Abstemious

Reverend Placid was a credit to his profession. Seldom, since the establishment of his back-country Delaware parish, had there been a man of the Book so gentle, and so kind. Yet this outward softness was reinforced by an iron mandate, an unshakeable devotion to his calling, and to his parishioners, that laid low the ill intentions of the faithless and the casual doubt of the folks in mind to skip a Sunday, known by a mere glance at his evergreen eyes.

They were like misty pines, stacked in the deep recesses of his skull. The Reverend was not a handsome man, but his straight back and outward gentleness, the inner forge behind those eyes, lent him an authoritative air that in any less compassionate soul would be devilish to behold. In the Reverend, his grace tempered his fearsomeness, like a lion come to lay peaceably with lambs.

And though his long years at the seminary had honed his knowledge of the words and the sacraments to a fine, mellifluous point, they could not erase entirely the one vice, in his otherwise tempered life, that so blackened his forthright soul. Reverend Placid loved to bowl.

Reverend Placid loved to bowl so much that he would, in the dead of night, wrap himself up in the nuns’ habits until he resembled a svelte pilgrim from Araby, swollen aba black and white as a zebra, and creep, steal, crawl, scamper to the furthest bawdy hall he could reach in one night. The Reverend was abstemious in all other things; women, strong drink, profane language did nary stain his lips with their sinful releases. It was the slip of the heavy ball beneath his outstretched fingers, the crack of the pins on the autumnally leaf-speckled dirt, and the thrill, the motion of the crowds about him, who wagered money on the mysterious monk from Araby, who clapped him on his massive shoulders at every strike and well tidied spare, that swooped low over his iron soul and refreshed it with the breath of release. Each elision of the pins was like a harsh flagellation aimed outward at the roots of the world, every graceful twist of his wrist the smooth divestment of his earthly mantle, to damnation. But O! to see the pins fly, to hear the drunken, silly crowd roar for the ushers to rerack them. All night.

Reverend Placid woke each morning with a guilt heavy enough to squeeze the bellows in his body’s mighty forge. The flames licked his words and gave proof to his parishioners of Hell’s great fury; behind his wooden teeth the great pit opened wide to receive their souls, in pitiless excoriation of vices great and small. Fire, fire and brimstone. But fire and brimstone alone were not unique to the Reverend’s pulpit. No, it was what came afterward, what the back-country Delaware parish esteemed him for, even, moving forward into the colonial generations, loved him for.

At the end of each sermon, as his admonitions crested and rolled back in malignant susurrus, came his epilogue. Always written anew and yet rhythmically recurrent, his sermon’s tail pled for hope. He extolled once more the virtues his prior exclamations demanded, with compassion. The admonitions ceased, and from his lips grew a tangled but vibrant vine, wrapping his parishioners in its growing struggle for the light. Toward heaven’s light the vine crept, and his heart opened to them, letting them, so very briefly, into the blighted intentions that tore his heart in twain, one way to peace, elsewise to misery, a heart so like their own there seemed no difference at all. The Reverend pled for mercy and that peace, a single unfettered day wherein right might triumph over want, and want submerged into the goodness that surely lay in even the oiliest sinner’s soul.

The Reverend preached that benediction every Sunday until his death.

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