After the End

I once was lost, but now am found

Was blind, but now I see.

It was just after the end of the world that I really began to doubt.

The date had come and gone, and the world hadn't ended. At least, not in any way I could see. And we'd believed him. We'd believed him with all the faith we had, his own fervour so contagious that we loved him. Not in any sexual way, you understand – no, this was different. Purer, you might say. We were devoted to him, as devoted to his cause as he was. The end of the world… Nothing could be more central to our faith. But here we were, two weeks after the end, and the world was unchanged. As much there as it ever had been.

He was undaunted. He said the rapture had happened in our hearts, that the purest of souls had been drawn closer to God, and that the Lord – in His mercy – had given us more earthly time to lead others along the glorious Straight and Narrow Way to Jesus. He pronounced Jesus with the first syllable a few milliseconds too long. I don't know why it had never bothered me before. Now, it seemed to be all I could hear, just another little absurdity in the web he had spun around us and over our eyes, so that we had no choice but to follow him blindly, none of us stopping to see what would happen if we just rubbed the cobwebs away.

I was blind, but now I see. Or at least, I was beginning to.

The others still believed – or seemed to. They, at least, appeared willing to accept that the promised end had occurred, albeit in an unexpected way, that the earth's sinners had been granted a reprieve, a few more months or years to change their ways. Was I the only one who had opened my eyes? Or were there others, like me, staring around at this strange, new world with no one to tell about it? I had no way of knowing.

And so here I was. Not just on earth, as if that wasn't enough, but here, with the others, in the place we called home. The word tasted bitter in my mouth now. I sat at the large kitchen table, staring down, unseeing, at the wood. This was the only home I had ever known, more or less. But suddenly it seemed strange and foreign to me, as though I were seeing it from the outside for the first time. In a way, I was. For the first time, I had the dimmest – still guiltily suppressed – imaginings of a world without judgment, without damnation, without hellfire, and my traitor's heart quickened at the thought. It made me feel sick and hopeful and terrified all at once.

Automatically, I raised my hand to my mouth, worrying a thumbnail already bitten to the quick. The end hadn't happened. What else was a lie? I looked around the kitchen, half expecting the other women bustling around the kitchen to have ceased to exist. I felt cut off from them, set adrift by my newfound disbelief. I shook myself and blinked, trying to rid my mind of these heresies. I had work to do. I focused on the potatoes which sat beside me in a large basin, and, mechanically, began to peel them, hoping the monotonous work would soothe me.

But still the thoughts came. What if there was another way?

There was, I knew, another way. But the very thought of it was terrifying. The broad road to destruction. The outside world. My parents had given it up, and, as I had been only a child, I had renounced it along with them, content to start a new life, here with our new family. I had only the dimmest recollections of another family, shadowy figures I remembered from my childhood. I had never missed them much. I had been too young to understand, and anyway, there had been so many more exciting things to see and do with the new family. I had enjoyed the singing, the lessons, even the strange new clothes, which were so unlike my old ones had been.

And so this family, this home, had become my life. Without it, I had nothing. I had been here almost twenty years. I had never married, but I had managed to make myself useful in other ways, and had been secretly glad of it. Other women seemed to embrace their wifely duties with such readiness, such eagerness to raise up a righteous army of shining-faced new believers, with a fervour that I had never felt.

Oh, of course I had felt the ecstasy of belief, the love of duty, the surety of faith. But something had nagged at me for longer than I cared to acknowledge, a shameful suspicion that I could amount to more than a life as someone's wife or someone's mother, no matter how much I prayed that my heart would be changed so that I, too, would be willing to submit to a husband one day. Still, there was always work to do. So I peeled potatoes. I volunteered for it so often that I had been held up in front of the congregation as an example of proper feminine piety and devotion to duty. It had made me feel awkward. Wasn't pride a sin? How could I feel proud, even of my devotion to righteousness? Perhaps my discomfort was because, deep down, I knew that the only reason I appeared to enjoy such a tedious task was that it gave me time alone, even as the other women of the family worked all around me. Time to think. Thinking was officially encouraged, but only, of course, thinking of the approved kind. It chilled me to picture the disappointment of the rest of the family if they knew the thoughts that chased one another around my brain even as I sat here, the picture of the good homemaker, aiding in preparing food for the family.

Bitterness stirred in me, like bile in my gullet. He had promised. And yet the world had not ended. The words, "He lied to us," were treacherously taking shape in my mind, no matter how much I tried to suppress the thought. I had tried to tell myself that there had been an error, that the Lord's guidance had somehow led him to this conclusion as part of a greater plan. With everything I had, I longed to be able to believe it. But I couldn't. Not any more. He had lied. He had misled us all. I felt betrayed, a sensation which had, until recently, been foreign to me. But what could I do? This family was my whole life, my whole world.

We had isolated ourselves from the outside world in the certainty that our holiness would be tainted by too much contact with the sinners beyond our gates. I felt now like we'd allowed ourselves to be herded into a pen, like sheep too stupid to care about the world outside. All we knew was that it was full of wolves, and we were happy to trust in our shepherd to keep us safe from all the evils that lurked just the other side of our high fences. And all this, only to discover that our shepherd was a wolf as wicked as any other.

I felt my stomach writhe with shame for even daring to think such a thing. I could never tell any of the others what I had been thinking. How could I? What would they say? Was I going to hell? This last thought, oddly enough, was the one that frightened me least. I had begun, hesitantly, to allow myself to consider the heresy that hell, like so much else, was a fiction. The idea was comforting. Perhaps the strange part was that I found its logical counterpart, the absence of heaven, equally liberating. No more fear of eternity. No more worry about my soul. If only I could believe it enough to be free from those worries. But there was still a nagging part of my brain that warned me that I was damned, that hellfire was the only thing that could possibly await me if I carried on allowing such heretical thoughts to occupy my brain. So much for "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right."

I had never felt bitterness like this before. I had been angry, sometimes, raging against no one in particular, but I had always come to see the error of my ways, to understand that my judgment was inferior to his, and to Our Loving Father's. Our Loving Father had a strict way with his children, it seemed. I tried to focus on the potatoes again, crowd the thoughts out of my head with the sheer mundanity of the task. It was no good. The facts were plain: the world had not ended, and we had been betrayed.

If I was honest with myself, I had to acknowledge that, somewhere, in some treacherous part of my soul, I had never expected the end to come. Like the others, I had been filled with excitement, anticipation, the sheer thrill of knowing that we would all be in heaven before long – and yet, deep down, I had not been surprised to wake up the following morning in a world which looked exactly the same as it always had done. It seemed that the devil had long since been whispering in my ear, the whispers simply waiting for an opportunity to bubble up into real doubts. But it was only waking up, on that sunny, clear morning so beautiful that I could only pretend to be disappointed, that I had really allowed myself to turn my mind to the thoughts which now occupied it.

But still I knew that all my doubts would get me nowhere, and I felt that knowledge like a chain around my neck. I had nowhere to go. It wasn't as though I could just walk out. I was miles from the nearest town, with nothing to my name, not even the clothes I wore. Everything belonged to the family. And even if I could get away, would I want to? I had no answer. I found that I was staring down at a potato which I had been holding for a good minute. Would I? Really? If I had all the freedom in the world?

The question was unanswerable. This life was all I knew. I was simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the accounts I had heard of the evils of the outside world. I couldn't imagine giving in to that life.

Then again, I wasn't sure I could imagine living this life for much longer.

Could I really leave? The thought was at once exhilarating and terrifying. I felt paralysed, pulled towards an uncertain freedom I did not understand, but totally unable to move towards it.

I could not imagine what it would mean to be free. Really free, not the freedom I had believed myself to have here. I was beginning to understand that my "freedom" had never been more than a captivity forged from lies and fear. I gripped the potato and set to peeling it, as though in doing so I could strip away the years of false truths. But I knew it would not be that easy. The stories I had been told all my life were as much a part of me as any of my own thoughts. Freedom, in the sense that I was now coming to understand it, was a long way away. But still, freedom would come. I could already feel it stirring deep within me, the knowledge that one day, somehow, I would find a way to walk away. One day, no matter how distant, I would throw down this scarf, shake loose my hair, and never look back.

One day, I would be free.

A/N: Inspired by an image prompt, and written for the June 2011 Writing Challenge Contest at the Review Game Forum. Please vote for your favourite story!