Warning: I am not religious and this story does not intend to offend any people
It is when one decays with age, when limbs crumble under the weight of years and sentience erodes with the burden of memories, that one’s words are condescended to be the ravings of an ill mind and crude imagination. I daresay it’s a disappointment that the dying remains of our dignity are treated in the same patronizing manner as the tattered toys of a stubborn infant. Thus, I can only attest to the truth of my recollection with the infallible commitment I have devoted to the Lord. Let this vow be taken, for the final deed I will fulfill in His name, as a promise that no matter how incredible the incidents should appear, veracity will toll from every breath and virtue shall ring from every word.
On the third week of our pilgrimage to the holy land, from the sun-bleached cliffs of Morocco eastward towards the vermillion banks of Jerusalem, we found ourselves astray in the Sahara. The natives called it the desert of the Lost, Forsaken, and Living Dead, though it was only until the women had abandoned their children and men began to feast on the dead that I truly grasped the atrocious sadism in its honesty. Even in hindsight, I do not know how had we entered that wasteland except for the certainty that it was a cage that bore no escape.
We were led by a priest who claimed to have completed the journey, as treacherous as it would prove to be, countless times. He assured us with absolute certainty and the utmost conviction that we would soon overcome this obstacle as long as we had unswerving confidence in God’s judgment.
“Doubt is the evil that corrupts our hearts, the road that descends to hell, and the tyranny that plagues the spirits of lost men and the children who have strayed from the kingdom of God.”
So deep was our faith in the belief that we were amidst a trial, that we gathered en masse until our throats were coarse with prayers and rutted with psalms. We prayed for blessings of strength; we prayed for gifts of protection under the unified consensus that our fidelity would grant us passage through the eye of the needle and at the end of the dark, perilous tunnel, would be the light of God basking us in its glory. Many a time, during the most treacherous parts of the day, we saw great cities and magnificent castles rise above the mountains of sand that impeded our path. I saw with my own eyes the marvelous spires that towered into the blue vault of the firmament and golden domes of such proportions that they could not have been made by the hands of men. What a spectacle. What a miracle!
“The holy city! The promised land! The temple of God!”
Men rushed to the cities; women kissed the sand beneath their feet. Murmurs of joy rippled between ourselves while we sobbed with relief. Only the priest ran amongst us, gesticulating with his arms, warning us with his cries — “A trick! A trick! The devil is deceiving you!” However, his sincerity was not received with gratitude. I believe that was when the first of many mutinous imprudences was conceived. Yet, when they finally reached the portcullis, all they could ascertain was the sea of desolation that stretched beyond the white-rimmed horizon.
“Where have you led us? Where have you led us!” We cried, but the priest could only urge us to restore our piety and that God’s plans could only be understood through persistent devotion.
On the fourth week, we ran out of water. Our heads drooped from our shoulders like wilted flowers and withered buds as we found ourselves apprehended in an immediate predicament. We quickly slaughtered the camels, the horses, and the livestock that traveled with us. From their throats, we poured blood to quench our thirst and from their carcasses, we carved meat to satisfy our hunger, careful not to waste a single drop or squander a single morsel. Even so, it only lasted us two days. Some refused to throw away their luggage and attempted to carry them along, quickly discovering that it was a fool’s errand. Thus, they forced themselves to surrender their possessions to the pitiless currents of the desert. Gold, silver, pearls and gems scintillated with incandescence and tiled the sand into a beautiful mosaic until they were swallowed by the rolling dunes, restoring the landscape to yellow, red, and black.
The ceaseless trek had sapped us of our vigor; our unanswered prayers for an oasis had plunged our spirit into misery. The torrid heat of the day bore down on us mercilessly like the flailing of whips; the frigid brutality of the night bit at our feet like the maws of vicious beasts. Our skin became so burnt it peeled away in agonizing swaths and the inner lining of our noses became so parched they lacerated in violent hemorrhages. One man, driven delusional by his hallucinations, did not notice his life silently trickling away in tiny droplets. “There! An oasis! There!” He announced hysterically, pointing at the emptiness before collapsing into his grave. His body was shriveled like a mummy with a maniacal sneer forever etched against the cracked lips. We watched as waves of sand swiftly devoured his corpse and prayed that the mercy of God would deter him from the gates of hell, but we all knew that he had long abandoned his faith to the suffering, the carnage, and the death that held illimitable dominion over all. We were lost on the earth, but truly astray in our minds. The entire knowledge of our existence and the basis of belief on which it stood was slowly disintegrating into an abyss of despair. Had God deserted his children? Had we been forsaken to perish in this malpais of ruin? Or have we already crossed into the fires of hell?
The priest pledged that God loved all his children equally, that he was simply assessing our loyalty, and that even if we died, it would be a conscientious sacrifice to show our love for the Lord. But when asked why God would allow the tribulations of our death to be so excruciatingly insufferable, he too could not testify. We were like a fleet of dinghies adrift in a vast ocean. Ferocious torrents swept us off our feet and massive tides threatened to capsize the only salvation we knew. Our ankles were shackled with weights and bound in chains so that if we were to topple over the edge of our boat, even by a bit, we would sink until we met our demise at the bottom where the other heathens lay in repose.
The fifth week succeeded the fourth with greater tragedies. Although we still prayed, the words escaped our mouths in gentle mutters and tired whispers. We prayed for food; we prayed for water, while the pain of thirst and the torment of hunger ravaged our bodies. A few people believed that it was punishment for our sins, so they pleaded for mercy, begged for remission, and cried for forgiveness, but the heavens did not reply. Only the priest continued to ask God to give us protection and lend us the strength to persevere. We trudged along tediously on our search for an oasis, fearing that we would sink into the sand, unable to escape its clutches if we lingered too long. It was then that the children started to disappear.
We did not notice immediately, however. It started as a collective confusion amongst the men when the women began to cry. At first, it was only a few tears here and there, which we assumed to be the women crying over their disastrous fate as even the men did from time to time. So, nobody asked the reasons for their sorrows. But only when the men slowly succumbed to the dreadful realization that their children were vanishing, a few at first, then by the dozens, did they understand that the women’s tears were rooted in something much more malicious. They demanded their wives to explain what they had done to their children, their flesh and blood, but the women refused to speak. Later, it was revealed that they had not been able to see their children suffer any longer. Hunger and thirst had devastated their bodies until their skins were drawn atop their bones like tarps and their eyes recessed in hollow sockets like empty voids. They had relinquished the energy to complain and the breath to whine. Their mothers, unable to accept the terrible sight, could only watch as their children shuffled in the sand like living corpses. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before they died, the women decided to put an end to their suffering. So they waited during the night, when we huddled together in a tight pile to stave off the cold and carried off their children who were still deep in slumbers that surfaced memories of warm hearths and good food. They placed them behind the dunes of sand that and cried as they returned to their oblivious husbands. By the next morning, the unpredictable winds would have already carried the dunes across the desert and along with them, the lifeless bodies of the children.
The priest was stricken with horror when he discovered this abomination.
“What have you done? What have you done!”
He kneeled in the sand, afflicted with sorrow, but that only incited the our ill wrath.
“Why beset their guilt with more grief? This was your fault, your doing!”
We tried to persuade him to leave the irreversible be and continue with our search, but he refused to comply until he had mourned the deaths of all the children and had prayed for their souls to pass into the kingdom of God.
“We will be punished for this! The Lord will not forgive our sins!”
On the sixth week, all but the priest had stopped their prayers. He prayed for strength; he prayed for protection. But by then, so many people had fallen to thirst, hunger, and heat that we no longer cared about the grace of God. Cadavers vanished as soon as they fell and footprints disappeared shortly after they were impressed. All was consumed by the unfathomable mysteries of the desert. It was like a God who held sway all. It was powerful, it was unconquerable, it was supreme. There were no rules which you were obligated to abide, there were no false promises that coerced you to gamble your life; there was only one, singular, scrupulously unfailing truth. Unlike our God, who only appeared in the lines of books and stories of men, the desert was real, tangible, and concrete. I could feel the sultry languor of the air rattling my lungs, the sweltering heat of the sun baking my scalp, the uncountably infinite grains of sand pooling between the gaps in my toes, and my blisters rotting into gaping lesions. As the skin fell off, it revealed bones that poked out the back of the shoulders and into the joints in our knees. It was a slow, torturous death like a flaying without knives and a hanging with twine. Despite the priest’s sedulous efforts to continue our prayers, his words fell on deaf ears. We knew that there was no God, there was no heaven, and there was no hell. Praying was a pointless futility that only served to subvert unrealistic expectations and increase the height of the fall. The only motivation that spurred us on our weary march was the sliver of chance that we might find an oasis and the sitient longing for the satisfaction of having water gush over the parched desiccation of our tongues.
It shames me with the deepest contrition to entail the following affairs in my address, but I do so in the hope that you would genuinely understand with unquestionable conviction that the miracles of God are never mistakes.
The devil plays its tricks with shrewd cruelty. When our procession had dwindled to its final dozen, we were terrorized with a seizure of hallucinations. It was not of the same manner as the one previously told. No, this was far worse. Visions haunted our minds, released the monster bound by the manacles of morality, and brought out the worst in ourselves, even in the best of us.
The fragrance of lavish banquets wafted through the isolation. We thought we could hear the merry chimes of bells and the festive peal of instruments betwixt the precipices of sand that towered like colossal cliffs. The sand turned to cobbled streets; the dunes rose into mud-brick houses. People milled around the streets as they did during holidays; their laughter carried through the wind. Colorful banners fell from the sky; the walls were plastered with portraits of angels and painted blue and green. Somewhere far in distance, obscured by the illusions that intruded our consciousness, we thought we could hear the waves of an ocean crashing into the reefs of a shore. Was this Easter? Were we back in Morocco? We did not care. We were so thirsty. We were so hungry.
We scurried around in circles, trying to follow the scents that taunted our appetite and mocked our stomach while the priest tried to pry us out of our deranged madness.
“Stop! Stop! Come to your senses! You have been deceived by the devil!”
The priest. Yes, the priest. Wasn’t he the one that led us into this disaster? Wasn’t he the one who would not stop preaching about the love of God? So many lies! So many lies! He was such a nuisance. Such a burden to our minds. He had to go. Yes, he had to go. As we watched him plead with desperation, his figure seemed to transform incredulously. The more we looked, the more his head appeared to be a pitcher of wine and his arms coils of sausages. Juicy, savory, tender pork sausages. Our mouths drooled with itching desire and we licked the decayed flesh of our lips with voracious craving. What other delicacies did he conceal in his torso? The priest was surrounded, he could not escape.
“Please! No! God will not forgive you for th—”
We lunged, one after another, like a pack of savages. The priest screamed as the ravenous beasts and famished animals masticated his limbs and tore his chest. Even to this day, I am cursed with the memory of the horrific acts of iniquity we had slayed our humanity. We were worse than creatures; we were worse than brutes. We were monsters. We chewed his heart and devoured his liver. I was about to feast myself, when I saw in the last flickers of the his, a final desperate plea that reverberated my spirit. His tears spoke to the soul imprisoned by the perverted blasphemy that had conquered us all. He begged me with his eyes not to save him from his irreparable demise, but to save myself from my sins and hand my faith to the righteousness of God. At that moment, I was snapped from my insanity, and as quickly as I had stopped myself, the men began to shriek with agony. I watched with immense horror as ulcers festered on the surface of their skin. They clawed at their faces, not knowing that they were overgrown with pustules and drenched with blood. It was a sudden epiphany, a terrible realization, that they were rotting, melting, and descending into the most heinous extremities of hell for their crimes. It was right then, as I stood aghast above their writhing bodies and the mutilated remains of the priest, that I knew I had witnessed the Hand of God.
I watched as the corpses were sucked into the bowels of the desert, knowing I had no strength to walk. So, I prayed. I did not ask for water or food; I begged for neither strength nor protection. I prayed for forgiveness and I repented my sins. That night, having collapsed into the sand and unable to move, I closed my eyes, prepared to be taken away. It was neither relief or despair I felt the next day when I found myself spared from vivisepulture, for I knew, with unquestionable conviction, that God’s plans entailed no mistakes. So, I prayed even when nothing happened the next day or the day after that. I prayed for mercy; I prayed that the Lord would accept my service and acquit my infidelity. Then, on the last day of the seventh week, on the day of the Sabbath, I felt beneath me a quiet pulsing, like the beat of a heart, and as I slipped into the expanding darkness, I felt the ground envelop me like an embrace.
I awoke with the strangest feeling. It stirred distant memories of my childhood on the shores of Morocco. I tried to lift my arms but they were lodged in mud. Mud? I opened my eyes and there, shattering the light into oblong fragments, were leaves nodding in the wind. My feet splashed as I stood up. Water? I looked around. Palm trees dotted the vicinity. A pool sparkled like gems and danced like stars while the isolation of the desert swirled around this tiny island. I was overjoyed, Layla, overjoyed! I kneeled and drank until I was sure something would give, but when I lifted my head from the water, I saw in the distance, a graveyard. Dozens and dozens of tombstones lined the upper ridges of the dunes. I wanted to approach, to see for myself what they were, but when I finally reached the top, all I could see was the desolation stretching endlessly in all directions. Was it a mirage? No, it was a miracle. A miracle of God.