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The Rain of Sodom
When he saw the first town, he didn't believe it. The farmlands were overgrown with weeds, and the farmhouses, abandoned. The first sight of the outskirts was of human bodies, mounds of the dead lining, and sometimes filling, the street. Blackened skulls gaped at the middle-aged traveler under a mess of burned flesh. James shuddered, his body revolting against itself at the sight.
"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me." He moved on into the town, forcing his feet to step forward.
The town was quiet, unnaturally quiet. Giant black crosses were painted above slack doorways; shutters haphazardly leaned on their hinges above the street. Dirt climbed up walls and spilled into alleyways. They had stopped going out of the town to get rid of their waste, he realized with a grimace and covered his nose with his kerchief.
"Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me." His muffled voice almost whispered to himself.
The first sound he heard was of the rats. They chittered through the piles of trash, crawling carelessly around and over his feet. He had to skip to avoid their heedless wanderings. When he was preoccupied with this, there finally came a human's voice, screaming in the distance. The sound was a wild banshee shrieking in the wake of day. His nerves pulled tight and bid him to stop.
"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." James calmed himself and reconsidered his panic. There were no such things as banshees. He had chosen a different path now, one of logic and reasoning. Folk superstitions were behind him now.
Nevertheless, the man left the small town with great haste, barely taking any time at all to give a word of encouragement to those who might have survived this strange ordeal. As he reached a hill overlooking the destruction, he thought to place a blessing over the town that those who died might rest in peace, but then a passage from the Holy Book came to his mind.
And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, "Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed."
But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.
With those words ringing in his ears, he moved on without another glance backwards.
James, the son of Hendrick, baker to the small town of La Femme in France, cleansed himself in a clear mountain stream as soon as possible. He had been in the Islam nation for the past fifteen years on a pilgrimage to the Holy City. While there, he had adopted the Arabic language and several of their strange habits. Regular washing, eating only fresh meat, and the proper disposal of waste were only a few things that James had become accustomed to.
"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it," the great Aristotle once said. James had entertained the habits of the pagans, but did not accept them and therefore did not distort the good Christian values he cherished. He was prided in this, but quickly scolded himself, remembering that "pride comes before the fall". Humbled and clean, the man dried himself and set out on his journey home once again, only pausing for a moment to eat some wild berries and send up a quick devotion to the Lord.
James passed many disease-struck towns, similar to the first, but not nearly as bad. He saw strange masked priests carry their medical tools with them into wailing manors. They seemed silly in their long-beaked masks and draping robes when he compared them to the efficient doctors in the pagan country. But, everywhere he went, the scent of a horrible death followed him. He could stand it no longer.
"Monsieur? Pardon, Monsieur?" He said, trying to stop a man going the other way, but the man, his face gaunt and clothing worn into rags, only gazed in hollow dispassion at the stranger before going his own way, not even caring to recognize James' pilgrim's attire. James tried again with a passing woman, but only obtained her spit in his path. He was about to continue on his way without any answers when he felt the gracing of a hand in his pocket.
He snatched the hand without pity only to realize what a small hand it was. The child it belonged to struggled and cried out, but James knelt and calmed him down in his assuring voice. "Now, now, mon ami, I will not admonish you for a deed not completed. Though I assure you there is nothing in these pockets but the dirt of my travels." He turned his empty pockets out with his free hand for effect, smiling kindly at the young boy.
"I wasn't doing nothing, I swear. I swear it, Monsieur Churchman; I swear it by my mother's grave." The little boy kept his wide brown eyes fixed the person holding his arm, thinking even now how to slip away without trouble.
"No need to swear, mon ami. But, I will trust that nothing has ever been done if you can tell me something."
The child's eyes narrowed suspiciously at the churchman, for even at his young age he knew the dangers of the world and of its false entreaties. However, seeing how he wasn't one to make any argument with his hand still in possession of the stranger, he submitted.
"I only ask a simple question. What pestilence has fallen upon the brave land of France that has crippled it in such a way?"
"You ask a stupid question, Monsieur Churchman. It is the second year of the Great Plague."
"What manner does this peste--this Great Plague come?"
"It comes in black boils on the skin and fever. Before you know it, you're dead and in the pyre. Not even my mothe--holy men are spared." As the peasant boy corrected himself, he sneered at the wanderer's attire, but the Christian man did not heed it.
"Yes, yes, I remember now. I have seen this disease in the pagan country, but it was not nearly as devastating as I see it is here..." His mind traveled in the curiosity of it.
The boy took advantage of James' lax grip and fled, yelling behind him as he ran, "Voyez-vous dans le pyre, Idiot!"
James did not bother to chase the boy down, knowing it would lead only to trouble with the other villagers. He pondered the strange news he had received and continued on his way. Worries now agitated him with how his own hometown would appear, and even the long prayers he conducted each night were not able to stave the pestering demons off for long. His dreams were haunted with their taunts of fire and ashes. He knew, despite his denial, that Fear was to be his companion for the miles ahead.
One night as he slept in the forests, he awoke to find himself viciously rubbing at his skin. His hands were raw and cut from twigs he had used to try to scrape his arms clean of the imaginary filth. There were bruises everywhere on his body. He spent the rest of the night in fervent prayer, warding off all spirits of discontent from his weary mind, his salty tears burning the self-inflicted scratches on his face.
A clouded joy leapt hopefully inside of him as he finally saw the marker for his hometown. The forests and mountains had fell away to an open glade thousands of acres wide. His thoughts turned gray, dappled with the poison that had been effecting every town and city he had seen. Would they even be there? His eyes turned heavenward.
"Let Your Will be done, not mine," he recited in Latin. He recited more of the Holy Scripture as he walked the dirt road, muddy with the spring's showers, keeping his prayers burning in his heart. Then, in the distance, he saw the outline of the town.
It was small, a bump along the horizon. As he drew closer, it grew, creating depth and image to the dark shape. He imagined the narrow streets embedded among the short houses and the cheerful, bustling marketplace in that silent shadow. He prayed for the warm arms of his mother and sisters, all grown up, but always attending with their fuss and gossip. His father would stand with his great girth, arms caked in flour, a smile welcoming his only son. Still, as day became night, the shape remained anonymous.
James could not sleep that night. He had laid out his cloak so that he could sit upon the ground and laid his meager belongings on his lap. His eyes were fixed on the location of his home, shown only by the stars that filled the night sky. A spirit of dread that he was unwilling to admit haunted him as he look at its small shape, tortured, his lips moving in zealous recitations. He buried himself in his things and kept vigil, praying incessantly.
In the night, a voice came to him. "Flee, My child. Be saved from the ruin to come."
The traveler heard and quit his mutterings. Tired eyes looked about him, but saw nothing. "Where are you, spirit?"
"Do ye not hear the word of your God?" Another voice scolded.
The travel worn man fell to his face onto the ground, and said, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."
"Rise and go. The eastern sun will rise and give ruin to this place. You must flee."
James lifted his head and saw two men, clad in traveling clothes like himself. They were seen without shadow, even in the darkness of the night. He pleaded to them with all that he had within him. "My family! My friends!"
"There is no one of that worth remaining. Only you have found grace in the receiving of His will. You must go!" said the first.
"Where shall I head to? Where shall I go?"
"The mountains, shall you flee. Their waters will stead the fire. But, do not once look back, or your body will fall to ashes." answered the second.
"Leave all demons behind," continued the first, "Lest you be devoured by their passions."
"Go forth!" both ordered, their voices bold in the command. James flinched, overtaken by the power of their issue. When he opened his eyes, they were gone.
He gave thanksgiving, kissing the holy ground the messengers of God had been. Once his prayers ceased, he shrived himself of all desires, but could not prevent himself from weeping uselessly at the loss of his loved ones. The thankless tears rolled down his face, but he would not heed to their entreaties. He would flee; he would obey God's command, just as he had many years ago on the day he left this place for the Holy Land. He would not fail.
The man rose to the mountains, and walked with trembling knees away from his home, his family, and all he ever loved.
Gen 19:24 Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;
Gen 19:25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.