Now from his breast into his eyes the ache of longing mounted, and he wept at last, his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms, longed for as the sun warmed earth is longed for by a swimmer spent in rough water where his ship went down under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea. Few men can keep alive through a big surf to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind; and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband, her white arms round him pressed as though forever. Then said Odysseus: “My Dear, we have not won through to the end. One trial - I do not know how long – is left for me to see fulfilled.”
—The Odyssey, Homer
There are those whose feet fall upon this path of human sojourn with such steadfastness that it shouts a testimonial to their confidence and assurance. Their attitude may be the result of a clearer understanding of their purpose in life, or perhaps a by-product of the many successes that some have come to enjoy. Regardless, whether founded or perhaps even falsely contrived, their gait is nonetheless one of great boldness and surety. Whether motivated by Reason or sustained by Faith, they happily forge on, concerning themselves little with the question of how it came to be that they are the recipients of such munificent grace whilst traveling along upon their road of happy destiny.
This is not their tale.
Rather, this is a story of a soul who, having been pulled to sea by a riptide of circumstance, himself the author of the consequences that have been perpetuated by his carelessness and foolish actions, finds himself like waterlogged flotsam, tossed about in the depths of despair and depravity. Repeatedly pounded upon the rugged shores of his own miserable existence, he finally emerges, battered and bruised, exhausted and near death, having been spewed from the grips of certain and deserved demise by a miraculous salvation of Jonah-like proportions.
He stood ankle-deep in the surf with the tide tugging at his ankles, a glistening mixture of foam and beige sand swirling abrasively, rasping at his pale skin, coursing its way through his toes as the tug of the moon encouraged the grains to find their way back to the sea. The Holy Spirit cloaked his shivering, near-naked body and soothed the chill.
He stepped away from the surf, dismayed. Taking a brief inventory, he recognized that he had been delivered from an incredible encounter with his mortality; he jubilantly sought to speak of and to give praise of thanksgiving to that which he knew to be the architect of his miraculous salvation and resurrection.
Certain that he had been the recipient of a supernatural act of grace, the man raised his hands, calling out to the heavens in gratitude. His eyes, wide and bright, were once again lowered to the earthly horizon. In the distance, a billowing of gray smoke lazily curled skyward before being swept up by the offshore breeze and quickly dissipated. The castaway guessed that it would most likely be coming from a cooking fire. Padding along the wet sand in the direction of the smoke, his foot- prints made the only such damp impressions upon the beach.
Searching for a path that would lead him to the source of the smoke, he walked about a quarter of a mile along the tide line before finding a trail that bisected a thicket of scraggy brush edging the periphery. The exit spilled its rusty soil onto the tiny ashen dunes of drifting sand that lapped their way along the edge of the beach.
The man followed the path for several minutes as it wended its way through a small wood of thin alders. From above, the dry leaves breathed a rustling of whispered welcome. Like a beacon, the sounds of voices and muted peals of merriment wafted faintly through the trees and encouraged the wanderer.
Eventually, the path opened up onto a broad clearing. He descended into a small gully. At the bottom, a row of smooth, round stones were placed in such a way as to provide a footbridge, presumably for when the frequent coastal rains turned the fine silt that now lie aridly wrin- kled and cracked into a sloppy ooze that could suck the footwear right off one’s feet. Each autumn, many youngsters sheepishly mucked their way home with either one or both feet devoid of the rubber boots that their mothers so diligently insisted they donned prior to their frequent forays to the beach. Some of these pieces of lost footwear snorkeled their way to the surface and were recovered in the spring. Most were not.
The man danced his bare feet across the stones and on the other side tenderly ascended the gravel incline onto the narrow shoulder of a small dirt road that ended abruptly at the ditch that marked the begin- ning of the trail-head.
Along the road on both sides, small, tidy houses nestled themselves back into a ring of cedar trees that circled the clearing. Many women and young children could be seen busying themselves with their chores. Several had gathered near the end of the street and were tend- ing a surprisingly large cooking fire that was evidently being used to prepare a meal. It had been the smoke of this fire that had guided the man to the small village. Other women were engaged in tasks such as sewing or cleaning. Their daughters stood at their side, absorbing the instructions that were being carefully and methodically espoused. Still others gathered into small groups and chatted among themselves. Those that noticed the man’s arrival hushed their conversations and with wary curiosity quietly speculated among themselves.
The man strode up onto the cul-de-sac and stopped. He stood in the middle of the road and called out.
“Come quick! I have a tale to tell of a miraculous event. Truly I say to you I once was lost and now have been found thanks to the Glory of the Almighty. Come share of this miracle and behold the Glory of God!”
Though all had heard him bellow and ceased their activities to look towards the disheveled man, none came running. In fact, all ignored his invitation and either cast their eyes away or simply returned to their occupations. Some children that had been scurrying after each other playing a raucous game of tag halted and warily returned to their mothers. A hush fell over the previously robust plethora of activity and seemed to suffocate the very energy that merely a moment before had so readily emanated.
Astounded by the lack of reception, the man fell silent. He didn’t even consider that perhaps his ravings had been taken for those of a madman. With confused disbelief, he peered out over his audience in an effort to meet the gaze of someone, anyone, willing to acknowl- edge and engage him.
One woman, apparently one of the most senior of the women, who was tending the fire that the stranger could now see was being used to roast a medium-sized hog, stepped forward; flanked by two much younger women, she confidently proceeded to walk several paces to- wards the newcomer. Her face registered neither welcome nor displeasure. She surveyed his tattered appearance and finally smiled at him and nodded a greeting. She turned to one of the women and quietly spoke to the younger female who, after an obedient nod of acknowledgment, returned to the fire. The young woman then whis- pered to yet another female who was seated with her young son; his chest was still gently heaving from the exertions of his participation in the game of tag. The lad’s mother rhythmically swirled a long-handled ladle through a thin cloud of steam rising gently from a creamy liquid that simmered inside a broad, three-legged, severely blackened cast iron cauldron nestled into the coals beneath the glistening amber- coloured hog. The mother nodded her head as she received the relayed instruction. Then, bending from the waist, she leaned forward to whisper into the ear of the youngster.
The boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, obediently scampered to- wards one of the simple and modest houses. As the youngster made his way into the house, the spokeswoman turned again to the stranger and said, “Come.”
He was led to the fire, where he stood patiently watching the matron as she poked about the coals. He was slightly bemused by the lack of conversation; however, he chose to remain silent.
Within minutes the boy returned. He dutifully presented to his mother a wooden bowl and wide tin spoon that he clutched tightly in his small hands. She thanked her son for the bowl and suggested the lad give the spoon to the newcomer.
With a nod from the older woman, she then carefully ladled a gen- erous portion of the stewed vegetables into the bowl and dipped the long-handled cup once again into the steam, withdrawing a full meas- ure of the smooth broth and basted the aromatic slurry over top of the vegetables. She handed the bowl to her son who, with great pride, carefully took two steps towards the stranger and presented the offer- ing.
Gratefully the man received the bowl and immediately, very delibe- rately, thanked all three; first the boy, then his mother who had been tending the stew, and lastly, he turned to face the matriarch in order to offer his gratitude for their collective hospitality.
The woman had returned her attention to the skewered pig that another young female was slowly turning above the flameless coals. The older woman succinctly nodded towards the hog’s attendant, indi- cating that she should halt her rotisserie. With a large carving knife, the matriarch deftly sliced into the rump of the animal, dissecting a large piece of the well-roasted flesh and allowed it to peel onto a square wooden platter that she held beneath the roasting animal’s haunches. Turning, with a warm smile she presented the meat to the stranger.
“I’m sorry but we haven’t begun making the biscuits yet,” she said. “Our menfolk aren’t due to return for several hours hence, and it just wouldn’t do to serve them after they had cooled. I’m sure you under- stand,” she added pleasantly.
“Thank you. You are most kind. Please forgive my tattered appear- ance and seeming lack of good manners. I’m afraid the aroma of this repose has overwhelmed me, and I cannot for the life of me recall when last I supped. My name is Dennis. Dennis Mitchell.”
“Of course, I understand completely. Think nothing of it. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Mitchell. My name is Isabelle Morgan. There is a table beside that house where you may seat yourself,” she said, indicating the blue and white bungalow situated at the end of a short walkway framed by a small, recently whitewashed picket fence– the very same house from which the boy had retrieved the utensils. “Do you prefer wine or ale?”
“Oh no. Thank you just the same –beer and wine do not agree with me. You have already been very kind with your provision of this meal.”
“Not at all. Would you like some water or a cup of tea, perhaps?” “Tea would be very welcomed, madame,” he replied.
“Very well. We shall bring it over to you when it is ready. After you’ve eaten, you may like to rest a while. I don’t mean to be overly opinionated, but you look a little weary. Should you have the need to make use of the hammock that has been strung between the trees in the common at the footpath near the end of the street, we would think none the less of you. As I’ve said, our men will return shortly, and then you may speak to the elders in order to present yourself and your intentions – should you have any, that is. Should you decide to move along, please kindly leave the platters on the table, and thank you for permitting us to be of service. May you fare well.”
“Indeed. However, it is certainly I who owes the debt of gratitude. You have been most generous and kind.”
“Go ahead and eat before your food goes cold, Mr. Mitchell.”
Turning, Dennis Mitchell headed off to find the table, but after only a few steps inside the small picketed gate, he turned and addressed the now fully attentive gathering of women and children once more.
“God bless you all,” he said.
Wiping the carving knife with a spotless towel, the matriarch returned the blessing, saying, “And you as well.”