The Surprising Closeness of God

by Lisa Harris

My grandmother’s best friend, Vi Cotterfield, knew God. She could see the pulse of God’s work in everything: in her vegetables as they grew, in the trees as they stayed firmly planted in the earth, and in the star filled sky. She could detect a vibration underneath the bark of trees and feel it pulsing in tree leaves. She could hear rocks hum when she leaned against them. Under water, where she held her breath and counted, she felt thunder. God was in the grass she walked upon in her bare feet. God was in the black raspberries she picked or was that Jesus, bleeding from his crown of thorns? She loved the insistent vibration, the hum, the pulse, the thunder and the whispers. Listening to Vi talk was a pleasure for me. She sounded like a philosopher, a doctor and a prophet.

One cool October day, my grandmother, Madge Jones, asked her, “What about Jesus?” She waited. “Do you believe in Jesus, Vi?”

“Well, I believe Jesus was a man who walked among us, a good carpenter, a good fisherman—a good man. He told those Pharisees a thing or two. And was God a part of his birth? Well, sure. Just as he is with every person’s! Was he magical? Sure enough. Had to be or he couldn’t have walked on water, healed the lepers and the lame, brought the dead back to life. When he lost his temper at the temple, he was justified in confronting the halfwits who wanted to stone Mary Magdalene. He was a person of great strength and great vision, great hope and great love.”

“What I am asking,” my grandmother clarified, “is do you think he is your Lord and Savior?”

Vi’s reply was silence.

My grandmother used the trinity to explain everything. “Life comes in sets of three,” she said. “ I had nine pregnancies: three miscarriages, three boys, and three girls. There is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. There is always a beginning, middle and an end.”

She believed in the here, the now and the hereafter. Was she saved by Jesus when she passed? I don’t know. I have no proof one way or the other. I think if Jesus were going to save anyone from hell or blankness, it would have been my grandmother. She worked for his glory day and night, night and day: baking pies, praying over the sick, sending presents to the troops, holding herself to high standards of conduct, and mortgaging her house when the church needed money.

She believed in one savior, Jesus of Nazareth, and the stories about the manger, the lowing cattle, the edict from Herod, raising Lazarus from the dead, dividing the loaves and the fishes, walking on water, going alone into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, being tempted by Satan, and, of course, she believed Jesus was crucified, dead and buried to rise again on the third day. For her, he was part man, part phoenix and part God.

I believe in sets of three also. I have three desires: children, gold, and a long life. I eat three meals a day. I have three cats and three antique teacups. And I know I am greedy, greedier, and greediest. I am seldom at peace. When I wade in the water of Pine Creek, I am happy. I become part of the Susquehanna to which Pine Creek runs. 444 miles of water from New York to Maryland, the Susquehanna spends most of it s life in the state of Pennsylvania. I wish I could move like that river. I think if I could, not much else would matter to me. I wouldn’t be stuck in this backwater of a town—flat as a pancake, thin as thread, and dull
as dishwater. No depth here, no fullness. No shine, no smarts.

So when Jamison Smith made eyes at me, I began vibrating. I wondered if that was how my grandmother felt when she thought about God.  I let liquid silk spill out of me until I trapped him. I didn’t see he was wrapping me in invisible thread as well, tying me to him.

I was his prey as much as he was mine. We fight and then we coax each other back. I’m pregnant again, so I cannot leave. But he can.

I woke up this morning to find him gone. Not gone to work, or gone to the store. Solid gone. And I am still here—with five children and no way to escape.

Today I think of myself as a vein of coal. 350 million year old—as old as eternity. I began in swampy earth, thick and hot from plants and forests, full of dying. The shifting earth let in shallow water and layers of sediment, covering and submerging, covering and submerging as new swamps grew and died, died and grew, over and over, hundreds of times. Steady pressure and chemical changes hardened and fossilized layer after layer, making seams of coal. I am hard and dark, too, so I put the children to bed, and go in search of the moon. I carry a water jug with me, thirsting, but not after righteousness. I want something I cannot name.

Tomorrow I will count grackles on the lawn, ducks along the creek, and how many steps it takes me to get from here to there, but today I have to accept the emptiness and the responsibility of Jamison’s abandonment.

Fog has settled around me and the deer, dandelions and burdock.  So I stare into the whiteness and remember I was conceived on the first full moon after the summer equinox. My mother told me she had watched the full moon rise in a pink mist outside her cottage while my father snored.

When my mother was having a bad day, she told a different version, “On the night you were conceived, the moon hid behind layers and layers of clouds and our room was black as coal. That was before I found God. I only knew love as it came from your father, hard and fast.

I hear the children coming down the path. The stars are beginning to show. I am seeking mercy from them for my children. “Mercy,” I say aloud. “Mercy.” As I walk back to the house, I see signs of decay, spent seeds and birds soaring. From the kitchen window, the willow tree is dropping its leaves, but I still remember the pale gray pussies blooming and dropping yellow pollen on the ground.

After dinner and a million questions, I tell the children, “He is gone. Soon he will be only a memory, and then the memory will be gone as well.” The baby inside me hears the words, but it doesn’t know what any of them mean yet. The older children wail at me. “Why did he leave? What did you do? What didn’t you do? Why did he leave?”

I pick up the Bible and open it to Ecclesiastes 9, and I read: “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.”

My eldest, Barbara, raises her eyebrows. “Why did you read us that, Mother?”

“For you to ponder. Think on it.”

At night I leave my window open, so my spirit can come and go as it wills. I know that it night travels while I sleep, looking for Jamison. I appear normal during the daylight hours, and at night I become vapor. I encounter other spirits. Several were in the basement yesterday—twins with dark hair and dark skin. Their pink irises shone in the dim light. They stood in front of the home canned goods, the Mason jars a backdrop to their glowing eyes. Their clothing was made of fallen leaves and twigs. “Forgive, forgive, forgive and forget,” they chanted at me.

I wasn’t able to do that, but their appearance spurred me to go to the library and get books about gold. I read everything I could find on alchemists: their spells, their methods, and how to use the philosopher’s stone to transmute baser substances into gold. I studied how planetary influences, residing deep in the earth, affected the fire and water hidden there. If the fire and water were slightly impure, then silver resulted, if grossly impure, lead formed. But when fire and water were brought together in states of superfine quality, then, and only then, would the philosopher’s stone result, giving the alchemist the ultimate power to create gold. I became an alchemist. All matter had a soul, which could be transferred from one element to another by means of the philosopher’s stone. When all four elements, earth, air, fire and water were balanced, the soul formed.

I learned about a doctor who also studied alchemy: Avicenna, known by some as Abu ibu Sina, who was born in Bokhara in 980 A.D. He argued against transmutation, asserting instead that metals could be imitated but that it was impossible to change their essential nature. And here I paused. Jamison’s essential nature would not change and neither would mine.

I stopped thinking about gold and thought instead of the heart. Don’t talk to me of red roses and engagement rings. Don’t speak to me about any of it because what I see are large satin boxes shaped like hearts, decorated with plastic flowers, and adorned with glossy red bows. I see the roses wilt, the boxes dull from dust, and the ribbons lose their sheen.

I think instead of me, aging. I stand in front of my mirror, remembering the six-year old in the first few days of school. I look like a trapped animal, one who is just barely accepting the cage. I see the feverish child, her throat raw from strep and her breath raspy from bronchitis. I see myself at 30, when the roses in my cheeks are shiny pink. I see myself as I am now, a woman who is alone and raising five children. I want to fly away. I want to bury myself in leaves. I want to disappear into the night fog.

The phone pulled me back. It is Jamison. He sounds far away and there is static. But I can hear him. He is asking to come home. “I am cold, and tired, and hungry. I miss you and our children.” I wait. “Will you take me back?”

“I miss your hands most of all, the of them rough texture of them. I miss them on my body. I miss the work you did here, from unloading boxes, stocking shelves, and repairing buildings, chopping wood, and mowing. I have been reading about gold, but I have been missing you. And I am angry and hurt, but I know this is where you belong and the children miss you. The children’s hearts are broken.”

He said more things about how sorry he was, that he didn’t miss his water until his well ran dry. I said, “Come home.”

When I hang up, I go to the stove and put on the tea kettle. I don’t plan to tell the children anything until he walks through the door. No point getting their hopes up. And my hopes? Well, they exist again. I would have run away too, if I could have, but it is different for a woman with a baby in her belly and four at her feet. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in the two angels in my basement, over in the corner with the canned food. I don’t want gold anymore. I want to be held.  

Category: Featured, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing