Foreword by Annie Dillard
The Three Boxes
Mrs. Franklin Ascends
Moments of Light
The Thousand Ways
Children of Strikers
The stories here gathered first appeared in these periodicals:
American Review, The Archive, Carolina Quarterly, Graffiti, The Malahat Review, New Mexico Humanities Review, New River Review, North Carolina Review, The Georgia Review, Tar Heel, Columbia, Light Years.
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We know Fred Chappell best for his novels: It Is Time, Lord; The Inkling; Dagon; and The Gaudy Place: those dark and complex epistemologies which examine so thoroughly the worlds of matter and mind and their relation to evil. Fred Chappell is also a poet who most recently has brought out River and Bloodfire, which I take to be two volumes of a projected four-part poem with sections on earth and air to follow. Already these two volumes have made artistic sense of more than half of all creation. Both alone and together they are masterpieces, as successful as they are ambitious.
Now with Moments of Light we have Chappell's first collection of stories. In it we find pleasure for the heart and the mind, and further evidence of Chappell's broad intellectual passion and deep artistic gift.
Like the stories in the Bible, the stories in Moments of Light appear in moral chronological order. Together they narrate the history of man.
The book opens with "The Three Boxes," a hieratic parable the action of which occurs at the beginning of things, at the time of the creation of man and the origin of human culture. The story introduces in broad terms the notions of justice and destiny. The idea of justice, at this point, is large and plain.
Then follows a complementary tale, "Judas." Aready man has fallen, and Christ is betrayed. Judas's zealot's hope for a secular moral order, a powerful kingdom on earth, meets a new thing: Christ's idea of transcendence. Christ is characterized by his indifference to secular values and at the same time by his insistence on man's absolute responsibility to the transcen-dent order in which the material order is fully grounded. You can't abandon the place. From here on the hope of justice is in man's hands; and he will botch it every time.
These two stories sound many of the book's major themes: man's hope of a just moral order and his responsibility to things as they are; man's longing for transcendence and the obdurate difficulty of the temporal destiny he faces instead; and man's art (the music of "The Three Boxes") which reconciles, if any-thing can, man's hope of harmony with his experience of chaos.
Now three stories appear which take place in the 18th Century. The tone of these stories, steeped in Enlightenment thought, is airy, spacious, and reasonable. Man is still in most ways innocent. He still hopes for a just secular order based on human reasonablenessif not in the old world, then in the new. And he still hopes that his science will verify his religion by discerning a universal moral order.
In "Mrs. Franklin Ascends," Chappell introduces these themes. Sweet Mrs. Franklin is, I'm afraid, as simple and ma-terial as a bolt of cloth. And Benjamin Franklin leaves her bed for a higher level, for the attic where he plays his "armonica"a musical device which imitates the music of the spheres. The music of the spheres is the central notion of the book, and one to which I shall return.
"Thatch Retaliates" follows the career of Enlightenment hopes for the new society in the new world. It takes place in the wilderness (or garden) of North Carolina in the 18th Century. There, plain as day, an enlightened European who hopes to help establish the new order meets Blackbeard, who kills him at whim. Blackbeard in fact holds the region in terror, and the governor is in league with him: the secular order is already as essentially corrupt as the incorrigibly chaotic heart of man. The light of reason dies, overcome by "the relentless American nighttime."
The title story, "Moments of Light," completes both the 18th Century section and the first half of man's moral history. It chronicles both the end of man's intellectual innocence and the beginning of a new kind of hope. In this story, Franz Joseph Haydn looks through a telescope at the heavens.
Throughout most of this story, Haydn, a man of reason and the old order, is afraid to look. He dreads seeing what he knows he must see: chaos, the senseless universe whose guiding principles reason cannot discover because there are none. At last he looks, and is lost, but not as he had feared. Instead of seeing the flung wreck of materials, he sees beauty bare. He has a vision. The human hope of order is not just a veneer: it is ontologically grounded in what-is. What-is is beauty. Out there at the very fringes of human perception, a transcendent spiritual order sockets into materials. We do not find this incarnation in our days; we cannot found perfect societies upon it; but it is there.
Reason can neither discern nor describe this miracle at the heart of being. Reason invents the telescope which in turn informs reason that the jig is up. But the new science also informs the old order that the jig is up. Haydn is a composer. Now, in the modern world, in the fallen world, in the world in which neither the old order nor the new science has any answers, human vision must take over as the sole epistemological tool. In these new realms, only art can speak. Spiritually, this is the New Genesis; temporally, historically, it is the beginning of the Romantic Movement. Now in his old age Haydn writes his great oratorio, The Creation. He hails Beethoven as a genius. The heavenly spheres are disorderly and glorious, and their music is our music: not a given harmony handed down by decree, but some wild and hopeful creation offered up.
The first part of Moments of Light establishes a theoreti-cal and historical framework for the second part, which takes place in the world we know. The characters in the second group of stories struggle as we do. Gone is the parabolic plainness of the first group of stories. Here instead is a world thick with materials, emotions, and a thousand ambiguities. These latter stories, narrative in both content and method, carefully loving in tone, are as emotionlly engaging as they are artistically profound. Moral complexity characterizes their world. And in every one of them, in narrative structure and in vivid detail, over and over, innocence is lost.
In "The Thousand Ways"one of the very finest of storiesa wise and innocent man grieves for the heartbreak of the world, for the thousand ways lives are lost through human carelessness, human moral and intellectual innocence, and human irresponsibility. This is a major theme of this section and of the book (first introduced in "Judas"): this world is the big time. We alone are accountable for the world and for our lives in the world. The moral complexity of the world is urgent and irreducible. And we are called to wake up and take notice.
In "January," Chappell again explores the moral complexity of things. I will describe this story in some detail because it is so small, so subtle, so winning, and so telling of Chappell's various gifts for telling a story well, for thinking well, and for loving well.
A little boy's three-year-old sister follows him up a road to the barn. It is January, freezing, and she is wearing only a thin little dress. The men in the barn tell him he'd better strike out for home; it is cold, and his little sister will freeze to death. "I told her not to come," he says.
He starts home, urging his sister on. Now she is too cold to budge; she is in fact freezing to death; she sits on a log by the roadside. The boy is terrified; he pulls at her, pleading. Just then their father appears: "What are you doing to her? Why don't you leave her alone?" and, "What makes you hurt her? What gets into you?" The father gathers up the little girl and carries her home without speaking. The boy follows. The father will tell the mother; the boy cannot speak in his own defence.
For what could his defence be? Is he unjustly accused or not? He has all our sympathy; we feel at first that he has lust learned the injustice of the world. Or has he? It is more accurate to say that he has just learned the moral ambiguity at the heart of things, and the moral imperative. For he cannot now say, as any child whose chthonic sense of justice suffers even the mildest infringement will say, "It's not my fault." He cannot say, "I tried to get her home." He can no longer say, "I told her not to come." From there it is a simple step to "I'm not her keeper." In the space of less than an hour he has learned that his childish notions of justice do not apply. What he can assrt about his role in things does not apply. The only thing that applies is how his sister is faring in the worldthe sum of good and eviland she was freezing to death. Good must be accomplished in the world, and evil averted, by each of us, whether or not we are prepared for the role or pleased with it.
The boy is alone now, his childhood over. He stands inside at the cold window, his breath obscuring "the total moon." This beautiful little story reiterates, as do all the stories in this second section, the fall of man: his loss of innocence and his moral coming of age.
In "The Weather," it happens again. The child is now an adolescent. And innocence lies spread in its true color: a kind of dreaming passivity. The languors of innocence are not only behind us; they are best left behind us. For their sweet passivity is a shirking of the real burden of things, the injunction to love in a responsibile and even an engendering way.
"Broken Blossoms," which is about as pleasing a story as you will ever read, treats these themes fully. I don't want to ruin it, especially because much of it is so funny. I will merely indicate that it fits into the moral chronology in this wise, that a dreaming, unconscious boy discovers that he must wake up. The world is deadly earnest and ignorance can unleash great harm. You are accountable for everything. You are accountable for all that you do not know as well as all that you do; so you had better take notice, learn everything, and watch your sweet step. The world and all the people on it are real. "Broken Blos-soms" is a wonderful work of art which you might even do well to read first.
In "Children of Strikers," Chappell makes manifest, vivid-ly and subtly, the real and grave nature of human suffering. This is a brilliant story whose narrative gradually uncovers its own locus. We wake, as the children wake, to the import of what they have found by the roadside; but we know, as they do not, what it means about the world. The many layers of this story separate the reader from pain while forcing him, un-aware, to seek it out at the center of the narrative riddle, and forcing him to find it, accidentally as it were, at the center of human experience.
The final, capping story in this collection is "Blue Dive." It is a great, complex, and enduring work of fiction. It completes the moral chronology to date. Here we are again, still alone, and experienced now in the world's evil and in our complicity in that evil. We meet good people and bad, try to make our way with our eyes open, and have only our old-timey musicthe soul's transcendent longingbetween us and ruin.
"Blue Dive" chronicles our eternal blue dive into sin and knowledge and our eternal blue dive towards heaven, leaping as high as we can. And in this story, Christ is betrayed once again. We all have power over other lives. One man of such power rejects, like Judas, another man, and in so doing rejects all hope of transcendence in favor of a material kingdom. And art, old art, disenfranchised as usual, takes it on the road.
Do not mistake these abstractions for Chappell's stories. These are living, vivid narratives whose rich actions lodge in the imagination: world-wise and gentle Mr. Cody blowing up a tree; Norma, the drunk in love with innocence, quoting Shakespeare's sonnets in her ruined rooms; young Rosemary in the hayloft sticking her underpants under the hay; Mrs. Franklin pleased and bewildered at her own dinner party; and Stovebolt Johnson playing the blues in the Blue Dive, carrying himself in the world so carefully, with such thoughtfulness and controlled pain. These stories are as real as days; the moral calendar I have outlined merely orders them without giving any sense of their texture, solidity, warmth, and color.
Very briefly, what do these stories suggest of Chappell's vision? What can be said of the world, and of the people who inhabit it?
The world itself is, I believe, morally neutral, like the many stars. But in the light of human experience and ideals, the world's moral neutrality amounts to profound moral disarray. That of the world which we experience most forcibly is its passive resistance. "Matter retains its smirking hardness," Chappell writes in the poem Bloodfire. The universe passively resists our heartbreaking efforts to live well within it, to avoid pain to ourselves and others, to know it, and to reconcile it with any order beyond it.
The material world requires and inspires our active resis-tance. It is a January hard frost, a river current which bears us away from our goals, or a dread Carolina forest wilderness. Human nature and culture struggle against these things. But there is another material level which is a step removed from human knowledge and culture: the troubled earth spins in a setpiece of stars. And the multitudes of moving spheres have nothing to do with us, nor we with them. We need not act. The spheres' passive resistance and their obduracy occur at the other side of human pain. And, paradoxically, their very mate-rial unfathomableness meets and answers our most spiritual longings. Our wishing always to escape or redeem the material world leads at last and always to the very heart of matter: its mystery. And there in the thick of the mystery where spirit and matter meet, there is the faintly-perceived harmony, the world's great grouning in beauty: the music of the spheres.
And what of man? Chappell's characters, excepting the two Judas figures, are all beloved, known, and forgiven. Man as a whole is a fallen innocent and a sojourner newly-bewildered in a life of unfathomable moral complexity, a life which en-genders in every generation a thousand new forms of injustice. Man's eternal will to purity and his tortured will to transcen-dence never escape either his own intrinsic and tragic forget-fulness nor the world's thousand temporal traps.
At his very worst, man betrays the human longing for a kingdom not of this world. Like Judas, and like Locklear Haw-kins who owns the Blue Dive, he shuts his eyes to all he knows and gives himself over to idolatry, seeking the merciless secular power of a material kingdom. And at his moral bestlike George Palinopolous, like B. J. and Darlene, Mark Vance, and Mr. Codyman is his brother's keeper, a sojourner among sojourners, awake enough to help.
And at his metaphysical best, man never abandons his furious longing for order. He casts that spiritual longing into the very teeth of matterand comes up with art. In Moments of Light that art is music. It's all we've got to bind thing and thing, to bind the heart and the hard rock ground: art, the heavenly harmonies translated into the soul's own lowdown blues. It's all we've got, and so it is enough. "Daddy," the little boy says of Stovebolt Johnson and his blues guitar; "Daddy," the little boy says, "he can play the blue pee out of that thing!"
And so can Chappell. He can play it, and the rest of the stricken world can dance.
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MOMENTS OF LIGHT
THE THREE BOXES
THREE MEN, naked but of indeterminate color, came at last to the edge of a river. Here they flung themselves down gratefully in the grass and lay waiting for strength to return to their bodies, for they had been marching a weary time through the wide savannah. Silence welled up about them, then subsided, and they began to hear the singing of birds and insects and the wind in the leaves and the purl of the swift broad rivr. A cloudiess sky arched above and they gazed deep into that coolness.
In a while they began to stir, stretching knotted muscles. One by one they crept to the edge of the riverbank and reached down for water and drank noisily from cupped palms. The water of the colorless and silver-glinting river was almost tasteless, but itrefreshed them as much in spirit as physically.
Then they sat up in the grass and thought.
"How far have we come?" one man asked.
They looked at each other. They could not say. Now they could not remember where tbey had come from or why they had set out to begin with. Once they had started, the journey itself was sufficient to satisfy the mind; the steady striding over the ground with the silky-topped grasses nibbling at their ribs had taken up all thought. They had encountered few obstacles, and not even inclement weather.
"How long have we been walking?"
None could say. They examined their bodies, as if the journey had told itself upon their skins, but they seemed no different. Their limbs were tired but not sore; the soles of their feet had perhaps thickened slightly, but even of this fact they were not certain.
"Where have we come to?"
A foolish question, as they could not remember where or when they had started. But here was a practical answer plain before them. They had come to a river and for the tirne being they must halt.
They crept back to the edge of the bank and began to take stock.
The river was about two hundred meters wide, but how deep they could not guess. The water was so clear that the large smooth stones in the riverbed looked only just out of reach. The men reasoned, however, that it must be much deeper than it appeared because the water went by with grcat force, and they could feel the cool air pouring off the surface. One man dropped an alder leaf on the water and they watched it sweep away quickly, twirling round and round as various strands of current nudged its edges.
So now they concluded that it was a dangerous river and that they had no pressing cause to cross over. They would strike out downstream and hope for a more hospitable place. They rose and gave a long regretful look at the other side with its blossoms, flowers of a sort they had never seen before. But this time when they looked new oblects had appeared in that prospect.
Now on the other side were three large boxes. Of a matte ivory color, they sat solidly in the grass; sunlight streaked the sides in broad planes. It was impossible to tell much about them, smooth and featureless and square. Waist-high, or a little taller. Was there a hasp or a hinge in the center at the top edge? The men shaded their eyes and stared, but could not see.
The boxes made all the difference. Over here were three men and over there three boxes. It was obvious that each man was intended to open one box.
They sat down again to consider.
The river had not abated its force, and the cool air above its surface now seemed chilly. One of the men leaned over the bank and plunged his arm into the water up to his elbow. He held his arm straight down, steady in the river-rush, trying to judge the strength of the flow. He pulled his arm out, looked down at the water, and shook his head slowly. He leaned back and enfolded his knees in his arms.
The other men chewed grassblades, gazing on the river.
Finally one spoke, and this was the thread of his thought: "This pure river is a powerful mighty river, and I am a poor swimmrL Neither of you swims much better than I do. It is bad that this is so, for if one of us swam strongly we could send that man to open all three boxes and tell us what they contain. Since we cannot do that, the chances for each of us are equal, and each of us must choose whether he wishes to brave the current. If any
of us does, then one of the boxesonly oneis his."
The other two men nodded gravely.
Still no one moved. The fear of the river was too great in them. They had marched miles on miles without having to make choices, and they would have preferred to continue, one foot before the other without impediment.
At last one man stood up. "I must try to cross over," he said. "For look, we have traveled so long that none of us can remember where he started from or when. But there must have been an hour in which we chose to set out, and when we chose that we also chose to accept our chances in the earth. If it happens that I am dragged away and drowned, then that is what my journey has come to. It is not a matter of choosing to die, but of choosing to accomplish the end of my travels in a logical manner."
With that, he approached the edge, stretched up on tip-toe, and plunged awkwardly into the waters.
The other two men watched intently. Long moments passed before he came to the surface, and the men on dry ground trembled. But he emerged in a flurry of droplets and began making his way across, not swimming so much as thrash-ing forward. They could see what a terrible struggle it was. He could not keep his legs high and the current kept tugging away at his lower body. Above the loud splashing they could hear him gasp and suck air.
Still, he was making progress. His desperate churning carried him little by little away from them.
Their bodies were taut in sympathy with him.
It was easy to mark his distance. His battle with the river stirred the water heavily, so that where it had been air-clear before it now ran a milky yellow color. They had supposed that the current was too strong and the river too deep for the milling of a single swimmer to make a difference; yet it was so. The muddied yellow stain followed where the swimmer swam.
Past midpoint of the river his strength seemed to fail and he was carried some way downstream. But then he gathered himself and reached the other side. They watched as he dug his fingers into the earth and clung. He reached higher to secure a better hold and he rested a moment before pulling himself out.
Now all the river was yellow.
They watched him as he sat on the edge and shivered, his hands in his lap. Water streamed from him, and his body had been washed white, or rather, pinkish-gray, the color of some kinds of mushrooms, and his hair had turned blond. He rested a long time; finally
rose and went to the three boxes.
He wasted no time in choosing between them, but opened the first he came to, which was the one farthest downstream. (He had been carried pretty far in the river.) They saw the surprise in his body when he lifted the lid back. He stood looking for a while and then reached in and began taking out.
First he brought out four large leather sacks. He set them on the ground and untied one of them and dipped his hand in and brought it out flashing, gold coins spilling between his fingers, flashing in the sunlight. The other two men imagined they could hear the clash of coin on gold coin, and they looked at each other and grirmed. Eagerly the whitened man reached back into the box and began taking out numbers. 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9: they glowed red with their own light, and he laid them carefully aside in the grass. And now he was bringing out books, great heavy leatherbound volumes, book after book after book; he stacked them as neatly as he could. He took out of the box a contraption they could not understand, an ungainly ugly thing with wheels and pipes and gears. It seemed that their friend could not understand it either, for after he set it down he stood pondering it for a long time. Then he reached and touched it in a certain place and it sprang into quivering motion. Smoke and steam rose from it and it uttered a loud savage cry and began vomiting forth floods of paper. Papers sailed up in the breeze and caught in the thicket of bushes that enclosed the flowery clearing where the boxes sat. The blond man hastily touched the machine again and it shut itself down with a regretful cough.
More and more things he brought out; it was simply not possible that the box could contain so much. He brought out glass and plutonium and theology and engineering, law and chemistry and moldboard plows and harpsichords. He brought out many things that the watchers did not comprehend.
He leaned over the box and stood looking down into it; he wagged his head slowly and his friends understood that this box contained so many different things that he could never empty it. In their hearts they congratulated him on the grand treasure his courage had gained.
The blond man picked up books and began placing them back into the box. He went round the little area where he had been standing, and everything he had taken out he put back in. He closed the lid and latched it. Then he turned toward the river to face his comrades. They saw him turn his head from side to side and then shade his eyes with both hands. They shouted and waved their arms, but he seemed unable to find them, though surely they were as visible on their side as he on his. But he gave no indication that he could discover their presence. He shrugged and turned his back on them.
He bent down to pick up the box, and his friends could see what a heavy burden it proved. But he planted his feet solidly, leg muscles and back muscles distended and shining like rivu-lets of water, and finally hoisted it up on his left shoulder. He walked away, strugglrng with the weight.
As they watched him cross the clearing and enter the green thicket it appeared that his body had grown shorter. His figure was not so tall and manly as it had been before; the weight of the big box distorted his carriage grotesquely.
It took a few minutes for comprehension of what they had witnessed to come to the two men. They looked at each other, uncertainly calculating, and looked once again at the river. Except in color it had not changed a whit. The steady ferocity of current rolled on.
Finally one said: "What one man can do, so can another. We have seen how well our friend was rewarded because he was able to overcome his hesitationthough it is possible that his gallant fight with the river somewhat impaired his eyesight. Now it may be that because he was first among us, or because he made a lucky choice among the boxes, he has already taken away the best part of the treasure. Even so, much must remain, for, as we saw, he was unable to display all that even his one box contained."
The other said: "But maybe he was a stronger swimmer than we. I am still
fearful of this river."
"So am I. But what opportunity remains to us here? Even if the box I choose contains nothing, if it is empty as an old conch, I am determined to swim across. Maybe I can overtake our friend and hear his account of the box he opened up. Maybe he will share with us if we go luckless."
Having said this, he advanced to the edge, closed his eyes, and leapt gracelessly into the river.
Immediately at the point where he plunged the water streamed away an inky black, black as charcoal or starless midnight. It seemed an age before he gained the surface, and his clawing in the water was painful to see. It was obvious that he had not the strength his other friend possessed, and the lone man on the bank turned his back on the river and covered his ears with his hands. He was incapable of saving his companion if he was drowning and he could not bear the horror of seeing him torn away.
But of course the suspense was too great for him and in a few minutes he had to turn and look. He discovered to his joyful surprise that his friend had made up over half the distance and was cutting unsteadily onward. When his friend reached the bank, he clapped his hands in delight. The other had drifted downstream quite some distance, and it took him a longer time than the first man to regather his strength. After a while he rose and began walking toward the boxes.
Now his hair was dark and his skin had turned the yellow color the river was before he swam.
Between the two men the river ran swift, cinder-black.
Like the first, the second man did not choose but merely opened the box he came to, the one farther downstream. He looked into it a long time, meditating. The lone man on this side guessed that the new treasure was nothing so splendid as the first.
His friend lifted out the money, first of all. It was not gold but only paper money, and there was only a modest little pile of it. And the objects were not eyefilling, though they were solid and useful, necessary. He brought out loads of hand imple-ments: hoes, spades, brooms, axes, planes, wedges, hammers, and so forth. He brought out fabrics of every sort: silks shining like silver, pristine cottons, linens, velvets, and burlap. There were delicacies: fragile ceramics, wines and liqueurs, little poems like snowflakes, carved gods in ivory, jade, and mahog-any, and tenuous paper kites. He brought out animals, pony and ox, dog and cat and nightingale; and plants, the tea shrub and the rnulberry and the scarlet poppy, wise and treacherous. Carefully he took out and carefully laid in the grass civil order and respect and trdition, oil lamps and fertilizer and the game of chess. He brought out diplomacyand seafaring, cartography and hempen rope. Finally he brought out tranquility of spirit; this was a large white robe of the softest texture; and he pulled it about himself and turned the hood over his head so that it left most of his face in shadow.
He sat down in the grass, crossing his legs so that his thighs rested on his feet. He seemed to be murmuring to himself or singing, but his friend on the other side could not tell, so much the face was obscured by the hood.
He saw then happen what had happened before. His friend turned to face him; slowly and patiently he began scanning the landscape on this side of the river. The lone man shouted and waved and danced about, but his yellow-colored comrade could not seem to discern his presence, though he kept looking, look-ing more intently than had their first friend.
Reluctantly he turned away now and packed into the box what he had taken out. He bent down to hoist up the box, but then straightened and turned and one last time searched this side of the river. Still the lone man could not make himself seen. The yellow man shouldered the box and stalked away through the greenery. Again, as with the first man, his stature appeared lessened by the weight of the box.
The lone man was alone. There were only the insects and birds and grasses and bushes and the quick river, black as basalt. The day had worn down and shadows were long and the atmosphere cool. Off the river rose an air that was truly cold.
The lone man began to curse and to berate himself for his lack of confidence. Shortly he stopped. "No," he said. "I must not give over to vain recrimination. It is not because I lack courage that I am left behind alone. I know myself and my friends well enough to say that I have not less courage than they. The trouble is that I am tardy in understanding the situation. Only now that my friends have disappeared do I realize that I have nothing, But theywhy, as soon as they set eyes on those damned boxes, they realized that there are things to have in the world, things which, once their existence is known, make all too obvious one's state of having-nothing. Seeing the boxes, my friends determined to acquire something, but I, I only remembered that I was already content. And so the best chance has passed me by."
Thinking these thoughts he was mollified, no longer bitter and angry. But he was still all alone and lonely.
He said, "The box that is left is mine. If I don't cross to claim it, I may well have to stay here alone the rest of my days. So I will go, but I have no feeling that this final box will do me good."
He took a running start and dived into the humus-black river.
The passage in the river was a kind of death. He toiled in an icy darkness that moved against him with the strength of tigers. How many eternities passed, how many times did his hope for life dim down to a red ember? He could not know, knew only that he must keep paddling forward, however feebly.
Against all his expectations he succeeded in reaching the other bank. He gripped a rib of day and held on tightly, the rest of his body washing in the stream. Inch by furious inch he climbed the slick bank and collapsed on the grassy edge, his chest shrieking for air. He lay on his back and saw the sky swirl. It was deep twilight now, and two stars peeped out and scurried in circles round each other.
Strength seeped into him again by little and little. After a long time he rose and tottered to confront the box.
The dull box in the twilight looked menacing and the man halted apart from it and sat down. Misgivings shadowed his mind. He began to weep. But the tears did not wash clean his stained skin. Crossing the river he had become a black man, his skin all dusky black.
There was no choice. He went to the box and opened it and looked. It was like looking down into a hazy well. No light came from inside and with the twilight growing dimmer he found it hard to make out anything at all. Then when the edges of objects became sharper he uttered a loud groan and slammed the lid shut.
He walked up and down the greensward in distress. In this box that was his he had seen nothing but misery and terror and agony.
He walked back and forth on the ground. Stillhadn't there been something else besides?
He shuddered as he re-called the things he had seen. But in a dusty corner of the box hadn't he glimpsed something worthwhile, something of some least value?
Well, it was his box, whatever
He reopened it and began taking out all the heartsick materials. Length after length of chain, first of all, great heavy chains with raw cruel links; there seemed no end of these. And fresh scars and old wounds were piled here in plenty, and he took each of them out and laid them tenderly in the grass. Hangnooses, branding irons, iron hobbles; scorn, contumely, and hatred: all these he lifted out and set on the ground as gently as if they had been chalices of fragile crystal. He took out the diseases, the anemias and exotic fevers, and he brought out the pests, the rats and mosquitoes and tsetse flies. Patience and endurance were in the box and he took them out, but they were inextricably entangled with slavery and pain, so he had not much regard for them, feeling that they would do him little honor. He brought out the long cotton sack, the mule harness, and the hot rail spike.
At last he worked down to the thing he remembered seeing, and out of the box he brought music. It was nothing anyone else would have rccognized as musicjust some rusty steel strings and hollow gourds and some knobbly old bones; but he foresaw the possibilities and momentarily his spirit brightened.
But when he saw spread out on the ground all the other things that had fallen to him the music seemed only a taste of nectar after a meal of shit. In profound sadness he continued to pace up and down.
He sat and rested his chin on his chest and wept. He knew he would never be able to bear the destiny the box laid out before him.
A white brightness fell upon his sight behind his closed lids and he heard a measured rustling in the leaves of the thicket. He opened his eyes and the inner thicket was suffused with a high white glow; it was a strange fire and the bushes screened the burning heart of it away from his sight. He felt the presence, and knew that it was God standing there among the green leaves.
"Is that You, Dominie?" he asked.
"It is I."
The worst that could happen had already come to the lone man and so he felt no fear at all in the presence of God. "Was it You, Dominie, Who ranged these boxes on the river-bank?"
"It was I."
"Forgive me then my complaint. Is it fair that the first man should get so much from his box, and that the second man should get so much less than he, and that I, only because I came last, should have nothing but cruelty and misery and shame?"
"It is not fair," said God.
"Excuse me, Dominie, but I know, as everyone knows, how wise You are. Could You not find it in Your wisdom to distribute the treasures of the boxes more equally? This terrible unfairness comes near to breaking my heart."
"The reason the distribution is not fair," God said, "is that the principle of justice is not yet established in the world. Ieven Icannot act justly until justice itself comes into being."
"When then will justice happen?"
"Justice will not happen," God said. "Justice must be created, and it is you who shall create it."
"How is that possible, Dominie? I have no tools to create justice with. To the first man You gave law and mathematics, to the second You gave civil order and respect. Surely these are the foundation blocks of justice, and my brothers have carried them away. "No. These are not the foundations of justice, but only the means for preserving justice once it is established."
"But there have fallen to me only the means and emblems of injustice."
"Out of these justice shall be created. For it cannot come into being in the abstract, by fiat. It can inhabit only the human soul and the human body. You shall create justice in the ravag-ing of your spirit and in the torture of your blood."
"I think I shall not be able to bear it. Surely I am the most misfortunate creature that has ever lived."
"You are not. There are others less favored than you, and it is partly for their sakes that you have been given the task of creating justice."
Then God caused pictures and emotions to form in the mind of the lone man. He showed him first the long travail of women, and the lone man considered it. Next He showed him the unreasoning suffering of children, and the man writhed as if in fever. Finally He showed him the blind helpless eternal pain of the animals, and the man began to weep afresh and clutched his head in his hands.
"No more!" he cried.
God began somewhat to relent. "In the box," He said, "you found patience and endurance and courage, but these you threw aside because you thought them too much alloyed with evil and sorrow. Yet these shall sustain you in your struggle
Now at this moment I am going to lighten the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet."
The lone man examined himself and it was true that the black river-stain had been taken from those parts of his body. But this act seemed a stupid joke to him, and his question to God was bitter: "Dominie, what possible good can this do anyone?"
"It is as a reminder to you," God said. "It is for you to remember when you are oppressed and beaten down by men of other color, that it is themselves also they crush into the earth and grind against the stone. It is for them also that you labor in the creation of justice. For I tell you now forever, that until oppression of you shall quit not one step toward victory shall have been taken by a single person."
At these words the white light in the thicket disappeared and the rustling in the leaves hushed. The man was once more alone under the little stars of the night sky. He fumbled in the darkness, repacking his box. He closed the lid and secured it and lifted the box to his shoulder. It was tragically heavy, this box, but the man walked away tall and erect. He was going to search for his friends, and in his heart there was a small happiness like a warm candleflame. For he knew that although his comrades had no gift for him, he could give one to them. He was carrying to them the gift of justice, the one thing in the whole world worth knowing that can be learned in the world, and is not divinely revealed.