Buy the Kindle book at Amazon.com
I am sucking on my finger, which does not please Mama. But then, nothing pleases Mama. She has worn a scowl for so many years that the lines drop from either side of her mouth. She looks like a bassett hound.
“Sorry, Mama. I reached for the stove handle, the broken one, and…” My explanations don’t usually get this far before I’m swatted. Mama chews on her thumbnail, then takes a bit of the nail and yanks it out. A drop of blood forms at the cuticle. She looks at it and scowls.
“Reverend Sam wants to see you.”
I try not to smile. “Why?”
She swats me on the ear. I see those funny little stars. But I know not to cry.
“You’re probably in trouble. You had better not be in trouble. Now get going. He’s in his office. Get!”
I hurry outside. It’s beautiful, early fall. The aspen tree is starting to turn gold. I wait until I’m out of sight and I suck on my finger. I can see a blister rising from the pad.
The church is strangely deserted. Miss Hampstead isn’t at her desk, so I go right to Reverend Sam’s door. I’m about to knock when I hear his footsteps coming down the hall. Reverend Sam doesn’t walk like everyone else at Cloudburst. He strides. He squeezes my shoulder and smiles. I can smell his cologne, just a trace of bayleaf.
“Child! Always so good to see you.” He opens the door and waves me in, then locks it behind us. I settle into his big armchair. Reverend Sam sits at his desk and combs a hand through his thick black hair. I notice the aspen in Miss Hampstead’s painting, and I feel a warmth rising through me, knowing that soon the actual tree will look just like that, gold leaves fluttering in the wind, the glossy overside, the flat underside, shimmering like magic confetti. Reverend Sam sees my expression and rises from his seat. A drop of water falls on my forehead.
I don’t mean to be mad at Jacob, I mean only to critique him. In early spring, in Montana, you should always put a fly over your tent. I lie in the dark, wrapped in my sleeping bag. It’s time to go. I peer next to me. Jacob is fully asleep, snoring quietly.
The pre-morning sky has conspired to guide me, a half moon covering the daffodils with a whisper of light. Sam has left a lantern hanging on a hook over the front door of the church. I take it and go inside. I should be nervous but I’m not. Perhaps I’m still dreaming. I check the bedroom and find it empty, then I spot a faint glow coming from his office.
When I step inside, Sam is asleep in his easy chair, still in his hunting suit. I take a small Bible from his desk and let it drop to the floor. Sam wakes in a start.
“Wha…? Kelly? Is that you? Child! I was worried sick about you.”
He stumbles to his feet and wraps me in a hug.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I got lost.”
“Well! Imagine that. I’m very relieved you made it back.” He goes to kiss me on the cheek and I kiss him on the lips instead, and I stay there, and I insert my tongue. Sam pushes me away.
“Kelly Copper! What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking there’s no one within twenty miles of this room. Come on, Sam. Let’s play the game.”
“I have no idea what you…”
“For old time’s sake.”
Sam freezes, then settles himself into his armchair. “I don’t know where you’ve been, child, but I believe your thoughts are running away with you.”
“You like calling me ‘child,’ don’t you? Funny thing to call a grown woman ‘child.’ ‘Suffer unto me the little children.’ You know, I admire your will power, Sam. A lot of men wouldn’t be able to share a bed with a grown woman without, well, you know. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed.”
Sam clears his throat. “Well I… it would not be proper…”
“No, it wouldn’t. Or maybe I’m just not your type.” I turn around and bend over the front of Sam’s desk. “I remember staring at that painting. When it was no longer the game. When you began to curse. When you began to hit me. When I began to bleed and you wouldn’t stop. I stared at the aspen tree and I thought, Bear with this, just make it through. Someday you will go to heaven, and everything will be all right.”
I turn back around and I stare a hole right through him. “I don’t believe in heaven anymore. I believe in the truth of things. The truth is, you beat me on the head until I blacked out, you sick fuck. And then, when I turned up pregnant, you ordered my mother to flog me for the next nine months. You didn’t need to do that. It was Jacob’s kid. The week you raped me, I was already having morning sickness. But I have to wonder, Reverend Sam. While you were fucking me, while you were beating the shit out of me, late at night when you walked past our cottage and you heard my mother screaming at me, trying to kill my child – at any point during this long, long period of time, did the thought ever occur to you, she’s only… TWELVE… YEARS… OLD!”
Sam shoots out of his chair and comes at me. I lift my face to his upraised hand.
“What more could you possibly do to me?”
We stand there like a photograph. Sam’s breathing evens out. He lowers his hand and slips it into his pocket. He returns to his chair, gripping the arms like a man awaiting execution. His eyes are wide circles.
“So,” I say. “They caught you.”
He takes a hard breath and answers in a whisper. “Yes.”
“They left, and they told you to stay here.”
Sam is melting into the cushions. When he speaks, his voice is a wild, mewling creature, skipping octaves.
“I wanted only to serve God, and he answered me with this sick… this disgusting perversion, this abomination. I fought it, and I prayed, and I fought it some more, but it always won. I wanted heaven so badly, I wanted release…”
I kneel on the floor, a few feet away, and I try my best to let reason take charge, the way that Paul taught me.
“Sam. Listen to me. It’s a disease. People get diseases. You need to stop blaming God. You need to stop punishing the children who tempt you. You need to get help. Real, medical help.”
I’m running out of gas. There’s only so much of the world that I can fix. I stand up, I walk back to the desk and I look at Isadora’s picture.
“Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to think long and hard about Jesus. I want you to go to Great Falls and call the mental health department, or a psychologist. By your beliefs, you should do this because otherwise you will burn in hell. By my beliefs, you should do this because you owe me.”
Sam raises his face, his features contorting into odd shapes. “I’m… so…”
The rest is sobbing, and I’m in the hall. Then I’m on the steps of the church. The sky is tangerine fading into royal blue. Jacob stands next to the aspen, holding a gun.
“Are you okay?”
I run right past him, up the trail, across the meadow. The air chaps my lungs. I keep running, the plateau, the coyote rocks, into the clearing. I lean against the sycamore, its bark peeling in strips of blue and gray, my breath huffing, out of control. Jacob sets the gun on a log.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t trust him. I didn’t…”
I grab Jacob and I hold on for dear life. The power drains from my limbs. I cry for a long time.
The sun tips the eastern mountains as we clear the rim of the valley. I can smell the sage; I remember this smell from the morning I left. I take a look back at Cloudburst, the little white cottages, the steeple. Jacob stands next to me, shifting his pack.
“Kelly,” he says. “If I hadn’t mentioned it, you are the bravest mmph…”
My hand covers his mouth.
“I want you to say it like this: Yazz-mee-nuh.”
I release my hand. Jacob says, “Yazz-mee-nuh.”
“Good. Let’s hike.”
I don’t look back. I say, “By the way, thank you.”
Photo by MJV