A white mist covered the top of the waters as the skiff sailed forward. Even without the fog, their visibility would have been limited by the thick leaves crowding the narrow waterway. Woodruff leaned over the bow and peered through the haze.
“You ever wonder what they do with the sleeves from sleeveless shirts?” Bob asked, leaning comfortable on the boat’s dormant motor.
“The shirt sleeves, what do they do with them?”
“On a sleeveless shirt?”
“I don’t think they were ever there.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Because shirts have sleeves.”
“Not sleeveless ones.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What’s the difference between pants and shirts?”
“You where pants to cover your legs and shirts to cover…”
“Your arms, right?”
“And your torso.”
“But your pants could cover your arms and torso.”
“No, there’s no hole for your head, no collar, and the legs aren’t cut to fit your arms.”
“But your shirt could cover your legs?”
“I guess, as long as it had sleeves.”
“Exactly, so a shirt has to have sleeves.”
“I’m not following you, Bob.”
“All’s I’m saying is that if it didn’t have sleeves, ever, it shouldn’t be called a shirt,” Bob replied. “It should be called a torso covering with arm holes.”
“I’m not going to argue with you,” Woodruff said.
“Because I’m right.”
“Because you’re crazy.”
“You’ve never wondered what happens to the sleeves from a sleeveless shirt?”
Bob slumped his shoulders and pouted. Woodruff shook his head and turned back to the bow. The gentle sloshing of the water and the distant chirping of insects was the only thing cutting through the silence, which loomed as thick and heavy as the fog.
“We should open a sleeve shelter,” Bob finally said. “Where we find loving homes for unwanted sleeves.”
Woodruff turned around and opened his mouth to speak, but words failed him.
“We could call it Forsaken Sleeve,” Bob continued.
Woodruff just stared blankly at his friend.
“Our slogan could be Tanks for your chari-Tee.”
Before Woodruff could respond, the skiff crashed into something and flung Woodruff overboard. The off balanced vessel also tossed Bob into the murky water.
Bob quickly rescued his brown fedora from the drink and swam to Woodruff. He held his head up out of the water and paddled back to the boat, with Woodruff in tow. They both grabbed hold of the side of their watercraft and looked to see what had struck it. Rising out of the mist was an ancient stone wall with green moss growing through the cracks.
“We’re here,” Woodruff said.
With Woodruff pulling from the bow and Bob pushing from the stern, they followed the stone wall to a grassy bank and climbed ashore. Woodruff squeegeed his wet pants while Bob shook water to all sides like a dog. The mist dissipated as they climbed the stone steps that led up the hill, next to the towering wall.
“How do you know it’s here?” Bob asked, as he flopped a sopping wet fedora on his head.
“In the tenth century the Queen of Sheba traveled to Jerusalem to seek the wisdom of King Solomon,” Woodruff began. “Her son Menelik is said to be the fruit of that meeting. The legend says when Menelik left Jerusalem, to return to the country of his mother, he and his party took the ark with them. It is said to have rested here ever since, guarded by celibate monks who vow to protect the ark for as long as they live.”
“Wow,” Bob said. “Where did you learn about all that?”
They were met with a rod iron gate at the top of the hill, where the mist parted and the sun shone down on the structure like a heavenly spotlight. Beyond the gate was a beautiful garden, surrounding a circular structure made of wood and stone. A lone figure in a dark robe approached them.
“I am Father Haile Silas,” the man in the dark robe said. “How may I help you?”
“Hi, I’m Woodruff and this is Bob.”
“We’ve come to see the ark.”
Woodruff shot a reproving look at his over anxious friend. Bob raised his arms and, with his mouth opened slightly, shook his head back at Woodruff. The monk stood silently and did not address Bob’s declaration.
“Yeah, um, we…” Woodruff struggled to recover in the face of the hooded gatekeeper.
“You know, the one that was on Indiana Jones,” Bob continued.
Woodruff again turned back to Bob with an earnest non-verbal petition for his silence.
“Do you get movies out here?” Bob asked the monk. “You know, Doctor Jones. Adventure archeologist. The whip, the fedora. Nazis. Nothing?”
The monk gently removed his hood and peered at the two visitors.
“I am the guardian of the ark you speak of,” Father Silas said. “Only those who have been anointed and taken an everlasting oath to protect it are permitted to see the ark.”
“Cool, I’m down.”
“Bob, he’s serious.”
“So am I. This isn’t our first everlasting oath. We signed that non-disclosure with Crayola and they don’t mess around when it comes to protecting their color palette.”
“The anointed have been brought up and prepared for the express purpose of bearing this glorious burden, passed down for thousands of years.”
“So that’s a no?”
The monk simply stared back at Bob with a resolute expression on his face.
“Bob, we should go. Sorry to have disturbed you.”
“You’re giving up, just like that?”
“You heard him, we are not permitted to see it.”
Woodruff turned back to the monk and bowed.
“Again, we are sorry to have disturbed you.”
“Yes, totally. Sorry to disturb, but could we use your bathroom before we go,” Bob said. “That wat I had for breakfast is not agreeing with me. Ya know, curry does a number the old bowels.”
The monk raised an eyebrow and examined Bob carefully. Woodruff grinned uncomfortably as the trio stood in silence.
“You know, the little explorer’s room?” Bob explained. “The restroom. The outhouse. The water closet. The powder room. The John. The toilet? The loo?”
After another long pause Father Silas produced an old skeleton key from beneath his robe and unlocked the gate. He pulled it open and gestured for Woodruff and Bob to enter. Once inside, the old monk closed and locked the gate and led the way down a small footpath, away from the circular stone church.
“What are you up to?” Woodruff whispered.
“I’ve got a plan,” Bob spoke through grit teeth as he smiled at the monk, who momentarily turned to observe them. “I’ll distract him and you run over to the church and get a look at the ark.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“Fine,” Bob whispered. “You distract him and I’ll go.”
The monk stopped in front of a small wooden structure and gestured into the dark opening. Bob bowed as he passed by Woodruff and entered the outhouse. Inside, he discovered a long rectangular window at the back of the facilities. Bob tossed his fedora through the window and quickly squeezed himself through the opening and let himself down the back side of the outhouse. There he found the old monk waiting for him, with Woodruff standing off in the distance with his arms folded.
“Oh, uh, yeah, funny story,” Bob stammered, as he scooped up his fedora. “I was, uh, just…”
“We have guarded the ark for over three thousand years,” Father Silas said. “You think you’re the first one to try the old bathroom ploy?”
“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” Bob grinned sheepishly and fidgeted with his hat.
Father Silas escorted Woodruff and Bob back to the iron gate and out of the sanctuary.
“Again, so sorry for all this,” Woodruff said.
“Do you have like a gift shop where we can buy a survivor or something,” Bob said. “You know, just to prove we’ve been here.”
The solemn monk turned, without a word, and began to walk back toward the old church.
“It could be anything really,” Bob said loudly. “A brochure, a commemorative coin. The latch of your saddle, the sleeve of your shirt.”
Father Silas turned back and smiled.
“Under these robes we do not wear shirts,” the old monk replied. “We wear a torso coverings with arm holes.”
“See?” Bob said. “These monks get it.”