A Novel To the angel This is what the Sovereign Lord said to me: “In the day that I chose the nation of Israel I also lifted my hand in an oath to their seed, to make myself known to them in the land of captivity. Yes, I lifted my hand in an oath and I said: ‘I am the Lord, your God.’ In that day I swore to them I would bring them forth from the land of captivity to a land that I searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey; it was the decoration of all the lands.”
EZEKIEL 20:5–6 BOOK I
God’s Instrument The Empty Room IN THE BEGINNING there was an empty room, a little bit of space, a little bit of light, a little bit of time.
I said: “I am going to make fields,” and I made them from place mats, carpet, brown corduroy, and felt. Then I made rivers from crêpe paper, plastic wrap, and shiny tinfoil, and mountains from papier mâché and bark. And I looked at the fields and I looked at the rivers and I looked at the mountains and I saw they were good.
I said: “Now for some light,” and I made a sun from a wire metal cage strung with beads that hung down from above, I made a sliver of moon and luminous stars, and at the edge of the world I made a sea from a mirror, reflecting the sky and the boats and the birds and the land (where it touched). And I looked at the sun and I looked at the moon and I looked at the sea and I saw they were good.
I said: “What about homes?” And I made one from a ball of dry grass and one from a hollow tree stump and one from a barrel that toffees came in and I gave it a fishing line and sail and made space for a blanket and toothbrush and cup, and a stove, and put a gull high on the mast (which was really a broom handle) and launched it out on the sea (which was really a mirror).
I made houses from chocolate dip cookie cartons: the plastic scoop where the chocolate was, that was the bedroom, and the round room below, where the cookies had been, that was the living room. I made houses from a matchbox and a bird’s nest and a pea pod and a shell. And I looked at the houses and saw they were good.
I said: “Now we need animals,” and I made paper birds and wool rabbits and felt cats and dogs. I made furry bears, striped leopards, and fire breathing, scale crusted dragons. I made glittering fish and cockleshell crabs and birds on very thin wires.
Last I said: “We need people,” and I modeled faces and hands, lips, teeth, and tongues. I dressed them and wigged them and breathed into their lungs.
And I looked at the people and I looked at the animals and I looked at the land. And I saw they were good. The Ground from the Air IF YOU LOOK at the earth from the ground, it seems very big. Stand in a playground and bend down and put your face to the ground as if you were looking for something small, and it seems bigger still. There are miles of concrete going outward and miles of sky going upward and miles of nothing going nowhere in between. Boys playing football are giants, the ball is a planet, girls skipping are trees uprooting themselves, and with each turn of the rope the ground trembles. But if you look down from the sky, the boys and the girls and the ball and the rope seem smaller than flies.
I watch the boys and girls. I know their names but I don’t speak to them. When they notice me, I look away. I pick up a candy wrapper next to my shoe. I will make it into flowers or a rainbow or maybe a crown. I put the wrapper inside a bag and walk on.
Through the concrete, weeds are growing. At the corners of buildings they are pushing through, whittling their way to the light. I wiggle some loose and settle them with soil in a tiny tin cup that held chocolate and a tube that held sweets. They will be planted again and then they will be oaks and pampas and beeches and palms. I pick up a shoelace lying in a puddle. “This will be a hose,” I say. “Or a stream. Or a python. Or maybe a creeper.” And I am happy because in just a few hours I will be back in my room making things.
Then suddenly I am falling; the ground rushes up to meet me, and gravel is biting my knees. A boy is standing over me. He is tall. He has a thick neck. He has blue eyes and freckles and white skin and a nose like a pig. He has yellow hair and pale lashes and a cowlick. Though I don’t think anyone would want to lick him, not even cows, who lick their own noses. Two boys are with him. One takes the bag I am holding. He tips it up and wrappers and laces and can tops blow away.
The yellow haired boy pulls me up. He says: “What shall we do with her?”
“Hang her on the railings.”
“Pull down her pants.”
But the boy with yellow hair smiles. He says: “Have you ever seen the inside of a toilet, freak?”
A bell rings and, all across the playground, groups of children run to line up at the double doors. The yellow haired boy says: “Shit.” To me he says: “Wait till Monday,” pushes me backward, and runs off with the others.
When they are a little way off he turns round. He has a sleepy look in his eyes, as if he is dreaming and enjoying the dream. He draws his finger across his throat, then takes off laughing.
I close my eyes and lean against the dustbins. When I open my eyes I pick the gravel out of my knees and spit on them. I hold them hard at the edges to make them stop stinging. Then I begin walking back to the school building. I am sad because I will not be able to make flowers or a stream or an oak tree after all. But what is worse is that, on Monday, Neil Lewis will put my head down the toilet, and if I die who will make me again?
The bell has stopped ringing now and the playground is empty. The sky is lowering. It looks like rain. Then from nowhere a gust of wind rises. It whips my hair and balloons my coat and carries me forward. And tumbling and flapping and fluttering around me go wrappers and papers and laces and tops. Holding My Breath MY NAME IS Judith McPherson. I am ten years old. On Monday a miracle happened. That is what I’m going to call it. And I did it all. It was because of what Neil Lewis said about putting my head down the toilet. It was because I was frightened. But it was also because I had faith.
It all began on Friday night. Father and I were eating lamb and bitter greens in the kitchen. Lamb and bitter greens are Necessary Things. Our lives are full of Necessary Things because we are living in the Last Days, but Necessary Things are often difficult, like preaching. Preaching is necessary because Armageddon is near, but most people don’t want to be preached to and sometimes they shout at us.
Lamb represents the firstborns God killed in Egypt and Christ, who died for mankind. Bitter greens reminded the Israelites of the bitterness of slavery and how good it was to be in the Promised Land. Father says they are full of iron. But I like to think of lambs in a field, not on my plate, and when I try to swallow bitter greens, my throat closes up. I was having more trouble eating than usual that Friday night on account of what Neil Lewis said. After a while I gave up and put down my fork. I said: “What’s dying like?”
Father had his overalls on from the factory. The kitchen light made hollows around his eyes. He said: “What?”
“What’s dying like?”
“What sort of question is that?”
“I just wondered.”
His face was dark. “Eat up.”
I loaded my fork with bitter greens and closed my eyes. I would have held my nose but Father would have seen. I counted, then swallowed. After a while I said: “How long could someone survive if their head was held underwater?”
“How long could someone survive underwater?” I said. “I mean, I expect they’d last longer if they were used to it. At least until someone found them. But if it was their first time. If the person holding them down wanted them to die–which they would–I mean, if their head was held down.”
Father said: “What are you talking about?”
I looked down. “How long could someone survive underwater?”
He said: “I have no idea!”
I swallowed the rest of the bitter greens without chewing; then Father took away the plates and got the Bibles out.
We read the Bible every day and then we ponder what we have read. Reading the Bible and pondering are also Necessary Things. Pondering is necessary because it is the only way we can find out what we think about God. But God’s ways are unsearchable. This means you could ponder forever and still not know what to think. When I try to ponder, my mind slips to other things, like how I make a swimming pool and steps from an embroidery loop for the model world in my room or how many pear drops I can buy with my pocket money or how much more pondering there is still left to do. But afterward we always talk about what we have pondered, so there’s no way you can pretend you have been pondering when you haven’t.
It was getting dark outside the window. I could hear boys riding their bikes in the back lane. They were going up a ramp, and every time they came down it the board clanked. I looked at Father. I could tell by the way his eyebrows jutted that I must pay attention. I could tell by the way his glasses glittered that he must not be interrupted. I looked down, took a deep breath, and held it.
“In the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day, the voice of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, remember this date, this very day, because the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.’…”
At twenty five seconds the room began to pulse and my breath escaped in little puffs. I waited a minute, then took another.
A dog barked. A dustbin lid clattered. Seconds dripped from the clock on the mantelpiece. At twenty five seconds the room began to pulse again and I had to let my breath out again. I must have done it quite suddenly, because Father looked up and said: “Are you all right?”
I opened my eyes wide and nodded.
“Are you following?”
I nodded again and opened my eyes even wider. He looked at me from under his eyebrows, then began to read again.
“‘Now your impurity is badness. Because I tried to save you but you would not be saved, and you will not be saved again until my wrath against you has subsided. I the Lord have spoken.’”
I waited two whole minutes, then I took another breath.
I held it. And held it.
I said: “I am going to do this. I am not going to drown.”
I hung on to the arms of the chair. I pushed my feet into the floor. I pressed my bottom to the seat. I got to twenty four seconds when Father said: “What are you doing?”
“Pondering!” I said, and my breath came out in a rush.
A vein in Father’s temple flickered. “You’re very red.”
“It’s hard work,” I said.
“This isn’t a game.”
“Are you following?”
Father blew a little air out of his nose, then began to read again.
I waited three whole minutes. Then I took another breath.
I filled each bit of my body with air: my stomach, my lungs, my arms, and my legs. My chest hurt. My head pounded. My legs jumped up and down.
I didn’t notice that Father had stopped reading. I didn’t see him looking at me till he said: “What’s going on?”
“I don’t feel well.”
He put down his Bible. “Let’s get something straight. I am not reading this for your entertainment. I am not reading this for the benefit of my health. I’m reading this because it will save your life. So, sit up, stop fidgeting, and start paying attention! ”
“OK,” I said.
He waited a minute, then began to read again. “‘The time has come. I will not hold back; I will not have compassion, nor will I relent. You will be judged according to your actions,’ declares the Sovereign Lord. ”
I tried to follow, but all I could think about was the toilet bowl, all I could hear was the cistern flushing, all I could feel were hands pushing me down.
“Then the people asked me, ‘Tell us, what do these things have to do with us?’ And I said to them, ‘The voice of the Lord came to me, saying: “Say to the house of Israel, Judith!”’”
Father read it just like that, without stopping and without looking up.
“What?” My heart snagged on my cardigan.
“Carry on reading please.”
I looked, but the page teemed with ants. I turned and my face got hot. I turned back and my face got hotter.
Father closed his Bible. He said: “Go to your room.”
“I can do it!” I said.
“No, you obviously have better things to do.”
“I was listening!”
Father said: “Judith.”
I stood up.
My head felt very hot, as if there were too many things going on in it. It was jumbled too, as if someone had shaken it up. I went to the door. I put my hand on the handle and I said: “It’s not fair.”
Father looked up. “What was that?”
His eyes glittered. “It better be.” What Is Dying Like? THERE IS A world in my room. It is made from things no one else wanted and it is made with things that were my mother’s, that she left to me, and it has taken most of my life to make.
The world stretches from the second floorboard by the door to the radiator underneath the window. There are mountains by the wall, where the room is darkest, and great cliffs and caves. There are rivers running down from the mountains to hills and pastures, and here is where there are the first houses. Then there is the valley and the fields and the town, and after the town there are some more farms and then there is the beach and the beach road and a forest of pine trees and a bay and a pier, and finally, right by the radiator under the window, there is the sea, with a few rocks and a lighthouse and some boats and sea creatures. Strung from the ceiling on short strings there are planets and stars, from longer strings there is the sun and the moon, and from the longest strings of all, clouds, airplanes, and the light shade is a paper hot air balloon.
The world is called the Land of Decoration. In the Book of Ezekiel it says God swore to bring the Israelites out of captivity to a wonderful country. It was flowing with milk and honey. It lacked nothing, it was a miracle, a paradise. It was so different from everything around it that it stood out like a jewel and was called “the decoration of all the lands.” When I close the door of my room, the walls fold back and there are planets and rainbows and suns. The floor rolls up and there are fields and roads at my feet and hundreds of small people. If I stretch out my hand I can touch the top of a mountain, if I blow I can ripple the sea. I lift my head and look right into the sun. I feel happy when I go into my room. But that Friday night, I didn’t notice any of those things.
I closed the door and leaned against it. I wondered if I should go back down and tell Father why I had been holding my breath. But if I did he would only say: “Have you told the teacher?” and I would say: “Yes,” and Mr. Davies had said: “No one is going to put anyone’s head down the toilet,” and Father would say: “Well, then.” But I knew that Neil would just the same. And I wondered why Father never believed me.
I sat down on the floor. A wood louse was crawling out from underneath my knees, flicking its antennae and strumming its feet. It looked like a tiny armadillo. I watched it climb the sand dunes in the Land of Decoration and wondered if it would ever find its way out again. We did an experiment with wood lice in school. We built a plasticine maze and counted the number of times they turned left or right. They nearly always turned left. This is because they cannot think for themselves. I wondered if this meant the wood louse would come out eventually or would just keep going round in circles until it died in a little crusty ball.
Darkness was closing the valley up like a book between black covers. It was sifting down over the broken backed streets, over roofs, and over aerials, back lanes, shops, dustbins and streetlights, the railway, and great chimneys of the factory. Soon the darkness would blot out the lights. For a while they would glow all the more brightly, but eventually they, too, would be eaten up. If you looked into the sky, you would see their glow for a little while. Then nothing. I wondered what it would be like to die. Was it like going to sleep or like waking up? Was there no more time? Or did time go on forever?
Perhaps everything I thought was real would turn out not to have been and everything that wasn’t real was. I don’t know why but I looked for the wood louse. It suddenly seemed very important to find it, but I couldn’t, even though only a few seconds ago it had been there, and there was not enough air in the room and it was like someone had struck a match and it was burning up all the oxygen.
I sat back against the wall and my heart began to beat hard. Something was coming toward me, unfurling like a cloud low down on the horizon. The cloud gathered. It filled my mouth and my eyes and there was roaring and things happening very quickly and all at the same time, and then I was sitting back against the wall and sweat was running down from underneath my hair and I felt stranger than I had ever felt in my life.
And if I had to say how I felt, I would say like a box that had been turned upside down. And the box was surprised by just how empty it was. Why I Will Not Live Very Long I DO NOT expect to live long in this world. This is not because I have an illness or someone is going to kill me (though Neil Lewis might). It is because very soon God will bring Armageddon.
At Armageddon there will be rock faces yawning and buildings buckling and roads splitting. The sea will rise and there will be thunder and lightning and earthquakes and balls of fire rolling down streets. The sun will be dark and the moon won’t give its light. Trees will be uprooted and mountains flattened and houses will crumble to the ground. The stars will be hurled down and the heavens broken and the planets toppled. The stars will be torn down and the sea will crack with a sound like a plate and the air will be full of what was, and in the end there will be nothing left but a heap of rubbish.
We know Armageddon is close because we live in a Den of Iniquity, and Father says there is nowhere for the Righteous Man to put his foot, quite literally sometimes. We also know we are near the end because there are wars and earthquakes and famines and people having “no natural affection,” so they strap explosives to themselves or stab someone because they like the watch they’re wearing or film one another cutting people’s heads off. There are Sheep (Brothers like us) and Goats (unbelievers) and Lost Sheep (Brothers who have been Removed from the congregation or have fallen away). There are Weeds in the Wheat (people who pretend to be Brothers but aren’t), False Prophets (leaders of other religions), the Wild Beast (all world religions), Locusts (us with our stinging message), a rise in Immoral Relations (sex), and signs in the sun, moon, and stars (no one knows what they mean yet).
But in the real Land of Decoration, there won’t be any unbelievers or any war or any famine or any suffering. There won’t be any pollution or any towns either. There will be fields, and those who have died will come back to life and those who are living will never die at all and there will be no more sickness, because God will wipe out every tear from our eyes. We know this because God has promised.
Father says it’s only a matter of time before someone blows the world up anyway or money becomes useless, or a virus wipes us out, or the hole the size of Greenland in the ozone layer becomes the size of Australia. So it’s a good thing Armageddon is coming and nothing of this old world will be left.
And I think it’s good, because polar bears are starving and trees are dying and if you put a plastic bag in the earth it will never go away and the earth has had enough of plastic bags. And because in the new world I will see my mother. Moving Mountains ON SATURDAY MORNING I woke from a dream in which I was swimming in a gigantic toilet bowl and Neil Lewis was reeling me in on a line. As I came through the water, I woke up. The bedside clock said 9:48. In forty seven hours and twelve minutes I might be dead.
I practiced holding my breath that day and got to twenty eight seconds. At bedtime I had a stomach pain and had to have Gaviscon and crackers. On Sunday I woke up as if I were coming through water again, and my clothes were sticking to me and the pain was worse. I looked at the clock. There were now twenty six hours to go.
I couldn’t eat breakfast, but Father didn’t notice. He dropped an armful of wood beside the Rayburn stove and swigged his tea. “Ready?”
I was. I had on my best pinafore and the blouse with the roses on the collar and my black shiny shoes. My hair was in plaits. I’m not sure how even they were. Father grabbed his sheepskin coat and cap and I put on my coat.
Outside, it was very still and very cold. The air was misty and the sky was one block of cloud the color of feathers. No one was about, except the dog from number 29. We went over the roundabout and turned down the hill. I could see the town, the aerials and chimneys and rooftops, the river, and the electricity pylons striding like lonely giants down the valley. And at the bottom of the valley was the factory, a great black thing with funnels and towers and ladders and pipes and above it huge clouds of smoke.
At the foot of the hill we passed the multistory car park, the bingo hall, the Labour Club, the unemployment office, the betting shop, and the pub where bleach mixes with the beer smell. On weekends there are water balloons on the pavement and sometimes nappies stained red. Once I saw a needle and we had to cross over.
In our town nothing seems to be where it should. There are car engines in gardens and plastic bags in bushes and shopping trolleys in the river. There are bottles in the gutter and mice in the bottle bank, walls with words on and signs with words crossed out. There are streetlights with no lights and holes in the road and holes in the pavement and holes in exhaust pipes. There are houses with broken windows and men with broken teeth and swings with broken seats. There are dogs with no ears and cats with one eye and once I saw a bird with not many feathers.
We passed Woolworths, the pound shop, Kwik Save, and the Co op grocery store. Then we went through the tunnel beneath the bridge where the walls are dark green and trickling, and when we came out we were on a piece of wasteland and there was the Meeting Hall. The Meeting Hall is a black metal shed and has three windows down each side. Inside there are a lot of red seats and on each windowsill bowls of yellow plastic roses with pretend droplets of water stuck onto the petals at regular intervals.
Father and Mother helped to build the Meeting Hall. It isn’t very big but it belongs to the Brothers. There weren’t many people in the congregation then, only four or five. Without Father and Mother, the congregation might have fizzled out, but they kept preaching, and eventually more people got baptized. It was wonderful when they finally had a meeting place of their own. It took three years to build and every penny was donated by the Brothers.
Inside the hall, it was cold because the radiators hadn’t warmed up yet. At the front of the hall, Elsie and May were talking to old Nel Brown in the wheelchair.
May said: “Well, if it isn’t my little treasure!”
Elsie said: “Well, if it isn’t my little love!”
“Ah, she’s a lovely girl!” said May, hugging me.
“She’s a blessing, that’s what she is!” said Elsie, kissing my cheek.
May said: “Auntie Nel was just telling us about the time she and the priest had a dustup.”
“Grape?” Nel said. Her chin wobbled as she chewed, because she doesn’t have teeth. Her top lip was whiskery. Her bottom lip was spitty.
“No thanks, Auntie Nel,” I said. I was too worried to eat, and even if I hadn’t been I wouldn’t have fancied one, because Auntie Nel smells of wee.
Uncle Stan came up. Uncle Stan is the Presiding Overseer. He drinks milk because of his ulcer and he’s from “Beemeengoomb.” Apparently Beemeengoomb is an even bigger Den of Iniquity than our town. It’s where he got his stomach ulcer, though some people say he got it because of Auntie Margaret. Stan put his arm round Auntie Nel and said: “How’s my favorite Sister?”
Nel said: “That carpet looks like it could do with Hoovering.”
Uncle Stan stopped smiling. He looked at the carpet. He said: “Right.”
Stan went to find the Hoover and I went to find Father. He was in the book room, sorting out last month’s surplus magazines with Brian. There are small white flakes on the shoulders of Brian’s jacket and in his hair. “H h h how are y y y you, J J Judith?” Brian said.
“Fine thanks,” I said. But I wasn’t. The pain in my stomach was coming back. I’d stopped thinking about Neil for a minute, only to remember again.
Alf came up. His tongue was flicking in and out at the corners of his mouth like a lizard. He said to Father: “Report cards in?” Father nodded. Alf is what Father calls “Second in Command.” He’s not much taller than me but wears little boots with heels. He is almost bald, but his hair is combed over and sprayed in a lid. I saw it lift once in the wind when we were preaching, and he jumped into the car and said: “Run and buy me some hairspray, kid!” and wouldn’t get out until I had.
Uncle Stan appeared, lugging the Hoover. He looked gray. “The speaker’s not here,” he said. “I don’t feel like giving the talk if he doesn’t turn up.”
“He will,” said Father.
“I don’t know,” said Alf. He hoisted his trousers. “The last speaker we were supposed to have got lost.” Suddenly he saw me and stopped frowning. “Josie’s got something for you.”
I didn’t like the way he was grinning. “What is it?” I said.
Father said: “It’s polite to say, ‘Thank you,’ Judith.” He frowned at me as if he was disappointed, and I flushed and looked down.
But Alf said: “I couldn’t tell you what it is, could I? That would spoil the surprise.”
Josie is Alf’s wife. She is very short and very wide, has a long white ponytail and a mouth like a slit, where creamy saliva collects in the corners and stretches like a concertina when she talks. She wears funny clothes and likes to make them for other people. So far she has made me: a crocheted dress with blue and peach roses, which she asked about until it shrank in the wash, a turquoise skirt with ribbon around the edge, which reached to the ground, a crocheted Cinderella doll toilet roll holder, which Father refused to have in the bathroom so I made it into a hill for the Land of Decoration, a toilet seat cover, which now keeps drafts out at the foot of the back door, bright blue leg warmers, an orange bodysuit, two cardigans, and a balaclava. Josie must think either that we are very poor, that I am much bigger than I am, or that I am very cold. One day I will tell her that she is wrong: that we aren’t rich but we have enough money to buy clothes, that though I may appear to be older because I read the Bible well and talk to the grown ups I am ten, and four foot four, and that most of the time I am just the right temperature.
I scanned the crowd but couldn’t see any sign of her. To be on the safe side, I went to stand behind the sound equipment with Gordon. There isn’t anyone my age in our congregation, so although Gordon is a lot older than me, I chat to him. Gordon was testing the microphones, making a pock pock sound.
I looked at the clock. There were now exactly twenty three hours until Neil Lewis put my head down the toilet. There was nothing for it. Gordon was setting up the microphones. I said to him: “Have you got a mint?” Gordon rummaged in his pocket. He unrolled the top of a packet and dropped a dusty white tablet into my hand. “Thanks,” I said. I only ask for Gordon’s mints in emergencies. Gordon took two and went back to untangling cables.
Gordon has not long come off heroin; he got hooked on heroin because he Got In with the Wrong Crowd. He Battles Depression, so he does very well coming to meetings. It was really serious for a While. It looked like Gordon might have to be Removed. He was marked as a bad influence. They say that God shone His light into Gordon’s heart, but I think his recovery is to do with the extra strong mints. Father said heroin makes people happy because it takes away pain; the mints make you happy because when you have finished eating one you realize you’re not in pain anymore. It comes down to the same thing. The trouble is, Gordon is getting used to them. He can already knock back four in a row. I don’t know what he will do when he manages to get through a whole packet, because they don’t make them any stronger.
There were a lot of people in the hall now, or a lot for our congregation anyway–nearly thirty, I would say. There were even some faces we don’t usually see. Pauline, the woman who had the poltergeist Uncle Stan exorcised last spring, and Sheila from the women’s refuge. Geena from the mental home, with scars on her arms, and Wild Charlie Powell, who lives up the Tump in a wooden house among the fir trees. It felt as if something special was going to happen but I couldn’t think what.
On the platform, Alf tapped the microphone. “Brothers and Sisters,” he said, “if you’d like to take your seats, the meeting’s about to start.”
So the speaker hadn’t made it. I imagined his car tumbling down the mountain, his cries getting fainter and fainter till the battered hunk of metal disappeared into the mist. “See you later,” I said to Gordon, and went to my seat.
Father and I sit right at the front, so our knees are almost touching the platform. My neck gets a crick looking up. Father says it is better than being Distracted. Distraction leads to Destruction. But the front row has distractions of its own. The smell of Auntie Nel being one of them. I was glad of my extra strong mint.
We stood to sing “The Joys of Kingdom Service.” Father sang loudly, bringing the sound deep from within his chest, but I couldn’t sing, partly because thinking about Neil and partly because the extra strong mint had vacuumed all the spit out of my mouth. Father nudged me and frowned, so I stuck the mint into my cheek and shouted as loudly as he did.
We had to do the magazine study first because there was no speaker. It was called “Illuminators of the World” and was all about how we weren’t to hide our light under a bushel, which turned out to be a kind of basket. Alf said the best way we could do this was to fill in a report card. Father answered up and said what a privilege it was to be God’s mouthpieces. Elsie answered and said we met skeptics, but if we didn’t tell people how would they know? Brian said: “Th th th th th the thing. Th th th th thing is–” But we never found out what the thing was. Auntie Nel waved her hand about but it turned out she was only telling May she had wet herself.
By that time my mint had gone, so I put my hand up and said how happy God must be to see all the little lights shining in the darkness, and Alf said: “Well, we can all see your light is shining, Sister McPherson!” But it wasn’t, and I didn’t feel happy, and just then I wished I wasn’t one of God’s lights, because if I wasn’t, Neil Lewis wouldn’t put my head down the toilet.
When the magazine study was over, Father got onto the platform and said: “Now, Brothers, due to unforeseen circumstances…” I could see Uncle Stan collecting his papers and wiping his neck with his hanky. Then a rush of air swept into the hall and we heard the outer door close.
I turned round. A man was coming through the foyer doors. They seemed to have blown open, because they held themselves wide as he passed through, then closed behind him. The man had caramel skin and hair the color of blackbirds. He looked like one of the Men of Old, except that he wasn’t wearing a robe but a suit of dark blue and, where the light shone, it glistened like petrol in a puddle. The man came right up to our row and sat at the end, and I smelled something like fruit cake and something like wine.
Alf hurried up to him. He whispered to the man, then nodded at Father. Father smiled. He said: “And we are very glad to welcome…”
“Brother Michaels,” said the man. His voice was the strangest thing of all. It was like dark chocolate.
Father said: “Our visiting speaker, from…?” But Brother Michaels didn’t appear to have heard. Father asked again and Brother Michaels only smiled. “Well, anyway Brother, we’re very glad to have you,” Father said, then got down.
There was a lot of clapping, then Brother Michaels got onto the platform. He didn’t seem to have notes. He took something out of his briefcase and put it on the rostrum. Then he looked up. Now that he was looking at us, I could see just how dark his skin was. His hair was dark too, but his eyes were strange and pale. Then he said: “What beautiful mountains you have here, Brothers!”
I could feel how surprised everyone was. No one ever said anything about our valley being beautiful. Brother Michaels said: “Don’t you think so? I was coming over them today in my car and thinking how lucky you are to live here. Why, from the top I thought I could see right into the clouds.”
I looked out the window. Brother Michaels must either be crazy or need glasses; the clouds were even lower now–you couldn’t see more than three feet in front of you.
He smiled. “The theme of our talk today is ‘Moving Mountains.’ What do you think you would need, Brothers, to move that one over there?”
“Dynamite,” said Alf.
“You couldn’t,” said Uncle Stan.
“A pretty big digger,” said Gordon, and everyone laughed.
Brother Michaels held something up between his finger and thumb. “Do you know what this is?”
“It isn’t anything,” I whispered, but Father smiled.
“Which of you believes I’m holding anything at all?” said Brother Michaels.
Some people put up their hands; lots didn’t. Father was still smiling and he put up his hand, so I did too. Brother Michaels held a piece of paper out just below the microphone. Then he opened his finger and thumb and we heard something fall. “Those of you who guessed I was holding something, give yourself a pat on the back,” he said. “You were seeing with Eyes of Faith.”
“What is it?” I said, but Father only put his finger to his lips.
“That, Brothers, is a mustard seed,” said Brother Michaels. He held up a picture of a mustard seed blown up. It was like a tiny yellow ball. “It’s the smallest of seeds but grows into a tree that the birds of heaven sit in.” Then he began to talk about the world.
He said that many difficulties would befall God’s people before the system ended. He said the Devil was roaming the earth, seeking to devour someone. We read about how the Israelites stopped believing they would get to the Land of Decoration, how they scorned God’s miracles and the miracle workers. “Never let us be like that,” he said. “Faith is not a possession of all people. The world laughs at faith. They wouldn’t think of telling that mountain to move. But turn with me in your Bibles, Brothers, and see what Jesus says.”
Then he began to read, and as he did my heart beat hard and it was as if I was catching light.
“For I say to you truthfully, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to a mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you. ”
“Of course,” he said, “Jesus was speaking metaphorically. We can’t really move mountains. But we can do things we think are impossible if we have faith. Faith sees the mountain as already moved, Brothers. It isn’t enough to think what the new world will be like, we have to see ourselves there; all the while we’re thinking what it will be like, we’re still here. But faith has wings. It can carry us wherever we need to go.”
Then he began to talk, and it was like listening to a great story unraveling, and I knew the story but didn’t remember having heard it before, or not told this way.
In the beginning, Brother Michaels said, all of life was miraculous. Humans lived forever and never got sick. Every fruit, every animal, every part of the earth, was a perfect reflection of God’s glory, and the relation between the humans was also perfect. But Adam and Eve lost something. They lost faith in God. So they began to die, the cells in their bodies began to deteriorate, and they were expelled from the garden.
“After that there were only glimpses of how things used to be: a sunset, a hurricane, a bush struck by lightning. And faith became something you prayed for in a room at midnight or on a battlefield or in a whale’s stomach or in a fiery furnace. Faith became a leap, because there was a gap between how things were and how they used to be. It was the space where miracles happened.
“Everything is possible, at all times and in all places and for all sorts of people. If you think it’s not, it’s only because you can’t see how close you are, how you only need to do a small thing and everything will come to you; miracles don’t have to be big things, and they can happen in the unlikeliest places. Miracles work best with ordinary things. Paul says: ‘Faith is the assured expectation of things long hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld,’ and if we have just a little, other things will follow, Brothers. Sometimes more than we dreamed.”
The talk was finished, but for a second there was no clapping; then there was a storm of it. I felt I had woken up. But I had been sleeping longer than the talk; I felt I had been sleeping all my life.
I couldn’t wait for the song and prayer to be over. I thought Brother Michaels would be just the person to talk to about Neil Lewis.