He’s benevolent. He’s right. No, righteous. He tells Melanie her beautiful son with the bright red curls and pink cheeks—the newest parishioner—is the cutest thing he’s ever seen. He shakes hands. He shakes his wife until her teeth crack together. He tells us, “In hell there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
He prays for Margaret Filmore and she loves him. He preys on Margaret Filmore. She loves him. No, she worships him. She looks up at him, and the messiah looks back, blessing her with his gaze. Margaret is raptured. Margaret is captured. He is heaven on Earth.
He takes his place behind the pulpit as the cicadas sing, and their song seeps through the cracks of the old windows along with the sultry, southern summer heat. Sweat drips down his face, dampens his collar. It rolls down his back, past the belt that purpled the backsides of three of the messiah’s brood. It rolls past the butt cheeks that Margaret Filmore grips as he blesses her with his holy essence.
The song service is long. The children stand. One little girl tries to sit. Her stomach hurts. There is a fist twisting inside her. Coiling about her guts. It may be the devil.
“Get up!” The grandmother glares at the child.
Remembered beatings. The girl stands. Stars cloud her vision. She falls and hits her head on the pew in front of her on the way to the floor where her head strikes the tile. She wakes up to find a gathering of matriarchs: the ones that tear switches from the hickory tree, the ones that bring pain, the ones that bask beneath the approving gaze of the messiah. “Is er’ eyes dilated?” they hiss as the sharp aroma of spearmint gum wafts from their holy mouths. They are one. The spearmint hides the decay.
On the floor, the little girl is at eye level with their puffy feet that poke up through old pumps like bloated leeches. The panty hose grips sweaty legs, Greek columns that march down hallowed hallways like invading armies of judgment: “whore, rebellious, belligerent, possessed,” they accuse.
“Bring the child to me,” the messiah instructs. The girl is marched down the aisle to meet him at the altar. Unconscious mere moments ago, blood rushes, roars, through her ears. Her backside is wet. She didn’t know it until all eyes were on her. It is too late now.
His hand slams onto her head. “Satan! You will not use this child to disrupt our service!”
The girl just wants to go to the bathroom, home, but she is followed to the toilet. She hears the matriarchs talking about her through the thin curtain. No doors. No boundaries. They listen as the devil leaves her small body. She is raw. She is pure. She does not recognize the messiah and they know it.
“She doesn’t speak in tongues. She doesn’t have the gift of the holy spirit,” the matriarchs whisper.
“Tsk. Too bad. It would provide her extra protection. It’s a language the devil doesn’t understand.”
The messiah has the tongues. Margaret Filmore has it. The spearmint matriarchs have it.
Later that afternoon, the little girl will wince as she rubs the two goose eggs on her head. Her uncle will make fun of her for wetting herself while she was unconscious. He speaks in tongues too. He has the gift, just like the messiah.
The little girl never learned to speak in tongues. A gift of the spirit, they called it. On the way out of church she catches her reflection in the glass doors and beholds a gift of Spirit, mercy, and grace—a language the messiah cannot speak. She will eventually decide those “tongues” are forked anyway.
Messiah smiles at her ten-year-old reflection, then turns, and walks out the door and into the Light.