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WORD VIEW: Awakening II

Esther Phillips

WORD VIEW: Awakening II

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The preaching began. After a few minutes, Margaret, who sat next to Betty, and whose bird-eyes never missed anything, whispered exactly what Betty was thinking: “I bet you dis is de night Sister Taylor will fall off de bench.”
But through long practice, the elderly woman held her balance. When her head was almost bowed to her waist, up it would snap and the process would begin all over again. A slight giggling began among the children, but a sharp glance from Betty’s grandmother forced her attention back to the preacher.
Betty tried hard to believe that the “Message” about the Prodigal Son would remain pleasant until its end, but already she could feel the anxiety pressing in upon her. She desperately tried to focus her mind on anything but the preaching that was rapidly reaching its climax.
She tried listening to the crickets and grasshoppers outside. The sound of grasshoppers always reminded her of something her great-aunt had told her. When Aunt Lou was a child, she and her sisters had slept on mattresses stuffed with dried khus-khus.
Aunt Lou had loved the smell of the dried grass and how it made the bed bouncy and cozy.
Betty tried in her mind to mimic the sound of  the grasshoppers, the sound of khus-khus, but nothing she thought of could blot out the preacher’s awful words: “Sin . . . punishment . . . Judgement Day . . . hell . . . fire.”
What had she done to deserve the punishment that would come? Sung a few lines from a “banjo” as her grandmother referred to calypsos? It was strange that sometimes she felt she could hear the same rhythms in the songs they sang in church, but she had never dared mention that to anyone.
What else had she done? Played when she should have looked after her younger siblings? Told her mother that it was not she who had broken a plate because she was so terrified of the punishment she would receive?
She made up her mind. She would go to the altar again tonight. She would confess all the sins she could think of. She would do all she could to pacify this God who demanded that she be perfect.
Bettty knelt, her hands on the altar rail and her head on her hands. Soon, the pounding of her heart grew quieter and after a while, the noises around her became a strange muted symphony, dying into nothing.
She knew that she was not sleeping, but she also knew that she was not there at the altar. She was not even there in the small village church. She was far away, far out into the crystal night, riding high as the moon.
The rare air soothed her. Here, she was free from her grandmother’s stare, her mother’s licks and yes, even from God the Father . . . the father . . . Her mind was drifting in and out of time.
She remembered the day her father had called her to pour water on the cutlass he was using to cut open coconuts in the backyard. The water had accidentally splashed on to his face and shirt. He had looked up angrily as she froze in terror waiting for the shout or lash. But for a split second his eyes had softened and he had even handed her some of the cool water to drink.
Years later, after he had left, she would cherish that moment. The clouds were brushing against her cheek. What if God could be gentle like this? She could never be sure but sometimes she felt she could hear someone laughing along with her when she stumbled on a wild flower unexpectedly. Or when the sudden blue in a butterfly’s wings surprised her, or the yellow light in a green blade of grass made her laugh.
Tonight, some things seemed clearer to Betty. Just as the Prodigal Son had been forgiven, maybe some day the “sisters” would forgive her when she was old enough to tell them that she could no longer believe in their God.
Until then, she would go to the altar as often as they wanted. But there, she would meet with the God whom she was already beginning to feel could love her, and whom she herself was beginning to love; the God who did not dwell in this old decaying wooden building, and who would have loved to make her grandmother smile.