The Beacon, the Swamp, and the Sacrifice

by Joshua Lampkins


Then Jesus said unto him, “You shall travel forward through time, back to the year from whence you came, and you shall share this gospel with all whose hearts are not hardened against it, and instruct them to sail throughout the firmament. And on every habitable world they discover, they shall plant beacons to transmit My Word over the radio spectrum. And when the beacons are sufficiently numerous and sufficiently dispersed among worlds, the frequencies they transmit will form a joyful hymn. Then the Holy Spirit, who flies always between the stars, will hear the hymn, and will know that the righteousness of My people has reached its fullness. Then He will beckon Me, and at His call I will return to the worlds of humankind and begin a new age of interstellar peace. So go now, and hasten My return.”

The Gospel of Baxter
Chapter 19:7-12

I have heard all too often from critics of the church that religion is a crutch. I felt the irony of this statement as I trod the path of black, sludgy soil, because I was using the beacon as a walking stick. It felt like a sin, though I knew it wasn’t. There were many documented instances of saints using beacons in this way to help them through difficult terrain.

And I needed the help. They normally pick more athletic priests for this type of journey.

After working my way up a gentle slope, I stood panting, grasping the beacon with two hands. Its base was now as muddy as my shoes. I chastised myself for this.

I pulled a cloth out of my backpack, sopped the sweat off my face, then wiped most of the mud off the beacon. It was more a gesture than anything else, because it would be filthy again as soon as I resumed walking.

But at least the crucifix at its top was still immaculately clean, looming above my head, out of the fray of splashing mud. I tilted my face up toward it. Jesus looked down on me, thorn-crowned, weeping. His suffering eyes seemed to say, “Why are you so fat?”

I turned the crucifix away from me. I didn’t need body-shaming, even from my Lord and Savior.

And anyway, I had spent plenty of time staring at Jesus’ face already. Previous saints had said that at times, when the Holy Spirit was moved to aid the contrite, the crucifix atop a beacon would glow. So on each night since my departure—one spent in a hostel and two spent in my tent—I had lain with the beacon at my side, not taking my eyes off it until sleep forced them closed, hoping that I might be one of the fortunate mortals who witness a divine manifestation.

No such luck.

But now, as I stood on a narrow trail under a sky colored by the approaching dusk, I was more concerned with sighting my destination than sighting a miracle. Perhaps, with the crucifix facing ahead of me, Jesus could look over the reeds that hedged the path and blocked my view, and could tell me if I was headed in the right direction.

But no, it was blasphemous to speak of the image of my Savior this way, as if it were some meager service droid. I said a prayer of penance, then tried to turn my mind to holier matters. What was I supposed to be meditating on? Ah, yes, Romans 12:1. As I resumed walking, I recited it in my heart.

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

I had been given this verse to dwell upon by Bishop Jameson himself. I had hardly spoken to him before, given that he rarely visits our church, which is a few hundred miles from his own. But he sent me on this mission himself, discussing the matter at length with me in private. Which was highly unusual, given his status relative to mine.

And the instructions he gave me were equally unusual. First, I was to carry no weapon, despite the dangerous wildlife I might encounter. Second, once the beacon was planted, I was to activate an infrasonic transmitter a few feet away, then spend an hour in prayer. He reiterated these points many times to make sure I understood.

Unusual indeed. But then, the circumstances surrounding my mission were equally unusual.

Of the 51 locations on our planet designated for beacons, only one had given the church problems, the one in the swamp to which I was headed. No fewer than five beacons had been planted at that spot in the past year, and all had disappeared. Bishop Jameson was aware of the problem, but wasn’t especially concerned about it until the cardinal paid our planet a visit.

It’s strange how quickly gossip spreads among priests, who preach always that the tongue should be kept bridled. I heard tell that the cardinal chewed out the bishop for not keeping tabs on his beacons, calling him doddering and senile, referring to our home world as a “backwater planet.”

The cardinal left in a fury, and the bishop himself made a trip to investigate the missing beacons. After scouting out the purlieus of the swamp, he came to our humble parish—which is the closest to that site—and a day later, he presided over the consecration of the beacon. I watched with him as the metal rod and the crucifix at its apex were sprinkled with holy water by Father O’Michael, the leader of our parish and my closest friend and mentor. As Father O’Michael handed me the beacon, he looked less than pleased. He later confided to me that something about this mission felt wrong to him.

I was too elated to be bothered by his worries. I had been given a task that few had the honor of fulfilling, and when it was complete, I would have earned the distinction of having hastened Christ’s return.

But now I was hastening toward my destination. Mud clung heavily to the hem of my robe, and flapped against my ankles with each hurried step. If I didn’t find the inn before dark, I wouldn’t find it at all.

At a fork in the path was a large rock, green and gray with moss. I stepped atop it, nearly slipping, steadying myself with the beacon, and looked over the thick expanse of reeds. A line of smoke curled upward in the distance. With a prayer of thanks, I was off again.

I followed the smoke till the trail debouched into a stretch of short grasses and shrubs. Before me stood Scavenger’s Inn, the last outpost of civilization on my journey. The misty swamp lay on its farther side. A score of small docks jutted into the water at odd angles. Most of the boats were moored and unoccupied, but a few people worked there, repairing their tools or skinning animals.

I walked up the front steps of the inn, passing fist-sized mosquitoes who were drinking from saucers of blood set out on the veranda, and entered the bar on the first floor.

The place reeked of the frog pus that fueled the lanterns along the walls. I drew many eyes as I wiped my boots on the reed mat and strode between the rough-hewn tables. Although I had picked robes of a modest color, they were obviously a priest’s garb, and the crucifix glimmered brighter than anything else in sight: brighter than the soot-stained lantern glasses, than the tarnished cutlery, than the half-closed eyes that followed my steps.

I approached the bartender, a burly creature with black fur and a short snout.

“Want ale?” he growled.

“Thank you for asking, kind sir, but no thank you.”

He sniffed at me, wiggling his four nostrils. “Liquor too lowly for your pious palate?”

“On the contrary! We priests are known to imbibe from time to time. It is merely that I have an important matter to attend to, and I wouldn’t want my mind, which is already weary, to be further laden by—”

“So what do you want?”

“A humble loaf of bread and a glass of water would suffice, thank you.”

We spent some moments discussing the size of the loaf and the price. Once the exchange had been made, I took a drink, frowned, smacked my lips a few times, then looked into my glass. The water was murky.

“Swamp water,” said the bartender.

“Ah, yes. I’m sure that whatever tiny organisms are living in that glass make for a healthful and—uh—invigorating beverage.”

I took another drink, much smaller than the first.

“Now, as I mentioned, I have an important matter to attend to, and I was hoping to find transportation to a small patch of land some miles within the swamp. If you would have a look at my geolocator, I could show you the exact—”

“You’d have to ask one of the boat hands.” He turned his back to me and began washing dishes.

“I see. Thank you.”

I turned around and faced the inn’s patrons. This would be difficult. I am not known for my social graces.

The only table with a free seat was occupied by two humans and a reptile. I tucked my loaf under an arm, pried my glass off the bar’s sticky surface with one hand, grabbed the beacon with the other, and approached them.

“Why hello there, fine fellows. Mind if I join you?”

They stared at me without speaking, and were motionless except for the one whose cheeks caved inward as he sucked at his pipe. I took this as an indication that I was free to sit down.

I tried leaning the beacon against the side of the table several times, but in each instance, it rolled away from me. If I laid it horizontally it would either encroach upon the adjacent table or jab the greasy young man seated next to me. (Admittedly, he seemed so stuporous that he might not have noticed, but why risk it?) I decided on leaning the beacon against my lap at an angle. That settled, I addressed the table.

“I’m sure the three of you must be tired after a laborious day of—ah—labor. If any of you would like to partake of my bread, I would gladly oblige.”

“I’m a carnivore,” said the reptile seated across from me. The blood stains on the scaly chin attested to the fact.

“But of course!” I said. “I should’ve remembered my zoology lessons better.”

“Zoology?” The reptile’s voice was raspy and strained. “You saying I’m an animal?”

I pattered my fingers against my glass. “Ah, right. I-I-I mean wrong. I was wrong. No offense was intended, kind sir.”

“I’m female.”

“Ah… hmmm. Of course. Well, as it says in Galatians 3:28, in Christ we are neither male nor female.”

I made a forced laugh. It was not echoed by any present.

“Anyway, I have an important matter to attend to, and I was hoping—”

“So let me get this straight.”

The man seated next to the reptile stated this as if we had been in the middle of an argument. He had taken the pipe out of his mouth and was brandishing it at me like a weapon.

“You Baxterites would have us believe that your apostle, living on some obscure planet way back… way back when?”

“Baxter’s home planet possessed little technology, or even paper, and as a consequence there are few extant chronologies, but he is believed to have lived sometime around 3000 anno Domini, give or take a century.”

“You’d have us believe that this Baxter, living on a planet with almost no technology, somehow managed to design and build a time machine—”

“He was guided by the Holy Spirit!”

“—somehow cobbled together a time machine, went back to witness Jesus’ death and resurrection, came back to the present, then disassembled the time machine and dispersed the pieces to the four winds?”

I nodded. “That’s an accurate summary.”

“Don’t you find it rather convenient that the time machine was lost without a trace?”

“On the contrary! Its absence is most inconvenient, as a functioning time machine would make it much easier to prove our claims to skeptics.”

“So you admit that you have no proof.”

“The proofs are numerous! There is no shortage of miracles—fully investigated and verified miracles—that have occurred in the presence of the beacons that Baxter set out to plant.”

He relit his pipe without taking his eyes off me and stared at me through the smoke.

“Which brings me to the reason for my visit.”

I gestured to the beacon. Looking at the crucifix for the first time since sitting, I realized that given the odd angle, Jesus was staring at the crotch of the man seated beside me. I gave the beacon a turn.

“I have been sent to plant a beacon in the swamp. I hoped that one of you might provide transport to the designated location. If you would have a look at my geolocator—”

“Listen,” said the reptile, “anyone eating here has moored for the night. If you want a boat, you’d best ask someone at the docks outside.” Both her hands were on the table, and she was scratching its surface with her claws, slowly.

“Very well, then,” I said. “I thank you for your advice, and I thank all three of you for your warm conversation.”

The man beside me snorted as if awakened and said, “Hello?”

I scurried out of the building.

The setting sun’s reflection in the water was an amber disk with swirls of green scum and a stippling of flies. One boat was disappearing around a bend, its bow parting a curtain of moss that hung like hair from overhanging branches. Four people were at the docks loading cargo or mending nets or suchlike.

I approached the nearest person, minding the gaps in the dock’s rotting planks, and said, “Good evening to you.”

He dropped the lid of a small crate shut. “Yes?”

“I was hoping to find transportation to a certain point in the swamp. If you would have a look at my geolocator, you’ll see the direction and distance.” I held it out in my palm, and he hunched his head over the small screen.

“About three miles northeast?” he asked.

“Indeed. I would need to go there tonight, and also to be picked up tomorrow morning and returned to this spot.”

“Hmmm, and how much you plan on paying me?”

I did some quick mental arithmetic, tallying how much I had spent on my trip thus far and setting aside that same amount for the return trip. “I suppose I could part with three crowns.”

He scoffed and started to turn away from me. Then he patted the pockets of his thick vest, located a hip flask, held it up to his ear, and shook it. It sounded nearly empty. He replaced it and glanced at my backpack.

“Since you’re a priest,” he said, “I’d guess you’re carrying wine with you.”

“You have guessed correctly. After planting a beacon—which is what I’ve been sent to do, by the way—it is customary for the priest to hold a private communion. Thus, I carry the sacraments with me.”

“Right. Now, ale and spirits are easy enough to come by out here, but wine is scarce. Haven’t wet my lips with it in over a year. Let me have a look at your bottle, and if it’s not too small, I’ll boat you to the spot in exchange for it.”

I cleared my throat and stood up straight. “Good sir! That wine is the blood of Christ himself! As important as my mission is, it is not worth denigrating his blood by bartering with it.”

I was holding the beacon like a staff, and to emphasize my point, I lifted it and thumped it down on the dock. Unfortunately, the scrap of planking gave way, and the beacon dipped into the water, so when I pulled it out, its lower inches were coated in a layer of slime, which I wiped off on the hem of my robe. Not the dramatic effect I intended.

The man shrugged at me, then turned back to his crate and paid me no heed.

Just as I stepped back onto the grass, a deep voice to my left called out, “I’ll take you!”

Two docks down, an amphibious creature in a moored boat was hailing me by waving a webbed hand the size of a dinner plate. I walked out onto his dock and asked, “You’ll take me?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

“Wonderful! But, ah, the location. Let me show it to you.”

I held out my geolocator. I couldn’t tell if he was looking at it, because his eyes were milky with no apparent pupils. But after a few moments, he cocked his head and said, “No problem.”

“Excellent,” I said. “And I will need transportation back here tomorrow morning.”

“I’m sure you will.” He smiled wider than I would have thought possible, so that the edges of his flat face became folds of creases.

“Now, regarding payment, I don’t know how much of my conversation with that man you overheard, but I really don’t think I’ll be able to part with more than three crowns.”

“You’ll talk to me.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“You’ll talk to me on the way, and that will be payment enough.”

“Really? I pay my fare by flapping my lips?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.” He stuck out his thin tongue, poked it into each of his nostrils, then swirled it around in his mouth.

“Marvelous!” I said. “My fellow priests have often chastised me for my volubility. But the Lord has used circumstances to sublimate this vice into a virtue.”

I hopped into the boat, and we set out.

I heaved off my backpack with a grunt and a sigh and laid the beacon as respectfully as I could across the planks. I had carried those items all day, and with their removal, I felt that tingly sort of bliss that one feels when relieved of a burden. My mouth formed a smile of its own accord.

Though my companion’s legs were half the length of mine, each of his arms was longer than my whole body, so when his fingers were spread and his webbed hands were stretched wide, he could use them as oars. Thus he propelled us through the water.

His shirt and pants were simple. They might have been white once, but they were stained almost the same color as his yellow-brown skin. I asked him why his clothes were wet.

“My clothes are wet because I wet them.” He grabbed a handful of water and splashed it on his torso to elucidate. “My grandmother always told me that if my clothes were dry for too long, my skin would crack, and I’d split in two. She was lying, of course. Or maybe it was only that she had been lied to herself. Either way, the lie did its work. To this day, I never let my clothes get drier than a wrung dishrag. Which is better for the skin, you know.”

“I’m not entirely sure that medical advice applies to humans, but I thank you for the information nonetheless. Now then.” I sat up straight and pressed out the wrinkles in my robe with my hands. “You have asked me to speak as a means of payment. Not being one to shirk an obligation, I intend to do so. What, then, did you want to talk about?”

“I didn’t want to talk. I wanted you to talk.”

“Oh. So, uh... just me myself, talking?”

“Yes, that’s what I said.”

“I suppose that’s not a problem. But what shall be the subject of this monologue?”

“I don’t care. Just talk.”

I’m sure my face showed the bafflement I felt, but I couldn’t read anything on my companion’s face. I pursed my lips and stroked my chin with an index finger.

“Well,” I said, “I suppose you’ll be curious as to why we’re headed out to this remote location.”

His face didn’t move.

“The beacons must be placed at each of the poles, and then at each of the intersection points of seven lines of latitude and seven lines of longitude. This makes for a total of 51 locations. Of course, many of these will lie in the ocean, so the lines will be bent to accommodate, all according to a strict set of rules devised by the church’s cartography division. Fortunately, our beacon is destined for a relatively dry patch of earth in this swamp.”

My companion continued rowing without comment. As I swatted flies away from my face, my mind scrambled for something to talk about. What would I discuss if I could discuss anything at all? I let that question steep in my mind for a few moments, then took a deep breath and began speaking.

“My mother grew up in a mud-brick hovel not a hundred miles from here. Back then, the town met for Mass in a four-walled enclosure with no roof. My grandparents couldn’t afford prayer beads, but my mother thought it was a matter of duty. So she got a knife and carved beads from fallen sticks. Each time she finished one, she would pinch it between her fingertips and hold it in front of her eye and roll it around to make sure it was properly smooth. Then she got her father to drill holes through them.

“Now, plain wooden beads would’ve been fine, but all the prayer beads she had seen before had been painted, so she found a bunch of dead beetles and ground up their carapaces in a mortar and pestle and mixed in water to make paint. So when she was finished, both her beads and the cross she had carved were green and shimmery.”

A few such beetles flew near the boat, but the sun was gone, so no light but the moon’s shimmered off of them.

“Normally, when a little girl gets a new dress or something, she’s excited to show it off to her friends. But my grandmother told me that when my mother walked into church with those beads for the first time, her expression was somber. It was like she didn’t think she deserved the very beads she had made.

“And that’s my mother for you. She’s the most pious person I’ve ever met. ‘Serve Christ and hasten His return,’ she always says. That was the refrain I heard repeated throughout my upbringing. I suppose that inculcation was the reason I took up the cloth. Not that I did it just to please my mother; no, I love the life of the priest. But how proud she looked when she saw me in my robes for the first time!”

A layer of mist rested on the water so that the boat appeared to float in a cloud. As the mist rose, it softened the outlines of the trees. The water began to glow with green phosphorescence, and fireflies flew by us and disappeared into the murk.

“I’ve tried to live up to her example, but I’ve failed in so many ways. I talk too much, as I’ve already said. And I’m prone to the sin of gluttony. I even confess that I enjoy the fruit of the vine more than I should.”

I sighed.

“I haven’t told her yet that I’ve been appointed to plant a beacon. Maybe once I’m finished, I’ll have done something worthy of her.”

And so I carried on, talking about my mother, the life of the priest, and the town for which I tried to provide spiritual guidance. My companion just rowed on, occasionally pouring a handful of water on his head. He didn’t speak except to confirm we were headed in the right direction.

At a pause in my monologue, I asked, “Why were you so interested in hearing what I have to say, enough so that you accept my speech as payment?”

“I find you religious types interesting,” he replied. “Your superstitions humor me. Some of the larger creatures hereabouts are superstitious, but my own race has never concocted any deities to worship, nor any suchlike wispy fancies.”

He gestured with open arms to our surroundings.

“I remember when humans first started coming to this swamp. I was amazed at how quickly they crafted tales about the things they found here. For instance, the swamp sometimes releases gasses that make glowing lights in the air. We told them that these gasses were the breath of the swamp, no more wondrous than our own breath. But I suppose the lights were too mysterious looking for them to be satisfied with a mundane explanation. So they said the lights were fairies, or the spirits of the dead, or the elemental guardians of the swamp. Flimsy stories.” He shook his head slowly.

“And why do you think humans do this?” I asked.

“I don’t know. But it seems to me that these spiritual beliefs are a crutch.”

There was that hackneyed criticism again.

“When you spoke of your mother and your life as a priest, your guilt made an appearance again and again. You carry that guilt like a vagrant carries their stinking bags of rubbish. Why not just let it go? But it’s hard, I know, very hard. I think forgiving oneself may be the hardest thing a person can do. And maybe that’s why so many humans turn to Christ. He’s a crutch of forgiveness. Much easier to accept forgiveness from someone else than to find it for yourself.”

I stared at my companion. My initial reaction was to refute everything he said, but some forgotten corner of my conscience softened my disposition and suggested a different approach.

“Maybe Christ is a crutch,” I said. “But maybe we’re all weak and in need of a crutch.”

He closed his milky eyes, opened them, and said, “Perhaps so, perhaps so.”

In a few more minutes we arrived at the tree-girt rise of land that was my destination. My guide moored the boat to a root and asked, “So you intend to stay here all night?”

“Yes. You can pick me up here at sunrise.”

“Have anything to defend yourself with in case a curious carnivore stumbles upon you?”

“No, I was specifically instructed not to bring weapons.”

“Hmmm, that’s strange.” He tapped the side of his head with his bony fingers, muttering to himself. “Ah, what about this?”

He reached into a bag behind him and held out a cylindrical metal object.

“It’s a flashbang,” he said. “Not a weapon, really. Just something to dazzle the predators and give you a chance to escape.”

“No, thank you.”

“It’s light as a feather. Stick it in your bag, and you won’t even notice it.”

“You are most magnanimous, my friend, but I’m not sure whether accepting such an item would violate the intention of the bishop’s injunction against weapons. You know, the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter of the law.”

He sighed and smacked his lips. “Your kind are an enigma to me.”

“I won’t gainsay that. But I hope you have at least found me an amiable enigma.”

He smiled. “That I have, priest.”

I grabbed a lichen-crusted root in each hand and pulled myself out of the boat. The soil at the water’s edge was soggy and threatened to yield under my weight, so I held an overhead branch with one hand as the amphibian handed me my backpack and the beacon.

“Thanks once again,” I said. “Till sunrise!”

“Sunrise,” he echoed with a nod.

He unmoored his boat and rowed out into the mist.

I walked to the opposite shore a few hundred feet away, where the trees had thinned out and given way to coarse grasses and rocks furred with moss. The geolocator beeped when I held it over the precise spot.

I looked about. The cartographers’ rules gave some leeway, so I could plant the beacon anywhere within a radius of about forty feet. I selected a raised patch of earth that was a bit drier and less weedy than the surroundings. After rifling through my backpack, I attached the pointed and threaded cap to the bottom of the beacon and stuck the handlebar through the hole in the beacon’s midpoint.

I paused. It was a climactic moment, and it seemed inappropriate to proceed without saying some words of reverence. I crossed myself and looked up at the crucifix, at my Savior’s likeness.

“Be my crutch.”

I drove the beacon into the ground, grabbed the handlebar, and twisted it slowly downward. When it was deep enough, and when my failed attempts to wrest it up assured me that it had good hold, I removed the handlebar and pressed the button just beneath the crucifix.

A tiny light near the button began winking. The gospel was now being transmitted silently toward the stars.

I stood still. The damp air seemed to sigh in sympathy with my sense of relief. After wiping the tears from my smiling face, I removed the infrasonic transmitter from my backpack and planted it nearby as per the bishop’s instructions.

And now was time for prayer. I knelt before the beacon and clasped my hands.

“Lord, please be with my mother, and watch−”

My prayer was interrupted by the sound of surging water. A huge beast rose from the shore and headed toward me. At first I saw only the slippery snout and the rows of needle-teeth. Then it turned so that it could look at me squarely with one lidless, yellow eye. It resembled a giant fish, though instead of dorsal fins it had thick, muscular arms.

“Well, well,” it said, “the little priestling calls for me, but now that I’ve arrived, it looks scared.”

I scooted toward the beacon and clutched it. “I-I-I called for you?”

“But of course. What did you think that infrasonic transmitter was for?”

I made no reply. I don’t think fishes can laugh, but its melon-sized eye seemed to laugh at me.

“Do you know why you’ve come here?” it asked.

“I’ve come to plant the beacon and hasten Christ’s return.”

“Surely, surely. But that’s not the only reason Bishop Jameson sent you here.”

“The bishop? You know of him?”

“Indeed I do.” It twisted its head, tilting its eye closer to me. “Jameson wanted to find his missing beacons. He guessed that they might have been looted for their batteries. Being a clever man, he donned common garb and perused every flea market within a furlong of the swamp. Sure enough, he found the batteries. He threatened the vendor with prosecution unless he told him where he had got them. The vendor swore that he had found the beacons lying at the edge of the swamp. He showed the bishop the spot, and the disassembled beacons were still there in a jumbled pile.”

The beast shook itself, shedding a shower of droplets.

“The bishop sent his assistant to plant another beacon and waited patiently by the pile. Within a day, I came by with the newly planted beacon clenched between my teeth and dropped it down among the others. The assistant had joined Jameson by then, and he foolishly fired a weapon at me, which accomplished nothing, given the thickness of my hide. Still, I was displeased, and I promptly ate him. Jameson told me his story then, and he asked me why I had been uprooting the beacons. I wonder, priestling, if you can guess why I did so.”

It emphasized its question by clacking its teeth at me. I simply shook my head.

“Foolish humans! I can’t expect you to understand a superior intellect such as my own. I uprooted the beacons because they’re ugly. Distasteful. Humans make a mess of any land they infect. I don’t approve of them leaving their silly scraps of metal in my swamp.”

It squeezed the soil with its webbed hands, flexing its wrists.

“So I cut a deal with Jameson. I don’t normally like the taste of human flesh, but I consider the plump ones to be a delicacy. I told Jameson that if he sent me a fat priest to dine upon, and if he didn’t put up a fight, I would leave his beacon alone for one year.”

The beast sidled nearer, keeping its eye trained on me.

I now understood why the bishop had instructed me not to bring any weapons.

And also why he had instructed me to meditate on Romans 12:1.

I began backing away.

“Going to run, are you?” it asked. “How fast do you think those legs can carry you?”

I half-tripped over my backpack. As it lopped to the ground, the flashbang fell out of a side pocket.

The amphibian had told me I wouldn’t notice it.

I grabbed it and held it in front of me. The beast stopped its advance, seemingly unsure of what I held. It was hesitating, and strangely, so was I.

My priestly training urged me to follow the commands of the bishop, however great the personal sacrifice might be. But then I thought back to the docks. I had refused to give sacramental wine as payment, and I had felt with perfect conviction that my refusal was just. If it was wrong to sacrifice Jesus’ blood for my mission, then wasn’t it wrong to sacrifice my own?

Sweat dripped from my face, and swamp water dripped from the beast’s maw. I held my finger over the flashbang’s trigger, and I heard my mother’s refrain echo in my memory: “Serve Christ and hasten His return.”

I dropped the flashbang to my feet. I walked toward the beast and said, “I accept.”

“Splendid,” it replied. “If the animal squeals before it’s eaten, the meat doesn’t taste so good.”

It turned its snout toward me and opened its jaws. I closed my eyes and tried to picture Christ, but I only saw my mother.

“For you,” I whispered.

The beast shrieked. I opened my eyes and saw that it was gawking at me. No, not at me. At something behind me. It wheeled around, nearly whacking me with the swing of its tail, and dove into the water. I turned to see the cause of its retreat.

The crucifix was surrounded by an aura of warm light. It only lasted a few moments, after which the halo fluttered and rose in the air and shrank into nothing.

But I had seen it. That which so few have a chance to see.

I got the wine and bread from my backpack and took my communion kneeling before the beacon. I tried to savor every drop and morsel. Never had I felt so loved and so unworthy of love.

I looked up at the crucifix. Jesus looked down on me, thin-limbed, hollow-bellied. His suffering eyes seemed to say, “I wish I were as well fed as you.”

I had my tent with me, but the swamp’s air was warm, so I unrolled my sleeping bag and lay beneath the beacon and fell asleep staring up at the stars.

Every constellation resembled my Savior’s face.

Joshua Lampkins is a research scientist living in Los Angeles. He loves science fiction, fantasy, and classical literature. He also loves sentence fragments, though he is wary of comma splices. This is his first published work of fiction.

“The Beacon, the Swamp, and the Sacrifice” by Joshua Lampkins. Copyright © 2024 by Joshua Lampkins.

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