By John Thomas Tuft
Old Leo makes his way up the church steps, slowly, but with practiced, patient purpose. He is known around the small town as the “bee man” because of the hives he carefully nurtures out back of Johnson’s Orchards, but in all of his eighty-three years this is the first time he has ever questioned the ways of Mother nature and the providence of the good Lord. Both at the same time, and with equal vehemence. He opens the door and steps inside the cool sanctuary with the vaulted ceiling and polished pews for the perishables.
He makes his way down the aisle, his faded coveralls held up with a tarnished buckle on one side and a piece of rope on the other. He doffs the unfashionable brown fedora, revealing the mane of white hair that perfectly matches the thick beard that still harbors a few crumbs of toast from breakfast earlier that morning, along with scalding coffee–black only, now mind you. Ever since Mabel passed, life has been only kept palatable with routines, the simpler the better. That is the only way to keep away the feeling that he is always sleeping on the edge of a frown, as the Good Book says. Or was it some country singer? He can’t remember. Hard to tell the difference some days.
Reverend Joanne pauses mid penance prayer as Old Leo passes his usual pew in the front and comes and stands right before the pulpit, and asks in a soft voice, “Have you seen Satan?” Mrs. Gafferty, three pews back, leans forward. “What did he say?” Her friend, Esther whispers loudly, so no one can miss it, “He said, he wants to speak to Satan?” Mrs. Gafferty, being a bit of a Presbyterian, asks, “Satan who? Satan wouldn’t be caught dead in here!” Fred Barnett, one of the eternal ushers, hurries forward. “Old Leo ain’t been the same since Mabel passed. Why’s he looking for Satan in here?” Penance is forgotten as Reverend Joanne tried to restore some semblance of somber worship.
She quietly insists, “Leo, why don’t you take a seat and we’ll see what we can do.” Old Leo waves her off and lifts his face to the ceiling. “Jesus Christ, doesn’t anybody listen? My Mabel is buried right out yonder there.” He doesn’t have to look out the window to picture the cold granite headstone with daffodils planted around it, in a small sea of granite headstones covering souls of fading memories. “All I’m asking is, where is Satan? I’m always telling him to get behind me, but I turned around and he wasn’t there.” Reverend Joanne abandons her prayers to try and make this a teaching moment, because… well… seminary and all that.
“Leo, a lot of times we all feel stressed and anxious to the point we want someone to blame. But blaming Satan for our own shortcomings isn’t the answer.” It’s a gentle remonstrative, a clear conflict of interest, not to mention language, because nobody wants ministers telling them they are wrong. About anything. Especially about Jesus’s crazy uncle, Satan. “Sit down, you old fool,” Esther chimes up, in a clearly remonstrative tone, without interest beyond getting on with worship. Mrs. Gafferty pipes up with, “He’s going to come after you with his flaming sword.” And clucks for good measure. Fred Barnett is quick to correct. “That’s Gabriel, look it up, Gafferty!” Because this is a friendly, high school cafeteria kind of church. I’m sorry, I meant, an everything in its place, decently and in order congregation of perishables.
A discussion ensues in a total disruption of the worship service about angels and demons and other Dan Brown level theological niceties and mysteries. And possibilities. What’s a good discussion of heaven and hell and punishment and reward without considering the possible outcomes…for one another’s neighbors? What else is a good imagination for, wonders Reverend Joanne, surveying her flock and quietly slipping her sermon notes off to the side. This is not seminary, and all that. Old Leo takes this all in, and in stride. This is not his first encounter with the human race. Mabel used to gently chide him over his obsession over and his fascination with the bees. Not remonstrating at all, now mind you. Honey is a joint effort, a community working together that fascinated Old Leo.
He lowers his gaze as the hubbub continues and makes his way back to the doors. As he steps out, he replaces the worn fedora with a sigh. At least a honeybee can only sting once. Losing Mabel is always going to hurt. He hears a loud greeting from down the street, beside the blue mailbox on the corner. “Satan? Is that you?” At the sound of his voice, the golden retriever gives a happy bark and bounds toward Old Leo. The greeting between the two old friends is as warm as a prodigal being found can be.
“C’mon, Satan. Get behind me. Let’s go home.”
And they did.
Words are magic and writers are wizards.