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A fence. Tiny holes in the metal, just big enough for us to stick our fingers through and stretch them toward the free air, air without the piercing cry of the guards, air unstained by regret, air untainted by the hate that hangs like a dirty fog around this camp.
We are the outcasts. We were born into society, under a roof, parents, and under the law. But laws don’t fit our nature. We, the outcasts, refuse to obey. We will not be told what to do.
So we rebelled. We lashed out. We bent the laws until they snapped, and society spit us out like the loners we are.
We are the outcasts. It’s branded on our skin and stamped on our foreheads. Everywhere we go, they know we don’t belong, that we’ll never fit the mold. So they locked us up in a cage to rot. Here this cage is called the Young Men’s Correction Center. Fancy name for a bunch of iron bars.
Everything here is concrete walls, stretching above us and touching the patches of blue sky we strain to glimpse every day.
But on one end of the grounds is a fence.
Now don’t get me wrong. We wouldn’t even dream of trying to jump that fence. Along the top of it runs a thick line of barbed wire. The sharp edges gleam cruelly at us, waiting to shred our flesh like cheddar in a cheese grater.
Despite the barbed wire, this fence gives us some entertainment. After the work is over and the guards let us walk around and do what we want, about a dozen or so of us walk over to this end of the camp, sit with our backs against the peeling paint of one of the sleeping rooms, and just listen.
We’re not listening for much, really. We’re looking with our eyes at the outside world, watching the beauty of it all, and listening with our hearts for the rustling of the wind, whispering to us of what we missed that day in the free world, of what we have given up.
Beyond the fence is a corn field that stretches as far as the eye can see. The sun sets over this field, shooting out streaks of brilliant red, muted violet, and starry blue. It sets over this sea of green, and instead of an ocean to reflect the colors, we see heads of corn bobbing up and down, tossing their heads to the beat made by the colors. We see the green sway in the breeze, the breeze still telling us what we have given up, what we are missing.
And that’s it. We just sit and look at it, listening to the words of the breeze as it snakes between the emerald stalks. The field stretches to the left, right, and straight ahead as far the eye can see, until it is lost in the curve of the earth.
But every once in a while, when the wind stops tormenting us with regrets and the corn loses the beat and stands still, we hear something. A voice carried on the wind. But the wind is quiet, and the corn is still, as if stepping back and granting us one pleasure on our ears.
We hear singing. Sweet voices, the words floating into the painted sunset. They flow through the fence and onto us, and we close our eyes and just listen. The wind is quiet, the corn is still.
They are young. They sing sweetly, and occasionally we hear peals of laughter ringing like bells. They sound innocent and naive, like children, but older.
They are young girls, sitting somewhere in the corn, far away from where we are, and singing. Few of the dozen listening can identify the songs they sing, for they are so different than what we are used to hearing that they strike us as strange, almost enchanting.
They are hymns. They speak of a name we only hear cursed and slandered by the guards as they spit tobacco on the parched ground. They speak of a love we only vaguely remember, from our mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers.
There is not a single one of us present that does not wish he could go back. There is not a single one of us present who does not wish he could remake a few decisions. There is not a single one of us present who does not wish that we could make even a single phone call, just to say how sorry we are, how much we hurt to think of the pain we caused, and how much we want to fix it.
And so the dozen of us sit here, straining to hear pieces of the music and the laughter from hearts much lighter than ours. We look up at the stars speckled across a midnight sky and hope that if the God they sing of is real, he will grant us mercy, and send some sign of his love through the vicious barbed wire.
“What’s her name?”
“Selinda Mackavoy. She just moved into Jamie’s old house.”
“So where’s she from?”
“Wyoming. She used to live up in the mountains. Must be a big surprise for her. Everything is flat corn fields here in North Dakota.”
“I bet. Is she home schooled too?”
“Sure is. She lives like five feet away from my house, and she won’t be making friends at high school, so we should be seeing a lot of her.”
I looked down on the two teenage girls, just barely seeing the tops of their heads through the leaves. Although I had trouble seeing them, I could hear every word perfectly from my perch in the tree.
So they already knew my name. Man, word spreads fast. Maybe they sat up in their own trees and listened to my conversations as well.
But I never planned for these two sisters, or my neighbors, to stand by my tree and talk. After all, that tree was in MY yard. If they wanted to gossip, they should have gone into their own yard.
That, I must admit, was a lame excuse. Their yard was five feet from mine. She and I lived in the only two houses on a dirt road that ran parallel to an enormous corn field. A whole stretch of road with only two houses, and the builder decided to put them in each other’s laps. How quaint. The builders must have been best friends.
I was used to trees and hills, but here the land was so flat you could look down a road and see for miles. The only tree visible was the one in my front yard so, as usual, I scrambled into it and sat on the hard branch, my bare feet swinging in a rhythmic motion to the beat of the painted sunset.
“Did you hear what she looks like?”
“Well, she’s really pale and has red hair.”
“Carrots! Oh, well. My hair is like coal.”
“She has pretty blue eyes.”
“That’s strange. Lots of colors. I hope she’s nice.”
Suddenly I felt something on my hand. A slight tickle, like a leaf brushing my pale skin. I glanced down and saw the most hideous spider I had ever seen.
A shriek and a frantic wave of my hand sent me tumbling out of the tree and landing with a thud on the soft grass.
I groaned and opened my eyes. The two girls sat an arm’s length away on the grass, legs folded, staring at me. I rolled onto my stomach, looking ridiculous with my fiery hair sticking out at all angles and my wide blue eyes fixed on them.
They looked almost like twins. One, true to her word, had coal black hair that stopped at the small of her back. It was so smooth and shiny that it could have come off of a shampoo commercial. Her black eyes stared at me like I was insane.
The other had wild, curly black hair that she tried to restrain in two thick braids, but still little curls and hairs stuck out at wrong angles, making me feel better about my own hair.
They both stared at me, their delicate faces frozen in a strange expression.
“Um . . .” I began, but they said nothing. I scrambled into a more graceful position and sat on the grass. “I’m Selinda.”
The girl with the shiny hair turned to the other one and smiled. “She may not be nice, but she’s weird.”
“Well actually,” I piped up, much to their surprise, “I get that a lot. At least once a day, really.”
The curly haired one blinked, then suddenly her cheeks dimpled into a silly grin and she laughed.
“My name is Brita,” She said, still chuckling as she tucked her wild hair behind her ear. “This is my sister, Lily.”
Lily gave me a soft smile. “Hello.”
Brita looked down at the grass sheepishly. “So . . . I guess you heard all of that?”
“Yeah, but no problem. It’s not like you were gossiping.”
Lily cocked her head. “Are you home schooled?”
“Yes. Are you?”
They both nodded.
“I go to the church down the street. Do you?”
“Yeah! That’s kind of weird.”
After a few minutes we found ourselves talking like old friends.
You see, in the country, I mean the stinking boondocks; there's nothing to do except watch TV, eat, sleep, go to school, and hang out with your friends. Not to mention all of the chores you have to do in the barn and stables, and if you’re lucky you can ride one of the horses. There is no mall, no concerts, and, if you’re homeschooled, no football games, drama, dating, or prom. There’s just three teenage girls in their worn out blue jeans, talking about God, horses, and sunshine.
By the end of the conversation Brita and Lily liked me so well that they wanted to let me in on a little secret. They invited me to come to what they called, ‘the sunset.’
I blinked. “That happens every night.”
Brita’s eyes widened in shock. “Oh, but it’s never the same! Every single one is different. Some are purple, some blue, and some are so quick that before you know it the yellow has melted into black sprinkled with stars.”
I watched the way her eyes lit up as she spoke of it, and suddenly I got the feeling that this was no ordinary sunset.
“Where do we meet?”
There are four rules for the sunset.
Rule number one: You must arrive one hour before sunset. In this case, at eight.
Rule number two: You must bring a guitar or your voice.
Rule number three: When the sun is setting, you must not speak.
Rule number four. Never, ever, EVER go near the other end of the corn field.
We stood in front of the corn field at exactly 7:50, the corn like a five foot wall of green in front of us. I could barely see between the stalks, and it seemed to stretch for miles.
Lily looked back at me, her dark hair swinging over her shoulder, and gave me a grin. Then she stepped into the corn and disappeared, the corn falling back into place behind her. Brita followed, and I stepped in after.
As soon as the corn closed behind us, we were in a whole different world. The buzz of insects in the sticky July heat was gone, and we were in complete silence. Green hues were everywhere, shedding an emerald touch on our skin and hair. It was delightfully cool in the field, with no sun beating down on our heads.
We walked single file, Lily leading the pack, Brita in the middle, and me last, with my guitar slung over one shoulder.
Suddenly I blinked in the sunshine. Lily stood in the middle of a small clearing. It was like the farmer had forgotten to sow seeds in a small circle. In the middle of this circle was an old oak tree, with branches so twisted and entwined in each other that they could have seated twenty girls.
Lily hoisted herself into the tree and took a seat in the highest branch, which undeniably was her seat and no one else’s. Brita sat a bit below her, her feet resting in the middle of the tree. I sat on a low branch, my feet swinging in the air, my guitar in my lap, and my back against the bark.
My fingers touched the strings on my guitar, and suddenly I heard the sweetest, purest melody of amazing grace floating up into the dusky sky. I looked up in surprise, and saw Lily and Brita leaning their heads against the tree, eyes closed, singing their hearts out. I smiled and strummed along.
And so we sat there, listening to the music, playing to the beat of the painted sky.
For about ten minutes.
The sunshine was too bright, too playful, for us to sit here motionless. We felt an itching in our bones to run, to jump, to laugh, like the little girl spirits still hidden inside of our teenage bodies.
Before we knew what was happening we were running on the ground, playing tag and hide and seek like we were ten years old. Lily ran all around the trunk of the tree, her dark hair swaying with every step her bare feet made on the ground. Brita swung upside down from the tree, her palms outstretched and fingers splayed until they almost touched the ground. The wind rustled the corn. It whispered through the stalks, telling us of the freedom we had, whispering of pain that lurked less than a mile away.
But Lily did not hear the wind. All she heard was the pounding of her footsteps on the ground as she ran after me, trying to tag the back of my white dress. Brita did not listen to the wind, for all she heard was the creak of the branches as she swung back and forth.
But I heard it. It blew through my hair and lifted it all around me. It whispered of something, something in the corn, and as Lily got closer and closer to me, her hand outstretched to tag me, the wind hinted at an idea. The bobbing heads of corn nodded, agreeing with the wind’s idea, urging me to do it, and I knew I must obey.
So I did.
With one mischievous smile, I ran straight into the corn and disappeared, running in the opposite direction of home.
I ran through the silence, the green shafts of light falling on my hair and my white dress as I ran, my bare feet sinking in the soil. I heard Lily calling me, I heard them tell me to come back, that I was going the wrong way, but I was in so far that I couldn’t go back. The wind pushed me farther and farther, until I saw the corn become thinner and thinner. I felt sunshine on my head, until I reached out my hand through a wall of corn and felt the outside air, the free air on my palms. And suddenly I felt the free air on my whole body as I burst out of the corn and into the sunshine.
The light blinded me at first, and as I squinted, I could barely make out something that looked like a tall wall. I saw holes in the wall, and pillars inside of it, about a dozen or so, standing at different distances from each other.
As my eyes adjusted, I realized it was a tall chain link fence, with vicious barbed wire running along the top of it. And as I looked inside of the fence, my eyes widened.
Their hands gripped the fence, and they all just stood there, watching the corn, listening to the wind, watching the painted sunset. Their faces were hard and stony, grim and drawn. They looked at me in surprise, and I looked back.
They were my age. Every single one of them was my age. They were so young, and they stood there like caged animals, stretching their hands toward the free air, toward the wind.
“Well, who’s this pretty little thing?” One of them said, eying me as he spit tobacco on the hard ground. And suddenly a few of them whistled, a few shouted, and they were all talking at once, all about me, about parts of me, their sick eyes looking me up and down. I took a fearful step backwards, ready to run back into the corn, until I saw him.
He leaned against the fence, watching me like the rest, but his eyes remained glued to mine. His dark hair was shaggy, and he looked so young that it broke my heart. I saw pain in his face, pain, regret, and hopelessness. He was a dog shut up in the pound, knowing that in exactly seventy two hours a needle would be stuck in his arm, his eyes would glaze over, and his heart would stop. He knew this, the knowledge of inevitable death made his shoulders sag. But if somebody would have the heart to help him, to save him, he could live. He could come free of his chains, of his prison, of this hell, and live again.
But as he looked wistfully at me, pleading with his eyes like a dog who begged not to be put down, I felt the barbed wire between us keeping us apart. If only there was something I could do . . .
But there was nothing I could do. The fence stood between us.
He slowly lowered his head, his beautiful eyes looked away, as if realizing that there was no way I could help him, that he was hopeless.
Lily grabbed my hand, yanking me away from them. Suddenly I blinked and saw all of them hooting and shouting at me again. He stood in the midst of them, the only one who wasn’t making obscene gestures, the only one with his head hung and his beautiful eyes closed.
Brita pushed me into the corn, and before I knew it she was telling me to run. I turned and ran through the corn, the peace I had felt before replaced with sudden terror. I ran as though chased by wild wolves, chased by the hopeless look in his eyes, chased by the knowledge that in seventy two hours he would be dead.
They say beauty hypnotizes. They say it catches the eye, drains color from the face, and quickens the heartbeat. They say it captivates the mind, until all one can do is stare, still as a statue, and let the joy and pain felt in a lifetime flow through the eyes. And if you look just hard enough, one glance from the object of beauty will give them a glimpse into what your soul has been through.
This silent telepathy is rarely witnessed, but when I saw her, I knew it was happening. I was frozen, all of my feelings and thoughts flowing out of my eyes to her, and as she looked back, her blue eyes fixed on me, I knew she could see straight through my stony face and into my bruised soul.
She was amazing. She was like all of the sweet songs we had listened to at night had taken the shape of a girl and stepped from the corn. I just stood there and looked at her in awe, and suddenly she looked back.
I wanted so badly so reach through these chains and leave this place, be around people like her, but I couldn’t. As far back as I could remember I had been here, and I could see the years stretching before me like a horrible road until my miserable death.
She looked like the definition of the word hope. She stood there, her snowy dress tight around her curves, flowing away around her knees, her fiery hair blowing in the breeze. Could she help me? Could she offer me a chance to get right, to get out of this hell?
Suddenly I saw her emotions in her eyes, the way she spoke back to me. She wanted to help me, I could see it. But there was a fence between us. There was barbed wire above us. There was fear between us, keeping her from me, fear of what had put me in this place.
There was nothing she could do.
Who was I, hoping she could offer me hope? I shook my head and looked away. This was my problem. I had no choice but to live the life I made for myself. I was meant to live in a cage, and I would die in a cage.
“Are you CRAZY?”
These were the first words to come out of Lily’s mouth as soon as we were back in the clearing, panting heavily from the run. She was slightly bent over, her hands on her knees, glaring fiercely at me from beneath the curtain of her hair.
“They could have raped you, or worse!” She cried, but I shrugged, his sad eyes still haunting me like a bad dream.
“Calm down, Lily. There was a fence between us. None of them could have reached me.”
“Now,” panted Brita, “do you understand the fourth rule? Stay AWAY from that end of the corn field!”
“Why are they in there?” I murmured, looking back in their direction.
“It’s the Young Men’s Correction Facility,” Brita replied, sitting on the ground, “Or basically juvenile detention center, but only for guys and much worse. They keep them way out here in the middle of nowhere just in case one of them escapes.”
I jerked my head toward her and narrowed my eyes. “Why?”
Brita evenly met my gaze. “There are less people for them to hurt out here.”
“And that’s why,” Lily began, “we can’t tell anyone about this. Mom and Dad barely let us go out here as it is. If they found out that we went to the other end . . .” Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head.
“We’d never be allowed to leave the house again,” Brita finished.
It was three hours since I had last seen him, and still his face was on my mind. The blue of the towels in Brita’s bathroom was the blue of his eyes. The nicks in their wood floor reminded me of the cuts on his arms. Everywhere I looked, I could see him, pleading for me to help him.
I had to help him. Weren’t we, as Christians, supposed to help those who were hurting? And wasn’t he hurting more than anyone? They spoke in church of helping people all around you, of helping those we see on the street, in the mall, on the corner bakery. What about in a prison camp?
“What are you doing?”
The singing of the crickets floated lazily in through the open window as Lily shut her bedroom door. Brita plopped on the bed beside me, looking at me questioningly.
I eyed them, unsure if I should tell them my plan. I knew I had to do something, but I had no idea what. Would they help me? Or were they too scared?
Lily had become quiet after seeing them. She had barely spoken during dinner, always looking at her hands in her lap or just closing her eyes. Brita, however, had talked much more than usual, her sudden chatter prompted by the nervous experience.
“We have to help them.”
The words were out of my mouth before I even knew I had said them, and Lily’s eyes widened in fear.
“What? You’re insane! Just how would we do that, huh? They’d kill us, or rape us, or . . .”
“I know, Brita, but they’re dying in there,” I snapped, jumping off the bed. “Look around you! You see your family? Your happy home? Your comfortable beds? They don’t have any of that! It was all taken away from them!”
“But it was their fault they got put in there, Selinda,” Brita retorted, anger flushing into her cheeks. “They are not innocent.”
“Exactly! They are guilty! They trudge through every day with the heavy knowledge that they had a home, a heart, and people who loved them, and because of their own stupid mistakes it was all lost. They were taken from their homes, hated by those they loved, and their hearts are so heavy they’ve melted away!”
“What’s your point?” Brita sighed.
“My point is, we were exactly the same as them.”
Brita looked alarmed. “What?”
“We did wrong things. Heck, we still do. We had to pay a price. We had to go to hell after we died and burn for all eternity because of what we did. We had to pay a price, and so did everyone else.”
Brita watched me, her eyes never once leaving my face.
“But now,” I continued, my voice softening, “Jesus paid the price for us. We don’t have to go to Hell. And neither do they. Jesus died so that we can be free of our sin, free of our pain, free of fear and hate and loneliness. Free from going to hell. Just . . .”
I paused; trying to find the words to sum up the pure joy it was to be a Christian.
“Free,” Brita whispered, her eyes far away, feeling the joy of having Jesus forever by her side.
“Somebody else will tell them,” Lily reasoned, “Somebody else will save them.”
Brita glared at her. “Oh yeah? Who?”
“I don’t know, but I am not going near them!” Lily snapped.
“Why are you so scared?”
“Because, Selinda, I just am. And I think that if God really wants to save them, he can do it himself. He doesn’t need us.”
“Yes he does,” I pleaded, but she was stubborn.
“No! Why do you care so much anyway?”
I looked at her; I saw the fear in her eyes, the utter terror of the horrible happenings in that camp. And suddenly I saw his face again; I saw his eyes staring at me through the barbed wire, his fingers sticking through the chain link fence, stretching toward me.
“Because if we don’t get over our fear and help them,” I whispered, tears in my eyes, “no one will.”
The moonlight was gloomy. It was the opposite of daylight, the opposite of everything warm. There was no warmth here. We were ghostly creatures, walking in the deadness of the night, numb to all warmth, to all hope. We just sat here and lived, knowing our hearts were beating and that blood was flowing through our veins, but at times still wondering if this all was not just a recurring nightmare caused by a feverish death.
We lived in the moonlight. We watched the sun set every night through our chain link fence, because as all of the brilliant colors disappeared and the corn bobbed its head to the beat, it reminded us of how we had sucked all of the beauty out of our own lives by our selfish actions.
I was alone tonight. The guards had allowed us to play poker for the first time, and all of the guys were in there, chewing on the ends of their soggy cigarettes and dealing the cards through the haze.
But not me. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I stood behind the chain link fence, staring at the corn. It seemed silent and frozen; the tops of the leaves tinged a light blue. They seemed dead, covered with blue frost of moonlight, with a curse that rendered them stuck in that same place.
And oddly enough, they reminded me of myself. I was stuck here, with no chance of escape. I had seen her, the very picture of hope, but she had gone and left me here, alone.
Stuck. Frosted over, like the dying corn.
I lay flat and silent in my bed, the moonlight shining on my face. My eyes were closed, my red curls lying around my sleeping face.
I heard my mother flick off the hall light. I heard the floor creak as she walked to her room, and the door silently shut.
I lay still, barely breathing, and counted to one hundred. I knew that was how long it would take her to slide into bed.
I heard soft snoring coming from their room. I slowly sat up and put my bare feet on the cold floor. I pulled on a pair of dark pants, a black hoodie, and black gloves to keep my pale skin from glowing in the moon light. I tucked my bright hair into a black knitted cap. I quietly opened my drawer and took a sock. I pinched it with my fingers, until I felt the shape of something hard inside. I reached in and took out dark red lipstick. I put two thick lines under my eyes, making me look like a football player, then quietly put it back and closed the drawer.
“I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” I mumbled under my breath as I opened my window. A gust of cool wind blew in my face, and the curtains fluttered in the moon light, twisting and curving to some rhythmic dance only they could hear.
I jumped out the window, tumbling into the soft grass.
I jumped up and whirled around. Lily stood there, also garbed in pitch black. My eyes widened surprise as Brita stepped from behind the tree.
“Lily? Brita? What are you guys doing here?” I whispered. Lily shrugged.
“I still think this is a bad idea, but we are NOT letting you go alone. It’s far too dangerous.”
Brita opened her black messenger bag, revealing stacks of white tracts containing the gospel message.
We walked through the corn silently, our mouths bound with imaginary duct tape, just as the fence was covered with imaginary barbed wire from top to bottom. The corn was tall, dark, and silent. It did not cheerily bob its head to the beat of the sunset, for the sun was gone, and now the corn had lost its life and warmth.
We reached the clearing, the tree standing like a giant pillar above us. Lily and Brita seemed nervous, but I swallowed my fear and stepped back into the corn. We left the clearing, leaving our safety behind us, leaving the boundary, going where no one had ever dared to go before.
Well, except for me, of course.
Suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks. Brita and Lily bumped into me and stumbled.
“What?” Brita hissed, but I put my finger to my lips and pointed.
We were on the edge of the corn. Straight ahead, blocked by three mere stalks, was the fence. One solitary boy stood there, sitting cross legged on the ground, his elbows on his knees and head bowed sadly in his hands.
It was him. I knew it even before he lifted his head, even before his beautiful face flooded with pale moonlight.
“That’s weird,” Brita whispered. “Why is he the only one there?”
“It’s not coincidence.”
I looked back at Lily in surprise. For once the curtain of hair she used to hide herself was pulled back, and she looked at me head on.
“He’s the one who just looked at you, begging. He needs us. He needs this.”
She pulled out a tract and slipped it into my hand. Brita gently pushed me, and I stepped out of the corn and into plain sight.
He looked up in surprise at the sound of footsteps, and then froze. His eyes widened a little and he just stared in awe at me, like I was a ghost. I felt a screaming inside of me, a force between us, like an imaginary rope tugging on my waist, pulling me closer and closer to him. And at the same time I felt a fear pushing me away, like inches of barbed wire keeping us apart.
And suddenly I saw something in his eyes. A spark, a little gleam, like he was witnessing something amazing. And then, then suddenly I realized what that spark was.
I was done. No more fear. The rope yanked me forward, and I walked straight through the imaginary wire. He suddenly stood and put his hands on the fence, his fingers sticking through.
And suddenly he was mere inches from me, my hand in the hole right below his, one of his fingers touching me. We stared at each other, wide eyed, him wondering what I would do next, me hoping I would be able to. Then my hand left the fence. He watched as I reached into my pocket and grabbed something, bringing it back up in my fist.
I folded the paper in a cylinder, put it in the whole, and gently pushed it through with one finger. It fluttered, and with a jerk of his hand it was in his fist.
He stared at me, looking like he wanted to get closer, then slowly looked down and opened it. He seemed frozen as he read it, and suddenly I saw something. His eyes began to gleam and sparkle and something shiny ran down his cheek.
It was a tear.
There was heartbreak in his beautiful eyes, and his hands began to tremble. He looked at me in disbelief.
“Is this true?”
His voice sounded so young, like a small boy. It was hard to believe the voice was coming from him.
Slowly he dropped to his knees, staring at the tract the whole time. Then he did something that amazed me. He laced his hands together, bowed his head, and prayed.
I had won. I had stood in the face of all those people telling me no, telling me I could not do it, and with nothing but my faith, I had stepped ahead anyway. The fear was still there. I was not pressing on because of the absence of fear, I was pressing on in spite of fear, trusting in the belief that something was more important than fear.
I slowly stepped back, afraid to break this amazing enchantment, this glorious silence as he prayed. I did not need to ask what he prayed, for I knew already. And suddenly I realized I was running, running back through the corn, my feet pounding to the beat of his rejoicing heart, his heart pounding to the beat of the painted sunrise.