We slowed down at a field and bumped along over its ruts amid all the cars. “Where are we going, Russell?” I asked about a dozen times as we got out of the truck and stumbled across the frozen earth, but he didn’t answer all the way until we were at the steps of a wooden building with a cross lit up by a moon that had begun to shine. In a big room people were kneeling, about a million of them. Heads bowed and praying, all of them at once and all of them aloud, a mighty but soft collision of voices whispering and waving of hands and fingers pointing toward heaven. I wished for Sunday-go-to meeting shoes at least as we took a pew in the back. Good pine, like the walls and the far-up-there pulpit with a piano and seats for a choir and red silk roses in abundance.
I mouthed a question at Russell. “What place is this?”
Beads of sweat clung to his upper lip. “Something about belief, I reckon.”
Bare bulbs hung from the ceiling and candles were lit on every window ledge below the faces of Jesus and Mary. And the whispered words—“deliver . . . forgive . . . grievous sin”—were like tiny white doves, hundreds of words circling and tickling one another, vying for space in the dim church light. All over the place hands waved, and then there was shouting. “Jesus! Jesus!”
At the keyboard was a young man with a Nehru jacket and pomaded hair who was doing a light riff. A spotlight shone down on a dozen other young people, their choir robes a motley mix of blue and green and purple. Moses parting a human sea was a preacher like no one I’d ever seen except on the backs of romance novels. She had bleach-blond hair teased into a beehive, and she held her hands out as mouths moved in song. “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r.” She spun, hands guiding this song from its makers, left, right, higher in the back, please. A highheeled foot turned and she held her arms out to us. “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r in the precious blood of the Lamb.”
Her sparkly skirt and sequined jacket set the pulpit afire. Whispered words circled into the hymn. “Pow’r. Pow’r.”
Russell was staring at the pulpit, his eyes wide. “
We want to be here?” I said, but the main event was starting and a woman in front of me turned and made a shushing gesture.
“Blessed children, I bring you joy.” The preacher’s hand waved at us, a kind of parade wave from the back of a float. “Blessed ones, all of you.”
Need floated over the crowd, deciding where it would land. It snuggled up at my side like a little cat. “Listen,” the preacher-woman said. The sermon commenced.
“Ruth was a traveler. Naomi said, ‘Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me?’ And Orpah, she turned back on the road and left them there, children. Left Naomi and Ruth, but Ruth was the one who wasn’t a bit afraid. She planted her feet in the dust and went out into a strange land to find her truth. And she, my children, she was only one of those who were not afraid.”
The preacher did a little rat-a-tat-tat with her silver pumps. She paced.
“And I’ll tell you, Ruth wasn’t the only one who was a traveler. Not the only woman who went forth. There were women who took to the streets,” she said. “Women who traveled to foreign countries. Women who had no families but made them. Women who stood up or sat down, who planted their feet, made themselves heard. Esther, taken to the king’s palace and made part of a harem but become queen over Vashti and become the king’s savior.
“Oh, my sweet ones,” she said, and she pranced and turned and raised her ringed hands to us. “Even them, the women of no names. Even them, the women who are lost and countryless. Even them.
“Abishag, who kept King David warm in the night and became the voice of songs. Hagar, who fled into the desert but gave an old man a firstborn son named Ishmael. Zipporah, who followed Moses on the road back to Egypt and said unto him, ‘You are a husband of blood.’”
The names of women who had traveled wound their way down my throat, settled in my gut. She was looking at me, this preacher-woman, her sparkles, her rings and her mascaraed eyes.
“I call upon you,” she said. “Jesus himself calls upon you, my dear hearts.”
She’d picked me out of all of them in these pews. She pointed no finger, said no name that was mine, but she knew me. My belly felt it and my bones did. I tucked my head, stared at my lap.
“Come forward and receive the gift of healing, all ye who hear the words of Christ Jesus. Come.”
The whispers crescendoed and hymn words joined in. The crowd was a tight fist of excitement and fear and wondering. My feet itched, urging me up, but I held on tight to the edge of the pew.
“Look.” Russell laid his hand on my arm.
A girl. Longish hair of no color in the beam of light and the candles. Head held down to her chest, a baggy dress long enough to reach her ankles.
“Welcome, dear heart.” The preacher touched the girl’s shoulder. “Welcome.”
The girl was one of those Willy’s Wonderama faces. Eyes and mouth like a tangle in a jar of formaldehyde, a face wanting out. A melted face. A face like wax dripping down lit candles. A wrinkled flow-down of a face. Face made of waves and rivulets of skin that flowed down, a river of face.
“Pray, brothers,” the preacher-woman said, her voice rising. “Pray,” she said, and her words touched us all like a sweet balm that stung and woke us too.
“Love?” she asked, and we answered her, like we knew, “Amen!”
“Love?” she said. “You think you know the question and the answer, children? You think you know the why and the wherefore. You think love is easy as a brand-new car. Easy as a check, first of the month. You think love is a person, a place. You think love is a fifteen-ninety-nine jacket you dress up. You think love is that sweetheart on your arm of a Saturday night. You think love comes to you for free, and I’m here to tell you the truth of it, the truth and the light.”
“Amen!” we said.
Prayers and words rose as we looked at the girl’s face with the light shining down on it, a face naked and so true it hurt to look at her. Wax and hurt flesh and behind it a brightness she’d swallowed, the light of her own suffering, the roads she’d been down. Roads past houses with their shut doors and their secrets. Back-of-a-hand roads. Kick-you-out-and-don’tcome-back roads, roads away from here and toward there. Houses that would never be her own, arms that had not held her at night.
“I’m here to tell you the truth, children,” the preacher said. “To tell you about love.”
“Amen!” we said.
“Love is a ghost that settles inside us. A ghost made of blue fire. The light of apple wood burning. A holy spirit made of our own selves. Call it in, brothers!” she said. “Call it to you, sisters! Oh,” she said, “bathe yourselves in it. Drink it deep, children. The spirit of love.”
“Oh, the sweetness of it. Love, oh, it blossoms in the heart of winter. Breath as warm as your own heart’s blood. Oh, and the sweetness of summer. Love like cool waters of everything. Love will comfort you, fill you, bless you, make you tremble. Love, oh my sweet lambs. Love is a ghost of all things we have feared and left behind. All things we have cast aside and could not bear.”
“Raise it up inside you, sisters! Raise it up inside you, brothers! Love is what we most want and what we most cast out. Oh, love. Listen! Sisters, pray. Pray for the grace of precious Jesus to fall upon us. Upon this one who needs you most.”
Around me people stood, shouted.
“Yes, brothers! Yes, sisters!”
The hurt-faced girl in her big, baggy dress was dancing. I could feel her feet like they were my own, her pointy-toed boots scuffing rhythms on the platform where the shiny preacher took her hand. I could see her eyes now. Oh, her eyes. They were the wanting in that face melted down to its own pain. Oh, love me, her eyes said, and I wanted to cry as I looked at her, but instead I looked at my own hands, my own lap.
“Sing praises, brothers and sisters,” the preacher said. Full-throated and off-key, she raised her hands, leading all our voices on.
Russell shifted his leg against mine, like we could keep each other safe from this thing called healing.
And then the girl sang, a sweetness you could taste. Her voice tugged at our coats, begged us to listen.
The preacher lifted her hands, her nails a shiny red. “Heal her, heal her,” the preacher said. “Listen.”
More dove-whispers from those kneeling prayers. Words farther down, inside me, underneath us. Far down in the church floor, beneath stone and solid ground, down in the earth’s pure heart, a place neither hot nor cold, in which I saw my own self, begging for mercy.
What power lies in hands folded in prayer? Russell’s hands gripping a spoon and stirring soup. Cody’s hands, stroking the long stretch of my arm and down. And Della too. Oil-black nails and strong. Her too. Ruby. Her nails painted red. And another hand, one I didn’t know. That girl’s up there? Not hers, but a vision-hand in my mind and a palm I studied behind my closed eyes. What future had I made? A lie-future, a made-up road ahead.
This selection comes from Wanting Radiance, available from The University Press of Kentucky. Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Gokul Prabhu.
Karen Salyer McElmurray won an AWP Award for creative nonfiction for her
book Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey and the Orison Award for
creative nonfiction for her essay “Blue Glass.” She has had other essays recognized
as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays, while her essay “Speaking Freely”
was nominated for a Pushcart Award. She currently teaches at Gettysburg
College and at West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low-Residency MFA.
Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.