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Conversion

By
February 17, 2014

They were poisonous, he said, and who would like to hold one? A test of faithfulness?

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/EveringhamScott_APieceofQuiet1.jpg
Image by Scott Everingham, A Piece of Quiet, 2010

It’s Revival Day at Newbirth Evangelical, and I think I’ve got that post-traumatic thing soldiers get, like we learned about in school. It’s been a month, but after what happened at the last one, just seeing the word Revival creeps me out. I can feel my heart beating in my neck, and I’m not doing anything, just sitting. I can tell from the angle of the sun—the way it seems hell-bent on scorching a hole through my left pant leg—that the service is already running overtime. Reverend Sherman is droning, or at least it looks like he’s droning, and even the guitar players who sit in the front row and are normally into it are slouching, tired. I shake my leg to soften the burn and ease my nerves, but my mother turns and gives me the eye.

Stop it, Carter, she signs undetectably, her hands barely leaving her lap.

When’s it going to be finished? I ask, keeping my own hands below pew level.

It’s finished when it’s finished, she says.

I can’t take it anymore, I say, but she has realigned her head resolutely toward the altar, removing me from her line of sight.

If someone had told me last year that I’d be going to church at all, I would have laughed at him. Never mind twice in one day. But the announcements PowerPoint on the screen behind the pulpit—complete with 3-D WordArt: REVIVAL!—is the one thing here I can definitely understand. What it means is it’s a doubleheader. That we have to come back again, tonight.

For a minute I try to focus and follow the sermon, but I can’t catch Reverend Sherman mid-thought, so I am stuck clutching my notebook and staring, revival revival revival running through my head on a loop like those moving sidewalks.

At the end of the service we grab hands, and they are singing all around me, and I think I can feel the Crazy pulsating through the human chain. Finally the song ends, and they are off and talking and hugging each other, asking earnest life questions as if they hadn’t seen one another just last week.

I have vowed never to make a sound in this place; I do not trust these people, and they are not worth the embarrassment.

I see Phyllis Kerns headed my way, and I try to avert my eyes, but it’s too late. She has locked on and increases her hobble speed tenfold. Soon she is six inches from my face. I flip through the pages of my notepad, pretending to search for something, and she digs her bony index finger into my upper arm to get my attention. A few of the oldest women at church once learned some religious signs for a choir performance and have now taken it upon themselves to bring me these important messages.

Jesus. Loves. Everyone. Equally, she signs in an arthritic cadence.

Your mother, I sign back, though I feel briefly guilty about being nasty to someone so old. She doesn’t understand, though, and pats me on the shoulder before turning to leave, which, it appears, may take the better part of the afternoon.

A man in his mid-forties—Phyllis’s son, I guess—comes and steadies her, leading her away by the arm.

HOW’S IT GOING, CARTER? he says, so loudly I can smell his breath.

I put my arm up in a halfhearted wave.

Why can’t you just be friendly? my mother asks.

That was my friendly, I sign back.

That’s not what I meant, she says.

I know, I sign, and push past her into the main aisle.

I have spent hours with my hands on people’s throats, studying vibrations and patterns of breath. I’ve wasted afternoons mimicking the sounds funneled into my head via high-powered hearing aids, and I have cultivated a voice that some people can understand. But I have vowed never to make a sound in this place; I do not trust these people, and they are not worth the embarrassment. Also that thing about if you don’t have anything nice to say.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Maryann is the only person here who does not talk to me like I am retarded, and one day I think I might talk back. She goes to the church’s private school, has been there her whole life, but has somehow turned out normal, still seems capable of forming a thought that does not contain a Bible verse. We meet on the porch and watch the crowd channel through the front doors and down the steps out into the parking lot. Really she watches the crowd and I stare at her, her face mostly, which is fair and freckled and showcasing wide green eyes like I’ve never seen anywhere else, and also her chest, which always rises dramatically right before she’s about to speak. I shift my eyes away so that she doesn’t feel me ogling.

You coming to the Revival tonight? her mouth says.

Unfortunately, I scribble back on the corner of my notepad, which is something that could maybe get me into trouble but I say anyway because I am busy now, thinking about her lips. She cranes her neck to read my response, and a little smile turns up the corners of her mouth, but she wipes it away before anyone can see. I want to touch her, even think she might let me. But not here.

As if he’s read my mind, her father appears in his white Cadillac, bounding boat-like around the corner on ancient shocks, kicking up gravel. He makes some kind of odd gesture, which I realize must be him honking the horn, because Maryann jumps up and giggles the way hearing people do when they are startled.

See you tonight, she says before hitting the stairs, taking them two at a time.

I flash her a thumbs up and turn back toward the church.

Inside, a team of men have shed their dress shirts and are transforming the sanctuary from its regular everyday ugly into full-blown nightclub garishness, stopping just short of a disco ball. Then they take out a disco ball. I never quite get over how much equipment there is, that a group that renounces mainstream technological advances, from video games to birth control, also owns a building full of rock star-quality production gear.

Reverend Sherman has my mother cornered at the far end of the sanctuary, and I try to get closer without them noticing. He is asking her to do things, and my mother is nodding along like some kind of puppet, saying, Absolutely, absolutely.

My mother wasn’t always this way. Before the accident we never even went to church, never mind twice in one day. Then my dad had to go and wrap his car around a tree and mumble some crazy shit about angels and white tunnels while he’s dying. It was just bad luck that brought us here. My mother Googled churches in the area, and it’s no surprise which ranked number one on the search results page.

Everyone was smiling and clapping, and I thought, Alright, they are unreasonably happy, but I can handle this. Then they brought out the snakes.

We went to the Revival because the website said COME AS YOU ARE and it was at night, which seemed less churchy. It was big and bright, and the music was so loud I could feel it rippling along the floor through the soles of my sneakers. Everyone was smiling and clapping, and I thought, Alright, they are unreasonably happy, but I can handle this. Then they brought out the snakes.

It happened at the end of the night, after the main revival, when the church went down into basement classrooms and broke into Focus Groups. My mother chose the group Reverend Sherman was leading because he was the reverend; she chose it without knowing what exactly the group was focusing on. We were the last to enter the classroom, and they locked the door behind us. Goose bumps rose across my arm.

Reverend Sherman stood in the spotlight of an otherwise dim room, a small cluster of parishioners gathered in a semicircle around him. Something fat and slick was gliding up his arm and skimming across his shoulder blades.

They were poisonous, he said, and who would like to hold one? A test of faithfulness?

I turned to my mother, whom I’d expected to be making a break for it, but there she was, looking calm, calmer than I’d seen her in weeks, with her hand in the air.

Poisonous, mom, I said.

She didn’t respond, eked her hand a little higher. It was the first time my mother had ever ignored me.

Reverend Sherman looked at us. Who let them in here? he said. This is not for visitors. Then he looked closer at my mother, and his eyes sharpened. Or maybe that was just my imagination.

Fresh blood, he really did say. Welcome. Are you a Woman of God?

My mother nodded, and Reverend Sherman gave one loud clap, and two other snake people were suddenly in front of us, offering. I waved my arms in a dramatic rendition of the universal sign for Get that snake the fuck away from me, but my mother just held out her hands while the man before her lifted the snake from its perch on his shoulders and gave it to her.

The snake swirled a scaly figure eight around my mother’s forearms, and I pictured the puncture, the flash of the sirens, my future as a ward of the state.

But nothing happened. Look at that! Reverend Sherman was saying, She is truly a Faithful One! The crowd was emboldened then, and everyone wanted to prove themselves, so the handler came to take the snake, and it glided its way back up across his shoulders.

Then, suddenly, people were backing away, their mouths hanging open in scream position and I couldn’t understand why, but when the handler turned I saw the snake—its body hanging taut, its head fastened to the man’s neck by its fangs. The man just stood there, looking pale.

This is a case of pride! Reverend Sherman was saying now, frantically. This man needs to put his trust in the Lord if he wants to live. Pray harder!

Maybe we should call an ambulance, I said, but my mother’s eyes were closed, and she was following along, everyone was following along in prayer. I watched the man hit the floor.

He needed to pray harder? I said to my mother on the car ride home. Are you insane?

But it was raining, and she didn’t look up, and the glare from the road matched the glaze of her eyes.

God provides, she said, as if she’d been saying it for years.

Here they say my Deformity is likely a punishment for sins my mother committed before she was saved. A child of indiscretion, a Carter among the Johns and Peters and Noahs. She’s never said anything about it to me, but I have seen her talking on the phone.

That was three months ago now, and since then, my mother has been cleansed, healed, educated. Sometimes I catch traces of the way she used to be, a smirk clinging to her cheek near the corner of her mouth, or in her hands, the way she forms a sign that’s not quite right but makes sense anyway. Some of the other kids’ parents at my school never bothered to learn sign language, and I always felt lucky. But here they say my Deformity is likely a punishment for sins my mother committed before she was saved. A child of indiscretion, a Carter among the Johns and Peters and Noahs. She’s never said anything about it to me, but I have seen her talking on the phone.

We spend the rest of the day running around town doing Reverend Sherman’s errands, searching, with varying degrees of success, for items that sound like the ingredients to a fairy-tale recipe. We buy pastes and powders from the pharmacy. We buy things in the food store that don’t sound edible: rose hips and cumin and seaweed extract. It fills up three big bags, and I lug them around for what seems like forever until finally I get to put them in back of the car, and we go home.

Five minutes then we’re leaving, my mother says.

I’m ready, I say, but then I think of Maryann and go upstairs and change my shirt, spray myself with the cologne my father used to wear. I kept it when my mom gave the rest of his things to the Salvation Army. But I just use a little bit. I don’t want her to smell it on me and start crying or something.

What if it happens again? I ask on the car ride there.

It won’t, she says.

How do you know?

It won’t. Besides, the guy was fine in the end.

But this doesn’t make me feel any better, and I fumble with the bags when I try to get them out of the trunk. The parking lot is massive, but it’s nearly full. We are late.

Inside they’ve already started and Reverend Sherman’s face is on three screens, zoomed in so close you can count his nose hairs. I scan the room for Maryann and spot her a few rows ahead and to the right. Reverend Sherman is saying something about flowers blooming in the desert, and I watch him for a while, trying to decide if I am lip-reading him wrong or if it’s just one of those metaphors that doesn’t make sense because it’s the Bible and it’s old.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see Maryann slipping from her pew. When she walks up the aisle she is looking at me, and not just in a friendly, hello way. I wait until she passes, then try to wait a little longer until my body seems to stand against my will.

Going to the bathroom, I say. My mother doesn’t seem to notice.

I reach the back of the sanctuary and look around for Maryann, but she’s nowhere. I think maybe it was stupid to follow her and really do start to walk toward the bathroom, but then I feel her hand on my arm, and she pulls me, not too hard—I am conscious that I am stronger, but I want to go—into the closet.

The closet is full of Communion wafers in big Tupperware canisters, and I almost laugh when I see them all lined up like that, like you could go buy a tub of Jesus crackers at the Walmart. Only when my eyes adjust completely do I realize how close together we are. She is in front of me, her finger pressed to her lips in a gesture of secrecy. I grab the hand, move it away from her mouth, squeeze it for a second before I let it go.

Carter, she says, I’m happy you came.

I am so nervous right before I kiss her that I actually get dizzy, but once we start I relax; my hands seem to act independently of my brain.

I am so nervous right before I kiss her that I actually get dizzy, but once we start I relax; my hands seem to act independently of my brain, but they move like they’ve known what to do all along, so I follow their lead. She is soft and smells like baby powder, and I run my fingers along her neck and down the curve of her waist, then back up her stomach beneath her shirt. She has her hands in my hair, then sliding down my shoulders, then in the back pockets of my jeans, and I can feel my muscles contracting, my hips pressing into hers without even meaning to, my boxers bunched up all wrong, my jeans tight and unyielding against my cock. I slip a few fingers inside her waistband, and she exhales sharply but doesn’t pull away.

When I try to undo her pants, my hands suddenly lose all their know-how. Finally I free up the top button. Victory! I think, but Maryann shoves me away, and I smack my elbow on one of the wafer shelves and have to bite my tongue to keep from making some kind of noise.

I reach out for her hand to show her that I’m sorry, but her eyes are round with a fear beyond the unbuttoning of pants.

They’re calling you, she says.

I raise a whatareyoutalkingabout eyebrow.

On the microphone. They’re saying your name. You have to go.

She pushes me out the half-open door, and everyone in the sanctuary is on their feet, hands raised, guitar guys amped up and power-chording, three sets of Reverend Sherman’s giant onscreen lips saying, Come and you will be healed!

On stage they are smashing their hands on an old man’s head, and I stand mid-aisle just staring and wondering what Maryann was talking about, why they’d be looking for me when my only ailment is a bad bang to the funny bone.

The people stop pressing on the old man and lift him to his feet. Healed! says Reverend Sherman. Healed and saved! And then the Lord said, Be strong, do not fear; your God will come to save you! Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped!

The bile begins gnawing at the walls of my stomach as soon as he says that word, and I start to back up, away from the stage. But there are hands on my back and all around me, and it is not like with Maryann, they are much stronger. I can barely feel my feet on the ground. I am trying to find my mother in the crowd, to get her to stop them, but then I am up on stage, and the lights are blazing, blazing like the light my father saw, so bright I might as well be Helen Keller.

They put me on the ground, and the industrial-grade carpet scratches my face. Then Reverend Sherman is standing over me, and he is yelling who knows what, and when he turns my head to the side, I want to fight back, but the people are pressing on me now, on my arms and legs and chest. They pour something in my ear and it is slick and hot and it burns, I think I see the outline of my mother, or maybe it’s Maryann, but either way I start signing, Please make them stop! until the people who are pressing get control of my hands again. Beneath the white-hot glow of the stage lights, the oil searing its way down my ear canal and deep into my head, I feel myself scream.

G

Author Image

Sara Nović was born in 1987, has lived in the United States and Croatia, and currently lives in New York City. She studied fiction and literary translation in the MFA program at Columbia University, where she is currently a teaching fellow instructing a human rights-themed essay-writing course. Her work has appeared in the Minnesota Review, Electric Literature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Blunderbuss, and Circumference. She is also the founding editor of the deaf rights and education blog Redeafined. She is finishing her first novel, to be published by Random House.

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3 comments for Conversion

  1. Comment by Emily Gaudette on February 24, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    I absolutely love this, as a writer/reader interested in disability AND religion. Seriously great story!

  2. Comment by Michael Griffin on March 1, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    The tone of this piece is in such complete control of the author that halfway through I was getting intimidated by it. Kept waiting for a little slip, a waver.
    Steady as the Rock of Gibraltar.
    Delicious prose.
    More.
    Please.
    Yes.

  3. Comment by Anne on March 4, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    First time on this site. I thought it was an excerpt from a novel—I was looking around where to buy it. Excellent read!

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