Donovan couldn’t recall how long he’d been walking through the hot summer heat of southern Appalachia. All he knew was that he’d transversed roughly 300 miles (about 483 kilometres) of rugged terrain, starting in what had once been the city of Roanoke, Virginia and ending in the mountainous region of what was formally called North Carolina.

Only one year earlier, a mammoth asteroid had slammed into Earth. Of the world’s 8 billion human inhabitants, it was thought that only 2 million survived. These days, though, no one could be certain of the exact toll, for the remaining inhabitants were more concerned with day-to-day survival then with tabulating such now-meaningless figures.

This much was for sure: The impact was colossal. Aside from annihilating more than 95 percent of the world’s human population, mass extinctions of both plants and animals also occurred during what would later become known as the “Longest Winter.”

For a period of 10 months after the miles-wide asteroid struck, the Earth received little to no sunlight, as the cosmic debris released into the atmosphere blocked out the Sun’s warmth. It was during this time that most humans perished from a combination of starvation and overexposure to the elements.

It was against this chaotic backdrop that Donovan wandered in solitude. However, he was one of the fortunate ones, for Donovan had spent much of his adult life preparing for this kind of catastrophic event. Though he nor anybody else could’ve predicted that a monstrous piece of space matter would crash into the planet, Donovan was fully prepared, and satisfied that his ample time spent “prepping” had come in so handy.

Throughout the entire duration of the “Longest Winter,” Donovan had hidden out in an underground heated bunker, complete with a two-year supply of food and water rations. For the past three months, he’d wandered through valleys and mountains in search of other survivors. Donovan’s search had been unsuccessful, until one fateful day when he ecstatically came across a small party of wanderers while crossing a mountain pass.

“Hello, dear friends! My name is Donovan, and I come in peace, with ample provisions.”

A group comprised of one man and two women drew closer to the solitary survivor, until they all came face-to-face. “Hello, friend,” echoed back a female voice from the group. “My name is Anju, and these are my fellow travellers, Zabreen and Elohi.”

As a show of respect, Donovan bowed his head to the three wanderers and then commented, “Those are very beautiful and original names. What are their meanings?”

Zabreen was the first to respond to Donovan’s question: “I am originally from Iran, and in Farsi, my name means one who is most uplifting.”

Anju stepped forward and said, “My family has ancient roots in India, and my name means, ‘One who lives in the heart.’

Elohi then responded proudly, “I am a Cherokee Indian, and my name means the Earth.”

Donovan bowed his head once more to the band of wanderers, and then asked how long they’d been walking for and where they’d each started from.

Anju and Zabreen were the first to respond. The pair explained that they’d been wandering for about six weeks, and had met just shortly after leaving their respective bunkers outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Following that, Elohi smiled at the small group gathered before her. She said that she’d left her sanctuary high in the mountains three months earlier, to search for survivors, and had met Anju and Zabreen only one week earlier.

The band of four began to relay some of the adventures that they’d experienced along the way. Donovan and Elohi each spoke of their encounters with wild animals. Donovan mentioned his many impromptu meetings with Black Bears; and to the amazement of all, Elohi told stories of her enchanting interactions with Elk.

In turn, Anju and Zabreen spoke of the utter devastation that they’d witnessed in the city, and how the architecture that once symbolized humankind’s hubris now lay in total ruin on the ground.

After exchanging their tales of adventure, the band decided to make camp at a gorgeous high elevation overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains. As the group began to collect firewood, Elohi quietly recited a short prayer in her native Cherokee syllabary that roughly translated in English to: “O Great Spirit, help me always to speak the truth quietly, to listen with an open mind when others speak, and to remember the peace that may be found in silence.”

Moved by Elohi’s blessing, Donovan, Anju and Zabreen smiled warmly at one another before taking a much-needed seat on the ground.

Part Two: A conversation about faith

Illuminated forest path

Gathered around a warm, crackling fire, the four compatriots began to open up to one another. Spurred on by their shared experience of having survived a profound and dramatic existential event, Donovan, Anju, Zabreen and Elohi launched into a deep conversation about the nature of the Divine and how it related to their own direct knowledge since the day the Asteroid struck.

Anju was the first among the group to share her insights:

“It’s my belief that everything in the Universe is a reflection of Brahman—or, what many people would call God. Brahman is the ultimate reality and the manifestation of both physical matter and the formless wisdom behind it. I also believe that the life-force of Brahman dwells within the depths of all beings and fills our world with peace. If each of us are blessed by its radiant presence, then that also means our lives unfold as one with Brahman. What we call fate is none other than our awareness that the Godhead is the supreme shaper and mover of the cosmos.

“On the other hand, I also believe that each of us are in control of our own destinies through the carrying out of our karma. Our thoughts, intentions, words and actions all dictate the nature of our movement towards conscious union with God. In the context of our surviving the asteroid, then, I interpret us being here as a combination of both divine and free will.

“Unquestionably, we survived against such long odds through the loving wisdom of the Divine. However, it was also our actions in response to past events in this life—and in those lives that came before—that delivered us to this moment.”

For several minutes, all were silent as they contemplated the wisdom and the inspiring message behind Anju’s words. Finally, Donovan broke the silence:

“Anju, that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. What you’re saying is that because the Creator willed for each of us to serve as His present messengers, He extended His mercy to us. It reminds me of the kind of mercy that Jesus extended to us when he died on the cross to absolve us of our sins.

“You’re also saying that our current responses to life events and our openness to God contributed to us surviving. I have one question, though: What do you mean when you refer to past events in this life and those before? Surely, you’re not implying that you believe in reincarnation? That would definitely contradict my understanding.”

Before Anju could explain the concept of reincarnation, and how it had once been accepted doctrine by early Christians, Elohi interjected in an inquisitive but respectful manner:

“Donovan, why does God have to be referred to as a HE? Could we not just call God the Creator? For example, in my tradition, our people don’t claim to explain who or what the Creator is, or assign it personal attributes. Instead, we look to the exquisite wisdom of Mother Earth to reveal the right way to live in harmony with the Great Cycle. “

“I guess God doesn’t have to be a man. That’s just what I was raised to believe, growing up in a rather strict Baptist household,” replied Donovan.

A short moment of silence passed before Zabreen, who had been intently listening to the others share, spoke for the first time about his faith:

“True faith, for me, is about much more than what name we bestow upon the Beloved. Faith is about the purification of our souls through prayer and charity. I, myself, was raised to believe that if one doesn’t follow the wisdom of our prophet Muhammad and the holy teachings of the Quran, then that person will suffer through eternity.

“But since the end of the “Longest Winter,” I have come to believe, through my direct experience, that Allah would never condemn a single being for following a separate path that leads to the same garden of abundant treasures.”

Elohi, the proud Cherokee, smiled warmly at Zabreen before sharing her conception of the Divine and how her faith had only been strengthened since the Asteroid struck the planet:

“To me, the spirit of Creation is found in the wild. The sun is my father and the Earth is my mother. The animals are my brothers and the plants my sisters. The water is my teacher and the mountains are my guide. If one wants to learn about the ways of our Creator, all one has to do is walk in silence through the forest and listen to the messages conveyed in the gently blowing wind. Mother Earth has much that she can teach us.”

“Elohi, that is among the wisest insights I’ve heard. It’s also one that is taught by the illumined sages of my own faith. Our sacred texts teach that God is omnificent. It is, and is not, simultaneously. It is both beyond and within. IT is the knower and the known, the mover and the moved, the seer and the seen,” said Anju.

As a great peace descended upon the group,  Zabreen spoke once more:

“I very much agree with Anju that all is one with the Beloved and that IT’s presence is both transcendent and imminent. Lately, it seems, my spirit has been more in tune with and aware of the inherent unity within all creation. That unity, I think, is the essence of what we call God.”

All in the circle grew silent once more, as they fell into a deep and contemplative silence. After an hour spent in total stillness, one by one, the interfaith survivors slowly stood up and retired to their tents for a night of thankful rest.

Part Three: Smoke signals in the distance

Smoky mountains

The next morning, Donovan emerged from his tent to a glorious sunrise. Along his journey, he’d mostly taken the beauty of his natural surroundings for granted. Today, however, he felt Inspired by nature and dropped to his knees, reciting a short prayer to the sun for the first time:

“Dear heavenly father, thank you for the life-giving power of the sun. May it continue to shine its light on us through our journey and may it watch over us with the spirit of Christ. Amen. “

Moments after Donovan completed his prayer, Zabreen, Elohi and Anju emerged from their tents only minutes apart, and Anju led the group through a 45-minute meditation. All then prepared breakfast in mindful silence.

Today was to be a new day. All present could feel it in the camp. Emboldened by finding one another, the band of four were determined to wander 30 miles (about 48 kilometres) across the mountains, in the next two days, to the destination of the nearest town.

After months of wandering, no survivors had been found in any of the villages, but the four fateful wanderers remained hopeful. For the first full day of the journey, the group walked in total silence, until finally stopping for the day to make camp at a breathtaking mountain overlook.

“It’s hard to believe that we walked 17 miles (about 27 kilometres) today. We’re more than halfway there”! exclaimed Anju.

Donovan replied, “You know, I’ve been thinking: What difference does it make, how far we’ve walked? It’s not very likely that we’ll find any survivors in the town. Sometimes, I ask myself what the point of all this wandering is. What if we’re the only survivors for thousands of miles? Why should we look for anyone else now? Maybe it’s enough that we found each other.”

All fell silent for a few moments, until Elohi spoke:

“Donovan, do you have faith? I mean, not just a flickering kind of faith, but a knowing where you trust with all your heart and soul in the unfolding of the Universe? The kind of faith I’m speaking about is the trust an infant has for its mother or the certainty you have that the sun will rise each morning and set each evening.”

“I have faith that my lord Jesus Christ is always watching over me and that His spirit guides me when I’m feeling lost,” said Donovan.

“OK. That sounds beautiful. Then why doubt that we’ll eventually find more survivors, and maybe even a whole community? After all, we did all find one another,” replied Elohi.

Zabreen suddenly and serendipitously interjected, “Guys, look out there!” All grew quiet again as they watched the kindhearted Sufi point his finger frantically towards the sea of mountaintops ahead. “Do you see that? It looks like smoke coming from the direction in which we’re walking. But there are no forest fires here. Not in these rainy mountains. How peculiar.”

Donovan reached for his bag and pulled out an old pair of binoculars he’d packed from his bunker. He peered through closely, and what he saw took him aback: “Zabreen is right. There is something out there. And they aren’t forest fires, either! They look more like smoke signals. Maybe someone is trying to attract attention. Maybe they’re survivors!”

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