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unknown

an unwitnessed life

By Randy Wayne Jellison-KnockPublished 3 years ago 8 min read

we are the ones who never were

who simply cease to be

who leave no footprints in the sand

nor part a tender breeze

we make no wave nor ripple

as we dive & swim the sea

we are the ones who never were

who simply cease to be

& no one sees the footprints fade

nor hears a whisper

feels the breeze

when those of us who never were

simply cease to be

~~~the gathering~~~

no one remembers how it began. truth is, i don’t think anyone ever really knew. but one day the afternoon sky turned black, the rumbling of thunder shook the earth, & most of the world died, some in flashes of light & fire, others in dark despair. some fought, never quite sure for what they were fighting. others foraged, hid themselves, defended & killed. we fled.

there are rumors of a place called sanctuary, high atop a mountain, where the sun still shines & the rains still fall, where the grass is yet green & you can always smell fresh bread baking. a place where the only scent of smoke means it’s time to clean the oven. at the foot of this supposed mountain is where we gather & camp, waiting to make the ascent together. here we can take a breath, rest for awhile & make merry. nights are spent around the fire singing songs & telling stories. we cannot yet see the moon or stars & the sound of gunfire remains an intermittent constant in the distance, but we are here, at the foot of hope, where things of faith yearn to become real.

i have led them here, sent out the word for others to gather, & quietly tried to keep them safe. yet all that matters to me now is that maram is here, still wearing the heart-shaped locket with which I had first seen her while bathing at the lake. at the time she was holding the locket open, staring at its contents, & completely naked. & she was crying. i hadn’t noticed that i had been staring until she closed the locket in her hands, emerged from the water, dressed herself (still drenched), & began walking toward me.

embarrassed, i had quickly lowered my eyes. she said something about hoping she could find people who knew of a safe place to go in this barren wasteland, people with whom she might join. i had walked with her back to the group i was leading. we never said another word to one another. i never asked about the locket, never saw what was inside, nor why she had been crying. she was the most beautiful anyone or anything i had ever seen, & i found that, when i was with her, i simply could not speak.

no one else seemed to have that problem. she made friends quickly. all the children wanted to play with her. any baby held in her arms was soon comforted & sound asleep. she joined in to help wherever she could, whether pitching tents, gathering tinder & wood for the fire, or making the evening meal. everyone loved her. she lightened the mood.

i was the only one who seemed awestruck. i had even forgotten to fill my canteens with what had been the first fresh water i had seen in weeks. no matter. all that we needed do now was follow the stream which fed the lake & we would find sanctuary. i knew we were near. at least that’s what I had hoped.

& now we are here, ready to begin the climb. but people have begun falling ill—i have fallen ill—& will not be able to make it. still, we understand that those who are well need to begin their ascent, & so, in the morning, they do.

i watch them from my makeshift cot as they walk by. some cannot bear to look in our direction but keep their eyes glued to the trail they must now climb. others do, slightly raising a hand or giving a nod, eyes intermingled with hope & worry. i see maram, clutching what i presume is her locket to her chest, its chain draping over her hands as if they are rosary beads. she does not look. her head is bowed, eyes moistly closed, desperate in prayer.

the column moves slowly, haltingly. no one seems quite sure. people bump into one another & stumble. i hear a low muttering, complaints beginning to rise. a baby cries, it’s mother unable to comfort, it’s father powerless to help. & a thought begins to awaken within me, filling me with rising urgency.

they will not make it without me.

i spring from my cot with surprising ease & begin to run up the path past them toward the front of the line. i find myself leaping from stone to stone…. perhaps i am no longer sick. is it possible? could i be suddenly well? i think to myself that i’ve never felt better…, no nausea, no pain….

until I begin to really see the people by my side, in front of & behind me. they are not looking at me. they do not see me. they are not encouraged & they are not following me.

were they ever?

i stop & look down upon my arms & hands. the flesh is rotting away, nothing but leprous & open wounds. i cannot move & i cannot look away.

~~~at the end of the climb~~~

as i stare at my hands, something changes. dark & terror begin to fade into a murky daylight, decay into a kind of translucent whole. i am sitting in a pew, hard & wooden, at the back of what once was the worship space of a small church. if this was sanctuary, it had not been spared. through gaping holes & the shattered windows i see smoke still rising from the rubble. debris & dust are everywhere. the air is hot, heavy & thick. i wonder how i can breathe, why i am not sneezing or coughing.

at the front of the church is a priest. i watch as he goes about his chores, sweeping the floor, dusting & setting the altar straight, checking the wicks of wasted candles, placing ragged hymnals back in their broken racks. he works slowly but steadily, restoring what order he can, tidying wherever possible. he is diligent with this never-ending busywork. & through his efforts the dust is stirred, only to settle back where it will remain. he does not seem to notice me, a stranger out of nowhere, sitting in this lonely pew.

a small child makes her way over the rubble of the broken wall. she hesitates for a moment, her hands still supporting her as she crawls headfirst over the last of the stones. she looks up cautiously toward the priest, making sure it’s okay. he smiles to her, sits down on a chair i had not noticed before, & beckons. she moves toward him haltingly, unsure, as though with a question she is afraid to ask.

“are you going to leave us?”

he holds out his arms & she rushes into them. “i’m not going anywhere.” those are the only words he speaks as they hold one another. his eyes are closed in a smile that is both exhausted & at peace. a single tear trickles down his cheek leaving its trail through the dust. i have no idea how long i have been watching them. it could have been moments. it seems an eternity.

“who are they?” mamar asks. from where had she come? somehow she had entered this crumbling room & sat down beside me without my notice. she clutches something i cannot see to her breast. is it the heart-shaped locket she seemed never to be without? i try to play cool, but she had startled me, shattering for me this small eternity of grace.

“i don’t know,” i reply. then i decide to wax pathetic, doing my best to hide all the self-pity with which my words drip. “they’re no one, from nowhere, just like you & me…” i add her to the poetry as part of my disguise. mamar was to me the furthest thing from being no one from nowhere. she had become everything. she mattered to everyone. i sit there motionless, frozen in place, staring forward at nothing in particular, my eyes unfocused, & i continue, “…rarely seen, barely noticed, of little consequence to anyone anywhere…,

...just like me.”

there is a lengthy silence. had she noticed the shift, the drop of my disguise?

“what do you mean, just like you?”

“exactly that,” i pronounce with a tired sense of finality, almost like a judge handing down their verdict following a tedious & pointless trial. we both fall silent again.

“i have always seen you,” she says, as though in answer to a complaint never spoken aloud. “i have always seen you, longed for you, ever since that first day. you were so kind & patient—so good with me. but once we got to the camp you said nothing. you wouldn’t even look to me, as though you never saw me again.”

I can feel her eyes, boring through whatever façade I still maintain, penetrating the depths of what little is left inside of me. she fiddles anxiously with the locket among her fingers.

i squeeze my eyes shut, my head falling forward & down. it has been so long since i have felt the sting of tears, their trickling wet over my cheeks. “you are practically all that i have seen,” i begin with trembling, though relieved with the opportunity at last to speak my heart, “or heard, or thought about since that day. you have been my only light since the world went dark, my only hope, &…,” i can barely breathe this last, “…my only desire.” i swallow hard before speaking again—“but i was not enough. i could not compete with the others for your attention…, i couldn’t…, i just...”

i wait for her reply, but nothing comes. i rub the tears from my eyes & cheeks, the snot from my nose, & glance about me. no one is there. no child. no priest. no maram. just that locket setting where she had been just moments before, & me with my thoughts in the back pew of what little remains of a broken church. i wonder about the others, our companions on the way…, where are they…, if they…

i wonder about the locket, what secrets it holds inside, what it was she had treasured so dearly, & why she had left it behind only now. did she mean it for me? but i cannot bring myself to reach for it, much less to touch, to hold & open it.

the sun is setting, casting shafts of light through shards of stained-glass up toward the ceiling. i wonder what it would be like to be at the end of one of those tunnels of light. would it be like looking upon maram? my companions on the road? this frightened child? this tender priest? peace? sanctuary? grace? & now i begin to wonder if i have ever seen light--whether now or before--or if I ever will.

i think for a moment that i hear the distant sound of dixieland jazz playing “o when the saints,” as in days of yore on the streets of new orleans. but there is nothing. only a memory & the hollow sound of wind rushing over cobblestone, debris, & through these broken, deserted buildings.

as the sun slips beneath the horizon, the tunnels of light through which i cannot see begin to disappear. darkness descends, filling this shattered sanctuary, even as i feel myself slipping away, my eyes closing, breath fading…

we are the ones who never were…

…& only the locket remains.

Short Story

About the Creator

Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock

Retired Ordained Elder in The United Methodist Church having served for a total of 30 years in Missouri, South Dakota & Kansas.

Born in Watertown, SD on 9/26/1959. Married to Sandra Jellison-Knock on 1/24/1986. One son, Keenan, deceased.

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Comments (4)

  • The Invisible Writer3 months ago

    This left me with so many questions so much more I wanted to know. Great story

  • L.C. Schäfer4 months ago

    This is so haunting, definitely has a dreamlike quality. I want to know more, in the best way. I want to know who she is and what's in the locket, what happened to everyone, did he die, was there sanctuary, did the world end...

  • Grz Colmabout a year ago

    I was going to ask, Randy, was this for a past challenge but you’ve answered below that it is from a dream!! It’s very enigmatic! 😃 Thanks also to Anneliese for sharing it with us.

  • Testabout a year ago

    This is so amazing and surreal and dreamlike, and very deep. We read it a couple weeks ago, but we wanted to think about it a bit. Is it all a dream, the afterlife, some sort of limbo... beautifully unclear, which is why we love this so much. There is a sense of hopelessness and inevitability, and such real humanity in his desire for Mamar. Really exquisite writing💙Anneliese PS we referenced this story in Ephemeral Beauties

Randy Wayne Jellison-KnockWritten by Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock

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