244. The Churching

Then it happened, faster
Than she’d dreamed it could.
Words flew by Riah’s ears,
As in a torrent. “Sanctity
Of marriage vows….Sternest
The lures of flesh….Sodom
And Gomorrha”–destruction,
They’d be punished
If they failed to punish now.
The dust began to lash itself
Outside, but this time
Voices here rang louder, all
The months of dry frustration
Rising up, as they each stood up,
One by one,
To have their say:
She In Question,
So they called Louise,
Not by her name.
She In Question,
She had never fit in,
Belonged here, said one.
No! Another stood up–
Here’s the sin!–She was
A threat to youth, for
Who knew what she’d do?
Why, who could tell again?
How would they ever know?
She might do anything,
Commit some crime–how much
Lower could she sink? “Lower
Than a rattler’s belly,” said one,
And some others laughed out,
Pink with rage.

Riah counted knotholes
In the wooden pew:
There is one. There’s two.
There’s one, there’s two.

Patty stood,
Her voice a piercing reed.
She quoted Bible verses,
Learned by heart. And
“Speaking for the congregation’s
Ladies,” the “happiness of
Every marriage” risked, she
Dared to raise her hand
And point her finger–
Who is she? Patty asked,
To act so badly? And
Who are we, if
She gets off scot-free? Who
Does she think she is?
Somebody special?
Patty, triumphant, scornful.
Her pallor of the past weeks
Was no more:
Lord knows, she said, we’ve
More than her to vex us!
Just then a growling gust
Wrapped round the walls:
We’ve got drought! she said,
And what-all else–
A town can only
Take so much!
Some applauded.
Some sat silent–
It was church–
But nodded heads.
The preacher said,
Let’s put this to a vote.
The wind died down
As their orations did.

Riah raised her eyes.
Mr. Parmer, Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Mott.
Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs. Rogers, and Jeanette.
Patty, Bud, the Widow Harding.
The Simmonses, the Hankses, the Burts….
All, a wall of faces,
Row on row,
Hands held high to say:
Louise Kemp could sit with them
No more.
The defendant, of course,
Could not vote.

It was wildly wrong
To break this ceremony,
Riah knew. On this murderous
Dry plain, the only chance
You had for life: stay
With your herd. And as
A visitor, her sole vote
Would not count.
And to interrupt,
To violate consensus
Was like shouting in a hymn
Or crying “Fire!”–wanton,
In a peaceful room.
The minds, so sure, weighed
Heavy on her own.

Her hand went up.

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