Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Devil in Jutland (vii)


              Constable Andersen was a bachelor.  He lived in a small cottage on a bluff overlooking the sea.  It was a cool evening, and a fire flickered in the hearth.  Soren Christensen’s clothes were drying on a line next to the stones.  Constable Andersen stood with his hand against the hearth, smoking a pipe.  Soren Christensen was seated on a low stool near the fire grasping a bowl of stew with both his hands.  The Constable had just asked Soren to repeat his last word.
            “The Devil,” Soren said emphatically.
            “The Devil?” the Constable repeated.
            “Yes,” Soren laughed, “you’ve heard of him, I gather.”
            “Of course,” the Constable answered gravely as he sucked on his pipe. “And I believe he exists, just as I believe in God, his only begotten son Jesus Christ, the Angels, and Heaven and Hell.  I have since I was a boy, and I will die believing it all.”
            “To your credit.  To your credit,” Soren said with a gentile smile. “God will reward you for your faith.”
            “If I’m worthy.”
            “Oh, you are.  I know from hard experience. I tell you, the Devil led me on an odyssey for ten years!  Things happened to me that I would not have believed possible!” Soren laughed and sipped his stew.
            “How do you know that he was the Devil?” the Constable asked as he knocked the tobacco from his pipe against the hearth, and then refilled the bowl with a pinch of tobacco.
            “How do I know?  How do I know?” Soren Christensen laughed again, even slapping his knee in childlike glee.  “Because I did not believe in him.  And when it was all done, he was all I was capable of believing.  If that is not the true test of veracity, I don’t know what is.  If there is anything else in the universe beside him, any good, any God, any higher power, I do not think we can know it.” On hearing this, Constable Andersen shrugged his shoulders.
            “With what you have been through, Mr. Christensen, I can understand why you would believe such a thing.”
            “When I lost my family, I did nothing but take sedatives for months.  I hardly ate or drank.  I don’t think I slept much at all.  I heard voices.  They were happy voices, sad voices, all the things you hear in a family, a house.  I knew they weren’t real, but they sounded real enough to sustain me for a while, and then they stopped and another voice replaced them: the voice of that Australian man, Wormwood, who visited me on the day I lost my family.   
              The scoundrel had black clothes, and a full red beard; he had a sly and appealing manner, but was subtly disquieting.  Have you even read any of my books, the ones I wrote all those years ago?” The Constable shook his head. “That’s good, you would have wasted your time on dangerous nonsense.  I said that there was no evil in the world.  That men often think it exists, but it is only because they lack ‘The Divine Perspective’ -- that was a big concept of mine.  I spent years elaborating it.  It was criticized, of course.  But every new book is; I defending it zealously.  I could not believe that God created a universe where evil exists.  The bad things that happen, I reasoned, must not be bad at all.  It must be a problem with how we see things.  It can’t be a problem with God, or with his work, his creation.  How could God create a faulty thing?   
             Then this man came -- this Wormwood fellow, and none of his criticism was all that new, or even that forceful.  But he left me disturbed.  And right after he left, well, you know the rest…” Christensen stopped for a moment and sipped some stew.  He stared into the fire with great concentration.  The wood crackled softly.
            “When the voices of my family died, my wife, my precious little boy and girl, I started to hear Wormwood’s voice.  He kept saying the same thing: ‘How can you not believe in the Devil, after this?’  One morning I was lying in bed.  I had not slept much that night. I finally dozed off before dawn, just for a few minutes, and I was awoken by the same words.  When I opened my eyes, Wormwood was in the chair next to my bed.
            “‘And how can you continue to live in this house?’ he asked softly, even kindly.  ‘It is like a tomb.’
            “‘Where should I go?’
            “‘If this world is as good as you say it is,’ Wormwood answered gently, ‘it is your duty to go out and live in it.  Not in this crypt.’ I said nothing, and Wormwood laughed. ‘Or maybe you don’t believe in such notions any longer.  Then you certainly wasted a lot of ink and paper.  Is that why you lay here, mired in self-pity?  Because of your loss?  Three coagulated lumps of clay with a tiny spark of light in them have been extinguished, and you lay here like a Chinaman in an opium den, shutting out the light with bamboo curtains.  What does it matter in the grand, the divine scheme you so treasured?  Your emotions, your small perspective mean nothing, remember…’
            “He went on in this vein for some time.  Its odd, but I did not think it strange that Wormwood was in my house, and speaking so coarsely about my loss.  It made sense.
            “‘I feel sorry for you, Soren.  I feel sorry for men who live with a gap between their ideas of the world and the way the world truly is.  You suffer from a pernicious disease: the inability to see the world’s suffering.  And that is why you suffer.  I pity you, and I’ll close that gap, right now.’ Then he touched my wrist, and we were no longer in the bedroom.  We were on the outskirts of this town.  We were in the cottage of the woman who did my laundry.  Her husband was pitilessly beating her.  It left her with a black eye; her cries were terrible to hear.   
             Then we moved to another cottage, not that far from here, along the strand.  A family did not have enough to eat that night, and the father was deciding who would eat supper and who would not.  The father’s agony in choosing who would eat was worse than that of the children, who knew they would not eat that day.  We did this for some time.  And we did not travel to exotic locations.  No starving peasants in China; no teeming slums of Calcutta.  It was all in our own backyard!  He showed me all the suffering.  A wife raped by her own husband; an apprentice beat so hard by his master that his hand was permanently deformed.  Little boys stuffing rocks down a puppy’s throat until the poor beast died… it was horrible, all of it.  I cried so hard I was rocking and moaning.  I couldn’t stop.  I saw one thing; thought I could not cry any more, saw another, and somehow found another fund of tears.   
            I was overcome with grief when my family drowned, but now I was a blithering idiot.  The pain!  The suffering!  The blind cruelty!  And all within a few miles of my house, and this house!  I begged Wormwood to stop.  But he took me to one more scene: a man, some drifter, dying of hunger out in the dunes, about a mile down the strand.  He just fell and died.  It was such an anti-climax after all the suffering he showed me, but something about this annihilated me; it was such a pathetic and lonely death.  He was surrounded by people, mostly very good -- all the people here are decent folks -- but he died alone, on the strand, like a dog, as if no one in the universe cared for him, for anyone.  Suffering was so common – so pedestrian.”
            Constable Andersen stopped smoking his pipe and gazed at Soren Christensen through narrow eyes.  He suddenly remembered that shortly after Soren disappeared, ten years ago, a drifter was found dead near the strand.  The Constable began puffing on his pipe again.
            “Finally, Wormwood stopped.  He touched my arm again and we were on a rocky crag.  I don’t think it was in Denmark.  I don’t know where it was, really.  But we could see the world below us and it was teeming with suffering and pain.  It was crowded with evil.
            “‘This is the world, Soren,’ he stated authoritatively. ‘And you only saw your corner of it.  A hop skip and a jump from your cozy little house and your overheated cottage.  People suffer and die in your yard, and you sing the praises of the world -- this pile of dung.  You are grown in the sewer of the womb and will rot in the sewer of the grave.’ Then he touched me again, and we were in a forest.  It was no longer night but had turned to a beautiful summer day.  He led me to a cabin in a clearing.  Red flowers dotted the field and seemed to genuflect in the breeze.  Katrina was there with the two children.  They were playing with toys.  Katrina was drawing water from a well.
            “ ‘What is this?’ I asked Wormwood.’
            “ ‘A gift,’ he answered, ‘and a rare one at that, given my record.  Dwell here for as long as you wish.  But when you are through, and there will come a time when you need to leave, you must do a task for me.’”

No comments:

Post a Comment