Chapter Eighteen: Foundations
Graydon was exhausted. His eyes had sunk into their sockets, dark circles lay sagging above his gaunt cheekbones, and his face bore signs of strain and a weariness beyond his years. For a week he had spent his nights alone in the hayloft, isolated and immersed in his connections, seeing the harm that had befallen the Jacobs family.
His days were filled with work, sweating to clear ditches, cut brush, weed the garden and repair fences around the old homestead. He drove himself hard, stopping only for a brief lunch and a midday rest. He avoided his younger brother. He had few words for his mother, who knew that her eldest son was troubled beyond her counsel. Dee could only look on and tell herself that when he needed her, he would come to her. She sensed that although he was beyond her reach, he loved and needed her.
"So. I hear you've been sniffing around some new little girl in town, huh!" His stepfather's words intruded across the kitchen table, catching Graydon lost in weary thoughts of his own.
"Uhh... what? What did you say?"
"I said I hear there's a girl staying down at that taxidermist's place, that friend you got, that freak with the crippled arm. I hear he's got a strange girl come to live with him and his teacher wife. I hear that you've been going down there a lot. What's up? You gettin' a little honey on yer stinger?"
Graydon sat staring, disbelieving. His mother looked down into her plate. Graydon set his fork down and moved his plate away. Words, any response, failed him. What could he say?
"Awww, c'mon, fer crissakes! Yer a growin' young man. It's time you learned how to go out and get a little! You know, get her out in the wild woods you love so much, and play a little stink-finger with her? Jeezus, all you do is let yer damned hair grow long. Yer goin' around looking like some kinda spook, and you don't do nothin' like a normal kid! Start actin' normal. Go after the girl. Get yerself a little nookie!"
Graydon excused himself from the table, ignoring his stepfather's angry protests: "Hey, shithead, I'm not done talking to you! Git yer ass back here!"
Graydon snatched up his jacket and slipped out of the house, his face blazing with shame, his ears burning. His mind struggled to suppress the hot rage and angry curses rising within himself. His feet found their own path; he walked up the mountain. As he walked he called up strength to stifle his murderous thoughts.
It had been an unsettled, hot, violent sort of day that promised a night filled with thunderheads and lightning strikes. Prayerfully, it would be a night of cloud-to-cloud lightning. The forest was dry, rains were infrequent and scattered, every ground strike was certain to start a fire.
Mike sat with Graydon at their accustomed fire circle, the tiny rock-lined pit in a clearing on the hillside above Mike's cabin. The pale light of a half moon winked through the towering thunderheads that swept down the valley. Dust-scented gusts spun and clutched at them. Litter and leaves swirled around them. A heavy mat of herbs and grasses smoldered in the fire pit and threw off clouds of pungent smoke to sting their eyes and fill their lungs.
"Young shaman," Mike began, with a stare so serious that Graydon thought he'd committed some grave offense.
"Young shaman, my friend, my student, this is a hard thing you have begun. Your life in this valley has been sheltered, since the hard beginnings you endured before coming here. You have never been exposed to the evil and depravity you now see. You are unbalanced. You lack the foundation of knowledge, of faith, of certainty necessary to measure and hold evil in perspective. Now you must learn. You must know.
"How is it, you ask, that such evil can be? How can it be permitted? If there is a Great Spirit, a Creator, how could such evil be allowed into this Creation?
"This is a difficult question. The answer is even more difficult, both simple and infinite. Simple, if you accept and understand; infinite in endless argument and confusion if you do not accept."
Thunder crashed heavily from the fat, pendulous cloud rolling across the face of Virginian Ridge. Graydon stared into the smoke from the small circle at his feet. He felt a thousand years old at this moment. His shoulders sagged with the weight of a thousand burdens. His weary mind opened to his teacher's words. They sank deeply into his consciousness. It felt like balm to his troubled soul.
"Know that there is a balance in all things. Opposites balance: light and dark, male and female, knowledge and ignorance, good and evil, life and death, creation and destruction. In all things, in all ways, there is a balance. Our Asian brothers created a symbol, the spinning circle of light and dark, each chasing the other in an endless cycle.
"Know that there is no physical dark; it is simply the absence of light. There is no poverty; it is simply the absence of wealth. An old sage once asked the beggar: Bring me your poverty. Put it in a bag and spill it at my feet, that I might examine it and know the extent of your impoverishment. That was absurd, of course.
"It is the same with evil. There is no satan, no devil, no demons, no tangible entity that moves man to commit unspeakable deeds. Evil is a choice; a man yields to his baser self. It has been convenient to create a monster, a satan, to blame for our weakness; a satan to bind a congregation to its priests for protection. This is an old and familiar path to power. It is a parent, saying to the child: obey me, or the bogey-man will creep out and do terrible things to you.
"Good and evil are choices. That has been the freedom of man through all the ages. Our Creator has left us free to choose. It is our test: cling to a higher standard, or yield to our baser nature. Saint and sinner, each has chosen.
"The test is harder when the message of the Creator becomes corrupted by men who twist it to their own ends. They seize the light and extinguish it; they cloud the lamp with the filth of their corruption; they confuse the minds of the innocent. They are ravening wolves who scatter the flock and devour the lambs. There is no measure for the evil they do in the name of the Creator. They place themselves as gatekeepers; none may find the Creator but through them.
"It matters not what name we call the Creator. There are many names but only one Creator. Heed this: we cannot know the Creator. We know nothing beyond the Creation. We see the Creation, and we know that we are. We see this reality, and we are aware of ourselves. We explore the universe, we sense a life beyond.
"Foolish minds, even those who call themselves educated, deny Creation by calling it accident and thus deny a Creator. Imagine, you are upon a desert shore and you come upon a ship half buried in the sand. You climb inside and see engines and machinery and instruments. You know there was a creator, an engineer, a builder, a captain. It would be foolish to claim such a thing is the coincidental result of waves crashing against the sands. Our world, the universe, the infinite strands of creation, is it the result of forces crashing against the elements? From whence did a brew of primordial soup spawn life? Who guided it? Never doubt: a Creation requires a Creator!
"If you prefer to scatter your mind in endless confusion and argument, then cast loose the anchor of certainty, that there is a Creator; embrace the vain imaginings of man who feels he is superior to all other Creation, that anything beyond his understanding must be some cosmic accident.
"For the ultimate test, we judge a tree by its fruit. We judge a man by his works. How priceless is the apple tree in autumn rich with fruit; how praiseworthy is the man who has devoted his life to kind deeds and honest works; how precious is the good parent, the wise teacher, the faithful shepherd, they who lead lives fruitful with good works.
"Young shaman, that is what I mean by simple. You will spend the remainder of your life seeking simplicity and wrestling with chaos."
The towering clouds, flashing and glowing like huge ship-lanterns in the night, passed overhead and moved down the valley. Graydon's head throbbed, burdened by the intoxication of the smoke, his fatigue, and his attention to Mike's counsel.
"Mike... my teacher... one thing I must know. The innocents, the children, the evil done to them. How is that permitted?"
Mike looked into the rising smoke for a very long time. He had spent his own lifetime seeking an answer to that question. He could not say, truly, that he had the answer, but long ago he had reached an understanding within himself that allowed him a certain peace of mind.
"I will give you my best answer. You may not accept it, and surely you will seek for your own understanding throughout your own lifetime:
"First, know that the innocents are just that: innocent. If you believe in a greater existence beyond this mortal life, then you will believe that the innocents whose lives are cut short will go immediately to a happier existence.
"Second, know that life is filled with pain. The refinement of gold is to subject it to fire to remove the dross. Many souls suffer handicap and pain during their mortal journey, to emerge as golden treasures.
"Third, know that much responsibility is laid upon us in this life. The skill of the doctor, the discipline of the pilot, the wisdom and integrity of the judge, each is challenged to serve, to preserve, to protect, to advance the cause of their fellows. If an airliner plunges from the sky, who is blameworthy? The Creator who allowed it, or the negligent pilot, the careless mechanic, the corrupt owner? Who caused the deaths of the innocent children aboard that craft?
"I once witnessed a surgeon so skilled that he performed open heart surgery on an infant so tiny he could hold its body in his open hand. He repaired the child's heart and gave it a new beginning, a chance to grow, to marry, bear children, to live a good, full life.
"I failed to stop a man who suicide-bombed a school. Mutilated corpses of children littered the shattered building. Was it the fault of the Creator that this man embraced evil and killed the children of a so-called "Great Satan," or was it the fault of the man's faith corrupted by its priests that he dedicated his atrocity to God's will, seeking a martyr's path to paradise? Was the fault mine? Perhaps if I had been more alert, more aware, I'd have arrived in time to save the children...
"We cannot blame the Creator for our own failings. In all things, the choice is ours. Some say this is the greatest power we possess: the power of choice."
"Rest, young shaman. Your body is exhausted, your spirit is weary, and your mind is troubled. I will bring blankets that you may sleep here by the fire. Do not dream. Do not dwell on troublesome thoughts. Seek peaceful sleep and tomorrow will bring a new dawn and new strength.
"As for me, I have a journey ahead. I must leave immediately. There is a family in Kansas City that needs comforting, healing, and justice!"