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by Jason Nemrow last modified 2018-03-29 15:42

The evening sun sent its rays slanting into the otherwise darkened cavern of a room. During the light of mid-day, it was loud and boisterous within, smelling of the perspiration of dozens of bodies moving to loud music and the clapping hands of instructors busily counting out the beats for those unfortunate souls that couldn't feel the rhythms within themselves. It was a squat, low building of rough cinder block, painted a ghastly gray throughout, ugly and utilitarian, ignoring its place as a last outpost of art. Now, the late afternoon shafts of red-gold light stood out in the dusty air, giving the now silent space a new hue. The classes in dance, such as they were, had ended for the day, and all was empty, except for one figure that seemed frozen in the azure light, caught in an odd position. All was deathly still and lone, or so the figure thought.

Just out of vision, a young man stood, looking at the frozen figure curiously. She remained still but tried in vain to move just a fraction and see the intruder that she could sense looking at her, but the still-reddening rays of the lowering sun made her squint and she could only see a still shadow. The young man cleared his throat to hopefully catch her attention, but she was practicing now and refused to be disturbed enough to move even a little.

"I-I h-hope I'm n-not b-bothering y-you," the young man managed through a stutter. He waited a moment for some action to show that she heard him, but there was none. He took a timid step forward and his hand came forward as well, shaking so hard that he quickly jerked it back behind him. In his other hand, he held a worn push-broom and brought that into view. "I-I am the j-j-janitor h-here." The effort in trying not to stumble in his words seemed to make him stumble in other ways and he half-spun and slapped a shoe flatly on the dusty floor to keep himself erect. All of this only elicited a slight raise of an eyebrow from the barely-breathing statuette.

He took another halting step forward, as if his malady of tongue also infected his legs. "I-I w-w-watch you...," but that was all he managed as he stepped awkwardly into the jet-blast of light and was caught unaware and temporarily blinded. When he blinked the surprise and discomfiture away, all he could see were the swirling dust particles that caught the light from her sudden exit. He looked about, but she had noiselessly slipped away, leaving him in slack-jawed wonderment.

Robert was indeed the janitor in the dance hall as well as the rest of the building and a few others nearby. It was something he did as part of an organization for handicapped people in the city and the meager pay he received helped keep him in his simple clothes and a group home with much less-capable people. His stuttering was his only real handicap, but in a world where fast and furious talkers rule, he was as crippled as someone with no legs. He was smarter and better than the work he was doing, but, for now, it was the best he could do.

It had been three weeks since he had started his new job and first saw this beautiful woman who danced alone in the empty hall. Well, she had danced the first two weeks or so, and then she began this phase of acting like a statue. Sometimes, the woman would hold this same pose for over an hour, or at least she looked the same when Robert would poke his head through the double steel door every now and then. He thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

She always wore the same style clothing, even when Robert saw her walking on campus. Her skirt reached to just below the fleshiest part of her calf, exposing a slender ankle and small, pretty foot. The blouse was of some silk-like material that buttoned down the front and had a small collar and sleeves that billowed slightly as they stretched down her arms, ending at a cuff that snugly held to the middle of her forearm. Protruding from the opening was a delicate wrist and expressive hands. To Robert, it was as if some master waxman had placed his masterpiece in the center of that room, flawless beauty and form frozen in space and time. It seemed that she would be in the same stance every day, as if she never left the hall, only the color of her clothes would change like some fashion store mannequin. One day she would be dressed in red, then blue, then green, then pink. Robert had seen ten color schemes so far, though the dark green skirt with a shade lighter blouse was a favorite and complimented her misty green eyes, he thought.

Robert was right in thinking she had not noticed him before he finally got up the courage to say something. Her concentration was wholly taken up with keeping her right knee, held even with her hip, from wobbling and her hands about a foot before her face and seemingly caught amid reaching upward for something. Her head was also tilted upward, as if she were imploring Deity for some favor. The first day she had noticed him, she became embarrassed and left while his attention was drawn away from her. This second day, she decided to handle things differently.

This day, Robert only watched her silently, as he had previously, worried that she might drift away again like some beautiful dream. She had no idea how many days he had been watching her and she might have become disturbed if she had known. The young woman was in her usual position, seeming to supplicate, when she decided to show him her transformation.

Barely noticeable at first, the smallest finger on her left hand moved, slowly at first, but then with more freedom, as if it were thawing from a deep-freeze. That finger brushed against the next and it too began to move, life seeming to pass from one to the other. Soon, all the fingers of her left hand seemed to ripple as if in a light breeze and then suddenly the attached wrist was released and she spread the fingers wide and began to slowly rotate the hand.

The thawed extremity seemed to be influencing the other parts to which it was connected as movement came next to the elbow and then the shoulder. Ability seemed to arc across her collarbone and snap the other arm to life, splaying her right fingers in a jolt like electrification. In a moment, both arms and hands were in motion, slowly swaying in some imaginary breeze that whispered through them. Her spine was affected next as the speed of the transformation seemed to quicken, swinging her hips about, and causing her lifted leg to stretch to its full length before her, exposed toes pointing, stretching out, then slowly, gracefully, touching the floor. Her neck moved slowly then, like some serpent, and her head turned slowly to face toward the young Robert. Her face finally melted into a wonderful smile that transfigured her formerly stony countenance. She said simply, in a tender voice that melted his heart, "Can I help you?"

Robert's eyes were as big as saucers and his mouth hung open as his legs lost all control and he fell back onto his bottom. When he regained some control of his face, all he could bring himself to say was "W-W-W-Wow!" This seemed to be just the reaction she was after, for her face beamed kindly at his flustering. The broom finally slipped from his forgotten hand and fell to the floor with a sharp crack that echoed through the hall. That broke the spell and he finally managed a blink and gave the young woman an awkward smile.

She took a small step forward, coming to help raise him up, but that made him draw back a little. She opened her hands, almost as if she were showing that she bore no weapon. "Betadin," she said suddenly.

This was all becoming too strange for Robert, whose eyes were nearly as dinner plates now. "W-What?"

She smiled down on him again and tossed a wonderful cascade of light-brown hair behind her shoulder. "I'm studying the part of Betadin, the statue that becomes a woman because of a man's love." She offered her hand to him and cocked her head. "Do you know the story?"

It almost seemed to the young woman that they had exchanged places: she was now the animated figure and he was a hunched thing on the floor, frozen in shock. "I'm sorry if I frightened you." Her hand remained outstretched. "My name is Rachel."

The young man blinked his eyes, looked at the proffered hand, then back to the lovely, smiling vision of her face. He began reaching his hand out to meet hers, but it was jittering nervously. His face grew red and he was about to break out into a sweat. He opened his mouth to say something but he couldn't catch breath enough to even whisper.

Rachel was touched by his predicament, and gently covered the distance between them and clasped his hand. This seemed to send a jolt through him but nothing like the lightening bolt that nearly rent his soul when she laid her other hand atop his, cradling it tenderly. "And your name is?"

"R-R-R-R-R," he began, sounding like some rusty door being opened slowly. Rachel kept hold of his hand and looked deeply into his eyes with the patience of a woman who could hold her body completely still for almost an hour. He gave a strained gulp, finally began sweating for some relief, and "R-R-R-R"-ed for a minute or two more before wrenching out "R-Robert."

To him, she seemed to radiate pleasure as she said, "It is very nice to meet you, Robert!" He performed a shaky nod as she easily helped him back to his feet. She seemed to understand that a nod was the best he could do for a response just then. She squeezed his hand lightly and broke their connection softly, drawing her hands back to herself, which caused an audible sigh to come from Robert's lips. Rachel sheltered an almost-giggling grin with a hand as she marveled at the effect her attention was having on this young man. It was actually very refreshing, given the odd stares and whispers her clothing and curious habits usually stirred up in men. Rachel was genuinely enjoying this. "Have you been watching me long?"

The question was so direct that Robert reeled, his face the color of a beet. His lower jaw became limp again and his tongue seemed to swell within his mouth, almost choking him. He seemed incapable of answering, so she did it for him. "That long." He gave a very short nod, this whole frame shaking as if the cold that had petrified him was finally being broken by her warm glow. "I-I-It was b-b-beautiful!" he exclaimed after a moment.

Rachel sent the full force of her smile and glittering eyes bearing down on the young man, but instead of backing away now, he returned the joy as best he could. "Thank you," she replied quietly. "I am glad you liked it." At that moment, the beam of the dying sun struck the woman just so and she was flooded with a yellow-red fire and the illuminated dust swirled about her like a crowd giving way before a mighty queen as she moved to him and softly touched his cheek. "You can watch me anytime," she breathed into his ear. He shivered and closed his eyes with the ecstasy of the sensation. When he opened his eyes again, he was alone and the rays of the light were gone with the disappeared sun.

For the next month of so, Robert watched Rachel practice, content to only look on her but hurrying back to his work when she was finished and began walking towards him. At first, Rachel thought she might be tormenting him and toyed with the idea of finding another place to practice her art, but something inside her said that he just needed some time to get comfortable with her attention. It seemed a terribly long time but the feeling inside her was right, as it so often was. After three months, the young man could not only abide her gaze, but he could even carry on short conversations with Rachel.

The real breakthrough came when the young woman decided to bring her dinner with her to practice instead of leaving the hall to go to the college cafeteria. Her sanity drove her to the decision one day, as she had reached her fill of loathing the stares from other women and the outright jeers from some of the men. When she left that cavern of questionable cuisine each day, she was nearly always on the verge of tears, feeling lower than the dust. She would even lay awake at night and wonder whether life were really worth living for. She just didn't seem to fit in this world, of which her father had once told her, "Until you can learn something worthwhile, you will never amount to anything." All the evidence seemed in his favor, so she agreed to college at a fine engineering school, since her father had heard that engineering was the next "hot" field for income potential. Rachel wondered how long she would be able to stay in school after her father saw her grades as she sat cross-legged on the dance-hall floor, munching on a hastily-prepared sandwich.

Robert scurried away after she had offered to share her food with him, which made her day seem dark. Rachel had grown very fond of the young man's attention and even had begun to depend on it to counter the depressing loneliness she often felt being around others. Now, even he had run off and left her to black thoughts.

A twinge of pain struck her as she was reminded, for the third time that day, of the first anniversary of another dark time: the passing for her beloved Gramma Jo. Rachel's father made the death even more bitter when he had forbidden her to attend the funeral. Her father never veiled his contempt for Jo from the girl and he blamed the old woman for filling Rachel's head full of dreams and foolishness about dancing. 'I should have never let you near her!' Father shouted the evening of the funeral. 'I'm glad she is gone! It is about time you started hearing about some sensible things for a change!' Little did her father know, but it was far too late to change the young woman's passions. She gave a deep sigh as she pictured her grandmother, in restful repose, and the fact that the young woman who had loved her and been loved of her the most could not be there.

Suddenly, Robert appeared again, bearing a crumpled-up paper bag. Rachel smiled gratefully and wiped away a tear as the young man sat beside her and began eating slowly. "Y-You look s-sad," he said.

"Oh," she replied quietly, her voice strange from her little cry. "I'm just remembering a sad day." She shook her head, trying to dispel the memory. "I have had a lot of sad days."

Robert bowed his head as he knelt beside her, nodding. "M-M-Me, t-t-too."

They ate in silence for a while, wrapped up in their own thoughts as the sun faded away and then finally set. The fluorescent lights that now lit the hall were, at best, unflattering, but when Robert would glance at Rachel every few moments, he still thought she was the most beautiful and wonderful person in the world. Even under the artificial sun, she seemed to catch more of the light around her and radiate it out through her kindness and gentleness and love. Robert may have conquered much of his shyness about being near her, but he never lost his awe of everything about her, especially how the very essence of joy and love seemed to flow from her eye and her soft touch. If it were proper, he would have worshipped her as some angel fallen from heaven, struggling along amidst the injustices and indignities of life in this world. Robert wished he could lift her back up to that glorious place, where she was understood and appreciated. And when she was there, he hoped that she would show him a little compassion, take his hand, and pull him up to where she was. But for now, Robert was just happy being with her.

Rachel offered carrot sticks with a smile and Robert came back with apple slices and a sheepish grin. Their first little feast seemed to go on for hours: She, reveling in a situation where, for once, someone accepted her and actually liked her just the way she was, and He, simply grateful that someone so wondrous wanted to spend time with him.

After dinner, they continued a tradition that had begun a week before, where Rachel would tell one of the multitude of stories that her Gramma Jo had so diligently taught her. Sometimes, she would pantomime or even break into dance, but Robert didn't mind how the story was told -- he hung on every word and marveled at every movement. Rachel was never sure how much of each tale the young man actually heard, but it helped her to do something while she was with the young man besides just awkwardly accepting his obvious devotion. She had several hundred stories memorized and tried to present a varied cross-section that included comedy, which always produced the silliest, nasal giggle from Robert; dramas and tragedies, that left him soaked in his own tears; and simple tales, that had deep moral threads woven into them, causing the young man to ponder ideas he had never considered before. For Rachel, Robert was the perfect audience: totally enthralled in the tales she spun and never let down even if the young woman missed an element and had to add it later. He would always clap loudly and whistle upon her closing curtsy. For that last month of the semester, College was nearly tolerable for the woman, made so by the never-tiring adoration of Robert.

The cold nights of fall grew into the cold days and nights of early winter as the college term drew to an end. Examinations were now over and students were put to work scrubbing the classrooms and public areas preparatory to leaving campus for the Christmas holiday. Rachel had volunteered to clean in the dance hall so she could spend more time than normal with Robert. It had been easy for him to be with her when they had been alone, but now she happily chatted to him within earshot of many others and he suddenly felt very self-conscious. Rachel had grown used to the bad attention she had received from others, but Robert had always dealt with his own troubles by avoiding other people. He was not allowed that luxury today. He was almost clingy throughout Washing Day, as it was called, hovering about her, too nervous to speak much. Rachel rattled on and on about nothing in particular for the simple reason that the sound drowned out any taunts that were cast at her. The young man with her heard those taunts just fine, and he grew red with anger at times, nearly rising and pouncing on the offender, but Rachel's gentle touch would always come and one look into her eyes would dispel the violence he felt. She was very touched that he wanted to defend her honor, but he was no match for the muscular dance students that seemed born with fiery temperaments and picked fights as often as they drew breath. It was a terribly long day, but it went better for both when they were together.

The hall was soon empty again as the rays of the setting sun flashed through the windows set high and long along the ceiling. Even Rachel had gone, wanting to shower, but promising to return soon with a surprise. Robert stirred up what little dust there was to catch the light, pacing back and forth. He was standing in the full sun, blinking and trying to get some warmth into his frame, when he heard the gentle brush of a skirt against a leg. Robert turned about and there Rachel stood, in a pool of orange light, in a dress pieced together from fabric dyed with every pastel color there was. Tiny bows with trailing ribbons were pinned into her flowing hair and wider ribbons were draped down from her waist and nearly reached the bottom of her skirt hem. She looked at him cautiously. "Do you like it? This is my penny theatre dress. Someday, I will wear this on-stage." She smiled her empathy at his characteristic speechlessness. Rachel came a few steps nearer, winked at her friend, then spun around, causing her hair and skirt to billow and stir up currents of air and light. She spun five times before slowing to a stop, but Robert never saw it, for she was thoughtful to douse herself and her dress liberally with what she knew was his favorite perfume. He was so wrapped in the ecstasy of her scent that his eyes had fluttered shut and the young man inhaled like it was the last oxygen on earth. Rachel came right up to him, touched his cheek lovingly with her fingertips, and gently blew in his face. This made him start from his revelry and he gawked at her effortless beauty closer than he ever had before. "Hi!" she breathed. "Would you help me with something, please?"

Rachel spread a blanket, that must have been made from the same bits of cloth as her dress. "My grandmother made them both for me, just before she died." Her eyes glazed over just a bit.

"I-I'm s-sorry," he said slowly, trying to curb his stuttering.

She took his hand and gripped it tightly. "It's not your fault. Things just happen." She said this last quietly, as if trying to convince herself.

It was quite a picnic, with fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, corn and beans, homemade bread, and lemonade. Rachel arranged her dress and hair as fetchingly as she could and daintily served Robert, doing all of this because she knew he would notice it and be so endearingly flustered, which helped her love him the more. She wanted this to be a special night for Robert, for she knew that they only had a few more evenings left.

Dinner over, they pulled the food-laden blanket to a corner of the room. "W-What t-t-tale are y-y-you t-telling t-tonight?"

Rachel cocked her head prettily and pursed her lips. "I think I want you to pick tonight." The young man didn't hesitate for a second. "Betadin," he blurted without the slightest stutter. Rachel was surprised at this choice, but nodded nonetheless. "Very well," she replied, "the tale is "Betadin Returns from Stone."

Once upon a time, a young woman was stolen from her kindly parents and made to serve a nasty ogre as his cook. The girl did her best to please him, but no matter what she cooked, he would always curse and bellow, rant and rave, and call her nasty names as he threw the food in her face. The woman had once been full of joy, but the ogre had stolen it away from her, bit by bit. Finally, after a taste of her chicken and dumplings, the creature flew into a rage, vomiting forth the most vile names. It became so terrible that she began to appeal to God to deafen her ears and stiffen her soul against the barrage of hate. As she looked heavenward , reaching for any solace she could pluck from the eternal, the ogre's rampage finally drained all the love from her and her tender heart turned to stone. The deadness spread quickly and painfully through her, until her whole frame was hard and gray. On seeing her change, the ogre was satisfied, and spitting a few more expletives, just for spite, he went away to torment people somewhere else.

"Now," Rachel spoke gently, "I'm going to need your help. You must play the part of Ascendus the woodcutter, who falls in love with Betadin."

Robert's eyes grew large at the thought of playing a role when he had only been a spectator before. He blinked and rose to his feet, not knowing really what to do. He coughed and watched, almost with fright, as Rachel reached into the sky again and transformed into the stony Betadin. Now, the young man was alone to express what this Ascendus was thinking and feeling.

It began in him like a low, unintelligible mumble, but when Rachel concentrated, she could hear the words quite clearly. He stared at the toes of his shoes and did the only thing he knew to do: he poured out his heart.

Many months passed but it did little to weather the stone that Betadin had become. Birds would perch on her head and arms and large animals sniffed at her in fear until they became used to her. And every day, a woodcutter named Ascendus came along the deer track that passed right by the hardened girl. He supposed that is was just some statue of a goddess and usually just tipped his hat to her as he passed by.

One day, he was late leaving the forest and the sun was just above the treetops, casting long shadows. As the woodcutter ambled by the spot where Betadin stood, the red-gold rays of the setting sun caught her eyes and they glittered. Upon closer inspection, he was stunned to see that those eyes were actually human and as he startled, a tear ran down the stony girl's cheek. He stared in amazement: this statue was alive!

"I have seen you a hundred times and you have graced my dreams a thousand. You look to God with a plea that I wish I could answer, but I am just a little person to be a help for Deity." Rachel almost fell over as Robert spoke, clear and quiet, with never a stutter. "These eyes are so sweet and kind, it pains me to my very soul to see you weep, one with such faith to turn to God in the darkest hour."

Rachel, with wet cheeks, had never considered that Robert might have thoughts like this, much less words to express them. She kept her eyes fixed on the flickering fluorescent light in the ceiling, but her attention was riveted on this curious young man that she thought she had known. He suddenly came right in front of her and softly rested his hands on her hips.

His voice was almost a whisper. "I love you, Rachel! From the moment I first saw you bathed in light, I knew there could never be another who could so possess my heart as you. Your kindness and generosity toward an imprisoned soul helped me climb a dozen mountains that stood between the frightened thing that I was and the man who now stands before you. No matter what differences stand between us, no matter what summits I must still mount, I will forever love you! I will adore you always for the precious gift of hope that you have blessed me with.

"While you appeal to the heavens, pray that I don't entrust my heart to you in error. You held it in your hands for months, unaware of your burden. I pray now that I am well-served and that you think enough of me not to cast my tender feelings aside because you might not share them. If it is not love for you, set my heart back into the cold, hard world gently, but know that it will be a searing wound that will never be mended."

Robert began to pull away, but the woman, not even considering how far he had strayed from his character, melted before him, her arms falling around his neck, eyes closing as she stretched forward and pressed her lips softly against his. He was stiff for just a few seconds and then he brought his arms around her waist, pulling their two bodies closer together. Stopping just long enough to inhale, Rachel murmured, "Oh, Robert, I love you, too!"

One big steel door crashed into the cinder block wall as an angry man in a suit and overcoat stormed in to the hall. "I knew I would find you here," he barked, baring his teeth. The sudden commotion tore the couple apart and Rachel reeled from bliss to horror. "Father?"

"I slave to send you to a good college and here I find you, dressed like some circus side-show, romancing! Now I finally realize how much you appreciate what I do for you." He rushed forward, nearly at a run.

Rachel sprang back into Robert's arms, pulling his ear to her lips. "Don't let him take me away! It's too soon! I don't want to turn back into stone!" He turned his head back to face her and worked his jaw up and down, but no sound was coming. Whatever miracle their love had wrought that night was now lost; Robert couldn't say a word and cowered away when Rachel's father approached.

The old man grasped Rachel roughly by the arm and jerked her toward the door. "Say good-bye, loverboy," the father sneered. "As long as I'm around, you'll never see her again!" Robert so wanted to strike out at this man, who would treat his love so horribly, but the gripping molasses of his old fears and timidity were quick to bind him once again. He could only watch as the man dragged his daughter out of the building, Rachel struggling the entire way, groping toward Robert with an imploring hand. When she was outside, she managed to shout the young man's name, but it was followed immediately by a sharp slap, and then there were only loud sobs, fading away.

Her father tore the back door of his car open and tossed Rachel inside like a sack of rocks. Doors slammed shut and the car screeched into the night.

Robert still stood, stunned, for several minutes after the sound of the car had faded from hearing. He cursed himself for not doing anything, and after being so brave. He didn't think he could do that, but when Rachel was around him, anything was possible. With a sudden sniff, he began to sob because she was gone and the hope was gone as well. He stumbled to the remains of Rachel's picnic and grabbed up the pastel patchwork blanket she had used for a spread. When he buried his tear-streaked face in the fabric, he could still smell her perfume faintly, which made him cry all the harder.

...and Ascendus took Betadin to his little house and married her, and they lived happily ever after.

Rachel thought it was a stupid tale, especially since life never worked like that. As the miles streamed passed, she looked out the window and did her best to ignore her father's ranting and raving. She had wept much, but now her jaw was set, holding back her sorrow.

She had thought that Robert might become some knight in shining armor, sweep her off of her feet, and somehow bear her off to a place where all of the people were kind and understanding. For a few moments, it had seemed that Robert had really become that knight, but in the moment of truth, he failed her and was just a janitor. What good was praying to a God that would let things like that happen? She gritted her teeth and scowled, not at her father for destroying her life, but at Robert, because he didn't rise to her expectations, and at God, for not answering her prayers. As the miles rolled by, her heart, that had tasted the sweetness of pure, undiluted love only an hour before, was turned to granite within her. Like Betadin, anger had turned the impassioned young dancer to stone, but it might take more than a woodcutter's, or a janitor's, love to defrost the arctic she had formed in her own soul.

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