“I have some questions, sir,” the professor said.
Kamar, the Angel, looked at him and said, “All will be answered.”
The two kept walking along a winding stone path that took them through a garden, past a field, and up over a hill looking down upon a windswept plain and river.
“It’s empty,” said the professor. “There are no people here.” The two kept walking. At the river, they walked over a small wooden bridge, shaded by two willow trees. Up over the hill on the other side and down again into another vale, beautiful with flowers and tall wild grasses.
“There should be people here,” the professor said. “Lots of people. There should be men in the fields and children swimming in the river and women visiting each other, and homes. Where are all the people?”
They kept walking.
“Tell me about you work,” Kamar inquired.
“Oh, well, yes,” said the Professor clearing his throat. “I was a professor, a teacher,” just in case this strange man Kamar, who was an angel, didn’t know what a professor was.
“Tell me about it.”
“I was a professor at a university. I spent all my life teaching there, and at other colleges. Helping young people.”
“Helping young people,” Kamar repeated.
“Yes,” continued the professor thinking he was getting somewhere at last with the strong silent man. “They graduate from high school and go to college for an advanced education. I taught at one of the best colleges in America, in the world, really. We give a great education.”
“And your work?” asked Kamar.
“I wrote a lot of academic papers and a few books.”
“And you taught, as well?” probed Kamar.
“Yes. I spent most of my time — at least in the early years — preparing lectures and giving them to my students. I was always ranked in the top 10% of lecturers at the university.”
Suddenly the professor noticed the grass had grown thin and the soil rocky and dry and the trees appeared stunted. Then there was a great cliff in front of them.
“What is this?” asked the professor.
“It’s the end,” said Kamar. “The end of your land. This was your land.”
“My land?” the professor asked.
“Your land,” said Kamar. “We’ve walked for two days across your land – and we would have kept going, but it was cut off.”
“The people?” the professor inquired. None. Not a single soul.
“No people,” responded Kamar. “None. Not a single soul. This place should have been full of people, happy joyful people. But there are none here.”
“What happened to them?” asked the professor, “Why aren’t they here? Where did they go?”
Kamar swept his arm and the world around them changed. It became hot, burning, dark and lonely. The professor looked out and saw all the people and many of them looked familiar. Thousands of people. They all stared at the professor and Kamar as they passed through them. They were miserable, sad people, and pained by the heat and lack of water. Many were weeping, others stood in stony silence — mortified and alone.
“Who are they?” asked the professor, seeing them all but still not understanding.
“Why don’t you ask them,” said his guide.
So the professor took a few unsure steps toward a man who had his back to him and said, “Excuse me, what are you people doing in this terrible place? It is so very hot and miserable here.”
The man turned, stared at the professor, and then walked away.
So the Professor went to a woman and said, “Excuse me, miss, but I’m on my way to a much nicer place, with green grass and rivers and lots of space? Would you like to walk with us a while?”
“Too late, too late,” moaned the lady and she sat down and cried.
“Too late for what?”
“Too late, too late, too late,” repeated the lady.
The professor began to feel uneasy. “Sir, I don’t like this place, we’d best be leaving now, these people aren’t very friendly.”
“No. Keeping talking and find out why they are here,” and Kamar stepped back.
Going from person to person, the professor kept , “Why are you here?” and “Why don’t you come with me to a better place?” He asked twenty, then fifty, then hundreds of people. It finally struck him that he must have spent days in this place asking why there were here. And then he recognized them — they were all his students — undergraduate and graduate — and some were students of his students — those who had gone on to teach at high schools and grade schools or other colleges.
One of them said “professor — why did you teach us that God was a social construct — that Jesus and the Bible were just the product of a specific cultural moment? How do you explain this place? You said that heaven and hell weren’t real and that religion was a hoax, the opiate of the masses. We trusted you, professor. What you professed, we believed. And now we are here. We should be living in that nice land that you just passed through. We walked through it too, but now we are here.”
Then the Professor saw his wife, who had died years earlier. “Oh Maggie, it’s so good to see you,” the Professor said, relieved to find someone who would be sure talk to him.
“No, Ben, not you! Tell me you have not come to this place, too, this horrible lonely place. Touch my skin and feel how hard it is, see my eyes how they run, and no salve to ease the itch. Feel my hair, it has fallen out and my scalp burns from the heat. Oh, Ben, why did you come here?”
“Maggie, I’ll take you out of here. Let’s go. I was just in a very nice place and it’s just waiting for people . . . it’s empty actually, and . . .”
Maggie suddenly yelled, “Ben, you fool!”
The Professor stepped back in shock. Maggie turned and wept bitterly. “Too late, too late,” she cried. “ It’s too late. Go away. It’s all too late.”
Kamar appeared at the professor’s side — he was glad he wasn’t alone with these people anymore.
For a moment the Professor thought he’d have to stay there and was relieved to hear Kamar say, unbidden, “This isn’t your place. It’s time to go.”
The Professor remained quite unsure of the purpose of this journey.
Suddenly, a snarling dark beast with hideous claws charged toward the professor, but stopped when Kamar spoke a single word to it. It was in a tongue the Professor had never heard. Then beast sat on it’s haunches and smiled at the professor — not a friendly smile, but a wicked, greedy smile. Thankfully, thought the professor, Kaman protected him. But the beast followed at a distance, he saw.
Turning his eyes forward the professor shrieked as he saw flames pouring from funnel-shaped pits. They were the kind of holes you’d dig in the sand and the more you dug, the more the dry sand would slide down toward the bottom on the hole. At the center, flames shot up from the inverted cone — about 15 feet across and ten feet deep, too deep for anyone caught inside to see over the rim.
Looking closer he saw people trapped in these pits, each one alone. Desperately, they tried to climb up the steep sides of the inverted cones but were betrayed by the sand that, like a conveyer belt, kept them sliding down. The harder they tried to climb out of the holes the faster the sand gave way until they reached the bottom and would burn. Shrieking in agony they would leap and dance and hurl themselves again up the side of the pit to escape from the fire. None ever reached the top — none ever got up high enough to be aware that there were thousands of pits in this land, each with a prisoner struggling in endless torment from exhaustion, loneliness, and burns. Moaning and shrieking, the sand betrayed them again and again as they fell back toward the flame.
The Professor approached one hole and peered at a man, with horrible burns covering his legs, crawling against the sand as it slid out from under him. He made it halfway up when he saw the Professor.
“Help me! Help me!” said the man crawling up. “Help me out of this lonely place. It’s so lonely.”
The harder the man crawled up the incline the more the sand shifted under him and he slid down toward the fiery spout. The air was heavy with the oily black smoke. The man slipped and fell back to the flames and he shrieked as the flame licked his feet and ankles and legs and turned the scars into fresh raw meat boiling from the intense heat.
The professor looked around for something, a branch, a rope, and ladder, anything to help this poor man climb out of this hole for some relief but there was nothing and no one to help. The man quivered. His body convulsed from the pain that consumed his body and his mind. His hideous shrieks made the professor’s guts lurch.
The Professor ran back to his guide, stumbling as he drew close. Falling at Kamar’s feet, the Professor grasped his robe and said “Get me out of here! I don’t want to be in this horrible place.”
Kamar picked him up, and said “You have colleagues in here, wouldn’t you like to speak with them?”
“No, no, I wouldn’t,” said the Professor. But he found himself at another pit, staring down at Tom, one of his graduate students, one who had become a professor at another university. “Tom!” the professor called, “Tom, what are you doing in there?”
“Too late, too late!” called Tom. “Too late,”
“It’s not too late, it’s never too late!” yelled the Professor. “Tom, get ahold of yourself, come, grab my hand, for Christ’s sake,” the Professor pleaded.
With a shriek Tom called out, “Don’t say that name!” Crawling within an arm’s length of the Professor’s outreached hand, the sand began to move of it’s own accord, shifting down faster that Tom could climb up, rendering Tom’s efforts utterly vain. “Too late, too late,” lamented Tom as exhaustion consumed him.
The Professor watched as Tom slip toward the consuming fire and danced a freakish jig as he his feet entered the fire.
“I taught them lies,” cried Tom. “I taught them what you taught me — that God is dead — that there is no Truth, that heaven and hell are lies. And so I’m punished because I deceived them — so many of my students gave up their faith when they came to the university and I am to blame for that. And so here and now I have my place.”
“Get me out of here!” pleaded the Professor to Kamar.
“Too late, too late,” Tom said from the pit. “Too late.”
The beast appeared mere feet away and the Professor froze with fear. Kamar was gone. His heart pounded and sweat poured from his face. He backed away from the beast, who leered at him with drool coming off his fangs. The beast’s eyes gleamed in the darkness. The stench of puss-filled rotten flesh oozed from his matted fur. Backing slowly away the professor tripped and fell and tumbled down a steep sandy decline. He looked up an saw the beast peering over the side. From the pit, he could see nothing outside his own hole only the dark smoke swirling low over desolate land.
“Help, me, help me out of here,” the professor pleaded with the beast. “Where is Kamar? Tom, can you hear me.”
“Too late, too late, the voices echoed in his mind. Too late.”
The flame burst from the bottom of the hole, seeing his flesh, and the Professor jerked his body untoward the rim — but never made it — every time sliding back toward that flame, exhausted and dry, and so lonely.
A century later a man appeared at the edge of the Professor’s pit. Covered in a black robe, mortarboard and sash indicating the rank of another senior professor, he started into the Professor’s hole, and extended a hand to help.
The Professor’s only response was the chiding of the Damned: “Too late, too late, you are too late.”
Fritz Berggren, PhD
Copyright © 2003