I walked deep into the wood.
Clothed my heart with old scraps of white linen, carefully. Gently. And tucked it within this old burlap sack that used to hold the things I cherished the most. Things I no longer need. Adjusting to its weight, I hide my hands in empty pockets and look to the path ahead. What could it hold? I’ll never find out unless my feet move from this dusty ground. Push me ahead, releasing the hold this small ray of sunlight has on me. Its warmth suddenly masked by the path nestled between twisted oaks and stricken with the darkness of the unknown. If I go in, I’ll never come out. This much I know.
And at once a cool breeze bites at the small pieces of flesh that show through this tattered gray jacket. “Who was I before I came here?” I think and place a foot within the shadows, leaving the world of technicolor. The color was fading anyway. Pulled here. Like the light surrounding a black hole to places only a few have seen. But they never came back out. They never returned to tell us that it would be okay, that we could go, that the path is safe. We were only left to wonder.
My belt feels loose, and I notice that I’m still wearing these same jeans. Muddy from the journey here. Dried pieces of orange clay fall off and catch the last remaining rays of sunlight as I step past the oaks fully into the wood. “Farewell,” I whisper looking back at the last bit of color I feel that I may ever see. My heart has become heavy again, and I readjust so that the weight is over both shoulders.
I conjure up an old poem I remember my father had turned into a song with deep, grounded vibrato. Closing my eyes to hear him again, I start:
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ‘twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I can’t bring to mind the entire thing. This wretched mind forgets all that’s lovely. The sound of dry leaves beneath my feet is keeping it away so I stop and tighten my eyes until color streaks across the darkness. I remember.
I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
The path ahead is blanketed with pine needles. Roots cross and peer above the quilted floor reminding me to mind my footing. I must be a several miles in now. The hum of engines stopped long ago. A robin stares and shakes his head at me through wilted leaves and weak limbs as if saying, “You’ve come too far, traveler.” I stop to throw a rock at him, but he flies off to where it must be safer. “I’ve come home.”
I’ve known God and he’s not here. Beneath a faded blue sky with wisps of gray clouds, the trees surrender this truth. Everywhere else they open their hands in worship. Here they look lost, scattered arrays of twisted timber with dead limbs pressed into a solemn sky. The warmth of memories washes over me, and I must stop to let it pass. Not long and I’ve broken and the tears come. “Press on,” I repeat and dig fingers into the cool forest bed that gives no hope of ever leaving. This path was created by people like me, tilled by the pain of their fingers. Where are they now? As I draw a knee up to stand, I hear it.
It was faint, but I know the sound. I know the voice. Pressing every fiber of my body to stillness, he calls again, “Orphan.”
The familiarity is haunting, and as the ring of his voice fades, it leaves these woods with an aching silence. It was me. He was calling me.
Streaks of gold break through to touch the forest floor with a gentle caress of warmth, and I realize that I’m no longer alone. Brought to life, stones glint in the new light as if polished by a decade of waves and sand. I see now that where I kneel is surrounded by these rocks, quarried to hold water. Fern seedlings pushing up to gasp for air tell me that it’s been dry here for days, maybe even weeks. Elephant leaves freckled by brown and black soot. If they could rise, retrieve their roots and leave, they would. What is happening here? Tightening fists around the burlap, I demand an answer, “Where are you?”
Then I see it. Written on the floor of this water bank. Only tiny hands could have carved these letters in the dark silt. Rays shift and illumine the shallow crevices of each letter, blown by a force that wills me to read what was written here. For me. “Stay.”
And I no longer have need to stand. I recognize his writing, like the voice that still echoes in my weary bones. The burlap has rubbed raw my cracked hands, and I slowly peel the straps from burned flesh. Remembering. With weak will I collapse to the dying ground, clutching my chest where my heart once beat in joyful harmony to ignorant breaths. The pain is matched by confusion - Where am I? How did I get here? The light shifts again, and I faintly make out just to the rim of this quarry something I hadn’t noticed. A path. Carved by the same hands, not meant for travel but for delivery. The smooth edges of the stones that line its entrance surrender the truth that a water source lies within. He is there.
I had thought him gone. Felt his absence. But looking around I see that the wood has changed. The faint whisper of a soft wind brushes against the oaks that surround this dry patch of land. Their language is of worship now, and I look up to see the gentle sway of their hands. My skin has grown warm by the penetrating light, and I take off my jacket to lay upon this new land. “I must die here,” I realize, confessing to the trees what I’d known since I heard his voice. This is where the travelers went. This is where they came, brought here by the weighty sorrow of an unrelenting pain. Taken away by an unrelenting Savior.
And as this revelation comes, so does the water. Any remaining will I had to continue this dark journey into the wood is now being covered and shaped and loosed by the wonder of a raging river, flooding into this quarry. The earth beneath me moans at the force that beats upon its chest. Compelled to save my own life, I look to the heights for a place that might give me refuge from this certain death. But I remember the voice. The word. I am the orphan. I must stay. And as I close my eyes to the sound of trees breaking beneath the force of violent waves, I know what this is.
He has come to me.
The waves break against unmoving rocks, yet I’m held by a willing spirit. I don’t want to die, but I know that I must. It’s the only way to heal. The force that drives toward me is frightening. Bloodied hands are now clenching at a floor of shallow roots, grasping for air that I will soon lose. “It can be no other way,” and I gently release the soil, letting it fall through surrendered hands. With this river of living water he has come to rescue me, to drown me in redemption. From me. From this world. From the pain that has brought me here. “Yes!” I scream and hurl my heart at the approaching wall. And before the water crushes me, I see the color burst from the burlap as it’s torn in two. I see it infuse with the crystal wave and captured by light that is now blinding. I see it disappear. And just as I’m struck, I feel her in my arms again. I’m surrounded and dying. But I can only hold her. “Annie,” I think. And I breathe in the water around me, filling my parched lungs with its life.
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” John 7:37-38
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18