THIS VIOLENT AND CHERISHED EARTH
by Cheryl Pappas
We must begin with a burgeoning sky. The storm that had flown out to sea flew back again into our small village in between the white and black mountains that looked over the land’s end. Our village that lay low was continually crushed by the sea’s thrashings, and that in turn gave us a dull, abused humor. We didn’t dare say “Enough, already!” for we were humble, and in the small wooden church we would say our prayers and give thanks for the rain, even though it came at the price of the wind bringing salt upon our homes and dead men upon our shores. Not one of us would say, “If only the storm would bring dead fish that we could eat instead of dead men and dead wood upon our shores, that would be something!” We would rather look plaintively out the window of the church thinking on the wisdom of Father Joe’s phrasings, or out our soft and moldy kitchen windowsill, and say to our husband or wife or sister or brother, “Looks like God is testing us again. Let’s pray that we will triumph, though Lord knows what we deserve.” And the other of us would respond with a thin and raspy, “That is the truth, right there.” That is how things were then.
Father Joe taught us much about this kind of humility. Our story would be nothing without a little explaining about Father Joe, who came to us circa 1917, during the period of the great frost. We had had no religion before, merely what they call community. We were good people. But when Father Joe came upon our shores, when we were dying every day from the lack of food, he filled our minds with stories we had never dared dream of. We had no need of dreaming before he came. We listened for hours and hours about some man in some Eastern clime who had been sacrificed, and who was the son of a great God. Father Joe told us of the travails he had taken to arrive at our little village, the miles of seas he had had to cross, and he always told us that what he did to get to us was nothing compared to our daily sacrifices. We took him in, set him up in a house, and built him a church for him to tell us these things. Though he stood up high near the altar, he seemed to hold us up on a pedestal and worship us as if we were some rare species. He told us many times the story of how he had heard about us when he was in battle. An anthropologist fighting alongside him had told him of this rare godless village in the north that he had visited once (we remember this anthropologist with his curious questions), and he wished to see our land once more before he died. Later that day that man was killed, which Father Joe took for a sign (Father Joe often spoke of signs and fate—words that didn’t exist in our language until he came upon our shore). When seeing his friend killed, Father Joe ran as fast as he could to a petrol station, found a way to safe territory, and quit the idea altogether of being a soldier. His mission became to find us and teach us the ways of God. Two long years it took him to arrive here, but this delay he took as a divine challenge.
We digress. So on this day of big, brashy thunder and frightful lightning, the sea brought hundreds not tens of men, and ships, so many ships broken to pieces! The salt was beyond all order! The front of Old Father Joe’s house that faced the sea (sitting atop the promontory as his example of his enduring faith in God) was as white as God’s beard.
After the skies had gone grey and the bruised clouds swept themselves off toward the horizon, we came out of our salty shacks, clutching our long sweaters with arms crossed. We were making our way down to the shore to begin gathering the bodies. We had done this so many times before, so our faces were not quick to show surprise, but when the first row of us reached the sandy beach, some of us stopped.
More of us came up from behind, and more, and more, so that after a little while a good number of us were just trying to get a look at the shore. Our shining blue eyes were all turned toward the horizon, toward the source of our latest burden. A last light flickered over the line at the end of the earth. Not one of us said a word.
We had to do our jobs, didn’t we? That was why we were put on this earth. So first one, then two, three, ten, then all forty of us started the mournful labor of piling the bodies up to where the waves couldn’t take them back. As we worked, we sang our prayers in bare whispers to the lost travelers:
Oh, sunken ones, your journey is come.
Let us unburden you,
and lift you from your bride.
The salt is in your bones, your eyes the weeds do hide,
But we see you, sailor,
we bless you and for our own fates abide.
We prayed this way until sunset, when finally all of the bodies had been brought up high on the shore. We took the water-seeped wood, as we were used to do, and carried it to Branches’ Farm, where all wet wood went to dry. Then we carried back to shore piles and piles of dried wood. This went on right through supper—for no one ever ate until this task was done. There on the sand our men lay the wood from old shipwrecks and piled the bodies to make the pyre. As the flames reached higher, our women closed their scarves around their bodies and made their way back to their homes to start the very late supper. Father Joe took this time to look out over us while enjoying his dinner of salt bread and water. We would sometimes look up to see his candle in the window momentarily lighting up his shadowy face and take comfort.
While we men supervised the fire, we chatted about the storm, now that the danger was over. As we said, we were a people not to be surprised too readily, so when Old Smithson and Johnson came up from the long reach of the shore carrying a heavy trunk between them, several of us ran to help them carry it to a spot high up on the shore without asking questions. The men put the trunk down and we all gathered round it, some bending down and some just standing cross-armed and slightly bewildered. Finally Old Father Joe, who had by this time joined us at the pyre, looked at Smithson and said, “Go get your hammer, Smithson. We might as well figure out what God has in store for us now.”
Smithson, who was truly getting old then, walked but did not run to his shop and brought back his hammer. Under the star-ridden sky, we watched as Father Joe pounded and pounded the gold lock of the weathered trunk. Our women looked up from their sinks and stoves at the banging that sounded like a broken church bell out of rhythm. They all wiped their hands on their towels, turned down the flames on the stove, and headed back to the shore.
All forty of us had gathered there now, with hopeful yet anxious eyes, waiting for the moment when the sturdy lock would break. Within a few minutes, the wood splintered and this is when Father Joe halted and addressed us as if we were in church.
“Good people of this cherished land, of which there is much bounty, please let us not forget ourselves and hold too much promise in this bestowal from God. Let us honor the sailors who rest here tonight, their souls on their journey home. Let us remain, above all, who we are, humble creatures of the Lord of Light.”
With three tries Father Joe broke the seal. At first it was too dark for any of us to see. Old Johnson brought over a torch lit by the burning embers of the pyre.
As we all took in the familiar stench of flesh and salt coming from the pyre, Father Joe slowly lowered the flame down into the shadows of the trunk’s interior. There were mounds and mounds of round objects that glowed orange in the light. Were they made of gold, you may wonder? Were they strange jewels from afar? No, they were, as it was ascertained by Father Joe who lifted one up and shone the light on it, oranges. Simple and delicious oranges that were far from rotten. Now, in any other community, this would be a disappointment. But for us humble folk, it was both an enchantment and a deep problem. For we had never set our eyes on an orange. The treasure might as well have been gold. And under Father Joe’s guidance, we wondered, who would dare eat them? Wasn’t it folly to do so? Father Joe would have to decide this one for us.
“Good people! We have been blessed as well as cursed! Those of you who do not know what this is, it is an orange, a fruit that is sweet and fibrous. I think before it is decided what to do with them, we need to count them first and foremost, to see the level of our treasure. But do not fail to see the sorrow in this gift! I hesitate to let this fine fruit enter into our lives, for we may be tempted further by this joy and only want more of what we cannot have. Be warned!”
Father Joe asked Old Roman and Old Johnson to bring the trunk to the church, where the oranges could properly be counted. We all followed, while dinners still simmered on stoves, and watched Father Joe lay a thick black cloth on the table in the center of the altar. The oranges were taken out one by one, preciously, and counted.
There were forty oranges.
In our hearts, we were hoping that Father Joe would be kind and just, and give each one of us one orange and so be left with none for himself. This would have been the right thing to do. He was the one, you remember, whose house faced the calamitous sea, as a sign of his faith. Well, would his faith extend to sacrificing the taste of a sweet orange?
“People of this God-loving village, I am afraid we do have trouble. We are forty-one and there are only forty oranges. Because I do love this village, however, I am more than willing to forego my pleasure of eating an orange for the higher pleasure of seeing you enjoy them. But heed my earlier warning! Let not this fruit spoil your spirit. For as these oranges will soon mold and turn to dust, so will your spirit if you let pleasure ruin your spiritual appetite.”
We flocked to the oranges like scavengers, shamelessly smiling now, for what we had hoped had come true. Much bustling was made, scarves thrown over shoulders, elbows high up in the air, each grabbing an orange for himself or herself, whether old or young. Our mothers were kind to hand an orange to their child, because in that flurrying and scrambling, one would think that selfishness had gone amok.
While this frenzy was proceeding, Father Joe said, just under his breath, “My Father who art in Heaven” and every one of us stopped what we were doing. We were sensitive to the sound of the Father.
“I know there are some of you who are far better than this. May I only remind you of the rotting fruit of your souls. Good night.” And with that Father Joe walked solemnly down the aisle of the church, his shoes pounding the wooden floor, and the large, heavy door shut behind him like a stone.
We all stood there, quiet, until one of us (it was Old Johnson) walked over and put his orange back. And then another, and another, and another of us, until all of the oranges were piled ceremoniously upon the altar. Suddenly Old Rachel, who was always a little panicky, remembered the grub on the stove and shouted, “The grub!” and with that all of our women rushed back to the grub on their stoves, fearful of a fire burning up what little we had. The men and children trailed behind, our heads bowed.
The next day at service, the oranges remained on the altar while the Father spoke of humility and suffering and the salt of the sea and the sailors on their journey home, through our blessed guidance. In this dark church made of wood, those oranges burned as bright as the candles, and not one us didn’t sneak a look. Father Joe used the oranges well in his sermon, speaking of them as temptations of the pure spirit. And he did not neglect to tell us how proud he was of us, when he entered the church at dawn, to see the glorious pile of oranges there where they belonged.
For the next few days, the fervor with which old Father Joe spoke increased, for he was bounding with praise at our sacrifice, and was convinced that we had reached the pinnacle of our spirits, and pleased God beyond belief. It was a triumphant time for this village, he said, so much so that perhaps God would bless us with more storms so that we might come to realize the true beauty of our sacrificing souls.
This proved too much. Granted, some of us were indeed pleased with ourselves and felt that we would surely be raised to Heaven when the day came. But the promise of those oranges held a power over us. The more Father Joe spoke of our people’s strength and virtue and holiness, the brighter those oranges shone. Soon everything fell away in our people’s vision, all the greys and browns and blacks inside the church looked paltry when compared to the joyous color of the bountiful fruit.
The desire in our people rose to such a level that one night, it was spread about in whispers among the townspeople that Old Johnson and Smithson, the ones who had found the trunk, were to sneak into the church after midnight and take the oranges and hide them in Smithson’s cellar so that we could all finally enjoy them before they went rotten. In the morning when Father Joe would discover them gone, we would simply say that we had put the oranges back in the trunk and sent the bestowed gift out to sea, from whence it came.
But the night did not go according to plan. Johnson and Smithson had smoothly retrieved the trunk and placed all of the oranges in it but when they stepped outside of the church, they were astonished to see every last one of us—save for Father Joe, of course—there in front of the church to receive our own orange. It was a risk, we knew, but we were willing to lose our souls for the sweet taste that Father Joe had described. Johnson and Smithson were very upset and told all of us to go behind the church, out of view from Father Joe’s house, so that they could hand out the oranges in shadow.
Meanwhile, old Father Joe, the story goes, must have been thinking as he lay there in bed that if he took one orange, just one, then no one would know. As some of us tell it, he put on his warm wool robe and his slippers so no one would hear him walking (this was false though, the road was a pebbly one). He went out his back porch and headed for the church. By the light of the moon, he must have seen our shadows and heard the strange sucking sounds.
At this, he ran behind the church and saw all of us, so many of us, sitting on the grass, the light of the moon behind us, sucking away at the oranges, their tough skins tossed aside on the ground.
Oh, and were we ever enjoying those oranges! In between the sucking sounds were lots of quiet exclamations and the children, the children! They were dancing about, putting a slice in their mouths and smiling! Old Christina was the first one who saw the tall shadowy figure of Old Joe approach. “Hush!” she whispered. But it was too late. Father Joe stood before our huddled figures in the night of both light and dark and crossed his arms. He didn’t say a word for a few minutes. He was waiting for his power to be felt. “I would like to know . . .” he growled, barely able to contain himself. “I would like to know who is responsible for his soul here behind this church. How dare . . .” Father Joe started to say but his words were quickly interrupted by Johnson and Smithson, who had in one movement picked up his screaming, shrieking body, and pushed him into the trunk. Before it was closed we all—men, women, and children—picked up the scattered orange peels and threw them in with the Father. Smithson and Johnson sat on the trunk while Christina fetched some rope from her shed. The two men bundled up the trunk and carried it aloft all the way to the river that flowed ever to the sea, with all of us following behind and around and ahead. The journey was so long that we had to take turns carrying the burden, but it was no matter, for we smiled like we had never smiled before, the taste in our mouths was sweet, and a light moved us forward, the moon glinting in our deep blue eyes. We sang to our glory, and to our old Father Joe, who gave us this Heaven. Oh, sunken one, your journey is come.
Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter Oleander, SmokeLong Quarterly, Tin House, Essay Daily, and Mulberry Fork Review. She is currently writing an essay about Jules Romains’s novel The Death of a Nobody and is at work on a short story collection. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. You can find her at cherylpappas.net and @fabulistpappas.
Image credit: Wikipedia