Aphelion Issue 265, Volume 25
September 2021
 
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Following

by Dave Schultz





He was amazing. I saw that, but I was never a believer. That is my gift, I suppose, not believing, the flaw that saved me, the virtue that condemned me. Precious few had my proclivity for skepticism, and in that lies the tragedy.

Garden-variety people, in my experience, are usually anxious to invest themselves in a promising concern. All it takes is a compelling essay and they will pin their hearts to bottle rockets blasting towards brighter tomorrows. Religion, scientific theory, a solid business opportunity, politics, philosophy, art, the paths are many, the motivation is singular: Put your efforts behind a plan that will profit.

Though his promises were of the oldest brand, the course he mapped was somewhat less traveled, but it's the singer not the song, and if you were someone who believed in believing, Jesus Santos was your man.

What I know about Santos is what everybody knew, and I've decided to write that down, just so it's there, just in case there's enough of us skeptics left to repopulate the earth, just in case some mind in the future will want to know... I said I was skeptical, not without hope.

These are the facts as I remember them: It was January. True believers would know the exact date and time. Eleven-year-old orphan, Juanita Ramirez, was peddling handmade shell necklaces along that unique stretch of the Amazon at Alter do Chao. There, tourists lounged on broad white sand banks that gently sloped to the emerald river.

Something stirred the water in a peculiar way. The churning caught Juanita's eye. She watched the surface of the water break. There was hair, a forehead, then eyes and a nose. It was a man, a handsome man, naked and beautiful in every way, walking casually out of the river. There was no struggle in his steps. His strides were long and easy, as if he was walking down a paved street. His face beamed perfect tranquility.

Juanita met him at the water's edge. They looked at each other and he began to speak. She gave him her towel and he wrapped it around his waist as he spoke to her, and those words, it is rumored, were the most compelling sounds ever uttered. Little Juanita was overcome by his presence. She went limp, and Santos put his arm around her sun-scorched shoulders. She wept with joy, kissed his hand, and placed her cheek against his side. Believers say it was the power of God channeling through him. The skeptics say it was amped up charisma, the stuff that Elvis pumped, times a million. Either way, Santos had the ability to captivate, and captivate he did.

Juanita became his first and most loyal devotee. When he left the river, Juanita followed. He walked to the center of Alter do Chao, speaking as he went. Anyone graced by his countenance or touched by his voice turned and followed. By the time they reached the fountain in the town square, dozens of people circled around the half naked man and preteen girl. Santos stepped up on the lip of the pool and continued to lecture. The crowd around him grew. Traffic became snarled and the police arrived.

The patrolmen, men who are paid to untangle traffic, arrived, took a single look at Santos and ran to fetch their superiors. The police chief came, saw and heard, then called the mayor. The mayor, upon seeing his face and hearing his words, fell at Santos' feet and begged him to accept the hospitality of the town.

A hotel suite was arranged. Santos and Juanita were escorted to a nearby Hilton. Food was provided, and the man and girl were given more suitable clothes. The Mayor arranged a lecture hall so Santos could speak in a proper forum. By that time, several snippets of his lecture were posted online. These recorded segments, captured mostly on cell phones, spread exponentially across Facebook and YouTube and other social networks.

What was he saying exactly? Was there a philosophical doctrine or credo lurking in his meandering rhetoric? Even after examining the hundreds of hours of his lectures, no skeptic could piece one together. Though the phrases and statements were unconnected links, people were so enamored with the here and now of Santos that, to believers, it all seemed to make perfect sense.

The kindest of the skeptics said that the message was in the method. Santos never went for deep-water fish. He trolled the surface with common bait on small hooks. "You are all beautiful in the eyes of God." "You are perfect." "You are all celestial beings." Maybe, for the masses that is the answer to life's pain and brutality. Maybe, for them, heaven is beautiful people telling you convincingly that you, too, are beautiful, wonderful, and full of grace. Maybe that is heaven's bandwidth, and those who aren't satisfied with the message are not candidates for eternal happiness. I don't know, but I have always been skeptical of the role beauty plays in the universe, and as far as I can tell, no one knows what influence celestial perfection has on the ugly work of existence.

Though Santos lacked a creed, he did have a message. "I am here," he would say, "to lead you to heaven."

That line, his catch line... it confounds me now that no one thought to pick the words apart, or ask what the statement meant. Was it simply lost in a thousand other holy platitudes? Being lyrically instep with religious language and imagery, was it just overlooked? Perhaps, but now, after the fact, we know he meant exactly what he said.

***

However, I got ahead of my self. Back in that January so long ago, Santos walked out of the Amazon River. At seven o'clock that evening, more than a thousand people came to see and hear him. People who had witnessed him that afternoon were calling relatives and friends testifying to his splendor. The local journalists interviewed both the Mayor and the Police Chief. Both swore to the authenticity of his supreme nature and his preternatural origins. Only two hundred could squeeze into the lecture room. The other eight hundred plus stood in the corridors of the civic hall and out in the street, quiet as mice, straining to catch even a syllable.

Santos spoke for an hour and a half. The sound of his voice was pure pleasure. Every word seemed a revelation. Tranquility was delivered to those who looked upon him. He ended the lecture with these words, more or less; I paraphrase, "Hold in your hearts what you have felt this evening. My work is to lead you to heaven, and soon, very soon I will reveal to you the path." With that, he reached for Juanita's hand, and together, with the help of the police, they left the building.

More than one hundred recordings of that message were posted on the Internet that night along with piles of still photographs. They were shared and reposted millions of times. The local TV station replayed the lecture in its entirety, several times over. The clip was picked up by an international news services, and was sent around the globe and was aired by networks in every nation with the same regularity.

The next morning the Hilton was surrounded by thousands of fans hoping to catch a glimpse of Santos or Juanita. Traffic was impossible. In time, the police would learn that they had to keep his whereabouts a secret for the public's safety. An invitation to the President's residence was extended. A helicopter delivered him and Juanita to the compound. Top South American businessmen and politicians came to meet him. Millions, it's rumored, were offered him, and businessmen pledged themselves to his organization, but there was no organization to join, and Santos refused all gifts, accepting only food, shelter and transportation. After that, he was whisked to Sao Paulo.

***

By noon, students and academics had noticed him. His image and lectures blazed across universities around the world. Translations bloomed, but people from Russia, China, India, Scotland, Nigeria preferred to soothe their weary beings in the glow of his golden voice. Even though they didn't speak Portuguese, they watched and listened for now, finally, there was something concrete into which they could invest their souls.

Another lecture was hastily arranged for that evening. This one was in Sao Paulo's Arena Corinthians football stadium, and again, though the lecture was organized mere hours before, the crowd was beyond capacity. 46,000 were in the stands, 30,000 more sat on the grass, another 200,000 stood outside the stadium. Thousands recorded the lecture and again clips were posted on the internet.

Another night slipped past. Sao Paulo became the world's destination. They came by air and boat, oil sheikhs, disheveled Euro royals, football celebrities from Egypt, Italy, and Tanzania.

Students, craftsmen, bankers, doctors came in overloaded automobiles. Trains and buses were stuffed with both the poor and well to do from Peru, Argentina, Mexico, the US and Canada, too, all yearning to be near Santos.

Those with the most influence were able to connect. Two floors of the Intercontinental Hotel were reserved; one for Santos and Juanita, and those in immediate attendance. The other floor was reserved for meetings. Santos met with rock stars, businessmen, artists, sheikhs, monks, writers, philosophers, bishops, sculptors, TV evangelists and international celebrities of every ilk.

Seven days after he walked out of the river, he was asked to address the United Nations. He did and was honored with a standing ovation.

In ten days, a world summit was pieced together in Oslo, Norway. Santos spoke before the presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens of every nation on the globe, and for the first time in all of history, every nation on the planet was united under a single influence.

Then, most miraculously, all the world's religious leaders succumbed to his charms. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan and every subset all proclaimed him as the holy one.

After that, everything in the world was Jesus Santos. Television featured him always. Radio played his lectures constantly. From that day forward, ninety percent of the information posted on the Internet was about him. There were T-shirts, calendars, coasters, watches, bumper stickers, scarves, pendants. Hundreds of thousands tattooed his likeness over their hearts. Millions joined religious orders. They became monks, priests, nuns, preachers, ministers, and attendants, for now every order of every faith served Santos. The ranks of all religions swelled, for all religion now was Santos. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples were packed for every service, for every service now was in honor of Santos.

It was beautiful; the best days of man were on us. Paradise had arrived. War stopped. Crime disappeared. The hungry were fed. The homeless were sheltered. The needy were cared for. Serenity poured across the land like thick honey, and joy filled the hearts of man. Even the skeptics stepped back saying, "If this is his effect, perhaps it's wise to keep our doubts to ourselves."

It was August 22nd. Santos was on the island of Manhattan in New York. At his request, a platform was built in Times Square and a series of videotrons were erected. At his request, all news and media outlet representatives were present. At his invitation, believers from around the world surged onto the island. Millions flooded into Midtown squeezing as close as they could get to the intersection of Broadway, 7th Ave, and West 43rd Street.

At 10:00 AM, Eastern Standard Time, a helicopter landed on the platform. Santos and Juanita stepped out. He was bare-chested and barefooted. At his waist was the towel Juanita had given him at the water's edge. Juanita was dressed, too, in the clothes she'd worn the day they'd come together, with one of her handcrafted shell necklaces dangling at her throat. Santos was introduced by a then famous Hollywood couple. The crowd cheered. Santos, with a wave of his hand, quieted them and began to speak. "Thank you for coming," he said, with only the slightest of Portuguese accent. "Loved ones, heaven is waiting for us. Today is the day. The hour is now. As I have promised, I shall lead the way, and my beloved Juanita, who has etched my every word into her heart, shall be the last. When the good and righteous have passed into heaven, my dear little one shall follow. Know it to be true, with her exit from this world, the door to heaven will be closed forever. What I do now is the way to eternal life and eternal tranquility and joy. Follow if your heart is true. Follow if you are hungry for perfection." Santos stepped away from Juanita, opened his hand and produced the straight razor hidden in its clasp.

For perhaps the first time in a hundred years, Times Square was without a rustle or a whisper, and Santos dragged the razor's edge across his jugular. Blood burst from his neck, dappling Juanita in a surge of crimson. A red curtain ran down his chest and torso, soaking the towel at his waist. Santos quivered and dropped to his knees, his beautiful face still the perfect portrait of tranquility. His head rocked forward, and he gently tumbled onto his side.

Then the strangest thing happened, strange to the skeptics, at least, the few of us who showed up out of curiosity and stood on the periphery of the crowd. We expected hysteria, panic and sorrow. Instead, the crowd, the masses, the millions that loved and adored him, and pressed into the streets of Manhattan to catch a single glimpse of him, exploded in wild jubilation. I pressed my back into the nook of a building, terrified as the furious roar of unabated adulation lingered on and on. I remember waiting for it to end, thinking that the clamor had to fade, but I was mistaken. It was just the beginning.

A man, I am told, produced a box cutter and opened his neck. The people in his immediate vicinity cheered as he quivered and sank to his knees. A woman produced a pistol, put it in her mouth, and the crowd behind her was misted with an aerosol of blood and brains. They whooped and whispered alleluias in acclamation. An antenna was twisted off a car and a man shoved it through his eye into his brain. If you really want to leave this life, there are exits everywhere.

From the platform, Juanita watched as thousands stabbed, gouged, and shot themselves, swallowed vials of pills, poured insecticide down their throats, poured gasoline over their heads and lit the match. Juanita was glowing with peaceful calm as she held out her tiny hand, and a sound tech gave her a microphone. She spoke for the first time anyone could remember. "He," she began, "the manifestation of God Almighty, has shown you the way. It is now, as it has always been, for each individual to choose their own path. Will you follow? Will you choose life everlasting, basking in the golden joy of his presence, or will you choose suffering on a dying planet? Choose, for when I follow, heaven will be closed forever, and this world, this universe, will no longer be in the eye of the Lord."

That was the last official statement and the second to the last official footage the world received from Juanita Ramirez, but that's all the world needed of her. The message now was apparent and the way clear.

There were over four hundred thousand reported suicides in New York City that day. Globally, another seven million. The Internet burned with images of suicides, only no one called it suicide, they called it following.

Following became the way of the world.

People followed Santos in every way possible. They did it alone and in mass. Fountaining was popular. Hundreds of people would race to the top of a selected skyscraper and, in a holy fervor, leap. The bodies would flow off the roof cascading down in a steady stream, falling like droplets of water, splattering on the pavement, or bursting on the hood of cars. Others held swing parties. Bridges worked well for that. The Golden Gate holds the record. Five hundred and fifty one believers put nooses around their necks and followed Santos one brisk afternoon. The most dangerous act of mass following was incineration. Hundreds of people would crush into a house and open a natural gas line. An open flame, a candle or lantern, would be set in an attic or upper floor of the house. The people would die of cerebral hypoxia, and their bodies would be incinerated in the explosion. This, of course, always seemed to kill many others not intentionally following.

A controversy arose from that, perhaps the single wrinkle for the believers. If people died of natural causes or were killed by another's hand, would they go to paradise? If people did not purposefully take their own lives, would they be following? There were opinions on both sides of the issue. Those who were most anxious to get it right slit their throats, left handed across the right jugular, just like Santos. The more casual believer was under the impression that anyway you left this world, as long as you left before the cloistered Juanita, bought you a ticket to heaven.

Santo's death ignited six years of... what do I call it? What can I call it? On average five million believers committed suicide each day. Up until then, the daily death toll, from murder, illness, accident and suicide, on a global basis, was closer to 150,000.

What adjective fits that period: insanity, horror, hell? What name would you put on six years of blood splattered pavement, of death, of corpses, of bloated, decomposing bodies bursting in the streets, in basements, on beaches, on riverbanks, the eye sockets of their skulls bubbling with maggots, black funnels of flies turning like tornados on the horizon, of hungry black beetles, of vermin and circling scavengers?

And perhaps the most distressing facet of this terrible ruby was that in all of that hell, the serene follower, the happy acolytes of Santos walked peacefully through the streets, amongst the deceased, holding hands and speaking only and always of Santos.

Civilization wheezed past; death became the norm. Farmers farmed and bankers banked, and power plant men tended the coal fire furnaces that kept electricity surging through the wires, but no one was interested in the world anymore. A lackadaisical pallor fell over man's ambitious and competitive nature. The old machinery became reliably unreliable. Store shelves were seldom stocked. Trains, planes, and boats ran intermittently. No new buildings appeared in any city's skyline, nor did new housing pinch farm fields. Human expansion was no longer a goal of civilization. Schools closed. Children no longer needed to know how to count or read to any exacting standard. Universities withered, no one needed to invest himself or herself in a career or artistic discipline. The only industry that boomed was the funeral industry, and soon after the following began, it was so completely overwhelmed that, out of necessity, it was absorbed by the federal government. The once articulate and personalized care the deceased individual received was replaced with crude techniques, implemented for the disposal of the masses.

I was sixteen when Santos killed himself. I'd been raised in foster homes, and the fosters I was with were devout acolytes of Santos. Three months after he killed himself, they draped their minivan in plastic tarps and followed along with the two other orphans that lived in the house. The minivan putted in the garage all night, while I slept. In the morning, I found them and was duly horrified. I called the police, and the authorities told me to leave them in the car until removal could be arranged. I was also told that I was lucky, because it might be a week before anyone could pick them up and being in the car, under plastic, they'd be out of the way.

I had some cereal and watched TV.

The next morning I thought about contacting my caseworker, telling her that my fosters had followed, but decided to let the police tell her. A week passed. Then another. No one called. I called the police again. They retook the information and said it would be a week. That week passed. No one called.

I used up most of the household money, and decided I'd need to start taking care of myself, so I applied online for a job as a Federal Mortician. They were desperate enough to hire me. For the next five and a half years, I worked for the US Mortician Service. I did everything: I carried bodies up out of basements and down from roofs, vacuumed up the ashes of those who set themselves ablaze, tugged them out of swimming pools, cut the ropes from around their necks. I drove a greasy, black end-loader scooping up bodies and dropping them into matching dump trucks. For a while, I was a deckhand on funeral scowls, taking deceased followers out onto the ocean, and offloading corpses into green, churning, shark filled waters. I was a pyre attendant at the Tilcon Quarry in Flushing, spraying accelerant on pyramids of the dead for mass cremations.

And then, last March, just before civilization coughed and sputtered and took its last breath, Juanita opened her veins with a dagger and walked into the Amazon River at Alter do Chao. Juanita's following was recorded by a skeptic, one who had agreed to document it and put it up on YouTube. That was the last thing to be uploaded on to the Internet. Juanita walked into the river and disappeared. That was the end of it. The end of Santos. The end of Juanita and the following. Heaven was closed. God was no longer the mysterious wild card lurking in the shuffle, and the old ways passed. The television went first, then the phones and the internet. The next day the radio was gone, and a week after that, the electrical service stopped. All of those things that had glued us together were gone. The world was gone, yet I remained, and was not alone.

I had a friend, a fifty-five-year-old skeptic named Rojas. His first name was Paul, but he liked Rojas, so... He was someone I worked with at the USMS, and he had a friend, Naomi Roosevelt, a woman in her early thirties. All three of us were skeptics, wary of Santos from the start, and wary, too, of his acolytes and Juanita. Though we had nothing else in common, we, me, Rojas and Naomi banned together through the insanity.

Three years into the following, apartments and living spaces, as you might imagine, became ridiculously available, and the three of us had moved into an empty five flat not far from Central Park. After the electricity failed, Naomi and Rojas proved to be great improvisers and set us up with propane heat and gasoline powered electrical generators. We started collecting things we thought we might need to get by, but in a few days, we had a huge warehouse of tools and materials. Scavenging became something we did for amusement.

We started a garden in Central Park; we tilled several acres in the North Meadow, by the softball fields and set up a little water tower with a windmill that pumped water into the tank from the Central Park Lake. From there, we relied on gravity and long hoses to irrigate the five-acre plot. I put together a planting schedule from books I found. The biggest challenge was the wildlife eating our food. We figured that out eventually.

That first summer was a good one, quiet, tranquil. Rojas had an old portable record player, and at night, we'd sit on the roof, eat dinner and listen to records he'd scavenge during the day.

In time, we met others, other skeptics for the most part. They seemed as content as we were. Some lived in groups like we did, others lived alone. Naomi found a partner, a beautiful woman, probably a few years older than Rojas. Her name was Caroline and she was a botanist. We all fell in love with Caroline just a little, I think. Then I found a partner, too, Beth, a sweet-faced girl who was an artist. She had a garret in the village, and loved wine and music and paintings and sculpture. Sometimes we'd get lost in each other and lose two beautiful days in the garret, drinking wine and making love and dancing and eating, then we'd shift over to my place on 97th and work in the garden and get sweaty and sunburned and sleep like the dead. There were others, spread very thin across the city. Using that as a principle of logic, we concluded that there were other skeptics spread all across the continent and the world.

There were more than just skeptics out there. There were some Santos acolytes, too. We knew of a small tribe of six that, for whatever reason, didn't make Juanita's deadline. They seemed unhappy, missing the deadline we guessed. We did not know them well, but detected a discontentment in them whenever our paths would cross. Santos was gone; what would these believers, these people who ached to believe, push up on their altars?

We worried about them.

We worried about them very much.


THE END


2016 Dave Schultz

Bio: Mr. Schultz is a factory worker who received a BA in Creative Writing and an AS in Mortuary Science, both from Southern Illinois University. He's had one piece published, a short story titled “Colt 45.” It appeared in Fifth Wednesday and was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart Prize. 

E-mail: Dave Schultz

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