Anathema

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Arnold stopped to peer at the moon, glabrous and pale in the late night sky, then slipped through the broad cathedral doors. The church was silent except for the echo his shoes made when he walked across the marble floor, and he suppressed a shudder as he passed by flickering candles and confessionals, surrounded by leering statues of the saints.

He stopped beside the front row of pews, genuflected before the blessed sacrament and sat. It was a ritual he’d learned in his youth. A ritual he hadn’t practiced in years.

The domed ceiling rose to a spectacular height, covered in otherworldly frescoes depicting the cosmic struggle between God and Satan. He looked up and felt dwarfed by the vastness of eternity, a terrible awe of Heaven and Hell, and felt as if he might be crushed between the two.

Arnold took a deep breath and gazed toward the altar, where a large wooden crucifix loomed over the empty congregation, hidden beneath a dark shadowy veil. He imagined the figure of Christ within, face frozen in perpetual agony.

It was Holy Week, a time of penance and reflection, and Arnold had a lot to think about.

The cathedral was a special place. Time was thin here, and if he focused hard enough he was sure he could peer through it, into the past, where he’d spent so many formative years in the Church, into the future, where he searched for answers to questions that had almost destroyed him once and threatened to destroy him still.

What was he? He was no closer to figuring that out than he’d been fifteen years ago when his terrible transformation began.

Life had been simple as a child. He’d done as his parents had told him, had believed as the priests had taught him. He’d gone to mass and confession, learned his prayers, absorbed himself fully in the truth that was presented to him.

Now, he was a stranger in his old place of worship, a stranger to his family, a stranger to himself.

He waited, as if God might glance down from Heaven and notice him at last. But there was only the quiet and the dark.

A faint buzz emanated from the stone walls, as if a tension was mounding in the cathedral’s foundation. Arnold closed his eyes to pray.

“Hail Mary,” he began, voice husky and dry. He stopped to clear his throat, then started again. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

Was there a Lord? If so, how did Arnold fit into his plans? The buzz grew louder, and Arnold could feel the pew begin to vibrate beneath him.

“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

What did it mean to be blessed? Arnold had been taught that to be saved, one must remain in a state of grace. Was Arnold in a state of grace, or was he now anathema? Did he have a place in Heaven, or a place in Hell? The buzz transfigured, became a loud shuddering rumble.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

A thunderous crack exploded like a cannon, and Arnold’s eyes popped open.

The veil had torn along a jagged seam that ran down its center like a fault line in the earth. The heavy wooden cross beneath trembled, leaned forward as if in prayer, then came crashing down, destroying the tabernacle, scattering consecrated hosts like confetti.

The earth shook with such violence that Arnold imagined the gates of Hell were opening, ready to swallow him whole.

“Please, God, make it stop!”

Arnold rocked back and forth like a toddler, holding his hands over his ears as if the gesture could protect him.

Then just like that it was over. The Earth stopped moving. The cathedral fell silent once more.

Face hot, Arnold’s neck bulged as he beheld the ruined altar, veins popping through his skin like thick cords.

“What am I?” he shouted at the painting on the ceiling. “Why are you doing this to me?”

A man emerged through the open doorway behind the altar, a silhouette wreathed in moonlight. He stepped forward until the pallid illumination revealed a pair of wide, disbelieving eyes.

The parish priest.

Arnold leaped to his feet and bolted.

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Journey’s End

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It was big. World-sized big. It towered over her, blocking her path. So, this was what her journey had come to. Centuries of trudging through deserts and mountains, seas and jungles, space and time, only so that minutes from her journey’s end, a stone wall could block her path. It shot up into the sky and out of sight, extended to the left and right as far as the eye could see.

She fell to the dusty ground, bowed her head and cried.

She could remember when she’d first set out, how young and beautiful she’d been, so full of ambition and drive. She cleaved to her mission with an almost childlike devotion. Then she aged. Her features weathered, until she was like many of the deserts she’d passed through on the way. Youthful optimism yielded first to caution, then to exhaustion. In the end, only gritty persistence and determination saw her come so close to the other side.

She’d faced many obstacles, pushed through quite a few toils, trials and dangers. There were times when she was convinced she couldn’t go on, when she thought in long bouts of despair that she might as well lay down to die, letting her bleached bones adorn her incomplete path, serving as a warning to others who might dare follow in her footsteps. Then she reconsidered, thinking that perhaps she should encourage rather than frighten her fellow explorers. After all, more were setting out every day for the same reason she had, to be a part of something bigger, something transcendent and everlasting. So instead she let her struggle bear witness to the fact that anything was possible, that if you wanted something badly enough you could seize it by sheer will-power alone.

And that’s all this was, she realized, another obstacle, one more test before she could finally indulge in the fruit of her labor. She only had to be strong, to pick herself up from the ground one last time.

She rose. Beat the dust out of her shirt, pants and boots. Wiped away her tears. She stared at the rock face before her, until a grim smile pushed past her ancient features.

“Okay,” she said to the wall. “Let’s do this.”

She launched herself at it, pried, picked and climbed for as long as she could. But the hard granite surface was unyielding. It dug into her skin, scratching, tearing, bleeding.

Then, just when she’d offered all her strength, when she felt she had no blood left to shed, a harsh baritone rumble swallowed the world. The wall moved down, sucked into the Earth. She watched, mesmerized, until first the sky, then the mountains beyond became visible. An entire vista opened before her eyes, a glittering otherworldly refuge of gold, silver and crystal. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

When the last of the wall had disappeared beneath the ground, she stepped forward. She’d done it. She was on the other side.

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Age and the Loss of Innocence

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There are those exceptional moments in life when you experience crystal clarity in thought and purpose, when all is as it should be, when all is right and good with the world. But those moments are rare, are few and far between, and they almost always occur when you’re young. As a child, you didn’t have time to formulate your own beliefs; instead, your world view hinged on the beliefs of others. The innocence of youth is a wonderful carefree time in which the mind and the heart are free from the burdens of autonomous thinking and responsibility.

Then a tragic thing happens. You grow up. You question. You doubt. The world view you subscribed to when you were young no longer seems to apply. You wake up to discover you’ve been abandoned in a hostile world that makes no sense, and you’re forced to fend for yourself, to scrap together bits and pieces of the truth as you find them, to piece together some fragmentary understanding of who you are and why you’re here. You toil in the dark without relief, with only the cold and empty void of unconsciousness for an interlude. You’re faced with the prospect of death somewhere on the horizon, yet have no knowledge of when you’ll meet it face-to-face or what will happen when that day finally comes.

This of course is a necessary thing. Without the impetus to search for the truth, you would lay on your back day and night, unmotivated, listless and without purpose. It is this very emptiness, this very despair that compels you to move forward. You venture on. You hope and you pray that the light you seek at the end of the world exists, that the faith you placed in this unnamed truth was not in vain.

And sooner or later, one way or the other, you’ll find out.

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