A man of reason faces his end.
|There is a time when all things must come to pass. A time when all the hopes of life must either bear fruit or wither. There is a time when the deepest fears, the most dreaded possibilities, must rear up their ugly heads and devour that which has conceived them. A time when all time has elapsed; when the ultimate moment comes ticking round upon the clock.
Tonight, this very moment, is mine.
Here I stand, trying to face it like a man. Trying to live this final moment with dignity intact, with pride untarnished. I know that I should quietly accept my just desserts, for they have come at my own behest. I am, as my tormentors shout to the gathered crowd, deserving of no more than this. This ending.
But not for the reasons they espouse. As they yank my wrists above my head and bind them with cruel cords somewhere painfully high up, my mind gnaws at my failures.
I have failed truth, allowed the reality borne of my senses to be bested by the fantasies of religious zealots. By right of superior arms, the truth is theirs to twist and distort as they see fit. For now. And so, I must pay for my failure. The world lies in dark ignorance, the masses bent-backed beneath the terrible weight of glorious theocracy, and I must surrender my own ray of light so that the light of their god might shine the brighter, and shroud them the more deeply.
The rough hemp ropes abrading my wrists, holding them tightly above my head, are no stronger fetters than those of their delusion. Though my mind tells me the truth, and the last self-delusion - that of my life’s perpetuity - is dissolved, I am at the mercy of my heart, which hammers fit to burst from my chest. I am slave to my bowels, which writhe so within me that I must clench tight my buttocks, squeeze together my thighs, in a desperate struggle to avoid soiling myself. I do not wish to die embarrassed, awash in my own malodor. After my awareness has departed my flesh and the muscles release of their own accord, is time enough for the stink to envelop me. Let those who cast my remains into the offal pit suffer that revulsion, not I.
Such visceral distress as I now suffer can only be instigated by that which, in my human arrogance, I claim marks me a sentient being: the certain knowledge of my impending ending. But now that it stares me in the eye, now that I can no longer live my tacit delusion of immortality, I wonder. What gazelle, feeling the jaws of the lion clamp down upon its leg, does not know that its death is at hand? What spider, threatened by a murderous broom, does not scramble for safety? Are not these fight-or-flight reactions, so similar to my own, evidence that fear exists within those inscrutable minds? Is not fear itself, then, common to all creatures from insect to mankind? Is this not proof of their knowledge of their own endings? How am I more aware than they?
Splinters pierce the soles of my bare feet as I try to relieve my shoulders from bearing my full weight. Reduced though it is by recent privation, it is still enough to convince me that my humeri will pop from their sockets. The crowd is growing larger; the entire city seems to have come to watch the show. I cannot truly blame them. There is little enough to distract them from the drudgery of their lives, here in our enllightened civilization. The sight of them, and the sound of their raucous jeers as they watch me squirm, remind me of how alone are human beings such as I. Beings who rely upon evidence in the world around them to form their opinions about its nature. Beings who rely upon their senses - their sense - to guide them.
The collection of senses that combine to assemble awareness, and the accumulated memories gleaned therewith, that organic, possibly illusory quantity which the zealots name my soul, clings to its fleshly residence with a tenacious desperation born of the knowledge that it is about to be torn loose and cast into the unknown void. The burden of the rational mind is that it sees through the comforting delusion of continued existence that allows one to function during one’s time of drawing breath. One functions by simply disregarding the fact of one’s eventual death. The delusion of a divine parent awaiting the last beat of one’s heart to welcome that cast-out spirit into some eternal paradise is one delusion too many.
The threshold of death is unknowable by those who have not yet crossed it. Once crossed, it becomes difficult to publish one’s notes. Despite my curiosity, the prospect of finally achieving the definitive answer is not enough to calm the fear. I cannot help but dread such an absolute unknown, such an irrevocable departure. The temptation to cry fealty to the god the clergymen tout is almost overwhelming.
But not quite. Not quite. And the priests babbling over my soul are cold comfort indeed. I resolve to enjoy the chill while I may.
The same clergymen who preach of their loving divinity and his Golden Rule are the first to turn the scarlet eye of hatred upon any who dare gainsay them. They vilify the academic, demonize the atheist, set the clamps and black iron jaws of the Inquisition upon the body of the empiricist. Like stones, they hurl shouts of “Witchcraft!” or “Heresy!” at any who disagree with their blind faith. Through the extortion of agony, the minions of the lamb seek a consensus of opinion, unanimous thought, homogenous belief. Too often, they succeed in breaking the will of truth, and shrieks of false confession, howled avowals forged with white-hot iron, echo through damp, stone dungeon passages.
My flesh is ravaged with dozens of crusted lacerations, a hundred oozing burns, a thousand contusions. My throat is raw from screaming. Through eyes narrowed to slits, I endure the brightness of the dawn sky, as the priests anoint my feet with oil, as if to sanctify my poor, damned soul. Had I saliva, and the breath with which to expel it from my cracked lips, I would spit upon them.
But I do not, and cannot.
The brand is tossed upon the heap of faggots at the base of the stake to which I am bound. Flames leap skyward, and despite my best efforts, my bowels release their blood-laced dysentery to run down my leg. The oil on my feet ignites, and my shrieks join the roar of the fire. The odor of burning flesh joins those of oil and shit and wood smoke for an instant, before the flash of heat burns out my nose hairs. My sense of smell is first to depart, but not before the odor of cooking meat stimulates my fast-departing sense of taste, and brings a last, poor dribble of saliva to my parched mouth. It is just enough to choke off my screams for the barest moment, and coughs rack my chest.
By the time the spasms pass and the screaming resumes, from what voice I am no longer sure - is it mine, or that of the spectacle-maddened crowd? - the flames have climbed my legs, boiling the shit from them. I err in looking down at them. The last sight these eyes behold is my own blackening, sizzling, blistering, bursting flesh. Then my threadbare tunic bursts into flame, and my face is scorched. My sight is the next sense to depart.
Then, my ears cease to function; my sense of hearing departs. I scream in silence, yet still, I scream.
I am immolated. My universe is neither rational nor divine. It is flame.
My tactile sense endures. I have theorized, when I was at leisure to do so, that such exquisite pain would at some point overwhelm the mind’s ability to experience it. I am dismayed to discover my error. The agony persists. Without hearing or vision or taste or smell, the nerves that run throughout my remaining flesh give me detailed information as they burn short like trails of gunpowder, toward the powder keg in my skull. My reason has long since departed, hot on the heels of my first four senses, but my awareness clings to its dying fundament, refusing to let mere agony chase it out into that daunting void.
Perhaps the priests were correct, after all. Perhaps this is Hell into which I have stumbled. Perhaps this agony will endure for eternity, and I shall exist henceforth within the infinity of my suffering. Perhaps there is some divine being, and He has a sense of humor. If so, then the jest is at my expense. Had I a voice, I might pay him homage.
I have always enjoyed a good joke.
Then the powder keg explodes. A bright flash, and darkness.
The void. The deep, black nothingness. The ultimate moment of my existence. Almost, I can perceive the answer. Reaching without limbs, straining toward nowhere from nowhere, sensing without senses that the answer is nearly comprehensible. Here is the knowledge, the truth to which all the striving creatures upon the face of the earth aspire. It is within my fingerless grasp, I am certain, brushing my consciousness, tickling my passion to know. There! I underst-