Biscuits With Nathaniel by Nadia Kuftinoff
IT WAS UP IN THE BAVARIAN MOUNTAINS that Beatrix found the place she’d been looking for over the last three years. She had expected a sinister castle that she’d have to infiltrate in the dead of night, guns blazing, baddies falling to the ground instantly, a cigarette clamped between her teeth as she raged to the dungeons. There, she’d find the relic she sought and after a moment of peaceful awe, she’d throw a grenade at it before sprinting from the fortress. She would dive away from the force of the explosion to save herself, just as the castle crashed to the ground in a million pieces, and then make a witty retort to no one in particular before striding off triumphantly.
Only, the current state of affairs was quite underwhelming in comparison. For one, she had no weapons. She didn’t like guns, nor did she have the connections to get them on the black market. The knives she carried were in a satchel by her feet as she sipped a coffee in a café in Antwerp. Those same knives were promptly stolen by a passing thief who, anti-knife since the day the top of his right ear had been sliced off by his drunk friend Anders, who had been trying to demonstrate his ability with a blade, dumped the bag into the Scheldt. The sharpest implement Beatrix had left was a pair of tweezers. And my wit, she thought to herself, half-laughed, and then remembered she wasn’t very funny either. Her smile faded.
The headquarters of the “sinister gang” had also turned out to be a bit of a bust. She was staring at a quaint little cottage. It looked like a pastoral scene from a box of chocolates in a departure lounge that you take back to your office and pass off as authentic delicacies of the central European country you visited on the cheap over a long weekend. Still, the stereotype had to come from somewhere, and this was probably its source. She half-expected to see a milkmaid in traditional dress appear around the corner and invite her inside for some beer and wurst. Her stomach grumbled. She’d love a beer and wurst right now. Unfortunately, she had the slight matter of freeing mankind to contend with first.
Tentatively, she approached the front gate. The garden was full of small flowers just beginning to bloom now that spring had finally spread up the mountain. A few gnomes sat next to a little pond, and she couldn’t help thinking that it was all rather cute and sweet. She wouldn’t have wanted to blow this place up with grenades anyway. When she reached the door, she rapped out “shave and a haircut” cheerfully, but then remembered that she was supposed to be a formidable figure, so she boomed “two bits” with her clenched fist. Her heart was beating so hard that she considered taking a wee sit down.
What if something awful and terrifying was behind the door? The old “make them feel at ease with adorable little gnomes” ploy? I am not bloody prepared for this, she suddenly thought. I am not ready. I do not know what the hell I’m doing. Why am I here? Why isn’t someone more qualified doing this instead of me?
She contemplated who the governing body of freeing mankind might be and was debating whether her father knew anyone at the United Nations when the door creaked open. Beatrix jumped back a little, startled when she didn’t immediately make eye contact with anyone, but then looked down to find a 4-foot man in full Jacobean costume, ruff and all, staring back up at her.
‘Hello there,’ he said warmly, eyes twinkling. ‘Are you one of the Witnesses?’
‘Um, no,’ Beatrix hoped this wasn’t a loaded question. The face of the man drooped a little.
‘Oh! Well, never mind, that’s all right. I suppose you’d like to come in.’ He opened the door and gestured for her to enter.
‘Uh, well, yes… sorry, do you know why I’m here?’ Beatrix hesitated before crossing the threshold.
‘I can hazard a guess that you’re here to destroy the Book of Life, correct?’ the man asked knowingly.
‘Yes, that’s… that’s it. The Book of Life. Destroying of. Are you… umm…’ Beatrix frowned and looked at the unusual little individual quizzically. ‘Are you okay with that? You seem awfully welcoming.’
He chuckled. ‘Why don’t you come in and we’ll talk.’
The cottage was as twee and quaint on the inside as it appeared on the outside, with a small fire and several well-cushioned armchairs in the living area. Just visible through a half-closed door was the kitchen with shining pots and pans stored above a large oven. The small man ushered Beatrix to a seat and offered her a cup of tea. ‘Do forgive me,’ he said after the formalities were finished. ‘I’ve quite forgotten to introduce myself. My name is Nathaniel, and I am the Guardian of the Book of Life. Now, I suppose you have many questions.’
‘Well, yeah,’ Beatrix said uncomfortably, wondering when this whole thing was going to be revealed as a trap. ‘I mean… begging your pardon Nathaniel, but this wasn’t at all what I had in mind.’
‘No, it never is,’ Nathaniel sighed. ‘You Book Hunters always expect something much grander than little old me sat here in my house.’
‘There have been others?’
‘Oh yes, of course. Mankind has sought the Book for centuries.’ Nathaniel reached beside his chair. Beatrix tensed, anticipating that this was when the peculiar man would produce a gun and end her quest abruptly, before the kettle had even boiled. Instead, he produced a ball of yarn and some knitting. She calmed down, sinking back into her chair.
‘I guess I thought that someone must have tried before me, but I’ve not found any accounts of anyone actually finding the Book and doing anything with it.’ She swallowed a lump in her throat.
Nathaniel nodded. ‘Indeed, they have found it, but they haven’t done anything with it.’
Beatrix pushed her long fringe out of her eyes. It had been a while since a haircut had been a priority for her. ‘So… why not?’
‘Because… I’m sorry, do forgive me, but I didn’t ask your name.’
‘Because, Beatrix… oh, there’s the kettle.’ Nathaniel wiggled out of the armchair. Beatrix carefully inspected his knitting as he made the tea (it appeared to be the arm of a jumper) and thanked him when he brought the cup to her on a saucer with a finger of shortbread on the side, which she hastily devoured. After he re-settled himself, he smiled broadly at her and said nothing.
‘Oh! I was speaking. Yes. The reason they don’t do anything with the Book, Beatrix, is because they’ve all gone mad.’
Beatrix stopped blowing softly on her tea to cool it and stared intently at Nathaniel. He nibbled his own piece of shortbread and continued. ‘Beatrix, may I ask you about yourself? I find that Book Hunters tend to have the most interesting back stories.’
‘Well, um…’ Beatrix didn’t quite know what to say. Her backstory wasn’t much to shout about. ‘My parents own a law firm in London. They’re rich. I had a lavish upbringing and went to the best schools. I went to one of the best universities. It was all pretty… standard for someone in my position.’
‘So what’s your cause?’
‘Yes. Why do you want to give mankind free will?’
‘Oh… well… my mother and father have represented people in some pretty high-profile cases. And some of the crimes are really… really unfair, you know? Their actions have had devastating consequences on so many people. I’m talking about bankers and hedge fund types. And I just think… well, I just think that it’s not right if those people were destined to make the decisions they’ve made. I want to believe that if they were truly free, they would choose not to do the wrong thing. The same goes for all criminals, really. I guess… I guess I want to believe that people are good. Inherently.’
Nathaniel looked at her for a long time. ‘Something tells me that you’ve been let down by at least one significant person in your life.’
Beatrix felt her face flush. She took a sip of tea and avoided Nathaniel’s gaze. She did not feel like talking about her ex-fiancé, Toby, who turned out to be a bit of a scumbag that embezzled millions during his years leapfrogging from blue chips to conglomerates in the City and Canary Wharf. He had been lovely, apart from the embezzling, which had hung like a black cloud over the Christmas dinner table the year it all came to light, right before she broke up with him. Everything could’ve been wonderful; they were going to have a perfect life together and be happy until the end of their days, but things hadn’t worked out that way. It seemed slightly more unfair because it was so out of character for Toby. Beatrix was still partially in denial about the whole matter, even though he was away at Her Majesty’s Pleasure at that very moment. That was the first time she had begun to think about free will and fate. It was also the last time she would trust a half-cut Granny Nora not to mention a particular subject over Christmas dinner.
‘There’s always a very personal reason for becoming a Book Hunter, no matter what the cause for the greater good happens to be.’ Nathaniel smiled without mistrust or judgment. ‘Some have come simply to look at it and have gone mad from reading the pages of their own future. Some have been positive that they would be the ones to cast the book into the fire, thus allowing mankind to run willy-nilly, only to lose their sanity debating whether free will is actually a good thing. One even thought I was God, which is quite incorrect-‘
‘Wait, sorry,’ Beatrix interrupted. ‘They went mad from reading their futures?’
‘Well, yes. Because the Book told them so.’
Beatrix frowned. ‘So some people are destined to find the Book of Life and not destroy it?’
‘My dear, everyone who finds the Book of Life is destined not to destroy it. Or at least,’ he chuckled, ‘so far. I keep waiting to see if one of you will eventually go through with it. Honestly, not many Book Hunters even bother proceeding after I’ve revealed to them the fates of their kin. I lived in a château in the south of France decades ago. It was large enough to accommodate all the Hunters who had lost their minds, poor things. Turned into quite the sanatorium. No need now, of course. The world has changed. The people in a position to find the Book of Life began to care less and less if they were living in a fated or free capacity. Civilized society stopped believing in such things. They became tame and the Book became little more than folklore.’
Nathaniel drained his cup. ‘I suppose you’d like to see it now, my dear?’
Beatrix felt tense. All this time, she thought that she’d been going off-book by coming to destroy the book. Breaking the fourth wall. Immune to fate. Had it all been in vain? Her years of research and travelling around the world to follow leads? The 8 months in Central America? The year in China? The two weeks in Margate? All to find the Book and promptly go mad? She wasn’t ready for this yet. She needed more time to think, to find a loophole.
‘Tell me about yourself.’ Beatrix thought that maybe this Nathaniel chap wasn’t as lovely and friendly as he was making out to be. If he looked after the Book, he must not want it destroyed. He would say and do anything to deter her from her quest. The twinkle in his eyes suddenly looked piercing. He shifted under her newly determined gaze.
‘What’s to tell? My name is Nathaniel and I am the Guardian of the Book of Life’.
‘And that’s it? No backstory of your own?’
‘I was appointed the task of guarding the Book of Life. That’s all I can tell you.’
‘So what, you just came into being to look after it, did you?’ Beatrix responded curtly.
‘No, what I mean is…that’s all I can tell you because I don’t know.’ He smiled warmly at her. That ended the conversation abruptly. Beatrix sighed and searched the room for a talking point. Small talk had never really been her strong suit. She could normally be found somewhere out of the way at parties, discreetly eating all the canapés. She showed no ravenous appetite when presented with a meal, but for some reason, couldn’t stop herself when it came to snacks and buffets. Her mind briefly drifted to thoughts of olives, crackers and chicken on a stick when her stomach rumbled loudly, the single shortbread finger not enough to satisfy her empty belly. She shifted in her chair and cleared her throat.
‘So. What have you got against free will? Why don’t you want mankind to have it?’ Subtle, she thought to herself. Real discreet.
Nathaniel gently slapped his knee. ‘Ah Beatrix, I have nothing against free will at all, nor do I want to keep mankind from anything. I have to remain completely unbiased in the matter. Neutral. Swiss.’
‘So you’re not, like, the devil or anything? You said someone thought you were God and you said that was wrong…’
Nathaniel looked quite affronted. ‘Good gracious, no! I don’t have a malicious bone in my body.’
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.’
‘Oh… no, it’s fine,’ he softened. ‘You’d just be surprised how often someone accuses me of being some sort of evil demon after I’ve invited them into my home and made them tea. Still, I suppose it’s a fair assumption to make.’
‘Sorry,’ Beatrix said again, feeling rude. Nathaniel waved his hand.
‘No matter, my dear, no matter. And as for the question about free will…’ Here he paused and for a long time, looking out the window, but not at the picturesque scenery. It was as though he was looking at something Beatrix couldn’t see or possibly comprehend. ‘I don’t know. I don’t think it’s anything special.’
‘Nothing special!?’ she exclaimed, making Nathaniel jump. ‘It’s incredibly special! It’s what makes a person who they are. It means that all the choices and decisions they make are their own! It proves that we’re not all running around thinking that we can do and say what we want, when actually we can’t! Free will gives us control over our own destinies, Nathaniel! Surely after debating with other Book Hunters, you must see some reasons why mankind should have free will?’
Nathaniel adjusted himself on the armchair and placed his hands in his lap, interlocking his fingers. He looked as though he was about to watch his favorite film for the umpteenth time, even though he knew all the words and had long since committed all the finer details of the plot to memory. He looked a bit like her younger brother and sister when they chanced upon one of the Back to the Future films on TV. She’d always groan that they’d seen the films a hundred times and it was already halfway over, but they insisted on watching it anyway – and genuinely enjoyed themselves every single time.
‘Are we really better off thinking for ourselves?’ he said, with a fleck of a sinister tone.
‘Really? What if free will means that man will no longer adhere to the rules of society? What if they turn feral? What if everything changes as we know it and mankind destroys itself?’
‘Hey, hang on a minute, I don’t think that would be the case. I expect that no one will notice. There won’t be any way to tell anything’s different.’ Beatrix paused. ‘Will there?’
Nathaniel shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what would happen when the Book is destroyed. Is it really as simple as, “That’s it! No more fate!” or will there be apocalyptic consequences? Will everyone carry on as normal, or will everyone feel some tremendous shift in their soul?’
Beatrix pursed her lips. She apparently hadn’t thought this through at every level, but wasn’t ready to simply give in to this man. ‘What do you think will happen?’
‘Personally, I think everyone will go mad.’
‘Everyone’s always going mad around you, Nathaniel.’
He ignored her. ‘I think that everyone would suddenly have a sensation of freedom and go mad from the release. They’ll be so overwhelmed by knowing that they’re wholly responsible for their own destinies, they won’t be able to think rationally. I can only imagine that from there, it would lead to a lot of riots and suicides.’
‘Wow. That’s pretty dark.’
‘This isn’t something light we’re talking about, my dear.’
‘But that’s just a theory. You can’t prove either way that’s going to happen.’
‘And you’ll risk it? You’ll potentially wipe out life as we know it to do something noble?’
‘Stop trying to make me feel guilty like that.’ Beatrix snapped. ‘Of course I don’t want anyone dead. I want everyone alive and free. I don’t want people ignorantly chained to their destinies.’
‘What difference does it make? Really, what difference? Let’s say that nothing happens and no one notices. So… who cares? What do you want then? Will you tell people? They’ll think you’ve gone –‘
‘Mad, yes I get it.’ Beatrix rolled her eyes.
‘Well they will. Once you destroy the Book, it’s gone, no evidence. And you know what the most damning thing you’ll find is, Beatrix? Do you want to know what will drive you mad?’ She looked away from Nathaniel. His beady eyes were starting to unsettle her now. ‘When those people hurt you, Beatrix. When you give them the freedom to make the right choices and good decisions, and they don’t. When they take your gift and rip it to shreds. Mankind is not inherently good.’
‘We can’t know that. There’s no way. That outcome could be just as likely as the world going pop. I think you hate free will. I think you’re an ambassador of destiny, someone who is desperate to maintain certainties and control.’
‘Who doesn’t like certainty?’ Nathaniel laughed. ‘I like to think that because the sun rose today, it will also rise again tomorrow.’ He brushed a few stray shortbread crumbs he’d just noticed from his chest. ‘Besides, I already made plans for tomorrow. I’m going to bake a cake.’
‘I beg your pardon, but screw your sodding cake!’ Beatrix rose to her feet in a flurry of anger. How dare he suggest that she was going to destroy the world? How dare he try to poison her mind against what she’d so strongly come to believe in? How dare he have no cake already made, even though she was starving? ‘Don’t make the cake, Nathaniel!’ (I really wish he’d made a cake) ‘You’re making a cake of captivity! You think you’ve chosen to make the cake, but you haven’t! Doesn’t that upset you? Don’t you feel manipulated?’
‘Actually my dear,’ he said loudly, taking Beatrix aback. He was clearly frustrated with her. With all Book Hunters. Coming into his home, declaring that they knew more about everything and that he was wrong and stupid and didn’t know what he was talking about. How many had he met? How many had actually showed him any kind of respect? How many would keep bothering him, again and again, forever and ever? God he loathed nothing more than a pompous, holier-than-thou Book Hunter. ‘I am making the cake of my own free will and I’m not about to let a Book Hunter change my mind about something I decided to do myself!’
‘What? What are you saying? So, you’re the only one in the world with free will now, are you? Makes you the authority on the matter, does it?’
‘Yes!’ he barked, then instantly slapped his palm over his mouth as his eyes widened. He slowly lowered his hand. ‘Oh dear,’ he whispered. ‘I probably shouldn’t have told you that.’
Beatrix marched into the kitchen and found the biscuit tin on a work surface. She was ravenous and confused and upset. After ripping the lid off and grabbing a handful of Jaffa Cakes and custard creams, she dropped them back inside and took the entire tin back into the living room with her, a Jammy Dodger stuffed in her mouth and wedged against the inside of her right cheek.
‘So you’re…’ she munched quickly and noisily, ‘you’re free then, are you? You’re the only person in the whole world with free will?’ She barely swallowed before starting to chomp a Jaffa Cake. ‘What the HELL is going on? Why do YOU get to have free will and we DON’T?’
Nathaniel looked up at her as she munched and inhaled heavily through her nose. He’d really let the cat out of the bag now and knew that he had no one to blame but himself. He felt his palms become clammy. A strange sensation came over him, one of expectation and dread. What terrible thing he was expecting to happen he couldn’t elaborate on, like something he’d known long ago but had forgotten.
‘I’m not 100% free,’ he began to explain. Seeing Beatrix become more bewildered, he got up and motioned for her to return to her chair. She gripped the biscuit tin, which was decorated to look like a little like a barrel, close to her chest. For a moment, she looked quite comical in a bedraggled, wild-eyed, biscuit-scoffing way. Some might have found her charming. Nathaniel felt alert. He’d dropped the ball. He wasn’t the one with all the power anymore. Damn it all, he thought, might as well just go for it now.
‘Beatrix, my dear, take a moment. Let me explain. When I told you that I can’t tell you my backstory, that’s really only half-true. The first thing I remember… is waking up in a cell. In 1617.’
Beatrix stopped chewing. Her look of disbelief transformed into one of distrust. ‘It’s true. I have no recollection of my life before that moment. I don’t know my family and I can’t remember my childhood; it’s all gone. When I came to, the guard asked me my name. I only knew that it was Nathaniel. That’s all I had. Think about your name. You know your name is Beatrix…?’
‘Of course, Beatrix Barringdon Farringdon-Smythe,’ she said through a mouthful of biscuit that she then swallowed.
‘Er, yes, Beatrix Barringdon Farringdon-Smythe. You know that. The most basic part of your identity, yet all I knew was my first name. It didn’t occur to me that I might have a second.
‘Then the guard asked me, what do you do, Nathaniel, what is your occupation? And I told him – I am the Guardian of the Book of Life. I somehow knew that to be true. Only that and my name. If I was anything before that or not… I cannot say for sure.’ He looked at Beatrix sheepishly. ‘Whoever I was and whatever I did… I can’t have been a good person. This is surely a punishment. Unless I was a nobleman the king chose for this task like they told me, but I somehow doubt it. Who would volunteer for this? Who would consider this an honor?’ He slumped back into his own chair and lowered his head into his hands. ‘The only thing I can think of is Revelations 22.’
‘I’m not… hugely familiar with… any of that,’ Beatrix muttered. She knew that a Book Hunter should probably know every religious text like the back of their hand, but… eh. Her quest wasn’t a holy one.
‘Revelations 22:19. If anyone alters The Book of Revelations, God takes them out of the Book of Life and the Book of Revelations as punishment. But I… I can’t say for sure if I’ve meddled with the Bible or not. Why would I?’
Beatrix took a moment to process the information. Could Nathaniel be from Biblical times? If so, why was his first memory awakening in a prison in the 17th century? Did God smite him and then bring him back to life with some Jacobean witchcraft?
‘How did they do this to you?’ she asked.
Nathaniel looked up at her sadly. ‘My chapter in the Book of Life has been re-written.’
‘That can be done?’
‘Well… sometimes. It’s not just freedom warriors like yourself who have come looking for the Book. Some don’t care about re-writing the path of life for humanity; they just care about their story. They want riches, they want glory and they want empires. The thing is, though, I don’t know how it works. Men and women over the centuries have scrawled over the words in their chapter, adding “becomes rich and powerful” or some such, but the book re-writes their future for them. I’ve seen it all – any kind of loophole you can think to close… it’s just not worth trying. It doesn’t make a difference. Someone wrote “becomes rich and powerful and is happy every day of his life”? That particular person was stabbed less than an hour after altering his chapter. It was in someone else’s story to go out that evening and murder someone in the street. The book ignored what the man wrote. The Book seems to have a mind of its own. I don’t know who writes it or controls it. It’s self-aware, to a certain degree. The only person I’ve seen who hasn’t had their own life re-written… is me.’
Beatrix blinked. ‘How?’
Nathaniel shook his head. ‘I’ve thought about this for centuries and am still no closer to knowing for sure whether someone has made it so, or if the Book has allowed it. All I know is that I was made the Guardian of the Book of Life and I have to take care of it until the end of days. I’ve always lived in remote areas. There’s some kind of collective that takes care of me, shipping me somewhere new if my safety is ever compromised in a particular place.’
‘So what does it say in your chapter?’
‘Come with me,’ Nathaniel pushed himself to his feet. ‘I’ll show you.’
Beatrix solemnly nodded her head, her face set like stone. She was finally going to see the Book of Life. Full of purpose, she rose from the armchair, steady and determined.
‘I’ll put the biscuits away.’
She’d been expecting a secret lair or a door in the wall leading to a dungeon, but Nathaniel simply led her into his study. Predictably, leather-bound volumes adorned dark bookcases on every wall, a wingback chair sat behind a regal desk and a not uncomfortable chair sat opposite. The room was of a modest size and reminded Beatrix very much of her father’s study in the family home, only his sometimes had the faint smell of a cigarette left behind from him leaning almost completely out of the window for a cheeky smoke. Her mother loathed the habit but he’d never quite been able to quit for good. Nathaniel motioned for her to sit down and unlocked a drawer in his desk. He placed a small book in front of her.
‘There we are’, he said, adjusting his ruff. ‘Just keep me in your mind’s eye as you open it, at the first page.’
Beatrix inspected the book. It was a little worn and yellowed, but was in otherwise excellent condition. ‘I thought it would be bigger than this.’
‘Yes, it’s thick, but it’s always smaller than what people expect it to be. It started its life as scraps, I believe. I have the whole thing rebound when it gets a bit scraggly. Well, go ahead, my dear. Open it.’
She looked straight at Nathaniel and opened the Book to the first page. In elegant handwriting that she found almost difficult to decipher, there was a single sentence: “Nathaniel is the Guardian of the Book of Life until the End of Days.”
She flipped through the rest of the pages. Nothing. They were blank.
‘Wait, what? Where’s… all the rest? Everyone else in the world? Where are their chapters?’
‘The Book presents the chapters of the person you’re thinking of. You expected to read about me, and so it was.’
‘Oh. Right. And that’s really all there is about you?’
‘Believe me when I say I’ve pored over every single page of that book, wishing that some other text was there.’
‘So, you’re anti-free will? You want to have a destiny?’
He shook his head. ‘Not necessarily. I just want to have something. I suppose it doesn’t matter now though, really. Any family or friends I had are dead. Everything has changed so much… it’s not as though I could waltz into the nearest town and get a job and start a normal life. I have no formal qualifications. No identification.’
‘So you’re pro-free will?’
Nathaniel shrugged again, but kept his shoulders hunched for a moment. ‘I can’t say that it matters much to me. I’m still tied to the Book, even though my actions aren’t dictated by it. I can go for a walk later and that decision is entirely up to me. I could commit a crime and it wasn’t inherent that I would break the law. I try to remain unbiased about right and wrong because, honestly, who am I to judge? I’m free. Or at least, more free than everyone else. I look at everyone differently, and not just because I’m seemingly immortal and from a different century. Everyone looks as though they’re on a carousel to me, riding a static horse fixed to a whirling platform, under the illusion that it’s real.’
‘Pro-absolute freedom then?’
‘Well, you know how I feel about that. I’ve read enough philosophical and theological texts to believe that absolute freedom will turn a person inside out, but who knows. I have almost absolute freedom, am aware of it, have lived with it for hundreds of years and I feel…’ he searched for the right word, twizzling his left index finger as though flipping through a dictionary, ‘…underwhelmed. Nothing I choose to do for myself makes any difference to any of the chapters in the Book. I could shoot an arrow directly at a man, but unless the Book says that he will be hit by an arrow, something will interrupt the action. In other words, I can do what I want and I am absolutely free – within certain confines.’
‘But your feelings towards free will seem very personal. Imagine if the Book didn’t exist for anyone. No one at all, including you. Then you wouldn’t be trapped by it. This Book,’ she looked down at it and frowned, ‘is kind of evil. You’re sworn to protect it, but it treats you like a prisoner, don’t you think?’
‘I’m not sure. I believe the Book may be neutral as well. It gives and it takes away. It shows mercy and it shows rage.’
‘Is the Book God?’ Beatrix pulled her hands back from the book and dropped them quickly to her lap.
Nathaniel said nothing for a moment. ‘It depends on how you interpret God, I suppose.’
‘Well, you know, the normal way. The consistent-across-all-religions way. Isn’t that God? Some kind of being we can’t see or… read?’
‘I’m as void of answers as you are, Miss Barringdon Farringdon-Smythe. Quite the game-changer, isn’t it?’
‘So… so what are your thoughts on destiny then?’
‘Pros and cons.’ He grinned. ‘Really, you’re not going to get anywhere with me, I’m afraid. I’ve spent hundreds of years weighing up the best solution. Destiny may be horrible, but it’s safe. Life is a carousel ride, and then it’s over. We sit there and experience it, and then it’s done. Of course, it might not be a nice ride. That’s not your fault, though. There’s someone… or rather something else to blame.’
Beatrix thought about blame. It was great blaming someone else for something that had gone wrong, blaming anything and anyone but yourself for your failings. Blame comforted the soul… blame helped you wriggle out of sticky situations. Blame meant you didn’t need to look at yourself.
‘I’d rather be in control,’ she said finally. It doesn’t matter about the bloody carousel of life or whatever. I am. I think I am me and that I exist, and I do. I am entitled to do what I want with my life. It is MY life. MINE.’
‘But you know about the Book of Life, my dear. Barely anyone else does. Is anyone anywhere really going to benefit from the free will you want to give them? A child who shares his bedroom with four other siblings in India? A man who is cheating on his wife in Germany? A hermit who lives in a cave in Peru? What are you giving to them?’
‘No, no, no! You think you’re giving them goodness and kindness and a better life, but some circumstances can’t be changed. Some people are going to make the bad choices. You might even make things worse. If nothing is set in stone, people might attempt wild, stupid, insane things. They might commit terrible acts, believing that there would be no consequence. Laws and societies would crumble. People will claim they can’t be held accountable for their actions, that there was just as much chance of them doing the wrong thing as the right one. Everything is always an accident!’
Beatrix forcefully pushed her hair back with her hands. ‘Maybe I need to change the terminology I’m using. The Will isn’t what is free – the Mind is.’
‘Oh no – don’t start with that. This is already confusing enough. This is how the madness begins, Beatrix. You’re driving yourself into a frenzy. I’ve seen this before.’ He wasn’t sure why he wanted to keep Beatrix from her inevitable madness, but it felt a shame that she should descend so quickly.
‘But there have been plenty of Philosophers throughout the ages who haven’t gone mad. Is that entertainment for the Book? Does the Book give mankind thoughts about free will, in the hopes that they may eventually figure it out? Will they break fate? Is it taunting us?’ She slapped the book closed.
‘I don’t know,’ Nathaniel said quietly. ‘I just don’t know. Annoying isn’t it?’
More and more, Beatrix felt like the Book was toying with her. Why would it make Nathaniel tell her things he’d never told before? Was that the truth? Was this even really the Book of Life? She opened it again. Still the same sentence as before. Nathaniel is the Guardian of the Book of Life until the End of Days.
Nathaniel, figuring out what she was trying to do, offered assistance. ‘Concentrate, my dear. Think of someone else. Close the book and think of someone else, then open it again. I’d advise not thinking of yourself or looking at the last page.’
Beatrix closed the Book again and tried to think of someone, anyone. She winced when Toby immediately came to mind. Did it have to be Toby? She opened the book slowly. She gasped when she saw that much more text had appeared, but it was printed this time, not handwritten “Tobias Gregory Firth is born on the 12th of June 1978…”
She snapped the book shut. It had worked. This was the Book of Life. It had to be. God this is exciting! I found it! I feel incredible! Maybe a bit sick, actually. Too many biscuits. ‘I have to do it, Nathaniel. I have to destroy it. For better or worse. It’s not right that everything is predetermined.’
‘You’re forgetting determinism requirement, you know. The values and the morals of a person will play a part in this Brave New World that you want to forge.’
‘I don’t care about any of that stuff. I don’t care. I just know… I believe that we should be free. That we can be free. Whatever all the philosophers have said, I don’t care. We should be free!’
Nathaniel sighed and looked away. For the first time, Beatrix felt like she was taking up his time. ‘Do whatever it is you intend to do, my dear. The Book won’t let you harm it. It doesn’t make any difference. You don’t get a say, I’m afraid.’
There was a knock at the front door.
‘Excuse me.’ Nathaniel shuffled out of the room.
Beatrix contemplated ripping the book apart right there and then, no dilly-dallying, but she thought it would be rude to do so without Nathaniel around. She’d destroy it when he got back. Maybe after a bit more conversation. She had been making some good points. She really wanted to win him over to her side for some reason.
Casually, she listened to Nathaniel open the door. ‘Hello there,’ he said cheerily. How can I…’ his voice suddenly trailed off. ‘Are you…?’
‘Yes,’ it sounded like four women speaking at once, but when Beatrix jumped from her chair and crept into the hall to snatch a glimpse of the visitors, she saw only a pair. Dressed in white robes, one held fire in her hands, while the other carried branches of olives.
‘We are the Two Witnesses, prophets from God who bring torment to all on Earth.’
Beatrix’s jaw dropped. Nathaniel squealed. ‘No thank you, not today!’ he cried and slammed the door in their faces.
‘Who the hell are they?!’ Beatrix exclaimed as Nathaniel spun around and pressed his back against the door.
‘The Two Witnesses,’ he replied, exasperated.
‘Yes I heard that bit – what are they? You asked if I was one of them earlier; are you expecting them? Did you casually invite the end of the world to tea?’
Nathaniel giggled hysterically. ‘It was a joke. A joke I started to almost believe in, and nearly wanted to happen, just to break the monotony, more than anything. The Two Witnesses are from the Book of Revelations. They’re prophets from God who stand guard outside His temple during the Second Woe. They bring chaos to Earth at the behest of God for 3-and-a-half years, and then they’re destroyed, which is when they will ascend into heaven. I know this sounds strange, but I’ve always felt quite drawn to them.’
‘They go to heaven after killing and tormenting the Earth for a few years? That’s pretty messed up.’
The Two Witnesses knocked on the door again, both their fists making a rattling rhythm. ‘GO AWAY!’ Nathaniel bellowed.
Beatrix felt like everything in her body had drained away. ‘Why would you want this, Nathaniel? Why would you wish for the end of the world?’ She looked at him imploringly, but saw his why in the look on his face. He suddenly looked old, haggard, and tormented. The cheerfulness had gone. Here was a man who had been given immortality, possibly without consent, destined to forever guard something, trapped between free will and fate, unable to change anything. He couldn’t decide between freedom and destiny. He couldn’t escape by taking his own life. It seemed to make sense that he would eventually wish for the end of the world, just so he could finally be finished with his duties. Finally free.
‘I’m sorry,’ he spat. ‘I am. No, really I am, Beatrix. I can’t stand that I would encourage the world to end. It’s disgusting, and I don’t actually want it to. I don’t want everyone to die horribly or anything like that. Please, you must believe me.’
Beatrix nodded. ‘Not a malicious bone in your body, right?’
He grinned wildly. ‘Exactly.’
‘Nathaniel… let them in. If it’s time… if the Book has decided that today is the end of days… there’s nothing we can do about it, right?’
‘That’s the strange thing. The Two Witnesses don’t appear until later.’ They knocked on the door again. ‘JUST A MINUTE! I’M… GETTING COOKIES OUT OF THE OVEN.’ Turning back to Beatrix, he continued, ‘The Book of Revelations describes a lot more destruction happening beforehand.’
‘Plagues of locusts and stuff, right?’
‘Correct. And that’s just the Christian end of the world. Other religions have other versions.’
‘Aren’t they all just predictions though? Not evidence-based facts?’
‘Do you think John of Patmos could make this pair up, or did he actually meet them in a vision and they revealed their plans to him?’
Beatrix narrowed her eyes at him. ‘We’re going to have this debate now? You might be old, Nathaniel, but you weren’t there to verify that this guy had an actual vision or if it was the result of licking one too many hallucinogenic toads for that old biblical prophet rush.’
‘There are no hallucinogenic toads in Greece!’
Beatrix chewed her bottom lip and then spun around and went back into the study. She returned with the Book of Life and threw it at Nathaniel. ‘Here. Read it.’
‘You can interfere.’
‘It’s not possible! I told you!’
‘Not with my life, with theirs. If they’re divine beings, then they’re probably not in the Book, right?’
‘We can’t know that for sure.’
‘But look at the evidence we have. You’re immortal. Something happened that made you not strictly human anymore. The Book can’t control everything you do. You don’t have a chapter, just a sentence. So maybe they don’t have a chapter either. Check.’
Nathaniel hurriedly opened the Book. ‘Nothing.’
‘See, because they’re in the Book of Revelations, not the Book of Life. Kill them, Nathaniel! Improvise! If they only have one purpose and no closing remarks in the book, then you could just end them!’
‘But they have to fulfill their destiny!’
‘This isn’t their destiny! You said it yourself! This doesn’t coincide with any account of the end of days! They’re early!’
‘So why are they here, Beatrix?!’
‘I DON’T BLOODY KNOW, JUST KILL THEM!’
‘That might make things worse!’
‘Well, we might just have to risk it, I guess!’
Another knock caused them both to jump; it was louder and harsher than the previous knocks. ‘Let us in,’ the Witnesses said flatly. The sky suddenly turned dark with clouds. A wind began whistling outside.
Nathaniel looked at Beatrix with wide, frightened eyes. He opened the book at the back. ‘I can find out for certain,’ he said. ‘I can tell you what’s going to happen.’ He looked down at the Book.
‘What are you… whose future are you reading? Mine? The end of the world must not come, Nathaniel! Think of all the futures you’ve probably read over the years! They never mention any of this stuff happening, do they? No mentions of anyone suddenly experiencing apocalyptic episodes that interrupt their dinner?’
‘No, that’s why I need to check! None of this makes any sense! I must be missing something!’ He leafed through a few pages. A long, low rumble of thunder could be heard over the wind. Nathaniel said nothing. He continued to read for a moment, and then looked up at Beatrix. His face was oddly serene. He walked slowly to Beatrix and slipped the Book into her hands.
‘What is it?’
Nathaniel didn’t respond. He ushered her closer to the door.
‘Nathaniel, you’re scaring me. What did you read? Tell me. Tell me or I’ll read it myself and go mad and you can deal with that in addition to those two evil biddies out there!’
‘You won’t go mad,’ he said quietly. ‘You can read it.’
‘I… is this a trick?’
He shook his head, a warm smile spread on his face. Beatrix fumbled to open the book and flipped to the back. The last sentences read: “In a strange turn of events, she casts the Book of Life into the fire of the Two Witnesses, who arrive unannounced and with no explanation. All destinies henceforth are unwritten.” She re-read the sentence twice, and then a third time.
‘The Book of Life wants me to destroy it? I don’t – I don’t understand…’
‘Neither do I,’ said Nathaniel, ‘but it appears that you’re fated to give mankind free will.’
Her breaths became rapid and her eyes welled with tears. ‘I don’t know if I can. I – I’m scared, Nathaniel. What’s going to happen?’
More thunder. A flash of lightning.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied, wiping tears from his eyes. ‘I just know that it’s not the end of the world, so we can take comfort in that. This is the end of the Book of Life, though, not the start of the Book of Revelations. It doesn’t begin this way.’
‘Well what happens next?!’
‘Your guess is as good as mine! The blank book of free will, I suppose.’
‘Is free will going to be good for us? Is it? If the Book is willing this to happen, I don’t think I trust it!’
‘We’ll find out, my dear.’ Nathaniel opened the front door. Despite the wind and rain, the Two Witnesses stood stock-still, apparently undisturbed. The olive branches didn’t flutter and the fire showed no signs of extinguishing. The wind ripped into the cottage.
Beatrix steadied herself, screaming as a crack of lightning illuminated the room and thunder boomed. ‘PROPHETS OF GOD!’ she yelled. The Witnesses lifted their heads in attention. They were expecting some epic address, a formal ceremony to begin the proceedings. Beatrix looked down at Nathaniel, who smiled at her like a proud parent.
Her heart was pounding and her legs felt weak. The Book seemed too heavy in her hands to hold any longer. She was dimly aware that she was crying, but the wind pushed her so ferociously that the tears couldn’t stay on her cheeks.
With all her might, she threw the Book of Life at the Witness carrying the disembodied flame between her palms. She caught it instinctively and the book instantly ignited from the flames in her hands.
The Witness screamed with the voices of two women. The other Witness, seeing what had happened, screamed in the same way, attempting to put the fire out by hitting her counterpart with the branches of olives. However, they only acted as a fan, stoking the flames and catching ablaze themselves. The Witness on the left flapped the branches wildly in a panic, making it even worse. The wind howled, the thunder raged, and the lightning flashed, but she and Nathaniel were aware of nothing except the awful screams of the Two Witnesses as hungry flames climbed over the pair.
Beatrix wept. Mankind was going to be free.
However, as she watched the Witnesses burn, she couldn’t help but feel a knot of anxiety slowly twist and tighten in her stomach. She hoped mankind would stay on a true and honest path, one that ensured they didn’t abuse their gift of free will – the gift she could already feel unwrapping inside her mind.
What if that’s why the Book existed?
What if people choose to do more wrong than right?
What are we going to do to ourselves?
Read the rest of the stories in Sheriff Nottingham V: Groundhog Day – available on Amazon!