Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Reverend and Mrs Gordon

The Reverend and Mrs Gordon

Mrs Gordon lived in a shack on the river. She was a very old woman, somewhere in her nineties. No one knew exactly how old she was for she refused to say herself and all others qualified to speak on the matter were dead.

Mrs Gordon wasn’t really a Mrs. Many years ago she had moved towns in the hinterland and found it advantageous to claim her six children were sired by a Mr Gordon, now deceased. A widow was more respected in those old towns than a woman with six children all of whom had different fathers. When, occasionally, during the children’s growing up, one of the father’s appeared, she claimed them to be uncles and taught the children to do so as well. The children knew this was untrue yet went along for they found this editing of the strict and literal truth to be socially useful.

At the time of which we are speaking the children had long ago grown up and moved away for the town had little employment opportunities for the young. One by one they made off to other places. Eventually all had families with children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren.  Occasionally a great load of them came down river by boat to visit the old lady and occasionally she traveled to see them. Two of the originals were now dead. Two were so ill they now no longer traveled and two, the oldest, had turned religious in old age and spent their time traveling around to Revivals where, amidst the frenzy of the shouting crowds, they renewed their spirits.

Mrs Gordon was a magic practitioner. Her one room shack was filled with the natural products necessary for such a practice – animal bones, herbs, feathers, hallucinatory plants, healing plants, etc. She had learned her trade from many teachers over a long life and knew not only just about all the magic lore there was to know but healing as well. Her bread and butter, as far as income goes, for even a magician and healer has to eat and have the handyman patch the roof on her cabin now and again, was a plant she was taught to identify by one of the old people who had lived in the area for some thousands of years before the coming of prospectors, mines, factories and so on. This plant grew in the wild some ten miles from the town. In the late summer every year Mrs. Gordon traveled to the locale where it grew and picked several large burlap bags full. She was very secretive about these gathering trips, partially because there were those who would abuse the plant for thrill seeking purposes but also because it’s sale as a pain reliever was the support of her old age. Anyone in town in need of a strong, genuine pain reliever, went to Mrs. Gordon.

The old lady was measured in what she charged. If the asker was well to do she soaked them liberally. If poor she charged very little. If destitute she often gave the mixture away free. She was in her own way a humanitarian and, although she would not admit it to anyone but herself, she hated to see someone in unrelieved suffering.

There was a minister in that town, one Herbert Grimelody. The Reverend was death on magic and also death on pain relieving medicines or, for that matter, medicines of any kind. According to him sickness, disease and pain were the judgments of God and worm like, sinful humans, should not interfere with them. Why God had not struck down Mrs Gordon with a righteous thunderbolt long ago was one of the great mysteries present in the mind of Reverend Grimelody. He himself had tried, using white magic and righteous energy of course, to fry the old lady in her tracks many times but none of these attempts had succeeded. He gave them up some ten years before because he came to the conclusion that God had a reason for enduring the apostasy of this wicked old woman, a reason He chose not to disclose to the Reverend, no doubt because his heart was full of wickedness and sin.

Nonetheless Reverend Grimelody did his best to dog the steps of Mrs. Gordon. Eleven times over twenty years he had tried to get the council to run her out of town. But only two of the ten councillors were adherents to his brand of religiosity and each time the motion was introduced by one of his Church members it was voted down. This made the Reverend bitter in his heart, not, he told himself, from the irritation of being constantly thwarted by a frail old woman who in a proper world he could snap like a twig and leave dead in the nearest ditch, but because Mrs Gordon was clearly an agent of the devil, a witch, a conduit of the dark side, an evil forest woman with potions that corrupted even the good and carry their immortal souls off to eternal damnation. That the town’s people did not agree puffed him out like a poisonous adder about to strike but there was nothing he could do. He had to swallow his own poison and digest it in the bitter watches of the night.

Four times the Reverend, whose sect had deep roots in religious pragmatism, tried to have the old lady killed. There was no shortage of men in his congregation ready to do the job as long as it was sanctioned by the religious authority of the Minister. But none of these attempts worked. In two cases the old lady was not home when, in the middle of the dark night, the killer arrived. In fact she was not at home for some weeks after, seeming to have disappeared, magically her adherents said, into nothingness. The other two times, when the killer entered the house he found the old lady sleeping in her bed but when he raised his gun to shoot she disappeared and the killer was transported to a spot on the riverbank where, against all the efforts of his will, he tossed his loaded gun into the river. The Reverend tried his best to suppress knowledge of these attempts but in a small town people talk. For some time after the last attempt, rough men would accost him on the street and mock him by asking, “Have you seen Old Lady Gordon lately, Herbert? I hear she has been asking about you.” One of his own Churchmen told him in confidence that he should leave the old lady alone. “If she turns up dead one morning there are those who will blame you and they will not hesitate to kill you in vengeance,” he said. This put the fear into the Reverend and he ceased looking over his congregation on Sunday mornings searching for a new assassin. When some of the young men told him they would succeed surely for they were ‘righteous in the Lord’, he turned them down. A Divine communication had informed him, he told them, that the ‘time of the Lord’s vindication’ was not now but in the future. He told them to hold themselves in readiness. This they did if the evidence of their grim, intense faces before him each Sunday morning was any indication.

Some two years after these failed attempts the Reverend had an inspiration. He had been told that the old lady went, in mid August of every year, into the forest to collect the plant yielding her ungodly pain medicine. She sailed up river with an old man who the Reverend suspected of once being her lover (that he might presently be her lover was too distressing a possibility for the Reverend to consider). This old man, perhaps twenty years younger than Mrs Gordon and thus, the Reverend conjectured, seduced in his early manhood to serve the wicked lusts of that already aging witch, was hale and hearty, although even his middle age had long passed by. He drank in the tavern on Saturday nights and visited the bordello, even at his great age a slave to his lusts. Early in the morning on a bright day in mid August, the two of them would climb into the old man’s fishing boat and sail up river. They returned two days later.

Things can happen in the wilderness, unplanned for things like snakes and panthers and swamps. People thus taken were seldom found. They were devoured by wild animals, eaten by insects and their bones buried under dense vegetation. They were seldom searched for. The wilderness is far too dangerous for the townsfolk to venture into it and the wild men up river could not care less if the forest claims fools who wander into it. In the second week of August the Reverend made a great show of leaving town to visit a city down river for a Revival. His congregation saw him off at the pier, shouting prayers and exhortations at him as he sailed away.

The Reverend, however, did not go to the Revival. Instead at the next village he disembarked and walked back along the riverbank opposite the town. When he reached a small, uninhabited fishing shack he went in and laid out the few things he brought with him for his vigil. The shack had a window looking out on the river where he could see the little summer pier where Mrs Gordon’s friend tied up his boat.

Two days later the old lady and her fisherman friend came down to the boat. It was early morning, not long after first light. At first the Reverend was unsure it was them but when he looked through the binoculars lent him by a devout member of the congregation he could see them clear as day. He threw his things into his bag and rushed down to the pier. When the two wicked ones sailed up the river and around the first bend, he followed.

The Reverend was a reasonably good sailor. As a boy he had accompanied his brothers fishing and even when he had been ‘called’ and afterward, he sailed for the exercise during the summer. But the old man was an expert. He slipped from one side of the river to another seeking always the least current and the best advantage of the wind as other men would weave unconsciously around the potholes in a road they were walking. The Reverend could not make enough headway to catch sight of them and, after three hours he grew afraid they had slipped off the river without his knowing and he would never find them. However, five hours or so after he had started out, he caught a flash of white in the leaves on the bank, and when he sailed in to take a look it was the old man’s boat pulled into the bushes and tied to a tree. There was a trail of footsteps leading off into the forest.

The Reverend packed a small bag containing water, a day’s food and a compass. He took a careful reading before he started out. On his shoulder he balanced a double barrel shotgun. He began his walk up the trail in a cheerful mood. God will not be mocked he said to himself. He abides; He waits his time but He will not be mocked.

Many hours later, long after the Reverend had thought he would overtake the two old people who surely could not travel as fast as a man barely into his forties like himself, dark began to fall. This filled the Reverend with a fear so papable that it seemed to rise up from the earth itself and seize his entrails in an icy grip. He had never spent a night in the forest. Town’s people never did. In a party, for a lark, they might journey in for a short distance and then return to the safety of the riverbank. Even when he was a boy he had never gone into the forest for more than a few hundred yards. And now here he was, perhaps ten miles in with no sighting of the ones he was following and dark coming down.

He became so afraid his teeth started to chatter. Around him was thick green vegetation alive with things spawned of the devil. The thought of it made his skin crawl and his bowels loosen. There were the wild cries of birds and animals, no doubt greeting with joy the coming reign of darkness. Perhaps a mile away, but so near for such fleet creatures, came the screech of a big cat. He began to hyperventilate. To calm himself he stopped and sat down on a fallen log. He looked around him. He was in a small clearing and beside him was a tall tree. He decided to climb the tree and spend the night as far up as he could go with the barrel of his gun aimed downward.

A miserable night. He was so weary he caught himself twice almost falling asleep and thus out of the tree. He splashed most of his remaining water on his face. He slapped himself across the cheeks. He shouted out all the prayers he could remember. In his anguish he called for God to help him and he did for a short time later dawn arrived and in no time the clearing below him was bathed in enough light for him to distinguish the bushes, a few rocks jutting out of the path and at the foot of the tree the night black cat peering up at him through the leaves. The Reverend was so surprised and so terrified that he didn’t bring his gun to bear but there was no need. The cat looked at him speculatively for a few moments and then suddenly turned and slipped into the trees. He ate the rest of the food in his bag and climbed down the tree.

The Reverend decided that he would have to return to the riverbank. Out of food and almost out of water, to continue into the forest would mean his certain death and the thought of another night in the forest listening to its hellish sounds, the slitherings, the creakings, the cries, the sudden rushing and screechings, was too much to bear. He got out his compass and took a reading even though it was unnecessary for he could clearly see the trail leading back to the bank. He started off.

People unused to the forest must beware. A trail may appear clear and unmistakable but a few moments of inattention, a slight swerving off its central line and poof one is in the midst of the unmarked wilderness. A slight panic and a rushing about in desperate, demanding search, almost always leads to becoming lost. The Reverend became lost. He also became so terrified of being lost, so horrified of the possibility of another night in the forest, he screeched in frustration and distraught fell onto the ground, most unwisely for he crushed down a bush where one of those poisonous green snakes was climbing up to sun itself, one of those snakes with two golden stripes, which, understandably, assuming it was being attacked, bit him in the nearest warm spot available – the big artery on the right side of his neck. As everyone knows this snake’s bite is deadly anywhere on the body but with the poison injected directly into this artery the poor man was dead in a matter of moments. He barely had time to remind God he was dying in his service.

Two hours latter Mrs. Gordon and the old man found the body. It was terrible how even in that short time the poison and the heat had bloated it almost past recognition.

“Well,” said Mrs Gordon. The old man picked up the shotgun at the Reverend’s side and tied it onto his backpack.

When they reached the riverbank some three hours later, for these two were far more efficient forest travelers than the Reverend, they towed the Reverend’s boat out into the river, stove in the bottom and let it sink. When the last bubbles had broken on the surface, the old man turned his boat downriver while Mrs Gordon raised the sail into the slight breeze which, along with the current, pushed them downriver with their boatload of plants in a small matter of two hours.

Mrs. Gordon made the old man throw the gun into the river. “You can’t be sure it has no markings,” she said. After opening his mouth to argue the old man thought again, closed it and tossed the gun overboard where it twinkled once in the bright sunlight and then was gone.

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