As a minister he wouldn't even say "kisses" in front of them. "What are they?" one small girl asked, and he couldn't believe in this age of television and blaring advertising that she didn't know. He smiled and called them "silver-tops." He cast a handful across his lap—a flash on the thirty pieces paid Judas—suggested she come over to his side of the desk and pick the ones she wanted. Her hands were like tiny starfish as she reached, for what child is not enticed by candy, and by the slow invitation in a kind man's voice? He had a register that pleased the ears of the innocent, and he used it. No more than four years old, she wouldn't even remember.
Candy from the drawer he withdrew for just such occasions. Candy. What could be wrong with that? Sweetness. Children were the sweetness of God's holy world.
Her parents told him her IQ had been tested and she'd start kindergarten in the fall even though her fifth birthday wasn't until November. Almost five. His fascination with her somehow less horrible now because she was school-bound, as if riding a bus made her free game. Jesus judged sin, not the sinner. He figured he still had time to reform, that the hell-heaven fork in the road could not yet even be glimpsed. Delusional when he viewed his own set-up, but for his congregation he could hit the mark, preach their souls back to the altar, offer the cup with authority.
After services, on the front steps amidst the blinding sunlight, he accepted compliments and shook hands, dozens, callused and quick, perspiring and doughy, rough or manicured, the perpetually stained. He high-fived some of the teenage boys who skateboarded and worked in garages for cigarette money. In all circles he was well-loved.
The men loitered on the church grounds while many of their wives returned home to initiate or continue cooking their big Sunday suppers. Smokers, who chewed the ends of their cigars under the locust trees, sought mercy for their hangovers. He didn't smoke, but he liked a peppermint in his mouth, something for his tongue to twirl. His housekeeper, Joy, kept the candy dish stocked. The children didn't care for the mints' sharp flavor. Some of the young men, in duets or trios, examined the paint jobs and gleaming hub caps on their automobiles lining the side street to the rectory drive. He touched a fender, adjusted a side mirror in his walk-by, and fawned in a way that made the owners bust with pride.
Joy set pitchers of reconstituted lemonade on the picnic tables where youth group gathered for Wednesday night prayer, and the few mothers who'd remained fanned themselves with their clutch purses as they kept loose watch over the children's Freeze Tag. The more wealthy wore short white gloves even in June's high heat. It was they who poured the sugared mix into Dixie-cups, corralling the young and cautioning, "Slow down, heat stroke."
"All that running!" The vein of their amazed observations. They banded as one, the way mothers do—even those who nursed secret grudges against others in the group—to bask in the insufferability and folly of the children they loved most in this world.
"Let them cool inside; it's air conditioned." He held his hands like Jesus, supplicating and shepherding.
Through the cool blast of the entry he ushered them, and stiff-armed the door shut into its summer-swollen jamb. He touched no heads or arms or backs or backsides of the five little girls who blazed his path. They had played in his office many Sundays, a second living room, where they each claimed a favorite perch. One always hogged the window so she could see her daddy under the trees. An old piano bench accommodated three at once, and his choice blessed who would reign as the "Three Graces" that particular Sunday.
Splendor, Mirth and Good Cheer. Handmaidens of Venus.
He had to explain what splendor and mirth were to them, old words the primary schools didn't teach. The girls thought good cheer had to do with laundry. Oh, he laughed. For him they danced, played and sang "In and Out the Windows," and "A Tisket, A Tasket," another game in the round. They were happy to make him happy. They called him "Father," and he didn't mind how they Catholicized him. He clapped for them and they ran to him like puppies. They bumped him, they bumped against each other, the smells of fresh straw and lily and honey practically ruining him. A tremor sustained within the legs of his straight-backed chair to where he slumped forward and gathered them in, all tumbling.
"Oh healing mercy," he breathed. We fall to our knees.
Performance and prayer, that's what was going on, if anybody stepped in to ask. He'd strung a story for the suspicious and could summon an authority-bleached voice to narrate—hammer and saw of his work, and he another carpenter. Fever soaked his brain the way the sponge on the hyssop took the vinegar.
"Ever will there be sheep and wolves," he'd warned recently from the pulpit, a veiled telling on himself, while the men and women mostly gazed, seeing only chicken roasting in a low oven or wan colors thrown by the windows and the cliché of God's blessings inhabiting a shaft of sunlight. Their hand-held fans made the church hum.
The air unit plugged in the office window whirred its forced, eager stream across the girls and the crowns of their heads, their hair ribbons, their ribbon-breaths. The surface of the world trilled.
Obey God exclusively, love Him supremely.
Joy stepped in with a plate of cookies and the featherweights lifted as one to rush her.
"There now," she said, the plate on the magazine table around where the girls jabbered like jays and picked their favorites.
"They just had candy," he said, astonished.
"Never enough sweets for the sweet," she said. She got pulled by their eddy, too.
He thought he knew their every little appetite but they managed to daily revise their innocence, which caused a flush clear to his ankles.
Joy touched the back of a girl's head. "Honey, don't gobble, you'll choke."
The girl nodded, her jaws working rapid. Caroline, who everyone called Lena, the one he most took a shine to.
Joy had run this rectory the last seven years. She'd tended Lena's birth, on the strip of lawn that fronted the post office, when tourists in a rented auto ran the crosswalk and the blinking yellow between two high speed routes right out there in sight of the steeple. If a child breaks into the world that way, who doesn't have a stake in her continuance, in her light?
He'd preached a Sunday sermon as mother and baby lay critical, in which he begged his congregation: "Slow. Down." His caution for them, for himself, for man's tendency to gulp what he feared might otherwise disappear. He said, "Appreciate." He said, "Give thanks." Then he'd ducked from the pulpit, exited the back of the church, drove to the hospital, belly tied up in ten kinds of knots.
And knotted up since. Perplexed. Driven.
Joy said, "By grace are you saved through faith, not of works." Cookies distracted the children so she must have meant this for him.
He said, "Ephesians," and nodded. Then he one-upped Joy: "And the saving is not of your doing but a gift from God."
Whatever snake curled in either of their bellies, this verse end placated. God would do the saving. They need only live in the garden, where pleasure presided. This was God's promise through St. Paul, not serpent talk.
Joy sucked in her breath. "Look at the child's eye." Lena, crumbs in the corner of her mouth, had finally faced them head on.
The rest of the girls, sensing Joy's alarm, tightened around, touching Lena wherever they could. "What, what?" Their chorus.
He catapulted out of his leather chair, where moments before the children had enjoyed his swiveling and rocking them by turns.
Joy squatted to bring Lena close and to still her by her shoulders. The children always wanted to bolt when you singled them out. Joy edged the clingy girls aside with her own rump and her elbows. She said, "Don't you see trouble when it's under your nose?" The most she had ever criticized him, he felt it cleaver his brain.
As dumb as the girls, he bleated: "What, what?"
Even though Joy had said where, his gaze traveled the habitual route: from Lena's pink rubber-tipped tennis shoes, up her downy legs to her dress hem, over a tied sash green as wheatgrass. No four or five year old had any waist to speak of. You had to set your hands there and imagine. She was a slim switch broke from the tree for punishing. Her sweet-smelling neck, her seashell ears, mahogany hair so silky it couldn't even keep a barrette.
Her eye. A tick curled like a fist in her eyelash, snug up to the edge of her baby soft eyelid, affixed to the taste of her. The left, clear, and wide-wild-blue with fear.
"No, darlin'." Joy gripped Lena's hands at her belt because they of course wanted to twitch up the cheek and feel what. "I've got it, I've got you."
He bent in front of her, too. The children made room. One girl squealed and set them all to crying and shrieking.
They had never caught his ire or impatience before, and it axed them. A cast of chastised faces watched, silent.
"What?" Lena whimpered.
"I'll get my daddy," the window hugger said.
"No!" He grabbed her elbow. "You'll all sit on the floor like good Indians."
He could barely take his eyes off the swelling. He didn't want Lena to think he would leave, for he wouldn't. He almost spoke so, but Joy said, "Petroleum jelly. In the lavatory. Third shelf in the linen closet."
His knees threatened the fabric of his slacks. Poised on his toes, he felt like a boy playing at chickens. This close he saw inside Joy's sleeveless blouse and saw the dark bristle in Joy's underarm. Repulsive. She held Lena in place but the girl squirmed.
He said, "It'll be all right, honey." Such easy, oft spoken words.
"Get it," Lena said, her voice wet.
The tick appeared to clench tighter, grow fatter, burrow in.
Her face three inches from his, Joy looked direct into the bottom of him, and yelled, "Go get it!"
The girls lifted their heads as they listened to his joints crack. He grew tallest among all in the room, then left to displace the towels and the epsom salts and the alcohol. Joy had the closet ultra-organized, it didn't take long. But during that short hallway venture, his mind flashed and sparked.
How can you draw closer to God? How can you know His will? It can't be an anonymous saving. You need to put yourself in the thick of it. Let His hurricane blow through you, thresh out temptation. He used weather and he used agriculture, whatever metaphors sounded equal to toppling the reluctant soul. Somehow, you had to be healed. The faces of those girls, their liveliness, his affliction and his cure.
Memory of a walk featuring just him and Lena. Yes, it had happened.
The quince tree bore inedible fruit, good for nothing but jam. Much sugar had to be added.
Along the puddles in the culverts they encountered two types of swallowtail butterflies. Naturally, she wanted to catch one. He taught her spicebush and tiger. Like Adam naming the creatures of Eden, he felt big with knowledge.
For her, he pointed out seven goats grazing a bumpy half acre, five munching on the hillside and two who ventured from the three-sided shelter to where they'd paused on the road. Baa baa baa. Ears and tails endlessly flicking flies.
Lena began lifting her hand to breaks in the fence. He saw what she was on about and he grabbed her, kept her back against his legs. In a split second, he'd bent to her height and was talking into the back of her neck. "They'll bite you," he said. "A goat's job is to eat."
"What's my job?" Lena said to the goat's pale eyes.
To show me my weakness.
She of an age that required hand holding, where an adult brought you safely to the street's other side, so why wouldn't she continue holding his hand? The ruminants lipped the fence loops Lena had reached for. Goat grins that hid teeth.
"We've just had a narrow escape," he said.
Had four girls ever sat so obedient? Little Indians, he'd called them. Their quiet melted his heart. And in his chair Lena had been gathered in Joy's lap, her head resting her ugly eye against Joy's breast pocket. Everyone watched him hand over the jar.
"I should call her mother," he said.
Joy said, "Wait. This will work in a bit."
"What are you going to do?" Lena said.
Joy said, "Suffocate the bastard."
Nastiness the girls recognized from their daddies' rages. They couldn't help it, they giggled.
One girl said, "A bastard is an ugly spider?"
One said, "A bloodsucker, right?
Shouting guesses, they jumped up from their floor circle. They were smart and striving. They would be tops in life and heads of their class, he thought, even as he said, "Hush," and set his hands on the shoulders of those closest. "You're scaring Lena."
"I'm not afraid," she said.
Joy directed, "Close, and keep it closed. Not squinting, not tight, just pretend to sleep." She smeared the salve over Lena's affected eyelid.
Gross as the swoll-up eye appeared, it made Lena more beautiful.
I will glory in my infirmities so Christ's power may live in me.
No parents stepped inside. An ordinary Sunday where angels skipped about his house. Their wings kissed the walls they skidded around, they displaced the throw rugs with their running.
Joy, in administering her first aid, had supplanted him and wasn't she just loving it? They set-to over house procedures and Synod commands, the food budget, the décor at Eastertide, what was tasteful for church and what was gauche, grudging in their tough-held opinions. Their daily quiz over New Testament verses, where they tried stumping each other, was steeped in pride, but never had she tried diverting his girls.
"Perhaps I should hold her while you usher the others to the lawn?"
He felt his church, the girls' futures, Joy's suspicions, Lena's soul, all in the balance and he the self-important fulcrum. An earthquake might have shaken the river valley. Or the men stamped their feet outside over a hearty joke. The skateboarders rumbled across the asphalt. A glare had hit his face, that's all, prism to another world, then his office emerged as usual, those ochre walls that absorbed winter light and turned the season unbearable. No brimstone declaration on summer wind. Mothers were still tilting drinks and shading their brows with glove-fingered salutes in the yard, the lemonade had not run out.
Joy bent the scales. No, Lena herself tipped them when she said, "I want up." And she reached her arms, lifted her behind as best she could with what little ballast she had. She hovered between him and Joy, and then she was his, caught-up, in the way Jacob wrestled with the angel but this time the angel won. Her bad eye met his shirt where he had perspired, where he continued perspiring.
Joy stood, clapping her hands. "Girls, outside. We need drinks."
They raced her to the exit. As much as they loved him, they'd leave him.
"You knew just what to do," he said to Joy. Gratitude hung in his eyes.
The last girl paused. "Will she be all right?"
He touched the hair of the darling on his lap. "Certainly. Yes."
The door slammed shut. Happy screams joined other happy screaming within a holy perimeter where mothers exclaimed and fathers greeted. The outside world whirled on its speech, punch-drunk and teeming and far off. Prism. Prison.
He set his open mouth on the top of Lena's head. He'd eat her up if she allowed.
"Honey? How are you doing?"
"I want it off. I want it out."
He sucked in his stomach and pulled her loose of him to examine. "Let me look."
Hard to tell if there'd been any progress. He said, "I think he's coming free. But he's going to be slow about it."
"I wish he'd be fast."
Joy and her old wive's tales. Lena could be soaking up lyme disease or rocky mountain spotted fever this minute. Feverish? Her limbs warmed his arms, but then he felt ablaze, too, and no tick attached. He dawdled over emergency thoughts, but, oh, holding her channeled divinity the way a cup gave form to water.
"I'm thirsty," she said. His embrace didn't slacken. Who knew when she'd be this close again?
A half-drunk mug of milky cold coffee sat on his desk and he raised it to her lips. As she sipped, the tick seemed to curl into itself and apart from Lena, clinging more to her eyelash than eyelid.
"Honey," he said, setting the pottery among papers, "I'm going to brush this away from your eye now, okay? It might tug, and I want you to try and not flinch. Be my big girl, sit still as you can, and I will take care of everything. Can you be brave for me?"
Lena nodded. The tick was the size of the topmost snap at the back of her dress, where her hair dampened in a deliciously matted undergrowth.
"Now close your eyes."
She did, looking for all the world like an angel.
He pinched her eyelashes, and therein pinched the tick, pulling gently. It had disengaged; it was a matter of combing through the eyelashes even as the ugly tried holding firm.
He soothed her. "Lena, such a trooper, such a good, good girl."
Four or five attempts before he trapped it between thumb and forefinger. He picked up the geode used to weight papers, and said, "Look, honey," as he smashed the tick with a pointy edge of it into his desk, ground a permanent nick into the wood. But when he lifted the broke open rock the tick starting crawling, unfazed.
"It's still moving," Lena cried.
As she had on their walk to the goats, her small hand could wrap only two of his fingers, but she gripped those two as if he might be the lovey she'd dragged with her since known time, what she most needed tucked at her chin to brave the dark.
The tick had scrambled to the edge of the desk and was moving down the side.
"Get it," she said. "Hurry." She squirmed in his lap.
He could not move an inch. He said, "Why don't we let it go?" A dark plague gathered under his skin.
Her grateful, eager eyes—both clear as drink—riveted to his.
If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.
He was left handed. His left hand moved, a particular brand of spider.
He floated the hallway like a ghost, down to the basement, amid laundry and less-used tools and equipment for preserving fruits Joy hadn't lugged upstairs in the last five years. She'd whisked his shirts from the dryer and placed them on hangers on the clothesline to eliminate what ironing she could. White flimsy arms, his own unsubstantial arms, chucked his cheek as he walked through. He was a fighter and he'd been pummeled twelve full rounds. Both loser and victor, but how could that be? He sickened himself, is what he did. He wanted to puke.
On the table alongside the stationary tub, yard and kitchen tools mixed in a pile—giant grill tongs, garden trowel, meat cleaver among an ax and a scythe for the knee high weeds. When would Joy have hefted a cleaver like this, he wondered? He imagined a leg of lamb, or the joint of another large animal, at which she hacked away. It would have likely spurted a lot of blood. He checked the wall for evidence, and everything was as if viewed through a screen. He was pie-eyed. But of course she'd have done the slaughter upstairs. An ease to the cleaver, which surprised him. Most of its weight probably located in the handle, where his right hand clumsied around its wood, his right not used to handling, hefting, or hewing.