The Inventor pitied the poor but determined baker, who strove mightily every day to make his fare taste as much like bread as possible, but it was clear (to everyone except himself, evidently) that he simply hadn’t the knack for it. Passersby who wandered in would order a basket of rolls, sample one as they waited, and politely proceed to suddenly remember they had some urgent appointment or other, and would you mind just holding off on the rolls till tomorrow, thank you and sorry for the trouble.
The Inventor would drop by once a week and buy a loaf here or a baguette there, just to encourage the beleaguered baker to keep at it, and he had to admit, the baker had gotten a little better of late: of all the hopeful-yeasted facsimiles the shop had ever turned out, the pumpernickel this week was probably the closest yet. Which, of course, made it all the more a surprise when the Inventor, passing by on the way home, noticed that the bakery sign had been replaced with one considerably more ambiguous: “House of the Way.”
Intrigued, the Inventor made note to return and inquire about this turn of events.
Later in the afternoon, he did return, this time with his mountain of a companion in tow. The Bear had been just as surprised as the Inventor to hear of the bakery’s abrupt transformation. In fact, he had been one of the baker’s top customers, and likely one of the few reasons the bakery had possessed the financial wherewithal to remain open; it was again that peculiarity of the Bear by which he encountered old or trivial knowledge with wide-eyed, virginal wonder that also caused him to eat or drink as if never before, to hear music as if emerging from a silent, dark room for the first time, to taste even this modest replica of bread as if discovering a new, exotic, yet-unpursued avenue of culinary delight. Not long after making the Bear’s acquaintance, the Inventor had learned not to attempt to fathom his friend’s idiosyncrasies, of which the Bear himself seemed blissfully unaware.
The man who answered the door was young, probably no older than thirty by the Inventor’s guess, with sharp, pointed features and piercing eyes. “May God bless you this fine day, gentlemen. Welcome to the house of the Lord. What may I do for you?” His suit was exceptionally well-tailored, his cufflinks glittering gold, and his necktie the perfect shade of red; the Inventor’s keen nose immediately detected traces of expensive aftershave and liberally-applied shoe polish.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the Inventor replied. “My friend and I happened to notice the old bakery was gone, and we were curious as to what this new business might be.”
The man with the shiny cufflinks laughed good-naturedly, but the ever-perceptive Inventor caught a note of strain, or perhaps fatigue, in the man’s laugh. “Business? Well, I suppose you could say we are a business of sorts. Come in, come in, have a seat.” He motioned for them to enter. The bakery’s interior had been radically altered, so much so that it was unrecognizable. The front area seemed to have been converted into an office, with a sizable mahogany desk on one side and a somewhat smaller oak desk on the other – presumably for Cufflinks and a secretary, respectively, though the lack of papers or a name plate on the smaller desk seemed to indicate the position had not yet been filled. Wood paneling covered the walls, and the old sales counter had been replaced by a large set of wooden double doors. A window to either side of the doors yielded glimpses of what appeared to be church pews.
Cufflinks guided the Inventor and the Bear to a pair of comfortably appointed leather chairs, then chose to alight himself on the corner of his own desk. “Now, by business, I only mean the metaphorical sense, of course – we are, you could say, in the business of saving souls. This establishment, gentlemen, is a church. A house of the Lord. A place for the express purpose of the worship of God Almighty.”
“Ah, yes, as I had guessed,” the Inventor nodded. “And which faith tradition, in particular?”
“Why, the Christian one, of course,” Cufflinks responded with exaggerated surprise. “Is there really any other? Or at least, is there another one worth following?” He chuckled again; his laugh was again permeated by that barest wisp of stress. “I’m only joking, of course. Although as Christians, you and I know the joke to be all too true. You are Christian, aren’t you, my friend?”
“Well, yes, I am, but I must say, that’s a rather bold assumption to make,” the Inventor answered with a much more genuine surprise. “What if I had not been, and you had just mocked my faith? You ought to be more careful, you know, if you want to avoid offending people.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Cufflinks chided. “If I believed a load of nonsense, I’d want to be told it was nonsense, so I could stop believing it. Wouldn’t you?”
“Again, yes, but that seems like an unnecessarily harsh approach-” The Inventor trailed off as Cufflinks, clearly not entirely invested in the conversation, rose from his perch on the desk and moved to open a rather expensive-looking cabinet.
“Something to drink, gentlemen?” he offered, extracting three glasses.
“Yes, please. Brandy, if you have it.”
“The same for me, thanks,” the Bear nodded.
Cufflinks whirled about to face them, his face twisted up in shock and disgust. “Gentlemen! Liquor! I thought you said you were Christian! And here you are, asking for liquor, in the very house of God! For shame!” He produced a large carafe of water from the cabinet. “Do you not know that you cannot drink such things? It’s an abomination unto the Lord, to drink liquor or wine! It says so in Scripture. No, we drink water here, my friends, and you would do well to change your sinful ways.” He poured them each a generous glassful of water. They politely took it, although somehow the Inventor now felt disinclined to drink anything at all.
“I beg your pardon,” he apologized, bowing his head lightly in deference. “I didn’t realize Scripture said such a thing.”
“It most certainly does! The drinking of alcohol is clearly prohibited to followers of the Lord, I believe in the Book of Proverbs, seventeen and twenty-seven,” Cufflinks admonished, canting his chin upward in disgust.
The Inventor cast an inquisitive look at the Bear, whom he knew had a better grasp of such matters. The Bear simply shook his head. Meanwhile, Cufflinks had begun pacing back and forth, expounding on Scripture from memory, orating to an audience that seemed to be much larger than the pair of men uneasily nursing glasses of water in his office. His hands flapped about, punctuating his sentences with violent vigor; the vague trace of fatigue in his voice also rose to a noticeable pitch.
“For heaven’s sake, there are so many people in this world who call themselves Christians, and yet they do not know the truth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! They mix in all these lies and deceits with the truth, all these pagan practices, all this idol worship, when faith in Jesus is so much more simple. It’s so simple, it’s so plain to see, it’s right there in front of their faces and yet they miss it! The laws of the Lord are so very simple and so very clear in Scripture, you have to wonder how it gets so mixed up!” A broad grin played across Cufflinks’ face, as if he was about to reveal a winning card in a game only he could see, and he speared his two guests with smiling eyes, resuming his original resting place on the edge of the desk. “You know, I was a lost sheep too, once. Not so long ago, I was a misguided Christian, with my own ideas of what it meant to be with Jesus. I was raised with a lot of… misconceptions. But through my time in seminary” – he gestured to a framed diploma on the wall – “and through personal prayer and studies in Scripture, I have finally managed to eliminate those misconceptions, to see Jesus clearly with my own two eyes, instead of seeing Him through those dark, dirty lenses of untruth.” He lowered his voice to a dramatic whisper. “In fact, just one week ago, I discovered the Secret. The Secret to end all secrets. The key to understanding the mysteries of the Gospel, the key that is so obvious that it’s hiding in plain sight.”
The Inventor and the Bear leaned forward, intrigued.
“The Secret is…” – he paused for effect – “thou shalt not eat.”
“That’s it. The Secret to Jesus. The hidden Eleventh Commandment. The way to heaven. What you have to do is stop eating.” Cufflinks leaned back, folding his arms, his countenance confident and calm.
“Stop… eating?” the Inventor repeated, puzzled. “How does that-“
“It’s all there in Scripture, you know,” Cufflinks interrupted by way of elucidation. “The key to it for me was the words of Jesus Himself, John six and twenty-seven: ‘Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you.’ Jesus is the Bread of Life, He said so Himself. If we have Jesus, the Word of God, then we don’t need earthly bread! This is precisely why Matthew four and four makes sense: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.’ Do you see it there? Man does not live by mere bread – because we don’t need bread where we’re going!”
The Bear could say nothing, a dumbfounded look on his face. The Inventor’s train of thought came crashing to a halt as he stammered, “But, but that’s not-“
“My friends, don’t you see it? We need to go to heaven to get this Bread! We need to cast aside the bread of this world for the Bread of the next! We must die in order to rise again!” Cufflinks was up again now, this time nearly cavorting about the room, the invisible audience rising to give an ovation. “It doesn’t matter if we die here, because we won’t die there! Do you see it, my friends? Do you see the light? Will you join me?” He bounded to a halt, one hand dramatically extended, openly inviting the two guests to join him in his theatrical performance.
But before the Inventor could answer, Cufflinks’ sharp eyes suddenly dulled, lost focus, and rolled backwards in his head. The Inventor and the Bear both leaped from their seats as the preacher slumped to the ground, his fall partly broken by an innocently bystanding potted plant.
“He’s alive,” the Inventor said, checking for a pulse and respiration and finding both to be shallow, but present. “How long did he say it’s been since he’s eaten? A week?”
“A week,” the Bear grunted, hauling Cufflinks up into a chair with one great fluid motion.
“I’ll get a doctor. You stay here with him,” the Inventor instructed, and rushed to the door. The Bear inspected the unconscious preacher and, satisfied that he was unhurt, lowered his mighty frame back into his chair and began to pray.