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By Curtis Thomas
‘So, Reverend, I’ll ask you again. What are we going to do about this indiscretion?’
Reverend Holland sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. ‘Ms. Severant, I’m not sure what you expect me to do. I can’t just tell them to leave the church because they like to wear jeans on Wednesday nights.’
Ms. Severant stared at the pastor with ice in her eyes. ‘But Reverend, we have always upheld that the Lord’s followers must always look their best during service, whether it’s Sunday morning or Wednesday night. It’s an affront to God, is what it is. Your father would never have let something like this remain unaddressed.’
Mr. Holland took a deep breath. ‘I am not my father, Ms. Severant, no matter how badly we would all like that. Now, I will consider what you’ve said, and I will pray on the matter. Good night.’
‘But Reverend, I demand––’
‘Please, just Mr. Holland. I have a sermon to write, Ms. Severant, if you’ll excuse me.’
Ms. Severant stood up, glaring at Mr. Holland, nothing but the patter of rain on the small window filling the uncomfortable silence. Without a word, she stormed out of the tiny office.
Mr. Holland leaned back in his chair and shook his head. Even after four months of being pastor, the pettiness of most of the congregation still amazed him. He couldn’t believe his father had been able to put up with it for so long.
Thomas Holland’s father was the great Peter Holland, an evangelist of considerable renown. He had spent his early years traveling the globe, preaching, and bringing thousands of souls to Christ each week. As he got older and started a family, he had settled down in Sunshine Valley, Missouri and started the only church in town, appropriately and unimaginatively named The Sunshine Valley Church. The church Thomas had now taken over.
Thomas had always been expected to go into ministry, which he hadn’t minded. If it meant being connected to his dad, that was good enough for him. Thomas admired his father’s resoluteness, the certainty behind every decision he made. Thomas couldn’t even pick out a sandwich without wondering if he should have went with the roast beef instead.
So he had gone to seminary, pushing his doubts aside. It had usually felt like the right choice.
Then his father had gotten sick. The congregation at Sunshine Valley Church had asked Thomas to fill in until his father recovered. Thomas agreed.
And no one doubted he would recover, least of all, in this case, Thomas. The Great Peter Holland wasn’t like ordinary humans. He didn’t die.
Then he got worse. Thomas led the church members in prayer meetings, preached on God’s power to heal, his willingness to answer prayers.
And then the Great Peter Holland died.
So Thomas was stuck with the pastoral position. Which he would have been fine with, except for one problem: Thomas didn’t believe in God anymore. It wasn’t that his father’s death had shaken his faith--not directly, anyway. But the absence of his father’s guidance left him feeling unmoored. Without his father’s confidence, the quiet doubts he had successfully ignored for years surged forward in full force.
‘So what?’ you might be asking yourself. ‘He can just leave the pastoring job and move on with his pathetic, uninteresting life.’ Thomas had thought much the same thing more than once. But there aren’t many job opportunities for a seminary student that don’t involve God in some way, and, to be frank, he needed the money.
The rain kept pattering. Thomas found himself staring once again at the painting the congregation had given him as a gift when he first started as pastor, when it was still a temporary job. It was a large-ish image of a forest floor, of trees surrounding a small clearing. In the bushes and trees were birds--robins, finches, cardinals, sparrows. A chipmunk here and there, gnawing into acorns, a few rabbits, a squirrel. And in the clearing, in the center of the canvas, was a doe and her calf, curled up next to each other, asleep. Most people would have had a difficult time keeping their lunch down after viewing such an awful, tacky thing, but Thomas liked it. He often daydreamed of being an animal--nothing flashy, just a badger or something. No cares or worries or existential questions, just living day to day, acting on instinct.
A crack of thunder snapped him out of his reverie. He looked at the clock imbedded in a wooden cross that hung on his office wall. It was nearly eight o’ clock. Far later than he had wanted to stay. His talk with Ms. Severant had left him a nasty headache, and all he wanted was his warm bed and a hot cup of tea. He collected his Bible, a commentary on the book of Ezekiel he was pretending to study, and his rain coat.
Despite its cheery name, the church was rather drab. Doubly so at night, and triply so at night when it was raining. Built for economic efficiency, the hallways were poorly lighted, the floors often creaked, and the walls were painted a sickly off-white that was starting to peel like monstrously large scabs (ripping large swaths of the stuff had become a favorite pastime of the devilish children whose parents allowed them to roam the halls whenever they got bored during Sunday services).
The lights had been turned off for the night, the only illumination coming from the burning red EXIT sign hanging above the door at the end of the hall. Had Thomas still believed in that sort of thing, it would have been easy to imagine it was the eye of a demon.
Thomas made his way down the hall, yawning and stretching as a way of assuring himself, the demon's eye, and the terrifying portraits of the twelve disciples that lined the hall that he wasn’t afraid to be there in the night with the rain. He convinced no one.
The hall was quiet but for the sound of the rain. It felt to Thomas like the portraits were all holding their breath, tense, waiting for something. He told himself he was just projecting his own emotions onto them, and tried to steady his own breathing.
Lightning illuminated the faces of the disciples for moments at a time. They all appeared to be staring at Thomas. He could feel their eyes on him as he quickened his pace.
The thirteenth painting waited for him at the end of the hall, and he shivered with dread at the thought of walking past. Even on the brightest afternoon it made him break out in a sweat.
It was a portrait of his father. He told himself he simply wouldn’t look.
But when he reached it, he couldn’t help himself. He glanced up as another bolt of lightning lit up the hall. Later, as he ran to his car, he would tell himself it was a trick of the light, what he saw. That, combined with his achy, sleepy, overexcited mind.
It was his father, but not in the solemn, holy pose he was supposed to be making. Oily black tears streamed down the face. The eyes were moving, the whole head appeared to turn and follow Thomas, and the portrait’s hand reached out as if to stop him from leaving. It must have been Thomas’s overexcited brain that caused him to hear sobbing, too. As he slammed the door closed, he thought he could hear a voice shouting his name. A voice that sounded very much like the deep base of his father’s. Thunder rumbled across the sky.
He tried to shake the madness from his head as he drove away. It’s just my imagination, he told himself. Just my mind playing tricks on me. God, I need sleep. His hands and knees wouldn’t stop shaking.
He made it home––a small trailer parked on the edge of town. It wasn’t much, but it was all he could afford on his pastor’s salary. Woods spread out behind it, the trees imposing in the dark and rain.
As usual, he tried reading his Bible before going to sleep, in the hopes it might do...well, something. And, as usual, he was snoring by the fourth verse.
No sooner had he fallen asleep when a hand shook him awake.
The fact that a strange person had broken into his trailer and was now shaking him was startling enough, but when he looked up into the face of the intruder, he could do nothing else but scream. The hand that had woken him quickly covered his mouth to stifle the sound. It smelled like spoiled meat and dirt. He followed the arm up to the face that hovered over him.
It was his father, standing over his bed.
Or it used to be his father. It resembled him, to be sure, but it looked more like his father had he been stuffed in a box and buried under a pile of dirt for several months.
The skin was gray and oozing in several places. The eyes were a glazed, milky white. The hand covering his mouth was freezing.
‘Came to talk,’ the corpse of Peter Holland said through teeth that wobbled in black gums.
‘You’re...dead,’ Thomas managed to whisper.
‘Yes.’ He flicked a cockroach from his shoulder.
‘H-how? I mean, that--that’s not in the Bible, is it? Zombies?’ Thomas asked.
‘So none of it’s true, then?
His father’s corpse did nothing but stand there, milky eyes bearing down on him. After an age, he spoke.
‘Yes. No.’ He blinked, slowly. When his eyes met Thomas’s again, they were filled with...what? Disappointment? Shame? Fear? ‘You don’t believe.’
‘I…yes, I guess I have my doubts. I’m not like you, much as everyone would like me to be.’
The dead body shook its head slowly. Then, with his neck and face strained, as if each word was nearly too much weight to lift, he said, ‘There are always questions unanswered. There is never any certainty, son.’
Thomas scoffed. ‘You were certain about everything. All the time.’
His father shook his head again, this time more vigorously. For a moment, Thomas was afraid it would fall off. ‘No. Just pretending.’
‘Pretending?’ Thomas believed that less than he believed in people coming back from the dead to have a conversation in the middle of the night. ‘You mean to say you didn’t actually believe in anything you were preaching?’
His father sighed. His breath smelled like maggots and rot. ‘Of course I believed. But the confidence was an act. It usually is.’
‘Hmph. Well, it must be nice now. Knowing what happens on the other side.’
The glassy, dead eyes looked inward. ‘Never any certainty. Not even in death.’
The corpse reached toward Thomas’s face with a rotting hand. ‘Sleep now, son. Believe, and doubt both.’
Thomas began to protest, to try to explain how that was impossible, but then the lifeless hand touched his head, and then he was asleep.
And then he was awake again and black eyes peered into his. Hot, musty breath washed over his face. This time he was absolutely incapable of screaming.
A bear stood over him, its face inches from his own. He didn’t move. It didn’t move. It only breathed, and somehow forced Thomas to look into its eyes. They were empty--horribly, incredibly empty. Thomas wanted to look away, to squeeze his shut, but he couldn’t. And then he could feel himself falling, falling into the empty space behind those eyes, spinning and falling forever. He was able to scream, then. Then the bear was again in front of him, and, speaking without words, told him, ‘The forest. No doubt in the forest.’
Darkness overtook him.
A pale light, slipping through the window blinds, cut across his eyes. As he stretched in his too-small twin sized bed, an image of his dead father standing over him flashed in his mind. Creepy dreams, he thought to himself. (It should be noted that he wasn’t nearly as confident that it had been a dream as his thoughts make it seem. Behind the voice of reason was the sensation of cold flesh on his skin, and damp breath on his face.) He shivered.
It was Saturday, which meant he needed to go to the church and get everything ready for the service in the morning. This included writing his sermon, something he had gotten in the habit of putting off until the last minute––and even when he did get around to it, he just copied one from the internet. He also had to make sure the baptism pool was full (a middle-aged man named Pete Goulding would rededicate his life to the Lord every week, without fail, and request a baptism). He also had to pick out the music, straighten up the sanctuary, and prepare the Lord’s Supper.
He dressed, went outside, and headed towards his car.
He stopped after a few steps. Standing off to the side of the trailer was a squirrel, gray and bushy and twitching. Seeing a squirrel anywhere in town was common enough, and seeing a squirrel this close to the woods was practically guaranteed--it wasn’t something that caused one to stop in his tracks. But very rarely do squirrels beckon people to come closer.
It did it again. A curling of its finger, a nodding of its head. Thomas’s mouth hung open in disbelief. He found himself ignoring reason and walking towards the critter.
It nodded its head in greeting. Its nose twitched and its tail swished through the air. It beckoned again before darting for the woods, running into a small clearing in the brush Thomas hadn’t noticed before. Without thinking, he followed.
He was standing at the edge of the clearing, the darkness of the woods in front of him. His father’s useless advice echoed in his mind--believe and doubt both--quickly followed by the voice of the bear. No doubts in the forest.
But to go stomping through the woods because of a dream and a squirrel sounded as insane to him as it does to you. Yet, there was a path––well, less a path and more a small hole in the underbrush, but still. And anyway, a walk in the woods couldn’t do him any harm. He stepped inside.
The air became cooler almost immediately. And closer too, as if it was as afraid as he was and wanted to huddle for comfort.
Thomas stood there, just inside the entrance to that forbidding place, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Partly, anyway. As the cold and dark pressed in, he also contemplated turning around and going home.
But he thought about his father, and the disappointment in his dead eyes. And, though it felt shallow, he thought about his job, and the fact that he probably wouldn’t be able to keep it much longer of he continued to doubt everything he had to do.
He walked. The air grew colder, the woods grew darker, and Thomas grew afraider.
The small dirt path, no wider than a pocket Gideon Bible, winded its way deeper into the woods. He walked for what felt like hours--all day, for all he knew. He suspected that night and day looked the same in that place.
There were no sounds. No birds singing, no trees rustling, no squirrels chittering. Silence. The kind that imposes itself on you, guilts you into silence so you don’t interrupt. Thomas was beginning to think this had all been a very bad idea.
After what seemed like several more hours of wading through silence and dark, he thought he heard the faint popping and crackling of a fire. This simultaneously comforted and terrified Thomas. He hadn’t really considered what he’d find in the woods, so busy had he been worrying about the wiseness of his decision.
Soon after the sound of the fire came the soft glow, flickering and casting shadows on the tree branches. Thomas rounded a corner on the dirt path, and the source of the crackling and flickering could be seen fifty or so yards away. On the other side of the fire, his face partially illuminated by the flame, was a man. A small shack sat behind him.
Thomas swallowed, forcing what little saliva was left in his mouth past the large lump that had formed in his throat. He stood there for a moment, wondering if the man had seen him, wondering if he should just turn around and go back, when he called out his name. ‘Thomas. Come on, boy. Been expecting you.’ His voice sounded like a woodpecker tapping through bark.
Thomas tried swallowing again, but, his mouth being entirely devoid of moisture, only managed to cough. He walked slowly towards the fire and the gaunt face, pitted with deep shadows, that waited for him. The man’s eyes glinted in the fire from underneath a gray coon hat.
When he reached the fire, he noticed two things. The first was that the man was playing a banjo. He hadn’t noticed it before, not because the sound of the fire overpowered it, but because the banjo and the fire seemed to blend into one, as if he was playing a duet with the snapping flames. It was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began.
The next was that what Thomas had mistaken for a coon hat was an actual raccoon perched on the old man’s head. It turned and blinked its beady eyes at Thomas. It didn’t look pleased that he was there.
The man was wearing nothing but a pair of overalls. Gray hair covered his chest and arms, and gray stubble covered his sunken cheeks and pointed chin. He smiled, revealing his remaining four teeth, and spat something brown into the fire. It hissed indignantly.
‘Well now. So you made it out.’ He grinned, and continued to play his song.
Thomas, unsure of what to say, simply went with, ‘You said you were expecting me?’
‘There were whisperings. And I could hear you most of the way––you sure as hell weren’t quiet.’
The banjo kept singing with the fire while they talked.
‘But how did you know who I was? What my name was?’
‘What else could your name be?’ He spit again. The raccoon shifted its weight but kept its eyes on Thomas.
Thomas had no idea what the old man meant. He decided to move on. ‘And do you know why I’m here?’
The hermit sized him up with a look. ‘I could guess easily enough. But I’ll humor you––why don’t you sit down and tell me.’ He gestured at a log across the fire.
Thomas sat. He took a deep breath, his nostrils filling with the smell of burning wood, stale liquor, and what could only be raccoon urine.
‘It’s...my faith in God. I’ve lost it, and I don’t know how to believe again. I can’t get rid of these doubts that keep him dead in my mind. And I need to believe––for my job, for my dad––’
‘And for your happiness, right?’ the hillbilly cut him off. ‘Life was simpler when you could just believe, with a smile plastered on your face and your hands in the air? Life is just too complicated without knowing for sure, right? Too uncertain?’
The words sunk into Thomas’s gut, with all the discomfort of truth. He nodded his head.
The hermit continued. ‘And you thought this ol’ redneck could work some hillbilly magic and stop the doubting? That it?’
The banjo and the fire sang to each other in silence for a moment. The raccoon’s eyes never left Thomas’s face.
‘I guess,’ Thomas said. ‘I was told I'd find help in the woods.’
The raccoon swished its striped tail back and forth. Thomas squirmed on his log.
Another lugie flew from the hillbilly’s mouth and into the dancing, singing flames. ‘Well, you found it. And it’s true. I got some magic. Some my grammaw taught me. Some I learnt on my own. But, I’ll only tell you this once, so listen close. My magic’s permanent. There ain’t no going back.’
‘I understand,’ Thomas said, hope rising in his chest.
The hermit nodded. ‘Now, let me make sure I got this straight. You wanna git rid of all your doubting? Quit thinking ‘bout things too much? Just believe what you believe? No more questions and worry?’
‘Yes, yes! Exactly. No more questions.’
‘And you don’t care whatcha have to do?’
‘I’m already here, aren’t I?’
The hermit grinned his four-toothed-grin. ‘Well, I ‘spose you are. All right then, wait here.’
He set the banjo down and walked into his shack. The raccoon stayed on his head.
After a few moments alone in the dark with the banjo and fire, the hermit returned, holding what looked like the kind of jug the Beverly Hillbillies used for moonshine. ‘Here. Drink this, and your doubts will be put out. Like piss on a fire.’ He cackled.
Thomas took the jug. The hermit sat down and picked up the banjo, but didn’t play it.
Thomas sniffed the jug’s contents. It smelled like gasoline and damp soil. He squeezed his eyes shut and put it to his lips.
It was silent as the potion reached his mouth--even the fire stopped its singing. Then he drank, and the stuff burned a trail down to his stomach. It tasted like dead leaves, moist earth, sweet rain, and hot, hot fire. As soon as he swallowed, the fire and the banjo resumed their song in full force. The song was fast, and kept getting faster, and faster. Impossibly fast. Inhumanly fast. And he heard the hermit, cackling and cackling. Or was that the fire, too?
He opened his eyes and cried out. Inches from his face was the raccoon, its small, black eyes staring into his own. He couldn’t turn his head––he had no choice but to stare back. Within the raccoon’s eyes he could see the reflection of the fire. Two roaring, pulsing flames, dancing and singing and laughing. But something was happening to them. The reflection was shrinking, or moving farther away. As it shrunk, he could feel something shrinking in his eyes, something warm that was dying, leaving coldness, leaving nothing, in its wake. The dancing flame retreated into the dank caverns of the raccoon’s eyes, shrinking, and shrinking, until it was a twinkle, until it was gone. The eyes were empty, his eyes were empty. Wind rushed through them. A lonely, angry howl.
Pain exploded across his body. He doubled over and fell to the ground. He screamed and screamed again. The wild banjo, the singing fire, the cackling hermit, reached an even more feverish pace.
The fire went out as the singing and howling and laughing stopped.
In the darkness, a raccoon darted away from the campsite, into the woods.
The hermit sighed. ‘It’s always fun while it lasts,’ he said as he stooped down to relight the fire.
With the fire going again, he picked up his banjo and leaned back in his rocking chair. ‘All this banjo picking wears a man out. I’d say it’s time for a nap, eh?’
His raccoon, still perched on his head, agreed by curling up to sleep.
Curtis Thomas is a recent graduate of Missouri State University, where he studied English. He currently teaches broadcast journalism and film at a high school in Springfield, MO. Previously his work has been published in Yellow Medicine Review.