Copyright 2019 Erik Helm: Short Story, Fiction, Humor
|Oh thou sinner!|
The parishioners to the Lutheran church in the town of Brule’ Wisconsin were a grim lot that Sunday when that memorable day happened. The motley congregation filed in silently, and sat with bloodshot eyes and sweating foreheads upon the notoriously uncomfortable pews that wobbled as one sat down, and creaked when one moved. Old Toivo’s hair had been combed and scrubbed, but was already coming astray with his twitching. The Paulson family, all 14 of them, were in the front with the patriarch, Linus Paulson trying to busy himself with the missal, his hands shaking from a wee too much brandy consumed at the Saturday festivities the evening before.
As the Pastor, Fr. Larsson panned his vision over the assembling devout; he reflected that today’s sermon was overdue. He blinked his rheumy eyes and nodded with a smile to Leena, the oldest of the worshipers, covered from head to toe in black lace. There were moans and coughs coming from the back, where the less pious and roughest sinners and recalcitrants of the area were packed together and fidgeting. Funny, Fr. Larsson thought to himself, how they always pack to the front and to the back, and leave the middle like an empty purgatory inhabited only by a few ghostly figures. Yes, they all were suffering the after-effects of potent potables. He could even smell them from the pulpit. So be it. The lord moves in mysterious ways.
Fr. Larsson looked at his watch, and then at his trembling hands. “Never again!” he mumbled under his breath, as he thought back to the bridge, and the birth of today’s sermon.
There was a conspicuous silence as the congregation followed Fr. Larsson out of the clapboard church, and shook his hand with a greeting and forced smile. As the parishioners broke into family groups and retired home to Sunday dinner or to Michael's tavern, the later a little guiltily, the questions were murmured, “What had made him do it?” After all Fr. Larsson was as fond of his spirits as he was of the holy variety. Didn’t he come every evening to Michael’s for a wee drop of something medicinal already smelling if he had gotten into the sacramental wine? Didn’t he toast them and their families, and even perhaps before leaving, sometimes even buy a round? Sure, didn’t he carry in his jacket pocket a bottle with no label half-filled with some sort of medicine against the cold fitted with a cork stopper? What had filled him with such brimstone and gall as he railed against alcohol and sputtered and spat the words from Proverbs and Ephesians at them? Was it hypocrisy now… or was it…? The thought of a repentant temperance-pastor and crusader gave them all a bit of a thirst, and the talk turned to what was to be done… if anything… or would it all just blow over in time?
Of delirium tremens and canoes
Ralph and Jake arranged their gear in the canoe carefully in order to prevent an imbalance. Duffle bags, picnic basket, cooler, and their fly tackle were strapped down as the sun rose over the birches and fir trees surrounding Stone’s Bridge landing. The two intrepid adventurers from the cities would be taking their first spring fishing trip down the Brule’ River for trout, and the May weather was perfect. Almost too perfect, Ralph thought to himself while glancing at the robin’s egg blue of the sky and the already warm morning sun. Perfect weather for a canoe trip, even if the fishing might suffer a bit.
There were a few splashes downstream against the weed beds as the trout showed themselves hungry and in pursuit of the mayfly nymphs that were climbing the waving fronds and hatching into little sailboats upon the glassy water. They launched the canoe after rigging up their fly-rods and pushed off, each taking turns at the paddle as the other cast to likely spots. The smooth flow carried them downstream slowly, and everything seemed to be in a nice rhythm that morning with the birds singing and swooping over the water, the splashes of trout, the whisper of fly-line making loops through the air, and the gentle hissing of the Brule’ as it wound its way sedately down toward Lake Superior.
Each angler began catching a few brook trout, and an occasional brown trout on the flies supplied at a local hardware store, and tied in a back room by a character called ‘Feather Betty,’ who also served the town as a sign-painter and local gossip. The trout sure liked her flies. They switched off on the paddle a few more times before rounding a bend and deciding to break the lemonade bottles out of the cooler. The May morning had blossomed into one of those rare spring days when the heat of the sun finally breaks through the wet of March and April and the foggy and cold memories of winter to release the denizens of the north woods from their many months of slumber. God it felt good!
Ralph handed a cold bottle of lemonade to Jake and they both drank deeply and dreamily. After the first mile or so of river, and six nice fat trout in the cooler wrapped in an old towel, they were casting lazily now, and more interested in just enjoying the spring day. A pileated woodpecker flew across the river and a kingfisher chattered, a young doe poked her head through a stand of cedars and drank from the river, and Jake spotted an otter slithering along the edges of the water. They began to get a hunger up for the cold fried chicken and summer-sausage and cheese sandwiches sitting in the wicker basket, but the only place to beach the canoe was up ahead a mile or so on a little sandy shore which offered a rustic public landing. No worries though, as the two anglers let the canoe float with the current, only keeping it straight by an occasional gentle stroke of the wooden paddles. Ralph even took off his shirt, and Jake let his bare feet dangle over the side to tickle his toes in the liquid mirror of the Brule’
Our two heroes were having a beer after lunch when Jake looked downstream and spotted an ominous dark cloud on the horizon. It is well known in those parts that Lake Superior, that greatest of the Great Lakes, with surface temperatures even on a sunny warm May afternoon under 40 degrees, is more than capable of making its own weather. Mariners more experienced with wizened eyes and calloused hands will head to a safe port rather than tempt fate with this inland ocean when the swells and clouds gather. Unfortunately when on a river…
“Hey Ralph,” Jake gesticulated with a shaky index finger, “Looky there!”
They stared at the advancing dark mass as the wind began to pick up, and came to the swift conclusion that they had better get the heck out of dodge as fast as the boat would take them. “How far is the takeout,” Ralph asked as Jake folded the river map. “About two miles… but river miles mind you, and there are a few rapids and ledges ahead of us.”
The two quickly packed up the picnic basket and cooler and pushed off downstream, this time with both men at the paddles, and using big strokes.
The front hit them and knocked them back upstream and toward the left bank after just half a mile was covered. The wind howled and the sun was suddenly shrouded from view. The temperature dropped by 30 degrees in a minute. They both knew they were in trouble.
As the front passed overhead, the winds died down just enough to allow the now worried friends to make progress down river. The trouble was that it was difficult to keep the canoe oriented properly. If it tacked just a little it caught the upstream wind and turned sideways. They began to fight every bend in the river when it started to rain.
Ralph asked Jake to hand him the green duffle bag. It contained his spare clothes and a sweater and rain jacket. He also told Jake that he had better put on his slicker as well.
“I didn’t bring one…” Jake said with slumped shoulders. “It was so nice out that I never thought to bring anything else but jeans and a shirt.”
“We can share,” Ralph countered, shaking his head. “I have a spare poncho in the duffle.”
Jake continued his furious paddling, propelling the canoe forward through some tricky ledges and fallen cedars. There was the sound of a zipper opening followed by a lingering silence behind him.
“What… what does that mean…?”
“It means, my dear intrepid partner, that I grabbed the wrong duffle bag.” “The one with the sweaters, socks, and rain gear is back in the trunk of the car.”
“Umm… okay… so riddle me this… what is in that duffle?”
Jake turned away for a moment and twisted to look back as Ralph produced a large blob of colorful cloth.
“My kids costumes for the school play,” he explained, holding up what looked to be several clown outfits.
“What play?” Jake asked haltingly.
“Snow white and the Seven Dwarves,” was the reply.
“And, we have here Dopey and Grumpy.” “My wife sewed them out of wool and felt, so at least they will be warm.”
“I’ll take Grumpy,” Jake stated. “At least it fits my mood.”
They back-paddled into a little eddy against the bank, and dropping the little coffee-can filled with cement that served as an anchor, quickly donned the too-small costumes. Jake looked at Ralph and started laughing, realizing that he had to be a mirror image in his Dwarf-suit. A huge gray fake beard that was integrated into his tall felt stocking cap hid Ralph’s face. Built into the side were huge fake ears. His arms stuck out from the costume from the elbow down.
“What?” Ralph asked with a smile.
“You look like… I don’t even know how to describe it!”
“You too, but even if we look like clowns, nobody will ever see us, and we are sort of warmer…”
They pulled the anchor and continued downstream, the drizzle soaking the costumes.
Before twenty minutes passed, Jake pulled the canoe over again, steering towards shore.
“What’s up?” Ralph asked.
“My hands… I can’t feel my hands anymore… they’re freezing.” “Hold up a bit, I have an idea!”
Jake rummaged around under the costume and triumphantly produced a small mason jar filled with a clear liquid.
“Moonshine!” “I bought it from an old Scot in the parking lot of the gas station.”
“You’re not going to start drinking?” Ralph queried in alarm.
“No, this is pure alcohol.” “We can burn it in one of the tin cups with a little cloth to act as a wick.”
Well, as ideas went, it might have been a desperate one, but it worked. Jake tore off and twisted a piece of his costume cuff and placed it into the tin cup, covered it with the moonshine, took a sip for good luck, and using his Zippo lighter, touched it off.
“I don’t see any flame…” Ralph commented as Jake rubbed his hands over the cup.
“It’s alcohol, the flame is invisible.” Jake replied, as both of them began to heat their hands over the impromptu fire.
They left the cup to burn out by itself on the center cushion, and shoved off downstream, their hands now toasty-warm. They had the bridge in sight as they rounded a bend in the river. The takeout was a couple of hundred yards past the old bridge. They would make it after all. That is when Ralph, in the rear seat, began coughing. Jake turned to look just as the old seat cushion, made of foam rubber and vinyl burst into flames and spewed black smoke that enveloped the canoe. The tin cup had toppled over and spread the burning alcohol. They began beating at it with their paddles, trying to put out the fire, and causing the now out of control canoe to spin in circles.
Fr. Larsson stood in a melancholy mood against the rail of the old bridge and took a swig from the nearly half-empty bottle of the best the still in Iron River could produce. He flavored it with crushed juniper berries from the bushes growing in front of the sacristy. One thing was nagging at him, and he came here to clear his head. He had no sermon ready for this Sunday’s high mass. It was bothering him, and so he was drinking and watching the river flow, letting his thoughts float away… looking for inspiration.
From under the bridge came a sound of swearing and banging, and the smell of burning brimstone. Emerging directly below him, Fr. Larsson, to his horror, imagined he saw what looked to be four clown-devils shouting at him and dancing around in a large fire that floated on the river. He closed one eye… now it was two clown-devils. He smelled the burning, and heard the incantations of the devils as they shouted. “Jesus!… Holy Christ!… Damn!" chanted the figures as they spun downstream slowly and out of sight.
Fr. Larsson took a long swig from the bottle and splashed some across his brow. He then made the sign of the cross, and heaved the bottle far into the river. Whatever he had seen, it couldn’t be real… or could it? Whatever the truth of that vision was that he saw on the river that day, one thing could be sure… if it was caused by the shakes… the D.T.s or by temptation, he would not touch a drop ever again! He crossed himself again, and wobbling back toward town, began to get an idea for a sermon after all. “By God, I’ll give ‘em hell, I will!” he shouted to a confused grouse perched above him in a tree. “By God I will!”
Sunday evening saw a certain lack of jocularity in the patrons of Michael’s tavern. The jukebox wasn’t playing, and the dice-cups were all alone at the end of the bar, silent. Silent too were the usual suspects seated at the bar and at the few tables, nursing small tap beers and looking sorry for themselves.
The door opened and the pastor stood there blinking. He walked slowly forward, his hands behind his back, acknowledging the silent nods with a tip of his head. He sat down slowly at the bar.
By now every eye was half-downcast in a sort of shame, but half-trained on Fr. Larsson, waiting for what might transpire. The silence lasted a full minute.
“What the devil are all you starin at? Haven’t you ever seen a repentant man before? Fr. Larsson bellowed.
“Get everyone what they want, and make mine a double!”
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