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Blurred faces loom in and out of my vision, their lips moving yet I hear not a word. Surgical masks cover their faces. Blue gowns are splattered with blood. I do not know where I am but I know who I am. I am a soldier, freedom fighter, terrorist, partisan, call me what you will. I regard my uniform, bloodied and torn. My body racked with pain. I have been given an injection; I feel myself falling gently down a black tunnel at the bottom of which I see two silver angels whose bodies are harnessed to a chariot of gold, their wings gently flapping, waiting for me to arrive so as to carry me in their chariot to another place. Then I hear the voice of my father, he is calling me back from this descent into sublime bliss. I fight my way back up to hear him. I am sixteen years old again with my father in the desert courtyard of our family home. We are sat under a palm tree. The cool of the early morning sun brings with her a gentle breeze that tenderly kisses my cheeks. He begins to talk to me, as a father would to a son; he gives me a lesson on life that shall remain in my heart till I die.
"My son," he says. "You have but two choices in this life. How long does a man live, three score and ten? To store up material treasures in this life is like building castles on foundations of sand. They will fade away as the tide of life takes its course. Do not become a slave to worldly things; they will not bring you happiness. Do not be shy of death for it happens to all, rather embrace it. Think of this life as a staging post for the next. Be good here to your fellow man and you will find peace, contentment and happiness in this life and gain entrance to your Fatherís Kingdom in the next."
As his voice fades away I look to the faces of the doctors. They regard each other shaking their heads. The news is not good, I know now where I am. Realisation has dawned. I am in a field hospital. I am drifting into that twilight hour between life and death, perhaps my final journey is about to begin, my last battle to be fought as I prepare to leave this world and enter the next. Yet between these two worlds another one appears.
I find myself walking through the battlefields I have known glancing at the hedges only to see the shadows of the souls I once knew flitting furtively from bush to bush in that netherworld light that is a property of the twilight hour. The stone brick walls that border the terrain of many a fallen man stand menacingly; they no longer appear inanimate yet seem possessed of a life force, their shapes changing into beings long since departed.
The first stars appear in the sky above me in this time where the spirits control the Universe and the time of man in charge is long forgotten. I am alone in this other world, yet not frightened by it. I feel it has taken me by the hand and is now the final arbiter of my destiny. My fate is inextricably linked to and determined by this nether world.
So along I tread through this other world, the collar of my camouflage jacket turned up, my army boots sinking into the soft green turf. I smell the strong scent of cordite in the air. Ahead of me, in the distance, flares are flying through the sky like shooting stars. I hear the rumble of heavy artillery and small clouds of smoke drift into the still air. The sky is illuminated by the weapons of war. I hear the piercing screams of those who have fallen. I feel the pain of those left behind, the mourning of the wives, brothers, fathers, sisters and all their loved ones.
I am a soldier, a soldier of many weary battles. Am I not used to Apocalyptic scenes? Yet this is somehow different, like no other battle scene I have ever come across. I feel as though this world that I now traverse is made of the fine mesh that divides life from death.
Twilight fades and night takes on her mantle, that deep black velvet, the sanctuary of all lifeís weary fighters where they can rest and the pursuers wait for day to break only to continue their relentless hunt.
In the near distance I see the glow of a campfire. As I approach, the shadows of the faces of four men are to be seen in the red and orange light as they huddle together around that eternal fire of comradeship and shared fervour. Those faces I know, I have seen before in battles long gone. As partisans they fought and died and yet they are still here guarding the flames of life.
I continue onwards to witness a scene of two brothers fighting to the death, like crusaders their swords dancing under the light of the moon, each wearing a different uniform, yet the blood they spill is the same.
An old woman covered in black garments sits wailing by the roadside. Her eyes are clouded by the signs of advanced glaucoma. The tears run down the grooves of her face, those grooves etched by times of sadness and loss of loved ones. She tells me she is alone, that there is no one left, her husband and sons killed in battle. She asks me who will feed her? Who will give her shelter? I have no answers. I continue my journey.
Ahead of me lies a forest, dark and foreboding. I enter this forest and behold a lake. On the edge of this lake sits a monk in saffron robes, his head shaven. He approaches me silently. He puts his hand inside my shirt and rests his finger on my heart. He withdraws from my heart a bloodied knife and throws it into the lake. I watch as the knife sinks, its covering of dried blood the colour of rust is cleansed by the crystal clear waters. He tells me that I cannot continue my journey until all the hate is removed from me. From there I walk into the depths of the forest where a blind man dressed in rags stumbles along the forest floor; he approaches me and gently places his fingers on my face moving them around the contours, with tears in his eyes he tells me he can see what I am feeling. A deaf woman is sitting under a tree. She is gazing upwards watching the flight of an owl out hunting to feed her young; she diverts her gaze and stares into my eyes and tells me she can hear what I am thinking. A white stag stands in front of me gives me one look. His eyes are moist with tears. Two silver drops fall onto the forest floor and create two great silver puddles in which I can see my reflection, yet the man I see I do not recognise. The stag walks away from me, takes one backward glance and then darts away into the forest.
I emerge from the forest and as the night rolls on so too do I. The far skies show a glimmer of red to herald the approaching dawn. A figure wearing a black coat and hood looms in front of me. I see only its profile. It is stationary, unaware of my path towards it. An eagle leaves its nest and flies across the rising sun. As it does so the figure turns to face me. It is a woman, a beautiful woman. She smiles, her golden curls appear from under her black hood. Her smile is one of comfort and understanding. I feel like a child being comforted by his mother after a particularly bad nightmare. She beckons me to follow her; I do so. By now dawn is upon us as she leads me through lush meadows bestrewn with buttercups. We arrive at the foot of a hill, where the grass is emerald green. On top of the hill lies the ruins of a great cathedral. We climb the hill and arrive at its summit. The cathedral is without walls, only the front and rear entrances remain. They are joined together and held in place by one long beam near what was once the roof. Along this beam are three sections each containing small altars on which sit religious icons with frankincense burning in front of them. Crowds of people fill the inside and outside, only a narrow aisle remains in the middle of this crowd. It leads to another, much larger altar, where earthenware pots full of frankincense are placed in front of yet more religious icons. At the altar are three men and two women facing me as I walk down the parting this aisle creates; still the lady in the cape leads me on. The people at the front are dressed in long white gowns, indeed the whole congregation is dressed in the same manner. These gowns are pure white, like shrouds yet without the piece that covers the neck and the head. Only I remain dressed differently from the others; the lady in the black cape has disappeared as I approach the altar. The faces of those who are now in front of me smile benignly. The edges of their robes are outlined with gold that gives off an ethereal shimmering. They hand me a wooden goblet, the kind fashioned by an artisan, I drink deeply and return this sacred chalice.
Those in front then lay their hands upon my head and as they do so the crowd gathers in around me. Then I am gently lifted into the air and carried as if on a coffin pall. I pass the altar outside to the far end of the hill which I now see to be a cliff. I am carried down a sandy pathway to the shore. We enter the sea to where the congregation are at waist height. At this point my body is lowered and my whole being is totally immersed for what seems like an age of time. I am then raised, cleansed by the sea, the faces around me all smiling, lovingly, reassuringly. My clothes are removed and the long white robe is slipped over my neck. I am now part of the congregation.
Along the shore we walk together towards a ship anchored nearby. Her snow white sails are at full billow. The gangway we climb together and soon we are aboard. When the ship is full the anchor is raised and the gangway is drawn back onboard. As the ship sails away we, the congregation, all look landwards to where we have come from. The cathedral and land soon recede as we start our final journey. I feel a heavenly serenity encompass me. I turn and look to the horizon on which I see the laughing and dancing eyes of my brother and sister, the silver grey of my motherís hair, the smiles of all my family who have made this journey before me. They are all standing in the courtyard of the home where I grew up and was so sublimely happy. Their arms outstretched, I am ready now to enter my Fatherís House. At last I am coming home.
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