House of God
The boy was at the helm, holding it with rough, tarred hands, a wretched, shrinking form with unkempt hair; it was the ditchdigger's boy, registered in the parish records as the son of Anne Lisbeth.
The wind drove the ship hard before it; the sail bellied out before the power of the wind; it was rough and wet everywhere, and it might soon be even worse. Stop! What was that? What crashed? What sprang up? What grasped the little vessel? The boat whirled around. Was it a waterspout or a tidal wave? The boy at the helm screamed, "Lord Jesus, save us!" The vessel had struck on a great rock, and it sank like a waterlogged old shoe in a duckpond;
"Hold on! Bury me in Christian earth!" – she could almost hear those words. And then she did hear a sound, so hollow, so hoarse – not the voices of the frogs in the pond nor the tones of the raven, for neither was near by, but clearly she heard the dreadful words, "Bury me! Bury me!" Yes! It was, it must be, the ghost of her own child, who could find no rest for his soul until his body was carried to the churchyard and laid in a Christian grave.
To the churchyard she would hurry; that very hour she would dig the grave; and as she turned toward the church her burden seemed to grow lighter, until it disappeared altogether. As soon as she felt that, she started back to follow the short cut to her home, but once more her limbs sank beneath her, and again the terrible words rang in her ears, "Hold on!
Hold on!" It sounded like the croaking of a frog and like a wailing bird.
"Bury me! Bury me!"
In our Northern countries a single spring night is often enough to dress the beech wood, and in the morning sunlight it appears in its young, bright foliage.
In one second the seed of sin within us may be lifted to the light and unfolded into thoughts, words, and deeds; and thus it is when conscience is awakened. And our Lord awakens it when we lest expect it; when there is no way to excuse ourselves, the deed stands open to view, bearing witness against us; thoughts spring into words, and words ring clearly throughout the world. Then we are horrified to find what we have carried within us, that we have not overcome the evil we have sown in thoughtlessness and pride. The heart hides within itself all vices and virtues, and they grow even in the shallowest ground.
Anne Lisbeth, overwhelmed with the realization of her sin, sank to the ground and crept along for some distance. "Bury me! "Bury me!" still rang in her ears, and gladly would she have buried herself, if the grave could have brought eternal forgetfulness. It was her hour of awakening, and she was full of anguish and horror; superstition made her blood run hot and cold. Many things of which she had feared to speak came into her mind. There passed before her, silently as a shadowy cloud in the clear moonlight, a vision she had heard of before. It was a glowing chariot of fire, drawn by four snorting horses, with fire blazing from their eyes and nostrils; and nostrils; and inside sat a wicked nobleman who more than a century ago had ruled here. Every midnight, he rode into his courtyard and right out again. He was not pale, like other ghosts; no, his face was as black as burnt coal. As he passed Anne Lisbeth he nodded and beckoned to her, "Hold on! Hold on! You may ride in a count's carriage once more and forget your child."
She pulled herself together and hastened to the churchyard, but the black crosses and the black ravens mingled before her eyes; the ravens screamed as they had done that morning, but now she could understand what they were saying. "I am Mother Raven! I am Mother Raven!" said each of them, and Anne Lisbeth knew the name fitted herself well; maybe she would be changed into a huge black bird like these, and have to cry as they cried, if she did not dig the grave.
Then she flung herself on the ground and began frantically digging with her hands in the hard earth; she dug till the blood ran from her fingers.
"Bury me! Bury me!" Still she heard those words, and every moment she dreaded to hear the cock crow and see the first streak of dawn in the east. For if her task were not completed before daylight she knew she would be lost.
And the cock did crow, and the light appeared in the east – and the grave was only half dug, and behold! an icy hand slid over her head and face, down to her heart. A voice seemed to sigh, "Only half the grave!" and a shadowy form drifted past her and down to the bottom of the ocean. Yes, it was indeed the "sea ghost," and Anne Lisbeth fell fainting to the earth, exhausted and overpowered, and her senses left her.
When she came to, it was bright daylight, and two men were lifting her up. She was lying, not in the churchyard, but down on the seashore, where she had been digging a deep hole in the sand, and had cut her fingers on a broken glass, the stem of which was stuck in a wooden block painted blue.
Anne Lisbeth was ill; her conscience had spoken loudly to her that night, and superstitious terror had mingled its voice with the voice of conscience. She had no power to distinguish between them; she was now convinced that she had but half a soul, while the other half had been borne away by her child, away to the bottom of the ocean; and never could she hope for the mercy of God until she again possessed the half soul that was imprisoned in those deep waters.
Anne Lisbeth went home, but she was no longer the same. Her thoughts were like tangled yarn; there was only one thread that she could clearly grasp; just one idea possessed her, that she must carry the "sea ghost" to the churchyard and there dig a grave for it. Many a night they missed her from her home and always found her down by the shore, waiting for the "sea ghost." So a whole year passed, and then one night she disappeared and this time was sought in vain. All of the following day was spent in searching for her.
Toward evening, when the parish clerk entered the church to ring the bell for vespers, he found Anne Lisbeth lying before the altar. She had been here ever since dawn; her strength was nearly gone, but her eyes were bright and a faint rosy hue lighted her face; the last sunbeams shone down upon her, streamed over the altar, and glowed on the bright silver clasps of the Bible, open at this text from the Prophet Joel; "Rend your heart and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God." This was just by chance, said people, as so many things happen by chance.
In Anne Lisbeth's face, as the setting sun shone upon it, were peace and grace. Now she was so happy, she said. Now she had won back her soul! During the past night the spirit of her own child had been with her, and had said, "You dug but half a grave for me, but now for a year and a day you have entombed me in your own heart, and that is the only proper resting place a mother can provide for her child!" And then he had returned to her lost half soul and guided her to the church!
"Now I am in God's house!" she said. "And only there can one be happy!"
When the sun had set, the soul of Anne Lisbeth had gone way up from this earth to where there are no fears nor the troubles that we have here, even such as those of Anne Lisbeth.