If He Should Gather His Breath
by LeeAnn Bonds
(Priest River, ID, USA)
The boy woke. His head rested on a thick cushion of moss that covered huge tree roots. He felt the sun through still-closed eyes, felt the warm breeze move the light and shade around through the leaves above him. He smiled a little, and remembered his delicious dream.
He extended his arms in a luxurious stretch, and rolled over with lazy grace. He propped his tousled head on his hands and gazed through the dappled glade, thinking. He twisted his head around and peered under his arm at the spot where he had been lying when he fell asleep.
Right there would be a pretty good place. The surface roots of the towering elm made humpy hills and little tucked-in valleys, and defined a broad, scooped out plain, golden with sunshine. The boy scrambled backward on his knees and elbows, still holding his head up on his little fists, until he faced the tree.
He sat up and thought of the creatures in his dream. He plucked up a sturdy straight twig, and another, slender and smooth. He propped them up in a patch of sunlight, and stuck the ends down a bit into the rich dirt. Then he took a deep lungful of moss-scented air, and blew out a slow breath, stirring up dust and spores into a tiny whirlwind around his twigs.
When the air cleared, the two tiny people he had made blinked into awareness, tugged their feet out of the turf, and looked around. The boy smiled. They were beautiful. They had two arms and two legs, just like him, and dark wavy hair, a bit wild, just like his. Their skin, a rich caramel color, glowed, and their black eyes sparkled. He had made furry creatures before, and swimming creatures, and even ones that flew, but never ones that looked like him.
The little man looked at the little woman, and she looked back at him, and the expressions on their faces made the boy giggle. This made both people jump and turn to look up at him. Their faces lit up with joy, and they ran to him. He laid his hand down, palm up, and they clambered up his arm without fear. They stood on his forearm and stared up into his dark eyes.
“Hello,” the boy said. “Welcome, little people.”
“Are we people, then?” asked the man. He cocked his head to one side, his tiny voice nevertheless rich and deep, and somehow noble. “I was wondering.” He smiled up at the boy. “What next, Maker?”
“Why, next we have fun!” the boy said. He tilted his head and grinned an impish grin at his creatures. “What shall I make for you?”
“Oh, I know,” sang out the woman in a silvery voice. “Flowers!”
The boy looked down at the woman, and saw that she imagined bright colors and soft perfumes.
He picked her up with careful fingers, set her down on the ground and said, ever so softly, “Flowers.”
Glorious bright gems sprang up on green stems all around her feet. Broad red petals, and frilly yellow petals, great nodding heads of tiny white petals and elaborate and architectural arrangements of violet petals appeared. The scents wafted up about her, and she clasped her hands together and sank to her knees.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, Maker! They’re splendid.”
“And for you, little man. What shall I make for you?”
The man’s eyes sparkled, and he grinned up at the boy. “Well,” he said, “I was thinking of a dog, you know.” And the boy did know, of course, just what sort of a dog would please the man’s heart. He loved to make dogs, they were so happy and held so much love it sloshed out all over when they waggled their tails.
“Of course. A dog,” the boy said, and the man spun around on his arm just in time to see a great golden dog pop into existence, front legs extended on the ground, rump high in the air and tail wagging. It saw the man, smiled, and leaped with abandon up onto the boy’s hand and up his arm to where the man stood waiting, braced for impact. The boy giggled at the tickle of the dog’s feet, but held still. The dog spared him a quick glance on the way but jumped up on the man, put its front feet on his shoulders, and covered his face with kisses. Man and dog tumbled off the boy’s arm and into the soft moss.
The boy, chin resting on his hands, his eyes sparkling, watched his creatures play and learn about each other. The woman ran up to him and shyly placed an armful of blossoms in front of him.
“Thank you!” the boy said. “Are you getting hungry?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Perhaps. Is that what the little rumbly feeling in my tummy is?” She placed one hand on her belly and looked into his face.
“Sounds like it to me,” he said. “Wait, I’ll make you some breakfast.” The boy selected a handful of branched twigs, and stuck them in the moss in rows. “Fruit,” he said, and a tiny orchard bloomed and bore fruit. He reached down and nudged one of the trees, which made ripe fruit fall onto the moss.
The woman ran over and picked up one of the smooth yellow balls. “What is it?”
“Oh, you can name it whatever you like,” the boy said. “Try it. Is it good?”
She took a bite of the fruit and juice ran down her chin. Her eyes widened and she nodded. When she could manage it, she said, “It’s delicious! Sweet, and juicy, and I don’t know what the word is. Do you know?”
“Umm, is it tart?”
“Yes, I believe that is the word. It’s sweet and juicy and tart all at once. May I give one to the man?”
“Sure, of course,” he said. “The dog can have some, too, though he might like the fruit on this other tree better.” He plucked a blocky fruit from another tree, and handed it to the woman. She took the fruits to the man and his dog, and they ate them. Then they all went over to the orchard and tried the fruit from several different trees. Finally they lay in the moss and rubbed their bellies.
“I’m not hungry anymore,” the woman said. “Now I feel, well, sleepy. Is that right?”
“Probably. I get sleepy after I eat sometimes. You can take a nap if you want.”
The dog was already asleep. The woman snuggled into the man’s shoulder, and they both fell asleep within moments. The boy watched them, and drank in the beauty of their tiny forms.
“Good morning, Son.”
“Good morning, Father.” The boy jumped up to hug the big man. “Come see what I made!” He took his father by the hand and showed him the little world among the elm roots.
“Oh my. They’re quite beautiful, Son. They look very much like you, don’t they?”
The boy laughed. “Yes! I did that on purpose. I’ve never made creatures that look like me before. Do you like them?”
His father was silent for a long moment. “I do like them, my boy, they’re lovely.” He put his arm around his son’s shoulder and drew him aside. “Come sit with me, and learn something important.”
Father and son settled into a comfy spot against a huge tree trunk. The man looked into his boy’s eyes and asked, “Do they love you, son?”
“Sure they do!” he said. “I suppose they do, they seem happy.” The boy frowned a little and said, “How do I know if they love me?”
His father smiled, a little sadly, and looked of into the distance. “Well, son, this is the important thing I want you to learn. In order to truly love someone, you must be able to choose not to love them.” He stopped, and waited for the curly headed boy to absorb this. He could see him working at it in his mind.
After a minute the boy went still. “Oh,” he said. Tears welled up in his black eyes as he gazed at his father. “I understand. I didn’t think about that. The dogs and the birds, they just love me all the way through. But the people, they’re like me, like us.” He stopped and swallowed hard. “Maybe I shouldn’t have made them?” He looked into his father’s eyes and saw in them a deep, universe-bursting love.
“My son, you may always make whatever you wish.” The man put a comforting hand on the boy’s curls. “Only take care that you’re prepared for the consequences when you make creatures in your own image.”
“Yes, I see that. If I want them to be really free, and able to love like we do, I have to make it so they can choose.” Tears filled his eyes again. “But what if they choose not to love?”
“Ah, that is indeed a terrible possibility. And more than a possibility, sweet boy. It is almost sure to happen at some point.”
“Why? Why would anyone choose not to love?”
His father shook his head. “It’s inherent in being free, child. That choice is sitting there in the open, always available, mysterious and unexplored. Someone will eventually pry into that mystery, and unleash misery on all his brethren.”
“But then I would have to make it right again, wouldn’t I? Of course I would want to redeem the poor things and bring them back to us again,” he said. “Oh, but Father, it’s terrible, what I would have to do.” He laid his head on his father’s deep chest and wept with grief. His father encircled him with his strong arms and held him until he quieted.
“You’re not ready for that yet, are you Son?”
“No, Father, I’m not ready. I can’t think of it!” He gripped his father’s arms and pushed back to look with wide eyes into that wise face. “But what can I do? I already made them.”
“Sshhh, all will be well, boy. Only gather back your breath and they will return to dust. They’re sleeping, are they not?”
The boy nodded and rose. In silence, Father and son walked back to the tiny orchard where the man, the woman and the dog lay among the brilliant flowers, fast asleep. The boy gazed at them with an aching love that twisted a stab of pain through his heart. He dropped to his knees and placed his hands on the moss. The dog woke and looked up at him.
“Goodbye, little people,” he whispered. Then he closed his wet eyes tight, and set his reluctant heart to the task. He opened his nostrils and drew in a deep breath.