Truth is stranger than Fiction…for several reasons, according to the related quotes and permutations of the ‘original’ from Mark Twain.
What’s happened in the past two and a half years, so much of which is catalogued on this blog, doesn’t make sense. And yet it’s happened, and it is reality–it is Truth.
Before the real drama started–i.e., before the Ss got hostile–I began writing a short story, my first foray into allegory. At least, that was the plan. It was entitled, ‘Foothold in Churchville.’ It was dual-inspired by John Buchan’s Witch Wood and, of course, the developments in A. Church and its locale (‘Churchville’).
Imagine my surprise when I looked it up today, after 3 years in the archives, and read what I’ve included below.
There had already been red flags, warnings that the churchy majority culture in the area was not all it appeared to be, and the event which precipitated the writing of this story was not actually something that happened in A. Church, but rather its neighbour down the road, which had just kicked out its pastor. The story was supposed to be about discovery of the ‘foothold’ (the biblically literate reader will know whose) and revival. Then, I may have entertained some unspoken, subconscious fantasy that it was prophetic. Perhaps it was, in a way…
A Foothold in Churchville (September 2013)
When Alban MacDiarmiad arrived in Churchville after a year abroad, he was incensed. When he’d come back for a periodic visit in the three or four years before, things had been different. Before he never had any reason to not be very happy to be back in the neighbourhood where he’d spent his summers and Christmases after his parents divorced. Their split had left him bitterly disappointed with both of them, and when the opportunity to live with his uncle for the remainder of his undergrad years presented itself, he took it without a second thought. After graduation, he went further afield to graduate school, and then further still across the sea. But his visits twice to thrice a year came soon enough. He would step out of some nondescript but nice rental car, breathe deeply but softly, listening for the sounds of the livestock in the scattered farms, the wind whipping across the fields (though now it drove through lines of corn rather than the white whirl of Midwestern snow), the smells of earth and animals and wildflowers filling his nose and lungs. So different from the fume-filled atmosphere of bustling university towns.
This time, he stood at the end of his uncle’s drive and scrutinized the landscape and neighboring houses with what approximated, for him, a scowl. It softened after a few moments, and after taking in all the view, it melted into a sad half-smile. While driving, the anger had risen to its peak as he neared the parsonage and church, a pair of white simple edifices blinking out from the green of woods and fields. In his cynicism, Alban thought of the whitewashed sepulchers. But his eyes moved again over the rolling hills, caught sight of the sleepy farm buildings in the twilight, and he knew that the sepulcher was not proper for the white patch even while the car seemed hesitant to approach.
When he’d first come to know this place, he’d found it the very image of bucolic peace and simplicity, an idyllic pastoral Arcadia, where all were family, looked after one another, even the cattle were happy, all the people praying and waiting faithfully for the rain.
But the golden veil had been quickly, almost cruelly, torn away, to reveal something no one, especially someone like Alban, could have expected. Something cold, apathetic; a bitterness, even resentment and hatred. And it was those few amongst the inhabitants themselves who had disclosed it; they had begun to take off the masks they didn’t even know they wore. It was like Tarrytown of once upon a time, but no headless Hessian roamed the woods in the autumn night. The devils, particular rather than unique to this vicinity, came out in the daylight here, even to, even beyond, the threshold of the church door.
With a sigh Alban pulled his suitcase from the trunk. These past couple of years, his uncle and cousin almost never heard him arrive, but the caramel-colored cat Pfudor greeted him on the front porch.
“Welcoming committee,” Alban said, stretching out his free hand to the twitching pink nose. He put the purring fluff on his shoulder, and went in.
Though it was summer, and though the greetings exchanged between Alban, his uncle, and his cousin were warm, when the three of them had gathered in the living room later that night, more than one of them thought the room would have been improved by a lit fireplace. Even the cat, seemingly unbothered by the Midwest heat, stuck close by Alban. The three all sat on separate sofas facing the centre of the room, the better to see one another as they talked, though in point of fact, they didn’t talk much. Alban cradled a short whiskey and soda, while both the Rev. Rhos and his daughter Bridget chose to warm themselves with late-night sweet coffee. They spent several moments in silence, Alban half-smiling with relief that they were finally in the same room, and that the other two looked well…
“Perhaps, Uncle,” Alban began, “you should tell me the latest.”
“Well, where to start?” The minister’s face seemed suddenly tired, and Alban realized his uncle’s thoughts had been turned by his prompting. “I suppose I’ll say it straight out: Greg Mannix has been asked to leave.” The nephew looked at him intently, waiting for him to offer explanation.
“Mannix? At Pilgrim Street church? If you’re telling me this way, I’m assuming it’s a bit—sudden?”
“That’s the way I saw it.”
“Don’t be mysterious,” Alban said. “He’s done good work there. Why should he be asked to leave? Or better yet, I’ll ask this—who wants him to go?”
“I don’t know, and neither does he.”
“Does he know the reason?”
“Not that I’m aware,” his uncle replied. The reverend looked at his coffee, contemplating whether it was worth taking a sip to make a point. Finlay Rhos was not typically described as loquacious, but neither was he known for being laconic. Alban didn’t know what to make of his short answers.
“How did he hear that anyone wants him to go at all?” After a few moments of silence, his cousin broke in.
“You wouldn’t believe it if we told you,” she said.
“Look,” said Alban, sitting up straight and waking the cat, “just get it all out. I can’t imagine this is all so dramatic as you two seem to think. You said something was going on, and now I’m here, and you can’t help beating about the bush. Has there been a scandal with Pastor Mannix?”
“Yes, but not in the way you might think,” said Rev. Rhos. “Two weeks ago, the head of his council called and wanted him to meet with the elders.” He waited a moment. Alban smiled a little, nodded.
“I suppose there’s not much unusual in that? Or was it not scheduled?”
“It wasn’t,” his uncle replied. “But they met. And, ah, the elders told Greg he would have to leave.”
“You said he doesn’t know why? I suppose they gave him an official reason…”
“The official reason,” Bridget piped up, “is that three different people, families, whatever, in the congregation want him to.” After a moment of perplexed silence, her cousin answered with a laughing grunt.
“Like I said, we don’t know,” Finlay answered. “The elders said they had wanted to remain anonymous.”
“And these—these irksomes, they gave no reasons?”
“None that the elders gave Greg. But they would call it retirement, or moving on. No one will ‘know’ that this meeting ever happened.”
“Then who cares? Why should he leave when he can’t even know the who and the why?” Alban asked, a sardonic smile creeping across his face. Bridget laughed a short, bitter laugh, but let her father answer.
“Because,” the minister said slowly, “these families said they would leave if Mannix didn’t.”
“What?!” the young man exclaimed, moving to the edge of his seat. “That’s absurd! I know the man’s not Edwards, but he’s a good pastor. He’s just,” Alban tried to think of a more elegant way to put it, but went with his first though, “he’s just a good guy. I’ve—I’ve heard him preach several times, been with you to his house for dinner–” He stopped and looked up. “What about his wife?”
“She had a difficult time with it at first, but she’s doing better.”
“They’re not going to give in, are they?”
“You don’t think they should?”
“Ha!” Alban burst out, then took a sip of his drink. The cat nuzzled his wrist. “Would you? Now seriously, I’m sure you’d say there’s a right way to get a pastor to move on when he’s done his work in a place.”
“But this can’t be it,” Alban muttered, shaking his head. “So he is going to do it. He’s going to leave.”
“The plot thickens,” said Bridget from the other sofa.
“How can it?”
“Pastor Straighton from Greys Hawley said that the three ‘parishioners’ who have called for Mannix’ resignation all phoned the chief elder on the same day.” Alban looked at her intently.
“Then it was a conspiracy,” he said gravely.
“Some might say that’s a strong word,” said Rev. Rhos from under eyebrows slightly raised.
“It’s not strong enough,” Bridget murmured. “What else could you call it?”
“That man has served that church faithfully, and his wife, until her illness, served it also—and this whole community teaching at your school,” here he looked at his cousin, who nodded.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t have told you.” Alban sent Finlay a questioning glance.
“I guess we know how—animated you can get,” Bridget ventured.
“Animated? This is a gross injustice,” Alban growled.
“Still, it’s not your worry. You don’t even live here anymore.”
“Why’d you tell me, then? You let me have a hint of it last week when I told you I was flying back. I’ve been on pins and needles ever since.” He sank back into the sofa, drawing his glass near to his lips while he awaited an answer.
“We told you because, because, well, to put it bluntly, you’re sensitive.” Alban’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t look like that; we’ve talked about this before.”
“What he means is,” cut in Bridget, “is that something is going on here under the surface, here as in, this whole community. What’s going on at Pilgrim Street, Greys Hawley, and here at Ordo. They’re all connected, and we thought you would bring a fresh—fresh perspective, I guess.”
“What do you mean by here in Ordo?” Alban asked.
“We’ve some—difficulties, of our own,” his uncle replied, seeming to smile though sounding so very sad.
“Ah,” Alban said, “I think I know…”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve, I’ve had a dream… More than once, and when you said that, about difficulties, I remembered it. Yeah, that’s right; I’ve had it at least three or four times in the last couple of months.” Father and daughter looked at each other, then back at Alban. “I thought it was strange, and knew it pertained to—shall we say, ‘things not temporal’, but when I reflected on it, it simply didn’t seem relevant to St. Fridewide’s.”
“Funny name,” remarked Bridget.
“Old church,” Alban smiled, “but anyway— But I also didn’t think it’d have anything to do with Ordo. I’ll try to remember details, if you like.”
“Please do.” Finlay leaned in, almost instinctively, toward his nephew, whose tones became quite hushed.
“Well, here goes.” He closed his eyes, the better to remember what he’d seen in his sleep, and so as not to be distracted by his family’s expressions. “I was walking through fields, bright green, lush, even wet, though the sky was bright. All around were rolling hills, though there were rugged mountains in the distance. I was walking, approaching the crest of the highest hill in sight, and could hear both the sound of water and animals from the other side. When I came over the top, I could see that there was flock of sheep in the vale that opened up in front of me. There were all sorts of sheep—scraggily, old, young, fat, lean, sleeping, grazing, roaming. Many different colours too, like I never see mixed on the average sheep farm. They seemed quite content, and not really to notice me as I came nearer, so I came up to the river bank and sat down among them.” Alban paused, emptied his glass, and cleared his throat. He could see almost a ‘so what?’ look in his cousin’s face, and went on. “While I was sitting there, I realized that there were actually a few sheep who were quite busy; there was one ewe who had a really strange—bleat, I guess we call it.”
“What? A strange what?”
“A strange sheep-sound. I mean, she sounded like a sheep, but she was very ‘growly’. I know that sounds dumb, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it. She didn’t really seem to do much besides move around and bump the other sheep, no matter what they were doing, just to get them to notice her. Once they were looking at her she’d stamp the ground in the way horses do, and make that growly sound. Most of the time, they’d look and listen for a moment, then move off, and sometimes she’d follow them a few steps, growling and stamping her little hoofs. But after a while another sheep came along who caught my eye. And he was weirder.”
“Well, he made a lot of noise; he wasn’t loud, but he was just chattering, all the time.”
“How’s that weird?” Bridget asked. “I’m sure there are plenty of talkative sheep. Pfudor whines all the time!”
“Fine then, I can’t explain it,” Alban said, then shut his eyes again. “But it wasn’t just that; this sheep was wearing this tiny little crown, kind of stuck into the wool at the top of his head.” His uncle chuckled. “It’s true,” Alban said, “and he seemed quite pleased with himself. But then, a little boy with a shepherd’s crook came along and called the sheep to get moving. Some of them were more ready to go than others, and they took the lead. The growly ewe sort of sat back on her haunches until she realized she’d get left behind, and reluctantly followed along. I started following them, and the boy didn’t seem to mind.”
“What was he wearing?”
“Bridge, don’t interrupt me with trifles. That didn’t seem to matter. I just know he was the shepherd. But! The sheep with the little crown was being quite boisterous, dancing out in front, even going in front of the kid sometimes, and a couple of the sheep, especially a parti-colored one with really big round eyes, would venture out with him… but they almost took a wrong turn, and when they shepherd called to them, the sheep with the little crown just stopped and bleated at him. They exchanged looks and sounds for a minute, and then—that sheep! It just walked right up to the boy, the parti-colored one right behind it, and bit him in the hand! Right in front of the rest of the flock; even the other sheep seemed startled by it. Before the shepherd had a chance to react, though, all of the sheep looked up, and then so did he.” Alban paused again, and his cousin urged him,
“What, what happened?”
“It took me a moment to realize it, but then I heard what they must have been hearing—wolves. I saw the boy take his crook into both hands and urge the sheep into a cluster, then he turned away from me, and the whole thing was over. And that’s where it’s stopped every time.” He sat up straight and opened his eyes.
“That’s it.” Alban looked at his uncle, who had been silent during the whole of the telling. “What do you think it means?” Rev. Rhos smiled a little.
“Do you have any ideas?”
“I might,” Alban replied.
“I think,” he said drily, “that you need a sheepdog. And that you’re right—there’s something going on here bigger than Ordo, bigger than Pilgrim Street—this whole community is touched…”
I’d only written one other episode, in which Alban and his cousin’s cat, Pfudor, are out in the woods behind the parsonage in the afternoon, and the cat warns him of something ‘out there.’ What the two of them see I never quite got around to describing, even to myself. It may always be a mystery.
I never finished the ‘allegory’, because the real-life story kicked into high gear, with surprising, sometimes shocking plot twists, its own false hopes, betrayed trusts, glimmers of redemption, dramatic confessions, unexpected friendships, strange Providence, and a Lord of the Rings-type series of ‘endings’. And it ain’t over yet.
I would have hoped this story was a halfway good one. But what we have instead is what makes up veritaspraebita.
Of course, the committees, church visitors and other miscreants in this plot have produced fiction, but of the desperate, self-serving, vague and unimaginative type. Yet they get ‘published’ (if only by classis, haha)–go figure. Still, this blog has had sufficient readership to prove that you don’t need Zondervan for effective publicity. Just something interesting to say, and a little conviction behind it.
It was Thanksgiving this past week: let me say that I’m grateful for both my regular readers, and every visitor who comes to this blog with an open mind and an honest, inquiring eye. God bless you.