“If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then wouldn’t you agree that any existing god would be the most corrupt being imaginable?”
The man stood up in the middle of our local pastor’s sermon and spoke these words in a voice so loud I’m sure you could hear him outside. He framed the idea as a question, but his tone implied it was a matter of fact. No one had ever seen him in town before, it was a small town and he was not exactly the kind of man you would forget. He was dressed in a black suit and tie, a long coat and a wide brimmed hat which he wore even in church – something I’d always been told was very disrespectful though it was quickly clear this man had little to no respect for god or religion. A crop of blond hair hung down over the back of his neck and even from my seat 4 rows away I could see the brilliance of his blue eyes when he turned to look at those behind him.
“Son, may I please finish my sermon?” The pastor stepped down off the pulpit, his bible still clutched in his liver-spotted fist.
“No, you may not! I have asked a question! An important question to a man of god, and I expect and answer!” His voice was soft as silk, with a distinct drawl that I couldn’t quite place. All I could tell was that he wasn’t local. He walked from his place among the crowd and over to where the pastor was standing, his smooth features a juxtaposition of the ageing man of god.
“You are applying a human flaw to the lord, corruption is a trait of mankind, not of god.” The pastor seemed satisfied with his answer and crossed his arms, you could hear the congregation whisper as the stranger in black thought of a reply.
“Indeed! Corruption does appear to be distinctly human does it not?” He turned and gestured to us as if we were the “humans” of which he spoke. “Yet aren’t we made in his image, pastor?”
“Yes, but we were also given free will. We make our own decisions about how we…”
“Free Will!” The stranger interrupted the pastor and began to walk down the aisle towards the pulpit. “Yes, we do have free will. Free to act as saint and sinner alike, though I’d be reluctant to say there are more of the latter than the former. That’s what we do with free will and our meagre power!”
He stepped onto the pulpit and looked over the crowd of confused church goers.
“Son, I’m going to have to ask you to step down from there.” The pastor looked like he aged another 5 years since the stranger began his diatribe. His face was flustered red and he was beginning to lose patience with this interloper in his church.
“Oh, I will. Just as soon as you prove to me that you have more right to be up here than me.” The stranger flashed a toothy grin and tipped his hat to Mrs Margo in the first row. He blew her a quick kiss before returning his attention to the crowd. Her husband gripped her arm and stood to leave, clearly made uncomfortable by the gesture.
“I’m sorry, I can’t sit here and listen to this anymore.” Mr Margo said to the pastor as he drug his wife along.
“Mr. Margo, Mrs. Margo, I’m going to have to ask you to return to your seats till we’re finished here.” The stranger lowered his head and pointed one long finger in their direction, his frame seem to extend just slightly as he did making his arm look stretched and body look more lanky. Mr. Margo (Tim to his friends of who I never really got to count myself) suddenly stopped in place and turned to face the stranger. Everyone sat in silence as the two simply looked at each other for what felt like forever, the stranger’s sly smile still curled on his thin lips. Mr. Margo began to sweat and his body stiffened and convulsed. His eyes bugged out of his head and Mrs. Margo (Janet to her friends whom I also couldn’t count myself) started asking if he was okay in worried tones. People started to rise from their seats and help him, as it had become clear something was seriously wrong.
“Tim?” The first voice came.
“He’s having some kind of episode!” Another shouted rising from their seat and trying to push past others to get to him.
“A heart attack?”
“Someone help him!”
“Sit the fuck down!” The last voice cut through the others like a freshly sharpened knife through the morning bread. It was the voice of the stranger. He had jumped down from the pulpit and was walking towards the Margo’s slowly, as he walked by the pastor he snatched the bible from his hand and kissed it before tossing it over his shoulder like trash.
“This is you isn’t it, what are you doing to him?!” Mrs Margo screamed as the stranger got closer to them. Mr Margo continued to convulse but remained on his feet, the veins were popping out from his neck and forehead and his hands were clenched so tightly his knuckles had turned to ghost white. Those who had previously gotten to their feet to help all seemed to shrink as the stranger passed them, he gave off an air of menace that worsened with each passing second.
“God’s infallible and omnipotent my dear Janet.” The stranger reached his hand out towards Mrs Margo and she recoiled in disgust. “I can do nothing he doesn’t allow.” With one motion the stranger swung his arm around towards Mr Margo and placed a hand over his face.
“Don’t you touch him!” Someone screamed, I turned to look but no one had taken to their feet to support their voice. We all just watched, even the pastor. The stranger looked up towards the ceiling and closed his eyes; he did a quick little two step with his feet and raised the hand that wasn’t covering Mr Margo’s face towards the sky. He imitated the over exaggerations of a faith healer in a revival tent, the scene of slack jawed onlookers making seem even more accurate.
“In the name of jesuschristthesaviourandthegodalmighty….You are HEALED!”
No one knew what to expect, but we most certainly didn’t expect what happened. The back of Mr. Margo’s head exploded outwards as if someone had just shot him between the eyes with a hunting rifle. The pews behind him were covered in blood, brains, and bits of skull, it took everyone a moment to realize what had happened before the screaming began. I can remember being caught in a sudden maelstrom of panic as the church goers began screaming and scrambling for the door. The stranger let go of Mr. Margo’s face and his body crumpled to the ground as people raced passed the scene to get away.
“Praise the Lord for he is just and fair!” The stranger shouted with a laugh as people piled against the heavy wooden doors of the church.
“They won’t open!” Someone screamed.
This sentiment was echoed by others and the panic got worse, you could hear people crying and smashing their fists against the door. I was stuck in the back, near Mr. Margo’s body, I saw his wife kneeled next to him crying her eyes out and spattered with his blood. She held him, his neck hanging limply over her arm, his eyes still bugged out of his skull and face still frozen in tension. Suddenly a high pitched whistle filled the church and even in the madness everyone turned to look. The stranger had taken his place on the pulpit, the pastor was standing just below him looking for where his bible had fallen.
“I would ask that you all take your seats till we finish the debate.” He paused and looked down at the pastor who in a feeble confusion was still hunting for his bible. He jumped off the pulpit and snatched the book up off the floor where it landed after he threw it. You’re gonna need this I saw him whisper to the pastor as he handed it over with a patronizing pat on the head. He returned to the pulpit to finish his address to the crowd:
“Take a breath my lovely little sheep, a new shepherd has arrived.” He removed his hat and hung it on the cross that was sat up behind him. His slicked black blonde hair looked as plastic as his smile, everything about him was starting to look off even the sound of his voice was becoming less than human.
“You may as well take your seat children, it seems like you aren’t going anywhere anyway.” He straightened his tie and dusted off the sleeves of his jacket. “Now….where was I before I was so rudely interrupted?”
“Humanity is corrupt, wouldn’t you agree? Lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering. I’d call the human race a bunch of apes, but that would be insulting to the apes!” The stranger picked his point back up from the last place he’d left off. He acted as if he were addressing the preacher – who currently looked confused and terrified – but he was really addressing the whole room. “So…I postulate that if man is made in the image of his god, and man is a corrupt entity – wouldn’t it stand to reason that god is a corrupt entity?”
The pastor – who had suddenly been called to be the defender of both humanity and the god he’d professed to love and understand for so many years of his life – stood dumbfounded. The room was quiet except for the occasional sob from Mrs. Margo, everyone had retaken their seats as if falling directly into their role as the sheep the stranger claimed them to be. I was equally guilty, sitting quietly in the middle of the pack watching the whole thing play out. The stranger was hypnotizing in a way that made you feel uncomfortable, his presence made the whole thing feel like a dream.
“Pastor Jerry?” The stranger took a few steps across the pulpit and smacked the pastor in the back of the head. The pastor suddenly woke from the shock he was in and looked fearfully into the eyes of the man who had just murdered one of his congregation and was holding the rest of us, hostage, somehow. “Care to offer a rebuttal?”
“Your argument…” The pastor voice shook and he looked like he was going to cry.
“Put some fucking feeling into it, man! Bring the old testament down on my head for fuck’s sake, fire and brimstone and all that jazz.” The stranger picked up a candle stick and tossed it between his hands as he paced the front of the room. The pastor pressed his bible to his chest and turned to the stranger with a bit more conviction.
“Your argument places the sins of man in the hands of god, but I say again we have free will. We choose to love, we choose to hate, and we choose to accept the Lord. Even if you could apply the faults of man to god, I’d argue that more men are just than not!”
“You would?” The stranger threw his head back and laughed.
“Yes, I would. Look at my flock, the members of this community! All righteous folks, all good folks, kind folks.”
“Oh Jerry, you little man. If you only knew the truth.” The stranger was smiling and then looked out over the crowd. “Shall we drop some knowledge on the benevolent pastor here?”
There was a spell over us all. The only sounds that came from the crowd were some uncomfortable shifts in the seat and the occasional sob from Mrs Margo. I felt frozen, transfixed on what was happening before my eyes. I – just like everyone else in that room – knew what the stranger was going to do next, we knew he was capable even though we didn’t know how.
“Why we don’t even have to go back that far to find a little sin, do we?” The stranger once again hopped down off the stage and walked the rows. His jacket was now flung over his shoulder in a casual manner and he moved with the swagger of confidence. He stopped directly in front of Tim Dandridge, the man who ran the pharmacy. His bald head was sweating as he adjusted his glasses and wrapped his arms around his wife; the stranger leaned in close to look him in the eyes. “In fact, just this morning there was some sin right out in Mr. Dandridge’s truck.”
“I….I have no idea what you’re talking about.” His voice was shaky.
“Oh gimme a break, Dandridge. Half the town already knows about this one, might as well just come clean.” The stranger stood and looked over at Annie, a senior in high school who was working at Mr Dandridge’s pharmacy. The stranger was right, half the town did already know about what was happening, but small towns keep secrets in circles.
Mrs Dandridge started sobbing and pulling away from her husband, she’d already known too but it was easy to ignore when you don’t bring it up. You could see the smile spread back across the strangers face; it moved like a spreading sickness over his cheeks – his porcelain white teeth making it even more plastic looking. He reached down and grabbed Mr Dandridge by the collar, lifting him to his feet and holding an up facing palm towards him as if he were showing him off to the crowd.
“Exhibit A: Adultery.” The stranger let go of his collar and Mr Dandridge dropped back to his seat next to his still sobbing wife. “And with a girl just barely turned 18. Timmy, you nasty son of a biscuit.”
You could hear talk rise among the crowd, the talk of those who knew already and those who just learned. Even in the midst of this surreal nightmare, everyone seemed to still love a good gossip.
“It’s fine Tim.” The stranger snagged a bible out of the cubby on the side of the pews and held it up in the air. “As far as I know, no punishment too bad for you wandering dick in these pages.” His eyes dropped to Annie and his arm slowly followed till he was pointing the holy book right at her terrified face. “Not too sure we’re allowed to suffer the whore, though.”
The words had just barely left the stranger’s mouth when Annie suddenly collapsed, you could hear the “thwack” sound as her head struck the pew in front of her when she went tumbling to the ground. Everyone was suddenly on their feet. Mr Dandridge attempted to rush to Annie but the stranger grabbed his collar and pulled him in close as if he were giving him a hug.
“Drag her out to the center of the isle, if you could?” The stranger addressed those around her and while they seemed uncomfortable doing so they still followed his commands. I understood, the pull that came from his voice was strong – like nothing I’d ever heard. The men who were at first attempting to help her now drug Annie’s convulsing body into everyone’s view – which was exactly where the stranger wanted her. She was laying nearly feet to feet with Mr. Margo’s corpse when the men let go of her and I heard the stranger command them back to their seats – an order they carried out with equally morose expressions.
“Please, let me go. Let me help her.” Tim was struggling against the stranger’s grip, flailing his arms and legs and trying his best to wriggle free. Behind him, his wife was crying into her hands.
We all stared down at Annie as her tiny frame banged against the floor in seizures. No one came to her aid, we all just watched. Sometimes I wonder how much of that was the influence of the stranger and how much was just our own disturbing curiosity about what would happen next.
“It burns!” Annie screamed out, whit froth coming from the corners of her mouth. You could see her skin had gone flush red and she clawed at her Sunday dress with both hands. “Help me…please!” The words came between shouts of pure agony.
The stranger tossed Mr Dandridge back in his seat. Behind the cries, for help, I could hear him order Tim to stay put like he was a dog but I didn’t dare take my eyes off of Annie. I wanted to help, but even if I’d gotten up then there was nothing I could do. The Stanger got next to her and set his jacket on the floor next to him. He placed one hand on her forehead and rested the other on top of the bible which he placed on her chest.
“Oh, my! Oh my dearie, dearie lawd!” The stranger suddenly shouted out in his best southern revival preacher voice. “This girl is possessed, she is possessed by the forces of the devil himself. We are going to need to drive these serpents out good people. Can I get an Amen?”
The crowd stayed quiet, watching as blood started to pour from the corners of Annie’s mouth – she’d chewed through her own tongue.
“I said can I get a mother fucking AMEN!” The stranger’s voice grew so loud it nearly shook the walls. Half the crowd spoke a halfhearted amen in response. The stranger cocked his head and raised an eyebrow as if to say “really?” then he shrugged and continued his act.
“Be gone demons, be gone foul corruptions from the pits of hades!”
As he pressed his hands to her she convulsed more and more wildly, one of her dress shoes flew off and her stockinged foot banged wildly against the pew next to her.
“Be gone spawns of Satan, serpent-tongued creatures most cruel!”
She sprayed blood between her lips like a person trying to hold back vomit, those sat closest to her recoiled as the mist sprayed them but none rose to help.
“I CAST THEE OUT! IN THE NAME OF JEEEEEZUZ CHRIST!”
The stranger made a forceful press down on the bible, and even from where I was sitting a few rows away I could hear her ribs break. Tim was sat just behind them, I saw him place his hands over his ears and lower his head not wanting to see what happened next. She continued to shake, her hands and feet slapping wildly against the floor as her mouth opened and something began to wriggle its way out.
Snakes, one after the other. They were drenched in her blood and you could see her throat rise and fall as they conjured themselves from god knows where and slithered up her oesophagus. There were six total, and people shrieked and raised their feet up to the bench as they crawled around below us, their forked tongues lapping at the air. Annie’s body stopped shaking and the stranger – his pale complexion now dotted with blood – rose to his feet.
He slid his jacket back on as everyone either watched for snakes at their feet or stared down at the now lifeless body of the young pharmacy clerk that lay dead in the isle.
“I guess that one was nothing but sin, nought left to stand when it was exorcised.” The stranger said with a sly look creeping over his face.
Our pastor fainted, and the stranger retook his place on the pulpit.
“That’s just one small example of the sin that rests among you.” The stranger had returned to his sermon, now uncontested by anyone. “The sickness in mankind is not your fault, though! It’s passed down, inherited from a vain, obsessive, disgusting god who seeks your admiration but gives so little in return.”
I had noticed the snakes had all set themselves below the stage, they reached upwards towards the stranger’s voice. All around me people were crying, some had vomited, some grumbled under their breath. None stood to challenge him, though, none stood to leave, in fact, none stood at all. It was the feeling of being pinned to your seat by restraints you couldn’t see.
“Are you the devil?” I heard one small voice say from the row in front of me. His parents quickly grabbing him and shushing him. I hoped the stranger hadn’t heard and not just for the boy’s sake, but because I don’t think I wanted to know the answer. The stranger turned his crimson stained face though and smiled that plastic smile, as he jumped down off the stage once more there was a new jump in his step.
“Who asked that?” He scanned the room, stopping his eyes on all the children. “Anyone? Anyone at all? I’ll tell you the answer just as soon as you tell me who you are.” He stopped in the row in front of me, the boy now had his face buried in his father’s sleeve, his mother’s hand rested upon his back.
“Please sir, we don’t need an answer.” The father pleaded.
“Was it you son?” The stranger reached out and the father went to smack his hand away but thought better. The strangers stained fingertips slid into the boy’s hair and pulled his head out of the crook of his father’s arm gently. “Can you repeat the question? I don’t think everyone heard.”
“Are you the Devil?” The little boy asked again, this time with new tears streaming from his eyes.
“Did you learn about the Devil in Sunday school, little one?” The stranger let go of the boy and returned to walking up and down the aisle. The boy went back to crying into his stunned father’s sleeve without offering an answer.
“Are you?” I heard someone else yell, broken free of the spell just long enough to act of their own will.
Another shout followed with the same question on its lips, then another and another. I suddenly felt the question rising up from within me, not in my mind but seemingly bubbling up from my stomach. With each time the question was barked out I felt more of an urge to ask it myself.
“Are you the Devil?”
“The lying one?”
“Are you The Morning Star?”
These questions weren’t being asked by choice. Somehow he was making us ask them, over and over again like a chorus. I shouted my own version of the question over and over again, everyone yelling and shouting – suddenly looking for answers. The stranger raised his hands high above his head as if he was in an old western stick up, then he slowly lowered them with flat palms facing down. A slow and intense shush came from between his teeth, a sound that no one should have been able to hear over the yelling…but everyone could. The room slowly tapered off in noise as his hands dropped, till all the questions were silenced. When the stranger spoke next his voice was even less human than it had been previously, as if some sort of mask was starting to slip away.
“Lucifer…that poncy little bitch. A whiny cunt who couldn’t handle that daddy loved a bunch of apes more than him?” He laughed and stepped back towards the pulpit. He stepped over the pastor who was still passed out on the floor with the snakes circling around him and up onto the stage. “Never throughout the whole time of god and man has there been a creature more worthless and petty than angels, and never has there been an angel more worthless and petty than Lucifer.”
The stranger spat on the stage, and there was an animosity in his formerly plastic eyes. His bloodstained hands gripped the pulpit so tight I thought he was going to snap the wood from its frame.
“Lucifer is the ultimate expression of my point. He is just another failure of a corrupt god who cares only about taking from those who worship him. A disgusting fallacy of a creator who sits back and watches his people damned to hell for their mistakes, for the sin he heaps upon them at birth!”
The stranger lowered his head for a moment as if he was deep in thought; after a few seconds his arm raised and he pointed a finger at the father of the boy who’d originally asked the question.
“To quote the great Johnny Cash: God said to Abraham, Kill me a son!” He raised his head, the fake plastic smile returned to his lips.
Another gasp rose from the crowd as the father wrapped his hands around his son’s throat and began to squeeze. You could see that the father’s eyes were filled with protest but his arms moved independently of his mind. His wife next to him started screaming and trying to push him off but the man’s grip was so tight, I could hear him pleading with his wife to stop him. She was suddenly raised out of her seat and thrown across the church by some unseen force, you heard the sound of snapping bones as she struck the back wall hard enough to leave a crack in the plaster.
“God says Abraham’s bitch should stay the fuck out of it.”
The father kept going, even when his sons face had turned nearly blue, even as tears poured from both their eyes, even when the boy’s body when limp in his hands. Right there in front of the whole town, he killed his son, and we all did nothing but sit and watch. All of us except the stranger, who stood at the pulpit and laughed.
“Well I think I’m done here.” The stranger took his coat from the cross and slipped it back on. He twirled his wide brimmed had in his blood palms for a second before placing it back on his head and jumping from the stage. He landed right in front of the Pastor who was finally waking from his time on the floor. As the stranger once again stepped over him, the snakes began to strike at the pastor’s flesh. Over and over again they struck, the pastor’s screams of pain mixing with the wailing of those who’d suffered loss on that Sunday morning. The woman who’d lost her husband, the man who’d lost his mistress, and worst of all – the wailing horrible cries of the father who’d killed his own son.
If the stranger’s aim was to test the group’s faith in god – or break it – he had likely succeeded with most.
“You’ve all been great fun to debate with…” He paused and looked down as he reached the door. “No…Actually, not really…” He looked up towards the crowd again and smiled. “None of you made a single good point!”
I could feel the weight that had been placed upon the room start to lift. It was as if the stranger was releasing his hold on the room, he no longer needed a captive audience…he’d made his point, or had his fun. In my head questions swirled and as the heavy wooden door creaked open and the light of Sunday morning crept into the darkened atmosphere of the church I found myself unable to hold back from saying something.
“What are you?!” I shouted towards the stranger as before he stepped through the door and out onto the steps. “What are you, and why did you do this?!”
The stranger stopped and looked over his shoulder in my direction. His eyes looked like voids when he was backlit by the sun and there was a genuine madness on his face. I huffed out breathes as if standing and shouting were the greatest workout I’d ever been through, the feeling of the oppressive weight still lingering on my body. Meeting his gaze made me feel cold down through to my bones.
“I did this because I could…” He turned halfway towards me and it felt as if the whole world vanished and the two of us were left standing in a void as dark and empty as what was set in his eye sockets. He straightened his jacket again and spun on his heel, at first it seemed as if he would ignore the other part of my question – the meat of the knowledge that I wanted so badly and feared so terribly. Before the doors closed on him though, and he vanished to leave the stench of death and weight of guilt over our heads for the rest of our lives he gave me an answer so unsatisfying it made me wish he’d killed me along with the others.
“As for your other question…” His voice had started to fade as he walked down the steps “I’m whatever you think I am…”