THOMAS BILLERBECK lay in bed but could not sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the arch. He saw it as clearly in his imagination as he had on the previous night, when he stood before it, the light of the full moon bringing out the most exquisite details in the ancient carvings. There were demons with spines on their backs and tails and claws on their feet. There were men and women half-transformed into beasts. Some of the figures were carved in half-relief, and appeared to be struggling to free themselves from the stone, while others inhabited intricately sculpted niches, where they dined on flesh without benefit of knife or fork, or else were hard at work, quill in claw, writing verse of an undoubtedly low and vulgar nature. None of them wore a stitch of clothing.
Of all of these hideous characters, the one that disturbed Billerbeck the most, both in reality before and in his recollection now, was the large gray cat that lounged on the top of the arch. The cat, a masterpiece of the stonemason’s art, had seemed to sneer at Billerbeck, daring him to walk under the arch and onto the bridge that crossed over the Plumtree River. Now, in Billerbeck’s imagination, the cat came to life. It crouched and sprang at him.
“Thomas!” Billerbeck’s wife said, annoyed. “What is the matter with you? You’ve been twitching like the devil ever since we went to bed.”
“I’m sorry,” Billerbeck said. “I can’t seem to get settled. I’m concerned that the new assistant can’t manage the kiln on his own, and the bricks will be spoiled.”
“You checked on him last night. You said he was managing just fine.”
“I know, but—”
Billerbeck’s wife gave him a shove. “Then go on already and check on him again,” she said, “and let me get some rest.”
Billerbeck got up and dressed himself. He walked out into the dark and empty cobblestone streets of the town of Lorimer and made his way not to the kiln, but to the rectory. He stood in the street for a while looking up at the white brick house. He had been a “mud lark” in his father’s brickyard when the rectory was built. The bricks that now kept Pastor Runkel warm and dry had once been clay, oozing up between Billerbeck’s toes as he mixed it with his bare feet. In a sense, Billerbeck’s house was built of those bricks as well: they had paid his wages and made it possible for him to marry the girl he loved.
Billerbeck climbed the steps and knocked on the door of the rectory. After a short while, Pastor Runkel, carrying a candle, wearing a long nightshirt, and looking more gaunt than usual, opened the door. While Billerbeck fidgeted at the kitchen table, Pastor Runkel lit a fire in the stove and put a kettle on to boil water for tea. When Pastor Runkel sat down at the table across from Billerbeck, he wondered if he had ever before seen such miserable eyes hovering over such a fine handlebar moustache.
“What troubles you, son?” Pastor Runkel said.
“The night before last,” Billerbeck said, “I couldn’t sleep. I was concerned that my assistant might have trouble managing the firing by himself, so I got up and went to the kiln. He was doing a fine job and everything was in perfect order. But the fires of the kiln made me miserably hot, so I went for a walk along the river to catch the breeze off the water. I meant to turn back when I got to the arch but—”
“You walked under the arch.”
“I swear, Pastor Runkel, I only meant to walk halfway across the bridge, as it would be so pleasantly cool there over the river.”
“You crossed the bridge.”
“You paid a visit to the clapboard house just on the other side of the river—the one referred to in whispers as Madam Steckler’s.”
“Yes—but only to have a drink—as I was so feverish.”
“Did you also gamble?”
“Did you fornicate?”
Billerbeck squirmed for a time before replying: “Yes.”
“What was her name?”
“Her name, Thomas. With which of Madam Steckler’s doves did you commit the sins of fornication and adultery? Or did you not bother to discover her name before you coupled with her?”
“She said her name was Azazelle.”
Azazelle: the name Pastor Runkel had most fervently hoped and most dreadfully feared would cross Billerbeck’s lips.
“I thought it might be Azazelle,” Pastor Runkel said, as evenly as he could manage.
“She’s a witch, isn’t she?” Billerbeck said. “I knew as much! I would never . . . she cast a spell on me!”
“Oh, hush!” Pastor Runkel snapped. “She’s not a witch any more than you’re a saint.”
Billerbeck slumped down in his chair. “I know I’m no saint,” he said softly. “I have . . . I have risked all that is dear to me, and I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll tell you what you must do,” Pastor Runkel said. “You must go to Azazelle tonight and tell her to come to the rectory. You will tell her that I wish to speak to her.”
“What are you going to say?”
“That she will not be allowed to continue in her loathsome trade if she insists on preying on the weak-minded. And Thomas, you will abstain from sin while you are there, and tonight will be the last time you ever pass under the arch.”
“Yes, Pastor Runkel.”
Billerbeck left, and Pastor Runkel made himself a cup of tea. He raised the cup and held it in front of him, regarding with interest his trembling hand. He sipped his tea and marveled at the ease with which the demons of desire had so easily breached the fortifications of his faith.
When he woke, she was there. She wore a white silk dress cinched around her waist with a copper sash that matched the color of her hair. Her eyes were dark, her face round, her nose a button, and her lips like the cyclamen flower that pushes up through the snow. He wondered how she had ensnared him simply by sitting quietly in the back of the meeting-house on Sundays.
Behind her, the door was open, and the streets of Lorimer dark, quiet and empty. It was possible no one had seen her. Pastor Runkel jumped up and shut the door.
“Please, sit down,” he said, the first words he had ever spoken directly to her.
She sat and he paced before her, pouring out his feelings. He hardly knew what he was saying—only that he gushed.
When he was done, she stood up. “That which you desire of me,” she said, “I can never give you.” She approached him, grasped him by the shoulders, stood on her tiptoes (she was rather short), and kissed him on the cheek. “Goodbye Pastor Runkel. If you send for me again, I will not come.”
She was gone. He was heartbroken and exhausted. He slept fitfully for what little remained of the night, and woke at daybreak, thrown free of a vivid and unpleasant dream by a tremendous crash of thunder.
Dark clouds swept down on Lorimer like great black birds of prey. The heavens growled, the winds howled, and the rain fell in sheets. That days came and went one knew by the clock; that the sun rose and set one took on faith. The cobblestone streets became torrents, and the people hardly dared leave their homes for fear of being washed away and down into the raging Plumtree River. On Saturday night, the storm exhausted itself, and on Sunday, the eye of heaven looked down upon the mud-filled streets and lightning-shattered chimneys of Lorimer as though nothing untoward had occurred in its absence.
By a longstanding tradition, all the good citizens of Lorimer (save one) were seated before Madam Steckler and her doves made their entrance. Only Pastor Runkel, whose occupation required him to face the back of the meeting-house on Sunday, was forced to gaze upon the flamboyant feathers in Madam Steckler’s Parisian hat, or the rosy-hued faces of her doves, as they took their seats in the last pew. When the rustling of the doves’ silk dresses ceased, then did the congregation wait, impatiently, to hear the barking of a dog. After the dog barked, an old man with a lumpy burlap sack thrown over his shoulder, and a shoemaker’s measure under his arm, would enter the meeting-house, take his customary seat in the very front pew, set his sack down between his feet, and wave his measure at Pastor Runkel to let him know he might now begin his sermon.
An explanation is in order: The bark in question belonged to a terrier cur, not much bigger than the rabbits he loved to chase. His name was Hotspur, and he was the beloved pet of Temperance Minglefinger, Mayor Minglefinger’s daughter. Hotspur followed Temperance to the meeting-house every Sunday, and as he was not allowed inside, he waited patiently outside during the sermon. Many citizens of Lorimer would bestow a pat of kindness on Hotspur’s furry pate on their way into the meeting-house. Hotspur accepted their attentions with grace and dignity, except when it came to one particular gentleman—and that brings us to Mr. Wohlgemut.
Stepan Wohlgemut was Lorimer’s only cobbler. He was an eccentric old man—a hermit who lived in a hut buried miles deep in the wilderness on the west side of the Plumtree River. Wohlgemut only ever crossed the bridge and came into town on Sundays, in order to hear Pastor Runkel’s sermon. When a citizen of Lorimer had shoes or boots in poor condition, he or she would bring the footwear to the meeting-house on one Sunday, and retrieve it the next in good repair. Admittedly, the practice might seem odd to a stranger, but had been the way of things in Lorimer for as long as anyone could remember, and no one thought twice about it.
Perhaps it was the smell of wilderness upon the hermit, or the sack he carried over his shoulder. Whatever the reason, Hotspur growled and barked at Wohlgemut if he tried to approach him, despite the fact that Wohlgemut, a kindly old man, always brought some little treat for Hotspur when he came to the meeting-house. Hotspur ignored Wohlgemut’s tender of affection as long as Wohlgemut held it in his hand, but if Wohlgemut tossed it in the grass under the dog’s nose, Hotspur would pounce upon the delicacy and gobble it down, while never showing the least particle of gratitude towards his benefactor.
And so it was on the Sunday after the storm: Madam Steckler and her doves were seated, Hotspur barked, the dependably late Mr. Wohlgemut appeared and took his customary seat in the front pew, and Pastor Runkel launched into his sermon. He thanked the Good Lord for his mercy. The storm had passed over Lorimer without seriously injuring anyone, and had only inflicted moderate damage on homes, businesses, crops, and livestock. It hardly needed to be said (Pastor Runkel said) that God was capable, and the town deserving, of much, much worse.
It would have been a good sermon, if only Pastor Runkel had been more attentive to his own words. His thoughts were elsewhere. He had come to regret, painfully, the confession of love he had made to Azazelle. Like that despicable little man in the children’s story who is vanquished the instant his name is spoken, Pastor Runkel’s absurd obsession with Azazelle had released him soon after he confessed it, but his relief was short lived. A tortuous vision had come to him in the night and would not leave: Azazelle and Thomas Billerbeck together, naked. The brickmaker is on his back, and Azazelle sits astride him, impaled. Looking down on Billerbeck and his grotesque moustache, she says, with pride and amusement in equal measure, you know, Mr. Billerbeck, Pastor Runkel is quite smitten with me.
“Rumpelstiltskin!” Pastor Runkel muttered, clenching his fists. He looked up at the congregation. Those few paying close attention looked back at him curiously.
He cleared his throat. “The rumblings of the storm have been stilled! Amen!”
“Amen,” the congregation said, agreeably.
Madam Steckler and her doves generally did not linger to participate in the sociable knots that formed outside the meeting-house after the sermon. But on this particular morning, Pastor Runkel saw the doves waiting while Madam Steckler discussed with Mr. Wohlgemut the renovation of a pair of thigh-high black leather boots. Here was an opportunity to set things right, Pastor Runkel thought, if he acted quickly. With his hands clasped behind his back, he strolled and smiled until he was standing next to Azazelle.
He dared not speak candidly, as someone might overhear, but he believed he could make Azazelle understand him nonetheless.
“The storm,” he said, tapping his fingers on his chest over his heart, “has passed.”
“Yes,” she replied, “but the river continues to rise.”
She walked away, leaving Pastor Runkel so stunned that he didn’t realize Wohlgemut was trying to get his attention until the old man tugged fiercely at the black sleeve of his preaching robe.
“. . . scuffed! Shamefully scuffed!” the cobbler was saying, pointing at Pastor Runkel’s shoes. “Thrift is a virtue, Runkel, but do you want us to listen to your sermon, or pity you for the state of your dress?”
Pastor Runkel took off his shoes and handed them to Wohlgemut. Azazelle was right. The storm had passed, but in its passing, had fed an undercurrent of longing which would inevitably rise up and sweep him helplessly along its disastrous course. God only knew where it would take him.
Two days later, Pastor Runkel heard that the bridge over the Plumtree River had been washed away. Only then did he realize that Azazelle had not been speaking metaphorically.
“I don’t know why you have come to me with this,” Pastor Runkel said. “I don’t know anything about the construction of bridges. I can tell you that a bridge crosses an expanse, and that it is built by men. That is the extent of my learning on the subject.”
Mayor Minglefinger chuckled. “I’m afraid you know even less about the construction of bridges than you think.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I heard the bridge had been washed away, I searched the mayoral library to discover who had built it, and what it had cost, so that I might have some idea of what to expect when engaging men to build a new one. I found this . . .”
Minglefinger handed Pastor Runkel a thin volume, its black leather covers enclosing a single yellowing page. The document was written in Latin, and though Pastor Runkel had studied the language excessively as a youth, he found translation difficult. The script was stupefyingly ornate, and the words arcane, even for a language long dead.
“It’s the original contract,” Pastor Runkel said at length, “for the construction of the bridge over the Plumtree River.”
“Remarkable!” Minglefinger exclaimed. “It took me hours to decipher it. And see here—it guarantees the same terms for the building of any subsequent bridge, ad aeternum.”
“Even if this is not someone’s misguided attempt at humor,” Pastor Runkel said, “I still don’t understand what it has to do with me.”
“I have listened to you preach for more years than I care to count,” Mayor Minglefinger said, “and I am convinced you know Lucifer’s every trick. I can think of no one better qualified to negotiate with the gentleman.”
“Even if I could do as you ask, why would I?”
“Because the wealthy and influential men of this town wish it.”
“Why do they wish it?” Pastor Runkel asked.
“Why do you think?” Mayor Minglefinger replied.
“I can’t imagine.”
“I think you can.”
“I’d like you to tell me.”
Mayor Minglefinger smiled benevolently on Pastor Runkel, and spoke to him as he would to a child. “These men enjoy nothing more than a jaunt to Georgetown for the purpose of outfitting themselves and their wives in the latest fashions. The bridge means nothing to them personally, but their hearts go out to the poor farmer, store clerk, or maid who can’t afford a trip to the city to buy a new pair of shoes every time they wear a hole in the ones they’ve got on.”
“You expect me to believe they are concerned for the feet of the less fortunate?”
“What else could it be?”
“You know what else it could be.”
“I assure you, all they want is to help their fellow man.”
“Then we’ll open a charitable subscription for the rebuilding of the bridge,” Pastor Runkel said. “I’ll announce it next Sunday.”
“No, no. That will never work. These are not men who will part with a large sum of cash when a modest investment in wickedness will accomplish the same result.”
“They would risk their immortal souls—”
“For the good of Lorimer.”
“Then don’t tell them about the contract. If they don’t know—”
“I’m afraid I have already told them. And more to the point, I promised them that the bridge would be built, in accordance with the terms of this contract.”
“I won’t do it.”
“These men can make your life in Lorimer difficult. Or impossible.”
“Good. My creator will see me tested. I only hope I don’t disappoint Him.”
“I have no doubt you will acquit yourself with distinction, Pastor Runkel. You strike me as a man who will wear his boils as proudly as a lesser man would wear a new silk hat. But there is something else to consider: Madam Steckler and her doves. One dove in particular—the one called Azazelle.”
“What about Azazelle?” Pastor Runkel said, trying to hide his alarm.
“I understand Azazelle paid you a visit,” Mayor Minglefinger replied. “It is remarkable, to say the least, that a dove should fly so far from the coop, in the hours before sunrise.”
“I sent for her. I did my best to persuade her to abandon her shameful profession. I hoped she would be receptive to my council.”
“I see,” Minglefinger said with a smirk. “It was your council you hoped she would be receptive to. If I’m not mistaken, you spoke to her again last Sunday.”
“To ask her if she and her companions had weathered the storm without serious injury.”
“Your concern for Madam Steckler’s doves is heartwarming,” Minglefinger said. “Don’t let it fail them when they need it the most. Madam Steckler comes to town every Wednesday morning to fill her wheelbarrow at the market. What will her doves eat if she can’t cross the river? Think of poor Azazelle, digging for roots in the forest where the wild men roam. Imagine what they will do to her if they catch her.”
“You know what the bridge will cost.”
“The soul of the first person to cross—if my Latin serves me.”
“I suppose you have already mentioned it to your wealthy and influential friends, and so it won’t be one of them.”
“I confess, it might have slipped out,” Minglefinger said, “but I had a thought on how we might best settle the account. Madam Steckler is an old woman and an unrepentant sinner. If her soul should arrive in hell somewhat ahead of schedule, where is the harm in that?”
“How can we be certain she will be the first to cross?”
“I have known Madam Steckler for many years. She is a woman of stubborn habits. If you arrange things with our friend such that the bridge is completed before sunrise next Wednesday—less than a week, I know, but these will not be ordinary laborers—there’s a good chance Madam Steckler will be the first to cross.”
“A good chance?”
“One can never be certain of anything, Pastor Runkel, but think of the good that may come of this. With Madam Steckler’s influence over Azazelle gone away, yours will take its place. Madam Steckler is going to hell regardless, but with your . . . guidance, perhaps Azazelle can still be saved.”
Pastor Runkel said nothing.
“What is your answer?” Mayor Minglefinger said.
“May God have mercy on our souls,” Pastor Runkel replied.
Though there were plenty of citizens curious about the construction of the new bridge, they all strived to outdo their neighbors in maintaining an appearance of perfect apathy. Only Thomas Billerbeck, who had the excuse of a professional interest (though the bridge would be built of stone, rather than brick) followed the newly-arrived bridge-crew down the forest path to the arch (all that remained of the old bridge). There, the foreman unrolled his plans on the ground, weighing the ends down with stones. The plans were drawn using the modern, symbolic method, and to Billerbeck, not familiar with the art, the plans looked more like the work of a composer than a draftsman. The bridge-crew gathered around the drawings and fell immediately into a terrific argument. The foreman alone remained silent, leading the discussion by pointing to one man and indicating he must speak up and make his voice heard, and then to another to let him know he must quiet down and listen.
The sky turned dark, and a cold rain began to fall. It seemed to Billerbeck that the gray stone cat, whom the rain adorned with ever-changing, leopard-like spots, looked down from his arch in benevolence and good humor. Despite (or perhaps because of) the foreman’s best efforts, the quarrel became ever louder and more fractious. Billerbeck covered his ears with his hands and ran home.
As he approached the site of the old bridge, Pastor Runkel heard men shouting and cursing, and in the uncertain light of dawn, believed he saw (in glimpses through the trees), the foreman and bridge-crew—arguing over the plans! It was Wednesday morning! The sun would be up soon! Had they done any work at all? If they weren’t finished by the time Madam Steckler showed up with her wheelbarrow, all was lost! Tears of despair welled in Pastor Runkel’s eyes, and as a consequence, he put his foot into the home of some burrowing animal. He went down hard but got back up immediately, and continued, limping badly. The pain in his ankle cleared his head. He would tell Lucifer the deal was off. A contract was a contract, and if Lucifer didn’t like it, he could go to hell.
Pastor Runkel reached the arch just at sunrise. The forest around him was silent. The bridge-crew had vanished, and the only evidence Pastor Runkel could see that it had ever been there was the new bridge, identical to the old one in every particular, exactly as The Great Deceiver had promised.
While Temperance Minglefinger sat on the floor and subjected her dolls to unspeakable outrages at the hands of wild men (a sighting of wild men in Lorimer was the reason her father gave for her incarceration that morning), Hotspur sat in a chair by a window with a view of a vegetable garden. When Hotspur started barking frantically, Temperance jumped up to see the cause. Alas, it was no wild man plundering the garden, only a large gray cat, sitting in the middle of a row of infant radish greens and licking a paw with imperial nonchalance.
Wolgemut grabbed a cudgel that he kept near his bed and stood up. He unbolted the door to his cabin and peaked cautiously outside. He heard nothing save the chirping of birds, and realized it wasn’t a noise that had awakened him, but the lack thereof. Though the hermit-cobbler’s cabin was situated deep in the thick, sound-muffling wilderness west of the river, the clamor of the bridge-crew had disturbed his peace day and night for the better part of a week. What a sweet, soft chorus of nature he now heard, what delicious morning air he breathed, and what lovely, pinkish light filtered through the trees. He dressed, exchanged his cudgel for a walking stick, and set out to see the new bridge.
Temperance drew the bolt and pushed up the sash, intending to shoo the cat away and spare her dog the torments of unfulfilled desire, but as soon as the gap was wide enough, Hotspur leapt out. Temperance, knowing that wild men liked nothing better than a hash of cold dog for their supper, climbed out of the window after him.
She was a graceful child and could run like the wind, but Hotspur had an insurmountable advantage in legs, and by the time Temperance reached the footpath that ran along the river, Hotspur was nowhere to be seen. She walked through the forest calling out to him, wondering what her father would think if he came to her room and found her gone and the window open. He was bound to think that wild men had taken her. Temperance knew she should turn back, but in her childish way, she loved the dog as much as her father loved her, and was as fearful for his safety. She was greatly relieved when she found him, sitting and panting on the path, the bothersome cat nowhere to be seen.
“Hotspur! Stay!” Temperance commanded, reaching for her dog. Hotspur had a loyal heart, but ears that were rather indifferent to the spoken command. Being more in the mood for outdoor sports than the confines of a stuffy room, he dodged her grasp, and ran down the path barking playfully.
Pastor Runkel heard the barking, but it made little impression on him, as he had just seen someone emerge from the clapboard house across the river. He hopped behind a nearby juniper bush and crouched down, then raised his head cautiously and used one finger to lower a branch obstructing his view. Madam Steckler, pushing her wheelbarrow! Hallelujah!
She was making good progress towards the bridge until she rolled the wheelbarrow into a muddy patch. She pulled and she pushed, and Pastor Runkel clenched his muscles in sympathetic effort. The wheelbarrow didn’t budge until it did, suddenly. Madam Steckler stumbled forward, stuck her foot in the muddy patch, and fell headlong into the wheelbarrow, her noggin hitting the edge of the wooden tray with a thunk as she went in that Pastor Runkel could hear from across the river.
The doves, who must have been watching Madam Steckler’s progress from within the clapboard house, flew to her aid. They lifted her out of the wheelbarrow and set her on her feet, and with their help, Madam Steckler walked unsteadily back to the house. Pastor Runkel whimpered, and his whimper was answered with enthusiastic barking. Hotspur had discovered him. Pastor Runkel’s attempts to quiet the dog only excited him further. Precious moments passed before Pastor Runkel looked towards the river again, and when he did, he saw, to his horror, Azazelle piloting the wheelbarrow, and nearly on the bridge.
Temperance took a cautious step towards the juniper bush Hotspur was barking at, wondering what wild forest creature—or man—Hotspur had run to ground. She took another step forward, and then, greatly relieved and a little disappointed, picked Hotspur up and tucked him under her arm.
“You can come out, Pastor Runkel,” Temperance said, “Hotspur won’t—”
Pastor Runkel leapt out from behind the bush, and without so much as a good day to you, Temperance Minglefinger, hopped in great one-footed leaps down the path, under the arch, and onto the bridge, where he tackled a bewildered young woman pushing a wheelbarrow.
In all the excitement, only Hotspur noticed Wohlgemut as he emerged from the wilderness on the west side of the river. Why the dog chose that moment to forget his fears concerning the hermit-cobbler, and at the same time, vividly recall a bit of the smoked tongue of a wild boar Wohlgemut had brought for him one Sunday, we can never know. Hotspur kicked free of Temperance’s grasp and ran joyfully for the same old man he had for so many years regarded with suspicion and fear. The dog flew by Pastor Runkel and Azazelle, followed a moment later by Temperance Minglefinger. Pastor Runkel got to his foot and hopped with all his might after the child. He gained on her, reached for her—
Wohlgemut, unwilling to believe the evidence of his own eyes, would later swear that Temperance, in reckless pursuit of her beloved Hotspur, had somehow fallen over the high stone wall of the bridge and into the river below. Pastor Runkel, whom Wohlgemut credited with making a heroic effort to save the child, did not dispute the cobbler’s account. No one thought to question the dove.
One day, not long after the tragedy, Pastor Runkel was seen on the newly-christened Temperance Minglefinger Memorial bridge, looking over the wall and down into the deep and swift-flowing Plumtree River. History doesn’t tell us in which direction he was headed—only that he was never seen in Lorimer again.
One thought on “”
Masterful, Jonathan! Thank you!