The Task: Part 4

They awoke to a shock of thunder that shook the cottage. Going to the door, Joel opened it to a dark day but just a sprinkle of rain. “I’m going to check the underbrush and the lean-to.”

“I’m going with you,” said Noella scrambling to get her cloak before he 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 underbrush, he said, “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, “Joel, wait.”

His hand came off the iron ring as he jumped at the noise. “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?”

“That’s the part I don’t like,” said Noella frowning worriedly. “Maybe it was so rusted that it stayed open when it was pushed by an animal or something,” she finished lamely. Joel gave her a disgusted look to which she shrugged. “I say we leave the lean-to be. It’s distracting us from our purpose.”

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 with a sneer. “I’m going to unleash a rabid animal?”

“Oh, no. Any animal trapped in there is long dead, but what’s in there could cost us time at the very least.”

“But it might have something useful.”

“It might, but it doesn’t feel right. It feels like it’s trying to distract us from what we need to do. Maybe this is where they put the bodies of the people that don’t come back. I’d rather not know.”

Joel wanted to be disgusted with her but couldn’t. “If you’re right, I don’t want to know either.” Looking down, he saw the holes the trap had made in his boot. “and I don’t want to be connected with it.” He could hear his stomach rumbling. “Let’s eat and leave.” Noella nodded in agreement.

When they were ready to start, Noella looked to Joel for the direction. He pointed north. Disappointed, 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 by quickly. However, after hours of struggling against wind and 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 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,” he sighed putting his hands over his face.

He looked defeated, but 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, she 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 ten.

*             *             *

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 the storms.’ 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 looked the same. 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 branches Joel had placed in the mouth of the 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.” He put his hand outside the cave. “It’s not raining. Do you want to walk a while?”

“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 her tone did not indicate fear. Looking around, he saw a mass of fireflies. Bewildered, they both stopped. The fireflies waited. Joel frowned, “Maybe they’re 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.”

As they made their way through the forest, one or the other of them occasionally looked back. 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 can’t 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.”

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

“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.”

“Why isn’t it light around us then?” She paused. “Joel, you know what our task is, don’t you?”

“I think so,” he began hesitantly. “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. Joel waited to hear what she would say. “This is our life, then, traveling?”

Joel shrugged and offered, “Maybe.”

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

“Not at all.”

As they started up, Noella glanced back at the distant, sunny sky behind them and thought, this is good thing, a good task to be given.