We walked for a mile in silence. Jack’s steps were light and I noticed he was barely sweating at all; I on the other hand, if invertebrate, could have been wrung out like a wet towel, filling many buckets with my sweat. My steps were still sinking deep into the sand as well, and with every step I cursed Jack and this blazing dream and God even. All I wanted was to return to my ordinary day, to go out and buy a coffee – maybe a croissant – and go about my day! God, did that sound lovely! My mouth nearly drooled at the thought. Suddenly I realized I was extremely thirsty, for I hadn’t drunk water since this whole nightmare began. I contemplated asking Jack if he had water, but of course he didn’t have a water bottle. And why would he? He was an angel; do they even drink? Aren’t they satiated by God alone?
I sneered at my own thought. All this was rather uncomfortable, was it not? What, in the end, would I draw away from this hellish experience? As soon as I was returned to my ordinarity, I would forget this whole thing – Jack, the two colleagues, the drunkard, and this hot desert.
This thought reminded me of my temporariness in this world. Surely I would be returned to Earth soon! This gave me hope to keep trudging, for I was exhausted and ready to collapse into the burning sand. I also reminded myself that it was cold on Earth right now and I would need my coat upon return, so with renewed passion, I gripped my coat and caught up to Jack, whose pace was difficult to match.
We came upon a scene which, in retrospect, is rather comical. In the moment, however, it hit way too close to home.
There was, on the cliff wall (for we had followed the wall of the ravine the whole time) was a worn ladder made from some sort of tied together twine. It looked suspicious and altogether not fit for climbing. There was upon it, however, a large man with a gigantic pack on his back. Furthermore, he was grasping in his left hand a staff, leaving his right arm alone to support and balance the weight that he carried. His situation was such that I thought several times he would fall, for he was tipping this way and that due to so much pressure on his back. And without both hands to properly climb the ladder, he swayed and rocked the ladder violently. And with every sway, an item from his pack would linger precariously close to tipping out and falling back down the wall; the man was no less than 20 feet above the ground.
Indeed, he would have made quicker progress, but for the fact that each time he swung to the right or to the left and noticed one of his precious collectables about to fall, he would do everything within his effort to clutch at it until it was once more secure in his pack. This he did a hundred times within the first minute of us observing him from below.
“Surely we must do something!” said I to Jack, cringing with every shake and stagger, “he’s going to fall!”
“Sadly nothing can be done for this poor old fool,” Jack responded.
“Nothing! Well, surely someone in his right mind might coax him down!”
“Do you not think this man is of a stable frame of mind?”
“Well certainly I don’t! Just look at him, he values his belongings more than his very life!”
“Ah, does he now?” And as Jack said it, I knew the tremor in his voice was meant to challenge my own way of thinking, for I was still holding on to my coat. Inside I boiled but outwardly kept my cool, feinting oblivion.
“Well very well, you may interact with the fellow,” said Jack, snapping his fingers. I was inserted into this new realm, the realm without Jack. I very much liked not having to bother with Jack’s judgmental attitude.
I approached the cliffside and looked up at the man, who had made no progress – in fact he may have traveled down a rung or two!
“Good sir!” I hollered up at the man. No response. “Good sir!” I tried again, louder this time.
“Ay, is somebody there?” the man called down without looking down.
“Hello good sir! Might I suggest you come down from there?”
“Well why on earth would I do that? I need to make it up!”
“I fear that if you continue, you shall fall and greatly injure yourself!”
“Ha! Never have I been one to follow fear’s whims. I am a conquerer!”
He tried to continue up the ladder, but only managed to knock loose a badminton racket from his bag, which he managed to catch with his foot, pinching the racket between his foot and the wall. It was quite impressive, I must say, but he nearly lost his balance and fell. The next minute was riveting to watch, as he precariously reached down with his left hand to grab the racket. The trick was that he was already holding his staff with his left hand, so in order to free his hand, he clenched the staff between his knees and grabbed the racket, then placed it back into his pack and wielded the staff once more.
“Sir,” I called up once more, “why don’t you let a few things go? You’re endangering your safety for the sake of your objects!”
“Indeed I am, but let me assure you, kind gentleman, that all of my possessions are of great worth!”
“Well, would you at least loose your staff so you have 2 free hands to climb the ladder?”
“Loose my– well!” huffed the man, “I could simply never do such a thing! This staff holds very dear sentiment to my heart and dropping it would be the cruelest thing I’d ever done.”
“Well, what about lightening your pack a little bit, then? Tell you what, why don’t you come back down and I’ll help you sort out your belongings, and then you can return up the ladder with ease!”
“You speak as a simpleton I’m afraid. You know nothing of the value of my possessions and if you did I’m positive you’d agree with me. Now, if you’ll leave me be, I’m almost to the top!”
It was then that Jack fetched me back and we both watched the fool climb the ladder hopelessly. He was nowhere near the summit.
“Will he ever reach the top?” I asked.
“I guess not.”
“And what about you, John?” Jack turned to me as he said this.
“Well what about me?” I replied.
“Are you ready to drop your possessions?”
“This is hardly about me! Besides, the poor old man is carrying more weight than I! One shouldn’t compare the two of us!” I waved my hand in Jack’s face and turned my attention back to the man on the ladder. I never felt Jack’s gaze leave me, however, and it was quite uncomfortable.
“John, face the truth. You’ve been carrying around more weight than just your coat. You know I’m not only talking about physical things – the man’s pack represents more than just his physical belongings. You’ve been bearing many things upon your shoulders, since you were a child even!”
“You don’t know me and I wish you’d stop pretending you do!”
“You always blamed yourself for your father’s drinking habit, didn’t you?”
I turned to Jack, rage in my eyes, unable to form words. Jack continued, though I silently begged him to stop.
“And when your parents divorced, you promised yourself you’d never make the same mistakes… but here we are. You’ve been carrying these wounds like you’ve been carrying that coat, and you refuse to let go. Why is that, John?”
Like salt to an open wound were Jack’s words to my heart. I was crying now. I felt in that moment naked, completely exposed, weak, vulnerable, and I hated it. I hated Jack for doing this to me. Above all, I hated myself.
“It’s time to let go. It’s time to drop the coat. ‘Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’”
I felt like a little child. I was weak, dependent, unable to provide for myself. I was a failure. I had done the very thing I promised I’d never do. I promised I’d never hurt someone the way my father hurt my mother. And yet, I was no different from him… no better.
“Love and hate cannot coexist within your heart. You must rid yourself of one to make room for the other.”
How did Jack do that? How did he pierce my mind and soul and speak so eloquently into it? I didn’t know and for a moment I didn’t care. My eyes began to open to the truth of it all – just a sliver, mind you – it would take years before I began to fully understand the depravity of my heart, but there in the desert the door to my soul was cracked open, letting in a sliver of light.
I dropped my coat.
Oh the joy that embraced me in that moment! I danced a silly dance there on the hot sand, yet I barely even felt the sand on my feet anymore! What once had burned so painfully now seemed like nothing! My steps were not deep as they were before – no, they were light like Jack’s! I felt freer than I’d ever felt before. Greater than that, I felt the overwhelming power of love rush over me and take my breath away. I was speechless!
I looked at Jack, awe in my eyes and happiness inflating my chest. He looked back at me the same and we embraced.
“Now do you believe?”