They would die together, the Preacher-King had said, and rise again as children of God, washed clean of the filth and sediment of human sin. But Ruth alone had risen, and the others were dead, still, their bodies strewn like flower clippings across the floor of the Chapel, and in the fields beyond where the cowards amongst them had attempted to run.
Ruth lay on her back, afraid to move in case this waking was, in fact, some purgatory dream, and that to stand within it would trap her there without ever truly rising. But she could smell the sourness of vomit in her hair, the compost reek of those who’d soiled themselves in terror of the end, or else unknowingly as their limp forms relinquished their hold on earthly things.
The Preacher-King had warned them this would happen, so that those who remained to guide the congregation into finality would not be repelled by what they saw. Yet Ruth was, in fact, repelled; in remaining her, aware of such smells, either she–a sinner–had been cast out by God, or else each of her loved ones, the scent of their quickening decay a punishment for some mortal failure.
Closing her eyes, Ruth counted the few sounds that came to her through the night, attempting to find some calm amidst the strum of her sickly panic. There was the rasp of her own breath, the incessant cicadas, and the wind through high branches and tall grasses. The squeak of the Chapel door in the weather’s ethereal grip.
No more could Ruth hear the bleak sobbing and garbled prayers of the congregants that had sung her to sleep, nor the yells and gunshots that had kept her so long at its precarious brink.
Yet the world was not silent, and this was more awful than the music of human terror, or the quiet that had come after. In all its little sounds Ruth knew that life was to go on, and she did not want it to.
They had all been promised a golden heaven, a white and silver Neverland reserved only for those strong enough to pass from the ashen false world to the next, to obey the teachings of their prophet, the Preacher-King. But when Ruth opened her eyes again and looked across to the gilded chair that he’d always taken at the front of the Chapel she saw his long form draped across it, like a slovenly creature, in the dark.
Fear ran across Ruth’s back with deft pianist’s fingers.
What was she to do now? Where would she go?
There had been no alternative plan, should the ritual fail, so certain had the Family all been in their bid to die. It should have been impossible, the pull of the Lord so potent that all who loved Him would be drawn through into His ecstatic realm, regardless of their small trespasses.
Had Ruth’s evils been so great as to oppose even God? She couldn’t believe it. She had been born into the Family, had never known existence beyond the compound. The wickedness spoken of in the Book had never felt real to her, a mere ghoul to frighten disbelievers with. Ruth had only ever learned how to be obedient, and abundant in love for her people, and the Preacher-King.
Cruelty, misdeeds; these were evils untaught, that Ruth and the others had been so blessed as to avoid.
Perhaps she hadn’t prayed enough, or had done so too much, selfishly asking more than she should. Devotion for the sake of seeming pious to others was as much a sin as neglecting one’s faith, the scum of arrogance; Ruth could not say if this described her, not had she the presence of mind, yet, for guilt.
But it would come, she thought, as she sat up and began to pick her way between the dead in staggering footsteps. It would come, and she would fall to her knees to ask God why He had severed her from His flock, whether he reprimanded, or offered her the weight of some unspoken task.
Spasms of pain snarled through Ruth’s abdomen, and she squatted grimly, ridding herself of the toxins that all but she had taken well. She was clammy and shaking by the end of it, every muscle griping, overexerted, her hands and feet pitiful claws. It was as Ruth had imagined the fires of Hell to feel, trapped in the prison of her.
She found children in the grass beyond the Chapel, having been taken there by the teacher to drink their medicine, and slip away into the mellow afternoon. They looked like broken dolls in the moonlight, unreal, yet as Ruth knelt down to touch a boy’s smooth, rounded cheek she felt chill skin beneath her fingertips, the nectarine softness of its downy hair.
A beetle ran up over the pale face and Ruth drew away, scrubbing her hand against her shift. She couldn’t understand how it was that infants could freeze and lend their bodies to insects when they were most innocent of all. She should have been taken before any of them, made an example of. Her death would not have been so piteous, so small.
Through the muttering grass Ruth walked on, limping somewhat on legs still numb from her sleep on the Chapel floor. Cars were crawling up the winding road that lead from the compound to the forests beyond, their headlamps slashing through the night like neon scalpels. Alarms bellowed, an auditory violence; Ruth didn’t know whether to run or welcome the interlopers, foolish as Mary had been before Gabriel’s angelic form.
A van door slammed open, and men seethed through the meadow, towards the Chapel. Someone caught at Ruth’s arms, pulling her under a sheet of crackling foil. There were questions, senseless, coming over her in a brackish wave. She tried to answer, scarcely knowing where to start. How ignorant these people were, to comprehend so little of Great Faith, the rising that had been granted, and that had failed.
Ruth watched the men wrap bodies in sheets as white as a corpse’s eyelid, saw them take photographs, and cordon off everywhere the dead had touched. Hands steered Ruth into the back of a vehicle. A hot drink, foisted upon her, scalded her clammy hands, its steam condensing, a second sweat.
Ruth wondered if they would be buried together, the people she had left behind. They should at least share the dignity of communion, that way; if they couldn’t rise, let them fall, as one, into some sacred ground–
Yet Ruth had seen, briefly, that black nothing beyond the Earth, and knew it a desolate place. Alone, they had all gone, even the Priest-King, the beloved, who had been guaranteed his wings, and they did not know it.
Ruth drank the strangers’ tea, and watched its surface stir, disrupted by a single tear.