Under the weight of regret, I hit my knees and leaned onto my hands, digging my fingers into the soft earth. There was a small puddle settled just between my hands. Seeing my reflection in it, I inquired, “What have I done?” I stared into eyes that were undisturbed, an unanswering reflection. I considered my blood-stained hands and shirt; the outer-raiment of a sin-stained soul. In silence, save for the hollow-chested respiration beneath my clothes, I glared and thought: “There is no beauty here. No truth. Nothing good is left? Ashes. Ashes in my hands — all I have loved. Their beauty, their truth, their goodness . . . their faces, their voices . . .What have I done?” Again and again, I internally repeated, “What have I done?” until nothing was left in my mind but an indistinguishable echo.
Morning turned to noon and noon to dusk; still, I did not break my contemplation. Hunger overtook my body. Darkness overtook my reflection. I did not blink. I did not move. Could hunger or blindness matter to the dead, or at least one as good as dead? I did not stop replaying the tragedy over in my mind: they were gone; I could not change it; It was done. Nothing could stifle my anger. My self-defacing grievance would not relent. I meant and asked the question in every possible way: “What have I done?”
It must have been after midnight before thunder cracking through the sky broke my concentration. Lightning flashed. My senses returned. The inquiring echo cleared from my mind. I tried to make sense of that thing which I now realized to be, ironically enough, completely out of my control — time. The watch around my wrist gave me the power to go back and forth in time. But, it did not give me the authority to change the story — at least, not the things I wanted changed. I became conscious of a nauseating fact: there is only one Story-Maker and He is not me. No matter how many times I tried to undo Ava and Mia’s deaths, or my hate-filled rampage, I could not change what was written. Save for a few seconds after entering into a chosen point in the past, I was nothing more than a powerless apparition. I could not help but question what benefit it was to be a traveler. I knew, as a traveler, I could do nothing but watch the tragedy unfold again and again. I was beginning to think that the Old Man, my future self, must be right when he wrote, “Except for the one sacrificial act, you can’t change the past; you can merely observe it.”
It was as if it had been decided long ago. And not just decided on by some uncalculated and disinterested party, it was more as if I had decided it before I was born. Before it played out in my life, I chose not to spend that morning with Ava and Mia. Before I could experience it in the present, long ago I chose to take another man’s life in a fit of rage. It wrenched the mind to think it; yet I could not see it another way. I thought to myself, “Could it be that this damned path was decided in some sort of council in the mind of the Story-Maker an eternity before I existed here . . . on this earth? Maybe that is how it all works. Maybe that is why death cannot be undone, especially by my own hands.” The thought was a heavy weight. “I chose this by my own free-will.” I tried to shake the weight off with an apathetic reply, “What does it matter?” It didn’t work.
I continued to deliberate. “There is a time for death!” Those words never meant so much before. “There is literally a time for death. Men are appointed to die once. Maybe . . . Maybe that appointment is agreed on before men step into their story. Maybe . . . But . . . Ah — What does it matter . . . What does it matter?” The internally echoing question suggested how much it mattered to me. “Whether chosen or not,” I redirected, “the appointment can’t be undone. There is a time for death: it is inevitable . . . unchangeable . . . Right?” I didn’t know what to believe anymore.
There was a great ache in both my arms. Famished in body, soul, and mind, a tremor ran through my limbs. Drip . . . Drip . . . Drip . . . Ripples from steady drops of rain running between the canopy overhead disturbed the puddle that was now running over the top of my hands and wetting my knees. With each lightning flash, the drip distorted my puddled reflection. Drip . . . Drip . . . Drip . . . Ripples from the steady flow of tears running off my nose left my pain unanswered. Another crack of thunder rolled which seemed to split the sky in two. The steady drip gave way to sheets of cold rain, pelting down. Thunder and lightning bombarded the night sky. The puddle became a river of mud, dead leaves, and pine needles. In exhaustion, my arms gave way. I went face-first into the murky river. With a mouthful of muddy water and debris from the forest floor, I decided this was it. I had no reason or strength left to fight. I lay prostrate — arms outstretched to either side, legs extended; in form, similar to a crucifix. This was my appointed time to die. I must have chosen it ages ago, ages before time became the measurement of a man’s life. Here it was. I chose it. I would not fight. It was my time to curse God and die; my time to release a derelict cry. If I had any fight left, it could only be in my will. And my will would not fight for life; it was only ready to fight against one thing, my instinct to gasp for air.
Tension sprang through every muscle in my body. Pressure, enormous pressure built in my chest. I squeezed my hands, digging down into the cold mush. I could feel my heartbeat pushing against my eyelids. Red and yellow pulsating streaks streamed across my vision. A deafening strain shocked my inner ear. Suddenly, my body started to convulse, nearly pulling my face out of the water. In a final act of the will, I opened my hands and dug my fingers further into the earth; I clawed, in desperation, to find a solid hold, an anchor to force myself to stay under the water. Instinct pried my mouth open, causing me to involuntarily suck in a lungful of earthy water. My eyes opened with the choking tinge of death that ran up my spine.
This was it. I thought of nothing but pain: my family; my life; my regret; neither heaven nor hell made much difference. Nothing flashed before my eyes. All those silly questions of cynicism — “Am I simulation? How can I know I exist?” — dissipated with the encroachment of certain and excruciating death. I hurt, therefore I must be (at least for the next few seconds). Suffocation! was the only word screaming through my consciousness.
Then, without warning, a concussive quake shook the earth violently. A tidal wave of muck lifted me from my deathbed. End over end, I rolled straight into a briar of thorns which tore gashes into my forehead. The jolt and shock caused the water, mud, and dead foliage I had stomached to erupt from my mouth. I gasped for air. I was alive. Why was I alive? I had chosen to die! Blood and water mixed together and dripped from my cheek. Vomit ran off my chin. Heave after heave, the strain in my chest subsided. A nauseating headache crinkled my brow. The pain assured me that I was alive. Why was I alive? I had chosen to die!
The pelting storm made it difficult to see my inconvenient savior. A great oak branch, so girthy a grown man could hardly wrap his arms around it, about seven feet in length, had been struck by lightning, causing it to plummet to the forest floor, not three feet from where I had lain.
Overtaken by rage, I screamed a vitriolic slur of expletives. “I can’t even choose to die? Let me die! Let me die! Let me . . .” Of course, I could have just shot or hung myself; I could even have slit my wrist or jumped, headlong, from a tall building. But calculated suicide was just unappealing to me. Strangely enough, I didn’t think it would be a good death. An awful lofty thought for someone who has lost all faith in goodness. I broke down. Then and there, I decided that there was no dignity in death.
I knew my cause for seeking suicide was only vengeance against myself. And what could vengeance be but a baneful draught: a cup with no bottom; no quenching; and, if accompanied with victory, merely Pyrrhic. There would be no true victory in death. Hopelessness; utter hopelessness — that is what comes on a man who loses sight of the good, the true, and the beautiful. And yet, there was one last thing I now had to relinquish — a fourth element; a fourth dimension; that very thing which allows for the experience of that objective tripartite: goodness, beauty, and truth — Time. What did it matter? Time was a bitter drink I no longer wanted to consume. “But . . . How?”
I stood to my feet. I glanced down at the time-watch. “Get off! Get off of me!” I ripped the time-watch from my wrist. I stared at it. “Useless.” Yes, useless, vanity of vanities. That is what comes of trying to change time. I wondered to myself, “Is there a time to discard time?” Clasping the time-watch firmly, I reared back to fling it into the night. But as my arm began its forward motion, I stopped. “But . . . But . . . Why?” I unwound my throwing posture. “Why should I waste away in misery? If I can’t die on my own terms, I can live on my own terms.” I held the time-watch in my right palm, lightly bouncing it. “I can live on my own terms?” This consideration intrigued me. As a matter of fact, though I could still taste the vomit and dirt mingled in my mouth, the thought became a sweet sensation, like the taste of honey. It was a breath of fresh air. It was . . . How can I say this? Redemptive.
I stretched my arms out to feel the rain, to let the pour wipe away the filth; this was my cleansing. Facing upward to the sky, I opened my mouth wide and washed it out with what, at that moment, tasted like living water. I knew how I would spend the remainder of my allotted time. I couldn’t change the past; or, at least, I couldn’t change what I wanted to change. Still, that is where I would go. In the past, I was nothing more than a specter, but that didn’t matter to me. The past was all I had left. Those moments I had missed. Those moments I had loved. Before the accident, there I could, in some form of the word, live.
I knew how to do it. I had the time-watch down to a science now. I would go back to those times which were most precious. Death would come someday. For now, death would have to wait for its time.
Donald W. Catchings, Jr. is Founder and Board Chair of Street Light Inc. and Pastor of The True Light Church in Conroe, Texas since 2009. Also, Donald is a Literature and Theology teacher at Kepler Education (kepler.education). As a writer, Donald regularly contributes to “An Unexpected Journal” and his own blog: www.donaldwcatchingsjr.com. Donald recently released Joy Through a Wardrobe—a book of poetry and reflections on C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, wipfandstock.com, and more.