Short Story Friday–Illumination


The tour had progressed like a number of others the student had been on. The guide pointed out the high points of the facilities, spoke about the culture of the student body, and tried their best to not complain about the food. It was typical stuff, and the student sleep-walked through much of it.

“And here’s where students gather before the doors open for chapel in the morning.”

The student was just awake enough to take notice of the room they had entered. There are some backless benches, a few planted trees and other greenery, and a set of double doors exiting to the street on his right. A ramp descended into the lower level of the school the far wall, partnered with a second which sloped upward. These were flanked by double doors on either side. The decor looked a lot like a mall back home, which hadn’t updated its decor in decades. The only thing missing was a fountain.

“The ramp up goes to the chapel, the doors lead to the cafeteria,” the guide pointed out.

The student nodded and moved into the room, whereupon he noticed an acrylic case which had been placed under a skylight. Sunlight reflected off the polished surface, and inside the case the student could make out a relief. As he moved closer the scene in the case took shape—it showed a man flailing in an ice filled stream, with another man reaching to give the drowning man assistance. It was an interesting piece of art, but the student wondered what it was doing in the center this drab lobby.

“Oh, that’s Dirk Willems,” the guide provided, as if reading the student’s thoughts.

“Who?” the student replied.

“The man reaching out to help the person who fell through the ice is Dirk Willems. He’s kind of a big deal among Mennonites.”

“Just because he saved someone from drowning? Who’d the man turn out to be, a king or something?”

The guide smiled, “You know, I don’t really know who he was. The story is that he was pursuing Dirk Willems to bring him back to prison to await his execution.”

The student was puzzled. “So, this guy was a criminal? A murderer or something?”

The guide shook their head. “No, he got baptized as an adult. And then he convinced some other people to get baptized as adults, even though they’d all be baptized as babies, so the local authorities thought they were dangerous.”

“Just because they got baptized?”

The guide nodded, “Yah. It’s kind of a thing in Mennonite history, actually. We’re often seen as disruptions to order because we follow our conscience on things other people shrug at. For a long time it freaked people out.”

The student’s brow wrinkled, “That’s stupid.”

“I think so too.”

“So this guy was in jail, then?”

The shrugged, “Mm-hmm. He was going to go on trial for heresy, but he made a rope and escaped. The guard was chasing him, but fell through the ice and started crying for help.”

“And he went back?”

“Dirk? Yes, that’s the story.”

The student was indignant. “But if the guy drowned he’d be free. No one would have known where he’d got to!”

“I guess. But then he’d have the guard’s death on his conscience. So he’d have ended up back in prison either way.”

“What did he get out of it? Did the guard let him go? Did the judges set him free?”

The guide frowned. “You’d think so, but no. Dirk Willems was taken back to prison by the guard. A few months later he was burned at the stake.”

“What!” The student almost shouted. “That’s a terrible story, who wants to remember something where you do good and get killed for it?”

The guide shrugged once more. “It’s just how Mennonites tend to see the world. Doing good needs to be done, because it’s the right thing to do. And we’ve not often been rewarded for it. At a lot of points in history, in fact, we’ve been hated for it.”

The student shook his head. “I don’t get that at all. What’s the point?” He pointed toward the relief. “I mean, he did good and they still killed him. So why bother?”

The guide threw out his hands. “I guess reward doesn’t play much into it. Dirk Willems heard a man drowning and saved him. I guess because that’s what Jesus did for him.”

“Didn’t Jesus get killed on a cross or something?”

“Yup, but we still tell his story.” The guide pointed toward the relief. “And we tell Dirk Willem’s story, as an example. I guess maybe Mennonites think that’s better than a reward.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

The guide grinned. “I suppose not, but it’s true.”