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A U G U S T   1 9 9 9

(The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and two.)

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

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.

The online version of this story appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and two.

Lynna Williams is an associate professor of English at Emory University, where she directs the creative-writing program. She is the author of Things Not Seen and Other Stories (1992).

Illustrations by Zohar Lazar.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Comparative Religion - 99.08 (Part Three); Volume 284, No. 2; page 69-78.