The Blind Leading the Blind
Chapter 8: The Blind Leading The Blind
Solitude was a welcome diversion for a time. But, soon, the apocalyptic crash of warfare overtook whatever quiescence I had managed to carve out for myself. There was no hope of peace amidst battle. Somehow I found the courage to stand and open my door to the chaos without. Immediately, a purposeful soldier grabbed my arm,
“Come on, we’re the last ones, we’ve gotta hurry.”
The impossibility of his words obscured their meaning. Last ones? Hurry? He couldn’t mean to take me into the trenches.
“Sir, I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else,” I tried to explain.
“Ain’t you one of the medics?” he stopped for a moment.
“Well, yes,” the excuse was already forming on my lips.
“Then you’re exactly the man I want,” he informed me impatiently, resuming his brusque pace with my arm in hand.
“I-I have something I need to do. I’ll meet you out there,” my attempts to break free of his grip were in vain.
“Listen, I don’t know if you’re fucking with me or just stupid but this ain’t the time.”
Oh, the hopeless predicament of the coward. Caught, once again, between my fear of humiliation and death. Only, this time, the choice appeared to be made already.
Insanity filled my world, external and internal, as we struggled towards the entrance of the monastery after picking up a medkit. Distant explosions, flashes of light and the smell of smoke. Men and women running in an endless, hopeless ecstacy, directionless and seemingly without purpose.
And then, breaking through the final barrier, we emerged into the hell I had sacrificed so much to avoid. The ground shuddered under the assault of mortars and the air vibrated with gunfire. All laws of logic and rules of rationality shattered themselves against the all too real nightmare to which we had decided to subject ourselves.
My companion tackled me into a nearby trench, ending my self-destructive train of thought. Did saving my life make up for endangering it to begin with?
“Look the fuck out! You can die after you’ve done your job!” he shouted over the dizzying roar.
How selfish of me to have narrowly avoided being shot.
I crawled along the trench, my pants soaking in the mire, with a disturbingly limited range of mental capacity. Some variation on blank panic and the alternating phrases “Oh shit!” and “This is it. I’m dead.” overwhelmed any coherent thought.
Screams of pain were the only sounds to make themselves heard above the weaponry. They too were the only communication which transcended, simultaneously, barriers of language and nationality. In death, all men are children of the same sun, one with the Earth from which Adam was raised.
But even guns and hellfire lose their especial horror after some time. It is perhaps the greatest human strength and most frightful condition of our existence that we can become accustomed to nearly anything.
But it was not the moment for these thoughts. I had a job to do. My faithful companion was shouting mutely into the din and though I could not make out the words his finger clearly pointed the way he wished me to go. I obeyed. Puncturing the Earth with my elbows, I drew the shell of a carcass which passed for my body forward one foot at a time. Foul smelling mud (or, at least, what I dearly hoped was mud) soon coated me. With not a small degree of surprise that death had not yet claimed me, I reached my goal.
The sight of a terribly injured soldier greeted me. Wounds and lacerations checkered his face and arms. Overcoming a moment of frozen shock, I began attending to him.
“Stay with me,” I urged the man, clasping his hand in mine.
“What’s your name?” he wheezed in response.
“What do you see, Jacque? Is it bad?”
A shuddering sigh enveloped my frame. I needn’t have even begun the examination to confirm the conclusion which was obvious upon cursory inspection. He had minutes to live, with or without my help. The only question now was whether they would be spent in fear and pain or with some degree of hope.
“With a little luck, you might just make it,” I smiled at him.
Something in that gesture must have rung false.
“No, I ain’t. I can hear it in your voice.”
This failure only served to further compound the self-evident futility of my efforts on the battlefield. It would do no good to attempt the redress of one lie with another.
“It’s not fair,” he grabbed my shoulder as tears began to flow.
“You don’t know shit!” he shouted, struggling to his feet.
The first soldier, upon recognizing the danger to which my patient was carelessly subjecting himself, rose as well and began sprinting over to tackle him back down.
Time slowed and every detail of the proceeding tragedy made itself discernible, perhaps in a conscious effort to mock my good intentions. A fountain of red erupted from the wouldbe hero’s chest, spilling the very source of his heroism onto the greedy ground. The heart from which his courage had risen paid the price for it. And all of this, of course, not only in vain but in senseless vain for the second man’s eyes were already dimming.
Was this not always the way of the world? And one wonders why only scoundrels and fools find their way to positions of influence and power when good men sacrifice themselves thus. In that moment, I flashed back once more to the memory of Peter and his murderous lunacy and regretted my judgement of him.
And just like that, I was alone.
Somehow, the impetuous chaos of battle seemed very far away. My job, I decided, had come to its natural conclusion. And, having just witnessed the display I had witnessed, heroism and sacrifice were not at all attractive paths.
But, where should I run? In many ways, this had become the central question of my life.
Peering through the smoke, I was able to discern the outline of a small hut not too far from my present position. It could be reached, with some effort, without exposing myself to certain death. Once I cleared the trenches, some nearby trees could provide sufficient cover.
It was easier said than done. A normal man, one with the strength of his convictions, might not have found it quite so painful. It might strike you, whomever has found his way to this text and by whatever means, as terribly laughable that a life such as mine should be clung to so dearly.
Despite several close calls, I was able to successfully navigate to that hut and collapse through its door. For several moments, my own wheezing breath was all that I was aware of. It came, therefore, as an intense shock when a female voice called out from the corner.
“What do you want?” its owner demanded, stepping over the spot in which I lay, and into my field of vision, with a gun outstretched.
“To be honest,” my thin, alien voice rasped, beginning a thought which had lurked at the edge of my brain for far too long, “I wouldn’t mind so much if you pulled that trigger.”
The weapon sank out of my field of view and was replaced by the woman’s face.
“You-you wanna die?” she was stunned.
“No, I don’t want to die,” I spoke as softly as a pillow. “But, I don’t care very much if I live.”
“But, it’s a sin,” she informed me gravely.
“Sin,” I scoffed. “Haven’t we the right to off ourselves if we wish?”
In one swift movement, and with a familiarity that belied our status as strangers, she clasped my hand in hers and helped me to my feet.
“What’s your name?”
I took my first definitive look at the room and was surprised to find it very nearly bare. A table, some chairs, a bed, a pantry. The necessities were there and not much else besides. In the dim candlelight which provided our only source of illumination, I strained to make out Sarah’s face. She was young. Her eyes were mud brown and etched with a melancholy characteristic of one many years her senior. The waves of her auburn hair were controlled in a tight bun pressed against her scalp. She was short, but gave the impression of one who was quite imposing.
“Why does a soldier like yourself want to die?” she asked, taking a seat at the table and motioning for me to do the same.
“I don’t want to die, but, well, you see, I don’t know if there’s any good reason to keep on living either. And, I should tell you, I am no soldier. I was in the trenches, yes, but as a medic, and only because I was forced there.”
“Our lives are not ours to give away,” she stared off into the distance, oddly silent on the second half of what I had said.
“Not ours to give away?” I could only repeat her response back.
“No, we don’t own this body, we borrow it from God.”
I had heard just about enough about God. “I come to you straight from the best argument against the existence of God one could find.”
“You don’t have to tell me. My husband died there,” Sarah pointed in the direction in which I had come. “He died fighting that very same war.”
And, it had to be admitted, my experience laying out the atheistic argument had not really been tested up until that point. My petulant protestations were quite shameful really.
“So? What sort of God would allow that?” I threw my typical argument out to the woman, and her response was with an elegance and grace one could scarcely believe she possessed. It was obvious she had taken her husband’s death quite hard. You could see it in her eyes, her face, the slight tremble of her hand against the table. In a word, she seemed broken. As broken and irredeemable as myself. The soul, when poisoned by the weight of the world, will corrupt the body and all who behold it will see that it is sick. This cannot be hidden. This was my fate. Sarah was carrying the opposite burden. Spiritually, there were none purer; it was this Earth which had worn her down. There are some of us not meant for it, I believe.
“When he died, I did not sleep for seven days. I did not eat, I hardly drank. I resigned myself to follow him. And, perhaps I may have done, had God not saved me. In the depths of despair, I felt His presence. I don’t know how to describe the pain I had felt, that horrible, wrenching feeling. Every conscious second since I had heard the news was unbearable suffering. More than anyone should ever experience in a lifetime.
“But, it seemed to be almost done. One more day until it was all over, I could feel it. And then, I felt Him in the room with me. He told me what I told you, ‘Our lives are not ours to give away.’ It was all so clear in that moment. I understood. We are loved, and we owe a debt for that love. All of us, without exception. Even me. I didn’t think that was possible, not ever again, to be loved like that. But, I felt it then, and I understood that whatever I had to endure to vindicate that love I would have to endure.
“It’s a deep and abiding love - the most all encompassing you could ever hope to know. And it’s possible for every one of us, no matter what we’ve done or how far we’ve fallen to embrace it, and allow it to embrace us.”
For the first time in as long as I could remember, the steady stream of refutation, always at hand just below the surface of my consciousness, dried up. There was no immediate response to what she had said, nor could there be. I would not understand it at the time, but it is obvious to me now that I had never really grasped the true depths of this sort of discussion.
And yet, after a minute to gather my thoughts, I made the effort just the same, absolutely sure of myself, as always.
“But, why was it necessary? Why did you need to endure any of it?”
Sarah smiled at me, and it was somehow more mournful than tears, “A deep and abiding love. It forgives every transgression, it heals every wound, and it repairs every heart. No one is turned away from the house of the Lord if they come to it with an open soul. Perhaps you have never tried it. Have you ever been fishing, Jacque?”
“And when you fish, do you sit beside the river waiting for the fish to jump into your hands?”
“Of course not,” I laughed.
“Nothing is given to us without effort, not in fishing and not in life.”
I didn’t think this was a true answer to my question, but before we could progress further into our conversation, the building shook, reminding us both of the inappropriate setting we had chosen for it.
“We should get out of here,” I told Sarah.
“Why?” she asked, sincerely.
“So we don’t get blown to pieces.”
“We’re safe here. God will protect us.”
“Okay, now this is getting ridiculous. You can’t just sit here and gamble that one of those shells isn’t going to hit us.”
“It’s no gamble. I have faith.”
“Faith will not save you from mortars!” I yelled, losing my patience.
“Look at me, Jacque. Am I gambling so very much, anyway?” she flashed that deep, sad smile again.
I stepped close to her before I could even realize what I was doing.
“Yes, of course,” my voice whispered, floating gently on the breeze.
“It doesn’t matter, because He will save me.”
There was a strange connection we shared then, and I can only assume she felt it too. I had lived every moment since my desertion feeling like half a man. It wasn’t merely a sensation of brokenness, but an overwhelming, blank emptiness. A piece of my soul had been stolen, or perhaps given voluntarily in exchange for life. But life without honor is not life - it is only existence.
Standing before Sarah, for just a moment, I felt human again. We mended each other, I think, temporarily undoing the terrible injury the grindstone of life had done to us. We regressed to that tabula rasa state of divine, infinite potential from which every mind is hewn, before it is corrupted by misery or dispair.
Without the power of telepathy, it is of course impossible to say with any degree of certainty if she felt something akin to what I felt, but I would like to believe that she did. Broken people need each other, for only together do we have a chance of being whole.
With the sounds of the seemingly impossibly continuing battle ringing in our ears we stepped closer to each other, and began to lean in to each other.
But, it was at that moment that Sarah’s faith was proved false, and the building was shattered into a thousand pieces by an errant armament. My vision exploded into shards of light and debris as I was flung bodily backwards, and fell for what felt like milenia, before connecting with the ground and having the air driven out of my frame.
Everything went dark, and I have no idea how much time passed before I woke.
When I did, it was with smoke in my lungs. I coughed, and stood up. The hill on which the hut had been no longer showed any trace of it. All that was left behind was a smoldering crater. I walked up to the edge and peered in. There was nothing left of the building or its occupant.
I searched for her for a long time and came up empty. Perhaps she had left. Perhaps she had died. I still don’t know.
An eerier possibility occurred to me. Had any of that actually happened? Was there ever a woman named Sarah who lived in a hut on a hill near the monastery? Or, was the entire preceding evening some kind of phantasmagoric hallucination?
I had learned so much from her. Could she be a figment of my imagination?
After a minute to absorb the full measure of what this development meant, I turned around and started the walk back to the monastery. The battle seemed to be over, and whether it had ended favorably or not didn’t seem to matter.
In whatever form she had existed, Sarah lived on in my memory. But, memory is a fragile thing, and I find myself forgetting her face. Slowly, the woman who once was and never would be again, or perhaps never was but could have been is beginning to fade into the timeless aether from which we all emerged and into which we will one day return. I dream sometimes of a return to that tabula rasa bliss she showed me one day, however briefly.
A line from the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream appeared in my mind,
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream...”