43. Sunday Meeting

Riah had a good dress–black
So it would do for funerals.
Opal had a good dress,
A brown plaid.
Patty’s had been ordered
From the Sears and Roebuck book.
Louise had ordered, too–
Pink, with green sash.
This morning,
They all put their dresses on.

Four churches stood in town.
These they kept up
Better than their homes.

Three congregations
Had built with white frame.
The fourth brought chairs,
Met in the firehouse.
Opal Black and Riah,
Methodists. Louise and Patty
Shared another church.
Thirty, forty in each one,
Eight to a pew.
That much wood, a miracle,
Had been shipped in by train
For lack of trees.

Each Sunday, Riah
Sought the stern pine seat,
Ungiving to the bones
Of her tired back.
It soothed her, and the plain
Broad whitewashed walls–
No pictures–and the altar, largely
Bare, floors uncovered,
And the big square windows
With clear glass.
Church was a neat home,
Airy, swept, housekept by God.
All things in their place: families
Each brought different hymnals,
But the songs were all the same.
Hands rested on the pages
The same way, and they knew
Most words by heart.
Obediently rustling, peaceful,
Thoughtful, no one spoke.
She loved silence.

Riah’s mother was a Papist.
Till her death by fire
She had prayed each night,
Beads and white glass Mary
By her bed. A secret
Riah’s father tolerated.
To the town, they were good
Methodists. Now in dreams
Riah recalled:
Once, before they’d moved here,
As a girl, she’d
Walked with her mother
To her church.
The door echoed, closing.
It was dark.
Corners drew back,
She could hardly see–
Lacquered statues,
Buried in the walls–
Helmets–gilded wings–
Mounded lucent hearts
Atop saints’ robes.
Windows, carved out deep and thin
In stone,
Stained and weighted light,
Then let it down.

And there were mosaics,
Low and high:
Jesus suffering horribly.
Jesus on torn knees
Before the Cross. Jesus
With thorns puncturing his face,
Glazed red tiles
For running blood.
In the back,
A choir of glassed candles,
Purple, blue, red, yellow-gold.
They swelled, guttered, spiraled,
Sank. She had fixed on them
With fascination: tallow-fire light
Like cream on Mama’s skin,
Golden sheen enameled
Her brown waves.
The thick, waxy fragrances
Filled Riah’s head
As if she had a cold.
Voices chanting–
Dark rained in her ears.
Kernels of flame, pulsing,
Flaring sprays,
Dilated liquidly.
She rubbed her eyes.

I’m glad I’m
A Methodist, thought Riah.
Her hands, in her lap.
Her sight rested
On the blank clean walls.

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