By Dave Dentel
For my cousin Dennis.
♦ ♦ ♦
No chilling wind nor poisonous breath
Can reach that healthful shore.
Where sickness, sorrow, pain and death
Are felt and feared no more.
—American folk hymn
This is the first part of a story I wrote to commemorate—and help make sense of—the crisis that has gripped our planet going on fourteen months now. Subsequent parts will follow. And if you like what you see, please consider backing my volume of short stories now on Kickstarter. —Dave Dentel
Their first full week together, from Sunday to the sabbath, had been steeped in undeniable joy—at times approaching giddiness. Mostly they sang, often for hours at a stretch, their collective exuberance resonating off the sheltering rocks and cascading toward the prairie floor fifteen hundred feet below. In moments of intense bliss, the older congregants hoisted their hands skyward; younger ones hopped, skipped, and bent their limber frames in a way that might have been described as dancing except for the fact that the man who held final authority on these things—Pastor Dale Starkweather—would have insisted that by all he’d witnessed in thirty-five years of ministry it was a fundamental principle that Baptists don’t dance.
Otherwise, the conclusion foremost in the preacher’s mind these days was that he had been right in calling them there. Observing his flock’s exultations simply reinforced his conviction that people had been created for community and shared purpose, not for the isolation they’d all endured the previous twelve months.
The enforced solitude had been meant to slow the spread of a virus akin to the one that had killed more than two million people across the planet just a dozen years before. Included in that grim statistic had been Dale’s wife, Rebekah. He had remained by her side even as the viral pneumonia slowly diminished her ability to draw breath. The terrible rasping that accompanied her final gasps chilled Dale’s soul, especially when he considered how his own body was apparently immune to the virus’s effects, and how that supposedly made him blessed. Of course, he had assisted the subsequent study to develop an antibody therapy—an effort that ultimately help stem the tide of the global pestilence. But knowing he’d contributed to a cure did little to assuage the loss of the woman who seemed more a part of him than his own right arm.
And then, last September, it returned.
It struck the population centers first, both overseas and in the States. Made more aggressive by mutation, the virus surged through the coastal cities before seeping inland as residents fled to what they hoped were safer locales.
Communities such as the one where Dale ministered—heartland enclaves scorned by the elites as mere flyover country—escaped the direct effects of the pandemic for a while.
But they could not avoid the escalating restrictions. First schools closed, then businesses shuttered; finally, churches were barred from worshipping. Still, it was not until the godless leaders who had risen to prominence began blaming believers for the violence accompanying the pandemic’s spread that Dale’s eyes had been opened to the spiritual significance of unfolding events.
It was then that he’d rounded up a dozen church families and, not unlike Moses, led them up Arapaho Ridge to prepare for what was undoubtedly about to occur. There they gathered to await the end of history—and the renewal of all things.