1933. Autumnal leaves drifting about, Professor Iszkahngaard readied to deboard from his train. He was a small, quirky man. Some years ago retired from chairing the philosophy department of a respectable university into the more meager life of proprietorship to a modest shop of antiquities, where he moonlit as an inventor, as though age had claimed more and more of him physically his mind could never quite be slowed down. And while he was indeed well-traveled, this was a different journey to the at times demanding consultations in keeping with his ever-changing collections of curious artifacts and reliquaries and tomes of neglected voices. His interests were diverse, his appearance unobtrusive.
Seeing the young woman in the throng of persons coming and going in the Pennsylvanian station, he recalls his bittersweet memories. Rebecca had once been one of his most promising students, assisting in his classroom and working on her masters thesis before a scandal involving one of the junior professors shamed the poor girl into returning to her hometown. Settling as the school marm, she managed to lay new roots for herself just as the dust-bowl bin’s victimization clouded the dreams of Americans from sea to shining sea. From a tired and starving community, she had written a disturbing missive to Iszkahngaard on other matters entirely, urging his presence to assist with resolving a bizarre and most tragic series of events.
Her nephew and ward, Judas, had been lost for weeks in bed-ridden, feverish coma. He was the last child left in town. Stopping their shared carriage beside a behemoth of a weeping willow, a hundred pairs of tiny shoes dangling from strings tied together, she expands their talk from greetings to torrid matters indeed.
The year prior, the nearby though state-run TB hospital had burned to the ground in a lightning storm, leaving as sole employer in the town the coal mine. And when its investors had abruptly shut it down but a few months later following the past holiday season, the mayor vanished, presumably from fear of riots although the mass of his bookkeeping as well proved lost to the locals. In the long months since, the duties of his office had been split between sheriff Ratzinger, a barrel-chested tower of a foul cigar, and his elder brother, the parson Joel. The men of the town, aside from a handful of small farms, had gradually moved to work the competing mines to the north, compelled from growing desperation into working away from home for weeks or months on end and for a diminishing fraction of the pay. Some never returned. Over the course of these exasperated months of homes becoming lean and broken, the children of the town became something more than students for Rebecca.
And seemingly the only other adult to share her concerns was a stranger. He came into town one sun-savaged afternoon on foot, wearing a white t-shirt and denim pants and work boots, his hair slick with motor oil and the only thing in hand a time-beaten mouth-harp. Strangers would pass through from time to time, everyone looking for paying work, but this stranger would sit in one of the fields to engage the children with astonishing tales that kept their candles fired. And, unlike all the adults but poor Rebecca, he would listen. Quickly earning their trust not so much from the skill of his fanciful storytelling but from an eagerness of the children to find an ally, he listened to many troubling accounts, until one evening, no child came when called for supper. Late that night the townsfolk gathered, finding by torchlight multiple tracks leading off into the deep woods of the holler. Along the path miles outside of town, they found her nephew Judas panic-stricken and lost. Rebecca knew this much and more, from the delirious rantings of her nephew Judas, how the sheriff and his deputized townspeople questioned the boy. Saying that the stranger was leading all the boys and girls to the safest place, but that along the way he had known doubt and lost his footing. His accounting was interrupted by the stranger himself, who was immediately attacked by the sheriff’s men.
“Where are our children?” they shouted at him, stomping at him and beating him with sticks and stabbing him with pitchforks and preparing a noose about his neck. “They are waiting across the divide, for Judas to join them” he coughed, spitting blood between syllables as his body is pulled up into the air. The angry sheriff waited and waited, the men turning from anger themselves to begrudging fear, as a full hour passes yet the stranger still gasped, his eyes purest steel. The sheriff, emptying his rifle repeatedly into the dangling stranger’s torso, the man thrashing and kicking the very air as though to catch with his booted heels his own splaying drops of blood. Someone began throwing flaming bottles at the base of the tree, the entire starving thing going up like a pagan bonfire as the hung man twisted and turned, whistling his mouth-harp’s favorite hymn as the sheriff’s men turned themselves to run from this stranger who would not howl in pain, who refused to die until early morning light. The sheriff and Judas the only witnesses left to the piles of smoldering ash where once stood a tree from which a nameless man’s last smell was his own burning meat. The boy collapsed then, and to this day sleeps a restless sleep.
“It was our fault, it was our sin” said the parson Joel when Iszkahngaard paid him a visit. “That man who fended away death for a night of hell, he was not of this realm, but he was no devil. I know this because what I have done to the boys and girls of this town was the will of the devil. What my brother Ratzinger did to protect my perversions was the will of the devil. But that man who was beaten and hung, shot and burnt, he was the angel Raphael, surely come to render the reckoning I have cried for since the first little boy decades ago. I know all of this same as I know hell awaits every last one of us from this wretched, avenging world…”
Days later, Iszkahngaard, Rebecca and Judas ready to board their train. The boy had mysteriously awakened on Iszkahngaard’s third morning in town, evidently at the precise moment the sheriff’s own body was discovered with head splattering the desk of the mayor in bloody ruin and his finger still clutching the trigger. When eventually informed of the suicide, the parson Joel, by then in chains en route to a hanging garden, said only “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
Under the tutelage of Iszkahngaard, particularly in the troubled years which followed the sad death of Rebecca by cancer, Judas would think about these events often, prompting a true thirst for knowledge, for justice. He grew to become a cub reporter for the newspapers of New England, eventually learning the ways of the world and finding disgust with those ways of the world, where egos of church, of state and of industry can so easily make perversions of what’s black and white and thus destroy everything, and anyone. He learned that self-interest dependent on subjugating the wills of others was a codependent lie, that self-dependent people require no victims. That men and women have the choice to be responsible for what strengthens them, or responsible for what weakens them, but none may pass either responsibility on to others. Rising in notoriety with his passions, he busies himself with his obsessive quest of questions and answers until he misses the eventual funeral of Iszkahngaard altogether. All for weeding out corruption with such lust and wrath that, in light of his abrupt disappearance following the strange murder-suicide of a publisher and his wife, the publisher facing what would prove to be false allegations stirred up by the infamous reporter, his contemporary HL Mencken remarked of Judas “He is at once the angel and the devil of proper society, depending which side of the tracks you piss across. Although as much as he notoriously drinks, god bless the man, his affability with conscientious readers and charm with ladies in particular doing little to constrain his own burdened spirits, he would seem increasingly to be at once pissing on and pissing off those who believe in anything, anything at all.”
Under the pen-name of Rex Graine, the grown Judas never found his way from the deep woods of the holler, never breached the safest place, ever fearful of the once-glimpsed mystery yet choosing all the same to never again see the world through any eyes but those torch-lit recollections from a damaged child bearing witness to the cold-blooded murder of virtue.