~ 1849 ~
The lector took the podium, cleared his throat, and steeled his resolve. "Thank you, Father. I will continue with Isaiah 9 in a moment, but first I must turn to a less traditional, but far more pertinent, passage of the Bible: Exodus 22:18.
"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!
"A seed of evil was sewn in this city four years ago and it bears bitter fruit. 'Father' Torelseth spreads his false doctrine not one mile from this hallowed ground. He spreads lies that turn neighbor against neighbor. He corrupts our daughters and steals their virtue. He worships the Devil and keeps a hellhound as his familiar. There is no greater wickedness than this!
"We know what must be done. The scripture is unambiguous. Whosoever has the necessary will should find me after mass has ended.
"A reading from the Book of Isaiah. 'The people walking in darkness have seen a great light...'"
The time between Midnight Mass and Christmas morning is a sacred time for Edvard Torelseth. It is a time of calm anticipation, when the church is quiet, but still full of potential energy. The air vibrates like a piano wire, smells of ozone.
Edvard sits in one of the empty pews and scrawls in his personal bible. Black lines, thick with excess ink, smother the holy text...
O + O
D O G
The Church Grim sits in judgment, stares at him from the shadows beneath the altar. Edvard puts his pen down and stares back. It gazes into his abyss...
"Satan tests our faith, not because he is wicked, but because God wants us tested. Nothing happens but by His will. Some will be saved, some will be damned. Which are you?"
It had been late September when Edvard tried to counter autumn's chill with a little fire and brimstone. His flock was unsteady, skittish. He'd thought they needed moral clarity.
"We have all seen the Grim. I understand it's been following some of you home. Have no fear of it, my children! The Grim serves God, as do we all. Its appearance signals God's presence in your life. It tests your faith, so that you may put your faith on display. What value hath virtue untested?
"Do not be taken in by the Catholics or the Swedes or the other heretics who crowd our frontier town. They are your enemies, not the Grim. They tempt you with illusions of safety and prosperity, but all their false doctrine can provide is eternal damnation!
"The righteous will deny them at every turn: Deny their temptations and their doctrine, deny them service at your businesses and seats at your dinner tables.
"Take nothing from them. Offer nothing to them.
"This is God's will."
The mob announces itself shortly before dawn, banging a death knell on the doors of the church. Edvard slams his bible closed and glares at the Grim. "Is this your mercy, then?" Its eyes darken to embers.
He proceeds down the aisle, solemn. He ushers the doors open, revealing a semicircle of farmers, masons, blacksmiths, shopkeepers, ordinary men. Their tools, however, betray their extraordinary purpose: guns, rope, hatchets, torches.
"Merry Christmas," Edvard greets them without mirth.
"Don't blaspheme!" The lector pinpoints Edvard with a hunting rifle. "Don't pretend to be a man of God. We know what you really are. We've heard your confession and now we're here to carry out His judgment. In our mercy, we offer you a choice: the noose or the stake?"
It was a girl, in fact, who'd heard his confession.
"What troubles you, my child?"
"I've had... impure thoughts, Father. About a man."
"That's nothing to be ashamed of, my dear. Pleasure is the redemption of the flesh."
"But, we're not, um... We're not married, Father. Neither of us."
"Only our actions can damn us; our minds are free from sin. Have you acted on these impure thoughts?"
"Of course not!"
"Of course not, but a soul untempted cannot earn redemption. Our minds make us other than beasts, for they bear the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Shame is the seed of virtue. Wickedness is the root of faith. Why, wasn't it your own father who buried the Grim under my foundation? Who built this church atop a tomb?"
Of what value is virtue untested?
She'd had no words for him, then, just apoplectic indignation. "Living here, in this church, with the Grim..." he'd continued, "there's no escape from impure thoughts. It shows me... things. I've seen it tear out a beaten dog's throat, save a child by kidnapping it, help a butcher's daughter slaughter her lecherous and wicked family!"
"Thank you, Father. I should be go--"
"It has revealed to me the true interpretation of scripture, a new doctrine. God is vain, my child, and the Devil is howling, Howling, HOWLING!"
"Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."
A bullet streaks past Edvard and into the church. "This is duty, not vengeance," the lector bellows. "Now, are you gonna come out here and face judgment or are you gonna make us do this inside a house of worship?!"
The night growls. Weapons turn against the darkness. The Grim appears to each man at once, as if he and it were alone in the forest. The lynch mob fires, swings, and stabs in all directions, harming only itself. A single set of jaws tears out a dozen throats, drags them off in a dozen directions.
Edvard claws at the wooden planks of his church as the Grim wrenches his leg, twists him around onto his back, hauls him away like an anchor dragging him into the deep.- Daniel Bayn, 2013