Sally Ball

It’s a cold winter’s afternoon and the confused priest is determinedly walking his dog in the rain on a deserted beach. The wind pushes and shoves against him and the rain pulses into his face. The waves thump and crash as spray fills the air. He staggers as the wind taunts him, whipping his scarf around his neck like a noose.  His dog, small, furry, its ears blown back like streamers, coat rippling with each gust, weaves by his side. The waves draw out, thunder in, draw out, and the priest walks on, a lost, lonely, blundering figure, struggling as much to make sense of his life as the weather.

Salt stings the man’s eyes, water drips down the end of his nose. It is easy to cry here, to sob out his emptiness and frustration – no one will hear him even if he howls with the weight of the anguish in his heart. In short, juddering bursts his chest heaves with ragged sobs. As his misery consumes him, his crying intensifies. His dog whimpers in unison, glancing up every now and again as if to reassure himself that his master is there in body if not in spirit. The priest gives into the pressure of the pain which splits like a rock, snags and jabs at his heart, beats and throbs in his chest, spills out of his eyes and pours down his nose.

The sea surges against the shore, sucking sand, spitting spray, whipping white water into a froth of bursting bubbles. He wipes his clammy face with his cold hands and fumbles in his jacket pocket for his handkerchief. He keeps thinking about home, his home, which lies across this vast unthinking, uncaring ocean. A land of openness and broad blue skies, of stillness and sunshine that buries itself in his hair and his neck, caresses his back, and lifts his head. Lord, the lifter of my head. Phrases from the psalm swim into his mind. Lord, did you bring me here? Even if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there, my right hand will hold you fast. Here he is on the far side of an enormous ocean. But he doesn’t feel as if he is being held fast. He is every bit as adrift as the barnacled log that he sees being cast up onto the sand, sucked back, down, drowned by the waves, only to be vomited up once more. What has brought him to this soulless place? Does God really care? Is God real?

He remembers sand in another place. Warm sand, a sandy river bed that lies beneath vast skies. A wide expanse of sand through which is threaded a blue ribbon of shallow, clear, running water that sparkles with stars at midday. He remembers the quietness of that river, the slow step of the elephants as they come to drink in the evening. He recalls the sandstone cliffs that rise like a protective fortress across from his camp, and how, in the evenings they glow coppery-pink as the river turns from blue to a sheet of molten gold. He remembers the smoothness of the worn paths under the canopy of riverine trees, the carpet of dry leaves that crackle into the quietness under his feet. He remembers waiting, still and calm under the shade of a massive fig tree, his stealth and patience rewarded by the appearance of a shy nyala peering at him through the long winter grass. Deep brown, unblinking eyes that looked straight into his soul. He remembers the cry and majesty of the fish-eagle, the deep, reverberating grunt of the ground horn-bill, the comforting song of the mourning dove and the raucous squawk of the francolin as they nestled into the peace of the night. Night. Reveling in the warmth of the sand that crept through his thin cotton shirt, he would lie on his back gazing up into the huge, far flung tent of creation. God’s presence was very near as a million stars shimmered and sang above him.

He returns to himself. The beach, his dog, the endlessly crashing waves. The wind pulls at his jacket and berates him as he presses into it. Seagulls whirl and wheedle, a flurry of white wings and feathers as they swoop and dive, oblivious to the cold. His fingers are numb as he slips the dog’s lead over his right hand and pushes it into his pocket.  But the rain has stopped.

He halts mid-pace and turns around. Instantly his world quietens. He strides now with the wind propelling him forward, a partner rather than an opponent. How much easier not to fight, not to be ensnared by short, parrying thrusts of agony, but to let the sweet flow of memories ease his mind. As the wind slackens, and the surf drops, his breathing slows. He finds he can offer a prayer of thanks for the present, and of supplication for his future.   The phrase The past is another country comes to him, and he stops walking as the truth of it seeps into him. He stares out at the ocean and the clouds part to reveal the setting sun shining with sudden brilliance over the sea, bathing the beach, his dog, and himself, in a wash of gold.

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