Pastor Russell lay dying. Clad only in a white Roman toga he wavered between one world and the next.
Outside the train's sleeper car, the Pampas, Texas flatland unfolded sideways to the naked eye. Nothing of interest. More of the same.
Throughout the long night fits of shivering and cramps wrenched the old man's gut. The cup of hot tea at bedtime had soothed and left him drowsy. Half an hour later, cramps took hold and wrung him out.
The Pastor's spectacles lay carefully folded beside his Bible as clackety-clack, clackety-clack of the undercarriage lulled him to rest on a special pillow embroidered with a cross and crown: the Watchtower engraving of his religious magazine.
His labored breathing set him groaning and the light began to fade from the narrow crinkles where his eyes hid behind trembling lids. The smell of strong coffee troubled the air and his bedsheets seemed to crawl across his body like an anaconda tightening a death grip.
His once clear mind gave way to stupefactions.
His mother's voice shook him awake!
"Sonny, you are dying!"
Mother's voice again! Impossible, wonderful and---frightening!
Yes, he knew at heart this was a trick of the mind.
Ann Eliza Birney passed from life into death when Russell was but a boy of nine. Her sudden clear memory now squeezed tears in great drops from his fevered eyes.
Jesus wept...hadn't he?
The vision of her face in silent repose, arms folded across her breast inside the lavish coffin, the weeping in the vast candlelit chapel, these thoughts filled his head and wrenched his insides with sorrow again.
"Listen to me, Son. Your time has come."
Russell unclenched his eyelids gazing reverently upon his mother's face once more. Her vision was mostly light brilliant as diamonds as the radiance filled the sleeper car and lifted Russell's spirits in an instant of time.
"Mother, you-you are alive? Then, heaven is where I am!"
The vision smiled and years fell away. He was Saul on the road to Damascus; as delicious warmth bathed his emotions in an amniotic womb of ecstasy.
Russell found himself beside his train berth, blinking down at his feverish form swaddled in quilts. Exterior to himself.
Gasping and lifting hands to his eyes, he beheld the youthful color of a boy's fingers and wrists unspotted by age and smooth as the face of heaven reflected in a golden pond.
He turned his head and straightaway--the train car vanished in a mist spun away by the strong breezes of Pennsylvania summer.
Or, was it Pittsburgh?
______________________TO BE A CHILD______________
The Russell family home sat untouched by time on a grassy hill under a harvest moon.
Young Charles' pulse quickened! He felt an electric signal pass through his limbs and in a flash he was running like a sorrel across the old path leading to his favorite tree, then, springing like a bullfrog for the rope dangling from its leafy arms.
Out--out--and away up high he scribbled an arc in the sky and kicked at the baffled clouds with the toe of his shoe.
His strong, youthful body hung impossibly long in the air only to plunge back toward the gravel--then, up to the other side in a carefree semi-circle.
Letting go the rope he flew straight to the ground and tumbled to earth with a cowboy's "Yee-haw" then, off toward the nearby schoolyard to his school chums shooting marbles on the playground.
The chalk marks on the sidewalk as a lad are still there.
Young Charles came full stop to view them.
He had dropped to his knees and printed block letters in red and white chalk for all eyes to see!
The fear of hell in him those years past!
As he read the words he shook his head, embarrassed and suddenly foolish.
Even as a boy he had worried Hell would swallow them all down! Mother had taught him well enough.
But--how silly of him!
Russell frowned and arched a half smile.
There is no Hell!
Not that kind of Hell, anyway. Hell was just the grave...wasn't it?
He fumbled between terror and rapture.
"Charlie! Listen to me!"
His mother's voice again! More urgently no.w.
"Come here, Sonny. I have to tell you...
Come quickly, there isn't much time left."
"I'm coming, Mother."
Little Charlie Russell sprang away from the hellish chalkdust as the landscape began to shimmer and unravel like a melting ice cream sundae on a picnic afternoon.
He plunged through a sudden gust of leaves to find himself standing in the railroad sleeper car once more. A dying old man who looked disturbingly familiar there before him.
"Who is that old man?"
"Charlie, that is you. You are passing over."
The words unsettled the longing of his heart and set off a low moan like the howling of a hungry wolf.
"Yes, Charlie, almost time. One question troubleth my heart..."
Russell suffered a peculiar trembling as though he were being devoured. Insects with ravenous mouths infesting his clothes and invisible to the eye--covered him.
"What's happening--what's happening to me? If heaven calls I fear nothing--but this gnawing terrifies my soul!"
"Charlie. Why did you leave the faith? Why? How could you abandon it so quickly?"
"No, that isn't true. I found the true faith when Jehovah spoke... to me... showed me His truth, His sacred secrets."
"You didn't find the true faith, Charlie, you invented a new one."
Russell wearily hung his head. Reeling backward, he sat hard upon the sleeping berth as little mouths of white maggots devoured his skin.
"No, I promise--I SWEAR IT--I found the true faith!"
"You found only the Apostacy of Pharisees, my Son."
These words stung Russell's ears. He winced as though struck by an arrow to the heart.
"Presbyterians we are--your Father and me--and that is how we reared you. You were carefully taught and you abandoned our Lord and Savior--but you must tell me why."
Russell felt the light ebbing into shadowland.
He sunk into the old man's form within the deteriorating body...
seeing, feeling the creatures working under his nightgown as they harvested his flesh with their ravened frenzy.
Another figure appeared ---a man with a face like misery, squat and heavy-shouldered. This stranger hovered nearby with the words Holy Bible burned into his massive hands
"I've trod your path, Pastor Russell! I too dug my tunnel to hell!"
Russell knew this face from photos and books he had read with great interest as a youth.
This man was William Miller--Baptist farmer who heralded the arrival of Jesus' second advent. Miller skillfully, reasonably, Biblically proved with uncanny reckonings the Lord would come in this lifetime!
"Pastor Russell. I too warned them all. I preached the End of all things. The things were but true lies believed by me trusting my lying heart."
Miller's raspy voice quavered like the knell of a funeral bell. The man's two yellow eye slits stared at the dying old man.
"Disappointment! Miller, I know whereof you speak. Surely you must know--we are off only by months, Miller, I too feed the household of God these great truths!"
The bulk of Miller's corpse swung around and a craggy, rotting finger wagged in the Pastor's face.
"My brother, you must bear the burden of this awful lie you have laid upon the flock. Your hour is nigh. This fearsome day of reckoning is upon you!"
"Yes, but, not as you say, Miller! Christ, our Lord! He did return---he did! He is invisible. He is invisible! It was Parousia--you were only wrong in believing you were wrong."
The putrid eyes of MIller bore in as the sepulchral voice echoed uncannily in the sleeper car as though it were but a vast cave.
"Wrong. What has come invisibly is your end. Your heart beats its last few strokes with the pendulum of a dying clock--of no more winding."
"But, Miller! World war--what of the sign? The sign, man!"
"Illusion! The wicked and faithless generation that is looking for a sign. You gave them pyramid passages and lying dates---Your "truth" is a humbug and you paid a pretty dime for it--your father's fortune."
You are apostate and must pay for your labors as an evil slave!"
A lower voice bellowed from inside white smoke before his blinking gaze. Pastor Russell's eyes beheld the shape of his father, wavering like heat above a stove.
"Son, beware the Judge. Beware! The Judge is coming."
Joseph Lytel Russell, the family patriarch joined the ghostly throng.
The father who built success into money and who entrusted him with early responsibility--before him stood.
"Father, gone these nineteen years only to return with a curse upon your lips?"
"This curse upon yourself and myself as well."
"But, you have reunited with mother--surely that is no curse at all!"
His mother's voice again.
"We cannot be together. You turned him away in apostasy. Our family corrupted with your fantasy and tissue of lies. All rebaptized into hellish fantasy!"
"Beware the Judge! Beware!" His father's whisper behind his left ear.
The sputtering light of dying candles sucked hope from sleeper car and tiny rivers of molten wax puddled into clusters of green wax.
"The gold mines were fraud too. You are here to shut down the work--but, the Hoopleheads shut you down instead."
Russell swung round toward the teacup on his night stand with its peculiar smell.
"Arsenic?" Judgement. For you. Now."
"I do not--can not fear the judgment of my Lord! I have served him without shame! I have discharged my faith with utmost honesty. No blemish stains my work!"
"Rose Ball, your little plaything, says differently."
His mother cried accusingly.
"Maria, your castoff wife says differently. No grandchild for me issued from that marriage and you know why!"
"Beware the Judge! Beware!" The father whispered behind his right ear.
Russell gasped for air and vainly struggled in rebuttal.
The voices clattered in the air in sharp disarray. The light in his eyes extinguished. Snakes and serpent's teeth tore into him and a dark pit was opening beside his bed, yawning like the blackened abyss of childhood fears. Yes--there it was--the licking tongues of flame!
Devoutly, he wished to croak out heartfelt prayers before the consuming night swallowed him into that widening pit of hell.
"If I erred---I,,,"
With one last mighty effort of will, he sat erect, eyes wide apart, staring at the bright morning of total emptiness before him.
Was this consciousness or nightmare?
Empty sleeper car.
Pampas, Texas sunrise washing a watercolor primer coat across railroad tracks and arroyo grasses.
The chirping sound of sparrows twittering in the stillness of another Halloween.
Then--an utter blackness of death! The errant lifeforce of Pastor Russell collapsed like an empty circus tent with nary a sound but for the rattle of exhalation.
Steam from the locomotive hissed like a den of vipers. The original serpent.
Miles away, Judge Rutherford's eyes opened blearily.
He belched whiskey like the bark of whipped dog as he rubbed the temples on his pounding skull with shaky hands.
Another chance to kick some ass and take names.
Make room. All rise. The honorable Judge Franklin Rutherford is about to heft his flabby ass in judgment. Please be seated!
Beware the Judge. Beware!
Pastor Russell lay dead. Cold. Pale.
Outside the sleeper car Pampas, Texas flatland sprawled indifferent to the drama inside.