"I cannot break this rock," I said, "not when I am bound this way."
I seemed to be standing on a ledge, on a windswept cliff near dusk. The red glow of the sunset was still in evidence. But now, turning my head as well as I could, I saw that the light came not from the setting sun, but from far below, and that the wind rose up from the land at the bottom of the cliff, which was ablaze all the way to the horizon. Sparks rose now and then in the hot and acrid air.
I was indeed bound, both my arms and legs, and my right foot was chained. The chain ran to a rock, a boulder in actuality, though it seemed to me as big as a mountain. The chain encrircled the boulder completely.It must have been very long.
A man behind me spoke. I could only just see him as a kind of shadow behind me. His face and form were not clear. I sensed that he had stood there as long as I could remember. "You must break the rock. It must be broken completely. This work must be done before you can move on.". He motioned to the pick axe at my feet.
I looked at the massive rock and could see that it blocked the only way upward and off the cliff face. Above and beyond the rock was the most subtle trace of pale blue sky, but where we stood was smoke.
"I cannot break this rock" I repeated, "How can I, without the use of my arms?".
I looked down and saw that I was quite completely wrapped in the windings of a braided leather cord. The shape of my body could be seen, but only the skin below my ankles was uncovered, where the chain had me.
"If you wish, I can untie you" said the voice, "but you may find it more uncomfortable than being bound, for a time".
"If I am to break the rock to have any hope of going on..." I began, pleadingly (I could perceive that the man nodded in the affirmative), "then I must have this cord off, no matter how unpleasant. But how can being untied be worse than being bound?".
"I did not say it would be worse" said the voice, "I said it would be more uncomfortable... for a time, for when this cord is removed, it becomes a whip.".
"What?" I cried, my eyes widening "Why should I be tortured? And how can I work at breaking this rock while I am being beaten?".
"It is the ony way." said the voice.
I stood, and in my mind I thought the cord squeezed more tightly every moment. I lost track of time, but it seemed I stood undecided for at least a day. Or was it a week?
"Release me, then, but have mercy".
The man reached out and touched the cord, and it at once fell coiled around my feet. In one motion he swept it up and it was in his hand. Now I was fearful every moment of the first fall of the lash, but this was put out of my mind at what I saw as I looked down at myself, for my skin - every part of it - was covered in scars. I was hideous.
At once, to my surprise, I began to think of the land beyond the great boulder and the cliff face, under the blue sky. I had hoped - longed - for the company of others, for the sound of free and happy voices in that place. I looked up at the hazy patch of blue and despaired. How could I now hope to meet others? My monstrous appearance would drive any sane person away. I could never again live among ordinary, healthy men and women, let alone children. I became ashamed, and began to weep.
"Don't despair", said the voice, who seemed to know my thoughts, "I have seen many worse than you who now live happily on the table land.", but I could not believe it.
I bent and lifted the pick axe, and at once had an idea. The rock seemed too massive for one man ever to break, if he worked a hundred years. But the chain...
I swung the pick at the chain with all my strength and determination. The shock of the blow traveled like lightning through my arms and I was stunned and fell. When I looked up again, the chain was still whole. I could not see that it had even been marred at all.
"That chain cannot be broken", the voice warned,
"What material is it made of, that it is not even scratched after such a blow?" I asked.
"Sloth", he answered. "In life, that chain would have been the easiest sort to break, quite soft. But it has hardened in this atmosphere, and it will never break, now.".
I stood and rested for a few moments, recovering from the attempt at the chain. The man only stood and waited, and I now knew we both would stand there until the gigantic boulder was gone. I drew back the pick and had a blow at the rock. Again, my arms and hands were stung at the effort, but only the smallest chip appeared in the stone.
"What kind of rock is this?" I sighed?
"That rock is the burden of wasted time." the voice instructed, "It was built up of many tiny moments, like sand, over years, and neglected under the earth, crushed under its own weight until it became as you see it now."
"And what are those veins and darker streaks?" I warily inquired.
"Those are missed opportunities, and are the hardest of all. That material once flowed quite freely, like water, and could have been shaped to your liking into almost any kind of thing, but once the flow was stopped, it petrified and can never again be as it was.".
The enormity of the task before me made me want to weep again, and I was so thirsty. But somehow I gathered myself up into a kind of determined resignation, and prepared to work a while at the boulder. Again, I drew back the pick and let fly at the smooth rock face. Instantly, the world flashed white and my whole body was filled with stinging pain, and the center of that pain was in my back. I had forgotten the lash! I wheeled on my torturer, though the smoke obscured him. He was only a dark shape, but I could just make out the whip in his hand. Through hot tears I shouted, "What purpose can there be in this? Why make my work harder, when it is already impossible? Why torment me... unless it brings you some pleasure? Perhaps you enjoy the suffering of those under your charge?", but there was no response.
I then became angry, and taking the pick in a spasm of tearful and hopeless fury, I wailed at the rock. With each blow, whenever the pick struck the stone, the lash fell. The last blow of the whip curled around my middle, and I looked down at my stomach expecting to see blood, as the pain was like being laid open. But I saw no blood. Through the ebbing waves of agony, I bent and looked closely at where the lash had struck, and in a neat stripe which was the imprint of the lash, there were no longer any scars, but smooth skin, no longer the skin of a monster, but of a man.
"Where this lash falls, there is healing", the voice intoned.
"But, what kind of whip takes away a scar, rather than leaving one? Of what can it be made?"
"Examine it for yourself", said the voice, and held out the whip, "you also made this."
I took up the whip, and inspected it. It seemed to be made of ordinary leather cords, braided together with what appeared to be a few fine threads of gold. "Look more closely", commanded the voice. I held the lash to my eyes and tiny marks became visible running along the length of each cord. There was a momentary break in the roiling clouds of smoke, and in the fleeting pale light I could make out words.
The voice rumbled, "These are all the words you ever spoke. Complaints and gossip and empty vanity, mostly. With these words you harmed others and yourself, and handed out scars much more numerous than those you see on your own body. To undo the wounds caused by these words, you must feel their sting yourself. They have come back to you, and you must own them all before you will be fit to move on to the table land."
"But what of the gold threads?" I begged, "Surely not every word was evil?".
"Those few, fine threads are when you spoke well, and those were spun in your heart at those times when the fire of my Spirit burned there. It is that gold which gives this lash its healing property.".
I nodded and turned again to face the boulder.
©Copyright Timothy Jones, 2010
(To be continued, maybe...)