I wrote this in honor of Chester’s birthday. Happy birthday, Chester! This vignette is fiction, yet it is also true, in my experience. May it be accepted in the spirit with which it is offered. “Mistakes” are intentional. The following is the story in its entirety.
Three days later, 2 despondent Soldiers (one of whom was myself, the other was a friend of mine who shall remain Unnamed) talked of all the tragic events of the past few days. As we trudged down the road, a mysterious man wearing jeans and a tattered tee shirt joined our journey. After listening to us talk among ourselves for a while, the newcomer asked us what we were so fervently discussing.
I said to this apparently clueless, yet mysterious stranger,
“You must’ve been living under a rock. Haven’t you seen the news or checked social media? Our friend is dead and now, his whole community is a mess. He gave us love, and hope and showed us that our lives could reflect something much greater than the junk values we are encouraged to pursue on a daily basis. He did so many amazing things and touched so many lives. There was a force within him that seemed so different than anyone else we had ever seen; I still don’t have the words to describe it. He showed us what it means to be human in all its sweetness and sorrow. But now…nobody knows what to do. We’ve been texting each other and checking in with each other on how we’re coping with the loss. But nobody knows…”
My voice was immediately cut off in the flickering of a single starry moment. In a cloudy mist, our trio was caught up in a blinding burst of light that would’ve blinded every angel, and found ourselves in an unfamiliar-yet-somehow-familiar room. A golden glow from numerous flickering white and pink candles imbued the room with a happy, cozy feeling while illuminating an impossibly massive circular table with myriads and myriads of people seated around it. In one corner of the room was a large pile of weapons and armor of all kinds from nearly every country on earth. Laying down our weapons and armor alongside the rest, my friend and I looked around at the candles and the table before us. We felt an eerie sense of déjà-vu; like we had been here or seen something or read something like this before, but we couldn’t remember exactly where.
There were so many other Soldiers seated around the table that it took several minutes to comprehend what we were seeing. Everyone looked pleasantly surprised to be there, and they talked among themselves in quiet anticipation of what appeared to be an imminent banquet. As the light from the candles danced whimsically with the shadows on the walls and faces of everyone present, I spied a small quantity of food on the table. Cheese sandwiches, soda pop, and a bitter beverage were arranged on the table closest to what I assumed to be the host of this banquet --the mysterious newcomer with whom we had just been talking!
The mysterious man was now dressed in very formal attire – a brilliantly white dress shirt, black slacks, black tie, and black jacket. This was obviously a momentous banquet! His former attire of tee shirt and jeans had vanished. The only remaining seat at the table was the place of honor on the host’s right hand side. Gesturing towards the Unnamed Soldier to sit down next to him, my friend sat down next to the mysterious and well-dressed host. Because there was no more room at the table, another Soldier kindly slid over in his seat to make room for me at the table. With everyone now seemingly in their place, the man cleared his throat and said with a grin,
“Alright! Let’s get this party started!” Carefully supporting its broken spine in his hands, the man opened a small, red, well-loved book whose pages had yellowed with age, and read an inscription written on the book’s back cover. As he read, everyone leaned in to hear his words of wisdom; his voice washed over his hearers like liquid caramel, calming every fear and bolstering their courage. Some Soldiers were happy and felt like crying at the same time. His words were medicine to the infirmed; it was as if he was speaking to each individual heart, as if he and they were the only ones in the world. Who was this man and where did his power come from?
After he had finished reading the inscription, the mysterious man looked up at all those gathered there; with eyes that could pierce the hardiest of armor. He looked with love at each person there. Then he got up from the table and untying his tie and placing his jacket on the back of his chair, he said, “I think we are all arrows that point to Something Greater.” As he unbuttoned the sleeves in his dress shirt, his bare arms revealed fish and flame tattoos and, what was even more alarming, scarred wrists. There also seemed to be a diagonal scar on the man’s neck which nobody had noticed before.
“Yes. It’s me, friends. I hope you don’t mind that I call you my friends now. We’ve been through a lot together,” he stated with a smile. After asking that love and goodness be upon all who had gathered there with him, everyone held out their hands to catch the blessings that invisibly fell from heaven. The host started to sing the first few lines of a song that all the Soldiers there, regardless of language or country, remembered and joined in singing. To this day, all Soldiers still remember and sing the song that he taught them. As each Soldier sang, they instantly recognized the identity of the mysterious man who now led them in song – he was their leader – who himself pointed towards Something Greater – the same one they had mourned only a few days ago! He had died; that was a fact reported on every news station. But now he was alive? And with them? How was that possible?!
“Here, we are all together in one place,” the host said. “This community is like an orchestra and I’m like a conductor. Everyone has a part to play. The woodwinds are no more important than the stringed instruments. The gong is loud, but it can’t make the same sonorous sound as the clarinet. Time marches forward with every heartbeat…Yes, there is enough room here for everyone. And if there isn’t, we’ll make more room! We will continue to expand this circle and this table ever wider…”
With millions of questions swirling in their minds, the banquet host began distributing the cheese sandwiches to each person. To my mind, the idea of feeding so many people with such a small quantity of cheese sandwiches was laughable, and that at any moment, the supply of food would be exhausted and we would all have to go back to our regular lives. But no – there was somehow enough food for everyone. I felt genuinely surprised.
Next, the banquet host poured the soda pop into a glass and mixed a bitter beverage into it. He drank it to the last drop. Placing his cup back on the table, the host said, “Friends, this drink is made with both sweet and bitter elements because life consists of both these things. From the beginning of life to the end, and whatever comes after that, this is true.” The man paused before continuing, “I know grief and bitterness very well. And yet…somehow, in a way that I don’t even understand – here I am. I’m still here. And so are you. Remember that.” Imitating him, each Soldier mixed the drink and then, all the Soldiers in unison raised a glass to their lips and drank a single sip. And in that single starry moment – when every Soldier’s eyes were closed, basking in the beauty of that special moment when they all remembered that nobody was ever really alone, that there was enough love for everyone, and everyone had an integral part to play in this unfolding drama called Life – the man with flame and fish tattoos vanished.
I know this story is true because the Unnamed Soldier told it to me. Don’t you remember? You, gentle reader, are the Unnamed Soldier.