I put my head down on the cool of the desktop, just for a second. Then I heard the stabbing sound Mrs. Richards's little heels made on the tile floor. I sat up, sure that she was coming to ask me what was wrong, but she was headed the other way, toward the door, where the principal stood with a girl I'd never seen before. The three of them talked, and then Mrs. Richards did her duck walk to the blackboard, bumping the girl along in front of her.
"Class, this is Hester Sarah Solomon," she said, and then waited for us to do our part, which was a big, phony "Hello, Hester Sarah." Half the class gave up in the middle, though, because the new girl so clearly didn't care. She had turned halfway to the window and was staring out at the empty playground as if it were the big screen at the Starlite Drive-In. The dress she had on was the color of applesauce, and so big that she had bunched the skirt in her fists to keep from tripping on the hem. Her hair was baby-fine and blonde, done up in an old-lady bun at the top of her head, and someone had jerked the hair back from her temples so tightly that her eyes looked almost Chinese.
Mrs. Richards wanted to get back to Christopher Columbus. She reached out to touch the new girl's shoulder, to make her face the class, and Hester Sarah swiveled her head around. When I saw her face, I forgot about the Starlite Drive-In; Hester Sarah looked as if she'd been startled awake and didn't like it, not one bit. That was how my mother looked when we had been driving a long time and a car coming at us honked because our lights weren't on. When my mother finally saw the nighttime, she always said, "I am the light of the world" as she felt for the switch at the side of the wheel. That was a Bible verse, but it sounded more like one when my father said it.
"Hester Sarah's family came to Abilene from Oklahoma City," Mrs. Richards said. "She has one brother in junior high and another in kindergarten, and her father is the new pastor of -- " Mrs. Richards skittered to a stop.
"Gates of Grace Holy Apostolic Community," Hester Sarah said. She rolled the words out like a banner, and I knew exactly how she would sound quoting Scripture.
Mrs. Richards chipped in an "Oh, yes," but without conviction. Like me, she was used to churches with "First" in their names -- churches like my father's, where she sang soprano in the choir. I said the name of the Reverend Solomon's church in my head; I knew that apostles were disciples, and that the gates of grace must be the way into heaven. But "Gates of Grace Holy Apostolic Community" used up too many words, the way Patty Bailey did when she brownnosed my father on Sunday mornings: "Oh, Reverend Whitmore, your sermon was just so holy, and righteous, and beautiful."
The other girls in the room were making little cawing sounds over Hester Sarah's dress, led by Patty, who now swung one leg out from under her desk and caught mine. "You can go to each other's church," she said, and snorted through her fingers. "Maybe she'll lend you something to wear." Patty said it loud enough for Mrs. Richards to hear, and Mrs. Richards charged halfway down the row to threaten her with study hall. Hester Sarah had heard too, but she went back to watching the playground. I'd gone a whole ten minutes without thinking about my mother, but suddenly I was sure she was still in our driveway. She'd have the nose of the Lincoln pointed toward Fitzgerald Street so that she could see me cut the corner at the top of the block.
Mrs. Richards finished with Patty and went back to the front of the class. She asked Hester Sarah to take a seat, and pointed to a desk at the end of my row. Hester Sarah started toward it, but when she was even with Patty Bailey's desk, she stopped. Just like that, she leaned over and put her face next to Patty's. She was staring at Patty's cheeks, which every girl in the room knew had been dabbed with Tangee Junior blush before the eight-thirty bell. "Whore of Babylon," Hester Sarah said, as if it were the answer to a question. Before Mrs. Richards could get to her, she said it again.
WHEN I ran down Fitzgerald Street, the trees and the other houses seemed not to be there. All I could see was my mother's face inside the car. I ran harder, but she had seen me and was already pulling out of the driveway to come meet me. I stepped off the curb into the street, and my mother leaned over to throw open the passenger door. "Come on," she said, "I've been waiting," which was what she always said, as if I had deliberately held us up by going to grade school.
I threw my book bag into the back seat, and my mother took off before my right leg was all the way in the car. I didn't tell her how that felt, the sensation of my best penny loafer pulling along the street. I just lifted my foot into the car as fast as I could and tugged the door shut.
"Safest place to be is in a car," my mother said, and I nodded, because I knew she believed it. She drove slowly and carefully on the city streets, where someone my father knew might see us, but then we were out of Abilene and on the highway. I pushed myself up until I could see the buildings downtown shimmying in the rearview mirror, like a cartoon mirage. Just then my mother hit the brake, hard, to get off at the exit to Sweetwater, and I had to stretch my legs out to keep from falling. I knew we weren't going to Sweetwater. We weren't going anywhere; we were just driving around.
Sometimes when we were in the car together, my mother talked the whole time, not to me exactly but out loud. She usually talked about something she saw: a house with a fluttery windmill reminded her of flying in a plane; little kids stepping off a school bus made her wonder if the road was safe to cross. Other times she was quiet, and if I tried to talk, she shook her head no. This time she didn't say a word for hours. I didn't look at the clock -- she didn't like that -- but once or twice I saw the odometer turn over. We were going in a circle, I thought, and I was trying to imagine how Mrs. Richards could make this a story problem in math: Mrs. Whitmore leaves her house at 3:00 P.M. and drives a million miles. Why doesn't she just go home?
Then we turned off on a farm-to-market road, which looked like a skinny black line drawn through acres and acres of dried-out ranchland. On both sides of the road cattle bunched together at stock tanks, waiting their turn to drink. I was wishing I could draw a cow that didn't look like Lassie when my mother said, "Cattle." She did that sometimes, said what I was thinking, but I still jumped a little when it happened.
She slowed the car almost to a stop and watched the cows on her side of the road. "Look how close they are to each other," she said. "They don't like being alone; sometimes, in a storm, they crowd together so tight that one of them suffocates."
I must have made a sound, because my mother looked over at me. "We're safe, Ellen. We have room, and we can breathe, and nobody can get in unless we let them. And if they try, we'll just drive away."
Nobody had ever tried to get in the car, and we were still driving away. I didn't say that out loud, though; this wasn't school. At school, if I thought Columbus was crazy to get in that dinky little ship, I said so to the whole class, and all that happened was that Mrs. Richards said, "What does the book say about your question, Ellen?"
My mother pressed down on the accelerator, and in a minute the cattle were behind us. After another mile she started to beat on the steering wheel rhythmically with the flat of her hand; she kept looking over at me, as if somehow I wasn't doing my part. As far as I knew, my part was to sit in the front seat and hope that my mother wouldn't drive us to the edge of the world. But things changed with her; that was the point. So I opened my mouth. What came out was how I'd missed "indefatigable" in the practice spelling bee, and about "Moira, My Darling," an Irish ballad that Mr. Pitts was teaching us in chorus.
It was almost dark, and I didn't know where we were anymore. My mother was still thumping the steering wheel, and I tried to think of something else. "We have a new girl in our class. Her father's the minister of a little church; it could be somewhere out here." I drew in my breath and let it out slowly. "It's called Gates of Grace Holy Apostolic Community." My eleventh birthday was four months away, but I'd started sixth grade that fall with kids who were already twelve. I was in the best reading group, the one named for a bird of prey. But "apostolic" still sounded wrong, not the way Hester Sarah had said it.
I said the church name again, but I didn't stop there. I knew I could tell my mother the rest of it, what Hester Sarah had said to Patty, and not just because "whore of Babylon" came from the Bible. Most of my friends' mothers had baby names for anything to do with people's bodies. Patty's mother was the worst: on our last choir trip Mrs. Bailey had gone up and down the line asking the girls if anyone needed to wee-wee before we left. At least when my mother talked to me, she called things by their right names. "Patty made fun of her," I said, "and the new girl called her a whore of Babylon."
My mother was so still that I looked to see if the car was moving in a straight line, afraid that somehow she had fallen asleep. I was half reaching for the wheel when she said, "Christ on the cross." I pulled my hand back and closed my eyes. Nobody's mother talked like that. The car filled up with the words, like a birthday balloon on a bicycle pump, and my mother's face expanded. She was looking at the road, but her right hand came off the wheel and floated near her mouth. "Gates of Grace," she said through her fingers. "Gates of Goddamned Grace."
The car skidded a little, and the driver of a pickup truck coming the other way leaned on his horn. My mother blew out her breath, and just as the pickup passed us, she jerked the Lincoln over to the shoulder and then straightened it again. I didn't try to stop myself from sliding off the seat. The dashboard was right there, and I pushed my forehead into it. I closed my eyes and thought of Tweety Bird tricking Sylvester the Cat. Something else I'd learned about riding with my mother was that if I hurt myself, even a little, she'd stop the car.
She said "Ellen" once, and then again, and then "Jesus." But she wasn't saying a prayer. She pulled onto the shoulder, and when the car stopped, she jumped out and ran around to my door. I stayed where I was, not moving, and my mother opened the door. She sat sideways on the seat, her feet spraying gravel underneath, and pulled me up into her arms.
I let her push back my bangs and feel my forehead. After a minute she stopped saying my name, which worried me a little, and I opened one eye. I had to be careful: the point was to get us home, not to a hospital. At a hospital they'd see I wasn't hurt; I couldn't be sure what they'd see about my mother.
"Mama, what happened?" I tried to make my voice all puzzled and sweet.
"You threw yourself on the floor, that's what happened," my mother said, and she let go of me. She left the car and began to slide down the embankment. I waited for a minute, pinching my forehead a little because I wanted to, not because crying was going to get me anywhere. When my mother didn't come back, I got out of the car and started toward her. I kept one foot turned out, so I could run if I needed to.
I had almost reached her when she said, "You stay there, Ellen Ann. Stay there and think about what you did."
I said I was sorry, and I was. I was sorry that my father was in San Antonio. I was sorry that cars had been invented.
"You're all alike, you know that? You and your father and your little friend who calls people names. You won't let anyone alone. You won't let them be." She spoke breathlessly.
I moved my head, just a little, in case a nod was what she wanted.
"You could have told me you wanted to go home," she said. "But you didn't do that, did you? You pretended you were hurt to get your way, and you didn't care how you made me feel."
If I had said "I want to go home," we'd be in Mexico by now, but I didn't say so. Maybe she'd forgotten, but once she drove so far that we had to spend the night in Arkansas in a motel with a giant horse on the roof. I hadn't cried then, and I wasn't going to now. All I did was wait. The light was gone, and our bodies blended in the dark, ran together, until all our edges were gone. "We were having a nice drive, and you ruined it," my mother said. "Next time you can just stay home; what do you think about that?"
Now was the time to cry, to say how sorry I was, to swear that we could drive a million miles, a trillion, and go home only when she wanted. I was getting ready to, but a car passed by, and the headlights threw me off, pulled my eyes to the road. I wondered who was in that car, and then, even though she was one good reason I was standing in weeds, I thought of Hester Sarah Solomon. Hester Sarah's family would be singing, I thought, an old hymn like "Just As I Am" or "Abide With Me." Or maybe she and her brothers were counting stars, while her father told them about God's holy firmament. Maybe they were coming home from getting ice cream to celebrate Hester Sarah's first day in a new school. I almost smiled, but then my mother passed me on the way to the Lincoln. She was inside before I could climb up the embankment, and when I got to the top, the car was already rolling. I waited, counting the heartbeats under my hand, and when I got to five, I started to run.
FIRST Baptist, my father's church, had a smooth green lawn, nineteen steps up to the sanctuary, eight ivory columns, and a stained-glass window for every disciple but Judas. Andrew fished from a little wooden boat, bobbing on a slash of blue; James and John mended their nets between two fig trees; Simon Peter, who was my favorite, had a two-part window, like an episode of Bonanza that began one week and ended the next. On top he sat at the Last Supper, elbows on the table, promising Jesus that he would never, ever betray him; below he denied to a mob of red and yellow dots that he had been a disciple at all. Bartholomew had a window, and Philip, and Thomas, and Matthew, and the other James, the other Simon, and Thaddaeus. Where Judas would have been, a lamb grazed at the foot of a cross. The cross was empty, because we were Southern Baptists, and our idea was that Jesus was up in heaven looking down. Never a moment passed when he wasn't watching over us, my father said every Sunday; the closeness of his watch was a measure of how much he loved us.
But inside our house on Fitzgerald Street, for every "In Jesus' name we pray, amen" that my father said out loud at meals, for every Bible verse, for every sermonette on God's love and God's law, exactly two commandments really mattered. The first, "Don't hurt your mother," was my father's. The second was "Don't tell on her," and that one was mine.
WHEN I was little, my mother was crazy. She went into the hospital when I was three, and came out, and went back in. When she was out, she lived with my grandparents up in Kansas City. I was five and a half when she came home to Abilene. She had a special brass case for pill bottles, and an address book with nothing in it but doctors' names, and -- I remembered this on my own -- some missing hair in back, because apparently my grandmother's beautician had problems of her own. In all that time my father had prayed maybe a million prayers for her, and the Sunday after her return he told a packed church that Anna Starr Whitmore had been restored to us by the loving hand of God.
When my mother came home, the clean and quiet of her own house made her smile, and every day after breakfast she lingered in a different room, relearning it, relearning us. She memorized my dolls' names, and brewed real tea for my tea parties on the screen porch. She came to every one of them dressed in her Sunday clothes. And she played with my father, too. Once, when the three of us sat down to breakfast, she looked right at me and said, "Herbert, pass Daddy the butter, please. You need a haircut, Herbert -- how can you see with all that hair in your eyes?"
Across the table, my father began to fold his toast in half.
"I'm a girl," I said, because that was my only line.
"Herbert Ann, then; pass Daddy the butter," my mother said, and when my father raised his head, she started to laugh. He sailed the toast high over the table, and it touched down in her open hands.
AFTER she came home, my mother was fine for a long time. If anybody wanted to ask me, she was still fine. The driving around had started in the summer, but I hadn't said a word to my father. I had thought and thought about it: I couldn't tell my father without hurting my mother. So when he left town, I ran all the way home after school, and when my mother pulled out of the driveway, I got into the car.
When my father was home, my mother did her best: she never missed a beauty-shop appointment or a Women's Missionary Union meeting at church, and when he held the passenger door open for her, she hopped right in. She wore hats on Sundays, pastel ovals outlined with lace, and as my father drove, she listened carefully to the sermon he was about to give. "Grace is never earned," he had said the week before, and my mother had said right back, "Then grace shouldn't work." He laughed and told her he'd change it to "A state of grace is never earned." My mother smiled, and for just that long I saw what my father saw.
But it wasn't always Sunday morning. And then one day I thought about my mother all the time. One day in school we did an experiment in science class. Mrs. Richards pumped air into a plastic bag, a little at a time, and we watched it swell and swell until finally the bag popped. Even though I'd known it was coming, I still jumped -- and that was when I pictured my mother living in a see-through bag, watched by my father, and the choir, and the Dorcas Ladies Bible Class. The thing was, the car was bigger than a plastic bag. And in the car I was the only one watching her.
At times, when my father was home, when my mother was trying hard to be well, I thought it would all work out. My mother could stay with us, and my father could keep his miracle, and all I had to do was get in the car. But when I told my mother about Hester Sarah Solomon and the Gates of Grace Holy Apostolic Community, I saw her face. I heard what she said. And I knew why my father's prayers for my mother had stopped working. My mother didn't believe in God. I had thought I was the only one.
MY report cards, every one of them all the way back to kindergarten, said I wasn't working up to my potential. But I had worked to believe in God. I tried much harder than I ever tried with fractions. When I was little, still expecting that one morning I'd wake up and be a Christian like everyone else, I was sure that believing was just a matter of time and effort. I mean, I took swimming lessons for years, and all that ever happened was I got wet. But one day I put my head under the water, I kicked out, and I could swim. Sooner or later, I believed, I'd bow my head one Sunday morning and be touched by the Holy Spirit, as my father always described it happening for him. I could close my eyes and, maybe, see Casper the Friendly Ghost, but that was it. I didn't stop trying, though. I never sat where I wanted to in church -- in the last pew in the sanctuary, with the kids who chewed gum and wrote notes. I stayed up front, next to my mother, and I prayed. I gave my allowance to missionaries. I went to church camp. I sang hymns. Nothing happened.
So when I was eight, I went down the aisle one day at the close of the service and told my father I had accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. He kissed the top of my head, right there in church, and a week later he baptized me. I was sure that saying I believed, out loud in front of everyone, would somehow make it true. But all that happened was that I wasn't just a nonbeliever anymore. I was a nonbeliever and a big fat liar.
Hester Sarah Solomon believed. All you had to do was look at her to know that. And watching her, just for that minute when she said the name of her father's church in front of the class, I began to think about the possibility that nothing was wrong with my mother and me. Maybe something was wrong with our religion.
THE morning after I bumped my head, the house was quiet when I got up for school. My mother wasn't downstairs, and I didn't know whether she was awake or not. I knew she had been up late after we got home, because she'd cooked a stack of waffles for me to warm up. They were in the refrigerator, with a note on church stationery that said she loved me, and that she'd see me later. The note was an old one; she kept it in the junk drawer to use after our drives.
I walked backward most of the way up Fitzgerald Street, watching the house, half expecting to see my mother come outside to get an early start on sitting in the car. For the first time, I wondered if part of what made her do it was how many Bibles my father owned, the framed pictures of his seminary classmates, the watercolor of the hills above Jerusalem that hung over the fireplace.
I was on the school's front steps when I heard the first bell ring, and I cut across the main hallway to get to class. As I passed the principal's office, I saw Hester Sarah Solomon with a man I was sure was her father. They were in the outer office, and I watched Mr. Shipp come out to take them inside. Hester Sarah's dress, the color of tuna salad, was worse than the one the day before, and the Reverend Solomon was turning a gray felt hat over and over in his hands. With every rotation, the shiny sleeves of his sport coat snaked above his wrists. I could see he was a preacher from Hester Sarah's face. The whole time he talked to Mr. Shipp, her eyes were fixed on his mouth, as if she could see every word, in capital letters, as it came out.
The tardy bell rang, and I had to get past the glass wall of the office before I could run. All through first period I waited for Hester Sarah to come back. Finally the door opened, and there she was, with Mr. Shipp, exactly like the day before. But this time, when she came to the blackboard, she looked out at the class.
She toed the tile with her right sneaker, and I heard Patty whisper, "Woolworth's. Two pair for two dollars." But she said it really low, and when Hester Sarah looked our way, Patty sucked in her breath so hard she whistled.
"I have to say I'm sorry," Hester Sarah said, and closed her mouth. Mrs. Richards sighed, a tiny sound like a dollhouse door shutting, and asked if Hester Sarah didn't have something more to say.
"I was wrong," Hester Sarah said, and as Mrs. Richards nodded, she added, "It's not up to me to say who's a whore of Babylon and who's not. That's up to God."
Hester Sarah lingered a little on "whore," but all Mrs. Richards did was flutter her hands. From the choked-off sounds behind me, I knew that Patty was about to cry, but she was quiet when Hester Sarah came down our row. The boys drew in their feet as she passed.
Mrs. Richards told us to get into our reading groups, and she put Hester Sarah in the lowest group, the one named for the state flower of Texas. I skipped my turn to read with the other Eagles so that I could listen to Hester Sarah, two rows over. She sounded out even baby words, like "farmer" and "weather." But I knew that the Ten Commandments were real to her. I knew that if I went up to her on the playground and said "Number eight," just like that the answer would come back: "Thou shalt not steal." I thought of her face when she looked at her father, and I thought that 99 percent of the Reverend Solomon's sermons were not about God's love, God's mercy, or God's eternal forgiveness. The Reverend Solomon would preach about sin, I thought -- about casting out sin and demons, about escaping the flames of hell. The Reverend Solomon would preach about saving people, whether or not they wanted to be saved.
Lynna Williams is an associate professor of English at Emory University, where she directs the creative-writing program. She is the author of (1992).
Illustrations by Zohar Lazar.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Comparative Religion - 99.08 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 2; page 69-78.
MY father had been home from San Antonio only two weeks when he had to leave for Dallas. I got up early, took the chicken legs left over from Sunday lunch out of the fridge, and wrapped them in tinfoil. I usually took money to school for a hot lunch, but Hester Sarah brought her lunch, and in a paper bag, not a lunch box. She ate alone; Patty Bailey had made sure that the other girls wouldn't talk to her. But Hester Sarah acted as if she had arranged to be alone, for the greater glory of God.
My parents weren't downstairs yet. I unfolded a grocery bag and threw in the chicken, three oranges, a plastic container of French green beans, another of creamed corn, and a slab of red-velvet cake. We always had little cartons of milk around from choir suppers on Wednesday nights, and I put in half a dozen of those. Ifilled a Thermos with apple juice. I put in some paper plates and plastic forks. I was picturing myself laying down a trail of leftovers, leading Hester Sarah right to me. When I couldn't fit anything else into the bag, I lifted it into my book bag, heaved the book bag off the table with both arms, and called upstairs to say I was going. I was almost down the driveway when the screen door banged, and my father called for me to come back. He walked part of the way to meet me.
"You're going without saying good-bye?" he said. "You know I'm leaving today, and you just go sailing out the front door?" He was wearing the pants of his suit already, but with his blue-velour robe, the one my mother and I had given him for Christmas.
"I thought you were going next week." That was a lie. I had the dates for every revival meeting for a year marked off on the calendar in my room, but I knew he'd believe me. He'd believe anything.
"I'll only be gone for four days," he said. "The phone numbers are upstairs on my desk. You know you can call me, but I'll be home before you want to, probably."
We both knew what was next. "You and your mother take care of each other," he said, as if such a thing might actually happen. After a minute he reached out to hug me, and he felt the weight of the book bag on my shoulder. "Ellen Ann, what are you carrying around?"
I made my voice shake a little. "There's a new girl in my class who's hungry, I think. I'm taking some food so she'll have lunch with me." I tacked a little sob onto the end of the sentence.
My father leaned over to kiss my forehead. "You share your lunch every day if you want," he said. "When I get back, we'll see what else we can do." I let him knuckle-kiss my hand, a routine from my baby days, and then he stepped onto the porch. I hadn't even reached the sidewalk before I heard him call my mother's name, and I knew he'd gone back to watching her.
IN the lunchroom I wrapped both arms around my grocery bag and followed Hester Sarah, ignoring Patty Bailey, who wanted to know where I thought I was going. Hester Sarah went to one end of a table in the far corner, and I dropped into a chair opposite her. At the other end two kids I knew from the playground picked up their trays and left. Hester Sarah unwrapped her sandwich, smelly pink meat on white bread, while I took out what I'd brought. I had covered half the table before I started pulling cartons of milk out of the bag.
"You got a tapeworm?" she said, and smiled. Mrs. Richards had shown us way too many color pictures of parasites in science the week before, but I hadn't thought that Hester Sarah was paying attention. She kept a Bible open on her desk, and every day a new pamphlet was stuck between pages of the Old Testament. Mrs. Richards had given up trying to stop her, and she played with the pamphlets all day, standing them at different angles so that none of us could miss the red headlines at the top. Today's pamphlet asked, "Will You Vacation Eternally in the Fiery Pit?" The illustration was of a terrified family of four, with matched luggage, falling through space.
"Will you help me eat all this?" I said. I hadn't said boo to Hester Sarah since she'd started school, and I thought I'd have to explain why I was all at once her friend. But she waved her hand at me, as if temporal matters didn't concern her. After a minute I understood: if I was sitting at her table, God had sent me. This close, her Chinese eyes were the color of tap water. I unwrapped the chicken legs, and Hester Sarah wadded up her sandwich without taking a bite.
"I haven't said the blessing yet," she said.
I nodded, careful not to turn my head to see if Patty Bailey was watching us. Hester Sarah put her hands together under her chin. "Heavenly Father, we thank thee for your bounty, and ask that you bless us this day, that all we do may be for thy glory. Keep us from Satan's path, O Lord, for truly we know his snares await even the most righteous. In Jesus' name we pray to be his apostles, forever and ever, amen." Her head stayed down, because I was late repeating the "amen." When I did, Hester Sarah opened her eyes and lifted a forkful of creamed corn to her mouth.
I was stalling now. I had imagined how this would go more than once, but Hester Sarah at the table was different from Hester Sarah in my head. A scary church was one thing that no one had tried with my mother and me. "I didn't see your brothers at recess," I said to Hester Sarah. "They're not sick, are they?"
"My brothers are doing mission work with our daddy over at Baird. When they grow up, the church'll be theirs."
"What do you get?" I felt my face go red, but she gave me that same never-mind wave of her hand.
"I get to love the Lord, and serve him all my days, and when I die, a place will be reserved for me among the ranks of righteous women."
I said "Oh," which was stupid but better than what I was actually thinking, which was "Big whoop." But Hester Sarah wasn't watching me. She had been alternating bites of green beans with chicken, her tongue flicking in and out of her mouth.
"Hester Sarah?" I said, as if she weren't right across the table, practically nose down in the red-velvet cake. "Can I talk to you about something?"
She bounced a little in her chair. "God's moving in your heart, isn't he? I've had a feeling all day that he was going to bless someone."
"All I know is I had to come talk to you." I crossed my fingers under the table. "There's this girl I know." I paused to see if Hester Sarah was buying that, but I didn't see any doubt on her face. Hester Sarah didn't have doubts -- that was the point. "There's this girl I know, and she and someone else in her family -- it's her aunt, I think -- don't believe in God. I was wondering what would happen in your church about something like that. How you would help them, I mean." I'd meant to make my voice shake, but the shakiness started without me.
Hester Sarah was looking at me as though "whore of Babylon" would be a major compliment. "I know they didn't want to be this way," I said. "It's just something that happened."
She had put down her fork and was sitting with her head tilted back a little, as if she were God's vessel and I were pouring my story into her. "The devil isn't something that just happens to you," she began. At "you" I felt something give in my chest. Then I realized she didn't mean me in particular. "Salvation doesn't just happen either. If you want to be saved, you have to believe in the Lord God. Looking for shortcuts is blasphemy."
She didn't have a bit of trouble pronouncing "blasphemy." She was quoting her father, I was sure, and I tried to think of something my father said on Sunday mornings. "What about the healing power of God's love?" I said. Then I wished I hadn't. That was my father's big idea, and it wasn't working anymore.
"God heals those who bow before him, who worship his holy name."
I tried to imagine people lining up to join Hester Sarah's church. I spoke slowly, the way Mrs. Richards did when she taught long division. "What I asked you was how your church would help them believe. But it's okay if you don't know. I was just wondering."
I told myself that it was better this way. Hester Sarah ate with her mouth open, and my mother would die before she believed that that was God's will.
Hester Sarah's eyes were wet at the corners. She reached across the table, and her hand caught mine and held it. "Unbeliever," she said. I realized that I'd never before heard Hester Sarah give a right answer.
"Quit it," I said. "You're not making any sense."
"God makes sense," she said, and I had to catch my tongue sliding out of my mouth. My mother could drive me around until I went to college; college wasn't that far away.
A tiny wrinkle appeared between Hester Sarah's eyes, and she got up right there in the lunchroom and, still holding my hand, marched to my side of the table. She stood over me, and every time I shifted away from her, she moved in closer, until her mouth was hot against my ear. "If thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, the Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart."
Hester Sarah was finished with me. She drew back her head and walked to her seat. She stacked the empty food containers and lifted them into my grocery bag. All I did was stare at her, as if no one in my whole life had preached to me. My mother is astonished of heart, I told myself. Just like that, there was one thing I believed.
A HALF hour before the last bell Hester Sarah was at the world map, sliding her finger up and down South America in search of Afghanistan. I tried not to look at her. I hadn't told on my mother, not exactly, but I had come closer than ever before. All I had to show for it was one "If thou wilt not hearken," which I didn't know for sure was a real Bible verse, and what felt like a whole chicken sideways in my throat.
I blinked. A watery Mrs. Richards was sending Hester Sarah back to her seat, but all at once Hester Sarah bent double, her hands on her knees, and started to cry. Some of her hair came loose, scattering bobby pins and streaming over her face. "It hurts," she said. "It really hurts." Mrs. Richards knelt by her, asking what was wrong, and then helped her into a chair. "Class, will someone please walk with Hester Sarah to the nurse's office?" she said.
No one volunteered, not even when Mrs. Richards asked a second time, but when Hester Sarah moaned, I couldn't stand it. I raised my hand and bounced my desk chair back onto Patty Bailey's foot, because she was the reason no one else had a hand up. When Patty yelled, I pulled the chair free without saying I was sorry. Mrs. Richards and I walked Hester Sarah to the door. "Feel better, dear," Mrs. Richards said, and her hand hovered over Hester Sarah's back without actually patting it.
In the hallway I told Hester Sarah to hold on to my arm, and tried to feel good that I was helping someone less fortunate. But all I managed was to not say what I was thinking, which was that the devil and I were as pleased as punch to be taking her to the nurse.
Hester Sarah put her arm in mine, and we started down the hall. But at the corner of the passage that led to the nurse's office she swatted my hand away. "Come on," she said, and when I didn't move, "Do you want to do this or not? Hurry up before someone sees us."
"Do what?" I said, but when Hester Sarah started to run, I followed her. She slammed through the big double doors at the front of the school and ran down the steps. On the sidewalk I grabbed for her arm again. "What are you doing?" I said. "Aren't you sick?"
Hester Sarah shook me off. "Which way is your house?"
"What are you talking about?" I said. "We're going to the nurse."
She made a small, exasperated sound. "It's more important to go to your house, Ellen. We can tell your mother I missed the bus and need a ride home, and when we get there, my father will pray with the two of you. In Oklahoma City he brought a family of five to the Lord, and not one of them had ever been inside a church, not once in their whole lives."
"My friend and her aunt go to church," I said, bearing down on "friend" and "aunt." "They go to a beautiful church."
I didn't know what my face looked like, but Hester Sarah could have been smelling her sandwich again; her nose was wrinkled, and she was breathing through her mouth. She held up two fingers. "Number one, my church is beautiful, because we believe in God. And number two, I know you're talking about your mother not believing in God, not anybody's aunt. I heard Patty Bailey saying that your mother was sick when you were little. She's sick again, isn't she? The devil's got hold of her, and she's sick."
I was pretty sure now that Hester Sarah was in the wrong reading group. "Since when do you listen to Patty?" I said. "You should hear what she says about you."
"I listen to God," she said. "He wants me to help bring your mother and you into his presence. I know he does."
"Do your ears work?" I sounded like a little kid whose nose was running, even though it wasn't. "I didn't say anything about my mother and me." The sunlight was so bright that I had to squint to see her, and when I did, she had captured her hair in her hands and was piling it on top of her head.
"I thought you wanted to do something to help her," she said. "God led you to talk to me, but now you're afraid. Don't be afraid."
My mother was afraid of everything, I thought, except this; she'd never been afraid I would tell. I wished for the nurse, Mrs. Richards, my father, for anybody but Jesus, to get me out of this. "I talked to you about my friend and her aunt, and that's the truth," I said carefully. "I mean it, Hester Sarah. I don't know what Patty said, but it doesn't matter, because tomorrow she'll tell people you made the whole thing up."
What was true was that I wasn't living up to my potential. I hadn't done my homework. I hadn't thought this through. At night when I had rolled my movie on the inside of my eyelids, my mother and Hester Sarah were barely in it. All I saw was me, the way it would be if my mother never stopped driving me around, if she never got better, if things were always the way they were now.
We hadn't gone beyond the sidewalk in front of the school, and I heard the last bell ring inside. I could feel the vibration all the way down my back. Any minute now kids from our class would storm out the doors and see us; Mrs. Richards would be right behind them. She would see us, and the principal would call my mother to come get me.
I turned back to Hester Sarah, who was trying to free the hem of her dress from between her sneakers. When she told her parents about this, both of them would be proud of her. Both of them would be at home until she grew up.
"Come on," I told her. "It's only five blocks."
She didn't think I meant it, but when I started down the sidewalk, she was right behind me, reciting one Bible verse and then beginning another, as if each were a point on a map. I didn't talk to her, or even turn around.
When we reached Fitzgerald Street, I knew before I looked that my mother was in the car. Hester Sarah had stopped, and I had to walk back to her. "These houses are huge," she said. "You live in one of these?"
I waited for the Bible verse about rich men and heaven, but it didn't come. What was coming toward us, right this minute, was my mother in the Lincoln. I left Hester Sarah on the sidewalk, yelling at me to stop, and I ran into the street. When my mother slowed down, I opened the door and threw myself inside. Hester Sarah was still yelling, but I knew my mother would think it had nothing to do with me.
We were almost at the end of the street before I raised myself up to look at Hester Sarah in the rearview mirror. I watched her getting smaller, but I didn't worry about her. She was standing in front of the Talliaferros' house, and the Talliaferros drank highballs in the back yard before dinner. Mrs. Talliaferro would call the Reverend Solomon to come get Hester Sarah, I was sure, and maybe he would save the whole family before he and Hester Sarah went home. Maybe next time she'd get her own mission trip to Baird.
I dropped back into the seat. When I looked over at my mother, I thought from her face that we might really be driving all the way to Mexico this time, and I closed my eyes. I pushed my head into the leather and imagined that it was night. My mother and I were safe in the car, riding and riding, and I asked her what she believed, what she held sacred, what women like us wanted most in all the world.
Lynna Williams is an associate professor of English at Emory University, where she directs the creative-writing program. She is the author of (1992).
Illustrations by Zohar Lazar.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Comparative Religion - 99.08 (Part Three); Volume 284, No. 2; page 69-78.