The below is an early (read: first), potential draft of the first chapter of a book that I’m currently working on. This is – as previously discussed – a chance for me to share some of my “other” writing projects. This first chapter is tentatively titled “Passing to Eternity.”
“And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work!” cried the preacher, sweat beading on his brow as he spoke. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last! Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.” The preacher’s words were fiery missives that seemed to cut through the air like bullets, lodging in the mind with distinctive force.
I tried to concentrate on his words rather than his forceful delivery style, but the heat and the oppressive presence of the parishioners packed in around me distracted me. Never one to remain calm and patient in the face of such petty annoyances, I fidgeted as the animated preacher continued to preach from the Book of Revelations, exhorting the true believers to prepare themselves for the coming of Armageddon as he whipped the faithful into a frenzy with deliberate gesticulations. It struck me that some part of Reverend Jeremiah Wheeler believed every word he said, but then Southern Baptists often took the words of the Bible quite literally. There were those who would have proclaimed him a walking cliché, but it struck me that anyone who did so would be selling the Reverend short. Looking into his aged eyes, I knew there had to be more to him than the face he showed the world.
I tried to fan myself with the order of service leaflet the usher had handed me, but my efforts were to no avail. I glanced beside me to my beautiful fiancée and tried to smile. Amanda Folsom, of course, was the reason I found myself in a Southern Baptist church in the little town of Addison, Alabama. As northerner with a strong bias for the east coast, I had been stubborn about visiting Amanda’s hometown, but her persistence had worn me down. She had informed me that she would refuse to marry me if I would not visit her family in Alabama. As I was very much in love with her, I acquiesced after putting up a token defense. Sometimes you have to sacrifice for those you love. My parents had taught me that much.
Amanda and I had met as college sophomores at Boston University. Though we came from totally different worlds, we were drawn towards each other. It took us three years and a great deal of prodding from our friends to realize that we were meant for each other, however. Now engaged, Amanda and I were as happy as we had ever been, although my current surroundings were serving to dampen my good mood. Never much for religion, I had come to Amanda’s old church with her out of a sense of duty, but I felt now that I had made a mistake. I had long hated the way that some people seemed to use their believe in God as a weapon to denigrate others.
In trying to force myself to be objective, I had to acknowledge that my study of medieval history in college had left me with a rather cynical view of organized religion. I understood only to well that the reality was a complicated one of course. Christianity had served as a civilizing force and had indeed done some good, but the historical record made it difficult for me to not weigh the Church’s sins equally on the scales of balance. Amanda’s right hand touched my arm, pulling me from my own thoughts. I smiled at her briefly as she brushed a lock of straw blond hair away from her face with her free hand. My eyes fixated on that stray lock of hair that seemed to have escaped the severe ponytail into which she had cajoled her hair. Part of me was struck by just how different it was from the carefree style in which she normally wore her hair.
Turning my head back to the front of the church, I tried to focus back in on Reverend Wheeler’s sermon. He was quoting now from Genesis, as he said, “Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” I remembered the passage from my youth.
My mother had told me tales of the Nephilim when I was a child, but I had dismissed it as yet another of her oddities. Despite her love for angels – which included the habit of collecting angel-themed trinkets of questionable value and aesthetic – I had never imagined my mother a religious woman. She never seemed to go to church, and though nominally a Christian, she never demonstrated a particular affinity for any given sect. More fascinated by the tales of angels and demons than the gospels of Jesus and more interested in the flowery and oft disturbing language of the Book of Revelations than she was in the Gospels of Jesus, my mother imparted in me a desire to understand the Bible not as a believer, but rather a scholar.
The sermon ended as I looked over at Amanda’s shining face, which seemed to glow from the slight sheen of sweat brought on by the heat. We stood up together to sing the closing hymn, and I kissed her forehead before the choir and the organist launched into a towering rendition of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. Amanda smiled up at me as the congregation joined in the song, and in that moment, I felt true happiness. All of the irritation of the crowded church and the moist heat seemed to melt away as the entire church sang. The Choir and Reverend Wheeler shuffled down the aisle and out of the church as the hymn continued. With the song’s end, people began to file out.
I took a long look at Amanda as I handed her purse to her after lifting it from the pew in which we had been sitting. She smiled and kissed me quickly before taking the purse from me. I marveled at how fabulous she looked in the simple sundress that she was wearing, and I silently reminded myself that the outfit was one benefit of having come to Alabama, for she rarely wore such things in Boston, preferring to “maintain a sophisticated look for a sophisticated city,” as she always said. I rarely bothered to remind her that we New Englanders were not as sophisticated as some of us pretended to be.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself, Gideon?” she asked with a playful smile as the two of us stepped out into the aisle amidst the crowd headed for the church’s exit.
“Well, Miss Folsom,” I replied with a droll and affected seriousness as I attempted to maintain a straight face, “if it is amenable to your father, I should like to come call upon you this evening.”
“Why, how forward of you Mister Wainwright,” she replied in a perfect southern accent as she batted her eyelashes at me. I couldn’t help but laugh.
I took her hand as we walked down the aisle toward the open door of the church. The light of the sun streamed down, illuminating the open portal in a fashion that struck me as rather like a painting you might see in a high-end art museum. I dismissed such thoughts as we slowly reached the door, the people in front of us taking their sweet time to speak to the Reverend as he greeted everyone at the exit. I too took his hand, shaking it with vigor, but my gaze went to the Reverend’s eyes. The sadness of those aging brown orbs struck me profoundly, and I wondered what they had seen to carry such a burden.
Amanda squeezed my arm, breaking me from my reverie, and with a quick nod, I released Reverend Wheeler’s hand. Amanda looked at my face, but I remained impassive as we descended the steps of the church. The first shot barely registered in my mind as it sounded, but I felt a sudden, intense eruption of pain as it connected with my right shoulder, jerking my body to the side with the force of the impact. As I stumbled, I again heard the report of a rifle, and I watched in horror as a crimson stain spread across Amanda’s chest. She looked at me in confusion before she gazed down at the gaping wound in her chest.
I tried to move toward her, to take her in my arms as I had so many times before, but the whole world moved in slow motion around me. The screams of the people around us barely registered as they ran for cover. I wondered in the eternity that passed as I reached out for Amanda if escape were possible. The thoughts that passed through my mind in those interminable moments were vivid but fleeting, as elusive as the strands of time itself.
Another shot rang out. Amanda fell, the bullet striking her in the forehead. She crumpled to the ground as I reached her. A rational mind would have understood that it was too late, but such rationality had fled me already. As I reached her, another bullet struck me, this time in the abdomen. I spun half way around, falling to my knees beside Amanda. The life that had filled her eyes only moments before had fled already. I tried to scream, to cry out, but I could not tell whether any audible sound issued forth. A third shot struck me in the left shoulder. I could feel no pain though my body jerked with the impact of the bullet. I had no idea how many shots had been fired as I tried to pull Amanda’s limp form into my lap.
All around me, people moved, their arms and legs becoming an indistinguishable blur to my quickly fading mind. I heard the rifle fire once again, though I perceived no evidence of where the shot went or even where it came from. I brushed the stray lock of hair from Amanda’s face and spoke her name as though I had the power to call her back from death. No such miracle occurred, however, as a fourth shot struck me in the chest.
As my lungs filled with blood, I felt the sudden insight that I would die. Such a thought should have occurred to me before, but somehow my mind had denied that possibility. Never had I considered the possibility that my life might be cut short with such violence. Did I not deserve to die of old age? Why should my fate be to die a random death on the steps of a church? I could sense now people gathering around me as my eyes closed and my body slumped.
My life did not flash before my eyes as I died. Instead, I saw nothing but the darkness of oblivion. Humanity fears death – the end of existence in the mortal world. The unknown obliterates the familiar certainty of daily life. I would be lying if I said I understand what humans go through. I never had the chance to learn what happens when a mortal dies, because for me, death was simply a new beginning.