He set the last stone gently on top of the pile, the cairn as they were calling it. His hand rested there a moment. This is it, he thought, I’m giving it all to you, God. He meant it too, though his hand still shook a bit as he removed it from the stone; His stone, his sin, sacrificed on the altar. That was the idea, to build a cairn representing all of the things that kept them from growing closer to God, then give them over to Him and leave them behind. He didn’t know about the other guys, but he was taking this seriously. He wanted so much to be free that he was willing to go to even this length of faith to rid him of the darkness that seemed to surround him more and more of late.
He turned carefully on the ledge. It was not a long drop to the water below, but there were rocks all around the pool that he could easily crack his skull on should he fall. He was the only one still on the ledge, the others having climbed back across the narrow gap to the other side. He scanned the area around them, a scene of harsh rock and scrub hills this time of year, though it could be quite lush and beautiful after the spring rains.
His gaze wandered to the tops of the hills where their group leader said he often saw an old man stacking rocks with no apparent rhyme or reason. This old man had been the group leader’s inspiration for this particular hike, a hike to build the cairn and leave all of their most serious sins and hang-ups at the foot of their own personal altar to God. Just some crazy old coot, he thought, though he had to admit that going before God like this felt very powerful.
A small sound, like the distant buzz of angry bees, caught his attention. He cocked his head as it grew louder. Then his attention was pulled away by the sudden sounds of a splash and hysterical laughter as one of his hiking buddies slipped and fell into the pool. “Whoo-Hoo,” he hooted as he rushed to join his friends.
The old man watched the small group of young men from his perch atop one of the rocky hills. Young was relative, he thought as he saw that at least one of them was probably pushing 60, but still young by his own standards. He cautiously placed another stone upon his stack, a stack which only he knew the significance of. He wondered if the men below truly knew the significance of their own pile of rocks. Actually, he didn’t wonder at all; he knew. Oh, they had some idea, and it was a good idea at that. They just did not understand the full significance of what they were doing.
The old man watched as the young men helped their friend out of the water then start on their way back to their families and lives. As they disappeared from view he turned his gaze to the cairn that they had created. He could see the slime beginning to ooze from between the well placed rocks and spread along the pile like a cancer. He could hear the angry hissing as well. He wondered if any of the young men would return, but then he really did not wonder; he knew.
He slowed as he passed the spot where his group had left the trail to build their cairn. He didn’t know why he was back here again. It had been almost three weeks since he had come here with his hiking buddies; three very good weeks as a matter of fact. By the time he had arrived home after that hike he had felt like a new man, as though a terrible weight had been lifted from him. And, to be honest, one had been. He had not touched alcohol since that day, had not even wanted it, really. It was as though he had truly left that particular vice as a sacrifice on the cairn.
So why was he here now, back at the place where he had left it all? He kept telling himself it was just a nice area, a place he enjoyed. He knew it was more than that, however. He was drawn to this place; drawn to the burden that had seemed so heavy before, yet so desirable now. Something about that innocent pile of rocks called to him like a lost love, sucking him back to his old self.
He came around a bend in the path and saw the water fall trickling into the deep pool below. As he slowly climbed the rocks leading up to the edge a sheen of sweat formed at his brow, just beneath his cap. It felt cold as it ran down his face. As a matter of fact, his whole body was beginning to feel cold as he neared the area. Surely, he though, someone would have knocked the silly pile of rocks down by now. After all, this must be a popular spot as scenic as it was. But no, he knew it was still there. He could sense it like a cold darkness waiting just for him. Then he saw it, piled on the ledge just as they had left it. He felt his body shudder involuntarily as he stared at it. Goose bumps popped up on his arms. It’s just a pile of rocks, he told himself. No big deal. But it didn’t feel that way. It felt like a very big deal indeed. He wanted those rocks; he wanted his rock. He wanted it like he had thought he would want alcohol, a craving from deep within. Scrambling across the rocky ground he began the short climb to the other side.
Approaching the cairn, his breathing was more ragged than it should have been which, for some reason, irritated him. He pushed the feeling aside and stepped closer to the pile of rocks. It was just as he remembered, nothing had been touched. Or messed with, he though as the irritation came back. The idea that someone might have disturbed something so personal set him on edge. He looked around as though he thought he might be being watched. The trees around him held silent shadows that could have concealed anyone. He looked around, eyes wide with paranoia that he was being watched. Finally, he forced himself to relax and turned his attention back to the cairn, not even aware of the smile that was slowly spreading across his face. He recognized his rock, the one he had carried so far along the path that day. It had seemed so heavy then, such a burden to him. Of course, that was part of the ceremony; leaving their heavy burdens behind; and he had. Three weeks was a long time, and he hadn’t even been temped, had he? No, it had been easy; just leave your burdens behind in a pile of rocks. A rough laugh escaped him at this thought. Yep, just dump those old sins in the woods and walk away a free man.
He could sure use a drink now though, couldn’t he? Oh yeah. A nice cold beer would go down really great right now, he thought. He reached out a hand to the pile of rocks, his own right there on top where he had left it. He picked it up and read the scrawled writing. Addiction, it said. He had not even been able to write “Alcoholism” on it that day. That was just a bit too honest. Heck, addiction could mean anything at all.
He jumped as the rock suddenly moved in his hand. It was not an overly large rock, perhaps three pounds. He watched it intently, but nothing happened. He let out a breath that he had not even realized he was holding. Of course it hadn’t moved; it was a rock. It did feel strange, however, warm though the day was cool and this spot had been shaded for hours. He also noticed a bad smell in the air, as though something had died nearby. The stench of death suddenly overwhelmed him and he wondered how he had failed to notice it sooner. He shoved his rock back to the pile, knocking over the others in his haste. One of them toppled so that he could read the word one of his hiking buddies had written.
The word seemed to consume him, mixing with the stench of death and bringing a dark new clarity to his senses. What was he being such a wimp about, anyway? It was a beautiful day and this was just a stupid pile of rocks that a stupid bunch of guys had stacked while on a stupid hike. He realized now just how stupid the whole thing had actually been. For that matter, just how stupid the whole hiking group was. It was football season, for Pete’s sake. What were a bunch of men doing traipsing around in the woods while beer and football waited at home? Well, there was no beer in his home, but he could easily fix that, and if his wife didn’t like it that was just too bad for her.
The stone in his hand grew hot, matching his mood. His breathing came in ragged gulps as everything that had ever angered him crowded rational thought from his mind. Every insult, every abuse, every jab and insensitive remark that had ever been aimed his way rose up like a living beast to devour him. In a fit of blind rage he struck the stone against the rock face. Again and again he pounded it as curses spewed from his lips.
He spun around, looking for something else to hit, something else to take his rage out on. Spying the remainder of the cairn, he grabbed another rock and pulled it back over his shoulder, intending to hurl it across the stream. Whoa, hold on there, he thought, the anger gone as quickly as it had come. Why am I throwing away a perfectly good rock? This absurd thought did not strike him at all as strange; after all, one could never have to many possessions. Someone else would definitely want this rock. He looked around nervously, again searching the trees for those who would try to take what was his. He held the rock tight against his chest. This one was not very big, but it was pretty and it was his. He would not allow anyone to take what was his. Thinking that it would be much safer in his pocket, he glanced quickly at it before shoving it in. The word written on it flashed across his numbed mind.
A noise to his right startled him. He grabbed another rock from the pile to heave at the intruder who was no doubt here to steal from him. His body suddenly felt warm, flushed. He was still worried, but now he thought that the intruder might be that young woman with the nice legs he had passed on the trail a ways back. He really had not paid her much attention at the time, but now that he thought about it, she had definitely been hot. And hadn’t she given him a look, one of interest? Yes, he was sure she had. And why not? He kept himself in pretty good shape. He was sure that many of the ladies he encountered found him at least somewhat attractive. He looked around again, actually hoping that she would be there. The face of his wife momentarily intruded on his thoughts, but he easily pushed it away. She would always be there, but he may not have a chance like this again.
When a few minutes had passed and he still did not see the woman he felt a rush of disappointment before letting his mind move to the movie he had watched with his wife the night before. He had no idea who the actress was, but man was she a looker. He took the time to imagine what she would look like in a bikini. It was not normally his way to think about other women like this, but right now he could not seem to help himself. Women of every walk of life rushed through his head, each one filling a brief need that seemed to come from deep within before being replaced by the next. He closed his eyes and let the images come, all kinds of women in various states of dress. The rock in his right hand seemed to burn its lone word into his palm.
His body trembled as alien feelings and emotions raged within him. The insatiable need for alcohol combined with the greed and lust that had no outlet pushed his anger to a level he could not even comprehend. Behind clenched eyelids he could see movement writhing in the darkness, and hear growling and hissing deep within his head. Whatever they were they wanted out; wanted out very badly. He wanted them out as well, not because he did not appreciate them, but because he wanted what they wanted and he knew instinctively that the only way to get it was to give in to them, let them have their way. Some distant part of him screamed that this was wrong, but he easily pushed that annoying voice away. He wanted this, needed this, deserved this.
Suddenly, the blackness behind his eyelids darkened. Forcing his eyes open, he gasped at the vision that greeted him. Clouds, blacker than any he had ever seen, swirled madly across the sky. A strong wind blew through them hurling shadows very much like those that had been in his head moments before. The wind was cold as it whipped the trees. His cap suddenly blew off as an exceptionally strong gust full of dust struck him in the face. For a moment he teetered on the ledge, having forgotten just where he was.
He brought his hands up to cover his face as more dirt struck him like a sandblaster. The hands suddenly stopped still inches from their intended target. He stared at them in horror as black slime oozed from between his fingers, covering the rocks he still held. It was cold as it dripped down his wrists, falling with a splat to the rock ledge on which he stood. He shook his hands, fighting to get the stuff off of him, but it continued to stream out of his fists that were locked tight around the rocks.
His mouth opened and closed like that of a fish as his strained mind struggled to comprehend what he was seeing. Words, dark and magical, whispered in the wind. They combined with the dirt, sand and darkness that swirled around him, filling his consciousness with their alluring ideas. Yes, he though, a drink would be very good. And not just one, either. He had some making up to do, after all. Oh yeah, and a hot woman to go along with it. He would stop at a bar on the way home, have a few drinks and pick up some hot number. His lust grew within him until he could barely contain it. The face of his wife once again intruded, sending him into a rage. How dare she! How dare she stick her face into his business? She was the cause of all of his problems in the first place. If she would just leave him alone and let him do his own thing life would be great.
The rage built inside him and he embraced it. He tasted something strange in his mouth, like rotting meat. He tried to spit and felt a gush of the slime flow across his lips. Gagging, he felt the stuff slide down his throat. No, not down, but up. It was coming from inside him. He put his head back and opened his mouth to roar out his rage, but only a slime-filled gurgle came out. Around him the wind screamed in fury as the sky continued to darken. Things flew around him, darting in and out of his vision, laughing, hissing, mocking. He felt the slime fall down his chin and across his chest, covering him in the filth that was spilling from his mind, his heart, his soul. His consciousness stormed with the wind, and all compassing rage that spilled from a mind twisted by desire beyond what one man could endure.
The Old Man watched from across the rocky creek. The man was deep into it now, yessir, deep into it. The Old Man could see the shadows dancing about him, hissing their poison into the deepest recesses of the man’s soul. The man spun and thrashed, though the Old Man doubted that he was even aware of his actions. These things, he knew, worked from the inside out, and right now a lot was coming out. Yessir, a real cesspool of stuff was coming out of this young man. Stuff he didn’t even know was inside of him. Stuff that would have lay dormant had he left well enough alone. Well, the Old Man though, he had not left well enough alone and now he was in a fight for his very life.
The Old Man walked out of the forest and across the rocky terrain with a litheness that belied his aged appearance. As he stepped up to the edge of the stream across from the troubled man he felt the blackness of evil emanating from him. Slime and filth cover the man’s hands, arms and face, as well as most of the front of his body. The shadows continued spewing their lies and hatred, turning him as black as they were.
As though feeling the Old Man’s presence, the slime covered man suddenly spun around, eyes wild and searching. Spying the Old Man across the stream, he let loose a shriek of terror and hatred. “What do you want,” the man yelled. “Get away from me.”
The Old Man smiled. “You look like you could use some help, son.”
The other man spewed more of the filth from his mouth, this time mixed with vile curses. “I don’t need your help, old man. I don’t need anyone’s help.” At this last part the man’s face contorted into some semblance of a grin, though it was quite horrible to look upon. The Old Man, however, did not flinch.
“I see you, son. The real you. This,” he pointed at the man, “this isn’t you. Oh, part of it, maybe once, but not all of it, and no more, unless that is what you really want. Is it? Is this what you really want?”
“Is this what you really want?” He heard the old man’s question, though it barely registered through the shrieks that filled his pounding head. He also heard the words coming from his mouth, vile words that he had never used with any regularity were steaming out with ease. He hated the old man, though he had no idea why. To be honest right now he hated everyone, himself included. His mind was so filled with darkness and rage that he knew he must be going insane. Putting blackened hands to each side of his head, he turned his face toward the sky and roared again. Had anyone been around to hear it, their blood might very well have run cold at the inhuman loathing and anguish contained within.
He finally returned his red eyed gaze to the old man who held a fist size stone in one hand and a black Sharpie marker in the other. “What are you doing, you old fool?” he muttered, a dangerous edge to his voice.
The Old Man hummed a sad tune as he wrote something on the rock. He then easily climbed across the rocky steam and approached the sin stained man. The shadows hissed at the Old Man’s approach, then began whispering lies and curses in their victim’s ears. “Stay away from me,” the man shouted, spewing the same curses that were being fed to him. “You just keep away from me, you hear old man, stay AWAY!”
The Old Man did not appear to hear. He continued to calmly humming his tune as he stepped up next to the man on the narrow ledge. “‘Scuse me,” the Old Man said politely. The other man growled animal like, his eyes nearly bugging from his head, but still the Old man did not seem to notice. The Old Man moved easily by the other, his hand deftly slipping into the man’s pocket and sliding out the rock that had been hidden there. He then made his way to the fallen cairn and began re-piling the rocks. The fury of the wind increased, scattering shrub and bending trees, but the Old Man still did not seem to notice. “I’ll take that one as well,” the Old Man said calmly, indicating the rock locked in the man’s hand.
Straining against what he was doing with every muscle in his body, the man reached a shaky hand out and dropped the rock into the Old Man’s palm. The Old Man muttered, “Thank Ya,” and placed the last rock on the pile. The shadows screamed and swirled in a frenzy, but did not release their victim.
“You can’t have him,” one of them said.
“He belongs to us now,” snarled another.
The Old Man sighed, shaking his head sadly. “You cannot claim what belongs to someone else. Though he has fallen, this man belongs to me.”
As the Old Man reached out his hand toward the cairn, the rock within his fingers glowed with a warm light. He gently placed the stone on top of the pile and stepped aside. The rock glowed brighter and brighter, soon too bright for human eyes to behold. The man howled at the dark sky, venting every emotion that filled his body. It was a cry of longing mixed with fury; hope with desperation. The shadows screamed with him, though theirs was simply fury, hate, and…fear? One by one they fled the man, to disappear into the darkness. Finally exhausted, the man sank to his knees, forehead pressed against the cool rock of the ledge. Through the darkness a single word seemed burned to the inside of his eye lids.
The man sobbed uncontrollably, feeling so ashamed, yet so free. He felt the Old Man’s hand settle gently on his back.
“My Grace is enough,” he heard. “It covers all.”
The gentle hand moved away, but the man remained where he was, kneeling upon the hard stone as tears flowed past his tightly squeezed eyelids. After what seemed like hours, he raised his head and looked up at the cairn. It was still there, just as they had left it, with one exception. A new stone was added to the top, the word “GRACE” covering the sins of the group. The man stumbled to his feet, his body as clean as his newly whitened soul.