I am grown now, a woman with a child of my own. My sisters and I are still close: we keep in touch but never speak about the day our father disappeared. Denial of everything that took place is, for them, a form of necessary amnesia. A continual heavy thud to the head. They are determined to keep forgetting and of course, they have every right.
Today I begin a commission from a Professor of Classical Civilization at Florida State University who has recently expressed interest in my work. She has asked for a painting based on any event in Greek mythology and I have decided on Prince Aeneas’ reunion with his father Anchises at Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.
I had been stuck until this morning’s mail arrived causing the myth that has become my father to resurface in my mind. A reunion of sorts I suppose.
From the window of my studio, I can see the ocean I had to leave behind as a child. Late morning sunlight is pouring in though the glass, making the room bright as heated silver. My canvas, brushes, paint, and reference materials are laid out in readiness. I have been ready to begin for over an hour, but all I can do is sit here staring down in disbelief at the unsolicited brochure in my hands, and, unlike my sisters, remember.
I was only eleven; old enough to be aware of what Father was doing but too young, I thought, to do anything about it. Adults can make you believe that as a child. In your inability to do anything other than what they tell you.
Father was a self-proclaimed holy man known to everyone as Prophet. The day he disappeared was another Meeting Day. My sister Fay who was thirteen, Mariel almost fifteen, and me were in New Mexico with him. We were en route to California from our home in Florida.
Mother never saw much of New Mexico; she died a few days after we arrived. In July of the previous year, eight months before we left our house in Fort Meyers, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Against Father’s beliefs, she had surgery and went into remission. When the cancer came back, he convinced her not to have the chemotherapy like the doctors had suggested.
He said he had a plan. She could be cured without chemo, but we would have to go to California, to a special community, a place without doctors. He didn’t believe in doctors, had no use for them, because he had a gift called The Cure. He claimed it could heal any illness, including Mother’s, and I believed him without question. The community in California was full of people, he told us, who were ‘like-minded’. People who believed in his Cure and who because of this belief would welcome and help us.
Having made the decision, Father put our house up for sale. I didn’t want to leave but was sure California was the answer to her becoming healthy again, so I did my part to help and we packed and were on the move heading West by the first week in March. Part of the plan was to stop along the way for meetings, similar to ones held at our church for as long as I could remember. At the meetings, he gave people The Cure; they gave him money. There were prayers. He was worshiped.
No one there questioned anything he did or said. Questions were not something he liked anyway but I wanted to know why we couldn’t go straight to California so I asked. He just gave me the black look he always did whenever he was angry and said that as long as she was sick we had to pray. If we had meetings, other people would pray for her too and that meant she would live.
Being on the road meant we couldn’t go to school, so Mother did her best to home-school us. Mariel said she was happy not having to go to a normal school. It made her feel special. Fay was undecided.
I didn’t like being on the road, but wanted Mother to live so I was going to do whatever was needed. I studied. I helped out with chores. I prayed. I did the best I could and when I wasn’t doing any of these things I drew, and that became my withdrawal from a life constricted and neatly bundled into our thirty-three foot Winnebago.
With Mother no longer alive, New Mexico became just another place; a large, square, strange place and I didn’t like it. Orange-pink and turquoise-trimmed buildings lined the streets. The air was choking hot. The sky was an endless wash of blue, sometimes without clouds; the land seemed to stretch forever in flat plains rising occasionally into mountains and red sandstone cliffs, dotted with scrub and cactus.
There was no ocean. The place I had come from, Fort Meyers, was a green place with beaches and blue water and palm trees. I loved the ocean and never imagined leaving it but was learning that as long as Father was Prophet there would always be somewhere to leave.
On the day of his disappearance, we had been in New Mexico for almost three weeks and Fay, Mariel, and me were running down a dusty street to get to the theater where the meetings were held. But we were late and Mariel was ranting, “We can’t be late. We can’t be late.”
“Prophet hates when anyone’s late.” Fay grabbed hold of the string of blue beads she always wore and began to rub them.
“Especially us. I knew we should have left earlier. You two are never on time.” Mariel’s dull brown hair flew across her wide face, tangling in her mouth, as she spat out the words. She was short and chubby, thick-waisted with a thick head to match.
“I don’t care. I don’t care what Father thinks,” I said back at her.
“Lena, you know you can’t call him that. You have to call him Prophet.” Fay stopped and bent down to re-tie the lace of her dirty white sneaker. The thin yellow straps of her dress had fallen from her slim shoulders. She looked up at me, scowling, as she readjusted the straps and pushed her strawberry blonde hair out of her eyes.
“Fay, he is our father,” I said.
She was up and moved closer to me, the freckles on her face almost dancing with fear.
“Please be quiet in case he hears you.”
“He can’t hear me.”
“I bet he can. Prophet can do anything.”
I doubted he could hear me but kept quiet, just in case. It was April and hot in New Mexico. Even with the heat, I was dressed in leggings, the purple top Mother had given to me, and black ballet shoes, like the kind she used to wear. I wore that outfit on important days only and that day was important, although not because of the meeting itself. It was because this was the first one without her and something about it felt different for me.
We ran on towards the theater, whisking past windows of bakeries, windows of sweet shops, windows of cafés. Windows showing all the things we were not allowed to eat. Father was putting us through another test that involved eating very little. It was supposed to make us stronger.
I wanted to be stronger so I did what I was told, although I couldn’t understand why he ate so much. Or why he had all his meals out, leaving us behind to scrap around like strays for whatever we could find.
Back home, when Mother was alive, we always had food. She cooked. I cooked with her. I was interested in the things she liked. I can remember her and cookbooks, measuring and chopping and stirring, sticky hands and the smell of baking bread. It gave us something to do together that didn’t involve praying or reading from books about praying. A normal, regular something.
My sisters didn’t show much interest. Mariel was Father’s fav;rite and he was hers. She dutifully followed him, pandering, bowing, fetching, like the good little servant she was. She treated Mother with a kind of sullen respect, never saying more than was needed, regardless of Mother’s attempts to get through to her. And while Fay and Mother were closer than that, my middle sister’s constant worrying took up most of their time together.
As we turned the corner, I dragged my feet. Something inside slowed me down until I found myself standing, staring blankly into a shop window. I have no idea what kind of shop it was. I started humming a song Mother used to sing to me.
Mariel stopped and screeched, “Lena, you’ll ruin everything.”
I hated when she did that so I started singing, “Mariel’s a big smelly queen”.
“Shut up Lena,” she yelled.
“Smelliest queen I ever seen.”
She thudded my arm. “Shut. Up.”
“Ouch,” I yelped but kept on singing, “Mar-iel big smelly queen. Smelly, smelly, stinking mean”.
“I’ll tell Prophet,” she threatened, stomping the ground with a sandled foot. A small cloud of dust puffed upwards. Her large hands were clenched into fists and the sun caught in her eyes causing her face to scrunch and wrinkle like a bulldog.
“Lena come on, quit it,” Fay pleaded, twisting and twisting the beads on her necklace between small white fingers.
“Fretty Fay wets her pants,” I started but then she began to cry so I stopped. I wished I could have gotten Mariel to cry instead.
Somewhere near Tallahassee, one of our stops along the way cross-country, I asked Mother to reconsider treatment. She had been a professional ballet dancer but didn’t have the same dancer’s grace as before. Her body had changed.
She was tall but now she looked shrunken, too thin. Her long brown hair was always clean and worn tied back, horsetail thick, streaked with auburn and ruler straight. But that day it hung loose, unwashed, the color drab, limp.
“Chemo would probably make me worse,” she was standing at the sink washing dishes when I asked.
“But what if you don’t have it and that makes you worse.”
She turned to me saying, “Your father believes he can help”.
“But all he does is pray. We’re all praying and it isn’t making you better.” I moved closer.
She grabbed a dishtowel and began drying her hands slowly.
“I’m okay right now.”
“But I don’t think he can cure you,” I said.
“He believes,” she sighed.
“But The Cure isn’t helping.”
“Lena stop. Look, when we get to California, I’m going to call your Aunt Lucy. I’ll have her come out and help us. Okay?” She half-scolded, placed the towel on the counter, and then reached out to me. Our aunt lived back East. We didn’t see her much. She hated Father. He hated her too.
“But that could take months.”
I went to her, wrapped my arms around her thin waist as she held me, “and anyway, he won’t let her”.
I leaned into her, anxious, afraid, thoughts ricocheting inside my head. I breathed in her scent, a sick, soapy smell, like a hospital, trying to memorize it.
“Shhh,” she said stroking my hair. “Don’t worry. I know what to do.”
Mariel yanking my arm jolted me back. She was stronger than Fay and me and a lot bigger.
“Lena, I’ll tell him you were late on purpose. I’ll tell him!”
Typical Mariel. Always blaming someone else, always terrified of getting into trouble with Father.
We finally arrived in front of the theater and moved through the huge crowd in a flush of panic, slipping past tall adults, the elderly, the sick, the seeking, as if we were falling through cracks in a wooden floor. A few skeptics were there too. We had been warned about them.
“Ignore the non-believers,” he would say.
While we waited to be let into the building, Mariel paced awkwardly, waving her chunky arms around, muttering to herself. I noticed her brown t-shirt creeping up over her pudgy waist. I bet Father was sneaking her food.
She chirped, “I’m so excited, this is a really important Meeting. Prophet is going to give us a special blessing. Isn’t it exciting?”
“Well, actually, I’m starting to feel sick.” Fay lifted a thin strap back onto her shoulder speaking in a low voice like she didn’t want Mariel to hear.
“Well you can’t eat anything Fay, don’t even think about it,” Mariel whined.
“Okay, Okay I know!” Fay hissed. “But I still feel sick.”
On our way to California, we skirted the south coast, staying close to the Gulf of Mexico. Once we reached Mobile, Alabama, Mother complained of feeling sick. She told Father that the nausea was getting worse. The hours and days of praying were not helping, were not making her well, but still he insisted.
“Pray for a while more,” he would tell her. “All you need to do is pray.” He kept saying that all the time and I didn’t see her getting better. I kept hoping he was right but it was getting harder for me to pray.
The doors opened. There was the usual stampede, there must have been hundreds of people there, and we were all crammed together inside the dim cool lobby. People were arguing. Some were crying. Others were laughing too loud and it bothered me. I didn’t know why but they were bothering me.
I closed my eyes trying to feel Mother there with me. I could smell melting butter from the popcorn concession and the perfume she used to wear. It made me think of when I last saw her dance. I tried to hear the music, but there were voices all around me. I squeezed my eyes shut tighter and wanted to imagine the stage lights, and the stream of hair flowing around her with each spin, her dark brown eyes shining but people were shoving me, grunting and swearing.
Tears started. I gulped them back.
Mariel nudged my eyes open again; elbowing me like I had fallen asleep in class and I suddenly realized why this Meeting felt different. Mother wouldn’t be waiting for us afterwards. We would leave and when we got back, Father would keep Mariel busy with chores, Fay would sit and worry. I would lie in bed surrounded by the memories haunting the empty Winnebago. Empty because she was gone. Empty because he would still be there.
Ushers appeared and waved everyone into two orderly lines, then pulled the auditorium doors open. A whoosh of mothball and carpet shampoo air escaped and my sisters grabbed my arms, dragged me along, and found seats towards the front. We sat while the crowd buzzed around us. Mariel was watching some kid eating popcorn. She looked down then closed her eyes and I could see her heavy mouth moving like she was asking to be saved from her hunger.
I ducked down, turned, and peered through the opening between my seat and Fay’s whispering, “It looks like the whole dumb town is here”.
Mariel leaned over Fay, grabbed my arm shushing me quiet, forcing me to turn around. I pulled her gripped fingers off and stared up at the heavy stage curtains. They were dull-green and tattered. The voices chattered on and I watched as the curtains slowly opened all the way. The auditorium went black and everyone stopped talking. Then the footlights came up and one of Father’s Attendants appeared.
People always volunteered to help backstage and he called them Attendants. He never needed to advertise; they swarmed like ants to something dead as soon as he rolled into town. This one had orange hair cut into a bob, large bulging eyes, and a red puckered mouth. She wore a green and blue wispy dress, the material was shiny and there was some gold in it, the sleeves were long and trailing and she tottered on high heels. She was like a drunken peacock.
“Good evening,” she drawled, flipping back a wedge of falling hair. “Welcome.”
The crowd applauded. Mariel and Fay applauded. I crossed my arms.
“Were you once lost in the desert?” Her voice was deep and loud.
“Yes,” roared the crowd.
“Have you found your way out of the darkness to be here tonight?”
“Are you seeking purity? Are you praying to be lifted from mortal suffering?” She stretched both arms out, the sleeves of her dress flapping like she was trying to fly.
“Then with great pleasure, I introduce the man who has chosen this town, your town, to receive his blessing. Kind people please welcome, Prophet.”
She backed away. He entered, a bright spotlight following him obediently center stage. I looked around. Everyone clapped. There were sharp whistles coming from behind me. Two people sitting in front of us were huddled together crying. People jumped to their feet as if their seats had caught fire.
“Santa Fe, welcome.” His voice was gooey. His short arms shot out big and open as the goo continued.
“Tonight is a very special night.”
He was dressed in his usual Meeting clothes. Dark suit, blood-red shirt, gleaming black shoes. He was heavily built with short thick legs. His black hair framed a flat pink face, wide nose, and fat mouth.
“Tonight is a new beginning.”
I didn’t want to listen and shifted in my seat, thinking of other things, remembering Mother’s laugh, the way her skin smelled of coconut at the beach, feeling her slender hands touch my cheeks as she smoothed back the dark hair from my face, wrapping me in a warm towel after I had been swimming.
The trip across country from home seemed to take an eternity and I kept hoping Mother would go back into remission. But she was very sick, and I was afraid remission wasn’t going to happen again. Her biggest complaint until we arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi was the nausea. After that came the vomiting. One morning I had gotten up early to make her breakfast, toast with butter and honey and a cup of strong tea. A little while after eating it, she got sick and after that, no day went by without her vomiting. I wanted to tell Father that she needed to go to the hospital but if questions made him angry, telling could only bring something worse. I settled on asking her to tell him.
She said it was no use; that he would never take her to a doctor or the hospital. If that were true, I thought, then she would get worse. The thought made me feel sick. I couldn’t sleep with it there in my head all the time. I knew I had no choice. As scared as I was, I had to talk to him, had to make him see how sick she was.
One day, after his morning prayers I went to him. He was sitting on the front step of the Winnebago. My heart was pounding.
“Father, Mother has to go to the hospital.”
He told me to go and pray.
The next day I tried again, “Father, we have to take Mother to the hospital”.
He gave me the black look.
The day after that I went to him again.
“Please, she needs help. She has to go to the hospital.” And this time, he smacked me.
But, the worse she got the more insistent I became. I didn’t care what he did anymore and every day I made my case to him.
One morning I woke with him shaking me roughly, whispering, “Outside. Now”.
I thought he had changed his mind. He’s finally taking her to the hospital.
He’s finally going to help her.
He walked ahead of me to the back of the Winnebago, then continued towards a dirt path. I followed. He moved quickly past scrub and bushes and the shadows of tall trees. I had to walk very fast to keep up. It was hot for March. The sun was up full and the air was wet and thick with mosquitoes. We reached a clearing and the water beyond. Mangroves lined the bank, the tangle of their exposed roots twisting above the waterline.
I didn’t know what was happening and wondered if we were meeting someone who would help us get her to the hospital. Then he stopped, turned to face me, and gripped both my arms, his fingers pressing in as if they were made of clay. His face was just above mine. His eyes were cold blue, slanted, sharp as icicles. I looked away, my eyes wide, pooling.
“Father,” I said. “Are we meeting someone who will help us with Mother?”
“Your mother is not going to the hospital.” His voice was rocky. “If you want her to get better, you must behave and pray.”
“Your sisters pray, Lena. But you’re so stubborn,” he growled. His breath smelled meaty. He gave me the black look again and I looked away, across the water where gray-green Spanish Moss was draped in clumped strands over tree branches, hanging like pieces of moldy spaghetti.
“I do pray Father,” I said and looked at the ground. “But it doesn’t seem to work.”
His grip tightened, then he shook me forcing me to look up.
“Prayer works. It’s your fault she’s not better. Your prayers are not good enough.”
It was as if he hit me. If it was my fault, what could I do now? What would I ever be able to do?
Without saying anything more, he dragged me closer to the water’s edge holding me by one arm, squeezing, then stepped down into the black water, pulling me in after him.
It was ice-cold and reached past my waist. I couldn’t stop myself from shaking.
Then he started.
“You are selfish Lena and it is my job to stop it. I should have done this a long time ago.”
He grabbed the back of my head firmly saying, “Initiate this child, and as she repents for her sins resurrect her clean and new”.
And suddenly he was forcing my head down, holding it under the water. I had no time to take a breath and for a second sucked in salt water and seaweed before he pulled me up again.
I gasped, coughed, trying to get air. My face was numb from the cold. His grip on my head tightened.
“Do you repent child!” he shouted.
“Do you repent?” his voice cracked.
And then I was under again. He jerked me upright, holding on, pulling me back. “Repent Lena.”
I started to cry. I couldn’t speak.
“Repent!” He boomed, voice like thunder, and then started to push me down again.
“Okay, okay. I–I repent.”
“Say it again,” he demanded.
“I repent what.”
“I repent Prophet.”
He let go of me. For a moment both of us stood there, not moving and then he pushed me away. The water around began to settle. I heard a splash in the distance. The air felt cooler. Clouds gathered and the wind came up slightly, blowing little ripples across the surface of the water. He had won but I hadn’t given in. Not really and after that, everything for me changed.
The Meeting continued and I sunk down in my seat and whispered to my sisters, “I’m not listening”.
He stood there on the stage washed in blue light roaring, “A new beginning because none of you can expect to attain a State of Grace if you are not pure”.
He paced, striding confidently, gesturing as he spoke. “And how Prophet, I hear you ask, how do I begin to reach a state of purity? How can I reach such a state?”
I slumped down further and stretched my legs shoving my feet under the seat in front of me, toes pointed. Like a dancer would do, I thought. Like Mother.
“We begin with The Cure,” he blasted, arms held high.
I sat up startled.
“Is there anyone in the audience in need of The Cure?”
An old woman barely able to walk was helped onto the stage by a younger woman. The old woman looked fragile with her little arms bent and her bony fingers covering her mouth, shaking, almost vibrating, and her eyes round and frightened; a little mouse about to be eaten. Prophet approached them slowly, shifting his weight from one short leg to the other, all pink and stout, his flat tongue darting in and out, in and out. I suddenly realized how much like a Gila monster he was. I had found a dead one in the desert one day and stopped to draw it.
Prophet was close to the two women now. He placed a thick hand on the bent one’s shoulder, bowed his dark head as if he was thinking very hard about something, and then looked up and out into the crowd.
“There is an illness.”
“Yes,” the bent woman squeaked. “Yes Prophet.”
“Do you wish for The Cure?”
“Yes,” came the whisper. “Yes.”
The younger woman seemed excited and said, “Please cure my mother. The doctors have given us very little”.
“Doctors,” he nodded, a huge grin spreading across his face like manure being sprayed over a vast field. “Well, they don’t know everything. Do you believe?”
“Yes,” they both said. “We believe.”
On the road heading for California, Mother’s illness progressed quickly. We left Mississippi and the mangroves and my baptism behind us and by the time we arrived in Slidell, Louisiana, she was in a tremendous amount of pain. She said she was seeing her dead parents walking around inside the Winnebago, hearing loud voices warning her of something she didn’t understand. Still no doctor was called. No prayers answered.
Fay and Mariel must have seen what was happening. I tried to talk to them, to get them involved. They just told me to keep praying, that between our prayers and The Cure she would soon be well. I wanted to believe that but found there were no prayers left in me. I wanted to, I tried, but something in me had changed and I couldn’t. I was starting to think I couldn’t believe either. Not knowing what to do, I decided to call the police. I had to get help.
We had no phone but I had seen a pay phone across the road, through a small green near a row of shops. It wasn’t far. I could make it, I thought, so I took change from Mother’s purse, the first time I ever took money without asking, and waited until there was no one around. I made my way along the side of the Winnebago until I reached the road then ran bolting through the green, my eyes on the phone, the coins clenched tightly in my palm.
I passed the first shop, the second, an alley, before I felt someone grab my arm.
It was Mariel.
The coins dropped to the ground. Still holding me, she stooped, snatching them up. “Stealing too. You are in so much trouble.”
She dragged me back to the Winnebago and after that I was forced to stay locked inside whenever Father wasn’t there. The three of them would go off on errands or Meeting business leaving me with Mother. I think Fay wanted to stay with us but Father always reminded her that staying behind was punishment. That was okay though, I didn’t mind staying because I was with her. I could look after her. I could try to convince her to talk to him.
“Lena. He’s not going to listen.” She had just woken and I was helping her to sit up.
“But I want to help you.”
She sat back against the pillows, her long graceful fingers smoothing the sheet, but didn’t say anything.
“You’re not getting better.” I touched her arm, her skin felt thin as tissue. “Please, you need a doctor.”
“I don’t think that’s possible now.”
“But,” my stomach tightened, “Mother, you can’t give up. Father is praying and Mariel and Fay. And I’m trying, I really am.”
She reached out and touched my face. Her hand was cool and soft.
“I know Lena. I know you are.”
But I could see something in her eyes that told me she didn’t believe anymore, either.
The auditorium was silent. Prophet’s claw gripped the bent woman’s shoulder. She moaned. I read that when a Gila bites, they hang on. Her daughter started wringing her hands while he started sweating. The bent woman started to cry. Then he began to shake, first a little, then violently. He did this every time, his little demon dance, twisting and writhing, his face all rubbery, until, he fell to the stage with a thud and lay there limp.
I could hear people gasping, “Huh!” and “Oh God!”
My sisters jumped. The bent woman smiled. Seeing this, the crowd began to clap.
Her daughter beamed announcing, “Prophet has cured my mother. She is cured”. Drunken Peacock staggered in and led the two women off the stage. Everyone leapt to their feet, applauding and jumping and cheering like they were at a football game and their team had just won.
Why were they doing that, I wondered. All the bent woman did was smile. She was still bent, couldn’t they see that. I got really angry at how stupid they were. She wasn’t cured any more than Mother had been cured. And then as he always did after his fall to the floor, Prophet got up slowly from the stage, making himself look wobbly, like he was going to fall again.
I crossed my arms. He got to his feet and removed his jacket. The shirt was soaked to the skin. He smiled. Another Attendant, a tall blonde boy, crossed the stage carrying a fresh shirt and a towel. Prophet peeled away the sopping fabric, sweat glistening against his fleshy chest. He toweled off, pulled on the shirt, and smoothed his hair.
“There are three very special girls who I know have done good work this week,” he said while closing the last shirt button.
“Well, two of us have anyway,” I muttered through clenched teeth.
Mother died just after we arrived in Santa Fe. Bedridden and weak, her last few days were spent quietly. I never left her side. My sisters and Father prayed inside an old wooden shed near a cluster of thin pine trees behind the Winnebago. He brought out chairs and a folding television tray and prayer books. It became their chapel. The three of them stayed there most days until dark, although Fay occasionally snuck away to sit with me. Anytime I saw Mariel, it seemed she was angry, moody, stomping around outside until Father would call her back in. She was usually pretty horrible but this was different and I wondered if she knew that the prayers hadn’t worked, that The Cure hadn’t saved Mother. I think she did, although she never would have admitted it.
I sat with her on that last day not knowing that it was the last day, watching as her face changed. With each hour that passed, it seemed to get smoother and lighter, like all the heaviness she had carried around with her because of the cancer was leaving it. I watched her sleep. I wiped her face and gently combed her hair. Her breathing was ragged and from time to time, she mumbled words that I couldn’t make out. The others came and went, never staying very long. Eventually, I fell asleep.
I woke the following morning; suffocating heat filled the Winnebago. The stale air smelled sour. Mother was dead.
As Mariel and Fay sat alert in their seats, Prophet cried out, “Their good work? The discipline of Fast. And tonight another task and a very special blessing”.
The crowd burst into applause that beat around my ears. I turned to look at my sisters who were staring straight ahead. I gritted my teeth behind closed lips and stared at the red of his shirt. I was breathing hard through my nose, a bull taunted by a red rag.
Then he called us.
Fay and Mariel jumped from their seats and grabbed me, pulling. I didn’t move. They tugged and tugged and pleaded, “Lena, come on. You’ll make him angry. Come on”.
My arms hurt, but something inside me wouldn’t let me move.
Fay stepped back, but determined, Mariel continued to pull, “Lena now!” she grunted.
“Let go,” I said, my voice sounding different. “I’m not going with you.”
Disgusted, she let go and took Fay by the arm and they fluttered like two butterflies towards the stage before Mariel turned, looking back at me.
“Lena. Come. On. Now,” she ordered.
I stood firm, barely breathing. I could feel hundreds of eyes staring hard at my back, felt hands reach out and push without touching me. My chest tightened. I knew they were all looking at me.
Mariel let out a loud, angry, “Huh,” turned and pulled Fay up the steps.
They stood on the stage, by Father’s side, Mariel continuing to coax me up, shaking her large head, and gesturing with wide eyes. I tried to ignore the voices coming from behind me. I wouldn’t move no matter what anyone said.
Father was such a good actor. He played the grieving husband telling people Mother had lost the battle with cancer because she refused his help. She had not accepted The Cure. She did not believe. No one questioned him and that was exactly as he wanted it to be. We weren’t allowed to have a normal funeral. She was cremated, her ashes tossed to the desert. As we drove away that day, I looked back, hoping that somehow the wind would catch her ashes and carry them south across the Gulf of Mexico, until they reached the coast of Florida.
I stared at Prophet and my two sisters standing next to him on the stage.
“Lena. Come and stand next to your sisters,” he said.
I looked at Fay’s chalk-white face. I couldn’t see her freckles anymore; the fear had blotted them out. The beads hanging around her neck seemed to weigh her down. “Come and stand next to your sisters,” he repeated.
I thought I heard Mother’s voice from somewhere far away but realized it was my voice.
“No,” I said.
“Lena, come on,” he warned.
“No,” I repeated.
“No? All these good people need my help. Don’t you want me to help them?”
“What help Father?”
“The help I can give them.”
“But you can’t help them.”
“Lena, that’s what we’re here to do. To help these poor souls.”
“But you didn’t help Mother did you?”
“Your mother didn’t believe.”
“Mother was ill and you didn’t cure her.”
I heard loud whispers, movement in the auditorium.
I choked. “And now I’ve lost her.”
“You will be very sorry you said that.”
Fay started to cry. He slapped her.
There was noise, raised voices.
“Christ,” someone yelled. “He hit the kid.”
The woman directly in front of me turned and looked at me. Other people looked at me too. They didn’t look angry. They looked concerned.
Someone else shouted, “How could you not help your own wife?”
The woman got up and came around to where I was. Other people came over to me as well. Then, a wave of bodies moved towards the stage. I couldn’t see past them. They kept moving. It was all a blur and someone shouted for him to stay where he was.
I pushed through the bodies until I was at the front. Mariel and Fay hadn’t moved; they looked shocked. There were people on the stage; some men disappeared behind the curtains before coming out again. In all the confusion, the voices and shouting and people asking me if I was okay, something seemed different. Changed. Brighter. The place on the stage where Father had been was empty but for the wash of blue light, dust floating like bubbles underwater.
For some time after he disappeared, people talked. They all wanted to know what happened to him. At first, there were rumors, some people said maybe he was dead, but after a while, I think they just forgot about him.
But Father is a survivor. I knew he wasn’t dead. He would have left New Mexico and gone up through Utah not as far as Salt Lake City, and then across to Nevada through the Great Basin over to Black Rock Desert and into California. He would have made his way through the desert, his thick, blunt lizard tail dragging into Mount Shasta.
My daughter doesn’t know any of this, I haven’t told her. It’s not something I talk to anyone about but earlier this morning, before she left for school, as she handed me the brochure, I realized I would have to say something. She had gotten to the mail slot in the front door before me.
The brochure is small and glossy smooth, filled with the type of images I am trying to forget and from a Church I never heard of; not that I pay attention to churches anymore. Still, I have read it out of curiosity more than anything else.
If I send money, I will receive a small booklet explaining how I can cure my family and even the world, through prayer. I think of other people holding this same brochure. I wonder how many of them might send the money.
Before she left to get the bus, my daughter wanted to know about the images and the words and what they meant. She wanted to know what a Cure was. I admit that I hesitated. How could I possibly explain all of this to her? Praying is not something I do anymore. It didn’t cure my mother; I don’t think it will cure the world.
But now, as the brochure rests lightly in my hands, the words whispering to me, I realize that, unlike the subject of my commission, my father is real. What he did to me, to my family wasn’t part of some myth and while there will never be a reunion for the two of us, I can still tell the story.
I place the brochure down on the table and the years pull quickly away from me, moving further and further back, ebbing like the tide to reveal the smooth sand beneath and I can see my daughter’s eyes, wide and blue as endless sky and think yes, this is a story I can tell.
‘The Cure’ (c) 2022 Deborah McMenamy
All Rights Reserved