The muted orange and violet of sunrise glowed at the horizon as he entered the bus station walking purposefully to locker 17B. He opened the locker and withdrew a worn blazer, a starched white shirt, grey slacks, and brown patent leather shoes. Closing the locker he left carrying the blazer and pants in his right hand, the shirt in his left and with the leather shoes stuffed into his battered red and black backpack.
He made his way north toward the YMCA and his lips moved nearly imperceptibly as he whispered, “though the fig tree may not blossom nor fruit be on the vines.”
Arriving at the YMCA he was relieved to see Rashid behind the desk – if he arrived early enough Rashid was always kind enough to look the other way as he slid past the turnstile and down the hall to the locker room and the rare treat of a warm unhurried shower. Luxuriating under the warm water he steeled himself against the coming day: he had no desire to be around people or to step inside a church and yet today he planned to do both. Stepping from the shower and towelling off he saw him, with his dark hair and glasses staring wordlessly and menacingly across the room. Seated by the lockers the young man simply stared: a silent warning — quiet and watching. “Well, let him follow me,” he thought. “I’ve got other concerns today.”
He pulled the cheap disposable razor across his face, brushed his hair with his fingers, and pulled on the blazer. He stuffed his tattered jeans and blue tee into the backpack and headed for the exit. By the time he left, the sun was fully up. The air heavy with humidity and the promise of heat.
Thrusting his hand into the unfamiliar pocket of the woolen slacks he felt for the loonie, two quarters and a dime that he hoped were still there. Finding them he entered the coffee shop triumphantly.
Small coffee in hand and with his backpack slung over one shoulder, he trudged north.
His thoughts turned to his dear younger sister, “naked came I out of the womb. Naked shall I return.” He walked on. The first hint of a blister showing itself on his right foot.
Finally, he reached a small parkette and settled onto a bench facing the street. There he was, the same young man from this morning, his blonde hair cut close. He was pretending to read a newspaper which obscured his face but it was him. Following. Watching.
Clearly they were just watching today – if they had planned worse it would have happened by now and he knew he could evade the watchers after the service.
Across the street people began to file into the church. It must have been 10:40 by now but he would wait. The parking lot of the church was full and cars were parked down the side street. Relatively speaking, she had been young and the end so sudden that it was not surprising that the turnout was large. He watched and waited. He watched more people enter the church. Men in suits despite the July heat. Young children in their mothers’ arms, laughing oblivious to the solemnity of the day.
Shortly after 11:00am he stood and crossed the street. He pulled open the door and entered the church standing at the edge of the lobby just outside the stifling sanctuary. The last notes of the choir faded and the preacher stepped to the pulpit.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
The sermon continued. The choir sang. They rose and sat. His sister’s daughter tearfully stood behind the pulpit and eulogized. The congregation sang in harmony. He stood rooted to his spot just beyond the threshold of the sanctuary. He had not stood still indoors for this length of time in decades. He stood and tried to listen but his eyes were drawn back again and again to the polished oak.
There the wicked cease from troubling and there the weary rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master.
Without realizing it, he had joined the hymn together with the congregation, the words finding their way to his lips from some deep recess of his mind where they had lain hidden together with the remnants of his childhood. The pastor stood and recited the ancient prayer. Concluding, “…is the power and the glory for ever and ever, Amen.”
The congregation stood. The young men came forward flanking the coffin, the woman from the funeral home leading them as they wheeled the casket up the aisle. Still he stood. The congregation, turning to follow the progress of the body, could see him now. Still he stood and fought the urge to flee the danger of being confined by walls.
As the pallbearers passed him, he reached out and touched the polished timber and grasped a single rose from the spray, pulling it loose as his sister moved past him. The eldest son of his youngest sister stepped toward him and gripped him tight in a bear hug.
His mind screamed, “My breath kindles coals and a flame comes forth with my breath”. But of course he said nothing. Every fibre of his being wished to be loose, to run, to flee the danger. His mind was racing and panic driving his heart rate up as claustrophobia pressed down. His body and his soul urged him to accept and return the hug. He wanted to cry and melt into his nephew’s arms. He simply stood statue still neither returning the hug nor fleeing.
The eldest son of his youngest sister spoke, “Thank you for coming. She would have wanted you here. It was so sudden.” With that, his nephew was swept along with the crowd exiting the sanctuary and following the procession to the hearse. He had done his duty. He turned and found an emergency exit away from the parking lot and hurried into the alley.
“I am alone now,” he thought. “I will redeem them all. My suffering will be the balm.”
He could not see them but he felt their proximity. He had to move quickly. He hoped that the loading of the casket into the hearse on the far side of the church would provide enough of a distraction for him to evade them yet again.
He strode quickly to the east. Passing between the yellowed brick of the school and its neighbouring bungalow, and squeezing through the gap in the rusted chain link fence, he descended the dirt path into the ravine. It was July and school was out so there were no groups of furtive smokers or teens clumsily coupling in the trees. He walked further into the ravine, drinking in the solitude. The city was still close at hand, but he was safer here among the foxes, raccoons, coyotes, and mosquitos. He understood the eternal cycle of the trees and animals nurturing each other with their lives and deaths. The whir of a drone reached his ear and he ducked under the trees unseen.
The sun was past its apex and the breeze brisk with the energy of the
approaching storm. The buzz of the cicada was noticeable in its sudden absence.
A single red tail hawk soared in lazy circles, floating effortlessly above the trees. The raptor hung in the sky, its wings still and fixed in place. He knew that his sympathy should lie with the trembling rodents that shared the earth beneath the trees with him. Still he was drawn to the grace of the red tail’s flight. Its coiled violence implied but not yet spoken as it floated unperturbed by either the approaching storm or the terror of the squirrels.
He didn’t have the luxury of ignoring the coming deluge, and so he looked back to the path, the hawk still looping in circles. If the killing dive ever came, he was no longer there to see it. He finally reached the official city trail that snaked along the bottom of the ravine. Pausing next to a small wood and metal footbridge that crossed the creek, he listened. He heard nothing and was satisfied that for at least one more day he had evaded the watchers.
Crossing to the midpoint, he released the single rose into the water. “You are free of tribulations now,” he whispered. Then he strode to the other side of the bridge
He pulled his soiled jeans and tee shirt from his pack. Stripping quickly, he stuffed his white shirt, tattered jacket, pants, and leather shoes into the pack in an attempt to keep them clean(er). He pulled on his jeans and New Balance sneakers. He jumped down the embankment and scampered under the bridge. Crawling through the dirt and sheltered by the bridge he heard the first drops of rain strike the boards above his head just as a peel of thunder echoed in the valley.
He drew his tattered notebook and pencil from the front pocket of his backpack and began to write:
there is a path which no fowl knows and which the vulture has not seen the fierce lion has not trod upon it he binds the floods with the banks of the river and sets the stars into the night sky the things that are hidden He brings forth to light.
The storm had now passed and the daylight was fading. For the moment he was safe and he tucked his back pack under his head as a pillow. He longed for a few hours’ sleep before he returned his dress clothes to their home in the bus station locker and spent the night walking – always moving through the shadows to keep ahead of the watchers.