Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel
People around the town said the girl had the devil in her. Her own mama said it was true, too. Sometimes, she would look to her youngest daughter, weepy and weary, and say, "Faye, I don't know what den gotcha, but imsa git it on out of yuh, watch me."
Faye, who was only nine and knew nothing of devils and spirits, had no way of telling them they were wrong. Nor did she know how to rightly remove the devil, and so resigned herself to keeping quiet about the whole affair.
To the simple folks in the Texas swamps, Faye did seem to be under the impression of a demon. But truthfully, Faye was an ordinary child, not unlike any other. Albeit quite curious: the girl was prone for wandering off and turning up in the strangest of places.
There was a time, when her father was still around, that she was bright and happy. Her daddy would be walking, and not too far behind would be Faye toddling after him, trailing him around like an old lap dog. But one day that changed. Faye's father did not come one evening, and then another, and then the evenings turned to weeks. Finally, her mama bore it all and told the child he was on vacation. They were on the way to church, and the girl, who never questioned her mama's polite tale, remained quiet while her inner light all but went out. Faye became quiet and untrusting. She absolutely, undoubtedly hated church, with the constant questions and the smiling and the itchy dresses, and had even been known to bite if one were overzealous in their persuasion.
The church was a great big building made of red brick. It had a tall white steeple on its roof, and inside was a shining brass bell. Four white pillars stood on the porch, and at night they seemed to glow. On a really clear evening, the pillars and steeples would shine so bright, they competed with the stars. Inside, the walls curved around into a great big circle, and rows of pews snaked across the room, casting the shape of a crescent moon. They all faced the pulpit. The Pastor's podium was in the center, overlooking it all from its raised seat. A deep mahogany stand with a violet crest that read "Waller's Christian United Peoples, Thy Cup Runneth Over." Behind it was a large statue of Jesus Christ, set off in a spotlight. Eight feet of man on a 12-foot cross. His head sloped down in tired desperation, sweat and dirt and blood muddying His brown skin, His arms outstretched and weary as if all the world laid upon His shoulders. In each of His palms stood a single gleaming nail. He was a sight, in nothing but a tattered rag and His skin so sunken, one could see his rib cage.
Faye often played there with Rhonda, a lame girl who could not speak. Often, the two played together, Faye pretending to be a knight on a grand stallion, Rhonda being her acquiescent stallion, and Jesus, their only witness. Faye made a poor attempt of entertaining herself by prancing down yellow roads leading to distant lands while both Jesus and Rhonda watched, enervated by the patheticness of the whole affair.
But the other girls would not play with her. Even Liz, Faye's very own sister. Sometimes Faye would try to join them. Quietly gather in their circles and hope to be welcomed. But it never worked. One day, Liz had caught her doing this and embarrassed her in front of the whole group.
"What do you think yor doing?" She pursed her lips and layed a chubby hand on her hip, "You know nobody likes you."
Faye shoved her hands in her pocket and looked at the floor. " I didn' even do nuttin."
"I didn't even do nothing," Liz repeated mockingly.
"Well, go on and cry now!" another girl chimed in.
And, sure enough, Faye had cried. The children looked on laughing as Faye mopped up her tears with one hand and caught hold of Rhonda's stroller with the other. As the two left, Faye could barely make out a voice saying, "Poor Rhonda, I bet she hates being saddled to that weirdo all day," then more laughter.
Outside, Faye went to sit under the shine of the pillars. The girl had believed it a fine place to cry. But when she sat down, the pillars weren't shining at all. Somebody had placed a lamp at the base of it, and so it only looked to be shining. A stupid light trick.
This made Faye so angry, she forgot about crying all together and decided to explore all the other tricks and secrets of the church.
Faye and Rhonda became explorers, hunting lions in the Serengeti. Faye pushed the buggy through the concrete parking lot, ducking behind cars and leftover lumber, careful not to be spotted by their prey.
Together this way, these two plowed across the land. But Faye kept on dreaming of the days she could have a real friend, one who could choose to play with her—and thus they went back inside the church.
Liz was pretending to set a make believe table for her family. She was a chubby girl with large eyes and a quick wit, which she used to her advantage and weided motherly authority over all the other children.
"Liz," Rudy, the girl playing the role of Daddy began, "Don't ya know we gots the prettiest chirren on Gawd's green earf."
Liz turned from her imaginary stove, imitating what she saw the grown folks do, and said, "Honey, course we got the purdiest babies, 'cause you gots the puddddddiest wife!"
"Now I aint I den told ya, them babies look like ya," Rudy continued, forcing her voice to produce a low baritone.
"Sho'll aint no conjure," Liz finished by kissing her pretend husband flush on the lips. Mama had told Faye and Liz both that nobody was to be kissing on them, especially not on the lips. Faye knew that only real mamas and daddies could do so, and so when she saw this, she drew back in surprise.
But the girls' game of pretending continued. Faye and Rhonda dove deeper into the shadows, watching everything from a safe distance. And when Faye and Rhonda could no longer see from their corners, Faye decided to get a better look up on the balcony. After struggling with the steps and Rhonda and the stroller, she decided it was best to leave Rhonda at the base of the steps to be her lookout.
But on her way up, there was a noise, the small tintinnabulation of a bell desperate to quiet itself. It was coming from the steeple. Distracted, Faye made her way past the balcony and up to the steeple two steps at a time. From the threshold, Faye could see the mass of her mother's dress, yellow with pink flowers. It was Faye's favorite, but it looked as useless as an old rag, crumpled on the floor of the dusty bell tower.
Pastor was a handsome man who preached in heavy robes and had a tendency to touch and heal a lot during ministry. Here in the dark shadows, Faye noticed he was much thinner than she thought, but even now he slid a hand on the small of her mama's back. Faye watched as her mama greedily ate up this tenderness. Tilting her head back like the women in the movies and letting out a soft moan.
Faye moved to look closer, but she heard the heavy click of heels approaching. Rhonda's mama had come seeking when she saw her baby abandoned at the bottom of the stairs. Faye ran down to meet the woman, and she could hear the shuffle of panic as the grown folks above her grabbed their clothes.
"Faye, you ain't gone crazy have you? Rhonda kaint sits on no steps by herself, you know dat! You oughta be ashamed."
Rhonda's mama pulled the girl along by the hook of her arm and assembled all the children into a new game.
Later that night, Faye was dragged to her mother, who could not understand why she wished to stray into dangerous places alone. She had never seen Faye play with anyone but Rhonda. Which caused her worry. Determined to aid in her child's social acceptance, Faye was promptly signed up for praise dancing, bible study, and youth choir, all the programs offered in her age group.
But it was useless. It seemed to anyone looking that Faye was a leper amongst the other children. Why was she so strange? Always playing with the kid with down syndrome, was she stupid as well? She must be adopted as her sister claimed. Where else did her weirdness come from?
Her mother never failed to encourage the girl to fit in more. "Oh," her mother would say, "if only you tried."
Faye had tried. Many times in fact, but she found it difficult to change the mind of adolescent girls. And so, while the other children played and frollicked, Faye pitied herself and took solace in her loneliness. Her mother would drop her off to the churchyard, and Faye would find her a little corner where nobody could see her, and therefore be safe from their teasing ridicule. After months of this, she resigned to go no longer. She would not go to church, and she didn't care what the people thought of her. But Faye's mother had taken her rejection of church folk and church ways as a rejection of God herself. She begged her daughter to reclaim her faith.
"Oh, is you trying to kill your poor mama?"
Faye was not, but she worried she would die herself if she stayed so unhappy. Things went on like this for some time. Liz and mama going to church. Faye hanging back. She enjoyed it, being alone. She would hunt turtles on the banks of the bayous and collect pecans beneath the shade tree in the backyard.
Then the unexpected happened. Mama invited Pastor Peters to dinner. The affair was brief but intentional. Over a dinner of beans, rice, collards, and ham hocks, the pastor was supposed to evaluate the hook of Faye's aversion, After a series of questions, the boring confessions of Faye, and her mother's own added embellishments, Pastor prescribed a solution.
The girl was to be baptized and receive the spirit of the Holy Ghost this Spring. Springtime in Texas is a special kind of beauty. A burst of color blooms forth. Glistening green leaves covered in morning dew, violets, yellow daisies, and a symphony of wild flowers. The bees buzzed a tune as they collected pollen, and even the trees seemed to be whispering sweet nothings.
Faye watched nature flourish from the stained glass windows of the church. The grand room seemed smaller on this day than it ever had before. All the saints and sinners gathered together under one roof, hand fans fluttering about the room like holy butterflies. Faye stood there in her baptismal white, pretty as a picture and hot as a heathen. Sweat had begun to gather on her brow, and she was not sure if it was the amount of bodies in the room or her growing anxiety as to the event itself.
"Well," said Pastor, as Faye walked tentatively forward, "you ready to give yo' life to the lord child?"
Faye nodded the affirmative. "But," she began, "ain't no tub to wash my sins."
There on that grand stage with the glaring, bloodied eyes of Jesus looking over them, Faye's voice had grown as low as a whisper.
Truthfully, Faye was happy the grown folk had overlooked this. She had not wanted to be held beneath the water. Faye didn't think she had very many sins anyway, unless you counted eavesdropping on Liz, and she didn't count that at all.
Pastor leaned in closer, straining to hear the girl. Faye could smell the strong scent of aftershave from his thick velvet robes, and she choked up her concern once more. In a great booming voice he repeated, "THE CHILD SAY AINT NO TUB FOR HER SINS!"
Someone in the crowd screamed, "Hallelujah!!"
"The child don't know that GAWD don't need NO TUB! And, GAWD he aint wooooooorrrrrried about yo SINS!" Then, before Faye could understand what was happening, a man's heavy hand came down in a great THWACK. It came as such a surprise and with such force, Faye fell to the floor.On her head was a tiny sprinkling of water.
Deacon Earl rushed to her side, but when Faye tried to rise, she noticed he had not come to help her up, but hold her down. The deacon made as if Faye's body had been overcome by the spirit of the holy ghost, struggling against the child's fight for freedom. As if on a secret signal, the choir rose to a great crescendo. Like a match, the crowd was ignited. Many had begun to dance and holler, and some of the women even rose from their seats as if compelled by a spirit.
"Family! They said this heah child was a DEMON. HA! GAWD says she is HIS, made in his GLORIOUS IMAGE, and today she has been CLEANSED!!" He paused, searched the crowd. Then he looked to Faye, and for a moment she thought she saw him wink.
"Family, what you thought was a demon, was really a MESSENGER!! This child does not speak to men, but to GAWD! She has been given a special tongue that may glorify his name! Speak child!"
Deacon Earl released his hold on the girl and pushed her forward now. Faye rose to her feet. All the townspeople followed with their eyes. Pastor came closer, placed a hand on her shoulder, gently this time.
"Speak Child" he repeated. "Share with us the tongue of Gawd." As he said the word Gawd, his thumb fell deeper into the groove of her arm.
Faye was quiet. They had said she had the devil in her. That she had to wash her sins to be clean, but here in her baptismal whites, she felt sullied. Hundreds of eyes waited with baited breath, and the girl began to weep.
"Yes, child, let the spirit move you!" called a woman from the far side of the room.
"That's alright, baby," yelled another.
The congregation began to clap. A microphone was positioned in front of Faye. The girl mopped up her tears with her sleeve.
"Muh..." she started and stopped.
"Yes, child, let it out!" said Deacon Earl.
"Muh... Ish... Muh... fuh... la... la," Faye said. The choir rose to their feet in a quick song that made the people dance and holler. "Did you hear the girl? She speaks with the lord!" said the preacher with great fever.
Mama, who had been watching from the third pew, threw her hands up in praise. And Faye felt ashamed. All around her people were dancing and rejoicing in jubilation. They thought they had witnessed a miracle, but it was just another trick.