The fierce heat awoke David. The flames that were consuming his flesh had already laid waste to the sparse, unkempt clothing that he wore, and blackened the wall against which his upper body was propped. Wave upon wave of unendurable pain ripped through him while his soundless screams cut through his shock and reverberated in his heat-befuddled brain. David had been sentenced to an earthly, fiery hell!
In a tiny, 238-square mile island rated by glossy travel magazines and picture-postcard brochures as one of the most beautiful places on earth, something sinister and inhuman stirred. Beneath captivating native smiles, and the allure of a tropical sun, sand and sin, carnivorous maggots squirmed in an orgiastic feeding frenzy. And the rotting-flesh stench of their feeding was masked by “simply beautiful” slogans and European and American-marketed commercials that sold perfection.
While government officials preached wealth-creation, sustainability, and entrepreneurship, businesses downplayed the notion of human capital to maximize profit, and the World Trade Organization regulated “Third World” preferential treatment in favor of American interests, what was left of our humanity was dying. Within the womb of that progressive death, the desecrated bones of an ancient Samaritan lay in mute testament to the influence of modern-day Pharisees.
The shock and pain galvanized David to his feet. Hungry flames were burning through the tissue of his epidermis, popping and shriveling blood vessels like they were paper. Terror filled his bulging eyes as his chaotic mind tried unsuccessfully to ascribe a reason to the cremation of his living body. Heat seared his lungs with each gasped intake of oxygen-starved air, reducing him to near delirium.
It was inevitable. The relentless march of time, tide, and technology had littered the path of their advance with philanthropic corpses. That advance accentuated the acquisition of material wealth, and introduced a cold cynicism and brutish behavior that stifled the noble yearnings of the heart. Everything and everyone had become suspect; every kind gesture, word, or smile was loaded with underlying motive to be meticulously researched, examined, and dissected.
Success—judged according to wealth, political power or influence, or other prestige—and the external manifestations of such success was the only goal. Many who couldn’t attain such heights lived in the shadow of it, becoming fawning, soulless eunuchs prostrating their consciences on the altar of servile opportunism. Many more descended into the dark, forbidding depths of animal savagery—unable to dredge up the false smiles and demeanor that no longer fulfilled everyday needs.
This was the myth that we lived; a myth that promulgated the siren song of Mammon. It was a myth that lured us—from the cradle to the grave—to the dark side of our nature; a myth thick with syrupy sweet promises that reneged on the deal and failed to deliver the world; a myth laden with open-legged, breathless favors from lost innocence in exchange for the latest fad or bauble; a myth that prowled the carnal carnage of our city’s streets in search of yet another soul!
The cacophony of furious sounds merged with the flashing images in David’s head to produce a sense of dazed immobility. And although his mouth was open in a silent scream, the self-imposed silence that ruled his world still maintained its iron grip. So his brain continued to scream the pain of his peril while the inferno devoured him. The uncompromising flames burned deeper into his skin until they reached the inner layer, the dermis, feeding on his body plasma and upsetting the electrolyte balance.
A thousand stiletto points of excruciation exploded repeatedly behind his scorched eyeballs and plunged him into further chaos, until suddenly, the same force that had earlier roused him to his feet and then deserted him, nudged him again. David lurched down the steps of the CDC apartment block that less than a half-minute ago had served as his bed. When he emerged onto the open road, one conscious, primitive thought surfaced above the roaring in his head—run. His weakened body responded sluggishly and he half-ran, half-staggered southward along Jeremie street in a hideously macabre dance of death.
Control, domination, power, wealth, influence—those had become the watchwords and the bane of our existence. Nothing else mattered. Politician, priest, talk-show host, entrepreneur, rich man, poor man—all reveled in the dream, anticipation, and expectation of the bedeviling illusion. And the higher gods looked upon our empty struggle and shared a mirthless, cosmic joke.
Does the word “vagrant” adequately describe the worth of a human being? Does the revulsion we feel at the sight of the homeless embody our own deep-rooted fear of destitution? Are we so cocooned in ruthless vanity that we have lost the ability to share our brother’s pain? Are we so steeped in the pursuit of ephemeral values that we are prepared to burn homeless people to death to maintain a soulless status quo?
David the “vagrant” was dying. He stumbled past once-familiar landmarks that his almost-sightless eyes and tortured mind no longer recognized. A great weariness had begun to settle upon him that produced a surreal quickening within. Lights were going off in his head, darkening whatever was left of his physical world and leaving only the pain that still claimed and chained him. Gravity was pulling at his useless body; a horrible apparition that its life force had already begun to desert. As his knees buckled and he fell full-length on the spittle-greased pavement, something of incredible wonder unfolded.
In this material-manic microcosm torn by religious, political, and class conflict, the soul of a nation waxed cold and cruel. In a decadent society where empty rhetoric passed for edifying eloquence; where it was easier to inflict hurt than be compassionately human; where mothers temporarily abandoned the welfare of their children for nocturnal revelry; where fathers routinely rejected their parental responsibility while initiating the mating ritual with another gullible mother-in-waiting—a nation was facing its own conflagration.
And yet, hope lives! It lives in the breast of a child who ignored her own pain in a hospital room to inquire about the welfare of her father. It flourishes in a mother’s rosary’d plea for grace that touched the life of an impressionable son. It courses through the lives of parents who swam and still swim against the tide of popular culture in raising their children. It nourishes the souls of everyday, ordinary people who choose not to live the myth—seeking instead the fulfillment of peace engendered by the ultimate gift of grace.
The darkness cleared from David’s head and the pain left his body. He was now able to see clearly the camaraderie that had existed between himself and his shipmates during his stint as a sailor. The poignant discovery that he was a mother’s son brought tears to his sightless eyes and gladness to his still-beating heart. He had a lover once…
Then those images, too, faded, replaced by a solitary male figure who seemed clothed in brilliant light—a light that was contained within him yet radiated outward to bathe David in its glow. An awareness of indescribable peace and acceptance engulfed him as he moved directly towards the source of the light. There was no longer any need to remain in that other place. David, a 21st century Lazarus, surrendered himself to this new existence.
Author’s note: In December, 2006, kerosene was poured on a homeless man while he slept on the steps of one of the CDC blocks of apartments in Castries. He was then set on fire. He died before help could get to him.