An innocent man learns the secret of death.
The Great Secret
Jack Finch buttoned the top button of his prison shirt, then ran his fingers through his thick black hair. He had a face like a broken rock, all ragged edges and rough plains, softened only by an old tangle of neglected beard. He was a tall man, possessing a thick, muscular body - a swimmer's body with light mahogany skin, wide lips, and a flat nose that dominated his face.
He stared down at his large hands, and spoke to himself, Well, today’s the day, Jacko. Today you get to learn the Great Secret. He laughed weakly at his joke, but the warmth quickly melted away. His hands felt cold and numb and his sickly smile slipped from his face with the realization of how this day would end. Too bad you gotta die to do it though...
His words stung him as though he had been slapped. Jack had always wondered how he would feel when they finally told him it was his last day to live. Now his body was tense and restless, eager to just get the whole damn thing over with.
The waiting was the hardest part.
Jack had lived on death row for seven years. He was ripped from his rich comfortable life of casual evening strolls through the park - a life full of promise and great things to come - and then thrown into the deepest trench of night and absolute ruin. Waiting was his life, it was all he knew - and it had taken so long, he was weary to death.
Just when he thought he had mastered patience - just when he had conquered his fear - the order came down to carry out his sentence. Everything he had painstakingly learned now meant nothing.
But the wait was still unbearable.
A gathering of footsteps and shuffling shoes pulled him from his thoughts. Then the footsteps slowed and stopped in front of his cell.
Jack was ready.
At that moment, he felt he had rallied enough courage to stand without his legs quaking, but when the door opened, a priest shuffled in to give the Last Rites.
Jack glared at him and spoke as stoutly as his courage would allowed. “What do you want, priest? I don’t need your kind!"
The old clergyman looked stunned. "It is the right of every condemned prisoner to..."
"To what? Die in peace? God has failed me, priest," Jack said angrily. "Justice has failed me. The only thing I want is for the waiting to end."
“Death is but a transition, my son.”
“Oh, yeah? How would you know?" Jack said, and burst out laughing at the perplexed man. "You and yours," he continued. "I abhor how you've misrepresented Death for so long. As far as I'm concerned, your views are pretty one-sided.”
“Our view has been the same for hundreds of years. It is the teachings of Jesus Christ - it is the faith learned from those teachings.”
“No!" Jack shouted. "You have concealed the truth! You have kept the Secret from us. To this day, there is not a living tongue on earth that knows the truth, yet, the mountains know it! The sky knows it! Everything seems to know it but Man! Why is that, father? What is to be gained from your deceit?”
The priest sighed heavily. “It builds faith.”
“Faith?” Jack spit the word. “The bones of the faithful cry out from the earth!”
He took a deep breath, released it, and tried to calm himself. “I'm sorry, father. It’s just that I have come to realize that this shell, this husk of a body, must first be discarded in order for me to escape my present situation. It is a concept that I’m still trying to get used to. My only regret is that there was a time when I did follow your teachings. Like the day I stopped to help a fellow human being in need - and for that, I was falsely accused of a crime I didn’t commit. Where is the teaching in that, father? What possible explanation could you have for that?”
“God works in mysterious ways, my son. If you believe . . .”
“Stop! Please...don’t insult my intelligence with further attempts to hide the truth. I'm an educated man. I was a doctor once, before...all this. All I ever wanted was to help my fellow man. The only truth in this case is that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time - God had nothing to do with it!”
He rubbed his face with his hands trying to wipe away his desperation. “It’s just...one of those things, right?”
The priest shook his head as a yawn stretched his mouth. “Will you pray with me then...Jack Finch.”
“No!” He paused for a moment, controlling his anger, and then in a softer voice said, “No, father, I will not pray with you. I have prayed for seven long years and my voice was never heard. No, the time for prayer is over. I will not pray for forgiveness for something I didn’t do.” Jack lowered his head. “It is time for you to go now, father. Please...just leave.”
“May God be with you, Jack Finch,” the priest said, turned, and knocked at the cell door.
“God be with you too, father, when it's your turn to learn the Great Secret.”
The guard opened the door and the priest scurried away with a flummoxed expression - his footsteps echoed down the hall.
In the hours before dawn, Death Row came to life.
As the guards approached, the prisoners jeered and scoffed at their keepers as they walked by. To Jack it was like the noise of little children who simply had forgotten the knowledge of the Great Secret. Against the growing din, he clenched his teeth until his jaw ached.
This is it.
There was the rattle and cling of metal against metal and Jack’s cell door was thrown back. With all the courage he could muster, he stood and met them face to face. But the guards refused to meet his gaze. It was bad luck to look into the eyes of someone about to die.
Even if they did not perceive themselves as such, Jack knew them for what they really were, not guards at all, but guardians - guardians of the Great Secret. He bowed deeply to them, showing respect for their position. And they in turn looked back at him curiously.
They shackled his feet and hands, then led him from his cell. The big guard lightly placed a hand on Jack’s chest and held him there while the cell door was closed and locked. Then, in a clear voice, the broad-shouldered man called out, “Dead man walking!”
The gloom in the poorly lit cell block hung thick and silent - like the eye of a hurricane. The guard removed his hand and motioned forward.
Suddenly, Jack felt a wave of calm wash over him. It filled him with a peace he had never known before. The thought came to him then, to stand alone against all adversity is the most sacred moment of life.
The feeling stayed with him, walked at his side bolstering his courage. He was barely conscious of the walk to the light gray room at the end of the hall, the cinching of the restraints, or even the prick of the lethal injection. He floated within a cocoon of warmth and love.
Suddenly, his body fell into spasm, then went limp.
The Secret was slowly revealed to him. There were no words in all the world to describe it.