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Dark Bondage – part I

There are days in our lives when the weather can match the mood so resplendently that one cannot discern one from the other. The gray, overcast somberness seems to creep into our very core, a darkening of the spirit, dissuading all that seeks to find joy in the sunbeams, happiness in the daylilies, or the enrichment of the sound of the songbird in the distance. Some feel continual pain for long periods of time or some for the entirety of their lives. Could it be more or less akin to dragging an anchor behind you, struggling to move, finding stairs, or ascending heights, a bewildering prospect? One must ask, is this it for the rest of my life? Is this my new norm?

Stephen sought every medical profession that would help him resolve this chronic debilitating disease. Each day, when he tried to rise, it was as if the core of his being was chained to the bed; bondage to an earthly prison had encompassed most of his adult life. If only he could break free. The doctors found one excuse after another to describe his condition, yet nobody had an answer. Early on, prescription opioids masked the unceasing pain. Still, he found it took more and more until there came a breaking point, a day of blind fury from the disconnect he forced upon himself, knowing that if he continued, he would die from the treatment rather than the crux of his demise. From there, the bottle became the agent of choice to which he sought relief if any could be found. Yet, that too, the well of utter hopelessness, kept him forever seeking another path, another way out of the day-to-day hell. One cancer led to another.

The rage that accompanied the agony spoke words he could not control; his mouth was as much a vile lesion upon his soul as the disease within.  Too often, he would see himself, a stranger within his own body, inflicting pain upon his loved ones and, one by one, watching them leave, never to return. The dark abyss to which his life spun, the whirlwind of depression upon whose waves his body was interred, carried him to depths of rejection and suffering no mortal man could stand, at least for any length of time. Yet, as much as one might believe a human capable of withstanding, Stephen could have easily given up and accepted death, but there awaited an eternity of anguish and pain. Instinctively, he knew that was not the answer. If only he could find peace in an eternal sleep. So, instead of giving in, he pressed on – something drove him onward. The costs were immeasurable, and the endurance with which he strived to stay alive when everything else said to lie down and end it all was incomprehensible. It was as if there was a being watching over him, even if he didn’t desire that protection or grace being bestowed upon him.

One day, distraught and hungry, Stephen sought refuge in the wilderness, wanting to be alone with his thoughts. Isolation from the world, from the pain itself, is an alluring deception to escape reality. He found himself walking along a riverbank, pondering everything and anything, not hoping, not denying, but merely existing, when he happened upon a dugout canoe tied to a small tree. Not seeing anyone around, he, more out of curiosity than of a criminal nature, slipped from the bank into the vessel, where he found a few loose animal pelts lying about. Not seeing any harm, he took the soft hides and wrapped himself in the bosom of a fur cocoon, falling fast asleep. With the added weight, the breeze gently rocked the boat and soon slipped the knot around the limb to which it was moored. Quietly and gently, the little boat began to follow the river’s current, winding beneath the patchwork of clouds and sky above while the occupant slept as deep a sleep as he had been able in many months. The day faded into twilight as the full moon soon began to crest the horizon. Long shadows crossed the river, yet the little craft continued unabated in its journey, its passenger unaware of the course to which he had befallen. Deep within the recesses of his mind, the pain had eased a touch, allowing the soothing sounds and comforting ripples of the water to lull him into a state of mind that had alluded him for many years. There, upon the gentle tides of the dream world, from a place of bliss, he saw himself sitting on the top of a knoll in a meadow in the shade of a large oak tree. It was an enchanted island in a sea of tall stalks with abundant heads of grain bending under the weight of their bounty. The breeze blew the weighty summer grasses all around him, turning color as the underside revealed a lighter shade, making mesmerizing undulating waves of grain that appeared to chase the shadows of the clouds above – a dance of splendor upon the landscape beneath an azure blue sky. The fields were ripe for harvest.

A redtail hawk cried in the distance as Stephen watched her glide upon the currents of the sky, floating with a sense of purpose, steady but graceful. It was then he sensed the feeling of a warm, loving blanket of comfort wash over his soul. Something dangling from a nearby low branch caught his eye, drawing his attention to a trinket hanging from a thin leather strand. Its image, suspended in the air, hung before the sun, blinding his vision and forcing him to shield his eyes with one hand while leaning against the tree trunk. “Could it be,” he thought to himself. Before him, the summer breeze gently buffeted a tiny hand-carved cross. It had been a gift to his grandmother when he was still in his teens.

The embodiment of hope welled up within his being, so much so that the impression became apparent as tears welled up in his eyes, temporarily obscuring the scene before him, washing together the colors until he couldn’t see the beauty before him. At that moment, he heard a voice, but no one was there. It was as if it came from nowhere and everywhere. “Son, don’t give up on this life, for you are loved more than you know.” There it was again, the voice of reason, of hope, someone he had not thought of in a long time, his grandmother Mildred. Her passing left a hole in his teenage heart that he never seemed to be able to fill. Her soothing tones would comfort his childhood mishaps with such loving care that nothing else mattered whenever she finished consoling his wounded pride. The voice continued, “Too soon many have turned from God’s loving arms, and too soon they have found themselves awash in hopelessness and despair. Take comfort in knowing that you are not alone, that He is with you, always. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. Your life has a purpose, one that you may not see or understand, but someday soon, you will see what glory awaits. For now, press on towards the mark. Someday soon, you will be delivered.”

With that, a sudden bump awakened Stephen from his slumber as the bow of the tiny craft nudged the shoreline of the river, now many miles from whence it had departed. Unsure of himself, he looked about, still wrapped in the warmth of the hides he had stumbled upon. The voice from the dream still lingered upon his mind like the smoke from the chimney on a cold, windless night. Its vapor encircled the essence of his being, as the smoothing aroma of woodsmoke. He accepted his plight as one might look to the horizon of a distant shore, waiting for the moment their vessel would eventually make landfall.  Stephen looked about his tiny craft for a paddle to continue his nautical journey, but there was none. The old saying popped into his mind, “One can paddle every canoe except one’s own.”

The moonlight, still bright, lit the shoreline with a somber, blueish-white tint – dreamlike in nature. Stepping out of the canoe, keeping one of the furs wrapped about his shoulders to ward off the chill of the night, he found an animal trail from the water’s edge. He began to follow it, not knowing where he was nor where he was going, only that to continue forward felt important, as if something or someone was calling him – a beckoning from afar. It was a mountainous terrain upon which he had happened as his trek paralleled the water’s edge; the sound of rapids below consummated his footsteps as they found their way up a steep incline. His lungs began to labor at the toil unto which his legs carried him, continually climbing over and passing boulders that lay like sleeping giants along the trail’s ever-winding boundary. He continued in this manner for many hours, the moon eventually setting as the hint of a distant sunrise began to lighten the Eastern sky. His path eventually topped out at the crest of the mountain. The sky was a somber pink and blue, painting the mountain tops with a golden hue that spoke of an assurance he felt he should know, but something inside him purposely kept it at a distance – a chasm of doubt between the two. A single thread of smoke caught his eye, evidence of another human in this dreamlike realm. His eye followed it down until it came to its source: a stone cottage nestled in the cusp of the darkness, its windows glowing from lamplight within. To this end, there was a draw from which he could not discern, other than it felt as if there was a welcoming gesture in that humble abode to which he must go. So, without delay, he pulled the pelt closer to his chin and continued down, ascending into the depths of the night once more, as the morning sun had yet to penetrate the recesses of the valley below.

* * * *

The Sozo rose early that Sabbath morning, immediately slipping to the floor beside his bed, kneeling in prayer, something he did every day for as long as he could remember. His life was one with God, and each day, he was afforded the multitude of His blessings. As he lifted his voice to the Father, he received a brief but clear vision. In the scene, it was still dark, but just within the outer confines of the light from his lodge stood a small lamb calling for help. Its white coat was muddied from traveling many miles. While it continued to call, its breath was visible, as the chill of the night was still lingering. The little animal’s cries spoke of pain, something a farmer comes to know when working with animals, a sense of discomfort for which the beast can only comforted by its caregiver. The vision ended when he opened the door, and something else, something he understood from before, began to unfold. The Sozo arose from the floor, knowing God was at work, and before the day was out, He would reveal its mystery.

After stoking the fire in the hearth a few minutes later, he eased into his ancient, well-worn rocking chair while sipping the day’s first cup of coffee. As he poured over God’s word, he gently stroked the soft hair of Aphiemi, his pet wolf, the wild animal he had taken in as a pup so many years before. The elder had been returning from a day of searching for lost souls in the nearby village when he found the brutal scene of death. Hunters had killed Aphiemi’s mother and the rest of the litter. She had survived by hiding in a hollow log next to the den, where she was slowly dying of hunger. Wolves were a threat to the villagers in the area, often killing many of their young and threatening the safety of their livestock. From the villager’s perspective, it was the elimination of a pestilence. To Sozo, it was a heartless killing. Aware of the implications of taking in a wild animal, the old man felt in his heart that he could not allow the little puppy to die of starvation – thus, he and the baby wolf’s companionship began. With her by his side, he always felt even more protected from the worldly dangers that hearkened to the door of his obscure dwelling. In a way, it was as if God had provided him a protector, but instead of a weapon, it came in the form of a wolf.

In deep contemplation, he read over the ancient manuscript encased within the weathered, leather hand-bound volume; his eye followed the letters on the page from the Gospel of Luke, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders  and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” He leaned back, taking another sip from the warm mug, thinking over these words and the vision he had received. “Coincidence or not,” he thought to himself, but before he could ponder further, Aphiemi raised her head and gave a low guttural growl.

There came the dull thud of the iron knocker wrapping at the chamber door. Aphiemi stood, hair bristling along her spine.

“Easy, girl.” Slowly rising from his rocker, Sozo headed toward the door.

“Let’s see what the Lord hath brought us today.”

* * * *

Standing at the outer edge of the realm of darkness, just beyond the emanating lamplight from within, Stephen considered his next move. The dwelling looked as if it had been built in an ancient time; the slate roof reflected the coming dawn as the glow from the windows painted the stone walls a buttery hue, a delicious glow that beckoned him all the more. Still, not knowing the demeanor of the inhabitants within, Stephen groveled deep within his soul – should he dare knock, or should he just go on? Like a man wrestling with a power greater than his own, he eventually succumbed to the pressure and moved forward. He stepped upon the stone porch and raised the heavy iron handle of the door knocker, pausing, questioning why he was even here and what he was about to do.

Then he dropped the metal handle, which fell with a loud thud on the massive wooden door.

The sounds of footsteps shuffling toward him could be heard from within – then a pause. Stephen swallowed a hard gulp of air momentarily, asking for protection in a silent thought – to whom he didn’t know.

Then, the creak of the lock.

When the door opened, a swoosh of warmth and a welcoming light from within flooded the porch, embracing Stephen. What he saw before him caused his heart to pause. For a moment, his senses could not contain the overwhelming tumult of thoughts that ran through his mind. He was speechless, yet he felt something he had not known in many years or possibly ever.

To be continued…



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