May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
March 20, 2012
In the days when our courthouse was being built, a mason—we don’t know who—came to our village in the night and inscribed a simple phrase on the building’s cornerstone: God’s will be done. We were, at first, outraged that someone had dared to soil our builder’s work, but over the course of generations, the mason’s phrase became our prayer, our devotion. Even now we gather at the courthouse every morning and evening and say those four words. It’s our way of life and God blesses the citizens who heed these words.
And we are blessed. We fish the wide river that flows around us and farm the bottomlands near the banks where the soil is rich. We have four seasons, and our children love them all. Our island is not large, maybe a hundred acres or so, connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge. Not many visit and our lives were quiet until Jonas Tillbottom came our way and tried to ruin us.
Jonas was an unassuming man and we liked him that way, a carpenter and poet, a lover of wood and words. Over the course of the summer, he felt God’s call and added his name to the list of men who desired to offer their lives by assuming the role of Village Pastor. Our beloved pastor, Elder Ingold, had died in the early spring, and the time for a new pastor was coming soon. The drawing of a minister was a sacred event, sometimes happening only once in a lifetime, and we were excited to see whom God would choose.
The Sunday of the Lot was humid. The river was low, stranding the skeletal bridge on its pilings above the stinking muck. Little green pools of water bred gnats and mosquitoes, and though they annoyed us, we tolerated them because little creatures have the right to live too. We gathered at the courthouse lawn. Mayor Martin stood on the platform next to his wife, who held seven hymnals, and asked the supplicants to come forward. The men came to the stage, and Mrs. Martin laid the hymnals in a row on a table. We hushed and our children stopped squirming. Each man walked to the table and picked up a hymnal, his hand guided by God. Mayor Martin read Scripture from First Timothy, a passage we knew by heart, about the character of elders and how they must be temperate and have only one wife and not be given over to heavy drink. Some of us say they saw Jonas fidget, shifting his weight from foot to foot, but others say he seemed unmoved, maybe even bored. Mayor Martin prayed and the men opened their hymnals and Jonas drew the Lot, a red strip of paper with a passage from John printed on it. One by one the men filed off the stage until only Jonas and Mayor Martin were left. Then Jonas carefully removed his shirt and Mayor Martin pricked his shoulder with a pin until a little bloody cross was visible to us all. He didn’t show the pain, and we all prayed for his faithfulness. “God’s will be done,” the mayor said.
The iron gates were opened and we proceeded to the cemetery lawn on Church Hill. The willows swayed in the hot breeze, sweeping over the graves, keeping time with the hymns we sang. Jonas’s celebration lasted into the evening. We pulled the torches from the church basement and stuck them in the grass. Our children played hide-and-seek among the headstones and markers while we sat contentedly in conversation, our bellies full of cake and punch. The clouds raced across the face of the moon and Jonas sat close to Mary Miller in hushed conversation. We still wonder what words they exchanged.
The following Sunday Jonas preached his first sermon. It wasn’t the best sermon we had ever heard, but it was acceptable. “Love is patient, love is kind,” he explained. We know these things—they are dear to our hearts—and it seemed to us an easy topic to preach on, but he was young and just beginning his service. We thought he would get better with time and, indeed, he did improve a little. We watched the summer pass and the river fill with autumn rains. We harvested our corn and turned our gardens under and thanked God for His many gifts.
* * *
At first the wet snow was a welcomed diversion from the gray of winter. It came down steadily for two days, piling up on trees and roofs. Our children sledded down Church Hill, and Jonas watched their play. He was good with our children, giving them peppermint sticks and caramel chews and hot chocolate, so of course they loved him; in fact, we thought he seemed more comfortable with our children than with us. It didn’t take long for word to spread that Mary Miller was with Jonas in his study during those snowy days. The children said that they saw her pale face staring out at the whiteness through the glass.
The air warmed, turning the snow to rain, and the river swelled and rushed under the bridge in a spewing mass and soon overcame our village, toppling our trees and taking our soil. It even heaved a boulder in front of the cemetery, blocking the gate so only the smallest of our children could squeeze through. We thought God to be angry at us, so Jonas held a meeting and prayed to God to stop the rain. It was his first test, but God didn’t hear Jonas’s prayer: the days were loud, the nights long.
It wasn’t until March that we were able to clean up the village. We cut up branches and split fallen trees; we shoveled mud; we tore down some buildings and refurbished others; but the rock remained, so we made a new gate into the cemetery.
Mary Miller suggested that our children decorate the boulder, saying that art could transform it from an eyesore to a story. We agreed, and one Saturday in early April we took our children to the rock. Mary was there with supplies, and they spent the day working. On Sunday, after the service, we admired their work. There were handprints, butterflies, rainbows, and suns. There were portraits of Jesus with children, and there was even a drawing of Jesus raising Lazarus. It was a beautiful rock.
That was the Sunday that Mary began coughing, and she grew worse as the weeks went by, her cough coming from deep within her heaving chest. Some of us thought it was the paint that made her ill, but most believed it was the wet weather. Jonas was downcast much of the spring. His sermons became shorter and he missed meetings. Mayor Martin called the councilmen to a special session. We tried to be understanding, to show him grace, but we the village couldn’t be without a pastor for long. He was warned and put on probation.
We thought of sending Mary away. Across the bridge and through the long stretch of forest was an inn for the sick, but she didn’t have the strength for the journey, so we called a prayer meeting. Mary Miller lay shriveled on the altar. We cried at the sound of Jonas’s weak voice and commiserated with his sorrow. He called for a day of fasting. Our children, who loved Mary most of all, gathered small rocks from the river and painted them, and soon the entrance to her home was stacked knee-high with colorful stones. But prayer didn’t help Mary Miller. Doctor Anderson was finally called and, because we knew him as a jovial man, we could tell that Mary’s future was bleak when he emerged from her house with a gray face.
“She’s very ill,” he told us. “I can do nothing.”
Mary Miller died in June. Who can stop the will of God? Jonas couldn’t do the service, and though we understood his sadness, it was his responsibility. He should have kept his distance from her. We wondered if there was a romance between them, but it was the wrong time to ask. Mayor Martin reluctantly led her funeral service, lauding Mary’s strength and faith. “She was the Virtuous Woman,” he said, and we all agreed. We buried her three days later and our children gathered around the mound of dirt and sang. Jonas was silent.
Two days after Mary was buried, we saw Jonas, dirty and disheveled, wandering the streets, carrying a shovel. He went to Mary’s grave and dug. What drunken mumblings came from inside the gaping hole we do not know—maybe he was possessed by the devil or maybe he conjured a pagan magic—but one thing was clear: when he climbed out of the hole, he had Mary by his side.
He paraded his risen love through the village with childish glee, but all who saw them shut their doors and windows. No shops served him bread and his post wasn’t delivered. Who can walk after death? Death is our reminder that no matter what progresses may occur during our short lives, we can’t escape Last Breath. Mayor Martin arrested Jonas, and Mary was kept in a cell that we converted from a Sunday school room.
* * *
Summer faded and the willows were still. During the day our children played, stopping at dusk when the forest’s long shadows stretched across the river and night tried to blacken the stars. October’s color was strong, and our river flowed wide. The crops were hardy and the pumpkins turned orange. Things were as they should be.
Justice was swift. Jonas was found guilty of fouling God’s will by raising Mary Miller from the dead. That evening we took Jonas to the bridge. Mayor Martin read the verdict and asked Jonas if he had any words. He was silent and didn’t look at us. Then Mayor Martin drew the knife and slashed the cross on Jonas’s shoulder before sending him away. Banishment is worse than death because when your home is cut from you, you’re nobody. Jonas walked across the bridge and didn’t once look back.
We tried to keep our children away from Mary, but they flocked around her cell and told her of Jonas’s fate. She wailed and the owls answered her screeches and our children were frightened. We had to decide what to do with her. Some said that they didn’t like her locked up in the church basement because they could hear her voice rising through the furnace grates when we sang our hymns on Sunday mornings. Others said she smelled of death, including the janitor, who said that no amount of lemon balm could rid the building of her stench. In late November the councilmen met for nearly a week and deliberated Mary’s fate. Mayor Martin announced the decision.
“We have to undo what Jonas did so we can return to God His will,” he said
December was cold. We led Mary to her painted boulder by the old cemetery gate. The machinist, a large, blind man who never spoke, drilled a hole into the rock and fastened an iron ring into it. He shackled Mary to the rock. She did not cry, nor did she refuse our children who touched her until we had them sent home. We gave her water to drink.
On Christmas Eve, a cold wind rushed down the river and bore through our village. Mary died the next day and we felt lightened, as if our breath could again move freely through our lungs. The machinist loosened her chains and we watched him stumble along with her frozen body. He took her to the river and with a great heave, he pushed her across the ice and she broke through, slipping into the black water, returning to God His will.
Chad Gusler has an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. He teaches at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.