This story is a piece of short fiction based on Luke 22:54-62 and John 21:15-25. Written August 2016.
For Seymour, who challenged me to dream.
I was older back then.
Or perhaps I shouldn’t refer to it in terms of age. Or even time, I don’t know. I don’t know much for certain anymore. But I know that I used to know, in times far gone. I used to feel. I used to grow. I used to see. That was all before the darkness, in the days and years before the sun went down.
I’ve changed since then. My years of experience have waned with my strength, and my once disciplined body seems like that of a child, vulnerable and small. The things I spent my past life working to learn are as absent from my mind as if they had never been there. I can’t help but feel that in this undying darkness, the very years were sapped away as I lay unaware.
So yes, I was older back then.
Through the thick dust of my memory comes an image of those lost times. The memory of who I once was and what I once did is like a splash of water to my parched mind. But far from refreshing my spirit, the water comes as a savage and bitter flood, bent on naught but destruction. For the single snatch of memory I am granted is the one I wish I could forget.
It is the day the sun set.
How long have I been in the darkness? Is it years? Decades? Merely days? Perhaps centuries. Time moves so strangely here. Is this how time moves in the nether worlds, the deep straits where eyeless fishes grope beyond the borders of light? Not so different from each other, those fish and I. I used to pity them, sad creatures who live out futile lives in darkness. Now, I imagine it is they who must pity me, if they knew me. They know no loss; they were born to darkness, live in darkness, and die in darkness. They are natives of the empty places. But I am a stranger here, an outcast in an alien world. I was made for the sun.
The sun. It almost pains me to remember its light. But here it is again, flooding my imagination—for though my eyes are denied it, my mind still keeps a store of precious sunlight locked up and stashed away like an heirloom, which I open up and gaze upon with fond melancholy anytime the darkness becomes unbearable.
Unfailingly when I let the light loose in my memory, he strides in with it, his presence indistinguishable from the light itself. It’s him I wish to forget, to banish forever from my memory. I loved him. And I cannot, even in the heart of this darkness, forget what I did to him, my general, my comrade, my friend.
As soon as his broad form takes shape in my mind, now awash with sunlight, he strides toward me, and in the flood of light there is nowhere to hide. I try to avoid looking at him, but it is impossible to resist his radiance. He places his hand on my shoulder, and wordlessly bids me come. Come with him, walk with him, back to that last day of light we had together. Back to the day the sun set. How can I refuse? One look at his face, stern and kind and noble and sad all at once, and I know I must go.
I get up, stretch my weakened legs and follow, childlike, where his hand directs. Together we walk side by side towards the light, and it is like walking directly into the sun. It grows ever brighter, piercing, painful. It surrounds me, I see nothing but its overwhelming presence, and, were it not for the sturdy and unwavering hand on my shoulder, I would be in danger of becoming lost in it, overwhelmed by it, and, I can only guess, succumb to madness from sheer overexposure to glory. But my guide seems unfazed. I cannot escape my recurring suspicion that he is somehow the light’s source.
We emerge on the other side of the sun. My feet find the stone of the ancient fortress. The general is beside me still, but his hand has left my shoulder. He looks around the tight room, the highest in the tower. We fought for this place floor by floor, barricading each level only to retreat ever higher, with the enemy in pursuit. We have been pushed to its very top; there is nowhere else to go. I see the faces of my comrades, battle-weary and blood-streaked. A mere dozen of us in all. We are the strongest, the best, the men and women who have not deserted or surrendered—all that’s left of the general’s army.
The first time I took the bright journey from darkness to light, I was convinced that it was real, that I had actually traveled back and was somehow given the chance to relive that last day. My heart soared at the thought. Perhaps this was real, and the darkness but a dream. But in the hundreds, perhaps thousands of times this vision has haunted me, I have learned to keep my hopes from rising in vain. It is mere illusion; granite, unchangeable memory. Just another repetition of the cold dream that mocks me relentlessly. I can do nothing but surrender, and relive it all again.
The day of our destruction is the most beautiful of the year, as if nature herself had taken up arms with the enemy and turned out in full Autumn splendor to celebrate our fall. Was that crashing the sound of the enemy marching or were the very mountains shouting at us? Was the blanket of red around the tower the blood of our fallen, or had the crimson leaves of the forest thrown themselves at us in their fury?
Here at the top of the tower, we know our doom is at hand. It is only a matter of time till the final defense is breached and we all fall in a gloriously hopeless last stand. Our general, our friend, looks at each of us in turn, his golden eyes like the embers of a dying fire. His gaze lingers a little longer on my face, as if he knows what’s coming. I don’t mean the destruction of our forces and the defeat of our cause. No, we’ve all known that was coming for some time. It’s like he suspects a deeper blow than even death, and its coming is prophesied unmistakably on my face.
How could his worst betrayal come from me? It made no sense. I had sworn my life to the general. I had spent years at his side, his most devoted, most trusted soldier and friend. Was it only hours ago, as we saw the enemy readying for the attack, that I had clasped his hands in my own and vowed to him I would never leave him, that I would die fighting by his side? Yet here I am, seized by the madness of my own fear, and I know only one thing for certain: I am going to abandon him. I look into my general’s serene face, and he looks back at me, with something of understanding and something of pity in his golden-brown eyes.
The crashing of the enemy against our final flimsy barricade strikes a cold spike of terror through my lungs. My resolve snaps like a dry twig. I drop my sword, darting through the window to the roof and life and freedom. I hear the barricade burst and the enemy pour through like ants erupting from underground. The battle is raging and the shouts of my companions ring out behind me but nothing can stay my mad flight now. With a deftness I had not thought possible, I scramble down the fortress’s ruined walls to the ground, where I may have a chance to run for my life.
The sensation is of nauseating relief, like a drowning man’s first gasp of air. All of the general’s soldiers may die this day, but I am no soldier, not anymore. I am free. Free. Free.
Saving myself is easily done; no worthy enemy cares about the life of one escaped coward.
As I reach the safety of the vermillion wood, gasping for each stolen breath, something stays my flight and I cast a parting glance at the fortress. The battle is over. I can see my general, bound and on his knees, at the top of the tower. His head is bowed. But as the devilish gleam of an enemy sword swings toward his neck, I see him lift his head. I know he is looking my way, and I run. But I cannot run from the knowledge that my traitorous, retreating back is the last thing he sees in this life as I flee into the woods.
The sun slips downward, behind the mountains.
It doesn’t rise again, for I awake from the dream in the familiar darkness, my face wet and my breath coming in sobs. Regret, overwhelming, cold, dark, heavy regret. It’s at times like these that the darkness is a sanctuary. If I could only get it to swallow me entirely, to extinguish the last bit of my soul that longs for the light, the part of me that keeps the light and the general alive in my restless mind, then perhaps I can be at peace.
I feel the heavy hand on my shoulder again and recoil. No, please. I can’t go back, can’t relive it again, not so soon. I squeeze my eyes shut, knowing that won’t help.
The hand does not relent. It shakes me. Confused, I open my eyes, dull from lack of use. I am startled by the fact that there is no brilliant glow, but a soft golden light appears, flickering in a wild dance, invading the walls of my tiny universe. I see–really see– for the first time that they’re stone.
A man stands beside me, tall and strong and in the clothes of a warrior. It is a figure that strikes a sickening shudder of familiarity through my core. A deadly pallor seeps the blood from my cheeks at the sight of him.
Pain and relief at once. It is not my general’s golden eyes that meet mine. These eyes are pale grey, like morning fog. It’s his son. A mere boy when I knew him last, but now he’s the living image of my general. Again I feel that I am a child; my years have melted away, and perhaps, have been given to this boy—this man—who stands before me, a mighty warrior with the commanding strength of his father.
“Come,” he says. Dare I refuse?
I stand. My legs waver and I find myself leaning on his arm. The light from his flame splits my darkness apart. I realize that this darkness I had so long thought to be universal, all-consuming, is merely the artificial night of a prison cell. Is it really so fragile a thing as walls and doors that have kept me so long? I had believed them to be an impenetrable abyss.
He steps through the door, leaving me in the cell. He stands in the passage, in a pool of golden candlelight, and his eyes bid me follow.
“Why?” I croak, my voice sounding foreign. “Why did you come?”
“Because he chose you,” says my general’s son. “He chose us all. You have work to do. We must fight again.”
I want to scream at him that I can’t. Never! Don’t you know what I did? How I deserted him?
I say nothing aloud, but he knows. I know he knows.
“You will have to start anew,” he says gently. I recognize on his face the firm, loving look his father always wore. “You have much to relearn. If you follow me, I will help you.”
Hot tears fill my eyes. I bite my lip, and for a moment I feel the safety and comfort of that familiar darkness reach around me like an embrace, drawing me gently back into itself. I shrink, tempted to step back, bid him close the door, leave me to my well-deserved misery.
It’s better this way, my poisoned mind hisses at me. You’ll never make it out there, in the light. You are unworthy.
He extends his hand to me. A simple enough movement, but it speaks volumes. I don’t have to do this on my own. I can take his hand. I see it is scarred with the marks of many battles.
It is enough. With every drop of strength I have left in my bones, I hurl myself toward him, leaving the darkness, grasping at his palm like a drowning man. As soon as I cross the threshold, I collapse like an infant taking faltering steps, my body limp from disuse. He does not turn away in disgust at my weakness. He catches me, lifting me to my feet. His smile is radiant, as if my fragile obedience were the bravest act of my life. Perhaps it is.
“Well done,” he says.
He moves down the prison passageway, and I find, amazingly, that I have the strength to follow.
“Is the sun up?” I ask eagerly, my legs feeling firmer with every stride. In the days of darkness, never once had I imagined I could see the sun, the real, true sun again. But following him, it seems possible.
“See for yourself,” he replies, a smile in his voice.
An iron door swings open at his touch as if it were made of straw. I make a sound somewhere between a cry and a cheer, and fall to my knees. My tears of joy splash to the soft earth. He kneels with me, embracing my shaking shoulders, his warmth spreading through my very soul.
The edges of the mountains are aflame with silver light; fog melts away moment by moment. A brilliant whiteness climbs triumphantly into the eastern sky.
Dawn, at last.
©2017 by Hannah Kaye