by Traci Oberg
It had been an even July. Thistle mornings, afternoons of bloated cows, litanies of squash- colored skies. Men shuffled and grew fat as dogs. Women rocked and sang to rolling, twitching, spitting-up babies. Children played tag in the furrowed fields-kicking up clouds of paprika dust. The preacher came to town early one morning. He set up his primary color kaleido- scope tent and strung Christmas lights around the edges. At night, he preached salvation while the lights flashed against the dark. Outside the tent, in the purple sky, fireflies twittered and cicadas hummed. Sarah sat still on a wooden bench search- ing his face for a trace of God. The people surged. The preacher said, "Stand up and be counted among the flocks of Jesus." Thomas Markham fell on his face, squealing. His suspender snapped and lolled on the ground. Sarah watched him writhe in the dust. She shook out her head and looked to the preacher. His paunchy face was dull, pasty yellow. His arms flapped. Spit hung like webs in the corners of his mouth. The women cried. Men fumbled with their wallets. Sarah held her knees in her hands and swung her feet beneath the bench. She squinted at the preacher. He said, "Stand and say I believe." And one woman said, "I believe Brother Brown." Another said, "Praise God." Brother Brown said, "Hallelujah, Sister." Christmas lights flashed. Mr. Markham snorted. The plastic tent flapped and Brother Brown sold Jesus like an auctioneer. Mama said, "Where you been?" She was sunk in the sofa knitting something big. "By the river," Sarah said. "It's dark." "There's a preacher in town." "I heard." Mama's elbows flailed with the knitting. "You been saved?" Sarah said, "I don't chink so." She looked out the window. Her dog, Johnson, was sniffing at the fence. "Don't give him no money. " Sarah turned and looked around the lampshade. "Brother Brown said if you give him ten bucks you'd be rich in a week. " Mama dropped a stitch. "Did he," she said. "Soup's on." Sarah walked to the pot and lifted the lid. Soup bubbled thick. Something green. She peeked through the doorway. "Is he a man of God?" "Bread's in the cupboard. Wash yourself a bowl. " Mama's head bobbed. "Depends." "Where's a spoon?" Sarah spun the lazy susan. Pots and kettles winked inside. "We out of butter?" She stopped it shut with her palms. "Depends on what?" "We got jam. Depends on what you think God is." A game show erupted on TY. "Don't life up your skirts either," she said. Sarah dipped soup. Tapped glass at Johnson. She balanced her bowl on a mug full of milk and held a spoon with her teeth. Sarah set her bowl on the carpet, pressed out a dent for her cup. She laid her hand on her mother's thigh and touched her calf with her face. Mama was sweating beneath the chin. The TV lights tinted her eyes like stained glass and her eyelashes brushed her cheeks as she picked up yarn along the row. Mama went still and pushed the knitting from her knees. She bent and put her forehead on Sarah's. She rocked. She sang. She blew lavender breath into Sarah's mouth. Years ago, Mama had the spirit. She gathered her folk on Sundays behind the willow tree. Sarah watched from the ravine. Mama was mountainous. The people skittered around her. She sang. She warbled. She healed headaches, children, an occasional horse while Sarah clung to the side of the ditch. Mama wore white and sold strands of her hair as talis- mans. Saturdays, they bottled them up like slivers in jars and were rich off remains from their hairbrush. These days, Mama never left the couch. She wore acces- sorizing blouses. She knit tissue boxes. She watched talk shows and wrote letters to the paper. One morning, a long time ago, Sarah asked where the spirit had gone but Mama said, "Hush girl, it weren't God any- way." Sarah asked where God was and Mama said, "You'll know him when you find him." Sarah said, "Where should I look?" And Mama rolled her eyes up to look at the ceiling. She said, "Ain't no telling." So Sarah munched on cereal and poured her mother some milk. Mornings, Sarah went fishing. She walked-Johnson tramped-past fat, swinging dewberries and ragweed paths. A sign said No Trespassing if you pushed the leaves away from the fence. She crouched in the dirt with a bamboo pole and knit fishline like silk beneath fingery branches of cottonwood trees. She spun yarns and told tales about snapping turtles ringed round the neck with gold and the dance of dragonflies-electric, shockingly blue. Perch round as plates arced in the water and bullfrogs beat in the rushes. At midafternoon, she ran home through alfalfa. A five gal- lon bucket dented her shins with the three fish she'd caught yawn- ing inside. The field rolled and snapped. The clouds cast cool shadows. The sun was warm in her hair.
Mama was putting up peaches. The kitchen was steamy thick with cooked sugar. Mama was blanching peaches. "Catch anything?" Sarah scooted the bucket across the floor. The fish were stiff and hard inside. Mama looked, "Perch." She wrinkled her nose. "Get those outta here and wash up." She edged the stove burner up. "I need some help." Sarah turned the water on. Stringy peach pits gaggled in the sink. "I was thinking maybe I'd go see the preacher tonight." "I need you to peel." Mama dropped peaches into a kettle of boiling water. "Get the other peeler." Sarah's shoes stuck to the floor. Peach paste went brown on the counters. She opened the drawer. Mama said, "Why?" Sarah said, "Why what?" "Why you wanta go?" Sarah played with the utensils. She shrugged. "I don't know." Mama looked at her-her head forward on her neck. "What does that preacher man tell you?" "He's just interesting, " Sarah said. She wiped the counter with a dishrag. "He says Jesus is knocking and you got to let him in. He says you got to open up your heart. " "And your wallet. " Mama's hair sprung from her head. "What else he say?" "He said my heart is hardened by devils." Mama swiveled, "He said what?" "He said if you don't have Jesus in your heart you'll burn in the fiery pits of hell. " Sarah looked at the stove. Mason jars jit- tered in the kettle and slops of water hopped on the lids. Mama squeezed her lips together. She wiped her hands on her shirt. She opened her mouth, closed it, and walked to her purse. She handed a five dollar bill to Sarah. "We need milk with these peaches. Get some on your way home." She edged the stove burner down. "Give him the change if you want to." Sarah sat on the back row with the money crushed in her hand. The people pressed tight against her shoulders and rain fell on the tent. Brother Brown stood behind the pulpit. He clutched the microphone in his fists. He said, "If you need help—If you need somebody to point you co the Christ of Calvary—I have a message for you tonight." He raised one arm level over the people. "Jesus is here to touch you." Sarah whipped her head around the crowd. Brother Brown said, "You can get to Jesus." A woman in front fell on her knees and clasped her hands. "Tell me how, Brother Brown," she said. "I know the way, sister!" She tottered back. "Sir with your head up and your eyes open. Have faith in the coming of the Lord." Sarah straightened. Brother Brown paced behind the pulpit. He raised his hand to the sky, "I see the glory cloud hovering in chis room. Christ Almighty Jesus will walk among us-among you people shaking your hands-if you have the faith. God is knocking. Open your heart and lee him in. " He screamed, "Do you have the faith?" The people stood and swayed. They shouted hallelujahs and sang praises in the tent while Sarah stumbled in the aisle. "The holy cloud of glory is burning above your heads. Say 'hello Jesus."' The people said hello. "Be saved in the holy blood of God's lamb. Come to Jesus my brethren. Submit yourself to Jesus my sisters." Brother Brown's voice rose like steam. Sweat crawled down his face. "If there are none among us with wavering faith Jesus Christ the Almighty Himself will walk with us-performing miracles and healing you of all your infirmities. Praise God." The people raised their hands and jostled Sarah with their elbows. "Let every single one of you—man, woman, and child— submit your hearts to the saving grace of Christ." Sarah slipped between the people and backed our of the tent. The preacher rocked and swayed. His eyes were wild. Sarah turned and ran. Rain fell from the sky like sixpenny nails. She ran as it beat on her head. Her jeans were tight against her knees. Water dripped between her shoulder blades. The ditches rushed by the side of the road—churning with rocks and chunks of mud.
The next morning, Mama stirred grits in the kitchen. "Missed you last night, " she said. "You bring me my milk?" "Aw Mama," Sarah set down her spoon, "I forgot." Her mother nodded. "You bring me my money?" Sarah said, "Yeah. It's in my room." And Mama turned to look at her full in the face. Sarah fished for hours but the water was cloudy and the fish were quiet. She walked home with her pole across her shoul- ders. Skunked. Johnson ran through the ditch, kicking up mud. Past the corner, Sarah saw a break in the trees. She stepped over tree limbs and squeezed through the space. She walked a trail through the forest layered with wet, buttery leaves. The trees were thick. Branches whipped her face and spiderwebs tangled in her lashes. Armadillos scurried in the brush and Johnson chased them— crashing. He sniffed back while Sarah touched and pulled the twigs in her path. The light was shallow, dimly yellow—thick as antiqued glass. Sarah reached and pulled. Johnson crashed. And snakes bent grass at the middle. The sun broke on a pear tree at the edge of the woods. A meadow green and swollen as velvet stretched beneath the clear sky. And all around her, everywhere she looked, bones. Thousands of bones slung on the ground like ivory beads. Porcelain bones bleached white and transparent. Crows swooped and crickets called while the gold sun shimmied in the cloudless sky. "Johnson, " she yelled. "Johnson. " He trotted back. She knelt by his side and circled his neck with her arms. "God," she said, "this is beautiful." He wagged his tail. The pear tree stood and woodpeckers chattered in the trees. A storm was coming in. The air was heavy and winds were stirring. From the road, Sarah heard the preacher's voice whisper through the trees. She walked to the back of the tent and stood beyond the blinking lights. Brother Brown turned. His neck was smooth. He moved his mouth without sound. The people swayed. Back and forth. Rubbing shoulders, touching thighs. Sarah stepped forward and caught the light. The crowd hummed, drowning out the sounds of shivering leaves. The preacher saw her. "Come here, child," he said. He lifted his hand. Held out his palm. "Come to Jesus." His eyes were blue. His lips glistened wee. Outside the tent, in a darkening sky, clouds tumbled like sheep. Sarah went to him. He touched her on the head. Stroked his fingers through her hair. Slid his hands to her shoulders. "Do you feel it, child?" His voice was soft. His breach was warm and sweet. The preacher's hands moved down her arms. Sarah looked at him. She nodded her head. "Are you God?" she whispered. The preacher smiled, showing his teeth. He looked over her to the rest of the people. He cocked his head to the sky and shouted, "Brethren and sisters. Rejoice in the name of the Lord! Sing hallelujahs. Another lamb. Another lamb." And Sarah stood still on her trembling legs while the man reeled and seized with the fren- zied crowd. In August, the weather turned cool. Men, sucking cokes on their gap-toothed porches, yelled, "Nice weather, eh Hank?" Women knit slippers and children closed up shop. They dumped jugs of lemonade in the marigolds and pulled card tables back in the garage. The preacher left. He packed up his tent and left in the night. Leaves flitted in the space. Sarah went fishing on the last day of summer. She kicked dire clods and chatted with Johnson. She set her pole on the knuckled ground and lay down beside it to watch the clouds. The leaves were starting to crisp and crack. The sky was burnished and flat. Sarah stood up and walked past alfalfa, over the fence, toward the sun. Burrs coated her sneakers. They hung from the laces and circled her ankles. Grass became dust. Dust became road. She trudged in the shimmer of asphalt. At the turn, she kept on walking. Johnson frolicked from side to side—peeing on new territory. She passed a general store where two men and a woman swatted flies. She passed a pond with a fishing boat tied to a broken tree. The sun was low in the sky when Sarah saw the train tracks. They were carved in the side of a hill overgrown with grasses. She climbed the hill and sat above them, beneath a willow tree. She looked at the tracks—rusted around the stakes on dark slabs of oiled wood. The train came roaring toward her. Wood ties arched with the weight. Grasses blew chis way and that. Sarah held her ears then reached to the train. The boxcars were tagged with chalk-colored spray paint. Trust Jesus. Trust Jesus—scrawled like it was someone's last breath of spit from the mouth of a phlegmy God. Trust Jesus. And then she knew. Trust Jesus. She just did. So she jumped. Trust Jesus. In the twilight her hair looked like kite tails. And Johnson, on the side of the hill, sat back on his haunches with his tongue flapping in the wind.