The Final Offering

By Stik Mann

For as long as anyone could remember, it had never rained on the Crossroad Junction Annual Spring Picnic. But now, everyone, including the children, could see it coming - towering black clouds creeping ominously over the northern mountaintops, releasing arthritic fingers of mist that barely reached the ground below. There was nothing that could be done about it; the town was at the mercy of the sky.

The children continued with their games, supervised by mothers and older sisters who tried to mask the uneasiness in their eyes. Some of the women started to cover the food and fold up the blankets, while most waited to hear what the men had to say. The men, and a few of the more confident teenage boys, conferred with the elders who sat in a semi-circle of lawnchairs and benches, far apart from the noise of the children and the gossip of the women.

The solitary citizen whom the elders had designated Scribe was the only one who seemed unconcerned with the agitated behavior of Nature and Man. With pen in hand, he sat at the edge of his chair in the exact center of the foursquare park, oblivious to the anxiety of the celebrants. The Scribe's job was to watch the tiny bell that was supported by thin bars a few feet above the ceremonial site, to make sure that the string that ran from the bell to the small pipe in the ground didn't become tangled, and to dutifully record the exact time the bell issued its tiny ding.

Tommy Jensen, one of the teenage boys who had spoken with the elders, approached the Scribe, circling widely around so not to startle him. Although Tommy had only just turned fourteen, he was generally well accepted among the men, having three direct relatives among the elders. His parents had died when he was very young and he was being raised by his uncle. With curly, bright red hair and white, soon to be freckled skin, he brilliantly stood out in the crowd.

"Mr. Henning?" he said, softly. He stopped, leaving about ten feet between him and the Scribe.

"Tommy..." said the Scribe, his eyes on the bell.

"Uncle Pete sent me over to see if there's any action. I bet they call 'er quits, huh?"

"Not our job to say," said Mr. Henning. He looked down at the clipboard in his lap. "Been three days," he said.

Tommy turned and ran back toward the group of men, silently practicing how he would announce the obvious news. In his absentmindedness, he nearly collided with Mrs. Billings as he streaked by the picnic tables.

"Excuse me!" Tommy shouted, turning and running backwards a few steps, then completing the circle and running on.

Mrs. Billings, who had just packed away the last of the leftovers from her contribution to the potluck, was too involved in her conversation to notice the near disaster. Mrs. Billings was the clerk at the city hall, and the head librarian (a post she had held just short of twenty years), as well as being married to the chief of police. However, which of the two truly upheld the justice of Crossroad Junction was widely but secretly debated. The ladies who listened to her most certainly agreed with whatever she said, and the ladies who were silent remained so because they weren't so sure they agreed.

"As for me," declared Mrs. Billings with an authoritive tone, "I intend to hurry through the historical presentation, prod the Scribe through his dreary session, and then rush home to escape the approaching deluge. I'm sure Old Pete will declare an end to the Picnic. After all, it has been three days since the bell last sounded, seven since we began. Even my beloved Walter did not endure as long." Most of the ladies who had politely chuckled at the first of her speech now joined her in looking down, respecting the mandatory moment of silence.

It was Nancy Gillian who broke the hush, perhaps somewhat prematurely. "Excuse me," Nancy said, "but I'm not sure I understand why we carry on for so long. It seems obvious that the bell's not going to ring again, doesn't it?" Nancy and her husband, Robert, were the newest members of the community. A certain amount of gossip had circulated about the Gilliams, most of it focusing on Nancy's outspokenness, and the fact that they were not regular churchgoers.

Mrs. Billings exposed a confident smile to the townswomen, as if to publicly forgive Nancy for her impetuousness. She went on to explain how once, several years ago, a passerby was surprised by the ringing of the bell, two days after the formal closing of the Picnic. It rang only once. To the Society of Scribes who interpret the elapsed time between rings, this was of the utmost importance.

"I'm surprised you haven't heard of it," Mrs. Billings said, latching the enormous picnic basket, patting the top as if it was the bottom of a baby. "It was widely discussed in the newspapers of many of the larger cities. I have the clippings," she said, speaking not to Nancy but to the crowd.

Nancy pondered this for a moment before she spoke. "It seems to me that the likes of that would be printed as a mere curiosity in the larger cities. Not something that would generally be taken seriously." On her lips grew the slightest hint of a victory grin, which she quickly hid in her hand and looked down, brushing away lint that wasn't there.

Although Nancy and her husband were still quite young, they had attended many Picnics before. And not these rural affairs either, but large scale productions with mile-long parades and bands and speeches by celebrities. The pattern was almost always the same. The subject of the Offering always did what was expected of him or her, pulling the string at what they believed to be the passing of one hour, being remarkably accurate for a day or so. But soon enough, the time between soundings would grow further and further apart. Then, it seemed a great confusion would come over them, and the ringing would become wildly erratic, with as little as ten minutes elapsing between some soundings, and sometimes the silence would last seven or eight hours. Always the ringing would cease after three or four days.

Nancy and her husband, and indeed most educated people, thought the Picnics were primitive and a bit cruel. Nobody believed they really meant anything anymore.

Suddenly, one of the little girls hollered and pointed to the opposite end of the park.

The group of men followed the white-bearded Old Pete, who led the procession in his wheelchair. They were still debating among themselves, laughing nervously, turning and pointing to the darkened sky. Old Pete stopped and said something to the Scribe who in turn surrendered the clipboard. The entire group then slowly advanced toward the picnic tables.

As the crippled but alert old man neared the tables, some of the ladies began to applaud. Old Pete stopped and raised his hands. "Okay, okay, ladies, thank you, very much. It is my duty and great honor to once again announce the conclusion of another successful Crossroad Junction Annual Spring Picnic." And with that, the ladies and a few of the men once again applauded. But the applause ended abruptly when a blinding light flashed and a violent crack of thunder exploded, causing the children to scream and old Mrs. Naccarato to let out an owl-like hoot.

Old Pete turned and looked at the sky, and then at the group of men. "As you know," he said, hurrying through the rest of his speech, "it is the custom of our little town to encircle the burial site for the reading by the Scribe, as well as Mrs. Billings' very interesting telling of the history and tradition of the Picnic. But we have decided, because of the weather, to dispense with the formalities."

From the corner of his eye, Old Pete caught the last trace of Mrs. Billings' smile as it eroded into an indignant frown. "I'd like to thank the ladies who worked so hard all week preparing the food, and thank you all for your attendance and fine company." Once again there was applause, though much more subdued than before.

A raindrop splattered on the back of Tommy Jensen's neck and trickled down his spine. Old Pete wheeled over next to Tommy and handed him the clipboard. "You'll make sure this gets home for me, won't you, son?"

"Sure!" Tommy exclaimed, his face beaming. He turned to the crowd but most of the people had already started back toward town.

Nancy Gilliam felt the raindrops as well, but her eyes were only aware of the radiance of Tommy's young face. She had seen the same face many time before. She easily imagined Tommy leading the Picnic's opening procession down the main street toward the park, his face even more brilliant than it was now. She watched as he marched proudly through the crowds, waving to all just before the men laid him in the cushioned metal box, closed and latched the heavy lid, and then slowly covered him with six feet of cold earth. She turned away, unable to bear the dark daydream any longer, only to find her husband watching her with the same sad eyes.

As the raindrops grew larger and fell more frequently, Tommy slipped the clipboard under his shirt and walked over to the burial site. A thunderclap sounded again, though not as loud as the first. Tommy watched the bell and the string move with the wind. He had sensed from the beginning that something was different about this Picnic. Unlike those of his youth, which had been filled with much emotion and celebration, this year's Picnic seemed only to be going through the ritualistic motions. But then again, maybe nothing had changed; maybe it only seemed different. Perhaps it was as his Uncle Pete had said: he was growing up, he was seeing the world with new eyes, he was experiencing some of the melancholy of knowledge.

A gust caused the bell to make a tiny ring. Tommy's eyes widened. He had heard the famous story of the solitary sounding, days after the festival had ended. He knelt down, soaking the knees of his pants. There in the center of the park, with the atmosphere now boasting a confirmed rain, the truth of the mysterious legend was revealed to him. It was the wind that made the bell ring, years ago. It was only the wind.

The bell rang again. Tommy looked down and noticed that while the bell was moving with the wind, the string was not. The bell rang again. He stood and stepped back. He turned and saw Mr. and Mrs. Gilliam talking with his Uncle Pete and a few others, all walking away, too far to hear the tiny dings. It rang again. Then it rang again, then again and again.

"He's alive," Tommy whispered. He tried to say it louder but the words barely squeaked out. Suddenly the bell began ringing wildly, nearly flipping around on the bar. "He's still alive!" he shouted. "Uncle Pete! Uncle Pete! He's ALIVE!"

Old Pete and the others had heard Tommy's yelling and were rushing back to the park, Robert Gilliam pushing Old Pete's chair. Nancy was the first to make it back. She pulled Tommy back and held him to her chest as if he were her own child. By the time Old Pete and Robert made it back to the site, nearly all the town had been alerted and were fast on their way.

"He's alive," Tommy said, turning to his Uncle Pete.

A crowd formed around the site, confused whispers and coughs coming from their perplexed faces. Mrs. Billings, her head now covered with a newspaper, pushed her way through the crowd. Mr. Henning picked up the clipboard from the soggy grass and looked to Old Pete for guidance. Old Pete just shook his head, white hair and water streaking down his face.

"Maybe he knows something!" Tommy shouted. "Maybe he's found something out. He wants to tell us something!"

"Nonsense," Mr. Billings quickly replied. "He's afraid. He only wants out."

"Then maybe we should let him out!" Nancy exclaimed, and a few voices from the crowd agreed.

Mrs. Billings stomped out to the site and turned to the crowd. "We can not let him out," she said, wadding up the newspaper and tossing it to the ground. "It simply isn't the way it's done. The Picnic will have to be reopened!"

Lightning flashed and thunder pounded. The rain poured, drenching the townsfolk, turning the burial site into a muddy mound. Suddenly, the bell stopped ringing and the string disappeared, having broken from the bell and fallen into the pipe. For a moment, the only movement in the crowd was the clipboard that slipped from Mr. Henning's numb fingers and fell to the ground.

"Maybe Tommy's right," said someone in the crowd. "Maybe something's been revealed to him."

"Of course!" shouted someone else. "Isn't that why we put ourselves through this every year?"

"Are you going to listen to a kid?" screamed Mrs. Billings. "Pete, the decision should be yours. What do we do?"

Old Pete rolled forward a few inches. He looked at Tommy, then back at the astonished faces of the townsfolk. "Bob, take someone over to the railroad office and get some shovels."

"It isn't right!" shouted Mrs. Billings. "My Walter didn't want out. It's not fair!"

Tommy fell to his knees and pulled the bell and support rods away from the site. He grabbed the clipboard from Mr. Henning's feet and began to pull dirt off the mound. Soon people were shoulder to shoulder, digging with whatever they could find - sticks, the lids from food containers, their bare hands.

By the time the shovels arrived, the mound had disappeared and the hole was a foot or so deep. The two husky men tore into the earth, tossing dirt indiscriminately into the air, some of it flying into the crowd. The digging was easy, having just recently been turned, and before long, one of the shovels hit something hard, making a hollow, metallic sound.

Thunder and lightning flashed and pounded every few seconds. The rain was falling so hard and in such huge drops that it was nearly painful. Nancy and her husband had moved away from the site. They didn't want to be the first to see. Mrs. Billings was sitting on her knees on the ground, water and bits of mud dripping from her hair. "You'll be sorry," she said, though nobody heard. She was tracing in the muck with her fingers. "We'll all be sorry." Tommy put his belly to the ground to avoid being pushed into the hole by the crowd. He peered over the edge as the last of the dirt was scrapped away from the top of the box.

The man remaining in the hole unscrewed the pipe from the lid and handed it above. He dug out a small space beside the box where he could stand and open the lid. He looked up at Old Pete who was already nodding, instructing him to proceed. The man unhooked the latch. The town became still. Slowly, the lid was opened.

The wide eyes of the people grew even wider. Some of the ladies screamed and old Mrs. Naccarato stumbled and nearly fainted. The children all ran away. All anyone else could do was stand and stare.

It was the elders who walked away first, silently, feeling less wise than they once believed. The men gathered up their families and helped them back to their homes, the ladies looking blankly ahead, the men looking blankly at their wives.

Only young Tommy remained. He was the last to realize that the man in the box had been dead for two or three days.