“Ember Days” by Nick Fowler

Author Question:

I find the tradition of religion an abiding comfort. Ritual seems to give to the present the illusory grace of the past. Yet, as with every home, to what extent can ritual become a trap?


Before The Collapse—in an upstate New York hamlet called Trumansburg, nestled deep in a wooded valley—there was a tarn. On it drifted a black swan. This creature’s melancholy grace seemed ominous to the wives doing their chores in the yards behind the tidy brick houses that surrounded the tarn. These houses had been built low to the ground because the hamlet decreed no edifice should reach higher than the town’s church, which sat on a hill, overlooking the town. That is to say, God set the bar.

Reverend Calvin Lang was born and raised within the annex of this church. He descended from a long line of poor Episcopal ministers. After he grew up and began preaching to his own parishioners, he would often look out the window of the rectory and imagine these men, stretching back into the past, as if on the misty path behind the Sacrifice of Saint Sebastian. Sebastian twice gave up his life for his unwavering faith. This painting had hung on the wall of his father’s rectory. Gazing into this scene—blending these worlds—became Calvin’s first memory.

Calvin Lang feared his father. Or perhaps it was that he loved him. At any rate, Calvin wanted more than anything in this world to make his father proud. So when he turned eleven he left home to become an acolyte at the Northeast’s finest seminary in Corning, New York. Calvin was homesick and cried every night in his small, cold room. But he devoted himself wholly. There is that one long passage in a person’s life when he will obsessively endure anything to learn. And after seven years Calvin graduated early, with the highest distinction. Yet not on one of those nights, he reflected under a steel April sky on the train going home, had he prayed. Not even on the night of his dying father’s death a year earlier.

And herein lay Reverend Lang’s secret: he did not believe in God. As he settled back into his ancestral church and took over the pulpit, he grew covetous of this secret. Somehow he sensed it was the key to both his power and to his downfall.

“What a load of shit!” he heard himself yelp one morning, several years later, coming out of a nightmare. “I’ve built my own trap,” he whispered in terror. Panting, he looked up at the arched ceiling of the bedroom he now shared with his wife—a thin, nervous woman who lay snoring beside him. She had given him a strong, bright-eyed son who worshipfully followed his father about the church grounds as he performed his clerical tasks. Reverend Lang’s flock had also flourished. Yet more and more he’d grown to loathe himself for his secret, for his failure to believe. He considered this hypocrisy to be a defect within himself—a fundamental distrust—as if he could not get a joke at which the rest of the world was laughing. So he tried to laugh. He began making jokes at the pulpit. He took to slapping his knee. But his laughter was false. And then, in time, Reverend Lang stopped laughing.

In compensation, the Reverend assumed a quiet, cheerless manner. Throughout the church lacrosse championships, as the coach of the team, he stood frowning on the sidelines, even as his players hoisted him on their shoulders when they’d achieved the final game’s victory. His parishioners took his manner to be sign of his deep piety. And this made Calvin Lang hate them.

It was because of this paradox, this black lie burning within the heart beneath his white clerical collar—a lie that he more and more began to identify with the black swan—that Reverend Lang began to insult his parishioners. During coffee hour after one sermon during Lent, as he stood within a knot of his followers, the Reverend smiled viciously, then slapped a kindly fat woman’s hand as she reached for a cookie from a silver platter. The woman’s hand reddened as the Reverend went on to tell her that she deserved his slap because she did not need to eat a cookie, because she was really rather fat . . . because he was merely tempting her during the fast of Lent. Because she had failed the Temptation.

The other parishioners laughed raucously at the woman. As did the woman, herself. Awkward laughter, anguished laughter: the laughter of humiliation, the laughter of penance. Reverend Lang delivered these insults in a somehow at once comic and grievous manner, which was perfectly suited to his increasingly unctuous voice, not unlike that of a church organ’s.

As time went on, the more Reverend Lang insulted his congregation, the more they laughed, and the more they flocked to the Reverend. This he took to be a sign of the very reason they were attending church in the first place. Meaning that, on this note, he suspected that the fat woman’s very kindness was only a way to compensate for her fatness. And so, despite his hopes, the cruelty he lavished on his flock did not slake his hatred; rather it fanned its flame.

Another aspect of Reverend Lang’s self-loathing was his suspicion; he was growing unpleasantly suspicious. For instance, he suspected that had there been another church in his hamlet, his followers would instantly switch to it. That is, he suspected that because he was the only horse in this one-horse town—albeit a more and more bizarre horse who now bared his teeth during the increasingly vivid visions of damnation (satyrs, sodomy) he painted for his followers—his congregation’s devotion was only compulsory. In line with the devil’s logic that had come to rule his heart, Reverend Lang took advantage of this compulsion, taking more and more risks with his congregation. Part of this was simple sadism, but part of it was also an attempt to regain his respect for his parish, hoping they would challenge his malice and stand up to him. But they never did.

That is, not until the morning on which this recollection finds its climax.

In part because misery loves company, Reverend Lang began to suspect that not only did he not believe in God, but that nobody believed. As a way to test his theory, as well as to test the devotion of his parish, one Easter Sunday during his sermon, amid the incense and the tuneless chants of the evening Eucharist, he found that for the first time in his career he was at a loss for words. He looked around him, confused, lost, as if he’d stepped into the middle of an appallingly comic dream. The shabby pageant of it all! This empty box that man tried to fill with ideas. The plastic cross stained with fake blood, the cheap cooking wine. It was all so shameful, so childish. He cleared his throat, and it echoed through the church. Then, at last, he blurted out that perhaps there really was no God!

And still his parishioners laughed. It seemed he could do no wrong.

The next dawn, as the sun set over the valley, through the window of his rectory the Reverend gazed out upon those misted trails leading down into the tarn. There was that blasted black swan! And all at once a memory was delivered upon Calvin Lang, which he’d never before recalled. Calvin was very small, still not able to speak, sitting in his father’s lap at this very desk. His father wore only his underwear. On the desk sat his father’s Bible. On the flyleaf were written the names and phone numbers of several women in the parish. His father snickered, scrawling down some notation next to one of the woman’s names. When he saw his son looking, he shut the Bible swiftly, offering little Calvin a swig from a bottle of apple cider he’d distilled from one of his own tree. Calvin accepted. He remembered the sense of swallowing down something delicious and forbidden.

As the weeks passed Reverend Lang began to feel his congregation was so easily fooled only because they needed to be. And then one Sunday, after his service, almost in plain sight, he decided to do something that was not only unequivocally sinful, but that he felt certain would force his followers’ hand; from the piggybank that had always been kept on the desk he stole money from his very poor, very trusting congregation. And he was discovered when, after mass, tiptoeing through the ajar door of his office in hopes of some extramural penance, the fat lady caught the Reverend stealing red-handed. In tears she ran down the hill to the village, where she cried the news at the top of her lungs.

A few hours later, Reverend Lang’s adolescent son came home and found the church annex empty. The lean, handsome boy walked cautiously out into the backyard, where he saw a familiar shadow swinging across the lawn. He heard creaking. He looked up and saw his father, the Reverend Lang, with a belt around his neck, swinging from the highest bough of their apple tree. He was naked save his white cleric’s collar. From a note his father had left in the green grass beneath his dangling feet the son learned of the sin his father had committed. He learned his father had stolen from God. And, perhaps more notably, that he’d been caught.

His son cut down the rope and in hot shame carried his father in his arms out behind the church where he buried him in the loam. The son felt a desperate need to see the world right again. Far below him, in front of the setting sun, he saw the black swan gliding haughtily on the tarn. It seemed to him that the creature was in some way responsible for what had become of his father. Of the world. The boy picked up a stone, and with one savage throw killed the swan. As night fell the boy smelled the verdure far in the valley below him.

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