The salt-crusted stone shack disappeared before I had been walking more than a few minutes, swallowed up in a sandstorm gust. Squaring my face to the wind, I kept walking.
The salt flats soon fell away behind me, and I entered a new region of the desert. It was a badlands: a barren landscape of mesas and canyons, steep slopes and sawtooth ridges, all sculpted into fantastic, unearthly shapes like the topography of an alien planet. Tall, twisted spires and jagged outcroppings rose all around me in a stone forest. A pale daytime moon hung, huge and ghostly, in a dusty pink sky.
As I slowly picked my way across this forbidding terrain, I began to notice a curious feature of the landscape. The tall, spindly stone spires were being replaced by narrow, stumpy boulders like thick pillars, jutting out of the earth at curious angles. Most of them were rough and featureless, blasted by sand and wind, but one or two had an odd resemblance to human forms.
The trail led into a slot canyon, with high stone walls rising above me and narrow shafts of sunlight streaming down from above. Echoes bounced off the rock. There were more of the lumpy stone pillars here, and their resemblance to frozen human shapes seemed stronger still. Then I rounded a bend, and flinched back with a cry of astonishment. Standing directly in the path ahead of me was the stone figure of a human, eyes and mouth wide in terror, the arms upraised to protect the head. It was no coincidence or mirage, and I realized in a flash that the oddly shaped stone pillars I had been seeing were similar sculptures, but eroded and worn down to almost nothing. Or were they sculptures at all?
My answer wasn’t long in coming. Another bend, and in a small clearing, what met my eyes was a strange and terrifying sight. From the chest down, it was a humanoid statue like the rest. But from the shoulders up, it was a living person – arms and head of flesh fixed to that immobile torso of stone, the one blending seamlessly into the other.
It was a horrifying predicament, but the person didn’t seem in the least disconcerted. He had a craggy face, a long black beard, and bushy eyebrows beneath which dark eyes burned with fervor. He saw me at the same time I saw him. “Repent, stranger!” the bizarre figure cried out in a voice of thunderous command.
This wasn’t the greeting I had been expecting. “Repent?” I echoed in confusion. “For what?”
“For your sins, of course!” he boomed. “The end of the world is fast approaching. It may be days. It may be only hours! This is your last chance to cleanse yourself of your evil deeds before God comes in judgment to scour the earth with fire.”
“You seem very confident of that,” I observed.
“The signs are everywhere! How could you doubt that the end is upon us? Everything is coming to pass as foretold in the prophecies. Do you not see the famines, the plagues, the war?”
“What war is that?” I inquired.
“Any war!” he bellowed. “See how swiftly the world is changing! During the day it is scorching hot, and at night, freezing cold. The rains come less and less, and the wind carries stinging grit that burns my face and skin. All signs of the end! The world cannot abide for long under these conditions!”
“I’m pretty sure those are normal conditions for this place and always have been. As for wars, plagues and famines, those are nothing unusual or out of the ordinary – humanity has been dealing with those more or less constantly since the start of recorded history. And that reminds me.” I thought back to the line of stone statues, most eroded down to nearly nothing. “By telling me all this, I take it you’re carrying on the hallowed traditions of your sect?”
“For thousands of years,” he said proudly. “My ancestors, too, preached the great message that people must repent to escape destruction. Those glorious words of hope have been handed down to me from those whose names have long since faded to dust. I’m proud to uphold the sacred traditions of my unimaginably distant forefathers by warning the world of its imminent and certain doom.”
“And you don’t see a contradiction in that? All your ancestors preached that the end would come soon, probably with the same certainty as you, and they were all wrong. Doesn’t that mean, just going by probability, that I should conclude that you’re probably wrong also? What makes you so sure that this time you’ve got it right?”
“My ancestors were not wrong!” he raged. “The reckoning has been delayed in accordance with God’s plan, that is all. When they preached to their hearers that destruction would come upon ‘this generation,’ they meant my generation, the one that will actually live to see the apocalypse! It will be the glorious culmination of all their hopes!”
I rolled my eyes. “Well, I’m glad to see you’ve got this all worked out. And I’m sure your far-distant descendants will say the same thing about the words you’re speaking to me now?”
“There will be no others! This time the end is really and truly coming, with no doubt whatsoever. I thought I had made that perfectly clear!”
“Yes, I think you’ve made yourself quite clear,” I agreed. “Maybe you’ve made yourself clearer than you intended. Obviously, it makes you feel good to believe you know in advance that the end is coming. It makes you feel that you’re in possession of a special, secret truth, one that makes you morally and spiritually superior to the ignorant people all around who are going about their lives in blind complacency. It makes you feel as if you’re the protagonist in a story where you know that you win in the end. It’s an exciting feeling, one that gives your life a sense of purpose and meaning.
“But look again at that consummation you so devoutly wish. Literally, you’re rooting for the death of everyone who doesn’t believe as you do. When you hold a view like that, you inevitably start seeing your fellow men and women as unworthy of moral consideration, as deserving only of hate and destruction. After all, if they’re God’s enemies, aren’t they your enemies too? If God’s only plan for them is eternal damnation, why should you treat them any better? Holding a view like that for long starts to rob you of your humanity. Just look at what’s happening to you, at what’s already happened to your ancestors. You end up losing all your love, all your compassion, all the best qualities that make us human: you end up with a heart of lifeless stone.”
The half-flesh, half-stone figure stared at me wildly, and for a split-second, I thought I had gotten through to him. Then he shrieked and crouched over as far as he could, sheltering his head with his arms: the exact posture of the last statue I had seen. “The end! The end is coming! Repent! Repent!”
I sighed. It was what I had been expecting, but just for that one moment, I had retained a sliver of hope. It wasn’t too late for this self-styled prophet, even now, if only he was willing to listen. I had seen people escape the desert after being in worse predicaments than his, seen stone change back into living flesh and blood. But he wasn’t willing, and as I walked away, I thought gloomily that if I returned in a year or two, I’d likely find nothing here but another frozen statue – another colossal wreck amidst the lone and level sands of the desert.