SHE TEARS at her ragged blue shirt and lets the airless steam from strangers dampen her chest, her back, her thighs. The white tent trembles in the Wyoming haze and the collective heat of thirsty bodies vibrate with the redemptive pleas of desolation. Heat saturates the cheap metal folding chairs, cuts through the stagnant air, and settles into the pores of her skin. Hot and dusty and sweat laden, she waits for the splendor to pitch her away from this place – to a heaven she’s been told actually exists. And the Preacher, whose mission is to sell heavenly portals to those wallowing in Hell, assures her that his bloody rants will reveal heaven as a destination on Earth. She has her doubts. If it were true, her husband would still be beside her, flicking off bits of hay stuck to his thick brown hair, wiping the sleep from his amber eyes, checking to see if his hands are clean. She’d catch him, checking his hands after he fed the horses or cleaned the chicken coup. He always wanted to be clean for her. She could smell him now, that smell after he bathed, that tender, honest scent of his soul. She closes her eyes and inhales one long, deep breath in an effort to reach him – to let him know that should he be able to come back to her, her breath will light his path.
“Pray to the Almighty for your salvation,” Preacher summons from his makeshift stage at the front of the tent. Heads jut back, mouths fall open, and arms rise up. And she prays. She prays for her sweet husband who long ago yielded to the misery of eternal hope and she prays for her poor old dog shriveled in a shallow grave and then she prays for herself. She prays for abandon from every craven desire that has bound her to the Earth. In the sizzling heat of a blinding white tent the syncopation of Preacher’s raw devotion sanctifies the hopeless and tows her under like a riptide of crystal light. Preacher’s nimble fingers stroke his black oiled hair while his sinuous voice delivers a legion of prophecies.
“All men labor in the bowels of despair – all men face Satan sooner or later. Hope is the folly of a diseased mind… Embrace your pain and enter the Kingdom of Heaven with our almighty Lord.” A chorus of “Amens” ricochets through the tent and punctures the near serenity of the moment. And as quickly as it began, it ends. Men and women, their despair masked by exaltation, move toward the collection plate. Preacher smiles and gives them all his blessing as his smell – a bitter condemnation of men’s fears – forks its way through the tent. She closes her eyes again to inhale but the smell seeping around her is venal. She tries to ignore the smell’s seduction. It’s tinged with a longing that can never be fulfilled. Yet, she is seduced.
Salvation is so close. Alone in his dank hotel room, she can finally drink in the Preacher’s epistle of futility.
“Preacher, is there a place for me in heaven, or is it all a lie?”
“Everyone lies, child. Tell the Lord about your pain…”
Preacher slowly untangles her black braid and swaddles her wearied skin. The pages of a tattered Bible quiver in the fragmented gusts from a rickety ceiling fan. The pages leap back and forth, finally landing on 2 Corinthians 9:7: Each one should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not out of regret or compulsion. For God loves a cheerful giver. She reads the words and thinks God’s plan has always been to forsake all those who aren’t cheerful.
“My sweet child, are you ready to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?”
She was prepared – scorched with the need of being saved. Preacher’s long blue pinstriped frock coat falls to the floor. The smell of pine and liquor overcomes her, and she wants to believe. She yearns for water to run in the wells, for blessings and curses to be true, and for her beloved husband to be alive. She takes a deep, labored breath to summon what has been taken from her. And he appears, noble and handsome – as he had been in life. Her husband’s quiet stirs her burdened heart. Here he sits, now obsequious, huddled in the corner on a threadbare chaise, his fearlessness quashed in death. She reaches for her husband in the dark – out of habit – while preacher entertains himself with her heaving body drenched in sweat and salt.
“Annalee,” her husband whispers, “when the daisies are in bloom I’ll bring you dozens and dozens of yellow daisies and you’ll make me scrambled eggs…” She reaches for his warmth. “But that time has not come yet.” His touch is the way she remembers it, the way it’s always been – gentle, honest. Can he be here, carried on her breath, now visible and marking the temporality of time?
“Preacher, do you see?”
“I see everything, child. The Lord sees everything, and he provides for you if you let him. Are you ready?”
But Preacher didn’t see. His intent was his own and the chains he wielded were final and consumptive. As a peddler of salvation, he depended on vulnerability and he commanded a fragile world were many foundered. Souls were dispensed with regularity to a Hell they could never escape – it was a hinterland where a margin of hope always persisted, always presented options, always promised more. But more never came. Annalee foundered now, confined by shadows and probabilities.
Her husband holds his head in his hands – something she has seen him do so many times in life. Tears trickle down his cheeks. She feels his body bathed in torment, waiting for surrender. Suddenly she sees the last time he left their bedroom, cold and tired, hears the shot as he fells a lame horse, watches him release the fowl so they might have a chance, feels his desperation as the bone-dry wind picks up and water stops running, and then the final edict. His heart gives up. There had been no warning signs. He falls to the ground, his eyes reaching for hers as his final breath is released into the ethers. The cruelty of his absence taints her every waking moment. And all the while Preacher drenches himself in her isolation taking what he needs as his black heart passes the night in prayer. As she clings to misshapen dreams, the false hope of resurrection and redemption, Preacher weaves together psalms and missives about the vagaries of life and God and the malevolence of a capricious universe that stymies even the well intentioned.
“I can’t stay, Annalee.” Her husband moves his torso over her and she feels his warm belly, he touches her hair gently, kisses her neck. “I’m not of this Earth anymore, Annalee, you are. You have to let me go.”
She can’t. The deterioration of all the dreams and desires they shared has left her barren. The only hope she has is him – his touch, his vulnerability.
“Don’t leave me here…” she cries out and all the dread she has been sheltering courses through her veins.
“Child,” Preacher says, “the Lord will never leave you.”
“Preacher, please help me”
“Of course, child. I’ll help you…”
“No one can help you, Annalea,” her husband speaks into her ear. He is closer now, she can feel his breath, hear his heart beat. Preacher recedes from her mind and she no longer feels his body violate her flesh. She knows only the phantom of her dead husband as he trembles in blue moonlight before her. He is cold, and she can’t seem to comfort him. She can’t break free of her Earthly mantle.
“Release your soul to me child,” Preacher says as his body morphs into contorted ecstasy, “and claim what you desire most.”
“Let me go, Annalee,” her husband whispers. “Don’t be fooled.”
Her husband takes her hand one last time as regret cradles each fallen tear and every sacred kiss. Crickets besiege the night while the Lord looks down at the broken carousels strewn over his landscape. Annalee is but one. With sweet breath on her lips she wakes in the gray light of dawn, alone. She reaches for her husband but knows in her heart there will be nothing there, knew that salvation was not conceivable, nor an option she could claim. A single yellow daisy lay on the pillow beside her. It’s stem, slightly crushed but still fresh, twists around several strands of her hair. A quarter moon hangs in the sky as narrow beams of dry sunlight emerge and radiate clouds of white dust. And because she knew the end at the beginning, she smiles. Because she believes no god can save her, she shrieks at the dawn like a wild animal as the blazing white tent pulls out of town, on to the next prayer.
Deborah Johnstone’s CNF can be found in numerous online and print publications. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she serves as executive editor of “The Poor Ledger”. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Goddard College and teaches in New York City.