FLAVOR: small-town miracle
"A HELPING HAND"
It was a small town, outside the big city. If you squinted while you drove by in your automobile, you might just miss it. But the people about town didn't seem to mind. Simple as their lives were, they seemed in part of a larger secret that the city-folk had forgotten—
But Reverend Thomas, aged 46, was at a loss. His was a gentle soul, above such material considerations as the loss of wealth, or of poverty. No, his loss was of the greater kind—of spiritual poverty.
For some mornings ago a friend had placed in his care a large sum of money, entrusted it to his service. And now that sum of money is missing. Stolen from the last place he would've expected, where he thought his faith would be least misplaced—behind the unlocked double-wooden doors of his own Church.
It is not so much a shock of crime, as a shock of precedence. It was a small town, a small community. For generations now, front-doors were left unlocked; the car windows were rolled down in public parking lots on sunny afternoons. Neighbors trusted one another, known each other and their children, their favorite hobbies, TV shows, and the names of their dogs.
The Reverend paced back and forth in his study.
He was reluctant to make the call—and still, he knew he must.
"Hello? Dean?" he asked tentatively, as the line connected.
"Good mornin', Reverend!" Dean replied, on the other line. "To what do I owe the occasion?"
Reverend Thomas shook his head. "I'm sorry, Dean," he explained. "I must ask you to come see me immediately. It is regarding the generous holiday donation you made, last Thursday."
Dean sounded puzzled. But, with the nonchalance of an old acquaintance, he said, "All righ' then. See you in twenty, at the Church."
When Dean arrived, the Reverend walked his friend into his study, then pointed at the foot of the table. "That's where I kept it, Dean," said the Reverend. "That's where it's always been, until this morning. I thought I was just going senile when I found the study-door unlocked this morning, but someone was definitely here last night..."
Dean was silent, scratching his head.
"I'm sorry to have to ask, but did you tell anyone about the money beforehand?"
"Well," Dean said thoughtfully. "I did tell a couple of my buddies... Let's see. Four, to be exact. But you don't suppose—?"
"I pray not, my friend. But the fact is, the safe is missing. And I don't know how else anyone could have known..."
He placed his hands by his hips, shifted a little to the left, then right, uncomfortably. Finally he said: "Aw, forget about it, Rev. Let sleeping dogs lie, I suppose. If someone took it from here, they must've needed it real bad."
The Reverend looked at the thick, grey worn edges of Dean's worker-fingers; the hands that laid bricks and mounted beams in earnest, pushed carts and barrels and built treehouses for the kids—
"It's not about incriminating your friends," said the Reverend gently. "Or even about you, my friend. It's about the spirit of community. That's what I feel is at stake here."
"Well..." said Dean.
Reluctantly, he gave the Reverend four names.
The Reverend was sorry to recognize all of them, as regular church-attenders.
"I'll think of something," said the Reverend, placing a hand on Dean's shoulder. "Trust that I will handle this as discreetly and thoughtfully as I can. You have my word."
The two men parted ways.
For three consecutive days, the Reverend pondered over the matter. He wasn't sure there was anything he could do. But somehow he felt it was his duty, his obligation, to at least try—for the injustice that he himself felt partially to blame for the sullied trust of a hardworking, decent man, but, more importantly, for the sake of faith itself—
Yet, at a loss of ideas, he spent hours peering up, at the cross—praying for inspiration, for guidance. Then, quite unexpectedly, as he walked outside the double-wooden doors on the fourth day for a breath of fresh air, he saw, looking up, the church-bell overhead—
And was struck with a marvelous idea.
He borrowed a place-ladder, climbed up, unhooked the bell from its steeple, carried it down, and placed it beside his table. Then he got home and got ready for bed, after preparing for the sermon on Sunday.
The church-goers arrived and gathered.
"Good morning, everyone," began the Reverend on the pulpit. "As you see," he swept his open palms to the left and right—"we are currently undergoing some maintenance." He indicated the boarded windows. "Please excuse our appearance."
The sermon carried on, as usual—no more or less enthusiastic than was typically expected. But when it was over, and as the crowd began to stand and shuffle out, the Reverend called, "Nathan, Wayne, Tony, Jerome... Can I speak with you fellows for a moment?"
The four men looked at each other, shrugged.
As the others walked out, the Reverend closed the doors behind them. The inside of the Church suddenly became dark and gloomy.
The Reverend began:
"I'm not sure if you fellows have heard, but the Church was recently robbed, and the work that needs to be done could use a few extra able hands..."
"Of course, Reverend."
"What do you need?"
"Well," The Reverend continued. "Right now, just one thing..." He looked from one face, to the other. "I need you all to help me find the culprit."
He studied the stunned faces, the blank stares, the looks of surprise.
"Sure, Reverend," said Tony, chuckling. "But what do you want us to do?"
The Reverend pointed toward his study.
"In there," he said, "is where the crime took place. I have removed the Church bell, and placed it on my table. Now," he continued sternly. "What you might not know is the bell is much older than the Church itself. In fact, it was blessed by a saint, more than two hundred years ago.
"And I've been told," the Reverend continued, "that if anyone of impure heart were to shake it, it would sound differently. Now, I don't know if this is just an old wives' tale," he chuckled, "but, what if it were true? How would I know otherwise?
"So I've asked you fellows here to test it for me. I thought I'd ask each of you honest gentlemen to give it a shake, just to help me check the consistency of the sound."
The four men looked to one another, puzzled, in disbelief.
"I know, I know," said the Reverend. "It's silly, right? But since you all so generously agreed to help, I hope you can help settle this superstition of mine. It'd spare me some sleep, and save me some embarrassment."
Somewhat reluctantly, the four men agreed.
"So what do we do?" asked Wayne. "We just go in, and give it a shake?"
"Yes, but please be careful walking inside—the lights are still being changed, and it is dark. Also, to protect the purity of the bell," he pointed to the stone basin next to him, "I've set a basin of holy water next to it. Please rinse your hands before touching the bell—otherwise it won't work."
"Well, all right..."
The first man walked inside.
He squinted his eyes to see through the dim, candle-lit study. Found the table with the bell on it, and the basin next to it. Obediently, he rinsed his hands.
Outside, the others heard the bright peal of the metal bell.
The first man stepped out. The second entered.
The others waited.
Then the third.
At last the fourth.
When the fourth man returned, a look of relief on his face, the Reverend smiled and gathered the fellows about in a circle. Then he went behind and opened the doors, letting in a bright blast of Sunday afternoon—
"Guess you can try it with everyone else in town, Reverend," said Jerome.
The Reverend pointed at the men, and their clothes. Three sets of trousers were stained down the sides of the legs. The last pair was completely clean.
The Reverend reached forward his hand, and flipped over the bottom of the shirt on the owner with the clean pants. It was stained inside.
Then the men noticed something else.
All their hands, too, were stained black, except for one man's.
"Do you have anything to say for yourself, my son?"
The man flipped his hands over and again, examining them. Then, the others. "What is the meaning of this...?" he said.
The Reverend explained:
"The basin in the study is filled with ink, not holy-water. I purposely left out nothing to dry your hands with. So it was instinctive for a law-abiding man to wipe his hands on his trousers, then handle the bell. But for someone with something to hide—"the others turned to face the culprit—"he just might be superstitious enough to avoid touching the bell red-handed. In which case, he would avoid the basin and ring the bell holding it by the edges of his shirt."
The culprit looked down guiltily.
"Needless to say," the Reverend continued. "If you need proof, we are sure to find that the handprints on the bell inside will match every one of you here, except yours. If I am wrong, I can leave you to explain why that is to the rest of the Church next Sunday."
"I'm... I'm so sorry, Reverend..."
The Reverend and the four men reached an agreement. In return for the money, what had transpired will forever remain a secret with them alone. But one aspect of this story will remain a mystery, and a secret to the Reverend alone. For when he returned to the study later that afternoon, turned on the lights and prepared to wash the ink off the bell with a clean cloth, he noticed something most peculiar—
"My word," he exclaimed.
He counted again.
There, on the surface, were the handprints of seven hands. The extra distinct hand, the Reverend noticed, had an uncanny hole in the middle of it.