A WAR OF GIFTS (Chapter 1:SAINT NICK)
Zeck Morgan sat attentively on the front row of the little sanctuary of the Church of the Pure Christ in Eden, North Carolina. He did not fidget, though he had two itches, one on his foot and one on his eyebrow. He knew the eyebrow itch was from a fly that had landed there. The foot itch, too, probably, though he did not look down to see whether anything was crawling there.
He did not look out the windows at the falling snow. He did not glance to left or right, not even to glare at the parents of the crying baby in the row behind him--it was for others to judge whether it was more important for the parents to stay and hear the sermon, or leave and preserve the stillness of the meeting.
Zeck was the minister's son, and he knew his duty.
Reverend Habit Morgan stood at the small pulpit--really an old dictionary stand picked up at a library sale. No doubt the dictionary that had once rested on it had been replaced by a computer, just one more sign of the degradation of the human race, to worship the False God of Tamed Lightning. "They think because they have pulled the lightning from the sky and contained it in their machines they are gods now, or the friends of gods. Do they not know that the only thing written by lightning is fire? Yea, I say unto you, it is the fire of hell, and the gods they have befriended are devils!"
It had been one of Father's best sermons. He gave it when Zeck was three, but Zeck had not forgotten a word of it. Zeck did not forget a word of anything. As soon as he knew what words were, he remembered them.
But he did not tell Father that he remembered. Because when Mother realized that he could repeat whole sermons word for word, she told him, very quietly but very intensely, "This is a great gift that God has given you, Zeck. But you must not show it to anyone, because some might think it comes from Satan."
"Does it?" Zeck had asked. "Come from Satan?"
"Satan does not give good gifts," said Mother. "So it comes from God."
"Then why would anyone think it comes from Satan?"
Her forehead frowned, though her lips kept their smile. Her lips always smiled when she knew anyone was looking. It was her duty as the minister's wife to show that the pure Christian life made one happy.
"Some people are looking so hard to find Satan," she finally said, "that they see him even where he isn't."
Naturally, Zeck remembered this conversation word for word. So it was there in his mind when he was four, and Father said, "There are those who will tell you that a thing is from God, when it's really from the devil."
"They are deceived," said Father, "by their own desire. They wish the world were a better place, so they pretend that polluted things are pure, so they don't have to fear them."
Ever since then, Zeck had balanced these two conversations, for he knew that Mother was warning him about Father, and Father was warning him about Mother.
It was impossible to choose between them. He did not want to choose.
Still...he never let Father see his perfect memory. It was not a lie, however. If Father ever asked him to repeat a conversation or a sermon or anything at all, Zeck would do it, and honestly, showing that he knew it word for word. But Father did not ask anybody anything, except when he asked God.
Which he had just done. Standing there at the pulpit, glaring out at the congregation, Father said, "What about Santa Claus! Saint Nick! Is he the same thing as 'Old Nick'? Does he have anything to do with Christ? Is our worship pure, when we have this 'Old Saint Nick' in our hearts? Is he really jolly? Does he laugh because he knows he is leading our children down to hell?"
He glared around the congregation as if waiting for an answer. And finally someone gave the only answer that was appropriate for this point in the sermon:
"Brother Habit, we don't know. Would you ask God and tell us what he says?"
Whereupon Father roared out, "God in heaven! Thou knowest our question! Tell us thine answer! We thy children ask thee for bread, O Father! Do not give us a stone!"
Then he gripped the pulpit--the dictionary stand, which trembled under his hands--and continued glaring upward. Zeck knew that when Father looked upward like that, he did not see the roof beams or the ceiling above them. He was staring into heaven, demanding that all those hurrying angels get out of his way so his gaze could penetrate all the way to God and demand his attention, because it was his right. Ask and it shall be given, God had promised. Knock and it shall be opened! Well, Habit Morgan was knocking and asking, and it was time for God to open and give. God could not break his word--at least not when Habit Morgan was holding him to it.
But God took his own sweet time. Which was why Zeck was sitting there on the front row, with Mother and his three younger siblings beside him, all perched on chairs so wobbly they showed the slightest trace of movement. The other children were young, and their fidgets were forgiven. Zeck was determined to be pure, and his wobbly chair might have been made of stone for all the movement it made.
When Father stared into heaven this long it was a test. Maybe it was a test given by God, or maybe Father had already received his answer--received it perhaps the night before when he was writing this sermon--and so the test was from him. Either way, Zeck would pass this test as he passed all the tests laid before him.
The long minutes dragged. One itch would fade, only to be replaced by another. Father still stared into heaven. Zeck ignored the sweat trickling down his neck.
And behind him, somewhere among the seventy-three members of the congregation who had come today (Zeck hadn't counted them, he had only glanced, but as usual he immediately knew how many there were), someone shifted in his seat. Someone coughed. It was the moment Father--or God--had been waiting for.
Father's voice was only a whisper, but it carried through the room. "How can I hear the voice of the Holy Spirit when I am surrounded by impurity?"
Zeck thought of quoting back to him his own sermon, given two years ago, when Zeck was only just barely four. "Do you think that God cannot make his voice heard no matter what other noise is going on around you? If you are pure, then all the tumult of the world is silence compared to the voice of God." But Zeck knew that to quote this now would bring down the rod of chastisement. Father was not really asking a question. He was pointing out what everyone knew: that in all this congregation, only Habit Morgan was really, truly pure. That's why God's answers came to him, and only to him.
"Saint Nick is a mask!" roared Father. "Saint Nick is the false beard and the false laugh worn by the drunken servants of the God of frivolity. Dionysus is his name! Bacchus! Revelry and debauchery! Greed and covetousness are the gifts he instills in the hearts of our children! O God, save us from the Satan of Santa! Keep our children's eyes averted from his malicious, predatory gaze! Do not seat our children upon his lap to whisper their coveting into his stony ear! He is an idol of idolatry! God knows what spirit animates these idols and makes them laugh their ho, ho, whoredoms and abominations and braying jackassery!"
Father was in fine form. And now that he was bellowing the words of God, striding back and forth across the front of the sanctuary, Zeck could scratch the occasional itch, as long as he kept his gaze locked on Father's face.
For an hour Father went on, telling stories of children who put their faith in Santa Claus, and parents who lied to their children about Saint Nick and taught their children that all the stories of Christmas were myths--including the story of the Christ child. Telling stories of children who became atheists when Santa did not bring them the gifts they coveted most.
"Satan is a liar every time! When Santa puts a lie on the lips of parents, the seed of that lie is planted in the hearts of their children and when that seed comes to flower and bears fruit, the fruit of that lie is faithlessness. You do not deserve the trust of your children when you lie for Satan!"
Then his voice fell to a whisper. "Jolly old Saint Nicholas," he hissed. "Lean your ear this way. Don't you tell a single soul what I'm going to say." Then his voice roared out again. "Yes, your children whisper their secret desires to Satan and he will answer their prayers, not with the presents they seek, and certainly not with the presence of God Immanuel! No, he will answer their prayers with the ashes of sin in their mouths, with the poison of atheism and unbelief in the plasma of their blood. He will drive out the hemoglobin and replace it with hellish lust!"
And so on. And so on.
In Zeck's mind, the clock that kept perfect time went round the full forty minutes of the sermon. Father never repeated himself once, and yet he also never strayed from the single message. God's message was always brief, Father said, but it took him many words to translate the pure wisdom of the Lord's language into the poor English that mere mortals could understand.
And Father's sermons never ran over. He wrapped them up right in time. He was not a man who talked just to hear himself talk. He labored his labor and then he was done.
At the end of the sermon, there was a hymn and then Father called upon old Brother Verlin and told him that God had seen him today and made his heart pure enough to pray. Verlin rose to his feet weeping and could hardly get out the words of the prayer of blessing on the congregation, he was so moved at being chosen for the first time since he confessed selling an old car of his for nearly twice what it was worth, because the buyer had tempted him by offering even more for it. His sin was forgiven, more or less. That's what it meant, for Brother Habit to call on him to pray.
Then it was done. Zeck leapt to his feet and ran to his father and hugged him, as he always did, for it felt to him when such a sermon ended that some dust of light from heaven must linger still on Father's clothing, and if Zeck could embrace him tightly enough, it might rub off on him, so that he could begin to become pure. Because heaven knew he was not pure now.
Father loved him at such times. Father's hands were gentle on his hair, his shoulder, his back; there was no willow rod to draw blood out of his shirt.
"Look, son," said Father. "We have a stranger here in the House of the Lord."
Zeck pulled free to look at the door. Others had noticed the man, too, and stood looking at him, silent until Habit Morgan declared him to be friend or foe. The stranger wore a uniform, but it wasn't one that Zeck had seen before--not the sheriff or a deputy, not a fireman, not the state police.
"Welcome to the Church of the Pure Christ," said Father. "I'm sorry you didn't arrive for the sermon."
"I listened from outside," said the man. "I didn't want to interrupt."
"Then you did well," said Father, "for you heard the word of God, and yet you listened with humility."
"Are you Reverend Habit Morgan?" asked the man.
"I am," said Father, "except we have no titles among us except Brother and Sister. 'Reverend' suggests that I'm a certified minister, a hireling. No one certified me but God, for only God can teach his pure doctrine, and only God can name his ministers. Nor am I hired, for the servants of God are all equal in his sight, and must all obey the admonition of God to Adam, to earn his bread by the sweat of his face. I farm a plot of ground. I also drive a truck for United Parcel Service."
"Forgive me for using an unwelcome title," said the man. "In my ignorance, I meant only respect."
But Zeck was a keen observer of human beings, and it seemed to him that the man had already known how Father felt about the title "reverend," and he had used it deliberately.
This was wrong. This was a pollution of the sanctuary.
Zeck ran from Father to stand a few feet in front of the man.
"If you tell the truth right now," Zeck said boldly, fearing nothing that this man could do to him, "God will forgive you for your lie and the sanctuary will be purified again."
The congregation gasped. Not in surprise or dismay; they assumed that it was God speaking through him at times like this, though Zeck never claimed any such thing. He denied that God ever spoke through him, and beyond that he could not control what they believed.
"What lie was that?" asked the man, amused.
"You know all about us," said Zeck. "You've studied our beliefs. You've studied everything about Father. You know that it's an offense to call him 'reverend.' You did it on purpose, and now you're lying to pretend you meant respect."
"You're correct," said the man, still amused. "But what possible difference does it make?"
"It must have made a difference to you," said Zeck, "or you wouldn't have bothered to lie."
By now Father stood behind him, and his hand on Zeck's head told him he had said enough and it was Father's turn now.
"Out of the mouths of babes," said Father to the stranger. "You've come to us with a lie on your lips, one which even a child could detect. Why are you here, and who sent you?"
"I was sent by the International Fleet, and my purpose is to test this boy to see if he is qualified to attend Battle School."
"We are Christians, sir," said Father. "God will protect us if that is his will. We will lift no hand against our enemy."
"I'm not here to argue theology," said the stranger. "I'm here to carry out the law. There are no exemptions because of the religion of the parents."
"What about for the religion of the child?" asked Father.
"Children have no religion," said the stranger. "That's why we take them young--before they have been fully indoctrinated in any ideology."
"So you can indoctrinate them in yours," said Father.
"Exactly," said the man.
Then the man reached out to Zeck. "Come with me, Zechariah Morgan. We've set up the examination in your parents' house."
Zeck turned his back on the man.
"He does not choose to take your test," said Father.
"And yet," said the man, "he will take it, one way or another."
The congregation murmured at that.
The man from the International Fleet looked around at them. "Our responsibility in the International Fleet is to protect the human race from the Formic invaders. We protect the whole human race--even those who don't wish to be protected--and we draw upon the most brilliant minds of the human race and train them for command--even those who do not wish to be trained. What if this boy were the most brilliant of all, the commander that would lead us to victory where no other could succeed? Should everyone else in the human race die, just so you in this congregation can remain...pure?"
"Yes," said Father. And the congregation echoed him. "Yes. Yes."
"We are the leaven in the loaf," said Father. "We are the salt that must keep its savor, lest the whole earth be destroyed. It is our purity that will persuade God to preserve this wicked generation, not your violence."
The man laughed. "Your purity against our violence." His hand lashed out and he seized Zeck by the collar of his shirt and dragged him sharply backward, toward him. Before anyone could do more than shout in protest, he had torn Zeck's shirt from his body and then whirled him around to show his scarred back, with the freshest wounds still bright red, and the newest of all still beading with blood from this sudden movement. "What about your violence? We don't raise our hands against children."
"Don't you?" said Father. "To spare the rod is to spoil the child--God has told us how to make our children pure from the moment they achieve accountability until they have mastered their own discipline. I strike my son's body to teach his spirit to embrace the pure love of Christ. You will teach him to hate his enemies, so that it no longer matters whether his body is living or dead, for his soul will be polluted and God will spit him out of his mouth."
The man threw Zeck's shirt in Father's face. "Come back to your house and you'll find us there with your son, doing what the law requires."
Zeck tore away from the man's grip. The man was holding him very tightly, but Zeck had a great advantage: He didn't care how much it hurt to pull himself free. "I will not go with you," said Zeck.
The man touched a small electronic patch on his belt and immediately the door burst open and a dozen armed men filed in.
"I will place your father under arrest," said the man from the fleet. "And your mother. And anyone in this congregation who resists me."
Mother came forward then, pushing her way past Father and several others. "Then you know nothing about us," said Mother. "We have no intention of resisting you. When a Roman demands a cloak from us, we give unto him our coat also." She pushed the two older girls toward the man. "Test them all. Test the youngest, too, if you can. She doesn't speak yet, but no doubt you have your ways."
"We'll be back for them, even though the two youngest are illegal. But not till they come of age."
"You can steal our son's body," said Mother. "But you can never steal his heart. Train him all you want. Teach him whatever you want. His heart is pure. He will recite your words back to you but he will never, never believe them. He belongs to the Pure Christ, not to the human race."
Zeck held himself still, so he could not shudder as his body wanted to. Mother's boldness was rare, and always chancy. How would Father react to this? It was his place to speak, to act, to protect the family and the church.
Then again, Father had said several times that a good helpmeet is one who is not afraid to give unwelcome counsel to her husband, and a man so foolish that he can't hear wisdom from his wife is not worthy to be any woman's husband.
"Go with the man, Zeck," said Father. "And answer all questions with pure honesty."
A WAR OF GIFTS Copyright © 2007 by Orson Scott Card