Sarah searched the trusted pastor's eyes for comfort--and for a lifeline. "Oh please, dear God," she wailed. "Have mercy! He'll surely kill me." Deep creases plowed the face of this handsome woman, and tears muddied her countenance. Her open jaw jerked awkwardly as she sobbed.
But the preacher's eyes were cold, and his words were spoken by a stranger. "You have sinned in the eyes of God and man," he said. "You must atone yourself by returning to your husband, and you must earn his forgiveness through obedience and submission."
"But I have money," she argued. "Over four thousand dollars. I'll give it to Elijah--and you can intercede for me."
"It's not your money, anyway. It belongs to your husband--especially because of how you obtained it."
Hidden behind his detached demeanor, the pastor's heart joined with hers, and he felt her anguish. But he was as helpless as she. Neither his schooling nor his bible study had prepared him for this conflict.
Sarah hadn't been seen in Junctions for more than five years. When her husband had reported her disappearance, most townspeople assumed that she had been consumed by coyotes or dragged off by outlaws. They had quickly forgotten her. She had never fit in anyway--she and her poems and her curious ways of looking at things. Then a local cattleman, away from home on a drive, had seen her in a saloon entertaining men. After accepting the carnal pleasures she offered, he assuaged his guilt by notifying the authorities. Roughly retrieved, she had begged the sheriff to allow her a moment in church--time for respite and, she hoped, time for forgiveness.
After watching the sheriff drag Sarah from the church to return her to her husband, Rev. Stacy--or Pastor Evan, as he preferred--returned to the rectory and slumped into his chair. He braced himself for the disquieting evening that he knew lay ahead. Whether he would be visited by melancholy or by torment he did not yet know. If by melancholy, he would taste the bitterness of despair; if by torment, he would hear the commotion of combat--alternately castigating and justifying himself for harboring the ogre of hypocrisy.
As a young man, Evan had struggled with his spirituality, particularly his awareness of his own existence. Many nights while lying sleepless, encircled by his slumbering brothers, Evan cowered from the twin trials of self-awareness: fear of death and fear of loneliness--fear of non-existence and fear of unshared consciousness. He yearned for a tranquil womb. Following convention, he sought to pacify his existential dread with the opium of faith--a decision that plagued him still.
Evan was far too spiritual to embrace religion, but he didn't know this when he had chosen his vocation. On the contrary, he believed that he wasn't spiritual enough, for he had compared his unsettling doubts and questions with the self-satisfied certitude of his own pastor. He hadn't known then that he misinterpreted his pastor's spiritual complacency as comfort of the soul. And he hadn't known then that he eclipsed the uncertainty of reality with the certainty of fiction. But he knew these things now.
This night, it was torment that called on him. Evan was not a peaceful man of conscience, for he suffered under two consciences. His primitive conscience, the judging commandments and prohibitions he had learned without reflection as a child, whipped him whenver he strayed from his training. His mature conscience, the nonjudging sympathy and understanding he had learned through empathy as an adult, relentlessly nurtured his ethical spirit and behavior. These two consciences, mortal enemies, waged merciless wars with each other, leaving craters in the battleground of Evan's soul.
Before he retired, Evan recalled his last image of Sarah as she was pulled from the sanctuary. He recalled how the anguish on her face had captured him, dragging him into terrifying intimacy with her condemned soul. His consciences fought. He tried to escape into sleep, but a nightmare stole any hope for peace.
At Sarah's graveside, a half-dozen faceless onlookers watched his performance through a dense, gray mist. Elijah was absent. The pastor felt agony as he remembered Sarah retreating from the church, stooped in defeat. But his public image belied his inner turmoil; his eulogy contradicted his pain.
"Sarah Ware was a prideful woman. She thought that she could overrule God's will with her selfish thoughts and actions. She thought that she could guiltlessly break the Holy vows of matrimony just because her life was hard. But God does not forgive prideful apostasy. And He chose Elijah Ware as his instrument of punishment."
"Amen!" the crowd responded robustly, signalling clearly that Evan had spoken correctly--and that Elijah Ware's acquittal was a foregone conclusion. Everybody knew that the offended husband had beaten his wife to death because she was a whore. And everybody knew that he had beaten her countless times before to teach her humility. They also knew that she had deserved the beatings--certainly this time, and likely the other times as well. None of these good souls would be prideful enough to question God's righteous judgment.
Nor would any of them shrink from rebuking the pastor if they had known the conflict that ravaged his heart. It hadn't been that long ago or that far away that another preacher had been stoned and driven from town for preaching that God is love. As it was, the town barely tolerated Evan's Episcopal background.
Knowing his peril, the pastor concluded the service with ritualistic words, hoping to conceal his wish to reverse Sarah's damnation. "May God have mercy on her soul," he said in monotone. He didn't get caught: The herd mindlessly ended the service with an indifferent "Amen."
Evan awakened breathlessly, his heart pounding. By doing what was good, he had killed Sarah. He lay still and stared up at the ceiling in the dark room. His consciences began their ancient warfare.
"How could God turn his back on his own creation?" his empathic conscience challenged. "A woman he had created beautiful, intelligent, and full in his own image? Doesn't God care?"
His old conscience defended his citadel with familiar doctrines. "Of course He cares--He cares when a sparrow falls. But God had given Sarah free will. She could have chosen to honor her womanly duties."
"But God is omniscient--He knows the future as well as the past. He knew this would happen. Why didn't he intervene?"
"He tried to intervene, but she wouldn't listen."
Sweating heavily, Evan threw back his covers and sat up.
"But God is omnipotent," he argued aloud. "He could have made her listen."
"God tests us. He wants us to be God-like in our choices."
His new conscience tried reason. "Either our will is free or it is not. Either we decide our own course, or it is decided for us. If God is omniscient, He already knows what we will decide. If this is true, our future is predetermined. But if our course is not already fixed--if our will is truly free--we can surprise God with our actions. That means He isn't omniscient. And He isn't omnipotent."
The response was predictably smug. "Don't question your faith. God works his wonders in mysterious ways."
Evan retreated from his self-mutilation, taking refuge outdoors. In the real world, he hoped, the cruel abstractions embodied in the rectory dared not materialize. Feasting on the sweet night air and caressing the cool grass, he lay down and gazed toward the heavens. The summer constellations sculpted the black sky, granting him the solace of immensity, eternity, and security. "God's handiwork is so magnificent. And we are so small. We can't even comprehend his creation--yet we presume to know His mind."
His reflections were drawn again to Sarah--this time to the Sarah he had counselled years before when she had questioned the meaning of her existence. He said aloud, "She was among His most exquisite works." Then he wept, his heart gravely burdened. Melancholy had arrived.
He began to fight his sorrow by summoning his rage, preaching a sermon to sympathetic stars.
"Why must men reduce God's precious work to something they can understand and control? Why must they remake God in their own image--selfish, hateful, jealous, murderous, unforgiving?"
A cool zephyr brushed his cheek, indicating Nature was listening.
"Nature doesn't blame. Nature doesn't punish. The wolf isn't to blame because it eats the rabbit, nor is the rabbit punished for some obscure sin. Nature doesn't recognize good or evil. The wolf isn't evil, nor is the rabbit good. God is Nature. We, the wolf, and the rabbit are God's children--Nature's children."
Without grappling further, Evan arose from the grass and walked purposefully toward the saloon. His quest was certain: to acquaint himself with another of God's exquisite creations--the woman known as Marta.