Calvinism and the ideas of predestination, election, foreknowledge, free will, and the Book of Life can mess with your head. The problem is that we do not have the resources to see reality from God's point of view. So when we try to analyze the issue of how salvation works, everything gets twisted. Maybe if we come at it from a different angle we can see that from where we
stand, it doesn't have to be that complicated. God is the omniscient, omnipotent, timeless Creator of the cosmos; accepting His love is a whole lot more important that trying to figure out how that love got to us.
The great, dark castle perched on a craggy outcropping like a grizzled crow, scanning the horizon for carrion. Towers thrust into the sky like errant feathers; buttresses clung to the rock with half-entombed talons. In the throne room sat a beautiful Count with a face like hard quartz and black armor that sucked the light and joy from the air. His barons flitted about the castle, whispering thoughts of despair to the servants, convincing them to keep the shutters drawn, and spilling wine on the newly cleaned rugs. Their "pets", the gaunt black wolves, trotted in front of them, sniffing the air and checking every nook to snarl and bite at any servant who dared take a rest.
Below the towers, buttresses, throne room, and most of the wine stains, Joseline the scullery maid sat near a roaring fire, polishing the silver. She had risen when it was still dark in order to scrub wine from three rugs before Cook started the gruel. Next to her, straining to turn a beast impaled on a massive spit, sat a boy, one year Joseline's senior, named Ryan.
"You'll never get that clean," Ryan said, nodding at the spoon in Joseline's hand. "I don't know why you polish silver here, anyway. Between the grease and the soot, it ends up dirtier than when you started."
Joseline put the spoon down in her clean pile and picked up a fork. "Well, I don't know why you bother turning that spit. The meat's so uneven on the rod, it will never be cooked properly."
Ryan kicked at a rat helping himself to the morsels in the drippings pan, then tried to slow the inevitable fall as the larger side of beast reached the top of its rotation. "You should go into the butler's pantry where it isn't so smoky."
With a shriek, the cook ran from the butler's pantry into the kitchen, closely followed by a large pitcher of milk that gently spiraled through the air. White liquid escaped vessel and washed over Cook's shoulders. She spun and cursed her invisible assailant until a flying bowl of gruel and raisins sealed her mouth.
Joseline and Ryan covered their quiet laughs while Cook wiped the goop from her face.
"Old Biddy deserved that!" whispered Ryan.
Joseline wiped her eyes of tears. "Yes, but we're the ones who will have to smell spoilt milk all week."
Ryan wrinkled his nose and returned to his spit. Cook turned on the pair.
"Ryan, that beast had better be cooked evenly or it'll be you on that spit tomorrow. Joseline! What are you doing sitting about? Come over here and clean this mess Xander made!"
"Yes, Cook." Joseline laid down the fork and rose to find a dish rag. The rat, having procured a good-sized piece of fat, scampered to her corner and nested in the clean silverware.
Cook wiped the gruel from her face, letting it fall to a rug Joseline had cleaned that morning. "That butler is in a state, he is. Someone's been opening windows on the west tower again. No one will fess up, but it's got the barons in a fit. Here, girl, come draw the water while I try to clean my hair."
Joseline pumped while Cook untwisted her bun and let the long, grey locks drape down into the sink.
"But why would Xander throw milk and oatmeal at you?" Joseline asked.
"T'wasn't Xander," Cook said, her voice echoing through stone basin and running water. "Baron Krief doesn't like raisins today."
"And that's why I don't go to the butler's pantry," Joseline said under her breath.
After helping Cook with the water, Joseline re-cleaned the rug, then rinsed out the rags and took them to the laundry. On her way back, Xander caught her and sent her to the south tower to check the shutters. Only about half were open. As she slowly closed them, Joseline took the risk of peeking out at the bright green countryside.
Smoke rose from behind trees. Far in the distance, a boat with a white sail tacked down the river. Odd. Everyone in the world lived in the castle; where did the smoke come from? And all the Count's ships had red sails. The click of wolves' claws echoed down the hall, and she closed the shutter, hurrying on to the next room.
By the time Joseline got back from shutting windows, it was time to cut vegetables for lunch. Afterward, Cook set her to cleaning the pot the rice had burned in two days prior. Four hours of cleaning came after supper. The sun was long gone by the time she remembered her silver.
But when she returned to the fire, all the silver was gone and Ryan was scrubbing grease off the flagstone with a huge grin on his face.
Joseline's heart beat wildly. "Ryan, what have you done with the silver? Did you steal it?"
Ryan rose to a crouch and held his hands up. "Settle down. Why would I steal your silver?"
It was a foolish thought, but then a sparkle of gold under his chin caught her eye. "Where did you get this?" She stepped forward and reached for the heart-shaped locket hanging from his neck. "Oh, Ryan, did you sell the silver for this? Cook will beat me, and Xander...Xander will probably kill
me! You have to get it back!"
Ryan grabbed her arm, his soapy calluses leaving soot marks on her skin. He dragged her to the butler's pantry and opened the silver drawer. Forks, spoons, and knives sat in neat rows, cleaner than Joseline had ever seen.
"Miranda did it," Ryan said. "She helped me turn the spit, too. The meat was still awful, but it gave me time to get this." He fingered his locket. "You can get one, too. She's going to be here in a few minutes to tell everyone how."
"Miranda?" Joseline absently shut the drawer and rubbed Ryan's fingerprints away as she followed him out. "But no one has seen her for months." She paused as Ryan passed by the pile of damp straw that made his bed in the corner of the kitchen. He picked up a ratty coat and put it on. "Where are you going?"
Ryan strode across the kitchen to the exterior door. Joseline followed him up the stairs, across the courtyard, and to a gate she'd never seen before. He pulled a silver key out of his pocket.
"Miranda gave me this. She'll give you one tonight. Don't worry, you'll like it. Imagine being out in the forest instead of just looking at the trees from the window! I've already been, but I wanted to come back to say goodbye." With that, he unlocked the gate, swung the leaf against its creaky hinges, and passed through. "Goodbye, Joseline."
She backed away from the door. "What about the wolves?"
The grin he'd worn earlier returned. "There are no wolves in the forest." He shut the gate, and Joseline could hear his footsteps disappear into the woods.
By the time Joseline returned to the kitchen, the staff was seated around the big oak table. Xander sat at the head, closest to the fire. Miranda, the pastry chef who had disappeared some months before, perched on the edge of her chair at the opposite end. Both of the two long benches on either side were filled to overflowing with wait staff, cooks, butchers, and even the dairy maids. Joseline stood in the shadow of a hutch and listened as everyone questioned Miranda.
Miranda laughed. "I'll get to your questions, I promise. Although you may not quite understand the answers. But first, here Joseline. You can share my seat."
Joseline's face grew hot as she came forward and sat next to Miranda. The big wooden chair was more than big enough for the two of them, and she was grateful for the seat.
Miranda leaned forward, her elbows on the table. "First of all, Xander, thank you for your offer. But I am not coming back to the kitchens. This is not the place for me anymore. I have greater things to do than bake sweets for the barons."
All eyes turned toward him for a response. Even Joseline knew that the one thing Xander prized before all else was the approval of the barons. Not that anyone had actually seen him receive such an honor. In the dim light, Joseline thought she could see his lips mouth "Blasphemy!"
"And, Cook..." Miranda turned and took Cook's hand. "I miss you too. But I cannot live here anymore. And I hope that after tonight, you'll decide to join me."
The servants muttered softly, and Miranda raised her voice. "I hope you'll all
come with me."
The butcher rubbed his stained hands together. "But where you been? We don't know where to go if you don't tell us."
"A very reasonable question. Four months ago, while closing the shutters in the southwest tower, I stopped and looked out over the forest. Have you ever noticed the smoke rising from behind the trees? Or the white sails on the boats in the river? It puzzled me greatly. Who lives outside the castle?"
"No one lives outside the castle!" Xander said.
Miranda lifted her head slightly. "Then where does Madam White from the laundry go every evening?" She leaned toward the others, who were exchanging curious glances. "I will tell you. I went to Madam White and asked her. She said that the Count may be the ruler of this castle, but he is not ruler of the world." Miranda let the whispers die down before continuing. "Outside these walls is a mighty King. He is good and right, and it is His people who sail with white sails and live in the deep woods. Like us, they were born in the castle. Way back in the times of long ago, our great-great-greats pledged themselves and their children as slaves to the Count, and we have been his slaves ever since."
While the people around the table erupted into argument over the incredulous words Miranda had spoken, Joseline shook her head. She gently touched Miranda's hand. "I'm not a slave. I'm a servant. I chose to be here."
Miranda put her arm around Joseline's shoulders. "When
did you choose? Do you even remember?"
"What are you a servant for?" Miranda asked. "For kicks and taunts and crusts of old bread? That's not payment. That's barely enough to keep you alive."
"But once Baron Krief gave me a doll," Joseline said brightly. "I remember."
"Where is it now?"
Joseline's shoulders drooped. "It fell apart by the time I brought it back to the kitchens. Cook threw it in the fire."
"I didn't want you to know what it really was, girl," Cook said gently. "The straw inside was filled with lice, and the head was just cloth covering a cat's skull."
Joseline felt the bile rise in her throat.
Cook continued, "I sure work like a slave. No choice as to what I do. Everything I do is wrong. Go on now, Miranda. What else did old Whitey say?"
The others calmed down enough to listen.
Miranda leaned forward, her elbows on the table, hands clasped. "The King hears you. The King hears when you cry after a beating, when you're hungry or cold, when you're running from the wolves. He doesn't want you to be slaves to the Count. He wants you to be free to leave the castle. But He can't steal us from the Count. He has to purchase us. So He did. He sent His Son, the true Prince, to buy us many, many years ago. The Prince paid the price — at great cost to Himself — to free us. We can be free to live under a kind King in a Kingdom filled with grace and light. All you need is the key to unlock the gate."
Those around the table murmured in wonder. "Where is this key?" they asked. "How do we get it?"
Miranda reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a handful of large silver keys. They caught the firelight and reflected bright spots across the dingy ceiling. She stood and circled the table, placing a silver key in front of each person. "Just take the key to the back gate. Open it, and step outside. The Prince will be waiting. He will check your name against His list and give you one of these." She pulled a gold heart-shaped locket out from the neck of her dress. "This will mark you as a child of the King forever."
Miranda sat back down next to Joseline. The table erupted into questions. Miranda answered each one, but Joseline only half-listened. She held the key in her hands, rotating it slowly to let the light shine on each curve and notch. She noticed that Cook had caught her key before it hit the wood of the table. Xander picked his up, looked at it thoughtfully, then slipped it in one of his many pockets. Maisie ignored hers and leaned back with her arms crossed against her chest, while Daisie shrugged, picked up the key, and stuck it down the front of her dress. Bernie the butcher set his hands flat on the table, one on either side of his key, and stared at the silver glow. Joseline wondered if he was afraid to touch it or afraid it would disappear — or both.
Miranda stood, waking Joseline from a half-sleep. "Goodnight, my friends."
The Count's servants drifted away into the shadows to find their beds. Even Miranda passed through into the butler's pantry. But not Cook. She untied the milk-covered apron and hung it on a hook. Then she took a look around the kitchen, huffed, and headed to the door.
Joseline caught up with her halfway across the yard. "Cook, are you leaving?"
The woman stopped but didn't turn. "Yes, girl. My grandmum offered me a key when I was but a wee one. I was a fool to refuse, and I've been waiting my whole life for a second chance. I'm not turning back now."
"But..." Joseline ran through the hundred questions in her head and settled on the one that puzzled her most. "If the forest is so grand, why did Miranda come back to the castle?"
"How else would we get our keys?" Cook asked.
Joseline watched as she opened the gate and disappeared between the trees.
"Cook was always was a daft one," Maisie said from the shadows by the kitchen stairs when Joseline returned. "There's nothing out there but dark forest. Not that I'm believing what Xander says, either. There's no great purpose in this life, and there's nothing on the other side of that wall."
"What about the smoke?" Joseline asked. "And the white sails and the lockets? Ryan had one this evening. Where did he get it?"
"Cheap trash. For a kiss, the blacksmith will cast one out of old brass casings. I had one once." Maisie rubbed her chin. "Wonder where it went?"
"Knock it off, Maisie," said Daisie, plucking the key out of her bosom and considering it in the moonlight. "Joseline and I don't want your nihilism."
"You believe then?" asked Joseline.
Daisie nodded. "Sure. I've seen it. But Miranda's got it wrong. There are lots of gates. Some of them, you have to pick the lock. Some you have to bring fresh cream to the guards. They all lead to forests or gardens or fields. And when you're in there, you feel like you haven't a care in the world. That's the freedom Miranda was talking about."
Joseline held up her key. "But then, what makes this one so special?"
Daisie eyed her. "Good question. My guess is that it's not. That whole story of the Prince and all that — I've heard about Him, and He's nice enough. But I don't need His help to feel free. I can find my own gates."
Maisie dropped her hands into her lap. "I wouldn't get to go anyway. You heard what Miranda said — there's a list. If there's a list, it means some people aren't on it. Why would I want this freedom if not everyone could have it? Who's to say that I'm lucky enough to even be on the list at all? If I was to go through a gate, I'd rather go through one of Daisie's, to a garden where everybody's welcome."
The dairy sisters strolled arm-in-arm to their room off the barn.
Joseline returned to the kitchens only to find them empty, the fire banked. But a light flickered on the table. It was a key — the butcher's key. Joseline scooped it up and crept to Bernie's room by the cold storage.
"Bernie?" Joseline knocked lightly. "Bernie, you left your key."
"Come on in," Bernie said, his voice cracked and gruffer than usual.
She joined him in the candlelight. "Here's your key."
"Just set it on that chest of drawers over there."
She did, then took a seat in the rush-covered chair. "What do you think about all this?"
Bernie rubbed his eyes with a huge hand. "Well, it's a fine story, but it's not mine."
"What do you mean?"
"I heard about this Prince. And His King. Good folk. Now Cook, she's got a good heart. And Miranda's always been aces. But me...well, I'm not fit for that kingdom in the forest."
He looked down at his stained palms. "I didn't always used to butcher beasts, Joseline."
Whispered rumors passed through her head, and she nodded. "I heard you once worked in the dungeon."
Bernie grimaced. "Time for bed, Josie-girl. Morning will come soon enough."
Joseline returned to her sleeping pallet and had just settled when the kitchen door creaked open. Xander came shuffling in, a lump cradled in one arm. He shut the door behind him and disappeared down the hallway. Joseline stared at the ceiling, wondering at everything that had been said.
If Bernie wasn't good enough, why did Miranda give him a key? Or were the dairy maids right, and even if someone had a key, they still couldn't go into the forest if their name wasn't on the list? And what did Xander bring in from outside?
The next morning, Joseline found out one answer to her questions from the night before. Xander woke them all an hour early. The kitchen staff gathered around the table and stared, bleary-eyed, at the stack of parchment in front of the butler.
"I thought you might like to know that I went to the gate last night."
Questions exploded into the air. "Did you see Him? Did you go into the forest? Where's your locket?"
Xander waved a dismissive hand. "Time for that later. Yes, I did see Him. He is as wonderful as Miranda said. Very smart and very disciplined. But Miranda was mistaken in a few things. You can't just go through the gate and expect to receive a gold heart. No, no. He told me about a book of rules. I figure you need to earn your heart, so to speak."
"That makes sense," Daisie said. "What do we have to do?"
Xander gestured at the paper. "It's all in here. All the rules and guidelines. There are some things to memorize, of course. And everything must be word-perfect. I added a few things too, just to make sure we don't miss anything. We'll meet here every morning, an hour early, and study. Within, say, twelve years, maybe we'll be ready."
Joseline spoke up. "But Cook went through last night, before you did. And she didn't know all the rules."
"And where is she?" Xander asked. "I'm not convinced she went through far enough to meet the Prince. She's probably got herself lost."
Maisie smirked. Daisie shrugged. Bernie looked at the stack of parchments with more longing than he'd shown the key, his mouth thin with determination.
They spent the rest of the hour going over the first page of the instructions. Joseline thought it was strange how much they sounded like Xander's own habits. Did the Prince really care what kind of socks she wore? Or what staircase she used? Life in the castle seemed free in comparison to following all of these rules.
Later that afternoon, while closing the shutters in the third north-north-west tower, Joseline found Miranda leaning out a window, staring at the forest.
"It was you —h you've been opening the shutters. But why?"
"To remind people of the forest. So they will want to go before they know how. But what about you? You love the forest. Why are you still here?"
Joseline took a seat on the sill of another open window. "I'm very confused." She explained what she'd seen — Cook breezing through the door without a thought, perhaps to her death; Daisie and Maisie with very logical reasons why this gate was not unique, not to mention that it seemed unfair; Bernie's fears about being good enough; and now Xander's rules about admittance through the door.
When she was finished, Miranda only smiled. "What do you think of all that?"
"Well, Maisie always sees the bad side of things. Daisie's a bit of a flake, but she always seems so happy. Yet I've seen her 'gardens', and they don't look anything like the forest. Bernie seems to really like the idea of following all of Xander's rules, but Cook went right through without knowing any of them. Is anyone so bad that this Prince wouldn't have them on His list?"
"Good thoughts," Miranda replied. She tapped her cheek. "But here are a few more. Maisie says she won't go through the gate if everyone else can't. That's very noble, but if she's so concerned about the fate of others, why doesn't she show any kindness or compassion to them now? If she really cared, she'd go through the gate, then come back and convince everyone else to follow. You're right about Daisie's optimism. When you're continually surrounded by cow pies, even a weed looks like paradise. As for Bernie...I don't know if he is filled with pride or self-pity." She held up her locket so it caught the rays of the setting sun. "But when someone offers you a brand new golden heart, why would you waste the time trying to clean up the dark grungy original?"
"So Xander's rules aren't true?"
"Xander's rules are true." Miranda shook her head. "They just aren't possible. There is no way anyone can follow enough rules to earn a golden heart and freedom in the King's forest. That price could only be paid by the Prince. Xander knows this, but he told the Prince he didn't want the gift. He wants to earn it."
Joseline touched Miranda's locket. "Will he ever understand that this is a gift freely given?"
Miranda sighed. "He understands, but he rejects the gift. The next time he goes through the gate, he'll find his key doesn't lead to the Prince anymore." She gazed out into the evening mist. "What about you, Josie? Why aren't you at the gate right now?"
"I'm afraid of the list."
"The list of names that the Prince checks. Even if Daisie or Maisie or Bernie goes through the gate, what if their name isn't on the list? What if mine isn't? What if I get all the way through the gate and the forest is right there, and the Prince sends me back?"
"We don't get to know whose name is on the list. All we know is that if you go through the gate and ask the Prince for a new heart, your name is on the list."
Hope rose in Joseline's chest. "So anyone could get a gold locket?"
"Anyone, but not everyone."
Joseline heaved a heavy breath. "I don't understand. Why do I have to go through the gate? Why can't He give it to me here?"
Miranda laughed. "There's nothing magical about the gate itself. If you want to live in the King's forest, you have to go through the gate because the King is on the other side."
"But what if I'm not on the list?"
"If you ask for a gold heart, you are on the list."
"But what if, when the Prince paid for the slaves, He didn't pay for me?"
"If you ask for a gold heart, He did
pay for you."
Joseline clasped her hands together. "But how can I know for sure that He'll give me a gold heart? What if He..."
"If you ask for one, He will give it to you."
"Tell me," Joseline said, "how many people are on the list?"
"As many as ask for a heart."
"How many people did He pay for?"Joseline pressed. "Just the people on the list or everybody?"
"We don't know." Miranda leaned forward. "But do we really need to?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you need to know how many slaves He paid for before you ask for a gold heart?" Miranda twisted the chain in her fingers, letting the reflected light dance across the room. "You're looking at this from the King's perspective, as though you need to see the list yourself. But you're not the King. It's foolish and, well, ungrateful to demand to know all the answers before you agree to accept a gift."
"What if..." The sun set lower, throwing a last beam of light into Joseline's eyes. "What if He did
pay for Daisie and Maisie and Bernie — what if He even paid for Xander — and they're just sitting here, being slaves, when they could live in the forest now?"
Miranda raised an eyebrow. "What if...?
"I gotta go." Joseline raced from the room. Seven flights of stairs passed in a blur. Once in the courtyard, she skidded to a halt outside the dairy barn. "Maisie! Daisie!"
The sisters came outside, startled. "Did something happen?" they asked.
"Maisie, you can't help people by being a slave. You can only help them to the gate if you've already been." She turned to the other girl. "Daisie, if the forest is so much like your weed-filled gardens, then why do you have to work so hard to get in and then you aren't even allowed to stay?" She left them, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, and ran to the butcher's shed.
Bernie opened the door to her incessant knocking. "What is it, girl?"
Joseline was breathless. "I know you probably did some terrible things, but it doesn't make sense. The golden heart locket is a gift, not a trade. You can't ever be good enough to deserve it. But you don't have to be." She grabbed his arms and squeezed. "You don't have to be!"
When Joseline got to the gate, she found Xander there, key in his hand, a smug look on his face, but the key was changed. Instead of shiny silver it was dull and soft, like lead. He fit the key into the lock and opened the gate. As he walked through, a mist filled the doorway, obscuring what was on the other side. No sooner had he disappeared into the fog than he walked out again, another set of parchments in his hand. He closed the door behind him.
"Joseline, good to see you taking your studies so seriously. We have more to go over. We'll meet again at eleven tonight."
"Sorry, Xander," Joseline said as she fit her own silver key into the gate. "I won't be there." She slammed the gate open and ran into the forest.
Standing at the edge of the trees was a man. He opened his arms out to Joseline expectantly. "I've been waiting for you."
Joseline stopped short, her gaze flickering around him. "Where is the list? Am I on it?"
The man smiled. "You came to me, so I know your name is there." With that, he raised his hand, and a sparkling light danced across Joseline's face.
She recognized the object immediately, as though it had been hers all along. "My gold locket!"
The Prince secured the gift around her neck, then led her down the path to the kind King's Kingdom, where the castle windows stood wide open and the aroma of salty sea winds billowed white sails on the water.