The atheist

Bless me, Father. I encountered today on the road a man utterly strange, who spoke of things in which a Christian man can scarcely believe, nor indeed in the things that he showed me before my face. Perhaps he was lying to both my ears and eyes, since the devil is the father of lies, perhaps there was wickedness and heresy wrapped up in his sayings. Nevertheless as a Christian yeoman I must honestly recount the truth of that which I saw and heard, concealing nothing from you or from any other, so help me God.

I came upon him as I walked along the road beside Wilson’s field, in a place remote but not desolate, perhaps a mile from the village of Twyford. It would be a lie to say it was a man that I came upon, but it was instead a large trunk or box of iron, painted red and sitting upon tiny wheels, but with not a horse in sight. The man sat within it grasping a wheel seeming to be of ebony or other painted wood, and he looked complacently at me. The carriage was surrounded almost entirely by a huge window, of tremendous size and cost so that everything within was clearly visible. This sliding down as if by magic with a whirring sound like the turning of a spinning wheel, he spoke to me in a tongue like my own but strangely altered as if to be almost unintelligible, and yet with effort and from his gestures I could understand him.

This man appeared to be neither fiend nor angel, nor a strange beast, but truly a man. His hose was slack like the skin of an old man and his tunic was of fine cloth, so fine that I feared for his health in the cold. He sat on a throne of velvet within the carriage, and there were indeed three other thrones therein, but they were empty. So strange was his raiment and his manner that he seemed to come from a far-flung place, though when I asked him if this were true, he denied it. These are his words, or my understanding of their brute meaning:

First he said that the road was shitten. I was offended at this, since it is the good road to the sea, and told him that if he wished to see it shitten, he should return in spring. Still he insisted that it was shitten and I said it was the king’s road and asked where was his horse. He laughed at this and said there were horses enough within the box and patted his wheel of ebony. He knew of no king but only a queen reigning over the land, which he called the Youkay, but he also knew that it was England. Yet he fears not this queen, and says that no-one fears her since she wields neither sword for the nobleman nor gallows for the commoner. It seemed that he feared neither man nor God, as a man gone mad. He thought my clothing strange and my language quaint, although I speak as well as any other.

He knew the Holy Catholic Church but spoke about it most strangely. There is in every town a church and in every church a priest and mass is said on Sunday, but few people hear it. In this neglect they have no fear for their souls, since they either believe there is no God or expect no retribution for it. He said there are many churches in his village, so I asked how the village had become so rich. He countered that it was not because of the riches of the village, but the variety of churches, since in one the people would hear Mass while another they would hear only readings from the Holy Scriptures and sing psalms.

Hearing this my stomach turned to ice, having no doubt that it was the heresy of Albi or some other devilry, I made the sign of the cross and was on the point of flight, but grasping my arm he motioned for me to stay. It mattered not, he said, that there were many churches, since most people did not attend, but only played at football. This seemed to me strange, not fearsome but amusing. A game with a ball that a man could kick I could imagine well enough and it seemed harmless or perhaps fine sport. Those who did not play football, said the man, instead watched television, but few went to church, although there were so many to go to.

I know the Latin of the Mass and plain English, and this foreign word television is neither one nor the other, so I demanded an explanation. His words I cannot remember, but the kernel of them was thus: it is a window made of glass, with behind it a magic box, which every man keeps in his house, or sometimes two or three such. Without spell or incantation, with no sorcery or heresy but with only a spark that flows along a rope or string, this window springs to life. Through it events are seen at the moment when they take place, in far off places in the world. Or fantasies that have never been are conjured there from nothing, as in a passion play or a woman’s tale. The image in the window is then clear and bright and sounds come from it, so that even the faces of people can be seen and their voices understood.

I asked the man whether he had such a magic thing and whether it was permitted to him as a Christian, and what the priest said of it. He responded that the priest in his village had such a one also in his own house, for he had seen it there with his own eyes, when he had visited him. It burdened me to know what this servant  of Christ would wish to see in such a devilish thing of magic, but the man assured me that he had seen the priest watching men playing at football, in France across the sea. I wondered greatly at this and said why could not the priest watch the men playing football in the village. He said those in France were more skilled at it and seemed much amused at this. He was amused also that I even asked about the priest and about the church, saying that to him football was a much more weighty thing, and he showed no dread when he said it.

The same man then pulled from a pocket of his tunic a black thing as if of wood like the wheel before him, smaller than the smallest prayer-book, and squeezed it between his fingers. At that moment a light shone on the face of it and it made the sound of a viol and a harp. The light faded and the man touched first this shape and that, and I saw words thereon, with letters of black in a sharp and ungainly script. At once a woman appeared in its window, fair and beautiful but as tiny as a mouse, laughing and talking as if she were alive, together it seemed with her husband. I called out to her but she could not hear me. Then she and her husband were gone and a vision appeared therein of a seashore such as I have seen at Portsmouth, and there again was the same woman, naked save only her undergarments, and she ran into the sea. Again she heard me not when I called, although I could hear the sound of the waves. For her modesty I covered the window of the thing with my handkerchief and bade the man extinguish it, which he did, perceiving my distress, and he only smiled.

He then told me many things which I wondered if they could be lies, as when he claimed that he had flown on a machine of iron to a land across the Western sea of which no traveller has ever told. Afterwards he showed me money from his pocket, not of gold or silver but of something like parchment; a flimsy thing it appeared to my eyes, a mere leaf, like to be destroyed if it should fall in a puddle, nevertheless money he assured me it was. And suddenly he departed, his carriage making a great roar and rolling away faster than the flight of a sparrow across the sky.

I know not whether I saw him truly or only a vision, and I know not whether he lied or spoke truly, but upon the precious Blood I speak only of what I saw and heard. I was not persuaded by his words when he said there is no God and nothing at all in the world save football and maidens in their undergarments behind the window of his psalter and dancing on the television. I vow that this strange apparition has in nothing changed my intention, as a good yeoman of England, until my last breath to avoid every heresy and always to remain faithful to the Holy Catholic Faith. I have nothing more to confess.

© tyrannyofthepresent 2012

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