A PRIEST IN A LIFEBOAT

They had now passed all known limits of endurance, none of them had ever suffered so much nor felt deathís hand so close.

All around their lifeboat, on all sides, stretched the endless sea, like giant fields of blue without a single tree, a single fruit, or a single well to drink from. The irony that all who have undergone this experience have not failed to note burned their faces, and hollowed out their hearts: here they were, surrounded by infinite expanses of water, yet dying of thirst. It was as if the whole world were mocking them, laughing as it killed them.

"What kind of Universe has God made?" croaked one of the dying passengers, sunburned beyond all recognition, barely stirring from where he lay at the bottom of the boat, as his grown daughter sobbed above him, attempting to cover him from the savage rays. "Like Tantalus reaching for the grapes Ė the beautiful grapes."

"Stop, donít drink!" the strongest of them shouted, knocking the water out of the cupped hands of another of the desperate survivors.

"Weíll die!" the frustrated man, who did not have the strength to try again, protested.

"You cannot drink that water," the strongest said, "the salt will go to your brain, youíll go mad, youíll die!"

"Water!" the man gasped, like some half-human creature from the myths of sailors.

"Rain. Maybe it will rain," the strongest suggested. "You have to hold on, just a little bit longer."

There was not a cloud in the sky.

"Look Ė a fish!" gasped one of the weary passengers, catching sight of a fast blue-silver shape darting past them, just beneath the waves. As if the fish were part of Godís conspiracy to torment them, it circled back after it seemed to be gone, swam slowly underneath the boat, and hovered right off the side for over a minute, until it finally disappeared into the depths as a manís cumbersome hand broke the surface of the water trying to reach it.

"Itís as if God was playing with us!" the failed fisherman lamented.

"Your hand was too slow," an angry passenger cursed, without patience for inefficacy.

"Men donít catch fish with their hands," another retorted. "Thatís why they cast nets, you son-of-a-bitch."

"Go to Hell!"

"Damn you, Iíve a mind to throw you out of the boat!"

"Brothers! Sisters!" a priest among them exclaimed.

All eyes turned towards the ravaged man of God whose body barely moved, but whose soul seemed to be unbroken. "We must not quarrel," he told them. "Not now. We must not cease to be kind to one another. More than ever, now that the end is near, we must remember what is important; we must remember what to cherish, and what to give up without a fight." And he quoted for them a passage from the Bible: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal."

The words, which they had heard dozens of times before, in churches, where God seemed a thousand miles away, began to soothe them. The sobbing and the groaning diminished. Someone reached out to touch the priest, begging, silently, for him to hold his hand.

"Are we going to die?" a woman asked him, at last, as they tossed about gently on the sea which seemed indolently at rest as it destroyed them.

"There is no death for those who love God," the priest told them. "From this mortal life of suffering to blissful eternity, the door is wide open. Canít you feel it? Purify your hearts, now, that you may walk through when the time comes. Do not die with bitterness in your hearts, ingratitude on your lips, or rage in your eyes, for these things scatter the angels and lose Godís grace. Now is the time to make peace with the life you have lived. To ask for Godís forgiveness, and prepare yourself to face your Maker."

"Weíre going to die," someone began to wail.

"No, we are going to live," the priest said. "We are going to Heaven. It is as near as the sincerity of our repentance. When we first set out on this voyage, we all thought we were going to Europe, but now we see that we were really going to Heaven! Hallelujah!"

"Hallelujah!" several voices answered.

"My children! My children!" someone else wept, a man whose children had stayed behind at home, while he and his wife set out for Europe. "What shall they do without their father and their mother?"

"Your separation will be no more than a moment in eternity," the priest reassured him. "Soon they, too, will be at your side. After they have lived great lives and full lives, inspired by your memory, they shall come to join you, and happiness shall reign over your household for the rest of time."

A bitter voice, a tired voice, grumbled: "And Father, will we have harps to play and sit on clouds?"

The priest answered: "My friend, half the beauty of Heaven is that we do not know it! I believe it will be as we would have wished it to be, if we had half the imagination to conceive it. I believe it must be like a garden, with flowers we know, like roses, so that we do not pine for the earth, and flowers we have never even dreamt of, because it is more than the earth. Anyway, I am sure that if you want to, God will let you play the violin instead of the harp."

A couple of the dying passengers laughed, in spite of the acute pain of laughing, which wracked their inert bodies. To even chuckle was like being hit by a hammer.

"All the water," the man at the bottom of the boat complained (Heís still alive someone said). "All the water around us that we cannot drink. Why is God tormenting us in this way?"

"You are only tormented if you do not have faith," the priest said. "For all those who understand that they are on the way to Heaven, the very idea that God could be mocking them makes no sense: for God is bringing us to the most beautiful of worlds, and rescuing us from the tribulations of the earth."

"But the pain! The pain of dying this way!" gasped the man.

"Joan of Arc, who was among the most righteous and brave of the saints, was burned alive," the priest told him. "Her last words, even as the agonizing flames consumed her, were: Jesus! Jesus! Think of Jesus, who is so much better than any of us, who was flogged, and mocked, and paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, then nailed to the cross and left hanging in shame under a sun twice as hot as the one that tortures us. God did not give either Joan or Jesus these deaths to humiliate them, but to give them one final chance to show the world the meaning of faith."

"Amen," someone said.

"Amen."

There was silence for a while, the despair began to fizzle out; acceptance began to take the place of mourning. Injustice, somehow, seemed to change into a gift.

After a while, the priest closed his eyes and began to murmur, with earnest conviction and love for his fellow passengers, the Shepherdís Psalm: "The Lord is my Shepherd: I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his nameís sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou annointest my head with oil: my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever."

"Amen."

"Amen."

For a long while, not a word was spoken, each of the dying passengers was lost in his own thoughts, as the sea which had decided to take them rocked them gently like babies in a cradle.

Then, suddenly, they heard an unwelcome voice dragging them away from the euphoria, which was on the verge of freeing them from their cracked and pain-filled bodies. "A ship! A ship!" someone was crying out, shouting with a hoarse voice that emerged as a whisper. But on the calm seas, without any vestige left of the wind which had infuriated the waves to sink their ship, they could hear the whisper, faint as it was, though it was meant to be a shout. They began to stir, to struggle to lift their contorted, broken bodies from the deck.

"A ship! A ship!" the strongest cried, yet again. By now, he had managed to climb to his feet, though he could barely keep his balance in the wobbling lifeboat. Waving his hands above his head, he cried to the vessel in the distance: "Help! Help! Help us! Here we are! Damn you, are you blind?"

By now, more of them were on their feet, rousing themselves to one last effort on the physical plane, before they should vanish into spirits. "Help us! Help us!" they cried, with all the pitiful force that remained in their corpse-like bodies. "Over here! Over here!" The sight of the sleek and beautiful ship, racing past them on the sea, restored desperation to their voices. To them its speeding shape, its peerless glistening hull, its towers and cabins bound to be filled with helping hands, with recklessly brave sailors who would dive into the sea in an instant to try to rescue them, was more than a match for Heaven. "Over here! Over here!" they cried, and kept on crying. Like a pond full of frogs croaking on a summer night, the hoarse and waterless throats on the lifeboat begged for the intervention of men, pleaded with the ship that seemed to be romping with joy through the harmless waves of the sea that had assumed an air of total innocence, though it had just finished feeding upon another ship just as grand as the one it seemed to fondle. But it had wiped the blood from its mouth, and now there were only gentle splashes against the side of the ship that did not miss its brother.

"Help us! Help us!" the occupants of the lifeboat begged.

But the ship that could have rescued them gave no indication of having seen them, it flew past like lightning towards some longed-for destination without a single one of the dying in its thoughts.

"What is it? A ghost ship, like the Flying Dutchman?" cursed the strongest of the men on the lifeboat.

"A ship of the blind?" cursed another.

"Dolphins," someone said, at last, practically choking on the words. Bringing down the looking-glass from his eye, which had just beheld the dancing column of dolphins flying beside the ship, like guardians of its happiness, he said: "Theyíre watching the dolphins. No oneís looked out this far, theyíre watching the dolphins beside the ship."

"Damn them!" someone cursed.

"Who? The sailors or the dolphins?"

"Help us! For Godís sakes, help us!" a voice cried out.

"Here! Here! Over here!" a chorus of voices followed. But by now, it was less than a whisper, and the arms that had been waving had fallen to their sides.

The ship that could have rescued them was past them, and receding rapidly into the horizon.

Stunned and shattered, most of them back to sitting and lying in the boat, whose creaking seemed a form of laughter, they became aware of one voice still calling after the ship, although it was gone. "Please, in the name of God, donít leave us! Please! Please, save us! I beg you!"

To their horror, they saw that it was the priest, still standing but wobbling now from the exertions of his barely-living body. "Please, donít leave us behind!" he was crying. And suddenly, all of his strength gone, he fell to his knees weeping, utterly devastated.

And the passengers of the lifeboat looked at one another in shock, then terror, and finally, began to follow his lead, first with one sob and then another, until the whole boat was filled with the sound of weeping, a deluge of fading life.

At last, one of the passengers, a lady who had once been elegant but who now resembled a sun-baked fakir starving in the hills, exclaimed: "Alas! So little time to start from scratch!"

 

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