A Desire To Learn

Pyter ran through the cobblestone streets and safely into a deserted alleyway. He surveyed the path behind him to make sure he wasn’t followed then made certain he had an open route of escape should he need one. Satisfied he was alone, and would be for a time, he sat on a pile of trash and got comfortable. His bare feet were black with grime, his pants shredded from the knee down, and his shirt so threadbare any onlooker wouldn’t believe he wore one.

He could have stolen a new shirt or even a coat for the upcoming winter, and he had planned on doing so when he came upon something he treasured more than warmth and protection. He convinced himself the contents of the book in his hands now might even be able to give him everything he needed to stave off the cold better than a piece of cloth or even a house, though he had never known the luxury of shelter. The possibilities within this book were virtually endless. He just had to learn its contents. His hands traced the symbol on the spine and caressed the cover before thumbing it open to the first page.

“Where’d you find that, boy?”

Pyter fell from atop the trash heap and landed on the cool stone. His heart fired rapidly within his chest. He quickly stood and peeked around to the other side of the pile where the voice had come from. Either he didn’t notice the man when he sat down or he didn’t notice the man come sit next to him. Both options scared him because the man had evaded his keen awareness developed on the streets. He should have heard the man’s breath as soon as he entered the alley.

“Who are you?” Pyter asked.

The man’s head shifted but remained hidden beneath the leather hood. Pyter could see a peppered, thick beard hiding the man’s face.

“Just a beggar wondering what kind of book you have there, and where you happened to get it,” the man said.

“All you need to know is that I have it, right? Which you can plainly see.”

The man gave a chuckle and his whole body moved with it. Pyter could see there wasn’t much to the man, but it was more than what would be found on any beggar in this city.

“May food find you,” Pyter gave him the poor-man’s goodbye and turned to make his exit.

“Perhaps it can find you,” the man replied, and held up a whole loaf of bread. It was more than Pyter had eaten in a month and almost enough to tempt him into making a mistake, but years of fighting for scraps warned him of the easy take.

“I think I’ve got all I need. Thanks.” Pyter tapped the book and continued toward the open street. The man didn’t move. Pyter grew far enough away to turn his back on him. As he did, he froze and watched the cobblestone rise before him until it was eight, ten, twelve feet tall. He turned back to the man sitting by the trash pile, but the man still held up the bread in offering. He hadn’t moved at all.

Pyter warily returned to where the man sat and feigned interest in the bread before bolting down the alley and toward his only remaining way out. Again, the stones rose from the ground. He scanned the street for a drain but there were none. He was boxed in completely. The realization of this came upon him and he tried to calm himself. The man was obviously powerful, but he wasn’t going to give up without a fight.

The man rose slowly and removed his hood. He was bigger than he first appeared when sitting. The beard was black but with prominent streaks of white at the edges of his mouth. Vivid, clear eyes the color of an ocean in storm stared at Pyter. A hair-thin scar ran from his left ear, up his cheek, and through his left eyebrow where a few strands of hair were discolored.

“I propose a trade,” the man said, “I’ll give you the bread if you answer my question.” He was still holding the loaf out in offering.

Pyter saw the bread in his peripheral vision. He refused to break eye contact with the man, but then thought to try a sizable risk that could possibly provide the advantage. He looked away and feigned interest in the situation before prompting the man to repeat the question.

“I asked where you got that book.” The man reminded him. He remained in place with the bread offered. Pyter realized the man was also wary of their standoff, but he decided to play along.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I prefer to hear a man confess his crime before I punish him for it.”

Pyter’s senses returned to high alert. His act abandoned, he prepared for a fight. He just hoped he might still be alive after he lost this one. He prepared to use the only spell he’d been able to learn. His last resort. He muttered the words, summoning the air within the alley around him. He could see the man’s robe flutter toward him and the air obeyed his commands. The man’s eyes never left his own.

When he conjured all he could, he unleashed it down the alley in gust strong enough to send even a horse several feet into the air, but the man remained eye contact before he vanished behind a wall of flame. Fire shot skyward. The wind Pyter had created fed the fire and joined its path upward and beyond the alley. The heat grew and it grew hard to breath.

Pyter fell to his knees cutting them open, but he was too exhausted to feel the pain. He heaved air in and out and was afraid he’d pass out when the flames disappeared and air once again entered his lungs. His vision was blurred but he heard the boots of the man approach. The man picked up the book he hadn’t realized he dropped.

“Who are you?” the man asked.

“Nobody.”

“Every man has a name.”

Pyter continued to regain his breath. The exhaustion threatened his consciousness. He hoped his silence would prompt the man to leave.

“It’s no matter, I suppose, but I hate to see wasted talent. Here.” The man lifted Pyter into a sitting position and gave him the bread and a water skin. He helped Pyter eat and drink a little. The food restored some energy and Pyter finished the meal himself. The man knelt on one knee in front of him. The vivid eyes staring. Pyter found he couldn’t remain eye contact for long, so he looked at the stone beneath him.

“Pyter,” he finally said, “My name is Pyter.”

“Good. You haven’t lost the ability to trust completely.” The man stood. “Well, Pyter, how would you like to leave this behind you?” The man gestured around him before offering his hand to help Pyter up. “I can show you a place filled with these types of books. You can learn as much as you want, and even learn to forget what it means to starve.”

Pyter looked from the hand to the man’s eyes. They no longer seemed rigid, but fluid and warm and even welcoming. They were like a fire on a winter’s night. Pyter took his hand. The two stone walls receded until the alleyway was once again as it had been before their interaction. The man patted Pyter on the shoulder then offered him his robe.

“This will keep you warm until we can get you cleaned up.”

“What about you?” Pyter asked.

The man thumbed the book and winked. “I’ve got all I need, and if you pay attention, you will too.”

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. My now father-in-law bought this book for me over a year ago and I just got around to reading it last month (that to-be-read pile never decreases). Of course, Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis is best known for writing the Chronicles of Narnia series. I haven’t read that series, and now that I think about it, this might be the first of Lewis’s books that I have read.

This book reads as a collection of letters sent by Screwtape, a demon/devil, to his nephew, Wormwood. The letters offer advice on how to effectively tempt a human in such a way that they end up in Hell as sustenance for fellow demons. Though I am not a religious man, I enjoyed this book for several reasons.

The first being the historical context and reassurance that humanity has suffered the same or similar societal issues for at least the past 100 years. This book was published in 1942. Many of the tricks that Screwtape offers his nephew to persuade his patient are also reflections on human nature and its social interactions. I was surprised to find many of the behaviors spot on even for today, nearly eighty years after they were written, in a time drastically different due to technological advancement and the connection of humanity across the world by the ambivalent internet.

I know that C.S. Lewis had a crisis of faith at one time and that J.R.R. Tolkien, along with another friend, helped him during this time. The result ended up with Lewis bolstering his beliefs and going on to write many theologically influenced books, including this one. Lewis even dedicated this book to J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien were best friends as they taught at Oxford and remained friends their entire lives. They often reviewed each other’s works and offered advice. I could go further into their relationship, but I’ll refrain because I’ll end up talking more about Tolkien than Lewis, or this book of his that I’m recommending.

The letters often refer to a war and how it could be used to win the battle for the human soul. This war refers to World War II, but I wouldn’t be surprised if World War I had some influence as well. Apparently there are many ways for us humans to be influenced toward sin and other actions. There is also many ways we can seemingly be redeemed (and fairly easily). This book is considered “Christian apologetic novel” and honestly I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it has many interesting lectures I think anyone can enjoy. Lewis stated that he had a hard time writing this book because Screwtape was such an abhorrent character (being a demon). Luckily for us, he was able to produce this interesting religious and social commentary.

Happy Reading.

Sadness and Wonder

He walked into the reception room and sat in one of the many chairs arranged in a semicircle. They were early because they were family, but Zach was uncomfortable in the stiff shirt and tie his mother had made him wear. The suit coat was itchy but he had been warned of taking it off for any reason. He sat in the chair, his feet barely meeting the floor, and waited while his parents spoke with a group of people Zach had never seen before. The room was quiet and filled with the perfume of old people. That dusty, masking smell that permeates buildings and all who enter until a feeling of nostalgia sets in for a time they never knew. Zach felt as if he had entered the past just by remaining still and looking at ancient design in the carpet.

Twenty minutes passed before people began arriving. To Zach it felt like two hours had passed. Though he was grateful to no longer be the only one sitting in the waiting area, he was a little sad that no one who came neared his own age. The closest was a man in his early thirties with a large beard and wrinkled suit that looked as if it had been dug out of the back of a closet. Zach doubted anyone was less than twenty years older than him, so he sat quietly and avoided eye contact. Even with those who offered their condolences to him. He didn’t know the word, but he knew the meaning behind it considering their tone and the reason for their being here.

The reception room filled quickly and it soon regained its purpose. Everyone was waiting for things to begin. Zach didn’t know it was customary for visitors to wait around and offer their sympathy and support to the family. He just wanted to go home and play his Nintendo.

Then, through the din of conversations, Zach heard a woman begin a story about his grandpa. He didn’t realize they were talking about his grandpa at first, but he quickly realized it had to be about him.

“I remember one time,” the woman said, “when Gus had to come pull us out of the mud. Do you remember that, Brad? We had just started dating at the time and were out near Hawk’s Ridge when it started raining. We were….a little preoccupied at the time to care…”

Laughs circled the room and Zach offered a chuckle so as not to feel left out, even though he had no idea why everyone laughed.

“…but it poured down. Brad started the truck to go home because we were cutting it close to my curfew. Within seconds the wheels had buried themselves. Brad ran into town and knocked on Gus’s door asking for help since he knew Gus had a truck big enough to tow, and of course Gus was happy to lend a hand. He always was. So he came out and started pulling us out of the mud. He even dug out our back wheels in the rain to put the boards under them. He had us out in under two minutes and we made it back just in time.”

“I don’t know if your dad would have let me take you on a second date if we broke your curfew,” the man next to her said. He was holding her hand. Zach noticed the woman was pregnant because it looked like she was hiding a basketball under her shirt.

“I remember when Gus took that truck and plowed the high school parking lot and all the bus routes so the kids wouldn’t miss a day of school.” A man sitting across the semicircle from Zach said. He was probably older than his grandpa had been. He held a cane in his hands even though he was sitting and a goofy, toothless smile now spread across his face. “The next morning, the superintendent decided not to call off school because all the roads were cleared. Those kids were mad as hell.”

Zach could imagine his grandpa plowing snow. He was allowed to join him one time when he was only six. His grandpa had brought a big thermos of hot chocolate for the both of them to share. His grandma had packed a lunchbox of cookies too. Zach had sat in the passenger seat, thrilled to be out well beyond his bedtime, and out working with his grandpa even though the only work he did was eat the cookies and drink the hot chocolate and eventually fall asleep in the passenger seat only to be carried in the house by his grandpa at three in the morning.

He could imagine those kids being mad at having to go to school on an expected snow day. For some reason, he had a hard time realizing the man named Gus in the stories was his grandpa, and that his grandpa had been anything but the white-haired old man who came to his house a few times each year and was always smiling.

“Did you know that Gus once worked at the hotel where they filmed a Marilyn Monroe movie?” It was an older woman who said this. “I remember him always telling this story when we were at dinner parties. I think it was Some Like It Hot, or maybe it was Love Nest. I can’t remember. Anyway, he worked there the summer they filmed the movie and actually got to meet her.”

“I remember that,” another old woman chimed in, “Nancy hated when he told that story. She would always get flushed and hide her face, but we would all laugh when he said he missed his chance with Marilyn and settled for Nancy.”

“She got flushed because she didn’t believe us when we told her he was lucky to have her. Even though he knew she was the one who settled. That’s why he spoiled her so much.” The two women continued their story but it faded into the background as Zach turned his attention to a man in a military uniform who was talking about how his grandpa, referred to as Zip in the story, had saved a man’s life during their time in the army. Zach listened in wonder at all of the stories everyone was telling of the man they had come to say goodbye to.

He no longer felt the stiff, itching of his clothes. He no longer felt bored and even didn’t want to go home. He was in awe learning about his grandpa from the strangers surrounding him. He wished he would have known all of these stories before today so he could ask questions about them, but he was soon ushered into the chapel nave where the open casket waited. Zach could only wonder at what else the man who was his grandpa had done as people went up to the podium and spoke for the next hour. He realized he wasn’t sad anymore. Instead his imagination was filled with wondering who his grandpa had been before he had white hair and thin, speckled skin. He wondered what kind of person his grandpa was as a kid. He imagined an entire life for the man he only knew as grandpa.

Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. This book is classified as a children’s book and, at only 83 pages with illustrations, can be read in one sitting (which I did in about an hour). The Little Prince was first published in 1943 and captured readers world-wide. It has been adapted into film a few times with the most recent being in 2015 as an animated movie produced by Netflix, which is where I first discovered the story. I was browsing when I came across it. I watched the trailer and thought it was interesting, added it to my queue, and decided to read the book before watching it. I never knew this story existed before I saw the trailer. I didn’t know anything about Antoine de Saint-Exupery either. Again, I find myself discovering new things because someone liked a story enough to adapt it into another medium in hopes of spreading the story to a new/larger audience. I myself experienced it for the first time.

Honestly, I’m surprised I’d never read this book before. Maybe I appreciate it more now that I’m older than I might have when I was younger. This book is one that holds elements that entertain children but remind adults something we may have forgotten. A reminder about what is important. It also reminds it’s okay to grow old, but we should never grow up, even when there is plenty of adulting to do.

What’s so great about this book is its transience. It can be picked up, read quickly, and read many times throughout one life to help keep a stable perspective in the chaotic world we inhabit. There are infinite points within this book that can by analyzed and broadened or delved into to make a grand allegorical statement, but it is also something that can be enjoyed without the need to build it into something beyond itself. It is a story that goes beyond the page, and these types of stories are important.

If you’ve read this story before, then you know what I mean. If you were like me a few months ago and had never heard of it, spare an hour to give a read and see what you might get out of it. Some books are meant for children. Books like this one remind us that we are all children.

Happy Reading.

Pay the Paradox

The little boy ran into the room to where his grandpa was reclined in a chair snoring. Bright sunlight shone through the window and warmed the room as a gentle breeze blew through the screen door. His parents were still unbuckling their seat-belts as the boy jumped onto his grandpa’s large belly.

“Ooooooooohhhhh,” Grandpa moaned and sat up suddenly. He looked down to find his grandson hugging him, and he couldn’t help but smile while the pain slowly receded.

“Jack, my boy,” he said, “You need to be more gentle with me. If you get any bigger, you’ll break me next time.”

“You can’t break Grandpa. You’re too big to break.”

“Maybe,” Grandpa sighed and rubbed his abdomen. He silently promised to cut down on the snacks but knew it was his mind making the promise and not his heart.

Geoff and Marie walked through the door with their bags and an extra small one that belonged to Jack.

“Dad,” Geoff nodded before taking the bags to the back room. Marie gave him a hug.

“I think Kate could use your help in the kitchen.”

“I’m here less than ten seconds and you want to put me to work?” She asked in mock offense.

“She’s making cinnamon cake.”

Marie’s eyes narrowed at him. “Mmmhmm.”

“Grandpa, show me the trick.” Jack was grabbing at his shirt.

“Serious,” Grandpa said. He remained wide-eyed and as convincing as possible until she wandered toward the kitchen. He heard her greet his wife, then heard her ask if that was indeed the cinnamon coffee cake. He smiled and turned his attention back to Jack, who kept pulling at his shirt and asking to see his trick.

He picked the little boy up and they wandered into the basement where he had a little workshop. He sat on the stool at the workbench and hoisted the boy onto his lap. In front of them sat a little cube. It was the same cube as last time. A metal frame with small, intricate machinery inside.

“This is the last time,” Grandpa said before they started.

“Awwww,” the boy whined and looked up at the wrinkled face of his grandfather.

“I’m sorry Jack, but this is the last time we can do it.” He looked down at the pouty-face his grandson made and quickly gave in. “We can do it twice this time okay. But no more afterwards.” The pouty-lips turned to a smile and the boy focused on the cube in front of him. His little hands gripped the edge of the workbench as he tried to get his face closer.

Grandpa picked up the cube and turned it to the side with three small dials. He checked his watch then set the dials accordingly before placing the cube on the workbench again. He crouched until his face was next to Jack’s and they stared at the cube.

A second passed. Then the inner parts began to whir and spin. The cube began to rattle on the flat surface. Neither pair of eyes dared to blink. Grandpa glanced at Jack to see the wonder on his face. The same wonder he had when he first saw the cube. The wonder he kept until he learned its inner workings. He turned his attention back to the cube just before it vanished.

“Whoa…” The boy stared at the spot where the cube had been.

“Yeah. Whoa.”

“When will it come back?”

Grandpa checked his watch. “In about ten seconds. Keep your eyes glued.”

They waited in silence as seconds ticked by. Jack’s breathing was steady but shallow. A whisper escaped him, “Two……one…..” The cube appeared exactly where it had been moments before.

“How does it work?” the boy asked.

“You’ll learn when you’re a bit older.” When you are fifteen and back in this basement looking at my old stuff without me, he thought. “Remember, this is the last time.” He picked up the cube and calibrated it. Then he sat it back down on the workbench. “Watch closely this time.”

The boy’s face shaped into a serious expression that he had to restrain himself from laughing at. Together they watched the cube. The seconds passed until it vanished again, except this time it didn’t reappear. Jack stared at the empty space waiting.

“It’s not coming back this time champ.”

“Why not?”

“It just won’t. Now let’s go get some food, huh?” He paused as he finished his question, suddenly realizing the futility of it and the implications of what he had done.

He knew Jack was going to stick to the workbench with a vice-like grip, looking at the empty tabletop for the next two hours, only to finally be persuaded by his mom to go eat dinner. He knew it because he remembered it, just as he remembered an older Jack coming back to his workbench to see the cube reappear next to a journal. The journal he was going to purposely leave out after his grandson left in two days. It would collect dust for a decade only to be opened and read by Jack. When he read the journal himself, he had learned who he really was and who his own grandfather had been, and it will be the exact same for his grandson and himself. The journal held the secrets of the cube, and the designs for the machine that were too tempting for the curious mind.

He had always believed that the cube was the catalyst. It led to the journal and kept the mystery alive until it became an obsession. Now, at the end of his life, he saw the cube was the cause. The journal was the catalyst. The cube was now lost to time. Set to reappear in exactly ten years on June 5th where it will cause the innocent boy in front of him to recreate the same machine he did, and use it in the same way. The thoughts consumed him.

He did nothing for the next two days but think about how to undo what he had done. He wasn’t sure he could, or wanted to, considering what may happen. He could very well undo himself. His wife worried about him on that second day. Enough to call their son.

She was looking at him while she talked to their son, but it wasn’t until she said the phrase “I’m worried” did he get the uneasy feeling of nostalgia. He remembered that phrase the heaviness it sat his own father. His father who stood at the counter on the phone with his grandfather while they both were putting a puzzle together. He remembered those words “I’m worried” and realizing it was his grandmother.

Now he heard the words from the other side of the call and knew what came next. A calmness filled him moments before his coronary artery clogged and pain radiated through his chest and down his left arm.