The Signature

The man known as Luke lowered himself, groaning, into the chair they indicated. He blinked in the harsh, too-bright light of the single exposed bulb. A man in an officer’s uniform set a paper on the table and pressed it forward, setting a pen in front of Luke.

“Sign it.”

Luke took up the pen and nearly obeyed. He scrubbed his eyes. The letters swam as they struggled to focus. He was disoriented by the light. “What does it say?”

“It does not matter. Sign it.”

Luke nodded and began his name, but after the first stroke, stopped. “I can’t.”

“It’s a piece of paper. It means nothing. Sign it. Otherwise, you will return to your cell.”

A spasm of terror, the clawing instinct of freedom, conquered Luke for a moment. The cell—frost, isolation, exhaustion, hunger, stench. “No.” He lifted the pen again. The words were becoming clearer now. It was a recantation. They had tried this before. “I cannot sign this.”

The officer gave a command, and the guards left. He removed his gloves, staring strangely at Luke. He took Luke’s chin roughly in his hand. “Look at me. Do you recognize me?”

Luke hesitated, his mind working slowly. “I—no. I’m sorry.”

“Why would you? You help hundreds in your little doctor’s office, luring children to Jesus through your medicine. Medicine at the price of faith. I can’t condone your methods, but you helped me when I needed it. Let me help you. Sign this, and they’ll free you. Lie if you have to. Just sign.”

Luke frowned at the young, intense face before him. “Lie,” he breathed, considering the word. “How easy…. But I cannot. I’m sorry.”

The officer turned away, visibly angered. “I’m trying to repay a favor!” He turned again, took the pen, and scribbled on the paper.

“What are you doing?” Luke asked. “You cannot sign my name.”

“I won’t get in trouble. The prisoners are bursting at the seams. They won’t ask questions.”

“You mustn’t sign my name,” Luke insisted, becoming agitated. He stood, his legs unsteady, and reached out his knobby hand in a desperate plea. “Please, you mustn’t do this. Please.”

The officer laughed in disbelief. “You are being a child! A stubborn, wrong-headed child! I am helping you! I just signed your life back to you! Your life for nothing!”

“No, no. Tear it up, tear it up! You don’t know what you are doing. Tear it up!” Tears had formed in Luke’s eyes, and when the officer saw them, he slapped the prisoner across the face. “I am helping you! Let me help you!” the officer’s chest heaved violently.

Luke landed hard on the ground, shocked by the blow. Slowly, he gathered himself and pulled himself to a sitting position. The officer continued to shout at him. “You’re a fool! It’s a piece of paper. You’ve signed nothing! It’s ink, a scrawl—it’s nothing. It’s not even your nothing. It’s mine.”

“You are taking from me the only thing I have,” Luke said quietly. “My wife is dead, my house is  seized, my tools confiscated. Everything has passed away. But Jesus—don’t put my name on that paper.”

But Luke looked up at the officer and saw that he could not understand. “Bring me a new sheet. I will write on it and sign my name.”

“Thank you.” The officer helped Luke into the the chair. In a minute, pen and paper waited for Luke’s words. With slow, long strokes, he composed a few lies and signed. The officer snatched it up and read it over.

“You swear never to speak again of the man Jesus.” He nodded. “That will do.”

“It is signed,” Luke said, peering up at the officer. “Does your soul still accuse you?”

The officer called in guards. “See that this man is fed and washed. He has written his recantation. He will be freed.”

They obeyed and waited for Luke to stand. He did, nodding politely to them and to the officer.  “I am afraid you don’t understand,” he said sadly. “I did this for your benefit, to relieve your guilt. It won’t work, of course. I’m sorry.” He began to shuffle out, aided by the guards. As he reached the door, his thick, gravelly voice, rose softly in song:

Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus,
Can my heartfelt longing still.
Lo, I pledge—

 

The officer trembled beneath the hoarse words. He tore the paper in two and screamed: “Return him to his cell! Beat him, starve him! Let him rot. Let the wicked man rot for all time!” He stomped the shreds of paper beneath his boot and stormed out.

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