The subterranean dungeon moldered with the scent of despair. Time lost meaning in the perfect blackness. Except for the occasional screams of those driven mad by despair, the only sounds were of rats skittering and chains rasping as prisoners shifted, seeking in vain to ease cramped limbs.
In the heart of the dungeon, Gilead shivered in his narrow cell. He had once been a proud servant of the King, but long years had passed since he had taken up residence here. His clothing had disintegrated off his frame until he now wore little but the chains encircling his emaciated body. Gilead had betrayed his King and was doomed to live out his days in desolation.
Once daily, the jailer would descend the narrow stone stairs and fling a portion of rancid cabbage through a slot in each cell door. Flickering torchlight and the dissonant clanging of the bunch of keys on his belt heralded his approach.
The jailer delighted in pausing in front of Gilead’s door and rattling his keys.
“You piece of filth,” he would sneer, “you’ll never see the light of day again. Why not just curl up and die?”
He bellowed with laughter and shook the cell door.
Gilead forced his mind to blankness. He stared sightlessly through the hours. Rats ran over his face and scavenged scraps of cabbage from his beard, but he paid no heed. This was his penance.
One day as he lay in his stupor, the echo of a distant voice began to encroach on his senses. ‘The jailer,’ he thought, ‘coming to mock me.’
But as the voice grew louder and clearer, Gilead realized the truth was far worse.
It was the voice of the King.
“Gilead,” he called. “You have wasted time enough. Come out and face me.”
Gilead shook his head. His voice, long disused, rasped from his throat. “I cannot.”
But the King called, “Come.”
Gilead shuddered, and the shackle around his neck bit into his scrawny flesh.
“I would give anything,” he croaked, “to serve you again. But it is too late.”
“Gilead,” called the King, “arise and come out.”
Light shone through the keyhole. It crawled under the door and illuminated a patch of dirty stone floor.
Gilead squinted at the luminescence. His body longed to feel the embrace of sunshine. His soul longed for the touch of the King.
‘Once more, before I die,’ Gilead decided.
He pushed himself to hands and knees. As he moved, his chains fell away and the cell door swung open.
Gilead’s eyes watered in the cascading radiance. He crawled forward and stretched out his hand to locate the stairs. Finding them, he began laboriously to climb, juddering atrophied limbs pulling him up inch by stubborn inch.
At last, he reached the top. Fresh sweet air sang to him as currents eddied around his body, cooling the heat of his exertion. He pulled himself outside and fell on his face before the King.
“I have betrayed you,” Gilead said. “I cannot merit your grace, but I humbly ask your pardon before I die.”
“You have betrayed me,” agreed the King. “By rights, you should die. But your pardon is granted. The price of your transgression was paid even before your fall from grace.”
He bent to touch Gilead’s shoulder. “Rise and be restored to your former place,” he said.
He put his arm about Gilead’s body and helped him to his feet. At the king’s touch, strength flowed back into Gilead’s limbs. His sores and filth vanished.
“But what about the dungeon?” Gilead asked.
“You chose imprisonment,” answered the King. “All these years, you have been your own jailer. The door was open. To gain forgiveness, you had only to ask.”
Tears began to streak Gilead’s cheeks. “I have been a fool,” he choked.
With his arm still about Gilead’s shoulders, the king turned. Gilead was stunned to see a throng of people standing there, smiling in broad welcome.
Two women ran forward and Gilead recognized his wife and daughter. They covered his body with a robe and adorned his face with kisses. He wrapped his arms about them and clasped them tightly as they wept together.
The king raised his arms and spoke a benediction over the family.
“And now to the feast,” he announced, “for we rejoice that he who was lost now is found.”
The answering roar rose from a thousand throats in a triumphant key that shook the ground and ascended straight to Heaven.
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