This visitor, at least, looked normal, and wore with loose comfort a good education and reasonable affluence.
“How might I help you, sir?” the Congressman asked.
The visitor introduced himself with a professional-quality handshake and an affable smile. “John Brunn, from Denver.” He handed over his business card. He spoke with the flat accent of the successful. If he was originally from Denver there was no way to tell. “So I’m not from your district but I hope you don’t mind my meeting you here. I’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”
He did, actually, but social grace forbade him from saying so.
“I love Colorado,” the Congressman answered. “Vacationed there a few times with the family. Please, have a seat. Are you at least Republican?”
“Independent, sir,” Mr. Brunn answered forthrightly, still smiling warmly. “Actually I’m not very political at all.”
The conversation, then, would be quick and informal. The visitor’s entire demeanor put him at ease and the Congressman relaxed into his leather chair. The visitor took the sofa. It was comfortable. The Congressman slept there sometimes.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me. I feel this a bit unfair: I know why I’m here and you definitely don’t. Let me start by saying that, for whatever it’s worth, I’m not here to give you a hard time about anything.” He laughed at this. “And if I’m keeping you from something you can say so, I won’t be offended. But,” and here he hesitated, “just hear me out. I’ll be quick.”
The Congressman was curious but not alarmed. When Mr. Brunn said he wasn’t here to give a hard time, the Congressman believed him.
Mr. Brunn opened his suitcase and pulled out a small stack of papers that he separated into two piles. He didn’t hand them over, not yet.
“We’ve never met, you and I, right?” he asked.
“Correct,” The Congressman answered.
“These are genealogical records, for both your family and mine.” He slid one stack over. “They aren’t exhaustive, but they don’t need to be. Just enough to establish bloodlines and draw connections. Again, please just hear me out. I understand that this is unusual but I’ll explain it all in a minute.”
The Congressman picked up the papers and read. It was a photocopy. The papers themselves were handwritten. He saw his own name, and his parents, his sister, and his brother, with the annotation that the brother was deceased. The family tree flowed up through his father to his grandparents, and then up through his grandmother to his great-grandparents, noting some but not all of their children. He realized it only noted those who had had children of their own. Small annotations indicated on which pages he’d find those branches of the family tree.
“A few months ago my father passed,” Mr. Brunn began, “and left me these records. These are photocopies; the originals are held in a vault that I don’t have access to, at least not easily. That’s his handwriting on this page. If you flip through you’ll see other handwriting. The records are quite extensive.”
He flipped through and read. His great-grandparents, whose names he had heard. Great-great-grandparents. He’d seen their names once on the register at Ellis Island once. Their parents. The handwriting on later pages became less modern, with swirls and hooks, like from the Constitution. Birth and death dates from the nineteenth century. He skipped an inch worth of pages and read names from the seventeenth century, all carefully annotated as on the first page. He flipped a large section. The handwriting was very different, probably in a different language, and the dates indicated the twelfth century.
“Here’s a matching set of records from my own family,” the visitor continued. “It’s more complete, obviously.”
The Congressman glanced over. At the bottom of the page was John Brunn, along the names of what looked four siblings, all of them with children. Mr. Brunn himself seemed to have three.
“You have my attention,” the Congressman said as he flipped through to names from the sixth century. “What does all this mean?”
“Our families have crossed paths before, at various points in time. This began with a wager. You and I can both trace our ancestry to an afternoon in the Illyrian city of Narona. There, a certain Claudius had lunch with someone named Quintus. They were classmates at the local academy. According to the records, this meeting took place in April of the year 221.
“Claudius was a Christian, and Quintus and his family clung still to the old Roman religion. They debated the merits of their religions and cited various proofs to each other but neither was able to convince the other. Finally Quintus proposed a solution, and Claudius accepted.
“Key to Quintus’s understanding of the new religion was the idea that Christ would rise and return. In the Bible he is explicit about the number of days that would elapse between his death and resurrection, but by the year 221 that date had long passed so Biblical scholars already insisted that it was all metaphorical, and that Jesus would return at a date that would be symbolically reflected by the date he announced.
“So Quintus asked Claudius when exactly the Lord would rise–in their lifetimes? In a century? In a thousand years? Claudius insisted, and Quintus agreed, that the ways of the gods are not understood by men, probably by design, and that it was foolish to give a firm date and expect that to work.
“But at the same time, these gods claimed to be invested emotionally, I suppose you could say, in the lives of men, whose time on earth is often heartbreakingly short.
“So Quintus, in an effort to prove that the god of Claudius was false, made a promise that he and his family would remain pagan for a hundred years, whereupon his descendants would seek out Claudius and ask for clarification on whether or not Christ had risen. If he had, then Quintus and all of his heirs would accept eternal damnation. But if he hadn’t, then Claudius and his heirs would renounce their faith and preach against it to others.
“They kept this bet, and after a century their heirs met. By then, much had changed in the world. Constantine was Emperor, and Christians were prominent in the public sphere, but Jesus remained dead. The grandsons agreed to extend the Rapture for another century, but by then the tides had turned and Rome was Christian, and it was Quintus’s heirs who were defending their faith, or lack thereof.
“They agreed that the millenium would be the date of Christ’s return, and kept records of each other’s families so that they could meet six hundred years down the road, if indeed time lasted that long.
“Which it did.
“And at that point, deep in the Middle Ages, the descendants of Claudius and Quintus agreed to wait another thousand years, with Quintus’s heirs standing firmly outside of the embrace of the Church while Claudius’s continued to spread the word.
“And that, sir, brings us to today. In about five years’ time the thousand years will have elapsed. According to tradition, if the world is still standing, then you and your family must renounce your religion and urge others to do the same. Or I and my family will go to Hell. Or we could extend the terms of the bet again.”
The Congressman listened but continued flipping through the papers. Names of his ancestors going back to the remote antiqiuty. Incredible.
“And all these centuries your family has remained pagan?”
The visitor smiled. “Not really. You can see from the charts–I mean, it would take a long time to digest but I can leave these copies with you. We–and you, too, for that matter–have ranged far over two millenia. We’ve converted, and unconverted, and been both Jewish and Muslim at one point or another. We–I mean your family and mine–have been paupers and soldiers and landowners and merchants. We’ve never quite reached the pinnacles of power, but we’ve done well for ourselves overall. My absence of faith now has more to do with my personal circumstances than with any ancient Roman who took part in an argument two thousand years ago. I suspect you can say the same.
“But all the same the bet is the bet. The records show that before each deadline the current heirs have spent at least a few years meeting and discussing, before deciding each time to extend the deadline. You are the most prominent member of your bloodline, and I am the most prominent of mine. I thought it only fair that we do as our forebears had done. So for today, I’ll leave you with these documents to read and consider, and my business card, so you can reach out when you are ready.”
The Congressman looked up at him. “And what if I never call you?”
The visitor shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m new to this myself. Thank you for your time, Congressman.’
He gathered his now-empty suitcase, shook hands with warmth and ease, and excused himself. The Congressman walked slowly back to his desk and sat down, still leafing through the pages.