by J.B. Roan
It was in the season when trees push forth their pale green leaves, birds sing joyfully in the burgeoning limbs, and the first flowers show their brilliant faces, that Fagan Follett, the son of the widow of the wood, lazed blissfully in the meadow fast by the road to Kirby. He had lain there idly all the morning, and he quite intended to do so the rest of the day, simply to vex his old mother, who had numerous labors awaiting him at home.
Fagan lay there chewing lethargically on a fresh blade of grass. Suddenly, he heard two voices raised in heated discussion coming down the road. He rolled over and peered through the new greenery. Moving quickly down the roadway were two friars. One, fat and mostly bald, with broad ruddy cheeks and a belly to match, was gesticulating wildly at the sky. The other was tall and thin, with a pale corpselike face, his hands clasped tightly in front of his meager chest. As they drew near to Fagan's hiding place, he could make out their arguments.
"God is the sun, I tell you, Brother Fitch," the portly friar was saying, "and I say so for these reasons. First, as everyone knows, fire is the highest element, and the sun is obviously composed of purest fire. Second, in the Good Book it clearly states that 'God is light, and in him no darkness at all.' Surely John is describing the sun, for in what else is there no darkness at all?" The whole time he was speaking, the rotund man puffed and panted and waved and nodded until Fagan thought the friar would topple over any moment from sheer exhaustion. His pudgy face was as red as the beets Fagan was supposed to be sowing.
The slender friar breathed a deep melancholy sigh, and clasped his hands even tighter, until his knuckles were so white that Fagan expected his skinny bones to break through his skin. After several more ponderous sighs, Brother Fitch began in a nasal grating voice: "Ah, Brother Claxton, you grow forgetful. For fire is not indeed the highest element. You forget aether, higher than all earthly elements, indeed the purest of spiritual forms, and the only thing capable of producing the next highest element, fire, and thus the sun, which God created. 'And the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters, and God said, "Let there be light"'. How can the Creator be the created? John, whom you quote, also writes, 'God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.' Therefore I say that God is aether, which I maintain is the same as wind ñ not air, mind you, but a spirit that can move through air, put out fire, stir the soil, and drive the water ñ an element that can affect all others without change in itself..."
The voices of the friars faded out of Fagan's hearing. He lay back into the field and plucked a new blade of grass. Chewing on it, he mused over the argument he had overheard. He felt the breeze blowing in his hair and thought, "Truly Brother Fitch knows what he is talking about. He is right. God is the wind."
At that moment, the sun appeared from behind a cloud, and the breeze died down. Fagan sat up and looked at the sun. "The sun has just made the wind die down! Truly Brother Claxton is right. God is the sun," he thought.
Suddenly, the sun disappeared into another cloud, and the breeze dispersed completely. Fagan, now quite confused and a bit angry, stood up and exclaimed, "Truly both of these men are fools! They do not know what they are talking about! I will go and ask Father Eldred. Surely he will know what God is." At this, Fagan immediately jumped over onto the road and began walking toward town.
When Fagan reached the parish, Father Eldred was sitting outside on the bench, nodding and grinning at his more charitable parishioners as they passed, scowling and shaking his head at the wretched, and ignoring the rest. His scowl deepened when he observed Fagan Follett making his way toward the parish. The young man walked straight up to the priest and asked abruptly, "Father Eldred, what is God?" The portly priest stood up and scratched his immense belly, quite taken aback by this unusual demand.
"Why, as everyone knows, God is the everlasting Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation, as He should become yours, my son," declared Father Eldred, casting a pointed look down his pudgy red nose at foolish Fagan.
"Yes, Father, as you say, everyone know that," replied Fagan, unperturbed by the Father's insinuation, "but exactly what is God?"
Father Eldred did not have time for this wretched youth and his tiresome questions. He patted Fagan on the head with a fat hand, reciting, "The Lord our God is one Lord; you believe that God is one, you do well," and escaped into the sanctuary of his ornate parish.
Fagan stood staring dumbfoundedly at the elaborately sculptured parish door for several minutes. Finally he shook his brown curls. "Truly Father Eldred is as foolish as the silly friars. More so, as he cannot even think for himself, but must quote scripture at me. Surely someone must know what God is," he thought, "But who?"
The youth slowly continued down the road. Soon he came upon a path leading into a forest. He turned off and followed the winding trail. Birds sang all about him, and the recent spring foliage whispered overhead, but Fagan did not notice, so involved was he with his newfound quest. Suddenly emerging into a small clearing, he found himself at the doorstep of Altric the Eremite. "Ah, the Hermit! Of course! Why did I not think of him sooner? Surely he will know what God is."
Fagan immediately opened the door and walked in. The recluse was at his desk examining a treatise of St. Augustine. He looked up and blinked stupidly at the lad, surprised to find someone in his austere abode. Slowly a look of recognition replaced his vacant stare. "Ah, young Follett, I see. Come in, come in lad!" he said, standing up and bumping his head on a low beam.
Fagan got straight to the point. "Altric Eremite, pray tell me. what is God?"
"Ah, young Fagan, I was just pondering the same question myself, and I am quite convinced that I have found the answer," responded the hermit, returning to his desk. "God is truth, or if there be something superior to truth, then this would rather be God, but if not, then truth itself is God."
"But what then is truth?'" queried the young man.
The eremite flipped through the leaves of manuscript before him, alternately blinking his bleary eyes and licking his bony fingers. "Ah!" he cried finally, and with a quick flick of his tongue, said decisively, "Truth is the Supreme Good, and the source of happiness."
"Yes, but what exactly is truth?" asked the exasperated Fagan.
"The human mind cannot wholly perceive the Truth, but can only catch glimpses of it through earthly things. In other words, Truth is unchangeable, while the mind of man can only understand the changeable, as he himself is changeable. If Truth were merely on a par or equal to our minds, it too would be mutable, and..." Looking up, the hermit saw that Fagan was gone. Altric the Eremite shrugged his shoulders, licked his pale lips, and went back to his studying.
"Why, that man speaks nothing but gibberish!" said Fagan, when he stood outside the hermit's hut. "It is easy enough for his to declare that God is truth, when he does not know what truth is! He might as well say that God is a dragon, when he has never seen one. I will find someone who can answer me. There must be someone, somewhere, who knows what God is. I will follow that path over there. I have never noticed it before. Perhaps I will meet someone new, someone who can answer my question plainly."
Fagan started down the slender path. The shadows were growing longer as the sun followed its endless trek across the sky. Small animals in the brush, unaccustomed to travelers in their section of the woods, watched with great interest as the oblivious young man walked by. Fagan had not been long on his journey when he heard, drifting faintly to him through the trees, soft airy voices singing in beautiful harmony. Mesmerized by the melody, the widow's son followed the captivating tune. Soon he could make out the words:
Now blissful slumbers come to thee, Now rest your weary mind.
Your Priestesses o'er thee shall watch, No rest nor comfort find,
Until the sun o'er yonder hill Radiant shall ride.
And even then we shall remain, Forever by your side.
"Ah, these must be the Priestesses of the Wood that my mother used to tell me stories of when I was younger!" Fagan exclaimed. "But Father Eldred told me they were old wives' tales, and that I should pay them no attention. I will go closer and get a look."
Fagan turned off the path and made his way slowly through the brush towards the soothing voices. Peering finally around a stand of slender alders, he saw a small circular clearing. In the middle of the clearing stood a low wooden structure, about three feet high, three feet wide, and thrice three feet in length. It leaned a little to one side, and small gaps showed between some of the boards. Kneeling in the dirt, in faded gowns of gossamer and lace, were two priestesses, one on each side of the crypt. Fagan was surprised to see that small holes had been bored into the top of the structure, and to these the priestesss put their lips to sing.
Now blissful slumbers come to thee, Let not your troubles bind;
For we shall sing thee to thy rest, Our Lord we e'er shall mind.
"What is this?!" wondered the astounded lad. "They are singing to something in that crate, and they are calling it 'Lord'! Father Eldred said 'God is the everlasting Lord.' They are singing to God! God must be in that box! Finally I have found someone who knows what God is!"
Fagan jumped right out from behind the trees, and strode up to the priestesses. "Tellme, Priestesses of the Wood, what is in this crypt?"
But the priestesses simply nodded their heads, smiled at the lad, and went back to their song. Fagan did not know what to say next. He stood flustered for a moment, then went back to his stand of alder trees to think.
"They do not want to tell me!" Fagan thought angrily. "They want to be stingy with their secret. But I have a plan. I will scare them away, then I will look through the holes in the box and see what is inside." Fagan looked around and found a large stone. He cast it far into the woods behind him. It landed with a heavy crash of breaking branches and a dull thud. Fagan immediately leaped into the clearing and shouted, "Run! Run! Run for your lives! A monstrous beast is coming through the forest! I saw him! Didn't you hear him?! Run! Run!" But again the priestesses looked at him, smiled, nodded, and returned to their song. "What is wrong with you?! Your lives are in peril!" Fagan yelled, but no response came from the dedicated women. Fagan stormed back to his retreat.
"These priestesses are insane!" he thought. "But I must find a way to look inside that crate!" Fagan stood watching as the priestesses crooned their delicate tune, bowing gracefully over the wooden structure. Now and then, they would sit up and run their fingers caressingly over the box, heedless of the splinters, and a tender smile would pass between them. As the priestesses sat up, Fagan noticed that hinges connected the top of the box to the sides. "Ah, the top must open!" he realized, "But how am I to get it open?" He thought and thought, pacing back and forth behind the stand of trees.
Finally, Fagan could contain his curiosity no longer. He dashed out of his refuge and ran to the wooden box. He took hold of the holes in the lid and pulled. To his surprise, the priestesses did not try to hinder him. The large crypt opened outward on creaking hinges. Fagan leaned over and looked inside. There, lying at the bottom of the crate, was dirt. Nothing but dirt.
In disbelief, Fagan reached inside and grabbed a handful of dirt. He held it up and looked at it. "Why, it is nothing but dirt! Are you prestesses insane? Singing songs forever to a box of dirt?!" he demanded. He looked around at the priestesses, but they were nowhere to be found. Looking down, he saw that the wooden structure had also disappeared. Fagan returned his confused gaze to the mound of dirt in his hand. Suddenly, the last beam from the falling sun broke through the trees and fell on the handful of earth. In its golden light, Fagan could see a tiny shoot pushing its tenuous way out of its seminal embrace. A change came over Fagan's face. His sullen expression softened, and a gentle smile came to his lips. He looked around, and as if with brand new senses, he saw the newly budding trees, and heard the melodious twittering of the songbirds in the brush. Then he again looked at the dirt in his hand, and he saw that it was dirt, but it was not just dirt. "Now truly do I see what God is," he said softly, and he turned to leave.
As he walked home to his dear old mother, Fagan could hear the faint echo floating through the woods:
Now blissful slumbers come to thee.
Story copyright ©1996 Joy B. Roan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Illustration Copyright ©1996 Rachael Brazzell.
Editor's Note: This story was previously published in the 1990 edition
of the University of Texas at San Antonio's "Cactus Alley" literary
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