As we continue to approach Easter with Wolfwood Week here on Beneath the Tangles, I’m proud to present “While I Was Yet Lost.” This is a short and wonderful fanfiction piece written by Celesma, a gifted writer. The story has Christian overtones, but even if you’re adverse to Christianity, I encourage you to read it – it doesn’t hit you over the head with religion and it’s only the second piece of fanfiction (the first being the “Apostle’s Sword” series about Kenshin Himura) relating to Christianity that I’ve really enjoyed reading.
I also want to mention that in her notes (at the bottom of this post), Celesma mentions that in writing her story, she was influenced by Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? That particularly book has been a major influence in my own life and is one of my very favorites – it’s a compelling and, well, grace-filled read. I recommend it to Christians and non-believers alike.
The story is reproduced in its entirety below, with permission. You can also access it through the Fanfiction.net website. While there, I encourage you to read Celesma’s other stories. Also, please visit her Live Journal, which contains other bits of her writing.
“And here in dust and dirt, O here
The lilies of His love appear.”
A young boy grows up in March City, one of seven that comprise the big desert we call Gunsmoke. His name is Nicholas D. Wolfwood, a name that’s supposed to have been handed down on his father’s side for over three generations… only he wouldn’t know for sure because he’s never met his father; both of his parents died when he was a baby. He lives with his uncle Charlie, but hates him because Charlie is an abusive guardian and an even worse drunk. He would make anyone believe, if not in God, then at least in the devil. Finally, after several years of unremitting torture, the kid decides he has had enough and blows his uncle’s brains out.
If you haven’t already guessed it, I’m that kid.
I was seven when I killed him. It was pretty easy, but I was still in a damned near shock when it happened. I couldn’t quite believe I had such cold resolve within me; and I was almost definitely certain that, long after the barrel of the Grader handgun quit smoking and the blood ceased seeping from his head in rivulets, he was going to get up off the floor and come after me, like one of those zombies from the satellite reruns. I still get nightmares about it sometimes, and I’m almost thirteen.
I don’t live in March City anymore, not since they put together that old sand steamer five years ago. I hitched the first ride to July City, and no one ever questioned the wisdom of allowing a seven-year-old to travel where he pleased, no supervision whatever. I’ll help that change someday, maybe, but right now I’m just concentrating on staying alive. You can’t very well effect change if you’re dead.
I started out by rummaging from dumpsters for French fries and other treats. I played up the cute-little-kid shtick and offered to shovel sand for a few double dollars. It was a pretty good lifestyle — by all means preferable to the life I led before — yet sometimes I longed for the comfort and security that kids my age attained with no effort at all.
That all changed with the Lost July Incident.
Suddenly there were orphans everywhere. I was a little glad for the company — in a nasty, vindictive sort of way that still bothers me. It was even harder to eke out an existence when you knew there were a dozen other people willing to kick your face in for a scrap of bread. The adults who were still alive split for places unknown, and the kids were left to fend for themselves. The steamer never returned, and I guess that made some of us a little crazy, because gangs began to foment in the abandoned areas like cockroaches infesting the cracks of sandstone buildings. It was, and still is, a brutal dog-eat-dog scenario.
This is where my story begins, and where I discover the first glimmer of compassion, of kindness, of a hope that I can’t even begin to understand in the midst of this hellhole, where cruelty and anxiety come as naturally as breathing — and dying.
This is where I find grace.
Naturally the tale begins with me running away from something. Because that’s what happens to me a lot nowadays: I steal something, owner gets pissed, I get shot at. I tried my hand as a scavenger for a while, but that never worked because the last sheen of flour was usually licked clean by the time I reached any place that even had a remote chance of providing foodstuffs. So after a while I took to theft, and that’s what works for me now.
It isn’t working for me today.
The Shadows are a particularly sadistic bunch, and I should’ve had my head checked before thinking about stealing so much as a toothpick from them. But as it was, I lifted a whole crate of vittles out of a warehouse in which they stored most of their “goods” — including double dollars, weapons, and drugs. It didn’t occur to me that the place was guarded even on one of the foggiest days of the year; I could barely see or breathe for the smog that pervaded the air like the miasma of rotting meat. I’d thought the same laws of nature applied for the gangs, but it turns out I was horribly wrong.
Their aim is deadly certain: I can hear the sharp reports of bullets striking the sand near me. Yet I can’t bring myself to let go of the box — I am literally starving, having been deprived of food for the past several days. My legs feel weak and quiver as though they are sinking into the sand, but that effect is imagined; the real pain comes when I trip on a string of barbed wire and cut one of my legs. I feel blood oozing down into my socks, but I don’t stop until I reach the base of a ruined skyscraper, behind which I attempt to hide myself.
Gomi, their voices scream at me from a distance, and I begin to whimper. Gomi, gomi, we’ll cut your red, you little piece of — their taunts continue unhindered, and the noise swells like that of a pack of starving wolves gaining on their prey. I still have my handgun, but I’m discouraged that I will be able to pop off a single shot before having my own head blown away. I am doomed.
And I am also imagining things: as before my tear-blurred vision a tall, dark figure glides through the haze like an actor parting the curtains. I ready my gun, but drop it a moment later when I realize that this guy’s not a Shadow, or even an unnaturally large teenager, but a — man!
My first instinct is to just kill him, which is justifiable because the rare adult in July is deemed to be an even more desperate and vicious threat than anything the gangs could pose. But the guy doesn’t look dangerous — in addition to carrying no weapon on him, he is garbed in a ragged semblance of a cape, and appears completely oblivious to any danger. Foreign emotions like compassion and pity stab at my heart, for he has no idea that in a few seconds he’s going to be killed in the gang’s crossfire.
I have to do something. Despite all my previous attempts at self-preservation, I open my mouth and scream, WATCH OUT, MISTER…!
He glances at me stupidly and doesn’t move.
What are you, zoomed? I shriek. Get the hell out of here! They’ll shoot you up! They’ll cut your red! They’ll —
I can’t think of any more euphemisms for death, so I run toward him waving the gun threateningly. Maybe that will get his ass moving…
I stop, dead in my tracks, when he pulls out a gun of his own and aims it at me.
But then I realize after a second that he’s aiming behind me, at something I can’t see.
The shot rings once, then twice as a bullet ricochets off the skyscraper behind me: the sound is clean and smooth and efficient. Crumbled concrete and woven steel cables crash alongside one another on a heap of stinking garbage. I yelp once, spin around, and am nearly crushed by the debris that rains down upon me. Luckily the man seizes me and pulls me out of the way before I’m squashed like a pancake.
My shrieks turn to gasps of wonder when I see that the mountain of ruined buildings has converged to block my pursuers’ path. There is no way they could scale the veritable tower of strewn glass, concrete pylons, and steel beams — to do so wouldn’t be worth the trouble. For once I breathe easy.
But then I remember that guy’s still here.
I glance at him furtively, then visibly blanch because his gun’s missing. So, in addition to having a master marksmanship that manages to fell entire buildings (even if they are ancient and ready to tumble at a moment’s notice), he can conceal his weapons in the blink of an eye. Great. Now he has me all to himself. I back away in a pathetic attempt to reclaim my prize, knowing he will shoot me and then take the crate.
He steps toward me, out of the smog. As a result I can see his features more clearly; they are surprisingly free of the lines of hatred I often see etched into the faces of my peers. His eyes resemble deep, green emeralds: jewels so old they don’t even exist on this planet. For a moment I imagine they flicker with concern for me, but I brush that thought out of my mind. What would a complete stranger care for a cutpurse like me?
He takes another step, but doesn’t draw his gun. Instead he looks at me quizzically and says:
Need help opening that?
I gaze at him intensely for a moment to see if he’s for real, but apparently he is. After explaining — stuttering, more like — that I don’t have a knife with me, he draws one from a pocket in his left boot and wedges it down into the crack dividing the box. After a moment of struggling with the lock, he’s got it loose. I eagerly open the lid and survey the contents, but my disappointment reaches unprecedented heights when I find there’s nothing in it but crushed herbs. Drugs, in a word.
Fighting back tears of despair, I turn to the guy and tell him thanks but no thanks. For his part, he waves off my comment and begins rummaging through his filthy robes. I can’t possibly imagine what he has in there that might help me; quite frankly, I’m amazed enough that he even bothered to do so. I quickly walk away, murmuring to myself that I will find some other way to get food, as troublesome and life-threatening as my first attempt was.
But the man is persistent. He tugs at my shoulder, pushes something into my palm. I mumble a perfunctory thank you — what else could this wretch have on him, besides more drugs? — but the words die halfway on my lips after a quick glance down at my gift.
It’s a canteen of water.
Base animal instinct entices me to drain the flagon, while human emotion and intellect forces me to pause. Water is rare in the desert, more so in a doomed city. Even on better days it’s difficult to find water that is actually pure enough to drink; most supplies have to be boiled and filtered before it is safe to take a single sip. I can’t help but wonder what it must have cost my rescuer to give me this, and in the moment I look up into his tired but hopeful face I decide: no. I cannot take this.
He makes me drink it anyway. It’s delicious and cold and I’ve never tasted anything like it in my life; and then he smiles — for all the world behaving as if he were my dad or something — and says, here, have a candy bar. I’m halfway through the chocolate when the incredulity of it all hits the forefront of my brain and I start crying.
Yes. There are tears flooding my cheeks and mucus trickling down my lips and I’m sobbing, sobbing like God Himself had reached down through the greasy clouds and stroked my cheek with His great hand and said, it’s going to be okay, Nicholas, okay okay okay.
I’m certain of it, even as my hysterics recede.
The man nods, like he’s done this before and my reaction’s typical, but suddenly he starts to cry too. He reaches out with his strong arms and pulls me close. I bury my head in his chest feeling that, for the first time in my life, I am loved and protected by someone else. It is such an alien experience that — in a way — I feel undeserving of it. I remember how I killed my uncle, and an odd mixture of grief and shame closes in on me.
He lets me go after what appears to be an eternity. Few words are exchanged, but he seems to understand everything I’m feeling. At length he turns away as if to leave; I beg him not to go.
The others need me, is all he says.
Then, tell me your name.
It’s Alex, he replies.
Mine’s Nicholas, I say.
That’s good. You were named after a noble saint.
What’s a saint? I ask.
He laughs gently. Go look up the chapel by the trading stalls. I have a friend who knows more about that than I.
I nod my assent, and he’s gone.
Later I find the church, and I find the lady he’s talking about. Before Lost July she was a nun named Miriam — well, still is, I guess — and she’s one of the few adults who stayed behind to help out the survivors. She offers me food, arranges a place for me to stay as long as I need. However, these things pale in comparison to the nurturing spirit and emotional support she provides over the next few weeks. I now consider her the mother I never had… and half a dozen other kids think so too.
As for that man, I haven’t seen him since that day he came and offered me hope of a life beyond simply existing. I can’t shake off the feeling that something — or Someone — has been trying to reach me for the longest time, trying to give me… a gift. What it is, I don’t know. But because of that glimmer of grace — which is the word Sister Miriam used to describe it — I think the chinks in my armor have been opened enough as to welcome that Someone into my life.
I think it’s like what Miriam said to me one night: Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears My voice, and opens the door, I will come into him, and eat with him, and him with Me.
What does that mean? I ask.
It’s in the Bible, she says. Here, let me read you another passage.
For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…
A/N: This story, short as it is, became something of an obsession for me. I had just finished reading Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? and wanted to express the concept in a way that wouldn’t leave me wanting (because, despite its innumerable good points, the book ended up doing exactly that). Aristotle defined grace as “helpfulness toward someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped.” That is one definition — and not a strictly biblical one at that — but it is a conventional method for bringing others to know and understand the Patron-Client relationship that God desires for all human beings. Another, similar type of grace that is supposed by some Christians to have occurred at birth is called prevenient grace, which effects a change in the recipient that allows him to either accept or reject God’s saving grace, or “unmerited favor”… the way I see it, Wolfie must have gone through some pretty dramatic changes in his life in order to accept the Gospel; after all, he transitions from murdering his uncle to accepting a role as a priest! Also, I don’t think it would be in Vash’s nature to just abandon the people whose city, and way of living, he effectively demolished in the Lost July Incident. It’s clear throughout the series that he feels responsible for the event, as well as compassion for the victims. So for some reason, writing him into the story — and having him inspire Wolfwood to seek religion — made perfect sense to me. In the future I might write a story about how Vash wakes up in the middle of the destruction and tries to come to terms with it, as well as his missing memories (meeting Sister Miriam in the process). But that’s a musing for another day…