Ark

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One time when Kim Lokken was fourteen she was picked up at school at mid-morning by an elder of the End Dome Church and driven home, but he wouldn’t say what was wrong. When she got home her mother was crying, and of course Kim started to cry in sympathy before Clara even said a word. After a while Clara looked directly at her daughter. She was immersed in grief and too horrified to face blurting it out to her, but finally she wailed, “Kim, your father is dead!”

Then Kim’s tears welled from her own red hot pain and not merely from empathy with her mother’s grief. They both cried until there was nothing more to give, and when Kim’s eyes were dry she was still wracked by dry sobs and whimpers that trailed off at length to silence. After an hour of this she started to speak. “Why?” she asked, over and over again until her mother came clean.

Peter Two Feathers had explained everything to her. For years he had lent the Golden Gift to Erik at night to honeycomb the land under Franklin and the surrounding area with tunnels to access the coal. This was the bread and butter of the whole town. But overnight there had been a cave-in that smashed his helmet lantern, plunging him into total darkness, and he couldn’t dig his way out, even with the Golden Gift, because he got turned around somehow and was boring deeper into the mountain rather than back the way he came. As Erik made a greater volume of space to walk in, the air he had was stretched too thin to breathe, not to mention the suction losses through the Golden Gift itself.

It wasn’t until well past dawn that miners with picks and shovels broke through the cave-in and reached Erik’s body. Peter assured Clara that he died without injury or pain. He simply fell asleep and never woke up again.

As for Peter, while he mourned the death of Erik he was more troubled that the men who retrieved Erik’s body were also members of the Church, and it was impossible to hide the fact that Erik had been in possession of the Golden Gift, which was the most sacred End Dome relic. This was already causing unquiet among the faithful. Peter Hansen, his chosen Apostle from the White Wing, was starting to make a bid to unseat Peter before his time.

Children weren’t supposed to be confronted with death so early. Kim thought about her own death. She wondered what it was like for her father at that moment, and if there really was an afterlife. If there was not a second life, then her father didn’t even know he was dead. He didn’t know that he had ever lived and married Clara and fathered Kim. So what was the point of doing anything? The End Dome Church was supposed to have the answers to all these questions, but what if they were wrong? Added to her personal grief, all these thoughts were intolerable to Kim.

She didn’t go to school for a week. Sofie and Dory came over after a couple days to see if she was well. She was not well, but their visit lifted Kim from her grief a microscopic bit, and Clara saw that. When Sofie’s mother came to pick her up, Clara asked her to stay until Dory’s parents came as well, because she wanted to ask all of them something.

“The funeral for Kim’s father will be this weekend,” she said when they were all together. “I’d like to take Sofie and Dory to be with Kim when we go.”

“I don’t know,” Sofie’s mother demurred. “These are just fourteen year old girls, and a funeral is a pretty solemn thing.”

“Besides,” Dory’s father added, “this should be a private family time for you and Kim.”

“That’s precisely the thing,” my mother replied. “We have no family here in Franklin. My parents are back East and my husband was a sort of black sheep in his own family. We’ve never been close to them. Kim has taken the death of her father very hard, but when Sofie and Dory came over to see us today there was a visible improvement in Kim. I could see it come right out to light up her eyes again. That’s when I realized, Sofie and Dory are Kim’s real family.”

“Clara, I still don’t think a funeral is something little girls should see,” Sofie’s mother insisted.

“And they won’t see the actual Rites. Not even Kim will see that. Look, my husband is dead. I have to go lay him to rest, and I have to bring Kim. And I think she needs to be with her best friends right now.”

In the end they consented to let the girls remain together for the weekend.

For Clara this was her first time to see the Golden Gift in action, the central mystery and devotion of the End Dome Church.

The children were not allowed to attend the actual ceremony upstairs in the Temple Sanctuary, and it would have been unseemly to run around and play while Kim’s father was sent to his long home, along with five others from across the globe. So they sat around in the Temple basement getting quite bored as volunteers prepared the Banquet of God for a thousand parishioners.

Jerry Shybear joined them after breaking away from a group of boys smoking outside. The original Shy Bear had been his grandfather and he seemed to know a lot of secrets about the Temple. Jerry led the girls into a gigantic supply room which wasn’t locked, and they went along because there was nothing else to do.

There was no electric light within, only a window with blinds, and since they were in Washington State it was gloomy outside, so it was even gloomier inside. There was an old piano which was probably broken, a map of the Green River Gorge area, and heaps of the sort of things one would find in a church: old hymnals, stacks of old bulletins, and dozens of folding chairs. The children could hear organ music and the vocal choir bleeding through the ceiling from the main Sanctuary upstairs.

There was End Dome scrapbook albums, End Dome cookbooks, End Dome paints and brushes, End Dome wood carvings, End Dome homespun, and broken End Dome furniture.

Sofie found an End Dome walking stick made from a gnarled old piece of wood and shifted it from hand to hand to get the feel of it.

One of the walls was unfinished, and Jerry moved aside a piece of plywood to reveal another dark space beyond. It was so black inside it drank the vision like a sponge. “I’ve never been in there,” he said.

None of the girls wanted to go in there but Jerry dared them to go, so naturally Sofie was the first one through. Then Jerry followed her to show he wasn’t afraid. Dory and Kim were both afraid of the dark hole, and they were not afraid to show it, but they didn’t want to be left behind so they squeezed in after them.

It was too dark to see, but Jerry, a smoker at age fourteen, lit a series of matches, which only lasted a few seconds. This gave him time to find an ancient dusty candle, and he lit that. After that the kids had a little bit of light and they could see where they were.

There wasn’t a tile floor. Just natural stone and dirt, and a sort of stone “igloo” in the center of a circle of stones.

This was the cairn of the Ark of the Covenant in its original state, resting on the very summit of End Dome. The structure was completely unmolested. Superstition overcame Prophet Lange and the Apostle Malekwa at the end, it seemed. They built the whole Temple right over the top of the cairn, as if to hide it.

There was even a little commemorative mouse. Dory and Kim screamed together when they saw it.

Without a word Sofie let her cane fly in an arc over her head, and she brought it down, hoping to scare the mouse away. She ended up hitting the mouse instead, with a lucky shot.

“This is a church right? So there’s your church mouse.”

“You crippled it,” Dory observed, shifting instantly from fear to maternal concern. It was in obvious pain and tried to stagger away.

“I didn’t mean to do it,” Sofie replied.

They all took a closer look at the creature. The head of the mouse was misshapen. There was a huge white bump on the back that was nearly as large as the mouse’s head itself. Dory said, “Look what you did, Sofie! Look at that bump!”

“That isn’t from anything I did,” Sofie insisted. She put the end of her cane directly over the head of the crippled creature and pressed down hard to finish it off. “And I don’t want it to suffer. This is better.”

“Now what do we do with it?” Kim asked, disgusted by the sight of the dead creature with what looked to be a flat furry coin where its head had been. The bump was still intact, but no one knew what it was.

Sofie scratched the bare ground with the cane and dug a little trench. When it was deep enough Sofie slid the mouse in with her foot, and then both she and Jerry kicked dirt over it and stamped it down to finish the job.

“Now if you ladies will join me,” Jerry said, “I want to find out what’s in that pile of rocks.” He went to the cairn and began trying to pull one of the stones loose.

Jerry wasn’t making much headway. Hunky offered what little help she could, and one of the stones slowly gave way like a hinged door. They moved it aside just enough that they could squeeze inside the stone igloo one at a time.

This was it, the Holy of Holies, the very tippy-top of End Dome hill where the Ark of the Covenant lay in its original position. The children gasped at the beauty of the artifact.

The golden exterior surface of the Ark was dotted with thousands of tiny holes. Some of these holes had spines sticking out of them, like the needles of a cactus.

Kim put an index finger close to a part of the Ark that was needle-free, and that was something that she ought not have done. There was a sound like a short squirt of steam and her fingertip was instantly skewered. She pulled away involuntarily before the pain even registered. “Ahhh! Dammit!”

After that the golden Ark sported one more extruded spine from its surface.

Dory was a little smarter. She grabbed a pencil out of her purse and leaned over the black sphere with the eraser tip prudently standing in for her finger. She verified the Ark was still active and just as nasty.

Jerry thought about kicking it, but a glance at his thin moccasins led him to change his mind. So it was a mystery. Best leave it at that.

Sofie was the only one who was not afraid. She allowed her own finger to be skewered by the Ark and said to Kim, “Whatever trouble you’re in for getting stabbed by this thing, I’m in the same trouble.” And so she had her final victory over Jerry in the test of courage.

After that Kim, Jerry and Dory all shook their heads and slid back out of the stone cairn. But when Dory and Kim were outside they heard another sound and both of them froze. One of the elders of the Church was standing in the storage room cocking his ears to listen. All of the kids held their breath and tried not to make a sound. The deacon looked into the dark gap and could just make out two silhouettes.

“Get out of there!” he yelled, exploding in anger. With red faces Jerry, Kim, Hunky and Dory scrambled out of the hole, then out of the supply room, and sat down in a corner of the basement lunchroom. The deacon locked the supply room tight, and after that it would always remained locked so as long as the Temple stood, which wasn’t to be for much longer.

When Kim saw her mother again during the meal after the ceremony she was somehow different. Kim could see she wasn’t mourning my father anymore. “It’s all true, Kim,” she said with her soft lisping voice. “Everything in the Endomion, it’s all true.”

Of course Clara had always believed what she was taught with the ears of faith, but now she had seen the Golden Gift work with her own eyes and she came away with an unshakable bedrock foundation of belief she would carry with her until her own end. And that was precisely the intended effect of the Last Rite.

A week after that, Kim and Sophie both came down with the same disease as that little church mouse. They got matching little bumps at the base of their necks.

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