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Just One Reward
When you’re in with the lord, there’s just one reward. And they’d just as soon make it come true. ~ Robert Earl Keen
Caw, caw, caw! A lonely crow cawed happily from its throne atop the peak of the Old Church. Caw! Its black beady eyes glinted in the falling sunlight, and mirrored the world around it. Thrum! The Old Church reverberated from its shaky foundation to its rotten roof, startling the lonely crow. The crow abandoned its decrepit throne fled into the sunset, its beating wings black as pitch. This suited the local townsfolk of Puritown quite nicely. After all, crows were an ill omen, blackening this most righteous day.
Thrum! Dust floated down as the Old Church sounded again, beseeching all the fair and pure denizens to attend the town meeting. A teeming throng of townsfolk congealed at the door, tongues flapping and mouths frothing as their anticipation grew. A pair of young girls gestured at a willow tree beside the church. The Weeping Willow stood there, proud yet sad, watching the proceedings. It cried its amber tears that day. Thrum!
With one last booming call, the Old Church’s heavy doors swung open and the formless mass of people, the young and old, the thick and thin, and the wise and foolish; they all slithered in like hungry snakes.
The high ceiling of the church strained under its own weight, caving in at some points. It could have snapped and fallen at any moment. But it hadn’t. Maybe God is watching, thought one of the priests standing, crestfallen, near the altar. Maybe it’s just dumb luck, thought another.
The silence in the Old Church was deafening as the pious people of Puritown took to their seats. The church-goers sat in quiet reverence for their Lord until the night fell.
The sun had departed, and with it went all its radiance, warmth, chirping music, and hope. Night’s embrace was a harsher one and colder, the screeching melody of the crickets chilled the room.
Three stolid steps broke the quiet. The Reverend, Brewer, had stepped forward dressed in crimson robes.
“Good evening, my flock. I trust we are all aware of how the hand of the Devil or some fell demon has possessed one of our own.” Brewer’s curt voice penetrated to the very depths of the hall.
“Amen,” echoed the mass.
“Good people of Puritown, the devil’s reach is long, and his fingers are capable of turning even the most iron of hearts. He grows stronger by the day. Tonight, we will prove that this is more true than ever before! A fell demon or some other depraved servant of Satan has gripped the heart of Mary Sue, and turned her into a foul succubus!” Brewer extended an accusatory finger toward Mary, clad in iron shackles next to one of the many braziers that lit the hall, lighting her sharp features and laughing eyes. “While her valiant husband was attending to private manly matters in the Motherland, this snake of a woman has been cavorting with the devil!” The room echoed with Brewer’s cries and there was a sudden gasp amongst some of the crowd and a low murmur spread throughout hall. The benches creaked as townsfolk shifted in their seats, as though they were sitting on a bed of nails.
“How do we know this to be true?” asked John, the local tailor.
“Because she has produced a child born from foul mischief and adultery! Two years has her husband been in England, and now we see that she bore an heir. Clearly not that of her lawfully wedded husband, whom she committed herself to under the all-seeing eye of God. She victimized one of Puritown’s innocent men, tearing him down into adultery with her.” Brewer gestured to his left saying, “Look to your right,” and then he gestured to his right, “Look to your left. Any one of those people could be the corrupted father of this devil-child.”
The crowd swayed to his arms, mesmerized. Brewer was like a grand orchestrator, controlling every movement of the audience from the quirks of their heads to their astonished gasps.
“Ah,” Brewer continued, “But we are children of God, are we not?”
“Yea!” shouted one in the crowed.
Brewer seemed to ignore the marked enthusiasm. “And as children of God, we must ask ourselves: ‘What would Jesus do?’ Well, my flock, as Christians we must grant Mary Sue a fair trial. We must understand the motivations of her crimes so as to best understand the nature of the Devil.” Brewer beckoned toward the two constables who flanked Mary Sue. “Bring her forward for questioning before the eyes of men and God.”
“Amen, Reverend,” Constable Geoffrey chirped giddily. Geoffrey noticed that his fellow constable, the young Quentin, was shaking. He whispered to him, “C’mon lad, this’ll put some hair on your chest.”
Quentin strained under the effort to control his facial gymnastics, as he gruffly yanked Mary toward the altar. The two constables, with Mary in the middle, led her to the grinning reverend. “Thank you, Quentin.” Quentin didn’t like Brewer’s smile. The smile was so thin that Quentin could see the vitriol behind it.
“Goody Sue, is it not true that your husband has been in England for two years?”
Mary smirked, “I can’t count so good, but I trust you’re telling it true.”
“Very well then. When, in that two year span, did the Devil first contact you?”
“Why, I don’t suppose he e’er rightly did.” Mary flashed a wicked smile, revealing her shining white teeth.
“Is that so? Or is it simply that you do not wish to tell us? Speak freely, for you are in the company of God.”
“I said I don’t think he e’er did.”
Brewer was cut off by the Quentin’s quavering voice, “—Re-reverend, I—I think she be tellin’ you true.”
“Quiet! You dare challenge a reverend in the house of God?”
“I—I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. F--Forgive me.”
“Yes…” Brewer said with an insidious smile. “Perhaps I was too harsh.” His tongue flickered over his jagged teeth. “It is time to, perhaps, proceed to a new line of questioning.” He turned to address Mary, her slim body casting a narrow shadow in the light of the braziers, “Who is the father of your…spawn?”
“I can’t answer that, either, as I don’t know. I wish I could be more of a help.”
Brewer’s face grew red and hot as the very hell he preached about. “How could you not possibly know? Don’t you answer that.” Brewer turned to face the room, his shadow grew huge and imposing in the light, his voice was thunderous, “Who here was victimized by this lying, conniving succubus? Speak now or God may smite thee where you sit.”
The hall grew so silent that not even the shallow, frightful breathing of the crowd could be heard. Quentin drew in a deep breath and closed his eyes. “It was me.” The room was stunned. There a few painful gasps amongst the mass of people. Geoffrey’s eyes widened in shock and he doubled as though he’d been struck.
“You, Quentin?” Reverend Brewer sounded as though he could hardly believe it himself.
Constable Geoffrey spoke up, “Reverend, the boy is clearly confused, because it was me.” Mary sue began to chuckle softly to herself, then louder, but nobody seemed to notice.
“I’ll be goddamned if it was you!” shouted Farmer Jakobson, as he stood up from his bench. “You may think you’re the law around here, but I won’t let you take credit for my son!”
“Your son, Jakobson? I wasn’t aware that you were competent enough to even have a son.” Geoffrey stared Jakobson into submission.
Reverend Brewer cut in, “Silence! This is a house of God, not some sinning tavern!” Appalled, Brewer spoke to Mary, “My God, woman, is there anyone in here you could even rule out as the father?”
Mary smiled and with a glint in her eye replied, “You.”
Brewer’s eyes went wild. He turned to face the audience. Brewer now glowed with the full power of his position, his shoulders appeared broader, his height seemed taller. Drawing on the full weight of his authority, “It has been deemed that God, in his infinite mercy, has found fit to punish Mary Sue by public hanging for the crime of adultery. This punishment shall be wrought down upon her tomorrow morning at the old willow tree.” Brewer grinned like a maniac, then turned around to Geoffrey, “But we cannot, of course, only punish Mary. Geoffrey, for his crimes, shall be flogged. Two lashes!”
This was met with a round of applause from the audience, celebrating the justice of their God.
Mary’s smile died.
The clouds were grey and humorless, fat and heavy with grief. Such is the way of clouds on a rainy day like that morning. It was a cold, violent rain that sought to sting its victims into submission. Quentin pulled his black, soggy cowl farther out in front of his face to shield him from the rain’s malice as he stood amongst the eager spectators that had circled around the old willow tree. Many of them still smelled of that morning’s breakfast of stale bread and thrice old cheese. Their eyes all seemed to be crying out for death.
Caw, caw! Quentin’s gaze instinctively shot toward where the cackling crow sat on the willow’s sinking branch. Caw! Whether the crow was protesting the hanging of Mary Sue, or adding its cries to the throngs of supporters, Quentin couldn’t tell.
The Old Weeping Willow of Puritown looked a little less green today. Quentin speculated that its green hues were washed away by the iron rain. Or by the new spirit of the town, thought Quentin.
Quentin recognized many of the people in attendance. Constable Geoffrey, rubbing his back as though to soothe it, stood a polite distance behind Reverend Brewer. Farmer Jakobson was near the front of the pack, scraping out the dust underneath his fingernails as he stared at Geoffrey with venomous eyes. Quentin also noticed a number of other notable people in attendance: Carson the Carver, Nevin the Nitwit, and Barry the Brash. They formed a group to express their excitement over the upcoming event. One man held his toddling child on his shoulders so the little one could get a better view.
Mary Sue’s soaked hair clung to her face. She was poised, back straight and chin up, as if daring the citizens to hang her. She glanced toward the noose, swallowed, and then stared harder into the mob that surrounded her.
A noose was tied on tight to a branch at least a head taller than Reverend Brewer. Brewer stood beneath the study branch. He walked over to the trunk of the willow tree and gave it a sturdy thunk, thunk, thunk, then nodded to himself, as though satisfied.
“People of Puritown, today is a day to be remembered, to be honored! Today, at last, justice shall be served for two years’ worth of debauchery, adultery, and lewd and licentious behavior. Today is the day we show that God’s plan is not to be forsaken and tossed aside like a soiled cloth. Today is the day we show what happens to those who exhibit wickedness in a pure Puritan town like that of our own Puritown.” Brewer motioned to something in the crowd, “Carson, bring forward the stool.” Carson the Carver emerged from the crowd with a ochre stool and placed it under the noose. “Thank you.” Carson nodded in reply. “And Nevin, would you be so kind as to guide Mary to the stool? We need her to stand on it.”
Nevin the Nitwit took lengthy, luxurious strides toward Mary. Tongue flopping out, Nevin said to Mary, “Come here, Miss.” He gurgled happily to himself. “Come on, don’t be shy. There’s a good girl.” Mary had looped her arm inside his. “Just right on up this stool now. There you go. Heh-heh.” Nevin’s spittle struck Mary in the face, but luckily the rain washed it away. Her mouth twisted up in disgust as she stepped onto slippery chair
“You have my thanks, Nevin,” said Brewer. He walked next to Mary, who stood on the stool, and gingerly looped the noose about her neck. It was made of coarse horse hair and many years old, it scraped along her neck as Mary tested out the limits of her new confines.
Quentin looked toward Constable Geoffrey. Are those tears I see, or is it just the rain?
“Now in the—” Brewer began before being cut off by a fit of laughter.
Mary Sue stood there cackling. It was an unsettling laughter. It could have broken mirrors or hearts. Or minds. It was a laugh of desperation. It was a laugh that had to be laughed, lest the tears well up and reveal the weakness behind that fragile façade. It sounded like breaking glass. Mary’s smile extended from ear to ear, as though Carson the Carver had carved it there himself. Her eyes were staring off into the distance, almost lifeless.
Caw! Caw! Caw! The crow descended from its branch and then glided over the mass of people. The reverend inhaled sharply to speak again when he was interrupted once more. Caw!
“What’s the matter, Reverend?” started Mary Sue, “Crow caught your tongue? Get on with it!” Brewer narrowed up his gaze and shot her daggers with his eyes.
The rain changed. It was no longer filled with its previous malice and hate. It became softer and gentle. Almost soothing. When it hit Quentin’s face it no longer stung, but rolled down lazily like a melancholy bead.
Quentin knew what was coming. He shut his eyes tightly and pulled his cowl tight over his face, hoping that if he couldn’t see anything bad happen, perhaps nothing bad would happen. But that was all in vain.
Reverend Brewer spat. “Now behold in the eyes of God, true justice!” And with that, Reverend Brewer kicked the stool out from underneath Mary and it went crashing against the tree.
She dangled and squirmed until the end.
The sun was setting on the peace town of Puritown, casting the town in mournful shades of red and yellow and orange. Most folks had gotten on with their lives. They were back to milking their cows and churning their butter. Some harvested their crops. When they’d pass by each other in the street, one might tip their hat to another and exchange pleasantries. Indeed, it seemed as though nothing had ever transpired that grim morning. It weighed heavily in no one’s heart. Except for Quentin.
It’s my fault, he thought, I killed her. I never should enjoyed her company – then she might not be dead. Quentin was passing by the shoddy houses as the Sun’s light once again failed. Inexorably, Quentin found himself drawn toward the old willow. It seemed to be the only other rational being in Puritown.
Caw! Caw! Caw! The lonely crow returned, seating itself on the very branch Mary Sue was hanged from. An old childhood rhyme weaseled its way back into Quentin’s memory. Three crows crowed their song in dark and light and all day long. Quentin paced around the Weeping Willow, thinking of how many other men had been with Mary Sue, and if they felt guilty. Or were even punished. Six fine fellows fled their woes, and in the process cut their toes. Quentin noticed the noose still hung from the branch and that the stool was still on its side under the tree. Nine servile snakes shed their skins, and so it happened forgot their sins. He positioned the stool back under the noose as he thought of all the vile accusations. Twelve harsh harpies screeched a tune, and so coaxed the rising of the moon. Quentin stood up on the stool. The Church and the Reverend were filled with hypocrisy, he thought. Fifteen nuns made lovely fun, before the swelling of the sun. He positioned the noose around his neck.
Quentin gazed out into the sunset. A few children were happily playing a game off in the distance. Eighteen children played near and far, until the dying of the stars.
Then he kicked out the stool.
The old Weeping Willow cried amber tears.