God's Shoulder by Kevin McGowan

A cynical missionary navigates the ignorance and innocence of small town Deep South USA to spread the word of God in service of his own ambitions; by Kevin McGowan.

Conrad rocked on his heels and watched the local Negroes he had hired lather the sidewall of the church with white paint. Eight months spent selling counterfeit bibles to old loonies in Huntsville and now came the time to step up and sell God. His church was built of mixed softwood, mostly sand and spruce pine, but for the steeple, which was made from buckeye. Not one cent had been spared in his enterprise; this was no city tabernacle and he meant for people to know it. What that was called was investment and it was the holiest word he knew. Scripture was full of it. The good old Lord was a bank; people gave over everything to him with the promised return of greater riches once they were bone-dead in the soil. So said Matthew: lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Yes, the Lord was a bank, and every bank needed run by somebody. He slipped into his church, lithe and alert, like a bobcat into tall grass, the acrid nip of turpentine burning his nostrils, and stamped with his strongest foot. Solid foundation. The land, however, was less than desirable: it had an uneven pulpiness and all around the church festered thickets of alligator weed and slouching ferns.

He said to the Negro sanding a pew, 'Cut back that jungle next.'

'Yes, suh, Father.'

'Brother,' he corrected. 'Your father is the Lord.'

Outside, a young man with shoulder-length hair trudged along the dirt road. He carried a fishing rod flat across his shoulder like a bindle and moved with his head pointed down.

'Who is that?' he asked the Negro.

'That there the Trimble boy. He a sick man.'

'Sick how?'

'Well, sometime he take to fallin' and rollin' lit the devil in him then he don't remember none what happened. But him bein' nice as he is, I think it gots to be a sickness and not no bad spirit.'

'That is for the Lord to know.' Or a physician, he thought to himself.

He stood in the threshold of his church, frowning, and watched the figure recede into the thin haze of rain. Some embryonic impulse urged him to call after the young man, but he resisted. His frown deepened. There was a feeling in him that a puzzle he hadn't known to exist was short of a piece, and his need for its completion settled in him like a slow malaise.

Pine bark flaked beneath Maisie's desperate, digging nails as she hid behind the tree, fighting not to look at him, and felt herself lose. William hacked at the creeping flora, his dark biceps shining in the rain. Sweat ran out of his curled black hair and down into the grizzled growth that poked above the top of his denim overalls. The fury of generations raged in her conscience; she could picture, too clearly, her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother: a triumvirate of rotund, liver-spotted faces pink from screaming, their cracked lips wet with spittle. Why, they'd disown her. She'd be buried not Maisie White, but plain Maisie, and her epitaph would tell like it was: shamefully her loins did burn for dirty nigger flesh. In her secret heart, his coarse worker's hands slid down the small of her back, and she understood this to be a trial. The devil looked to tempt her with niggers, but she would stand steadfast in Christ. She would not besmirch the family name.

Someone passed within a few yards of her, their footsteps light on the damp pine needles. Lennard Trimble was that someone. As always, he carried his fishing rod, but never any fish. Although the Whites lived a quarter mile from the Trimbles, by the wagon road, Maisie hadn't talked to him before. When they were children, she remembered watching him pee into some reeds, because Clara Davis had seen her cousin's boy-thing and she couldn't abide Clara Davis seeing things that she hadn't. A funny thing had happened: the little boy fell down drooling and clutching his head. She had run home to tell her family. Her mother declared him dangerous; her grandmother said he ought to be committed to Bryce; her great-grandmother suggested Searcy on account of it being closer. Them kind's different, like how God wants them, her Uncle Abraham had argued, they's blessed just by bein' cursed.

Maisie was gripped by a sudden urge to step from behind the tree and follow Lennard - despite the welcome gift her family had tasked her with delivering to the new Baptist, despite William and his beautiful nigger hands - and would have if the rain hadn't turned to hail. The hard pellets ricocheted off her ears and the nape of her neck, driving her towards the church. She held the wickerwork basket tight against her chest to better shield its contents: two loaves of cornbread and one plump catfish that Uncle Abraham had filleted that morning with his hunting knife. On her way past, she glanced at William. His eyes met hers through the hail. Warmth spread in her; the warmth of anger, she told herself. She did not bid him good afternoon and knew that he would not speak unless spoken to. Christ had given her control. Christ was control. If not for his guidance, she might have fallen to her own base cravings and, so, into eternal damnation.

Erect and inscrutable, Conrad sat before the church entrance and watched her approach as a sphinx might its latest challenger.

He straightened his gold crucifix tie pin and then nodded at the goods in her basket.

'I can't multiply them any,' he said, rising to his feet, 'but I know a man who can. Come on in, sister.'

'I'm Maisie,' she offered.

'Conrad. Set that on yonder altar, thank you.'

She obliged him, and his gaze trailed her down the aisle. Motherly hips, fine breasts. He had noticed an accumulation of grime in her fingernails, but water cleansed all dirt. Conrad hadn't figured to see good women out this way. Could be there was something to be said for inbreeding.

'What age are you?' he asked when she had returned.


'The young are the beams that hold up the Lord's house.'

'Ain't it faith?'

'Verily, but don't youth allow for faith?'

'I reckon it is like you says, Father.'

'Brother. Your father is the Lord.'

'My other daddy ain't around nohow,' she said. 'TB taken him when I was five.'

He nodded. 'Do you sing?'

'Everbody sings if'n they feel like it.'

'Do you sing good?'

'I don't believe I got no means of tellin'.'

'Let Him tell you.' He pointed a finger at the high ceiling.

'Well,' she said. Her chapped country lips parted in a rendition of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. The words ought not to have been sombre, but she made them so. He was moved.

'Will you be the music of His house?'

She blushed, an ugly purple. 'I cain't sound like no organ or anythin' else as beau'ful does.'

'The voice of man is the truest instrument. You alone will be His music.'

'Yes,' she said, 'yes, I'll do it.'

The girl had gotten serious now that she took him for a Hard Shell. He knew she hadn't figured it before. Fanaticism sent people into a fever. Go into any tabernacle on any street corner and the signs were the same: sweat, twisted mouths, bulging eyes, teeth bared like you'd never seen. In the country, however, it caught on like the Black Death. These here folks have no idea how sick I aim to make them, he thought to himself.

'Brother, what does God think about niggers?'

He studied her. 'What do you think about them?'

'I - I try not to.'

'Then you heed His will. Let the Lord tend to them as He pleases in another house.'

She chewed her lip, her hazel eyes oscillating between the altar and sliver of window.

'I saw a young man pass yonder,' he said. 'He had him a fishin' rod.'

'Lennard? He goes fishin' ever' morn but them fish ain't got no cause for concern. That boy cain't catch himself a cold.'

Conrad frowned. Lennard Trimble stuck to his mind like hot wax.

The hail rattled off of the tin roofs of the Negro shanties and the rusting skeleton of Mason Blue Sr.'s Fargo pickup. In time, as anger receded to sadness, the hail turned again to rain, falling through the night so that the crop fields that flanked the road to town were submerged come dawn. Nature's Precambrian bosom rose and fell in the fog. Upon one of Her peaks, a kestrel picked apart a deer mouse. Far below stood the church, like a raised boil, made from Her own hacked flesh. To the east, a moving speck traversed Her endlessly flowing skirts.

Lennard followed the road to town, a narrow dirt track smeared with wet leaves and the viscera of trampled gastropods, and veered off into the woods. He was desperate to drink from the river and see its fish again. The river had a faint citrusy flavour that took him back to when his ma had taken him to see the doctor in Tuscaloosa. She'd bought him a Sundrop soda and it remained the greatest experience of his life. Why Randall Croakman made that clear stuff that smelled like fox pee in his barn when he could have been making Sundrop was something Lennard didn't understand. He passed the stand of eastern hemlocks, their thick trunks blackened as if scorched by some ancient wyvern, coming at last to the river.

Although a taste like tin had lingered in his mouth all morning, the river's sweetness did not disappoint. He cast his line and sat down on the bank, enjoying the fresh smell of the mud. This was his favourite place in the whole world. Across the water, the opposite bank sloped up to meet a weathered limestone bluff, atop which grew a lone September elm. That tree was his best friend in the whole world. Lennard just loved to look at it. He knew it was rude to stare but he couldn't help himself. His head hurt a little. Sometimes that happened, like somebody was knocking on him to get in. Other times the pain smote him and he started to jerk and then he forgot about it. The doctor had talked a lot of big words about his head but he had been too young to understand. He still didn't understand, but he believed that the doctor had called his head a tomb.

There came a gentle tug; he swung the rod up and reeled, his hand attuned to the tautness of the line and the struggle of the fish. Water gave way to land, and the fish, its power waned, flapped on the bank, as if in half-hearted protest at the injustice of its place in nature's hierarchy. Lennard picked it up, a spotted bass, maybe thirteen to fourteen inches. He looked into its bulbous eyes and the perfect hole of its mouth, like he hoped for the fish to impart to him the secrets of the world. Each fish had its own face and sometimes he would sit on the bank like some stooped river king greeting his gilled subjects until the sun dipped behind the mountains and darkness fell. He slipped the hook from the fish's lower lip and returned it in cupped hands to the suck of the current. An egret tracked its passage with tense fascination and readied itself to glide. Fewer birds stalked the shallows since the TVA had built the dam. Lennard's favourite place in the whole world was dying. His head felt worse now, as though a hornet kept on plunging its stinger into the coiled meat of his brain. His glum eyes watched the sun rise level with the elm and shine through its branches, the brightness of its fire forcing him to his feet. He slung his rod over his shoulder and headed back through the woods, clutching his forehead with his hand.

In the distance, he could see Henry King dowsing in a barren field where an upturned wheelbarrow lay in the dust. He made to wave to the old Negro, but the pain in his head doubled and drove him to his knees in the middle of the road. Dark rings expanded and contracted in his vision. The hornet's stinger had been replaced by hammers and hot pokers. Lennard was halfway past the new church when he dropped to the ground and began to spasm.

A silent euphoria shook Conrad as he watched Lennard toss and turn. The missing piece of the puzzle clicked into place and his blood seemed to hum as if fate had struck him like a chord; he had one foot on the bottom step to greatness and, although he didn't yet understand how to ascend the stairs, he knew what waited for him at the top. He didn't believe in anything that wasn't manmade, but Lennard Trimble was a miracle, a gift, a weapon.

Lennard's eyes opened. Conrad stood over him, his hand extended.

'I forgot again,' he managed through the froth of his saliva.

'Son, without the Lord in your life, that there sickness will put you in a tomb.'

The young man gripped Conrad's wrist. 'He knows about... tombs?'

'You name one thing he don't know and I'll burn down my own church.'

'Cain he cure it?'

'Did Jesus heal the leper?'

'I don't rightly ricklick - did he?'

'You must give everything to Him.'

'I ain't got nothin to give lessen he wants my rod. It's a hair loom, but I reckon he can have it if'n he cures my tomb.'

Conrad pulled him to his feet. 'Son, you're going to be my profit.'

'I din't never think I'd be one of them.'

He stared at the young man as though seeing him for the first time. 'I believe the Lord intends special things for you, Lennard. You'll come to the sermon on Sunday, won't you, son?'

'Yessir, I wouldn't miss it for nothin'.'

Brother Conrad's offer had changed Maisie. Now that she was to be His music, she felt that some sort of power and authority had been vested in her, as if her own melodiousness burned like the Holy Fire itself and would reduce within her all notion of sin to ash. She would not cower from temptation, but push herself into its path. Jesus Christ saw a truth in you, her mother had screamed over the phlegmy sobs of her grandmother and great-grandmother, tears clinging to the folds of her face. Uncle Abraham: I always says a Hard Shell knowed best, din't I always? Maisie trod in soft pursuit of the low swing of William's flickering gas lantern. The woods sounded different after dark; there was restlessness even in their stillness. The trees stood as she imagined street preachers might and hissed warnings of trumpets and horsemen into the listening night. By moonlight, the oily pine needles jutted like barbs from a manticore's tail. William's lantern bobbed higher. He was taking the mountain road. She hoped that he didn't mean to go all the way to the top; to conquer nigger lust and heights in the same night was a steep demand, even if she was His music. Uncle Abraham often rambled on about how you could see the lights in Montgomery when the sky was clear, but she wasn't interested. She was too busy being where she was to admire where she wasn't. The lantern floated right, and then came the crunch of shoes on gravel. He was headed for the apple orchard at the base of the mountain. Maisie followed barefoot, her teeth gritted. Not only a nigger, but a nigger thief trespasser; the devil stacked temptation like lumber, but tonight she would make cinders of it and know no lust again.

The lantern light dimmed, and then popped out of existence.

She held her breath as she climbed the chained wire gate. The fleshy apples suspended in the dark reminded her of the faces of her family, a jury which she carried with her always. She crept deeper into the orchard. Three hares stood on their haunches in an esoteric circle, as if convened in prayer.

A moment passed before she realised that she was looking straight at William, a tall silhouette poised between two trees. Her shoes slipped from her fingers. He stepped forwards, apples spilling from his crossed arms. Next to the gas lantern sat a burlap sack. They stared at one another, neither speaking.

Maisie opened her mouth to tell him that only white people were allowed to pick from the orchard and that he had no business in being there. Instead, she heard herself ask a question.

'Are you mad that I followed you?'

'Nome,' he said in a voice gentler than summer rain. Maisie's toes curled in the cool grass.

'I been watchin' you.'

He said nothing.

'Them apples govmint funded, so I don't reckon it matters none that you take 'em.'

'The storm done drowned my crops.'

'I been watchin' you,' she repeated.

'I knows it.'

She moved nearer him. 'Do you know I'm the Lord's music?'

'I sho' would like to hear you sing.'

'Why don't God want you in His house?'

'We gots our own house for God.'

'Tomorrow's the first sermon. Will you come listen to me sing?'

'I sho' would like to.'

Maisie touched William's hand. Its smoothness shocked her. They sat beneath a large apple tree and, holding hands, listened to the furore of distant thunder. Although she could not say how, she understood that she had in some way thwarted the devil. She did not know what she had done or not done, but as William's fingers filled the gaps between her own and midnight rain pattered on the treetops and the pair watched a barred owl swoop across the orchard on heavy wings, all that she did know for certain was that there was no sin to be found here.

The congregation amounted to seventy-three people. Several families had come from town in wagons, the wild, grinning faces of their mules peering through the slitted windows like heathen interlopers. To Conrad's left stood Maisie in a white cotton blouse. She opened the service with Revive Us Again. They were like a sea of fish, Conrad noted with mingled disgust and satisfaction. Their eyes bulged with piety, and they seemed to press against the pews as if God was a fat worm they hungered to swallow. He supposed God was a worm; if a man had the talent, he could dig up God just about anywhere and dangle Him before a crowd. The good old Lord was a commodity.

But, now, to sell God marked only the beginning of greatness. Conrad mounted the pulpit and gazed upon his new kingdom.

Maisie's voice grew softer and lower until it melted into the eager, expectant silence. He did not fail to notice the Negro's head - the same Negro he'd instructed to cut back the weeds - duck from one of the windows when she had finished. He would need to deal with that soon.

'I used to be a bad man,' he said.

He let the words soak in.

'My father only worshipped the spirit inside his bottle, and it drove my poor mother into the arms of other men. Badness catches, friends. It catches like a harvest fire. And only but one thing can put it out.' He gripped the sides of the pulpit, and let his voice rise. 'The Lord.'

'The Lord,' they echoed.

'I was twenty-eight and in jail when a preacher came to see me. He said, boy, you can keep on trying to take, and get nothing for it, or you can give everything to God and get all you ever need. Why, I said, I got no everything to give. He counted for me five things I had never given no thought to owning: heart, mind, soul, ears and eyes.' Conrad smiled. 'Let me tell you, friends, it takes a time to open all five. But once I did, I was reborn a good man.'

'Praise Him,' a stray voice shouted. An imitative murmur followed.

'So, here I am: a good man. Baptised in the waters of Christ. Who else here been baptised?'

Hands rose towards the ceiling, strange pale flowers.

'Lots of good people, but are you so good as to know a great man when you see him?'

Silence. Confusion.

'Did you know one of yourn neighbours is a prophet?' He paused. 'Step on up here, son.'

Lennard shuffled up to the pulpit. He had brought his fishing rod with him and held it upright by his side like some ludicrous crosier. The congregation rustled with collective unease and an almost tangible sense of bemusement filled the room.

Conrad raised his arms, his palms outstretched. 'This great young man suffers day by day so that he can bring you good people the truth. Yes, friends, the Lord has let Lennard Trimble see as no other can see and hear as no other can hear. But sickness is the price of such a gift.'

He pointed at them in feigned fury. 'Have you not all seen him in the throes of pain?'

They looked uncertain now; the lesser among them, no doubt, ashamed.

'Out yonder,' he gestured beyond the walls, 'in the cold shadow of unfriendliness, he can't remember. He forgets. No more, friends. No more. I have led the prophet into the Lord's house and, here, he will never forget again. Together, we will see. Together, we will hear.'

The air was electric with enthusiasm.

'And when His divine word has been delivered, He will heal the prophet's sickness.'

'No more tomb,' said Lennard.

'No more tomb,' said Conrad. 'Revival.'

'Revival,' they echoed.

'Din't I say it?' yelled a spectacled man whose moustache curled around his mouth like mandibles. 'I says them kind's blessed just by bein' cursed.'

This was met with a rumble of agreement.

'You said it, friend,' said Conrad. 'Such is the role of the great who sit on God's shoulder.'

He handed Maisie the collection plate to pass around. 'The prophet is home, but a house must stand. Give what you all can afford. Verily, it's but a small token to pay to see and to hear.'

Nickels and quarters chinked into the plate without hesitation. The true success, however, was not in their coins, but in their acceptance of Lennard. He could now finish his ascension of the stairs to greatness, and when he reached the top, he, Conrad, who had embarked from Huntsville on a mission to sell God, would be God.

'When the Lord is ready, He will speak,' he told them. 'Come back next Sunday to listen.'

As the plate continued to exchange hands, he stood half-lost in a dream of a grand exodus; from Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and maybe even as far afield as Oklahoma and Texas, they'd come, folks walking, driving, crawling, bound for his church, all come to listen to one thing and one thing only: his command. He'd shepherd the whole South.

In the night, thunder boomed above the pines as Nature's rage reached its crescendo. With a ragged slash of lightning, She split open an apple tree in the orchard and blackened its fruits. Turkey vultures hovered like gluttonous archangels over the area where a black bear had roamed into lower land and slain two mules belonging to a family of churchgoers. For four miles, they had pushed their wagon towards town, but one of the rear wheels got stuck in mud and they had been forced to abandon it. As the river continued to dwindle and thin over time, She felt emptier, lighter, drier, and knew the stirrings of thirst for the first time in an age.

Come the following Sunday, the congregation had swollen in size. Lennard couldn't count too well, but he knew that it was busier than the first sermon because people were crowded around the doors and pressed against the walls like big flies. For all the people that were there, though, one wasn't. Maisie. He missed her voice; it flowed like the river and soothed the pain in his head. The pain was bad today; it bit, twisted, pulled and chewed. He vaguely remembered the doctor in Tuscaloosa telling his ma that the tomb was similar to a rabid dog. He'd hidden in his bedroom for a whole week afterwards, for fear of being shot. The pain was bad, and that was why all of them were gathered. Brother Conrad had declared that the Lord was getting ready to communicate. The idea that God wanted to show and tell Lennard things worried him; not only was he liable to forget again, but he probably wouldn't understand. He slumped in front of the altar, rubbing his temples. Conrad was talking, but his words sounded far away. An immense weight pressed down on his head - God's hand? - until he was sure that his brain had been turned to pulp. His eyelids flickered.

'Fnnnpuhpuh,' he said, his drool warm.

The congregation buzzed like some insectoid choir.

A bloodhound advanced along the aisle on trembling limbs. Twigs clung to its scabbed coat and moss-coloured bile seeped from its loose jowls. The dog beheld him with jaundiced eyes.

'Phuhphuhphuh,' he said. Before consciousness faded into seamless darkness, Lennard wondered if God liked Sundrop. But, most of all, he wondered why Maisie was missing.

Maisie was struggling through the peat bog that parted the Negro shanties from the rest of the world. Sphagnum covered sunken logs and the bones of things long conquered. Stunted pines hunched over sparse shoots of sedge, poised as if in self-mockery. Her white cotton blouse, now stained green and brown, had lost its middle button. Every time that she thought she knew herself, some happening caused her to change her mind. Sin was elusive and undefined.

It was not where, or in whom, she expected to find it; it was not in the orchard or in William.

Was it in her?

Maisie didn't think so on account of her still being able to sing. Her music burned the same. Just to prove this, she stopped in the heart of the bog and sang her favourite song, Mary of the Wild Moor, which startled a mutation of water-thrushes into flight. She'd first heard it on the radio in the general store in town, and it always made her feel better. But this time it did not lift her spirits high enough; she needed to be where sin wasn't. She needed to be with William. So, she splashed and trudged and tried not to think about where sin might be, but she could not rid herself of her doubt. Brother Conrad's sermon... the way Lennard Trimble had been made to stand up there on exhibition... it had been like one of those big city freak shows she'd heard tell of from her grandmother, except instead of a Negro with no arms or a lady with too much hair, it was a man whose sickness was being spun into divine hokum. There was no holiness in Lennard Trimble, only a mean disease that wouldn't let him alone.

Was sin in God's own house, then? If yes, was God a lie?

Blasphemer, her mother bellowed from a back room in her mind. Babylonian nigger-loving whore.

Maisie crossed herself, but kept on; the further into the bog she progressed, the quieter her mother's voice grew, until, for the first time in nineteen years, it was muted, as if her family's influence was a signal that had been lost among the bracken and asphodel. The shanties, with their missing wood panels and slanted doorframes, resembled broken smiles. Her feet found firmer ground, at last, and there, past a large American elm riddled with weeping conk, was William, bearing a pail through his flooded field. She took off her shoes and ran to join him in the sea of sodden vegetable matter. William's eyes widened, and he dropped his pail.

'Miss Maisie, what you come here for, peoples will see us.'

'Is this a sin?'

'Can't nobody say 'bout that but the lawd.'

'What if somebody says it for Him?'

She took his strong brown hand in her brittle white one. His eyes darted to and fro.

'Mighty trouble come if peoples see us.'

'Jesus led you to me.'

'You not the only one Jesus is leadin'.'

'Run away with me.' She tugged at his hand. 'Run away with me.'

William was looking past her.

'We cain go to Nashville or someplace. I'll sing on the radio. My voice burns the same as it ever did, that's how I know I ain't no sinner neither. We -'

'You gots to hide quick, Miss Maisie. Peoples, they comin'.'

He steered her by the shoulders, his hold tense. 'My home too far, you gon' have to hide here.' William shut the rotted door on her before she could protest.

She peeped from between the misplaced planks of the outhouse wall. He stood in the floating debris of his spoiled crops, at once powerful and pitiful, in his too-big overalls, clutching his bucket like some sort of talisman.

A small group of people, indistinct on the horizon, waded through the bog.

Conrad crouched by Lennard and, seizing the latter's head in both hands, announced in dramatic tones: 'The Lord is angry.'

A mass intake of breath greeted this.

Lennard writhed on the church floor. Strange hisses and stutters escaped him and blood dribbled from where he had bitten through his bottom lip.

'You are set in your ways,' Conrad continued, 'rooted in your complacency, yet you ask. You let a jungle strangle the beams of His house and a Negro pry at His windows, yet still you ask. But do you give? Do you toil and bleed?'

Conrad exhaled. 'Let these here men and women prove themselves worthy of generations past; let the mettle of their faith be tested, lest His fury blight them. Protect His house from weed and slime. Punish the Negro blasphemer in His name. Go now, all of you, and be revived.'

Conrad released Lennard, rolled onto his side, and lay panting. Concerned cries drifted from the pews.

'I... I saw the face of the Negro,' said Conrad. 'I know him. He helped paint the church.'

'Lead us to him,' they chorused.

'What else did you see through the prophet, Father?' a woman hollered.

'A... a great flood,' he improvised. 'The likes of which ain't been seen since the days of Noah. And when it comes, the damned will sink to the bottom of the old world and the righteous, by His blessing, will stay afloat in the new.'

'Lead us to the Negro,' they screamed.

As they readied themselves, Conrad saw that Lennard now sat with his back against the altar. The young man was staring at him with something akin to wonder. How much had he heard?

Three of them dragged him through the field. Maisie did not know what chilled her more: that one of the three was her Uncle Abraham or that William let them drag him. He had resigned himself to victimhood as if there was something dignified in it; as if his inaction would shame them. But you could not shame men who had none. She wanted to tell him to struggle, fight, resist, but he had wished her to hide, and she would give him that, at least. The smell of faeces made her stomach buck. If she chose, she could burst forth from the outhouse and cry tales of abduction and rape, and they'd believe it because they wanted to.

Instead, Maisie stayed put and, at last, she saw it. She saw true sin.

Brother Conrad stood by the American elm, speaking and waving his hands around. His crucifix tie pin winked in the sun. The men looped a rope around one of the elm's robust lower branches and lifted William into the noose. His hands, probably by instinct, shot straight to his throat, where they scrabbled in vain. She pressed her own hands to her mouth so that she would not be heard. His feet snapped and kicked. A dark patch blossomed on his overalls. He must have lost consciousness, but the vicious dance continued. She could not help but think of Lennard Trimble.

And then, the dance ceased, and all that rocked William was the fall wind and the weight of death. They went away and left him hanging there, unpicked, like strange fruit that no one wanted.

Maisie remained in the outhouse while the Negroes cut him down and long after they had carried him home.

The red flatbed pickup sputtered into the clearing and parked by the sidewall. Conrad sat on a stump and watched the men unhook the tie-downs and roll off the bell using two long planks as a makeshift ramp. The bell had come all the way from Polk County, Arkansas - and come at a good price, too. Investment: there wasn't a thing holier. Word of the Baptist and the prophet was spreading. People were interested. Lennard had suffered more seizures, and they loved it. They loved it, he knew, because he fed them the wrath and the bloodshed; the Old Testament medicine. It was the truest means of lying. There were no Abels in this world, only Cains. But, unlike all the other preachers, legitimate and fraudulent alike, he made them act. Folks wanted action; an excuse to do something. He sometimes wondered if they were smarter than he'd figured. Well, they'd got their God, regardless. Soon, the toll of his bell would reverberate throughout the South, and beyond, a celestial summons. And they would answer.

'Timber,' a man called. Another pine hit the ground with seismic force.

Conrad estimated that it would take at least five days to build the crane needed to hoist the bell into the belfry. Churchgoers, including some Texans who had promised to stay the duration, made up his workforce. He smoked his cigarette as he watched them scurry back and forth like ants. Ever since the incident, the Negroes had refused his money. Pity. He liked Negroes; they were conscientious. Smart, too. A professor he'd met in Huntsville once told him in drunken confidence that everything he had ever learned, he learned from a Negro.

He knew now that the Negro had been there because of her. He had thought about having her burned, but she still held favour with his congregation. And she was white. Hellfire, she was even named White. No, he'd let her alone. In time, he would need neither her nor Lennard.

Evening came creeping, and with it, a passing family of Negroes. They stopped opposite the church, their sullen faces half-camouflaged in dusk, and stared at Conrad in the doorway.

He smoked, and stared back.

A hog sucker lay on the riverbed, its face eaten and eyeballs missing. Minnows burrowed into the moist rocks as the last inch of water returned to triumphant earth and left them to their demise. Lennard traipsed up the river in tears with his prized rod. He followed the incline of the river, aimless in his misery, flanked by beached carrion on the slimed banks. Everything had changed. He was a prophet. His river was dead. Even his tomb was meaner. The heat in Lennard's head persisted, and an anger that wasn't his own bubbled in him. Whatever God wanted to talk to him about must have been serious. As he listened to the phantom gurgle of absent water, he had some vague notion of time running out - his time. Fish and good soda were not all Lennard knew about. He'd always known that he was dying.

Brother Conrad had helped him interpret and spread the words and pictures being sent to him, but he felt no closer to being cured. It somehow wasn't enough. What else must he do?

The answer floated adrift in his mind; all he needed to do was reel it in. The answer floated...

And when it comes, the damned will sink to the bottom of the old world and the righteous, by His blessing, will stay afloat in the new...

Lennard stood motionless in the depleted river and stared hard at its stone floor.

The river.

A great flood...

Was this the path to a cure for his tomb?

No more tombs. Revival...

River. Flood. Revival.

The trinity of words branded itself inside him and his body screamed with singular, scorching purpose. He grasped his fishing rod and moved with such speed that he seemed to almost glide up the riverbed, like some seraph mission-bound in the name of God.

When Lennard could go no further, he knew that he didn't have to. The dam loomed in the evening dark. Lichen and turkey tail covered its tremendous lower logs. He scaled the bank and staggered into the outskirts of town. He paused under a street lamp to vomit. His world kept switching on and off, on and off. Somewhere, far away, he imagined he heard the toll of a great bell. The pain bubbled like molten lava. Viscous tendrils of congealed drool and sick hung from the corners of his mouth.

I am a mad dog.

River. Flood. Revival.

I am a mad dog.

River. Flood. Revival.

He followed the white strip of paint down the centre of the asphalt road. A passing car tooted at him. A flicker of madness, and he tried to bark in retaliation; instead, he sneezed.

And he must keep his balance the Sundrop is cold and fizzy keep his balance on the line and full of pressed oranges or else fall into the black chasm below but the doctor's fingers are rough not smooth or gentle like his words and never hit the bottom I'm afraid it won't be possible to operate ma'am so careful does it the soda is clean and pure follow the line what does it feel like son not like soda why cain't I have a normal child ain't they burden enough already every reason to be upset ma'am boy's not abnormal that is to say not like soda afraid not but if it was benign but sadly this tomb is fire not like soda fire follow the line.

River. Flood. Revival.

The words cut through the murk of his delirium and his purpose became clear again.

A corroded Texaco sign hung before him like a diseased moon. He watched a man feed the steel nozzle into his truck. In the back, three stacks high in mesh crates, emaciated chickens regarded him with stone-cold apathy. Lennard approached the man, convulsive, half-blind.

'Reckon I can help you, mister?'

'Y-Y-Y-Yessir, I n-need truhtruhtruh.'

The man squinted at him through the headlights. 'How long you been out here?'

'T-T-Tomb. C-Cure. G-od.

'Now, mister, I ain't lookin to join no new church, see.'

'I n-need -'

'Well,' said the man, 'these here chickens got to go to Autauga...'


'These here chickens -'

Lennard brought down his fishing rod in a two-handed swing and split it over the man's head. He struck him three times with the broken handle until blood sprayed the concrete and then bundled himself behind the wheel, reversing the truck in a frantic skid which crushed its former owner and fired crated poultry onto the open road. He chased the lake reservoir around the town's circumference, building momentum, set on a direct collision course with the dam.

The speedometer climbed: 70, 80, 90, 100.

The truck groaned.

His poor brain burned.

He dived from the driver's seat to the blurred ground with a scream - a series of dry snaps followed, some of which he heard, all of which he felt.

Lennard lay sprawled on his back, facing the stars.

'W-Why...?' he asked them.

There came no answer from that silent firmament, and so, Lennard Trimble closed his eyes, forever fated to the knowledge of only three things: fish, good soda, and that this day had always been coming.

With myriad eyes, Nature watched the truck crash into the dam at full speed, dislodging those lowermost logs already weakened where She had eaten through the sickly wood. The first rivulets of water trickled from the gap. Imprisoned chickens spilled everywhere.

And then the truck exploded.

The sky rained blood and feathers, and the water surged from its manmade confines to reunite with that long bed of rocks that it had known since osteostracans swam beneath an infant sun.

She drank deep, replenished, restored, like a circle made whole again, as the river ran wild and free through the pine woods, an unstoppable force, homeward bound.

Despite Maisie's best efforts, the sour aftertaste of last night's sick lingered in her mouth. The latest nightmare had been too real. His bloated corpse face; the smell of the outhouse. She had screamed her secret grief into her pillow until she forced herself back into sleep's abusive keep. He had been so gentle; a simple big man, and the better for it. If only...

The calamitous toll of the church bell shattered her thoughts like glass. The pines quivered and, it seemed to her, the sky with them, as that voice of forged metal, of a false new God, swept the land and ushered its inhabitants towards a terrible new dawn. Now that his church was reaching new heights of popularity, Conrad also held mass on Wednesday evenings, although she was sure he would not stop at that. Men like him didn't know how to stop.

While Uncle Abraham had gone on ahead to church in the wagon with her mother and grandmother, Maisie had raided the drawers of her mother's chifforobe for anything of value - two stained dollar bills and a silver locket - as her ailing great-grandmother rasped from the other room.

She had it all planned. She would go to Nashville and sing on one of those gospel stations on the radio; that way she'd still be using her voice like Jesus had intended. Truckers would hum to her on the highway and people in diners would listen to her as they sipped their coffee. As Maisie walked, her dreams swirled in her, strong and full of vibrancy, yet she felt herself drift, as if pulled by some old and malignant inertia, towards the church; towards that house of lies. She knew that, if her freedom was ever to be more than physical, she must face Conrad a final time, walk into his web and cut herself loose again. Part of her had known it since she had held William's hand in the orchard, a night now lost, as if lived by another.

The crowd was such that families sat huddled on the wooden steps outside and grown men took turns at the windows like peeping toms. She moved past them and on down the aisle. Behind the hard, hopeful façade of each attentive face, she saw a ravenous excitement lurk; the excitement of a creature who would have cannibalised its own kin and called it faith.

Conrad leaned over his pulpit. Even in his hour of godhood, he was as impassive as ever. His feline gaze fixed on her and she found herself all too conscious of the stolen locket beneath her blouse and the coarseness of the dollar bills between her skin and stocking.

How much did he know about her?

What did he aim to do with that possible knowledge?

Where was Lennard?

These questions hounded her as she progressed along the aisle.

'Friends,' said the black-suited feline, his gold crucifix aglow like a salesman's best smile, 'welcome - and welcome back.'

The congregation chirruped and buzzed in response.

'Our prophet is absent today, resting, for his sacred work demands everything of him. Everything is key, friends: you can't give nothing less. Not if'n you all want to beat a path to revival.'

And then Maisie was singing, and as she sang, she saw them. People she had known her whole life, even her uncle, mother and grandmother, revealed themselves to her, at last.

Their antennae bristled at the lilt of her voice. Slick mandibles clicked in savage imitation. Wings parted, like crude parodies of angels. And, worst of all, reflected a thousand-fold in their compound eyes, an army of little Maisie Whites, fuelling their excitement with music.

She wouldn't. She couldn't.

She broke off mid-chorus and did not move or speak until he pawed her shoulder.

'What ails you, child of God?'

Maisie willed herself to look at the yellow landscapes of his eyes and said:

'Take your claws off me, you sinnin' sonofabitch.'

She fled through the parted sea of bugs, their cacophony rising in her ears, down the front steps, convinced of a witch hunt at her heels, and did not allow herself to stop running until she was well on the road to town and her feet had blistered in her tight church shoes.

As she walked, an awful hissing roar sounded from ahead and rushed past, unseen, beyond the trees on her right, headed where she had come. It was the scariest thing she'd ever heard. A sound too big for this world.

What could it be?

Her only answer, once more, was to run.

Everything was awry.

How quick folks could topple deities if their needs weren't sated. Conrad knew better than most that religion was as much a brand as Lucky Strike or Jell-O and that the enemy of any brand was fickleness. Investment: what was a church without a prophet, a girl and a bell?

But, now, the prophet was missing. And the girl, a ticking bomb, had blown up in his face. If the congregation's bewilderment curdled to anger, all his hard work would be lost.

'A new test stands between you all and revival,' he told them. 'Judas Iscariot has returned in the flesh of a woman. She has sullied the Lord's house and the values of this fine community with black fornication.'

Shouts and screams - he was winning them back. How easily, too. But who could blame them when it offered so much? Togetherness. Guidance. Reassurance. Self-pity. An excuse. A scapegoat. A call to arms. Mass mobilisation. Warfare. Hanged niggers and holy crusades. Blood, fire and hatred. Break open religion like a gemstone and those were its dark properties. Folks yearned for the crunch of bones; for the filth and pungent darkness of their primeval beginnings. They hadn't asked for the present they found themselves in.

'Friends, I ain't interested in what you think. I want to know this: what will you do?

They told him what they would do, but he did not hear them.

A stupefying, deafening roar ripped the world apart.

The church walls bulged and splintered. Pews slid across the room, taking with them their screaming occupants. Conrad threw himself upon the pulpit, as if upon the mercy of God. But there was no God. There was only the still, silent wood, carved by man and man alone.

Conrad released the pulpit, and spread his arms. He felt a curious sensation of wetness - and then he was gone.

Nature spared little. Conrad's church folded in on itself like a house of cards and was swept off with bodies and other debris. Here and there, a wagon wheel, an article of clothing or a drowned child would break the churning surface only to be sucked under again. The peat bog stemmed enough of Her vengeance to spare the Negro population, but laid waste to every crop field, felled the elm from which William Horn had been hanged less than a fortnight past, and forcibly ejected several families from their shanties. It rained for six days straight thereafter, as She wept euphoric tears over the reclamation of Her domain. Whispers of Armageddon spread among the Negroes. They departed en masse in the night; come sunrise, no trace of them remained.

Aided by time, She would wear the shanties down and back into the soil, and in those lonely spaces which they had once filled, liverwort and red columbine would spread unheeded. Cormorants and great blue herons, like robed mages, would study the glass surface of the water for signs of prey or, perhaps, of things to come, a great new wilderness in resemblance of the inchoate Earth that had once been. The eyes of things unknown to man would open again, awakened from some elven slumber. Of the people who had dwelled there, and the lives led by them, there would be nothing as to their existence but a fleeting suggestion, something that was gone even as it happened, like a faint ripple on still water.

Three old men sat huddled around an outdoor stove, wizened moths bent to the will of fire. Maisie kept her head down as she passed them. She felt like a fugitive; a fugitive broken free from the chain gang of a blasphemer's sideshow attraction. Conrad's reach stretched far - further than it had any right to - and she could not afford to be known.

The general store's radio blared through the open door and onto the sidewalk, but, to her disappointment, no music played; in its place, a monotone voice informed listeners that something called an Atlantic Charter had been sent out directly and that what this meant was...

If men weren't talking bibles, it was charters and treaties. She reckoned that they ought to altogether stop talking. Listening to somebody else's affairs on the radio was a whole lot like climbing a mountain to look at the lights in Montgomery when you lived in the backwoods.

The station was adjacent to the tannery at the end of Main St. She neared the ticket booth.

A sallow man in a railroad cap toured her with his eyes.

'Cain you tell me when's the train to Nashville?'

He peered at his pocket watch. 'You got a quarter hour. Two dollars n' fifty cents.'

'I only got two dollars.'

'I can't give you no discount.'

'I got two dollars, and this here locket.'

'I ain't no pawnbroker.'

'Solid silver. I took it from my own mama.'

'I ain't no fence.'

'She din't wear it nohow.'

He toured her again. 'You hear about that boy just an hour back?'

'Solid silver. You got a wife?'

'He done stole a truck n' brought down that dam. Died doin' it, too.'

'A sister?'

'I'm dyin', too, see?' He lifted his cap and plucked a tuft from his thin hair. 'How do I make peace with God when I ain't never known no love? You won't send a dyin' man to hell.'

'I got to get a ticket.'

'Two dollars, if'n you help a dyin' man.'

'I cain't miss that train.'

'Five minutes for a little love. A little love for a dyin man. God bless you, ma'am.'

'Well,' said Maisie.

The train rattled through the countryside in a flurry of steam. Pastoral land and cypress swamps flitted past and, every so often, the flash of a small settlement, each separated from the other by the long miles and one hundred shades of green.

A fresh melancholy clung to Maisie's heart as morning dew to flowers. She did not know where it had come from, for such a feeling always came from nowhere at all; like a common cold, it was caught, carried and, in time, passed on.

Her nose pressed to the glass, she sang an old Appalachian song, Down in the River to Pray, under her breath. Through the train's thick steam and that of her own making, the South lay wrapped in a shifting haze, a kingdom from the tail-end of a dream that fades upon waking.

'High and clear, little sister - do it proud.'

Maisie turned her head and was surprised to see a well-dressed Negro man sat opposite her; what yesterday's self would have called a gentleman nigger. He had the girth of a tree and hands like tambourines. Her surprise grew when she obliged him and sang to the carriage at large. He complemented her music with soft claps, and smiled when she had finished.

'Little sister, you got a gift Jesus needs the world to hear.'

'I know it.'

'Good. Knowing comes first. Small steps, little sister. What will you do?'

'I ain't got no brothers to be a sister of.'

'You got a brother in me - Reginald J. Sykes. Preacher.'

'Goddamn all preachers to hell,' she said, and returned her nose to the window.

'That's a mighty sinful thing to say.'

'Everbody's a sinner. I seen it.'

'What you seen?'

'I seen a man hanged for bein' less dark than you.'

'But, little sister, I'm no false shepherd - I been on WTHS for years.'

She looked at him again, her eyebrow cocked. 'You a radio preacher?'

'Reginald J. Sykes: that's me.'

'I'm goin' to Nashville to sing gospel,' she told him.

At this, his chest swelled like a bullfrog's, and then collapsed with a shuddering sigh.

'The lord's at work, little sister, the lord's at work. Always does get me feeling.'

She watched him unfold a handkerchief and blow his nose.

'WTHS,' he said, recovered, 'Welcome to Holy Salvation.'

'Are you sayin I cain sing on your radio?'

'If I denied Jesus, I wouldn't be Reginald J. Sykes.'

'You got a deal.' She spat on her palm and proffered her hand.

He reached out to take it, faltered, and withdrew an inch.

'There, ah, may be a studio fee, you understand. The big bosses got to hear you first, little sister, and time is money.'

'I don't have nothing but this here locket. Solid silver.'

'That'll do juss fine,' he said, and took her hand. 'Juss fine.'

Maisie looked out of the window again, elated, fulfilled, believing herself aligned with fate, chance, luck or whatever other force, if any, tended the slithering gardens of the universe.

Outside, as the train charged on, the forests and open fields tapered off, peeling and curling away like old wallpaper, replaced now with towering billboards (THERE'S NO MERCY IN HELL: GET BAPTISED TODAY) and spray-painted warehouse walls (HE SHALL SMITE THE UNJUST WITH A HALBERD MADE OF LIGHT AND RAIN FIRE INTO THE SEAS OF MEN). Church spires, all painted white, all identical, protruded from the maze of rooftops; up they reached, grasping for a God that, Maisie knew now, did not shine on all of them.

Yet, nonetheless, there they were.



  1. Effectively portrays the sicknesses of bigotry and charlatans. Excellent descriptions, dialect, and use of language. Powerful ending.

  2. I found myself totally immersed in this story. It is wonderfully descriptive and atmospheric with leap off the page characters. Excellent
    Mike McC

  3. Vivid, vibrant storytelling with compelling yet uneasy characters. Extremely engaging, many thanks

  4. Captures alarmingly the easy rhetoric of self-inflated evangelism. Some indelible images, and graphic phrases; 'pressed against the walls like flies', Lennard and his 'crozier', God as a worm, an 'insectoid choir' - and, placed in the narrative like a warning light, the title of the Billie Holiday song - Strange Fruit. An astute use of characterization to include Mother Nature as one of the main protagonists.
    B r o o k e