When the first domino fell, all the others came clattering down, and they did not stop until my life was in shambles.
It was Friday afternoon. My wife and the kids had all piled into the car hours ago. Barbara had driven halfway across the state, taking the kids to visit their grandparents for the weekend. She had called to tell me that they had arrived safely, were tired, and that she would call me the following evening.
I was humming; I had the whole house to myself, as I sat on the couch reading a magazine article in absolute peace. Meanwhile the television played quietly in the background. I finished my article just in time to catch the evening news, so I got up to go change the channel.
I had only walked a few steps when the sharp pains stopped me in my tracks. It felt as if I had taken a lightning bolt strike to the center of my chest. I instinctively clutched at my breast with my arm and a claw of a hand. Then I felt my knees give way, and my body went slack, and I fell to the floor. My head struck the surface with such a jolting collision, that it knocked me senseless.
After the fall, my mind merely registered blackness. As my brain labored to think thick thoughts, my mind soon succumbed to fatigue, and my awareness dwindled. I descended deeper and deeper into the darkness of my mind, finally slipping beneath the surface of a pool of nothingness.
After a long period of torpor, my mind flickered with activity, and I began to dream. In my dream, an utter absence of light produced an oppressive blackness that swallowed up everything for as far as I could see.
I found myself lost in what seemed to be a huge, stony valley. I wandered about like a blind man, staggering aimlessly across the rocky basin, in a cold sweat, my mind ruminating, wondering if I was walking in circles. I pushed myself onward, persevering for three grueling days.
My legs became so heavy that I stopped and I put my hands on my knees. I panted trying to catch my breath. I thought how nice it would be, just to stop wandering in doubt. I would rest, if only for a moment, and then press on.
I sat down on the rough rock bottom of the desolate valley. But I could not calm my restless thoughts. I was trembling, so I drew my knees into my chest and I wrapped my arms around them. In my ruminations, I was rocking myself back and forth.
I decided that I was not going to get up and walk anymore. I bit my lower lip, as shook my head; a single tear rolled down my cheek. I did not wipe it off.
I spoke to myself saying, “You can do this, the worst part is being afraid. Everything else will take care of itself; you just try not to be so afraid.”
I rocked back and forth, and took some peace in the rhythm. I still had an uneasy pang in my gut but not as much as before. I tried not to think while I rocked, knowing that I would be alone when I died in the darkness. Inside I hung heavy and felt empty.
Then I saw it out of the corner of my eye, and my heart leapt with joy—it was the soft glow of a single candle burning. It rested in an antiquated candleholder, the kind with a ring for the finger. I noticed that the holder lay precariously, sitting askew atop the small rocks that lay scattered all about. I stared into the yellow flame. It was the only point of light in an infinite sea of ebony.
I anxiously watched yellow tongue quiver, and when the gentle breeze blew, it pushed the spitting flame all the way over on its side, where it hung tremulously, clinging to the wick.
I realized that the candle was a dream symbol. It was the candle of my life force, and that delicate flame represented my mortal existence, a thing so vulnerable, and so easily snuffed out forever. At this realization, I became terrified that something would blow out the flame, and I would die. I mentally anguished as I stirred in my dream.
Quite startled, my body jerked, and I gasped coming out of the nightmare. I soon realized that it was all just a terrible dream, and as I lay there with my eyes closed, the tightness in my chest faded as my heartbeat slowed down to a regular rhytm.
My thoughts were finally clearing up. I was fully aware that I had suffered a massive heart attack. I still remembered falling and hitting my head on the living room floor. When I opened my eyes, I could not see anything. In fact, I could not even detect light. I concluded that when I fell, that I had received a head trauma. I was suddenly alarmed, but I calmed down when recalled reading that a severe concussion can result in a temporary, but complete loss of vision. It was a minor injury and the sight usually returned completely.
But then my mind dredged up the two worst words for a worrisome person, “what if…” My immediate thought was “what if it was not a simple concussion?”
After all, I had suffered a major cardiovascular accident, what if I also suffered a stroke.
What if the blow to the head caused massive bleeding in the brain, and resulted in partial brain damage? Suddenly a sense of panic completely overcame me, and I feared that I might well be permanently blind.
With no one at home when I fell, I wondered how long I had been lying on the living room floor unconscious.
Then I realized that I was not actually lying on the living room floor any longer. Having suffered a heart attack, my first thought was that the house cleaner had come in Saturday morning, found me lying unconscious on the living room carpet and called 911.
I naturally assumed that I was in the hospital. I yelled out, “Nurse! For God’s sake, help!” There was no response. I wondered what kind of a hospital this was. Then I began to think I might not even be in a hospital. My suspicions quickly grew. If I was in a hospital, why was it that I smelled none of the distinctive disinfectants or the odor sickness, urine, and disease? I felt no IVs in my arms. I heard no speaker pages for doctors or nurses. In fact, I heard nothing at all. There was a profound silence about.
I was lying on my back on a very hard surface. I swept an arm aside in my world of darkness, and scattered away bits of rubble with a clattering. I inhaled the air deeply; it was as cold as the air from a freezer. Except for the fact that the air smelled appallingly musty, stale, and like years of dust hung within it.
I had no I idea where I was. It seemed like I lay on a cement floor of a building under construction. But the floor was not smooth concrete like in construction, it was hard stone, and its surface was very rough. Also, the flooring lay littered with what felt like small, porous rocks.
That was when I had a crazy recollection. I remembered enrolling in spelunking, or cave exploring, thirty years ago in college, to blow off the physical education requirement. I had been in a few caves, and as ridiculous as it seemed, I had very serious thoughts that I was laying on my back inside the depths of a pitch-black black cave, as opposed to something civilized
I sat up, I found my footing, and I stood up on the rough rock floor. I walked about carefully, using my hands to feel about the dark, and stepped cautiously among the scattered stones that rolled and crunched under my feet. I was very curious to ascertain the physical nature of my mysterious environment.
It was darker than any lack of light I had ever experienced. I immediately assumed I was in a colossal cave, one immeasurably far beneath the surface of the earth, which would explain the cutting cold that burned my ears and bit at my nostrils.
However, after surveying with my hands, I felt no walls of any kind in the cavernous void. I felt no stalactites hanging either. Most importantly, unlike any other cave, this place had no evidence of harboring any life. There was no proof of bat guano on the flooring, nor did I smell its distinctive odor. I found no moss, lichens, or slime on the floor. I felt no insects moving among the loose stones. I heard no dripping or trickle of water. And despite the bitter cold, I touched no ice anywhere. Lastly, a deafening silence hung in the air. There was no life in this dark, cavernous realm.
I concluded this desolate rock expanse was not any one of the many different known types of caves. I was certain of this conclusion because the air had such ancientness about it, as if no pair of lungs had ever breathed it before. All caves have at least one or more entrances and exits—air can enter into a cave from the outside. It is drawn and moved within caves by natural forces of pressure.
But the air in this black abyss did not smell like any cave. I had no idea how it came to be inside this place. I was positive it did not contain any air that had once existed externally. This stony hollow was undeniably self-contained; it existed as an isolated, vast hollow space— bordered by airtight granite on every side. There was simply no way into this strange realm. And consequently, there was no way out. That was the only possible explanation as to why this place harbored no life.
But with no way in and no way out, how did I wind up inside of here?
This damned place reminded me of a poem I read long ago. I could only remember one line of its prose.
…Oh, frightful black void, in this realm of plucked out eyes, what bone-chilling cold, like unseen frost cuts at my face. Oh baleful circumstances, why do you conspire against me and engulf me like a tomb…
Recalling that verse to mind, my hands began to tremble. The poem brought on a superstitious dread of my surroundings. The longer that I had been in the dark, the more wary I had become of this dark abode.
Soon an eerie unrest coursed through my veins. In my mind arose a nagging feeling—something was different…some change had occurred. One unsaid word lay silent on my tongue, “caution.” I blew warm breaths into my cold, cupped hands, trying to draw the numbness out of my fingers. Suddenly I stopped, my breath was silent, and I felt my heart pump harder, like a fist clenching inside my chest.
I could never explain or make reason of my sixth sense, but when I focused deeply, I could detect and feel the presence of things that I could not see with my eyes; dangers, which came lurking within close physical proximity to me.
As the moments passed, I strained, intensely, concentrating on the open space about me. I listened for any sounds within the silence; I strained to “feel” for any movement within the black curtains of dread that hung everywhere.
I felt my sixth sense arise with a tingling that always produced a state of heightened vigilance. Someone was in the dark lair with me. My concentration radiated outwards like invisible concentric circles of energy. Then my mental awareness quickly wrapped around him like an invisible net. I sensed his form for a split second—arms, legs, upright, tall.
Who is this, is he lost in the blackness here as I am? Perhaps I should call out to him.
I heard the quiet crunching of slow steps on the floor. Surely, he had to take careful steps, so as not to fall, wandering blind in this darkness such as I did.
But my gut reaction was not to call out. I did not wish to alert him as to my awareness, so I did not make a sound. He was carefully stepping towards me from behind. I did not turn back towards him, as my feet would have made sounds if I twisted.
He drew in close upon me, and then suddenly halted directly behind me. He stood as still and as silent as a statue. I did not move. I did not even breathe.
We were obviously both aware of each other’s presence, as we remained frozen in the blackness. The silence between us was deafening. I wondered what his intentions were. If he had wanted to seize me, he surely would have by done so by now. Perhaps he sensed that I was a danger to him. I thought it best quietly to speak to him, in calm, reassuring voice,
But before I did, I felt an intense, unyielding stare on the back of my neck.
He does see in the black!
His abnormal ability to see me struck me as so disconcerting that it sent a shudder through me.
If he could see me and yet did not call out to me, then I had to consider him hostile in nature. Yet he stood like a stone right behind me. Another moment passed us in silence.
Then I felt something like a weak electric field tingle past my ear. I sensed what seemed like a huge hand as it reached around my neck and face from behind. The hand was much too big to be dark that of a man. It was that of a great beast. I wondered how a beast came to be inside this closed bubble within a sea of granite. Did some force transport him here as it had done to me.
This was perhaps the only thing here which possessed life But in this dead place, the only living creature? What would he eat to survive?
I felt the creature holding its bestial palm just shy of my mouth. Whatever this thing was, it was taking great care not to touch me.
Maybe the creature was planning to suffocate me. Or more perversely, maybe this beast was studying me, and amusing itself with the power it had over me. I could not deny my senses. I became convinced this thing was curiously measuring me up and nettling me, much like a child would do with an insect.
Tingling sensations crept about my face and cheeks. I perceived that the creature had extended a long bony finger and was lustfully tracing along the contours of my face.
It was almost a form of torture; the beast was eliciting feelings in me, heightening my fright, keeping my mind unclear of what the beast wanted of me—all this accomplished simply by not touching me.
But why was a brute stalking me in this isolated hollow lair? Was it just to toy with me as a creature insignificant in his eyes? Unless this creature… this beast so near to me in the bowels of this abyss… of course it must be…
The hand withdrew and disappeared behind my back. It had satisfied its curiosity; it decided that for the time being that I was not a hazard. It easily could have killed me. Hopefully he would leave, having grown bored with me
I immediately jerked, coming out of my thoughts. I felt something! It was a cold sensation… I felt it again. In the numbness of terror, I realized the monster had extended one of its bony fingers and tapped me on the nape of my neck two times. That odious appendage, having been chilly upon my neck, made we want to wretch!
Suddenly, the beast roared behind me furiously, I jumped in my tracks, terrified. The bestial snarl came accompanied with a rattling knock that reverberated like a tiger in the jungle.
Panic overtook my mind. I suddenly knew what it ate to stay alive. How could I have been so stupid?
Every man’s mortal life is a debt he must pay back when it is time. Yet no one wants to die. I did not want to die either. I stumbled ahead in the dark, stones rolling beneath my feet as I tried not to fall. The beads of sweat on my face were as cold as my panic.
Yet the brute knew I was vulnerable, and he followed my every step, cruelly, by waiting to slay me. He followed me patiently as I grew weary. I supposed he enjoyed seeing the panic in me. I knew that that he would follow, relentlessly, and when I was to weary too continue, only then he would finally seize and devour me.
My mortal life’s tenacity, and the instinct to live, forced me to press onward blindly. My legs grew heavy and I was losing my footing as I tried to flee. How much longer could I stave this monster off, in my blindness, and in my state of weakness? I was surely doomed.
But then suddenly, there in the infinite black—I saw a small spot of glorious light, it was just ahead of me. I ran towards the source.
Much to my astonishment, I recognized that I was looking at my candle of life…the symbol from my dream, and it was resting in its iron holder sitting on the stony floor just as I had dreamt it. The fluttering flame of my mortal existence was still burning. I was still alive!
But then my heart sank as I heard the monster swiftly coming up from behind me. He inhaled, and the sound of rattling, strings of mucous knocked as his lungs pulled in the icy air. My foe held his foul breath and prepared to spew it from his cracked lips, in order to snuff out my candle. It blew the stream of cold black air from his lungs forcefully. The repulsive breath hit my back and deflected around me.
Looking down before my feet, my flame of life still burned! The beast growled behind me with a primeval rage. Looking past my candle on the floor, I saw even more light. A few steps ahead of me, I detected a brilliant rising vertical line of radiant light. The line of light surged brighter.
The beast immediately took several steps back as if scared of this light. Then he turned and walked away. The crunching of the stones beneath his feet got quieter and quieter until he was so far away that I could not hear his footsteps.
Feeling safe and intensely curious I approached the line of illumination and found that it was actually the crack at the opening between two massive metal doors. I pushed at the doors with all of my might, and as they slowly opened, the dark cold lair was breached with divine, life-giving light. This light was as warm, blessed, and as alluring as the sun.
I walked forward into the vast glowing chamber of safety. Never again would I suffer in darkness. Never again would I shiver in the cold.
I turned back one last time to look into the shadows of the dark abyss. That was the one and only time I saw the monster with my own eyes—the beast was Death himself. What an atrocity to the senses he was. Utterly vile and repugnant, he stared at me with cold black eyes and curved venomous fangs.
The infamous reaper of mortal life was standing just shy of the light. My fear of Death faded as I saw that he would not approach the light from the shadows. The brute seemed petrified of the lighted chamber.
Death did not appear angry, and instead of roaring at me, he coolly regarded me. For a moment, he was silent. And then he looked me and seemed to laugh aloud, in deep shudders of a croaking, then he turned away and slowly walked back into his dark abode.
I gasped in fear. I realized I had walked through the metal doors into the hall of light, and foolishly left my burning candle behind in Death’s lair, unprotected. Death slowly moved toward it, he inhaled, and then blew out a stream of air. I watched helplessly as trembling tongue of fire began to ripple and flutter. Then the flame of my mortal existence disappeared into the blackness, snuffed out forever.
I immediately panicked, and in a surreal numbness, my stomach sunk in a twinge of hopeless disbelief. Ten seconds of sheer fright consumed me. And unexpectedly I realized that I was unharmed. I was still alive. The sacred glowing light inside the chamber saved my life. I realized I had beaten Death. I said nothing and in the shadows Death turned his head back to look at me. But I could not help myself, and I laughed out loud at him.
That was the only time that he approached the light. Grimacing into it, he approached the light. He grabbed the metal doors, pulled hard at them, and they crashed shut between the two of us. Safely inside the chamber, I had no more worries about Death. There was a universe of living light about me; the chamber produced much more light and life than all the souls on earth would ever need. I walked further into the illumination and it began to pulse as it surged brighter. As I basked in the light, it grew exponentially in its intensity. The brilliant radiance grew warm.
That is when I heard a countless number high clamors start to sound. The many tones seemed as if a great chorus was warming up to play. Soon there was a massive increase in volume. There came a high vibrant range, a myriad of tenors—a sound like ten thousand trumpets.
Next, joining in, the din of thousands of piano wires all pulled too tight, then plucked, in dissonance. Then a tremulous cacophony—like countless fingernails screeching across a massive chalkboard. The squealing of the nails was sickening. The sum of the complete series of unsettling sounds unified and became recognizable. It was an unendurable symphony; the paramount agony of millions of hideous, screams, cries, and blood curdling shrieks.
Then I understood the chamber for what it really was.
The golden brilliance inside the grand chamber burst into a raging inferno of conflagrations, and rolling flames rose up in the air. All around me within the flames were a perilous number of molten pits; they boiled, and vomited up liquid stone and the stink of burning sulfur gasses.
A fissure cracked open in the floor beneath my feet and a volatile blaze came from within. Flames wrapped around my form like serpents and a burning cocoon of flames consumed me.
All I could think of was running, dropping to roll on the floor, and snuff out the unbearable flames. However, I dared not move near the pits of fire. For in all the burning sulfur pools, I saw flailing skeletons hopelessly more doomed than I was.
Those were the poorest wretches, those souls who ran in fear, and fell into the hellish sinkholes. They had become nothing but blazing frameworks of animated bones. The screaming skeletons wailed inconsolably. Their outcries were beyond what a scream should contain. Their skulls bobbed at the surface of the magma, tilting their cervical vertebrae backwards, and their jowls yawned cavernously, gasping for breaths of air.
Occasionally, a few carcasses managed to grasp the sides of the spewing sulfur pits. Skeletal hands arose, reached out to the edge, and the poor devils pulled themselves up to rest on the bones of their forearms.
Imploringly the skeletons held their arms out to me, begging me to pull them out of the flaming pools. The bony hands of panicking ones grasped wildly for my legs. I knew I must not move. I knew I must never run, no matter how afraid I was. I would surely be in one of the pits if I ran. The best things to do were to stand still and simply endure the searing flames as they consumed me.
Some of the damned were not in the pits and these skeletons bumped me as they clambered past. These ones ran wildly in a panic, wailing aloud as their bones burned until they became dry and cracked with a pop; others were seized when blazes exploded, taking them into the air with the rising inferno.
The longer I stood there in flames, burning, the more I began to escalate into a wild panic. As I burned, languishing in agony, I smelled my flesh burning, and it began sloughing off of my bones like sheets of melting wax. In all the fear, I went mad. I could not help myself. And I began to run.
I am one of the countless runners in Hell now. We all shriek wretchedly to no avail. All we live for is to run away from the inescapable fires and try to jump over the molten pits. Some of us run and dodge the exploding flames, like soldiers running into mortar fire, and others fall and drown in the boiling hellholes. So hideous is all the howling that it commits an offence against the mind. All here have abandoned hope. For us there is only panic, screaming, and torment beyond bearing.
Yet for all the fire that consumed me, I would not die. Never spared the agony, I felt everything. But this made no sense as Death snuffed my candle of life. I should be dead. And then I realized that I was eternally dead and that I was going to burn here infinitely.
I cried out to God, praying for mercy and forgiveness. I said he was a merciful God, and I plead, begging him to spare me this burden, an existence that I could not possibly bear. In sheer terror, I waited for an answer to my prayer of genuine remorse and shame.
And God was stony silent.