What water and wine can’t do.
by Ava Andrew of Pawtucket
My father became a priest when we lived in Providence. He worked in the tiny church at the top of our street. He’d never been to any schooling or even went to church when we lived anywhere else, but here he was devoted to it. He worked everyday, seven days a week in that church; and made me tag along each time.
I didn’t like it very much, the air was always thick and it smelt like a damp basement. I always thought the other kids were stuck up, with their rosaries and bible versus stamped in their heads. Everyone loved the stuff and I just couldn’t get behind it.
Thankfully, Providence didn’t last long. My dad got a job opportunity out west with the church, a camp out in the dense forests of Colorado. He didn’t say much about the job, he just packed us up and moved us out right away.
I liked the west far more than the cities. There wasn’t a house or person for miles it seemed. I enjoyed the privacy. And this camp was the epitome of private, miles and miles into woods no one touched. My father became the priest for this camp too, working the same job he did in Providence.
But everything was different. These people weren’t stuck up like the folks before, they didn’t preach to me or speak in hymns. They were kind and welcoming.
The first day we were there the older women took me into their cabin to measure me for new clothes. They were master seamstresses who made all the girls’ clothes, flowy white dresses that ended right below the knee. They were the most beautiful thing I’d ever worn, I’d begged them to make me as many as possible.
I saw dad more than I ever did before, he wasn’t as consumed in work as he was before. He had his own special clothes too, the woman made him fitted black suits he wore everyday. He looked handsome, clean and happy.
“I like it here,” I told him once after the nightly fire. “I like it alot.”
“Me too,” He smiled. “I think this is the start to a new beginning.”
He was right. This was a new beginning. A new life we’d never experienced before. I spent more and more time with the women and girls of the camp. For the first time, I had friends. Every morning the older girls would take us out to the large field behind the church, the only place where the trees cleared and the sun shined. The grass was thick and soft under our bare feet. We sat in a circle and prayed and read. I’d finally taken a liking to reading and praying. In this circle it became fun, exciting.
One morning, at the circle, I didn’t read. Sometimes, I just enjoyed listening. While other girls read from the book we were asked to close our eyes and put our heads down, giving the speaking girl the spotlight. But this one morning, I did not close my eyes. Instead, I eyed a beautiful rose bush by my side. I’d never seen this bush before, it’s as if it bloomed overnight. I reached for the roses, plucking a few from the bush. I’d remembered our lesson a few days prior, when a few of the older girls taught us how to make flower crowns. I began twisting and threading the roses into a beautiful crown which I eventually placed atop my head.
I was so proud of my creation, I did the forbidden; I left the circle. I was so blinded by happiness, I raced away to show my father. He was in our cabin, dressing for the day. I raced through the door and showed him the crown atop my head, anxious for him to praise my work.
But I was met with horror, his eyes widened and he raced to me, comforting me. He reached for my head, to remove my crown, but I backed away.
“Don’t you like it?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He just stared at my head. I was confused. I went to my bedside, where a large mirror divided me and my fathers bed.
I understood his horror now. My crown of roses wasn’t roses at all, but thorns. The rose bush was a dead one, full of nothing but stems of sharp thorns. And now those thorns wrapped around my head, puncturing my scalp and leaving me bloodied.
I wish this was the end of my distorted visuals, but it wasn’t. I’d tried to convince everyone that that rose bush was full, but no one understood. But I powered through, going about my daily tasks.
While sweeping the patio of our cabin one afternoon, an older woman came to me asking me if I would forage for berries. She was going to make a pie and sent me on a quest to find the juiciest berries in the woods. So I took my basket and began my adventure, racing around the dense forest to find bushes of berries. I picked blue ones, red ones, big ones, and small ones. My basket was full of delicious fruits. I’d even sampled a few, they were juicy and ripe.
But when I brought them back to camp, the woman was not pleased. She took my basket, horrified. She called over my father, who just so happened to be walking by, to show him my basket.
“She asked me to pick her berries for pie.” I explained.
But my father looked at me and the basket with confusion. He picked up a berry and placed it in my hand. Only, it wasn’t a berry. It was a roach. A nasty, black bug. I peered into the basket, and it was full of them. Dark, writhing critters.
Everyone thought I was playing a joke! I would never do such a thing! I attempted to explain but no one cared. My father told me I wasn’t allowed to go to the circle every morning anymore, I was to spend my days with him. He took me to his meetings and I sat in his office all day while he worked.
It wasn’t fun at all. I sat, bored for hours. I attempted to read, but it wasn’t the same without the fresh sunshine on my back. I took up drawing, as I had nothing better to do. I’d always loved the stained glass window of the churches in Providence and wanted to recreate them.
I suppose I’m not that great of an artist though, everything I created was bad. Everything I drew was a damnation. That’s what my father said. I had a strange urge to draw the Virgin Mary, but everytime she was covered in blood; eyes plucked from their sockets. I drew the baby Jesus, but he was not a baby but a dark; rabies riddled goat.
This is when I got drawing privileges revoked. And soon it was reading privileges, too. Without drawing, I took books from my fathers shelves and studied them. But each one I read was in latin, explaining the reader about the horrors of Satan and sinning. My father said he didn’t understand how I could read them, I’d never been taught latin. So, soon all books other than the bible were taken from his office.
I was angry. I couldn’t do anything. The camp I loved quickly became one I hated. Everyone thought I was strange, all of the girls I considered my friends didn’t speak to me anymore. I began bursting out, yelling at my father. I kicked and screamed like a child on the floor of our cabin, while he tried to reason with me. I threw things, making holes in the walls. I ripped down the mirror and shelves. Worst of all, I ripped the holy books from the shelves and tried to burn them. I’d taken the small gas can on the porch of our cabin used to fuel the generators and doused the books in them. I was rabid.
I apologized later for this behavior, as the rage inside of me blinded me. But he didn’t care. He was certain I was evil. He looked at me with a distaste I’d never seen before. He quickly arranged a ceremony to expel the evil from me. The entire camp was in attendance. He’d planned to baptize me, cleanse me with holy water.
“Whatever’s happening in there,” He pointed to my head. “We’re gonna get it out.”
But if they’d just listen, they’d know there was nothing to get out. I was fine, I was normal. But he insisted on this ceremony. So I dressed in my best white dress, the one I loved the most, with short flowy sleeves and bows. My father brought me to the front of the church, on display for the entire camp to see. We recited prayers and lines from the book and he reached for the wine; the blood. I sipped from the cup feverishly. If this is what it took to be “clean”, I would do it. But when I drew back, I realized I’d split wine on my clean white dress, the dress I loved so much.
My father ignored the growing stain, ushering me to the pool of water.
“The water will wash away the stain.” He assured me.
And I believed him. So he dunked me under multiple times, submerging me entirely in the water. But the stain would not wash. It stuck to the bright white of the fabric like a sore thumb. This enraged me. He promised it would come out and it didn’t. He’d lied. Now my favorite dress was soiled, just like I.
“You can’t clean me,” I shouted. “You lied. You can’t clean me! You can’t clean me!”
I raced out of the church, shouting. I’d caused quite a stir, the audience in the church cried out in distress as I ran. I raced to our cabin, looking for sanctuary. Instead, I was met with the bright red gas can I’d used in an attempt to singe our bibles.
I grabbed it, racing back to the church. My father was right where I left him, his face full of confusion. As I raced up the aisle, I uncapped the can and left a trail of gasoline behind me. My father shouted at me, attempting to reason with me. I doused the altar where my father stood in gasoline.
“Your water couldn’t clean me,” I shouted. “Maybe flames will!”
I ran to the large statue of Christ watching over us all. Tall, bright prayer candles sat at his feet. I grabbed as many as I could, singeing my fingertips. My father shouted at me, pleading with me. The camp cried. I raced down the center aisle, throwing the candles to the floor. The room ignited immediately. My back burned from the heat chasing after me. I turned around at the church doors, to admire my work. I was blinded by flames and deafened by screams. It was beautiful. I feel in that moment I truly was cleansed, it had worked! The fire had done the job the water and wine couldn’t. My beautiful white dress was caked in ash, the bottoms choppy from the burn of the flames. It was no longer white, it had become black and red. But I’d never felt more innocent and white.
I closed the doors and raced to my favorite place, the open field. The sunshine had been replaced with the gleam of the moon. The coolness aided the burn of my flesh. I sat; right next to my beloved rose bush, and watched as the church was swallowed. The smoke dissipated into the dark sky, but the orange flames illuminated the dark forest. My father was wrong, it was not about what was happening in my head, it was theirs. But he was right about one thing, this was a new beginning.