Monday, February 07, 2005

The Visitor

I am not a fiction writer, but every once in a decade or so I feel compelled to inflict something awful upon innocent civilians. Following is such a case. (Many thanks to Chris, my editor buddy, whose suggestions have hopefully made it tolerable.) Incongruously, I wrote this modern story in what I imagine to be a Victorian style, for no better reason than that I once enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories. - Brad

It was a cold, overcast November day, the day after Thanksgiving, and having the Friday off hung heavily upon me, for I am accustomed to working on weekdays. I had lit a fire which I was trying to enjoy, had listlessly flipped through the channels, but gave up and flicked off the television. The ticking of the clock only emphasized the monotony.

As I sat blankly staring out the window, I heard a knock upon the door. As I do not have an electric door chime, but a simple metal plate knocker, the loud noise startled and annoyed me, especially as my visitor knocked not just once, but persisted in knocking, rapidly and with great force.

It was, consequently, with little grace that I moved quickly toward the door to send this salesman upon his way, for I was expecting nobody, and those infrequent times when neighbors came to call, they had the kindness not to pummel my door.

To my surprise, it was not a salesman, but a small and distressed man in ministerial garb.

"I beg your pardon for bursting in like this," he said, "but I need your assistance immediately."

Somewhat taken aback, I asked the Rev. John McElsey - for that was the name by which he introduced himself - to come in and to have a seat beside the fire, an offer which he accepted gratefully, wiping his moist brow with his shirtsleeve, although the temperature, even in my sitting room, was hardly conducive to perspiration. Then, again he apologized for his intrusion.

"Well. What can I do for you?" I asked, at once impatient about his interuption of my monotony and curious about his visit.

"I am looking for a Mr. James Babcock." he said anxiously.

"I am he."

"I'm afraid I'm looking for someone quite older. Someone who served in World War Two.

"That would be Mr. James Babcock Senior," I said. "I'm his son."

"Oh dear. Can you direct me to where I might find your father?"

"I'm afraid I cannot. My father lived with me for several years, but he just died a week ago."

"Oh dear! Oh dear!" he said. Forgive me," he said, "but I wish to be quite certain I have the right James Babcock. Did your father receive a Purple Heart for an injury he suffered at the battle of Tarawa during the Second World War?"

I stared at the man, startled, for as far as I knew, my father had never mentioned the medal to anyone, for his experiences in the war were something he kept to himself, and, in fact, I had not known about the medal myself until just recently, when I discovered it and the accompanying documentation among his effects.

"How did you know that?" I demanded.

"Oh my God, my God, my God," he said, burying his face in his hands and pulling at his hair.

I stood up. "What the hell are you talking about?" I asked.

Finally he lifted his head.

"Please let me explain from the beginning," he said.

"Please do!"

"I am the minister of St. James Church, where I have served for about eight years. I am fairly well known about town, he said, with what I took to be a flutter of pride, but it is unlikely you also know that I am - or perhaps I should say, 'was' - rather forward looking in my social and theological views. I am afraid that perhaps I was more progressive in my outlook on what conservative members of the clergy would consider 'sin' and 'theology' than was - in light of what has happened - entirely wise."

"Look," I said, "I really don't see what your views about God have to do with me, and I'd rather not be all day about this."

"Yes. Yes. I quite understand your impatience, but I promise I will tie all this together as quickly as possible."

"Thank you."

"My theology, I'm afraid, has very much to do with this. To put it simply, I believed in God no more than I believed in the Easter Bunny. And I tell you this simply because I want you to believe I am not accustomed to ... uh ... making claims about matters of ... well ... an extraordinary nature."

"Go on," I said.

"A little more than a week ago," he continued, "I was in my study trying to read, but wholly without success, for earlier in the day I had been approached by a young man on the street who said to me, 'He who has the Son has the life. He who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.' I had, of course, encountered such people before, for my stands on various issues have not been well received by the more conservative Christian community, and I have at times encountered those who have expressed their feelings to me using Biblical allusions. But it was different this time. There was ... and I find this hard to express ... something kind yet painfully intense in this young man's demeanor.

"So, as I sat trying to read, my mind was distressed. I tried to thrust away his words, but like one of those rubber balls attached to a paddle by a string of elastic, it kept bouncing back at me. Did I have the son? Did I have the life? I gave up trying to ignore the thought and tried instead to look it in the face and acknowledge it so I could get on with my reading. But far from leaving me be, it grew upon me, and finally, in frustration and anger, and despite my disbelief, I cried aloud: 'God! Go away!'

"It was in this state of mind - which I fear will lead you to believe that I am in need of a psychiatrist - that the desk and lamp before me began to move away. The room with its windows and the sofa and the very book in my hands and my hands themselves began pulling back from me. All reality, and... I can say it now... God himself, seemed to be drawing away from me.

"I can barely express how frightened I was at the thought of being left alone, and I cried out, 'No, God, come back!' And as I spoke those words the room settled back into its normal appearance, and I was left in this frightened state with the uncomfortable thought that I'd been speaking to God though I didn't believe in God. I believed in Life and the Universe and the Web of Existence, but I didn't believe in someone you could talk to. But apparently I did believe in God... more than I was hitherto willing to admit - even to myself.

"I had by this time given up my attempt at reading, and was simply sitting, shaken, at my desk. Now, despite the glow of the lamp on my desk, which continued undiminished, the room grew black and three lights appeared directly above me, and from one of them a drop fell and splashed on my head. I wiped my hand against my face and pulled it away, and discovered to my horror that my hand was covered with blood.

"'You shall be my servant,' came a voice that was both a statement and a question. It was a beautiful but frightening voice, and quite distinct to me, though it seemed inaudible to my cat, which lay upon the sofa quite untroubled, though I must say that it was not until after recovering from the shock of this message that I noticed either the cat or anything else.

"'Yes, Lord,' I said, although it seemed as if I had no choice in the matter. But on the other hand, it seems I threw my heart into the decision with a wild joy. As I did so a delerium of ecstasy rolled over me. My simple study took on a radiance. Each color emitted a vivid hue, and the stars I could see from the window shone with a purity and clarity I'd never noticed before.

"And then, after an hour or several, I don't know which, it was over. I need hardly tell you that my outlook on life changed, not to mention my theology. But in any case, a few nights later a most frightening apparition manifested itself before me in my room. I don't mean to say it was repulsive or wicked, in fact I can only describe it as beautiful and pure, to such a degree that it was painful to my eyes.

"It, or rather, 'he,' said, 'I am Michael. You shall go to James Babcock and tell him: "Prepare your heart, for you shall not live out this week."' That my message might be believed, he told me of your father's Purple Heart.

"You will scarcely credit it, recalling what I had just been through, but I'm afraid I wasn't as obedient as I should have been. On various days I started out the door, at least three times, then my steps would falter, and I would return home, feeling torn. How could I tell your father, someone I had never met, this crazy and frightening prediction? And what if it wasn't true. And now I have delayed too long and your father is gone. Oh God! Oh God!" he wailed.

"This is preposterous!" I cried. "I barely know you and I certainly don't know your crazy god. You have indeed convinced me you need a psychiatrist. Kindly leave my house at once!"

And he did, full of apologies for intruding, but moaning his "Oh Gods!" as he walked down the front path.

I slammed the door, simmering with anger, returned to my seat and stared blankly at the now-dying fire.

How did that old fool know about my father's medal? Perhaps he got it from military records and then decided to play on my father's fears.

I thought back on my father's death. In his final days, drugged to take the edge off his pain, he babbled happily but incoherently about Jesus, and about a man he barely knew who told him to repent. He was out of his mind with the illness and drugs.

Ah! Why bother thinking about this? I told myself. That reverend was a fool! If God existed, why would he send such a message to my father, who already - if you could believe his ramblings - believed in him?

Satisfied, I got up and put another log on the fire, then settled back in my chair with a contented sigh.

Suddenly my face went cold and my heart shrank.

Who was it exactly that the angel told McElsey to warn? It was James Babcock Senior... wasn't it?

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