The story that follows was first told me by a fellow-traveler – a merchant and trader in the Levant who, in latter days, has returned quite wealthy to Brittania. She related it to me in the words I share with you, as they were addressed to her. She tells me that she met this man, nearly dead and half-mad with thirst in the desert outside Damascus. She nursed him to some semblance of health, and when he was somewhat recovered, was coaxed into telling her of his travails. This, then, is her rendering of his account, the story of a Prophet in the desert.
* * *
On the night that the Word of the Lord came to me, I was dreaming.
It seemed to me that I shaded my eyes against the glare of a terrible desert sun. The vision of my dream shimmered like the haze of a summer’s day, but I could feel what I could not see – the dryness of mouth, the shortness of breath, and the unbelievable thrumming, the sound of a thousand pistons crashing and straining. The vibrations approached me through the rock and sand, screaming to a fever pitch…
…and thus I awoke, sweating, in my bedclothes. It was a cool night in late spring in God’s country. I sought the familiar features of my spare, clerical bedchamber picked out in the moonlight, when I became aware that I was not alone in my domain.
Seated rather immodestly on my chest of drawers was one of the strangest creatures I had ever beheld. The occupant of a vicarage, even an older bachelor such as myself, has ample opportunity to meet flowers of Society just as they bloom. Indeed, in the months leading up to the events I now relate, I had presided over a number of Services of Christian Marriage, uniting the belles of the county to a series of anxious squires. In my years of parish ministry, I had encountered beauties fair and dark, tall and short, slim and buxom, but never before had I faced such elegance personified. She was dainty and trim, perched on the edge of my furniture. A rather puckish smile dwelt around her lips, and the curls of her hair cascaded springily past her face. Her ankles showed with a decided want of propriety beneath her gown, and were neatly turned – likewise her wrists, poised above her hands on the edge of the walnut were dimpled and slender.
Having, at a glance ascertained these various excellences of her person, I shook my head abruptly, for a number of peculiar circumstances obtruded on my notice all at a stroke. Firstly – and I can find no other word to describe the wonder of this revelation – she was not made of flesh. Her skin was of fair marble, not so pale as to repulse, but clearly gleaming stone. Her hair, on whose bounce I had earlier remarked, was indeed springy, as it seemed to be composed exclusively of springs, tiny coils of a glossy black metal. Even in the dim moonlight, I could see rivets and joints, markers of her construction, I supposed.
Most shocking of all, however, were the eyes. They were clearly jewels, or made of jewels, perhaps. Diamonds for whites, irises of emerald, and onyx pupils, broad in the evening dimness. And the GLOWED…not as the eyes of mortals, but with an inner light, nearly golden in quality, they brightened the whole of my bedchamber.
I hope that you will forgive me, dear friend, for the foolishness of the conclusion to which I immediately came. I see by the incredulity of your expression that you, like me, would not have credited your senses with honesty at such a vision. So, too, did I. The lunacy of the moonlight, the lucidity of those brilliant, gemstone eyes, and the remaining anxieties of the dream that had but lately departed led me to believe the whole a fantasy, and I waited to see what new wonders my fevered brain would lay before me.
Thus I was not unprepared when she opened her mouth – a lovely rosebud it was – and spoke. “Don’t be afraid,” she said, and I at once realized that her command was also prophetic – I had been on the edge of terror, despite my confidence of physical safety. Now was I more settled, and I nodded to her.
She spoke again. “Jonah,” said she, “Son of Emmett?”
“I am,” said I, maintaining my somnolent composure. “And who, precisely, are you?”
“I am,” she said, her marble cheeks somehow dimpling as she smiled at me, “a Word from the Lord.”
To my shame, dear friend, I responded only with laughter. In too many biblical readings from my pulpit I had read just those words as they appeared in the books of Moses and the scrolls of the prophets. I could imagine no place, time, or situation further from my snug, dark pulpit and the scent of my church’s ancient Bible than in my bedchamber, wearing only my nightgown and confronting a young woman who seemed to be composed entirely from the bones of the earth.
There may, also, have been more than a little nervousness in that laugh. The words of the Bible had always been to me composed purely of comfort. I took solace in the gentleness of Christ as shepherd, and, though trite, the 23rd had ever been my favorite psalm. The words of the Law, though stern, were concerned with the care of my own soul, and there was an ordered quality to my favorite passages of scripture that preserved the society and realities which undergirded my universe.
This apparent young woman, this clockwork beauty, fit no place in my concept of religion or faith. I could cry for wishing this was still the case, but at that hour, I had no inkling of the trials or revolutions to come. And so I laughed, in what must have been derision, and at the sound, her smile grew wider.
“I am delighted to hear you greet my arrival wish such joy,” said she, as she alighted from the chest of drawers. In her bare feet, she stood an average height, and her white linen gown flowed around her smoothly. “I have a message for you, if you are prepared to hear it.”
“Of course,” I said, “you beautiful phantasm. Whatever wonders you have to share with me, share them now, before I wake and your beauty fades.”
She smiled even more broadly. “Ah, a dreamer, are you? You dreamers are some of my favourites. I love the romance of your visions, and your willingness to accept the imagination of your own minds.” The more I beheld that smile, the more it was disconcerting me. It tugged at memories and emotions deeply buried. There was an edge to it that brought to mind my mother’s apron, sunlight on a grassy lawn, lemon ices and the sounds of village cricket.
“At any rate,” she said, briskly. “Are you prepared to hear me?”
I felt, suddenly, as though lucidity and clarity had abandoned me. The import of the question staggered me – I heard it as though with new ears, wholly unprepared for the weight of this compelling dream. A crashing wave of anxious fear and nervous terror swept over me, but I gulped and nodded in silence.
When once again her mouth parted, she spoke in a new and alarming voice. Terrible like a winter storm and powerful like the command of a beloved woman, she spoke to me saying, “ARISE, GO TO NINEVEH, THAT GREAT CITY, AND CRY AGAINST IT; FOR THEIR WICKEDNESS IS COME UP BEFORE ME.”
* * *
When I awoke again, it was with confusing slowness. I seemed unaccountably tangled in my bedclothes, my head was hot and pounding powerfully, and the sunlight through the window was uncomfortably bright.
Slowly, as though the gears of my mind began to grind their way to activity, I began to perceive the import of the rising sun. The dawning day was a Sunday. The hour was much advanced – a swift glance of alarm at my bedside clock revealed that it wanted mere minutes to nine o’clock, and my services – my brain now spun its engine to a groaning, frantic pitch – commenced at ten.
In a flurry of maddened linens I leapt to my feet and began to pull vigorously at the bell. Why my valet had not roused me sooner I could not say, and the stricken expression on his countenance as he entered clearly revealed his spirits to be as much disturbed by the lapse as my own. I wasted no time on his censure, devoting myself instead to the task of preparing for the Eucharist service.
It was as I was engaged in the last flourishes of my toilette, the final tasks before I left my vicarage in haste to the waiting congregation, that I chanced to look upon my chest of drawers, and saw its only ornament. A tiny statuette of delicate marble and painted twists of metal sat upon the varnished wood. I had never before seen this trinket, and was so much arrested by its appearance that I stood quite still for a full handful of breaths.
To my valet’s astonishment, I walked to the chest of drawers and picked up the figurine. It was the visitor of my last night’s rest, there could be no doubt. The whole of the piece was no longer than a hand’s breadth, but the delicacy of the workmanship was unbelievable – I could discern, even, the young woman’s marble dimple as she impishly smirked at me.
Dear friend, you can read in my hands, in the cast of my countenance, in the very set of my shoulders the sense of my horror and terror. Crashing wave upon wave swept over me, alarm, dismay, and consternation, each, in its turn, conquering my soul. Even as I turned the figure over in my hands, they trembled, and I could feel my jaw working involuntarily.
Even so, I could as soon have crossed the Galilee afoot as have laid by that lovely piece. My minute examination of this sculpture was time-consuming – I recall hearing my man’s polite cough behind me at least three times before I could drag myself from my focused contemplation. At last, though, I stormed unwary into the corridor, casting the figurine into the topmost drawer of my bureau, with my man hovering anxious behind me.
* * *
I was fully through the Collect before I felt myself more fully settled in worship. The opening of the Service had been some five minutes delayed, and all throughout the liturgy of call and procession I had felt myself to be scrambling to catch up. In the familiar and timely breath of the Collect, however, I felt myself shouldering once again the burden of my clerical authority. As that comfortable friend of a thought settled upon my shoulders once again, I subconsciously fingered my stole, the ancient symbol of my blessed right and grave purpose. The fabric slid tensely beneath my fingers, but the sanctioned prayers and signs of the church poured unabated from my lips and hands, a pleasant stream of institutional grace and comfort.
I have sensed, dear friend, that you are not a churchgoer – and so I fear that much of what has been shattered in these last few weeks will not seem to you a loss. The destruction of all that I had treasured up would, to an outsider’s eye, seem no great tragedy, I fear, but I cannot let that opinion pass without a token effort to express the hideous grief of my comforts dashed to oblivion.
Even now the words, I know, will not compare to my inner sense of aching loss, but all that had surrounded my life had been, heretofore, pure beauty. The polished sheen of the oaken beams, waxed to gleaming light, the intricate and careful carving of stone and yew, massaged by masters’ hands and tools, the heartwarm glow of a hundred taper lights, reflected in the ornaments and instruments of gold, the snowy brilliance of the altar, the reliable and unchanging sounds and signs of scripture and sacrament in the service of worship, the rapt and grateful adulation of my snug parish…all these and a thousand other details of my life and work conspired to comfort and reassure me of the universe, and of my place in it. The steady rhythm of my life and days ticked endlessly on, unchanging and mechanical, like the God to whom I had devoted my life.
And it was then, during the liturgy of that final service of Sunday worship, that I last believed without doubt in the God of my mind. As the readings of the Psalm tripped from my tongue, I had settled deeply into all the solace of a service of worship – so little attention did I pay in the midst of my prayers and oblations that I scarcely noted the text of the Prophets until the page was open before me.
Consulting my notes and the markers in the Bible, I was stunned to see before me words of alarm and terror such as I had never before met in God’s Holy Word. I was seized by a sudden bout of coughing, alarming in its scope and duration. In desperation, I raised my gaze over the pulpit’s edge to catch the eye of the sexton, of someone, anyone, rather than speak aloud the horror printed on the page.
Despite the warmth and succor of mere moments before, as I searched the curious eyes in the nave, all that met my regard was a trim young woman in garments of white, her jewel-bright eyes overflowing with passionate intensity, seated on the central rafter of the sanctuary. Her hand curled around the supporting beams, and her expression was dire and terrible as she stared mercilessly into my helpless face. Her lips parted – I thought that I heard the tiniest squeal of metal on stone as she drew in a useless breath.
Struck to my very core with elemental terror, I dove with my eyes back into the text. Caught beneath an angel and the deep blue sea, I cleared my suddenly parched throat, and did the best that I could. To my ears, as my mouth gave voice to the letters on the page, the voice of the pitiless angel overlay my halting words, driving me forward to speak the brutal, prophetic truth.
“Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.”
No further could I speak – no more would the words come. At once I let forth a great cry, and stripping my robe, stole, and cross from around my neck, I ran, shouting down the aisle and out the great oak doors into the winter sunlight. Heedless of dignity and station, heedless of position and prestige, heedless of anything but that messenger’s dreadful purpose, I summoned a waiting hansom cab, my whole frame shaking with fright. His dense accent was nearly impenetrable, but I simply shouted, “Portsmouth!” casting a quantity of gold into his waiting hand, and leaned back on the leather seats to weep and flee my destiny.