WHISPERS OF INNOCENCE
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Enoch stroked the kinky gray beard as if it were a treasured appendage, yet his squinted narrow eyes never departed from the note held tightly in his pale hands. A huff of stale air exited his chapped lips while he shook his head. He brought his hairy fingers together and entwined them like rope until his knuckles whitened. Enoch bowed, closed his eyes, and moved his mouth without uttering a sound.
Why must it be so hard, Lord? Can we not achieve Your purpose without the loss of our own? I will heed Your word, but please, not another fallen angel. Not so soon.
Except for the hum of the desk fan and the tap, tap, tap of the pull chain bouncing against the base of the brass lamp; the room remained silent. He straightened his shoulders and opened the curtain to the desolate landscape beyond the window of his sparsely furnished, white-painted office. The swiveled chair creaked and moaned as he leaned back; part from his weight, part from its many years serving as his favorite seat.
The shifting palette of twilight colors reflected against the thin clouds forming pink swirls and stationary waves across the desert sky. The silhouette of a majestic saguaro cactus stood guard over the serene shadows cast by the thorny vegetation capable of drawing sustenance from hard-packed caliche.
To his left, thirty yards from the community boundary, something streaked in and out between the arid plant life, followed close behind by a larger outline. Through the open screen window, a distant squeal signaled the end of the chase. A scraggly white pawed coyote appeared from behind a bundle of scrub brush. It paused for a moment and repositioned a kicking jackrabbit in its jaws as if it were an inanimate slab of meat of no consequence. Then it paced out of sight to reap the rewards of victory over those intended as fodder for the beast that roam His domain and harvest the weak for their own purpose.
A soft tap-tap sounded against the door. “Come in.” Enoch’s thoughts returned to the office as he greeted his second in command. “Yes, Joshua? Have our suspicions been confirmed?”
“Yes, Elder Prime, but it’s worse then your associates reported.”
“It’s not just one of their people.”
Enoch stared at his black shoe tapping against the tile floor. “Go ahead.”
Joshua hesitated, as if he feared the wrath that would surely burst from his senior once given the unexpected news. Finally, “The beast has again entered our midst and contaminated another of our flock.”
Enoch grabbed the edge of his desk and prepared for the name. “Go ahead. Who is it?”
Joshua moved backward two steps. “Abby.”
There was no explosion, no burst of strong words. Instead, Enoch remained motionless, except for the slight tremor in his forearms and the quivering of his beard. “No, not…Dear, God. Not little Abby. So much spirit, such promise.”
Joshua appeared confused, unsure how to respond. Enoch drug his large hands across his eyes and uttered a series of mumbled words. He worked his stubby tongue across his lips and, as if in a gesture of denial, he uncovered his face and demanded, “Are you absolutely sure of this, Joshua? We must be positive.”
The subordinate focused directly on Enoch’s pleading eyes, “Yes, Elder Prime. It’s been validated by chatter. Not one single voice of descent. There can be no mistake. It’s always unfortunate when the purging does not fully take and the gifted ones are not fully awakened. Maybe it’s a sign we should adjust our ritual, move away from the ascension and…”
“No! The gift is too important if we are to achieve His purpose. It has protected our flock from the wolves again and again. I will not let the unholy threaten our community like before.”
“Perhaps Abby was another carryover from the first generation. Something happened in that pod, but no records survived to pass on their history. She might have been one of the residual...”
“No. I have followed her progress from the moment of her indoctrination. Abby was a Freel but could not have been interrupted like the others. Something else interfered with her training, her awakening. We may never know. If the test returns her to the flock, she might help us understand more, but I refuse to toy with the gift, as if we did not trust His will.”
“As you wish Elder Prime. It’s just; there have been so many to go early.”
“I know, brother. Each one jabs another thorn in my heart, but it’s the cost we must bear to counter the devil’s repeated attempts to thwart our mission. We will prevail. Whatever it takes, we must prevail. Failure will doom the Children of God to the plague of evil spreading through His kingdom.”
Enoch’s posture shifted from empathy to determination. “The truth must be tested. Prepare the circle. We will lay witness after this eve’s prayers.”
“What about the viper outside our flock?”
“Have you contacted the clan responsible?”
With a mask edging on defiance, “They’re your associates, not…” The attempt to push back hovered between them. Enoch conveyed an expression of dominance to reestablish his supreme rule.
Joshua hesitated, as if pondering something, then capitulated to his master. “Yes. They say the traitor is on the run. Their sources report he’s seeking asylum with the unholy ones.”
Enoch frowned. “Has he given witness to us, to our operation?”
“No sir, not yet. He transitions to Washington tomorrow morning. I’ve asked – ”
“Asked? My God, man. You want them hounding us again. Call the clan head back now. Tell them everyone he’s come in contact with must be rectified, immediately.”
His second in command acted uncertain. No, it was as if the implications of the last order were more than he could stomach.
Enoch removed any doubt from the equation. “I understand your reluctance. I regret that our course may encompass the innocent, but nothing can deter us. The serpent must be flushed and beheaded. All touched by its tongue must be cleansed. There is no alternative. Now go, quickly, before it’s too late!”
Enoch returned his attention to the new darkness outside his window. The pock-marked moon dominated the horizon and formed a backdrop to the outline of the distant mountains. Your will is exact and hard, oh Lord, but we heed Your word.
He prayed for continued guidance until the wall clock chimed eight times. Elder Prime raised his head and took a deep breath. “It’s time.”
Enoch waited by the door of the community hall until evening prayers were offered, and then he made his way to the center of the expansive hall. “Thank you Elder Joshua for leading the service in my absence.” He scanned the circle of waiting eyes in those of his flock posed around the perimeter of the large room. Some were inquisitive for his next words, some confused by the rare event of their leader not participating in their daily ritual. He projected a strange visage; half smile, half sadness. “My apologies for missing our communion, my children. I was in solitude, searching for His guidance and the strength to do what must be done.”
Their expressions morphed. The young became confused, while the rest, especially the women, displayed apprehension. A few tried to tuck in behind the male at their side in the futile hope that doing so would offer a shield. It was as if they knew what came next, like watching the mechanical handle being turned ever so slowly on the side of a metal box waiting for the Jack to spring out and point directly at one of them.
Enoch tugged downward on the lapel of his black coat. “Our community is small, but blessed with His true word. Only we have been given the reward of Ecstasy’s Gate and the ensuing knowledge. With that gift comes enormous responsibility for each of us. Sometimes that burden can cause great pain and sorrow to our families. But we most protect the secret with our lives if His will is to be done. We can only be His shepherds and the extension of His way if we all work together, if we all are willing to sacrifice.”
He cleared his throat and pressed his hands together beneath his chin. One by one, Enoch studied each face in the room, searching for some sign, a chink in the mask the guilty use to cover misdeeds, or the intent to escape. “My children, we each know the consequences of abandoning our laws. There is only one path, and it is His divine guidance.” He shook his head, his voice quivered ever so slightly, and he sighed. “We again have a traitor in our flock.”
A wave of creaking sounds rippled around the room as the occupants shifted in their wooden chairs, broadcasting their reaction to his life and death proclamation. Some sat erect, some studied their simple shoes, while a few covered their eyes, jerked their heads and whimpered.
Enoch twitched his nose and inhaled the scent of change in the room. Like a coyote sniffing for a rabbit’s musk the moment before it decides to flee its hole, he nodded his head twice. “I know. I feel it, too. One of our own, turning against us, trying to destroy everything we’ve done. It cuts to my heart, but we have no choice. His will must be done. There is but one hope for this lost soul. Pray for her as she is tested. Beg forgiveness for straying from His path. Only His intervention can prove her spirit pure so she may return to our flock.”
He motioned toward the rear door, but no one moved. The figures standing at the edge of the light cast down the hallway pulled further back into the shadows. Enoch’s face burned, his eyes scorching through the reluctant expressions of the followers. He snorted like an antiquated buffalo and jammed his right foot hard against the floor. The men resisted, but were too cowardly to refuse their master. Finally, the pair led a young woman into the center of the hall. As they removed the hood from her black robe, the whimpering females in the room cried out.
“Silence!” Elder Prime stood eye to eye with the accused. “Child, you have broken our covenants, our trust.” His vision blurred and his voice cracked. “I feel as if the beast has reached up and slashed my throat. Why, Abby? What caused you to go astray? You knew our rules. You’ve been taught His will. If you were unhappy with your husband, we could have made arrangements. Any of us elders, including me, would have gladly absorbed you into his family. But to abandon our traditions, run into the lair of the unholy; you have spit on your vows to honor our elders, our men, our community. Now, for your violation, we have but one recourse. You must be tested for absolution. He will decide your fate.”
Enoch motioned to the two male guardians. “Disrobe her wickedness and present Abby to his test in the purity with which she came into His world.”
The guardians obeyed and exposed her nude form. Tears raced down her face and converged between her tiny breasts. Her eyes darted around the room, pleading for a savior, someone brave enough to end this insane nightmare, but no one stepped forward. Her sisters of the flock covered their faces and wept; her brothers clenched their fists, struggled in their chairs, then squeezed their eyelids shut.
“Secure her in the pit as each of us prays for His hand, a sign that her spirit has been purged of its sins.”
Again, they submitted to his command. She tried to resist, but it was useless; she was too small, too weak. They drug her trembling body across the floor as if it were something inanimate, of no consequence. While they tied Abby to the staked restraints in the floor of the foot-deep pit muffled sounds, like screams from a child, emanated from the gag around her mouth.
“Bring the swords of the Lord.”
Another Elder reentered the room bearing a large, roughly-woven gunny sack and extended it to Enoch. He held the cloth bag above his head and raised his eyes. “Lord, we beg you to show mercy for this child. Flush out the evil inside so she can once again return to our flock. We know Your will is hard, but it is just. Tell us Your intent. Give us a sign and provide her free passage from Your test, or take her soul into Your dominion now.”
He untied the bag and dumped its contents into the pit. The cries from the crowd deafened the hall. “Silence and do not look away! Witness His hand.”
Even through the gag, the blood curdling whine of a frightened soul dominated the background hum of the flock. Finally, He issued His verdict and even Enoch began to whimper. “Your will be served, oh Lord. May you find peace with your maker, Abby. Goodbye, my child.”