The Journey Of The Magi
by T.S. Eliot
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’ And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
(Journey of the Magi, James Tissot, 1894)
BEEEP! Major was startled by the car horn. He shivered. He must have dozed off. Traffic was really heavy. Stop and go, mostly stop. Major glanced in the rear-view mirror, then shifted into D and inched forward until his car was just a couple feet behind another – a red something. He couldn’t identify the make. As a matter of fact, the vehicle in the mirror – a kind of silver SUV – was unknown to him. Strange – he could usually tell a car’s manufacturer, although it wasn’t as easy as it used to be.
Something else felt strange. Major drove home from work every day on I-25 through Denver and always had to deal with heavy traffic. But right now he couldn’t actually remember today’s drive. How long had he been asleep? At least no one had rammed him. The inside of the car had gotten cold so he turned on the heater.
Major looked around. More strangeness. This stretch of the highway seemed kind of familiar but not really. Four lanes – no, wait a minute – six…eight…twelve lanes! The lanes he first assumed were coming from the opposite direction were actually all going the same way he was. There were no oncoming lanes. What is going on? What has CDOT done now?
He looked beyond the highway. As in all his rush hour treks, he saw buildings crowding along the interstate. Varying heights and sizes, but all of them a dull brownish-gray color. Major didn’t recognize any of them. And there was no signage identifying the buildings. Looking around, he saw no signs of any kind – no street signs, no traffic signs, no exit signs – nothing. Whoa! No streets! No exits or entrances on the highway! He tapped the power button of the car radio – nothing came on. He punched station buttons – still nothing, not even static. Major felt very uncomfortable.
Traffic was at a complete standstill. Major looked ahead. The road was making a long incline, and he couldn’t see beyond about a mile. Then he noticed a few people had gotten out of their vehicles and were talking together. Seemed like a good idea. He pulled on his jacket and got out of his car. Strange – it was warmer outside. He removed his jacket and put it back in his car. He walked forward between the lanes of traffic. Every time he passed a vehicle he heard the doors being locked. As he approached a trio of people, two of them – a woman and a teenage boy – walked away. An older man remained and waited for him.
“Hey,” said Major. The older man nodded.
Major went on, bypassing any chit chat, “Do you know what’s going on?”
The man glanced at the pavement then stared at Major. After a few seconds he spoke: “Yeah, I think we figured it out.”
Major waited but the man didn’t say anything else. Major asked, “Well, what is it?”
The man took a deep breath and said, “We’re dead.”
“What!? What the hell are you talking about?”
“There’s no other explanation. That woman…” The man pointed. Major looked over at the woman who had walked away, now standing next to another generic car. “She was jogging and crossed the street then suddenly ‘woke up’ in that car. The boy was riding a horse, and he came to in that car.” The old man pointed at a blue “something” then continued, “I was watching Jeopardy on TV and all of a sudden I’m sitting in this car. She must have been run over. His horse must have bucked him off. I must have had a heart attack – been expecting it. There’s no other explanation. What were you doing?”
Major immediately answered defiantly, “I was driving home from work just like I do every day! You’re crazy!”
“Do you actually remember it?”
Major thought. Then he said, “I remember getting in my car in the parking lot and leaving and then… Okay, it gets fuzzy after that.”
The old man said, “Right. We’re dead.” He got in his white car of some kind and locked the door.
Major leaned against the car behind him. The horn honked and Major jumped away. He stood between the cars. For a few seconds he panicked. He took a few deep breaths and calmed himself. Well, maybe someone had rammed him after all. Okay, no big deal, everyone has to die. Now what?
He looked up and down the lanes of traffic. Total gridlock. No one was moving. He decided to walk. He had always been assertive, confident, moving forward. No need to change now. He walked between two lanes of unmoving cars, pickups, SUVs, even motorcycles.
Major thought back to what had transpired the last half hour or so. He had shivered when he “woke up” in the car. It was cold and he turned on the heater. Of course – the chill of death. But that had not lasted. Death was over. Now it’s warm and comfortable. It’s going to be okay.
Suddenly the vehicles in all the lanes moved forward. Should he go back and get in his car? He turned and looked back. About a half mile back, a large truck of some kind was pushing his car – he recognized it but didn’t know it – off the highway. No worries. The traffic stopped again after moving only about a car length.
Major resumed walking forward, up the inclining highway. A little further on and he could see clouds above the… not “earth” – he didn’t know what to call it now. Anyway, clouds billowing outward and upward. Kind of pretty. Yeah, it’s going to be okay.
The incline got noticeably steeper and after about 15 more minutes he saw a glow above the horizon. Light! Beautiful! Major felt warm, comfortable, peaceful. His beliefs about death and the afterlife were being confirmed. It’s going to be wonderful.
Occasionally the 12 lanes of traffic moved forward a few feet, gradually making progress. Major was making more progress by walking on his own. The grade increased and walking became more like climbing. The clouds and glowing light motivated him to keep going. As he approached the top of the hill he became more and more excited.
Finally, the crest. On the other side the highway dropped away sharply. A mile below, all of the traffic disappeared into the glow. Some of the vehicles were attempting to back up, but it was useless – everyone was packed together tightly and the steep decline pulled them down. Major whispered his realization: “Oh…hell.”
“And broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” – Jesus (Matthew 7:13)