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The Murderous Wood
About the Author: Thomas J. Belton is an author, journalist and environmental scientist with extensive publications in fiction, non-fiction, magazine feature writing, and journalism. His professional memoir, “Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State,” was named a 2010 Honor Book by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.

… And sang within the bloody wood

When Agamemnon cried aloud,

And let their liquid siftings fall

To stain the stiff dishonored shroud.

—From ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’ T.S. Eliot

Sir James George Frazer looked up from his escritoire and glanced in the mirror, the flickering light from the fireplace softening his features with shadow, adding a chiaroscuro patina to his high Scottish forehead and prognatic jaw. Like Merlin in his cave, Frazer looked about his domain and smiled with contentment. Every bit of floor space was filled with volumes of leather-bound books stacked helter-skelter in an avalanche of documented oddities from across the globe; words and more words, the realm of cultural synthesis that Sir James excelled in. And above his head the walls were filled with artifacts from his annual anthropological expeditions; Polynesian spears still tipped with dried human blood; Mayan funerary urns whose squat geometric shapes still held the ashes of dead heroes; Japanese Noh masks frozen in attitudes of timeless dramatic anger; and of course his prized possession, the wide-mouthed Calyx drinking cup from his excavation at Mycenae, its shimmering black surface etched red with the heroic battle of Hector and Achilles before the Gates of Troy. Three thousand years hence, he thought, and still the combatants fight, their small limbs and bronze weapons grappling with the chalk-mark of oblivion, all against the slim hope that deathless fame will redeem their consuming hatred.

Sir James looked down at his manuscript and wondered how the Royal Society would accept this latest abridgement of his twelve-volume tome, The Golden Bough; his compendium of primitive myth and homeopathic magic. The first printing had already enraged half of Europe with its bald assertion that all formal religions if dissected clinically and anthropologically could be reduced to primitive tribal antecedents, mere psychological manifestations of fear meant to create social identity; and used historically by kings and prelates to justify mayhem in the guise of sanctity.

The front door bell rang and Frazier dropped his glasses upon the piles of correspondence and proofs that littered his escritoire and carefully made his way through the darkened house to the front door, which he opened upon the snow-shrouded figure of his good friend and confidant, Thomas Eliot.

“Well met, Jamie!” Eliot said by way of greeting as he quickly entered the vestibule in a puff of wintry snow and glinting crystals illuminated by the street lamps beyond.

“Thomas,” Frazer replied, with equally terse bonhomie, as he closed the door to the echoes of Christ Church’s bell tower striking ten evening strokes down the street, abruptly followed by every watchtower and parsonage encircling Cambridge Town.

“The Christ Clock is too eager to get the Messiah down from his cross,” Frazer said with a smile as he looked at his own pocket watch then added, “while the carillons of Saints Peter, John and Paul—the typical mincing disciples—follow cacophonously like the flamed tongues of the Epiphany.”

“James,” he said, “if speaking in tongues is the only proof you require to justify God’s hand in the world, I’d suggest you look no further than your own faculty lounge where the Tower of Babel is erected each evening and then demolished through gales of argumentation and erudite prevarication. I am amazed at how you Academicians delude yourselves nightly, based solely on the certainty of your own sophistry, and how you brag about your lack of metaphysical sensitivity, as if it were a badge of honor.”

“Ah, but the badge is called truth, Thomas,” Frazer said taking his friend’s fur-lined coat. “For we who seek the truth know that false prophets abound everywhere and that they speak in false tongues from their myriad pulpits on every topic imaginable. ‘How Jesus will help you with your investments.’ ‘How the Holy Spirit will cure your gout.’ ‘How this war has been pre-ordained for English victory,’ as prophesied by our British Christ, and yet this same Christ adroitly whispers into the German Lutheran’s ear that he too will be rewarded with divine victory.”

“You’re mixing politics with religion again,” Eliot said gruffly, as Frazer led him into the glowing warmth of his study.

This story appears in our OCT 2019 Issue
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