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The Missionary

-Michael J Dangler

The missionary sat down with a huff. He'd been walking all day, since his ride had dropped him off as close as the driver dared to get. This was a holy place, he'd said.

In the missionary's experience, "holy" never equated to "frightening", but he supposed there was a first time for everything. The temperature was lower here than it had been on the road, and the trees seemed to grow in over his head.

While he wasn't feeling odd *yet*, he didn't doubt that it was a definite possibility. Places like this, he told himself, had tricked primitive man into believing in all manner of spirits and devils. The wind in the trees and valleys could sound like the songs of dead ancestors. The shadows and sunlight in the water could seem as beautiful human shapes. The tracks of a large dog could be easily mistaken for a werewolf. The senses that men depended on could be fooled in such places.

Taking off his shoes, the missionary winced at the blisters that were beginning to form. He hadn't signed up for long walks in the woods, down haunted paths. He'd always wanted to work in a small chapel in Mississippi, unknown to his fellow preachers, but at home among his community. He wasn't a firebrand preacher who wanted the limelight, and he wasn't the kind of man who displayed his faith as a badge. He was simple, and only wanted to do God's work.

To get to that little chapel in Mississippi, he had to walk on the Church's coals, so to speak. They required two years of missionary work under his belt before he could preach the Word he so loved to wrap his tongue around. He figured that the earlier he started, the sooner he could move on to smaller, simpler things.

The man sighed, feeling rested. He reached down to pull his shoes back on, wincing again. Standing up, he started down the path again.

An hour later, he was still walking, and he hadn't yet reached his destination. It was strange, like walking into a work of fiction, really. There had been the young, malnourished boy who delivered the message to him about the dying old man he had never met. This was followed by the hand-drawn map that was highly accurate when compared with others of official government make until he compared the destination, which was deep within a forest that didn't exist on the official map. Finally, there were the local superstitions about this place: rumors that it was populated by the dead, monsters, cannibals, and demons. The demon descriptions had been rather interesting, and the missionary had already diagnosed their creation as a symptom of fear of the "other," jamming simple categories together until they had a monstrous whole.

Pausing for a moment to admire a small spider web beside the trail, he wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. He pulled out the makeshift map (he had decided that, if nothing else, it was more fun to take the route that didn't exist) and looked around. He could definitely tell where he was on the map, because he was surprised to see an arrow pointing to his position, with the words "Beautiful spider-web" written next to it. He assumed that the child who brought him the news had written on it, but the script was not unpracticed. He had seen persistent spiders before, though, and knew they sometimes spun and re-spun webs in the same place for weeks at a time.

If indeed the arrow indicated his position, then he was very close. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was about ten in the morning, and figured that he could be in to see the dying man, help him to find Jesus, and be home by nightfall, at the latest. He wasn't a man to rush things, but he knew the power of the Lord, and had done this often enough to know that when a man calls out for spiritual help, it doesn't take long to show him the light.

Turning down the path, he ambulated along whistling a tune he remembered from childhood. The words were lost now, but the notes had stuck with him through his whole life. Though he had never noticed, the tune always came to mind when he was feeling a little apprehensive about his situation. It soothed his mind and reminded him that there were things in life that were always comfortable, that were always there for him.

He turned a final bend in the path and stopped. Before him lay his destination, or so he assumed. It was a small clearing, at the center of which sat a small hut with a thatched roof. The roof had several holes in it, only one of which was intentional. Through each hole a little wisp of smoke rose, and through the main hole it practically billowed. The smell of roasting meat drifted to his nostrils, and he suddenly realized how hungry he was. He looked around the clearing, and stepped into it.

Though he knew he hadn't made any audible sound, his footfall seemed to cue a small boy, who stepped from the hut. To his astonishment, the missionary realized suddenly that this was the same malnourished boy who had originally requested his aid. He was entirely unsure how this boy had beaten him to this place, but tried not to let that show.

The boy walked straight up to him. Extending a hand, he looked with eyes tinted with alarm. "Sir, come sir," was all he said.

The missionary took the boy's hand, and was led to the hut. At the door, the boy untangled his hand. "Inside, now," he said. He then turned around, and picked up a stick that rested against the hut. It was intricately carved, and the missionary recognized it as the primitive script of these people, though he could not read it.

The boy walked to the edge of the clearing, and started speaking in his own language, which the missionary had yet to learn, though he had tried. He caught the word "spirit", though, which was something he knew from trying to translate the Lord's Prayer. He was about to admonish the child for superstitions, but the boy turned to him first, and repeated his last instructions: "Inside, now!"

Not sure why he was taking orders from a child of no more than eight years, he turned and opened the door. A wisp of sweet-smelling smoke greeted him, and he stepped inside.

His eyes adjusted slowly to the sudden darkness inside the hut. Shapes came into view: first, the cooking utensils near the fire; these were followed by the skins that covered the dirt floor; the next items into his view were somewhat shocking, and included numerous superstitious artifacts, from cow skulls to drying plants he knew were poisonous to symbols on the walls. Finally, the eyes of the old man he was supposed to see became visible, reflecting the firelight.

The missionary withdrew his Bible, preparing to get right down to business. The old man's body was obviously weak, but his eyes did more than just reflect the fire: they carried their own inner fire, a passion that the missionary assumed was to hear the word of the Lord before it was too late. He mentally picked out a scriptural reference and opened his mouth.

"You are late."

The words weren't his, for their English was unpracticed. He looked at the man in the firelight, as he removed blankets and stood up. "Close the door and come to the fire."

The missionary did as he was told, forgetting his Biblical passage. He pulled the door shut, and stepped into the ring of firelight.

The old man was quiet for a moment, appraising him. His eyes flickered from the missionary's boots to the pants he had worn. They continued up, taking in the folds of his shirt. Finally, they reached the missionary's face, and traveled all over it before coming to rest on his eyes. The two men seemed locked in a staring contest for a moment, until the missionary pulled his gaze away.

"Sit." The old man's words were no invitation; they were a command. The missionary sat down, indian-style upon a rug.

"You have questions. You wonder why I called."

The missionary thought for a moment. "I think I know why you called. No one in this country calls me unless they're dying. I expect you want to hear the Word I have to preach, so you can go on to be with our Savior."


"No?" the missionary was now confused. "Then, er, why did you call me?"

The old man looked at him, sizing him up. "You were in a vision."

The missionary waited for an explanation. When he realized one was not coming forth, he tried a new tack. "Hmm. A vision, huh? I can't say as I've ever been in one of those before. Could you describe it to me?"

"You cannot describe. You need to see."

The missionary thought about this for a minute, and all that it entailed. He had taken a seminary class on Native American religion, and they had talked about vision-quests and what they meant. The reverend who had taught it had been all fire, and talked for days on the demons that brought such visions, and how dangerous they were. Of course, the missionary also thought about how this old man would "show" him. He wasn't sure he wanted to find out what the man meant.

"You are nervous. You have never seen a vision?" The old man was obviously a bit surprised by this idea.

"Um, no, I haven't. I'm not sure I want one." The missionary hoped this would change the course of the discussion.

The old man thought about this response. "You must to see. It is important. It is life and death for both I, myself, and you."

The missionary realized he was starting to sweat. He shifted back from the fire a bit. "Sir, you need to understand. We Christians don't have visions. It's just not proper for us. It's against the Bible."

"The Bibble," the man responded, butchering the holy book's name, "is magic? We need magic."

The missionary looked at the old man aghast. "It's no fakiry! It's the Word of the Lord!"

"I see. Magic." The old man turned from the gaping missionary and began collecting items.

"No, you don't see! Look, this book. . ." The missionary was rudely interrupted by the old man's hand. He'd met this kind of resistance before, though, so he simply sighed and let it pass. There were more important things one could get caught up in than defining words. "Okay. We'll just agree to disagree. What are you up to now?"

The old man had been pulling plants out from their respective hanging places, and putting them into a bowl. "Making you see vision," he answered, while pouring water into the whole mixture. He began crushing the plants into the water.

"I don't think I need a vision. Listen, it was a long walk out here, and I was under the impression that you were on your death bed. Why. . ." The Missionary was interrupted by the boy stepping into the hut, who suddenly started speaking in a strange pidgin of the local language.

"Hurry. You must hurry," the old man said to the missionary finally. "Evil is near."

"Hurry to do what?"

The old man ignored him for a moment, finishing up his crushing of queer assortment of things. He put it all into a bowl, and poured hot water over it. He waited a moment, and then turned to the missionary, holding the bowl out. "Hurry to drink."

One whiff of the weird concoction was enough to convince the missionary otherwise. He was reminded of a song he had listened to more than once. "I'm not drinking that! It smells like turpentine and looks like India ink!"

The old man looked at him. He studied the missionary's reaction, and thrust the bowl forward once more. "If you do not drink, you will die."

The missionary's brows knit together. "I've heard enough. You called me out on a fool's errand, expect me to drink God-knows-what, and then tell me I'm going to die if I don't. I'm leaving. Good luck with your witchcraft and superstition, old man." With that, he turned to leave.

He threw aside the door, expecting to be blinded by the sunlight. Instead, he was met with the darkness of a starless night. All around him, the trees closed in, and not a sound pierced the veil of night.

A hand closed on his belt from behind and pulled him roughly back into the hovel. He tripped falling in, and blacked out.

When he awoke, the missionary was lying on a cot covered in animal skins. He sat bolt upright and looked around. His shirt was gone and a damp cloth flopped off his forehead and into the dirt. He looked around the tent, disoriented for a moment. He was relieved to see the old man sitting near the fire.

"How long have I been out?" the missionary asked.

"Thirty minutes," the young boy said, appearing out of the darkness next to him.

The missionary tried to stand, but found himself wobbling before he made it half way up, and so collapsed back to the cot. "What happened?" he asked the boy.

The boy was silent for a moment, and looked to the old man for guidance. The old man nodded, and the boy began to explain. "You went out into the darkness. The forest would not let you pass. Had you gone into the trees, you would not have come out."

"Why is it so dark? It wasn't that late when I arrived."

"The evil abounds today. It is a dark day. We call it--"

"Shhhsh!" cried the old man. He said something sharp to the boy in the pidgin they'd used earlier, and the boy quieted down. "We do not speak the name," he said to the missionary in explanation.

"Well, what is it?" the missionary asked, feeling his curiosity peak. "Some kind of eclipse?"

"Demons." The old man reached behind him. "You must drink. Not safe until done." He offered the bowl again.

The missionary was no longer so sure of himself. He thought of ways to rationalize the darkness: eclipse, some weird mutation of time, and the end of the world all came into his mind, but none of these felt right. His mind was casting about for logic, but when it found none, it finally allowed itself to be drowned out by the gut feeling that was growing inside him.

"What happens if I don't drink it?" the missionary asked with trepidation.

"Protect you I cannot." The old man's eyes were becoming urgent. "Drink. Now. Before they come!"

The missionary felt naked, standing alone. Finally, he reached out for the bowl, and drank deeply and carelessly, letting rivers of the broth run down his face, onto his bare chest, and further down until it covered his pants. It tasted like he had imagined ichor to taste when he had heard the term as a child. It was thick, coating his throat and his skin like blood. He thought about what God would think of his actions, and for a moment he didn't care. He was scared, and nothing had provided him with the solace he required.

When he had finished it, he stood, as one stunned, for a moment. The bowl then fell from his hand, cracking on the dirt floor of the hut. A moment longer he stood, staring off into space, and then he crumpled to the ground, clutching his stomach.

"You will feel pain for a moment, but you will be well soon!" cried the old man. "No fight! Let it take you!"

The missionary barely heard those words. He felt as if he were dying, and feared that he had been given poison for some reason he could not fathom. He writhed on the floor for what seemed like an eternity, crying out. His words made no sense to him, and his thoughts ran mad. The noises of the night were magnified a thousandfold, and his heart beat faster and with greater irregularity. He shut his eyes against this world of darkness.

At some point, all the pain and noise stopped. When he realized this he was afraid to open his eyes, for fear of finding himself dead. Slowly, though, he opened his eyes. The fire was burning brightly, and he looked down to see his body still intact. The old man and the boy were sitting with their backs to him, near the fire. He rolled over, expecting his stomach to protest and twist, but it did no such thing; instead, he felt remarkably light and virile.

The missionary sat up, again half expecting pain and agony, but finding himself moving without protest. He gave himself a shove off the ground, and was shocked to find that his feet, blistered and painful as they were a scant hour ago, felt as good as the day he'd first used them to traverse his mother's living room. He wondered at this a moment, and then determined that it was time to find out more.

He stepped up behind the old man and the boy. He reached forward and grasped their shoulders, intending merely to get their attention. Both started at his touch, though, and stood and turned, quite taken aback.

The missionary caught a glint of fear in the boy's eye as he turned, but this was pushed out of his thought by something else: the boy had aged. He wasn't a child any longer, but his face was that of a twenty-year-old man. Concerned, he looked at the old man, and was even more shocked to see him looking back with the face of a mere thirty years.

"What voodoo is this?" asked the man, taking a step back. The other two were unmistakable as their previous incarnations, but something had definitely changed in each.

The old man moved forward first, smiling now. "You see true now. The spirit is not the shell."

The missionary contemplated this for a moment. Was he seeing the souls of these two people? No, it had to be some kind of hallucination from the drug he'd taken. Souls aren't visible, after all.

"I don't think I understand. What's going on?"

The boy stepped forward. "The plants make you see everything. Who people are, the way things live, and it will even show you the demons. If you can see them, they cannot get you."

"So we're back to demons again, huh?" The missionary was becoming tired of this. "Look, son," he stumbled over the word "son" while looking at the older face, "there are no demons out in the forest. There are no demons in here. The only demons are the ones we make ourselves. They tempt us and show us false paths, but they don't walk around like us."

The boy answered by simply pointing to the door.

For a moment, the missionary did not move. He had a feeling that he would see something he would never forget on the other side of the door, and it's possible that he was even more afraid of letting it in. He had seen much already, though, and he didn't think that anything else could be stranger or more dangerous. He made up his mind and swung open the door.

Outside, a strong wind blew. It seemed to howl through the trees, bearing branches and tearing at his hair. He was confused for a moment, watching the world move in odd patterns. The darkness moved in a disjointed manner, as if a group of bones had been re-animated by some insane puppeteer, and made to dance for his amusement.

As his eyes became more focused, more used to the darkness, though, he began to realize that the darkness was not a single entity, but many. The missionary began to count individuals, but their movement was so random and so fast that he lost count.

Finally, his eyes were able to bring into focus a single being. It was human from the neck down, though more hairy than most he had ever seen, but it was the face that startled him.

There was no simple human head, no expression on the face. The demon -- for this is what he decided the creatures were -- instead had what could only be described as the face of a mosquito. It's nose was so elongated that the entire face sloped to meet it, causing a distortion of the features and causing the missionary to wonder if the demons feasted upon what he expected them to feast on.

The demon he had focused on suddenly turned to him, and it's red eyes focused sharply on him. The missionary's hand slipped from the door, which fell open further, and he backed into the center of the hut, just in front of the fire. The demons gave a cacophonous cry, and rushed into the hut, milling around the three men, all with their backs to the fire.

Their dance continued for a long time, and the men kept their eyes on the throng. The missionary could feel his back roasting to a bright red and beginning to peel, but he realized that in a twisted way he was glad to be shirtless, because he was close enough that his clothes might have caught fire. The demons pressed closer and closer in their mad dance, but never close enough to force them into the fire.

At length, the fervor of the dance slowed, and the missionary was worried to see a path begin to form directly in front of him. Unsure whether he was supposed to flee along this path, or whether some new monster would make its appearance through it. His fears were quickly realized, though, for even as the dancing continued, a larger demon than the rest crouched low to enter the hovel, and stood erect inside, his yellow eyes blazing in the firelight. Upon his head was a wild mass of hair, and this streamed down his back and brushed the floor. It was tangled and angry, moving with a passion all its own.

The demon-king stepped down the path formed by the dancers, coming toward the men. Though the distance could not have been more than ten feet, it seemed to take several minutes before he stopped before the missionary.

The demon-king bent down, bringing his eyes to just above the missionary's. His gaze was intense, his breath fetid. The stench of blood was in the air. A long, thin tongue snaked out of his mouth, and the missionary had the unnerving feeling that the creature was licking its chops in preparation for a meal.

The fire burned hotter behind the missionary, as he thought about his life and work. He suddenly remembered how the old man had wanted "magic", and thought about his Bible, which was likely to be sitting next to his shirt where he had lain down. If nothing else, God's Word could repel demons, and if the old man wanted to call it "magic" then they could discuss the state of his soul later.

The missionary's mind was racing, trying to find a way to get to the book. In his peripheral vision, he saw that several of the demons had ceased their crazed dance and stood waiting, looking more hungry than he thought possible. He realized that if he could not reach the book, he would be devoured by these things.

The demon-king's eyes grew smaller for a moment, half-hidden behind heavy lids. He suddenly drew away, and the missionary knew that he was about to be struck. Suddenly, words leaped to his lips, and he cried out, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God! He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made!"

The demon-king shrank back, and the lesser demons around him began to howl in anger and fear. The missionary stepped forward, crying out, "In him was life, and the life was the light of men!" 

He could no longer feel the pain from the fire, and the room was brightening. He took another step toward the demon-king, and the lesser demons fled the hovel, trampling each other and tearing their own kind to exit the hut. The demon-king roared in defiance, and drew back a hand that the missionary knew would be brought down upon him, ending his life.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!" he shouted, bringing his hands before him, and pointing with defiance at the demon-king. The creature's eyes met his one final time, and dropped his arm in fear and pain. The monster was suddenly knocked from its feet, as if stricken by some great hand, and it howled in rage. The missionary took another step forward and pointed at the figure once more, preparing another verse, but the demon-king rolled away and disappeared through the door into the now-still night.

The missionary, his faith tested and justified, collapsed to the ground.

When he awoke the next morning, he was laying on a skin in the abandoned hovel. His back had been smeared with what must have been aloe, for it soothed the burns. His clothes were neatly folded next to him, but the Bible was nowhere to be found. He called out once for the old man and the boy, but knew they were now gone. The Bible was likely to be gone with them. He stood and dressed carefully, trying not to disturb his wounds, and began the slow, painful walk back to the road.

When the missionary received the letter in the mail, he didn't know what to make of it at first. He spent days pacing back and forth in his room, thinking of how to respond. Finally, he sat down with his Bible and read until an answer came to him.

The letter from his denomination's head office promised him all he had ever wanted. There was a little chapel in southern Mississippi waiting for him. The picture enclosed showed the white walls gleaming in the sunlight. In the corner of the photograph, part of a church picnic had been captured, and the ladies in their pink dresses hosting a bake sale made his heart ache for home.

But the letter he sealed and returned to the denomination was much different than the one he had planned to write just a year and a half ago.

My Fellow Preachers,

It's been two years here ministering to God's children. In that time, I've learned a lot, and been scared more than a few times. Your letter, at first, felt like a breath of fresh air given to me after a long time being smothered by responsibility and hard work.

It is with extreme regret, though, that I find I must decline the position offered. I no longer feel that the quiet life suits a man of God, or that Mrs. Smith's socials or Miss Peach's brownies are the culmination of God's Work. I would like, with your blessing, to stay where I am. I wish to minister to those who are afraid every day, who seek refuge from the bondage of superstition and the real powers of evil that lurk in their hearts. I wish to be beaten down again and again emotionally by men and women and even children who are starving and can see no way to better their short lives. I wish to understand the people here, and to relate the Word to their lives, not to relate their lives to the Word. 

Most importantly, I want to help protect the people. In this world, far from the comforts that we all know, there is only one shield that protects us all: our Faith. It is a shield I wish to carry for these people.

I don't need much to live out here; perhaps a tenth of the usual salary given to my brethren would do just fine. I do ask, though, that you consider the other nine-tenths a donation to the people, and instead of sending money, send food and medicine.

May the Lord bless you.


Content © 2003-2004, Michael J Dangler
Updated on 02/18/2004. Site Credits / Email Me!
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