I have always been fascinated by the wealth of literary characters that can be found within The Bible, and the most compelling of these characters is Lucifer—a tragic hero in the Classical sense, brought down by his own hubris. I’ve wondered: What would Lucifer be like millennia after the Fall? Is his character immutable, or would he have changed? Would he long for redemption, or would he still be consumed by the pride and hate that drove him to rebel? “A Faint Scent of Rue” is my attempt to answer these questions.
A Faint Scent of Rue
Kenneth D. Reimer
It was autumn, and during this season the man preferred spending mornings upon his apartment terrace overlooking the city street several stories below. This late in the season, the sun had not yet risen, and hours would pass before any direct light found its way to him between the surrounding buildings. Dressed in a sweater and slacks, he felt impervious to the chill air. A cooling cup of coffee warmed his palm.
Reverberating up the gully walls of the downtown core, the sounds of the early morning ritual began to intrude upon his reverie. After hours of remorseless contemplation, he welcomed the distraction, and the emerging cacophony gave him an odd sense of comfort—an assurance that the chaos was not his alone.
At times, he would look down to the street and watch an argument in pantomime between two gesticulating figures, watch the same garbage truck collect the daily detritus as it had done innumerable times before, or watch one of the local whores stagger off from a customer following the culmination of their clandestine rendezvous. Yes, chaos lurked on the street below.
Other times, he would study his place of refuge, this little terrace garden within which he dwelt. He called it such, but it was an affectation of his, a barren place really, not a garden at all. All that was green had fled the approaching winter. The vines that had a month before dropped a veil of privacy about him, now twisted down in dry ruin, more like a cage than a bower.
On that morning, still under twilight, he sipped coffee and let his gaze wander over the surface of the building across from him. Its windows were dark. Most people still slept, and it would be a while yet before the street became thick with cars. His stereo played within, a soft sonata that was only infrequently interrupted by the sounds echoing up the concrete and glass. But for his internal machinations, such times were almost peaceful.
The air was cool, but he enjoyed the briskness of it. Closing his eyes, the man leaned back in his chair and breathed deep of the morning. Rising from the street below, there came a banquet of aromas: dew moistened garbage, spilt liquor, the pungent wisp of gasoline, vomit, and somewhere, somewhere, the sticky scent of blood. They mingled within his lungs. After years in the city, it was all so familiar now.
Yet here was something unusual. Something was out of place. The man sat forward, suddenly alert. Another deep breath and there it was again—the scent of flowers. This early in the morning? He left his chair and walked to the edge of the terrace, studying the scene below. There, just outside the entrance of the flower shop across the street, a woman paused momentarily and then set off at a quick pace, a wrapped bundle of flowers resting in the crook of her arm. He filled his lungs once again, desperate for the scent – a familiar scent, a special scent. Ah, there, he recognized it, the faint scent of rue.
It was a sign. If he was ever to be welcomed home again, surely this would be the sign.
He rushed from the terrace, through the apartment and burst running into the hallway of his building. Hurrying past the elevator where a couple stood waiting, the man yanked the steel door of the stairway and leapt triple steps, spinning on the railing until he arrived at street level. When he came sprinting onto the sidewalk beneath his window, the woman was nearly out of sight around a building at the end of the block.
He was panting with excitement. Short moments and he was close to where she walked. Unexpectedly, a sudden panic held him back. If she was the sign, if he had a chance for repentance, then this encounter demanded some dignity, some decorum. The moment he had hoped on all these centuries could not pass so unceremoniously. He checked his headlong rush and brought himself to a measured pace several yards behind her.
She wore a white coat; her long, blonde hair flowed behind her. When she reached the corner and turned East, the rising sun caught her hair, and it looked as if a halo suddenly enwreathed her head. The image was evocative, bringing to mind a similar vision that he had experienced many, many years before. The memory forced itself upon him. As with this morning, that one too had begun in a garden.
* * *
He had always appreciated beauty, and here had been an abundance of it—rich, varied, new—brilliantly new, shimmering with its imitation of perfection. His very presence in that place had been an affront to god, but what of that? Had he not once strode amidst the grandeur of Heaven? How then could such diminished beauty be denied him? And that fool Uriel had shown him the way. The fault was Uriel’s. Let Uriel bear the blame.
Studying that fragile creation, he had wondered: Could this world cast its enchantment upon him—compel him to leave it unsullied? Perhaps once, but no longer. No, god’s lesson had been clear: One must not strive for Perfection; Perfection must be brought down.
And so it would be . . . .
A cluster of petals stirred about his ankles. He bent to lift one, brought it to his nose and breathed long of the bitter smell. Ah, the scent of rue. It carried with it remembrances of Heaven, where he’d once stood amidst such flowers, bathed in celestial light while the voice of god had whispered through the fields. He had taken steps to alter that voice, not to replace it, but only to merge it with his own. Had that been so terrible an aspiration for a perfect being such as himself? Wasn’t his very perfection a testament to the creator? All had failed, and god’s voice was lost to him.
He had regarded the rue, the herb-of-grace. Surely that blossom in that place spoke of a god’s guiding hand. Surely it did. He crushed it, and his other hand touched the scar where Michael had first taught him pain.
Not too far from where he stood, he had seen a figure moving through the foliage, lit by the newborn sun. There she walked—alone—wandering in her abysmal innocence, oblivious to his presence and his intent. To this paradise, he would bring a small fragment of the night to answer god’s crime of hubris with one of his own. Lowering with a hiss to the undergrowth, he moved toward her unsuspecting form.
“God,” he would say to the woman, arrayed as she was in her clothes of celestial light. “God,” he would say, “sent me here, not as a temptation, but as a test. Are you equal to his test?”
* * *
It seemed fitting now that the scent of herb-of-grace, that rue, would draw him from his terrace garden. A symbol of repentance, it had special meaning for him, feeling now as he did, longing for the vaulted stars of Heaven. And hadn’t he already suffered enough? Hadn’t his punishment far exceeded his crime? Yet still he felt doubt. Was god’s grace expansive enough to overcome his thunderous pride?
Then again, this morning, at the coming of dawn, a woman had passed beneath his home, and the scent of rue had drawn him from his garden bower. What else could such a thing mean but that god was extending his grace? Surely, she had been sent to him.
He could see her only a little way down the street, holding with care the small package of flowers that she had arose early in the morning to purchase. Maybe they were for herself. She would place them in a vase in the morning light and the sun’s heat would release their fragrance to fill her home.
Perhaps those flowers were for a lover. No, he would not entertain such a thought. If she were sent as a symbol to him, her purity would be immaculate. There could be no lover, no complications. This one woman must be innocent and clean, free from his influence. Like that first woman had been so long ago.
If not, then he was still lost.
Unable to wait any longer, he closed in upon her and called out.
She paused at the sound of his voice, stiff. In his excitement, he wondered if a connection had been made, and if she realized in that startled moment that their destinies were entwined. Possibilities thrilled him. She paused. He approached, called out again. She turned.
Timid with apprehension, he avoided her gaze and looked down to the package cradled in her arm. Horrified, he recognized the logo of an all-night liquor store stenciled on the paper bag. He’d been to that place, just across the street from his apartment building, its door next to the flower shop. He was stunned. She didn’t carry flowers; she carried alcohol. He could smell it on her breath. Bourbon. She’d been drawing it straight from the bottle. Sickened, the man realized that it was her perfume he had smelled, pungent now that he was close. Mixed with the fetid stench of her breath, it nauseated him.
He needed to turn away, to get as far from that vile creature as he could, but his feet were frozen in place. Unsuccessfully fighting the compulsion, he looked up to stare into her eyes.
It was an image of corruption—a caricature of sensuality. He realized that beneath the heavy make-up and bleached hair, he regarded the face of a prostitute. He’d been lured from his garden by a whore. Past the crude mask he could see that it was a haggard face, devoid of emotion. Perhaps she’d been wearied by a night of sin. Perhaps the baseness of her existence had sucked something intangible from within, leaving only a painted shell. Perhaps it was the paint alone that held her together.
She was startled; the bottle fell to the sidewalk. The glass splintered within the bag, and shards tore through paper like bones through skin.
He stepped back a pace and regarded her lifeless façade. Joy had turned to gall, constricting his throat. Desperate, given to violence, he considered killing her. Yet, impossibly mingled somewhere in that brutal assault of sensations, there it was still, the faint scent of rue. He did nothing, only turn, choking back the bitterness.
The man walked away.
Winter finally arrived, and snow began to fall. In the distance, it drew a white shroud over the plants in his erstwhile garden.