The Power of Suggestion

I have a funny little story to tell, a true tale about a simple experiment which my scientific and mischievous friends enacted upon me one day in our youth. It was a conspiracy of suggestion actually, one designed to convince me that I was ill, when in fact I was perfectly healthy. But first, before I begin the tale, let me interject with a non-sequitur, but one that I hope you shall soon see, is very important: “Fear not the things of this world, only fear God and gain wisdom!”

I think we all understand that the more times we hear something the more we believe it is true. This is the basis and rationale of advertising after all, and the entire purpose of marketing; making claims about a product regardless of the validity of the claims, but if the claims are made often enough, people will buy the claims and the product. Our behavior is guided and influenced this way, right? Of course we all know this, consciously or unconsciously, all of us having been thoroughly saturated in these psychological truisms by our commercial economy. Keep these facts in mind as I continue with the tale of my friends’ dastardly plot against me, and how I fell for it; but let me first say: “Fear not the things of this world, only fear God and gain wisdom!”

The day began like most did for me during high school. I arrived at my locker before first period and spun the combination and pulled out a few books and binders before the bell rang to make my way to class. But today I was not just a high school student. Unbeknownst to me at the time, about ten, perhaps twenty of my friends (and even a few mere acquaintances enlisted to participate) had made me the object of an experiment. The hypothesis: could they make a healthy friend sick, merely by suggestion? They believed that they could! The test and observations: repeated suggestions from numerous sources throughout the day to persuade and guide my health to their desired outcome. And so the experiment began, at my locker, just prior to first period. Two friends arrived, and as we began talking one looked at me with concern on her face, “Are you feeling alright? You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine.” I responded. And my other friend jumped in, “Really? I don’t think so. You look awful.” This seemed very strange to me at the time, but that was the end of it and I walked to class.

As I walked between first and second period someone passed me in the hallway. “Hey! How’s it goin? Whoa, what happened to you?!”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“You look like you got hit by a bus. Are you sick or something?”

“No, I’m fine. What are you talking about?!” I replied with annoyance.

In second period my buddy who sat behind me made a few comments as I sat down, saying that my face looked pale and green.

“No it doesn’t,” I said. “What is wrong with everyone?” I asked.

“Seriously, you should go look in a mirror.” He replied.

So after class, during break I went to the bathroom and had a look. That was when my doubts began. The lighting wasn’t great in the bathroom, with horrible fluorescents, all pasty and white, and the walls were painted green. Like a chameleon I picked up both these traits and indeed I did look pale, green and sickly. By third period I was feeling a little nauseous. By fourth period I was feeling clammy and hot, and my head was beginning to hurt a bit. Several classmates suggested that I should go home and get some rest. I considered it but shrugged it off and said I’d be fine.

At lunch I reconsidered, and I concluded that everyone was right, I wasn’t feeling all that well. I must have picked something up, a cold or flu or something. Maybe I really should go home, and get better. Later, I learned of their trickery. We all had a laugh at my expense, which I really didn’t mind. It was a clever experiment and I was impressed. And the conclusion we made, based on our observations, is that yes, it is possible to make a healthy person believe he is sick through repeated and ongoing suggestion, made by many different sources all with singleness of intent and purpose.

Just today I had an interesting interaction with a propane delivery man, which was actually the situation which made me remember this experiment from my high school days. Let me tell you what happened, but first: “Fear not the things of this world, only fear God and gain wisdom!”

Having refilled our propane tank, the driver carried the hose out from behind our house and I called out to him from my perch on the second story balcony, “Hey! Thanks for filling our tank.”

He looked up at me, from a distance of thirty or forty feet, and quickly, he pulled a cloth mask up over his face. I called down to him to reassure him that I was fine, he didn’t have to put that thing on if he didn’t want. After all, we’re outside, and he was miles away from me. I’m not worried. But he responded, “Yes I do! I don’t want to get this virus!” So it dawned on me then, that he wasn’t protecting me at all, he was protecting himself. I felt foolish; and realized he was probably upset at me now, since I wasn’t wearing a mask. I had been trying to make him feel at ease by saying not to worry about the mask, misunderstanding his motives as being thoughtful towards me, when he was actually just looking out for himself. And that was fine with me once I understood him. Yet, how interesting I found it that here is this man delivering a truckload of propane gas—which to me seems a fairly dangerous job—and he had no concern about that at all, but he had an incredible terror of contracting a virus from me, in the wide outdoors, at a distance of over thirty feet, while I stood on a second story balcony and he stood on the ground. How can this be?!?

“Fear not the things of this world, only fear God and gain wisdom!”

And I remembered the high-school experiment. Of course, that’s it! This propane driver has been terrorized day and night about this virus, by many sources, repeatedly, continuously, all with a common motive and purpose; to provoke his fear, and to manipulate his behavior. It is astounding how effectively this experiment has been enacted upon us. But then, I know first-hand how well this method can work; I remember how it once worked upon me.

We must help each other now, we must reassure each other. We must repeat the better and the more truthful things. We must use our voice and our strength to combat the terrifying message that we are being sold all day, every day. Sure, we may die; we will die. But let us first live; let us live without fear. I imagine that if I were to tell that propane driver every day about all the propane explosions that happen each year (roughly 2,900 homes destroyed annually, 25 deaths and 155 injuries) he might eventually grow frightened to drive that truck. But why scare him? What’s the point of that?

I would rather give him hope, and give him courage to face the challenges of this life, with all of its difficulties and sorrows. I would rather repeat again and again for him: “Fear not the things of this world, only fear God and gain wisdom!” This is the message that he needs to hear, and hear repeatedly, continuously with singleness of purpose, so that he and everyone like him can live without fear of life.

“Fear not the things of this world, only fear God and gain wisdom!”

~FS

Freedom in Christ is Freedom from Sin

I think many people primarily view their sin as something that points to their failings as a human-being, and as something shameful. Yet instead of this, rather seeing our sin as the principle thing which keeps us imprisoned, trapped and enslaved, is a much more useful way to understand our sin; and it is more important and beneficial to see the truth of our sin in this way. Sin is our enemy, and it is also the glue that our enemy uses to keep us stuck in our suffering.

Because of the fact that we mainly view sin as shameful and we feel its negative reflection upon us, we hide from it, we deny it, and we run away from it; and because we do this, we never get free of it. It continues to cause us and others pain and suffering. Our sin becomes the walls and bars of our self-made prison because we are merely ashamed of it, but we don’t renounce it.

We are in a spiritual battle, and as with everything, we choose sides moment by moment. If we fear our accusers, and if we fear the truth of the accusations which point to our sins, then we will never become free. Satan, the great accuser, and the source of the energy behind our human accusers, intends to keep us trapped, hiding forever in our shame and guilt. But if we put our trust in Christ, the source of all good human freedom, then we can face our accusers boldly, we can face ourselves too, as we admit our sin; if we trust in the forgiveness found only through Jesus Christ—who is not an accuser—then we can find the courage to renounce our sin, and become free from its effects on our future life.

It is important to remember the characteristics and qualities of the principle actors. On one hand we have the devil: the deceiver, the accuser, the father of lies, who seeks our enslavement and ultimately our destruction. On the other hand we have Jesus Christ: the son of God, the truth, the comforter, the way of life, who seeks our liberation and ultimately our complete fulfillment as human beings made in His image and likeness. We are in the midst of a spiritual battle here, and we are all susceptible to influences on both sides.

We need not resort to accusations, lies or fear; and when we are met by these from others we need not become ashamed or enslaved—provided we align with the enemy of fear and lies, Jesus Christ. If we lay our sin down and renounce it before Him, in spirit and in truth, we can stand fearlessly, boldly and even joyfully in the face of our accusers and in the face of any deception designed to ensnare us. Truth, especially in regards to our sin, will set us free; Christ, the Truth, will set us free! Have faith, have hope, repent!  

~FS

The Epic of John Gilgesh (Chapter 1; part 4):

And yet John wasn’t gone, he wasn’t lost, he was very much within her reach, just a short walk down the hall, in the maternity ward’s intensive care nursery, just off the nurse’s station.  She only had to walk down there, and take him. He was hers after all. In the most intimate way, he was hers; not as a possession, but as a part of her. Nobody could get in the way of that intimacy, of that primal and essential value, which is far greater and more urgent than any hospital administrative procedure or restriction. Mary hastened out of bed and left her room, clothed in only her sleeping gown, and barefoot. She made her way down the dark hallway towards the light from the nurse’s station, which reflected off the waxed floor ahead of her, leading the way. The floor was cold, and her bare feet slapped lightly against the linoleum as she walked quickly, practically running, to rescue her boy. There was one nurse sitting at the desk, and she was busy doing a crossword puzzle, when Mary asked to see her baby. The nurse explained that it was after visiting hours, and she was the only one on duty tonight, so even if she wanted to, she couldn’t leave her station unattended. Mary pushed her to reconsider, but the nurse held her ground, saying that the NICU nursery wasn’t simply a place one could go in and out of without precautions; special gowns had to be donned, as well as gloves and masks, and all of these procedures took time, which she just didn’t have right then. She was very busy. Mary glanced down at the nurse’s desk, prompting the nurse to slide her right hand over the crossword, as she looked up into Mary’s eyes defiantly. They locked eyes momentarily, and Mary expended great effort to hold her tongue; refraining from uttering the sarcastic observation that the nurse was obviously busy with her games. Still, the look in Mary’s eyes conveyed pretty much the same thing that her sarcastic comment would have, and the nurse got the message. Nurse Pleasant—that was her last name, though not always her attitude—grew embarrassed. She wasn’t a bad person, nor even a lazy one, but just extremely overworked, and she coveted her nights at the maternity ward—long hours typically with very little to do, which provided a respite from the countless tasks she performed around the hospital during the day. As a senior nurse, her responsibilities were legion, and she was exhausted. Covering the night shift, while other nurses were sick, was actually a chance to catch up on her puzzles, and even get some sleep, which she couldn’t even do at home—where her husband always had some complaint or another, which needed her immediate attention. For Nurse Pleasant, even being at work was a vacation, compared with being at home.

Mary appealed to Nurse Pleasant’s own maternal identity and memories. Surely, she must remember what it was like to be a new mother, how she had needed to see her newborn child and to hold them? Couldn’t she imagine the agony of being denied fulfillment of this need? Nurse Pleasant did remember those feelings. She loved being a mother, and she loved holding babies. She looked up into Mary’s desperate eyes, which had filled with tears, and she relented.

“Okay, I’ll bring him to the window, so you can see him. No, I can’t let you in to hold him. We have very strict restrictions on that. The priority is to keep the nursery sterile and free of anything that could harm the babies. I’m sure you understand. That’s the best I can do. If you want to go over there, to the viewing window. I’ll go get suited up and bring him over for you.”

Mary nodded, and took a step towards the window, but couldn’t help noticing Nurse Pleasant reach into the top drawer of her desk and pull out a key on a long lanyard. Mary looked away, pretending not to notice, but out of the corner of her eye she kept the nurse under close observation, as she walked through the windowed door, where she donned a gown, pulled on a fresh pair of rubber gloves, and placed a mask over her face, and a surgical cap over her head, before using the key from the desk in the door which led into the intensive care nursery. Mary turned away and walked to the viewing window, considering what she had just seen. “Anton would be furious with me if I snuck into the nursery,” she thought. “No, that would be wrong. He’d say I trespassed; he’d be disappointed. But is it really trespassing if I’m just getting what is mine?” She mulled these things over, until she saw Nurse Pleasant pull John from his incubator and bring him over to the window. Excitedly, she pressed her face up against the glass, and devoured her baby with her eyes. As you can imagine, everything about him appeared beautiful to her: beautiful little feet and toes, beautiful hands and fingers, pretty soft pink skin, fine blondish brown hair covering his perfect little head. She pressed against the floor with her bare feet and stood on her toes to get a better look at his face. Again, perfectly beautiful; though the look in his eyes disturbed her, he looked uncomfortable. And why was he arching his back, and his limbs were all quite stiff, as if he were trying to get away from the nurse and didn’t like the way she was holding him. “Doesn’t she know how to hold a baby?” Mary thought incredulously. “What’s the matter with her, why doesn’t she hold him so that he is comfortable?” This bothered Mary, and she gave Nurse Pleasant an exasperated look, which the nurse ignored, while she continued to look down at the baby’s face, smiling and cooing soothingly. This also annoyed Mary, though it was really jealousy that made her feel this way. It was she that should be holding John, not a nurse. Nurse Pleasant looked up at Mary, smiled and returned the baby to his incubator.  

Several minutes later, the nurse came out of the nursery and sat down again at her desk, returning the key to its place in the top drawer. Mary thanked Nurse Pleasant, who went back to working on her crossword puzzle, and Mary returned to her room. But she didn’t sleep. Instead, she formulated a plan. Her thoughts briefly flitted to her husband, he wouldn’t approve, she was fairly certain of that. He’d forgive her.

(to be continued)

~FS

The Good, The Bad, & Our Motives

It is an interesting and instructive question to ask oneself: am I doing or saying the right thing but for the wrong reason; or am I doing or saying the wrong thing but for the right reason; or am I doing or saying the right thing for the right reason? (We’ll ignore the fourth option: doing or saying the wrong thing for the wrong reason, because that’s just wrong.)

With respect to the prevailing measures our leaders, and those who trust them have taken, in attempts to curtail this pandemic, we have seen all of these conditions at play. We’ve seen Dr. Fauci, and others in positions of authority, employ the ‘noble lie’ telling us untruths because they are for our own good; this is a version of the ‘ends justify the means’ approach to ethics, which is simply a variation on saying the wrong thing (a lie) for the right reason (our own good). But I think if you are willing to lie, even with good intentions, you are already on a slippery slope; and the end of that downhill slide is inevitably a bad outcome, with nothing good to justify it.

Perhaps even worse than that though, is doing or saying the right thing but for the wrong reason. This one can be very confusing to recognize, and can confound everyone who experiences it. We hear the good words spoken, or see the good deed done, but we sense the bad motives underlying it, but we can’t quite pinpoint what exactly is wrong with it. And because the wrongness of it is cloaked inside a garment of supposed good, it often is effective, goes unchecked, and the perpetrator will get away with it. This technique is often used to target Christians such as myself; perhaps you have also been the recipient of this kind of subterfuge?

For instance, I have been told that I should wear the mask, or get the vaccine, because as a Christian that would be ‘following the golden rule’ to love ones neighbor as oneself. The particularly interesting thing about this is that it is often leveled by folks who aren’t Christians themselves; so that raises a red flag at the outset. Why would a non-Christian suddenly have interest in the teachings of Christ, who they don’t believe in? Is their motive sacrificial love (charity)? And the use of their quotation, does it honestly fit contextually, and in the spirit, with the entirety of Christ’s teachings found in the rest of scripture? My guess is it typically doesn’t; but it is rather motivated by their fears, and their desire to persuade you to act according to their wishes. They use the right thing (scriptural references) for the wrong reason (manipulation/coercion/shaming rather than genuine love). The letter of the law is there (a good), but the spirit behind it is deceptive and sneaky.

It is true that the Christian tradition, including scripture, is a testament of love for God and love for neighbor, but the key and primary aspect of this is ‘love’. The underlying motivation for all action and speech is and should be genuine charity. If you can honestly attest before your conscience and God that your motive is love for others, than I suspect that you are doing or saying the right thing for the right reason. The unfortunate thing for us today is that we have seared our consciences to such a degree through bad thoughts and bad behavior that we can’t even discern our true motives, and we’ve grown so accustomed to telling and hearing lies that we can’t even discern the truth within our own hearts. This needs to be step one; make your own heart good, then all that flows out from it will be good; and the means you employ in doing or saying anything towards another person may have a good ending.

~FS

The Epic of John Gilgesh (Chapter 1; part 3):

Several minutes later Anton returned to the room and reported, as expected, that it wouldn’t be possible to see their son tonight; that the doctor was gone for the evening and they’d have to ask him tomorrow. Anton had arrived to Mary’s room already feeling somewhat dejected, but as he explained the circumstances to her, and saw his wife’s darkening gaze, he added quickly that the nurses didn’t have the authority to let them in to see their baby, and besides, even if they could, visiting hours were ending in a few minutes.

“Visiting hours?!” Mary exclaimed sardonically. “Am I just a visitor here?!”

“Apparently they’re short-staffed as well. Several nurses caught the flu and are out. So that makes it more difficult…”

“These things are not important, Anton.” Mary pleaded. “Fine, they’re plausible reasons, but not justifications. None rise to the level of…I mean really?! Visiting hours, an absent doctor…nurses with the flu? These are the things standing between a mother and her newborn baby? I haven’t even held him yet! Three days he’s already been in this world, and I haven’t even smelled him, I don’t even know what he smells like…what he feels like! No, Anton, this is not right. I’m telling you it isn’t right! I am getting into that room, and I am going to hold John; and I am going to give him what he needs. Tonight!”

Anton sat down on the edge of the bed and looked into his wife’s eyes; and then he embraced her, pulling her agitated body close to him. She tensed at first, resisting the intimacy and the compassion of his gesture, which made her feel weak at a time when she believed she needed to feel strong. But without warning she burst into tears, and she wept bitterly into his chest. And she cried for a very long time—letting herself go—which surprised her; and she even wailed for a few moments, which frightened her. All the while Anton held her firmly against him, and with one hand he caressed the back of her head, letting his fingers run gently through her long, black hair—which she had always found very soothing.

“I just want to hold him, it isn’t too much to ask…is it?”

“Of course not, and you will. Very soon. Let’s just be patient a little longer. Everything will be fine. You just rest now, and I’ll head on home and get ready for my classes tomorrow. We’ll both get some sleep, and you can talk with the doctor in the morning and I’m sure they will let you see John. I’ll be back tomorrow evening and who knows, you’ll most likely be able to tell me finally, how our little boy smells. And hopefully not like a dirty diaper.”

Anton and Mary shared a brief chuckle, and she leaned back against her pillow, as he stood up. “It’s just a few more hours, honey. Get some sleep. Everything will be fine in the morning.” He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead and gathered up his things before saying goodnight and leaving the room. He was relieved to see her close her eyes as he shut the door. “She must be very tired,” he thought to himself. “It was a very difficult birth; sleep is the best thing for her now. She’ll get good rest and feel refreshed in the morning.” He continued to assuage his concerns about his wife in this way, and with many similar thoughts, as he walked down the hallway, descended the stairs to the lobby and exited the hospital, making his way to the car. In the back of his mind however, far back and mostly hidden from view, he had other thoughts, doubtful thoughts, based on previous experiences which had demonstrated his wife’s stubbornness and her one-pointed determination. If he allowed himself to consider these memories as well, he would have admitted there was little chance that she would remain in bed for the entire night, and leave the nurses at the end of the hallway alone, and leave John unsought for; but he was adept at suppressing these thoughts, so he happily started his car and began the drive home, comfortably though erroneously convinced that Mary was safely ensconced in her bed for the night.

Mary couldn’t sleep; no, not at all. Though she did try, and her body wanted to; but in her soul, rest was an impossibility. But how can we say it was her soul that was troubled? Was it not simply her mind and her emotions in turmoil? And didn’t we say at the outset of our story that words mattered, and precision in our choice of words would be of the utmost importance in conveying the truth of it all, and for describing things accurately? Yes, the disquiet that she felt inside, since John had been taken from within her womb, was certainly difficult to put into words, but Mary wrestled to find the proper means of conveying this experience—for her own personal understanding, and as a matter of scientific inquiry. The ache, the emptiness, the confused disorientation that currently overwhelmed her was only an aspect of a more profound, wider and more expansive unrest. It included every aspect of her being, including her thoughts and her emotions, and it permeated her body, yet it would be an error to resort simply to a biologically reductionist argument to explain it; simply because neurons are involved, and hormones as well—as are many other physiological processes which could be observed and measured—observing all of these is simply to say that her body was involved, but not that her body was the source. Before John, she was one person; after John, she was somebody new. As his life grew within her, she died and was born again; and this process occurred over and again, dying again, and again, to who she had been. John was her butterfly, and she was his chrysalis; yet, she was a butterfly too, and he was her catalyst. Mary smiled as she landed on this image in her mind, and she came to the conclusion that the greatest realities are best captured poetically. It is the poet and the prophet who best reveal the workings of the soul, and who translate the mind of God to humanity most truthfully. With John, she discovered that the building blocks of life are charity, and the foundation that undergirds all of creation, is charity. Charity being that love that is union between entities, love between persons, devotion, self-sacrifice, endless giving and intimate relationship. Charity, Mary decided, is the universal language which communicates perfect understanding, and holds everything together; and charity is the engine that powers the cosmos, and keeps it going. Without John, she was now like an amputee, the one who experiences that strange sensation where they can still feel the toes that are no longer there, and the itch of the leg that has been taken away. She had been augmented, and now she was diminished. She once would have defined herself by her attributes, but now she would define herself by what was missing—apophatically, she was the mother without her son.

(to be continued)

~FS

The Epic of John Gilgesh (Chapter 1; part 2):

Mary shuddered, and shook her head violently, “I hate that word…retarded. Just horrible.”

“Yes, but it’s a perfectly reasonable word, Mary.” Anton countered, until she shot him a menacing glance, to which he amended, “But, I do see your point.” They both smiled briefly, enjoying one another’s company, and the unspoken dynamics between man and woman, husband and wife.

“Of course the word is reasonable, and descriptive dear. But give what is reasonable to our unreasoning world and just watch how quickly description turns to ugliness. Our boy will not suffer such a fate, I can tell you that with certainty. I will not allow it.” And with that they both fell silent again, as the sun finally began to set, and the golden glow that had previously filled the room faded, casting the room in grayer tones. Anton observed his wife in the gathering darkness. So many things about her attracted him—her wit most definitely, her fine features of course, but her character and moral integrity was an undeniable force that he couldn’t resist. She was a very practical woman, without a doubt, yet she was never narrow in her approach; and her pragmatism was expansive and generous. So that even what might be considered fanciful by others and dismissed as superfluous, she could conceive the value and importance, and with her profound imagination she would allow, for practical reasons, even the most spiritual, artistic or even mystical pursuits. Anton would say that his wife had “a rigorously scientific mind, wrapped within a wondrously expansive heart.” Because of this there was no room within Mary for any prejudice—the scientific method wouldn’t allow it, and neither would her heart which was filled with love. But she could be ruthless in the face of willful ignorance and intentional deceit; and she could sniff out these pernicious character flaws in a person, just like a hound on the trail of its prey. Anton thought that final comparison privately, though he meant no disrespect by it, it just seemed an apt simile; though, if pressed to articulate his wife’s ability to perceive deception, nevertheless he compared her more favorably, to detective Sherlock Holmes, one of her favorite characters from childhood reading. Anton leaned forward and switched on the lamp at the bedside, and then sat back in his chair. “Let’s wait and see what the doctors discover.”

Worry finally spread across Mary’s face. She had been working with great effort to subdue it ever since the doctor had expressed his findings, but now it broke forth and darkened her expression. Anton, as well, felt anxiety creep into his depths, as the bottom fell out of his stomach, leaving an ache of emptiness there, which echoed up through all of his organs and ended in a painful tightening of his chest. Both he and Mary wanted to see their newborn baby for themselves, and they both questioned the meaning of what the doctor had diagnosed.

“What did he mean do you think, by ‘there are good places for him’? Does he mean an institution? Does he expect us to give our baby away—permanently? I didn’t really understand that.”

“No, I didn’t take it that way. I think he just meant that there are places that can help us—and John—if we need help as we’re raising him.”

“I’m not sure, though; I suppose, maybe that’s it.” Mary closed her eyes and pictured the doctor again as he had revealed his findings to them. “He was very nervous. He doesn’t exactly engender confidence.”

“Well, can you imagine having to tell a couple their new baby, their only child, is mentally retarded?”

“Oh, would you please quit using that awful word. We don’t even know if it’s true, if he’s even stunted in any way at all. So perhaps he doesn’t respond to them, there could be plenty of other causes for that, other than a mental deficiency. I need to see him myself. I’m not doing any good laying here. I need to see him and hold him.” She began to get out of bed, and Anton placed a hand gently but firmly on her shoulder.

“Mary, just stay there—please—let me go ask the doctors. You still need to rest; you lost a lot of blood and fluids during the birth. Please dear. I’ll be right back. I’m sure they will let us see John, if at all possible.” They locked eyes for a brief but tender moment—comfort and understanding flowing between them in that ineffable, silent manner that operates between beloveds, without words—which Anton then cut short, as he briskly left the room before his wife could protest any further. She smiled as she lay back into the soft pillow and closed her eyes. She imagined her husband making his way down the sterile, poorly lit hallway, with his long strides, covering vast swathes of waxed linoleum tiles with each step. He was a tall man, true to his Baltic roots, or Scandinavian, nobody was absolutely certain where precisely he originally came from; the only dependable records for him issuing forth from an orphanage in upstate New York, stating that both of his birthparents were deceased, having died in transit from Copenhagen in 1933, on a ship that had originated somewhere in the eastern Baltic, most likely from Riga, Latvia, though some records seemed to indicate Stockholm instead as the port of origination. In any case, he was adopted by a Lutheran pastor and his wife in 1934, and had been brought up in the faith. Mary pictured him now, kindly and tactfully discussing their situation with the nurses at the far end of the maternity wing. And he would be speaking persuasively and charmingly with them; and she could imagine that they would be quite taken by his expressive, sincere blue eyes, and they would find his slightly disheveled thick blond hair and his high cheekbones equally charming, and maybe even alluring. But it would all be to no avail; he would return in a few minutes to tell her that it wouldn’t be possible for them to see their son John tonight. And it wouldn’t be for any lack of effort on his part, in fact, one could honestly say that Anton’s virtues would be the cause of his failure in this case. He would want to follow the rules of the hospital—like any good person should—and he wouldn’t want to make any waves or expect any special treatment; he wouldn’t want to rock the boat, or cause a stir after all. He was a very thoughtful and kind man; and he always tried to do the right thing. And for all of these reasons Mary loved him; but she nonetheless, would be very angry at him when he returns to her room. Because the thing that was even more right in this situation, in her opinion, was for her to see her child. Following the rules is all well and good, and it has its place, but the connection between a mother and her newborn baby is far more important. Even more so when that baby is in dire need of its mother; when it has been repugnantly, and mistakenly (she was certain), labeled ‘retarded’.  

(to be continued)

~FS

The Epic of John Gilgesh (Chapter 1: part 1)

If we are to rightly honor the life and work of John Gilgesh, and also those of his contemporaries—his friends—we owe it to them, and to those of you who will read about their magnificent exploits—and it would not be untruthful, to call them sublime exploits, considering the circumstances in which they occurred—if we are to rightly honor them, we must write boldly without fear, and if possible, also with reverential love, for indeed, that is exactly how they lived, and how they offered themselves to their Creator.

Yes, we knowingly wrote the word ‘Creator’. We first considered using a less controversial phrase like, ‘higher self’ or ‘cosmic life force’ out of instinct—almost without thinking—in hopes of reaching the widest audience by causing the least offense. But this would be impossible, not because of any ideological or religious reasons, but because the life of man, this man in particular, along with his cohorts, is inextricably bound up with the concept of a Creator, and nothing which follows will make any sense at all, if we are to remove the dual concepts of a Creator and His creation, and substitute these with different concepts such as  higher or terrestrial powers.

We must apologize, for it truly wasn’t our intention to delve into such controversies so early into our story—before we’ve even begun to tell it—but words, as you will shortly come to see, play a very important role in the life of John Gilgesh; so, for the integrity of the telling, and to be true to our subject matter, we must choose the most accurate and honest words in the unfolding of our epic. Perhaps, we have already alienated a few of you because of this, and you will not be continuing along with us on our journey. Well, be that as it may, we wish you every blessing and we certainly bear you no ill will; and we hope you feel the same. But now it is time to press onward—to forge ahead—because time is short in a sense, because there is so very much to tell, and so many details to share with you about the life of John Gilgesh, his friends, and about the movement which they initiated.

Here again, we must take a quick detour, because you may have heard others who’ve made erroneous claims that Gilgesh sought to create a utopia—a foolish notion—or that he was the charismatic leader of an esoteric cult—an inane assertion—but nothing could be further from the truth. So it is worth taking a moment to utterly dispel such rubbish right from the outset before continuing. Many of these claims have been made by those who didn’t know the man, as is typically the case. In the instance of the extensive, and ultimately derogatory, commentaries made by Victor Fragmore regarding the time he spent with Gilgesh, as a founding member of the movement—or community, if one wishes to call it that—much more will be discussed about these at the appropriate time in the future. For now, suffice it to say that he was of a distinctly different temperament from his colleagues, and the inner workings of his heart made it impossible for him to perceive events accurately, or to understand others sympathetically.

Now, to begin our story, we will be going back to the very beginning, we must do so because John’s parents, and the times into which he was born, play such an important role—as must always be the case—in his development, and what he would eventually create. It was not long after his birth, several days more or less, while his mother was still recovering in the hospital from what had been a difficult trial, when the doctor and nurse who had been overseeing the newborn boy’s progress, came to some startling conclusions, which they reluctantly made known to his mother and father late one afternoon. Mary Gilgesh was propped up in bed, sipping her tea and looking dejectedly at the untouched tray of food on the table beside her; her husband, Anton, was sitting nearby, and with his warm, sonorous baritone voice, he was attempting to persuade his wife to eat a little something to help speed along her recovery. When a small knock was heard upon the door, preceding the hasty entrance of Dr. Masch and his assistant, nurse Neiblom. Dr. Masch was a rotund man, balding, and with a reddish complexion prone to perspiration, particularly when he became nervous or agitated, as was currently the case. Standing at the foot of the bed, he looked Mrs. Gilgesh in the eyes momentarily, before losing his nerve and turning to face Mr. Gilgesh. Anton looked benevolently back at him and raised his eyebrows in expectation; and he smiled kindly, in an attempt to put the good doctor at ease. Nurse Neiblom nudged the doctor in the side with her elbow to help move things along.

“Yes, well, of course,” Dr. Masch began haltingly. “Yes, it seems, your son. Well, yes of course, he’s getting stronger, he’s looking very strong indeed, isn’t he, Nurse Neiblom?” She nodded encouragingly, and he took her cue and began nodding as well. He smiled cautiously and drew his right hand across his brow to remove the sweat which had accumulated there, before continuing: “Yes, by all appearances he looks quite normal. I mean, physically he is coming along very nicely. It’s just that, well, of course, there’s the mental side of things also, isn’t there?” Anton sat forward in his chair and Mary shifted the pillow that was behind her, and they looked at one another quizzically and then back towards the doctor, who proceeded: “Look. There’s just no good way to say this, so I’m just going to come out with it.” Dr. Masch glanced out the window, through which a golden light was streaming, casting shadows of the panes and curtains upon the wall behind Mary, and sinking Anton into a darkened silhouette. “Your son is retarded. I mean, mentally retarded. Yes, that’s it. Of course, he’s very healthy you know. Very healthy, but…you see, he just doesn’t respond to us. Well, he doesn’t respond to much of anything, does he Nurse Neiblom? No, he doesn’t. He’s in his own world, you see, one can observe this in his eyes, they are vacant. They don’t focus upon anything, like a normal baby would, you understand.” The room fell silent for several moments, as the four occupants each digested this information in their own way.

Nurse Neiblom offered a sympathetic look towards Mary and Dr. Masch hastily continued, “I’m sure you both need some time to think over what I’ve just said. I’m sure it comes as quite a shock, especially given that you both are, well, you’re both university professors, isn’t that correct? Yes, of course, so how does something like this come about? To two intelligent…such a couple as yourselves, how do you have a child like this? Genetics, so many factors at play. Please don’t blame yourselves, no not at all, there’s nothing you could have done.” He wiped his brow again, and then concluded: “You don’t need to worry. We have good places, very good places that can take care of him. You just rest now, and let us know if you need anything. We’ll know much more in the coming weeks; we really don’t know the extent of it all yet. I’m sorry. I’m very sorry.” Dr. Masch turned quickly and walked out of the room, before Anton or Mary could formulate a response. Nurse Neiblom quickly followed the doctor out, leaving the young couple in stunned silence.

(to be continued)

~FS

Truly Building Back Better

Let’s all build back better! We need a reconstructed infrastructure and a rebuilt foundation. We can do this, together. We have recently all been traveling along many and diverse roads to nowhere; seeking newly promised utopias, instead of the original Promised Land. We have been led astray, allowing ourselves to become lost in wildernesses—some of our own making—many others offered to us like mirages in a desert; vaporous utopias which dissipate and vanish as we approach them and as we see them more clearly—like all lies eventually do—but lately only to be replaced by new lies, new false promises, and new man-made illusions.

Let’s now get off these meandering, empty roads and get back on the real one, the only Way which is lined with genuine charity, paved with true hope, and lit by faith. These other roads, that we’ve been traveling lately, are only filled with pot-holes, broken dreams, lost hopes, anger and strife. They have made us unkind and riddled with anxieties; and we are taking them to their inevitable ends—to isolated loneliness, futile meaninglessness, and confused weariness. But the old road, the best road, the way of Christ, we can rebuild, with the sweat of forgiveness and humility, with meekness and self-sacrificing love for those who’ve hurt us. If we won’t help build this road, it won’t be built. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to build this road back better.

And as for the bridges, haven’t they suffered neglect? Many are cracking. In fact, we have even allowed them—consciously and intentionally—to be torn down and blown up. We need to build the bridges back better as well. We must sacrifice our isolation, and the dividing of ourselves into groups. We must remember that we are all human beings, alike in essence, and we are all brothers and sisters. We must not allow these bridges to be destroyed! We must build them, rebuild them, and strengthen them. We are one people, each unique, all different—not equal and not the same—yet all equally valuable and equally worthy. Certainly, some are rich and some are poor, some of us are black and some are white, and there are many other distinctions that we can notice, but no distinction is cause for the destruction of the bridges that connect us—our common humanity. Let us put aside the envy, hatred, arrogance, unforgiveness, and every other form of unlove which have made these gulfs wider between us. Let us rebuild the bridges better and stronger than before! But how? Our love is fragile and fleeting; but God’s love is indomitable and enduring. Call upon God to give you strength to help you rebuild bridges with those whom you are estranged.

Finally, after we have rebuilt the roadways and the bridges, and after we have found our way back home again. We still have work to do. We must rebuild the foundations! Remember, there is no other foundation that we can build upon, but Christ Himself. All other foundations will crack, break and crumble. And isn’t that what we are seeing all around us? The foundations of the earth are shaking and crumbling before our very eyes. We now must build these foundations back better; and put our house back on the only trustworthy foundation which is Jesus Christ. We have seen clearly now, how the builders of other foundations are poor builders, following faulty blueprints, and they use weak materials. It isn’t worth trusting in them any longer. Trust in the only one who is trustworthy and the only one worth following: Jesus Christ, the son of God. He is the best and only one to build everything back better again, and the only one who we should trust to do the job. With Him all things are possible; with Him, we all can build back better!

~FS

Lay Aside All Earthly Cares

When first I heard this verse: “lay aside all earthly cares,” sung during an Orthodox Liturgy, as part of the Cherubic Hymn, my heart melted, my whole demeanor softened, and I nearly cried, or perhaps I did in fact, cry. I remember feeling intense gratitude well up within me for the offer, and a thorough longing within my soul for the peace, that these words evoke.  Could I lay aside all earthly cares? Is that even allowed? All my life, back as far as I can remember, I have been steeped in an environment that taught me to work hard and to care a lot, about all sorts of things, many of which, in my heart of hearts, seem silly or superfluous, or at least extremely temporal and unimportant—in the grand scheme of things. And I intend nothing against industriousness and a strong work ethic, but even these things have their time and place. Perhaps, I’ve allowed earthly cares to obscure and overwhelm spiritual cares; perhaps you have as well?

When I first heard this verse sung, it surprised me and it seemed even slightly scandalous. Yet, it was then, and remains to this day, exactly what my soul has always desired to hear. And it has brought me back, again and again over the years, to the Liturgy, as the deepest calling to my soul’s yearnings. Yes, I do want the light burden and the easy yoke which Jesus promises us; and yes, I would like to lay down in green pastures beside the still waters, which the psalmist expresses to us. If push comes to shove, I want nothing more than these simple things. Laying aside all earthly cares, seems to me to involve turning aside from the worries and anxieties of the world around us, along with turning aside from the passions which war within our own heart. It is as easy as simply doing it, and as difficult as struggling against ourselves in mortal combat. Certainly, I have experienced both thrilling victories and upsetting defeats as I’ve sought to lay aside all earthly cares. I imagine you have as well.

~FS

Happy Trails To Us (An American Allegory, set in the Desert)

It was a late summer morning, the air was crisp—it was early in the day—but with a strong hint of warmth blowing up from the south. A faint cool breeze also rose from the gorge below us, as a fading counterpoint and last gasp of opposition to the overpowering heat we all expected would be our companion for the days ahead. Our small group had gathered at the trailhead and we chatted amongst ourselves as we waited for stragglers to arrive. We were novice hikers at best, about to enter a difficult and dangerous wilderness for a two-week excursion, hoping to get through the adventure alive, and also to make a few good memories along the way.

Everyone was cordial, none of us knew the others in the group very well, most of us meeting the others here, at the trailhead, for the first time. A nervous anticipation made several members of our entourage extra talkative; a young couple sitting inside the open hatch of their Subaru were speaking loudly, and rapidly to the mother of a mother-son-daughter trio, telling them all about their recent trip whitewater rafting. The mother listened attentively while sipping her coffee, nodding affirmation and approval as they told their tale, while her teens stared vacantly at our surroundings—bored already.

Before embarking on our journey, the two leaders of our excursion called us all together, to gather around in a circle for formal introductions, as a first step towards building the all-important community that we would need in order to make the trip a success—for fun and for safety, and for survival. They introduced themselves—Heather, and Tom—and confirmed our hopes and expectations; that they both had many years of experience in guiding tours through the backcountry. They were both very amiable and exuded confidence, and set the proper tone of fun, measured with wisdom. The group fed on their charisma, and folks were pumped-up, and ready to rock!

Everyone gathered up their things: donning backpacks, adjusting straps—tightening down tents and sleeping bags which had been packed atop or below their bags—we checked our water-bottles and re-tied our shoelaces. One or two of us ran back quickly to our cars, to get something they had forgotten, or to make sure they had locked their doors. Heather led the group down the trail, and Tom brought up the rear; we started off at a brisk pace. “The wilderness won’t wait for us forever.” he said, “It’s time to make our mark, and conquer our fears!” We cheered at his brief but inspiring exhortation, as we marched along, and the cool dust filled our nostrils, and the sun rose higher over our heads, up into the blue and open sky.   

We stopped several hours later, mid-morning, for a rest and to drink some water, before continuing on. As we sat scattered within a small area—some of us in little groups, with our backs leaning up against the cliff-face, which we had been following for most of the morning—Heather gave us a foretaste of our itinerary for the day. We’d be continuing up the gorge for the rest of the morning, and then stopping for lunch at a beautiful overlook, which provided vast panoramic views of the surrounding mesas, the crawling river down below, and the dark mountains far-off in the distance. Tom interjected when some of us expressed surprise, and concern, at the name of the overlook—Rattlesnake Ridge. “Ha! That’s just an old name, nothing to worry about. There haven’t been snakes there for years,” he comforted us. He went on to explain how the climate in the area had been changing and there was no longer enough water up there—or moisture even—on that ridge, to sustain life; so, without water, there’s no prey, and without prey there’s no snakes. One in our group raised a small objection, noting that it had been an unusually wet summer so far, and wondered, could they have come back? No, he then assured us compassionately, it doesn’t work like that, these kinds of changes happen over long periods of time, and a few simple rains won’t change anything. He chuckled, to set us all at ease, and said we’d be about as likely to see a snake up there as we would to see Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman. And we all laughed.

The morning hike was beautiful, but already getting hot. Between the searing reds of the surrounding rock, the deep blues of the sky overhead, and the pure whites of the passing clouds it felt as though we had been dropped in the midst of a great, undulating American flag. The river, far below us—sparkling—reflected the bright summer sunlight so that, those of us without sunglasses, had to turn our heads, or squint and blink to keep our eyes from shedding tears. Everything was light, everything was bright, and by the time the sun passed directly overhead, there were no shadows. Not long after that, we reached Rattlesnake Ridge.

With sighs of relief we pulled our heavy backpacks from our shoulders and let them slide down to the ground. Again, we all found a spot to sit, some of us on boulders, some simply on the dirt. Our guides were absolutely right, the views from this spot were breathtaking. Cameras and cell-phones emerged and photos abounded; one young lady getting a bit too close to the edge as she snapped the perfect selfie, but she was caught just in time, and pulled back onto solid ground by our guide, Heather, before anything terrible happened. We ate our lunch, enjoying the scenery, and it was about the same time, when Tom had announced we’d be moving along soon, when one of the older men in the group, Mitch, made a commotion from his spot on a low ledge just off from the main group.

He leapt into the air, cursing, and jumped down from the ledge. To his right and to his left several small creatures slithered off the ledge rapidly and quickly disappeared into the dark crags which abounded in the vicinity; and one large rattlesnake followed directly in his wake. It came right after him, and looked to be attacking. Before he could catch his balance completely, or could find his legs beneath him, the darned thing struck. It hit his left boot and bounced off; and looked to have gotten its nose smushed against the hard leather. Stunned for a brief moment, but long enough for Mitch to gather his wits, Mitch then struck back—as the snake tried to gather its own wits—and, raising his very same boot in the air, Mitch brought it down decisively upon the creature’s slithery head. That was the final act in their battle; the long muscular body writhing and twirling for several moments, before going limp.

The onlookers had mixed feelings. Several gasped, one turned away unable to watch, and two smiled surreptitiously and winked at one another, while shaking their heads in disbelief. After a moment, a collective sigh let out, apparently nobody had been breathing throughout this altercation. And then the reactions came: Man! I can’t believe it came after you like that!…How dare you, how could you kill it?!…It was coming right at me, it was him or me!…That snake didn’t have any choice, poor thing, it’s just living by instinct, but you had a choice, you should be ashamed!…Boy, those are some good boots you’ve got!…I think I’m going to be sick!…I can’t believe he crushed its head, that was disgusting, hee-hee!…What choice did he have?!…Well, I guess we’d better be looking out for Bigfoot now!

Then someone offered the suggestion, that maybe we should pack up and get out of there, because there are an awful lot of creepy holes everywhere, and maybe there are more snakes where these came from. Another person reminded everyone of the other snakes which we had all seen just moments ago, slithering off into the holes just over there; what if they come back? This caused a general commotion, and a flurry of activity, as folks hoisted their bags onto their backs, with some hikers starting off quickly down the trail without even strapping their bags in place.

Our group regained a semblance of order several hundred yards further on; Heather retook the lead and Tom brought up the rear once again. We walked in single-file to avoid any accidents, as the trail became very narrow, with a precipitous drop on our left-hand side. From the general conversation it was clear that the snake episode had done little to foster a sense of unity among us, but had rather acted more like a wedge in the midst of our fledgling community. Several members whispered amongst themselves that they had some doubts about leader Tom’s authority; others were appalled by old-man Mitch’s heartless cruelty. Barbara’s teenage son however, for the first time all day, was animated as he recounted the viper’s death scene in all its gory detail to his reluctant sister, who covered both ears with her hands, and sang at the top of her lungs to drown out his oration.

By evening, as we set up camp and ate our dinner, it seemed that folks had come around to the recognition that we are all in this together—for the next two weeks anyway—so we should make the best of it, and try to get along. Expert Tom never brought up his mistake about Rattlesnake Ridge, so we let the incident go without further reflection. After a good meal followed up by smores, we retired to our tents under a moonless night, as the dysphonic cackle of coyotes rose in the distance.

The next morning Heather called us together to give us the upcoming itinerary, with an important caveat that we’d be leaving the river late in the day, and cutting across open territory for the next twenty-four hours or so; with little opportunity for fresh water; so, when we get down to the river—which we’d be doing soon, in a few hours—we all should be sure to fill our water bottles to the brim, and plan on conserving. By morning of the day after tomorrow, we’d be back to the river’s edge, with all the water we can drink. One final thing, the water in this area isn’t safe to drink without treatment—it is filled with bacteria—so everyone should use the water-filters that either she or Tom had brought along with them—unless you want a bad case of the runs; which she wouldn’t recommend…since there’s no laundry service out here, and she doubts anyone packed enough underwear with them. We all laughed.

The second day was hotter than the first. The cool air from the nighttime lingered briefly but soon burned off entirely, and by lunchtime we all were baking; and any exposed skin was beginning to turn as red as the surrounding rocks. Thankfully we had finally reached the river, and most of us took a dip to cool off. Heather and Tom pulled out their water-filters. Old-man Mitch, along with his newly formed cohort—Steve, another old-timer, and a couple in their fifties, Trina & Randy—sat together at the river’s edge watching the rest of us floating and splashing. They weren’t interested in getting wet, or disrobing, and were happy just watching. Beckett and Samantha, or Sam as she preferred to be called—the young, nervous couple from the back of the Subaru—were hovering not far from Heather, in hopes of being first in line to use one of the water-filters. They looked a bit haggard from the heat, but the anxiety which showed in their eyes also enlivened them in a strange, beleaguered way, giving them both the appearance of insomniacs.

As folks were drying themselves off, a shriek and then an ensuing argument broke the relative quiet: Heather looked incredulously at Tom and asked him, “Why on earth would you just drop your pack there, on the other side of that rock, without looking first?! You dropped it right on the water-filter…you probably broke it!” To which Tom retorted, “Well, why the heck would you put the filter back there, hiding, where nobody can see it?!”

“To keep it safe, you moron!” She answered, rolling her eyes and throwing both arms up in the air, whipping her hands with a short flick and spreading her fingers for emphasis. She leaned over the rock and pushed the pack to the side, and pulled out the filter from underneath. Examining it closely, she shook her head quickly from side to side, as she tried to pull the handle up to release the plunger from the filter-body. She grimaced as she pulled harder on the handle, and the shaft came partly out before stopping again. She pushed and pulled several times, shaking it between attempts, before finally throwing it down, in disgust, against the rock—inadvertently, in her anger, making absolutely certain that it was broken. Tom, looked on coolly, with feigned nonchalance and drooping eyes, and asked her slowly, “Was that the best idea?” Beckett and Sam took several steps backward and looked at one another anxiously, and Beckett let out a nervous laugh. Heather closed her eyes and sighed deeply, letting her shoulders sag before answering, “No…no, that probably wasn’t.”

All eyes were on our guides and a hush had overtaken us, as we waited to see what would happen next. Tom stated the obvious, “Well, that filter is toast…but at least we still have mine.” He walked forward to his backpack and rummaged through it for a moment before pulling out the other water-filter. “Well folks!” He called out loudly, holding the filter up in the air and turning about in a circle. “We need to be very careful with this one, it’s all we’ve got!” Nobody laughed. But there were quite a few nervous glances between hikers, before Heather gave us an impromptu pep-talk:

“It’s okay, we’re going to be alright, better than alright…we’re gonna be great! These are the best filters on the market, and one can easily handle the demands of our entire group—and then some! It will only take a little longer with one filter than with two, but we’ve got time, so let’s line up and get going! Sooner we get our bottles filled up, the sooner we can get back on the trail!” No further mention was made about her unfortunate outburst, or Tom’s unfortunate carelessness. We all supposed it was just water under the bridge; if our leaders didn’t feel any further need to address it, then why should we?

As the members of our group were taking turns using the filter, old-man Mitch and his friends stayed seated were they were. Tom called out to them, saying they should bring their bottles over, to which Mitch answered that no, they were good, they didn’t need the filter, they were using Steve’s iodine tablets to disinfect their water.

“Woah! Wait a minute!” Heather exclaimed, and took a few steps towards the iodine contingent. “No! That’s not alright.” She emphasized the words as she looked around at the other members of our hiking community. “Folks, I want you all to know, iodine is not safe. That might have been something we used in the past, but you really should never resort to that means of disinfecting water anymore. Especially now that we have modern filtration which is far superior. At the very least, if you don’t have a filter, you should only use chlorine-dioxide tablets, they are safe, but never use iodine. It is extremely damaging to the thyroid.” She turned back towards Mitch and Steve, “I would really prefer it if you’d use the filter, I’m responsible for everyone here, and I just don’t want anyone to get hurt.” Steve looked as if he’d been caught with his hand in a cookie jar, but he quietly answered Heather, “I can understand that, I really do. But you know, I’ve been using iodine tablets to disinfect water since I was a kid, my dad always did it this way. And I’m fine, even after sixty years of it. Well, maybe I’m not fine, I’ll leave that up to others, but I feel fine!” Trina and Randy chuckled at this, and Trina added, “My grandfather used to take my brothers and I out on camping trips and he always used iodine too, and I turned out okay!”  

Heather looked at Tom, and he shrugged. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and negotiated, “Since you’ve already used the tabs in your bottles, go ahead and use it this time, but after this one time, let’s all just use the filter in the future, okay? It is much safer. Science has come a long way since you were kids you know. And I mean no disrespect by that. We just should follow the best practices, so that everyone will be okay out here. You don’t want us to have to carry you out of here, do you? That wouldn’t be fair to anyone.”

Mitch nodded approval, and the others followed. “We can play along. We’ll be model citizens from now on! Only water-filters from now on!” Heather smiled, and the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief, somehow feeling that we had dodged a potentially lethal bullet, aimed at the heart of our community.


The afternoon heat intensified, with the rays of the sun pummeling our bodies and eroding our resolve, and sapping our energy, so that each additional step, taking us moment-by-moment deeper into that desert wilderness, also seemed to stultify our minds, rendering us all temporarily dim-witted. Heather worked hard from the front of the line to keep us engaged with our surroundings, calling our attention to particular details of interest: the adaptive strategies of the desert milkweed, the beautiful and strange markings found on the wide variety of lizards indigenous to this part of the desert, and the amazing sense of smell which leads turkey vultures, like the ones up ahead, to dead animals. About a half hour later we passed by the carcass of a dead mammal—probably a coyote, though maybe a fox, Heather said—with several vultures gathered around it, sharing the meal.

As the afternoon wore on, the sun began its descent, which brought relief from the focused intensity of its light; all day long it had felt as though we were under the beam of an enormous magnifying glass, directed upon us by some demented child in the sky, who now was finally called home for supper—but the air around us still remained infernal. We entered a labyrinthine landscape of narrow gorges, with trails leading helter-skelter in all directions. Heather stopped to examine her trail-map more closely. As Barbara looked on from several paces away—taking small comfort in the thin shade of a scrappy looking little desert tree, which to my eye appeared already dead—she commented to her new friend, Thadia, and to the Subaru kids, about how lucky we all are to have someone like Heather to lead the way. She’d hate to be out here all alone without someone like Heather to follow, she’d be sure to end up like that coyote we passed earlier. After a few moments Heather took a look around, seemingly perplexed, but recognizing that all eyes were upon her, she smiled confidently and raised her head defiantly, to set our minds at ease. Barbara and Thadia smiled at one another and watched Heather expectantly. I found it all unsettling however; the look of bewilderment in her eyes, coupled with the determined set of her jaw, together left me feeling apprehensive. Was it decisive confusion that I saw on her face; or was it confused certainty? Either way, it didn’t feel comforting. For the first time, Heather looked to me like the type of leader that could confidently make a colossal blunder. Glancing at the others in our group, I caught the eye of one or two, who seemed silently to express my same concern, but most everyone else didn’t seem perturbed one bit, and they were ready to follow wherever Heather might lead us.

After one or two more quick glances at her map, Heather resolutely pointed the way up one of the trails leading off to our right, and then strode off in that direction. “Come along! Compadres! We’re almost there, just an hour more and we’ll make camp for the night. There’s a beautiful little grove of Emory Oak trees that we can camp under, you’ll love it!”

“Sounds delightful!” exclaimed Thadia. “I’m all in!” added Barbara. And the rest of us fell in line, and we snaked our way up the trail, reinvigorated by hopes of a nice evening under the trees.

But two hours later, we still hadn’t arrived at the promised oak grove, and we were getting impatient. Our feet were hot and tired, and our legs ached. What’s worse, several of us began complaining of upset stomachs and intestinal pain. Heather and Tom encouraged us to keep going—the oak grove was a little farther than they had remembered it—but we’d be there soon and then we could rest, have a nice meal, and get some sleep. But even after another half-hour of hiking—there were no oak trees in sight; and when Barbara’s daughter doubled over and threw up on her shoes, Heather decided it would be better to stop where we were for the night, and abandon the oak grove. We pitched our tents in a cluster, surrounded by several Saguaro Cactus and numerous little scrubby shrubs, which Tom identified as Foothill Palo Verde.

Heather spent a lot of time with Barbara’s daughter, Maggie, getting her first to lie down and put her feet up, and then to drink more water. But slowly—just sips—because she most likely was suffering from a bit of heat-stroke and probably dehydration. Barbara, very concerned, watched on gratefully from just behind Heather’s shoulder, as Heather tended to her sick daughter—placing a cool towel on her forehead and also behind her neck. After dinner, several more in our group complained of nausea, which alarmed Tom. He wondered aloud if we all had eaten something that had gone bad, but nobody could think what it might be, since we had only eaten trail-mix, power bars, and dried meat, none of which really seemed likely to have caused our symptoms. He concluded, as Heather had, that it must be slight dehydration and some heat-stroke; with the course of treatment being more water—taken slowly—and rest. We all tried to sleep that night, with varying degrees of success. I, for one, didn’t have a great night, but counted myself fortunate because I neither had to get up to puke, nor to relieve my bowels repeatedly, like some of the others did.

By morning, the mysterious malady had affected almost everyone, though some had begun to recover, while others looked to be getting worse. Conspicuously, a small contingent were unaffected—Steve, old-man Mitch, Trina and Randy all were as healthy as ever. Again, nobody else seemed interested in this fact, though it piqued my curiosity and led me to theorize upon the potential benefits of the much-maligned iodine tablet as an effective water treatment. And this caused me to question the preferred, modern and superior water-filter which Heather had advocated. But not wanting to cause any friction, I kept my thoughts to myself. However, I did quietly ask Tom if I could take a look at the filter, just out of curiosity, wondering how the remarkable thing worked. He handed it to me cautiously, reminding me to be very careful with it, and then he returned to his horizontal position, moaning a little as he lay there. Upon close inspection, it did appear that the filter casing had been damaged, with the screw-on cover slightly pulled-apart on one side. With a little effort I was able to unscrew the top and take a look at the insides. “Tom.” I whispered. “I’m no expert about these things, but this doesn’t look right to me. Here, inside this filter—take a look.” I said, and reached out to hand the opened filter back to him. He wasn’t pleased that I had disturbed him, and was upset that I had taken the top of the filter off, but when he peered inside, he gave a low whistle and shook his head. “Not good. This thing is definitely busted. See that tear in that membrane, water is going straight through it without getting filtered. This thing is toast!” He said out loud, and then more quietly, as he covered it under his sleeping bag, and looked around to make sure nobody had heard him. He called Heather over and showed her the filter. After her initial alarm, and after the two of them realized the source of our collective illness, she knew what had to be done. We needed good water after all.

Heather walked over to talk privately with Steve and old-man Mitch. I saw her gesturing and then Steve reached into his bag, and procured two large bottles while nodding to Heather. Next, she turned to face the group of tents and called out for everyone to gather around. Once we had dragged ourselves from our bags and were all within earshot she began: “Okay everyone, it seems we have some problems with our water. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but we need to refrain from using the filter. Now, don’t worry. It’s going to be just fine. It’s okay. Steve has iodine tablets and we’re going to treat everyone’s water using that. It’s going to be just fine. We’re going to get through this!”

“But wait,” Samantha spoke up. “You said iodine is dangerous and we shouldn’t use it.”

“Iodine is completely safe,” Heather reassured everyone. “No, you must have misunderstood me. Iodine is safe when taken for short periods of time, and in limited quantities. There is nothing at all to fear about using iodine to disinfect our water.” After some confusion, and perplexed looks on the part of many of us, we gathered up our water-bottles and let Steve drop the tablets in, one by one, as prescribed.

“Thank goodness Heather and Tom figured that out!” Commented Barbara; Thadia nodded in agreement. “I guess we were a little confused about using iodine,” she added, with obvious relief spreading across her face, “But I’m glad Heather clarified that, and told us we can use it now. That will really help us. What would we do without Heather?!”

Yes, that was an excellent question, I thought. I was beginning to think we might fare rather well without her. However, I know nothing about the desert, and for better or worse, Heather has more experience out here than we do. Surely, there are better leaders to be found, but Heather and Tom are the leadership we’ve got; so, in the words of Stephen Stills, adapted somewhat, “If you can’t be with the one you trust, honey; trust the one you’re with.” Maybe my standards are too high, after all, and a few mistakes with snakes and water-filters is to be expected when on an adventure in the desert wilderness. Additionally, nobody has died yet, so what am I complaining about? Yes, thanks to their best intentions—or in spite of them—we’ve fared fairly well thus far; and both Barbara and Thadia are clearly enamored by Heather, despite any perceived setbacks. The heat and the iodine must have begun to take a toll on me—why should I worry—just enjoy the journey I told myself; and yet, I felt a foreboding and slightly ominous cloud hanging over our community now, an uneasy and sticky feeling, like the sweat-drenched shirt clinging to my back, and I couldn’t shake it or ignore it, even in the midst of my growing delirium.

The next morning we broke camp and continued up the trail in hopes of meeting with the river again by the end of the day. Most of the sick were feeling better again, although several of us were still weak from having lost too many bodily fluids. We hiked slowly today. Even so, some stragglers still fell behind, and our numbers spread haphazardly across the barren and undulating desert floor. Heather, indefatigably, continued calling out to us and offering encouragement. Optimistically, we returned her call, giving the thumbs up, while gazing down at our tired feet trodding across the dusty landscape, carrying us further into the unknown. We stopped for lunch at a rocky outcropping, which provided minimal shade from the summer sun. Beckett and Sam weren’t looking too good, but by comparison they appeared the picture of health, when viewed with Barbara’s teenage daughter Maggie, who sat beside them on the rocks. Her brother Sean, had given up teasing her with gory stories of vipers slain. Instead, he looked worriedly at her out of the corner of his eye, while pretending to adjust his headphones, which appeared to be a permanent appendage upon his head.

The long afternoon passed slowly, and the wild sun seemed unwilling to leave the desert sky. I imagined that I could actually see solar flares flaming, and radiating outward from that violent orb, as it stood vibrant, silently protesting against the pale blue sky. I recalled to memory my thoughts when I had originally booked my place in this adventure, the excitement and anticipation I had of immersing myself—though safely guided—within the strangeness and innocent danger of the desert environs. This remembrance spurred me to gratitude as I hiked now, inspiring my emotions, and stimulating my senses to reach out to my surroundings, to allow the spare beauty of this empty land to embrace me. It was an indifferent and sterile embrace however, the desert didn’t seem to know I was there, or it knew but just didn’t care. I smiled to myself, to hide the terror I felt rising within me, from the knowledge that this world was indifferent to me and to my existence. Thankfully, I was not alone. I looked around me at the others sharing in this adventure—a rag-tag, motley assemblage of humanity, all bowed and hunched, and laid low by the bitter heat which pressed down on us, and from the sour water which had depleted us. Even so, we marched onward, even poor Maggie.

The girl was in bad shape. I could see that every step was difficult for her, but she was brave, and she summoned that inner strength that humans are known for, to meet the challenge. There comes a point, where even the bravest can go no further, but we hadn’t reached that point yet. We still had recourse to humor, that mainstay and bulwark against oppression, which gives one hope in the face of helplessness. As we are beaten down, irony rises up; and laughter in the face of defeat can heal us. Few things bind us together more closely—strengthening the bonds of brother and sisterhood—than a shared laugh in times of great trials. Taking these thoughts as inspiration, I began to sing for tired Maggie:

“Happy Trails…to you!…Until, we meet, again!…Who cares that there’s no clouds when we’re together; just sing a song and bring more sunny weather!!!” She cracked a smile; she knew irony—like we needed any more sun! I smiled, and sang a little more loudly for the others in our group, and a few joined in:

“Some trails are happy; and some are blue!…It’s the way you ride the trails that counts, this one’s for you!…Happy Trails to you!…until we meet again!!!”

Everyone laughed. I may be wrong, but it seemed that Maggie stepped more lively after that; and eventually—finally—the sun gave up for the day, and reluctantly began to set. A cooling breeze blew directly into our faces, and Heather declared that just ahead we’d reach the rim of the gorge, just there where the trail hooked sharply to the right, and from there we would be able to look down to the river. It would then be only a short descent, not longer than twenty minutes, to bring us to the water’s edge, where we would camp for the night, after a refreshing swim of course. It is hard to overestimate the relief her words provided to us then, as we each reveled in our private vision of those healing waters. What happened next however, is inestimable, the demoralizing effect it had on all of us, as the scene we encountered at the edge of the world, utterly deflated our hopes and blew up our inner visions of paradise. 

We came up to the edge of the gorge, each in our own time, one-by-one, each of us adding our own particular brand of surprise, anguish, bewilderment, or disorientation to the collective response, as we all gazed down searchingly into the canyon, down to its dry and arid bottom—a dusty and windswept channel where the river was supposed to be flowing.

“Motherfu****!” exclaimed Mitch. “Where is the river?!” cried Samantha, with Beckett feebly echoing her—but in an empty and droning soft little voice, devoid of all emotion, or rather, filled with the emotion of utter defeat.

Heather quickly pulled out her map and scanned it, craning her neck forward to get a closer look in the dwindling light. She then looked up again from her map, and scanned the canyon—searching desperately to the left and then to the right—then back down at the map, and then back into the gorge again; apparently she was trying to conjure up a river, magically, by sheer will and hope, with the help of her trusty map.  But her powers failed her, and the river continued to be not there. Often, in deserts, people see mirages, hopeful oases of lush foliage and refreshing waters, that aren’t truly there. But ours was the opposite, we only saw desert dryness in the place where water had been promised. Was it a lie? Or only a mistake? Another mistake in the desert, where we should come to expect mistakes; isn’t that correct? This one stung more than most; most of us were out of water by now, or very close. The last known source of water was a day, perhaps two days behind us, possibly even further, now that we were already so tired and dehydrated. It was not difficult to interpret the meanings of the expressions on the faces of our group members. For a long time nobody spoke, we stood in shocked silence, our bodies frozen and unable to move, though our minds were racing, and our thoughts were spinning wildly. It was no longer time to sing “Happy Trails”. No, we were now well past that point.

A tremendous gnashing of teeth ensued, not of the otherworldly disembodied type, like that spoken of in scripture; but of the worldly type, with choice expletives of a very earthy sort, with blame and accusations, and the pointing of fingers. Certainly our party’s bonhomie had been shattered; and even Barbara’s and Thadia’s unflinching devotion to Heather’s and Tom’s leadership appeared to have suffered a few cracks—manifesting silently and without overt demonstration—displayed only through their embarrassed aversion of the eyes and by their downcast glances. There were wide and disparate views on what—or who—exactly, got us into this mess, and everyone aired their opinions openly, with increasingly loud and strident tones of voice. Yet, underneath our clashing argumentation, there quietly arose a consensus experience among us—thirst—and extreme thirst; I first noticed it affecting the most vocal members of our community: the licking of lips, the smacking and clicking of the tongue, and abrupt, sudden silences of immense introspection—not brought about by clever repartee or witty rebuttals, but by the primal argument of a body with too little moisture inside.

I’m certain our bickering would have continued much longer, had it not been the end of a very long and very hot day; and had we not already been suffering from dehydration. Our complaints died down as each person one-by-one succumbed to their weariness, some of us collapsing to the earth and hanging our heads between our legs dejectedly, others of us leaning against a rock or a fellow hiker. In the waning light and shared silence, Heather meekly suggested that we should get down the trail soon, so we could set up camp before it became too dark. A dissenting voice questioned—why even hike to the bottom of the gorge at all? Since there wasn’t any water down there. Most agreed it was too far to go, and it would be better to set-up camp where we were, try to get some sleep tonight, and then in the morning decide what to do next.

The coyotes’ crazed cackling provided a deranged serenade as we tried to sleep that night—tossing and turning in our bags, or stretching a leg out the tent flap trying to cool off, some of us finally giving up the horizontal position altogether, and preferring to wander upright, near and far in the half-moonlight, like specters in the desert, silhouettes against the starry night sky.  We formed a nocturnal confederacy with the cacti; was it the liminal moonlight or delirium brought on by lack of water—something, opened the windows onto eternity, and it seemed that we were able to see into our far distant past, and see visions of our future. The sun rose, and then set. Was that a day; was it today? Or was it another day from long ago? I couldn’t be certain, and the others who wandered with me, seemed equally perplexed at the passage of time. How was it that my parents had joined the group; when had they arrived? How could they have? I wondered. They both had passed away long ago, or so I thought, but there they sat now, by the fire, enjoying themselves—toasting life, raising glasses with whoever else would join them. I smiled as I watched them, so happy to see them again, and so satisfied that they were enjoying themselves out here in the desert with us. Somebody popped a bottle of champagne and passed it around. It was the last bottle; we had drunk all the rest—dry—and there were no more. I remember someone saying we should conserve this bottle—be careful, and drink it slowly—it has to last us who knows how long, and the party is far from over. But there were more bottles back at the restaurant, only a day away; someone should run back and get some more and save the party. Yes! Get more champagne, and save the party! I cheered; and others cheered with me. Steve would go, and so would Sean, that boy with the funny antlers on his head; they were strong, so we gave them our empty bottles to return. Another guy went with them, there were so many bottles to take back, too many for only two men to carry alone. We wished them well and to hurry back. We all were thirsty, we needed more champagne.

I noticed the sun had risen. Again? How many times had it risen; it was too difficult to determine. Someone handed me the bottle of champagne, it was warm now, drink it slowly, and not too much. I nearly spit it out, it tasted like water, and maybe it was water…maybe it wasn’t champagne after all, maybe there wasn’t any champagne. I worried about my parents, I hadn’t seen them since the campfire that one night, and the desert is a dangerous place. I wanted to look for them, but I felt so tired; I decided to look for them later. I slept. When I awoke it was dark; the night had descended upon us again. And our party had revived; Steve and Sean had returned with the new bottles and everyone was drinking. There was quite a celebration: Tom and Thadia were singing, and Beckett sang along, while Randy and Trina danced around the fire, tripping and nearly falling into the flames. Tom and Samantha clapped along, and everyone kept drinking; some of us drank too fast and too much. Maggie, poor thing, threw up again; as did several others, including myself. It was like a dream, a vision from out of the deepest and darkest sleep—coming and then going. Again, I slept. When I awoke, it was light again; another morning had dawned.

The air was already thick and heavy with the heat of the coming day. It was hot, but I felt surprisingly refreshed. The delirium of the past, how many days?—had lifted; I felt clear-headed again. Looking around at the others dismantling their tents, and packing their bags with alacrity, it seemed that we all were restored to our previous state, before lack of water had taken its toll on us.  Tom called and gathered us around, and Heather informed us of a change of plan: instead of going further on this trail, we’d backtrack to the river and follow it out for a few days, and then turn around and return back to the trailhead, instead of making a round-trip as had been the original idea. Retracing our steps across the undulating desert floor was somehow comforting. Heather pointed out familiar rock formations and we nodded in recognition. Everyone seemed renewed in spirit as well as in body; embracing life with renewed vigor, having come through a close brush with death and survived. Had we nearly died back there? It was hard to say for certain. I for one was having trouble recalling the details of what had befallen us. Beckett and Samantha were giddy and talkative, nervously hopeful that the worst was behind them. Heather was back to calling out encouragements optimistically with gusto; and our group fell in line, raising arms in unison to give her our thumbs-up, as we marched across the parched landscape. New alliances had been formed through our collectively experienced trials. Steve nudged Sean and threw him off-balance as they hiked side-by-side; and they laughed together. For the first time, Sean’s electronic headgear was missing, presumably stashed into his backpack; so that he could actually hear and engage with his immediate surroundings. The change suited him. He smiled happily; that vacant stare with which he had begun our outing back at the trailhead now replaced with a joyful twinkle. Old-man Mitch had apparently earned Barbara’s respect and admiration—and vicariously, her friend Thadia’s approbation as well. Old-man Mitch had doted over Maggie, in her darkest hours, and thereby had gained this new-found status with her mother and her mother’s friend. Maggie herself had seemed to fall in love with this crusty old patriarch, and now followed close upon his steps, and clung to his every syllable; laughing at his purposely archaic turns of phrase and his acerbic wit, not to mention, his foul mouth, which shocked and amused her. Tom brought up the rear and yelled out a reminder, to keep hydrated, people, because it was going to be another hot one—perhaps the hottest day we’ve had so far.

Tom was right, the heat of the day was infernal. The air was stagnant, and dead still; nothing moved in the world around us. Our desert world seemed to be holding its breath—too hot to inhale, and too tired to exhale. I breathed the arid heat and it filled my lungs, searing my mucus membranes and my throat as it flowed in, and I wet my lips with just a little water from my bottle. It evaporated as quickly as I poured it in, leaving my lips drier than before. The ground was cracked and broken, and small puffs of dust swirled around my boots as I took each step. I looked up and saw two people up ahead, both bound from head to toe in bedsheets—as Bedouin nomads might look—with fabric layered in swirls around their heads and flowing down their backs, and wrapped around their torsos. But these two figures halted and stumbled as they went, bumping into one another, and staggering, so that they each looked more like mummies escaped from the tomb than adept desert tribesmen. A sheet fell to the ground and revealed their arms wrapped around one another’s waists as they walked; they held each other tight. I watched as they went, and it seemed as though one was carrying the other, but then afterward, it appeared that they reversed roles with the first being carried by the second. It was a strange and touching scene. Their movements were anything but efficient, as they leaned and careened forward, though their embrace also expressed a desperate, shared love which sheltered them from the careless and violent surroundings.

The strangest sight was a young man who had stripped to his underwear. He wore his backpack on his bare back and looked like a partially de-shelled crab, with red lanky limbs flailing in the stale air; or like a dehydrated tortoise as he craned his neck forward and up towards the sky, stretching and grimacing under the weight of his baggage. The extreme heat permeated my body, it consumed all of us, how could it not?—with nowhere to shelter. I felt myself baking in the depths of my being, and it bemused me. I no longer had any argument against the heat, I gave myself completely to it. The clarity of mind I had experienced earlier in the morning had long since vanished; it likely was an illusion or a mirage to begin with—it too evaporated in the heat—and I had no more use for it. I accepted my fate, and I too raised my face up to the sky, just as I saw that skinny, naked human-terrapin had done, and I let the sun scald my skin. We stumbled forward, into the desert day, and the cooling night remained far-off and remote; a distant expectation, or a faint memory.

Finally, we came to the edge of the earth, and the entrance to its bowels. The trail descended sharply down into a labyrinth of narrow gorges. The trail splintered into numerous directions, flanked on all sides by broken rocks, fallen boulders, and ragged-topped stony ruins—beaten by the sun and decaying—shattered by the millennia. Each path seemed as good as any other, or as evil. Heather chose one direction and we followed her, picking our way over fallen rocks; and burning our hands upon their jagged surfaces, as we groped our way along, and as we supported ourselves from falling under the weight of our bags. Tom suddenly suggested we turn, and descend to the left, away from the sun, and most certainly the way to the river. Heather bristled at his interference and countered that the way up to the right was the correct way forward. She reminded everyone that she was the guide with years of experience out here, to which he replied, that the last time he checked, he too was an experienced guide. In reply, Heather launched into a lengthy description in support of the direction she had chosen; to which, Tom expounded on the superior reasons he had for going the opposite way. For my part, I had great difficulty following either side’s argument, my mind having become thoroughly muddled by the extreme heat. I caught a few pieces of Heather’s reasoning: something about the degree of slope which the trail took up ahead, and the angle of the sun, all of which must have been very convincing, because I remember seeing many of our group nodding in approval. However, Tom’s logic also included some important facts about sedimentary rock, erosion, and the earth’s curvature, which was apparently equally compelling, because the same members in our group also nodded enthusiastically in support of Tom.

For a while we stood in silence, staring vacantly at the surrounding cliffs or up at the sky, waiting to hear what we should do. What was the final verdict?  Nobody seemed to know. Somebody suggested flipping a coin. Heather broke the silence by refusing to go in Tom’s direction, calling it utter stupidity, saying we should only go that way if we wanted to die of thirst. Tom woke up from a short nap he’d been taking standing up, slumped against a large rock—certainly brought on by the heat, I could surely relate—and countered that there was no way in hell he’d ever go the way Heather was suggesting, and with all due respect, she was an idiot to even think that way. Certainly the heat must be getting to her, and befuddling her reason, he said with a shrug. If anyone was dumb enough to believe her they were fine to go her way, but it was time to get a move on and he was going down to the left. Everyone agreed it was best to stick together and not to split up; but after a little further arguing, about half of us followed Heather and the other half followed Tom. I’m not sure who I followed, I just stuck close to Steve. Because I remembered that he carried the iodine tablets that we needed to disinfect our water.

The surrounding cliffs shielded the sun, which cast long, dark shadows down their faces and across our path. But the heat persisted, stubbornly refusing to dissipate, or to subside in order to bring us relief. Every surface radiated and returned to the air all the warmth they had accepted throughout the long, sunbaked day. I reached for my water bottle and held it up to the sky to observe its contents; there was not much left, it seemed. I couldn’t remember when I had drunk last, or how it came to be drained as it was. Heavy condensation on its inner surface obscured my view into the vessel, but I could feel it weighing gently in my hand, and it was much too light. I decided to save what was left. Nobody knew how much longer it would be until we reached the river. It was wise to conserve, I told myself, so you can imagine how disheartened I became, when in the next moment I greedily, inexplicably, opened my bottle and emptied its contents down my damaged throat. The water burned as it went down, and then it disappeared, presumably soaked up by my throat’s desiccated lining before ever a drop reached my stomach. I reached into the bottle with my finger extended, and swiped the insides, and then pulled it back out and licked it hopefully; but my tongue stuck to my finger, and I had to pull it off with my other hand. I looked down the darkened trail and it swayed from side to side. As the path lurched to the left I strode to the right, and when it swung back to the right I compensated by leaning back to my left. I made my way forward in this manner until the constant rocking made me nauseous and I fell forward, first landing briefly on my knees, and then my face planting into the dirt. My diaphragm convulsed, and I gagged upon nothing but my raw mucus membranes, choking and hacking until I grew too tired. I felt a hand on my back and someone helped me into a sitting position; and then I drank. Water. Just a little, not too fast, not too much, take it easy, that’s good. A little while later I was back on my feet again, propped up by a kindly neighbor, and walking slowly down the middle of the trail.

The night was suddenly overtaking us, as the sun finally set somewhere over the backside of the cliffs. I heard someone say that we hadn’t found the river yet; and it was beginning to get too dark to safely go much further. In the dim light just ahead I could see old-man Mitch, yes it was him, I could tell by his hat, and he was carrying something large in his arms. No, not something, it was someone; he was carrying a person. “We’re almost there, Maggie, you’re going to be fine, girl.” I heard him say soothingly.

Sometime later, perhaps an hour, perhaps two, though maybe only several minutes—I’m not certain—we came to an impasse, and our group had to stop. Just up ahead, the trail ended in a cataract of fallen rock which had covered the way entirely. Standing at the base of the tower of rock rising high in front of us, we were perplexed. With cliffs to our left and to our right, some members of our group turned around, and looked back up the trail that we had just traversed; and I could see them silently assessing the merits of a retreat. Others looked up, the only other way possible. I looked up along with them, into the darkening sky, but without any real thoughts formulating in my mind, but just a generalized awareness. I noticed vultures passing overhead, one or two coming briefly into view, sailing across the dusky sky. They vanished behind the cliffs, momentarily, and then they returned and crossed back the other way. They returned again, gliding beautifully amidst a gathering field of stars. Pretty things. I smiled as I watched, as they faded and vanished into the night sky.

“Mitch. My sister isn’t looking good.” I overheard Sean whisper to the old-man. “I seriously don’t know if she’ll make it through the night. We’ve got to get her out of here.”

The old man was silent for a while as he stared down at his boots. He looked about at the others in our group, and over at me, as I lay with my back propped up against a rock. “She’s not the only one in a bad way.” And then he looked intently back at the boy. “You still got that hand-crank charger I’ve seen you’ve been using? You keeping that cell phone of yours charged?”

“Of course,” Sean replied.

“We need to get some help.” Mitch said as he scanned the cliffs. He pointed to a spot over my left shoulder, suggesting they might climb up that way, where the cliff wasn’t so steep. If they could get up there to the top, maybe they could call for help.

Next, something seemingly miraculous happened; almost as if Mitch had conjured it up with the right combination of words, or simply by the asking with a pure heart and pure intent. We heard, right then as Mitch asked for help, voices in the distance coming towards us. Someone in our group called out to them, and they replied. Our spirits rose. It seemed the cavalry was finally coming at the most dramatic moment, upon the climax of our need, just like they often did in the western movies. We could see beams of light from their flashlights as they surveyed the cliffs. They were coming towards us from the other side of the cavalcade of rocks strewn across the trail; we could only see the light as it was cast upon the uppermost reaches of the surrounding rocks, and could only hear their voices muffled behind the tower of fallen stone. We told them we needed help; which, they did too. And that we were short on water; but, so were they. And we were looking for the way to the river but got lost along the way; and, so were they. Slowly, a sickening realization descended upon all of us and our hearts sank. “Heather, is that you?!” was asked from one side of the ruins. “Tom?!…shit!” was heard from behind the other side.

A sullen silence reigned, for quite some time after that, on both sides of the rocky ruins. Meanwhile, Mitch quickly recovered from the disappointment, and he coaxed Sean to get a move on, as they both gathered up a few things and then began their ascent of the nearby cliff, in hopes of making a call for help. Shortly after they left, I fell asleep.

In the night, rain began to fall—large, heavy drops which made a splash when they hit. I opened my mouth and let them cover my tongue, and trickle down my throat. They rolled off my forehead, and dripped into my ears. I felt them land on my eyelids, and I breathed in their freshness. They smelled like sweetness, and like life. Early in the morning, as light began to dawn, I looked up into a cloud-filled sky. It was a soft, light gray, though tinged with dark tones. Sharp light flashed across the summer sky, crashing against the cliff faces, and illuminating the depths where we dwelt; followed by baritone groans, and bass grumblings, which seemed to shake the sky above, and the earth below us. The vultures returned and appeared to be watching us as they circled. Round and round they went; I watched them through half-closed eyes. There were more of them now, it seemed to me. They looked like large, black blades, cutting circles through the white, cloudy sky. And they brought thunder in their wings—a loud, incessant thumping sound, slapping the air around us, repeatedly.

I closed my eyes, and still, I could hear them—flapping, thumping. And they wouldn’t go away. I suspected that I must be dying, and I remembered the carcass of that desert fox, or coyote that we had seen many days earlier. I shuddered to think of myself in the same predicament now, with the vultures gathering around to dine upon me. Exhaustion overtook me as I formed this repulsive image, and I gratefully drifted off, someplace between waking and slumber, and I floated there for a long while. I felt the vultures come for me. I felt them peck and pull at me, grabbing at my slack skin. And then I felt them carrying me, lifting me, raising me into the sky. But…strange. Do they actually do that? I forced my weary eyes open, as I floated up towards their frenetic circling orbits—black vultures, swirling rapidly in the summer sky.

In the midst of my stupor I could feel something foreign pierce my arm, and then the flow of a cool, invigorating fluid flowing up my arm, and then throughout my body. I turned my head to the side, from the place where I now lay, and gazed out through an open doorway at the cloudy sky beyond. Rain was falling, and splashing on the sill of the door, making tiny puddles on the floor of our aircraft suspended high above the desert floor. Clear fluid dripped from a bag hung above me, and it filled the tube which entered my arm. Beside me, within touching distance, someone else was lying, also with a tube in her arm, and a peaceful look of incomprehension on her face. Her eyes closed and she looked at peace—her soft features, softening even further. I gazed at her youthful face for quite some time; it brought me comfort. She looked like an angel.

She opened her eyes, taking some time to focus. I saw her eyes roll up, to the left, and to the right, as she attempted to take in our new accommodations; she tried to lift her head, but the weight appeared to be too much, and she gave up. I recognized her, but couldn’t remember how I knew her. She looked at me, staring into my eyes for a long time, without any apparent thought, emotion or recognition behind her gaze. And then she smiled a slight smile, while keeping her eyes locked upon mine. She tried to speak, opening her mouth only a sliver, and then resting, taking a shallow breath before closing her eyes again. I continued to watch her and thought she had fallen asleep. Then she opened her eyes, and smiled once more, while gazing intently into my own. This time she spoke—she sang actually—in a soft, faint voice, sweet and gently playful: “Happy trails…to us.”

Ah yes, I remembered now. Maggie. She was Maggie. Sweet girl, brave girl. Tenacious Maggie, with the ironic sense of humor. She was still looking at me after she had sung her line; and she was waiting. I couldn’t disappoint her. I sang for her, as best I could: “Who cares about the clouds when we’re together. Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.” She smiled broadly—and nearly laughed—and then she joined me; and together we finished: “Happy trails to you…until we meet, again!”

*  *  *

~FS