The old man tickled the white ivory and felt the keys pulsing and throbbing underneath his cracked and calloused fingers. It was a feeling he hadn’t felt in a long time. The sound reverberating into the very foundation of the chapel, and when he heard the pure power of the organ, that shattered the still air like a hammer. He felt that if he played hard enough, long enough, he could forget his pain. He thought that if he cut off the miserable weed where it started, it would die. So first, he began where it began. The chapel.
His father was a preacher. His father’s father was a preacher. It was only natural for The Preacher to follow in their footsteps. He seemed the perfect altar boy; memorizing his bible verses, singing in the choir, and being a loving brother to his little sister. The thing no one knew was that the only demon in his life was within himself, not the hallowed pages of the holy text.
His mother died when he was coming of age, months after giving birth to a daughter. The Preacher was told that a sickness got in her during childbirth. She died in the hospital bed holding his hand. He saw the husk of a woman she was. He remembered her joy, and her warmth, and now he saw her as a cold and broken spirit. Crushed by the sickness. After he felt her last squeeze in his palm and saw the last glimmer of light fade from her empty eyes, he couldn’t stop thinking about why this happened. He and his father had prayed so hard, and for so long. His mother was in the thoughts of the whole congregation, three days a week. Why was that not enough? Why couldn’t God just spare this one good person, while so many evil people still lived? The Preacher was young, but he was starting to lose his faith.
Eventually, he began to think about when he would rest forever. He had to believe there was an afterlife. If there wasn’t, what was there? There couldn’t be just darkness. No. That was too cruel. Maybe there wasn’t a god, but wasn’t it worth believing, just for a sliver of hope for heaven? The Preacher decided that yes, it was.
His grades weren’t great in high school, but they were enough to get by. He just didn’t know if he wanted to leave home. He thought about college, and decided he would be the first in his family to earn a degree. He wanted to go to State and graduate. He worked voraciously, and did everything he could to increase his chances.
One day, while the Preacher was helping his sister with homework, the home phone began to ring. Thinking it was news about college, he immediately picked up the phone. A voice he didn’t recognize asked, “Is this the residence of Mr. Luther Johnson?”
The Preacher answered that, yes, it was, and it was his son speaking. A knot grew in his chest, as he feared the worst.
“Oh, hello there. This is the sherriff’s station. I don’t know how to tell you this son, but there’s been an accident. We need you to identify the body.”
He had no need for college now. Not when he had to stay home. He needed to find work, and send money to his sister. He left his home, and said goodbye to his sister. His grandmother would care for them now. As time passed, the pages of the college pamphlets became worn after years of being pored over in his throes of regret and wistful nostalgia. Now, the pictures in the pamphlets of smiling students were almost faded to nothing. Just like The Preacher.
The Preacher didn’t face problems in his faith this time around. He was older now. He knew that God had a plan for us all, and for his father, his plan was cut short. God needed his Luther, and Luther answered the call. He was in a better place now, so why dwell on it?
He decided he would work on a cattle ranch. It gave him good money, and gave provided food and board as well. However, the work was hard, and it never let up. His sister and his grandmother needed his prayers to get by as much as his money, so faith was his life. He went to church three times a week. He ate, slept, prayed, and worked. He was like a robot, going through the motions. His faith was the only thing that kept him going. He knew that if he worked hard enough, maybe those pamphlets would be put to use after all, when his sister was looking at colleges.
One day at the ranch, his walkie buzzed with static before he heard a voice.
“Preacher, we got a problem by the marsh. You’d better git down her.” It was Marvin, the head of the ranch. The Preacher responded and let Marvin know he was on his way. The Preacher jumped in the Gator and drove up to the edge of a marsh and saw Marvin waiting for him. A heifer was stuck in the mud, her flank dried and cracked. The Preacher suddenly recognized why the situation was so dire. The heifer was pregnant.
“Helluva mess we got her,” Marvin drawled. “The hiefer’s ‘bout dead, but we could cut ‘er open and pull that calf out early.”
The Preacher replied that he would do what he was told, as long as Marvin was aware the calf might not survive.
“The hiefer’s gon’ die. If I gotta risk it for the biscuit, I will,” Marvin responded.
With Marvin’s response, The Preacher grabbed the bucket of supplies and waded his way out into the marsh, but only after he secured himself to a rope that was tied to a tree, so he could be pulled out if things went awry.
When he got to the heifer, he already saw flies swarming her. The light in her faded eyes was almost gone. The Preacher moved behind the cow to her rear, and saw a hoof protruding. She had already started calving. He assessed the situation and determined the calf would die if he tried to pull it out. He began scrubbing the heifer’s left flank with a brush he brought in the bucket, and doused the area with alcohol. He snatched his hunting knife from his belt and made the incision.
After he pulled the calf from the uterus, he saw the empty gaze of the dead heifer. It was a gaze he had seen before. Suddenly, he wasn’t in a marsh. He was in a sterile hospital room, watching his mother chip away and wither. He was in a cold morgue, looking at his father’s face for the last time and seeing his pale skin and bloody face. As quickly as his memories appeared, they faded, and he was back in the marsh, looking at a newborn calf.
When all was said and done, The Preacher was seated on the bank of the marsh, covered in mud and blood, holding a new calf tight to his chest. He gazed into its eyes and saw its innocence, its shining coat, slick with fluid. It was new, untainted by the evils of the dark world. If only he could have what it had.
That night, The Preacher snuck into the barn, and saw the calf once again. It was sleeping, so he crept up silently, as nimble as a cat. He knew what must be done. He couldn’t bear to see another orphan be infected by the shadows. He unsheathed his knife and gently drove it in between the calf’s eyes. The animal felt no pain, unlike the sorrow it was sure to feel in its life.
When morning came, The Preacher was gone. No traces remained. After all his time there, he never gave anyone a name. Never an address. Hardly ever spoke. It was as if he had disappeared with the night.
A rocky life was in store for The Preacher. He couldn’t keep a job, and he spent his nights in the streets. The little money he made panhandling, he threw away into the hands of his dealers, the liquor store clerk, or a loose woman. He had lost his faith, the only thing he had left.
After about a year of this, an old family friend had seen him on the street and taken him in. The Preacher never fully recovered from the trials of his past, but he got to live a fine life.
His sister got into college on an academic scholarship. However, The Preacher didn’t know that, as he hadn’t seen her since the day he left for the cattle ranch. He was too ashamed that he had abandoned her. To his sister, The Preacher became the estranged brother that only her closest friends knew about.
So that brings us to the chapel, with an old man playing the organ. It was The Preacher. He had stopped playing the organ, and was thinking about the calf he had killed all those years ago. He teared up and made his way to the belltower. He climbed each step with agony, and felt sharp, stinging pains in his lungs. He got to the tower, and looked out on the beautiful sunset. In only one moment, he looked back on everything. He had lived his life. It was time for him to let go. He lept.