Fiction
12.1 / FALL / WINTER 2016

HERE IS THE CHURCH, HERE IS THE STEEPLE

At 23, she became a pastor’s wife. They held a small ceremony at the church where he was minister. It would take him four more years of seminary to become pastor, but that was the general idea. Her bridesmaids were two friends from college. One of them said: “I’m so jealous I could murder you.” The other said: “Please don’t kill yourself. Call me. If you’re ever thinking about it.”

*

The first ten days of her marriage, she did not have a single bowel movement. She told her husband travel made her bloated. They had only gone to California.

On the last day of their honeymoon, she sighed with relief in the corner stall of an In-n-Out as one tremendous shit began to stretch her rectum.

Her husband was eating a burger when she came out. “Ready to go?” he asked with a

smile and a dot of orange mayo on his chin. “Yes,” she said. “We’d better get to the airport.”

*

The anticipation of sex had been exciting, but the act of sex itself was boring, until it became extremely exciting, for about six months, and then went back to boring. He liked for her to get him hard with her mouth and her hand. This was, perhaps, most boring. Running her hand up and down his penis, she would hold it erect and think of the old children’s rhyme: Here is the church, and here is the steeple. Open my legs, and make me some people.

They had sex for the purpose of procreation, and they met with great success. Three boys in five years. Every prayer was a prayer for sleep.

*

The head pastor at the church where her husband became associate pastor had a wife, and the wife had a calling, and the calling was to help her find her calling. She had no musical talent, and was asked to leave the choir. The luncheon dishes she prepared were deemed watery and bland, unsuitable for children. When a group of sixth graders in her Sunday School class defaced the Christmas spirit with their Three Wise Jedis skit, she was removed from the roster of teachers.

After she let slip that she once wrote for her college paper, the head pastor’s wife issued a church newsletter. When babies arrived, she wrote birth announcements. When illness arrived, she wrote prayer requests. When the Internet arrived, she wrote code for a church web page. When boredom arrived, she wrote obituaries for the head pastor’s wife.

Fell off the church roof while cleaning bird shit from the steeple. It was as if the tornado had honed in for her cochlear hairdo. The killer bees could not resist her saccharine exterior.

*

She once attended the funeral of a young woman she didn’t know, and she cried so hard people began to look at her with annoyance and suspicion. The woman had been killed by a drunk driver. Her husband knew the parents. She tried to contain herself, but that only exacerbated the situation as each sob then tore out of her throat at unpredictable points with a horrible, wrenching bray.

The kinder guests approached her afterward and asked cautiously how she knew the deceased. She could only shake her head and shrug, sometimes with a hiccup.

Back home, her husband asked, for perhaps the only time in their marriage, if she was doing quite alright. She was fine, a little dehydrated but refreshed, after all the sobbing, which then made her feel guilty for disrespecting the parents’ grief and taking advantage of the daughter’s death.

*

She did not cry at her mother’s funeral. She was fourteen years old. She had forgotten how to cry. During her teens, she would chop onions just so she could sit on the kitchen floor and contemplate sorrow. After each session, she would pray for the forgiveness of her sins and ask to become a good person. Years later, she still waited for an answer.

*

The biggest heat wave in 72 years. They were driving down Highway 55 to get to a wedding, all three sweaty sons stuffed into the backseat of the Camry. She turned to her husband. “Can’t you do something about this?”

He shook his head sadly. “I’m just a man. I don’t control the weather.”

“I was talking about the air conditioner.”

*

Shortly after her 35th birthday, she stopped believing in God and began writing erotica. She read somewhere that women reached their sexual peak at age 40. For once, she felt ahead of the curve. She used the pen name, Greenlee Ardour, and never posted a photo. This only boosted her success. It lent her mystique.

After her fourth book—a paranormal-historical about a jewel thief who is tracked down by a detective whom she then learns to be a vampire while she herself is the third reincarnation of the vampire’s mortal lover—a website called Nymphs in Peril asked for an interview. She agreed, and they sent a list of questions by email.

Question number 5: What is the key to good sex?

She answered, Prayer.

Can you expand on that?

Everything we do is an act of prayer. The act of living demands an act of praying—even if you do not know to whom you are praying, even if you do not believe in praying. The summation of our human desires and yearning culminate in the act of prayer and promulgate in the act of sex. Therefore, good sex requires devout prayer.

The paranormal-historical received an award from the Erotica Readers & Writers Association, in the category of short-length e-books. She asked that someone else accept the award in her place, and that the statue be delivered to her P.O. Box.

Later, when her writing took off in new directions — a woman who loved a falcon, a woman who loved the taste of dirt, a woman who loved nothing because she had a prosthetic heart — she lost most of her fan-base, but she continued writing.

*

The object of her first seduction was a handsome, bearded man with studs in his ear and a Chinese character tattoo on his forearm.

“It means faith,” he said, after they shared two shots of Jameson at a bar on the outskirts of Urbana-Champaign, about four miles from the U of I campus hosting the Sisters in Christ retreat.

“In what do you place your faith?” she asked, tracing the slashes of black ink on his skin.

In her mind, a seedy motel room was inevitable, but he left offering nothing.

“You take care of yourself, ma’am,” he said at parting. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

During the next 48 hours of worship, prayer, and Bible-assisted therapy, his words rankled inside her like a burr she had swallowed and choked on.

*

The woman who loved the falcon could not say why she loved the falcon, except perhaps that in her life there had always been this falcon. When they were young, she would ground worms to meal in her mouth and deliver the pulp into the yawning beak. When the hawk missed the hunt, she took a knife and cut open her abdomen so as to expose her entrails to its predatory gaze. But the falcon, bound to natural instinct, took pleasure only in its escape back to the wild, wherein, unpracticed in pursuit and myopic due to customary hooding, it stumbled and starved and continued pushing toward the precipice.

*

Because of her marital position in the church, women she did not consider her friends would take her into their confidence. This never ceased to surprise her. She carefully coined her advice: The best part of prayer is a little more Jesus in your cup. A family is forever. There’s probably a psalm for that.

When the wife of her lover approached her for counsel on reinvigorating a marriage, she made an attempt at honesty: “Forget him. He’s boring. His jokes are lame and his body is bloating. Just do what makes you happy.”

She followed through her own advice. The only thing she missed was the smell of his aftershave lingering like a guest at her kitchen table.

*

The woman who loved the taste of dirt could no longer eat the dirt because she developed a deathly food allergy. Instead she smeared the dirt over her skin, smelled it on her fingertips, packed it into her ears.

She craved the dirt so much she forgot what she was craving. Her life was one long and undefined craving. Finally—at the risk of anaphylaxis, blindness, even death—she ate the dirt, rapaciously, achingly, lovingly, but it no longer tasted the way she remembered.

*

Church picnic in July. Floral prints and sun hats, children catching grass stains, a pig on a spit. A fly landed on her plate and rubbed its pulvilli over her potatos. Her husband droned on beside her, and his voice, the humidity, or the quantity of food ingested – all of it together made it difficult to breathe. The sky seemed dense and heavy, pushing down against them. It darkened through the afternoon, and soon the wail of tornado sirens echoed down the streets.

Wind rattled house rattled windows. Her youngest, the one still at home, sat in the basement playing games on his laptop. She went upstairs to collect candles and stopped in front of the bathroom window, remembering how one could climb out of it and onto the roof. All day, she had wanted a breath of fresh air. She bunched her nightgown in her fist to keep it from billowing. The wind wrapped around her like the current of a warm river, every stream of it roaring.

Her husband appeared below, waving his arms and shaping his mouth into forms of berating and begging.

She ignored him because the sky was opening up in front of her, a hand descending to snatch her in its fist.

She raised her arms to it, as if to say: Come. Come get me. Take me away from here. Swallow me. Eat me. Let me be a part of you.

*

Later that night, they sat together in the kitchen, drinking peppermint tea.

“Do you have a brain tumor?” he asked. “Is that why you’re acting like this?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t think so.”

“What were you thinking?”

She was silent.

“Were you trying to get yourself killed?”

She shook her head. “It’s not that I want to die. It’s more that I don’t want to live. I mean, I want to live, just not this specific life.”

They considered what this meant.

Finally, he said, “I wish you had a brain tumor.”

And his face was so lost, so forlorn, that her heart broke for him, that he who had spent his life equipping himself to confront illness and death and other people’s pain could find himself lost in a moment like this. Yet she could do nothing to change this or to comfort him, so she took his hand in hers and kissed his knuckles, their ridges strange and cracked like land she never knew.

*

The woman with a prosthetic heart had a P.O. box and a house with many hallways. Sometimes she found herself gazing down the longest hallway, darkening it dark with her shadow. She knew better than to follow a shadow. But at the end of the hallway was a line of light, and the light grew brighter and brighter. The line of light was beneath a door, and behind that door was a persistent knocking. Each night, that knocking grew louder, that dead thing came pounding. And each day, she stayed alive, but just barely.

 

 

 

Diana Xin holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Gulf Coast, The Masters Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the Richard Hugo House and the Loft Literary Center. After living in Minneapolis, Chicago, Beijing, and Missoula, she now resides in Seattle and walks a lot of incline.


12.1 / FALL / WINTER 2016

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