Three of my poems are in the December issue of Terse Journal. The journal seeks to publish poems that share nostalgia for lost futures.
by H. E. Casson
First published in Room of One’s Own, Issue 29:2, 2006 (CW: Child abuse, religious extremism, violence, blood)
The clenching, hollow stomach pain that Grace had become accustomed to — though she had never adjusted to the spontaneous diarrhoea that sometimes followed — had returned. She leaned forward on the toilet, pressing her forearms against her stomach. Looking down, Grace examined the long, thin stain that ran almost perfectly down the centre of her white cotton panties. It had a pumpkin orange tint and had dried slightly, hardening the usually pliant fabric. Grace scrunched up her face — lowering her eyebrows, wrinkling her nose and puckering out her lips. This is what Grace did in situations where most girls cried.
Grace could smell her period. It was musty, like communion grape juice gone slightly sour. She had not expected her period to come while she was at Crusaders Pentecostal Camp. In fact, after six months, she had convinced herself that its untimely arrival at her older sister Rachel’s fourteenth birthday party had been a mistake or an illusion. Assuming this, she had not brought any pads or belts with her.
She could not stay in the washroom forever, she reasoned, yet she could think of nothing she could substitute for pads. She dismissed the idea of approaching Rachel. Conversation involving any bodily area below the shoulders or above the knees was taboo. She did not know if Rachel’s period had even come. Besides, Rachel was prone to giggles and Grace feared this response, and the possibility that her request would get back to Mother. Grace would ask advice, she decided, of the camp nurse, whose station marked the line between the boys’ area and the girls’.
Choosing discomfort over potential embarrassment, Grace wrapped three layers of toilet paper around her underwear and, for extra safety, stuffed a few sheets, wadded together, into her vagina. She pulled her socks up as high as she could and stood up, careful not to let the hem of her blue and white print skirt fall into the toilet. She waited until the girls’ washroom was silent and exited the stall.
The ball of paper, foreign between her legs, forced Grace to perform a stilted penguin walk, which she did with as much dignity as she could spare. To her relief, she passed no one.
It must be time for chapel, she thought, and prayed that Jesus would forgive her.
The nurses’ station was gleaming white, save the painted sign above the door. The station, like every other building on the grounds, was named after a biblical reference or noted Pentecostal. Grace’s cabin had been christened Grace. It did not occur to her that the administrative staff took pleasure in arranging such coincidences. The nurses’ station was called Simon Zelotes.
Simon the Zealot, thought Grace, from Acts. The name deepened her guilt concerning her absence from chapel. Grace had come to Crusaders Pentecostal Camp with a goal or, more accurately, a biblical passion. Grace was desperate to be filled with the Holy Spirit. She wanted to hear words that she did not understand pour from her mouth like water from a fountain. She wanted to be a medium through which worship could be pure and untainted by her own limitations. Grace’s guilt graduated to fear. What would she do if, because of her period, the Holy Spirit did not fill her — if, as Leviticus 15:19 said, she were unclean? She felt unclean, waddling toward the station door, a mockery unto God.
Grace had chewed away all of the white from her left thumbnail as she had waited for the nurse. Now it stung, distracting her from the large box of pads and belts the nurse had given her. Accompanying the box had been a lecture in period cleanliness and etiquette.
Scrunching her face again, Grace left the nurses’ station and crossed through the girls’ cabin area to the washroom (called Martha, after Mary Magdalene’s sister). The good sister, thought Grace. Under her arm, clutched to disguise its shape, was the wretched box, wrapped securely in a brown paper bag.
* * *
Dutifully and full of purpose, Grace walked with her five bunkmates and her counsellor, Dixie, to evening chapel. What remained of the August sun gently baked her skin. She inhaled the scents of grass and dinner and idle sweat as the campers converged in front of the tallest building in the camp. The Tabernacle stood at the centre of the entire grounds. The sight of the bleached-wood structure, steepled with a large driftwood cross, focused her mind while lifting her from her unpredictable body. She was light-headed, expectant, standing on her tiptoes lest the word of God drift, like a radio signal, over her head.
She did not listen to the girls around her laughing and behaving foolishly, though she could hear them. Rachel’s voice rose above the rest, playing saucily, instigating more laughter. Grace swallowed her sinful jealousy and slowly refocused on her goal. She was different. She had never found her niche, so said Grandmother, among children her own age. She did not belong. God had chosen her for something more important than play or friendship. After all, she had read the Bible straight through three times, and every time she had read the Gospels and Acts twice. She had kept her eyes closed through Grandmother’s prayers, though they were long and repetitive, ending the same way every night. Forgive us, oh Lord, we vessels of sin and wrong.
Grace sat down three seats from the centre aisle, which led up to the carpeted altar. She shifted to settle her bulky pad and lifted her spine as straight as she could. Not yet five feet tall, Grace found it necessary to lean to one side or the other to see over the taller eleven- and twelve-year-olds who sat in front of her.
The younger children, called Junior Camp, had completed their chapel earlier in the evening. This allowed them to buy candy at the tuck shop and make it back to their cabins for evening devotions, prayers, and lights out. Grace remembered her younger years at camp. She wondered if they still performed Proverbs with puppets, made fresh each year from gleaming white socks. Junior Camp chapel was short, composed mostly of Bible stories, simple cautionary tales and music. While Grace had enjoyed the songs, some silly, others sweet, she preferred Senior Camp chapel. They sang songs with meaning, like “It Is Well with My Soul” and “At the Cross.” Their sermons were biblical seminars, not Good Samaritan tales. Best of all, Doctor Goody gave the Senior Camp sermon himself. The Junior Camp had to settle for members of the Women’s Ministry club.
Doctor Goody, who Grace knew both by reputation and by chance encounters over her many summers, had been a missionary in India and Africa for over twenty years. Now God had called him, he said, to tend to the lambs at home.
Grace liked being a lamb. She was ecstatic when he spoke of his faith, as though his passions were hers to share. She imagined Doctor Goody comforting her when she foresaw all of her friends, non believers, in hell — when she imagined the worms in their flesh and the loneliness in their souls. He would tenderly explain God’s will to her. He would not declare, as Mother did, that sinners would earn their punishment and the righteous their reward.
Grace experienced his words, feeling an unholy pride at the speed with which she found the passages in her oversized leather-bound Bible. When Doctor Goody spoke quietly, Grace leaned toward him for fear of missing a single intonation. When he mourned the wages of sin, she cried. When he shouted, she felt a rush of devotion, divided evenly between God and Doctor Goody.
“Jesus-uh,” shouted Doctor Goody, “did NOT-uh!” he slammed his massive Bible on the decorated pulpit, which shook fervidly in response, “leave us alone-uh, when he returned-uh to his Heavenly Father-uh!”
Slam! Again the Bible crashed down, jolting fear into Grace’s stomach.
“Children-uh,” he growled, “some of you are not saved.
Grace felt like a singer preparing to go onstage. Anticipation tickled her insides as she watched the children, former non-believers, stumble down aisle and fall, prostrated, onto the stairs of the altar. Doctor Goody prayed — a sweeping prayer that encompassed all of them. He then blessed each of them with oil, consecrating their acceptance of Jesus into their hearts. Grace could see it, like a movie show above their heads. She saw a heart, like a gothic valentine. She saw Jesus, the Jesus of paintings and the illustrated New Testaments, moving peacefully in, lighting their hearts with his blue and melancholic eyes. Respectfully, she prayed along with Doctor Goody, finishing with John 3:16. She shivered when the prayer ended.
“…shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Each word was a marker on her Marathon to the Holy Spirit.
Finally, Doctor Goody led the campers in their final hymn, “Just As I Am.”
“All of you,” he looked out over the Tabernacle wistfully, “who do NOT-uh wish to stay-uh, may go to Tuck.”
He said the last word as though it were a sin or, at least, a sinful indulgence.
“Those of you seeking-uh God’s holy blessing-uh may come up to the altar-uh. Moreover, remember, ask and it shall-uh be GIVEN (slam!) unto you. Seek-uh and ye shall FIND (slam!). KNOCK and the DOOR-uh shall be OPENED-uh unto you (slam!). Hallelujah.” Doctor Goody spoke the hallelujah so quietly that Grace wondered if she were the only person who heard it.
Grace waited rapturously for the people beside her to file out. She walked with purpose down the centre aisle. When she reached the front of the Tabernacle, she did not turn right to join the masses of impatient campers crossing the moonlit grounds toward the Tuck.
Grace, eyes pressed tightly shut, heard the counsellors swarm around her. She felt their hands rest on her shoulders, back and head. She heard them cry out, many of them speaking in the stunted language that Grace had heard her whole life in church, at Women’s Ministry meetings and at Missionettes.
She could envision the Spirit-filled women of her home congregation, their large Sunday hats askew, their bodies twitching frantically. She could see Miss Aussich, sixty-five years old, falling to the floor and rolling under the front pew in incomprehensible bliss. She could see Mother and Grandmother, standing regally in the family row, speaking without stammer or hesitation, in voices that were not their own. In the Tabernacle around her stilted young voices joined the multitude in her mind. Some campers merely muttered hallelujahs, unready to release all to the Spirit. Others burst into sound, the floodgates not opened, but obliterated.
Her breathing sped up as she thrust aside her pride and howled, calling to God. Her small fists slammed the altar and the sounds of praying around her grew. She tore at her hair and threw her body forward until she lay, folded in two, like a broken doll.
Then everything was gone.
The hands on her lifted and condensed, shrinking away as she slid down a tunnel, backward and upward. There was no voice but her own.
Grace did not hear the counsellors rejoice, thanking God for his obscured communications. She did not feel the space around her empty as the moved on to the next disciple. She did not feel time. She did not feel the sticky August night. She did not hear the voices around her, one at a time, stop and retreat.
* * *
Seven hours later, Grace opened her eyes.
Her legs stung where she had crossed them, one over the other. She was swaying backward and forward, in a precise, automatic rhythm. She forced herself to stop as the last few syllables dripped down her chin and landed on the orange carpet that covered every low surface in the Tabernacle. Her back, hips and chest ached. Her arms, which she slowly lowered to her sides, were pale and burned as blood returned to them. Grace could not move, except for the involuntary shaking that seemed based in her very bones.
For a moment, everything was still.
An uncontrollable fear overwhelmed her.
Looking up she saw Dixie, stretched out, asleep on the highest step of the altar. For a moment, Grace thought they were alone.
“And it shall come to pass,” croaked a weepy voice over her head, “in the last days, sayeth God. I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath: blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood. Amen.”
With effort, Grace raised her head and focused her eyes, blinking against the florescent lights. Doctor Goody sat, where he always did before his sermons, in a chair left of the pulpit. He was slumped forward, his shirt rumpled and his face slack.
“You have been blessed.” Doctor Goody added no extra syllables. “And what a gift I have brought out of you.”
His words unloosed her mind. She did not feel blessed. She knew this immediately. She did not feel holy. She did not feel right or fulfilled or, finally, as though she belonged somewhere. She had lost time and it petrified her. Doctor Goody’s brazenly euphoric gaze confirmed it. He had used her up. He had tricked her. Now he was satisfied and she was spent. Grace looked away.
Her head turned from side to side looking at the empty, oversized cabin called the Tabernacle. It looked worn and ugly. It smelled of too many summers. The building was not a friend of hers.
Grace looked at Dixie, who the male counsellors called Dixie D-Cup. Dixie who claimed Jesus as a cheerleader claimed a football player boyfriend. Dixie was not a friend of hers.
Finally, Grace looked directly at Doctor Goody. Doctor Goody was an old, tattered, sun-ruined man with a righteous, tear-smudged, ignorant expression. Doctor Goody was not a friend of hers.
Grace, stunned by the measure of her revelation, stood and walked carefully from the Tabernacle, meeting Doctor Goody’s gaze and willing him not to follow. She stepped out into the late, cool August night; her heavy legs were the after-effect of her Marathon.
She ran and her legs ripped with pain. She liked the feeling. She ran across the grounds toward her cabin. She saw, suddenly, how silly the camp staff had been to put her there. Grace, the cabin, was not a friend of hers. Still, it was safer than the night and it had walls which Grace, the girl, needed desperately.
Once inside, Grace changed into her pyjamas, along with a new pair of underwear and a fresh pad. She hid her used pad, soaked through, underneath the stairs leading up to the washroom. She returned to her bunk and lay very still, listening to her bunkmates breathing. When Dixie came to bed, she did not speak to Grace. She fell into her bunk and began snoring almost immediately. Eventually Grace slept too, though, that night, sleep was not a friend of hers.
No one spoke to Grace during morning devotions, though a few of her bunkmates watched her furtively, waiting for a sign that the Spirit still filled her. No one spoke to her during prayers or at breakfast, though Rachel gave her an uncharacteristic hug before jogging over to the cereal line. No one spoke to her as she walked to the scheduled morning activity, swimming in Lake Ontario.
Grace was not wearing a bathing suit, which the rest of the campers were. She had opted instead for her brown corduroy jumper and her Crusaders Camp is for Kids T-shirt, turned inside out. She sat back and watched her campmates splash and throw sand and ignore stern looks from the counsellors.
“Grace,” she felt a hand rest gently on her head, “why don’t you go play with the others?”
She could tell that Doctor Goody had not slept well either. She did not speak, but continued to watch the others, hoping her silence would return her to devoutness.
“Grace, a part of devotion-uh,” he slipped unknowingly into his sermon voice, “is enjoying his blessings-uh.”
She looked up, meeting, reluctantly, Doctor Goody’s eyes. They were boyish, filled with a need to please her. He needed to preserve her, his greatest heavenly accomplishment since leading sixty converts in their first English prayer in a church that he’s helped build.
He tugged her to her feet and began to pull her toward the water. Grace resisted, leaning her body backward in an effort to balance his strength. She felt the softness of his hands, a result of the recent years of speaking and thinking, and little else.
He stopped for a moment and Grace hoped that he had abandoned the idea if forcing her to belong. Instead, he gripped her hand harder.
“If you won’t join,” he smiled, “I’ll just have to throw you in the lake!”
Grace imagined him, young and pretty, pale and hopeful.
He swung his right arm under her legs and lifted her, pressing her face into his button down shirt. She heard the rustling crinkle if the belted pad, thick under her jumper. I can’t get wet, she suddenly realized. The pad would swell up. It would weigh her down and she would not be able to swim away. She would sink in the surf and disappear, forever baptized by Doctor Goody.
She struggled against his eager happiness. He carried her closer to the water, staggering through the sand. The campers laughed at Doctor Goody’s spontaneous show of fun. Grace inhaled deeply.
“FUCK OFF!” The words poured from her mouth like water from a fountain; they were pure and untainted by her own limitations.
Doctor Goody dropped her in the sand and took three quick steps backward. Some campers fell silent and others switched from laughing to cat-calling. She stood, scrambling against the sand, and ran.
She ran past the Tabernacle, now hosting the Junior Camp pre-lunch service. She ran past the washroom, where two repugnant squirrels fought, chirping loudly, over the unearthed remains of last night’s pad. She ran until Doctor Goody, Dixie, the campers, and the Holy Spirit all disappeared.
Grace finally stopped where the train tracks separated the camp from the cottages of the summer locals. She imagined the punishment that surely lay behind her. Mother would be called to pick her up. When she came, she would whip Grace with the leather strap until she had expunged her shame and anger. Beyond the tracks, Grace would find no better salvation. She would be alone and lost until somebody found her and took her home.
Grace knitted her brow and tightened her jaw, but she could not stop tears from coming. She would not make this decision. She would sit on the other side of the tracks, outside of the camp but not quite in the world, and let the unavoidable find her.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Celestial Echo Press/Gemini Wordsmiths‘ first collection, The Twofer Compendium, is now available for purchase. It features 36 short stories on the theme of twins, including my tale, The Tyndarids.
Buy it for $2.99 on Smashwords!
What are folks saying about it? Nice stuff!
“The Twofer Compendium is a robust twin anthology, a creative montage of voice and style with no two stories the same. It’ll keep you page turning all night.” – Daniel Arthur Smith, USA Today Best-selling author
That IS nice! Well, I’m sold. I’ve clearly got no ulterior motive on this one.
In some-but-not-all seriousness, it’s a fun book and you can’t go wrong at a dime a story! I’ll post as soon as the physical book is available for those who still like to hold pages in hand.
If you enjoy the poem, please feel free to donate to Burke’s work here.
There is some jazzed-ness going on right now, as my flash fiction short story, Seeking Same, was featured on The Book Smugglers Non-Binary Authors to Read list created by A.C. Wise. Other featured creators include L.X. Beckett, Omar William Sow and Akwaeke Emezi. Click here to read more!
What’s that? What’s that? My short story, The Tyndarids, will soon be featured in Celestial Echo Press’ collection, The Twofer Compendium. This collection includes intriguing mysteries, thrillers, psychological essays and high fantasy using the theme of twins — all within the short-story format!
My tale is a very personal urban slipstream story about twins named Geri and Jerry. (Admittedly, their mother was not a stellar human.)
As soon as the collection is available, I will post a link to it, with info on how to purchase it.