by: B. James Wilson
A weary group of travelers paused in their wilderness trek, drawing together in a quiet huddle around their guide, a practiced response to his silent signals. It was not time for them to rest, so, there must be something else, a change in plans, or perhaps a new challenge for them to deal with. There had been many dangers so far in their long journey, a journey that began in ashes and dust, months ago.
Back then, a darkness had come, the proverbial four horseman, bringing with them a terrible storm, and destruction that prompted the group to assemble together, and make a collective decision to abandon the city for this journey. As they started out, they wandered through cluttered streets of empty, burned out buildings. Everything around them seemed dead, even the trees, whose blackened leaves scurried down the streets ahead of them, driven by a relentless, howling wind.
Now, silvery moon light bathed them in the midst of an open field of low grass, covered with dew-drip, glistening like diamonds all around them, soaking their shoes and leggings as they walked. Stephen, their guide, waited until they were drawn in close to him. As always, he kept his voice low, something just above a whisper. Quiet order was their way, important to their survival, for one never knew what dangers lurked in shadows. It was for this very reason they came together, to journey through darkness, on their way to the City of Light.
They were compelled to travel in that period of the month from the half moon waxing, through the full to the half moon waning. Only in the period of lunar light, was it possible to be concealed and yet see, though vaguely, through the consuming darkness. Their journey, however, was uncertain, for, as bright as the moon’s light shown about them, it altered color, shape and depth. It altered their very reality, amplifying the shadows and darkness around them by its softer light. Indeed, if the moon’s pale light were a misty sort of half truth and shadows were to be considered lies, then it could be said these sojourners traveled through a wilderness of half truth and dark lies, making their travels precarious.
Stephen was happy for an open field of low grass. There were fewer shadows to contend with, fewer dangers, unseen, fewer lies. Not so when the path took them through deep wilderness. In those places could be found many shadows of dark confusion. In the wilderness, the moon’s pale light failed to bring definitive color, or sharp contrast. It hid subtle detail, so a traveler could easily stumble, or succumb to the evil that always crouched, ready, hidden in the shadows. Nothing about this journey was ideal, but grassy plain was certainly preferred to dark wilderness.
Without speaking, Stephen pointed to the east, in the general direction of their travel. Everyone turned and looked to where he was pointing. Ahead, in the distance, the dark field rose to a low hillock. A ribbon of mist was forming in the air above it, a mist that would soon descend upon the grass of the field. If one looked closely, one could see a strange, flickering light, illuminating the ghostly mist, coloring it a soft, burnt orange.
“Worldlings.”, Stephen whispered, his one word explanation for the soft, glowing light. He added an ominous warning, “We will pass by to the north. Stay low, out of site and don’t make a sound. They must not see us, or even know that we have passed by.”
“But we have only food and water, they might have our other needs,” one of their party suggested, feeling deprived of comfort.
Stephen turned calmly toward the suggestion, but he spoke to the entire group.
“They are worldlings,” he confirmed, “they have everything you perceive you need, but it all comes at a price. Are you willing to pay the price they demand?”
No one spoke, but they answered, in their hearts. Stephen wanted to believe that no one among them was willing to pay the price to become a dupe for the worldlings, or sacrifice their share in the journey’s end for the things the world could offer them now.
“Good. Now remember, they must not know that we exist.”, Stephen reminded them, before turning and, silently moving on.
When they came to the top of the rise, they looked to the east, out over the plain below them. Not far beyond, they could see the distant light of the worldling’s fire, it’s flames reaching upward, licking the dark sky, as if to challenge the heavens and, at the same time, spreading a warm glow over the surrounding earth. A tower of dark smoke rose up from the fire, merging with the pure, white mist, blocking their view of the sky with a thick smog.
The worldling’s fire was so bright and so inviting, the sojourners imagined they could feel its warmth, even from this distance. Stephen worried about his small band of seekers, how they might respond to what they could see. He knew how misleading the world’s light could be. Seen for miles in every direction, it drew those who were not wary, or discerning.
Approaching the circle of light cast by the world’s fire, one could clearly see the decadence in which they lived. But, from inside that circle, the truth of their frivolous lives was evident as bondage. Bondage to a cruel system, a ruthless machine that ground people to dust, a relentless mill, chewing them up and spitting them out as soon as their flavor was spent. From inside, however, the worldlings were blinded by lies and false hopes. Even so, they were barely able to find their way without that light. For them, the stars were no longer visible.
Fortunately, or perhaps not, there was a small stand of trees some distance to the north of the worldling’s fire. Stephen chose to lead his group through the trees rather than stay out in the open field. There was less chance that they would be seen, or heard from that distance. Though there was an increased danger among the dark shadows of the forest, the trees would help to keep both parties hidden from each other’s view.
As they drew closer to the fire-lit celebration, keeping his charges focused on their journey was made increasingly difficult for Stephen. More and more their eyes and their thoughts drifted across the open field to the dancing flames and the light of the world’s fire. They were close enough that Stephen could smell the burning wood, and the delicious smells, of roasting meat and spicy soup, all conspiring to make their mouths water. It was a particularly large fire, so, he knew, there would be many worldlings gathered around.
Among the group of sojourners, a young man named Richard was the most affected by the fire’s light. Stephen had anticipated this, because of Richard’s age, being at the point in life where glands and the natural curiosities they conjure, had begun to rule his behavior. Stephen found himself repeatedly slowing the pace in order for Richard to catch up.
“Try to keep up with us, Richard.”, Stephen scolded him quietly, on the second occasion of his falling behind.
They could hear voices and raucous laughter now, drifting through the cool night air, as the worldlings, seeming so joyful, so lighthearted, lifted their voices to be heard over the roar of the flames. From this distance, their language could not be understood, but one could hear the intonation and timing, the rhythm and flow of speech and laughter. It caused the young ones to giggle quietly,even bringing an uninvited smile to Stephen’s own lips. Now he pressed his charges forward, toward the stand of trees, with greater urgency.
“Where is Richard?”, he inquired, noticing the boy’s absence, anxiety sharpening his tone.
Stephen turned back, retracing his steps for nearly thirty yards in order to find his young charge. Richard was not alone this time. Carolyn, one of their young women, younger than Richard by a few months, had joined him in glandular pursuit. They crouched in the grass, trying to get a better look at the worldlings. Stephen took firm hold of Richard’s collar and lifted him to his feet. He looked sternly into the young man’s eyes for a moment, sending a message of thinning patience, then forcefully directed him toward the stand of trees. He turned his attention to the young woman, giving her the same look. She looked back, grinning sheepishly, then rising to her feet, she hurried to catch Richard. Stephen shook his head in dismay and looked to the sky in supplication, seeing the moon there, darkened to near blood-red by the building cloud of smoke from the world’s fire, its guiding light almost completely gone.
As the group drew near the stand of trees, they also drew nearer to the light of the glimmering fire. It was possible now to make out details of the worldlings activities. They were sixteen, or more in number, male and female alike. They were mostly younger people, in their late teens and early twenties, just older than Richard and Carolyn, but, there were several men and at least two women who seemed older than that, all scantily dressed, young and old wearing no more than loin cloths, even the women. This was more than Richard’s curiosity could bear. As they crossed into the small stand of trees he drew up next to the closest one, so he could observe the activity around the fire from a place of hiding.
“Richard!” Stephen called sharply, in a hoarse whisper.
Hesitant at first, Richard turned to him, with an angry look, before grudgingly forcing himself to rejoin the group.
“Why can’t we stop for a minute, I’m tired.”, Richard complained, whispering a bit too loud.
“Yes,” Carolyn agreed, “we’re all tired.”
“We can’t stop here.”, Stephen answered firmly, adding, “We are dangerously close. We must put some distance between ourselves and the worldlings before we rest.”
“But, I want to watch them for a minute,” Richard pleaded. “They don’t seem so bad to me. They’re having fun. That’s more than I can say for us.”
“No, Richard!”, Stephen answered with firm finality, adding, “Now come away from there and let’s move on.”
He moved ahead, shooing the younger children on as he went, but Richard remained where he was, turning back toward the distant celebration. That’s when the music began. First an undulating rhythm on primitive, conga drums, soon joined by flute and strings until the night was filled with a sensuality that was much too hard to resist.
“Richard!”, Stephen commanded, his voice dangerously loud.
Richard turned, this time his face was a distorted mask of anger. “No!”, he spat back, speaking out loud for all to hear.
Stephen raised his index finger to his lip, calling for quiet. Carolyn hesitated for a moment, but then hurried to Richard’s side, him turning back to watch the worldlings as they began dancing around the fire.
Stephen quietly drew up to the young man’s side and, for a moment, he too watched the worldlings dance. Peter and Alice, an older couple among the sojourners, continued quietly through the stand of trees, leading the younger ones and the rest of the group away with them.
From where the three laggers crouched among the trees, they could clearly see the worldlings activities. The women began moving erotically to the pagan rhythms, their hips swaying, undulating in smooth, provocative movements, their firm, bare breasts dancing deliciously with every step, enticing the men to join them. The scene was overpowering in it’s sensual nature. Richard’s eyes were wide with excitement, his mouth stood agape as he watched the young women perform their erotic dance. In the dark shadows that surrounded them, young Carolyn began subtly moving her own body, trying to mimic the movements of the worldling women.
“Richard.”, Stephen whispered, “Listen to me. Come away with me now, don’t do this to yourself. Don’t look upon this any longer, or you’ll be drawn into a mistake that will cost you dearly. Look at Carolyn, she’s already overcome.”
Richard watched Carolyn, swaying in small movements to the primitive beat. He had not noticed before how pretty she was. He had not noticed the curve of her body, the possibilities of her breasts pressing outward against the worn fabric of her long, straight, cotton dress. It was the first he’d noticed that she had breasts at all, like the worldling women, dancing so erotically, near the flames. The thought aroused even stronger feelings in him as the rhythm of the world’s music began to drive his very being.
“I don’t care.”, he answered. “I don’t see what the problem is. They seem friendly enough. They have food and they’re having fun. That’s what I want! Some food and some fun! I’m going to stay and watch for a while. I want to see what they’re going to do. I want to know for myself what they’re like,” Richard concluded. His words hung bitter on the moist air of the darkening night.
Stephen feared it may already be too late to salvage the situation. Perhaps it was a mistake for him to choose this path. It brought them too close to the hedonist culture of the worldlings. Obviously his young charges were already overcome, clear evidence that his choice of route was a mistake. To argue with the young man at this point was futile. It would only lead to bitter confrontation, and a complete loss of fellowship between the members of the group, possibly exposing their presence.
There was nothing more that Stephen could do but quietly reason with Richard, pointing out that It was Stephen’s own mistake that placed them in this predicament. He could only apologize in the hope that the love they shared together would give Richard the strength to selflessly forego his own desires. Feeling responsible, Stephen decided he must stay with his young charges for the moment, in the hope they would change their minds.
At the same time, the men among the worldlings, young and old, watched, lustfully, as the young women danced in front of them. One of the older men reached into a sack and pulled out a bottle. He opened it, took a long pull and passed it to his fellows. Soon another bottle was opened and it wasn’t long before the men were on their feet joining the women in dance. Their movements were not as smooth, or practiced as the women, but their carnal meaning was clearly expressed. And the wine flowed, music played, flames licked the sky, and the worldlings danced to primitive rhythms, their bodies undulant, swaying in the flickering light, their skin glistening with the moisture of their exertions.
Suddenly, without warning, Richard was on his feet, moving toward the orgy of sensuality before Stephen could reach for him, or even react.
“Richard! Richard, no!” Stephen called, as loud as he dared.
But Richard never looked back. He flew from the sheltering trees, like a moth drawn to the flame. Before Stephen could gather himself, still shocked by Richard’s flight from the safety of hiding, Carolyn darted after him. Stephen reached for her, but it was too late, she was gone. There was nothing more he could do, but watch the two of them hurry toward the world’s light and pray for their safe return.
As the two young ones entered into the circle of light cast by the mounting flames, the celebration came to an abrupt halt. The worldlings turned and watched the two figures approaching from the north. Some of the men took up weapons. Words were exchanged and though Stephen could not clearly make them out from this distance, he knew, in essence, what they were saying. After a moment the two were invited into the circle of the fire’s light.
The elder male, the beach-master, as it were, and one of the younger men, armed with bow and arrow, stepped away from the fire, glaring into the darkness beyond the circle of light, in the direction from which the young couple had come. Stephen thought he could feel the man’s eyes on him, even though he knew it was not possible he could be seen from that distance. After a long time scanning the small stand of trees, the beach-master returned to his tribe and the new, young couple, near the fire.
There was a further exchange of conversation, an interrogation over which the beach-master presided. Stephen worried that too much information might be revealed, that the journey might be put in jeopardy. After-all, the two were young and naive. There had been no time to warn them not to reveal that they were part of a larger group. But, Richard knew better and after much questioning, the young couple were warmly greeted and given a place near the warmth of the fire. Food was offered, and both Richard and Carolyn devoured it ravenously. This drew hearty laughter from the worldlings. Life was not easy for them either, and they clearly empathized with the young couple’s hunger.
For the moment, things seemed friendly enough, none the less, while Richard and Carolyn fed, the beach-master sent two armed men out to the stand of trees, less than a hundred yards away, just to be sure. Stephen crawled under some brush, on his belly and hid, as the men made a thorough search of the small hammock. Finding no one, they returned to the light of the fire. After they were gone, Stephen crawled out from under the brush and resumed his former position, praying, while observing the distant activities.
Everyone sat together around the fire and talked for a long while. As they did, the tension between them began to melt away. The scene became more relaxed. Soon the men put down their weapons and took up the bottle. It was offered to Richard and Carolyn and, curious about it, wanting to be accepted and not wanting to offend, they both drank. The men chided Richard for the small swallow he’d taken and, of course, he drank again, this time more deeply.
It wasn’t long before the music was back in full rhythm and the group returned to their sensual dance. The celebration grew in fervor as the night went on and, after a little more wine, Richard stripped to the waist, joining them. The young men and women encouraged Carolyn to do the same, but for a while her modesty prevented it. As he danced, Richard continued to lift the bottle to his lips, drinking deeply from it, dancing faster and harder around the fire the worldlings had made, until, drunk, desiring to see Carolyn’s bare breasts, he began pleading with her to join him. With his urging, her desire to please him and a bit more of the wine, Carolyn soon announced, that she would. She reasoned, “After all, it’s very hot here, next to this fire.”
Her announcement drew a great cheer of encouragement from the group, as all eyes focused on her. The rhythms changed to a slow, pulsing grind, and Carolyn began to unfasten the buttons at the back of her dress. She swayed her body to the new, slower rhythm, took a deep breath, and closed her eyes. Then, turning in a circle, she slowly lowered the top of her dress until she was exposed to the waist. Richard gasped with audible delight. He had never imagined that Carolyn had come to such voluptuous beauty beneath her bulky coverings. As he, and the others held their collective breath, Carolyn allowed the dress to slip away, dropping to the ground at her feet. She stood naked before them, her skin a beautiful, milky white, never exposed to sunlight, or the eyes of men. The flickering oranges and yellows of the fire glimmered on her smooth skin and the beach-master fairly drooled, having already fantasized, how he would have her for himself.
After a very long pause, the rhythms returned to their former intensity, the group rejoined their dance around the flames and the orgy grew hot with sensuality. Carolyn drew closer to Richard, pressing herself against the smooth skin of his chest. They danced together, touching and holding each other, experiencing new pleasures, until their desire for one another fanned as hot as the flames that lit their way. As she pressed herself to him, Carolyn became aware of Richard’s state of arousal. Realizing, for the first time, that she held such power over him, caused her own desire to ignite in a way that was overwhelming and unfamiliar to them both.
Richard, on the other hand, began to feel self conscious about his condition and the attention the two of them were drawing from the group, especially the older men. He pulled away from her and began to dance wildly, alone, around the flames. He danced closer and closer until the searing heat began to clear his mind and he could see how foolish they must appear to these worldlings, who pointed and laughed at his antics. He began to see the reality of what he’d done to Carolyn and that, as beautiful as she was, she was diminished by all this and by the way the world saw her, an object of sensual pleasure.
To the world, the feelings of two young people for one another had no meaning, beyond a moment’s prurient entertainment. Their lives had no value in a world, where acceptance was fleeting and conditional, dependent on one’s performance. Before, on the journey, as sojourners, their acceptance had been unconditional and permanent. He felt sick about it and tried desperately to think of a way out of this, for both of them. He tried to think of a way back to what had been before, a way back to innocence, back to the journey, but, at that moment, he stumbled and fell.
It was so sudden; one moment he was there and the next he was gone. The fire crackled loud and an explosion of sparks flew up to the sky, as if to announce the event of his passing, to the heavens. Beyond that there was nothing but the shock of sudden loss. Her beautiful Richard was gone. He’d been dancing too close to the flames and the flames swallowed him up.
Carolyn let out a loud, horrifying wail and fell to her knees, naked before the fire. Stephen, startled by her scream, looked up from his prayers in time to see the cloud of sparks rising into the dark sky above the flames. For a moment the world seemed to stop, holding it’s breath. There was an audible, collective gasp from the worldlings as all eyes fixed on the spot where Richard had last been. The drums ceased their rhythm and the night air grew silent, accept for the crackling of the fire.
After a few moments the shower of sparks passed and the fire settled, returning to it’s normal intensity. One by one, the worldlings returned to their rhythm of activity and the celebration went on, all the world becoming as it was before, as if nothing had happened.
In the dappled, half light of the small stand of trees, Stephen struggled to contain a gut wrenching sob. Tears streamed from his eyes as he lifted his hands to the dark, empty sky above and shook his bowed head in disbelief. The blood moon had once again attained its silver light. He entertained thoughts of attempting to rescue Carolyn, but the odds against his success were far to overwhelming and he had to consider the safety of the others on this journey. After taking some time to gather himself and his thoughts, Stephen left the small patch of wood, pressing on with the journey, though his heart was no longer in it.
Carolyn could never return to the journey without her Richard. What would she say, how would she ever explain. She moved away from the worldlings and sat alone, on the far side of the fire; lost from Stephen’s sight, lost from all that she had known, lost, even to herself.
Surprised by the unexpected event, his own plans little changed, other than made simpler, more expedient, the beach-master appeared, naked, exposed, in front of Carolyn. He wiped the drool and wine from his graying beard, reached down and roughly pulled her to her feet. Suddenly, he felt like dancing.