Last month, I began the story of Aaron, a destitute man subsisting in a garbage dump until he builds up the courage to explore the Cave that Eats Men’s Souls. At least, that was the story handed down for generations. Admittedly, an ugly beginning, Aaron meets a man inside the cave who shows him how to get clean. Part 1 ends as a new life begins for Aaron.
Aaron leaned back in his chair and sighed. Never before had he enjoyed the satisfaction of a full belly. In this banquet room, he had sampled perhaps a dozen of more than a hundred choices offered to him. He had cleaned his plate twice. It remained in front of him as clean as if he had never touched it!
The Man who escorted him smiled. “Whenever you’re ready for more, the feast is available to you.”
Aaron could feel nutrients coursing through his body, giving strength where starved weakness had once been his sole identity. He imagined it would take days before he would feel such hunger again.
The Man said, “Don’t wait too long. There is no need for frailty here. Eat when you get hungry.”
Startled by the Man’s ability to read his mind, Adam blurted out a nervous question. “Am I allowed to explore the cave?”
“Certainly. This room is only the first marvel for you to experience.”
No wonder no one ever returned to the garbage dump! What man in his right mind would choose to go back?
Aaron and the Man spent several days exploring the cave. Or perhaps the tour lasted for weeks or months. Time wasn’t on Aaron’s mind. Each room offered several corridors to other rooms, each containing its own beauty and light and banquet table. He saw underground rivers and waterfalls, plant life that bloomed without sunlight, animals who wandered contentedly feeding from the same tables that Aaron visited. He met others like himself, their awed smiles indicating the same amazement as his own.
While Aaron and the Man relaxed on the shore of a crystal lake, the Man posed a question. “Are you willing to go back to your world and tell others about this place?”
Go back? To hunger? To stink? To violence over a scrap of food? To leave this glorious exploration forever?
The Man intruded on Aaron’s thoughts. “No, not forever. You can visit whenever you wish.” He stretched his arms in front of him then spread them apart. “As you can see, there is room for every person who lives in the dump.”
“And I could come back?”
The Man smiled. “This is your home now. Some day you will come back forever. For now, I’m asking you to bring others home on your visits.”
Aaron thought of all the spindly-legged children, the old man who had offered him half of the leftovers in the fried chicken box, even the guy who had slashed Aaron’s hand, his desperation certain that a stranger was trying to grab instead of give.They could also have more than they had ever imagined. He nodded. “I will go.”
They walked down a long corridor. Rounding a corner, most of the cave’s light disappeared. Aaron remembered a similar walk in the opposite direction. They continued away from the light, but the dazzling clean of their clothing allowed them to see. They approached the exit from the cave and the dim gray beyond. Aaron and the Man stepped outside.
The stench overpowered him. He had forgotten! Piles of refuse rose up in front of them. His heart pounded. He couldn’t stay out here! Aaron hung his head and stared at the ground. What! He was back in his filthy rags! Horrified, he looked to the Man for help. The Man was still clean. What had happened?
“Look beneath the rags,” the Man said.
Aaron pulled his shirt away from his chest. Clean dazzled his eyes.
“You need to look like them on the outside,” the Man explained. “They’ll know you’re different, but seeing the clean is too much for them out here. If they follow you home, they can get clean, too. Tell them that.”
“Where will you be?” Aaron asked. “Will you come with me?”
“Of course. Clean is who I am.” With those words, the Man wrapped him in a hug. With a last affectionate knuckle-rub to Aaron’s head, He walked back into the cave.
Once Aaron wound his way through once-familiar paths, he told everyone he met to head for the cave. He told them of the food, of the wondrous sights, and especially of the Man. Many of the children scampered in that direction as fast as their broken feet could carry them. Others were skeptical.
“You don’t look any different to us,” they said. “Same shoes that are flapping apart, same stinking shirt and pants. Now, you’re just crazy.”
“No thanks,” said others. “We may not get enough to eat here, but how do we know that the dragon didn’t send you out here to lure us to our deaths? No. We’ll stick with what we know.”
“Sure, sure,” said another group. “Head for the cave? Okay.” Then they headed in the opposite direction.
Aaron called after those individuals. “No, the other way. You’re going the wrong way.”
They just waved him off. “We’ll get there.”
Some of his friends even got angry. “So the dump isn’t good enough for you anymore? You think you’re better than us? Don’t kid yourself. You ain’t any different from the rest of us.”
“I know!” Aaron said. “I was no different. But the cave makes everyone different.” They turned their backs. Some even raised a fist or found a stick to chase him away.
A few listened. For many, many years, Aaron slogged through the dump, crisscrossing hundreds of paths, always with the same joyful message. With one or two at a time, he led the way back through narrow trails of garbage and stepped into the cave with them. What a glorious respite!
One day, when Aaron was so ancient that his bones ached with every step, the Man came strolling up to him as he rested on a pile of old newspapers. “Time to come home,” he said. Aaron’s rags fluttered to the ground. Together, he and the Man bounded over the dump on strong legs, arriving at the cave in an instant.
And they lived happily ever after.