Several years ago, I was sitting on a cabin porch with my son. We watched the stars and talked openly. It was a hard but needed talk, the beginning of our deeper friendship. At one point, I told him a story.
I will post the story here in four parts, beginning today.
I have made an audio CD of it, which I will send to anyone who donates to the Heart of Africa film. (Honor system. If you tell me you’ve donated, I’ll send you a CD.)
DAVID OF NEBULA
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.(I Corinthians 13:12)
David lived in a city of clouds. You might be picturing a rainy day as you read this, with clouds gathering in gray billows and then bursting into tears. In fact, there was no rain in David’s town, which was called Nebula, though sometimes the clouds descended low and swathed the earth in a damp mist. These clouds were different than anything you’ve seen. They were so thick that they sometimes clung to your clothes, like strings of cotton. Occasionally, the clouds touched the ground, but usually they rested just a few inches above the tallest citizens’ heads. If you pressed your hand into the clouds, a handprint would stay for a moment. They were soft to the touch. Some said they were God’s beard. David had no idea of what kind of god would wear such a beard, nor why this god would stay in one place for so long.
One man, the oldest in the city, had seen Nebula without clouds. Indeed, every century, the clouds lifted for one unpredictable day. There were books (but only a few) on what the city looked like without clouds. Most of them were short, and a few were only a paragraph. One had a single word and nothing more: “Incredible!”
The old man, Professor Jake, had written the lengthiest of the books. In it, he said that the unclouded sky was pink as strawberry meat. He said that there were huge rocks in the distance with big plants (“trees”) of many colors: corn-yellow, gold, rust, and blood-red. Nebula had some grasses and ferns, some vegetable vines and corn stalks, but nothing like what the old man described. Its roads, paths and houses were made of small rocks and mortared pebbles, but nothing like the huge ones Professor Jake called mountains.
The year of the last “day without clouds” was recorded in the professor’s book, which he had written from his childhood memory thirty years after the event. He said there would be another cloud lifting in the year of this story. No one knew the day, but the professor’s book said there would be a sign—a sound like deep, angry drums reverberating through the sky.
David wanted to believe that the old man was telling the truth—not only about the future, but also about the past. He was skeptical, though. This was his nature. His mother, who had rust colored hair like David’s and laughed too hard and cried too often, asked him sometimes, “Why can’t you just believe? Is it so hard?”
It was hard, and he couldn’t explain it to her. She believed everything. David wanted to believe. But he knew that old people sometimes remember things that never happened, and forget things that did. He was a smart boy, and he was a reader (as most smart boys are). He had read all about the Day of No Clouds. He had read the old man’s book three times. He wasn’t sure his mother had read it even once. She didn’t seem to need books to help her believe in something. He realized (though he didn’t tell her this) that he was smarter than she was.
One morning, the clouds started weeping. These were not the typical mists, but drops, and then strings, and finally slanting whips of water. They lashed the earth, and fell so hard that David wondered if his face was bleeding. (Of course, he continued looking straight up into the sky, even though it hurt.)
Then, as abruptly the clouds had shed water, there were bursts of brilliant, electrical light exploding within one cloud and then bouncing to another. The light danced. Almost immediately there was—yes—drumming. It was deeper and louder than anything David had ever heard. And it did sound angry. It made the earth shudder.
Most of the citizens ran into their houses, terrified. Some took refuge in the mines. David, as you might guess, stayed outside and watched. It was glorious—and wet.
The old man’s book had predicted the sounds, though it had said nothing about the dancing light. David thought it strange that the professor would’ve omitted such an important detail. Still, if the book was right, the clouds would lift soon.
That was when David did the most courageous thing of his young life. He went to Professor Jake’s house. He knew where it was, of course. Everyone did, though few ventured there. The old man was considered a prophet and a sage, and perhaps even eternal. Few dared approach so great a man. Did he keep servants? David thought he probably did, for (as everyone knew) the old man was wealthy. He had gold, which was the center of the city’s economy. Most of the citizens mined either gold, ore, or coal. Most spent their days underground. The old man said in his book that the huge rocks were like the mines, but upside down. They were as tall as the mines were deep.
David couldn’t picture that, but he wanted it to be true.
He took a deep breath as another rumbling drum sounded, and then he began his journey to the biggest house of Nebula. He walked up the ancient city road, and hiked the winding path to the old man’s mansion. The path stones were laced with little ferns and a few wild berries. The clouds were still playing with light; the drums were still clamoring, but softer now. The water had slowed to a drizzle.
David approached the door, which was twice as big as he was, and black. Again, he drew a deep breath, waited, and finally knocked—but only once. It sounded weak and hollow, and the door was thick. How could anyone hear him?
He turned his head to get one more look at the lights.
Something had changed. There were no more drum sounds, no more strings of water. And the light was different.
That was when he saw a sight he would never forget: A band of many colors was stretching up into the heavens. These were colors he had never beheld. He didn’t even know what he could compare them to. Some were light shades of Nebula’s few flowers—golds, greens, blues and pinks. Others were colors he had never seen. They were all pale. Pale yet bright. How could something be pale and bright? And they glittered. Why was there no mention of this in the professor’s book?
He stared, memorizing every detail. The colors were stretching further. Then David realized that another color band was forming from the opposite side of the sky. Both bands were reaching towards each other. They were expanding up and across to a meeting place, forming an arc. And then, like a dim reflection, a second arc showed under the first. He shook his head in wonder. Oh, the colors! He counted six, but didn’t know what to call them.
The display was only temporary, though. Though he willed them to linger, the colors faded as he watched.