Many Strangers Walk the Road to Emmaus
“Reverend Lindstrom! Can we see the statue?”
“Janice! Janice! Is it true that whoever holds the statue has the gift of prophecy?”
“Is this proof that Vikings visited Illinois?”
Reverend Janice Lindstrom recoiled from the microphones shoved in her face. She was trying to get from her car to the side door of the New Sweden Lutheran Church and had hoped to remain unnoticed. It was a simple enough question—was the stone statue sitting on the desk in her office a Viking-era relic and, if so, what did it mean about the history of Vikings in North America that one of Janice’s congregants found it on his farm? Janice had no good answer. She’d told five newspapers that on the phone that very morning.
But Janice was still shocked that all three news stations from the Quad Cities—and wasn’t that red-headed gal from Peoria?—would bother to send anyone clear out to New Sweden to ask her in person questions she declined to answer over the phone.
“No, no, no,” she said. “No to all that.” She struggled through the wall of media.
“Is it true Unexplained History is coming to town to do a show on the statue?”
“Oh goodness,” she said, visibly flustered. She shoved her key into the white church door. “I hope not.” She slammed the door behind her and slumped into a nearby chair.
Thou shalt not lie. That was one of the big ten. The most important of the Thou shalt nots. Sure, have a cheeseburger. Get tattooed. Sleep with your wife while she’s having her period. The minor Thou shalt nots haven’t been worth getting worked up over in thousands of years. But the big ten still matter. She told herself she technically wasn’t lying, but she didn’t quite believe it.
Young Orion Sanderson—Orion being pronounced in the manner of Midwesterners raised on WGN’s farm report, not like the constellation—had come to her a week ago and told her about the odd statue he’d found on the family farm. That was technically the truth. He had found it in his great-grandfather’s dresser drawer as Orion was filling a suitcase full of the undershirts and underpants and great grey cotton sweatpants the old farmer would need at the hospital as he was recovering from shoulder surgery. Samuel Sanderson, ninety-five years old and still fit as a fiddle.
“So, like, he told me he found it in the mud in a creek bed outside of Arboga right after World War II,” Orion had explained to her the week before. “I did some research online.” Orion stopped. He had been standing in front of Janice’s desk and now he sat in the chair across from her. He kept slapping himself on the chest, as if to confirm that he was real and not in some nightmare. He continued in a whisper. “I think he’s fucked.”
“Excuse me?” Janice leaned forward.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to swear,” Orion dropped his hands into his lap.
“No, I mean, I can’t hear you. You’re mumbling.”
“Okay, yeah, well, I mean, I think this statue is really old. Like really old and Grandpa Sam, like, he stole it. I mean, God, he doesn’t think of it as stealing. It was lying there and he just took it as a souvenir or something but you can’t take old stuff out of the ground like that. I was all like ‘Mom, we need to give this back to Sweden’ and stuff, but since the one-percenters have been like, you know, there’s a huge market for this kind of stuff and like because of pagans and witches and shit and, oh, yeah, sorry, but Sweden does not screw around when you have their stolen stuff. They, like, aren’t forgiving. And Grandpa Sam is too old to go to prison.” Janice took a minute to decipher the teen-speak and try to understand what Orion was saying.
She should have told the boy that Sweden wasn’t going to put a 95-year-old World War II veteran in jail for picking up a stone statue 75 years ago. But the Sandersons, at least the older male Sandersons had been leery of sitting in pews in front of a woman preacher. These old men, whose fathers and grandfathers had built this beautiful building brick by brick, whose uncles first painted the white trim around each window, door, and arch, whose siblings had climbed up into the bell tower to attach the rope to the bell the congregation had saved so long to purchase, these old men who were the living embodiment of the history of the church stopped coming to church when she became pastor.
She wanted them back. Maybe that was pride, another big sin. But she wanted Orion Sanderson to feel like she had heard his family’s plight and understood and supported them. She wanted more than three Sanderson men to come to church every week.
“Well, you found it on the farm, right?” she asked. Orion nodded. “I know Anne down at the paper. I’ll give her a call and you just tell her that. She’ll put it in the paper and, if it sparks anyone in Sweden’s interest, well, it’s not like you didn’t come forward as soon as you found it. You just don’t have to be too specific about where you found it.”
That had been how this whole mess started and now, now the world thought that stone statue, standing about a foot high, that seemed to portray a figure in a dress sitting on a throne, came out of the dirt on the Sanderson farm. Anne at the paper, damn it, had contacted someone at the community college who was happy to go on the record saying it looked Viking era. And well, soon enough, everyone wanted to know how a Viking statue had gotten to central Illinois. Had there been Vikings here? Was little old New Sweden about to rewrite history as we know it?
Pride and lies of omission.
Her phone rang. “Reverend Lindstrom? I am Professor Angstrom from Stockholm University. I am flying in to Chicago on the day after tomorrow. I believe I will be at your church by three o’clock, if the train is on time.” This Angstrom spoke clear English with a slight accent and he barreled through what he wanted to say as if he would brook no interruptions. Janice opened her mouth to tell him they weren’t accepting visitors, but Angstrom has already hung up.
That was two days ago.
Now Janice was alone in the church. She shut her eyes, breathed in the deep, pleasantly sour smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap and old wood, and listened to the silence. Yes, on the other side of the door, she could still hear the reporters milling about. But she could tune them out. In here, in the nook between the outside world and the back staircase, she tried to find stillness and order in the chaos she had caused.
“Dear Lord Jesus,” she prayed. “Please show me the right way through this mess and give me the strength to follow your will. Amen.” She was hoping this would be one of the rare occasions she had read about in the Bible where God would speak to her directly and she’d know what to do. She listened for long minutes, but she heard nothing. “Well, then,” she said. She stood up, straightened her collar, and started toward her office. Right before she came into view of her secretary, she wiped her eyes.
Professor Angstrom, when he arrived, settled himself on the edge of Janice’s desk, his back turned toward her, while he examined the statue. Every time she tried to engage him in conversation, he grunted and sighed as if he could barely stomach her stupidity. Eventually she gave up. She considered leaving the office, but the idea that he could barge in, perch on her desk, and make weird noises until she left her own chair offended her. Still, she wasn’t getting any work done, so she opened her Bible and skimmed for soothing words that would speak to her current predicament. She found none.
“This is Odin, the All-Father, sitting on his great throne,” Angstrom finally pronounced. “In appearance, it looks authentic, which is, of course, impossible. I will need to send it out for testing.”
“Well, you can’t,” she said. “Not without the permission of the owners.” She was nervous, always nervous when she had to be stern with someone. She liked the parts of the job where she got to be nurturing and tender. “Plus, that figure is clearly wearing a dress.”
“By the time this statue was carved, if it is authentic, which is impossible, Odin had taken on some of the more dramatic traits of his wife,” Janice wanted to interrupt right here, to ask if a dress was really a trait, but Angstrom barreled on. “What we understand now is that, by the time Christianity arrived, the original pantheon of gods was splintering. The great Wodanaz had become Odin, wandering husband of Frigg, and Odd, wandering husband of Freyja. Even you must see that Frigg and Freyja were the same goddess, originally. But why did the Norsemen split the goddess? Was the early Christian influence already suggesting the importance of the Virgin/Magdalene archetype to them? Was it, perhaps, a realization about the nature of women they were coming to independently of the Christians?”
“There’s no historical basis for the tradition of Mary Magdalene being a whore,” Janice said. She glared at the back of the large, old, blond man in front of her. “And so what if she was? That’s not one of only two character traits available to women.” But Janice was a single woman pastoring a church. On the rare occasions she did date, she drove clear to Springfield to spend time with a Methodist minister who’d lost his wife to cancer. She didn’t want her congregation to know she had a boyfriend, because she was afraid they thought there were only two choices and once you’d shown evidence you didn’t belong in the ‘virgin’ category, where did that leave you?
It didn’t matter to Angstrom. He droned on about women and gods and the necessity of debunking forgeries like this.
At long last, he was interrupted by Orion’s arrival. The teen was breathless, alarmed.
“Reverend Lindstrom, you can’t give that statue to that guy!” Orion’s eyes were wide with shocked betrayal.
“No,” Janice tried to assure him. “I’m not.” Damn it. Her secretary must have called the Sandersons the second Angstrom arrived. Must everyone in this church be working to secretly undermine her?
“I certainly have the right under the Antiquities Act to repatriate a stolen relic.” Angstrom announced. “I could have the whole church thrown into prison.”
“It’s a fake!” Orion hollered. Angstrom narrowed his eyes and snorted with derision, even though he had floated the forgery theory not five minutes earlier, himself. He brought the statue to his lips and, much to Janice’s and Orion’s surprise, he licked it.
“This is the taste of my homeland,” he said. “You will all be arrested. Every one of you.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Janice said, reaching for the statue over the desk. She and Angstrom struggled for it for a minute and then Orion got in on the fight. “No, no, Orion,” she said, but youth is quick and stupid. The teen and the old man grappled in front of her desk for the statue and then Orion let go of it. Angstrom had been tugging on it so hard that the loss of resistance sent him careening back. His head hit the desk with a sickening thump.
“Is he dead?” Janice asked, staring at Orion, who had turned a kind of yellowish-gray. Oh, right, she was the adult here. She was the one who needed to answer questions, not ask them. She came around the desk and knelt in front of Angstrom. He was breathing. He didn’t appear to be bleeding. He clutched the statue so tightly Janice couldn’t budge it.
“Are the women here for the potluck yet?” Back in simpler times, when she’d learned Professor Angstrom was coming, she and the ladies of the church had decided to throw him a welcoming supper. It was to start at five, meal time for old Midwesterners, so at least some of them should have been there already, setting up tables, counting out chairs, making sure the path from the food to the drinks to the desserts was clear and easy to navigate. “Go see if we’ve lucked out and a nurse is here.”
Orion bolted from the office, screaming, “Help, help. Oh, God. Help.” Janice turned back to Angstrom.
“Angie,” she called out to her secretary, “You’d better call the paramedics.”
“Let’s wait and see if we have a nurse,” she called back. “Orion Sanderson is a good boy.” Janice hung her head and shut her eyes. Small town politics. You don’t jack up the “good boy’s” life over a stranger unless you had to. Janice squatted there, in front of the unconscious man. She had a phone on her desk, too. She didn’t use it.
Finally, Orion returned with an elderly woman who, if she had been a nurse, it had been decades before. Still, the woman had a nurse’s competence about her. She evaluated the situation, ordered Orion and Janice to help her move Angstrom so he was flat on the floor. She loosened his collar and his belt and propped his legs up with a nearby chair. After a few minutes, Angstrom began to come around.
“Oh, thank God,” Janice said. Orion stood nearby, looking like he wasn’t sure if he should run or cry.
“Oh now, what’s this?” Angstrom asked, struggling to sit up. Janice took the statue and placed it back on her desk.
“You had an accident,” the nurse said.
“Are you okay?” Janice asked. Angstrom narrowed his eyes and looked at her carefully.
“Are you the priest of this temple?” He asked.
“I think he’s having some memory issues,” she said to the nurse.
“How hard did he hit his head?”
“Hard, oh, God, so hard,” Orion answered.
“Then confusion is normal,” the nurse said to Janice. “Just clear things up for him for now. It’ll come back.”
“Okay, then, yes,” Janice said, wiping her hands on her pants and then extending her hand to Angstrom. He shook it. “I’m the pastor of this church.”
“And whose church,” he said the word like it was new to him. “Whose temple is this?”
“God’s?” She wasn’t sure how to answer. “I mean, we’re Christian, so Jesus’s? Is that what you’re asking?”
“How can you be unsure?” He asked, now pulling on Janice and the nurse to rise to his feet. He was still a bit wobbly. They set him in a nearby chair. “Don’t you recognize Him when He’s here? What does He look like?”
“Well, God doesn’t really look like anything,” Janice tried to explain. “Or maybe He looks like everything. Jesus, I guess, well, He’d…”
“Look here!” Angstrom pointed to the antique reproduction painting of Jesus kneeling in the garden, praying. “I would recognize Balder anywhere. Are you Balder’s people?”
“No, that’s Jesus!” Orion insisted. Angstrom looked at Janice, somewhat confused.
“I admit, I don’t socialize as much with the others as some. Thor, now Thor will meet anyone, share a drink, slap a back, hang on as long as he can, but not me. I left as soon as I realized what was happening, that they’d all become Christian. So I don’t know for sure, but I was under the impression that Jesus was a Middle-Eastern man.” A smile teased at Angstrom’s mouth.
“Who…who do you think you are?” She was mortified to find that she was blushing in response to his delightful grin.
“Why, Odd the Wanderer, of course, come to see who among the descendants of my followers might be ripe for reconversion.” He winked at Janice. She smiled back at him, realized what she was doing, and then fixed her face in a more neutral position.
She held up her finger, asking for a minute. She grabbed the nurse and they stepped into the secretary’s connected office. She shut the door so Angstrom couldn’t overhear and spoke low enough that Angie had to stop typing in order to not miss a word.
“He thinks he’s a minor Norse god,” Janice said. “Should we take him to the hospital?”
“No!” Angie said.
“Butt out!” Janice snapped. To the nurse, she said, “I don’t want anything bad to happen to the Sandersons, but I can’t stand by while a man is suffering.”
“Well, you’re not going anywhere anyway,” Angie said. “Look outside.” Before Janice even got to the window, she heard the noise. A hundred rumbling motorcycles surrounded the church. Down Main Street, she could see more arriving.
“What the fuck?” Janice meant to keep that to herself, but judging by Angie’s gasp, she had said it out loud. “Okay, everyone sit tight.” Janice straightened her collar, touched the cross that always hung around her neck, and went outside.
“Hello!” she called. “What can I do for you?” She had never, outside of an actual herd of cows, seen so much leather in one place before. Black leather covering mountainous men with fists like ham hocks, black leather encasing slim, wily men with long moustaches, black leather draped over the shoulders of the occasional feral woman draped over the shoulders of one of these men. Many of them wore Maltese crosses. The knuckles on the man sitting nearest to her were tattooed “1488.” She knew from her prison outreach training that this wasn’t a date, but a kind of white supremacist code—14 for the white nationalist slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” and 88 because H was eighth letter of the alphabet and, thus, Heil Hitler. She scanned the bikers again. They were, indeed, all white.
She sighed and hoped Angie would have sense enough to call the police. Not that it would do much good. New Sweden had two on-duty police officers during the day. In the whole county, there were maybe fifteen available officers, if you counted sheriff’s deputies and the cops in other small towns. The nearest state police headquarters was either the Quad Cities or Peoria, both over forty-five minutes away. Even if Angie did call, there simply wasn’t a big enough police presence in the county to deal with, oh, gosh, easily two hundred bikers now. And still, yes, from the sound of it, more coming.
“Send out the Jew-worshipper,” the man with the racist tattoos said. No conversation in the history of the world had ever started out that way and ended productively, but Janice saw no way out of the impending talk.
“I’m the pastor of this church,” she said. They laughed. “It’s not a joke. Women have been ordained by our church for fifty years.”
“Well, good for you,” the biker said. “Defying nature for half a century.”
Janice whispered, “God, give me strength.”
“We’ve come for the statue,” he said. “We saw the story on the news and, well, fuck it. If the Vikings left a statue in Illinois dirt, it was so the Folk could have it when we needed it.”
“We’re trying to sort out right now where the statue came from and who it belongs to,” Janice said. “But I can assure you, as soon as we do, it will go home with its legal owner.”
“Screw ‘legal’ owner,” the biker said. “We’re the rightful owners. You bring it out here or we’re coming in to get it.” The threat made Janice queasy. Worse, when she looked back toward the church, she saw a steady stream of her congregants, who could not park in the church parking lot, since it was full of bikers, parking at the bank across the street and walking, arms heavy-laden with covered dishes, toward the church.
“Okay, wait,” she said, rubbing her hands on her pants, trying to come up with something to say to the bikers that would get them to leave. Fortunately, at that moment, the reporters who’d accosted her earlier came around the back of the church to see what the commotion was about. The Tattooed Jerk looked at first surprised and then delighted. Engines revved menacingly. Women shrieked. Men yelled. The Tattooed Jerk swung off his bike and walked toward the cameras. Janice fled toward the side doors and, when she got inside, locked them behind her.
“Orion!” she shouted and he sprang out of her office. “Go around and make sure all the doors are locked. I’ll get the sanctuary doors.” She sprinted as fast as she could up the stairs, through the entrance into the choir loft, down past the pulpit, over the communion rail and up the aisle. She could see church members coming in the front doors and heading down the side stairs to the basement. “Hurry, hurry!” she called to them.
Luckily, two of the men in the vestibule were regular ushers and their church training kicked in. They began to move people through the doorway as fast as they could. Janice got to the door and struggled to catch her breath. When she looked out, her blood ran cold. She could see more potluckers standing in the bank parking lot, uncertain how to get through the ever increasing swarm of bikers. Janice waved to catch their attention and then she tried to wave them off. But they had their hot dishes and cheese boards! They held them up to her like the obvious evidence of their preparedness outweighed the angry horde blocking the street. Janice shook her head and pulled the door shut. It locked with an old, thunderous click. Well, she thought, this is terrible. In saving those parishioners in the parking lot by locking them out, she had probably added to the number of people in the congregation who thought she was unfit to be pastor.
After checking to make sure that Orion had indeed locked the rest of the doors, Janice headed down to the church basement. The great main area was filled with people sitting around long tables. Children scurried from one table to another. A gaggle of teens stood in the far corner gossiping. Through the pass-throughs into the kitchen, she could see old women already doing dishes. Always and forever, doing dishes. They hadn’t even eaten yet. What dishes were there to be done? But then she saw them passing serving spoons to younger women who dried them and then brought them out to the tables along the far wall and stuck them into dishes.
She saw Professor Angstrom sitting at one of the tables in the middle of the room, holding the statue. Damn it. He’d gotten it back. By the way he was gesturing, he appeared to be deep in explanation of some point. The men and women around him paid him such close attention that Janice felt a moment of true envy.
Then, Angstrom saw her and smiled in genuine delight. Janice cringed. The friendly face could only mean that he was still under the impression that he was some minor Norse god, which mean that she and her congregation—all people who were supposed to be good people, or at least trying to be—were still failing to get him the medical help at least some of them knew he needed.
“Pastor Janice!” A woman a few years older than her had suddenly appeared by her elbow. “If you will pray, we can eat and then the professor is going to tell us about the statue.” The woman turned to the sixty or so people who were in the basement. “Pastor Janice is going to pray.” Everyone fell silent. Janice looked out over her congregation. Most of the adults had closed their eyes and bowed their heads. Many of the children took the moment to make faces at their friends.
“I’m afraid we’re in big trouble,” she said. Some in front of her looked up and she saw frowns on their faces. Of course, she thought, no one wants a long prayer before a potluck. Is this a prayer? “I’ve asked the Lord to be with us, but I also asked Angela to call the police.” She looked over at Angela and it was plain by the look on Angela’s face that she had not done so.
“What are you talking about?” One of the old farmers shouted.
“Oh, pshaw, no one is going to come into a church to cause trouble. Not in this town.” The farmer seemed disgusted by her lack of faith in how things were done.
Someone else shouted, “This is God’s house.” And it seemed like everyone but Janice found this a convincing argument.
Janice started to insist again that they call the police. But look at them. They were in God’s house. They were safe. Okay. Fine. “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food.” Every kid in the basement knew that prayer. She could hear them piping up as it went on. “Amen.”
As was custom after the prayer, everyone stood and the children rushed toward the food as their parents shouted half-meant words of warning about holding back. The picky kids had just started complaining that most everything on the table was weird when Angstrom came up to Janice.
“Why don’t you lead them?” He asked. She almost wished she’d heard some contempt in his voice, but he seemed genuinely curious. “Just tell them what to do and punish those who don’t?”
“That’s not how it works” she said. “I lead them to the extent they agree to be led. If they decide not to listen to me then we’ll all know I’m not really their leader. I’ll lose this job.” Angstrom nodded in consideration.
“You could give an order,” he suggested. “And then, when the order is not followed, you could have your god punish them.”
“God doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t even punish people for not obeying Him. He’s not going to punish people for not obeying me.”
“You agree to meet the spiritual needs of these people. You are with them as they cross into this world and cross out of it. You sooth them in times of crisis and carry the burden of knowing the most terrible things about them. You stand present with them in the great Mystery and they won’t even listen when you try to warn them of trouble? Why would you do this?”
“Because I love them.”
“Do you?” He looked at her with true concern, with a kind of true understanding she had, in the past, only felt among other ministers. Okay, well, he was a professor, right? That’s like being a minister in some secular way. Maybe it’s not so weird that he seemed to understand more of her struggle with this church knowing her maybe an hour than the people in the congregation who had known her five years did.
“No,” she whispered and she felt shame stab through her. But then, unexpectedly, she felt relief. Somehow the relief was worse. “But I do this because God loves them.”
“Does He?” She opened her mouth to say she didn’t know, but once she realized that was what she was about to say, she shut it again. It’s just stress. This man needed to be at the hospital. She needed not to have mislead everyone about the provenance of that stupid statue. Her congregation needed to have the sense to flee from the bikers. She was only having such grave doubts because she was in so far over her head. But yes. “Yes.”
“I have an idea,” he said. “Why don’t you tell these people what to do? I think the motorcycle people are likely to try to get through the glass doors by your office. You could send people out of the church up the back staircase, out the wooden door. They would probably all be safe. Tell them what to do and, if they won’t do it, well, then, let this god handle things.”
“You know they need to flee. You know it will be bad if they don’t. Lead them.” He reached over and patted her shoulder, the way a coach pats the shoulder of a player he is sending back in the game in a difficult situation. See what you can do, that pat said. Angstrom must have been an extraordinary teacher, Janice thought, though, it was possible he wasn’t like this at all. How weird if your best self is the self that remembers nothing about you? That thinks itself someone else? She kept a small laugh to herself. Maybe that wasn’t so weird. Maybe all our best selves are strangers to us.
Janice walked across the basement and up the back stairs. She unlocked the door and peered out. She could hear the motorcycles in the distance, but truly, the way was clear. If the people in the basement escaped through this door, they could be gone before the bikers noticed. She went back downstairs.
“Okay,” she said, loudly. “We need to leave now. Everyone, just leave your plates where they are. We’ll come back when the danger’s passed and clean up. But now is our chance to get out of here safely.” Everyone turned toward her and then, much to her frustration, they turned back to eating. “People, God is not your fairy godmother. He’s not going to solve problems for you that you won’t solve yourself. Let’s go.” Only Orion stood, and only long enough for his uncle to reach over and give him a slight tug on the arm. He sunk back into the seated crowd. “Now! Let’s go now!”
None of them moved. She threw up her hands and looked pointedly at Angstrom. See? What did I tell you? I can’t make these people do anything? She had only thought those things, but he nodded, as if he had heard her and agreed.
The people in the basement pointedly ignored her for what seemed like an eternity. Everyone in the basement was silent, stubborn, and angry. Then, there was a crash, which Janice couldn’t place at first, but suddenly she realized, oh God, the glass doors by the office. Then came a great noise, which sounded at first like an unscheduled freight train rumbling through town. It grew louder and there was another great crash, which everyone in the basement seemed to immediately recognize as the sound of the large gold cross hanging above the altar coming down. Outside the basement a vast cheer went up, which started directly over their heads and then echoed through the hallways above them, even outside, though that was muffled, and then, oh then, they heard that cheer in the stairwells.
The bikers poured into the basement like frenzied grasshoppers before the blade of the combine, jumping up on tables, overturning casseroles, breaking plates as they made their way toward the statue, which Angstrom had left on the table in the middle of the room.
For a moment, one surreal moment, it seemed as if the horde might pass through the potluckers without incident, like they might fill the basement, take the statue, and empty the basement without anyone being hurt. Who swung first? Who can say? Suddenly the bikers shoved old ladies, punched old men. One child got wrenched up by his arm and flung into his sister, who had already been elbowed. One of the Halderman twins got burned by a cigarette. The man who held the butt end laughed when the boy screamed. Orion’s uncle was holding his own in a fight with a biker wearing a horned helmet, until a skinny woman with blond braids came up behind him and stabbed him in the thigh. The Ostrander baby who Janice had baptized last month wailed in its high chair, blood dripping down its face. Janice at first couldn’t tell if it was the baby’s or its mother’s whose nose was practically a fountain. It was the baby’s own blood. Someone had punched the Ostrander baby.
These grand brawls were happening all at once, all around Janice. She looked for Angstrom and there he was, in the middle of the chaos, standing on a chair, looking very satisfied. Christ, he must have really gotten a screw knocked loose, Janice thought. She pushed her way through the fights to get to him.
“Professor Angstrom!” She shouted as she approached him. He paid her no mind. “Odd!” she tried again. “Let’s get you to safety.” He smiled at her and raised the statue, which he now carried, like one might make raise a wine glass to make a toast. To you, dear Janice. Just as she was within arms’ reach of him, three bikers grabbed him, threw him over their shoulders like a log, and carried him out of the basement.
“To Rudy’s!” one of the bikers shouted.
“To Rudy’s!” some replied. And that appeared to be the signal to leave. The bikers poured back out of the basement. Punches were left unthrown. Women’s faces left unslapped. Children checked their heads to find their hair suddenly unpulled. The congregation laid on the floor or sat slumped over tables or they stood, wobbly, uncertain what to do with themselves now that the brief chaos had ended.
“Angela,” Janice shouted. “God damn it. Go call dispatch right now. Tell them we need ambulances and police.” Janice looked around at her people and began to attend to the people closest to her. Bloody nose? Tilt your head back. Stab wound? Can we tie it off? Okay let’s tie it off. She directed the less severely injured to help the most severely injured. No one was dead, thank God. The nurse who had helped Angstrom earlier moved through the crowd as well.
The severity of the situation slowly sunk in. Racist bikers now had a priceless Swedish artifact she’d alerted them to the existence of in the first place. Half her congregation was in the basement of the church in a bloody heap. This poor Swedish professor who’d had some kind of traumatic brain injury earlier in the day had just been kidnapped by said bikers. And there wasn’t a whole lot of help coming.
When the first cop arrived on the scene, Janice pulled him aside to ask him was Rudy’s was. A bar over on the river is what he told her, but once he saw the carnage in the basement, he stopped saying anything but “Grandma,” to one of the kitchen women who was still bleeding quite a bit from where someone had hit her with a cast iron pan.
“We need to go rescue Angstrom” she said to Orion’s uncle.
“I need to get to the doctor,” he said. “No one here is fit for rescuing anyone.”
“I’ll go,” Orion said.
“You will not,” his uncle said.
“This is my fault,” Orion said, “and, like, I’m going to fix it.” He turned to Janice as if to see if she was going to tell him he couldn’t come. “Your eye,” he said to her. She reached up and, yes, at some point, she had been hit in the face and she could now feel that her eye was swollen shut. She hasn’t noticed. “I’ll drive.”
“Thank you,” she said.
When they got in the car, Orion asked her, “So, what’s the plan? We drive over there, they murder us, and…?”
“Well, let’s hope that they’ve haven’t killed Professor Angstrom. We’ll let them have the statue.” Even with only one good eye, Janice could see Orion flinch when she said this. “Orion, I’m sure that your family would much rather have you in one piece than that statue. We can concede the statue to them. We just need their prisoner.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
But when they got to the bar, it was clear the situation was much stranger than they’d anticipated. The small shack couldn’t hold even a quarter of the bikers present, so most of them were crammed around picnic tables or milling near fires set in old trash barrels there in the parking lot. Angstrom stood, freely, in the middle of the crowd, a beer in one hand, a woman on his other arm. The statue stood on a nearby table. Janice and Orion had parked up the road a ways and walked through a field of beans to the back of the bar and they were close enough to hear what Angstrom was saying to the Tattooed Jerk, who Janice had pegged earlier as their leader.
“You don’t let women into any leadership positions?” Angstrom asked.
“A woman is put on this earth to be the servant of men,” the Tattooed Jerk said. “A woman leading a man is unnatural.” Angstrom wrinkled his brow at this.
“Then who in your tribe sits on the high seat and tells the fortune of your people?” Angstrom asked. “I mean no offense, but in my brief time with you, I haven’t heard anything to assure me that you all would be very tolerant of the kind of men who could do that.”
“Oh, we don’t do any of that kind of witchcraft bullshit,” the Tattooed Jerk said. “We honor our ancestors and we drink and fuck and kick ass.”
“Hmm,” Angstrom said. “So, what’s the difference between your lives now and before? I assume most of you were Christian, at least nominally? What’s changed for you, about you, since you adopted this worldview?”
“Nothing,” the Tattooed Jerk said. “We were always doing things the right way for us. We just didn’t know until Odinism that we were giving credit to the wrong Guy. White people need a white religion. Now we’ve got it.”
“But you changed gods and nothing changed?” Angstrom face grew more troubled. “You don’t even have a volva.”
“Oh, I got a vulva, honey,” a woman shouted from across the way. “Smooth and hairless. I’ll let you touch it, if you want.” The crowd burst into laughter. But the discussion gave Janice an idea.
“This is it. This is what we do.” Janice whispered to Orion. “I’ll go up on the high seat and tell them that Odin or whoever says Angstrom has to come with us, but they can keep the statue.”
“What if that’s not what Odin says once you get up there?”
“I don’t know,” Janice shook her head. “But I do know that these guys are really dangerous. If they decide to hurt Angstrom, we can’t stop them. And if he tries to keep that statue, they’re going to hurt him. If Angstrom’s going to get out of here in one piece, we need to do something and this is the only thing I can think to do.” Janice stepped out of the shadows and, as if he had known she was there the whole time, Angstrom smiled at her.
“Here,” Angstrom said. “We can send the priest from town up and she can tell us the fortune of your people.”
“Okay,” she said, before the Tattooed Jerk or any of the rest of them could object. Angstrom came over and grabbed her arm. He nodded at Orion who ran to catch up with them and the three of them walked into the bar together. Many of the bikers seemed interested, but only the fifty or so that the Tattooed Jerk indicated to be in the bar stayed. The rest waited outside.
Angstrom placed a chair on the pool table and then placed a barstool on the chair. When he came down to retrieve Janice, he had the bartender set seven shots in front of her. Before she lost her nerve, she downed them.
“Usually, you’d eat the heart of one of every animal on the farm, but the only animals here are a few field mice and a couple of crows, none of which belong to them, so it’s not great sacrifice for them. We’ll do without. You will need a song to get you over.”
“You’ll see. What Viking songs do you still know?”
“My dad taught me ‘The Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin,” Orion volunteered. “That’s about Vikings, right?”
“Will these gentlemen know it?” Angstrom asked.
“I’m not sure you’re legally allowed to wear this much black if you don’t have most of Led Zeppelin’s catalog memorized,” Janice said. Angstrom stared at her blankly. “It’s a joke. But yes, I think so.”
Up she went onto the pool table. Then onto the chair. Angstrom held her hand as she balanced herself on the bar stool.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” she whispered to him.
“I’ve no doubt,” he smiled at her.
“I mean, I’m just going to fake it.”
He shrugged and checked to make sure she was firmly seated. He handed her a couple more shots. She did them. He stepped back and regarded her with interest. Was he proud? She thought he might have been proud of her daring. But what was she daring? She was just going to moan and wail and tell these jerks to let this guy leave and tell this poor delusional fool to come with her. The brave part was climbing up on this rickety seat with her head spinning like this, not anything else.
She must have been so lost in thought that she didn’t notice the crowd around her had started singing until they got to the second set of “ooo-ooo-ooooooooooooo-oo”s. She didn’t mean for this to be real, for it to mean anything, but there she was, hanging between heaven and earth. There she was not quite here, not quite there. Things were different in this state. Each person in the bar appeared as a bright knot to her and from those bright knots came many strings that tied them to their compatriots, stretched out of the bar and tied them to unseen others, and she could see those strings, those knots.
It must be a metaphor, right? A vision brought on by prolonged stress and seven, no, nine shots of terrible whiskey. But the people before her did seem to be clearer to her now, not as people but as these bright knots and the threads between those knots. She studied them closely.
Oh, yes, and below them—or is it above? Directions up here seemed to lose all meaning. Here was the great fabric all those tiny knots are but the slightest decoration for. Here, thick between her fingers was their fate, the completed fabric the fixed fate of what has happened. And there, ahead, barely coming into the light, the warp and weft, the shuttle passing through them, what was happening. And once you know what the pattern is, can you not guess what’s to come? Janice squinted harder. There, yes, there in the shadow, a woman worked the loom.
The hairs on the back of Janice’s neck prickled up. She shivered. She could still hear the men below, but she felt she was no longer truly in the bar. She was in this simple room, wooden walls, dirt floor, in front of this grand, intricate loom. In some true sense, she understood she was a child, a baby, really, being shown something she couldn’t possibly yet understand. The woman before her was so beautiful it made Janice swoon. The woman was dressed for weaving—hair back in a braid, no rings, simple sleeves—but she wore something shiny draped across her breast, perhaps a necklace? Janice found she couldn’t look square at the woman. She couldn’t make out precise details or, if she could, she couldn’t hold them in her mind.
“What should I do?” she cried out before she’d even realized she’d formulated a question.
“Send him home,” the woman answered. The statue? Wasn’t she trying to find a way to get the statue back to Sweden without anyone getting hurt? “No, child. Odd. Send Odd home.” The woman knew what she was thinking. Of course she did.
The room shifted or maybe Janice shifted in her seat high over the bar and there she was, back before the angry bikers. Angstrom’s eyes glowed as he looked up at her. Pride. That’s what it was. He was proud of her.
“This is my priest!” He roared to the bikers. “Who among us could do that?”
My priest. Odd was real. That’s what the vision of the weaving woman meant. Not the only thing it meant. Some things Janice was going to have to ponder for a long time. But the thing that she needed to know now was that Professor Angstrom was not having some kind of break. Odd was real and in that poor man. It sounded ridiculous, but what supernatural truth doesn’t sound ridiculous if you haven’t experienced it?
Janice sat taller on the bar stool which wobbled unsteady beneath her.
“Odd,” she shouted. Blood poured out of her mouth. She had the feeling this must have originally been the point of eating the hearts, so that when you started to spew blood onto the people at the ritual, you had some good explanation of where it came from. “Show yourself.”
“Here I am,” the Professor reached up to her.
“No!” she bellowed. “Come out here and stand before me.”
She felt a surge of power coursing through her, like the small string that tied her back to the weaving room, that cord of fate that had brought her to this evening, was acting like a wire, streaming energy into her. She flung her head back, her chest out. The tower of chairs she sat on shook again.
She closed her eyes and felt the energy of the room, these men so quick to violence, so easy to anger. She thought of the frightened children in her church and the bloodied old ladies whose only “crime” was doing dishes and gossiping about the women they were jealous of. The harm these men had causes to the people under her care.
“Stand before me, Odd,” she demanded, again.
She had some idea of what she was asking. She’d been to seminary and she knew, at least theoretically, what it meant when a god appeared before people undisguised. She shut her eyes. She hoped Orion has the sense to shut his eyes.
And then Odd stepped out of the Professor and stood before her. He shone so brightly she could see him, plain as day, through her closed eyes. She threw her arm in front of her face to block the light. She could still see him through the blood and the muscle and the bone. From the screams she heard around here, others had not taken precautions. “My eyes, oh fuck man, my eyes.” She couldn’t tell if that was one voice or many.
“Here I am,” he said and the bikers standing closest to him cried out as their eardrums burst.
“Go home to your wife,” Janice said. She straightened her back again, faced him as squarely as she could, but she also pissed her pants and clenched her nails into the palms of her hands.
“Did you talk to her?” Odd asked, his voice softening, each word filled with fondness and longing.
“Yes,” Janice said. “She said to send you home.”
The light in the room dimmed. Janice opened her eyes and slowly put her arm down. Odd stood before her, up on the table. He reached out and grabbed her hand. She slowly, carefully, climbed down from the tower of chairs. Like his wife—how did she know the woman was his wife? Where was this knowledge coming from?—he was impossibly handsome and she found it hard to look directly at him.
Odd pulled her to him. She didn’t remember him wearing a long robe, but somehow that’s what he wrapped around her when he embraced her.
“Tell me this,” he whispered in her ear. “Would your god ever come to visit you? Like this? So you knew without a doubt it was Him?”
“I don’t know,” she answered, truthfully. “No, I guess, probably not.”
“Just something to think about,” he laughed and it rumbled in his chest like she was hearing a joke he’d been laughing to himself about for a thousand years.
“Are you trying to recruit me?”
“You did kind of ruin the followers I did have here,” he said. She stepped back from him and looked down at the men in the bar. It was a horror show of bleeding ears and liquified eyeballs. Janice had, of course, seen dead people, but the sight of the Tattooed Jerk, who looked half broken and half melted, took her aback.
“Orion!” she called out.
“I’m fine,” he called back. “I hid in the bathroom once you disappeared.” She was so relieved that the boy was safe, she only heard that he had answered, not what.
“Not my follower,” Odd shrugged. “Not mine to ruin.”
“But why would you do this to them?” She asked. “What a waste. My god. What a terrible waste.”
“You hated them.”
“Yes, but I didn’t…I don’t want this. It’s so stupid. It’s so horrible. So much suffering.”
“Come with me and be my priest.”
She stood there in shock and confusion. “Are you kidding? Do you think I want to end up like this?”
“No.” Janice said. “Go back to your wife.” She grunted. “And take your damn statue with you.”
“That’s not my statue. Look. The figure is wearing a dress. A necklace.”
“Professor Angstrom said it could be you in drag.”
“Could be,” Odd grinned and winked at her. “But it’s not. A woman can sit in the high seat and see what she can see. You know that.” He pulled the statue out of his jacket. He was wearing a jacket now? No, an actual suit coat. Or maybe he was wearing something her mind couldn’t make sense of and so was just tossing out suggestions. He handed the statue to her. “Do with it what you will.”
“Wait,” she said, as he jumped down from the table. He stopped and looked back at her. “Will I see you again?”
He seemed taken aback by her question. Like those conversations in the church where he didn’t seem able to understand why a congregation would be satisfied with so little. “Yes. If you want to. Of course.” And then he did leave, muttering under his breath. She found his answer unnerving and she paced in a circle up on the pool table until Orion grabbed her foot and motioned her down. He led her to the car. She handed him the statue. Twice, on the ride back to town, she reached for it and then decided against it.
Saturday passed in a blur of statements to police and the avoidance of statements to the media. Some townspeople came by to help clean up the church, righting overturned pews, patching holes, rehanging the giant cross. All told, fifty-six people were hospitalized, twenty from her church, the rest bikers. Seven bikers, including the Tattooed Jerk, were dead. Some number of people, though Janice didn’t know how many, had been injured, but not severely enough to wait for the strained emergency room staff to get to them. Angstrom, she heard, had been uninjured, but he had insisted on an ambulance taking him to Chicago, to “real” medical help.
Sunday morning, Janice was supposed to stand in front of her congregation and say something that made sense. She needed to explain why this had happened, why God had let this happen. A baby got punched. In a church. Who stands idly by while babies are getting hurt? If You’re omnipotent, why don’t You help? And yet, had she not tried to help? And was she not here doing God’s work? How can you say you want God’s help and yet dismiss the help He sends? Or was it typical earthly bullshit that kept them from recognizing her as help God had sent? Was that egotistical for her to believe she was God’s help?
These were her thoughts as she stood at the door behind the altar, waiting for the organist to play the cue for her to enter. These were the thoughts she let herself have. They seemed like hard questions, questions worth wrestling with. But she knew they were distractions from the real questions she didn’t want to ask herself—mainly, if you meet a god, shouldn’t it change you? But also, what if all the gods are real, but they’re all like Odd? Then what the fuck was she doing with her life?
When she stood before the congregation, three steps up from them, behind the lectern, she gripped the Bible before her tightly. They were quieter than she’d ever heard them. No one rustled their bulletin. No one hushed their antsy four-year-old. There were no antsy four year olds. Even the children sat quiet. Seventy-two people looked up at her, some of them bruised and battered, many of them afraid, some defiant and angry.
In the light filtering in through the jewel-toned windows, she saw, faintly, the threads that tied them together. Even now, here, without the proper ritual, without the proper preparation, she saw how these people fit together, the pattern they made. Some Sandersons sat in the middle of the sanctuary, on her right. She saw from them ties going outside to the men who still refused to have a woman preacher. She saw ties going off to the east.
This was not the first thing the congregation expected her to say to them and they shifted uncomfortably. Orion’s aunt especially seemed taken aback.
Janice asked again. “Where’s Orion?”
“He’s gone to Sweden,” his other aunt answered. “To return the statue.” Of course he had. Who was the only person in this town who would act with decisiveness? He’d go to Sweden, damn the consequences, if he thought that was the right thing to do.
And what was she going to do? Stand here and pretend nothing had changed for her?
She shut the Bible. She stepped down from the lectern. She walked out the door. The congregation sat there for a good twenty minutes before they realized she wasn’t coming back.
See now. I think this one is *my* favorite.
Oh, this one is really, really good, too. I almost submitted it for an anthology and I must have read it 100 times without seeing the rather massive plot hole there in the middle (if the bikers don’t respect magic, why would Janice think being magical, or faking being magical, would make any difference?), so I think it’s a good one.
And i like to imagine that Janice is spending the next six months traveling from religious shrine to religious shrine saying, “And I’ve had it with your shit, too! I don’t even know what your shit is, and I am already over it!” before she settles down into whatever life she settles down into.
I also like that it’s really long and yet reads quickly. It’s 9,000 words, with three big confrontations, and yet I think I did a good enough job with the pacing that it moves, which pleases me.
You did do a great job with the pacing. It flies.
I love it. Thank you for giving it to everyone who’s reading it.
(That was me, red headed gal from Peoria)
I didn’t realize how physically long this story was until I was scrolling to get to the comments. That was a fast read!
And I love the ending-I guess I’m so used to people talking or thinking about things that actually *doing* was a surprise.
You know I love my Midwestern roots, but I especially figured it would be shocking for a Midwestern woman to actually do something, instead of figuring out how to persevere in place.
You are a fabulous writer and this story is AWESOME. Thank you.