This is a work of fiction.
Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes.
Everyone had been called to Worship. I stood outside the temple, and waited for the doors to be opened. It was early morning, and very bright, with sunbeams reflecting off the snow that had fallen the night before. I felt exposed, standing as I was on the mountain top, near the greatest temple in the world, or at least to my knowledge.
The time between call and opening was usually about an hour. Today, by the glowing dial on my right wrist, it took fifteen minutes.
Once the doors had been flung wide, we all began to file silently inside. I’d been in the temple many time in my life, but the place never ceased to leave me awe-stricken. Everything in it was made of stone, because wood is living material, metal is forged by humans, and only rock has no ancestry.
The two Leaders of Worship took their places at the front, between two columns of stone. They linked hands, and each put their other hand flat on the stone beside them. They looked around at us, and their expressions dwindled from gentle smiles to sadness, through desolation, and then shrank down in horror. A hush fell over us as we listened. The one on the right spoke.
“The dark tide will soon be upon us,” she said. The man on the left nodded. Tears began to flow down his cheeks. “We have displeased the gods, and this is their vengeance.” In the silence that followed these terrible words, I could hear people’s breathing quicken, and some began to gasp for breath. A few children cried, and a few looked at their parents’ frightened faces in bewilderment.
Through his tears, the man said, “There is nothing that can be done, nothing that can placate them now. You may grieve, but there is no point. Soon, this whole city will be utterly destroyed. Our only hope is to leave before the dark tide sweeps us all away. Let us pray now, and hope that the gods will see fit to tell us when the dark tide might arrive.” They both gestured to us and on shaking legs, I stood. Parents pulled their children upright or took babies in their arms. We all moved toward the nearest stone and put our hands flat upon it. The wall was cold under my palms and I was shivering. The rock seemed to draw out all the heat in me, to suck away the warmth of my blood, and to be trying to remove my soul from my breath. The gods were definitely displeased. I wished with all my pounding heart to be told when the dark tide would come.
A few minutes later, the Leaders of Worship shook their heads, a signal that our request to know when the dark tide was coming had not been granted. That was when the wailing started. It hurt my ears, and careful not to lose contact with the stone, I began to edge my way toward the great doors. I was close to the back, and it only took me thirty excruciating seconds to leave, but I was afraid my ears would burst with the terrible sounds the women made. Outside, I kept my hands pinned against the stone of the gods and shivered with cold and fear.
The wailing and grieving went on for hours. The cold grew more intense, and my fear ever greater.
Finally, just after sunset, the crying died down, and I re-entered the temple to see the two Leaders of Worship still standing silently between the pillars of unyielding godly rock.
After about half an hour, the Leaders of Worship nodded, and the moaning subsided into silence.
The woman said, “We have been given a sign, and now we know when the dark tide will come.”
“Hurry home,” the man said, “for in one hour, the dark tide will come, and out of the earth shall emerge a roiling cloud of dark charcoal gray, as a flood, not of water, but of destruction and damnation.”
Both Leaders of Worship signaled us to depart in orderly fashion, and that Worship was at an end. We all let go of the stone walls and the nearest to the back left first. My wife and daughter were near the front, so I left before they did. Their poor throats must have been so raw. There was no running water in the temple, so they would have to wait until they got home. I also worried that either of them could be injured if the crowd exiting from the temple descended into disorder.
Our home was a ten-minute walk down the mountain from the temple. The snow crunched under my feet as I made my way toward it.
My wife and I didn’t own a bicycle cart, so we’d flee on foot with our daughter and whatever we could carry.
I went into the master bedroom and looked at the bed where my wife and I had first made love, and was overwhelmed by sadness. There was nothing I could do, and it was time to pack.
I heard my wife and daughter coming in and going into the kitchen, and I savored a moment of relief that they had made it home safely. I listened until I heard the clanging of pots and pans being packed, and then I went into the closet and began packing our clothes. It would be warmer in the valley below, I reasoned, so we didn’t need to bring our heaviest winter coats, but I did pack our spring ones.
Ten minutes passed and then my wife called to me from the kitchen.
“We’re going now. Are you ready?”
“I just need to get a few more things and then I’ll follow.”
“Yeah okay, but hurry up.”
“I will, but don’t wait for me. We can find each other later.”
I heard them leaving and I tossed the last of my daughter’s socks into the bag. All I needed to pack now were her sketches. I slung the bag over my arm and opened the drawer where I kept the folder of drawings that she’d given to me on my birthday and other occasions for the last sixteen years. I opened the folder and looked at the first one that she’d made at the tender age of two. It was a stick figure that I knew was supposed to represent my wife. She’d drawn it with a black pencil on white paper. It wasn’t very good, but it was her first. I took all of them out of the folder, intending to count them and make sure they were all there, and began to flip through them. The one she’d done when she was three was more elaborate, and showed the three of us, sitting on the grass in the summer, with flowers all aorund us and in our hair.
A gust of wind against the house startled me, and I dropped the papers.
“No!” I bent down, and began to pick them up one at a time. I would now have to count them three times instead of only once, because dropping precious things displeases the gods and counting them would restore order.
My fingers were clumsy and my heart pounded as I picked up sketch after sketch, my mind chattered at me to hurry up, but I would not risk sliding into disorderly haste.
Finally, I had them all in the folder, and began to count. I made it to 287 and then started again. I made it to 287 for the second time, but after the third count, I only had 286. I’d have to count them until I got 287 three times in a row.
When at last I was sure I had them all, I’d counted them fourteen times over. I put them carefully back into the folder and put that into my bag. I zipped it closed and then I looked at the time. A lot more than an hour had gone by. The dark tide must be very near. How long before it burst into my house and consumed me? I rushed to the door and flung it open. It was dark, snow was falling, and the wind gusted hard and fiercely against me. I hoped my wife and daughter had caught a ride with somebody who had a bicycle cart, or they’d be caught out in this, and wouldn’t get far before the dark tide overtook them. I, on the other hand, had to decide if I wanted to walk into a storm, or if I prefered to die holding my daughter’s sketches in the warmth of my home.
I stepped out into the storm. The icy wind blew right through the winter coat I’d donned, and threatened to tear the bag containing my daughter’s art right out of my hands. I clutched it tightly and began to walk. I had taken only a few steps, but I could just barely see my house. How could I find anything in this? It was night and not a single light was visible. I turned back and made it to my door. I practically fell inside, went into my daughter’s room, and curled up on her bed with the folder of sketches in my arms.