Strop by Nick Young

It was a fitting name, Rolling Vistas, situated on the edge of a picturesque town near the sprawling Shawnee National Forest. Set on the crest of a hillside, surrounded by verdant timberland and a meandering brook, it bespoke serenity. And by reputation, it was the finest assisted living center in all of southern Illinois. It numbered among its one hundred-odd residents the parents and grandparents of some of the area’s oldest and most well-to-do families. And of those who called it home, none was held in greater esteem than the Reverend T. Randall Buford.

At eighty-two, Rev. Buford had resided at Rolling Vistas for three years, thanks to the generosity of the congregation at the First Bible Church of the Redeemer. For more than forty years he had been the shepherd of the flock, baptizing newborns and converts in the blood of Jesus and ushering those who passed into the Kingdom of Glory. In between, he spent each Sabbath inveighing against the predations of Satan and, with his wife of many years, raising up foster children. By way of repayment, the members of the church, many of significant means, made regular contributions to see to his care at Rolling Vistas.

Once a man of imposing physical presence and a powerful baritone voice, Rev. Buford now spent his days wheelchair-bound in a netherworld of silent, partially blind immobility as a result of a series of strokes.The thunderous pronouncements of tribulation and hellfire had been quelled. All that remained of his former robustness were facial tics and the flickering of his rheumy eyes.

To be sure, the old preacher was accorded sensitive care provided by a staff that included several members of his former congregation. And he did not lack for attention from the outside.  Though he had no living family, a regular stream of well-wishers to his sunny, spacious room added variety and the warmth of human contact to his days.  

One of those who began coming introduced himself to the staff as Mike Taylor. As an eight-year-old orphan in 1956, he explained, the Rev. Buford had taken him in.

“The reverend and Mrs. Buford couldn’t have been more generous, raised me up as a Bible-believing Christian with the right values, and it changed the course of my life,” he’d said on that first visit. “My line of work has kept me abroad for many years, so I had no idea the reverend had fallen on hard times. But by the grace of the Savior, when I returned a few weeks ago, I learned of his plight; and now, with the Lord’s help, I hope to repay Rev. Buford’s kindness.”

So, Mike Taylor became a regular Sunday afternoon caller, with small gifts for the reverend’s caregivers and fresh flowers for his room. And he always brought with him a leatherbound Bible from which he patiently read passages for Rev. Buford. Despite his physical infirmities, the old gentlemen retained enough lucidity to understand what was going on around him and react with his eyes. Mike Taylor’s visits proved to be a balm, as the younger man spoke soothingly, laughed easily and never failed to end their time together with a quiet prayer.

In early September, the day of the autumnal equinox, a day with the sunlight aslant bringing warmth leavened by a gentle westerly breeze, Mike Taylor arrived for his afternoon visit with a request.

“The Lord has graced us with such a beautiful day,” he said to Rev. Buford’s nurse, Ann Davis, “that I was hoping it would be alright if I took the reverend out to the pond.”  Normally, a staff member was required to accompany residents and guests outside the main building, but Mike Taylor had shown himself to be such a thoughtful, attentive visitor that there was no objection.

“Spend as much time together as you’d like,”Nurse Davis replied with a smile.

Rev. Buford’s eyes registered how pleased he was to see his visitor who told him cheerfully of his plan to spend the afternoon outdoors. The pond, which lay a short distance from the east wing of the main residence, was kidney-shaped, its water kept fresh by a central aerator that acted as a calming fountain. Like the rest of the grounds, it was meticulously landscaped with rocks and plantings. The whole was bordered on three sides by beautiful maples and oaks displaying the first blushes of fall color.

Mike Taylor slowly wheeled Rev. Buford down a winding walkway through the trees to a shaded spot where there was a park bench. As the old gentleman was turned to face the pond, a zephyr rose, ruffling his snow-white hair.

“The goodness of God’s creation,” Mike Taylor said  as he removed his shoulder bag and placed it on the bench. He sat down and stretched, allowing the perfection of the day to wash over him. One of the other nurses waved to him as she helped an elderly resident to a bench on the opposite side of the pond. Clusters of clouds billowed above, ivory against the dazzling azure of the mid-afternoon sky.   

After several minutes sitting in silence, Mike Taylor folded back the leather flap of his bag, removed his Bible and opened it carefully to where one of the book’s red ribbon markers had been placed.   He cleared his throat and read:

  “‘Discipline your children, and they will give you peace of mind and will make your heart glad.’  You remember that passage, don’t you reverend?  Proverbs 29:17. And surely you recall Proverbs 29:15: ‘The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame.’ And still in Proverbs: ‘Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.’  Chapter 22, Verse 15.” As he read, Mike Taylor’s voice began to rise with his emotions.  “And just one more I’m certain you know,” he continued: “‘Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.’ Proverbs again, reverend, Chapter 23, Verses 13-14.  You recall them all? You should, because you repeated them over and over again to me when I was living with you. And I brought with me something else you should remember from those days.”  He reached inside his bag and withdrew a length of tanned leather, about three inches wide and eighteen inches long, with a metal clip sewn into one end. He laid the strip across Rev. Buford’s lap. The preacher’s eyes flicked downward, and a corner of his mouth twitched once. “Surely you haven’t forgotten what this is — a barber’s strop? Yes. It’s quite similar to the one you kept in your basement, the one you used on me.” He turned to look Rev. Buford full in the face, his voice dropping. “You see, reverend, I’m not Mike Taylor at all. He died five years ago. Cancer, I believe. Tiny little town out in Nebraska, as I recall. I’ve simply borrowed his name, that of a righteous, God-fearing man. It’s not that difficult. Wear a smile and mouth all the pieties. That’s the way, isn’t it, reverend? But if I’m not Mike Taylor, then who am I?” He bored in on the old man’s eyes, clouded, swimming. “I am Bill Collins — little Billy?  Do you remember little Billy, reverend? And the strop?” The preacher’s face twitched again, and he blinked rapidly several times. “Yes, you remember,”  Bill Collins’ lips tightened derisively. “And so do I. The basement, the awful choking rankness of it…the terrifying shadows…your voice, hoarse from calling down the wrath of God upon the recalcitrant child. But most of all, reverend, I will never forget every time you raised the strop high above your head and brought it down, every blow you landed across my back.” He was fighting against an upwelling of anger that was burning through his chest. “The scars remain; they always will. And you, locked inside your mute prison, does it thrill you still how much sheer pleasure you took in stropping the back of a nine-year-old boy because he resisted you?” Reverend Buford’s face was becoming more animated. Bill Collins leaned closer, eyes narrowing. “You miserable, cruel bastard. You did your damnedest to break me, but here I am.”

He stood and arched his back, stepping into the sun and letting it splash on his face, allowing the gentle breeze to flow around him. After a long moment, he turned once again to look at the preacher.

“So what should I do, Rev. Buford, to repay a man such as yourself, a man who had such a profound impact on me? ” He began walking slowly around the preacher. “Here’s my plan: I will continue my visits, charming the staff as Mike Taylor, always putting them at ease. And one day when I come, it might be on a Sunday or another day. Perhaps in the morning or the afternoon or even at night — you will never be certain — I will bring with me a tiny vial and a syringe, and in the vial will be a deadly toxin, and I will inject you with it. The tiniest pin prick, that’s all. You will hardly feel the needle. And for a few minutes, while we say our final prayer together and I leave, you won’t notice any change. But gradually the pain will begin, and it will intensify, and there will be nothing you can do to stop it. And more time will pass, only minutes, before your heart stops beating. But before it does, the agony will be excruciating; and, if you could, you would beg for release. You will experience Hell here and now before your rotten soul is sent there when you die.”  Bill Collins stopped directly behind the preacher and, smiling, leaned in close to his left ear, patting the old gentleman’s shoulder reassuringly. “But it won’t be today, reverend. It won’t be today. Now, shall we pray?”

 Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent.  His writing has appeared in the San Antonio Review, Short Story Town, Danse Macabre Magazine, Pigeon Review, CafeLit Magazine, the Green Silk Journal, Typeslash Review, 50-Word Stories, Sein und Werden, Flyover Magazine,, Sandpiper, Fiery Scribe Review, The Chamber  Magazine and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.