A Prayer for Many Gods
August 2, 2007
The Tale of Walter Mitty
August 4, 2007

The slighted boy scrambled between the tent flaps, screeching as his miniature feet carried him in graceless thunder across the courtyard. Jokiah hung his head, the dust of the ground filtering in through the tent fabric and into his eyes. He brushed them indifferently, reaching down to feel the outline of his bulbous toes.

“There’s nothing you could have said that would have made him happy.” A deeply pensive, eccentric figure, draped in leathery skin, sat cross-legged beside him. He alternated between hesitant glances at Jokiah and the sudden movements of dirt creatures slithering from tent to tent. There was more to say, but he kept silent.

Within the space of that protracted pause, the sun finally lifted to the pinnacle of its arc. However much they loathed the constant, repressive heat, they could not blame the sun. It was as much a servant as any creature, needing the life of others to survive. Given the tedious task of rising and falling until time dissolved, the course of the sun was kept. Though the face of it was tired, and the punishing heat impassionate.

“I left to come here, Yeshuah. I left my studies, my comfort, my friends. I did it with simple intention; I wanted to find the truth.” Jokiah’s head never moved; his fingers carefully, rigidly crossed to his other foot and began to curve along the dusty nails.

“You know why I offered to help you. I believed there was some good in it.” His eyes trailed the whining wind blowing beneath the edge of the tent. They shifted upward, catching the parapet of the temple through the many cracks in the fabric. The wind picked up suddenly, caking his face with dust.

Jokiah laughed, finally lifting his head to see the old man’s features embossed with grains of sand. “It’s a good look for you, Yeshuah. Maybe it will help flatten those wrinkles.”

Yeshuah brushed the detritus away from his eyes, gently prying his eyelids open and dusting beneath them with the tip of his index finger. “I’m glad you found that amusing. It’s the first time you’ve laughed all week.”

Jokiah lifted himself up with his legs—trunks of muscle, gnarled though they were with scrapes and countless burns. He walked over to the edge of the tent, head bowed, and looked outside into the blinding sunlight. Without absorbing it, he retreated back into the tent. An inchoate smile rested on his lips, turned slowly upward in the shape of a grin. “My friend, there is more to life than old bones and books of ancient wisdom.”

“I could have read you that from Aristotle.”

“You could have read that to me from Aristotle—and Plato, and Socrates, and Hippocrates, and Freud, and Foucault, and Rousseau, and Jesus Christ. But the words wouldn’t have done much for me. There’s little chance I would have understood what the hell they meant.” He knelt down on the bare ground, strumming his fingers along the cragged dirt. His eyes, as they so often did, followed them in their unoriginal, uninspiring linear motions. “I’ve read,” he whispered, almost to himself. “But it’s quite a different thing to understand. Children without parents, crying in my hands—I feel that. It’s unavoidable.”

Yeshuah rested his hands on his thighs, straightened his back, and took in the cleanest of the dust-fouled air. His eyes shut, quivering for a moment with undiscovered pockets of sand. The air released, and the outline of the skin-clad lungs faded gently into ragged leather. He opened his eyes.

“Maybe all you can do is pray.”

“Do you really believe that?” Jokiah pummeled him with the question; it was violent.

“Some days. Some days helplessness is prayer, and only prayer.”

“Then devote yourself to a higher art of prayer. There are more than silent words to that art. Something must be lived; some thing must be done.” He looked at the old sage, eyes vacillating between pointed ears and the unsavory flap of stomach skin fallen over his groin. He once was fat, obese. Now, rail-thin with only signs of a comfortable man. None of it was appealing. He loved him anyway.

Yeshuah nodded, rubbing the edge of his thigh as he scrutinized the grainy cracks and ugly scars trailing from hip to knee. He sighed, smiling up at Jokiah. “67 years I’ve lived; it’s impossible not to do something. But in nearly seven decades, I have no idea what I’ve accomplished.”

Jokiah smiled back, lifting his hand to rest on Yeshuah’s pointed, bony shoulder. “Who said you need to know? Somebody does; trust in that and keep living.”

Yeshuah giggled. “Fine words from such a jaded spiritualist. And young, on top of it all.”

“Age is mostly insignificant, I think,” Jokiah mused from his haunches. “Just look at that boy, that desperate, orphaned 8-year-old boy.” He turned to look through the flaps in the tent, almost expecting the boy’s face to reappear, covered in sweat and dirt. “He might be wiser than both of us.”

Yeshuah lifted himself up from the rug, rubbing the bottoms of his feet against his legs. “Shall we go find him, then? He might have a thing or two to teach us.”

“Wonderful idea, my friend.” Jokiah stood, staring into the old man’s crusty black eyes for a prolonged moment. Then he parted the fabric that stood as entrance to the tent, wandering through the sand.

As Yeshuah followed, the strums of a gentle lyre resounded on the red desert stone; the voices of children in unison flowed between the dunes. The young king David released his melancholic hymn with the fall of the pink-hued sun.

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