The Shadow of the Valley

He gave it to her, as he gave to everyone, too much. In the land where the streets were paved with gold and the rivers ran with honey, he gave her everything. Only this time it was with a closed fist, not an open hand.

It was a flare of passion, one he regretted immediately. How could she understand? It came from before she’d met him. Jamin came to America with five coins in his pocket and fewer words of English. But he picked up goods for sale from a creaking old vendor and picked up enough words to sell them. A year on, he had his own corner store. He was doing so well, he took a mortgage out on a clothing store on main street. It was for men and women. He saw the future, he saw the department store where one got one and all.

Cynthia had been a fitting model for his seamstresses. He was taken by her. She was such a beauty in his eyes. She deserved more than to be a model on a billboard on the street corner, she would be his wife. She was easily taken from her life of scraping. He paid her father a dower of two hundred dollars to make her his. And she loved him, truly, not just gratefully.

But that was in the easy days of the 60s. In 1873, all turned from silver to gold, then to poisonous lead. In the years that followed, he lost his main street store and, soon after, his old corner store too. He was still in the palm of America, and it squeezed him when the goings were slim. She didn’t understand commerce and she blamed him for their want and need. She blamed him for the begging she had to do for credit at the store. She blamed him for having to send the girls to the factory.

Eventually, the nagging became too much, and he lashed out, as his father had taught him, as the old world had taught him. From the depths of everything he’d escaped, came salvation. But he regretted it immediately.

“Cynthia!” he cried as he fell to knees and lifted his dead wife into his embrace. “My God, Cynthia?!

He ran to the nearest doctor, and the nearest constable thereafter. He was in the cells mere hours after her death.

“The Pastor!” he shouted at the guards through the small opening in his cell door. “Please, bring the Pastor! I need him, more than all! I know I shall hang, and I deserve it. But, please, bring the Pastor in time!”

He was a Jew, but only Christ offered the salvation he could partake of.

“Pastor!” he begged on his knees in the middle of his cell. “I regret my evil deed! I regretted it as soon as my foolish hand fell! What can I do?! I know I have not long left, and I deserve it fully and truly, but how can I make recompense in the meantime? How can I show Christ the Lord the same shame the thief showed on the cross next him?”

“You’re a Jew?” The Pastor asked speculatively.

“I am,” he said, unable to meet the Pastor’s stare.

“Yet you speak of Christ’s mercy?”

“Christ spoke his Mercy so that all who were willing to listen might hear, did he not?”

“He did.”

“Well, I’ve heard of his good name in this new world. Where each man makes for himself, and where those trodden under are trodden by their own failure. Where each does to their neighbor as they would to themselves. Who would cut the head off their neighbor, who, like myself, had breached their laws of justice, trusting so in their justice that there are no mistakes and no misaccusations. I believe in your faith, I have seen the way. Teach me, and I shall follow. How might I find Christ’s justice?”

“As all do. You must spend your days, limited as they may be, repenting and making amends where you can. Pray and beg, show your regret and Christ shall show like forgiveness.”

So, he spent his final days on his knees on the compacted dirt floor of his cell. He recited the prayers the pastor had taught him and added a few of his own. Head hung low, back arched forward, in the grim, grey darkness of his cell, he prayed for forgiveness:

“My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do right, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever may lead me to sin. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.”

He pled guilty at trial and offered nothing as mitigation.

“I have committed a great sin,” he told the judge, “which I regret from the depths of my soul. I deserve the full weight of your justice.”

“And so, you shall have it,” the judge replied, and passed a sentence of death.

His attorney informed him that his daughters were under the care of Cynthia’s parents. The girls were not present at trial, but his father-in-law was there. He stood at the back with his hat in his hands as the judge passed sentence. He nodded curtly at the sentence of death, put his hat on firmly, and left. His girls never came to visit Jamin in his final days.

“It is only right,” he told the Lord, looking up at the moon through the bars of his cell window. His breath turned white in the icy air before his face. “I have sinned against my wife, against myself, against you, oh Lord. But I feel the weight of that sin shall weigh heavier on those three girls than anyone. I took their mother, the law shall rightly take their father, what else shall they lose? Hope? Faith?

“Lord, I pray you watch over them. If I am beyond forgiveness, at least show pity to their poor souls. Keep them safe, let happiness return to their lives. Accept their souls into your kingdom.”

A shadow passed over the moon then, though the sky was cloudless. He was cast into utter darkness. He could no longer see his breath in front of him. But he could feel the warmth of his breath against his face, it seemed to hang there like a cloud. He kept praying, keeping his eyes on the spot where the moon had disappeared.

It is just a dark cloud, he told himself, It shall pass. This too, shall pass away.

In 1873, a cotton farmer from Wisconsin had been arguing with Jamin over the price Jamin was offering for his goods. Jamin explained that trade was bad for all, not just farmers. He had known this farmer for many years, so Jamin showed him his log book to prove he wasn’t trying to swindle him. When the farmer saw all the red ink that marked its pages, he took off his hat, sniffed, and quoted Abraham Lincoln: “And this too, shall pass away…How consoling in the depths of affliction.”

In those depths of darkness, Jamin held onto those words, hoping they would provide such promised consolation. This too, shall pass away. But the shadow did not pass away, nor did the darkness. The air around him got warmer and damper. It was muggy and stale when he breathed in, not cool and crisp as it had been. Praying aloud, repeating those same five words over and over, faster and faster—desperately seeking God’s light—breathing in that thick, stale air, he began hyperventilating.

This–hee–too–hee–sha–hee–hmm.

He gave up trying to pray in that smog. He scrambled up from his knees and jumped at the bars covering the window. He grabbed them tight and pulled his face up to the window. Squeezing his face between two bars, he gulped in a lungful of fresh night air.

Suddenly, the shadow passed, and he was struck by a brilliant, blinding light, a thousand times brighter than the moon. It burned his eyes and he let go of the bars to cover them. He crashed hard in a heap on the dirt floor. He screamed aloud, his eyes and his back both searing with a blinding pain.

When he dared to open his eyes again, he found the room filled with a mist that shone bright white in the light of the brilliant moon. Shading his eyes, he watched the wisps of mist course round the room in circular currents. Then the currents stopped flowing and for a moment they hung frozen in the air. Then all the currents began flowing towards each other; flowing round and across, surging into one another, forming a thick, white cloud.

“What is this?!” he cried from the floor, where he sat, frozen. “Is this a sign?! Lord, God, is this a sign?!”

The cloud began churning, currents swirling and crashing like waves. The cloud stretched upwards into a long, ethereal oval. Five currents stretched themselves out into thin cirrus clouds streaking away from the body of the cumulus. One cirrus streak at each corner, one at the top. As the currents flowed stronger, the streaks thickened and rounded themselves off at the ends. The one at the top formed almost a sphere. The currents coalesced into a familiar form.

“Cyn…Cynthia?!” he exclaimed from his bed of dirt.

The tiny wisps of steam that formed the lines of her face continued to run and swirl, but her countenance held. Formed from his own breath, gleaming in mystical light, his dead wife stood before him.

“Cynthia? Cynthia!” he cried. “Can it really be you? You must have heard my lamentations. Have you come to forgive me? From the deepest depths of my pitiful heart, I am utterly, utterly sorry. I love you, Cyn—”

“SILENCE!!!”

A gust of wind blew back his hair and stung his eyes. The wind bloated the apparition before him until her head hung just below the ceiling and her whole form seemed to surround him.

“Your lamentations?” she said with a wispy smirk. “Your lamentations!” she bellowed. “Oh, I have heard your pitiful, selfish lamentations. I have heard you beg the American God to save your rotten soul. You’ve had time to find your God. He forgives all who asks for it, or so they say. You had your chance to find forgiveness, but what of my chance?! You stole it from me!

“Oh, my dear Cynthia, no. Surely the Lord will forgive one such as you. You were always so good, so kind–so loving! The girls worshipped you, my dear. Surely he would accept you into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

“Then why am I here?” It came out as a whimper, and her form shrank and lost its brilliance. The moon that illuminated her smoky portrait dimmed, and Jamin was filled with a sense of guilt and pity. He had never seen his wife so disconsolate. “Why have I been cast into this nothing place, this nowhere? I miss the warmth of the hearth, the soft touch of Julia’s little cheek against my own. I even miss the comfort of your embrace. All I feel now is rage.”

Her face fell into her hands, sending wisps billowing into the air and fading to nothing. Jamin dragged himself off the floor. He was about to go to her, to embrace her, when the fading wisps reminded him of her new form.

“There must be something I can do to earn your forgiveness?” Jamin offered.

The wisps of steam that made her lips narrowed into a sly smile beneath her ethereal hands. She pulled her hands away and looked Jamin dead in the eye. “Oh, but there is,” she said. “You are expecting the pastor tomorrow before your execution. He intends to baptise you, does he not?”

“He does,” Jamin said, warily.

“He will absolve you of your sins and bring you under Christ’s protection, just in time for your death. And when the rope has fallen and your neck is broken, and your eyes bulge out of their sockets like a toad, and your face has turned black with death, your soul will travel where I can never tread.

“You call it the Lord’s justice; I call it no justice at all. You shall turn the pastor away, spurn the Lord’s forgiveness, then you shall have mine.”

“And condemn my soul to Hell? Or join you in your…your nothing place? You ask too much. Why must we both suffer?”

BECAUSE YOU MADE ME TO SUFFER!!!” A gale blew in through the window, bloating Cynthia’s apparition and blowing it apart, sending her billowing around the room. Jamin was consumed by her, his clothes flying in the gusts that swirled around him, his ears buffeted by the squall of a hurricane. The wind froze him to the bone, and he hugged himself tightly. Cynthia’s face reappeared in the ethereal whirlwind, but it circled him round and round, caught up in her cyclone. He followed her glare, turning on his heel, terrified of what she might do.

Then, with her face still swirling about him and he still spinning on his heel, she spoke: “You will come with me to hell or I will bring hell down upon you! I will whip up a tempest so fierce it will turn this prison into a tomb! I will bury you here with your precious pastor, soul be damned!

With that, the wind changed direction, and the cloud that threatened to suffocate him was sucked out into the night. Mid-turn, on his heel, Jamin was blown onto his back as the moon returned to its usual, soft glow, leaving him in a gloomy darkness.

***

The next morning, the Pastor came with two prison guards carrying a large wooden basin of water. The guards set the basin down on the ground and left the cell. One waited outside with the door ajar.

“How are you this morning, my son?” the Pastor asked.

“I am weary,” Jamin said, sitting on the bench he had for a bed. “Last night I was visited by…some disturbing thoughts.”

“About your execution?”

Jamin nodded slowly.

“If he has put his soul in the hands of the Lord, no man need fear death.”

“Do you fear death, Pastor?”

“Like all sensible men, I fear dying, but I am under the Lord’s protection. I have no fear of death.”

Perhaps you should, Jamin thought. He looked up at the support beams in the ceiling and glanced out the window, looking for signs of a storm. But that day was no day to die. The sky was as blue as a canvas tarpaulin, seeming to cover the whole world. The thin streaks of cloud looked like little more than stitching. Though the sun was out of sight, he could smell the scorched earth burning under its intense rays.

“Pastor, could you perform the baptism outside? It’s a glorious day. I’d rather my last sight of the sun not be from the gallows.”

“I must ask the guards, but I’m sure it will be no trouble. Even a murderer is entitled to a final request, particularly one as remorseful as you.”

“Thank you, Pastor.”

The Pastor left the room, and in the minutes that passed, Jamin’s eyes darted incessantly from the window to the rafters. Cynthia showed no signs of herself. But Jamin held no hope that he had escaped her wrath yet.

The Pastor returned with the guards in tow. They glared at him as they fitted the manacles on his wrists and ankles. They resented having to carry the basin all the way to the yard.

“You shall receive your baptism under the eyes of God in all his magnificence,” the Pastor said, “as it should be.”

Jamin was relieved, though it was an anxious walk out to the yard. As the manacles clinked, he tried to keep his eyes on the ceiling, though his fellow prisoners distracted him from their cells as they watched him through the tiny windows in their doors.

“God can’t save you from the gallows!” one shouted.

But he can save my soul from falling through its trap door to Hell.

The sun and sky were more beautiful to Jamin than his first ever sight of Cynthia, even if he had to squint against their brilliance. Though his eyes were up to the sky, the gallows skulked on the edge of his vision. They were set up in the centre of the yard, so that any prisoner who looked out his window would see them. There was some solace in those gallows; the noose hanged still—the air was breathless.

The two guards set the basin down. Then, the red-haired guard pushed Jamin to his knees, facing the basin.

“Please, my good man,” the Pastor said, “this is a sacred occasion, you could have asked him to get to his knees.”

“He’s a Christian now, is it?” the red-haired guard said in an Irish accent. “And him still a murderer, and a Jew.” And a Protestant, he wanted to say, but thought better of it in front of the Pastor.

“Could you at least remove the manacles from his hands?” the Pastor asked.

“Out here?” the Irish guard said, looking around the yard. “Not by the Lord in hisself.”

“Fine. But, please, give us some space before I begin.”

The guards shrugged and walked five paces backwards. Each stood with one hand resting on his truncheon, the other on his revolver. Their eyes were locked on Jamin’s back.

“Could you be quick about it, Pastor? I’m anxious to receive God’s justice.”

“A rite such as this ought not to be rushed. Be calm, my son, there is nothing to fear. Those gallows ought to hold no fear for you, they shall be your gateway to Heaven.”

Jamin closed his eyes and took a deep breath. If he has put his soul in the hands of the Lord, no man need fear death, Jamin reminded himself.

The sound of the Pastor’s voice made Jamin open his eyes. He had begun to bless the water. The slow, steady pace of the Pastor’s words made Jamin too nervous to look at his face. He kept his eyes fixed on the blackness of the Pastor’s cloak, which hung down to his boots. Perhaps such a blackness awaited him after death, Jamin thought. It would be preferable to the shadow of the nothing place.

Suddenly, a breath of wind ruffled the Pastor’s cloak but left Jamin untouched. The Pastor ceased his prayers and he raised his gaze from his Bible in a mechanical motion.

Jamin looked up at the Pastor to see what had stopped his prayers, and he could have sworn the Pastor’s eyes had turned an inky black, nothing but pupils. The Bible slipped from the Pastor’s grasp as he stepped towards Jamin. Jamin watched as the Bible fell open on the scorched earth. A breath of wind ruffled the pages, ripping some out before it closed its pages to Jamin with a snap.

The Pastor stepped towards him, hands raised and grasping. Jamin found himself dumbstruck and frozen. The Pastor grabbed him by the collar and pulled him to his feet with an unholy strength. The Pastor’s face was expressionless, but his black eyes seemed to swallow Jamin whole, soul and all.

The two guards were about to rush to the Pastor when another sourceless gust blew them off their feet.

The Pastor threw Jamin headfirst into the basin. He cracked his forehead off the far edge of the basin, and though he remained conscious, he was too dazed to fight.

As the Pastor grabbed Jamin from behind, the guards got to their feet. The Pastor held Jamin under the unblessed water, though he needn’t have bothered. Jamin’s body hung limply over the edge of the basin, as bubbles flowed passively from his lungs through the water.

The bearded guard took out his revolver in a panic and raised it, but the Irish guard smacked it back down.

“Christ, ya can’t kill a Pastor,” he said. “He’s dead, so he is, either which way.”

***

After Jamin’s body was taken away and the Pastor was taken to the asylum, the guards were sent to clean the yard and dismantle the gallows as punishment.

The Irish guard was collecting the loose pages of the Bible when he was grabbed by a particular page that had two small pieces ripped from the top. Something inside him made him read that page.

It read: “{_____} I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear {__} evil…”

Come back next week, Nov. 7, 2019, for more from the Master! Subscribe below or follow my social media to get a reminder:

2 thoughts on “The Shadow of the Valley”

  1. What a strange story. The moral seems to be that Jesus Christ is less powerful or consequential than a Jewish ghost called… er… Cynthia. This is theologically outlandish.

    Well written, though. 🙂

    Like

    1. Thank you, Tychy. I see you’ve read “Playing With God” as well. The same Catharist theological premise applies to this story, hence why Jesus Christ’s power is limited on Earth. I should have mentioned that in this story too though, sorry for the confusion. I really enjoyed “Players”, it was twistedly dark and extremely tense. Your style is very unique, particularly your innovative similes and metaphors.

      Like

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