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(Author’s Note: “The Desert” is a work of short fiction in several parts. If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to go back and read the previous chapters so that you know what’s going on.)

V: Epilogue

It seemed like ages ago that I had set out from my home, and the beautiful Garden that surrounded it, on a journey that brought me deep into the harsh wilds of the desert. In that barren, desolate land, I had encountered several of the lost souls who dwelt there. Most had refused to hear me, but I had successfully persuaded one of them to listen to reason and leave. Soon after, I had come to the end of the desert, believing my task was done. But on my way home, my head heavy with sleep, I had strayed from the path. Now I was lost in a dark and gloomy wood, and home seemed further than ever.

It was a wet, storm-wracked night. The forest closed around me, dark conifers whose branches dripped with rain and thickets of thorn vines that grew between their trunks. Overhead, thunder and lightning lashed at the black sky, and the rain fell like stinging needles. The twisting, narrow hollow of a path wound perilously between the trees.

My legs burned with weariness, and the desire for sleep was almost a physical pain. I longed to find my home, or at least to rest for a time, but there was no place to stop in this dark wood.

From somewhere in the darkness behind me, there was an eerie, desolate howl. I shivered and quickened my pace.

Then, up ahead, a light glowed through the night and driving rain. I hurried eagerly toward it, and the light resolved into a tiny cottage of plaster and thatch, surrounded by a dense thicket of trees. Gold light glowed from its windows, tantalizingly inviting.

I rapped hard on the heavy wooden door. “Hello! Traveler seeking sanctuary!”

Almost before I had finished saying it, the door opened silently. A man stood in the doorway, silhouetted in the glow streaming from within. “Welcome, traveler,” he said with a smile.

I squinted at him. “You seem familiar. Do I know you?”

“I don’t believe so,” he said smoothly. “Come in. It is cold and wet, and I have a fire going within.”

That was all I needed to hear, and soon I was inside, sitting before the brick hearth and holding out my hands to the heat of the flames dancing within. The interior of the cottage was a small, cozy place, plaster walls and wood beams tinted golden by the firelight. The rain lashed impotently at the windows.

“Better?” my host asked, once I had dried off.

“Much,” I said gratefully. “Thank you. What do you do out in this forest? Is this your home?”

My host didn’t seem to hear me. Instead he looked at my coat, hung near the fireplace to dry. “You’ve been to the desert lately, I see. Did any come back with you?”

Somehow, I didn’t think to question how he knew where I had been or what I had been doing. “Yes, one. Why do you ask?”

“And yet,” he said with a strange, sad smile, “there are millions more who remain.”

“I realize that,” I said, feeling a flicker of suspicion. “But I can’t reach all of them, and most wouldn’t listen even if I could. I do what I can; that’s all anyone can ask of me.”

“That is more than anyone could ask of you,” said my host. “No one could accuse you of wasted effort if you were making a difference. But you’re not making a difference. At best, you’re dislodging a few grains of sand from a mountain. I applaud your trying to help those poor people, but that effort won’t be complete – if it’s ever complete – until long after your lifetime, whether you work at it or not. There will be others after you. Why not rest and leave it up to them?”

“If freethinkers of past generations had reasoned the same way,” I said, annoyed, “my cause would be far behind where it is right now. They did what they could to lay the groundwork for me. Now I’ll do the same to build a yet larger foundation for the future. Every generation has a part to play in this effort, and I intend on playing mine.”

“Noble sentiments, but in reality it’s little but masochism. You’re pouring yourself into an effort for which it’s not likely you’ll ever get respect or thanks. Don’t let others take advantage of you like that. You have a beautiful home and a Garden you love. Why not go there, close the gates behind you, and let the rest of the world see to itself? What happens out there is none of your concern.”

“Deserts spread,” I said ominously. “Part of the reason I do this is to protect my home. And besides, there are countless people in the desert who are unhappy, miserable – people like the one I spoke to earlier tonight. Many of them will never find their way out if there’s no one to speak to them and show them the path. Should I withdraw into my home and leave them to their suffering?”

“They can find their way out by themselves if they really want to,” said my host. He had moved back, standing near the fire, and his face was half in shadow; his eyes glittered black.

“But much more easily if they have a guide,” I countered.

“Your concern is admirable, but in the end it’s worth little. And besides, aren’t you introducing them to a path that has its own traps and dangers?”

“The destination is worthwhile in the end.”

“So you say.” He grinned. “Many who live in the desert would not agree. They think it’s their home and they couldn’t imagine being happier. It’s what they want. Why not leave them to it?”

“Many of them only think it’s what they want because they don’t know all the available options. I met someone like that today.”

He shook his head sadly, but still there was that ominous glitter in his eye. “But look at the toll it’s taken on you. Look how exhausted you were when I found you. Compassion is one thing, but not when it costs this much. The desert siphons away life, we both know that; if you stay there too long, you’ll end up like them. No rational theory of morality would ask you to expend your own well-being in pursuit of this mad goal. You’ve done enough. You should return to your home and rest. You don’t ever have to go back.”

And now I could no longer contain my suspicion. “Who are you?”

For a second, I thought I saw a grin on his lips. Then, all of a sudden, the fire and the light went out together. I was alone in the empty, darkened cottage, the rain thundering on the windows much louder than it had a moment ago. Spiderwebs clotted with dust filled the corners. The hearth was cold and black and looked as if it had not been lit for ages.

Suddenly seized by a nameless fear, I threw open the door and staggered out into the rain. The night and the storm slashed at me as I plunged into the dark wood, whirling me around until I scarcely knew which direction was which. But I pressed on, and after what seemed like an endless time, lights beckoned me through the trees. The lights of my own home, this time. With a vast sense of relief, I threw open the gates and collapsed onto the grassy lawn.

It was not until later that I thought back on my strange meeting that night. The whole experience had the distorted, unreal quality of a dream. Who was that man who sought to lull me into complacency, or persuade me to give in to despair? He had not seemed like one of the denizens of the desert. And though I had held him off, I sensed that he had not been vanquished. Though I did not encounter him again, as the days turned to weeks, the memory of that night stayed with me; and as I looked ahead to the coming new year, I wondered what it might portend…

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...