Jacob crossed the threshold into St. Jude’s and stepped into another world. There was a palpable mystery and wonder to the place that transcended its well-crafted interior. He walked along the glazed concrete floor, taking in the spacious interior of the tavern. The table tops were made of the same warm glazed concrete as the floor, and large, stained oak booths wrapped around the walls of the tavern. The patina copper ceiling panels ran parallel to the exposed oak joists, giving him the sense that he was under a pale blue sky. Next to the staircase that led up to the second story patio was a large stage, with local musicians doing a sound-check before their performance began. He walked up to the grey-green soapstone bar at the back of the dining room, and approached a young woman with jet black hair and gray .
“Hi there, I’m supposed to meet up with Daniel at some round-table meeting he is having tonight. I was hoping you could help me find him.”
“Jacob Brandt,” said the young woman,
“Is that you Makrina?”
“Yep,” she said with a smile that seemed to light up the entire bar, “I don’t think I’ve seen you in twenty years! Well, how are you Jacob?”
“I am doing all right, just trying to get settled in before getting to work here,” said Jacob, “How about you?”
“I can’t complain. Well, actually I can, but I won’t bother you with the details of running this place. I’m assuming you’re here for Dad’s little group. He said he has a new story for them tonight. Can I get you something to drink while I track him down?”
“Sure Mak, I’m not sure what you have, so pour me up something you think would be good.”
“Beer or wine?” she asked, “We don’t pour liquor here.”
“Then what’s that empty bottle of Louis XIII doing on the back wall?” asked Jacob.
Mak responded with a distant look in her eyes, “That’s Mom and Dad’s. Maybe they’ll tell you about it someday. So, what’ll it be?”
“Beer will be fine.”
St. Jude’s had over one hundred beers on taps. The craft brewing industry in Southern California seemed to be one of the few business segments that performed well even after Doomsday. Some of the breweries, such as Stone and Ballast Point, had grown from small independent houses into massive international brands. The foreign soldiers in Jacob’s NATO company were always envious when they learned that he hailed from San Diego, and had often planned on making a trips out after the war was over to sample some of the finer beers of the region. Mak brought Jacob a pint of grapefruit IPA that was one of the more delicious he had tasted.
“Dad said to hang tight, he’s in his office taking care of an issue with one of the line cooks.”
Jacob and Mak caught up over the next forty-five minutes while she tended the bar. She asked him about his family, which he tried to answer tactfully without divulging too much information. He showed her pictures of Sophie and the kids. She asked him how his parents were. Jacob let her know that he still didn’t have much to do with his dad, and that his mom was usually jet-setting around the world doing non-profit work for relief organizations. He asked Mak if she had managed to settle down yet. Mak laughed at this, she had remained single into her thirties and had no inclination to change her status at this point in her life. She had inherited her mother’s independent streak, and couldn’t imagine herself in a relationship that would slow her down. Jacob was amused at her toughness and quick wit, thinking about how eerily similar she was to Malachi.
Eventually Daniel made his way out of his office in the back of the house, joining Jacob at the bar with a plate of food about fifteen minutes before nine. After scarfing down a quick dinner and catching up with Jacob about his thoughts on Chaparral so far, the two men made their way upstairs to the private room where Daniel’s round-table discussion was being held.
On their way to the room upstairs Jacob asked, “Daniel, what’s up with the sign at the entrance?”
Daniel smiled as he led his young friend up the stairs, “The Damned May Enter? I thought it added a nice touch to the tavern; made it into the place it has always been in my mind.”
“And what is that, exactly?”
“A place for sinners and saints, alike,” answered Daniel.
“Yeah, but what does it mean?” asked Jacob.
“Maybe you’ll get a better sense of that when I tell the little tale I was writing while we were on the train ride out here,” said Daniel.
The room was next to the covered patio that took up most of the second story, its French door entrance had matching Huguenot crosses etched into the glass panes. The interior walls were paneled with the same stained oak that was used for the downstairs booths. In the center of the room was a large round table that measured over twelve feet in diameter.
“It looks like a pretty thin crowd tonight,” said Daniel, as he looked around at the half-dozen or so guests around the table.
“Well, look who the cat dragged in,” said a large, cigar-chomping man with a slow southern drawl.
“How are you, Henry?”
“I am well, my old friend. Now who is this miscreant you’ve brought with you?”
“Jacob Brandt, sir,” answered Jacob extending his hand out to the large southerner, “I’ve taken the RRD post here in Chaparral, and will be starting next week.”
“Hank Lewis,” said the man as he shook Jacob’s hand.
“Henry has come up from San Diego; he’s a columnist for the Recorder,” said Daniel.
Daniel then introduced Jacob to the other round table members. He went around the table, meeting the guests. Reverend Karl Torrance and Julian, Angus Campbell, the Alderman of French Valley just a few miles to the north of Chaparral, Zeph Hartmann, a local engineer, Father Anselmo, priest at St. Michael’s parish in Murrieta, and Father Gregory, priest at St. Basil’s, a Greek Orthodox church in Oceanside and all rose to meet Jacob and exchange pleasantries.
“Well, Brandt, how did you happen upon the RRD position?” Hank asked.
“I was in the Army, and after my service ended there, I was recommended for the position.”
“I see,” said Hank, “So you were a soldier?”
“Yes, I was a captain, most recently in the NATO 1st Joint Special Forces Brigade before I was discharged after being wounded at Gdynia.”
A hushed silence fell over the room and lingered for a moment. The horrors of the NATO retreat at Gdynia were well-known.
“And your opinion on the war?” asked Hank.
“I don’t think that human stupidity has been on a more full display since the first World War. It has been a colossal waste of human life and wealth over matters that should have been resolved diplomatically years ago.”
“I like him,” Hank announced to the group, “I suppose he won’t lower the collective intelligence of this gathering too much.”
Jacob wasn’t quite sure why, but he felt as if Hank’s stamp of approval had some meaning to it. Hank reminded him of some of the spit-tough men he served with in the military who gave him some hope that there was goodness in humanity, in spite of the catastrophic hubris that lead to the war.
“Well, thank you, Hank,” said Jacob, “I am curious… what brings a trouble-maker like you to Daniel’s table?”
Hank let out a roaring laugh, along with others around the table, “You’ve seen the sign on the entrance of the bar, haven’t you?”
“I don’t see how anyone could miss it,” said Jacob.
“Well DeVaux put it up with the express purpose of inviting me,” Hank confidently asserted.
“Indeed, I did, Henry,” said Daniel.
“So when are we going to hear this story you brought us all here to talk about?” asked Hank.
“I’ll get to it as soon as the coffee is done brewing,” said Daniel.
As the group waited on Daniel, they conversed about the war and local matters. Alderman Campbell approached Jacob in the back of the room at the private bar where he was pouring a beer.
“I’m glad to hear that the RRD has placed an agent in the region,” said the Alderman. Jacob was taken aback by his thick Scottish brogue. Sensing Jacob’s astonishment, Campbell asked, “What’s the matter son, never seen a black Scotsman?”
Alderman Campbell was a mountain of a man, nearly six and a half feet tall, barrel-chested, legs as sturdy as old oak, midnight skin, a bald head and a bushy white goatee sans mustache. The most remarkable thing about this staggering figure was his hands; massive, powerful hands that had obviously seen brawls and hard labor. The first thing Jacob thought was that John Henry himself had stepped out of legend to challenge the steam engine to a rematch.
“I must confess,” answered Jacob, “I can’t say that I have.”
“Well, there aren’t many of us,” said Campbell, “I must tell you, I am glad to see that the RRD has sent us someone with military experience. I was hoping to meet up with you soon to see how we might work together on some of the problems we’re confronting in the valley. I was thinking you could meet me over at the French Valley Café. Do you have any plans tomorrow?”
“Not really,” said Jacob, “so I am definitely free to meet with you. The only issue I have is transportation. The RRD is supposed to be dropping off a car and a motorcycle for me sometime early next week.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said Campbell as he turned back toward the table and got the attention of Zeph Hartmann, “Hey. Zeph, do you have time to give Captain Brandt a ride up to French Valley in the morning?”
“Sure,” answered Zeph, “How does 5 A.M. sound?
“Sounds good,” said Jacob, “Where should we meet?”
“How about here out in front of the Tavern?”
“All right, five it is.”
As Jacob was finishing his conversation, Daniel let his guests know that the coffee was finished and that he was ready to tell his tale. He told his interlocutors that he had been re-reading Homer over the past few months, alongside his reading of the Cappadocian Fathers from the post-Nicene church. A flash of inspiration came to him while he read and be began working on a story during all the free time he had on the train ride out from Chicago.
Daniel cleared his throat and said, “Forgive me if this story sounds a bit Homeric, but I was steeped in the world and words of the old Bard. I call this little piece ‘The Harrowing of Hell’
The once murky waters of the River Lethe now ran crimson as they lurched along its banks where a willow tree rose and drooped in the languid air of death’s dark kingdom. The branches of the tree bowed down toward the waters gliding beneath them in a fruitless effort to forget why they should cast deeper shade in a land bound by shadows. Memories of the world above hovered over the winding river valley like an amnesiac mist in the last gray moments of twilight. A silent groan filled the wilderness of Hades. All was overwrought with drab lichen on the ruins of ancient stone towers; cobwebs and gossamers on bare tree limbs caught the ashes falling from the pallid sky. The only thing out of place in the halls of the dead since time immemorial was the muted splashes of a silent, mesmerized multitude crossing the bloody banks at a shallow bend of the Lethe near the horizon. Mournful echoes of a nearby owl punctuated the soundless landscape, as Achilles and Hector sat beneath the branches of the willow. Both heroes were listlessly poking at the ground beneath them with their bronze swords as they discussed what had transpired earlier that day.
Hector glanced at Achilles and returned a blank gaze to the river and said, “My heart is with Troy, dear brother. My soul still pines for the that blow across the plains of Ilium where the Scamander flows. Though this Carpenter claims to be a King who holds the keys to death and hell, I cannot trust him. If he be God and man as he claims, then he, even more than you or crafty Odysseus, is to blame for the fall of my beloved home because he did not stop it. You may cross the River Lethe that now flows with his blood and have your many sins forgotten, but I have made up my mind. I will remain here in my virtue and savor the sorrow of Troy’s memory. Let God have his city, I have mine. That vanquished Troy lived but once is enough for me.”
“Brother,” pleaded Achilles, “Have we not heard the echoes about this king for ages among the dead who have joined us? Yet today, at the very end of the age he has descended to us to proclaim his victory. You saw the Lethe turn to a river of his own cleansing blood when his feet touched these waters. All we must do is wade across the Lethe that meanders along these shadowed moors and follow him across the bridge he wrought over the unassailable chasm between us and Elysium. He has given us safe passage over the fiery waters of River Phlegethon that furrows ever deeper into that gorge. You and I watched millennia ago when the righteous souls who stood in Elysium alongside faith’s great Patriarch were snatched out of the underworld. Now we know where they disappeared to! He has made a way for us to lay hold of the same faith, to be numbered among Abraham’s blessed company. Why would you not go?”
“I was a virtuous man in life. Why should I now need the righteousness this Carpenter offers?”
Achilles spat on the ground near where Hector sat, “Damn your virtue brother! Oh, how you have loved it, and how it has destroyed you. I had little virtue in life, many of my days were spent in petulant vanity, but at least I sought immortality. I knew my days on earth could never afford me the glory I longed for. The gates of death are destroyed and s open to us. Still, you mourn for the Scaean gates that time will forget. The Trojans, the Myrmidons, and all the Achaeans with them, dead. Yet this Carpenter King, Son of Man and Son of God offers life and you would refuse it.”
“I gave you my answer,” said Hector as his voice fell hollow, “I have my city, let him have his.”
With fury and tears. Achilles rose to his feet and grabbed Hector’s breastplate by the openings at the shoulders and the great Trojan to his feet, pinning him to the trunk of the willow, “Through these long ages we have been brothers in blood and death. I sent you here, only to follow soon after. All we have known is the sorrow of memory since. Brother, I beg you, come! Come with me, before the bridge over Phlegethon is removed and your only path to Paradise will lead you through its fire.”
Hector placed his hand on his brother’s golden hair and whispered softly, “I can’t,” then his eyes welled up with tears and anger as he shook and resolutely declared, “I won’t.”
Achilles wept. He tenderly kissed Hector’s forehead and bade him farewell. His love for the Trojan, great as it had grown since death claimed them, could not compel him to stay, knowing what and Who lay before him. His feet carried him onward toward the horizon where the last of the host of the dead were wading across the Lethe and traversing the moors toward Hades fiery horizon. As he looked ahead he saw the greater mass of humanity crossing the bridge over the fiery waters of the Phlegethon. He gave one more glance to the lonely souls, Hector’s included, who made the bitter choice to remain in Hades, even when Heaven itself was opened to them. Achilles held his brother in blood and death in the sacred grip of memory, knowing nothing is lost forever. He, when the crimson waters of the Lethe and the fires of Phlegethon mingle and purge all that men cling to that keep them from their Maker. As he crossed River Lethe, the pain and sorrow of the life and death that lay behind him were forgotten as he followed the Carpenter King to the light.
Silence filled the room long after Daniel finished his story. Each person present appeared to be lost in thought as they pondered the tale Daniel had woven. Hank drew slowly off of his cigar. Father Anselmo sat back in his chair with a cherubic smile drawn across his face. Reverend Torrance scratched at his brow. Jacob’s thoughts swirled in his mind as he began, at least in part, to understand what Daniel meant when he emblazoned the arresting sign above the entrance to his tavern. It occurred to him that to step into St. Jude’s was to take a stroll in Daniel’s mind, all of this aging man’s hopes and a lifetime of his thoughts were poured into his tavern. The place for sinners and saints alike embodied all that was precious to Daniel, and Jacob felt the weight of the invitation to such a strange and wonderful place.
“Does this mean that you believe in Purgatory?” asked Father Anselmo, breaking the silence.
“Well, Father, “Probably not the way Dante envisioned it. I thinking about how St. Peter describes Christ’s descent into Hell and reading Homer, like I said, and this story began to tell itself. If there’s a point to the tale it is that there is always hope, that even the damned may at last enter,” said Daniel.
“Even for agnostic hell-raisers?” asked Hank, at last bringing levity to the reflective room.
“Especially for you, Henry, my old friend, especially for you.”
“Do you think it’s true?” asked Reverend Torrance.
“I think it’s a parable of sorts,” said Daniel, “Perhaps it points to the truth, but whether it is true or isn’t is not for me to decide. Still, I trust beyond what I know that all shall be well.”
Father Gregory asked, “Daniel, are you sure you aren’t Orthodox?”
“Perhaps more than you think, but I am content to be a Presbyterian,” answered Daniel.
Jacob remained in silence even after conversation resumed, filled with an ineffable warmth. He thought of the men he fought and died with, the men he sent to the grave for no crime other than the flag they fought for, and felt hope in a way he had not before. The grist mill of prolonged combat had reduced his hopes for humanity to a flimsy powder that drifted away on the anarchic winds of war. However, some new and unfamiliar breath swirled about him seeking to find a way inside his hollow chest.