Saturday, August 4, 2012

Where You Belong

Photo prompt from Magpie Tales

“Missed you in church yesterday,” Pastor Tuttle said.

“Had to get the hay off the ground.” Isaac patted his faithful gray mare on the neck and then swung himself up onto his wagon. Taking up the reins, he flipped them gently onto the horse's back and rode away from the minister without so much as a glance in his direction.

“Sunday is the Lord's day,” Tuttle called after him. “I'll expect to see you where you belong next week.”

Back at his farm, Isaac unhitched the mare and released her into the corral next to the barn. He unloaded the supplies he had just purchased into the house and stowed the wagon in the shed. It was a beautiful day. The kind of day when a dip in the pond seemed like a good idea. Whistling to his dog, Isaac and the shaggy, nameless mutt, set out across the fields in the direction of the swimming hole that was nestled in a grove of poplar trees at the north edge of his property. He'd been swimming there since he was a kid and it remained one of the few indulgences that he permitted himself as an adult.

Used to be that Tuttle would join Isaac. Before he took to the pulpit as the town's self-appointed saviour, Cole Tuttle was Isaac's best friend. They grew up together, playing as children in the fields that surrounded their family farms. Inseparable and dedicated, they supported each other through the thick and thin of becoming men. Through first drinks, first loves and first fights, Isaac and Cole were a team, learning the ropes and catching each other when one of them stumbled or fell on the path of life.

When Reverend Archer died, Cole announced – quite out of the blue – that he was going to replace the old man. Isaac had been stunned. After all the years of Sunday service antics they had dreamed up and acted out in defiance of having to sit in those hard pews every week, Isaac had not expected this twist in their relationship. Over night, it seemed, Cole had changed from a fun-loving friend into a zealot of biblical proportions. Gone, instantly, were the wild nights in the saloon, the high-stepping evenings at the community barn dances, the passionate and clumsy attempts to woo the local girls, the fishing escapes and the camp-outs out on Marble Ridge. Gone, it seemed, was youth itself.

At first, Isaac had thought it was a lark, that Cole was just making fun of the town and that he was planning some spectacular coup. He actually looked forward to Cole's first sermon, thinking – believing – that it would go down in history as one of the most shockingly hilarious events that ever took place under the church roof. He donned his Sunday best and positioned himself in the second pew next to the aisle where he could get a good view without looking like an accomplice. His beliefs were quickly dashed, however, when Cole stood up and, in a thunderous voice, accused every town member of being a wicked sinner bound for hell.

About half way through this terrifying oration, Isaac stood up and walked out of the church. When he reached the nave, Cole paused in his address and pointed an accusatory finger at his life-long friend. “And you, Isaac Porter, are the worst of the lot!”

If anyone else had been planning on leaving, they didn't dare move after that!

Isaac closed the door behind himself and walked away from the one person in the world he had loved the most.

The years passed and Isaac inherited his family's farm. He married Sue-Ann Nivens, who died a year later giving birth to a son. The boy died as well and Isaac lost all hope of ever finding happiness again. He simply ran his farm to the best of his ability and kept to himself. Tuttle had forced the saloon to close and had banned all dances anyway. Socializing of any kind was prohibited unless it was a church function. Tuttle would go out of his way to humiliate anyone who didn't follow his strict interpretation of how God expected them to behave. A bitter core of hatred and resentment formed in the hearts of the town folk. But none were brave enough to speak up or take action against Cole Tuttle.

That afternoon Isaac found the pond just as he expected to: deserted. Tuttle had declared swimming yet another sin. If boys had time to swim, they had time to help their fathers in the fields. He stripped off his clothes and waded in to his thighs before diving in. While the dog chased squirrels, Isaac luxuriated in the cleansing and refreshing water. He swam a few laps and then turned onto his back to float on the smooth surface, dappled with spots of golden sunlight beaming down through the trees. He reflected, as he often did, on his joyous youth and lamented the loss of his friend, his wife and his son. The bitterness he felt over the way things had turned out felt like a lead weight in his belly. He could feel it pulling him under, dragging him down and he suddenly felt like surrendering to it.

If I just let go, the thought, I won't ever have to look at Tuttle again. I won't ever have to hear his condemning voice or see the fear on the faces of the people in town. I won't ever have to think about Sue-Ann or our boy. I won't hurt anymore.

He watched as the water closed around his face and the dappled sunlight shimmered above him. He let himself sink down, down, down... his lungs burning, his mind screaming for air.

Just as he was about to suck in a chest full of water, something grabbed his arm and he felt himself being hurled back up toward the surface of the pond. Without ceremony, Isaac found himself being flung onto the shore. He rolled over, coughing up water and gasping for breath. Looking around for whoever had pulled him out of the pond, all Isaac could see was his dog looking back at him with his head cocked sideways in surprise and confusion.

“Who's there?” he hacked. But no one answered.

Shaken and a little fearful, Isaac redressed and went home. He kept looking for signs of someone nearby, someone who must have pulled him out of the pond, but he saw no one. I need a good, stiff drink, he thought and looked forward to the contraband whiskey he kept hidden at the house.

Night fell slowly, as it does in the summer months. Equally slowly, the whiskey burned away the cold fear that had gripped Isaac's heart that afternoon. By the time darkness had ended the day, he had convinced himself that it must have all been a dream. And now, with a whole day wasted, he took himself to bed with the drunken promise to make up for it the next day.

And so he did. The week, hot and teeming with mosquitoes, was more productive than usual. Isaac put up the rest of the hay, mended the fence in the north pasture, harvested the first potatoes of the season and got a good start on his winter wood supply. But something kept drawing him back to the pond and every evening he would wonder over to it and sit on the huge rock that jutted in from the shore line. His ruminations were as deep as his resentments. He kept thinking about Tuttle and the fear-mongering hold he had on the town. Whatever had happened in this pond that afternoon, Isaac was convinced that it had happened for a reason. There was a purpose behind his salvation from drowning and whoever – or whatever – had stopped him from dying was trying to tell him something. If only he could figure out what it was...

On Saturday night, just as the last of the light was fading, something in the pond caught Isaac's eye. It glittered for a second, then disappeared. Isaac peered into the water, but he couldn't see it. He laid down on his stomach on the rock, getting his face as close to the surface as he could. There is was again. A quick glint of gold.

Isaac reached down into the pond and felt around the sandy bottom. It took a minute, but finally his big hand closed around an object that he hadn't seen in many years. He pulled it out and held it up, marveling at the sight of it. It was the gold chain and cross that he had given to Sue-Ann on their wedding day. She had lost it only a few months later while they were swimming one hot July evening, much like this one. She had cried inconsolably over the loss. Not even his promise to buy her a new one would comfort her. He had tried so hard to find it, returning to the pond every chance he got that summer to look for it, but eventually he had given up. After she died, he had forgotten about it completely.

Walking back to the house, Isaac's thoughts turned to Sue-Ann. How she loved to dance and sing. Her voice was the sweetest he'd ever heard and her laughter... Oh, how she loved to laugh!

He thought about all the fun they had had in their short time together. He thought about all the fun he'd had before that. Life had been a continuous celebration of everything good: friendship, love, hope!

Instead of going home, Isaac found himself on the road to town. Few lights glowed in the windows of the homes that lined the streets. Most of the people were already in bed – resting up for church in the morning. That didn't stop Isaac from banging on the first door he came to at the home of Joshua Slater and his family. Groggy and concerned, Joshua opened the door and stared at Isaac.

“Bring your fiddle to church tomorrow,” Isaac instructed. When Joshua opened his mouth to protest, Isaac hushed him. “Just do it!”

From there, Isaac went door to door, giving instructions at each home to bring some food or an instrument or some decorations to church. The people were stunned, but none of them openly objected. They were confused, yet intrigued. What on earth was Isaac up to?

The next day, Isaac got up early to feed the stock and get ready for church. He put on his best suit and hat, then hitched up the mare to the wagon and trotted her into town.

Tuttle was standing on the church steps greeting people as they arrived. He seemed a little out of sorts, seeing the smiles and hearing the good-natured well-wishes from this congregation. When he saw Isaac pull up and tether his horse among the other wagons, his eyebrows shot up in mild shock and the vain belief that he had finally won. He smuggly waited for Isaac to approach.

“Well, it's about time you showed up here, Porter,” he said, offering his hand in a gesture of feigned welcome.

Isaac looked at the offered hand, but brushed passed it without acknowledgment and went inside to find a seat. The church was full to capacity, but Joshua Slater made room for him with his family.

“What are you up to, Isaac?” Joshua whispered.

Isaac just smiled. “Did you bring it?” he whispered back.

“It's in the wagon. I wouldn't dare bring it in here. Tuttle would probably smash it to smithereens.”

“As long as it's easy to get at. When you get my signal, lead everyone out into the church yard and get that fiddle.”

“What signal?”

“Oh, you'll know.”

The service began with Tuttle's usual admonition to the congregation to dig deep into their pockets and give until it hurts. God's work isn't cheap and if he's blessed you, you better bless him back. A typical fire and brimstone sermon followed the order to pony up in the name of the Lord – lest ye be condemned to the fires of hell! It was almost more than Isaac could stand. He gritted his teeth so hard, they ached.

At last, Tuttle called for prayer requests. A few people stood up and asked their fellow worshipers to pray for ailng relatives, children and cattle. They were all brief and mumbled pleas for divine assistance under the disapproving gaze of their pastor.

“Once again,” Tuttle sneered after the last request was muttered, “you all seem to miss the point. Why do you insist on asking for things for yourselves? Why can't you see that the Lord works in mysterious ways and He decides what He gives and what He takes?”

Isaac had had enough. “I have a request,” he said, standing up and stepping into the aisle.

“Indeed!” Tuttle said. “A request for forgiveness, I should hope.”

“Something like that,” Isaac said and started walking toward the pulpit.

A collective gasp rose from the congregation.

“Please stay in your seat, Isaac. We can hear you from there.” Tuttle was clearly unsure of Isaac's intentions. And quite discomfited by his approach.

“I'm sure you can,” Isaac said, “but then these good people would miss this...”

Isaac drew his arm back and punched Tuttle squarely in the nose!

Another gasp preceded an enormous cheer from the crowd. “Follow me!” Joshua Slater shouted over the din and then led the people outside where they gathered their instruments, passed around food and hung flowers and ribbons from every available surface. Music and laughter filled the air, while Tuttle rolled on the floor in agony.

“My nose!” he wheezed. “You broke my fucking nose!”

“Oh, you'll live. You've survived worse.” Isaac looked down at the writhing pastor. “Remember how you told me you expected me to be where I belonged today?”

Tuttle glared at Isaac.

“Well, that's where I'm going right now.” He pointed outside toward the church yard full of revelers. “If you care to join us, I'll make sure no one else punches you in the face.”

With that, Isaac left the church and joined the party that lasted well into the night. He danced with several pretty girls. He even sang a couple of songs for the crowd. And he laughed. Oh, how he laughed.

As for Tuttle... Well, he actually saw the light – so to speak. He intended to scuttle away unseen, but Joshua Slater's wife, Mabel saw him and helped him clean up some of the blood from his broken nose. She gave him a huge piece of fried chicken and a chunk of cherry pie and a hug. His shame was deep, no doubt about it, but he accepted the forgiveness the town so willingly gave him.

Eventually, the saloon was reopened and the community barn dances started up again. Tuttle was offered a position as bartender, but declined in favour of working for Isaac on the farm where they renewed their friendship and swam in the pond on hot summer days.

A new pastor was found for the church. His name was Jacob Joyce and he played a pretty mean fiddle himself!

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