Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: ZENITH (04/21/16)
TITLE: Brittle Sky, Damp Sand
By Jan Ackerson
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When the flow of troubles finally trickled to a stop in June, there remained a stagnant pool in my soul. It manifested in my life as a sourness of spirit, and registered on my face as a perpetual scowl. More than once, grocery store clerks or fellow waiters-in-line had said Are you okay? or Cheer up, it’s a beautiful day! to me.
Gradually, though, the bitterness evaporated, but with nothing to take its place, I felt dull and numb at best, angry and disillusioned at worst. This was not the life I’d signed up for. Where was fulfilment? Joy? Meaningfulness?
When an expert on television touted the benefits of oneness with nature, I shrugged. Why not. I gathered up a blanket and my sunglasses and set out for the beach.
It was late afternoon. When I settled into the sand, my back pressing the blanket down onto a slightly uncomfortable assortment of sticks and shells, the sun was well behind me. I gazed straight up, though, to the highest point of the sky, thinking that if there were answers for me, they would be as far as possible from the ugly reality below.
I waited for revelation, hoping to feel awe or amazement—or anything. The dome of the sky overhead looked impossibly brittle; I imagined that if I could get a long enough stick and poke it gently, it would shatter like one of my grandmother’s antique Christmas ornaments. The image was compelling, but it was not what I had come to find at the beach. I watched the sky for a while longer—there was a small cloud and a riot of seagulls, but nothing approaching enlightenment. Disappointed, I covered my eyes with my forearm and started to doze.
I was awakened by a small commotion. Rising up on one elbow, I saw a little boy struggling with his mother. The boy was noticeably upset—he was trying in vain to get the sand off his feet, but this was obviously impossible. He’d pick up one foot and brush at it ineffectually, only to realize that now the other foot was covered. As the boy swiped at the damp sand, it started to cover his hands, his arms, his tummy, and everything he did just made him more frustrated and distraught.
It quickly became apparent to me that despite his age—he was perhaps four or five—the little fellow couldn’t speak. His frustration was evident in a sort of vague squawking that quickly became an anguished howl. Eventually, he just sat in the sand, rocking, flapping his left hand, moaning a little.
I glanced around. All over the beach, people were staring at the little boy, pulling their own children away. Someone behind me muttered disgusting.
The boy’s mother had joined him down on the sand, trying to calm her son. She sat behind him, pressing against his back and wrapping her arms and legs tightly around his little body, trying to contain his fury. Shhhh, Dusty, she said. Shhhh.
After several minutes, he calmed; the moaning and rocking stopped. His little hand escaped from his mother’s embrace, though, and it fluttered as if directing an unheard symphony.
A phrase long-forgotten from the days when I went to Sunday School, decades ago, came to my mind. I wasn’t even sure if it applied to the duo on the lakeshore; the years had robbed the phrase of context. But there it was: the least of these. And more: whatever you do to the least of these.
It seemed to me that this little boy was the least of these—whatever these were—and that in his mother’s embrace could be found the mysterious something that I was unable to find in the sky over the beach. I had hoped to find meaningfulness far from the earth, but I saw the height of meaningfulness in a stolen glance at a mother, her legs covered in damp sand, whispering to her voiceless child.
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