Once upon a time there lived a man named King. Nobody really knew for sure what his real name was, but it seemed he had always been called King. Perhaps it was because he was so popular in his community; he was well liked, did anything for anybody, and was well-respected, or perhaps it was because he was the master of his domain, private, and well-to-do.
In his early years, he was a womanizer, a drunkard, and his main source of revenue was working as a logger. He was a free-spirit and he enjoyed his life. He worked in many parts of the country and everywhere he went he made friends and allies. He fathered many children in his time, even he did not know the number, and he had many sexual partners. He was resourceful and intelligent, even though he did not finish school, and he was a jack-of-all-trades. Everywhere he went people waved and yelled his name, for he was well-known.
He had tried to settle down with one woman, and had several children with her. As time went on, though, he was unable to tolerate her many moods and became drawn, so, once again, he took to the road and its freedom, leaving the poor waifs behind to fend for themselves.
As time went on, King became old and worn. He had been in several car accidents—due to drinking—which were now causing distress in his body. He had squandered away his riches. He was no longer able to work and, therefore, decided to finally settle down in one place. He chose the place where he had been raised, where his mother had owned land. He cleared the land, built a cabin, and settled in. King became a recluse.
Many years went by and the people of the community, and maybe some brother or sister, began to wonder what ever happened to King. Word got around and rumors and stories began to circulate about his disappearance. Most people just figured that he had gone away to some corner of the country and had finally settled down with some fair lady. No one knew that he had settled in the land just outside of the community. And that was that and years went by.
One night, a member of the community walked into the local drinking establishment and ordered a cold one. The barkeep noticed that he looked grim and asked him what was wrong. The man guzzled the glass of cold beer and ordered another. When he had quenched his thirst, he told the barkeep that he had been driving home when he noticed a white sign in the woods, just off the main road. This sign had not been there before and so he stopped, backed up and parked his truck, and then got out to take a look-see. At first, he thought that it might have been a joke, some kids were fooling around, but as he got closer he noticed a dirt road, and, being the curious fellow he was, followed it. A few feet into the woods and the road became wider, much wider, and he walked that road for about twenty minutes. He came across a large clearing of land, about two acres, and at the far end was a large building, like a church, although it did not have a steeple, with rows of windows on both sides. On the other side of the field, to the right, was a small house.
The barkeep poured him another glass of beer and pulled up a chair, as he found the story to be captivating. Apparently, so did a few other patrons of the bar and they gathered around the man to hear the rest of the story.
The man went on and told them that he had stood there for a long time, sweating in the heat of the afternoon summer sun. He wondered what he should do. Should he walk up to the house and find out who lived there? or should he just turn around and go back to the truck and forget about it?
His decision was made the moment he caught sight of an old man with a long white beard and hair coming out of the woods to the left of the church. Behind the old man was a small black dog. When the dog began barking the old man looked up and saw him. The old man waved to the stranger, “Come, come and have some tea with me.”
The man, whose name was Joe, was a friendly person, so, he smiled and waved to the old man and followed him to the house. The dog stopped barking and started wagging its tail as Joe approached.
When Joe got closer to the house, he noticed that the house had some strange writings and sayings on it. They seemed Biblical. Although Joe had never been a church going person, he recognized the verses. He became uneasy; he did not want to be in the company of a raving lunatic who preached of God and the second coming.
They entered a small porch and the old man placed his walking stick in the corner. Joe was very thirsty and asked the old man for a drink of water. The old man was kindly and pointed to the corner where he kept the good drinking water. Joe drank from a small dipper and when he was finished, the old man invited him to sit at the kitchen table. Joe sat down, and the little black dog lay at his feet.
The kitchen was not fancy. There were no cupboards with expensive dishes, only shelves with enough tableware for about four people. A fridge and large freezer lined one side of the kitchen, a stove and counter with a sink lined another wall, and in the middle was the table with four chairs. A wood stove lined the other wall with a small microwave cart in the back. Socks and towels were hung behind the wood stove on a small clothesline. The living room was decorated with an old sofa and chair, and a small TV on a stand was hooked up with old fashioned rabbit ear antenna. There were no pictures on the walls, only a clock with hands that did not move. Perhaps it was broken or the batteries were dead.
The old man seemed like a peaceful soul. He was very content and easy-going. He talked about the weather and how the woods were so full of mosquitoes, but none bit him, and how a body needed exercise. Joe agreed and smiled, but he felt like something was not quite right about the old man, and so he watched him as he went about the kitchen. He happily filled the kettle with water, got some mugs down from the shelf, and opened the fridge for milk. The water did not take long to boil and he poured the hot water in a pot and added some tea bags from an old tin can. He placed the pot on the table along with the mugs. He poured for Joe, he poured for himself, and then sat down.
As they drank their tea, the old man offered Joe some homemade banana bread. The old man knew a thing or two about baking, Joe thought, as he spotted some freshly baked homemade bread lying on top of the freezer. The old man noticed Joe’s interest and offered him some hot buns. Joe was hungry, for he had been in the local town all day looking for a good set of brakes for his wife’s car, but found none. He was frustrated about that and hadn’t stopped at the usual take-out spot for food. Now, he was famished. The old man had a bottle of fresh strawberry jam, that he had bottled himself, and offered it to Joe. They both were enjoying the freshly baked goods and fruity jam with delight.
“This bread is better than my wife bakes,” said Joe.
The old man laughed a hearty laugh. “My Father in Heaven taught me how to bake, that is why everything is so good.”
Joe stopped chewing and looked at the old man. There was something in his eyes that made Joe nervous, and a funny feeling came over him. He dismissed his feelings, buttered and jammed another fresh bun, and continued to eat.
“Do you see the sun, how bright it shines?” the old man asked.
“Yes,” Joe said. “It is a very nice day.”
“That is my Father in Heaven looking down on us. You see, I am the second son of God and I am the light and the way. No one comes to the Father but through me, the Holy Ghost. The Eagle has landed. For who will believe in me shall have everlasting life with the Father in Heaven.”
At first, Joe didn’t know how to react. He kept chewing his bread and drinking his tea, trying to think of words that would not upset the old man, or worse, make him want to preach a whole sermon. At last, he said nothing, just nodded.
The old man kept talking, since Joe didn’t object, and told Joe what happened to him in the woods a few summers ago.
“I was walking through the woods, one day, as I did every day, when I came across a large circle of burnt grass that I had never seen before. As I walked closer to the middle of that circle, every hair on my body began to stand on end like I was holding a ball of electricity, and I felt like I was becoming lighter. My feet lifted off the grass and I was rising into the air. The whole sky became like a lightbulb of a lighthouse, very bright and powerful, I could feel my body shaking. The light was so bright that I had to close my eyes, and when I opened them I was in the presence of God. He took me to his home, the sun. You see, the sun is God’s home.”
Joe drank the last of his tea. The old man observed him, waiting. When Joe didn’t say anything, the old man went on.
“He told me that I was his son and that I was going to be responsible for spreading his words so that people could be saved.”
Joe was silent. He wanted to talk, but found that he was unable to. As a matter of fact, he was unable to move. His eyes were transfixed on the old man, there was something in his eyes, and he could not look away. The old man went on about God’s work and Joe sat there, like a stone statue, listening, no, absorbing, every word. It was like a hunger that could not be satisfied. The more the old man told him, the more he absorbed, and the more afraid he grew. He desperately tried to move his arms, his legs, his mouth, but not a muscle on his body even twitched.
The old man spoke of demons and devils and how the government is filled with such entities. He talked about war and famine and disease. He spoke of plagues, nuclear war, and the second coming. He convinced Joe that he was the second son of God, and Joe believed him. The last thing he spoke of was the seven signs of the Book of Revelation. And when the old man was done of his sermon, Joe suddenly, was able to move again. He looked out the window and saw that the sun was already gone from the sky.
“Would you like some more tea?” the old man said, as if he had asked for the first time.
Joe felt like he had just come out of a trance, but didn’t convey that to the old man. He was puzzled, thought that the heat had gotten to him. “No, thank you,” he managed to say. “I should be getting home now, my wife will be worried.”
The old man got up. Joe offered his hand and he shook it without hesitation.
“Come to see me anytime,” the old man said.
“Thank you for your hospitality. What did you say your name was?” Joe said.
“They used to call me King,” the old man said, smiling.
Joe smiled back and walked out into the cool of the late evening. He walked across the field to the dirt road and when he turned back, the old man was still on the front porch, watching him. He waved at the old man and hurried on. He hoped that he would make it back to the truck before it got completely dark.
When he got to the truck he was shaking, not from the cold, but from something else. It seemed to Joe that he had just developed the worse hangover that he had ever had. He was shaking, his head throbbed, and his belly felt like it was on fire. He started his truck and drove away.
The barkeep got up from his chair. “Are you telling me that that’s where you just came from?”
“Yes,” Joe said. “And the weird thing is that I felt like I was there for a little while, but when I looked out the window it was almost dark.”
“Sounds like the ravings of a lonely old man suffering from regret and disillusionment,” the barkeep said, and went on with his business.
The other patrons began to laugh. “Crazy old man,” they said. “Must be in the woods too long,” they said. A few of them were laughing and a few of them just dismissed it and went on drinking. Joe finished his beer and went home.
When Joe got home his wife was up waiting and asked about where he had been. Joe told her the same story he had told the barkeep. His wife was a religious sort, but could not believe what the old man had said to Joe. She saw it as blasphemy and told Joe that he shouldn’t read too much into it and that a good night’s sleep would clear his mind.
Later that night, Joe lie awake staring at the ceiling. He tossed and turned and when he finally fell asleep, he dreamt about the old man’s words, about Hell and Heaven, and about demons and angels.
Joe woke up the next morning with a splitting headache. He wondered what kind of tea the old man had given him; it had tasted like regular black tea. He went to the bathroom cabinet and found Advil. He took two tablets and went back to bed. It was Sunday, there was no hurry to get up. He figured his wife was at mass, so he went back to bed and slept, all day.
When Joe woke up, he heard angry voices coming from the kitchen. He got up to find his wife and half the congregation of the church. He listened to them for a while, not knowing what they were talking about, until his wife noticed him standing there.
“What’s going on?” Joe said, and everyone stopped talking.
His wife told him that she had told the pastor the story of the old man, and by mid afternoon everyone in the community knew of the old man and what he believed about himself. There was uproar again and Joe put his hands up to silence them, but they would not stop. They were outraged and demanded to know just who this man was and why he was saying such blasphemous things, spreading rumors and tall tales. They wanted Joe to go back and demand that he take that sign down and stop spreading lies.
Joe refused, and when they realized that he was unmoved by their demands, they left. Joe slammed the door behind them. “What were you thinking by bringing those people into my house?”
“They wanted to go to burn down that old man’s church!” she said. “I had no idea they would get so hung up about some senile old man. I had to do something.”
He could see that she felt responsible for the horde and relaxed. “It’s okay, I understand.”
She nodded, then went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. Joe stood at the window, watching the crowd disperse, hoping they would go home and come to their senses.
The next day, Joe was busy working in his garage. Being the only mechanic in the community was quite an undertaking, but when he was overwhelmed he would send his customers to his trusted partner in town. He worked the day away, trying to concentrate on his work, but the words of that old man played on his mind. His wife had called him several times to come in for lunch and then for dinner, but he wasn’t hungry. He decided to give up for the day. Just as he was about to close up shop, the phone rang. It was Kevin, the barkeep. He told Joe that there were some men in his bar who were organizing some kind of posse to find the old man. Joe jumped in his truck and headed for the bar, but when he got there, he found the bar empty, except for Kevin.
“How many?” Joe said.
“At least fifty,” Kevin said. “I tried to stop them, to put some sense in their heads, but they are out for blood. Do you need any help?”
“Yes, Kevin, and grab the shotgun.”
Kevin did not hesitate.
As they drove closer to the place where the sign had been, Kevin spotted smoke. “We may be too late.”
“Goddamn it! How did they get there so fast?” Joe said, driving faster.
When they got closer they could see that the smoke had dissipated and the sign that Joe had seen the night before had been obliterated. Joe slowed down to make the turn and raced past the smoldering pile. The dirt road was wide, but had not been used much; Joe and Kevin bounced around like Raggedy Andy dolls. He wondered now if old man had had a vehicle or not.
They were unable to catch up to the crowd and by the time they got to the field, the church was in flames.
Kevin, who was much younger than Joe, was dumbstruck. He had not known anyone possible of such intentional destruction. His generation had been peace-loving. This was brutal, sadistic.
“How,” Kevin stuttered, “how could things get so out of hand so quickly? And for what? Because some old man has a church in the middle of nowhere?”
Joe rushed out of the truck with the shotgun, while Kevin sat in disbelief.
“You’re too late, Joe.” A voice came through the crowd. Joe did not recognize it at first, but as he shoved his way through the crowd, to the sound of the cackle, it became more familiar.
“You bastard,” Joe said, looking at the pastor with utter contempt. “Why, why?”
Pastor McArthur looked through Joe. “Do you think that we would just lay back and let the Devil live?”
“What are you talking about? There is no devil here.” Joe’s voice rose above the crackling of the fire. “Where’s the old man, Pastor?”
The Pastor turned away and began preaching, and the men gathered around to listen, while smoke filled the air.
Joe ran around the property and called out to the old man. There was no sign of him, or his dog. He searched the house and then ran through the alders nearby.
“Joe, maybe this way,” Kevin said, pointing in the direction of the path behind the church—he had come out of his stupor and was running for the path with Joe at his heels.
They carried on for quite some time, until the sun was low in the sky, but they did not find the old man, nor did they come to the end of the road; it just kept going on. They stopped to catch their breath. They could still see the flames above the treetops.
“I still can’t understand why they would do something like this,” Kevin said.
“I know, Kevin, I can’t either,” Joe said. “I bet that prick, Pastor McArthur, has something to do with it. He’s been itching to cause some raucous for a while now. A few of those men were at my house last night, demanding that I go and find out just who the old man was and why he was saying what he was saying. Shit, I can’t believe Kerry would tell those men that story. I shouldn’t have said anything to her.”
“I’m sure she meant no harm, Joe. And, besides, there were a couple o' guys at the bar last night when you were telling us what happened. They could have easily passed on that story.” Kevin felt bad.
“Yah, you’re right, Kevin, but still, something’s not right here. We haven’t had any trouble like this for a long time now, not since the Blueberry Festival a few years back. Why would the pastor be so determined to destroy this man?”
“I don’t know, but one thing’s for sure, we have to find him before the pastor does.” Kevin straightened up. “I think we should head back. For some reason, the woods are starting to creep me out.”
Suddenly, Joe felt the same way. The sun had set and the sky was growing darker by the minute. They headed back, each wondering where the old man would have gone and if he would be back.
By the time they got back to the field, it was full dark. The church, which had been made of only wood, burned fast and completely. The pastor and his sheep had left. Kevin and Joe stared into the embers, neither one saying a word. After a few minutes, they went to the house. Joe switched on a light and they searched it one last time. They called the old man’s name, but no one answered, and there was no sign of the little black dog.