by: Christy Hartmann
The emblazoned disk of the sun grows colder. It, like everything else here that has any semblance of life, seems to be hiding its glory. Sub-metropolitan air whispers across the land. Unkempt grasses stir, gathering in tufts everywhere my eyes can see. They come, these dried up hopeless things, creeping closer like starved souls yearning for some juicy bit of gossip to quicken their empty spirits once again.
This place, and everything in it, is dying.
I’m not sure how we got here, though it seems to matter less and less as we move through the land’s waning existence. We merely trot along, myself and this friend whom I love, and for just how long this has been going on, I can’t say. It could have been a few minutes; it could have been a thousand years. We are just passing through. We don’t really belong here. Though, as we march deeper into this world, it becomes harder to remember why we have been sent here and harder still to not lose our way.
There are people here, citizens who know nothing other than what this place offers, yet they are always yearning for more. Like those grasses, they clamber after anything that they can cling onto that isn’t like themselves. Some of these citizens are attempting to paint their world over in brighter colors, hoping that the work of their hands on earth can warm up the dying sun in the sky. They carry on aimlessly with blank eyes, refusing to stop for a moment lest they realize that their work is in vain. Others rush to and fro, bodies forward and eyes cast down, incessantly busy at keeping busy so not a moment of revelation can have an edge into their souls. Still others don’t realize that they seek anything at all, so they just keep on existing day by day, year after long year, deceived into thinking that as long as they are not inexorably suffering, everything everywhere is indefinitely ok.
We have to warn the people here to get out before it is too late. To be caught in what is coming would be the horror of horrors. To remain here, for them, (and yes, even for my friend and I should we lose our own way), would be worse than dangling perpetually on the precipice of agonizing death where death never comes, but dying lasts an eternity.
A building looms ahead. As we approach, it seems to rise above the decaying earth beyond the crumbling sidewalk. It’s gray and square and very, very dismal. I look over at my friend and for the first time, I notice the hint of red in his hair. Everything else is fading to shades of khaki-gray, but in my friend’s hair is the only warmth left in this place; those shimmering strands of faint red-gold fire that I can’t say I have ever noticed before. I’m sure they’ve always been there. Seeing them this way now, so distinguishably visible where only a few minutes ago they hadn’t been, makes me realize just how quickly this world, and the time that sustains it, is deteriorating.
My friend turns to look at me. There is urgency in his eyes. I have slowed without even realizing it, or maybe everything else has just been speeding up. I can’t tell which it is; me slowing down or time speeding up, not that it really matters at this point. Though the nature of the doom that is coming is not fully known, nor is the precise time of its arrival able to be pinpointed, the fact is that it is coming, and it is closer now than it was before.
We must go inside the dismal building. That lifeless, gray, shadowy structure which gives up no life nor sound nor activity whatsoever, that is where the people in deepest need are. It would be so easy to just move on past it, to disregard the dingy place as waste. I know that I want to keep on going, but the purpose of why I am here tugs me right toward that monolithic structure.
As if sensing my apprehension, my friend steers me in its direction. He nods his head toward the building and my faith falters. I have never been good at talking to people in general, even when the world was bright and happy and… somewhat ‘normal’.
“You can in and go talk to them,” I shrug and point toward the colorless sky, “I will watch the door and let you know if anything happens out here… you know, as a watchman…”
“That isn’t how it works.” My friend, so quick to counter. “We have to stick together. If we get separated, we could both be lost.”
And we will get separated.
I can feel it as sure as I can feel the chill coming off the cinderblock as we near the building, the darkness of its shadow now looming like that of an ominous storm cloud. I want to tell my friend this, but I can’t. There are so many things I have wanted to say, but I can never find the courage to say them. I fear that I will never be able to distinguish the difference between what I want to say and what I need to say, so I fall into the safe place of silence.
Once out of the pale glare of the sun, the building’s details become clearer. I can’t help but think that if we go inside, we will be walking right into a tomb. Yet if we don’t go inside and warn the people confined within its walls, it is certain that we will become just as they are now – dead and useless. Soon the thing that is in there with them will consume what is out here with us. If we walk away now knowing what we know, we will suffer the greatest when it does.
I realize now that though my friend may have the smaller faith, the faith he does have is stronger than all of mine in its entirety. Though he knows less than I do, he believes what he does know so much more deeply than I can believe all of what I have learned. He told me when we started this journey together that as long as we do as we have been instructed, we will not be left in this place to be destroyed when it all goes down.
“What if they can’t even see us when we get in there?” I wrestle with the incessant attack of skepticism. If ignorance is truly bliss, I want to unlearn everything I have ever learned right now. There is fear in knowledge, and I am tired of being afraid.
“They’ll see us, and they’ll hear us, and some will even notice that we are different. But be prepared, for most won’t listen to us.” He stops to look at me, putting his hand on my cheek. “But we have to go in there for the few that will.”
I know that beneath my friend’s hopeful words is a warning. If we don’t even try, if we abandon the mission we have been sent here to carry out, we will be the only ones holding ourselves here in this world that has become fit for destruction. We will have only ourselves to blame if we are still here when time runs out.
And oh, how time is quickly running out! I know it the moment daylight bleeds gray and the eerie presence of an unseen fire zings the air.
The door to the rear of the building hangs on rusty iron hinges. It’s heavy and cumbersome and covered in several coats of black paint. My friend pulls it open and wastes no time going in. I hesitate when stale air from inside wafts out and meets my nose. I watch as his back sinks deeper into the dismal shadows. Though it’s cold and dark on the other side of that door, the warmth of our fellowship gives me the courage I need to follow him through it.
A thin, gray light comes from a skylight at the top of a stairwell. Our feet make metal tinging sounds as we climb up it. There seems to be no sign of life until we reach the first hall. Once past the landing and through an inner door, it is evident that people are indeed living here. The sounds of their comings and goings can heard throughout the space and though we see nobody, it’s clear that they are only just around the corner.
My friend moves into another hall. I am right behind him, and because my eyes are still adjusting, I can’t see anything other than the plaid of his short sleeved shirt just a handbreadth away. It is not until I step around him that my eyes can fully take in the sight. It’s like a city in here, and if we hadn’t walked all this way, found this building and passed through the black door, I wouldn’t be able to tell that we’re are indoors at all. The ceiling rises up to vanish into slate gray shadows. The walls mimic a shopping mall, just a lot fuzzier and less lit. The floor dips and turns in spots, as if the tiles have their own geography. The most noticeable thing, strangely enough, is not what I am seeing, but what I am feeling. I find out all too quickly that it’s dangerously easy to get lost in the complacency.
The people here move to and fro, oblivious to the dire situation unfolding in what I once thought to be ‘outside’. A woman walks by me with her hands entwined in her mop of thinning, chestnut hair. There are young people and old people and kids and babies, dogs and pets and garbage all about. Most of the people act as if we belong here, paying us no attention whatsoever. A group of girls pushes by, laughing and giddy. When I turn to see them go, I wonder why I have to do this ‘mission’ thing at all. No one is going to listen anyway; no one is going to care. What we’re supposed to tell the people – well, it all just sounds silly. How can there by anything dire going on? Everyone is just living life so casually. Maybe if I just stay in here, I can forget the obvious decay outside and forget what is coming, if anything is even coming at all…
My friend is gone.
Panicking, I can’t help but think that maybe he decided to leave this place without me. He waited for the perfect opportunity, that one little moment in which I was caught off guard, and off into the labyrinth he went. Or, he wasn’t paying attention and in the jostling of the crowd, we became separated. I am not sure whether to be angry or afraid, so I move on in spite of my ill feelings in hopes that I will be able to forget them.
The people are everywhere now. I am not alone, yet I feel more alone than I have ever felt before. A woman laughs into her cell phone. Another sits in the hall and cries. A man methodically sweeps his threshold and a child chases a cat. I move past them all, unnoticed. Once at the end of a long corridor, I know that if I do not knock on at least one door and tell at least one person what I have come here to tell, I will be trapped here forever, never to see my friend or the light of hope again.
In all honesty, I don’t like people. For the most part, people just simply annoy me. Yet here I am, embarked on this profound mission in which the focus is on loving people. I love my friend, at least I think I do, though now in the light of his recent abandonment of me, the realization of what love is has become as gray as the death laden world outside these walls.
I walk up to the last door at the end of a hall. As I make my way toward it, I pass a few lingering people. The hall has narrowed and the noise has dropped off considerably. The people make eye contact with me, fleeting though it is. This is the first real contact I have made with any of the people here since entering this place.
The brick wall at the dead end of this hall is eerie. Maybe the people can sense it, too. Beyond it is the ‘outside’, and though they don’t realize it yet, the ominous ‘outside’ has taken a grave turn for the worse. The light of the sun is gone and the fire that zinged the air earlier is much closer. I don’t want to be here when it arrives, and neither does the person behind those dark eyes looking straight into mine.
She looks Jewish. The bluish light of a dim fluorescent casts a sickly glow across her features. From behind her hair, her eyes keep watching me in a way that softens my heart. If I just leave her here, then I deserve the wrath of what is coming. She can’t help it she doesn’t know, and if I don’t tell her, someone else will. It could be my friend, it could be the usurper, or it could be the last words of one who screams in the fire. She looks at me intently, ripe and ready for picking.
“Will you come with me?” She does not respond at first. “Please,” I try again, not sure what else to say, “please, come with me.”
The woman nods, she will come. Her blind trust in me is enough.
“I am just a vessel,” I rub her thin arm. “a mere servant, but I can take you to the king.”
She hadn’t heard that there is a king. I tell her about him, and she believes. She wants to see the king, too. “Have you seen him?” Her voice trembles.
“I have not seen his face.”
“But you stood in his presence?”
I wish I had time now to tell you what being in the king’s presence is like. Since time is running out, I will just say that if I had to spend an eternity bowing before him, it would be enough for me to call that heaven. There can be nothing more wonderful than the king’s favor, and there can be nothing more terrible than his wrath.
With a renewed spirit, I reach up to knock on that last door.
The door opens. A man stands there in the golden, false luminescence. He looks at me expectantly, running his fingers through the greasy sections of his pitch black hair, acknowledging me with eyes even blacker.
“Please, come with me.” My upraised hand casts a dull shadow through the cone of sallow light. I can feel this world pulling me in to its darkness. How easy it would be to just stay here and forget all this work I am supposed to be doing. I could relax in the apathy, forgetting the promise of something better than this.
“You,” he beckons gruffly, “come inside with me.” His breath smells like red sauce and cigarettes. He is a solitary man, maybe mid to late fifties if I had to guess. I can hear the television coming from inside the apartment behind him. The weatherman drones on as if nothing is amiss. Partly cloudy, maybe there will be some rain later on in the evening. Of course, the sun is gone outside because it is has set. My, how times flies. That unseen fire, well it may just as well have been a thunderstorm brewing.
I am suddenly feeling silly. I have never been good at this door to door stuff. What was I supposed to tell him again? More than anything I want to lie down and go to sleep, but I can’t possibly go inside this stranger’s apartment. In his eyes I see an innocent pleading, he is harmless. A chef by trade, but a lonely man down on his luck when home. He has a daughter but he doesn’t know where she is. The hours at the restaurant were long and his woman resented his passion for the big city culinary career. He said he never had a choice, but really – he did. He had made it, glad to be rid of the nag but missing the little one like crazy.
The man flicks his lighter. The flame flashes for a moment, suspending itself in time like oil thrust into water. The eyes of the Jewish woman blink at me, then begin to cloud over with confusion, reminding me with alarming clarity why I have come here.
I tell the man in the door that if he stays here, he will be destroyed. I want so badly to tell him what is happening outside, though I know he can’t see it or possibly imagine it. I tell him anyway. I tell him about the choice he has to make if he wants to escape the terrible thing that is coming. I tell him about the hope of something better, something he will have to believe in if he ever wants to see it for himself.
The man looks at his dirty t-shirt. My heart suddenly goes out to him. Frail creature, does anyone here care about him at all? “Just come as you are,” I nearly beg him, “while there is still time.” I don’t know why I care about him. He stares at me blankly, then turns and shuts the door. Standing face to face with a slab of rotting steel and its many coats of somber gray paint, the guilt of my own judgment silently condemns me. No one will come; I tell myself in frustration. This is clearly a waste of time. Turning, I flee down the hall, wrestling with my anger and sadness and confusion.
I have failed.
I cant say how many flights of stairs I covered nor how many corners I slipped around. Everything is a fog now and reality melds into oblivion. The threat of my own destruction supersedes the threat of this world’s, and as I spiral downward into its heart wrenching depths, something familiar catches my eye.
Thinning hair spun with red-gold fire.
I feel a hand on my arm. It is cool and light and gentle, yet urgent. The voice of the Jewish woman whispers into my ear that I must keep moving forward because if I don’t, I will lose my way. Time is short. Upstairs, somewhere far away outside the door of a drunken chef’s apartment, I had helped her see the truth. Something about a king. A king who is coming with both favor and wrath. “The fire is coming..” she beckons. I look into her dark eyes and find my focus. In that hopeless blur between the chef’s door and here, she had followed me so I wouldn’t become lost.
“How did you know? I never told you about the fire.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“But, how did you know? I haven’t even seen it for myself.”
“You haven’t seen the king, yet you are here because of him.” She looks at me intently. “You wouldn’t have come here if you didn’t believe in the king or his power. This place, this world, is wretched and miserable, so much so that everyone here has gouged out their eyes so they can’t see the decay. Yet here you are, full of light and hope in this treacherous place. Faith like that, how can I dispute it? This king you speak of, I want to meet him and become his. I’d rather die beneath his feet in slavery to than to live another day lost in this wretched world!”
The woman’s words remind me of that day I stood in the presence of the king.
There is a storm coming. I can hear the people talking of it. I want to ask someone about the weather, but I never do. I just look up and watch the sky, that swirling umber sky. As I stand and watch, everyone flees, one by one, to where they go I cannot say. They just vanish into the whirlwind. I want to run too, but I know that running into nothingness will be worse than staying and weathering the storm. When it is over, will those people ever be able to come back?
I hear the storm behind me, rising up on the horizon. I can feel its presence, I can sense its power. It is great; greater than anything I have ever known before nor will ever know again. The churning sky with all its suspense is nothing in comparison to the wonder of the storm.
I turn around. The turbulence surrounding the great thundercloud tears the sky. Its lightning lashes existence and its thunder shakes the whole universe. Fire burns through it’s clouds and smoke billows high from them, so high the heavens are blotted out by its fury.
I think of the great king. I have known his love. I have experienced his tender mercies. I have seen his beauty in the unearthly luminescence displayed by rainbows gracing the blackest of night skies. I have witnessed his pallet of colors, those empyreal, radiant colors! He came to me when I was trapped in a house fire. I could feel the scalding heat, like hot oil and electrocution searing through my being. Sparks suffocated my every breath. Smoke and heat separated me from the firemen outside, I could see them but they could not touch the heat that engulfed me. Though I burned alive beyond all hope of worldly salvation, the king still came for me. He came in light so bright it rendered the murderous flames into shadowy darkness. He picked me up out of the fire and put salve on my burns, cradling me in his healing arms. Oh, though I could not see him, I could feel his tender, wonderful love.
The storm rages before me, hiding the king from me again, though I know that he is in there. Up until now he has shown me love and peace. Today he reveals to me his profound power.
How can I explain the king’s power? It is fearful and yet I stand in its presence, it is awesome and yet I do not die. His cleansing love will cover me as I walk through the purifying fire.
I fall to my face to worship the king. It is what I want to do with every fiber of my being, but instead he sends me away. My work for him is not yet done. I regret the moment I ever have to leave him. I want to fall into his majestic fire and be consumed by it, so desperately do I want to cleave to the king! Oh, the oenomel favor of the king, who could ever reject such pure joy! A moment separated from him is unbearable. An eternity separated from him will be hell.
“The fire is coming.”
“What?” I look at the Jewish woman. She tells me again that the fire is coming. She points ahead and through the chaos of deadly nonchalance, I see my beautiful friend.
He’s ushering people out of their sedation when I rush upon him. Grabbing his arm, I try to tell him about the man I had found earlier. The rising commotion threatens to sweep him away again. I grab his hand and he stops to look at me. I can’t explain it, how I see the terrible fire before it is ever upon us. It flashes in the eyes of this amazing man, this friend of mine whom I love so dearly. Beneath the fire I can see the familiar tenderness returning, for a moment, a very brief moment in this time that is almost out.
We are running. Through halls and passages we run, down the lengths of the hazy shopping mall with its fuzzy walls and hilly floors. I can smell the smoke as we sidestep over the people, urging them to get up and come with us before the destruction comes. No one seems to pay us heed. I want to scream at the people to look around them. Why can’t they see? As we run down the long, seemingly endless mall, patches of fire fall in from above us. They burn in the halls and along the walls in in the storefronts. Right amidst the people the fires are burning, yet the people sit and chat and shop and carry on with their coffee as if nothing is amiss! The smoke is getting thicker, the fires growing bigger, and though my friend and I have gathered a small group of followers who have heeded our warnings, so many others still remain oblivious to the impending doom.
I think of what the Jewish woman told me just before we came upon my friend. She said that the people here had gouged their eyes out so as not to see the decay all around them. The decay is within them now, feeding on what remains of their lives. Like a drug it anesthetizes them while ripening them in preparation for the coming rot.
The smoke is so thick now that I almost don’t notice the sky through the caved-in scaffolding of the mall. It is now a swirling mix of black clouds billowing with umber fire. I do not have time to think of where the sun may have gone to, or how or why things have changed so quickly. Trying to figure it out will only paralyze me with fear.
Something catches my eye. Something unique is in the sky over the decay, I can see it through the crumbling cement and billowing smoke. I don’t know what it is, for it is only revealed in the moments by the twinkling it gives off. Something is up there nonetheless, of this I have absolutely no doubt.
When I turn my attention back to ground level, I see chaos everywhere. I want to look back upward, I want to catch a glimpse of that brilliant golden flash of light again. Just a glimmer of it brings calm, its presence; peace. The memory it leaves behind gives me an inexplicable, renewed strength.
As for the small group of people still following my friend and I, their eyes are confused and afraid yet intrinsically hopeful. From where they each came from or at what time they joined us I can not tell, but none of that matters any longer. What matters is that they are here. These are the ones who have listened. When all we have to go on is faith in a world where the disproven theory carries more weight than fulfilled prophecies pointing toward infallible truths, the sight of them coming against all odds brings me to tears.
Burning debris rains down upon everyone and everything now, giving off an acrid smoke that reeks like the acid of an empty stomach cramped with hunger. The terrible thing that is coming is nearly upon us. We can’t see it, but its presence is everywhere. It hovers beyond the veil of time from its place in eternity, ready to pounce and devour this place and all that remain in it. The time is so ripe now, and I fear that we will not get out of here before it, too, rots away into oblivion, dragging us down with it.
At long last, we burst out into the open air. The structure that was once a dismal, silent monolith is now disintegrating into the earth. As it sinks it spews out sparks and flame, giving one last, ground breaking roar. The sky begins to fall around us; a sinister reminder that what happened to the building we came from will soon happen to the whole world.
I fall to the ground. I can’t go on. I know my friend will be ok, I know the others will survive, but of myself, I can’t be sure. Though there are people all around me, I feel utterly alone. The confusion washes over me, infiltrating my mind. Accusations of failure clutch me, fingering their way like the tendrils of cancer through my beating heart, breeding the disease of hopelessness throughout all that I am. Yet, somehow I find the whisper of life still left in this place, and grasping onto it, I look up. What I see I could never have expected nor could I ever have imagined.
The sky is fully orange, though somehow it is completely blue. The clouds are raging yet I can see an eternal calm reaching far beyond them. Has time marched on without me? Reality becomes transparent and existence a perspective. The sky is endless now, and I see the expanse of its depth though that one and only color of coppery orange and deepest blue.
Silence falls over me. The people, the world, it is all gone. All that remains is a great, grassy slope and that ethereal sky. I get up and look ahead, then begin to run. Up and up the grassy slope I run. Faster and farther I go, my strength growing so greatly that to run is to nearly fly. In this moment of beautiful bliss, I look up, and see with great clarity the thing that I could only see glimpses of before.
An eagle with a wingspan the size of a continent soars directly overhead. It’s presence engulfs the sky. Though made entirely of purest gold, it breathes and flies with perfect health and life. Reflecting off its halcyon feathers is a brilliant light from an unseen source. It is because of the eagle that I am able to pick myself up off the ground and run. It is because of the eagle that my strength is renewed. Because of the eagle I can see, for without it’s presence, everything everywhere would be plunged into blackest darkness. It is the eagle that brings the light though it is not the source of the light. It is the precursor to the light, the promise of the light, and the assurance of all things good.
I am back in the game. The chaos returns all around me; the people and the umber sky and the frenzy rush back in to fill my senses. My friend sees me and beckons, I catch up to him, no longer exhausted. Our group has diminished, many who had followed us before have dropped out of the race. I don’t have time now to mourn what will become of them; the end of time rears its great and dreadful head just over the horizon. It is so close now, so very close.
We gather high above the world on a portico of glistening chrysolite. The barren land from where we came from sprawls far below, clearly abandoned and yet teaming with life, a foreboding combination indicating that something conscious here has been left behind in what will soon become the impenetrable, inescapable, and utterly hopeless dimension of death otherwise known as hell.
I look around me at the people who had heeded the warnings and had not fallen prey to the complacency. Those with the scared but hopeful eyes look down at the world below where there stands so many more; the hundreds of thousands of millions of people who had not listened to truth. Those who had fled the king in the storm are down there. The ones who chose not to choose are down there. Those who busied themselves in hopes of claiming excuses are down there along with the ones who longed to paint the death out of the world. Those who intellectualized their suffering are down there standing right alongside the ones who figured that a lack of suffering meant that all was ok for all time. Gathered they are all together; some confused, some amused, others laughing as if nothing is amiss at all. Complacent many still are, and they will be complacent right up until the end.
And the end comes now with a blast, its fiery pillar of white and red and yellow heat rising through the sky, piercing a hole in the black and umber clouds. It sweeps across the whole world, an all consuming wall of judgement spreading and sprawling and racing toward all those millions of people who had rejected the only way out of this dying world.
They realize their fate the instant their clothes are stripped away in one great blast of condemnation. All the people, every last one, are suddenly reduced to likeness in that one, single moment. No more can vanity or pride or wealth or status or title save them now. All the same they have become, all the same they have always been; only now they see the truth of it for the first time. Stunned, shocked, and utterly forsaken, they can not escape that all consuming fire, though they definitely tried.
Clutching my friend’s arm, I watch the horrible sight unfold. From the pits of blackest darkness, webs of death rise up to snag the suffering one by one, entwined in a fire that will eventually lose its light but never will it cool down nor ever will it go out.
Grief like this is much too unbearable for even so much as a fleeting moment. All those people, all that loss, how can I possibly go on existing knowing what I know now? As the world below drops off into the bottomless abyss of fire, as the smoke from that fire rises up to blacken the skies, I begin to feel relief as one by one, the things of that world begin to fall away from me. The sadness, the guilt, the accusations. The sorrow, the pain, the heartache and grief. One by one the memories of those that perished are wiped away, to be remembered no more, cast along with that dead world into outer darkness, never to be seen again.
When I look up I see a different sky, one of stars clear and bright and in multitudes like I have never seen before. A new light begins to glow. This light is different; soft and peaceful yet more brilliant than the sun, full of wonderful colors yet perfectly clear. The stars, dazzling like diamonds scattered across an opal sea, sparkle in perfect unity with the swelling light. Overwhelming excitement fills me as I hear the song of many voices. The magnificent and utterly beautiful voices surround us from the very fabric of timelessness. It is an angelic sound meant to be heard with the spirit, growing louder and more wonderful as it approaches us where we stand on this portico of purest chrysolite.
“He’s coming!” Someone cries with a voice straight from the depths of their being. “The time has come!”
Nothing can ever compare with this awesome moment.
I turn toward my friend. He is here with me in this place with its light and its joy and its perfect peace. I couldn’t have felt better, yet I somehow do, again and again and yet again. Time heals all wounds and time dulls all joy. But here, in this place, time and wounds have ceased to exist. Here, in this place, eternity begins.
We are finally going to meet our king.
© 2017 Christy Hartmann