February 2, 2019

THE SHRIFT by Chelsea Ellingson

My gift is a part of you,
the purest part of you...
Tessa was suddenly aware that she wasn’t in bed anymore.

In fact she wasn’t even in her house. She had her green, fur-lined coat on, which was good because it was cold outside. She was sitting on the short foot-bridge that bent over the creek in the park near her apartment with her legs dangling through the rungs.

She was on the verge of questioning whether she was awake or dreaming when a woman appeared on the path approaching the bridge at a walking pace.

Ama, she thought, although she wasn’t positive where the name came from, only that she knew that was her name.  

“Have you been waiting long?” Ama asked after she reached Tessa and sat down next to her.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“This isn’t where we met last time,” Ama mused. She started dangling her legs through the rungs as well.

“We’ve met before?”

“Yes. The first time was in the spring, near a bridge not unlike this one, but it crossed the creek by the high school. You were young then, sitting on the rocks near the—“

“The willow tree. Yes. I remember now, that was my favorite tree all growing up,” Tessa said, smiling. But then a shadow crossed her face. “That was the summer I met…the summer I was with…” Tessa trailed off, and a sliver of anguish began to pull at the corner of her mouth.

“That was when you met Andrew,” Ama finished.

“Yeah.” Tessa sighed heavily, surprised at the rush of emotion that had taken her over. This was all very strange, yet somehow familiar.  

“We’re not here to talk about Andrew this morning. You have someone else you want to tell me about.”

“I do. Yes, I do.” Tessa’s expression gave way to a faint smile, then she turned to look at Ama. Ama smiled back at her, or at least Tessa thought she did. It was difficult to pinpoint her expressions, her face was very hard to read.

“Tell me his name,” Ama said gently.

“Will,” Tessa replied, the eagerness catching in her throat.

“Are you ready to go through this again? Are you ready for my gift?”

“Your gift? Wait…I remember this. You gave me something…something really special last time…”

“I did.”

“I can’t remember everything, but it was beautiful and…it had something to do with Andrew. I don’t think I want it, if it had to do with Andrew.”

“Why would you say that?”

“I think I broke it last time…or it stopped working.”

“No, you did not break it.”

“It’s just that…I tried to keep it and protect it, but he—Andrew—he didn’t want it. I actually think he hated it, and I tried so hard to show him how much it meant to me. But he broke it.”

“Yes, he did. But did that make it any less beautiful?”

“No, but it was so painful.”

“My gift is a part of you, the purest part of you. It is a crime to treat it lightly, as Andrew did. I have not yet met with Andrew, and although I hope someday that I will, I am not optimistic it will happen.”

“It feels different this time, though. Will is different.”

“Yes, he is, I know that.”

“What do I have to do? I’ve forgotten.”

“You need to give me something.”

“What do I need to give?”

“A shrift.”

“A what?”

“A confession, a shrift. Tell me what it is that you want. Tell me what it is that you feel. I can give you my gift again, if you give me the right words first.”

Tessa’s face brightened as she thought for a moment. “I’m not sure what to say…”

“Why don’t you tell me your story so far. Be brief, we don’t have much time, but don’t leave out the important parts.”

“Well, we met at work. I was interning at the office he works in at first, but then I got hired on after I graduated and we had cubicles near each other. Nick, our boss, thought we would work well together on a vlog assignment to document twenty-something singles cooking. We worked hard on the assignment, but at the time I didn’t really think of him as anything more than a coworker.”

“What changed?” Ama asked.

“There was one night when we had to stay late at work to meet a deadline and we ordered a pizza. Before we knew it, we were the only ones left in the office and we just got to talking about our lives. I think there are some people, in life, that this just happens easier with than others. Will was so easy to talk to.”

At this point Ama pulled something out of her pocket and placed it between her hands. It was small, about the size of a large marble, and bronze. It had gears and knobs and strange symbols laced over its entire surface. Ama began rolling it slowly between her palms back and forth, then started some intricate finger movements. The moves were calculated, like a dance, and well-practiced. She moved from position to position swiftly and a light started to emerge ever so slightly around the metal sphere. The gears shifted into different positions, like it was being unlocked. Ama was focused on her hands, but she spoke toward Tessa. “What did he say that changed you?”

“He didn’t really say anything specific, but it was different after that night. I noticed him in another way. What are you doing?”

“I’m getting the gift ready. Keep talking. What happened next?”

“Why can’t I see your face clearly?” Tessa interrupted.

“You are wired, physically, to forget me. The effect works stronger on some more than others, you just happen to be forgetting me even as we are talking together.” Her hands continued to move back and forth, fingers arching delicately in intricate positions before moving onto the next. She paused for a moment when a small hole opened at the top where a faint light was beaming through. She held it out to Tessa to show her. Tessa’s eyes sparkled in the light.

“Have I done this before?” Tessa asked.

“Yes and no. It is never the same each time, if it happens at all.” She pulled it back and resumed her work. Ama was aware of a soft ticking noise coming from it.

“Continue,” Ama directed.

“Well, the next day I got a text from him asking if I’d like to go to dinner with him sometime. I said yes. I was grateful to have a friend either way, but I also knew I liked him, and that was frightening to me as well. But we had a great time, and my fears seemed to disappear on their own. At the end of the night we went for a walk in the park. To this bridge, actually. He stopped, just here, and then told me without hesitation that he liked me and was interested in dating me. He wanted to know if I was okay with that. I must have looked relieved or excited because he didn’t even wait until I responded before he leaned in to kiss me, and I kissed back.”

“Would you repeat that last part for me again?” Ama interrupted, freezing her hand motions and holding out the orb again, this time with a slightly bigger opening.

“That he kissed me? Is that required for this process?”

Ama immediately resumed her work as the light around the sphere grew to a glowing orb and the ticking sound grew stronger and a little deeper. “It helps,” she replied. “The sun is almost up and we are a little short on time. Could we skip to what made you invite me here this morning?”

Tessa was about to point out that she didn’t remember inviting her, but stopped when she noticed that the orb was now almost completely open at the top. The light radiating out of it was enough to light up Tessa’s face. She stared at it in a daze. The ticking sound was more of a drumming now, pulsing out of the top and making the light flicker with each beat. “Are you now ready to tell me?”

“Yes,” Tessa said confidently, the spell broken. “Yes, I remember what this is now.”

“Then go ahead, dear. First, tell me why.”

“Because he is kind. Because he laughs at my stupid jokes. Because he texts me in the morning to ask me how I slept. Because he brought me a bag of Swedish fish the day Nick yelled at me for that typo I missed. I didn’t even know he knew I liked them. Because he makes me a better person.”

The light was flickering madly with the drumming beat.

“And what do you want for him?”

“I want him to be happy. I want him to know how much he means to me. I want to heal for him what he’s healed in me. I’m not sure he wants that, but it’s what I want for him.”

“Right now, to receive this, it doesn’t matter what he wants, only what you do. Speak the words now, my dear.”

“I love him. I love Will.”

The metal gears surrounding the orb clicked and shifted away entirely, disappearing and leaving the drumming, intensely bright orb to float on its own in Ama’s palm. Tessa suddenly realized it was drumming in rhythm with her own heartbeat.

“Your shrift was accepted. Good work, Tessa.” Ama smiled at her brightly, even though Tessa couldn’t see it entirely. Ama’s face looked like a blur to her. Sometimes she caught a glimpse of an eye or the corner of a smile, but it shifted and moved and she couldn’t pin it down concretely. “We need to put this somewhere safe.”

Now Tessa remembered what to do. She shifted her shoulders toward Ama and lifted her chin slightly while facing her.  Ama guided the light toward Tessa, pushing it through her coat and into her body. The light had illuminated their spot at the bridge sharply for a moment, then faded dark after it entered her chest. Their eyes took a moment to readjust. The sound of her pounding heartbeat seemed to pulse expectantly until it regained a regular rhythm and then it, too, faded into the morning dusk.

“I can tell you this now, though you won’t remember when you return to your apartment and wake. Will already gave me his shrift for you. It was a strong one, you knocked him off his track entirely.”

“He did? When?”

“It was probably the second or third day after you started working as an intern. He has a very giving heart, and all it took was a few smiles after you two started working together. I don’t meet hearts like his very often, but it’s always a pleasure. You hold onto him, he’ll treat you well.”

Tessa suddenly realized she was wiping away a few stray tears now as she listened to Ama talk, then nodded and got to her feet. “I think you’re right,” she said.

“You’ll forget about this, but don’t wait too long to tell him. It won’t be easy, love never is, but I can see you have happy days ahead. I would say, ‘’til next time’, but I sincerely hope that’s not the case.” Ama got to her feet, then turned around and walked straight down the bridge and into the trees, disappearing into the fog.

* * *
I love Will.

The thought woke her from her sleep. February morning light poured into her room. She yawned deeply and rubbed her eyes, reveling in whatever good dream she had been having, already forgotten. She repeated the thought to herself. She wasn’t sure about it yesterday, but it was true today, like a light turned on. Like a gift.

Chelsea Ellingson is a writer, photographer, and music teacher living Northern Colorado. She writes from home among the company of her husband, four children, and Boston Terrier.
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