Callie G. Mauldin
You push the church’s gate door open and walk past the wild verbena, fuchsia palls of fire at your feet. Your heartbeat quickens. The church’s box-shaped form could be mistaken for any of the warehouse-sized slaughterhouses that pock the Texas highways nearby. All two hundred fellow Believers shuffle in, single file for The Ra’s joining ceremony. You hold yourself back from the group and watch. You know how this goes. The Believers will christen the new members, splash water on their necks, infect them with false promises. All of those newcomers, breathless in their white robes, their mouths open, like newborn birds, believing in the end of days, pouring their money, their integrity, their esteem into The Ra. They stink of desperation—yeasty body odor and grape juice-stained breath—like you once did. But this will be your last night. This will be your last night with them.
Tending the orchards was the work assignment you’d won in the lottery when you landed at the camp two years ago. You loved it. Sunup to sundown, rainy days, dry days. You’d pluck the freshest, most luscious apples, plums, and pears for The Ra. You’d bring bushels of peaches to the orphans, the unwanted children taken in and nurtured by The Ra, in the nursery.
With time, you yielded to the Texas sun, whose summer heat could smother the tenderest buds in the orchard’s rows of fruit, stipples of red in the distance. Sweat poured from your limbs as though you were a snake shedding its skin. And after a while, the reality of your new life eclipsed the memories of your old one—curled up on dusty shelter floors or passed out on sweat-soaked motel beds, shaking like a rattler’s tail for days.
In front of you at the joining ceremony, seated on his large, wooden throne, The Ra wears his signature white robe. There is a blunt pain in your abdomen when you see him. This pain travels up your esophagus, and you imagine it in hyper color, electric green or yellow, like a cartoon drawing of a viral infection in a science textbook, until it lands in your throat, arrests your breathing. You cough and try to shake the feeling. It’s hard to imagine you slept beside him, limb-twisted, your breasts pressed against his freckled back. It’s hard to imagine you believed in any of those fairytales of childhood, where the white knight saves the distressed beauty.
Eleven months ago, in a small prayer group, he palmed the nape of your neck, turned your eyes to Heaven, and showed you how to look into the light until it became an image, a vision of God. You saw a child crying and you saw yourself whited out, dead and come back to life. You’d waited your whole life to be consumed by something worthwhile, to be inspired by someone. The first time you got high, you were just a teenager, and your whole body hummed like a locomotive, speeding down the rails, and then slowed down and spun around. You’d found that feeling again in The Ra, like being weightless in water, losing the heaviness of your shame. You looked for every occasion to be near him. The first time you knew he would consume you was when he helped the crippled woman walk again, like something from a goddamn movie. Haloed by a white spotlight, The Ra looked other-worldly on the stage as he retold his version of Genesis, the story of the fall. There was a small woman next to him in a heavy black wheelchair, her fingers and toes curled up like snails, her eyes closed as if she were sleeping. You watched as he lifted her from her chair, cradled her, and chanted in sacred tongues. Her limbs slowly unfurled, a hawk clawing for food.
And you weren’t imagining it, no, there it was—a red liquid, a hot lava, unearthed from her body, and you had to believe. You had to believe that he’d summoned the devil inside of her, roused him. You had to believe he was the Messiah, come to rescue you from the end of days. You rocked back and forth in your seat. All of you did. You arched your back. All of you did. The rhythm of bodies moving together created a propulsive force, an energy, like placing your finger in a socket. Group electroshock therapy. And you woke from your slumber of mediocrity, of numbness. And you tilted your head back. All of you. You moaned, from somewhere deep inside. All of you. You chanted in God’s sacred tongue. You wanted to be clean, to be saved from the end of days, to be free from the sins of the past. To be free from yourself.
Inside the worship hall, your friend Tilly sits down next to you and looks straight ahead, that vacant, obedient stare you know so well. You flinch at her weakness, her desperation to be told she is worthy. But that was you before. The Ra caresses the air with his arms, and your body stutters, the imagined virus traveling to your chest this time. Your breathing constricts. He performs Corinthians, Deuteronomy, and Acts flawlessly. A natural. You hardly believe you lost yourself to him, mistook obsession for love. You want to obliterate any thought of him. You want your mind to stop summoning the memory of him.
Ten months into the Women’s Revival class, The Ra told you he believed you were one of the chosen few. You would survive the end of days. He invited you to pray with him, just the two of you. And one night he performed the role of mortal in love. “In the light, I see us,” he’d said, and he cradled your chin in his palm. You straddled his hips and he held you against him, carried you to his marble table like a prized sculpture on display, and together you knocked over the altar wine that sat on it. You spent that night in his quarters, a lofty, cherry-wood paneled space that boasted marble pillars, expensive patterned rugs, and white satin sheets. You knew you had been saved from your demons, as you fell asleep watching the red wine drip-drip-drip onto the rug in the shape of an anchor, or maybe a half-moon.
After the sermon, you watch the newcomers as they queue up for The Ra to descend from the pulpit, embrace them, and wield acceptance, forgiveness, whatever they believe is missing in their lives. “That girl. The one with the curled-up toes. She’s walking now,” your friend Tilly says over macaroons, crafted by the calloused hands of the kitchen work women, and too-tart lemonade in paper cups. Her words have been implanted by someone else. You wonder how many times she has slept with him, how many times he has told her she is one of the chosen few. You wonder how long it will be before he discards her.
Once summer came, you were addicted to The Ra. His azure blue eyes shone wide and clear and his long chestnut hair curled at his shoulders. His body was lean and muscular, a magnet to yours. Soon enough, you were pregnant. At first, your belly was small and round, a pomegranate. “My body is a fruit bowl,” you said, wild-eyed. You imagined Mary must have felt this way, the apple of God’s eye.
And then, in the cascading light of autumn afternoons, prone on his king-size bed, he fingered your stretch marks like they were rivulets that could steer him to ecstasy. On Sundays, with his robes on, his long beard and crystalline gaze, he looked like an actor at a casting call for The Ten Commandments. A Hollywood Jesus. And you, you were Mary and Eve and all the women who came before you.
After the service, after they announce thirty-four new members to the group, Tilly nudges you in the ribs, asks if you want chicken salad or pimento salad. You stare into the pews, and the newcomers’ faces mix and dapple like a salad—blue eyes, brown eyes, brown hair, black hair, and pink lips. They don’t understand yet what will happen to them, how they will change in the months to come, how they will become strangers to themselves. “Hello? What do you want?” Tilly asks. And you know the answer. It is so close. It is almost within reach.
You stare into the past, and Jimmy, your first boyfriend, stares back, puts his heavy hands on your wrists, too tight, too hard. “Just try it,” he’d said, so many times. You and Jimmy, not old enough to drive, stood on broken flower pots to huff the hot poison from neighbors’ air conditioner units. And then you laid down in the grass together as your heads whirled and the sun sank low, and the two of you spun like a record player. You wanted more, more, more of that good poison that numbed and hushed those demons in your head. The red welts from boiling water on your legs when you were bad, when you didn’t do as your parents wanted. The hot, apple-scented sour breath on the back of your neck at night. The social worker who took you by the hand out of your house and drove you to the foster home. And the blur of new telephone numbers, cracked-tooth faces, and front doors you had to learn until you turned eighteen.
With Jimmy, in the days after you got high, you curled up in the fetal position on the floor as your heartbeat thrummed in your head, like a wasp trapped in your ear canal. And then, you’d start again. And the glass pipe you brought to your red-raw lips, with the burn-burn-burn aspirin smell of the brown-yellow rock when it heated and melted into a blue-red-orange flame, could have been the pink rock candy stick you dreamed of in your childhood, but it wasn’t. It didn’t ever gift you those imaginary Sunday-afternoon memories, walking hand-in-hand with your mama into the candy store, choosing just the right light pink rock crystal, something other-worldly beautiful, syrupy sweet. It only made you desperate. Made you swallow your own sour puke if you couldn’t get it. Your whole body black and blue, beat up all over if you couldn’t score. And the one sure way you learned you could get it meant waking up next to some nameless man, red-hot fire between your legs, reeking of his sweat and his sour breath.
You stare at The Ra, watching his black shoe tap the floor beneath his white robes. You think of goat hooves. And you remember his long toes, the missing nail of his pinky. When you tongued the bare skin he laughed like a boy. He looks at you, but just for a second, before looking away. You wonder how many women he manipulated before you, after you, during you.
Once winter’s frost covered the ground, the lilies underfoot, their soft bulbs rooted in darkness, The Ra performed the role of caring partner. “We are sinning, we are corruptible, and I can’t risk your faith, your purity. I can’t.” And surely there was the baby to consider? Mothers should be pure. Like Mary. You believed him, but it made you miserable. Another drug to get out of your system. His gray-robed ministers ushered you to a part of the camp you’d never seen. You were sequestered in a white dorm-like room with white pillows and soft linen sheets. “For your safety and the baby’s safety,” they said. They fattened you with lamb and beef meatballs, whole milk, and creamed potatoes. There were four other pregnant women there, but you weren’t allowed to speak to one another. You believed them when they told you silence was God’s way. One afternoon, on the way to the dining room, you heard screams, and then you saw three of the gray-robed ministers march down the hall with one of the pregnant women, who was kicking and yelling, her nose and her teeth bloodied red. By then, you were too scared to speak.
That night, you dreamt you were chained to your bed, deprived of food and water, deprived of inspiration, isolated. You wondered if The Ra would visit you, bring you bread or water. Kiss your red, raw lips. You hadn’t seen him for weeks, even though you asked for him, over and over and over. You started to believe your body was capable of producing lava, dispersing the deadly liquid without command. The devil somewhere inside of you aching to get out.
In the New Year, your baby girl stretched two dimpled arms and mewled from pink bowed lips as you supported the back of her soft head.
“You are all mine,” you said. She was lighter than a basket of red apples. When she cried at night, you held her to your chest and swayed with her body until she surrendered. You wondered how you could protect her from this world of subservience. You wondered how you could keep her from your mistakes. That night, you dreamt of escaping with your baby, climbing the fence behind the orchards you knew so well. Climbing and running, running, running until you disappeared into the Texas dust, until you were free.
Three days later, when the Believers took your baby, the sky burned in orange, red, and yellow bands. They held you down, kneed you in the stomach, and inserted a needle into the crook of your arm until your bedroom’s interior warped and fogged. They plucked your baby from her crib. “This is The Ra’s baby. This baby does not belong to you. You committed the sin of having this child out of wedlock.” Sometime in the night, as you tossed and turned on your sweat-soaked sheets, you realized those babies, those children in the nursery, their pink lips sucking on bottles, had all been fathered by The Ra. And the only sin you’d been guilty of was believing that a man, any man, could save you. Father-Son-Holy Spirit-Messiah-Brother-Husband—you’d been following, believing, for as long as you could remember, trapped by the notion that you were the broken one.
Tilly grabs your arm to leave for the dormitories, and you tell her to wait, that you’ve got one more thing to do before you go. You want to tell her to get out, wake up, and realize it’s all an illusion, but you know she won’t hear you. She’s blinded by loyalty, by lies. Maybe you could teach her how to see the hollowness of The Ra’s mission, his manipulations, but probably, she believes she is in love with him. That he is the only one who can save her from herself, some nonsense like that.
You spent six weeks in solitary confinement, a white, windowless, closet-sized cell. They fed you coarse, brown wafers and water, barely enough to stay alive. You burrowed inside yourself, found a safe memory to hide in. On random nights, one of the Believers would unlock the door and pull you from your cell, whip you with a belt, spray you with icy water. You’d endured it once as a child, and you could do it again. As they hosed your inner thighs and the cold water burned like flame, they told you God punished those who talked, because he protected The Ra. He might kill your child or poison your family if you ever shared your secret with anyone else.
Once you were allowed back to worship, your hips and arms black, blue, and brown from the beatings, you noticed how The Ra caressed the white-blonde organist’s sheet music and the way she stared up at him, an immaculate vision she must have conjured, as you did in your ignorance. She was sixteen, young enough not to consider the consequences, and groomed in the church’s “orphanage.” You watched his outstretched arms punctuate the air as he told the stories of Christ, his death and rebirth. “You shall carry each other’s burdens. You shall carry each other’s sins.” You laughed aloud, the irony of it all descending on you, heavy as stones.
You wait in the bathroom, adjust yourself, the gun strapped to your hip, still soft from pregnancy. You were one of the lucky ones who woke up.
You push the door open and march back into the worship room. You look at The Ra, seated in his throne, your eyes lock, and it is seconds, just seconds, as you pull the gun from your pants and aim.
And your vision, it rolls around in your head: you, fleeing the church’s nursery with your baby, as the lava unbuckles from your ribs, pours out of your eyes and throat, and lacerates your gums, until your snorts echo throughout the sanctuary. Until your sin, your love, your darkness, your fire light up the room.
You aim to destroy.
Callie G. Mauldin
Callie G. Mauldin’s fiction has appeared in Fiction Southeast, Expanded Field Journal (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), and poemmemoirstory. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband and son.