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."