1. Laboring for the King

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Chapter I
Laboring for the King

In our early days, we had lived as children in the camp of Solo; picking berries in service to our King. Each day with buckets in hand, Andy and I raced into the forest ahead of the others hoping that this would be the day – the day of our King’s return. Dashing into the forest, we dreamed and anticipated what thrill and honor would surely befall the lucky one, who first sighted the King’s glorious party. Frequently while picking, our attention strayed from the task at hand and our eyes wandered from the berry bush, scanning the surrounding landscape. The guilty one, when caught, humbly accepted the swift reprimand -without protest – for we knew very well the law of the camp; and had no reason to doubt.
Solo, our leader and teacher insisted every moment spent in the forest be done so productively. When a body was found asleep, or playing, or gazing about; the stern voice of Solo warned, “Would be a sad day for you, if it were the King now looking down into that empty bucket!”

The very thought of being caught empty handed by the King always sent an icy chill down one’s spine. And while Andy and I were guilty of a considerable amount of gazing, we managed to fill our bucket each day with berries the King would be proud to accept. At the end of each day, we returned to camp and presented our berries at the collection barrel. Deacon, an elder and the head collector, would inspect the fruits we offered – then signal with a grunt to keep the line moving.
The evening meal was served after all had presented their gift at the collection barrel. And as darkness settled all round the camp, Solo would bless the group for the day’s work; and the nightly lecture would begin.
“Little ones,” he always started, “the King is coming soon. The forest tells us so. The leaves cling to the tall oaks, brittle and brown. The green grasses of the meadow droop, victim of the killing frost. The winter season is approaching. The berries that we pick become fewer and harder to find. Our King will come one day soon, reclaiming his forest and rekindling the life our parents once knew!”
“But you must be ready through our labors!” he shouted. “The fruit we harvest each day is stored for the King and his army. It is necessary for the battle of the forest. If we hope to be a part of the New Kingdom, we must be worthy servants of the harvest.”
“Many dwell in the forest and the swamp, but they are not believers. They have no fruits to present. They work for their own gain. They live in the forest of today. And in the end, they will be trampled in the battle. . . ”.
Into the late hours of the night, Solo would teach. The group absorbed every word and accepted every thought, without question. Following the lecture each night, the pickers headed straight for their tents treasuring the few remaining hours of rest. And as the pickers slipped into the solitude of their dreams; Solo and Deacon disappeared into the forest – with a fruit laded cart in tow. No one wondered or questioned the nightly excursions.

————–

Winter was indeed approaching fast. With berries becoming harder to find, the group was forced to venture farther from camp, each day. The amount of fruit gathered grew smaller and smaller with each passing day. Solo was not happy.
“The King is coming,” he sternly warned. “I spoke with his soldier in the forest last night. Only the King knows when the time is right, but he is returning, and soon! He is displeased with our work. Our gift grows smaller each night. We must work harder, or face his wrath. The King gave this warning – ‘Once a great party was planned and all were invited. Six stood by the door of the host waiting his announcement that the party would begin. As they waited, three fools ate of the fruit which they had been commanded to bring. In the King’s own time, the door was opened and the party was to begin. The request for fruit was made by the host. Three loyal servants ran forward with overflowing buckets. The three fools stood in shock as they realized they held empty buckets. Fear seized their hearts as the host gazed into empty buckets. The host commanded the fools be cast from the warmth of the house and into the cold of the night. The fools were tormented the night long as they stood watching through the window; and listening to the festive celebration which they could easily have enjoyed – had they only met the command’.”
The next morning, Andy and I were spurred to greater productivity by the frightening words which Solo had relayed. Working into the darkness, then rising in darkness each morning; we were near the point of exhaustion.
One morning, we rose even earlier than we were accustomed. Berries were extremely scarce and we were determined not to be found empty handed before the King. As we ventured farther into the forest than ever before, we came upon a virgin region of forest. It was apparent that no one had ever picked in the area. Berries had actually ripened, fallen to the ground, and a group of ravens fought over the plentiful spoils. We quickly filled our buckets and sat on the soft green moss beneath the berry bush eating the newly fallen berries.
“Do you suppose”, I asked hesitantly, “that it’s wrong to be eating these berries?”
“No!” Andy quickly responded. “Fruit released from the bush is a gift from the King. It would be wrong for us not to accept his gift.”
I shrugged in agreement; my attention centered on the ripened fruit about the ground.
“Besides,” he continued. “The ravens will eat them, if we don’t.”
We continued to nibble and pick over the fruit for the better part of the morning, moving selectively from point to point. Occasionally, we would stretch out on the soft green carpet and idly fantasize how we wished things would be. The setting so relaxing, I failed to realize the heaviness of my eye lids as I quietly slipped into a peaceful rest.
I’m unsure how long I had slept when his voice broke the silence; “You! You, there behind the berry bush.” Startled, I shot up from my sleep.
“Oh, no! It’s the King!” I thought. Panic racing through my groggy mind. “Andy! Andy,” I whispered. Nothing!
Frightened that I’d been caught sleeping, I huddled beneath the berry bush, dreadfully shaking. “Where is Andy,” my mind stewed? “Why didn’t he wake me?”
Huddled beneath the protective bush, my view of my surrounding was at best limited. To my right a few feet away, two overflowing buckets sat beneath the tree just were we had left them. To no avail, I stranded to bend my vision around the clumps of rock and bush, while my body remained frozen – but still, no Andy.
Worried, I slowly squatted beside the berry bush and peered through the leafy cover. Breathing rapidly, I scanned the area. But no one was in sight. Suddenly, I gasped uncontrollably. Silently, he stood there, no more than ten yards from where I hid. Not Andy! Not the King! But a traveler!
Quickly, I ducked back beneath the bush, hoping he hadn’t notice me. My thoughts sorted through Solo previous instructions. He had warned of these travelers – stealing the berries from young children, using idle conversation to gain the child’s trust, then spinning wild and fascinating yarns about their destination. And he had described the horrid fate which those lost children would endure for the remainder of their lives – slaves of the stranger, serving his needs through a life of aimless wandering. And though Andy and I had never witnessed one of these berry thefts; we had observed several times, from a distance, the kidnapping of a child – just as Solo described in his lectures.
I sat frozen – afraid to move. Silently; I cautioned myself, “Don’t even breathe. Be quiet.”
Prayerfully; I whispered, “Please, don’t let him see me. Pleeeeeease”!
The voice called out again, softly; “You, there behind the bush. Don’t be frightened. I mean you no harm.”
Tears of fear swelled in my eyes – my fate imminent. I would never see my people, again. But just as I started to rise from my place of hiding, I saw Andy. It was Andy the stranger was calling. My closest friend rose slowly from his hiding place, but didn’t appear frightened of the traveler as he stepped out from his cover.
Standing before the traveler, neither spoke – then the rustle of fallen leaves announced the arrival of a strange wind. The leaves seemed to call out as they whirled about, “Come. Come. Come.”
A gentle whirlwind spawned by the passing wind enveloped the stranger. The whispering breeze continued to urge its listener, “Come. Come. Come, my child.”
Andy slowly stepped back and distanced himself from the stranger. Solo’s warning raced through my mind as I anticipated the stranger would lunge after Andy, any second now. But the traveler stood silent.
He reached for a small leather pouch strapped to his waist. Slowly, he loosened the tie string. The weathered hand of the stranger disappeared into the small pouch. Andy winced as the hand reappeared. The traveler maintained his silence. Slowly, he opened his hand. A swift breeze dipped from the tree tops, across the open hand of the stranger, lifting a small white fluffy material into the air. The object drifted toward Andy. Gazing at the silent stranger, Andy’s face began to glow as the gentle breeze skirted his face. Swirling over Andy’s head, the urging breeze beckoned one last time before releasing the feathery object. The forest fell silent as the breeze disappeared.
Mystified, Andy followed the downward movement of the white material, which the wind had left. The transfer was complete as the feathery article gracefully landed in Andy’s outstretched hand. Cupping his find, he pulled his hand to his body. Cautiously, he examined the soft white gift from the wind. “It’s a piece of fluff,” I saw him whisper.
As Andy spoke, a second piece drifted down to the ground before me. Cautiously, I reached down and carefully picked up the soft white material. Slowly, I brought it near getting a better view.
I fell back against the bush as I heard the strange message of this soft, delicate gift, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Quickly jumping to my feet; shouting to Andy as I turned to run, “Run Andy! He’s evil.”
Into the forest; I fled, running faster than I realized was possible. With reckless abandonment, I ran and ran until I approached the small stream near the camp. My thoughts still totally on the stranger, I failed to notice the sleeping mass protruding from the base of a hickory tree. Striking the outstretched legs at full stride, I soared through the air, crashing into the icy cold water of the brook. I knew the stranger surely had doubled back and pitched me into the stream.
Agony seized my body as a large, firm hand gripped my locks of hair and hoisted me skyward. Frightened, kicking and swinging, I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Let me go! Let me go!”
“You!” the familiar voice bellowed from behind my ear, “You kicked me, you little twerp.”
A mighty blow to the left side of my head sent me sailing into the frigid current once again. But it was the most welcomed lick I could recall. Again with a yank, I was retrieved from the icy water by the strong hand which had sent me there. But this time; with a twist of my head, I faced the cold glare of Deacon, the berry collector. The chilly water below suddenly seemed a bit warmer as I dangled in mid-air – the target of Deacon’s piercing stare.
“Running around the forest when you’ve work to do, huh,” he snarled.
“But sir!” I pleaded. “You don’t . . .”
“Shut up, you little slacker”, he cut in. “I’m to busy hear your pitiful excuses. Now pick up your bucket and get your slothful . . .”
“My bucket,” I thought. “Where is my bucket?” Panic befell me.
“Oh, no! It must be at the trail,” I murmured.
“What!” the displeased collector blared.
Quickly, I pointed to a clump of berry bushes, “I said. That must be my pail.”
“So why are you over here,” Deacon snapped. Releasing his grip, I fell downward. A large heavy foot caught my rear and sent me sailing. I hit the ground with a fast roll, sprang to my feet, and dashed behind a bush in one quick move. Pretending to pick up a bucket, I ran as fast as my feet would carry me back in the direction of my bucket and the stranger. Deacon’s last command rang in my ears as I faded into the undergrowth, “I better not see your snotty little nose again ’til that bucket is filled.”
Out of breath; I slowed to a trot as our picking area finally came into sight.
“Where’s Andy,” I questioned out loud. I knew he must have witnessed my run-in with Deacon, and figured he would be right behind me. I was confused why he was no were in sight, but I dared not call out for him as I was in the vicinity of where I had last seen the stranger. He would just have to find me, I reasoned.
Quietly, I crawled through a small thicket and up to an outcropping of rocks about twenty yards from where I had last seen Andy. Unable to see the stranger anywhere in sight; I stopped. Building my courage, I slowly peered over the jagged edge – knowing my next breath might bring a face-to-face encounter with the traveler.
“Whew!” A sigh of relief came from my lips as I discovered the stranger was nowhere in sight. Slowly, I came from behind the rock formation and crept toward the location he had stood. Stopping just short of the clearing, I leaned forward peering in both directions.
“There he is!” I shout from the inside.
Apparently, the chance encounter had not affected the traveler in the same way as it had me. For in the distance, he proceeded alone, headstrong toward his mystic destination. With an established and steady pace, the traveler was slowly disappearing in the distance. However my curiosity got the better of me, I began to trail the strangler – keeping him just in sight. The stranger never looked back; unconcerned with what was history – the march steady and determined. He seemed unaware that a small child stalked his every move.
Following this traveler for sometime, I became increasingly puzzled by his behavior. Periodically, the stranger would stop, turn to the forest, reach into his pouch, and remove a small flower. He stood facing the gentle breeze – but never looking back from where he’s come. After a moment, the stranger would turn from whatever had held his attention, and continue his march. I watched intently as he performed the same ritual precisely each time. However, my interest wavered, when out of the corner of my eye something caught my attention. Large, plump, juicy berries. Abundantly and untouched, the berries grew along the same route the stranger had just traveled.
It bothered me because the stranger had never sampled a single berry as he made his way. How had the stranger resisted these same big, lovely, and quite tempting morsels of fruit which I was unable to resist? The urge to stop and gorge on this amazing discovery was overwhelming.
“Gosh! These must be the sweetest berries anywhere in the forest,” I thought. The flood of delight racing over my palate took over my heart, mind and soul. I never realized the young boy in the distance, stepping out to join a traveler. Soon they were no longer in sight – for their journey beckoned.


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