Tuesday 1 September 2015

Short Story 2015, Featured Writer Arka Datta


Joel Warren was a pastor in a small town of non-believers. In that town, no more than a dozen people would attend the prayers on Sundays, in their small church, that too if the previous week had been a hurricane-affected one. Otherwise, he had no reason to dress up and show up as there would be no one expecting him. At the end of each year, the people of the town would argue over the importance of the church being there. If not for the three people, who believed strongly in god, the church would turn into a meaningless piece of property. But those three: Joseph, his wife Mary, and his sister Veleda, always argued that their beliefs should be valued, and so the church should remain. Even the men and women of science respected their elders enough to let them have their church, even if that meant paying money in form of taxes that they could otherwise avoid.

Pastor Joel was himself a man of science, but in secret. His father was a pastor before him, and so was his grandfather. He just could never strengthen his heart to walk the other way. He believed in fair chances. So, he had searched for god, or at least a sign of him, in all places. He had read the bible- both the old and new testaments- back and forth, but they couldn’t convince him. He believed that the “writer” was a man of science too, and he had tried to explain the world metaphorically: in expressions that were easier to be followed by all. Not all of it made sense to him though. Yet, he was in favour of having the church active in his town. He believed that people have the right to choose what they trust in, thus, Joseph, Mary, and Veleda- along with the other half-believers- deserved to have a place of worship in their town. Still, he would always wonder what kind of miracles those three elders must have witnessed to believe in god so strongly. He often found himself looking for one, but miracles were hard to come by in a town of non-believers. Until October, 2012!

Hurricane Sandy was coming. The forecasts had asked the Americans to stay indoors and prepare for the worst, but not in their wildest of nightmares had they imagined what was approaching. The storm left most part of the country paralyzed, and the smaller towns were almost completely destroyed. Pastor Joel watched helplessly as his birthplace crumbled into pieces. The morning after the storm was the darkest night in the lives of the town’s citizens. Most of them were left without roofs over their head. Life as they knew it had ended. Like most of the other buildings there, the only part of the church that remained was its skeleton. The skin had fallen off entirely.

As afternoon came, some of the people started to roam around the area to see if anything of substance remained. The younger ones were searching through the piles of what-once-was-life, in hunt for treasures that could help them rebuild their town. One such group of young boys and girls gathered in front of the church and found Mr. Joseph struggling to gather the remains of the church. In any other day, under any other circumstances, it would be a funny sight. He was a frail, old man, and to see him trying to drag the heavy chunks of wreckage made those scared young minds to feel sorry for him. They ran towards him and offered their help. Few minutes later, Mary and Veleda joined them. Before that afternoon ended, they had managed to separate the reusable parts of the building from the dirt. Mr. Joseph requested the kids to meet him there early next morning.

When they came next morning, the sight amazed them. The premise appeared very clean. Mr. Joseph and his family were unloading wood-planks from his truck. He was wearing an old jeans and t-shirt. He was carrying a bag full of tools; it made him look like a builder. Mr. Joseph smiled broadly to those kids and said “we are going to rebuild this church, just the way it was.”
The kids seemed confused. “Can you do that?” one of them asked.

To that, Mr. Joseph smiled and asked them to follow him. In front of where the church’s entrance previously stood, they saw an old paper roll and photographs. They recognized him in those pictures. In them, his young self was standing in front of the same church, although, it wasn’t complete. It stood much like how it was after the storm. “I was only seventeen when we started to build this beauty. There were four of us. The others have moved on from this little place of ours, but I stayed back. It felt like that this town needed me!” Then he showed them the plans and drawings from the old days. Some parts of them were faded but the blueprint was clear enough. “My bones have become soft, and most of my muscles are dead. But if you help me, we can do this…” he pleaded to those kids.

Mary and Veleda offered the kids some sandwiches and lemonade. And when their stomachs were full and minds made up, all of them got to work. The skeleton was still strong, and their lengths were noted on the blueprints. Mr. Joseph taught them how to pick the right planks for specific parts of the building. He marked the planks with his pencil and helped the kids to cut them into right shapes and pieces. When the time came for them to nail the planks to the frame, Mr. Joseph took charge. He would climb up the ladders and join the wooden plates to the structure one by one when the kids held them straight. Joseph, Mary, Veleda, and the kids kept working for hours without a rest. They took a break for lunch once the front area of the church was covered. Then they resumed work. Before the sun could disappear behind the horizon, a lot of work was done. Words of their doings spread around. And when Mr. Joseph and his family came back to work next morning, they found more kids and their parents waiting for them. Pastor Joel was also present. They had brought picnic baskets, wood working tools, more boards of woods, and a whole lot of good vibe. 

As the men and women helped with the work, it went on smoother and faster. Next day, more people came; perhaps more than it was required. They divided themselves into teams and worked in turns. Pastor Joel was making sure that everyone knew their roles and was precise with the job. He kept thinking how the scene had brought together all the greatest metaphors of the world. Most of those people had lost their own homes, and there was no one who hadn’t lost at least few things in the storm. Those were the people who had never even believed in god, or wanted the church to be there in the first place. Yet, when they saw their kids and the elders together, they couldn’t stop themselves from joining. Perhaps, all of them wanted to come together to something. None of them wanted to stay behind when the rest worked together. It was not the nature of the work but the purpose that mattered. Perhaps, the church had embodied everything that they lost. To Pastor Joel it seemed to be an act of reconciliation. The whole country was in misery. Government’s help wasn’t coming soon enough to a town nobody knew of. They had to rebuild it all by themselves, and the church possibly was the beginning. This was what filled him with hope. If they all could stand for each other, it wouldn’t take much time for the city to stand back on its feet. “Isn’t it how we survive as a race?” he asked Mr. Joseph. The old man gently smiled and nodded.  

With the younger lot working on fixing the roof, the church seemed to shape up fine by the end of the week. They had fun painting it white, like it always was. The art on the windows were gone, but Mr. Joseph replaced them with colorful glasses. When sunrays travelled through them, it painted the inside of the church with red, yellow, and blue. Everything was so perfect, so divinely beautiful that it almost made the people believe that the church was never gone, that it was the only thing that had survived the hurricane.

Although, when the government-assigned builders finally came to reconstruct the town, they had to break down parts of the church as they didn't meet the official standards. Strangely, that didn't quite matter. Building that church back to life was never about building the church back to life. It was about a lot of other things. Most of all, it was about people claiming their rights back from the cruelties of misfortune. The construction crews left the city in good shape: as perfect in its imperfections as it was before the storm.

Pastor Joel had placed a board in front of the church that read: Please come to the Church this Sunday; If not for Prayers then for the Cupcakes and Coffee.
And it worked. Next Sunday, almost the entire town gathered in the church. They were full of pride. They had emerged as a stronger group of people than they ever were. They spent that morning laughing, singing, and having a great treat with the cakes made by Mary. And before they were to return home, Mr. Joseph requested the pastor to say a few words to the crowd.

So, Pastor Joel took the stage- with his palms gently resting on the Bible, and said, "All my life, I have searched for miracles. I have looked up towards the sky and waited for it to happen. But it took a devastating storm for me to realize that it was already all around me. We, the people, are the greatest thing ever created. We are the miracle."
"Amen!" the attendees said in harmony.

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