreams. No, not that kind. This was the kind of silence that sinks on you like a cold fog seeping into your joints, letting you know that you are very much alone, and this is the beginning of a nightmare. That kind of silence.
Indeed, I was alone; the boy had gone. Where, I could not have said. For there was no ‘where’ for him to go. But he wasn’t there. And as I realized this, the walls began to move. Narrowing in, and I was too far down the alley to get out.
I turned about in a panic, and saw a hole at the end of the alley. It’s a strange thing to say that I saw the hole, because really what I saw was a darkness. The absence of anything at all.
There was no time and no choice. In seconds, I jumped.
All went dark, and I braced for an impact that never came. It was a most curious feeling, because I expected to have jumped into something, but for all the strangeness of it, I wasn’t falling. Or, at least I didn’t feel as if I was falling. I felt as light as a feather. As though I was floating slowly, drifting on a breath of wind. This was not a comfort; rather it added to the all-consuming strangeness, made all the stranger when my feet found themselves gently resting on firm and stable ground.
I stood for a moment, trying to right my mind. But that did nothing. All this was as far from normal as it could be. I could see nothing behind me, but as I stretched out my arms like a person who had suddenly gone blind—which for all I knew, I had—I felt something. My hands pulled away, and if my body could have found itself more tense, it would have. Whatever I had felt was hard, ridged, and cool. I stuck out my hand again to see if it was coming any closer, like the walls from above. It didn’t seem to be.
Suddenly a light began to glow in front of me. It was far away, perhaps very far away. But it was coming closer. And it moved quickly.
It wasn’t long before I could see an outline in the light, and I knew what it was. Or rather, who.
Like a silhouette made out of black paper stood the image of the boy.
‘You are on trial for your sins.’ The boy said, although he didn’t sound like a boy. He sounded harsh, cold, exacting.
My trembling body shook, almost too much to answer. Almost. ‘Sins?’ I shook out, wishing that the fear of this strange place would make me doubt my senses.
‘Sins,’ the voice seemed deeper now, but I could not have named its sex. The silhouette changed shape, and I could not have named its sex either. ‘Can you think what they might be?’
My eyes widened. Sins. What could they be? I had never killed anyone. I had lied at some point, I’m sure. Lost my temper, but not for a while. It would have probably helped if I had had some time to think. But apparently, I didn’t.
‘You cannot name your failings, but we are certain you know them.’ The voice came again from the shadow, and this time it sounded like a knife. ‘Think.’ It was a command, but I was too confused to pay it the attention it deserved. ‘Nothing from you?’ it said. ‘We have watched you, watched you sit and stare and sink.. You pity yourself. You help no one. You feed yourself with that which you make for yourself. You offer nothing.’
If I had not been so afraid, I would have argued. But my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth as though it had been glued there.
‘And so,’ the voice continued, ‘we sentence you to stay here until you account your sins.’ Still, I could say nothing, and like that it was gone. And the light with it.
I sat, my fear a poor companion, and hugged my knees around my chest, and wished that I was away from this horrid place that seemed a crossroads between worlds. When time had passed, and I was still alone, and still in darkness, a wickedness came over me and I began to think horrible things. Perhaps I was in a realm of cannibals and they would eat me soon. Or perhaps I would be left alone in this dark place for all eternity. As I thought these things, I thought, too, of my life, and the paralysis that gripped me as I knew I was no good. No good at anything or for anyone.
At the thought I felt my body lurch. It was sinking. I was sinking. Perhaps it was quick sand, or a swamp, and in that moment, I wished with all my being that I was back in my home on my couch.
I stopped sinking.
I put my hands out onto what again felt like firm ground. A breath of relief escaped my mouth. It was a good sound. I reveled in it. To feel relief in this mess was as though fresh air swept through my mind. It had been a long time since I had felt relief.
But I had little to be relived about, came the thought.
Suddenly the ground was mush beneath my fingers, and I felt my body slipping down into it. Immediately I found myself wishing for the hard ground, for any hard ground, grateful that my feet had at any time experienced hard ground.
In an instant it was there, firm beneath my legs once more.
In that moment I knew what this place wanted of me. What I need to keep the ground firm. Relief. And gratitude. Good things. Lovely things. In moments I has thinking of them all as quickly as I could, and they came in abundance as they never had before, a wealth of thanksgiving. I had ground under me. And a street on which to go for walks. Neighbors who made the noise of those alive. Books around me that I could read. Pen and paper on which to put my thoughts. Food to eat.
The more I listed them, the more they came to me. And with each one the harder the ground felt. I closed my eyes and let my blessings, all those uncounted good things that I had ignored, came to me, igniting a flame of hope that had long ago died out.
I don’t know if it came on me slowly or all at once, but when next I opened my eyes, I found that I was sitting down an alley. The clouds were out over head and it was day.
I stood up and looked around. I was, thankfully I thought, alone.
And on a street whose name I knew, I thought of all that was around me, all this normal, and felt it was extraordinary. In a breath, I was grateful for the cold boy and his painful trial. In my breast I felt a glow warm away all chills. And, placing my feet one in front of the other, I felt a skip in my step as I made my way home.