Monday, 31 May 2010

The Umbrella

It was raining again. It had been raining for weeks on end, drowning her world and her basement in inches of water. She had bail buckets scattered and often floating around her feet as she stooped to scoop her floor dry – an impossible task between the attack of the rain and the thaw. If her street flooded it would be the end of her foundation altogether and she might as well install a diving board. How had it come to this?

Upstairs things were not much better. Her boyfriend was sitting by an open window, watching the water pour in over the sill like the Niagara. “Look sweetie,” he said with a dopey smile on his face, “I put a bucket under the flow, so it wouldn’t ruin the floors!” She gave him a sharp look of “Actually, right now? Are you an idiot?” and pointed to the window. “Why didn’t you just close the window?” she asked aloud. “Why didn’t you?” he countered. It was a fair point. She had been living in her house with the windows open for so long that she hadn’t even thought to close them when the rain started to come. She had been distracted with the basement immediately and had only thought about the windows being open when she started to see water damage not only from the walls but also from the ceiling of the basement. Jack could have been a little more help, though. He was sitting right there, after all. But she said nothing in correction and rarely gave suggestions; instead she spent her time criticizing his choices and mocking him in her mind. It was a kind of release for her, in a way, albeit a selfish one.

She went into the kitchen and opened a drawer, rummaging through the mess of disorganized odds and ends. Rubber bands, scissors, a flashlight, Kleenexes, a ruler, three dried up markers and a few candle stubs, but no matches with which to light them. “Jaaaaaack,” she called back into the living room with an exasperated tone. “Do you know where I put the matches from the campfire last weekend?” There was no response. She walked back into the other room, each step squishing audibly as her socked feet took on all qualities of a sponge. Jack was lying on the couch, half-asleep with the bucket balanced on his chest as though he had attempted but not quite made it to the sink. The still-open window was drenching the rug. She thought about tipping the pail into his face but opted for her jacket instead. She needed space. She needed time away from this place and this life. She let the front door slam behind her.

The world outside had turned into a puddle. It was as though they were living in the first few days of Noah’s deluge and now the precipitation pace seemed to be picking up. Her jacket was thin and she felt every gust as though she were in nothing more than a tissue-paper robe. The night was overcast and chill, and the store was a fifteen minute walk away. She began to wish for her winter coat, or the umbrella still hanging on the kitchen hook – something, anything, to protect her.

Lightning illuminated the sky as the storm flexed its power over the small town. In that moment the whole street lit up and she saw, or perhaps she only thought she saw, a man standing at the corner. The otherwise deserted street was plunged back into the darkness that she had known only seconds before, but in that one moment with hardly enough time to breathe she knew that the man was waiting for her. Her body tried to turn and run, but her eyes had met his in the flash and her curiosity could not resist... she needed to talk to him. Deep thunder shook the earth, as though to agree.

With resolve she continued down the street. The lightening split the sky again and she looked intently at where the man stood. He was tall, with dark skin and a kind face, dressed in a tan coloured trench coat, collar up. He was holding a large, white umbrella and he had begun to walk toward her. They met part way to the corner a moment later.

“Where are you headed? It’s cold and you look like you could use a little shelter. I’m happy to walk you there, if you don’t mind the company.”

She smiled in appreciation and although she would normally turn down a stranger’s help, especially that of a man, she decided against pattern and thanked him. “No,” he said. “Thank you. The truth is I was hoping for a purpose in this walk. Now I have one.” They paced in silence for a minute, synchronizing their gate and then he picked up the conversation again. “My name is Ben. What’s yours?” He looked at her with a sure, encouraging kind of confidence. “River,” she answered. She looked at him expectantly; her name always caught strangers off guard and even now some of her closer friends were just getting used to it, but Ben was un-phased. “Glad to meet you, River. And happy to hold this umbrella as well, but something tells me I could do even more for you tonight. You look like you could use a listening ear. I love stories of all kinds and I’ve been told I give pretty sound advice. We’ve got a few blocks, if you feel like talking.” He smiled as he spoke. It was the kind of smile that you usually find on the face of a grandfatherly caregiver, a smile that calms and invites and promises the helping words that come with personal history and yet this face was also young and full of colour and life. Without permission her eyes filled with tears.

“It’s raining,” she laughed as the tears fell. “It’s raining and there is nothing I can do about it! It’s been raining for days and weeks without relief. My house is flooding, the water damage is irreversible and even my socks are wet! Everything is wet in my life. Nothing is dry or clean or simple or right anymore....”

Her voice broke into sobs and she stopped walking. Ben faced her and put his hand on her shoulder saying nothing for a few moments. “River, child.” He spoke softly with an accent reminiscent of African roots. “It sounds like more than your basement has been feeling the rain tonight. It sounds to me like maybe you’ve been battling a flood in your heart too. Am I right?” She nodded slowly. Ben took a step and they continued on their journey. “Let me tell you two familiar stories, River. The first is about two carpenters, both in the business of building great, large homes. The two men chose very different locations for their homes, one on the lakefront, right in the sand and one further up, on the bedrock of the mountain’s base. The man with the waterfront property, knowing about tides, built the house up high on stilts that were buried deep into the beach. The house was beautiful and its construction was good, but it had no support in its foundation. Now, the other man who was drilling and blasting and securing his house to the land took a long time laying out his plans. When he finally set his foundations they were strong and sealed and sure. Then the storm came, a storm much like this one, and it did it’s best to shred the houses. It beat against the glass and the ground. The rock was tough and held its house secure, but the sand gave way to the fury of wind and tide, and the supporting pillars collapsed. The house was completely destroyed.”

“I’ve heard this story before,” said River with a hopeless look and a heavy sigh. “I built on the Rock.” Ben smiled. “I know.”

They paused at a stoplight, waiting while for the walking man to signal a safe crossing. A few cars dove by, one splashing water up at them from the street in a wave - but the wave did not hit them. It was almost as though the water itself had second thoughts and made a decision against soaking the pair. River did not pay the moment or the direction much mind. She was waiting for the second story.

"Consider that the houses were not uninhabited... within the walls dwelt the architects themselves. With the beach house, the creator of it was destroyed, while the other survived with conviction, for a time. You see, even if the foundation is strong, it does not necessary secure the strength of the rest of the building, and it is the roof and the walls, not the foundation, that take the beatings of a storm." As they turned another left she found herself back on her own road, only a few doors from her own home. Ben stopped walking and faced her, his back to her house with windows lit and windows open.

"The owner of the house has a decision to make. With neglect the house will be destroyed by the wind. Only the foundation, deep and strong will outlast the weathering of a storm if all defences have been abandoned. If she does this, she will have to start from nothing - Jesus and nothing. It is not impossible, but it will be very hard, and she will have to work through great disappointment and bitterness. If, however, she recognizes the dangers that her house, her life and her mind are so aggressively faced with and she blocks them out, shuts the door to them and seals her windows, her home will prevail even in the fiercest of trials."

River looked over his shoulder at her house. Could it be salvaged? Could it be renewed? Was this an offer for her heart as well as her home?

Ben didn't answer her questions, not even with his eyes. He smiled, handed her the umbrella and turned away. She called a "Thank you" after him, but he did not reply with a standard. "Don't thank me," he said in a whisper that she was surprised to be able to hear, "I am only a messenger." And he was gone.

River shook the umbrella dry as she opened her front door again. Nothing accomplished, but much learned. She walked into the living room and closed the window. "There is hope," she said to her reflection in the rain-braten glass keeping the water away.

"There is still hope."