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Katrine’s Secret

By the time of the late thirties, for the majority of people in Norway and other Scandinavian countries, God (the God of Christian faith) seemed very far away; indeed, farther than Odin and Thor and the other gods of the dead pagan past. Scandinavian countries--Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland--had employed the established state church system for many years, with the result that the churches sat empty, Sunday after Sunday, while the pastors and their staffs received tax-funded salaries. Except for baptisms, Christmas and Easter, why should anyone attend? Why should anyone sacrifice? Why should anyone believe when it was all a matter of public obligation like voting or paying taxes? Let someone else take the trouble! Consequently, few believed anymore in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Gustavus. Even those few were under steady, relentless attack by the demons of postmodern skepticism, doubt, and--worst of the lot--spiritual ennui. Could anyone survive this? Would Norway too become a wasteland, spiritually, where all the rank weeds of bygone paganism would revive and find root once again, or, if not that, give way to a totally alien, anti-Christian faith sprung from a foreign land?

Leaves were falling in Oslo’s parks, and August’s gardens were looking drab, with all the flowers gone, and the chrysanthemums browned by frost. Why, Katrine wondered, should she listen to a little voice in her that insisted she go out in the garden and take a picture with her camera? It just did not make sense. What flower was there to take a picture of?

She glanced at the cupboard where she kept the camera, hesitated, then turned to clear away the coffee things in the kitchen. She had finished her coffee alone, read the paper containing bad news about Spain’s Civil War and some local news about Gretta Garbo’s latest film, the Grand Hotel, where she muttered her classic line, “I vant to be alone,” then folded it neatly and tried to read her Bible. But nothing inspired her in its pages, no matter where she opened it. Giving up the attempt, she had prayed, but her words came back to her, as if bounced off a sheet of metal.

“Grant me Thy holy Spirit!” she had prayed routinely, unable to break the pattern. “Forgive my hardness of heart, and restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation,” she had continued, blending in some scripture to make her plea more presentable to God. Yet, no matter how she phrased her need, her long-lived, chronic dryness of spirit was just as bad after she prayed--and she had prayed as hard as she could. How hard she had reached out to touch the face of God, only she knew! But she couldn't reach far enough, apparently!

At last giving up, she rose wearily and started for the stairs to do some cleaning on the second floor when the strange thought intruded into her mind--”Go take a picture of the flower in the garden, the One that grew as a root in dry ground.”

Having decided she was doing no such thing, she started again for the stairs, and was just putting her foot out to the first step up when the thought flashed back into her mind.

Having already feared she had been disobedient, it came to her that God in his grace was giving her a second chance, and she had better take it.

“Oh, all right!” she thought. “The neighbors would think she was crazy, taking a picture in the garden when she hadn’t any flowers for photographing, and might even ask her why she was wasting expensive film, but she hadn’t any good answer, and she would just have to bear their indulgent smiles when they saw she had no good reason for her behavior.

With a degree of ill grace still souring her moment of obedience she hurried outdoors, raised the camera, snapped at nothing in particular but a thorny Pyracanthus bush with half its leaves gone she had meant to dig out the year before, then dashed back into the house.

Just as she had known, there wasn’t a single flower visible in the entire garden.

That done she set the camera down and went upstairs.

An hour later she had finished the mopping and dusting and other little duties and was coming down the stairs with the mop to give it a good shaking in the garden when the voice spoke again.

“Oh no!” she cried. “This is getting out of hand! What will the neighbors think!”

But she knew the voice wouldn’t leave her in peace, so she grabbed the camera and with the mop went out, snapped a picture at nothing, shook the mop, and retreated as hastily as possible back into the house--hoping her neighbors’ usually sharp eyes had missed her second picture taking.

She paused, thinking of a good excuse. “I am just trying to take the last frames of my film before it gets too old,” she could say, but that would be an untruth, a lie. Her mother had taught her to ALWAYS tell the truth. She just couldn’t tell them that, she knew. She wouldn’t be able to sleep, just thinking how she had lied.

Other than the lie, there really was no suitable explanation. She could tell the truth, that an inner voice had told her to take the two pictures, but, then, they would surely think she was getting loose in her wits! Who on earth had ever heard God tell them to take a camera and snap pictures of a dreary, unkempt, flowerless garden? Nobody would believe it.

Katrine sighed as she sank into a chair. Two wasted pictures, and for what?

The next day she was house-cleaning again, and the voice made her drop her polishing cloth that she had been using to wipe the furniture with oil. “Go out in the garden and take pictures of my sword and staff.”

Not again! And what “sword and staff?” There were no such things on the entire property!

In a fury she rushed with the camera into the garden, snapped it repeatedly as fast as she could as she swung the camera about, and then ran back into the house. “Sword and staff,” indeed!

Her face was red as she realized what a fool she must have looked to any neighbors looking her way, but she couldn’t have helped it, she just wanted to make it impossible for God to ever make a photographic demand on her again.

Strangely enough, when she calmed down, a wonderful peace flooded into her. It felt like a cool mist, only so rare and exquisite that she practically melted where she was. All she could do was cry out, “Thank you, Lord! Thank you!” when she realized that the Lord had answered her prayer as a reward for her obedience. He had seen her pathetic reaching out, and instead of letting her touch Him, He had reached out and touched her face instead! Her terrible drought and backslidden condition had come to an end, for God, the Flowering Root in humanity’s dry ground, had returned his presence to her, and revived her spirit.

Instead of a wretched thing dragging itself from one chore to another, she felt herself come alive, life pulsing and throbing in every part of her. She ran to the mirror, and her eyes, once so haggard and pained, glowed back at her with shining joy. She had grown old before her time, but now her youth was restored like the eagle’s! Her spirit soared! She wanted to rush out of the house and tell everybody what great things the Lord had done for her, but with the greatest difficulty she restrained herself, realizing that they would only think she had become a madwoman, her mind warped by living alone so much, without even a cat to keep her company.

How she wanted to tell them anyway! She picked up the telephone and called her sister, but she was away visiting, perhaps, for no one answered. Who else? She tried her pastor, and his wife answered, and when she asked to speak to the Reverend, she was told he was in an important meeting with the head deacon over the matter of the color of the new tile in the vestibule cloakroom. Could she please leave a message and he would return her call in a day or so when it was convenient?

No, she decided. She had to tell such things in person. “I’ll call back later,” she said.

Walking back and forth in the hall, she could not think whom next to tell. Then the idea came to take the film to the camera shop to have it developed. Perhaps, she could tell the manager, whom she knew for years. Mr. Torvaldsen was a kindly elderly man, and no doubt he would listen and not think she had gone mad. She even felt he had understanding of such things, beyond his wife’s, a lady who seldom came to the counter, for she held herself above business.

Hurrying out, she took the camera back to the shop.

Perhaps, she looked too excited, for the manager looked at her alarmed. “Anything wrong, Sigurdsdatter? “

“Oh, no, no!” she laughed somewhat immoderately, holding out the camera. “I just have some film here to be developed. Please take it out for me, for I was afraid I’d spoil it like I did last time. I am so awkward with cameras, as you know. They are just too complicated for me to handle. My father--God rest his soul--was the one who handled all the photography and technical things in the family, you know.”

Mr. Torvaldsen took the camera carefully, removed the film, then wrote down the number and name on the order slip, gave a duplicate to her, and waited for her to go.

She hesitated. “Mr. Torvaldsen,” she began hesitantly, “I wonder if you ever--”

She paused, and he stared at her. But the words didn’t come. She felt embarrassed already.

“When will the pictures be ready?” she said briskly.

“Please return in a week, and they’ll be waiting for you.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said, letting herself out.

A week and a day later, she had forgotten all about the pictures, which she hadn’t cared anything about, and the telephone rang, and it was Mr. Torvaldsen’s daughter.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, it slipped my mind,” Katrine said to the girl, shaking her head over her lapse of memory and the inconvenience it caused other people. “I’ll be right down.”

Since it was only a brisk walk away, she got there before closing and paid for the pictures.

Mr. Torvaldsen eyed her rather closely when he handed over the package. “You like plain leaves on bushes, do you?”

“What?” she said, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

He smiled faintly. “Well, the pictures you took. All I see is leaves--leaves and shadows. You must have taken the pictures too late in the day. For at this time of year, predictably there isn’t a single flower or view of anything scenic, just leaves and branches in all the pictures. I think you’re going to be terribly disappointed. All that expensive film may have been wasted. I’ll not charge you, if you think they are not worth the purchase. That has always been my policy toward valued, old-time customers here. Your father and I were school mates, you know, and brought all his film here for processing. He cannot be replaced--always prompt to pick up his orders!”

Katrine was horrified, afraid he thought her a fool and a disgrace to her father's memory because not only had she forgotten her pick-up, but she had wasted good film on worthless leaves and bushes. She couldn’t think what to say. “Naturally, I’ll have to see them first,” she said. That was the best she could manage to save the situation, and she hurried out of the shop, clutching the package of photos out of sight.

Safe back in her house, she dropped the package on the stand in the hall, and took off her hat and coat, which she carefully put away in the little closet to the side for such things.

Then she took the package with her into the parlor and turned on a bright light over her father’s writing desk. She hadn’t done anything before but dust it, and wipe the wood with oil, but now she opened the package and spread out the pictures. There were twelve. Had she taken that many? But then, her father must have just put the roll of film in, and hadn’t yet had the chance to use it, due to his sudden passing.

And Mr. Torvaldsen was right, they were all filled with leaves! Nothing but! What in the world was he thinking about her? That her father, a most respectable, dignified man, had born and bred an idiot?

She almost felt like bursting into tears--except that her eyes hadn't the necessary moisture for tears. Her face flamed and grew very tight as she looked at them. Not one had anything in it worth the film and the expense of development. Who in his right mind would take pictures of silly leaves and sticks? She had obeyed the voice, and now she had shown herself to Mr. Torvaldsen, if not to her neighbors, as an utter fool who threw away good Norwegian money.

For a moment the wonderful peace and joy she had been feeling for the last week fled away. Her tongue felt dry and her breath came and went in fast spasms, as she panicked momentarily. “Oh, no, what is happening to me?” she wondered. “Am I losing my mind from so much living alone?”

Suddenly, the stupid-looking, meaningless leaves and shadows shifted into an intelligible pattern, though she hadn’t seen it before, and patterns in all the pictures formed as if a twelve-panelled tapestry had been flipped to viewing side. The first pattern was unmistakable--it portrayed Jesus Christ's suffering, lacerated face, crowned with cruel Pyracanthus thorns.

But that wasn't the end of it. As she stared at the picture, it grew! The head and face was joined by a body, garbed in a long robe, with the letters, A and Z, Alpha and Omega, Aleph and Tau on his garment! He was standing gazing at her, one shoulder turned partly, and it seemed she could have reached out and touched him, he appeared so real in the picture.

The sight was enough to force her off the chair and to her knees, which could hardly support her, she was trembling so badly. Fumbling the photograph like she had lost control of her body, it flew from her hand and sailed across the room. She hadn't time to see where it went, she had to know what the second looked like. It made her gasp. The leaves and shadows formed the pattern of the three Crosses of Golgotha! She could also distinguish figures, one on the center Cross, the Marys and John the Apostle kneeling, and even the Roman centurian with sword in hand!

This was worse than she could have imagined. Thinking she had gone stark mad, she couldn't even put the photograph down. Rather, it flew from her hand just like the first and the third appeared in view. It too was like a Bible opening up for the first time--revealing vistas no eye had ever seen or envisoned! Only this time it wasn't a Biblical figure or saint or Christ Himself!

It formed a pattern of herself standing in the garden holding the camera, and falling across her shoulder, the shadow of the Cross! But what was clustered on it? Not roses, surely? Roses at this time of year? Especially since it had grown so cold she couldn't get a rose to bloom outdoors? Yet they clearly looked like climbing roses!

Completely undone, Katrina lay outstretched on the gleaming, spotlessly polished floor for some time, unable to comprehend or gather the strength even for comprehension. When she felt the beginning of strength, she stirred. She recalled the photographs and how strangely they had flown from her grasp. Where had they gone? She rose up to her knees and looked around. What was that gleaming across the room? Not the photographs, surely?

Going to the mirror and the bouquet of roses in the silver vase that normally stood there empty, she stared at them. She knew they hadn't been there before that day, and she knew she hadn't put them there. Who had invaded her home and done this? Was it some sort of joke? Who was the secret lover? At her age, a lover seeking after her affections? Surely not! It was absurd! She snatched away the photographs which were tastefully arranged among the beautiful sunny yellow and creamy pink blooms.

Not willing to discard the whole lot yet, she looked at the others then swept them all back into the package, and tied it up and put it under lock in the desk. Lastly, she took the vase and emptied it out in the trash bin.

That was how mysteries were dealt with in Norway! She felt better immediately, and life seemed to settle down to the same routine and rhythm she had always known.

Yet she couldn't put the memory of them away so easily. They constantly came back to mind. Finally, she didn't felt sure enough of herself to deal with them again.

She took out the first picture, and left the others. Who would believe more than one anyway? The Golgotha scene, herself with a cross-decorated cross leaning on her shoulder, and all the others with messages. It would be hard enough to accept one, much less nine that showed the great events of the world from the Crucifixion to the arrival of evil stars and on to their overthrow by a series of champions, male and female, with the concluding Champion and Victor winding up the series, riding a horse and holding up a staff in one hand and a sword in the other..

The picture of Christ in Katrine’s Oslo garden caught the world’s attention, surprising her. Christians everywhere wanted copies after it was published in Oslo papers and magazines. Millions of evangelism tracts telling how the picture was taken were printed and distributed after she gave permission. But the remaining eleven remained her secret until she died at home, an old woman who had required nursing care for her final years of considerable affliction and suffering.

After Katrine’s death her private papers were examined as a matter of course in the settling of estates, and the photographs came to light.

“Why would the deceased save these worthless pictures of mere leaves?” the estate executor and family attorney wondered, recalling the famous picture Katrine Sigurdsdatter had released to the world.

He turned them every which way, and when he could make no sense of them, he put them into the trash basket with other things for disposal.

“Why, it wasn’t a miracle after all but some kind of photographical trick! All these must be rejects, her first attempts to come up with the one she showed everybody,” he decided, a knowing look in his eye.

On second thought, he retrieved the photographs and put them into his briefcase for burning in his own grate. “It wouldn’t do, “ he thought, “for this to come out now. Let the fools believe what they want to believe, and no one will be the wiser except myself!”

Shaking his head over the hoax, he concluded his business in the house, then let himself out, careful to lock the door.

Later, in his own house, he took out the photographs to dispose of them by fire in the grate. A slip of paper he hadn’t seen fell from the bundle, and he picked it up. It was the deceased client’s writing.

“All the time I did not know, until I took these pictures, that the Rose of Sharon bloomed in my garden. You are the only One my life will ever need, for you make all things beautiful! Thank you, Lord!”

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