Part IV

The Siege of Death

And afore night drew down her ebon mantle, he reached a forest's edge, where leaves he piled neath a spreading chestnut, and framed it for his bed. But sleep was not upon him when he laid him down to rest; and idly his thoughts to Trivia turned, like as one relieved of all concerns.

But shortly came a gentle nudge, like as from one standing nearest to his side. Scorto slowly turned about, but naught was visible to his inquiring eye. Reluctantly, he settled back into the comfort of his leafy sack; but shortly came another nudge and Scorto quickly turned about, but naught observed but the silent shadows and the distorted lunar light penetrating the forest like long shimmering knives. Warily, he settled back, but scarce a moment passed when a vague uneasiness rippled through his consciousness, that brought him to his feet and keyed his senses to their sharpest peak. He watched, he listened, he waited, but naught immediately stirred, but his own fearful palpitations, and his halting exhalation. Again he scanned the forest's bounds, but nothing saw; and combed it for its faintest sounds, but nothing heard. But his uneasiness persisted, and gradually all his senses succumbed to his distress, and each began to feed him with distortions and deceptions. His brow dripped beads of sweat, his palms grew slimy wet, his nostrils cringed at the smell of Death, his ears picked up the moans of the slowly dying, and the shrieks of their beloved left behind; his tongue and throat constricted as the malodorous smell converted to a gastronomic ptomaine. He eyed the silent shadows but what he saw were apparitions with features of his own, suffering the tortures of fire and brimstone-and living, he lived a living death, though death had yet to ink his name upon his calendar of date. And, "Ah," he groaned, "is death so fiery cold, and icy hot that even as my flesh and bones are rotting in some sepulcher or vault, my soul is sweltering in the cold, or shivering in some volcanic fire? With my soul involved in icy flames, and my flesh and bones by swarming maggots claimed, what measure of me remains to thwart the trap of Death's domain? And what shred of me is freed from this all-consuming fire, this decomposing mass that once was me? All is but a mindless farce, a travesty, and a jest, for even as my final breath's exhaled and Death enfolds me in his shroud, my exhalation seems to be the sole remaining sum of my creation."

With this he slumped to Earth, his head he buried in her grassy skirt; and once again lamented his worthless birth, "Oh virgin mother, who nurtured me from afore my birth! Keep me nestled in your bosom; incarnate me in some other; freeze me in some icy vault, and thaw me at some future date; let my spirit wander 'bout to haunt some castle, or empty house, but keep me to your bosom chained, and keep me from Death's domain."

Bewildered by this moronic request, she drew him nearest to her breast, dried his fevered brow with an arid gust, and like a loving parent, groaning with disgust but anxious to dispel the fallacies and fears that turned her offspring to brooding and to tears, she grasped him firmly by his ears, and in soft but lucid tones poured in a stern rebuke, "Nay, my son, death deferred is not death denied, and 'tis not for me to stall your destiny by indulging in such base fallacious schemes as to have you abide in some other's hide; or iced in some cold-storage vault; or your disembodied spirit to cavort in castles, attics or abandoned shacks for other's sport.

"My son, I reaped the winds that wildly over my barren bosom skimmed; absorbed the torrential rains that soaked me to the bedrock of my bulk; and for ages long, I lay a wet and slimy hulk. Broke then the broiling sun through the dripping mist, and kissed me with warming beams; and over the lengthening ages I lay exposed neath cloudless skies, when her fiery rays scorched me to a dusty crust, desolate and bleak, my features punctured by craggy heights and icy peaks, shivering without relief through a multitude of ages-came then a warming trend and upon my barren bosom a lively verdure spread, and fissures in my crust, with sparkling waters rushed-but for ages hence, I groaned, as ponderous roots bruised and battered my virgin bulk, as taller and more abundant grew the verdure. Then for ages long I drifted, amassing a beauteous profusion of lively creatures that overran my vast expanse, and proudest I was for 'twas in this Eden I evolved your mortal birth. Was mine, then, a labor of wanton waste? a sterile project? a throw-away without a shred or thread of my long labors surviving beyond your maggot-ridden corpse?"

Scorto listened with head bowed like as one whose burden was too much for even a mother to resolve. Then he, with quivering lips that chopped his words to syllabic bits, tearfully resumed his morbid refrain;

"Oh, mother mine! The sting of Death is staked to the vitals of my mind, and only waits his pleasure to deprive me of my life. Whither goes then-the infinite elements arrayed for my creation, and the anxious ages expended upon my maturation? Is not all but the fortuitous experimentation of a still-born universe-a cosmic freak that chanced upon your barren bosom, and overstayed its random visit? Hence, I see no destiny beyond this servile Round, and 'tis in you, and you alone, my fate is bound."

He choked, then gasped for breath, like as though Death were already grasping at his throat; his face grew pale, his features sagged, and as he drew new breath, the breath of Death seemed mingled in his own, and down he dropped on his mother's grassy bosom, and lay prone like a sack of over-handled rosin; his lids immobilized, his eyes staring blankly into space, but 'twas not Death that anchored him in place, 'twas the fear of Death that paralyzed him and robbed him of his vigor, for Death were yet a threat remote and was scarce aware of Scorto's growing terror.

His doting parent grasped him by his hands, shook him from his seizure, and stood him on his feet, and as slowly to full awareness he returned, Fear skulked off like a dejected predator thwarted of his prey.

"My son," she pled in a tone that 'suaded Scorto to accord her an attentive ear, "your fear of death is not by Death provoked, but by your fear of the Unknown, and the more you fear the threat of Death, the more Death becomes your sole concern, confronting you at every turn, as like the sick man who makes of every distant shadow a thief, or a rogue, and shrinks in terror at its illusory approach. And, "ah, my son," she sighed as she daubed his tears with her grassy skirts and caressed him with the murmurings of her wind-swept tresses, "to feel the sting of death at that decisive hour when Death no more consents to be deferred, is scarce a cause for dread, and more I'll leave unsaid till the drumbeat strikes the chord that summons you to your Great Reward."

Relieved, Scorto heaved a sigh, and untangling himself from his mother's verdant tresses, took off into the teaming tide of life, with scarce a thought of Death or the promise of the Great Reward.

Wandering about as time allowed, he reached the water's edge, where a Stranger he encountered seated on a rocky ledge, his feet dangling in the water's edge, his head bowed like as one idly eyeing the shallow waves as they washed ashore-or was it that his head was bowed in meditation, since he gave no sign of noticing Scorto till he sidled up aside him on the rocky ledge, to share his place of rest. Both sat in silence for awhile, as though oblivious of one another's presence. Then, in a slow but deliberate manner, the Stranger turned his head to see what disturbance had shook the rocky ledge. Startled by the Stranger's beaming visage, Scorto rocked back on the ledge and would have said, save he wished not to offend. The Stranger, then, with a half smile but with his eyes all afire, sought to break his silence, but held his tongue when Scorto broke in with a query, which near brought the Stranger to his feet;

"Stranger, your face looks most familiar, and I've seen it in many places-but where I sought it most, I saw it not, and where it most should be, seems never to have been. Where, then, is your Niche, if neither Religion nor Philosophy nor Science nor Theology has seen fit to honor you above their own self-interest? But who are you? And what brings you to these rocky shores, where naught but scorn, despite, condemnation and lies, descend upon you, like as a stranger harried by barking dogs?"

The Stranger forsook the rocky ledge and standing straight up, looked a Figure of magnificence and grace, and shifting, stood athwart Scorto and the beaming sun, yet no shadow cast; and Scorto gazed in wonderment when on His face there shone a light that overwhelmed the sun beaming at his back; and in His eyes the spark of genius came alive as like embers by divinest winds revived.

Then in a melodic tone that paled the fluid notes of a million Stradivari, batoned by a Mantovani, the Stranger communed His response;

"I am the Spectrum of incalculable ages and elements, the Composite of time in eternity; I am the Ledger of the primordial, and the Precursor of destiny; I am the Essence of life and the Substance of immortality; I am the Seed of virtue, truth and beauty, and the root of the imperishable-and I come as one unasked, for before I was, none was, and whom was it, could ask? The Earth within My center rolls, and every birth a centerfold-for what is less than center in My Beam, whose dimensions are infinite? Wherefore I come, you ask! I come unasked for without that I have come; these rocky shores, these clear-blue waters, these forested mountains and fertile valleys; these verdant meads; these winds, the rain, yonder heavenly sun, and countless more that dot the celestial tract; without that I have come, of these there would be none, for whom was it, could ask? Unasked, I inspired the evolution of a multitude of creatures fair, to enliven your waters, fields and air-unasked! For none were here to ask. Then up the scale ascending, a blend of this fair and multitudinous assembly-you came-but even then, unasked, I embreathed a breath divine into your crude but determinate birth, and there you stood, as now you stand, the twin-born son of heaven and earth."

Scorto stayed his anxiety to question, and broadly smiled his contentment to sit and listen, as like the pupil who perceives the Genius of his teacher.

"You call me Stranger, though I seem a Figure most familiar to your auditory vision. My Son, I many times have crossed the Verge and walked your shores, and unasked, have manifested the Word in the mind of many, yet strange I am and stranger have I grown to all but those I call My own.

"Some say I'm dead, some say I never was, some say I forsook the world and withdrew to my celestial citadel, some say Satan has wrested away the reins of My authority and rendered Me impotent; and having said, a pale of ignorance, doubt and confusion has overspread your earth."

Scorto signaled his growing anger and would have said, but even as he op'd his mouth, the Parent divine shushed him with an omniscient glance, and resumed His discourse.

"Where then, are these I call My own, My Elect-where have they gone? What nightmarish fate has muted their harmonious tongues! Once upon a time, when first I traversed these friendly shores to lay the foundations of My laws, unasked and at random I embodied Me in the minds of men, and to each imparted The Word in like degree and in lucid terms, and ever since, over tens of generations, I've traversed your earth from shore to shore, spanning your widest seas and mountain ranges, and added to the score-but where are those I call My own, My Elect-where have they gone; and My concepts and ideals, who marred their beauty and perfection and obliterated their influence in your world, whose treachery has betrayed My own, and my Word defiled?"

Scorto gave sign to the Parent divine to pause a moment, and to turn His radiant sight toward a distant Shrine, yet so distant was the Shrine and so shrouded in a pale of gloom that himself he could not tell whether it were a church, a cathedral, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or a structure akin to either, though it mattered not, for all were guilty of a shame of sorts. But the Parent divine, though content to pause, peered not toward the benighted Shrine, for even as Scorto had motioned the sign, He discerned the Shrine imagined in his mind, and its gross involvement in the horrendous crime. The Teacher then stepped a pace or two aside, and beyond the rocky ledge, and kneeling down upon the sand, fingered an artist's conception of the arch-transgression. He traced a majestic Figure, whip in hand, entering the portals of the Shrine, and everywhere in holy attire, were princely hosts, fingering bags of gold. Himself, Scorto, could not tell whether they were priests, evangelists, rabbis, monks, swamis or gurus, or holy hucksters from the days of yore whose sect was now extinct. These the majestic Figure pursued in earnest and sent them scurrying through whatever exit, but still in hand were their bags of gold, the rip-off from the poor and ignorant and the rich and pretentious.

"These," Scorto mused as he viewed the fleeing Sextons, "must be the Money-changers who defiled the Sovereign and violated the Commandments, expressly aimed at their gross excesses, and who have since circled about, and reoccupied the Shrine, to perpetuate the crimes."

The Parent divine looked up in time to espy the shine on Scorto's face, and pausing a moment in His artful sketching, commented on his bright expression.

"My son, your face reflects a grasp of what herein I trace, and with this I am most wont to praise you, for so it ends your speculation as to the import of My Commandments, and for whom they first were framed."

Scorto blushed with pride at hearing the Sovereign paint him with such praise, he near abandoned his intent to press the Sovereign for a response to the unsettled question of His niche in this world of Religious exclusivity, sectarian Theology, inner-sanctum Philosophy, and chesty Science. But the Sovereign, taking note of Scorto's reticence and embarrassment, forthwith responded, even as the question was revolving in his mind willing and unwilling to seek a passage to his tongue.

"My Son! What Niche needs be mine when all is subject to My supreme authority and to the undeviating course of My design. Nay, My Son! your institutions are but the business of your own discretion and bear no weight upon the fixed laws assigned to govern the pursuit of My benign purposes, nor do I deem the absence of My influence in your mundane affairs a frustration of My will. I can wait, nor is it of concern to Me that all these symbols of My Presence-churches, mosques, synagogues or temples-vie with one another for My favor. I bend not one iota to their pressures, and what matters it that this towering triumvirate of Atheism, Science and Philosophy exclude Me from their still-born Fraternities-I am free, and I can wait; I stand aloof from all your quarrels; ally Myself on the side of none; my ears are dead to the sound of prayer, my vision blind to the sight of squalor; I have no feel for the pleas of the wretched, and pay no heed to requests for favors sought in exchange for promises or pledges; nor stoop to respond to mediated appeals. I am free, sovereign and supreme; I do not compete; what niche is there, then, that needs be mine?"

His head bowed, like a drooping flower, that succumbed to the sting of a freezing shower, Scorto lingered awhile in this crestfallen state, like as one involved in grave meditation, and would have said, but the Parent was piercing his troubled mind, and divining his grave concern, motioned him to silence, then drew nearest to his side and with the one hand his head He raised, and the other upon his shoulder laid, and in his ear he whispered words he longed had yearned to hear. "My Son! I seek My own, and with My Elect ever-multiplying in their numbers, not one is more or less endowed with My wisdom and knowledge than is the other. I am impartial, nor do My concepts and ideals differ from age to age, nor from place to place, nor from generation to generation; nor are they shaded to appease your cultures and traditions, or your Cults and Religions. I am changeless."

Thence, from neath His glittering gown He drew a Tablet which from its top to its bottomless spaces, was etched with illustrious names of enduring fame, and while Scorto watched with abated breath, the Parent divine spun a shaft of light of pencil length and upon the Tablet his name He etched and thence resumed His dissertation.

"My Son! upon this Tablet's endless length, are etched the names of those I call My Own, who came before you, My Elect; chosen not for virtue, nor piety, nor devotion, nor intellectual acumen, but only as they sought-or as the ripening intellect up the scale ascending, is irresistibly attracted to My converging essence; even as the lightning seeks the object that most invites it. Hence, from age to age more numerous will become the names that grace this Tablet's face, and 'tis mine and mine alone to compute the date and place when all My own-My Elect-who throughout the world are scattered, will all together be assembled, and My influence to eminence restored."

With this He forward stepped, as Scorto up-stood with arms outstretched, then each the other clasped in a fond embrace, but where the two were stationed, 'twas but Scorto alone stood in place, his empty arms crooked in space. And as the Parent Divine dissolved like an ethereal mist, Scorto looked about him, feeling like a shred of mortal insignificance cast adrift in a sea of 20th century exploitation, where holy-robed hucksters and pious perverts cloak their lust for gold in loving tears for the good Creator and bleeding hearts for human woe.

Upon the rocky ledge full length he stretched like as one over-weary, but content. And, as he in silence lay, listening to the breaking waves and meditating on the weighty onus devolving to one of such lean and mean capacities, he caught the faint tirrumpings of a beating drum-tirrump, tirrump, tirrump-as incessant and rhythmic as the breaking waves beating against the rocky ledge upon which he lay-- tirrump, tirrump, tirrump-more remote seemed their origin than the boundless reaches of Infinity, and more resolute and ruthless in their approach than the dispatching of the guillotine-tirrump, tirrump, tirrump, tirrump, but even they nearer drew, he scarcely stirred in his rocky berth-tirrump, tirrump-but the last went unfinished as the chord struck that summoned him to his High reward. He knew that Death was near at hand and that his soul and not himself was in command. Slowly he raised him from his rocky berth and upright sat, his glance shifting from sea to shore, as he scanned the landscape and eyed the advancing waves, but scarcely noting their beauty and magnificence as was his wont in times before. But then, as though his Ear took up the slack where his sights were lax, he caught the murmurings of his Mother's voice, like as the winds of early spring, freshened by April's showers; "My son, your number's up; so, too, your cares and sorrows. Reluctantly, I cut the thread that bound you, lively, to my verdant breast, but not of my own do I act, but at His behest, who plucked you from my virgin womb and imbued you with a breath divine and made you Immortal, what I had mortal borne."

With that she pointed to a distant Valley; "Yonder turn your steps," she murmured, "where Death awaits the stifling of your breath, and warrants your redemption without fee, or bribery, notwithstanding your transgressions."

Scorto, in short order, forsook the rocky ledge, for already his cheeks had turned a purple pale, his eyes through flickering lids a glassy stare revealed, and his breath grown stale; but even so, he stood up straight, embraced his Mother in a fond farewell, and as deep into her eyes, misty-eyed he stared, in choking words, barely managed by his waning breath, expressed his gratitude and admiration due her;

"Oh Mother mine! to whose virgin womb I owe my mortal breath, and who devotedly nurtured me through long ages of stress and peril, to evolve me to my prime"-and would have said, but even as his voice broke the calm, the vast assemblage of his Mother's brood gathered round him, like as when friends and relatives come together to wish a bon voyage to a parting loved one and to assert their kinship to the reigning mortal. Smiling brightly, the sun was first to burst upon the scene, peering round a bank of clouds, that shortly followed with a burst of showers, while the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed, like celebrants clamoring for recognition as the hour neared for his departure; and scarcely the tumult died away, when Winds of every direction converged upon him, bearing sounds and scents of every complexion that near overwhelmed him with their beauty and freshness. With this he relinquished his embrace and in a gait reminiscent of a romping child's, caught up with the hurrying crowd converging upon the fateful Valley. Arm in arm and light of step, the breathless Crowd toward the Valley trekked: Guru and gouger, swami and swindler, Priest and Prostitute, Rabbi and Racketeer, Reverend and Rogue-a stirring sight, as each their alter-ego openly displayed, sans fear or contrition, as they neared the Valley's edge, where Death a common destiny had pledged.

And as nearest to the Valley he approached where Death, grim and leering, stood anchored at his post, Scorto sighed, like as one surprised, for as slowly he descended to the Valley's depth, preceded by the hurrying Crowd, he espied a silent Stream whose flood fed by some eternal Spring, and round about it on either side its banks, the Ground was carpeted with a growth of greenest grass simmering like as though some unseen sun had glazed it with a translucent sheen. And on either side the Valley's slopes, an infinite variety of foliage grew, all ablaze with magnificent hues, and casting off a volley of such fragrant odors as seemed to transcend the zenith of Nature's splendor. But more, for as wondering he stood amid this profusion of beauty and delicate odors, a calming influence over his senses stole, blunting his cares and woes; even as all he loved and cherished lost their lustre, then perished like the faint recollections of a transient dream. Slowly he resumed his trek, and his tryst with Death, scarcely mindful of the world he left behind him. Eyeing the hurrying Crowd as it drew nearest to the crystal Tide, from where distant on the opposite shore Death stood silhouetted, muslin shrouded. Scorto pondered their uncontained joy, when all, as one, reclined on the luxuriant green and freely imbibed in the crystal Stream; then one following the other, like as by Destiny urged on, they waded to the opposite shore, where Death his greed indulged, and all in peace succumbed. Scorto viewed the seeming violence, yet no trickle of resistance, reluctance or defiance rippled through his consciousness, for even as he observed the hurrying Crowd by Death devoured, his sights drank in the Region beyond Death's abstract bounds, where all, as one, shed their mortal casements, and their immortal raiment donned.

Supremely confident, Scorto smiled and onward trekked, his failing frame by a surge of bliss sustained, his dimming vision kept bright by a beam from Paradise, his hearing sealed from the accustomed sounds of the nether world, harkened to the faint but haunting strains of an idyllic refrain; his breath laboring to sustain him for scant a moment more, found refreshment in the fragrant odors wafted from the meads of Eden; but firm of step, he neared the Threshold where Life and Death confess their impotence and mutually surrender their vaunted power to the Sovereign.

In several strides he reached the banks of the silent Tide, and as down he kneeled upon the luxuriant green, to imbibe in the crystal Stream, a breath divine dispersed his pallid hue, and neath revealed a serene and peaceful shine. Lingering but a while on the shore, his expiring breath began its count-down, with intermittent but rhythmic sighs. Eagerly he forward leaned, his lips to touch the crystal Stream whose flow was so silent and serene, it seemed a cistern of Still-waters. With lips pursed, he quaffed a long and satisfying draft, and scarce the crystal Liquid had downward trickled than the engines of his mind abruptly stalled, and his Will to a fatal stroke succumbed, even as his Remembrance of the past was, summarily, into Limbo cast, for neither shame nor sorrow nor memory of past offense afflicted his ebbing consciousness; and more, for even his memory of pleasures past, of treasured moments and accomplishments; of virtuous deeds, passed without a twinge of regret, into the limbo of utter forgetfulness.

Deprived of all the vital signs of life, he stood astride the silent Tide like an inert Hulk, dissevered from all his earthly ties, but even as he hung suspended beyond recall to life's mortal coil, an outstretched hand beckoned him to the opposite shore and urged on by the Will Divine, he spanned the silent Stream, both arms outstretched to whom had beckoned him; and one the other clasped in a strict embrace; Death emerged burdened with the corporate spoils; Scorto, divested of his mortal frame, emerged all-beautiful and stainless, with features same but more perfect and more youthful than ever Art or Sculpture could conceive; Transfigured, the nimbus of sinless man, his brow involving, He onward surged, ascending to the blissful meads of eternal Paradise.