Friday, July 22, 2005

Chapter 3: Alms for the Poor

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“There are many realities,” the old man said. “There is this one. The one you wake up to each morning, where birds sing and people brew coffee. The water is blue and reflects sunshine onto the land around it, revealing a crystallized beauty like that of an artist’s masterwork. We smile at this and feel contentment and peace in our guts. We hear the laughter of children and the purring of kittens. Everything is safe and worth keeping safe.”

He took a swig from his flask and continued. “Most people are fortunate. It is a great fortune, after all, to live and breathe clean air, to feel ease in our hearts. This is the world where you and I, and my little flagon of sweet jesus juice, sit now. But there is more, as you know, or else you wouldn’t be sitting here. There are secrets, Denny, many secrets.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “You speak as if it is all a lie. Our lives, a lie.”

He laughed and shook his head. His manner wasn’t offensive, just an expression of the comfort of age, experience. He got out of his chair and walked to the window, taking a deep breath in the sunlight, folding his arms across his chest.

After years of traveling, city to city, scant possessions to my name, aside from tragic memories and unconsecrated desires, I returned to the town of my birth. The gravesite of my family. I was 23 and working at the firehouse when I met Uncle Lee, as he was known to everyone, the oldest living man in town. For what may have been ages, he served as the centerpiece of the town gentry, the old guard. Though most of the locals sought his counsel at one time or another, few knew much about him, save for his all-embracing knowledge of obscure tricks and treatments for provincial maladies and his general peacemaking advice.

An outsider in my own hometown, I took to spending late nights by myself in the town square, staring at the placid fountain that was our greatest monument. One evening, time lost in my absent pondering, I looked up from the water and saw him standing next to me, gazing at the water as though he, too, was seeing what I saw, my demons, my confusion. Neither of us said a word, and after several minutes, he paced off down a sidestreet, tapping the cobblestone street with his walking stick.

A month went by, and I continued my lonely vigil, waiting for nothing, waiting for everything. He returned, and again there were no words, only a mutual solemnity and respect for the night’s peaceful grace. He left, not even acknowledging my presence. After many days and a dozen fires extinguished, I’d tallied at six the number of times Uncle Lee appeared. On the seventh, a misty night in early autumn, he spoke to me.

I had been in town nearly a year, and was contemplating another retreat to the familiarity of the road, when I noticed him standing beside me, leaning on his walking stick, smiling. The moon crept through the fog and brightened the street.

“I wasn’t convinced until tonight, but you have the alm,” he said, looking back to the bubbling fountain.

“I’m sorry I don’t understand,” I said. He turned back to me.

“The alm is a gift, or a curse, depending on your perspective. It’s very rare. In fact I’ve only seen it in someone once. Rare indeed.” He shifted his weight and adjusted his coat. “You see, son, people live at the behest and mercy of the elements, and not the other way around. But you, whether you realize it or not, hold some sway over the natural world, or at least, there is a connection there. Subtle, but true.”

I again voiced my confusion. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Hmm, how can I explain,” he said. “I have seen you sit here, countless nights, quiet as sod, looking into the fountain, delving into what nightmares I can only guess about. On every single occasion, there have been amazing changes in the sky and the air around you. You wouldn’t have noticed, as wrapped in thoughtful oblivion as you were, but the very wind changes directions around you. The clouds move, the sky clears up, and at the times when you looked most troubled, the thunder rolls in and the rains begin to fall. Ask yourself, have you ever awakened from a reverie and noticed that you were sitting here by yourself soaked to the bone from a summer storm?” As a matter of fact, I had, and the realization was frightening.

“That alone was enough to sway me and break my cynicism,” he continued. “But it’s not the extent of it. When I spoke to the constable and began to hear the street gossip about what you’ve done as a firefighter, I knew that you had it. In all my years living in this shantytown, I have never seen someone so successful at battling the natural pestilence of fire. You, my friend, are singularly responsible for putting out more than twenty fires. And yet, when I look at you now, I can tell you have no idea the significance of those feats, nor the awe with which your neighbors view you.”

His words, bold and articulate, made a backwards kind of sense. I’d been a ghost in this town, ever since my return, maybe ever since the inferno that usurped my childhood. I was, to say the least, captivated. “Now that I think about it, I guess there is a strangeness to my life here, like a wall of isolation that prevents me from living like everyone else.”

“It’s the alm,” he said. “You have the alm.”

“I still don’t know what that means. Can you tell me more?”

He smiled again, flashing the teeth of a pageant queen. “I’m Uncle Lee. Come see me this week and we’ll have a drink and a talk.”

“I’m Denny,” I said, but he was already walking away, tapping, tapping so lightly at the stony gutter as he went.

A few days later, I found myself in Uncle Lee’s study, books piled high around us, the room dense with rustic charm and the smell of pipe smoke, cherry flavored. Our earlier conversation had roused desires in me, curiosity and renewed fervor for answers to what had been until then, by the simplest explanations, a lifetime of mystery.

Uncle Lee stole another gulp from his flask and turned from the window to face me. “I don’t pretend to know all the answers, Denny, but what I can tell you starts with a girl named Lorelei.”

“Lorelei?” I asked.

“Remember when I told you I’d seen one other person with the alm? Well, that’s as good a place as any to begin a yarn.” He returned to his rocking chair and sat, his elderly bones creaking with the endeavor. I stared back at him with anticipation.
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