Sunday morning found me kneeling at the foot of my bed, trembling, pebbles of sweat leaping off the edge of my brow and nose, and hitting the floor in front of me, but not from piety was I procumbent; though as a minister for over a decade, I had made threadbare the knees of my pants from petitionings. No, I was crouched and quivering, begging in half-measures, because of a shooting pain in my side, caused by kidney stones. Doc Thomas said my trouble breathing was purely in my head, but he had given me ample painkillers to make it through the weekend. The new church building was being dedicated today and he’d midwife my suffering on Monday.
I swallowed my medication. The pill a seed from which, I pray, nothing will grow. I dressed and walked across the expanse of grass, spendthrifting the morning glories, to stand beneath the shade of the pecan tree. The white of the slat wood chapel bounced the brightness of dawn to high heaven and the heat was rising, so I staggered back to my study in the little manse across the field.
My study was inviolable, a sanctuary, and only one person was allowed to ascend the mount to meet with me. My father-in-law, my ex-father-in-law, practically my father, an elder, the elder, my only elder in the church, Doc Thomas would knock on the door fifteen minutes before the service and we would pray together; for the church, for the city, for the sick by name, for the lost by the inward groaning of the spirit, for all the burdens of his heart and mine that we dare mention aloud.
After the loss of our building fund, he came through, funded the rest of it from his own pocket. Having given so much, I was ashamed to take more, prodigal of his gifts, but he felt the betrayal in our marriage more intently than I did, for I knew my faults and knew what I deserved far better than he. She left me and I could hardly blame her. She had so much to give and I was fearful of how much I wanted. I took too little, too little notice, too little care, belittling and of little faith.
There was a soft knock and Thomas entered. I was crouched over in my chair, sweat crowning my forehead. “Good morning, Doc,” I said softly. He thought I was weeping.
He was silent as he took a seat at my side, his hand resting on my shoulder, and then prayed. I had not realized until then that it was the anniversary of her leaving. Doc Thomas was aware and his words invoked an unspoken sorrow, a burden I had not been aware of until now. I remembered the last time I saw her.
When I found them I was too stunned to talk. Joe stood up, as guilty as Adam and as nude, and told me he was invited. My wife was too shocked to speak. Joe wrapped himself in a linen sheet and left. I followed him, wanting to ask a question, but all I could think to ask was how soon would the roof would be finished.
I stood at the front door and watched him walk across the field. I could think of only one thing to say, so finally I called, “That’s mine!”
He thought I was talking about his makeshift loincloth and he paused. Then he let fall the linen sheet and ran away naked. His truck was parked at the far end of the construction site, and as the great vehicle revved and wheeled about, my wife pushed past me with a suitcase and an abrupt goodbye. He waited for her and then they were gone. Over the next several weeks, I let the rain ruin the unshingled roof. The tarps were windtorn and rot set in. Plywood had to be replaced and a new crew had to be found to shingle it. And then the money was gone.
I could’ve tracked down Joe and gotten the rest of it back, but forgiveness is more needful than money and I owed my wife a great debt in that department. But I couldn’t bring myself to speak to her.
I amen’d at the end of Thomas’s prayer. We shook hands, then we hugged, and he said something about it being a happy day for the church. We walked over and I was feeling better. The stitch in my side and the thunder and lightning of pain was gone.
The congregation was gathering on the grass. I offered a prayer, a ribbon was snipped, and we trickled inside to the cool of the sanctuary. Pews were selected. A row of children jumped in place until they got their chance to pull the bell’s fat rope. Every soul got its ring. Miss Mattie could not play the piano loud enough, our voices outdid her hands for once. She was glad to be back at the upright, hammering away like a smith at his anvil.
I read the text and prayed to the Spirit for illumination. The passage was the woman at the well. She’d had five husbands when Jesus found her there.
When I looked up, I saw her. Maggie still talked to her father once a week. She knew what today was. She’d think I did it on purpose, dedicate a church on the anniversary of the dissolution of my marriage. I was of a mind to believe it myself. I’m that sort of fool. Married to the church, she’d say with vinegar under her tongue. She knew I measured poorly as a bridegroom. She’d slipped in for the sermon and stood in the back.
And Jesus said, “And the one you are with is not your husband.” Jesus said it, but I could not. I felt her eyes on me. The woman at the well switched topics to the question of where to worship and I did the same.
“‘Our fathers worshipped on this mount, but ye say in Jerusalem,’ the woman said.” I told them how Christ replied, and I told them about mountains, and about the faith that could move mountains.
“Every valley shall be exalted,” I said. “And every mountain laid low, saith the prophet Isaiah. Jesus quotes this too and I’ve always found it a curious thing.”
I was off script and wandering in the wilderness of the Word of the Lord. “We hear about the faith that can casts mountains into the sea and we think that means faith can be strong. And maybe that’s true.”
I felt a gonging in my stomach. The pain returning. And I felt bad, nobody likes to hear about a faith that might not be strong, but I pressed on. “Why would mountains need to be moved? Or really, the question is what are mountains for and why would we not need them in the new covenant?”
Maggie started to walk to the exit and pain whited out my sight. I clung to the pulpit to steady myself. “We have to understand, in the old covenant, mountains were meeting places, ladders to heaven. You could think of mountains as full sized altars.”
I was losing my breath. All other faces grew cloudy, a cloud of witnesses.
“The reason why mountains will be laid low or cast into the sea is because,” I nodded at Miss Mattie so she could get to the piano. She liked to play through the final prayer, which would have to come soon. I gripped my side. “Now, we no longer need to ascend the mountain to meet with the Lord. Where two or three are gathered together in his name—”
A man entered, I couldn’t see who, and he whispered something into the ear of someone in the back row. I tried to continue, but there was a ripple of talk and Doc Thomas stood, raising his hand. I ceded the service to him.
Doc had a voice I envied. A tremulous tone with a lilt that could break anger like a dry twig. “Brothers and sisters,” he said and all heads rotated his direction. “The house across the street, the Peterson house, is on fire.”
The commotion was instant. A pastor has never seen such a response to his own words. Every man stood and rushed out the door, the children followed with their mothers in tow.
I slowly made my way to the door, a hand to every pew, and looked across the street as the flames broke through the roof of the Peterson’s. The fire formed a steeple and a siren sounded far off. The Petersons weren’t members and weren’t home. I tried to pray, but the roar of pain inside me swallowed it. I think I saw my wife, my ex-wife, my sister-in-law and once bride, she hugged her father. He knelt before her and clung to her waist, laying his head against her stomach.
The engine arrived and two men jumped out, one of them slung some extra gear at the foot of Paul Milligan, our deacon, who was a volunteer. He had already stripped off his tie and shoes and went about frantically stuffing himself into the flame retardant pants, boots, and jacket.
The hose was hooked up to the hydrant at the corner and water was shot into the fire. A long black pillar rose into the sky. Another couple of volunteers showed up later, but the fire was too far gone. They only sought to control the burn and save the houses on either side.
The Petersons came back and their son sobbed while the mother and father took turns swearing into the cell-phones or under their breath. The crowd had thinned out and as the fire worked its way to the ground, the sun did the same.
In the dark, I had only made it to the pecan tree before I was stricken with a pain too great to move. Leaning against its the scaley bark, I could feel a ring where a sap-sucker had drilled holes. I labored to breathe.
Heat rose up in me and I unbuttoned my shirt. I’d not worn an undershirt and smelled. My cell buzzed in my pants pocket. I fished it out, hunching and resting my head against the tree. “Hello?”
“Mark,” she said and my face screwed up in sadness.
“Forgive me,” I stuttered.
“Was that sermon for me?”
“No,” I gasped. I felt a pressure in my bladder. I grit my teeth and cinched tight my eyes. “It was the doing of the lectionary. I would’ve avoided it if I could.”
I heard her breath crackle in the receiver. I couldn’t tell if it was scoff or sigh. If a scoff, it echoed the scoffing of my heart. If a sigh, it was the breath of my own soul.
“I’m staying at dad’s.” She said softly. “For now.”
There was a pause. “The sermon—”
“You never finished. What were you about to say?”
I wanted to scream: “I am the woman at the well, I am the unfaithful bride, I am the faithless husbands.” I felt nauseated and I badly needed to urinate. “I am the mountain that must be cast into the sea.” But I did not say this. I was too weak.
“What was I saying? I don’t remember.”
“Where two or three are gathered…”
“Yes, yes,” I said and the conclusion to my sermon came to me unbidden and full. “But then we shall see face to face.”
I nearly cried out in pain as some dagger of starlight danced upon my kidney. I felt severed. She thanked me, said goodnight, and hung up, instinctively closing with “I love you,” like children ending prayers with “Jesus name amen.” A thoughtless utterance that held all truth and anchored us to the world.
I could no longer wait and fumbled at my belt and let my trousers fall. In the dark, in the dark of the tree, on the tree, I passed the stone. I left a curse on my tongue and let a blessing well up inside me and flow free.
Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana and the author of two middle grade novels, Strays (Canon Press, 2017) and Hush-Hush (forthcoming).