Cleo hated Sunday mornings. Saturday’s sounds were gone. Nothing but the slow whoosh of cars going to churches. Her family didn’t go to church. They were atheists. To Cleo, this was worse than being Baptist, like the Gibsons, or Jewish, like the new family two streets over. She was a minority of one. Her family would play tennis on deserted courts, hike on empty trails, or canoe on the still lake most Sunday mornings. Her best friend, Alison, had asked her, “Don’t you believe in God?” This question was so abstract, so far away from her experience with life that Cleo lied, “Of course I do.” She’d begged her parents to let her go to church with Alison’s family earlier this morning. Her good dress made her skin itch in the Louisiana heat. The church was filled with people and smells: perfumes, hairspray, sweat, and when the priest walked in, his robe rippling with each step, a strange woody smoke smell rose from a little brass lantern swinging from a chain. The priest had talked about grace. He said, “Grace is the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it.” Cleo wanted love and mercy given to her. How could she get grace? At the end of Mass, Alison and her mom rose for Communion. Cleo stood, too, unsure what was happening. Alison’s mom reached for her arm and pulled her back down. “Communion is for Catholics.” Cleo watched as Alison marched up the aisle silently, her hands cupped to await the Body of Christ. She pressed her back into the pew and slumped down, the lone person left sitting. Alison returned and knelt, her eyes shut and her hands clasped in front of her. When Alison opened her eyes, she gazed serenely at Cleo. Cleo had wanted to go to church with Alison, but she did not belong. She experienced extreme discomfort and none of the feelings she had hoped for: peace, tranquility, and release. Release. Much earlier, at the beginning of summer, Cleo had asked Alison to teach her to pray. Alison pushed her down to her knees on Alison’s plush salmon carpet. “Close your eyes.” Cleo did as instructed, eager to be transformed, to be normal. “What do I say to God?” Cleo whispered. “You can tell him anything,” Alison said, “and he’ll make it all right.” “Like what?” Cleo asked, feeling awkward, her knees already aching and the insides of her eyelids black with bursts of hot pink. She hoped Alison would say, “like those bad things we let your brother do to us.” “Like…if you stole something you tell Him and it’s all wiped clean.” Cleo tried. She waited for the lightness of redemption to wash over her. She waited for her gift of love and mercy. She wanted this gift so badly. Dear God, please give me grace. Please forgive me. Please give me grace. Please forgive me. The monotony of her prayer wore her down. She scratched her nose. She peeked sideways at Alison. Nothing. She could hear the clatter of dishes and the low murmur of voices from Alison’s kitchen, where Alison’s mom watched her soap, As the World Turns. The smell of Salem menthols and fresh perked coffee permeated the room. Cleo knew this meant Alison’s mom was “taking a break” from the endless ironing, cooking and cleaning that seemed to fill her days. Cleo’s own mother left the house every morning. They had a maid, Lula Mae, who came over every day. Having a maid wasn’t unusual; having a mother who left for work was. She had overheard Alison’s mom talking on the phone about a “poor little thing, her mama is never home” and had been surprised and ashamed when she realized they were talking about her. For the next two weeks she tried to pray on her own, a folded towel under her knees, her elbows propped atop her sagging feather bed. She grew bolder in her prayers but did not know how to articulate the dull ache of loss from the things her own brother did to her. How he used her like a plaything, a real live doll to be broken over and over until its cries of “Mama” grew garbled and weak, the shame that she longed to eradicate with God’s grace. Still nothing. She gave up and folded the towel neatly and put it back in the bathroom cabinet. After her trip to church with Allison, Cleo and her mom went bird watching. Her mom parked the long, wood-paneled Vista Cruiser at the crushed oyster shell lot. Together they walked to the bright red canoe chained to a pine tree. Cleo unlocked the chain, careful of the yellow drips of sharp smelling pinesap that would leave her fingers sticky for hours. They turned it over, placed the two oars into the canoe, picked the canoe up by the silver handles screwed into each end, and walked to the lake. Her mom stepped into the canoe, leaving Cleo to wade into the water, the mud bottom of the lake squishing through her old tennis shoes, the green canvas ones with the loose sole on the right shoe. The canoe glided into the lake. Cleo stepped in by the wood dock, reaching her hand out to steady the rocking. Knobbed cypress roots pierced the fetid swamp water. Tangled strings of Spanish moss hung limp from the oaks. Layers of decaying leaves, branches, bark and grass heavy with moisture formed muddy clumps of land that clotted the murk of water. A rank, woody smell rose up to surround them, dank and primeval. The paddles cut through the water, two strokes on one side, and two strokes on the other. They settled at a pool deep within the swamp, paddles resting on their knees. “How was church?” “Okay.” “That’s nice dear.” Cleo’s mother kept one hand on the binoculars around her neck, prepared to raise them to her eyes if she saw a flit of bright yellow in the drab browns and greens of the trees. “Maybe I’ll see the prothonotary today,” her mother said. “I couldn’t go up for Communion. You have to be Catholic.” “That’s true, I’d forgotten.” “Did we ever go to church?” Her mother lowered the binoculars and looked at her. “Of course. You were baptized Methodist.” “Why don’t we go now?” “Religion is a crutch made up by people to make sense of the world.” If that were true, Cleo couldn’t understand why so many people went to church. Did they all believe in God? She tried to figure out if she believed in God. She grew restless with the effort these questions took. The drone of insects settled her. Something splashed not too far off.
She filled with want. She wanted Alison’s easy faith in divine forgiveness. She wanted to tell her mom things. How Alison pushed her under water at the pool and laughed when she got scared. How she wanted to believe in something that made life bearable. How she felt so alien in church. How her prayers were never answered. How her body trembled atop her older brother’s gold corduroy bedspread at home when her mom was at work, Santana’s Black Magic Woman playing over and over. How Alison lay silently next to her, her shirt pulled up and eyes squeezed shut. How he told her since they were adopted they weren’t related and that made it okay. How his hands roamed and how he made their hands move, doing things that felt good but were not right. How she and Alison never spoke about it. A slow current pulled the canoe closer to the gnarled tree branches that hung over the water. Cleo wondered what her mom thought about as they drifted. She didn’t see how her mother could miss how confused and sad she was. Just because her mother and dad didn’t need God didn’t mean she didn’t. If she couldn’t tell her parents what was happening to her or talk to Alison, couldn’t she at least have God and His grace? Her mother’s face was slack with the peculiar concentration of watching for birds, her head tilted back so that her short curly hair was scrunched into the back of her neck. Cleo opened her mouth to speak. The canoe bumped into a large stump and she turned her head. A wolf spider the size of her fist perched on a branch not four inches from her right eye, its bulbous back crowded with tiny babies. She let out a strangled shriek. The spider’s legs twitched. She took her paddle and shoved it violently at the stump. The binoculars made a dull thud on her mother’s chest as she dropped her hand in surprise. “There was a spider.” A warbler trilled. Its sweet twee-twee-twee-twee pierced the air. Her mother grabbed the binoculars again and swooped them up to her eyes. The canoe settled slowly, rocking back and forth like a cradle. Cleo’s eyes went down to the soupy water, so full of decay, the moldering bits of former lives going back to muck. That same stagnant poison ran through her veins, sludgy and shameful. A water strider moved across the heavy water, a delicate dance maintained by a thin film. Maybe that was God’s grace. There was life in these waters, too. Tiny microbes that ate at death with a busy, mindless tenacity that broke down the detritus cell by cell. Once her mother had helped her collect some swamp water. They used an eyedropper to transfer two drops to the glass slide. She placed the cover slip on top, the water spreading to the edges in an instant. She looked through the lens. She spun the knobs on the side until the image sharpened, a wriggling, teeming mass of rods. She had wanted to tell her mother what her brother was doing then, too. An inward crumbling was pulling her down, the pain of a secret left untold rotting inside of her. And yet, like the wiggly squiggles under the microscope in the swamp water, hope worked, surging through her blood, nibbling away at her guilt and shame. If no one ever knew, she would be okay. If this feeling was called God’s grace then so be it. She needed no benediction of confession, no formality of prayer. She looked in the direction of her mother’s gaze and saw a flash of bright yellow flutter through the trees. It was the prothonotary warbler, the bird her mother had waited all summer to see. The smidge of yellow in the cleft of two cypress branches stood out like the smiley face pin stuck on her bulletin board. Her mother lowered the binoculars, took them from around her neck and handed them to Cleo. In that instant between raising the binoculars and finding the bird, her feelings towards her mother sharpened in tandem with her finger twirling the focus knob. Time bent in a way she’d never felt before. The chasm of the future stretched before her, a glimpse that tricked her eyes like the dappled sunlight that played across her mother’s cheeks and hair. In this new space she realized that the creases between her mother’s eyebrows were lines of worry and sorrow. The focus through the binoculars sharpened. The passage of time into her future zoomed shut. This disorientation in time was replaced with rage, love, and something else: an empathic flash that surprised her, the feelings as intense as the sharp close up of the stringy brown Cypress bark. Her mother hadn’t always been an adult. She must have her own hurts and secrets from childhood, too. Were they like hers? Did these sorrows get better? The urge to ask rose to a crescendo as she slowly moved the binoculars, the bark punctuated by gray hair-like strands of moss and delicate green leaf fronds. The bird’s bright black eye and shiny grey beak in a sea of yellow filled the round lens, so crisp that the bird almost did not look real. The bird held still. Her thoughts grew quieter as she looked deep into the inky depths of the bird’s eye. She exhaled, a calm whoosh as she held the binoculars steady. Maybe this was why her mother loved bird watching. The bird twitched its head left and right, and then flew away. She lowered the binoculars. Her mother smiled at her. The urge to confess was gone. She handed the binoculars back and picked up her paddle. Getting back to the dock would take a while. Later that day she would pick a fight with her brother and get into trouble for talking back, the glimpse of grace fleeting as the prothonotary.
-- Melissa McInerney earned her MFA in fiction from Bennington College in 2015. She has written a series of short stories about growing up in boomtown Houston, blogs about living with Lyme disease at http://lifeandlyme.net/blog/, and is working on a memoir. A late bloomer, she languished for years in the south. She now thrives in Colorado with her grown daughter, three dogs, and a cat. She hikes, swims, avoids skiing, and, in a twist she never saw coming, dates and sexts like a horny teenager.