The Task: Part 4

They awoke to a shock of thunder that vibrated the cottage. Going to the door, Joel listened a moment to assure himself it was only thunder and not a person with ill intent. Satisfied, he opened the door to a dark day but just a sprinkle of rain. He dressed in his now dry clothes. “I’m going to check the underbrush and the lean-to.”

“I’m going with you,” said Noella scrambling to get her cloak before Joel went out alone.

He was about to say there was no need when he saw the resolve on her face and shrugged. He grabbed his stick. When they got to the side yard, Joel looked around. “I think I was about here when I saw the glint. No, I was more this way.” He moved closer to the pump. Nothing showed itself in the gray light. He shook his head and started towards the lean-to.

He was about to open its door when Noella almost shouted, “No, Joel, don’t!”

His hand came off the iron ring as he jumped at the noise. Wheeling around, he angrily asked, “Why are you shouting?”

“Look,” said Noella, pointing to the ground to the side of the lean-to’s door. There, barely visible was a rusted chain, one that was made to be attached to a trap.

Joel crouched down and inspected it. The final ring was rusted through, but that it had linked to a longer chain was obvious. He followed the links back to a stake firmly stuck in the ground. He rose and backed up to stand quietly by Noella. Neither broke the silence. Finally, he asked, “How did the trap get over there and unsprung?”

“Yes, that’s the part I don’t like either,” said Noella frowning worriedly. “Maybe it was so rusted that it stayed open when it was pushed by an animal or something,” she finished up lamely. Joel gave her a disgusted look to which she shrugged. “I say we leave the lean-to be. We walk away.”

Joel secretly agreed but something in him wanted to know what was inside. The lean-to itself looked innocent enough. What could possibly be in there? He hadn’t even moved a finger towards the door when he heard Noella beg, “Please, Joel, don’t.”

“What do think …” he started sneeringly. “I’m going to unleash a rabid animal?”

“Oh, no. Any animal trapped in there is long dead. It just doesn’t feel right to let out whatever might be in there.”

He wanted to be disgusted with her, but he couldn’t. “You really think it’s Pandora’s box. We’d be letting out the evils of the world or something akin to them?”

Noella continued to look at him with pleading concern. “That, I do,” she said softly.

“But that was just a story,” he countered.

“But a story that shows how people really can make a mess of things.” Noella paused. She wanted to add, “when they do things thoughtlessly,” but she refrained and simply waited.

“Okay.” Joel made himself walk back to the cottage. He could almost hear the whispers of the lean-to—come see, come open—but he could also hear his stomach rumbling. “Let’s eat and leave.”

Noella nodded in agreement.

When they were ready to start out, Noella looked to Joel for the direction. He pointed north. Disappointed at not hearing a “this way,” Noella trudged behind him. More dark clouds rolled in. A wind began to whip their clothes. As they looked back, they saw a lighter sky and hoped the storm around them would pass quickly.

However, after hours of struggling against wind and occasional rain squalls, Joel looked back to see the same light sky where they’d come from but only darkness ahead. It was as if they were bringing the darkness, attracting it to them. He looked at Noella and saw that, although she was struggling to keep the lantern from swinging wildly in the blasting wind, the candle inside was burning steadily, sending brightness into the forest’s shadows.

“Over here,” he pointed. Maybe I can add that to “this way,” thought Noella trying to cheer herself. Ducking an overhang of low branches, she sank gratefully onto a pile of mostly dry leaves.

“This isn’t any good,” sighed Joel putting his hands over his face.

He looked defeated, but somehow, instead of scaring Noella, this encouraged her. “Joel, we’ve just started.”

He looked at her, not yet believing, but seemingly willing to listen. Not sure what she was supposed to say, Noella simply dived in. “If we’re going to be out weeks or even a month like you said, many days will be wet. It’s that time of year. It just happened to start this way the first week. We’ll have sunny days. We saw the light skies where we came from. Things will clear around us.”

Joel nodded. “I know you’re right.” After resting a few minutes, he asked, “Ready?”

Noella nodded and gathered her cloak around her.

He hesitated then turned more west and said, “This way.” Noella smiled and thought, that’s a start. I think we’re at six.

***

Their days continued much the same. The dark clouds remained above them. They could see the lighter skies where they’d been, but the sun never seemed to catch up to them. They encouraged each other with, “It’s just an especially wet spring,” and “We must be heading into where the storms are going.”

The weather warmed as summer approached. Each night, they found shelter: sometimes a shed or a small cave, other times an abandoned cabin. They also came upon small, friendly villages where they worked for a couple of days and replenished their supplies before moving on.

They had left the last village several days earlier and were in dense forest. All along, Joel had been able to effortlessly navigate the various terrains, but he now seemed unsure. To Noella, all the forests they went through just looked like trees upon trees. They had been walking almost two months now. Every time Noella asked, “Do you know yet what we’re to do?” Joel would simply shake his head. At first, his eyes had looked worried, then fearful, but now when she asked, she could see resolve. She never asked, “How much longer?” Somehow, it didn’t matter. It was as if they had always walked, as if it was what they were supposed to do. It was also as if the candle had always burned, that it would always burn. It still had lost no wax. They were both so accustomed to it neither of them gave a thought to blowing it out.

Now, in the height of summer, sleeping out was easy. They had bedded down early because of a particularly violent thunderstorm. Noella awoke to quiet and wondered what time it was. Pushing aside the branches Joel had placed in the mouth of cave, she saw tiny dots of light low above the undergrowth.

“Joel, wake up. Look!” she pointed.

He crawled to the opening. “Fireflies,” he said in awe. “Hundreds of them.” Joel put his hand outside the cave. “It’s not raining. Do you want to walk awhile?”

“Sure,” said Noella realizing she felt rested.

They gathered their belongings and started the direction Joel pointed. After a few yards, Noella looked back. “They’re following us.”

“Who?” asked Joel readying himself for a standoff until he realized Noella’s tone did not indicate fear. Looking around, he saw a mass of fireflies.

Bewildered, they both stopped. The fireflies waited. Joel frowned and said, “Maybe they are attracted by the candle.”

“I didn’t think fireflies did that. I thought that was moths.”

He nodded his head slowly. “No, you’re right. It’s just moths.” He shrugged. “You’re welcome to come,” he said to the fireflies.

As they made their way through the forest, one or the other of them occasionally looked around. The fireflies stayed with them. After several hours, Joel found a small shack where they bedded down for the rest of the night.

The next morning, they looked for the fireflies, but, of course, they are not to be seen during the day. They ate and started out, quickly coming to a meadow. Crossing it in a pale, pearly light, Noella remarked, “I so hoped the sun would finally come out this morning.”

Joel stopped and looked at her. “I don’t think the sun will come out for us. Probably not for a long time.”

“Why, Joel?” she asked, beginning to be frightened. “Did we do something wrong, something bad?”

“No, no, I don’t mean that. Have you noticed it’s always light behind us?”

“Yes. I have wondered about that.”

“I think we bring the light.”

“Then, why isn’t it light around us if we bring it?” Noella paused. “Joel! You know what our task is, don’t you?”

“I think I do,” he began hesitantly. “I think we bring the light. It’s not for us. We bring it and move on to bring more. That’s why it’s always dark around us.”

Noella put the lantern down and bit the inside of her mouth. Joel waited to hear what she would say. “This is our life, then, walking?”

To this, Joel shrugged and offered, “Maybe.”

“That’s not a bad way to be,” she finally said.

“Not at all, at least for now.”

As Noella started up again, she looked behind her: no fireflies yet but the sky was light behind them.