The light at the end of the tunnel, that luminescent spot in the distance, my only sense of hope in the darkness. Rusty old metal, that smell rising from the junk around me. Traversing the path had always been my greatest challenge, not that I was alone. We all travel toward the light, some faster, some slower. The other day I saw a young boy, caught underneath an old tractor tire, the rubber cracked and split with age. I tried to help him, but what could I do? One man. One lone traveller in the dark. What hope could I offer him?
Back when I had my torch, things were a bit better, but what did I know then? So young, so alive, so… in control. Not really, but I thought I was the king of the world. Everyone wants to be a hero. Everyone wants to make a difference, not just blend in with the great throng in that zombie-like trudge. The light was closer now, now that my torch was gone. Oh yes, I still carried it with that faint hope that I might find some power source in this junk-heaped tunnel. Though I had a light back then, I travelled slower, knowing the batteries wouldn’t last. I searched the wreckage continually, scanning it with my eyes, but found nothing. The only batteries out here were all rusted and corroded, exploded out like some sick-pussy soar. The only light that bathed me now was that soft glow from beyond, that soft glow that we all reached for.
Not everyone makes it, of that I am sure. I’d already seen too many people lost, broken, fallen, no more hope to go on. I wanted to give them that hope, but what did I know about hope? How could I help them as a lonely traveller myself, accompanied by nothing but an empty torch and the darkness.
I’ll never forget that day, the day that the old man came and sat with me. I had managed to build a fire for once. Too much of the fuel in this place was damp or destroyed, and scavenging the good stuff would take more time out of the journey, that precious journey toward the light. A couple pieces of charcoal, some old books and pieces of the shelf they sat on provided some light, warmth, comfort. That one lone match sitting in the crusty old box took some time to light, but finally a small glow licked at the books, tiny tongues of fire arguing with each other as they journeyed between the pages.
Mostly people left each other alone on this road, for what could we offer that the other didn’t already have: some dead batteries, an empty torch casing? The old man was brave though, different. His presence formed in the distant glow of the fire, and grabbing an old rotten bench, he sat with me. I wasn’t sure what was more surprising, the fact that he sat there, or that such a precariously slapped together collection of wood held the man up. None of us were that heavy, winter fat being burned off with all that walking… and not much to eat either. Still, that old stool wouldn’t have held me up, I’m sure of that, so sure I wouldn’t have even tried it.
We sat in silence, me staring perplexed, and him lost in the light of the flames. There was something different about this man, strange even. He came to sit with me, sat on a stool – that by all rights should have disintegrated with a touch – and said nothing. Any and all of these were reason enough to think him strange, but there was more to him than that. He didn’t seem like just another idle wanderer. He had a look about him: that look we all wanted. His eyes sparkled as the orange flames bounced off of them, but their intensity was greater than that. They sparkled with hope. I imagined what his story could be. Has he been there are back again? I thought. Has he seen the light? But no, it couldn’t be. No one has seen the light and returned. Why would they? Only an idiot would leave the Heavenly light we all reached for and come back to this dark, lonely road.
As I sat there pondering this man, he reached behind him and produced a small metal disk. I had not seen it before, or maybe I’d seen it but just hadn’t noticed. The old man wore a similar disk on his head, a crudely fashioned circlet. He didn’t tell me, but it’s significance was undeniable. Somehow I knew, though I can’t tell you how. The metal disk encircled his head like a helmet. How much protection it provided, I didn’t know, but it seemed to be enough. Is that what gives him such hope? Has this helmet saved him in the past? He didn’t answer my questions, but I didn’t really ask them, so what did I expect?
Holding the helmet out to me, he spoke. “You cannot go it alone.” the words sounded distant and his eyes remained transfixed on the flames. “This helmet will be your salvation.”
“Salvation from what?” That was the question I chose to ask, though so many more were swirling around that space between my ears, bouncing, ricocheting, and toying with each other.
“Everything.” That was the response that he chose, though it wouldn’t have been my choice. Did such a simple word answer my question or just fuel my quizzical mind.
I chose to ask the question in a different way, hoping to receive more of an answer. “What do I need salvation from?”
“Everything,” that same reply came. My questions were getting nowhere, and I thought he was going to stop there, but then he turned to me, though his eyes remained at a distance. Like looking at me from a different plane of existence, he continued. “Salvation from… this place. Salvation from… the darkness.” As he spoke the words, a bright light flashed in my mind and I closed my eyes to shield them from the blinding pain. The image lasted but a moment, a moment enough for me to see it. That place beyond, the light in the distance, it was real. I didn’t recognize what I had seen nor could I tell you what it was like. That brief scene flashed in my mind like a skipping record and I was dying to take the needle from the vinyl, ending the cacophonous images, or re-set it, playing the whole scene through the way it was intended.
“I cannot make the choice for you, but I can give you the choice. Walk as a lonely traveller, or walk in the light.” With those words he left, as quickly as he had come. I sat there staring stupidly at the metal circlet he had placed on the ground before me. The man was completely crazy! What could a little metal band do for me? My curiosity at his words caused me to reach toward the thing, and as I grasped it, I saw that image once again. The bright light was all I saw, but it was enough. With bated excitement, I placed the band atop my head. Suddenly my mind was filled with intense light, so intense I couldn’t stand it. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, travelling in it for so long that I hardly knew what light looked like any more.
Like coming out of a dark cave I stood there, shielding my eyes from the pain. My fire looked like a poor-man’s attempt at survival as the light spread from my circlet of illumination, cascading in waves around me like a sea of glory. I saw the junk strewn out for miles all around, old car part, furniture, construction equipment. This was the junk yard of junk yards, and there was no crane to help keep things organized or sane. Piles and piles of trash were everywhere, and I saw people, lots of people, lost people struggling through the garbage.
There was but one path toward the light, that one path that I had never seen. Paving a way through the junk, a single-file strand of people marched like a string of survivors in this mess of wanderers. Everyone in the line had a circlet on their head, and the heads of those in the waste were as naked as their sense of direction: raw, unkept, unmanageable. Jumping to my feet, I ran for the one true path and was so excited when my feet hit the cool, but rough pavement. Finally I would reach the light. I now knew the way, no longer stumbling in the dark like a blind traveller. That circlet atop my head had given me hope: hope of salvation. It had shown me the path, the one path, leading toward the light.
I remember those days when I first entered the tunnel: those first days when I thought I was on top of the world with that tin canister of light in my hand. Once the batteries died, reality kicked in and I was as lost as the rest of the lonely travellers. Thinking back now, I see how silly I was. The small beam of light that torch provided has nothing in comparison to the ever-present illumination erupting from my helmet like a volcano shooting giant balls of light.
That hope of salvation spurred me on. It got me excited for what was to come, what lay beyond the light. However, the longer I travelled, the more I looked all about me and saw the wanderers. I knew what it was like to be them. I knew what it was like to travel in the dark: hopeless, helpless, alone. I wanted to scream “Over here! This is the way!” but they couldn’t hear, and even if they could, would they listen? So many travelled through the junk, and many thought they knew the way. Some people gathered together, led by one or another claiming to know the way; but they scurried around, zigging and zagging through the junk in a desperate attempt to pave their own way to the light. I had been in one of those groups for a time, but eventually decided to go it alone again. They didn’t know any more how to get to the light than I did. That’s what I thought then, but I knew it now. I saw them scurrying around like ants searching for food: the blind leading the blind. If only they knew there was a way. If only they would listen, but I wouldn’t seem any different than those other false leaders showing their people the way… another way into more darkness. Whatever the cost, I had to try.
Stepping from the path, I began picking my way through the junk once again. I was amazed at how dirty I felt and how slow I travelled. Trudging through the junk-piles wasn’t easy, but how else would I share the news? I spoke with everyone that I passed, but I wasn’t surprised by their response… or the lack thereof. Many travellers before me had spoken of the “one true way” so why should I be any different than them? Couldn’t they understand? Couldn’t they see the helmet atop my head: the key to salvation? I had been in the light so long, I had almost forgotten how dark it was without it. Of course they couldn’t see.
One day all of that changed. No more did everyone ignore, but that one man, he listened. As he listened, a strange thing happened. No longer did I have one circlet, but two. I often wave my hands around when I talk, punctuating my words with actions. My emotions were on a high, naturally, as I spoke about the “one true path.” It was so clear to me, and I was over-joyed that someone would finally listen to me. As my hands bounced about during my explanation, another circlet appeared in them and I handed it to the man. He took it with some hesitation, but finally was convinced. If my words hadn’t convinced him, the helmet certainly did. I could tell by the smile cracking open his face that he could now see the light, the path, the way. We celebrated together as I led him through the junk toward that long line of people heading for the light.
That’s when it happened. That’s when everything went wrong… just when it had started going right. In the excitement, my foot caught on a loose piece of junk. I couldn’t tell you which one, for all the junk looked the same to me: another discarded shoe, another broken lamp, another dilapidated couch, a busted in TV. Though it was inconsequential before, at least I could identify the difference in the junk when I wanted. As I fell, the circlet of illumination came off of my head. Like falling down a dark well or being sucked into a black hole, the world around me faded. I landed with a crash, cutting my head on something sharp – metal or glass, it really didn’t matter. I tried calling out to the man, but he couldn’t hear me. The darkness sucked up my words, but didn’t spit them out again. Everything faded: the light, the man, the path, the helmet. I began to search frantically among the wreckage for my lost headpiece, but what could I do, really? If only I had a light, but that was the whole problem, wasn’t it?
I searched for hours, days even, but turned up nothing. Maybe if I just walked ahead, wouldn’t I find the path? Wasn’t it right in front of me when I fell? Perhaps then, but not know. In my frantic search, I was completely turned around. I no more knew where the path was than I could find my helmet. The blood which ran in a slow trickle down my face was a reminder. A head wound, and no helmet to protect me.
I lay down in the junk and tears began to mix with the grease and sweat on my face. All was lost. I was finished. I could never find the path again. As I lay there, I felt like that little boy from so long ago, trapped under a giant tire. I couldn’t save myself, and no one around me could either. As I cried out to passers-by, they paid me no mind. Why would they? What could they give me that I didn’t already have? An empty metal torch and the darkness, that’s all they ever had, and that’s all that I had left.
I fell asleep, lying there damp and dirty, wondering if I would ever open my eyes again. Would my head-wound finish me during the night? Would it even matter? What hope could I have of salvation when shrouded in darkness? Closing my eyes didn’t change much. It was just as dark with them open, except that the soft glow of the light beyond didn’t torture me. At least this way I knew I was done.
I don’t know how long I laid there, wrestling halfway between sleep and death. I can’t tell you how it happened, but when I finally did wake, the pain was too great. That head-wound must have been too much because my head ached more that I thought possible. I tried to open my eyes, but as the lids lifted, shafts of incredible light slashed at them like a white-hot knife. Squinting with the pain, I tried to stand. Something wasn’t right… where was the darkness? Where was the junk? It took me some time to adjust to the light, but when I finally did, my heart almost jumped out of my chest with legs of its own. The vision, that little snippet that played over and over in my head… it was real! Someone had taken the needle and placed it at the beginning of the record, but it wasn’t me. I watched as the scene unfolded before me the way it was intended. Somehow I had reached the light: the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Welcome,” a voice called out from behind me… a voice that I recognized. Turning around I saw a face once foreign yet now recognizable, through still not familiar. Another image flashed through my mind. This man sat at a pitiful looking camp fire on a falling apart stool. Across from him, on the junk-covered ground sat… me.
“How…” I stuttered. “How did I get here?”
“Me,” he said simply. This man had never been big on speaking, even when I had first met him. Maybe asking the question a different way would help… thought I doubt it. It hadn’t helped before.
“Who brought me here?”
“Me,” he repeated as I expected, and then as a matter of explanation, he held out a small metal disk. “Remember this?”
I tried to take it from him, my hands shaking with excitement. He brushed me away and placed the metal band on my head. It felt so warm and comforting, like a long lost friend returning home.
“Why me?” I said, overjoyed. Had he come back for me? How did he know where I was? So many questions bounced around inside my head that I didn’t know which to ask first.
He responded simply, in his usual way. “The helmet. The helmet of salvation.”