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Between These Walls


Acclaim:Highly Commended in the Write Link "Weekender Challenge" 2004, theme of "Idol".


Between These Walls

"Oma way, ay, oma."

The stone floor reverberated as all the settlement's people - men, women and children - faced the giant stone idol at the far end of the settlement and chanted the same sounds.

All except for the councillors, at their stone table, and the Outsider. A few of the councillors turned towards the window, wishing to join in the chanting outside. Most of them, however, were watching the Outsider, waiting for his next outburst.

"Are you crazy?" The Outsider clenched the arms of the stone chair, knuckles whitening. "Your people are dying and all they need is shelter!"

The head councillor, Daniel Gibson, raised his hands in helpless acknowledgement. He was a dark skinned man, shaped from hard work and days in the sun. He spoke softly but firmly. "We are aware of the plight of our people, but you must understand, this is our way of life."

"Your way of life is killing people. This would be so easy to solve if you'd only try."

There was an awkward silence. At last, Gibson stood up and beckoned. "Come."

Slowly, the Outsider rose to his feet and joined the man at the window. The small hole permitted them to look down from the council chambers, set in the steep grey rock wall that almost enclosed the settlement. Far below, a sprawl of wooden huts filled the stone basin.

"What do you see?" said Gibson, over the continuing chant.

The Outsider leaned in close to the opening. "I see a good and noble people, injured by the sun's rays because they worship before an idol in the hottest part of the day. I see families bearing the scars of the winter's storms. I see overcrowding and a people struggling to survive in a barren land."

"That is no idol. That is the prophet Amund. He brought us word of how our god would save us." Gibson waved the Outsider into silence. "Do you want to know what I see? I see ten thousand people descended from one hundred. I see life where no life should be possible. I see a community built on principles that have proved themselves worthy. I see a people worshipping the god that gave them life from the desert."

Gibson fixed the Outsider with a determined stare. "These are no idle claims. We do not know why our people arrived in the desert - we cannot imagine it was their intention. The winds that ravage these plains condemn most life to a swift end."

"Yes, yes, and then you found the rocks to shelter you so you could build the settlement."

"No." Gibson's face became fierce. "Do not think we live here lightly. Our god provided these mountains so that we might live. His rules are strict and we must obey them, but we live with them gladly, rather than not live at all."

"This is madness," said the Outsider. "The mountains don't shelter you from the sun, and your huts are little protection from the rains and hail."

"We are aware of our challenges. But unless you can lead us all to a better land, this is how it must be."

The Outsider looked around, searching for understanding in the councillors' faces. "You know I can't take all of you. Ten or twenty at most. But I can help you!" He patted the wall. "These stones are sturdy - they would easily protect you from the elements. These mountains could easily house you all."

"We cannot..."

"Yes you can! I have tools in my supplies: explosives, digging equipment. In twenty days we could build enough caves to house your people. You could turn the huts into farmland. You've already got caves for the council chambers, why not have caves for the people too?"

The room fell silent. Outside, the chanting stopped, the worship completed for the day.

Slowly, Gibson said, "We cannot. Please, leave us be. If it will help you understand, read our scriptures. I must adjourn this meeting now. You have held us back from our worship."

The council filed out, leaving Gibson alone with the Outsider.

The Outsider spoke first. "Is the council so worthy that it alone must have shelter?"

Gibson sighed. "Our god provides for us massively. He gave us all the rock that we have, and asks only that we use it no more than he provides."

The Outsider growled. "Your forefathers left you these guidelines because they couldn't work with the rock. But I can. Can't you see what this is doing to all of you?"

"Read the scriptures," said Gibson. Then he turned and left.

The Outsider thumbed through the religious book. The text was old, written roughly on ragged paper. Clearly it was intended as a functional record rather than a glorious religious symbol. The writing was too simple, the cover too unadorned. It spoke of a race of people who, having arrived in the desert, were fighting for their lives. There had been no time to spend making a book pretty.

The Outsider moved to the window and looked out again. The settlers' forefathers had worked hard to give them this community, struggling to scavenge enough of the rare wood and vegetation to house and feed their people. Later, they could grow crops and trees in the shelter of the mountains, but initially they battled for survival.

It was fortunate, reflected the Outsider, that they had found this mountainous home. Whether you viewed it as a gift from god or just good fortune, it provided the only shelter for miles around from the scouring desert winds. Indeed, when the Outsider himself arrived, he had considered it to be a natural stone fortress amidst the wasteland. By chance he had seen the tips of the windmills, raised high on wooden frames, and realised that a community had survived by sheltering inside.

He watched the settlers go about their business. The rocks protected them from the winds racing across the surface of the world, but provided no protection from above.

A demonstration was required, he thought, to show them how to shape the rocks. He looked towards the statue of the prophet, then went for his supplies.

The sun fell and rose, and the Outsider waited.

As the sun reached its highest point, the settlers stopped their labours and reached up towards the statue. The Outsider picked out the council members at the front of the crowd while the chanting started. There were stone steps leading to the statue, but the settlers worshipped from the bottom. The Outsider smiled; it should keep them out of range.

As the familiar chanting came, the Outsider ran up the first two steps and raised his arms. The council members stopped in mute surprise.

"Hear me," the Outsider called, barely audible above the chanting. "Do not worship this rock! Use it to shelter yourselves!"

Gibson stepped up towards the Outsider. "What are you doing? Please, step down and leave the prophet Amund in peace."

"I told you I could help you fashion a shelter for yourselves. I've prepared a demonstration." With that, the Outsider bent down and lit a trailing fuse. A flame raced across the ground as the Outsider ran down the steps. "Take cover!" he yelled.

As the flame reached the statue and ran up the side there was a pause, and even the chants seemed to hang in the air. Then, suddenly, a flash of light and flame engulfed the statue, and fragments scattered in all directions. A loud boom resonated off the rock walls. The chanting stopped as the people fell to the ground in fright.

As the debris fell and the noise faded away, the Outsider stood up and addressed the council. "This is how easy it is to fashion you a better home."

Gibson looked past the Outsider to where the statue had been moments before. "The prophet! You destroyed the prophet!"

The Outsider shrugged. "You can build a new statue; I'm offering to build you a new home."

Gibson fell to his knees. "You don't understand," he said.

"What..." began the Outsider, but his voice trailed off. The ground started shaking and rumbling. At first the sand seemed to peel back from the mountains, but then the Outsider realised it was not the sand moving but the rock. "What's going on?" he yelled, as rock rumbled and shook its way upward.

"You destroyed the prophet," yelled back Gibson, "and now our god will be angry. We have violated his code and he will leave us to our fate." His voice trailed off, inaudible above the crashing of rock sliding against rock.

It didn't matter. The Outsider had stopped listening, had stopped seeing anything but the rock walls shifting and turning, extending out into legs, rising up into arms. "What have I done?" he cried, as the mountains formed a terrible, twisted snarl and the winds that scoured the world drove the sands down upon the settlement.

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