This was originally published in The Rumpus on July 17, 2019.
Her name is Carmen, the pastor’s niece.
Her Sunday best is yellow.
Yellow like banana pudding, cool and smooth and soft. Her dress is summer wanting and church flattering, summon you to see her in it and think the word ebony. She slips through the parish and into the front of everything like light through the stained glass windows. She is welcomed by the church before Pastor even says, “Church, we have a guest.” The pastor’s been mentioning his niece from out of town for a couple weeks already. “She’ll be with us for a short while, through Easter, so keep an eye on her now.” He looks over his glasses at the congregation. A smile is there, small and proud.
She smiles and dips her head, shows off that she’s flat-ironed her hair this morning. The church stops fanning themselves with various papers folded in half in order to raise their hands and clap like someone’s just been saved. Your hands hum from beating the tambourine. They throb like sleep limbs tingle, as if the animal’s skin you’ve been playing decided to bite back.
Out in the parking lot, the women use pamphlets to cool off and the men loosen their ties. There’re hugs and gossip and sharp cackles as dust cling to Mary Janes and hand me down dress shoes alike while children chase one another. Amidst the loose gravel and rows of cars, everyone greets the niece, gathers around her, blesses her, leaves lipstick on her dark cheek. When she shakes your hand, your callouses graze her and she wrinkles her nose, says nobody needed to tell her that you play the tambourine. Everyone laughs as her hand pulls out of yours, then she hugs your mother tight and moves on. That’s alright though, because you catch her primping her hair and wincing as she pins her hair too tight. In church, you don’t call it karma. It’s just the consequence of pride.
By next Sunday, Carmen announces that she’s joining the choir. And the thing is, she can sing. It’d be a lie to say otherwise. Hearing her makes you want to get on your knees and pray before bed like you used to, like you had to when you were younger. You think Carmen probably uses a pillow when she gets on her knees.
Before the month is over, she’s singing solos and taking lead. And during this time you hear mumbles about how nobody’s trying to hear your tambourine over her praise of Jesus. They love her even though she chews gum between songs. Regardless, you beat your praise until it threatens to slip from between your salt wet fingers. It’s that good kind of hurt. It thrums like standing too close to railroad tracks. But eventually, in church, the complaints quiet down. This happens once she matches your worship, meaning, she breaks away from that pretty face singing. She’s up there with you more like she’s been struck, like she’s just come up from being pressed underwater for just too long, all her high notes rustling at the same time from things she’s probably never known. She starts sounding more like your tambourine. Trembling and urgent. Guests find themselves glad they paid a visit. Guests find themselves visiting just for praise and worship. It gets to the point that the duet, the pair of you young ladies, have people forgetting that they should already be home figuring out dinner.
On the hottest Sunday so far, when everyone feels humid with all the bodies sitting up in there, your hair gets thick and out of place. You might as well have not pressed it. It’s not going down so much as out by the end of the morning. Thankfully, it’s truly just about time for the final prayer and then everyone’ll be dismissed. But then she walks over, the pastor’s niece. And fine, she’ll have to take your hand for the prayer, but at least you’ve started putting on lotion between songs.
Silently, from her clammy hand into yours, slides a bobby pin while you bow your heads. When you’re allowed to open your eyes you watch each other say amen.
On purpose, you sit near Carmen each Sunday. You tell her about how sometimes the elders speak in tongues, only in the front row. You show her the best way to fan a program, how to hold it to get the most wind. You warn her about the woman everyone calls their grandmother, the one who pinches faces no matter how old you are. And with each piece of advice the pastor’s niece smiles like she’s not supposed to be tickled by the information, like she thinks her uncle wouldn’t approve. Like she hasn’t noticed each of these things already.
Eventually, Carmen declares that she doesn’t mind that you elbow her sometimes when you play. You admit that it might’ve been on purpose every now and again. Her laugh makes you ask her over. And why not have her by? She’s a girl from out of town with no friends here, unless you count the women who fret over her and have introduced their sons more than once after service. Anyway, it’s near the middle of March. She’ll be leaving come Easter and yours is the only household who hasn’t had her as company yet.
When she comes over after church you’re the one to answer the door. You explain how your mother stepped out to get more sugar from the corner store. She’ll likely be a while talking to folks, making arrangements. It’s almost time for barbecues and she always makes the sweet tea.
In the meantime, you offer Carmen a place to sit. She glances past you, barely sees the couch, then asks where your bedroom is. She shows herself to your unmade bed. No one was supposed to come in here. But here she is, legs crossed on the covers, skin matching her black coffee stockings. She opens her purse and pulls out cotton balls and a vial of nail polish. It’s pastel, like lemon peels on the kitchen counter just before the sun feels too hot. You might’ve seen her wear it before.
You let her take your hands and paint your fingers. She fixes them how she wants, rotates your knuckles as she goes. The vanilla scent on her skin gets chased away as you vigorously shake out your hands to dry. She’s watching you, head tilted like a bird, dark eyes shining.
“You tryina sweat?” she laughs all quiet as she takes your hand gently, like the two of you are about to dance in one of those old movies, then she blows you, right along the cuticles. Her lowered eyes petting the breath out of you.
It’s like when Pastor says he feels God in this place right now. But no one’s home, no one’s here but her and she’s bringing her knees up to sit in a ball after she takes off her stockings. She begins painting her toes. You’ll match.
Maybe it’ll last until she leaves town.
“Think you’ll come back here? We ain’t too country for you?” You ask because you had expected her to get offended weeks ago by the hardened gum on the pews, or the golden teeth of the elders or the constant gossip in the sanctuary.
She says, “Nah, yall ain’t too country,” and instead of winking with her put-on twang she smiles like she’s been waiting for you to ask her to stay.
Next Sunday each of the clergy in the pulpit asks for volunteers for the days to come. Easter is a celebration, they remind everyone. God gave his only son, so it shouldn’t be much asking for folks to print out fliers or help clean and decorate the church. Everyone’s to keep busy. Idleness is temptation.
As usual, to move from business to departure, there is prayer and then a nod from a deacon calling the choir to lift their voices. Perfume and cologne mix in this sickly heat. You hum along as you play, dampness catching at the pits of your blouse. Carmen’s up in front clapping until the song’s end, wearing something creamy that flows just past her knees. The sweltering crowd rises and habitual greetings and goodbyes happen all at once as the flock sways toward the exit like a syrupy river.
Carmen was close but it takes you a few minutes to find her again. So many church hats to look past and shoulder pads to peek over. Too many suggestions about what you should do with your hair for Easter next week. So many out-loud hopes of which songs the pastor’s niece will sing. So many excuses you’ve made privately for her to stop by for dinner or something.
You’re on your toes looking around folks in the last pew when you see Carmen, meet her eyes. Her lashes are caught in the wig of the grandmother you warned her about. She’s being crooked downward into the embrace and having bits of the sermon hushed into her ear. Even while smiling sweetly for the elder, the pastor’s niece keeps your gaze then deliberately casts a look to the hallway. You nod and go to meet her there even as you think that she should be meeting her uncle to go home in his newest car. “Thanks be to God,” he’s always said whenever the offering basket gets passed forward, cufflinks shining.
Carmen rounds the corner, only squeezes your wrist when here you are ready to hold her. She takes you further down the hall, further from the noise, from the mutterings and clacks of heels of people leaving. You’ve never been down here, never been allowed. It’s hard to say for certain if she knows. She looks nervous, looks at the button of the blouse you’d debated leaving undone. It’s just that it gets so hot in church, is only worse as summer makes itself known.
She fiddles with the back of her earring before she finds your eyes. In a whisper she asks you for a tampon. But you only have pads. A pad. It’s the emergency pad you always keep on you no matter where in the month you are. Either way, you press the crinkling colored square into her palm as if that’s where she’d been bleeding. Her shy smile is grateful. Shy looks good on her.
You go with Carmen to the bathroom where she steps into a stall. The trickle is hesitant. You distract yourself to give her privacy. Resting your back against the sink you realize that you hadn’t known anyone personally who used tampons. You’d tried one once a few years ago. You tried it on your back and you weren’t even bleeding, just thinking of the face of the quiet usher with the long lashes who wears the hand-me-down slacks. But then there was shame and the word repent that kept thrumming in the dark so with burning cheeks you had turned your face into the pillow and thrown away all that tacky plastic and cotton.
“How come you don’t sing?”
Her question echoes in the bathroom and you chew off some skin from your bottom lip. You say, “I sing,” but she probably doesn’t hear you. The toilet’s flushing. Besides, why is she acting like she hasn’t heard what they say in the pews? That you should praise God with the gifts you’ve actually got.
When she comes out and washes her hands you’re still there leaning on cold porcelain. She dries her hands then pulls out some lipstick. It’s bright like a berry in a commercial, like it could taste tart. It goes on her smooth and practiced. She’s been kissed before. Even you know that. There’s mischief in her eyes when she beckons you over. You’re taller than her. She guides you by the chin and the church’s vaguely floral soap floats into your nose.
She dabs the lipstick onto your mouth then runs the waxy tongue of color back and forth over your lips until she’s satisfied. She rolls her lips inward and you mimic her, press your lips together, slide them over each other and think you’re done.
“Put a finger in your mouth,” she says, “then blow it out.”
That sounds silly. It looks silly when she shows you in the mirror. You do it anyway and a ring of rouge is left around your knuckle. She explains how she just saved you from getting red on your teeth, says a girlfriend back home taught her that trick. You wonder what girlfriend means where she’s from.
“Can I keep it?” You ask before you can help yourself, you greedy girl.
“How about you can have it ‘til next Sunday. That’s when I’m leaving,” Carmen says, as if you don’t know.
You don’t wear the lipstick again at all. You wait until your mother’s gone to sleep. While under the obedient guise of doing dishes you melt the pastor’s niece’s rich lipstick in a pan. You have faith. That’s what this coming holiday is about. And you have faith. You believe that nothing but intuition is guiding you to slowly stir the dark mixture. You believe and thus know that intent matters with these things. So next, you pull out a bobby pin from your hair. It’s a different brand than you usually use. It’s the one the pastor’s niece hissed about after she pricked her scalp a few weeks ago. You suckle the end that stung her. The metal is thin like a thistle and it’s hard to be sure as to what iron is hers and what taste was already there. You swirl the flavor in your mouth a little while then spit into the simmering pan. It spats and loosens things up for a moment.
While that’s happening you decide that you must bury the past. Literally, just past the middle of the night you take your little freewill-self outside to the backyard. You’ve brought your cracked tambourine and a pair of pliers. You pry off the zils in little fits of effort. The metal disks on the sides break and bend away. Then you bury each one as deep as your hands can dig. Ignore the worms, how limp they are in all this grit. Ignore how once accidentally sliced, they crack and curl like lightning when severed by the metal.
Then it’s time to go back inside. It’s time to be quick in the kitchen as you carve the thin waxy cake off of the bottom of the pan. When it is cool enough that’s the best time to roll it into a shape you can dab onto your lips tomorrow. Childhood covers are pulled up to your chin while the neighbor’s dogs bark and whine alongside late night sirens. You take the howling just shy of dawn as something divine but you don’t bother praying because you still talk to God the same way you write in your diary, like someone else is listening, like you could get in trouble.
The next morning is Thursday morning. You agreed to help out for Maundy Thursday. The children call it Monday Thursday, and so do you in your head. This night is important for the church. When you and your mother arrive there are candles and it’s quiet. Solemn to recognize the humility. This place, the church, isn’t the same now that it’s dark. It makes you think of the women who washed Jesus’s corpse. They wept by candlelight and loved him in his grave. They saw him more honestly than his apostles in a way. Once you see someone naked you share something with their mother.
Your service tonight is to wash the feet of the congregation. A handful of you spend time kneeling in front of pallid basins, faintly ochre so that you can see your work, see the filth being relieved from whoever is sitting before you. For the most part, you find yourself face to face with ashy shins, raised scars, and coarse dark hair. Surely, pride is a sin, but you admire that the water in your bowl isn’t translucent for long. You came prepared and dedicated to do this work. Your water must be dumped soon. The pastor’s niece seems to be thinking the same thing because she looks around for other cushioned seats when it’s her turn to sit in front of you.
You are conveniently available, and she’s like that bird you caught in the house that one time. Too many walls for it, not enough options, heart beating as hard as its wings. You want to admit that your hands are sweating but you suppose she’ll never know as you dip them into the lukewarm water and cradle her heels. She probably doesn’t do this at her church. You’ve heard all about that place, that it’s newer and has a crying room for babies and accepts checks in the offering basket. To the niece, these proceedings must all seem so strange and ancient.
You’re almost certain she hasn’t had this done for her before because you have to unclasp the anklet she forgot to remove. The blond beads are round, the clasp slithers, but you are persistent. You lay the jewelry to the side and thoroughly rub each of her feet, rub the line that separates her brownness from her sole. The water jumps when she pulls away. This is the part where you would have dried her with your hair if it was long enough. Instead, you dry her off with a towel and she steps into a clean pair of socks that’ve been set aside. It’s still quiet in the sanctuary. There’s something about stillness that always comes just before the miracles.
You excuse yourself, supposedly to dump out the used water. In the back of the church there’s a puddle of mud off to the side where everyone who’s been washing has been pouring out their dirty water and you’re careful not to step in it. The basin is starting to feel heavy as the soiled liquid sloshes around. In the private dark your heart is in your throat. You replace it with the clouded water as you bring the bowl to your lips and drink. As you swallow you think of how there’s only so much time, a single weekend to give her a reason to visit. To visit you. Not her aunt and uncle, and not the church. Carmen will have to come back to the rest of herself. Maybe then you’ll get more of her.
There’s a wrapper filled with gum hidden in your sock. You pull it out, balled up and still engraved by the indents of her molars. You use the rest of the murky water to swallow down the gum as well as that disk of wax you’d brought along. The Lord said “Take, eat, this is my body given unto you.” You exhale the faintest hint of used mint when you’re done. It wasn’t all that old so it should work. The ingredients were something from her mouth, so something close to her voice. Come Easter, you’ll be able to sing together, to sing just like her.
After refilling the basin with the garden hose you return inside to the seat you should be attending. You wash a few more pairs of feet but it’s difficult. Being this full makes it nauseating to bend over.
The vigil comes to a close, and you hum to yourself as you help the other volunteers clean. You want to be the last one in the church so you can see how you sound with these acoustics. You accept that nothing might’ve taken quite yet, but it’ll be fun to try, to make a joyful noise. There are so many psalms you’ll sing, and you recite them in your head as you reassure drivers over the next hour that you’ll get home just fine, and that yes, a deacon left you with a key to lock up, and no, you don’t mind getting the lights.
You didn’t get to tell Carmen goodbye. She must’ve left earlier.
With everyone gone, it seems appropriate to turn off the lights like you said you would, but to leave the candles going. Atmosphere and all that. Your chest feels like butterflies cupped against your breast, flickers of all the things that can’t be undone. You inhale with a smile, so ready to hear yourself, picturing Carmen’s face in the choir tomorrow as she turns around even though she’s not supposed to.
I clear my throat before your first note. You flip the lights back on, the swill in your gut protesting your sudden movement. In the back row you see a woman who is wearing the biggest church hat you’ve seen in person. In fact, my hat has lace, pearls, and the eyes of peacock feathers delicately arranged. You walk quickly to me, apologize because I look your mother’s age. You didn’t mean to put me in the dark like that.
“That’s alright, go ahead and siddown,” I say, “I know you’re full, full of too many things, and the cramps will be coming soon. They won’t be kind.”
You know better than to doubt miracles in the house of the Lord so you ask, “You’re an angel?” Those are your words because to guess that you’re in the presence of God first seems too dangerous, too close to blasphemy.
And because your response is an honest one, the response I give is honest also.
“I was,” I say to you as I brush down my skirt and adjust my brooch, a pearlescent dove with an olive branch. It doesn’t even look like hope to me compared to the expression on your face as you come to sit close. Your fingertips fuss with the buttons of your blouse; they’re faintly pruned still from your work this evening. You’re trying not to hold your stomach as it churns. Swallowing all those things… how adamant and wrong you are to think that that would do anything but make you sick, baby. You. You felt like you had to do something, to prove something, to suffer like your savior. Trials and tribulations. Maybe you wanted a testimony.
I can’t help but ask, “Why didn’t you just pray?” But perhaps that’s too cruel of me because now you look like the idea had never crossed your mind. You wobble on you ankles and your palm is pressed against your belly as you continue to think up an answer. Pain like the first pregnancy, like a baby that won’t stop turning over; it must be hard to ignore. Eating, I’m sure, is nothing near to what you want to do, but I tell you that what I have will help you feel better. I don’t always have to lie.
With wincing eyes you follow my hand into my purse as I pull out a yellow pear, sweet and grainy. You haven’t learned how to refuse your elders yet, so you take a bite. The skin of it is dry, but the flesh of it is thick with sugar and speckles of sour. Watching you chew and swallow I can’t help but wonder if, as a woman, you can recognize the exact flavor of this fruit, if it tastes like way back when to you or just like the pears you’ve eaten here and there, so diluted from what they used to be on that forbidden tree.
You begin to eat it more fiercely as you realize that it’s working to soothe your stomach. Your ears burn as you chew your way closer to the core, as you imagine that this is what that niece’s sigh-making-place would taste like. God said not to eat of the fruit yet here you are, eyes wide with a knowledge of yourself so frightening. And you keep eating even as I press my lips to your cheek. You keep your appetite as my breath hovers with us beneath the shelter of my hat, smelling like broken bread and Roman coins.
You could’ve just loved her.
Rumpus original art by Natasha Donovan.