John Rambo had promised himself a lot of things.
First, that heartbreak was far more painful than any form of torture that he could've imagined- far worse than any war wounds he could've sustained in Vietnam or along the banks of the Burma. It was far more painful than anything he'd ever known in his life as a highly trained, full-blooded combat soldier. He imagined it was almost as painful as the thorn in Paul's side, mentioned in scripture – it wasn't the actual wound that hurt itself, but it was the reminder; the ever-present reminder that it was there that killed.
Second, that he'd played with fire one too many times, experienced one too many burns to go back and play with it again. John had resigned himself to the fact that he was a man meant to live without anyone – meant to be alone and be unlovable, be the man to put himself on the line and risk dying when other's couldn't risk to die. It was like an entrancing spell playing over and over in his mind that was binding him, slowly killing his resolve to live, to continue here in this jungle, and fighting these serpents that God himself had cursed. Maybe that's what had happened: God had cursed him and his life was a result of that curse. This life was a result.
Third, that he felt like lost; in a sense of hopelessness and darkness so thick it was suffocating him with memories, like a damp cloth forced over his face only to trick him into dying. Because, John Rambo knew that he was dying. He could feel it in his soul, like someone had taken a knife to him and was slowly, ever so slowly turning it and carving his heart to pieces. He felt like a beast lost in the blackness of his own state that he refused to be found by anyone. God had abandoned him, his hands so bloody God had withdrawn His own.
He'd promised himself a lot.
And, as such, he'd come to the fact that he was meant to walk the earth alone – that with him died his name, his legacy, and what was left of his soul – if monsters like him were allowed a soul. John felt as if it had been ripped out of him a long time ago and now he'd just forgotten what having a soul felt like. He felt untouchable, like a leper; untouchable and without hope, dying of a disease that had been killing him so long.
As a result of such things, he'd promised himself he'd never love again, because love was dangerous – far more dangerous than any wars. It was dangerous for him; because he'd been burned by love before, for others; because he was loose cannon that no one could contain. Killing was as easy as breathing, sometimes easier when he was drowning in his own guilt's, his own concerns, his own despair. It was far easier to kill than to breathe when memories came back to haunt you and took you captive. After all, beasts needed to kill to keep on breathing, otherwise they'd die.
In all of this, however, he desired to know completeness. To be rid of this loneliness, this darkness, this deep place within him that had consumed his thoughts. He remembered times when he wasn't this monster, this beast with bloody hands and a cursed existence – he remembered times, deep within himself, that he had loved people, that he had been loved. That he knew what peace was, that he hadn't killed to breathe, that he hadn't been caged in blackness. He remembered light – walking in it and experiencing its wholeness. He remembered lovingness and kindness, a soft and gentle voice inside him that had pressed him to love, to laugh, to live. A soft voice that had given him meaning, worth. A soft voice that had guided him when he'd been lost. He remembered this, but hadn't experienced it in so long that he'd forced himself to believe it had been all a dream.
But now the only voices were the ones in the night, reminding him of whom he was and the blackness of his soul. The beastliness of his existence.
He released the thick python from his hands, the animal jerking away as if he were the plague, a threat that was bigger than its constricting powers. It stared at him with thick, betraying eyes, throwing a haunting familiarity at his soul. Briefly, John wondered if that's what the feeling Adam had as Eve stared into his eyes, the serpent over her shoulder, making him question everything he knew about himself and his life. Turning from the serpent, he edged between the shelves containing all the serpent's he'd mastered in his lifetime of riding the river for new prospects.
He bent and wrapped his hands around an empty, thick crate and lifted it on strong legs. Turning, he was about to set it on top of another crate when his eyes caught the doorway and his body tensed, frozen in place. Something within him stopped everything – every dark thought, every dark instinct, every piece of blackness that had enveloped him. He took in the figure in the doorway, wondering how on earth someone had been able to come up behind him without him even thinking about it – and why this person was dripping wet in his doorway. They stood there, the two of them, for a few moments before he roughly set the crate down and the figure came walking into the room. Tossing a look over their shoulder, they checked outside. Satisfied, the figure came into the room.
Heavy footsteps were quick across the floor, darting; as if unsure of how or why they'd come here. Booted, they rattled the boards which made up the floor of the storage shed. He looked from them and up, following the legs until his eyes landed at the owner's own two. They were wide, exhausted looking, and panicked – scanning the room quickly as if calculating. His brow furrowed, curiosity piqued – as was his caution. What was this person doing here? He didn't like visitors.
This person, a woman; dishevelled with a sheen coat of sweat covering her skin, was filthy in mud head to toe. Water lines came up above her breasts then stopped – he realized she was wet because she'd been in the river. Her hair was pulled up into a messy, knotted bun, with a bandana tied around her forehead, much like he himself wore, and she had a cross around her neck. A rag – he was guessing maybe a filthy shirt – was wrapped around her right arm, wet and dried with blood. Her expression was hard, and he noted the bow around her shoulders, a quiver complimenting it on her back.
There was silence between them when she stopped, having come close enough to the stranger in the snake village. Her eyes locked on him, scanned him over, and he noticed she was American – complete with blue eyes and brown curly hair, the entire package. She looked down, to a large crate holding a rock python, and wrinkled her nose at it before drawing her attention back up to him.
She parted her mouth to speak, but froze when something crashed outside the building – to the east, and it was close. This sent her ducking to her knees, down with the crates filled with snakes, and her breathing picked up. She moved along the floor in a military-type crawl, under she rounded the corner. He stared at her as if she had lost her mind – but with the same hard, torn expression he always had with strangers. He listened, however, when he heard sets of footfalls running outside, saw through the poorly designed walls of sticks and trees bodies pass – in military uniform. He recognized the language as having haled from the border of Burma.
They left, swiftly, right past the snake ring, leaving him wondering what on earth this woman was doing and who she was – obviously she was wanted by the Burmese. He looked to her, as she stood slowly, watching, body tensed and braced. She'd drawn her bow without him even noticing, a hand placed behind her, poised to grab an arrow. His brow dropped at her and she gave him a sideways look.
He wasn't about to speak first, but he wanted answers.
Once satisfied she heard no Burmese soldiers, she draped the bow back through her shoulders and turned to face him. She was short, about five foot six inches, and had broad athletic shoulders, coupled with wide hips – a bit thick and pudgy for him to consider her a soldier, but by her get-up, he doubted she was. Her blue eyes reminded him of a cobalt paint job on a Ford, bright and sparkling and smooth. There was lightness about her eyes, though he assumed she wasn't a light person at all. She scanned him over and then puffed out a breath, running the wrapped wrist across her forehead.
"You must be John." She wasted no time with introductions, no time with formalities. Her voice was thick and raspy, deep – it reminded him of bourbon almost, the way it washed over him. He was not a man to be tempted by lusts of the flesh when it came to women, truth be told, but he hadn't seem a woman in…months. Since the missionaries. He hadn't been with a woman since he'd been here. The desire had left him the more bloody he got his hands – no woman wanted a beast.
That she knew his name surprised him – so much so that he couldn't maintain his usual scowl. It broke instantly, his brows rising slightly. Something piqued within him, nervousness; an anxiety that something from his past had crept up on him. This woman knew his name and where he was and he'd never laid eyes on her before. She'd crept up on him as if he'd been a civilian with no military or combat training. His stomach pitted, dropped into his feet, and stirred sour. He felt uneasy, and his figures pricked. She continued.
"My name is Evangeline Roman." She stuck out her hand.
It hung there for a few moments before he looked at it. He searched her eyes and what he found wasn't hostility or anger or anything hidden – her eyes were entirely open, ready for him to fall into and lose himself in. They were welcoming and soft, despite the hardness of her demeanour – like a seasoned war veteran or someone who had graduated from Hard Knocks. Slowly he gave her his hand and they shook – firmly.
"What are you doing here?" His tone was much darker and raspier than he would've preferred to give to a woman, but then again, she wasn't exactly a debutante. He had a right to be alarmed, concerned – she had, after all, barged into his workplace unannounced and uninvited.
She smiled at him, softly; revealing straight teeth that were a white he'd forgotten was attainable. Her chuckle was light as she looked around the room, "I guess this isn't exactly what I expected when he told me you were a snake charmer." Her hands unfolded on either side of her as if she were showing him, "But I guess he wasn't exactly specific."
He frowned at her now, his eyes flashing darkness. He expected it to repel her, or at least catch her off guard. Instead, she smiled at him again, her eyes scanning his own – throwing him for a whirl. She was supposed to be afraid of him; he was supposed to be dark and uninviting. But, instead, her eyes beckoned him with light and softness. He narrowed his eyes at her.
"I asked you a question." As if a woman like this, who had bounded into this shack with a boy and quiver, looking like she'd walked out of a war would care about his demands. A quick thought dashed into his mind – that she could be a spy, that he should kill her right now and be done with it. But, it quickly left his mind as he doubted everything that came crashing into his brain. A woman with such eyes and airiness to her didn't spy or kill people. No.
She frowned at him, "If you'd give me five seconds to collect myself I have an answer," she spat at him. This shocked him, but not so much as to move him. Every combat orientation within him prickled to life – he felt half motivated to pull a knife on her and get her out of here. But, she stooped to the ground instead and stuck her fingers in alongside her boot, and wiggled them around for a few moments. "I have something for you."
Had something for him? Who was this woman? His brow dropped into not just a crinkled frown, but an all out scowl. He didn't like this – her being here unannounced, her presence, her lightness amidst such a hard personality, her package, the Burmese after her. He could smell something in the air and he wasn't sure he liked it one bit, or if it was safe. The last thing he needed was another war, another fight – more blood. She stood and moved the object from hand to hand, looking at it.
It was muddy and wet, but small – a book. He looked at it in her hands, and she took her dirty fingers and brushed aside some of the wet mud off the cover. It was brown, leather, and thick. Something within him recoiled as he realized what that book was, and he looked back to her, his face still hard. "I was told you needed this."
She extended it to him, her raspy voice calm and collected, matter-of-fact. Her eyes locked onto his, and they stayed there – unafraid and undaunted. They were sure and strong and pure, piercing his soul and biting away at the hard core pitted in his chest, that had erected so, so long ago.
"How did you get here?" He didn't move for the book in her hands, didn't move at all, actually. He was still leaning against the stack of crates filled with slithering serpents, so mellow and slick in their existence. She gave him a half smile and pulled the back to her, looking down at it and swiping at the mud and dirt still around it.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you." Was her simple reply.
He snuffed out a breath as if he were an enraged animal, "Try me."
She sighed, raked a hand across her scalp and loosened her bun with her fingers. She shifted her weight, spreading her feet a shoulder's width apart, and crossing her arms over the book at her chest. She looked towards the door and then to the snakes, shaking her head slightly. She looked back up to him, "You know Thailand and Burma aren't exactly open to Christian missionaries, right?"
He could see where this was going, and he didn't like it. But, when she didn't reply, he decided to appease her. "Yeah. They've closed the borders since the war."
She nodded, her eyes shifting from him to a vacant stare for a brief moment before shifting back to him. "Well, they're not exactly closed to everyone. Humanitarian efforts and other causes are coming through with special clearances and licenses to do work." She pulled a thumb to herself, "And people, like myself, are coming into these countries and doing…work."
"You don't look like you build houses, if that's what you're hinting at."
She chuckled at him, pointing a finger and wagging it at him, "See; now I knew you weren't as dark and foreboding as he made you out to be." He frowned at her, his eyes flashing at the mention of this person, and the smile dropped off her face, "But, then again, I've known you five minutes."
"Do you have a point?" He asked, agitated.
She nodded, "Yes, I do," she gestured around the room again, "You so eager to get back to your pets?"
He glared at her now, "No – I'm eager to figure out who's standing in the middle of my building talking as if she knows who I am," he stepped towards her roughly, expecting her to back down just a bit. She didn't move, or flinch, just locked eyes with him – instead he halted. He stopped when she opened the book with a finger and turned it towards him. He glanced down, and found a plastic ID badge wedged into the spine. He read it: Evangeline Roman, Board of Education.
"You're a teacher," he confirmed rudely.
"I got into Burma with an alias," she interjected quickly, shaking her head. She pulled out the ID and whipped it into the corner of the room. They both watched it flitter to the floor before she continued. "I'm not a teacher or a doctor or an architect. I'm actually an author from Minnesota." Her statement hit him like a load of bricks, registering it in his mind. Her eyes locked with his and she became stone-cold serious. "I'm an undercover missionary, John."
He couldn't believe it. "A what?"
She sighed, "Undercover missionaries go into closed access countries to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to unreached people groups," her eyes shifted towards the door, "I've been here for six weeks," her shoulders slumped forward slightly as if they were exhausted.
He groaned and put a hand to his face. Another missionary? How come it was he always got tangled up with these people – these stupid people who made stupid decisions by coming into these hostile countries unarmed and unprotected. He tuned away from her and shook his head before turning back to her, "The Burmese are looking for you."
She nodded slowly. "I've been in a Burmese camp for three days," she swallowed, closing the book, "They're trying to figure out why I'm here." She looked away, "But," she looked back to him, her eyes blasting him with compassion. She stepped towards him, put a hand on his arm, and squeezed it gently, "But, I know why I'm here. I'm here for you."
He snorted sarcastically, "Me?" He jerked a thumb towards himself, and then turned from her, waving her off. The woman was entirely insane, and she could leave for all he cared. If she was stupid enough to come into Thailand with the Burmese after her, that was her problem. He bent to grab another crate and replace it next to the others. She followed, her boots heavy on the floor, "I'm not interested," he interjected as she parted her mouth to speak, "I'm not religious."
She frowned at him, "Who said anything about religion?" she interjected quickly. He set the crate down after passing her, and turned to move again and complete the same task, when she stopped him by putting an arm up to block his way, braced against a cobra cage. Her eyes darted when the serpent flicked its tongue at her, but she didn't move. He, frozen in place, glared at her. "I'm here because God wants to help you, John."
"God hasn't helped me before – what makes you think I need Him now?" He hissed at her as if she were s serpent. The animal within him, the dark and bloodthirsty animal ran laps through his brain, telling him she was just another person who didn't understand, just another person who felt guilty. She wanted to fix him, when in all reality, he couldn't be fixed. He fixated his eyes on her and then demanded, "Who told you about me?"
She shook her head, "No one," she dropped her hand when he was unmoving, rooted in his place. She swallowed and ran her hand across the book again. "I had a dream and God showed me your face."
He sighed and rolled his eyes. So she was a religious fanatic. He moved past her.
"I'm not insane, if that's what you're thinking," She came up behind him, him stopping and turning around, sighing and letting his head fall back, "God told me there was a man named John working in Thailand who needed Him, and that I could find him amongst serpents as a snake charmer," she chuckled, "He told me you were a Saul."
Saul. He remembered the character from Scripture as a boy. Paul was a man of principle and law, a man bent on slaughtering Christian's who claimed to follow Jesus Christ, the Messiah and One True King. He murdered hundreds of Jews and Christ-followers in his time, had massive amounts of blood on his hands. He'd lived to kill, this man had, and John remembered hearing of him. The man later came to know the Messiah and follow Him whole-heartedly, with an insane amount of devotion. Yes, John remembered hearing of the man, though it had been a long, long time since he'd read scripture.
He must've shown his understanding, because she smiled at him and nodded, "You know who Saul is," she said, pointing at the book, "You've read this?"
He frowned at her, "Yeah. I'm an American. There are Bibles where I come from."
The woman nodded, "Good. Then you know the man who came to Saul on the road to Damascus had the same vision from God," she extended the book to him, "to go and preach to the man named Saul and heal his blindness, so God could use him." She pulled a thumb back to herself, "Not so different, is it?"
He looked up from the book to her. It wasn't so different – he believed God still talked to people and did miracles and appeared to individuals, all that. He wasn't an atheist. He knew God existed. He'd known God before he became a combat soldier, as a younger, inexperienced man. His mother had been insistent on church when he was growing up and he'd been raised on it. He knew who God was – and he also knew God had abandoned him a long, long time ago.
"You want me to believe that God sent you here for me?" He spat at her, his tone harsh and unbelieving, "You don't even know me. And if you did, you'd know why I'm so speculative." He turned to go back to work, expecting her to sit and process his statement.
"Well, I do know that God helped me escape a prison camp and outrun the Burmese army to get me here, and if you call that coincidence, then you've got another thing coming." she nodded, gesturing with her hands, "And I know that the man I saw in my dream was you. You're name is John, correct?"It was a rhetorical question.
He didn't answer it.
She nodded in affirmation, "So there you have it. Yes, I believe God had me risk my life, draw an arrow in the face of a Burmese General, and wade through a river with enough creatures to kill the general population for you." She narrowed her eyes at him, "And I don't care what you've done in your lifetime. I don't care if you've got the bloodiest hands this side of Timbuktu. God still loves you and wants you to come back to Him." They were quiet a long time, his back to her, until she responded, "…because you've abandoned God, haven't you?"
He looked slightly over his shoulder at her, unwilling to turn around. Everything she said resounded in his empty soul like an echo that had been calling out across eternity. She was right – he'd killed hundreds of people. He had bloody hands – far bloodier ones than most people did. He'd done shameful things and killed to breathe, lived to kill – he'd been trained that way. It'd been programmed inside of him not to care, not to have compassion – to be a stone cold killing machine and not blink an eye. God couldn't love a man like him – he was worse than Saul. After all, God hadn't been around when he'd been tortured and programmed to be a combat soldier – hadn't been around when all he'd wanted to do was go home and forget this entire place. Hadn't been around when every part of him had been ripped out and replaced with a foreigner. No, he hadn't abandoned God – he'd been waiting for God.
And He'd never shown up.
Her question hung in the air like a time bomb, ticking away at both of them, ready to explode. Her eyes searched his own and he finally broke her stare, turning from her. He didn't want to think about God, or forgiveness, or everything she was saying – it reminded him of a place within himself he used to know, a someone he used to be a long time ago before any of this had happened. It constricted his throat and threw his heart into a rueful burst of speed.
This woman didn't know him – didn't know his list of crimes. And, if she did, she'd understand why he was beyond reaching. Why everything she was saying was unbelievable, beyond his scope of believability. If she was even capable of understanding the amounts of blood on his hands, she'd understand why he was so bitter and hopeless.
Because he was without hope.
He felt the floor move beneath her as she came towards him, "You can believe what you want – that God doesn't care and that you're beyond reach, some, some," she fumbled for the right word, "- beast that's unreachable and beyond His grace. You can even believe God's abandoned you, fine. Just know that what you're believing is false and it's not true. God loves you enough to keep reaching out to you after everything you've done and He'll continue to do so." The floor shifted again, and in his peripheral vision he saw her turn from him and head towards the door, not before dropping something on top of a crate holding a massive python, "Don't put God in a box, John. Don't tell him who He can save and who He can't save." She rapped her knuckles on top of the book, "Because the biggest mistake you could ever make."
When he finally got the nerve to turn around to face her, she was gone.