“Just twenty steps,” Hester whispered to herself. She looked up. Before her lay a frail, narrow bridge that connected two mountain faces, below her, a river from which protruded threatening, dagger-like rocks, and between the two, kilometre upon kilometre of nothingness.
She took out from her pocket a golden calf idol, squinting a little as the rays of the summer sun reflected off the gold into her eyes. This was fitting all the same; to look directly at the calf was forbidden. Hester lowered her head and shut her eyes. “By Your grace, Lord, You have given me the chance to prove to You my loyalty. By Your mercy, I trust that you will offer your staff of guidance and protection.” She took a deep breath and tightened her grip on Lord for an instant before returning Him to her pocket. And then, one foot in front of the other, she took her first step.
Latching firmly onto the railings of the bridge, Hester edged forwards. She kept her head up, as if the mere sight of what lay below might be enough to draw her into its ranks.
“Hester, why do you reject Me?”
Hester froze as Lord’s voice echoed in her ears; his words were dark and heavy.
“Why do you hide Me away? You do not hesitate to invoke My grace and mercy, but are ashamed to show others that you know Me.”
“They don’t seek to believe,” Hester began. “They think You are but metal, or a mere concept – ”
“You act as if you think no differently: even now you have hidden Me. Perhaps you would appreciate a reminder what awaits them,” Lord hissed. The bridge began to shake violently, tossing Hester from left to right like a puppet. She caught a glimpse of the chasm beneath her feet, and a wave of nausea swept over her. “When you conceal your faith, you conceal Me,” Lord said.
“Forgive me, Lord,” Hester pleaded between gasps. The tremors stopped. Having regained her breath, she took out the calf again, desperately trying to hold onto the railings with the few free fingers she now had. But rather than approbation, her action was met with a hostile laugh.
“Did you not plead for My staff of protection? Did you not call upon My guidance?” Lord cried. “Why, then, do you rely so heavily on an earthly crutch? Remove your hands from the railings.”
Hester hesitated for a second, but before she could react, the railings disintegrated and disappeared. She stumbled and fell to the ground, crying out in pain. Her knees were bruised and scorched by the sand after endless days of prayer to Lord, and a large splinter had cleanly pierced through her skin. Standing up was no use; without support for her arms she would fall again almost instantly, leaving her no choice but to crawl.
“Forgive me,” she repeated. “I thank You tirelessly, Lord, for Your kindness now in bringing me safely this far, through the course of my life, and especially at my darkest hour.” Hester touched her right cheek and allowed herself a weak smile. As she did so, she felt a gentle warmth.
“When all others scorned and rejected you for the scars that marked your face, you felt My presence and power. When you were most at need, I showed you favour. I brought you out of the wilderness of depression and shame, and into My light. I have restored your beauty.”
Hester gave a slow, silent nod and continued onwards. She pictured the day she awoke with unblemished, pure skin: the restoration of her once sequestered smile, her renewed sense of joy and life, her renewed confidence and vigour. But most of all, her renewed will to be alive. Lost in the nostalgia, she became numb to the needles of wood perforating her body as she crawled, turning her into a human pincushion.
“Don’t fall victim to indulgence,” Lord warned, but His voice faded into the distance. Hester reflected on her happiest days, when she would desire to be seen and noticed by others, or when she was appreciated for her talent and sophistication. She failed to note, however, that these days were never her most pious.
“What I have so quickly given, I can just as quickly take away,” Lord cried indignantly. “Your vanity consumes you!” Just then, a strong gust of wind blew past, casting a sheet of sand into Hester’s eyes. She screamed and flailed around as her vision left her. “You can count on one hand the number of hours you have spent in prayer, but those hands of all the nations on the globe combined could not match your addiction to your own image. Now you will see, hear and think only of me.”
“How will I guide myself?” Hester stammered, a single tear decorating her cheek.
“You believe you guide yourself?” He demanded, cackling. “Without My presence you would perish; you would lead yourself into the abyss. Do you think you are more than Me, Hester?” Lord paused. “Why is the path of evil always the most attractive? Why does the flock so readily reject the aegis of the shepherd who toiled for years to feed, shelter and protect it? You fool yourself into believing you that are wise and have knowledge, that you do not need me. And yet, Hester, which of us is at the whims of the other?” She made no reply – no reply was necessary. “Exercise your faith in Me. Go on, and I will guide you.”
Hester pressed the calf to her breast and crawled further. A few meters later she was more than halfway across the bridge. As she made her next move, her knee struck a loose block of wood, which broke away from the bridge and began to fall.
“Oh my god,” Hester screamed, as her legs gave way beneath her. She was hanging on by her one free arm now, dangling lifelessly in the air. With her blindness leaving her prey to the whims of her imagination, Hester wondered if her cries would be heard as she plummeted to her death. She shook the thought away, clutching the calf all the more tightly: in falling, in dying, in unrelenting pain, she would find consolation in the knowledge that she had not denied Lord at her last breath.
Some minutes later, the sound of footsteps on the bridge began to emerge. “Hester?” a female voice called. As Hester lifted her head, she found her vision restored: the sand had melted away. Approaching her was a young woman, about the same height and build as Hester. She had a large burn scar down the side of her right cheek.
“Helia? Why are you here?” Hester whispered between breaths. Only the tips of her fingers were grasping the bridge now, and her body seemed to urge her further downwards with every passing second.
“Hester, get up and talk to me properly.” Helia said, now just one pace away from Hester.
“I can’t, I – ” Hester looked down at the hand that had been holding Lord. It was empty. Her eyes darted frantically around her, before her mouth formed a snarl. “It’s a test,” she sighed. “You are standing in the way of my path to Lord’s service.” Hester lifted her arm up to the bridge and was able to bring her knees up to the platform. She looked up and saw Helia smiling.
“How can you show your face with no shame? You have fooled yourself into happiness: under the visage of joy you are discontent, agitated, miserable…”
Helia laughed, kneeling down such that she was eye to eye with Hester. “You have fooled yourself into happiness: under the visage of joy you are discontent, agitated, miserable… I smile because I no longer seek command of what I can’t control. I laid my fears bare and fought them not with a berating finger lurking at my shoulder, but with kindness and support from those at my side. I have taken a leap, I have made myself vulnerable, but I have succeeded.” She traced Hester’s right cheek with a thumb, and beneath a thin layer of powder she revealed mangled, dry skin, with the lumps on her skin resembling the bubbles of froth.
“Get off!” Hester yelled and shielded the burns with her arm. “Lord has taken away my scars, He has healed me, made me beautiful…”
“While you may think he has cured you, Hester, did he not cause the fire? Isn’t he the one who brought you – me – into this hole, and acted as saviour in giving you the illusion of retrieval? And yet you risk your life for him?”
“He saved me, Helia. He gave me a new life, for which I am –”
“What new life?” Helia asked. “This is no life, Hester. You aren’t living; you are being passed through trial after trial, forced into guilt and humiliation, and you have been robbed of your identity.” Helia looked down at her own arm, where she had a tattoo of a sun and her own name beneath. She reached out to the same spot on Hester’s body, uncovering an identical tattoo. The skin was reddened and raw after years of clawing at it, willing the ink to fade away. Hester flinched and tried to tug her sleeve down to conceal the print.
“It is humiliating,” Hester retorted. “but it is a reminder of my sin and my ineptitude before Lord showed his mercy. It is a reminder that I am no longer Helia, idolater of the Sun, but that I am Hester, daughter of my Lord. We may have been born one and the same, but I have deserted you. You,” she said, pointing at Helia, “are nothing more than temptation to return my juvenile transgressions. Look at me – do you not see my happiness?”
Helia gazed into Hester’s eyes. They were worn out and tired, like a bride after the honeymoon. Her limbs were weak and wilted, adorned with rashes, cuts and grazes. Her smile was empty.
“I do not,” Helia said, passing her fingers through Hester’s thinned hair. “You are as fragile as you have ever been, and you are crippled by physical and mental pain far more intense than you experienced after the accident.”
“By Lord’s strength I am well, I am content. Do not –”
“By whose strength did you pull yourself up when Lord had abandoned you?”
“Lord has never and will never abandon me. I called for him as I fell, Helia, I called for God.”
“You called out because you were scared, Hester, just as you did all those years ago. You were vulnerable, and that made you desperate. You were desperate, and that made you naïve. You were naïve to Lord’s promises to cure you of a defect he created, to rid you of your insecurity by making you only more dependent on it and on him, to absolve you of guilt for a mistake made not by you, but by him. Your naivety has enslaved you, and made you vulnerable again. Such repeats the cycle, over and over, as you fall deeper into his clutch.
“For a time, you may have been happy: you had friends, responsibility, élan. But you grew fond of the pleasures and surprises of the world –”
“He showed me love, but I became conceited and indulgent –”
“– and you were severely punished for it.”
“I was punished for turning away from Lord, turning instead towards sin.”
“He took away everything: your status, your name, your personality. And now, indebted to his deceit, you hang by his thread, at –”
“I am His loyal servant, who –”
“– who is at his beck and call, a mere plaything for when his volatility and fickleness seek entertainment and validation.”
Hester stood up and struck out at Helia, but she forgot her weakness and lost her balance. As she fell backwards, her foot passed through the gap left by the fallen piece of wood. Helia stretched out her arm, but Hester only scowled and spat at it, embracing the pull of gravity as she came into freefall.
She sensed the chains of obedience loosen their grip, and the cuffs of subjugation fell away. Hester found herself grasping at her arms, desperate to shield herself from being exposed and naked to the whims of the world. “Lord!” she called out with a manic cry. A weight began to press on her chest; Hester craned her neck to see the calf had returned, but Lord made no speech. Instead, before Hester’s eyes, the golden idol began to crack. Pieces flew off in all directions, slipping through the spaces between Hester’s arms. Even as more shards emerged, the calf became only heavier, accelerating Hester’s fall. But she could not, and would not let go: in falling, in dying, in unrelenting pain, she would find consolation in the knowledge that she had not denied Lord at her last breath.