The deaf man came to our church the first Sunday in Lent. A teenaged boy, wearing khaki pants and a bow tie, entered the sanctuary with him. They sat in the front pew. From behind we could see the bald spot on the man’s crown, dark strands of hair slicked across. The boy was a foot taller than the man, with a wizened face and blond hair. We assumed they were father and son.
Of course we couldn’t tell the man was deaf—not at first—though we did notice the riveted attitude in which he sat, waiting for the service, head tilted back and tipped sideways as if discerning a far-off melody. When the organ prelude began, the boy lifted his hands and began to wave them back and forth. Immediately the man did the same. Thinking our visitors were of the charismatic persuasion (it was our custom to tolerate this kind of demonstrative worship, though we couldn’t imagine our organist ever moving us to such displays), we grew uncomfortable and averted our eyes. But when Don Holdings stood to deliver the welcome, the boy began to carve shapes into the air.
We’d never had a deaf person among us. We had the elderly hearing-impaired, but their disability was in the natural order of things. We gave them amplification headsets and watched them twirl the volume knobs at their ears.
After the service, a deacon offered the deaf man a headset to use the following week.
That won’t do any good, the boy said (not the man’s son, but his translator). The silence inside his head is impenetrable.
The following Sunday we sat closer to the front. We were eager to watch the boy take sentences into his body and churn them out with his hands. We wanted to give our children a better view. During the sermon the boy mimicked the snap of scissors across his uplifted forearm for shepherd, for sorrow stroked the air with fluttering fingers as if brushing aside a beaded curtain. There seemed to be no turn of theological complexity the boy couldn’t grasp, the hands, arms, and torso moving in singleness of purpose without thought for the strange and, in another context, embarrassing motions they were performing.
Gathered in the foyer after the service, we said it was like watching an Olympic athlete, the kind of effortlessness that made you feel in your bones you could get up off the couch and do a triple axel. It partook, we said, of the nature of holiness itself: one man giving of himself in surrender, the other receiving in gratitude.
The spectacle moved some of us to tears.
Only during communion were the bodies of the deaf man and his translator still. And it was during communion the third week they visited that we saw Christ’s foot tumble from the stained glass window at the end of the deaf man’s pew. Those of us sitting nearby heard the soft shink of glass hitting the flagstone pavers.
We looked: Christ in the Jordan River, standing on one foot like a pelican; John the Baptist behind, shell aloft, about to pour. Underwater, Christ’s remaining foot was the frozen turquoise of an Alaskan glacier, while his calf—also submerged, though separated from the foot by a thin strip of black lead—was a lambent sea green.
The missing foot was the size of a lime. Through the opening, a shaft of sunlight, spiraling with dust, shot into the nave and hit the cheek of the pastor’s wife, who turned to locate the source of light.
The deaf man stood. The boy, in a stooped pose, also stood. The man signed to the boy, who turned to face us.
Corbett Earnshaw would like to make a confession, the boy said.
We realized we’d never asked the deaf man’s name.
The organist stopped playing. The elders paused in the aisles, holding their silver trays.
Again the boy spoke:
Mr. Earnshaw would like to confess that he does not believe in Christianity, he has never believed in Christianity, and he will no longer be attending this church, nor any other church, for the indefinite future.
Corbett Earnshaw walked down the aisle and disappeared into the foyer. His face—why hadn’t we noticed?—was a handsome one. Two elders followed Earnshaw out of the sanctuary. The boy, still hunched in what now seemed an apologetic attitude, also left.
In the rear corner of the chancel, the organist began to play again, sotto voce.
We’ve been duped, we said. The deaf man’s signing during hymns, his rapt attention to the translator—it had all looked so heartfelt. We agreed that using one’s hands in worship gave the impression of spiritual earnestness, that had Corbett Earnshaw sung like the rest of us—head down, gripping the hymnal—we might have detected his insincerity.
A small faction of our congregation, however, admired what Earnshaw had done. College students, graduate students, young singles. Some had body piercings and tattoos; many raised their hands during the doxology and benediction. These young men and women began to say—first among themselves, and then to the rest of us—that God worked in all sorts of ways, not only through what we considered our religious life; that God could use, for His own purposes, experiences which seemed anti-Christian, such as Corbett Earnshaw’s leaving the church, an act which reflected the divine trait of honesty.
In leaving us, they said, Corbett Earnshaw was nearer to the real presence of Christ than he was before he left. In this sense, couldn’t we view his act as an inspired one?
Many of us agreed, though we kept our opinions to ourselves until the Session of Elders declared an official position on the matter.
The elders declared Corbett Earnshaw’s confession and departure either a) evidence his soul was still unregenerate, or b) an act of apostasy, but only if his soul was—and this was doubtful—regenerate to begin with.
The Saturday after Earnshaw’s departure, Heinrich Lotz, performing his weekly deacon’s service of cleaning the sanctuary the evening before worship, found three fragments of broken stained glass on the aisle floor. He stooped to pick up the pieces, thick and opalescent, deep aubergine. He looked up: the pieces belonged to the sun in the window depicting Satan’s temptation of Christ. Above the missing sun, Christ’s bare feet rested on the milk-colored dome of the temple roof. Heinrich held the pieces to the window, rotating them to determine fit. Then he peered through the open space.
For the first time in the thirty-two years he’d been a member of Lookout Mountain Church, Heinrich could see the view outside the nave’s south wall.
He was looking at an enclosed courtyard, its narrow lawn dormant, the color of wheat. Across the lawn was the north-facing side of what had once been the rectory but was now divided into rental units. Standing in the open window of a downstairs apartment was a young woman holding a cell phone to her ear. She was crying. For a moment Heinrich thought the girl saw him there, looking through the chink in the glass, and was pleading for his help. He wondered how long the girl had been living there, how long she’d been looking at the words “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord” spelled in reverse.
Heinrich returned to cleaning the pew cushions with a hand-held vacuum.
When he finished it was dusk. The light in the sanctuary was dim. Heinrich checked the window again. This time the girl was sitting on the edge of her bed, naked from the waist up. Her breasts had an earnest, searching quality about them, the nipples arcing upward and outward, delicate pink.
The next morning, between services, in an alcove space used for private prayer, Heinrich confessed to an elder that he had succumbed to the temptation of lust and could no longer be of service to the church. He said that he had seen more of God’s glory in the body of a naked girl than in the worship services of thirty years combined. That he would like to continue meditating on the glory of God in this fashion.
Today was Friday. Log day. Judy Aldrich, secretarial assistant to Pastor Tom Robinson, put on her headphones.
Pastor’s Log. Re: Stained glass. 3/18 – 3/22.
Mon, 3/18: Stone tablets missing from panel near pulpit. Fragments located in aisle. Maintenance to replace.
Wed 3/20: Missing: head of angel wrestling Jacob. Tablets repaired; cracks visible.
Thu 3/21: Loaf from feeding of 5,000 missing. Pieces located beneath pew.
Fri 3/22: Missing: Burning bush. Six apples from Tree of Life. Judy (she jumped), please add an agenda item for Monday’s Session meeting: Discuss hiring expert to evaluate integrity of windows.
The SGAA-certified glazier flew down to Chattanooga from J&R Lamb Studios in New Jersey. Her evaluation was brief. The lead cames, she said, were admirably bearing the weight of the glass. The H-strips were thick and solid, as was the casing. No need to re-lead or caulk the perimeter or horizontal solder joints—the glass fit perfectly into the grooves.
But what you have here is interesting, she said.
She was standing in front of Noah’s ark, running her fingers along the lead ridges between rainbow colors.
Interesting, Pastor Robinson said. And dangerous.
I meant the placement, she said. Usually in these historic churches it’s Old Testament on one side, New Testament on the other—your typical poor-man’s Bible. Here you’ve got the empty tomb smack up against Jacob’s ladder.
I believe the windows were commissioned that way on purpose, Robinson said. To convey the unity of the testaments.
In any case, the glazier said, you need to talk to a contractor. Because I’m thinking, foundation.
Teddy Ellison, general contractor, expert stone mason, drove in from Mentone, Alabama. When the evaluation request from the church came across his desk, he’d pounced. A sure-bet gig: in a building as old and large as the one up on Lookout, there were bound to be foundation troubles. Leakage, settling, cracks in the mortar, the like. Some nice cash in reinforcement work, or—with luck—a complete sub-structural redesign. The South was getting old. It was a good time to be in the restoration business.
In the cool basement beneath the sanctuary, holding a pencil flashlight between his teeth, Teddy wrote at the top of his clipboard:
Lookout Mountain Church. Erected 1898. Designed by Chattanooga architect R. H. Hunt. Foundation: granite grade stone set with quick-http://forum.gibson.com/index.php?/topic/60824-1989-pre-historic/ lime mortar in a tight rubble design.
Then he went down his usual checklist:
1. Are there any dislocations—above grade loose stones exposing the foundation to splashing roof runoff? [none noted]
2. Any obvious areas of discoloration? [none noted]
3. Any bulges created by frost, water leakage, or vehicle loading? [none noted]
4. Any obvious cracks in the mortar? [noted: eight cracks of negligible size/import; recommend polyurethane fill]
5. Have there been any interruptions (e.g., removing stones from the structural walls without adding lintels)? [noted: lintels in place where windows added; no loss of structural integrity observed]
Teddy stared at the list.
Then, because in twenty-four years of construction work not one building—certainly not one as old as this church—had ever passed inspection with such absence of inadequacy, he added one more entry:
In the interest of safety, and to prevent further damage, the elders hired a team from the Ignis Glass Company to remove, for the time being, all stained glass from the sanctuary windows. Using soft-nubbed medical reflex hammers, six artisans and their apprentices tapped out the glass. Each piece was sealed in its own bubble-wrap baggie: the baggies laid between sheets of foam eggshell, the sheets of eggshell stacked in lined crates roughly the size of coffins. The crates were then labeled by content—Daniel w/ lions, Mary w/ Gabriel, Elijah w/ chariot—and shipped to a temperature-controlled storage facility in Atlanta.
God’s judgment, some of our members said. Perhaps there are some who, like Jonah, need to come up from hiding in the bowels of their ships.
With no shortage of churches in Chattanooga (eleven Presbyterian congregations alone, none of them dealing with such spookiness) many began attending churches off the mountain.
By the first of May, our membership had dropped from 150 to 78.
Only a handful of us—the faction that had favored Corbett Earnshaw’s departure, and those of us who agreed with them—said the missing stained glass was a gift. With only the lead outlines remaining, the familiar Bible stories were now articulated in three dimensions: yellow-greens of spring maple and silvered sprays of pine, fade-to-gray of cloud, blue sky beyond. Could it be, we said, that in this fusion of the ancient stories with present-day creation, God meant to reawaken our childhood sense of mystery? Hadn’t some of us noticed, lately, gilded horizon lines at the borders of things, a refracted spangling along the edges of sidewalks? Hadn’t others of us sworn we’d felt a finger brush the backs of our necks or calves while we stood loading our dishwashers, brushing our teeth? Perhaps, we said, God wanted gently to remind us of the world we’d forgotten about, the other Nature hovering just behind our own; and though we couldn’t see it—not yet—we grew increasingly certain it was there, just in front of us, waiting on the other side of a one-way mirror, breath fogging up the glass.
Unwilling to abandon the church, the remaining leaders—an elder, the organist, and Robinson himself—formed a Committee for the Reestablishment of Order. Their first recommendation: the immediate removal of Sunday services to the windowless Fellowship Hall. But we refused to move. For the first time we could see each other worshipping in the natural light. Breezes fluttered our skirts and chucked our collars up under our chins. Through the empty lead cames drifted scents of honeysuckle and wisteria, mown grass, grilled fish. We could hear weed trimmers, children’s laughter, the whirr of a moped, the drone of an airplane.
The insects became a nuisance. We purchased twelve forty-watt Flowtron bug zappers, each with half-acre coverage, and hung them from shepherd’s hooks outside the windows. During prayer we could hear the faint zing of mosquitoes, the louder pops of beetles and flies. At the end of each service, dead moths clung to the electric coils like wet leaves.
When a flight of swallows began nesting, we decided it would be best to remove the beams. Without the support of the beams, the roof, too, would have to go. But this was no great loss. Many of us—though we’d never said so to one another—had begun to long for total open-air worship.
Authenticity, some of us said. Our unnamed longing revealed.
Revival, others said. The first breath of a new Great Awakening.
The remaining leaders declared what was happening not an Awakening, but an Insurrection.
Pastor Robinson was the last to go.
The question for those of us who remained (forty-seven in all) became the walls themselves: once we took out the support beams and lifted off the roof, did we, in fact, need them?
The sanctuary was three stories high, constructed of mortared stones from a long-defunct quarry halfway down the mountain. The stones had been carried up in wagons pulled by teams of oxen, the Whiteside Turnpike laid in 1867 for this purpose: sixty-eight curves, six reverses, three Ws, a double S, one hairpin.
We asked Teddy Ellison to give us a bid on the demolition. Outside the sanctuary, Teddy ran his hands over the stones, his eyes wide.
Do you realize what you’ve got here?
We said we didn’t.
Pick any ten-by-ten section of this wall. What’s the smallest stone you see?
We pointed to stones eighteen inches in diameter.
Do you know what that means? Teddy asked.
We said we didn’t.
No plugs, Teddy said. Every stone laid out on the ground and fitted together like a puzzle. Before construction.
No one builds like this anymore, he said.
We allowed ourselves a moment to regret living in an aesthetically denigrated era, one in which the use of plugs was no longer considered a blight on artistry.
Then we called in the wrecking crew.
We scheduled the demolition for the first Saturday in June. We’d planned on staging a ceremony: a short speech followed by a ceremonial cutting of the velvet dossal curtain hanging behind the altar. But in the hush of the morning—dripping from drainage pipes, hum of idling machinery, parachute cotton and whirlybird maple seeds twisting down around us like slow-falling meteors—we decided a ceremony would be a mistake. Words, we said, would only muddy the waters.
We waited in the empty parking lot of the church across the street, holding the hands of our children, who wore the plastic toy hard hats we’d purchased for the occasion. The empty sanctuary rose before us, red “Danger” tape circling its perimeter. Yellow lights flashed atop striped barricades. Machinery crouched around the building—bulldozers, articulated haulers, excavators, backhoes, cranes. Two fire trucks to hose down the dust.
Teddy Ellison stood beside a rumbling excavator. He looked up at the driver in his elevated cab, who gave him a thumbs-up.
Teddy raised an orange flag, let it fall.
The excavator reared back, its bent arm blindly probing the air. Then it straightened and—with sudden, delicate precision—plunged.
Corbett Earnshaw returned the second day of the demolition. This time—with the crashing rock, the roar of machinery, the ground beneath us vibrating—we knew why he came. He had a new translator with him: a girl, about twenty, with long brown ringlets and pale skin overlaid with a light sheen of moisture. She wore a white skirt and a bandanna halter that pressed her breasts flat against her torso. Her clavicles were prominent and straight as a crossbar; her bare feet turned out when she walked.
I’m Claire, she said.
Earnshaw wore loose jeans and a black T-shirt. The hair at the back of his head had grown long enough to cinch into a ponytail, a question mark at the nape of his neck. He seemed unable to take his hands off the girl. When she signed to him, he touched her face and bare upper arms, brushed her cheek or the side of her breast. And though we guessed he was at least twenty years Claire’s senior, we couldn’t blame him for wanting such loveliness in his eyes and hands.
Now, standing before us on the lawn of the Baptist church where we sat watching the demolition, Earnshaw and Claire signed to one another. Earnshaw held onto Claire’s waist while she spoke, her hands graceful. She rose up on her toes en pointe. For a moment we thought Earnshaw might lift the girl over his head.
Claire turned to us.
He wants to lie down in the street, she said. He wants to feel it in his body.
With each rumble as the stone shattered and collapsed into piles, we watched Earnshaw’s prostrate body shiver. He extended his arms and pressed his face into the asphalt, hands clasping and unclasping as if clutching sand. Claire lay on her back beside him. She took his hand and placed it on her stomach, sliding her own hand beneath his, her fingers curling words into his palm. Then she laid her hand on top of Earnshaw’s, which began to spell in turn, making Claire’s knuckles tilt right, left, right.
Word becoming flesh, we thought, dust from the crumbling stone filling our nostrils. A secret dialogue, skin-on-skin—we would have given anything to hear what they were saying.
The church came down like an opening book. The debris fell outward, as if some center binding had heaved itself up, flinging back the walls. Bulldozers pushed a mixture of dirt and pea gravel into the rectangular basement, burying old doors and window panes. Workmen hosed the backfill at six-inch intervals. Steamrollers packed the layers down. Fresh asphalt was laid over the footprint, hot and black, smelling of burnt charcoal.
Two weeks after it began, the demolition was complete. Those of us who continued to visit the site noted two things: 1) a palpable silence beneath the daytime drone of cicadas and beady nighttime noises of crickets and tree frogs, and 2) the oppressive expanse of blue above the tree line, the place the cross used to sit now just a point in the sky.
It was Daryl Lotz—Heinrich’s grandson, a philosophy major at Westminster College—who suggested we begin holding our Sunday services at the Natural Bridge Park. The Natural Bridge was a sixty-foot-long, fifteen-foot-high granite arch suspended between two boulders in a ravine below Bragg Avenue. Beneath the arch was the cave with a once-famous spring, now a slow trickle of water from a crack funneling deep into the rock. The Victorian Spiritualists believed the iron-rich water—Chalybeate—would reverse the aging process, and in 1885 began importing mediums to distribute the water and contact the dead (Chattanooga was then a town filled with the newly wealthy who had lost relatives in the Civil War—plenty of cash for longer lives and investment advice). The Sunday after the demolition, we walked down Bragg to the trailhead.
Earnshaw led the way. Why we allowed him to lead—why we followed—we couldn’t say, though we suspected it was because he seemed to have obtained, through a grace given only to persons lacking one of the five primary senses, a higher knowledge about the workings of God and the nature of the Universe. There was also something both thrilling and unnerving in his relationship with Claire. We’d learned she was nineteen—twenty-seven years Earnshaw’s junior. Whether she had access to the same secrets as Earnshaw or only translated them we didn’t know. We followed them down the trail, moving branches, pinching burrs off our clothing.
The path opened onto a clearing in front of the rock arch, beneath which sat three picnic tables. Earnshaw stood on one of the picnic benches, facing us, hands loose at his sides. Claire stood beside him. The rest of us found places on mossy boulders or patches of dirt.
For a full minute Earnshaw was silent. Then he drew back his arm, closed his eyes, and—using a twisting, backhanded maneuver, as if throwing a curve ball—punched himself in the jaw.
Shame, Claire translated.
Earnshaw rubbed his fist, hard, into the palm of his hand.
Erase, Claire translated. Eradicate.
It was his first sermon.
Onlookers—former members, residents, casual tourists—hiked down the trail. Some stayed in the woods surrounding the clearing; others approached and made hostile remarks.
How can you call yourselves a church without a building? they asked. Without a church home?
Our bodies are His home, we said.
Miles Phillips showed up with the word “Home” tattooed on his neck; his girlfriend had the same tattoo on her wrist. “Home” began to appear in various places on each of our bodies—feet, calves, hipbones, forearms. Marguerite Dean’s mother had temporary “Home” tattoos made for the children, who transferred them onto their foreheads. From a distance, they looked like tiny symmetrical bruises.
To avoid questions, we began to meet in secret, after dark. We brought lanterns, cookstoves, tents, sleeping bags. Shared food and clothing. Took turns buying cases of bottled water, storing them in the cave—where, we’d discovered, Earnshaw and Claire had taken up residence.
Darkness. We sat in the clearing, our children asleep in our laps.
Earnshaw raised a hand and spelled. Claire began to translate:
For a long time, you have been told that the entry into eternal life will come about either after you die or when Christ returns. You have been told that humans might begin the journey toward individual perfection but will never reach it in this life. That only one individual—a God-man—was able to reach a state of sinlessness while on Earth. And that by some invisible, inconceivable act of substitution, you, too, will be counted as sinless, despite the persistence of sin, if only you believe it is so.
But the truth, Earnshaw said, is that we can enter eternity here, on this planet. Of our own volition.
Our ears burned. We felt we should contradict him.
Your calling, Earnshaw said, is to make this happen in yourselves so that the planet might be renewed and evil might cease to exist.
Impossible, someone said.
Claire made a hang-ten sign with her right hand and lowered it into her left palm.
Earnshaw signed rapidly.
It isn’t a matter of changing one’s behavior, Claire translated. It’s a matter of changing one’s perception.
Sin is sin, someone else said. How can we perceive anything else?
Again Earnshaw punched his cheek, drove his fist into his palm.
Eradicate shame, Claire said.
It takes practice, she said.
We practiced. Julia Reynolds confessed her addiction to girl-on-girl pornography; Flynn Jamison admitted that every time she had sex with her boyfriend she imagined it was her father; Roger Bantam said he had been cheating on his wife for a year, having sex with both women and men, some of whom were strangers, in public restrooms; Bill Leavis said he knowingly euthanized his dying wife, fed her eight syringes of morphine when the hospice nurse left even though his wife tried to refuse the drug, clamping down on the syringe with her teeth so that Bill had to squeeze her jaws until the syringe tumbled onto her sheeted chest; Thom Daniel said he once tried to drown his four-year-old autistic son in the backyard swimming pool while his wife was at the gym but had chickened out when he felt the child’s limbs go slack, yanked him up and laid him on the deck and gave him mouth-to-mouth until the boy choked up the water in his lungs, and when his wife came home and found Thom sitting in a pool chaise snuggling the boy, who was wrapped in a towel, she thanked him for spending quality time with their son, said she sometimes didn’t have the patience, and began to cry, and now the boy was nine and unable to speak and wore diapers and every day during his lunch hour Thom locked his office door and made lists of ways to bring his son’s fruitless life to a humane end.
Sound and fury, Earnshaw signed when the confessions ended. The very word confession is meaningless. There is no sin—there is only forgetting that sin does not exist.
We reached out to touch his ankle where it showed beneath the hem of his jeans.
Who are you, we asked.
Earnshaw made a V sign on his neck, then flicked his fingers toward us as if brushing crumbs from beneath his chin.
The voice of one—proclaiming, Claire said.
The Christian, Earnshaw said, may perhaps best understand things from the standpoint of Evolution.
Midnight. We were gathered around a small fire inside the cave, our bare feet stretched toward the flames.
If man evolved from lower types of life, Earnshaw said, then why haven’t we reached the Next Step? When is the Thing After Man going to appear? Think of what came before humans appeared on Earth. Huge, heavily armored creatures. If anyone had been watching the course of evolution, he would have predicted bigger creatures, heavier armor. But what did Nature give us?
Men, we said. Women.
Comparatively tiny beings, Earnshaw said. Naked, defenseless—with brains to master the planet. The Human wasn’t just the harbinger of more power; he brought a new kind of power, something that had never been observed. He was different, but with a new kind of difference.
As we continue to evolve, Earnshaw said, we should expect not just change but a new method of producing the change.
Earnshaw stood and signed with large, cutting strokes.
The next stage in evolution, Claire translated, will not be a stage in evolution at all; evolution itself as a method of producing change will be superseded.
Haven’t we read this in our theologians? we asked.
Your theologians, Earnshaw said, have told you that the Next Step is the movement from being God’s creatures to his sons, achieved through the confession of sin in the name of Christ. They have seen through a glass darkly. The Next Step will occur only when we recognize sin as an illusion.
Earnshaw punched his cheek, twisted his clenched fist in his palm.
Claire did not need to translate.
Who will be the first to undress? Earnshaw asked.
Now that he’d spoken the words, we realized it was the question we’d been waiting for all along.
Is this not the reason you have taken down your building, Earnshaw said, to look upon His creation without barrier?
Sarah Taylor, a single mother, thirty-six, stood. We closed our eyes, or looked down into our laps, until Earnshaw reminded us that the term modesty was a euphemism for shame.
Sarah’s body, Earnshaw said, is half the mystery of God’s nature. On “mystery” he curled his index finger against his forehead, furrowing his brow as if perplexed. Our children mimicked the gesture.
Sarah pulled off her shirt and unhooked her bra. She took off her jeans, so baggy and outdated the lace thong she wore startled us (but only for a moment) like a cuss word. We suppressed the urge to cover our children’s eyes; they hid their faces anyhow.
Sarah bent over and slid out of the thong, then stood and lifted her hands. When she began to sing the doxology, we joined in, some of us also removing our clothing, though we stayed in the darkness outside the circle of firelight, chiding ourselves for being trapped by the current of modesty, a weakness we would teach ourselves—and our children—to overcome.
Two nights later, when we arrived at the cave, Sarah was already undressed. She sat with her knees pulled up, arms crossed over her breasts.
We removed our own shoes, shirts, pants. Our children played in the clearing, or borrowed flashlights to explore the woods, or drew with sidewalk chalk on the smooth surfaces of the granite and limestone. They refused to enter the cave.
Claire spoke to Sarah in a low voice, Earnshaw signing beside them, using small hand gestures as if whispering. Sarah lay back, letting her knees fall open, the soles of her feet pressed together. We closed our eyes.
She is half the mystery of God, we heard Claire say. We should look upon His mystery without shame.
We forced ourselves to look upon the mystery, the gap-lipped pinkness.
Who will be the first to enact the mystery of God, Earnshaw said, with Sarah? To show us, in the flesh, his total nature, male and female combined?
We were silent.
Even Christ spoke in parables, Earnshaw said. Sexual union is not only profoundly natural but inevitable as a means of expressing the desired union between God and men.
A young man stood—Daryl Lotz, the philosophy student.
I will enact God’s mystery, he said.
Sarah’s breasts draped the sides of her torso. Daryl came forward, knelt between her legs, unzipped his cargo shorts. He put a hand on himself and moaned. If Sarah made any sound, we couldn’t hear it.
Daryl lowered himself till his body was covering Sarah’s. Then, abruptly, he crawled forward till his hips hovered just above her face.
Body of Christ, broken for you, he said, placing himself on her outstretched tongue.
Together each night, under the cover of darkness, we discovered the sacramental nature of oral ministrations. The men laid themselves on our women’s tongues—and on one another’s tongues—in humble acts of devotion. The women straddled waiting mouths, heads thrown back, eyes closed.
When we finished, we turned to Earnshaw (who watched, but, along with Claire, did not participate):
The Next Step, we said. Have we taken it?
Go further, he said. Think of the Son on the cross, the Father who put him there—dominance and subjugation also two sides of God’s total nature.
We went further. We accepted everything, everyone, turning one another over and over again, our faces streaked with dirt and tears.
In the aftermath of our rituals, a stillness would overtake us. And in the stillness, our limbs entwined, we began to understand that the entrance to eternity lay not in the gratification of the body’s desires, but in their denial. We discovered that on the other side of sexual union was a period of lucid stasis in which white roads unfolded on the insides of our eyelids, bright shapes rising on either side like backlit skyscrapers. In the stillness we allowed our thoughts, like clouds, to drift among the tops of the buildings. We observed our thoughts (Where are our children?) and watched them dissipate.
In the stillness we felt the approach of the infinite.
With fall coming on, in the sunlight of the clearing, leaves shrinking into bright stipple above us, we practiced being Awake to the Present Moment. Some of us mastered being still for such long periods of time that when we moved a limb we had to disentangle it from the kudzu. Lovely, we said, observing the coiling vines, purple flowers dotting our forearms, shins. Our children stayed in the woods. Sometimes we glimpsed them in the trees, peering down at us, hair hanging loose, obscuring their faces.
Former members and clergy from around the city sent letters. On Mondays, the postman carried them down the trail, leaving them on a flat rock beside the mouth of the cave. We knew what was in the letters, especially those that arrived certified mail.
There were legalities.
The South would not long stand our debauchery.
Have we reached it? we asked each day. Claire no longer translated. Our voices, weak from disuse, were difficult to distinguish from the wind in the Georgia pines.
Sarah Taylor achieved stillness for five days straight. We rolled our heads to admire the placid way she allowed insects to scurry across her naked torso. When on the sixth morning it was discovered she was dead, we observed her body as it appeared in the early morning light: face gone blue, eyes sunk in their sockets, cheekbones thrusting out. We covered her feet, legs, and torso with earth and rocks and leaves. When we reached her face, we noticed her parted lips, tongue swollen and protruding slightly, her brow furrowed, as if death had caught her in the act of tasting something she didn’t like.
When Earnshaw disappeared (Claire said he had moved on, but many of us said that, like Elijah, he had been caught up), we knew we’d arrived.
Thank you, we whispered into the space around our heads.
We returned to stillness. Watched the letters pile up at the mouth of the cave.
A restlessness remains in our children. They gather fallen branches and carry them into the surrounding woods. We suspect they’re building shelters. In the afternoons we hear a rhythmic scraping, the sound of dirt floors being swept. We conjure images of their improvised hovels, their rudimentary fires; we imagine the ways in which they might divide their tasks—food-gatherers, fire-tenders, story-tellers. At night we hear them singing, hymn-like strains bright with major harmonies.
All of this we will teach out of them.
How we’ll lisp to our children—softly, softly.
When they come back from the world they’ve made without us.