To Push on the Rock
By Elizabeth Frerichs
© Elizabeth Frerichs 2015
1 ~ In the Woods
“I’m crazy. I’m crazy. Why am I doing this?” Will muttered, tramping onward. “Because”—he shoved underbrush out of the way—“I’m supposed to be in ministry. So why the hell do you have me out here, God? ‘Build a bridge, Will.’ ‘Climb a mountain, Will.’ Did You forget something?” He winced as his boot rubbed against blisters already raw. “I’m not made for this!”
Breathing heavily, he surveyed the trail, if you could call it that. A game trail, winding ever upward, it was still better than crashing through the brush. It’d be dark soon, and he still hadn’t found a place to stop for the night. He refused to sleep on another batch of pebbles. That’s all there is out here in these damn mountains anyway—rock.
At the top of a ridge, he could see a wisp of smoke rising somewhere further up the mountain and to his left. Maybe he wouldn’t have to settle for the ground after all. Maybe he hadn’t misheard God. Maybe this was it—he could bring Christ to some poor unsaved mountain man. His father and grandfather would finally admit he was ready. Will imagined himself preaching to multitudes of lost souls—hundreds falling to their knees and surrendering their lives to God for the first time. There’d be a line of folks waiting to thank him once he got to heaven—he shivered as the wind clawed its way through his coat—and if even if there wasn’t a lost mountain man out there, at least a fire meant warmth.
It was a hard trek: no path, no trail, and always just guessing, based on his estimate of where the smoke had been. Night fell and with it came more cold. A hundred times he almost decided to call it quits, to wrap himself in a blanket and hope the night ended soon. But at last he saw a faint glimmer through the trees. A structure of some kind loomed in the darkness.
He knocked. No answer.
“Hello? Is anyone here?”
Still no answer. This was all just a colossal waste of time! He beat on the door once more, as though punishing the door would help.
The door swung open.
Will peered inside. “Hello? Helloooo!” He waited a moment, listening to the silence, then said, “I’m coming in now.”
A dying fire illuminated the empty cabin. He took one cautious step in and then another.
“I’m not going to hurt anyone. I’m just looking for a place to spend the night.”
The door banged shut. He whirled, but there was no one there. Just the wind. His eyes traveled around the room once more. It was a stone cabin. Small, but snug. At least it was warmer here.
He walked over to the fire and stoked it. A chair sat nearby and a slim, leather-bound book lay on the mantelpiece. His fingers fairly itched to take it down. But what if this cabin did belong to one of those strange mountain men? The fire was lit—the owner could be back any minute; rifling through the man’s possessions seemed like a bad way to start things off. He ignored the book and walked a circuit of the room. A table with an unlit lantern. Another chair. A wash basin with a shelf above it containing dishes. And back to the fireplace, where the box of firewood sat. How could anyone live here?
One wall had a large tapestry on it—as though the occupant had tried to break up the monotony of all that stone. He squinted at it. The work seemed well done, out of character for a cabin in the middle of nowhere. He walked over to examine it, then realized it covered a doorway.
The hair on the back of his neck prickled. Maybe the man was in there, sleeping, or waiting to get him. He held his breath and strained to hear. Was that the trees rustling or someone breathing? Slowly, he inched his way under the hanging to peer through the doorway. The room was black, blacker than his father’s best shoes before they’d become worn out. No windows. He eased back into the main room and lit the lantern. Holding it high, he ducked through and brandished his walking stick.
The room was empty, save of an unoccupied bed and a small table with a wash basin on it. Will sagged against the wall. He was alone . . . for now.
Feeling like Goldilocks, he took off his pack and sat down in the chair by the fire. His whole body was beginning to be numb with exhaustion. He stared at the fire and his eyes glazed over. A yawn cracked his jaw. No! I’ve got to stay awake. Keep moving.
He stood up and put another log on the fire. The book was still there. He could stand by the fire and read it. Maybe the book would tell him something about what sort of man owned this cabin anyway. He picked it up. A sheet of paper slid to the floor. He stooped and his eyes flickered over the page.
Young man, I waited for some time, but something’s come up and I can’t wait any longer. I’ll be back. In the meantime, make yourself at home and read this book.
Who was this “young man”? Who had left the note? When would someone be here?
His stomach growled. He looked down at the note again in an effort to take his mind off his hunger. There was something else scratched in at the bottom. He held it closer to the fire and squinted.
PS There’s plenty of food in the cold storage and a well out back. And yes, you can use the bed.
Well, at least he had a place to sleep, if no one else showed up tonight. The owner didn’t sound like too much of an ogre. Cold storage? He walked over to the shelf of dishes, reasoning food should be nearby. This time he noticed a trap door set in the floor. He grabbed the lantern and descended.
Once his mostly raw dinner had been consumed and he’d tidied up, Will returned to the book. Read this. It was meant to be read, after all. He settled himself in a chair. Curious; it had no title and no author. The front page only bore an inscription: 2 Corinthians 2:14 ~ But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.i He gave a mental shrug and began to read.
Jeff hurried through town. Another call came, “What was it this time? Maybe you should lasso the moon!”
He kept his head down and forced himself to maintain a steady gait. O Lord, help me.
Pah! What am I doing? His jaw tightened and he fought to keep the resentment from flashing across his face.
No one else said anything, but he could feel the stares. Dirt and sweat had plastered his hair and clothing to his body. He switched the shovel to his other hand, then hissed as the rough wooden handle caught at a blister.
How many tasks did this make? Five? Ten? He couldn’t even remember now. The days had slid into weeks, all ticking down his year. The laborer’s hut he was staying in came into view. For an instant he considered going up to the main house and getting something to treat his many cuts and blisters. His mother or one of the servants would be more than willing to doctor him. But then, his father would be there too. How did one explain insanity? It couldn’t be done. And that was where he was headed, if not already there: insanity.
A covered basket sat in front of his door. His mother must have sent some food down for him, bless her. With a groan, he picked it up. Shovel still in hand he pushed open the door, then stilled.
Rose sat on one of the hard stick chairs by his table. When she saw him, she stood up and put a hand out. “Jeff, are you all right? What happened to you?”
He grimaced. “Rose. What are you doing here?”
She sat back down and folded her hands neatly in her lap. “I came to see you. It’s—it’s been ages.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been busy.” He rested the shovel in a corner and the basket on the table, then began noisily splashing water on his face and arms. An ache, bone deep, began to throb in his chest. Just the sight of her, as cool and as pretty as ever. And as unhaveable as ever, he reminded himself savagely. It had been hard to give up servants and running water, but far harder to give up Rose. He toweled off and carefully hung the towel on the back of a chair, then looked at her.
She held his gaze for a long moment. “When are you going to come back? We miss you . . . I miss you.”
“Not ‘til the year’s up,” he said gruffly.
“Don’t you think you’ve played this game long enough? I’m telling you—if you really want to become a minister, father has connections. He could get you a church in a city somewhere.” She smiled impishly. “I’ve always fancied becoming a city girl.”
His lips thinned. “Give up? Can’t you tell how much fun I’m having?” He gave a mirthless laugh. “Go home, Rose. There’s nothing for you here. Not now.”
She stood up and walked over to him, leaving mere inches between them. She let a single tear trace its sparkling path down her cheek and put a sob in her reply. “Is it me? You don’t love me anymore?”
Jeff grabbed hold of the towel-covered chair back, as though to anchor himself here, away from her. She was wearing his favorite dress, the one with blue flowers that made her eyes look as blue as the sky on a clear day. Had it only been 5 months ago that he’d taken her out for a drive in that very dress? The day he’d professed his love. The day they’d begun to talk of a future together. Love her? Of course he did.
“Rose, can’t you see that I have to do this? It’s not about whether I love you or not. I’m not my own man right now. Even if I did love you, what kind of man, what kind of husband would I be if I went back on my word?” He searched for the right words. “If I’m free at the end of this year, we’ll see. But I can’t promise anything. There’s nothing here for you now.” Legs as heavy as his heart, he walked over to the door and held it open.
Her eyes flashed. “Look at you. What are you doing? Living in this, this hovel? Spending your days doing what? Digging? Following the doctor around like a puppy? I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but it’s not ministry. I don’t think I want a husband who prefers manual labor to me anyway,” she said with a sneer. Then, head held high, she walked out the door. “Good day, Jeffrey Witkerson.”
Jeff stood there long after she left, gripping the door handle, pain lancing up his fingers. Finally, he closed the door and sank onto a chair. Inside, outside, everything ached. Rose, his Rose, had looked at him with loathing. She’s not my Rose anymore, he reminded himself. He’d given her up, for this…