“I am not about to die.” The old woman looked up at the minister from her bed.
Pastor Clark stopped abruptly a few feet into the room. “No. Of course not,” he said. “Of course not, Miss Hartfield,” he added, remembering the name the nurse had given him. “I’m sure you have many years ahead of you,” he went on, but her sickly appearance made him doubt his reassurance. All he could see of her was her face. It was pale and waxy and painfully thin, and there was little life in it. The pastor had seen many such faces on his visits to the nursing home, and they never failed to upset him. But what dismayed him now was the hostility in Miss Hartfield’s voice and the narrow-eyed way she regarded him, as if he himself were Death’s emissary.
“So if you came to give me last rites, you’re going to be disappointed.” She laughed wickedly and pushed the bedclothes down to her waist. She raised herself on her elbows.
“There’s no question of last rites. I’m just visiting. Are you a Catholic?”
The woman leaned to one side and made a spitting sound so sudden and vehement that it caused the pastor to flinch and back away from the bed. She looked up at him with her face twisted in a way that left no room for compassion. “The Whore of Babylon holds no allure for me.”
Pastor Clark could think of no reply. He watched Miss Hartfield strain to push herself into a sitting position. Her scrawny body held little weight, but it was enough to tax her old and flaccid muscles. She breathed deeply and made a grunting noise. The pastor knew that he should help her, but he couldn’t bear to touch her or even move next to the bed. He turned toward the window, noticing that the stiff spring breeze had lightened the Tennessee River’s murky surface with a splendid array of whitecaps. But his delight in the view, while the old woman struggled behind him, filled him with guilt. He returned to his former position and stared at the floor where he noticed a small white spot, much like the patches of foam on the river. It took him a second to realize that the old woman had actually spit on the floor. He looked away in disgust.
Miss Hartfield finally settled herself. “I am a Christian and that’s enough.”
“Yes. Of course.” The pastor found that he was saying very little and that the little he was saying sounded rather stupid. He wondered how he could get away without seeming uninterested or impolite.
“My father was a lay preacher,” she said casually, as if in answer to a question. “He would stand on a stump or a box and bring the word of God to the common people. He did his best in a less than perfect world, and he may have brought comfort to some. Maybe he brought a few lost sheep back to the fold. But when he was put to the test,” she went on, nodding and squinting her eyes, “his faith failed him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. But God knows we aren’t perfect. We all fall short of His glory.”
The old woman looked at him as if she knew something that he didn’t. “Many are called but few are chosen,” she said.
She seemed to have nothing more to say, and the pastor, after a few moments of silence, felt he could leave. He walked straight to the nurses’ station.
“Miss Hartfield. The old woman in 212. I wonder…”
The nurse was looking through a file of smudged three-by-five cards, and she only occasionally glanced up as she answered. “She’s ninety-five years old and crazy as a coot on Christmas. But she’s not a lot of trouble unless you try to talk to her. She knows the genealogy of Jesus better than I know my own family tree. I’m sure you realize I mean no offense, Reverend, and the people here appreciate it when you come, or that nice man from the Catholic Church and even that rabbi fellow and the other reverends. A person’s spiritual life is important, I always say it is, but there’s a limit to how much religion a person can listen to. A psalm or some proverbs, now that’s all very well. But I draw the line at begats. Again, no offense, Reverend.”
The pastor, who knew much better than she how boring Scripture can be, was only offended at her continued misuse of the word reverend. “She doesn’t look well,” he said.
“Nobody in here is well. This is a nursing home, but what with all the paperwork we have to do, it’s a wonder we do any nursing at all. I just want to throw up my hands sometimes. Well, truth to tell, sometimes I just do.” She stopped shuffling the cards and looked up at him. The pastor was relieved to see that she didn’t throw up her hands. “I’m not supposed to repeat this, but just between you and me and the fencepost, the doctors don’t expect her to last out the year.”
“I see,” he said. “Perhaps I should stay with her a bit longer,” he added.
But he didn’t. The thought of the old woman’s sour looks and her disdainful remarks and her self-satisfied air repelled him. That night, alone in his room, as if in payment for this lack of Christian charity, he found that he was unable to forget her. Her rough words constantly found their way into his thoughts, and when he closed his eyes he frequently found that he was visualizing her unhealthy face or her scowling mouth or the small puddle of spit he had seen on the floor.
For several years it had been Pastor Clark’s routine to visit the nursing home twice a year, once near Easter and again just before Christmas. But two weeks after his Easter visit, with nothing more significant approaching on the calendar than Mother’s Day, he returned to the nursing home. Usually he took flowers to the front desk and stopped there to ask the nurses’ advice as to who might want to see him. But on this visit he went directly to Miss Hartfield’s room.
“You’re back.” She was sitting up, watching a television talk show. She turned the set off with the remote control. “You want to know, don’t you?”
“To know?” the pastor asked, but there was no conviction in his show of ignorance.
“You think that collar gives you a monopoly on holiness, but you’re wrong. There’s nothing in the Bible about backward collars. I know the Bible, and there’s not so much as a mention of collars.”
“You’re right. The collar is unimportant.”
Miss Hartfield’s smile shone with the glee of victory. “I’m glad you know that. It’s faith that’s important. Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish. But belief isn’t easy if it’s tested. I learned that early in life.
“We were a farming family. Just tenants. We owned nothing in the way of land or tools, but when the crop came in, it was ours. Then the bottom fell out in ’29, and when the next harvest came, we owned the crops, but there was nobody buying. I was only six at the time, but I was old enough to feel the loss that a farming family feels when they get forced off the land. But there was no cash for the rent, so we had to go. My father was too proud to be a sharecropper, I will say that for him. We left the land and moved to the city. Accommodations were to be had, but all we could afford was a two-room apartment over a bar on Market Street. The Market Lounge, they called that place, as if using another word could disguise its purpose. The beer smell was bad enough, but it was the stench of sin that lingered with you, for that place was a work of the devil. At night, a neon sign lit up, calling the sinners.”
The old woman closed her eyes momentarily. The pastor watched her in her reverie. If she fell asleep, he could go, and part of him wished for that, wished he could remove himself from Miss Hartfield and her memories. Her eyes fluttered open, and she stared at him intently before she spoke.
“It was a run-down building. Our lodgings were cramped. No place for farming people. We stayed there for ten long years. My father found what work he could, and when there was no work, he would preach and talk to people and try to bring them to the Lord. Those hard times were a test, and there were them that couldn’t make the grade, that turned to thievery or whoring or drink. My mother and father kept our home together. There was little money, but my father made sure that my brother and I had our own Bibles. We went to school without fail, and we helped our mother in what ways we could.
“And we prayed. We always prayed together. Until that night that my father was put to the test.”
“What night was that?”
“The night before Halloween. The year was 1938, and a hard year it was. My mother was sewing. It seemed her needle never stopped that year. My brother and I were doing schoolwork on the floor. My brother wore his pajamas since it was his pants that my mother was mending. My father was reading with his glasses on, the way he usually did at night. He read the Bible, of course, and occasionally he would pick up a newspaper on the bus.
“It was my father who noticed the silence and enjoined us to listen. We did and heard nothing, but that was what my father meant. Why was there no noise from the bar? My father opened the window, but we heard nothing until the quiet was broken by a wailing, a mournful, terrified sound, pitiful enough had it been coming from a woman. But no women frequented that bar.
“My mother was concerned, and I could see that my brother was getting scared. I put my arm around him. I watched my father and took my cue from him, and he was not afraid. Not yet. Without a word, he left us. He wasn’t gone long. When he returned, there was a change about him. He looked older and smaller. He motioned for us to follow him, and he led us down to the bar.”
Miss Hartfield touched the television remote control that lay on the table beside her. The pastor noticed that it seemed to please her in an odd way.
“We knew what radio was,” she went on, “but we had never heard it in operation. My father considered it an instrument of the devil. Not that our limited means would have allowed us to own one. In the bar, the crowd of drinkers made room for us, and we moved close to the big wooden radio on the counter. At first, the disembodied voices made no sense. They talked about a town called Grovers Mill, New Jersey, a place of no interest to us. Gradually we learned what had happened there. We listened with growing horror, and when my father felt we had heard enough, he led us back upstairs where we knelt and prayed with a fervor we had never known. We prayed that the Lord would save us–the Hartfields, the city, the nation, the world–from the Martians.
“My mother’s tears flowed freely, and my brother sobbed uncontrollably, but I watched my father’s determined face and shed not a tear. He would not allow us to become enslaved by these demonic creatures, and he said so. Then my mother looked up. ‘But Clifford, what can we do? What choice do we have?’
“My father’s voice was clear and steady as he answered, ‘We have the river.’
“I knew what he meant immediately, but he waited silently for my mother to realize that he was speaking literally, that he meant our river, the Tennessee, that ran under the Market Street Bridge only three blocks from our door.
“My mother wavered. ‘But Clifford. It’s a sin.’
“My father mouthed a silent prayer before he said, ‘Not for you three. I’ll do what’s necessary. And before I throw myself in after you, I’ll pray to the Lord to let me join you in Heaven. He may forgive me.’”
* * *
Old Miss Hartfield opened her eyes and gave the pastor a hard look. “You may think I was just a giddy girl, but I was fourteen hard years old. I was in the first throes of womanhood. Womanhood has a way of thrusting itself on a girl, what with the leers and gropes of men and the betrayal of your own body. The body of Eve, the body that has to pay for Man’s fall. But that body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and I have kept my temple undefiled. Does that surprise you, young man? That I have resisted the lechery and evil of the world?”
“No. No it doesn’t. It’s commendable.”
“There was nothing of the girl left in me. I knew about life and I knew about death and I knew what the Lord would want of me, and I believed my father was right.
“We put on our coats and walked to the street. Then we marched to the river with our Bibles in our hands.” The old woman raised her fist over her head as if in solidarity with the spirits she conjured. “Single file like soldiers we went, ready to go to a cold, wet death, ready to meet our maker. My father led the way and my mother was behind him. I came last to ensure that my little brother stayed with us, but it turned out I had no reason to doubt him.
“The bridge railing is low, and we had no trouble climbing onto it. It was rough concrete and scraped our hands, but I enjoyed the pain. I imagined I had nails driven through my palms. I was ready to go to glory; I would be with my God. I sat up straight and proud on that bridge railing and waited for the feel of my father’s hand on my back, for the gentle pressure that would send me to Heaven. But it didn’t come. And I suddenly knew that my father’s faith had failed him. I remembered the story of Abraham who raised the axe over his son’s throat. My father was no Abraham. He had doubt.
“The three of us sat and waited. We could see the water below our dangling feet, and we could feel the bridge sway when a car passed over it, but we waited in vain. Finally my little brother looked up at me. The tears ran down his face, and I knew that he wept for our father just as I did. I remembered all the times I had dried my brother’s tears, all the times I had reassured him when he was scared and comforted him when he was hungry or cold. How could I reassure him now? What comfort could I offer him?
“But the Lord was with me. The spirit that had left my father had found a place in my own soul. I dried my brother’s tears for the last time and put my arm around his shoulders.”
Old Miss Hartfield nodded her head ever so slightly and smiled in the minister’s general direction, but her eyes were unfocussed. “He didn’t cry out as he fell. My brother went to his death without so much as a whimper. He kept his faith, and I know that I’ll see him again in the glory of Heaven.”
“Dear God!” Pastor Clark jumped up from his chair. “You pushed him.”
“I saved him. I sent him on to his reward, and I would have sent my mother and father with him if they hadn’t stopped me.”
“But the Martians weren’t real. It was only a radio show.”
“The Devil is real. Don’t you believe in the Devil?”
“In evil, yes. I know that evil exists in the world. But you had no call to… to kill him.”
“You’re forgetting the words of Jesus. ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.’ You have to do the Lord’s will. You have to stand with Abraham and raise the axe over your head, never mind whose neck is underneath. Just wearing that collar isn’t enough.”
That night Pastor Clark parked his car at First and Market and walked onto the bridge. As the old woman had described, the bridge swayed slightly with each passing car. He gently rubbed the rough concrete of the railing. It was low and would be easy to scale, even for a child. He bowed his head to say a silent prayer. “Our Father,” he began, but stopped. He peered over the railing. City lights winked and blinked in the choppy water as they must have done on that October night. “Our Father,” he began again, aloud this time, wanting the words to carry. But his voice was weak and no match for the river’s silence. The pastor found himself fingering his collar. It felt uncomfortably tight. The prayer he had planned slipped from his mind and vanished, like a pebble dropped from a bridge. He could do no more than lean against the railing and stare into the muddy water below, waiting for the splash.
Interview with William Brasse
Border Crossing: What inspired you to write about these characters and their different ideas on what it means to be a follower of God?
William Brasse: The “War of the Worlds” broadcast supposedly drove some people to thoughts of murder/suicide. (These accounts are suspect, but not impossible.) Having read that, I was drawn to the drama and ultimate irony of the situation. This was my starting point. The characters followed naturally.
BC: What compelled you to choose a holy man as the point-of-view character?
WB: I am inclined to think that Miss Hartfield would only share her story with a minister. A layperson might not appreciate her particular declaration of faith.
BC: Could you talk about your process for writing this story? How did it come about? What idea did you first have and how did it germinate? Did you struggle more with the craft elements of writing a frame story, or did you struggle more with the thematic/spiritual questions raised by the piece?
WB: I hate to disappoint you, but when I wrote this story, I didn’t know what a frame story was. (I do now!) A few of my stories, including “Abraham’s Axe”, have come to me Minerva-like, fully formed. The only struggle with these stories is to polish and finalize, something I spend a lot of time on with all my work. The most difficult part here was the wording of the final paragraph. Thematic questions don’t really interest me, and I try never to think about them while I am writing. Ars gratia artis and all that.
BC: Do you have a particular interest in the “War of the Worlds” broadcast or this period of history? What compelled you to write about this event and/or this era?
WB: I find most history interesting, the years of the Great Depression and World War II especially so, since these were the major events that shaped the world I was born into.
William Brasse is the author of three novels published by Rough Magic Press. His short fiction has been published in The Southern Review. Like so many people, William Brasse lives in California. Like fewer people, he was born in Tennessee. Like almost no one, he has been a vegan since 1979.