Through an eye fogged with disease, the poor man looked up as something smacked into his thigh. It was a pomegranate, or at least, it was a pomegranate. Spoiled with age, the fruit had turned an inedible brown and gray. No amount of hunger could possibly convince a man to take even a bite, or so it should seem.
Lazarus reached out and clutched the fruit in his gnarled fingers; its now furry skin felt slick to the touch. Amazingly, he managed to bring the fruit to his mouth and bite into it. Despite the odor, for Lazarus smelled far worse, he managed to eat the entire thing; rind and all.
To some, such a life would be Hell on earth. To Lazarus, who was simply thankful for life, it was nothing.
Reaching to scratch a sore, the poor man’s bones cracked. His flesh was not unlike the skin of the pomegranate; spoiled, torn, in the last stages of death. Lazarus longed for Paradise.
He prayed for it.
Two dogs joined him at the gate. They were his companions; the only ones that he knew. As he reached out to pet one on the next, the dog craned its head and began licking the arm that stretched out to it.
Jealous of the first, or perhaps simply helping, the second dog joined in. Together, their rough tongues soothed Lazarus’s stinging wounds. Despite his low position in life, he had found yet another reason to praise his maker.
As he lay on his back, shadowed by the two dogs, he thought he caught something in their eyes. For a moment, they had almost seemed as though made of fire.
It is a hallucination; the trick of an empty stomach, Lazarus thought and he turned his mind to other things. His diversion lasted only a few seconds, however, and then, without reason, Lazarus died.
He did not notice his own passing for several seconds, and then only because of the change that overcame the two dogs. Before his very eyes, they grew stronger and more man-like. They stood up as men and continued their transformation.
When the change was complete, Lazarus found himself lying at the feet of two beautiful creatures. Each one was covered in a fine, gray fur, which billowed out around the neck as a mane. Their eyes maintained the soft and open appearance that only dogs have, but their irises burned with holy light.
Despite their pleasant appearance, Lazarus noticed an underlying ferocity in the two creatures. Jaws, filled with sharpened pearls rather than teeth, were a frightful thing to behold. Each of the creatures eight fingers terminated in an onyx claw, which Lazarus knew had to be as sharp as any sword.
“Fear not, Lazarus,” The first beast said, stretching a set of gray feathered wings. “I am the angel Calebel and this is Lupine. Our Lord and Master sent us to comfort you and now, to take you to Paradise.”
Lazarus realized that he was absolutely free from pain, but his mind was still on the two angels before him. Humbly, he began to bow, but he felt a firm but gentle hand stopped him.
“There is no need to bow, Lazarus. It is not by our power you are going home, but by the power of Elyon,” Calebel said.
Lazarus moved forward, as if to take his first step toward Paradise.
“No Lazarus,” Lupine said, “We are here to carry you.”
A bright grin nearly split Lazarus’s face in two. Giddy as a child, he nodded and allowed himself to be scooped up in both angels’ arms.
Demas was a rich man and the owner of the house at whose gates the empty shell of Lazarus laid. When a servant brought word that the poor man had died, Demas held his chalice into the air.
“I am glad to see him go. He was but a weed at my doorstep.”
“Shall I have his body burned?”
“No, dump it in Sheol, where the garbage is sent.”
The servant nodded and went out to fetch the body.
Demas leaned back in his chair, pleased that he did not lead such a life as Lazarus had. He thanked no one but himself for the great blessings upon his life, and offered, in a daily ritual to himself, all the wine that he could pour down his throat.
Unlike Lazarus, he would live a long life; a productive life.
Or so he thought.
Demas could not have known about the poison that swam in his wine, placed there by a jealous servant. Even as his body dropped to the ground, he wondered what was killing him.
A terrible thought crossed his mind. He had served himself and now, at the end of his days, he had not a person to ask for help. Even his servant had departed.
No fearsome angels appeared to carry Demas from old home to new. Instead he plummeted through the floor, through the earth, through fire and pain and he did not stop until he rested on the soil of Tartarus.
Demas, looking up, could see how far he had fallen. He was like a star dropped to the earth by a cosmic disobedience. Beyond the earth and sky above, he saw the poor man that had rotted away at the entrance to luxury.
He saw the man the he could have saved from death.
Tartarus, however, was quick to remove all distractions. Beneath him, the ground boiled and drew every ounce of moisture from his skin. Whereas, it had been lotioned and perfumed in life, it was split and crumbling in death.
“Father Abraham!” Demas cried out, “Save me! Send Lazarus to me with water so that I may be refreshed.”
Abraham looked down and spoke, his voice boomed as thunder in a canyon.
“Remember your life, the good things you had, and remember those evil things that plagued Lazarus. Now, it is he who has a share in the good and you who will be plagued.”
Demas heard the answer, but could not follow it. The pain which raked his wretched body was too great. Only for an instant could he draw a breath of parched air and cry out again.
“Father Abraham, send Lazarus to my brothers, so that…” Demas ceased speaking for a moment, as the fire tore into his bones and set them ablaze. “So that, they might avoid this place!”
Abraham, saddened at the sight, but fully aware of God’s justice and providence, shook his head.
“They have Moses and the Prophets. If they will not listen to them, they will not listen to this man.”
Abraham, pained by the sight of Demas, had to turn his head. Lazarus, taking no pleasure from Demas’s torture, did the same. Both men were in Paradise, a place beyond torture, but the sight of Demas as he was eaten by flame was as close to torture as anything.
Jeremy McNabb (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an unpublished writer of novels, short stories and various essays. This is his fifth submission to FaithWriters and his first submission of a short story to the same.
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