The little preacher paused in the orchard to worship the beauty of the day. From the hillside where he stood the white blossoms of the apple trees drifted like snow down to the hollow where a small river eased its way through groves of willow. The sun, a great splash of molten gold, drew the preacher into the shade of an apple tree. He sat down on the warm earth, leaned back against a tree and he breathed deep of the scented air. In the distance, beyond the river, stood the village where he hoped to preach the Gospel.
The preacher wiped the sweat from his eyes and reached into the pocket of his black coat for the pint of rye whiskey he kept there. He tipped back his head, took a sip from the bottle, savored the bright flush of pleasure that flowed into his mind, his blood, his spirit. Overhead, a hawk glided effortlessly toward the river. His eyes followed the flight of the hawk and then found, farther on, a boy and a girl making love beneath the willows, their naked bodies golden in the sunlight. For a long while, he watched as they moved with each other and then they grew still, fell apart, rose, and ran hand-in-hand into the river. The preacher listened to their laughter as they splashed and wrestled and kissed and he felt an overwhelming sense of happiness at the sight of the lovers. What a lovely sin, he thought. What a joy they must feel. What heavenly promise could stay the temptation to make love when you are young on such a beautiful day. Then as he watched the couple return to the grass beneath the willows, a thought occurred to him that made a mockery of a life-long, and largely unsuccessful, effort to save souls and the thought was so transformative that he was compelled to express it aloud. “Maybe,” he said to the apple trees, “to save a soul you don’t have to help a sinner stop sinning. Rather, you should help the sinner believe his sin is holy.” What a simple idea, he thought. What a very simple idea. To celebrate his new credo regarding sin, he took another swallow of rye whiskey. Pleased with his thought, the young lovers, the beauty of the day, the preacher rose and walked toward the village.
He came to a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. It wore the cloak of rural poverty, unpainted, the yard naked earth. Out back, a clothesline sagged beneath the weight of a large family’s wash. A man was drawing water from a well. He was large and rough-hewn, as if carved from the oaks that towered over the farmhouse. As the preacher approached, the man looked up. His eyes were dark and deep, his face scorched and creased by years of mid-day plowing. For a long while, the farmer studied the stranger, noting his black suit, his battered valise, and the bible he carried.
“It’s been some time sine we had a preacher around here,” the man finally said.
“John Caller is my name,” the preacher said, approaching the well.
“They call be Adam Bedford,” the preacher said, offering a tin cup of well water. “It’s the best water in Lee County.”
The water was cold. The preacher took a long swallow, then another. “Thank you, Adam. I can’t imagine water tasting any better.”
“Preacher Caller. Are you just passing through or are you thinking of staying for a while?
“I’m just passing through, but I’d be obliged if I could stay the night.”
If you don’t mind sleeping in the barn. All our beds are filled with young’un’s.”
“Our Savior was born in a manger. I guess I can sleep in a barn. Maybe I could pay for my keep by preaching a service later, if you and your neighbors are willing.”
“Well, Preacher Caller, we’re all pretty much God-fearing people here. Haven’t had need of a preacher. But I’d say it sure couldn’t hurt none to hear the word of the Almighty.”
“Maybe, Mr. Bedford, I can help you folks love God as well as fear him.”
The two men entered the rustic frame house. Inside it was plain and artless, nothing anywhere to delight the eye or offer comfort. They moved to the kitchen. Standing over the sink was the farmer’s wife. She was a rangy, big boned woman and she towered over the little preacher and accepted his presence unspeaking and without a change in her doleful expression. She pursed her lips and wiped her large hands on her skirt, and he wondered how long it had been since there had been guests in this house. Several sons stood with downcast eyes, acknowledging the preacher only after being ordered to do so by the father. The sons were large, all muscle and sinew like their father. They possessed the belligerent haunted look of children who had not long ago been punished for something they didn’t do. A young girl stood by her mother drying dishes. She was blond, very pretty, perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old, and the preacher wondered if she was the girl he had seen beneath the willows. True he had only seen the lovers from a distance, but there was something now as the girl smiled that made him fervently hope that she was the one and she had been able to break free from this severe and solemn family for a few hours of joy. After introductions the family went on about their chores, the sons out into the village to announce that a preacher had come and would preach a sermon come nightfall.
The preacher, himself, washed up at the well and then, left alone, wandered about the farm and then into the barn. He settled onto a bed of hay to sip rye whisky and search his bible for a text for the evening vespers. He was thumbing through the Psalms when the girl entered the barn.
She stood in the doorway, her slim body silhouetted against the light from outside. She said nothing and seemed to look everywhere but where he was. Then she moved toward him, obliquely, as if she was not quite certain she should approach him at all. There was something about her manner that was both bashful and brash, cautious and bold. The preacher smiled and urged her to come closer. “What do you want, child?”
Suddenly, as if reaching a decision, she came forward and sat down on a bale of hay a few feet away. Her hands were clasped in her lap. Her hair was the color of sunlight. Her eyes were blue. The preacher thought she was beautiful. Then she began to cry.
Mindful of appearances, he did not move to comfort her, to hold her. After all, what would it look like if someone came by. He merely let the tears fall. They glistened like pearls in the sunlight. She was weeping silently, breathing deeply, her hands closed into fists. Fascinated, the preacher waited, wondering what would happen next. As he watched the girl struggle for control, he wished he was young again and they were down by the river beneath the willows.
After a time, the girl stopped crying and she straightened her shoulders, sighed, and wiped her tears with her shirttail. “I need your help,” she said, for the first time looking into his eyes. “I just don’t know what to do. But you being a preacher and all you’ve got to tell be what to do.”
“I’ll be what help I can.”
“My father will kill me when he finds out. He will kill me or beat me and lock me in the basement like he usually does. He hates Rolf anyway. And I’m ashamed.”
The preacher moved to her then, touched her shoulder. “Now then, tell me your name.”
“Well, Frances, you listen and see if I don’t know more about you than you think. First, I’d like to say that you and Rolf are in love.”
“How in the everlasting world could you know that? Despite her tears she began to laugh. It was a sound he had heard before. “Don’t that beat all. You know about me and Rolf.”
“Sure I do. You and Rolf have been in love for a long time and would like to get married. But Rolf doesn’t get along with your father, so you must keep your love a secret.”
“How can you possibly know? About me and Rolf?” Her amazement at the preacher’s knowledge brought her to her knees, her eyes smiling, shining with wonder. Then her smile dissolved and she lowered her eyes and the preacher noticed one hand glide to her abdomen.
“And now you and Rolf are going to have a child and you are ashamed and frightened.”
“Oh Lord, Preacher, Daddy will kill me sure.” She seemed to fold into herself and he thought he had never seen a person so pitiful, yet so lovely. He knew it was his pastoral duty to deliver some kind of reprimand, soft words of censure. Then he pictured the young couple making love beneath the willows and he remembered his epiphany about sinners and their souls. And he knew the beautiful soul of this frightened girl must be saved here on earth. It would be unthinkable to waste such God-given innocence on a lifetime of shame and remorse.
As the hours of the afternoon passed, the preacher told the girl about the beauty of love and the wonder of youth and creation. He stroked her hair and talked away her fears. She listened as only a child can listen, her eyes following every movement of his eyes and her lips forming the words as he spoke them.
“So you see. What you and Rolf did was done in beauty and sin cannot exist in beauty.”
As the preacher spoke, he sensed that he could feel the girl’s fear slipping away. His heart was full of love and he felt at one with heaven and God’s hand on his shoulder. “God easily forgives. He sent his only son to die for our sins.”
The girl then spoke. “Did He send you to save me from my sin?”
The preacher felt a flush of inner warmth. “Yes, child. I am here to save you.”
“And save me from my punishment, too?”
“Yes. That, too.”
“But what about my father? Will you save me from him? No matter what you say he will still beat me when he finds out about the baby.”
“God will protect you. Just as he sent Jesus as Savior. He sent me to save you.”
“But Jesus died,” she said, and she was thoughtful and quiet like all children contemplating something not quite understood, or an idea not fully developed.
The preacher’s entire being thrilled at the glory of that sacrifice. “Yes, child. He died.”
The girl rose, brushed the straw from her legs and then bent and kissed the little preacher on the forehead. “Thank you,” she said simply. Then she walked away.
The preacher watched her move slowly across the farmyard until she was swallowed by the sunlight.
When it came time for the vespers, the preacher left the barn and moved toward the farmhouse. It was nearly dark now, and he buttoned his black coat against the wind brought by the night. He was pleased to see that a number of neighbors had arrived and had gathered around the girl, her brothers and her father. They all watched him approach. But there was something wrong. Their eyes were hard and angry. Then he saw Frances. She was enfolded in her father’s big protective arms. She was holding her torn dress closed and her golden hair was matted with straw. The first stone knocked him to his knees. He looked up to find the girl’s eyes, but she turned her face away. Another stone. Then another. Clinging to consciousness, he watched the brothers come with their axe handles. He reached out for the orchard, for the river, for the sunlight, for the lovely girl beneath the willows, but they were lost in the enveloping deep dark.
If you enjoyed this story, maybe you’d like reading my latest novel, “The Lost Caravan.” It’s available on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble and on my website Marshall Riggan Storyteller.