1. Elder Gutknecht
In winter the dark came on early, and deepened quickly. A recent storm, the first of the season, had left a blanket of snow deep enough to nearly cover the headstones in the churchyard.
A pair of lit candles sat on the small table, and a tiny fire crackled in the grate. Pastor Gutknecht huddled down in his chair, a well-worn book on his lap. Most of his time was passed in this fashion of late. In his little cell in his little stone church, with only the fire, the view of the graveyard, and his volumes of ancient lore and religious history to keep him company.
For the past few days he'd been turning again and again to the little leather Bible that his mother had given him nearly a century before, when he had left his home village for this one. And again and again he would turn the brittle pages to Ecclesiastes. Always that, lately. It gave him comfort. And hope. For him who is joined to all the living, there is hope...
Not that Pastor Gutknecht had felt all that joined to his fellow man for the past year or so. Age had withered him, slowed him more than he liked. The pastor had had the pleasure and responsibility of caring for the people of this little village for nearly eighty years. He had christened them, married them, buried them, counseled them in times of need, celebrated with them in times of joy, married more and then christened more.
Every week he had delivered sermons, messages of, he hoped, wisdom and compassion. Though each Sunday the pews were full, Pastor Gutknecht remained uncertain about whether his villagers came for the sake of God or for the sake of fellowship. Or even, perhaps, for his sake. Not that it truly mattered, he supposed, so long as they heard the Word, were good to one another, and were able to lead joyful lives. Gutknecht missed giving sermons most of all. He had not had the strength to do so for many weeks.
Dearly he hoped his villagers did not think he had forgotten them. He ached to see them all. To ask after their lives, see the new children, hear their problems and to help them. To guide them, as a pastor should. But he was simply unable. It was all he could do to sit through young Pastor Galswells' sermons each week, and not only because of the content. For the past few Sundays he had not attended, much to his shame. He had been much too weak and tired. Instead he had been here, in his chair in his dim cell, reading and reflecting and praying. Losing himself in his mind, in his spirit, trying to forget the flesh and all that went with it.
Vanity of vanities...One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth for ever...
A flutter at the window pulled his attention. Gutknecht looked up, squinted, and smiled. A raven sat on the sill, peering in at him.
Coughing and ignoring the pain it brought, Gutknecht stood with difficulty. Aided by his gnarled walking stick, he made his slow, stooped way to the window, which he unlatched and pushed open. With a flirt and a flutter in the raven stepped, shaking snow from his wings.
"Mordechai," said Gutknecht, shutting the window behind the bird. "Wonderful to see you, my friend."
The raven croaked and gently nipped one of Gutknecht's gnarled fingers in greeting, then fluttered his way to his usual perch on the back of the chair. Gutknecht wished he had a little something for the bird, some scrap left from the last meal that Galswells' wife had brought for him earlier in the day. Ever since he was a young man he'd kept birds. Ravens were plentiful in this village, and Gutknecht had kept several special ones over the years. Intelligent, they were, if misunderstood. Many disliked them due to their association with death, but that association never bothered Gutknecht.
Exhausted by even the short walk across the room, he settled into his chair again. He breathed deeply, slowly, closing his eyes and listening to his heart beat. For over ninety years it had been going, on and on. But it was slower lately.
"It is good to have company," Gutknecht remarked to Mordechai, who was preening his feathers and croaking to himself on the back of the chair. "'Two are better than one, for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow. Woe to him that is alone when he falleth.' But I've told you that before, surely."
Mordechai made a little sound, one that Gutknecht always considered a chirp. So far as ravens could chirp. With another soul in the room, the evening seemed brighter, warmer. Gutknecht opened his Bible to where he'd left off, words he knew so well he hardly had need to read them: Man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life...
A knock at the door roused him from a doze he hadn't been aware he'd slipped into. With a caw Mordechai hopped onto the armrest, and Gutknecht lifted a finger to reassuringly stroke his head. After Gutknecht called a greeting, the door opened to reveal young Pastor Galswells.
He was tall and angular with a deep thundering voice. Though he could not have been much older than twenty-five, Galswells carried himself with the pomp and authority of age. This evening visit was a ritual Gutknecht looked forward to—Galswells would tell him of the village, of the care of the church, of the plans for services. Gutknecht would have been lost, unmoored, without this link to the world that he loved and missed. Tonight, as ever, he listened eagerly to all of the news.
"The Van Dorts have had a son," Galswells informed him at length. Gutknecht smiled. Children were always good news.
"The fish merchants, yes? What have they called him?"
"The official christening is tomorrow," replied Galswells. "But I believe they have decided upon William."
Gutknecht nodded approvingly. The Van Dorts were good people, an old family in the village. In fact, he had known the first William Van Dort, a fisherman who had been elderly when Gutknecht had first come to the village. Mr. Van Dort's funeral had been the first service Gutknecht had ever conducted. And now his namesake's christening might be the last.
"I think I should like to conduct the christening," Gutknecht said after some reflection. Galswells sighed, fixing him with a look of tired patience. Gutknecht added, "It's been so very long since there has been a new child in the village. Not since your son was born, my boy...three years ago?"
Galswells did not reply, but continued to regard Gutknecht with that quietly exasperated expression. While it was true that Gutknecht would dearly love to hold a child again, to say a prayer for him, there was more to his desire than that. In truth, he did not want Galswells' particular brand of godliness to be the first the infant encountered. Over the past weeks, when Galswells had delivered the sermons, he had noticed the themes. Fear, punishment, judgment, sin and retribution. Hopelessness.
Oh, Gutknecht himself had gone through his own Puritanical phase, fresh from seminary and knowing all about scripture but nothing of human experience. Yet somehow Gutknecht was sure that the young Pastor Galswells was not merely going through a phase. He would always treat the villagers like wayward children. Doomed and wicked ones.
"Your honor, you are hardly strong enough to conduct a service," Galswells told him, speaking as one would to a child.
"I married the Wadleighs this past autumn," replied Gutknecht, stroking his long white beard and twirling it round his fingers. He remembered clearly, so pleased had he been to be of service again regardless of the circumstances. The pair of them, Alfred and Gertrude, standing before him in his cell in the very early morning, mist still rising over the gravestones in the churchyard. Mordechai perched atop the bookcase, he and young Master Wadleigh's coachman the only witnesses. They had looked so young, so very happy. So clearly in love with one another.
"You helped them elope," corrected Galswells, an edge to his tone. "That is not the same thing."
The gall of this young man. Pastor Gutknecht had no great love for being treated as though he were a schoolboy caught stealing apples. While it was true, he had married the pair of them in secret, and both families were still angry with him because of it. Or so he heard. Gertrude Elvstead, a girl he had christened and watched grow up, had come to him in the middle of the night and had pleaded for counsel regarding her unfortunate and all too common situation. And Gutknecht had given it.
"We have so little time," Gutknecht finally said, his voice low as he repeated, more or less, just what he'd said to Miss Gertrude. "Our portion is small, and it is full already of trial. Why spend our lives desperately unhappy? What is the purpose?"
"The purpose," Galswells said, his deep voice rumbling, "is duty. Responsibility and moral duty. Upholding the social order and keeping our community together. Those are what we must do for our flock as well, your honor, just as much as anything else."
"Moral duty," repeated Gutknecht, remembering the look on young Miss Elvstead's face when she'd come to him, pleading for his help.
Galswells continued as though Gutknecht had not spoken. "We do not deserve happiness, we poor sinners. We must strive to live correctly, righteously, so that we may enjoy everlasting life. Rewards in heaven."
"Why not enjoy the life we're certain of, Pastor Galswells, rather than counting on the unknown?"
The question gave the younger man pause. "Your honor," he said slowly. "That sounds quite close to blasphemy."
Gutknecht was silent.
"You sound quite unconcerned for—and forgive me, your honor—a man who might soon meet his Maker," said Galswells, looking at him closely.
"I am not altogether concerned," admitted Gutknecht, exhausted and ready to be shut of this conversation. "And perhaps there is no Maker to meet."
Galswells' stunned silence seemed to fill the room. Gutknecht closed his eyes, held a cold hand up to his face. He was tired, that was all. Not thinking. He had not meant to say that aloud. The silence stretched, deepened, the only sound the crackling of the fire and Mordechai's occasional chirp.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. When had he ceased to be afraid?
Not long after that, Galswells left. The fire in the cell had burned all the way down, the candles nearly out. Gutknecht, feeling his exhaustion deep in his bones, closed his eyes and bowed his head, praying for understanding.
Something profound had happened.
Instead of yellow candlelight, there was silvery moonshine. Though after a moment he realized the moon was nowhere to be seen. And he felt a lightness, an ease which he hadn't known in decades. No weight on his shoulders. He was nowhere, but he was also everywhere.
Gutknecht took a breath that wasn't really a breath at all. Again he felt that weightlessness, a pull, the silvery light all around him and all within him.
Somehow he knew that he could keep going. If he were to let go, if he were to let out one more airless breath, he could go farther. Release. Freedom. After nearly a century in flesh, he could be pure spirit.
The light. We come from the light, we go back to the light. And that was all. Perhaps there was no Maker but this, no Judgment but one's own.
But then, something strange. Once more his thoughts took coherent form. Faces of his friends and neighbors, his flock, those who had depended on him, became clear as day and mixed with the moonshine. A deep, vital part of him longed for the light, for the heightened oblivion, but something held him back. Those faces.
Even in death, they were with him. He'd helped so many on their way here. There would always be more to follow. Gutknecht could not bear to leave them completely. Something still felt unfinished.
When he opened his eyes again, he was aware that he was truly opening his eyes. He had form. And so did this place. It was a square, much like the one he had left behind. There was no one about, but he could feel presences everywhere, other souls. The silvery light was gone, but that feeling of being pure, of being insubstantial and yet complete, remained. Gutknecht knew he would never forget that feeling, no matter how long he chose to remain here.
All go unto one place. All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
But he was not dust. Not yet. And so he began to walk.
Gutknecht had read of cities of the dead in folklore. This, though, seemed a village of the dead, one very like the one he had left. The narrow streets, the lopsided houses, the brick and stone. Similar enough to offer a measure of comfort to the recently departed, it seemed, but different. Oh, it was very different.
Earth instead of sky. Coffins propped open in alleyways. Green light in the windows. So many colors, he'd never seen the like, not even on the most vibrant summer flowers. The longer he strolled, the more calm he became. The more certain that his choice had been the right one. That core of his being, the same one that was part of the light and longed for the light, told him so.
Perhaps it was that inner light that led him to a rickety old tower near the edge of the city of the dead. At the top of a set of stairs there was a garret.
"It cannot be hell," he mused, looking around. "There are far too many books."
Gutknecht walked along the shelves, observed the piles upon piles of books upon the floor. Someone had been here, and recently. From the exposed rafters came familiar flutters and croaks. Ravens. Of course. Gutknecht was sure the birds were another sign that he had done what was right, and that there was no punishment forthcoming. Up a narrow flight of stairs he went, painlessly, and without becoming winded or dizzy. He was beyond that now. Upon the desk there was an open volume, as though it had been waiting for him.
A Bible, thick and old and tattered. Open to Ecclesiastes. As if the garret's previous occupant had left it for him to find. Gutknecht ran a finger—blue-gray now in hue, he noticed—over the brittle page.
"'For the living know that they shall die,'" he read aloud. A raven fluttered down from the rafters and perched on a nearby tower of books. "'But the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.'"
The words, so familiar, took on quite a new meaning in his current circumstances. Gutknecht allowed himself a small smile, even going so far as to shake his head. He'd always enjoyed this particular passage. Eat, drink, be merry, live joyfully with wife and family, take joy in your little portion of life. It had always been comforting. Even more comforting to know that, for some, such earthly joys could continue after death.
"'For there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest,'" he finished from memory. He took a step back, took another look around the garret. Out of a little window he could see the dead in the streets that he had not seen earlier. Going about their afterlives with full knowledge that they were dead. Had they all come back from where he had? Or were they all waiting to go there?
Somehow Pastor Gutknecht thought it was the latter.
For though the Preacher had been very wise, he had also been alive. Gutknecht was here, in the grave, and saw that there still might be wisdom. Perhaps even hope. Hope that every soul could reach that place where he had been, the place that he had turned away from. Perhaps not heeding that call to the light was an unforgivable and ungodly act of ego. At the same time, he felt it was the right choice. He had dedicated his life to service, to being a shepherd to the people of his village. Why should death stop him?
There was eternal work for an Elder to do.