Friday, February 3, 2017

The Last Sinner's Story

Part 1, The Demon's Tales
Part 2, The First Sinner's Story
Part 3, The Second Sinner's Story Prologue
Part 4, The Second Sinner's Story

The Demon had a favorite story of all.  Like a child who wants the same book read to her over and over again, she loved this story and asked for it on her worst days—which there are a lot of in Hell.  It was told by an old man who had been there for 400 years.  Or was it 500?  Both the man and the demon had lost count.

He had lived during the height of the witch trials and had accused many people of being in league with the Devil.  (Oh, if only he’d known what that truly was when he had been alive!)  He had been to hangings and burnings.  He’d felt the glow of heat from the flames and heard the sobs and screams of the condemned and he’d felt righteous and good.  (Oh, if only he’d known what was good and evil!)

He’d spent the first 2 centuries in Hell arguing that he should not be there.  He’d been good.  He’d been rightous.  He had only done what he thought was right in God’s eyes. He had rid the world of Satan’s workers.  He had carefully kept himself from sin.  He was a servant of the church!  He did not belong in Hell.  But he’d long ago accepted his fate as fair and just.
The story he told was one he’d heard in life.  It was told from town to town and place to place about a witch hunter who, unlike him, had repented and been saved from the fires of Hell because of the work of a demon.

It had happened in Europe in a town that had nearly killed every woman and were still condemning more.  The smell of woodsmoke and charred flesh was so thick in remained in the town square even after the fires had burnt out and the coals had gone cold.  It happened at one particular burning as the innocent woman had stopped screaming and succumbed to death, that out of her body stepped a demon.  The crowd gasped in horror and fear and pleasure that there was now such proof that the woman had indeed been possessed and deserved to die.  After all, a demon had come out of her dying body.  And it was clear it was a demon.

It had glowing eyes like the coals.  Cloven hooves instead of feet.  It had curling horns on the side of its head.  It’s skin was charred and cracked and in the cracks they could see the glowing coals of hell, as if it was itself a piece of wood burned and nearly turned to charcoal.  They would have thought it was the Devil himself except that it was so obviously a woman.

It had no clothing on and its breasts were large and swayed as she moved, stepping carefully among the coals and wood as she climbed down the pyre and came into the crowd.  They all stepped back, fearful of being near her, but also too curious to run.  This demon could do nothing to them.  They were the righteous.  And none was more righteous than the man of God, chief torturer and accuser of the devil.  He stepped in to banish the demon, raising his cross and demanding the demon return to Hell whence it came.

The demon did not return to Hell.  She didn’t hiss or recoil at the sight of the cross.  What she did was laugh.  She laughed and continued to walk towards the man.  Again he shouted, “In the name of God, I demand you go back to the fires of Hell!  In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord I demand you begone you servant of Satan!  Begone and bother these good folk no more!”

But this had no more effect than it had before.  She spoke and her voice was beautiful and smooth, almost the voice of an angel, it seemed perverse for such a voice to come from such a creature.  But then again, Lucifer had been beautiful once.

He held his ground as she neared him.  As she reached out her hand and took the crucifix from him.  She tossed it into the fire.  “I am a servant of Satan, it is true.  But I could not do so good a work for him as you.”

The man of God had no brave words for her now.  He froze in fear as she lifted his chin with one sharp, black fingernail.  “You send so many to Hell.”

And through his overwhelming fear at the nearness of the demon his heart soared.  It was proof he was righteous.  It was proof he was doing God’s work when he did it so well the demons came themselves to stop him.  “I do God’s work,” he spat out at her.  “The proof is that you are here, demon.”  His courage bolstered he again shouted, louder than before, “Back, demon!  Leave these people and this place and go back to Hell!  In the name of Jesus Christ I command you!”

The demon did remove her talon from under his chin and took a step back.  She cocked her head in curiosity.  “I had left these people.  They were under the Lord’s protection until you came.  You led them astray.”

And with those words the man faltered for the first time.  “I cleansed the wicked from this town.”

“You killed the innocent,” she said.  “How many innocent in this town alone?  How many in the last one?  You’ve murdered hundreds.  You caused good people to turn against their neighbors.”  She turned to the crowd and pointed at the richest and most respected man in town.  “You knew G____ was not in league with the Devil.  You wanted his land.”

She pointed to another respectable woman and her teenage daughter.  “You never saw a witches’ sabbath.  You wanted attention.”

She pointed to a child and knelt down beside him.  She spoke quietly, gently, as if she were instead an angel offering forgiveness rather than a demon condemning him.  She held out her hand, palm up and said, “Give me the button.  The button you stole that condemned Mistress V____.”  The child hiccuped a sob and dug in his pocket.  He gently laid a gold button in the demon’s hand.  It seemed to glow in her charred hand, lit by the red coals under her skin so the simple button looked as if it had been forged in Hell.  She closed her fingers around it and held the fist to her mouth, as if she had just received a treasured item.  Then she laid her other hand on the boy’s shoulder and quietly said, “Thank you.”

She stood again and turned to the witchfinder.  “You condemned innocents to die and condemned villages to burn for all eternity.”  She stomped her foot with the word, you, moving closer to him.  “You spread your evil even down to the children.”  Again she emphasized the word ‘you’ with a stomp that seemed to shake the ground beneath them.  From her foot the very land cracked and the fires of hell glowed through them.  The screams of the sinners echoed quietly as if from far away.

She walked over to the witchfinder and with every step more glowing cracks opened at her feet. “They bore false witness, coveted their neighbor’s goods, stole, and finally cheered and murdered right there with you.  You persecuted others for righteousness sake and gave a few the kingdom of heaven, even as you condemned entire towns to Hell.  You know nothing of the God you claim to follow.  You are my greatest servant.”  And though she whispered her last words in his ear, it could be heard by the entire crowd.

The man trembled, finally convinced.  He knew it was true.  Every bit of it was true.  He fell to his knees and grabbed at the demon’s legs like a begging child refusing to let go of his mother.  “Forgive me!  Forgive me!”

The demon laid her hand on his head, as gentle as a mother comforting a child.  As gentle as an angel bestowing grace.  “It’s not me who matters,” she said.  “Do not ask this of me.  You must ask this of God.”

And with those words she seemed to slowly fade until he was left holding onto nothing.
For the next few days he had to run for his life as the angry townspeople chased him.  He escaped and in the next few week wandered aimlessly, alternately crying and praying for forgiveness.  Within a few years he had left the church and settled in a city using a different name.  Under his own name he published tracts and treatises proclaiming the uselessness and folly of the witchhunts.  His words were joined with the words of others and put an end to the terror and madness almost entirely.

In the final 30 years of his life he committed himself to justice and peace, offering solace to the criminals and fighting for mercy and release.  He protected innocents and preached forgiveness for the guilty.  He did not attend a church, but instead prayed every day for forgiveness.

At the end of those 30 years the former witchhunter died.  As he drew his last breath he prayed his last prayer and closed his eyes.  His spirit left his body and he saw a face.  A face he recognized.  It was the face of the demon, though it was no longer charred or cut through with glowing fissures.  Instead it seemed to glow with a fabulous light.  Her skin was whole and clear and she had six pairs of softly feathered wings.

In spite of this change he knew her for who she was.  The demon who had come to him that night with the smell of burning wood and flesh.  The demon who had told him his entire purpose in life was a lie.  And in spite of all his repentance and prayer, she was here for him.  It had not been enough.  He was not surprised.  He had always felt there was not enough prayer in a lifetime to forgive the sins he had done.  The lives he had taken.  The souls he had condemned, however righteous he had felt at the time.  Ever since that night he had always known he was condemned to hell.

In resignation he took her hand and accepted his fate.  He bowed his head and closed his eyes.

When he opened his eyes again he found himself walking on the softest of clouds in front of a shining gate.  He could hear angels singing and smell the fresh air of an eternal spring day.
“I don’t understand,” he said.

The shining demon smiled at him and caressed his cheek with her soft hand.  “My child, if I’d come to you as the angel I am and told you what you were doing was evil, you would have believed I was a demon sent to trick you.  But I knew you would believe in a demon and never suspect I was an angel come to trick you.  Now go.  You are loved by God.  You are forgiven.”

This is where the story ended.  The man who told it would always cry as he told the end which pleased the demon.  She didn’t even need to torture him with spikes and pain.  Telling the story was torture enough and so as he told it to her again and again she gave her arms and voice a rest from whipping and beatings and yellings.  She could stop to just listen.  She did not cry at the end as the man did but sighed happily and with a lighter heart, pleased in the knowledge that however bad it was in Hell, it must be worse in Heaven when even the angels want to be demons.

Part 6, The Demon and the Bookstore

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