The Visitor

"Do I dare disturb the Universe?"

T.S. Eliot

A visitor came to Shinar City in the secret darkness of the night. Cloaked in black robes and a hooded shroud, which both shielded against the cold and concealed identity, the figure crossed the Jordan Bridge in a slow, deliberate pace, head bowed, shoulders slouched, as if weary and drained from the demands of a long journey. A flame lit lantern kept pace at the stranger's side, and with each step, the base of a long bone colored staff ticked dully, barely audible, on the thick wood planks that spanned the crossing. The staff was perhaps seven feet in length; the figure was nearly as tall, maybe taller had the torso not stooped so low.

Sarah watched from below the bridge on the muddy bank alongside the slow flowing brook that ran underfoot. Beside her, where she knelt on a hard patch amid the muck and moss of the creek bed, she set aside her brass box that held the three grass frogs she had captured. Her brows furrowed. A lone figure, crossing the bridge in the night, was a very uncommon event.

The figure stopped and turned, sensing her presence.

"Are you the child of Jacob and Ester?" A muted voice drifted down from the wooden rails. She could not tell if it came from man or woman. It was hushed, but strong, and though Sarah strained a bit to hear clearly, she instantly suspected, had the stranger chose, the voice could elevate in tone to carry across many a large expanse. She paused for a moment, wondering how the visitor knew of her parents. But, as children are wont to do, she answered the adult without inquiring as to the motive of the query, "Yes," she said in a quiet tone of her own.

"Are they safe?" the stranger asked.

The question perplexed her, and she answered matter-of-factly, "They have gone to the village square to attend the Festival of Light." She turned to signify the direction. Not far off, beyond the small cottage homes, music could be heard, drifting down the gully lane, and the small horizon was aglow with amber light. "I came here after the lighting ceremony. I will join them again when the dancing starts."

The hood shrouding the stranger's gaze lifted. Though Sarah could not see the eyes, she sensed they were fixed upon her metal box resting on the shoreline. She explained, "I catch them on full moon nights. Not as many as I used to. They have mostly gone into hiding."

A white wisp of air escaped from under the cowl. "You should let the creatures go then. Let them be with their kind."

A strange sensation entered Sarah's mind as the stranger spoke. She felt as if the appeal had been retrieved from within her own thoughts, as if the visitor had found it there by some strange will, pulled it to the surface, and given it voice. The sensation exited as quickly as it had entered.

Without objection, she knelt down, opened the brass lid and tipped the box on its side. Two tiny frogs immediately jumped free. A third shuffled about, hiding in the bit of grass she had placed inside. She nudged the damp weave aside, and the last frog finally skipped onto the bank with the others; and all three vanished into the stream with simultaneous plinks and three tiny splashes. For a moment, she watched the left-over ripples. Finally, she looked up, having done as she was asked. "Not as many as there used to be."

The figure was motionless, and it was only now that she realized the cloak, which she had thought black, was truly a deep and darkened purple.

"Who are you?" Sarah asked.

The visitor seemed to be scanning the surface of the water, and answered, "I am the last."

The figure turned without another word and continued over the bridge, as slowly as before, but now strode erect at full height. The visitor was indeed taller than the staff in hand.

By the time Sarah brushed the stray grass sprigs from her pant legs, and kicked her heels to dislodge the mud that had caked beneath her soles, the visitor had walked out of site up the lane toward the merriment. Sarah scrambled swiftly up the bank and jogged down the cobblestone road in the visitor's wake. In the distance she could soon hear the echo of a deeply resonant voice reverberating through the stillness of the night. The music had stopped. She knew the visitor had found the celebration and had interrupted the festivities with a speech of some kind.

As Sarah approached the square, she saw that the townsfolk had all gathered together under the casting radiance of the Tree of Light. Sarah paused a moment to gaze upon the display, a towering slender pyramid of glowing boughs, reaching upward from the center of the plaza, adorned from top to bottom with glimmering silver and amber lights, which to Sarah seemed to illuminate the dark spaces between the stars above. From the dance stage, in front of the onlookers, the tall visitor was addressing them, in a voice no longer hushed, but powerful and strong, and that carried over the crowd of listeners.

Standing on the outskirts of the gathering, just beyond the radiant light within, Sarah listened to what was being said.

"…while you celebrate, it dies around you. While you exchange gifts, the creatures struggle to find crumbs. While you congratulate one another, you ignore those still in need. These things are not required of you; it was only hoped."

The crowd seemed to cringe in a collective wave.

"In spite of these transgressions, you have been spared. It was not my choice. Had my course been selected, all of you would have paid what is owed."

Several onlookers sighed as if relieved. Sarah listened and watched in puzzlement.

"Mind you, I was not alone in this demand. But, the vote carried in your favor, and I abide. However, my legion and I were granted a concession. You are no longer welcome in our land. And so, for myself, and on behalf of those who have been silenced, I banish you – forever."

A lone voice from the crowd spoke up, "Where will we go?"

"That is not our concern. As I have said, I speak for the others, who are no longer with us. I too will eventually join their midst, but there must be at least one to witness the end, and to this affect, I still serve."

Sarah was uncertain of what the visitor meant, and searched the faces among the gathering for some hint of explanation. All eyes were cast down, as if in shame. She scanned for her parents, but could not pick them out among the mass. Rather than wait and wonder, she made her way to the front of the crowd, to where the light, cast by the tree, was darkened by the stranger's shadow, and stood by herself over the rim that separated one from the other.

Up at the lone figure she stared. The visitor was still hidden under the hood.

"I do not understand," she said. "What have we done? What have my parents done?"

The visitor glanced down at her. As the stranger answered, Sarah thought she could finally see two glowing spheres below the cowl that signified eyes, but she could see no face within the depths of the hood's shadow. "Like you, they captured many grass frogs. Unlike you, they knew what they were doing."

A few of the congregation began to shuffle out of the square, heading back to their respective homes.

"Stop," said the visitor. Sarah turned to see the individuals pause, eyes somewhat fearful, but obeying the command immediately. "You may not return to your homes."

Many in the crowd mulled about. But, some immediately assembled in groups of two or more and began exiting the circle of light, into the darkness of the land beyond. Sarah turned to the stranger, a sudden sorrow welling up inside her that she could not explain, feeling a tear trace down her cheek."

She wanted to ask a thousand questions, but the only one she uttered was, "Why?"

The stranger watched the dispersing crowd; glanced up at the amber lit tree, and then down. The powerful voice became once again hushed, "Child, I have no more words. Before this night is through, I have many more festivals to visit."

The visitor walked down the stage steps, slouching as before, below the top of the staff. With a slow gate, but determined, the visitor walked away, back toward the bridge. Soon the dark cloak blended with the night, and all Sarah could see was the candlelight flickering inside the floating lantern, until, once over the bridge, it faded into the darkness and was gone.

With dawn on the horizon, Sarah walked on, not knowing where she was being led. Her parents were with the group ahead. They had said they would keep her safe, but they did not enlighten her as to any of the events that had transpired. They seemed embarrassed when she approached, and when she asked them the same final question she had posed to the visitor, they told her they had not understood themselves; until now. This statement confused Sarah more. She gave up asking.

The travelers from the city Shinar walked on into the sunrise, onto the barren planes beyond. No one ever explained to her why.

The End