How he hated it. The name, the sand, this godforsaken loneliness surrounded by emptiness and fear. All you could see were dunes and dunes and dunes, constantly shifting with the changing winds. All you could hear was the wind, sometimes sighing, sometimes crying, sometimes accusing in its deadly silence. And overhead glared the apocalyptic sun, like an ancient sentinel guarding his cowering prisoner.
At first he hid from the sun. Like some slobbering animal hiding from its predators, he spent the daylight hours in a nightmarish slumber, crouching in a corner, quivering at every sound. Terror was all around, only receding slightly at night, when he could rely on skills acquired when he was still the hunter and not the prey. But as his beard and hair grew thick, he started venturing outside. Short forays at first, but when the utter isolation of his hide-out became real to him he began to lose some of the fear.
Nowadays he didn't spend much time in the house anymore. Not that it was much of a house anyway: Two matchbox rooms and an outside water tank, but at least it was shelter against the occasional sandstorm. But he was getting better at constructing natural shelters, living off the land, disappearing into thin air at the slightest indication of danger.
Besides, the house was like a prison, suffocating the tattered remains of his soul. It seems as if all the ghosts of limbo have chosen this dilapidated excuse of a building as their favorite lair, haunting his nights, his days, his alcoholic splurges, the infrequent sober intervals.
Sometimes his ghosts screeched in his head, and sometimes they laughed. Sometimes they wailed, and sometimes they cursed. And often they replayed the past. Slowly. Frame by frame by frame. Relentlessly. With sound and colour and touch and smell and taste. Until he would run off into the desert and spend the night in the grating arm of a dune.
If hell was a place on earth, its name was Sossusvlei. This awful desolation he called home.
Some nights, crunching through the mid-winter frost under an icy moon, he remembered a time when things were different. A time when he knew how to laugh. A time when he knew how to feel, how to love, how to hurt. A time when he could look into eyes without fear constricting his throat.
But that was long ago in a different universe.
Here was pain and anger and fear. Now was an eternity of utter irrational absurdity, a cruel joke of some deranged mind, and he was the focus of its lunacy. And hope? Hope was a word that died with love and hate and desire and regret. He was beyond emotion. Beyond caring. Beyond even the most basic of human needs. He was one of the living dead, waiting for the grim reaper to take the body like he took the soul.
He avoided people. He hated people. They were part of the forces that drove him to this inhospitable wilderness. He only saw humans when he had to buy the bare necessities, but these ordeals were becoming increasingly rare. Out here he didn't need fancy clothes. He didn't need fancy foods. He didn't need noise and speed to cover up the nakedness of his soul–in the void where he lived nothing mattered anymore.
Many moons waxed and waned, and almost imperceptibly he began to change. He discovered meaning and purpose in a rare desert flower. He found beauty in the little desert creatures. He encountered peace in the changing hues of a sunset. And slowly the bitterness seeped away into the sand. He was empty on the inside, but in the quiet of the desert he was slowly reconstructing some semblance of life. He could look at himself from a distance and weep for what he had become. The memories would stay with him forever, but at last he could think back without choking.
He was an exile without a homeland. Except for the sand.
He saw the light for the first time early in the fall. It was far away, but quite bright. Some nights it was closer, but never close enough to be identified. At first he ignored it. Then he became angry at whoever was interfering with his isolation. Then he became curious. And finally he decided to investigate.
On a cold night, in the scant light of a sliver-moon , he crawled to the strange light. "Almost like the old days", he thought as he slithered noiselessly over the soft sand. Some things one never forgets. And yet, when he got to the light, there was nobody to be seen. Only a small gaslight, an enamel mug, and a pot of coffee.
"Come out, you coward!" he shouted into the night. But there was no reply. No give-away sounds. Only the soft whisper of the desert wind.
He scouted around and found the footprints disappearing over a dune.
"This is crazy," he thought. "Barefoot in the desert with a gaslight and coffee. This guy is really nuts. Even more than I".
Despite his legendary skills, he soon lost the tracks. The moonlight was of little use, and the ever-sifting sand was quickly obliterating the trail.
He turned out the lamp and lay down next to it. He had enough time to wait. If the stranger was a harmless wanderer, he would chase him away. And if it was some or other maniac or criminal he would be sorry for coming this way.
He awoke to the sound of a crackling fire and the smell of roasting meat. The stranger was sitting on the other side of the fire, with something dangling in the flames.
"Are you hungry?" the stranger asked. He looked fairly normal, except for the eyes. They were unnaturally intense, like two searchlights burning into the hidden recesses of his soul.
"Who are you?" he demanded as he sat up.
"It's not important", the stranger said. His voice was deep and low. "What matters is: Why are you here?"
"This is my place", and he spat on the ground. "I can be wherever I want to. YOU are the trespasser. Get off my property now!"
"I've got a message for you", the stranger said, and suddenly he felt a chill running down his spine.
"Nobody knows I'm here."
"You're wrong", the stranger said quietly.
"Besides, who would send me a message? A killer, yes. But not a message. Not for me."
"Who would send you a message? Someone who cares for you".
"Nobody cares about me".
"Wrong again", the stranger said. "He cared for you even before you were born".
"Now you're talking bull!" His voice thundered through the desert night. "My father left us before I was born".
"Who said I'm talking about your father?"
There was a long silence.
"What do you want?"
"I told you," the stranger said.
"Yes, and you expect me to believe you...."
"I know why you're here," the stranger said, looking straight at him.
"And you've come to take me in? Forget it!"
"No". The stranger was quiet for some time. Far away a jackal howled. An owl screeched. "I told you why I'm here."
"Who are you?" The voice was a whisper now. "Who sent you here?"
There was a very long silence. He stared down at the sand.
"Long ago I would have believed you", he said softly. "But I've fallen too far. Your God will only be my Judge. Not that I don't deserve it".
"What day is it today?" the stranger asked.
"I don't know." He thought for a moment. "Does it matter?"
"Yes," the stranger said. "It's Easter. Good Friday morning. About the time they dragged Jesus before the Sanhedrin..."
"Spare me your superior knowledge." His voice was strained. "I know the history."
"It's more than history."
"I know. I'm not an atheist."
"Then what are you doing here?"
"Don't try to tell me about callings and destiny. Or responsibility. Or the need of the world. I know it all. I've been there. But there is such a thing as falling from grace."
"And you think you've fallen from grace?"
"I don't think so. I know it."
"Just because you killed a man?"
He felt a chill run down his spine. Sooner or later it had to happen. "Let's quit the sermon. You've come to get me. And I won't go–you'll have to take me dead."
"Personally I don't care if you stay here forever", the stranger said. "And if you get taken in is none of my business. You're in jail already. I've just brought your message. That's all."
"So what is this important message? And don't expect me to believe you're an angel."
"I neither confirm nor deny". The stranger smiled. "But I am a messenger."
"Well, deliver your message and go home."
The stranger gulped down the last coffee in his tin mug and looked at him. "You can't run away forever."
"That's your message?" He couldn't believe his ears.
"Yes," the stranger said and stood up. "That's it. But forget the Meatloaf song. This is not about rock and roll dreams."
Suddenly he remembered. A day and a night an eternity ago. The song. The shouts and the shots and the screams and the blood and the long road and the fear....
"Please leave me alone", he whispered. "I don't know who you are, and I don't know how you know about it, but just go."
"I will", the stranger said. "But remember it's Crucifixion Day."
At last he couldn't control himself anymore. "Who the hell do you think you are?" he screamed. "What can the cross do for me now? I preached it, I carried it, I defended it, ...."
"...and then you denied it."
"Yes!" he screamed. "Yes! Yes! And now there remains only darkness for me."
"And you know everything, right?" The stranger sat down next to him. "Listen to me. And listen well. You thought you knew it all. You thought you knew the cross and the grace of God. You don't. Not at all. I'm not sure where you got some of the things you believed, but you were definitely way off the track. If God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, do you think He'll just let you go? What sort of a God is that?"
"I don't know. I just don't know anymore. I want to hope, but how can I? I've defiled the holiest Name of all. All I can remember is that text about trampling the Blood of Christ..."
"I think you've lived with this condemnation for long enough. You've made mistakes. You've wandered far from the path. You're a wanted man. But that does not mean that God has given up on you. Remember His promise: 'I will never leave you or forsake you'. And remember what Paul said? 'If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful. He cannot deny Himself'".
He was silent for a long time. "I wish I could believe that."
"Whether you believe or not, doesn't matter. Truth is truth. From a beautiful pulpit or in the desert."
"It's not that I don't want to believe. I want to! But inside, here", and he hit his breast, "it's dead. Dead."
"Jesus Christ specializes in resurrection", the stranger said and smiled. "Let me tell you about the aftermath of Easter. Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter denied Him. Judas committed suicide and Peter became the leader of the Church. You know what made the difference?"
"You tell me."
"It's all about honesty. Peter was willing to face himself and acknowledge his guilt. He turned and faced the One he had denied, and received grace and forgiveness. Judas... he was so full of himself, he just couldn't accept seeing himself as a fallen sinner in need of mercy and forgiveness. Don't let your pride destroy what is left of you."
"God will take me back?"
"He will, Donovan." The stranger smiled again. "At the heart of the Universe there is not only justice... there is love for you. Enough to see you through."
Slowly the fugitive knelt down in the sand.
"Dear God," he whispered. And then the wall broke. All the years of brokenness and pain smashed through his defences, his body convulsing like a desert rat in a hyena's jaws. The big man started crying like a baby, his sobs tearing through the cool desert night, tears painting rivers on his dusty face. "If You can... If You will... Please..."
It was a long time before he lifted his head, but when he did the fire was back in his eyes. "It's true!" he said. "It's true! You were right..."
He looked around. The stranger was gone.
Early the next morning he left the house for the last time. Silently he said goodbye to the sandscape he had come to love so much. It was a long road to town, but it didn't matter. He even whistled a long-forgotten tune. And he prayed. At first self-consciously and stuttering, but soon he was pouring out all the years dammed up inside him.
From the pay-phone he made two calls: One to an old mother, and one to a widow. Then he walked the last few steps to the Police station.
"I've come to turn myself in", he said. "That's me on the poster".
And suddenly he was free.
© 2003 Flip van der Merwe. All rights reserved. This story may not be reproduced, stored or distributed, in part or in whole, in any manner whatsoever, without the express written permission of the author, or his legally contracted agent(s). For more information, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.