The Minister and the Girl.
Hey stranger, I have not seen you around here before. Are you a visitor? Sit down with me for a while, if you are not in a rush. Have you ever been to to Perfect Haven before? No?
Well then, let me introduce myself. The name's Glen. I used to own the hardware store around town here, before the big box stores came in and took over. Of course, this was years ago. Things were different back then. Very different.
Now, you look like you are still a young thing, at least compared to me! Believe it or not, but I am a 107 years old. Yes sir! I even got a certificate in a frame from our mayor when I turned 100, I did!
Now wait, don't go yet. Here, sit beside me, plenty of room on this old bench. Were you just filling up on gas? Where are you heading? I am sorry, I don't mean to be nosy.
Never hurts to take a break and relax for a while. What's that rule again: drive for two hours, then take a break? Humour an old man and just sit with me for a bit.
It's not often I get to enjoy new company.
So you are just passing through eh? Not much to stick around here for anyways. We have a gas station, that big grocery store and then of course there's our all-in-one bakery and coffee shop. They sell some damn good coffee there, I can tell you that!
It's a quiet town, our Perfect Haven. Although things have never been quite the same here after since that thing with Annie Bilkins. Of course you never heard of Annie Bilkins, now have you? Why, she was our local witch! Yes sir! At least, that is what some of the townspeople called her. I myself never believed that gossip. All them old church ladies yapping behind another women's back. You know what it's like. Or maybe you don't.
Not sure if you have a lot of church goers in those big cities these days. And you do look like a city person to me. Am I right?
Now, I can tell you are curious about that story about Annie Bilkins. How about I light up a cigarette and tell you some more about her? Do you have a light? No? I should have known. You young folks are all into those kale shakes and tofu burgers, am I right? Well, I do smoke and it got me this far and at 107 I think I can light one if I feel like it. And I damn well do, thank you very much. No offense of course!
Sit back and enjoy the last little bit of sun this season while I share with you the story about Annie, how does that sound?
This happened a long time ago. This was before that fancy internet thing, even before them phones you youngsters all use became so popular. It's like having a computer in your pocket, isn't it? I never bothered with them. Who would I call anyway? I never got married, don't have any kids I'd be calling. And most of my friends have passed away. Now that is the downside of being a 107 years old, I am telling you.
No, this happened way before that. This must have been in the late Fifties I think, but I am not entirely sure anymore. We did not have bobby socks and petticoats over here though. But I am getting distracted. Let me tell you about Annie Bilkins. Now there was a pretty girl, if there ever was. She was a ginger and she was a feisty girl, that one. Nobody would tell Annie what to do! And that of course was a slap in the face of all those church ladies, who would do nothing else but judge all the other women in this little town. Now, Annie's Daddy was the town's minister at the time and that didn't really help things. That man always struggled with his daughter, trying to teach her how to be a good christian woman and preparing for life as a married woman. Annie's Mama had died during child birth so it had been her and her Daddy for forever. He was a good man though and he loved his Annie a whole lot. Folks would say he indulged her too much and maybe he did and maybe he did not, I really couldn't say. The fact was that back in the day all the boys in this town were smitten with Annie and boy, did she know that! Now, Annie had eyes for no other boy than Russel Smith, mind you.
Russel was the son of the local repair man and worked in his Daddy's shop. They were not church going folk, so the idea of Russel hanging around Annie was not a comforting thought to her Daddy nor to the nosy Nellie's of the congregation.
You see, in a town this small, everybody gets involved in things that matter. Or don't matter; people get involved anyway. And the church ladies felt that the minister's daughter should be married to a good christian man. Did I already tell you that Annie was a feisty thing? I did, didn't I?
Annie loved to take long hikes up the hill, into the forest. She loved animals a lot, she did. See that path going up the hill there? That's where Annie liked to go. Now, those woods are big, with lots of wildlife in there. But Annie did not mind; she loved to be out there. Folks around here always thought it was inappropriate for that girl to go up there by herself, wandering in the woods, with her ginger hair loose over her shoulders and in her tight jeans or shorts. Most people figured that's where she'd meet Russel and spend time with him, if you catch my drift. Funny thing was that Annie spent a lot of time alone up there though, talking to trees and animals. I know, because I heard her do it. We used to go up there and do some hunting from time to time.
I'd seen her talk to trees, I did. I just figured that maybe she was a bit soft in the head, but rumours started to spread around town when more people heard those stories. People said that she might be talking to nature spirits or fairies. Now, I only know the tooth fairy so I never took that seriously, but I am telling you, a lot of people did. Of course a lot of the old church ladies were talking about that. Some suggested that she was a witch. They figured that if a person talks to trees, plants and animals so much she must either be feeble minded or involved in some sort of spirit communication. And the church ladies were convinced it was not the holy spirit that Annie would meet up there.
Now, I can tell by the way you raise that eyebrow that you think I am making this up, or that we were all a bit feeble minded ourselves for thinking like that. But you see my friend, this sort of thing can happen in a small town. Maybe in the big city people talk to trees all the time, if you have any there. But here, people talk to people. And sometimes to themselves, when they are bored, or when they have a screw loose.
Anyway, Annie Daddy started hearing those rumours and he got really concerned about it. You see, it was really important for him to keep his people coming to his church. Now don't forget that was the way this man made an honest living. The minister talked to Annie and asked her what was going on. His daughter explained she loved nature and that she believed all of nature has a spirit. These days that may be normal talk but back then it was a bit of the beaten track. Annie's Daddy shushed her and said she shouldn't talk like that. After all, being the minister's daughter and all, she really should be an example to the rest of the towns people.
Annie said that she didn't understand what was so weird about her ideas. She asked her Daddy why it was okay to believe that god was actually 3 persons and that one of them was the holy spirit, but it was wrong to believe everything in nature has a spirit. Her Daddy said that the holy spirit was a good spirit but all other spirits were bad, they were all evil spirits. Annie said she did not believe that and her Daddy told her that the devil is the father of all lies and that he was starting to think that Annie was under his influence, believing all that nonsense. Annie answered that she did not believe the devil was actually evil. She said that she thought that he was only trying to help Eve in the garden of Eden and that maybe god was the evil one, for treating Adam and Eve so badly and for accusing all other humans born since then for being sinful and bad. She asked her Daddy how he could believe in a god that was all powerful but did not do anything to stop all the hurting in the world.
Of course, her Daddy got really upset. I mean, really upset. He decided right then and there that he would no longer indulge his daughter and that her wandering days were over. He started to wonder if all them church ladies had been right. He could not have his daughter questioning their faith like that. Annie's Daddy was afraid that she would make him look like a fool.
Hang on, will you? Let me get up and stretch my poor back for a second. When you are as old as I am, those wooden benches get a bit uncomfortable after a while. There,s that's better. Now, where was I?
Oh, right, Annie's Daddy decided to become much stricter with her. Now, at that time, he did not know about her and Russel, mind you. But once the rumour mill starts you cannot stop it anymore, now can you? Daddy gave Annie house arrest and locked her in her room. He left her with the good book in there and told her to study. He made her start at the first line at the first chapter and read it out loud to him. He figured that this would help his Annie understand the word of god better. Annie did read out loud, but it did not change her mind. If anything, it made her more determined she did not believe any of it. She told her Daddy so, too. That poor man did not know what to do. One night, after Annie had been grounded for a week, a spokesperson of the church ladies went to see the minister. They wanted to share their concerns with him and let him know that Annie had been meeting with Russel quite a few times in the woods. The ladies were convinced that they were involved in a secret relationship and that this needed to end.
Now don't look so surprised; I had already told you how everyone in this small town gets involved. Or rather, did. Because these days, things are different here. Nobody gets involved anymore, everybody minds their own business now. If only they had done that in the days of Annie Bilkins.
What was I saying again? Oh, right, the church ladies told Annie's Daddy about her amorous encounters with Russel, the repair man's boy. Now, the minister who was already at his wits end with his daughter, came to a boil. He demanded Annie told him the truth and she did. Yes, she was having relations with Russel. And no, he had not asked her to marry him. Not yet, anyway. The minister was shocked to find out his daughter was living such a sinful life. How would he ever be able to lead his flock when his daughter was setting such a poor example? When she was seeing spirits or talking to spirits and speaking in favour of the devil and sleeping with a man that was not her husband, not even her fiancee?
I know, I know, these days things are different. You youngsters can live together and nobody thinks it's wrong anymore. But in those days, in that small town anyway, things were different.
Then, one night, the minister let Annie out of her room. He said he wanted to talk with her. He said it was better if they would go on a nice, long walk and had a nice, long talk. He took her up that path up the hill, right there. Remember I pointed it out to you? That one, yes. They went up there and did not come back when twilight came, not even when night fell. That next morning, Sunday morning, the congregation met at church but the minister did not show up. All them church ladies were trying to figure out what could be going on. Of course, they went over to his house. Knocked on the door, peeked through the windows, but nothing could be seen and nobody answered the door. Well, that certainly fueled the fires of gossip, I can tell you that!
Two days later, the minister showed up again, looking all pale. The whole town flocked out, wanting to hear what had happened. According to Annie's Daddy, they had gone up the hill to talk, when Annie had slipped and fallen off a cliff. Her Daddy said he had climbed down but there was nothing he could do for her anymore. She was dead as a door nail. Our local sheriff set out to find the body and confirmed that Annie had fallen and had broken her neck. Such a sad ending for such a pretty girl, don't you think?
It would have ended right there, if not for that Russel fellow. He did not believe the minister's story. Said that Annie knew every stone, every crack, every cliff up there. She would not have been so stupid as to go close to one, let alone fall of it. He accused Annie's Daddy of pushing her off. Russel said that Annie had told her the same things she had told her Daddy. She had told Russell she did not believe in the bible anymore and that she did not care much for her Daddy's god. Told Russel she felt she was a free spirit and wanted to leave the church, leave her Daddy and leave Perfect Haven. She had also told Russel she was pregnant and that she did not want to have a baby, not yet. She wanted to go to the big city, have an abortion and find a job.
But Annie never got to leave Perfect Haven and her Daddy never was questioned. After all, he was the town's minister. Nobody of his congregation believed he was capable of killing his own daughter. But things did change. The minister started to drink and take long hikes up the hill, to wander the woods. More and more people left the congregation and the church started to fall apart. Five years after Annie's death, the minister drank himself to death. Some say it was because he could not get over the death of his daughter. Others said it was because of his guilt. Who knows? Could be true either way.
But I believe the real killer was the gossip, yes sir, I do. Annie was just a sweet, feisty 17 year old. She did not believe. And these days, there's plenty of people who don't. I believe you call them atheists. And then there's all them folks who believe in other stuff and these days, that's fine. But in this small town, so many years ago, it was a different world.
Well, I certainly enjoyed your company. Thank you for listening! The sun is almost gone and my old bones are getting sore. Best be getting home now. A good day to you.