Hope woke up in hell. There were no flames or screams like the priests had said, just cold hard rock and darkness. The kind of darkness that makes you see things.
“Where…?”, barely a whisper could escape her dry throat and cracked lips. Unsure where she was or why she was there Hope tried sitting up, the pain helped her find her voice.
“Aghhh!”, Hope screamed as she pulled her self up and leaned back against the rough stone. Pain and fear made her heart race. Hope forced herself to focus on the sound of her own labored breathing. As she sat there quietly breathing, Hope was reminded of a cistern she explored when she was younger. That cavern had filled her with wonder, this new one filled her with fear.
Unable to see anything in the pitch black, she gingerly explored the damage done to her body. The entire right side of her torso was tender to even the lightest touch. Hope fought back tears as she continued down past her tender hip and thigh to find a jagged bone piercing the skin just below the knee. Tears flowed freely now, breaking into sobs.
Death’s nostrils were filled with the smell of blood. His mouth watered, saliva dripping on to the ground. Excitedly he pawed the ground and let loose a wild howl. Death would eat tonight.
Leaning back against the cold wet cavern wall, Hope tried to remember. She remember kissing her father good bye as she left with the flock. This time of year the upper pastures provided the best grazing and only a day’s journey of camp. However the rainy season had been shorter this year than most. Hope remembered debating about what to do next. Not wanting to go back to her father for help she took the sheep further north, through the whispering valley to the foothills of Dividing mountains. The foothills were a place her father had warned her not to go. But her sister, Song… Hope suddenly remembered standing next to Song as the earth beneath her feet began to give way.
“Song! Song! Are you here?”, Hope shouted as loud as her aching chest would allow.
Feeling around in the pitch black Hope searched for her sister, her best friend, her joy, her Song. With each move of her leg Hope paid a steep price, but fear and love kept her moving. On the verge of giving up, Hope put her hand landed in a pool. It didn’t feel like water. Lifting her hand to her face Hope smelled blood. Tracing it back to a mound of hair and flesh. Hope began to crack and panic took over.
“NO! No No No No No. Song! Wake up!”
Desperate and forgetting about pain. She lunged forward to try and find her sister in the darkness. Instead she landed on an odd yet familiar lump of wool and cold flesh. Relieved and exhausted Hope laid her head on the poor dead sheep and cried.
Death fought to control himself as the scent grew stronger. A dark cave with slick rock was a dangerous place for a wolf to get a meal. But this was the way He liked it. Death was very hands on.
Hope opened her eyes and sunlight poured in from a rising sun. The sky above a finely woven tapestry of blues, whites, and golds. She found herself on the bank of a stream of crystal clear water. The tent across the bubbling stream took her breath away. It was her Family’s tent, the tent where she had been born, the tent where she had grown from a silly girl to mature young woman. But it wasn’t the tent itself that had taken her breath away, it was her mother tending the fire. Cooking rabbit dinner from the savory smell.
Hope realized that she was moving when her feet suddenly felt cold and wet as she stepped into the stream. In the middle of the stream with water at her knees, the wind shifted, the crystal clear water became murky, and the sun was suddenly gone, replaced by the waning moon. With her next step she plunged into water well over head, struggling back to the surface Hope gasped for breath. Desperate she called to her mother for help. But her mother was already walking back towards the tent, dinner in hand. Hope kept her eyes on the fading figure till she submerged again. Fighting against the water she clawed and kicked with all her might.
“Ahhhh!” with shooting pain woke Hope from one nightmare to another.
Laying back with tears in her eyes, Hope realized a bitter truth, seeing her mother in this place could only mean one thing, death was coming for her. The dead take care of the dead. That’s what the priest had told her at least. Hope wished for death to hurry up.
That’s when Life began to sing. She had been waiting patiently for this moment. The one when her spark was needed most.
“Remember, remember my dear
The promise of the shepherd
A promise a sure as the rising sun
Like the stars that lead you home
You will never be alone
The sun rises,
the river flows
And as surely as the grass grows
You will never be alone”
Hope heard Song’s voice as the words sliced through the air driving back the suffocating inner darkness. Reminding Hope of the promises her Father had given her.
That night her mother died was like this one, at first it seemed to have no end. But as the sky turned pink. Her father took her hand and said, “Never forget that morning always follows night”.
Years later again at first light, Hope prepared to take the flock by herself for the first time. She stood before her father trying not to look as nervous as she felt. Quietly he took her hand and pressed into it a final gift saying, “Keep this by your side. Together you will never be alone.”
Death was frustrated by the darkness and the cave, but his bloodlust would not go unsatiated. A misplaced paw sent him scratching and clawing at the floor as he slid down landing with a thud. Struggling to get up Death kept moving closer still.
Hope had imagined death would come for her in an angelic form, but the scratching and panting coming from somewhere in the darkness told her this was something more earthly, something a good shepherd was intimately familiar with, and Hope’s father had raised a good shepherd.
Using her last bit of strength Hope lifted the sheep carcass over her body. With her good arm she felt along her waist searching for the gift that her father had given her the first time she had taken the flock out by herself. Finding it she wrapped her hand around its hilt. The weight of the dead sheep started to suffocate her, if death didn’t hurry this sheep would do it’s work.
Hope never saw Death instead she smelled him. And then she felt him as he started to devour the sheep on top of her. The weight of the giant wolf forced more air out of her lungs causing Hope to see stars and hear flowing steams. Stealthily Hope brought Promise up and stabbed Death in the neck with it.
Death reared back in shock and pain, like he had been bitten by a snake. In the darkness he struggled to get away, but the bite had been true. Death bled out in the darkness.
Hope woke up in a world of white, white bed sheets, white blankets, white pillows, and bright white light shining through the window. On the night stand was Promise, her father’s gift, her most prized possession. Sleeping in the chair next to her bed was her sister Song. Hope was sure she was dreaming.
“Song…”, Hope’s throat was sore and dryer than a desert afternoon.
Her sister didn’t stir, but Hope felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned and looked into the face of a man overflowing with joy and love.
“You kept your promise.”
“Rest my child. I’m proud of you.” He said with a smile.