They’d come too far now to turn back, but Jack was in terrible pain. The strength required to conquest the mountain had strained every muscle; the falls he’d taken left ribs bruised and ankles sprained. As he crept in descent along the grass of the mountain’s steep base, Jack strained to see the ground below. The weak light of dusk was giving way to deepening blues that obscured much of the landscape.
“Jack,” his little friend said, shivering. “I’m so tired…”
Gavin was only six, and as Jack looked at the boy’s matted hair and torn clothes he wondered how a small child could have endured the journey. “Here,” he said, turning away from him. “Climb onto my back.”
Gavin did so, securing his arms around his companion’s neck, and Jack knelt down to the earth. Lying flat, he grabbed the long tufts of grass and slowly pushed himself downward with his knees and wounded feet.
Beyond the mountain was a wide plain, in the center of which stood a dying tree. Its skeletal branches reached brokenly for the sky, no leaves left to shudder in the cool wind that stole across the land. It was this for which Jack aimed, a longing buried deep in his soul, only awakened when the world began to turn to black.
Ten feet from the ground, Jack’s worn sneaker slipped, and in his surprise his hands loosened on the damp grass. He remembered nothing of the cruel descent except landing on his back with an awful thud. His bones protested angrily, and as he whimpered and squirmed through the pain, he could only dimly think of the boy. “Gavin,” he gasped, “oh, God…”
“I’m here.” A tiny hand touched his own. “I jumped.”
Jack wanted so much to lay there until the intense throbbing in every part of him dulled. But as he gazed up at the heavens, he saw what they were running from.
With an anguished cry, Jack rolled onto his stomach. “Get on,” he managed to say. Again, Gavin crawled onto his back.
On all fours Jack began their trek across the plain.
Rain began to fall, enough to trouble his eyes and slowly soak his clothes. He could see the tree, appearing mercifully closer than when they were still on the mountain. A sliver of hope made Jack laugh through a sob. They might both make it, after all this time.
The deep blue of almost-night seemed strangely to linger.
When they were less than a hundred yards from the tree, Jack found himself kneeling before a river of mud. It may have been water some time before, but now the sludge stood stagnant. Jack trembled on his weak limbs. “Jesus, does it never end?” he whispered. Slowly bringing his right leg about he tested the river, and found it only knee deep.
“Hang on, Gavin.”
The warm, thick mud clung to every inch of him that was submerged, rolling through his fingers and into his shoes as he struggled through it. His eyesight blurred; pain screamed through every cell.
They reached the edge of the river. Gavin pushed off Jack’s back and onto the rain-swollen ground.
“Go on,” Jack sobbed. He rested his arms on the edge of the grass but could not pull himself out.
It took a moment for the boy to understand. “No, no,” he whined, “not without you.”
“Do you remember the stories? About… how the sea parted and, how He tamed the lions, and… how He died for us?”
Large tears rolled down Gavin’s cheeks, but he nodded.
“You’ll have to tell them. And you can…” Jack rested his cheek to the soft grass. “You can.”
Gavin had feared he would never be able to climb the tree, but the limbs almost seemed to urge him upward, until he found a seat on the sturdiest branch at the top. He looked into the distance, where a sea of countless lights bobbed in uncertainty. They badly needed direction and one light to lead them home.
Where Jack lay, all had turned to black—the sky, the mountain, everything up to the river’s edge.
Clinging to the tree, Gavin began to pray the only prayer he knew.
The old tree gave up its light then, an intense and glorious light that swirled up through the branches and out into the night; a beacon burning for small and future souls to heed and to keep them forever away from the black night of the past.
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