he neighbourhood lay dormant, the families contained within shells of wood and stone, all at peace with the world around them in their rest. Herbert Chang, his eyes blurring the tiles of the ceiling into shapes of angels, devils, and visions of other worlds, lay awake in the sleeping bag that served as his bed. Knowing the state of those around him made him feel even worse because he knew that no matter what he did, he would find no rest in the place that had sapped him of life force. He didn't have anything to live for. His past failures were slowly driving his conscious mind from its acceptance of life in this world to a hunger to journey to the next.
His wallet lay on the floor next to him. A few twenties were his worldly wealth, his birth certificate his parent's only legacy of him. The events that brought him to a hard bed in a cold, dirty apartment were vivid and terrible as they played themselves over and over in his mind.
He thought of his parents, probably dead. They were working at a factory 10 hours a day while he was still in school and under pressure from them to achieve scholarships that his intelligence could not attain, he had run away two years ago. Their declarations of his academic failure served as the photo albums, birthday cards, and gifts that would have been the chronology of any normal teenager's childhood had they not been at work in a factory 10 hours a day and too tired to spend time with him.
No one would offer a gutter-born, gutter-bred, immigrant child a chance of decent employment, so Herbert found work under the sheltering canopy of the church, as part of a branch of charity towards the mentally ill. He was loath to waste his wages on even the necessities, squandering them instead on alcohol. When he showed up for work drunk, he had been fired. He had been left with nothing except himself. That would have to suffice.
Rage turned to despair, despair to acceptance of the fact that he was nothing and would amount to nothing. Sometimes he heard voices, voices telling him that he had a purpose and that there would come a time when he would have to fulfill it. The voices, deep and monolithic, reminded him of the church choir in which he sang as a child, staring into the heights of the Cathedral at the painting of Divinity. The lice-filled robes he wore as he sung had seemed miles away from the images of the white-robed prophets, saints and martyrs. Then there was a road that he thought he could follow to betterment. Now no road guided him. The route up the street to the houses of the wealthy, while only three miles away, seemed as remote as paradise.
Herbert found himself up and walking out the back door towards the public pool down the street. It was long closed, but he could easily slip behind the fence and into the cool water. His bare feet made intricate patterns in the dirt as he walked. They reminded him of mosaics. The artist in him admired the primitive beauty. Life seemed to hold very little of it. He slipped into the water, but the cold caught him by surprise. It was as if a force with superhuman strength was squeezing the life out of him. His head sank below the surface. The lights from the surrounding buildings made his underwater surroundings seem otherworldly. His hands flailed, tormented by the silver streams of bubbles rising towards salvation and the surface. Then they closed on warm flesh. Without questioning, he grasped the hands and hauled, choking and gasping, onto the cold concrete by the pool's edge.
As his eyes snapped open, he was surprised to see that his rescuer was a young girl who matched his small stature. She was wearing a white silk shift. Not a drop of water had touched her during her efforts. She looked into his eyes, smiling.
"I am called Pistis Sophia." There was a coldness in her voice that made him avert his eyes from the murky depths of the pool to meet her gaze. She towered above him, golden and glowing. The moon haloed her head, and behind her, he thought he could see feathery wings, waving. He was suddenly overwhelmingly afraid, because she was so overwhelmingly familiar.
"Have I seen you before?"
"I set you on your journey to this spot, Lao Tzu." Her blue eyes had a quality he could not mistake. In that moment he knew they were the same eyes of the man in the liquor store who sold him the alcohol that ruined his life, the same eyes of the girl who had taunted him at school to the point where he considered suicide his only escape.
"How do you know my Chinese name?"
"Names are everything. Your name means martyr. Do you believe?"
"In God?"
"That will do. There are people, Lao Tzu, whose benevolence never ceases to please its recipients. You are not a recipient of these people's goodwill. They laugh at you. They laugh at your stagnation, at your failure, at your misery, because they have never experienced it. There is a particular woman I want you to find for me. Her name is Charlene Mink. She is one of those people. She is evil. She must suffer for it. You will die a martyr because, when her eternal suffering begins, your worldly suffering will end."
"Are you the angel of death?" The question, he knew, was stupid, but her disposition evoked the myths of his youth.
"No. For you I am an angel of life, for I bring you the gift of the life you always wanted. I told you my name: Pistis Sophia. I was the one who put the serpent in the garden. But I was under orders, as you are now."
And in that moment Herbert knew that he was indeed under orders. The orders were the same orders that the voices gave him as he toiled through the desolation that was his existence. But these orders would free him, free him like a lamb going to the slaughterhouse would be freed once it broke the cycle of misery that the machinations beyond the door caused. He too would break the cycle, the cycle of oppression and stagnation that the machinations of the world's slaughterhouse brought upon him through its condescension. He was under celestial orders, orders that would carry him through to the martyrdom that would be his redemption.
Note: A real person exists, called Herbert Cheong, however, as opposed to Herbert Chang. The names were altered in this work. As a result of mental illness he was given a sentence of 20 years in prison for pushing Charlene Minkowski in front of a subway train where she died.
© 2003 The Richmond Hill Public Library Board