THE FIRST BECOMING
Oliver Reardon never thought much about what he wanted out of life. There wasn't much to want. A gifted boy born to good, but simple people, he would stand in the center of the long, quiet stretch of straight road and stare at the far away vanishing point looking -- to the hawks that flew meditative circles overhead -- very much like the pivot, or fulcrum, perhaps, of an endless, concrete seesaw.
When Oliver was sixteen and grown to a height of six foot two, his frame lithe but solid -- nearly too powerful for the temperament it housed -- and his mop of chestnut hair fell in a perfectly unplanned curl over his left eye, his father, an unadorned, honest man, roused him early from dreams of wandering, placed a rifle in his sleepy hands, and took him out to hunt.
Oliver, so unlike those around him, prayed for a long day of boredom and fruitless observation. He held the rifle reluctantly, as far from his body as possible and with as few fingers as he was able, certain that at any moment it would spring to life of its own accord and, brainless, turn in the wrong direction to fire death straight at his own heart.
In the end, he would wish it had.
But for now, his father paused, his hand motioning behind him for Oliver to do the same. "Ssh. There, son, do you see him?"
Did he see him? How could he not? An impossibly large buck, his regal rack of antlers tangling with the branches above his head, froze in place, as though his immense physicality and startling visage could be hidden simply by standing very still.
"Go ahead, Oliver. You've got a clear shot," He heard his father whisper to him, "Good God, he's a rare one."
Yes, Oliver thought, a rare one indeed. And so should be left to live out his days as the king he must surely be.
In his moment of hesitation, his father feared the buck would flee, and so raised his own rifle to the mark.
The buck shifted his gaze then, catching Oliver square in his soul, those immense pools of brown softness pleading, accusing, full of fear and defiance. And when the shot rang out, the buck stumbling and collapsing against tiny saplings, taking them down with a snap, something collided squarely with Oliver, sending him tumbling backward into the scattered spread of fallen leaves.
He knew then, as he lay staring up through the tangle of branches at a grey and heavy sky, that it would be he that paid the price for what could only be called a blasphemy. A crime. He, and not his father who would pay penance.
For his father behaved in complete accord with his nature and reason, while he, Oliver -- in spite of horror and sickness and a total understanding of the wrongness -- stood by in silent witness, allowing the not-so-inevitable to occur.
Yes, Oliver would be the one to bear the burden of consequence as instantly the wind sang harsh songs of betrayal sending bits of debris and dirt into his eyes causing him to bury his head in his arms against the growing onslaught of indictment.
* * *
Oliver did not remain to see what became of the animal, but rather, he left the woods after pulling himself up off the ground, walked out onto the long stretch of road and turned in slow, painful circles. A cold wind howled darkly in his ears, although the barren branches of surrounding trees stood quiet and still, as deep within him he felt things that were once clear and properly placed become tangled and indiscernible. Though his feet stood firmly upon the concrete road, he felt a gut wrenching sense of instability, as though the road were buckling and melting, leaving him at a complete loss as to where to step next.
So he turned in circles, round and round, a blur of thought and feeling distorting his vision, until he felt his left foot take a definitive step forward. He paused, staring at it as if seeing it for the first time, and then allowed his right to follow.
He walked that way, without awareness or purpose, down the infinite straightness of road, and away from the unwanted revelation in the woods.
The farther he got from his home, the greater the distance between himself and the moment before, the more the internal winds died down, until he could no longer recall what it was he had left behind.
He had little, but needed nothing. Just the jeans, wool sweater, and plaid wool jacket he wore. He walked for days, sleeping in neighboring barns and sheds, creeping out before dawn and discovery.
He had no money, just pocket change, but his size and intelligence saw to it that he would not go hungry. Walking through sleepy country towns he would find dishwashers needed, or warehouse help, and though he may never have done the job before, his size got him hired, and his smarts taught him how.
But a heavy shadow walked with him. Always a weight about him that pulled him earthward, so that a body that should stand towering into the sunlight seemed forever locked to the stones beneath his feet. That heaviness, together with a sadness that held itself close to him like a frightened child clinging to its protector, drew others toward him, compelled them to comfort and console. A life longing for solitary exile was made to suffer the pains of compassion. Hands would reach out to him to say, "Can I help you with anything?" or "Are you in need?", or simply, "Hello, how are you today, Oliver?" and he would bear it stoically, even though the touch seared his skin -- even through wool and denim -- leaving faint patches of redness that would remain tender to the touch for days.
At seventeen he found himself in a small town named Godwin for nearly four months, the longest stay in any one place since he had left home.
In that time, the people of Godwin had come to know him, this enigmatic boy/man whose body and shadow seemed one and the same, and whose stature belied his quiet, and obviously anguished spirit.
They took him in as one of their own, as though he had been born and raised there, grown up with their children, and stayed on when others left. It was the wrong town for him to pause in, wanting to be left to his own, but he found himself unable to leave. He was tired. Perhaps this was it. He had reached the time of repayment. His spirit longed for silent servitude of the shadows, yet he found himself too weary, too uncaring, too lost to move from a place of light and careful communing.
Doomed to suffer the heartfelt attention of warm and loving people.
He tried his best to remain aloof and removed, but somehow that only served to draw the citizens of Godwin closer to him.
He claimed a spot in the park far on the periphery, away from the duck ponds and gardens, a lone bench seemingly forgotten, beneath the deep, curving arms of an old willow.
"Oliver?" But someone always found him. Someone always cared.
Glancing up through the tangle of weeping branches he found Mercy, his boss's daughter. She was a year older than he, though so small and frail that while beside him seemed a child. He had never spoken to her, though he had noticed her quiet beauty, and the infectious purity of her laughter.
He looked up at her but didn't seem to really see her, only sensed her, and so didn't acknowledge that she had spoken.
Mercy parted the curtain of branches and sat carefully on the bench beside him as though his size were an illusion and the slightest movement of air around him would whisk him into the wind.
"Oliver?" She carefully reached out to touch his hand, just to be sure he heard her, but the moment her fingers brushed his skin, barely a whisper of a touch, he shot off the bench in a cry of agony.
"Aaah! No!" Oliver pulled his hand toward him, horrified by the jolt of pain he felt at her touch, as though her fingertips held tiny points of fire. On the back of his hand, near his wrist in that very spot, grew an angry red welt that burned as surely as if he had touched a flame.
"I'm sorry! What did I do?" Mercy leapt from her seat as well, miserable that she could have hurt him, wanting to heal the wound. "Oliver, please, what happened?"
Oliver's body trembled. Never had a touch brought so much pain. Never had it left such a mark. One that would surely scar. Forever he would carry the touch of Mercy upon his hand.
"Nothing. It's okay. I -- it's nothing." He could not look at her. He could not stand to risk the danger of looking her in the eye for fear it would blind him forever. Sweet Mercy.
She came to say hello and left him scarred for life.
Over a week passed before he and Mercy crossed paths again, which could only mean she had been avoiding him, for the town was too small for that to be accidental.
It was dusk on a Saturday, and Oliver sat on the wharf watching the sun set behind shadowed masts and gently bobbing sterns.
"Hello Oliver." Mercy stood behind him, careful to keep distance between them as though he were a wild animal she was trying to tame.
Oliver whirled from his seat to face her, still careful not to look her in the eye, but rather glanced at the setting sun reflecting off the curls in her hair, or at the long stretch of her shadow behind her.
"I just -- " she faltered, "I just -- " she let out an exasperated puff of air, "Oh! I just wanted to be sure you were okay." Oliver wore his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbow, and glancing to his hand Mercy saw a small mark near his wrist, still red, but healing into a neat, elliptical scar. "Oh God, is that what I did?"
Oliver followed her gaze and quickly drew his hand behind him. He didn't understand it, nor did he care to try and explain.
But Mercy surprised him with her unquestioning acceptance, her small hand fluttering to her mouth in shock. "Oh, Oliver. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean -- I mean, I didn't know..." Instinctually she moved toward him, her hand reaching out causing Oliver to yank himself back into shadows.
"Don't touch me! Don't. Touch me."
But for the first time he felt a discordance in his words. Although spoken out of certain truth, he felt a sudden desire for the opposite. He propelled himself away from her while an unexpected ache in his heart spread into every nuance of his body until he was paralyzed with it.
He longed for Mercy's sweet touch along his cheek, even though he felt sure it would leave an angry, scalding brand in its wake, longed for her touch on his soul, even though the caress would instantly incinerate him, leaving trails of white smoke where once he stood.
But, "Please. Don't ever. Touch. Me." was what he heard himself plead to her, even while his heart screamed silently to be held, to be soothed, to be saved.
What he failed to realize, was that Mercy had an uncanny and selective sense of hearing. An ability that completely eclipsed the sound of his spoken word in favor of the silent appeal he thought no one would ever hear.
She heard, and in the hearing, became bold.
"You know, I've lived here my whole life, " Mercy said, turning back toward the horizon, "and I've never realized until now how beautiful the sunset is over the water. I guess I never really looked. I'm glad I found you here."
Oliver stood frozen in place, no movement save for his careful, measured breaths as though he'd been ensnared. He stood, frozen, praying that if he remained that way long enough, she would, perhaps, forget he was there and move on.
But she remained, in silence, staring out at the sunset until it was no more than a thin, apricot-colored slash along the curved edge of the horizon. And all that time, for what seemed like all his life, Oliver remained still, thankful for the shadows that draped around him in the early evening.
"Good night, Oliver." She said suddenly, and Oliver could feel her radiant smile fall across his face, as though the sun had not yet set completely after all. "Take care."
And she was gone.
Oliver remained a long while after Mercy had slipped into the shadows, his heart beating as rapidly as if he'd just had a brush with death and lived to tell the tale.
But it was only Mercy. Just Mercy that had crossed his path. Mercy that had looked too deep and found a place to settle in.
And it terrified him.
The following day Oliver nearly found the strength to leave Godwin. He woke for work, as always, but nearly took the left on Main Street that led to the highway rather than the right that led to the loading dock.
But in a strange re-playing of the day he fled his home, his left foot took the right turn for him. The right one, and ultimately, the Right One.
The walk to the docks led him directly past the church, its pristine, white spire directing lost souls upward toward salvation.
He had walked by it every day since his arrival in Godwin, but only now thought to step inside. Only now did it strike him, in spite of his long absence from the church (or perhaps, because of it), to venture up the warped, wooden steps into the serene silence of the nave.
It lay empty, waiting, providing a silence so total, so pervasive that for a moment Oliver thought he had gone deaf.
The scar left from Mercy's touch itched fiercely, but rather than touch it, he shoved his hands deep into his pockets.
He walked down the center aisle, painfully aware of the sound his boots made on the wooden floor as his footfalls echoed into the lofts above him. Standing before the altar he tried to calm his breathing, and to recall why he had stepped foot in this sacred place to begin with.
"Oliver, how nice to see you here."
Turning, Oliver found himself faced with the ancient, benevolent face of Father Raymond. He backed into the altar railing.
"It's okay, Oliver. I understand. I won't touch you."
Oliver felt himself flush and opted to look at his shoes rather than the penetrating stare of the Father. "How are you, Father?"
"I think, perhaps, I should be asking you that question. Would you care to talk?"
Father Raymond motioned to a pew, inviting Oliver to sit within his protection a while, and instantly Oliver grew dizzy, a fine film of perspiration appearing over his brow.
"Oliver? Are you alright?"
Oliver heard the Father's inquiry from a great distance away, even as the walls of the church seemed to creep toward him.
"I have to go," was all Oliver managed to whisper before slipping his large frame past Father Raymond without even brushing sleeves and retreated into the safety of open air.
After work, Oliver meandered to his bench in the park, grateful, he thought, that after his ordeal in the church he had not seen Mercy, though her name had been echoing in his head nearly all day -- a Siren song.
He sat, alone, wondering of his time in Godwin, trying to recall the first day he found himself on Main Street in front of the diner, tried to recall the feeling that a door had closed behind him the moment he entered that diner and ordered a cup of coffee.
Where one door closes, another opens, yes?
"Hey! Knock it off!" He heard Mercy's cry and glanced toward a walkway through the park where a gathering of kids stood in a circle tossing stones at something he couldn't see.
Mercy, her force incongruous with her size, threw several children out of the way to retrieve whatever lay on the ground in the center of their circle. She cradled it softly near her breast and hollered at the shamed group of children as soft tears of anger and bewilderment stained her perfect complexion. "What's wrong with you? How could you be so cruel?"
Oliver couldn't breathe. He found himself caught in the image of her, fearless and wounded, so forceful with the perpetrators, while so gentle with her ward.
He stared at her as she made a quiet path toward him, never realizing that he was her destination. Not until she sat on the bench beside him.
"Oh, Oliver, look. The poor thing." In her hands she held a mourning dove, one wing broken and held at an awkward angle, small specks of blood marking the cruel gashes of thrown stones and ignorance. "Poor thing."
Without thinking he began to reach his hand out to the wounded bird, caught himself, and jerked his hand back to his lap where he stared at it stupidly.
"No, it's okay." Mercy spoke softly. "Here, take him. You won't hurt him." She held the dove out to him, "Oliver...go ahead. Hold him."
Before he could move to refuse, the dove was placed softly in his hands, the tiny heartbeat drumming against his palm. His thumb stroked the head of the bird, seemingly all on its own, and the instant Oliver sensed the gentle frailness of the dove, its need and its fear, unbidden, unwanted tears stung his eyes, wrenching themselves free of his dark and hidden soul.
"It's okay. Ssh... it's okay." Mercy carefully reached a hand out toward him, placing it softly, gently over his heart. "I knew you would know. It's okay."
He started at the touch, not because it scalded his flesh, but rather, it sent a brief, sharp jolt into the center of him out of which spread a deep, penetrating warmth. Only then, as the intensity of her touch moved harmlessly through him did he realize how cold and empty he had been.
Only then did he realize the reason and the power of Mercy's honest caress.
Ignoring the hot, unfamiliar tears that trailed his cheeks, and the terror that threatened to topple him, size, or no, he finally chanced a look in Mercy's eyes and what he saw stole his breath. Large, rich, brown pools full of softness and caring, and suddenly Oliver realized he had been wrong. All this time. Wrong.
The gaze of the buck had not been accusatory, or defiant, but rather it had been commanding -- a challenge, perhaps -- a gaze that demanded of him, "Look. See this. This is Life. All of it. Wounding and magnificent. Horrific. Beautiful."
But the weight of that gaze and all that it conveyed had been so dense, so instantly total, that Oliver slipped, toppling unprepared from the filtered nest of childhood, and Mercy had been there to catch him in his slow, silent fall from grace.
He closed his eyes to the feeling of her hand, still held fast to the space over his heart.
"This is it," she spoke silently to him with the warmth of her touch, just as the mourning dove struggled with its final breath within the cradle of his hands.