Lazarus, fiction by Brenda Rose

His boy had been dead eight days when the preach­er picked up the black, worn King James Bible with his name engraved in gold on the leather cov­er, and rein­sert­ed him­self in the pul­pit of the Mt. Cal­vary Holy Ghost Church, its steeple tow­er­ing like a mas­sive grave­stone, cast­ing shad­ows over the fields of local farm­ers. Since his return to the church, he’d felt a supreme anoint­ing in every ser­mon he preached, every prayer he prayed. In the dark days after his son’s death, he’d begun to dream, and in his dreams, he deliv­ered flam­ing ser­mons to hundreds—maybe thousands—of peo­ple, sav­ing souls and heal­ing the sick with a halo of fire blaz­ing tri­umphant­ly over his head. The dreams changed him; now, he car­ried a divine pow­er in his fin­ger­tips, and a celes­tial scent oozed from his pores. Like Moses, he’d seen the fire, and the fire burned over him, blazed inside him, and kin­dled the life puls­ing through his veins. He saw his own future as a fire and brim­stone tel­e­van­ge­list, toss­ing out mir­a­cles, lead­ing a cru­sade like the leg­endary Jim­my Swag­gert, his ser­mons deliv­ered to liv­ing rooms in homes across the coun­try.

Six weeks after the funer­al, the preach­er watched his wife pull on a black dress to wear to church. He said, “I’ve missed you.”

His wife turned away from him. In silence, she pulled the hem of the dress from around her waist down to her knees. He want­ed to shake her and scream snap out of it. He was sick and tired of com­ing home to find his wife sleep­ing, curled up like a giant fetus, hud­dled with her grief in their dark­ened bed­room. He’d ham­mered her for weeks to shake off the depres­sion and step back into her role as the preacher’s wife. His dreams would nev­er mate­ri­al­ize if she didn’t put the past in the past and stand by him.

Since the funeral—since bury­ing their son in the pale blue out­fit she’d bought for his fourth birthday—she had pulled the left­over pieces of her heart into her­self. A blan­ket of silence dark­ened their home, suf­fo­cat­ing her with sor­row, extin­guish­ing the light in her eyes. Today, though, the preach­er felt the deep, unmis­tak­able pull of his faith; he felt a rush of excite­ment, a thrill, a mir­a­cle in the mak­ing. After a vivid dream he’d had sev­er­al nights in a row of mak­ing love to his wife on the church altar, he had pre­pared a ser­mon espe­cial­ly for this day. It was time to reclaim his wife and move into the future.

The preacher’s wife strug­gled with the back zip­per. She’d lost weight. Still, she was a love­ly woman with brown eyes and dark hair that fell in soft curls to her shoul­ders. The preach­er reached for the zip­per, but his wife whis­pered, “No.” She took a few steps back.

He knew he’d been hard on her in recent days, but it had been for her ben­e­fit. She’d wal­lowed in pity too long. They’d delayed order­ing a head­stone for the small grave in the ceme­tery behind the church because she said she need­ed time. Time! She’d had more than enough time to mourn and pick her­self back up. It had been six weeks. He didn’t under­stand his wife’s pro­longed grief; their son was dead and buried, and noth­ing could bring him back. It was time to put a head­stone on the grave and let go of the past.

The preach­er pulled a pais­ley tie around his neck, and said, “It won’t be easy for you today. Eli start­ed attend­ing ser­vices as soon as he was released from the hos­pi­tal.”

He wait­ed for her response. She gave none.

He knot­ted the tie. “Every Sun­day he sits on the third pew from the altar, on the right side of the sanc­tu­ary. I real­ly don’t know how in the world Sis­ter Jody can play the piano with that freak sit­ting so close to her, pol­lut­ing the place like he does. He stinks. It’s dis­tract­ing.”

He wait­ed again for a reac­tion from his wife; it did not come.

The preach­er adjust­ed his tie, inspect­ed it in the mir­ror, and said, “Eli’s face hangs par­a­lyzed on one side, and when he speaks, he slurs his words like a sor­ry drunk­ard.”

He searched her reflec­tion for a response etched in her face, but found it emp­ty. Brown eyes remained sunken and expres­sion­less, buried inside the hol­low grave of her face.

He slicked back his thick, dark hair and sprayed it stiff. “He sits there every Sun­day unashamed of his scarred face. Looks like the doc­tor was drunk when he stitched the pieces back togeth­er.” He turned this way and that, admir­ing his physique in the mir­ror. “He’s a con­stant reminder that our boy didn’t sur­vive. Eli is noth­ing but a freak and he’s turned my ser­vices into a freak show.”

He’d expect­ed a reply of some sort: an acknowledgment—a ver­bal agree­ment from his wife that, yes, it must be painful for him to preach with Eli present. Instead, she refused to even face him. His words dis­ap­peared as soon as they left his mouth, evap­o­rat­ed before reach­ing her ears.

She pulled up her long, auburn hair, pin­ning it in a neat bun on her head, leav­ing wisps around her sad, comatose face. She picked up her purse and said, “Then let’s go if you’re ready.”

He drove past thirsty fields of tobac­co with wilt­ed leaves brown­ing on the stalks. For days, clouds had moved through, threat­en­ing rain, yet nev­er deliv­er­ing more than a few sprin­kles. The preach­er tried to draw her into a con­ver­sa­tion, but he soon tired of his wife’s dead respons­es and drove on in silence, a ceme­tery of unspo­ken words spread between them.

His mind wan­dered back to Eli. The local media had report­ed that he’d risked his life to save the boy. From his hos­pi­tal bed, Eli had told the Sher­iff how he’d heard the boy’s cries while he was pick­ing up alu­minum cans on Granger Road; how he’d fol­lowed the screams to the desert­ed junk­yard; how he’d tried to pull the Rot­tweil­er, her tits swollen with milk, her new­born pups near­by, off the lit­tle boy.

In anoth­er attempt at con­ver­sa­tion, the preach­er cau­tioned his wife that every Sun­day Eli would limp his way down the aisle to a seat near the front of the church, his vul­gar, scarred face vis­i­ble and fright­en­ing to the chil­dren. He said, “The freak scares the kids.”

The preacher’s wife snapped her head around, her pained eyes slic­ing into her husband’s face. She asked, “Who’s com­plained about Eli fright­en­ing the chil­dren?”

He described vicious red scars that dis­tort­ed Eli’s face, pulling the flesh, man­gling it into a mask, and explained to her the repul­sive, raw scars had to spook the chil­dren even if nobody had com­plained.

His wife sighed, turned to the win­dow, touch­ing the glass with a soli­tary fin­ger. She said, “Just as I thought. Nobody has com­plained. You imag­ine things. And I bet you’re the only one who calls Eli a freak.”

The preacher’s face burned fever­ish­ly, his jaw locked in anger, cof­fee-stained teeth grind­ing in his mouth. His hands gripped the steer­ing wheel, paint­ing his knuck­les white. How dare his wife reproach him! She’d accused him of imag­in­ing things, yet she’d been the unsta­ble one—swallowing sleep­ing pills dur­ing the day, cry­ing, hold­ing their son’s ted­dy bear. His wife had no place defend­ing the freak. Eli hadn’t saved any­body except maybe his own self. Before long, his son would be noth­ing but a fad­ed mem­o­ry while Eli would live out the rest of his life as a hero. Because of the freak, the town would nev­er stop talk­ing about the death of his son. He choked the steer­ing wheel with such force that his knuck­les popped.

 

From his king-sized chair in front of the choir, the preach­er looked out into the con­gre­ga­tion, exam­in­ing his wife’s face as Eli shuf­fled in, his raw, jagged scars mag­ni­fied and daz­zling under the over­head lights. Her face soft­ened into a one-sided grin as she turned to the freak. The preach­er hadn’t expe­ri­enced that kind of ten­der­ness from his wife since their boy died. He gripped the arms of the chair and watched as his wife motioned for Eli to sit with her. A slow burn­ing stain moved up the preacher’s neck, cov­er­ing his face. His heart ham­mered out an angry drum­beat.

She reached over and squeezed Eli’s scarred hand with her small, soft one, con­tin­u­ing to hold it in her ten­der grip as the choir rose to sing. How dare that idiot sit next to his wife—hold her hand—his scars exposed to the church like the scars on the cru­ci­fied Christ. It was blas­phe­my.

As the singing end­ed, the preach­er strut­ted to the pul­pit, con­fi­dent that a halo of fire burned over his head, ready to offer the ser­mon that would change his wife and bring her run­ning back to him. She’d know after this ser­mon that he was on fire, anoint­ed, and the future was theirs to grab.

He placed his bible on the podi­um and said, “Open your bibles and turn to John, Chap­ter 11.” He cleared his throat. "Verse 39.” He read: "Jesus saith unto her, take ye away the stone. Martha, the sis­ter of his that was dead, saith unto him, Lord by this time he stin­keth: for he hath been dead four days."

The preach­er saw his wife stiff­en and rear up her jaw. He’d expect­ed encour­ag­ing eyes; instead, she stared motion­less, her mouth tight, at the three cross­es hang­ing on the wall in the choir loft. He remind­ed him­self that she must feel trapped sit­ting so close to the freak. He’d tried to warn her this morn­ing, but she’d sulked and accused him of imag­in­ing things. Well she could suf­fer through the ser­vice. She’d cho­sen to sit with the freak and she would have to deal with the emo­tion­al con­se­quences of her deci­sion.

He ripped into the ser­mon, imag­in­ing him­self as a tel­e­van­ge­list with the cam­eras rolling. “Lazarus had been dead for four days, but Jesus was about to restore his life.”

The preach­er slammed the Bible shut and tossed it onto the podi­um. He loos­ened his tie and said, “With enough faith, noth­ing is impos­si­ble. Noth­ing is too big for God.” His voice rose, boom­ing, echo­ing off the ceil­ing beams. "He is lord of all. Death can­not stand in his way. 1Just imag­ine the stench that must have filled the air when the stone was moved. The smell of ran­cid meat.”

Increas­ing the vol­ume of his voice, he instruct­ed the con­gre­ga­tion, “Inhale. Inhale right now and imag­ine the odor of decom­po­si­tion ris­ing from Lazarus’ corpse."

The pas­tor sucked oxy­gen into his lungs, demon­strat­ing to his con­gre­ga­tion that he expect­ed them to fol­low his instruc­tions. "Inhale again."

With the excep­tion of his wife, every mem­ber of his con­gre­ga­tion inhaled at his com­mand, vac­u­um­ing up all sound from the small church. Even Eli drew in clum­si­ly through his mis­shaped mouth and nos­trils.

The preach­er thun­dered on. "His flesh had been decay­ing for four long days. By now, Lazarus' heart was rot­ting. The kid­neys hadn’t worked for days.”

Sweat dripped down the preacher’s face and dropped from his chin. He pulled out a hand­ker­chief and wiped his face. “Maybe the flesh had already begun to fall from the bone. Imag­ine it. Imag­ine what it was like inside that tomb when the stone was rolled back. It wasn’t a pret­ty scene. Close your eyes—picture it—smell it."

The preach­er looked at Eli who was sit­ting trance-like beside his wife, his eyes half-closed as though he were hyp­no­tized. His wife’s chalky face stared at the cross­es in the choir, her col­or­less lips quiv­er­ing. Maybe next time she’d lis­ten to him.

He yelled, his words wet with spit, "Pic­ture the scene. Lazarus is wrapped in the cloth of the dead. He's been in the heat for four hot days and the tomb reeks of a pun­gent odor."

He paused, wiped the sweat from his face, and demand­ed, "Inhale." And his congregation—except for his wife—inhaled again. A rush­ing intake filled the church.

The preach­er rushed over to the podi­um. He picked up the Bible, ran his fin­ger down a page, and said, “Vers­es 43 and 44.”

He cleared his foamy throat and began read­ing. “And when he thus had spo­ken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave­clothes: and his face was bound about with a nap­kin. Jesus sayeth unto them, Loose him and let him go.”

He slammed the Bible shut and yelled, “The lungs hadn't breathed for 96 hours. But hallelujah—praise the Lord—his lungs breathed again at the com­mand of the son of God.”

The preach­er unbut­toned the coat to his three-piece suit, pulled it off, and flung it onto the first pew. He parked his hands on his hips and glared at his con­gre­ga­tion before call­ing out, "Not even death can stop Jesus. No mir­a­cle is too big for him. With the faith of a grain of mus­tard seed we can raise the dead. At his com­mand, the soil will fly up and the cas­kets will break open. The dead will sit up in their bur­ial clothes and climb out of their coffins, out from the cold, dark earth into the light of a new day. Nothing—and I mean noth­ing— is impos­si­ble with God."

In a breath­less, pant­i­ng voice, he cried out, "Can I hear some­body say amen?" Spit­tle oozed from the cor­ner of his mouth.

His flock cheered, "Amen."

Eli crossed his legs. Uncrossed them. Released the preacher’s wife’s hand. Sat for­ward. Gripped the pew in front of him. As the preach­er con­tin­ued, Eli looked up at the ceil­ing and nod­ded. He rose from his seat and pat­tered down the aisle and out the dou­ble doors.

As the door closed behind Eli, the preach­er leaped onto the altar, glared with burn­ing, fevered eyes at the con­gre­ga­tion of sev­en­ty-five men, women, and chil­dren, and shout­ed, "Is that as good as you can do? Now let me hear you shout amen!”

His flock cheered loud­er than ever, “Amen!"

The preacher’s spir­it soared; he snort­ed like a dev­il blow­ing out smoke. He felt the fire burn­ing both inside him and over his head. In a craze, he felt it lift­ing him, lift­ing him high­er and high­er to greater things. He was no longer of the world.

With renewed ener­gy, he preached in a hoarse, cracked voice about the pow­er of God and the res­ur­rec­tion of Lazarus. He sprint­ed down the aisle, up and down, up and down. Twice he ran the length of the church, yelling his ser­mon to a con­gre­ga­tion hun­gry for mir­a­cles. With fiery eyes, he searched the faces of his flock. The preach­er took sev­er­al long, quick, delib­er­ate steps toward a woman near the front of the church. Her gray­ing hair hung like Span­ish moss down the trunk of her back. He placed one hand on the woman's fore­head and pushed her head back. Her fran­tic gaze scratched the ceil­ing. He called out, "Receive thy bless­ing."

A slow trem­ble took hold of the woman’s hands and arms, slith­er­ing over her body, rush­ing through her. She cried out in unknown tongues, a deliri­ous lan­guage of the Holy Ghost. Tears streamed down her face and dripped from her smil­ing lips.

The preach­er seared with wild mad­ness, rush­ing from one mem­ber to anoth­er, lay­ing anoint­ed hands on their heads, ignit­ing their souls as they spit out the mir­a­cle of unknown tongues.

Sat­is­fied, after pulling sob­bing prayers, the lan­guage of unknown tongues, and loud cries of praise from his mem­bers, the preach­er strut­ted back to the pul­pit. He wiped sweat from his face and spit from his mouth, whis­per­ing, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus.”

As he brought the ser­vice to a close, the pianist rose and walked to the front. As she played, Just As I Am, the door opened and Eli stum­bled in, his pants and shoes cov­ered with red clay. In his arms, wrapped in his dark coat, he cra­dled a pack­age. He limped down the aisle, drag­ging his injured leg, leav­ing a trail of fresh dirt on the red car­pet. The preach­er watched the freak gimp past his wife, past the seat on the right where he sat every Sun­day, all the way to the pul­pit. He didn’t stop until he was at the altar, a cou­ple feet from where the pas­tor stood.

Eli looked up into the preacher’s face and smiled, lift­ing his facial scars upward, his eyes shim­mer­ing with faith. With his right hand, he pulled back the coat, reveal­ing the blue bun­dle cra­dled in the crook of his left arm.

The preach­er froze, his eyes fix­ing on the blue out­fit. As he rec­og­nized the birth­day suit, a roar­ing noise det­o­nat­ed inside him. He shook his head, as though try­ing to shake off a snake that had land­ed on him. A blast rever­ber­at­ed in his brain and screamed like a run­away death train plow­ing through his ears. The preacher’s face burst into a bril­liant, shock­ing shade of pur­ple. He fought to breathe, his fin­gers claw­ing at his neck, yank­ing at his chest. He burned from the inside out as though he’d swal­lowed the halo of fire that had hung over his head.

Eli dropped the coat to the floor and took a step for­ward, lift­ing the tiny corpse to the preacher’s face, offer­ing it up for a mir­a­cle. He slurred out one word: “Lazarus.”

Bren­da Sut­ton Rose is a visu­al artist and writer who grew up bare­foot and poor in south­ern Geor­gia. Her poet­ry, essays, and short sto­ries have appeared or are forth­com­ing in Fly­catch­er: A Jour­nal of Native Imag­i­na­tion and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She writes a blog, "Sweet Tea in South­ern Geor­gia."

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