Old Man of Zion
By Andrew Budek-Schmeisser
The gathering dark was embracing Zion Canyon, as the last of the day tourists made their way back along the road. I was going in the wrong direction, and an old man called me on it.
“Them Paiutes didn’t go up there at night. They worshiped their wolf-god back in there.”
Yeah, right. That was a hundred and more years ago. It’s 2000 AD now, and I’m an engineer, and I ain’t worried about no stinkin’ wolf-god. “Well,” I said, “be that as it may, but I’m flying back to California tomorrow, and I promised myself I’d have a look at the Temple of Sinawava.”
The old man looked me in the eye. “You’re an idiot.”
“Thanks. A lot of people have told me that.”
He sighed. “Well, Lord says we gotta protect fools from they’s selves. I’ll go with you.”
He turned, and walked with me while I was trying to remember where in the Bible it said that fools have to be protected from their own stupidity. “You from around here?” I asked, to make conversation.
“Nope. Used to be. Live in Philly now.”
He went on, “When I was a kid, before this place got popular with you tourists,” he turned his head and spat ahead of my boots, “before then, we’d come up here. Had a pal, he went up at night.”
“What’s he say about it?”
“Dunno. He didn’t come back. Never found more than a piece of him, neither.”
“A piece?” The skin on my neck crawled. “A piece?”
Propelled by a hysterically morbid curiosity, I asked, “What piece did they, uh…recover?”
Okay, I thought. This is insane. This guy’s nuts.
“That’s when I decided to get outta here. Went to Philly, then joined the Army. Went to Korea.”
I had a friend who’d been in Viet Nam. “That must have been rough.”
“Zion got me ready for it.” He walked on in silence. Occasionally he stumbled, and I gave him an arm. He took it.
“Yeah,” he said. “Got back, went to school.”
“What’d you study?” I was on familiar ground now, and it was comforting, as the shadows grew deep around us. Far off down canyon I heard a truck start up, and then move off to the south. It sounded like in it’s mechanical heart it couldn’t wait to leave.
So much for first impressions, if that’s really the truth. “Freudian?” I asked.
“Freud was a pervert.”
We crossed to the west side of the road as the canyon turned, and the color drained fearfully from the sky. No birds sang.
“Coming up on it now.” The old man looked up at me. “Still want to go on?”
“No,” I said.
He laughed. “Good boy! Honest.” But he didn’t stop walking, and I stayed in step.
An amphitheater of rock opened to the left, more felt than seen, and there, bulking its shadow from the black ground, was the Temple. The Virgin River moved softly over its rocky bed, making low music.
“Come on.” My companion left the road’s verge, and led me across a still meadow, toward the dread mass of the Temple.
I can see it fine from here, I thought.
He turned, and said, “Well?”
“Coming.” It was like walking into a strong wind. I didn’t want to be here, not anymore.
We crossed the river, cold and clear and swift, and splashed through the grass, forward, forward. The rock edifice rose up over us, and my eyes were wide, trying to drink in all the ambient light I could. There were things moving at the edge of vision, and I swung my head to look.
“See something moving, didcha? That there’s autokinesis. See something moving, but it’s just your own eyes.”
“The stuff you’re afeard of, you ain’t gonna see.”
“Uh, okay. We’re here, right? We can leave now, I mean, I’ve seen it now, and really, thanks…”
There was nothing but the river, and high in the stratosphere, a jet, carrying normal people to bright-light cities. I wished I were among them.
“You hear it?”
“I, ah…don’t hear anything.”
“Shhh! It’s coming…”
My mouth was dry, and I could barely say, “What’s coming?”
The old man looked at me, and in the dim, dim light, I could see his smile, white and glowing. “Your honor, son. There’s one less thing in the world to be afeard of.”