The Ninth Bullet

by Gene Brode, Jr.

When Ravi Rao endured the torture of Islamist radicals during what would become his final mission trip to Chad, he had known beforehand the high probability of such a fate. Nevertheless, he had determined to follow Yeshua no matter what the outcome. After three weeks of fasting and long nights spent in blissful prayer, the elders of his small church in Gujarat laid hands on him and sent him out with a joyful willingness to endure whatever harm man would do to him. One afternoon in the second week of his trip, a small band of radicals attacked near the border of Cameroon, where Ravi preached the gospel to some villagers under a lean-to. They dragged him away by horseback, leaving the fearful listeners in a cloud of dust. Henceforth, he did not expect to enjoy so much as thirty seconds of physical comfort. But that is exactly what happened just before he died, and it was indeed a miracle. 

During a month-long imprisonment with unpredictable intervals of torture and suffering, he would often pray for death. Bound hand and foot in a cold, dark shed too small to lay down in, he was to the point of despair where he would renounce his faith in Yeshua, hoping that his torturers would end his life or—mercy of mercies—just let him go. The darkness pressed in. His captors withheld food and water most days. Mostly, they came to douse him with acid or beat him with iron tools. His torturers would hardly utter a word in the shed, and it struck Ravi that they did not truly want to convert him. He slept with his legs curled up to avoid contacting the corner of the shed where the smell of urine and feces lingered. The only distraction came from the sounds that slipped under the heavy wooden door. Children played in a nearby courtyard, their laughter echoing around the compound. The bleating of a sheep, a man shouting, hoofs and sandals padding the earth, some kind of struggle and then, in the silence, the patter of liquid gently striking a metal basin, brought to mind his youth when Ravi’s father would sacrifice a young goat to Agni. 

When sleep refused him, he sat or crouched, utterly ashamed in the long periods of solitude when his pain would subside and his faith would strengthen, and he had time to contemplate his willingness to abandon the faith. Unlike the irrepressible apostles who continued preaching after receiving beatings and dishonor, he considered himself unworthy to suffer for the name he’d preached, for never before had he met such resistance. Would God smile on a vacillating prophet who longed to save his own life? Surely, the Scriptures said something, but he could not bring it to mind. He was even past the point of remorseful weeping over his sins, though he did not realize that his physical suffering—starvation, sleep deprivation, and festering wounds—had overwhelmed him and prevented him from crying any further, for his body was beginning to fail. There was no one else to see him and if there had been, they would not have known about his internal moral failings, his doubts, his desire to turn away from Yeshua with all his heart, if only to find a moment of comfort in his body. And even if someone were able to know the heart of Ravi Rao, sin and all, they would not have been able to explain that what was happening to him was not a departure from his faith, but was in fact the effects of an undiagnosed cancerous tumor on his brain stem which impaired his thinking and would have caused his death in ten weeks, anyway.

On Ravi Rao’s last morning, his captors dragged his weakened body out into the sunny courtyard of their compound. The sun reflected off the hot sandy ground and the bleached mud wall of the shed where Ravi had spent thirty-two long days that bled seamlessly into night and back into day. They dropped him on his face, sand scraping the open wound around his left eye. Weakened and delirious from dehydration, he had no energy to respond with as much as a wince. He heard what sounded like three men speaking to one another in Arabic. One of them kicked Ravi in the ribs and directed some words to him. 

Fluent in Hindi, English, and French, Ravi knew only enough Arabic to understand that the men were commanding him to deny his faith in Yeshua. He had heard this phrase before, both while in captivity and from the reports of others to whom he’d ministered in the surrounding villages. Something of a last chance when one’s captors had no more reason to keep possible converts alive. While the suffering man lay there with his bleeding face in the hot grit, he despised himself for not being able to make a better stand—any stand—for his God. Unaware that his brain condition was retarding his decisions and blocking the memory of the stands he had already made, he forgot that he had been captured for preaching the gospel in Muslim villages and for the strength and support he’d given to the local pastors and churches. He forgot about the secret hours spent in prayer and fasting, both back home and during the early part of his captivity, when his captors neglected to feed him and Ravi turned it into an opportunity for worship. In fact, with the tumor’s growth, he could not even recall where he was or how he had gotten there. It was in this confused and desperate state, hoping to save his life, that he decided to submit to the enemy by renouncing Yeshua. Ravi Rao shook his head in disgust, loathing his own cowardice. His captors interpreted this negative response as a refusal to submit. One of them shouted in Arabic, “Slay the pagan!” and the three men shot Ravi Rao over a dozen times in the back.

A silent group of ten men and a few boys as young as six years old had surrounded the three gunmen in the bright noonday to witness the death of another infidel. The leader fired his only shot first, then the other two men emptied their guns into the man struggling to hold onto his faith. In a matter of five seconds, they had fired all their bullets into him. Then they left him to die alone. 

The first bullet pierced his ribcage but missed all vital organs. The second and third likewise. The fourth bullet nicked a kidney. The fifth his hip, the sixth his shoulder, the seventh his stomach. The eighth bullet finished shattering the hip, that the fifth one cracked. Ravi’s reflexes caused him to twitch some as each nerve received its stimulus, sending signals to his brain and forcing a painful grimace onto his face. The pain and horror he experienced were indescribable and surprising; not at all what Ravi expected as he had thought about—longed for—death in the remorseful solitude of the torture shed.

The ninth bullet hit the tumor on the base of his skull and dislodged it from his spinal cord. In removing the tumor from the spine, two things happened. The first was the severing of the nerves coming from his body. This, in effect, blocked all the pain. As he lay there staring at the sparkling earth, it took a few seconds for this to register. The remaining bullets pierced his sides and a lung and grazed his left ventricle, but he did not feel any of them and his reflexes did not respond. What he felt was the absence of pain—he felt nothing. For the first time in 32 days—ever, really—Ravi Rao felt nothing at all. No nerves communicated with his brain and there was no physical sensation to experience from his entire body.

The second result of the ninth bullet was something of a twofold miracle. As Ravi’s body lay bleeding into the sediments of granitic gneiss deposited long ago from Lake Chad, and with his pain now wiped away, he was able to think and remember with utmost clarity for the first time in weeks. He smiled. The sandstone earth glimmered around his body and he could see the gentle yellow tones of mud huts and walls. The dry grass roof of the nearest hut was fuzzy in his peripheral vision. Though he could not move his head, he sensed the torture shed from the corner of his eye and caught the movement of the group who had come to watch him die. The heat rose in a vapor beyond them. For five seconds, he reveled in clarity.

He opened his lips and began to praise God, knowing full well that he would die. With a gurgling in his throat, Ravi Rao sang Psalm 17, his words unrecognizable due to the blood he had coughed up. Nevertheless, he sang with as much gusto as his body would allow for the next twenty seconds.

Ravi Rao’s vision fully cleared now, and he focused on the dispersing crowd of witnesses. The last to look back at him was a little boy trailing behind the rest of the group, who had stopped walking and was now staring at him with curiosity. The boy glanced at the crowd. He slowly approached Ravi. The two stared at one another for a few seconds. Ravi Rao opened his mouth to speak, garbling the seventh verse of his song, “Wondrously, show your steadfast love, O Savior of those who take refuge in You.”

He hoped with this utterance to give glory to God and meant it as something of a prayer for the young boy, but his throat only rattled out noise. In his final seconds, he thought his vision was failing and knew he was about to die. He saw the boy transfigured; no longer was there a brown-skinned child, but a beaming and glorious brilliant man silently beckoning him with an outstretched hand. This moment. So tranquil and pregnant with hope. 

After he died, Ravi would see the same man often in the Kingdom of Heaven. They would break bread together with other martyrs and worship the Lord in the midst of the great congregation. But in this final moment, there stood a child before him, listening to Ravi’s raspy French and hearing it as clear, fluent Arabic. The child’s eyes widened as he heard this petition, the last words from the dying lips of a mutilated infidel whose false faith and spirit should long since have broken. Thus, a gospel seed infiltrated the soil of an enemy’s heart; a seed that would sprout up and bear the fruit of faith and eternal life. Not for another thirty-four years would Ravi learn all that this young boy would accomplish in the power of his Lord for the lost people of Chad because of Ravi Rao’s final words, his words of Scripture. And it would be then, in the kingdom of Heaven, that the two would meet again and fully understand and rejoice over their earthly suffering for the sake of Yeshua.

Gene Brode, Jr. earned his BA in Spanish from George Mason University and has been writing short fiction for over 25 years. He works in the fire alarm industry and is the author of a 40-day devotional for backsliders. He lives in Northeast Ohio with his wife and son.

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