Fiction, special to the Clarion Content every other Monday.
From Kate Van Dis, read more at The Palmetto Blog here.
Jesus Time Tabernacle
by: Kate Van Dis
One weekend, Ashley found herself telling Pastor Nathan about Nancy who lives across the way and has five kids but seems relaxed as a Calgon commercial. “She doesn’t smile much, but she has this peaceful way about her,” Ashley said, trying not to let the spite creep into her voice as she said it. “She never yells,” Ashley went on, “never lays a hand on those kids.”
The pastor nodded, listening.
“Well, I got just one,” Ashley told him, “One girl. And end of every day I have to talk myself down off a cliff.” She didn’t mention that this usually involved a few beers and a cigarette. Sometimes vodka, though she was trying hard to avoid it.
“Not all children are built the same,” he told her. And Ashley had been irritated by this response, because what was that supposed to mean?
But the next Sunday, he seemed to have built his sermon around that conversation, and Ashley just hoped to God he wouldn’t use her name.
It was February, so she and Lila had worn slacks instead of dresses, and nice blouses, of course. Lila was picking at the buttons on hers, and Ashley had to keep reaching over and forcing the child’s hands back into her lap.
“Think about what it’d be like to be …” the pastor paused for dramatic effect, the way he liked to do. “…Superman’s mother,” he said, “or Wonder Woman’s.” Everyone laughed, but it seemed like he was serious. “You’re trying to raise the boy right, get him to eat his vegetables, and he’s running around in his toddler pajamas lifting up cars and running into burning buildings.” More laughter, and he had the attention of the kids too, it seemed. Lila was cocking her head at the podium the pastor used for a pulpit, squinting her eyes. “Or Wonder Woman!” he went on. “You’re trying to get her to help out in the kitchen and sit like a lady, but she’s out there at five years old lassoing trains to keep them from crashing.”
Ashley straightened up in her seat and tried to take in some deep breaths. She was worried she wasn’t understanding quite what the pastor was getting at. “There’s a temptation to break the child’s spirit,” he said. “To bend them to your will.” Lila squirmed on the bench next to Ashley, singing a rhyming song about bumblebees under her breath just loud enough that the folks sitting around them could hear. It was a small place, the Jesus Time Tabernacle.
“Squishing up my baby bumblebee,” Lila whispered. “Won’t my mama be so proud of me…”
“Hush,” Ashley whispered, a little too harshly. The pastor looked their way and Ashley blushed.
“Imagine this now, too,” he went on, “Imagine being the mother of Jesus.” He paused to let this sink in. “The child running about healing this person or that person, already making plans to save the world.” No one was laughing now, because it seemed blasphemous somehow, thinking about Jesus as a toddler, or worse, a baby in diapers. But, Ashley supposed, he must’ve been one once, right? She had never thought much past the infant in the manger bit, like somehow in her mind Jesus went from infant to grown man to savior on the cross, but of course it couldn’t have happened like that, even if Jesus was a miracle.
“His mother, the blessed virgin, the mother Mary – did she battle the will of Jesus? Did she bend him to her will?”
Ashley didn’t know. You’d have had to keep him alive, at least. And children did crazy things, like Lila running out across the road even when a car’s coming, just because she liked the thrill of it, or pulling the fire alarm at school because she wanted to watch the chaos, or taunting older kids until they beat her up so that when she got off the school bus she was bruised but grinning, her knees skinned and bloody.
The sermon petered out after that, with the pastor reading a passage from Luke about the least among us becoming the greatest, about honoring the greatness inside the children, to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belonged. During the closing song, Lila made farting noises until the child in front of her was helpless with laughter, an episode that lasted only until the child’s mother – Nancy’s cousin Tia – slapped him behind the head and grabbed his ear, pulled until he stopped making noise. Lila giggled.
Didn’t the Bible say, too, spare the rod and spoil the child? Ashley couldn’t remember if that was the verse exactly, but it was what her mother had said when she’d told their father to spank them. And that’s what she’d always done to Lila.
For the last minute of prayer, Lila was silent, and Ashley watched the dust motes floating in the light from the glass block windows. Then, there was the scraping of folding chairs against the concrete floor and sunlight pouring in from the open door, everyone standing in line to greet the pastor.
When it was Lila’s turn to shake his hand, she said, “Do you think he cried much?”
“Who’s that now?” the pastor asked.
“Baby Jesus. You think he cried much? Or said naughty words to his mama?”
“Lila!” Ashley said, apologizing. But the pastor was winking at Ashley and smiling at Lila.
“I reckon he cried plenty,” he said.
But on the way home, Lila was still wondering about the bad words and whether Jesus had ever said them. Ashley told her she didn’t think that was a very righteous thought and Lila asked Ashley if she wanted to race the rest of the way home. On a normal day, Ashley would have said, “No, not in your Sunday clothes,” but the sun was out, and she had in her mind that image of Wonder Girl lassoing that train and so she said, “Okay. Fine.” And Lila said “Readysetgo,” and even though Lila cheated a little by starting on “set” instead of “go,” Ashley almost beat her to the front porch. Almost, but not quite. Because when Ashley ran up, panting, Lila was already sitting on the steps and grinning like she’d been waiting there for Ashley all her life, just waiting for her to finally catch up.