They’re lined up along the edge of the park in their red burlap robes, yokes around their necks, black ash like charcoal smeared across their foreheads. Their eyes are fixed on some faraway point, perhaps a distant cloud, and do not waver. Their faces are stern. The afternoon sun beats down on them and sweat beads their flushed faces, especially the women in their biblical head coverings. The men are bareheaded. They carry heavy wooden staves in one hand; with the other they hold up hand-lettered cloth signs like scrolls.
“Warning!!! Turn your eyes toward Memphis (Egypt), for out of it shall come the great confusion.”
“Oh daughter of my people, gird thee with sackcloth and wallow thyself in ashes. Make thee mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation, for the spoiler shall suddenly come upon us.”
A gust of wind makes the signs flutter like pillowcases on a clothesline. Can these apocalyptic figures be real? Or did they materialize from all of our thoughts, the rage that percolates and simmers underneath everything we do? They can’t be real–the cops haven’t moved in. Police are a constant presence now. They occupy our town as if it were a conquered nation. They sneer at us through the windows of their patrol cars, and the war goes on and on. Nixon bypassed all the checks and balances and unilaterally invaded Cambodia. Protests have erupted all over the nation. Four students have been gunned down at Kent State, two at Jackson State.
“Who are you guys?” I ask the man on one end of the line. “Where did you come from?”
He doesn’t look at me. None of them do. They don’t move. They don’t say a word.
I walk past them. Their signs all scream dire warnings about the end of a corrupt, greedy nation. Their robes, their signs, and their grim faces all fit right in with the way I feel. At the other end of the row is a folding chair with a shoebox full of leaflets and a sign: “Take one!” I pick up one of the pamphlets and read:
“The Prophets of Doom of ‘The Children of God’ in dramatic demonstrations across the nation are warning of the death of the nation in the red sackcloth of mourning, the yoke of bondage and the rod of judgment and bearing the scrolls of prophesy. In thundering silence they have stood in vigil between the violence of revolution and the sins of the system from White House to capital, UN to cathedral, and from coast to coast!”
I turn and stare at them. Now that I think about it, my own mind wouldn’t have created those sackcloth robes and yokes. I would’ve come up with something more like the grim reaper with a scythe or a medieval executioner with an axe–curved blade on one side and a point on the other.
Farther down the loop is a bus. A sign on the side reads “The Prophet Bus. Get on for free food, music, love.”