Wednesday, August 13, 2008

All God's Creatures

I'm pretty sure that I've explained in some previous blog post somewhere (that I'm too lazy to seek out and find right now for a link) that Bob's church is actually two churches. The original little stone building (not more than what we would generally refer to as a "chapel" these days) was built in the early eighteenth century and is located about two miles away. The "new" church is much bigger, comparatively, but I'm not talking St. John the Divine in Manhattan or any such thing.

During the months of July and August, we hold the 8:00 a.m. Sunday service at the old church. We also have services there on Thanksgiving Eve and Christmas Eve. On the first Sunday of every month from May through September, we have an old-fashioned "hymn sing" in the evening, which is fun, even if we aren't singing hymns that I always know or particularly enjoy. That's it. Other than that, the old church remains closed, except when people request to get married there, or Bob and I are dragging visitors over to see it. Weddings don't happen too often there, because there are no real bathrooms, just a port-a-potty, and nothing but a sanctuary, so members of the bridal party have nowhere to dress, etc.).

This is the church that is purportedly "haunted." We have a small group of couples, willing to investigate its "hauntedness," who keep talking about camping out there one night. (And, yes, surprise, surprise, I've decided that, as the minister's wife, one of my duties is to be a part of this investigation.) "The Night in the Haunted Church" has yet to take place, though, so right now the ghosts are still living pretty much in obscurity. So, when a few weeks ago, our indoor sexton (for those of you unfamiliar with church terminology, this means the woman responsible for the upkeep and cleaning of the inside of both churches) came knocking on our door around 8:30 p.m. to announce that the old church had been vandalized, my imagination (which needs no encouragement whatsoever) immediately began to think "evil spirits." I mean, wouldn't anybody's imagination take them there, envisioning creepy growls and roars echoing from the church rafters a la The Exorcist? She said there was no evidence of a forced entry. She said someone had knocked over and broken many of the candles on the windowsills. She said it looked as though someone had taken a chisel to all the woodwork around the windows. They'd knocked hymnals to the floor, shredded the carpeting, and (here was the clincher for me) defecated in the sanctuary.

Basically, all I really heard was "no forced entry" and "defecation." I kept a watchful eye on our sexton, making sure her head didn't start spinning around, as I offered her a hug of support, because she was so shaken, crying as she described all this. Meanwhile, a small part of me wondered why Bob seemed to be busy calling everyone under the sun except the police (to ease our poor sexton's mind) and an exorcist (to ease mine. Despite the fact that he has had one woman ask him to perform an exorcism, we don't really do that sort of thing in the Presbyterian denomination, which is why old Presbyterian churches would be great places for evil spirits to hide).

I volunteered to drive over to the old church to witness the damage (not because I was the least bit curious and fascinated, mind you), but I planned to leave once the long ordeal of a police investigation was begun (Bob had assured our sexton that he'd call the police once we got to the church). I suggested I take a separate car, but Bob wanted me to ride with him, assuring me he could get a ride home with one of the many people he'd called to come help join the investigation. Once we were in the car together, I understood why he wanted to be alone with me.

"I don't think it's vandals," he said. I eagerly awaited his conclusion that would fall in line with mine, "We've got evil spirits in that church." Instead, he said, "I'm afraid it's the poor groundhog, and I want to make sure nobody hurts it."

The groundhog! I'd completely forgotten about the groundhog. Two days prior, Bob and I had been at the auto mechanic's shop where our organist's husband works (in his "retirement") as a sort of jack-of-all-trades. When we ran into him, we discovered that he happened to be on the phone with his wife who'd been practicing the organ at the old church and had called him to tell him that there was a groundhog in the church. She wanted him to come get rid of the groundhog, a job for which Bob immediately volunteered (because, you know, he's got so much experience in such things as "wild animal removal"). I went along for the ride (which seems to be a common theme in my life as Bob's wife).

I swear, we looked all over that church. There was no groundhog that we could see. I mean, groundhogs aren't like hamsters or mice. If they're lurking in a corner somewhere or trying to hide under a collection plate, they ought to be pretty easy to spot. We scoured the place, made a lot of noise, and were pretty sure the creature must have scurried out the door while our organist was back to practicing and waiting for us to arrive.

But, sure enough, when we arrived at the church two nights later, on the heels of the sexton, we discovered a torn and tattered carpet that certainly looked like the work of an animal (at least, to those of us who've ever had puppies). The "chiseled" woodwork around the windows, on closer examination, was better described as "gnawed." A poor groundhog, trying to escape, would most certainly have knocked over candles and candle holders, and did you know that groundhog poop looks pretty much like cat poop? (Neither did I until now.) The most damning piece of evidence, though, was what we found in the dust that surrounded the pedals on the piano: little paw prints.

The poor thing had not been able to escape, so now our job was to find him. Everyone began a search (by now, we had six people at the church), and once a riser resting against the wall was pulled back, a very exhausted-looking and obviously terrified little guy was discovered. I didn't get a very good look at him, because as soon as he was uncovered, we all took various posts in the church to help "shoo" him out through the door. He didn't come anywhere near my post, as Bob and the organist's husband took a broom and chased him down the aisle and out the door. Bob assured me the poor guy had been trembling the whole time. (Of course, I'm assuming it was a guy. It could just as easily have been a gal.)

So, no vandals. No evil spirits. Quite a lot of damage that still needs to be repaired, though. I've looked through Bob's "terms of call" document, seeking the clause in his job description about his wildlife-chasing duties. Then again, those of you who know Bob would know that, just like his hero St. Francis, he would just as happily preach to a church full of groundhogs as he would humans, reminding us that we are all God's creatures.


IM said...

I love this story, which somehow reminds me of James Harriott and is SO Emily. It also made me think of the wolf spider that set up a web on the left side of my porch between the pillars. A HUGE web. I left it alone because I thought it would be good for controlling mosquitoes and frankly I was curious to see how big it would get. The rub came when I walked out this morning and found that the spider had shifted his web to cross the path I take to my car in the morning. I felt as if the spider were trying to catch ME! At this point I decided the visitor had outworn his welcome and broomed it and its web into the front yard, where it'll have another chance to set up shop. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Great story, and I'm glad it ended happily for the groundhog, although the mess that s/he left sounds like a hassle. I like the idea of Bob preaching to (or communing with) a whole gathering of groundhogs. One of the women in my spirituality group is very into communicating telepathically with animals. She was telling us on Tuesday about her conversations with a sleeping tortoise (who clearly didn't say much) and a bull elephant. Apparently she and the guide were both sending a message to the elephant at the same time so he got a bit confused (but left them alone).

Anne Camille said...

Great story. I think groundhogs always tremble -- at least that was always the state of the ones I would find on my porch though some of them were seeking refuge from my dog (who would never hurt anything, just wanted to play).

Like Ian, I had an encounter with a wolf spider web the last two days. One built a beautiful web between our two cars. I didn't want to wipe it away. The filaments were glistening in the sun. It made me sad that I had to get to work, which meant destroying the web as I slowly backed away (the spider had crawled safely to the other car when I opened the door). This morning he was back again, a little closer to the front fenders as if that might preserve his web.

Emily Barton said...

Ian, James Harriott? Well, now THAT'S a compliment! I love the notion of the crafty spider trying to catch you.

Pete, oooo, I would LOVE to be able to communicate telepathically with creatures like tortoises and bull elephants. No such luck thus far in my life, though. I sometimes feel the cows in the field behind our house are trying to communicate with me when they stare the way they do.

Cam, while all this was going on, I couldn't help but think of you and the little chipmunk that decided to pay you a visit earlier this year. I would have been sad to have to move that spider, too.

Anonymous said...

Too bad about the damage, but the poor woodchuck, he must have been scared and hungry. And now he's out in the world telling the other woodchucks all kinds of stories. Maybe he even met the ghost :)

Anonymous said...

I am with Stefanie here: the poor animal would not have been so desperate about finding a way out if he had not come across something reaaally scary in there. So scary that he even pooped himself from the sheer fright.

Emily Barton said...

Stef and Mandarine, Yep, you're right. I bet he DID meet up with the ghost. Damn him...

litlove said...

I sort of feel for the sexton, who had the horror of a shock discovery and leapt to the scary conclusion of vandals, and has now had to change her mindset to include a groundhog (which appears to be itself a ghost). What an awful lot to take in over the course of one morning!