THE LESSON

by

JESSICA RANEY

Her dress was new. Well, new to her, anyway, a hand-me-down from a cousin, light blue, dotted with little white embroidered flowers. The fabric was thin in places and some of the little flowers had unraveled, but washed and pressed carefully, the dress had new life. She twirled in a circle to make the skirt flow out and smiled at the way the little white flowers twinkled in the morning sun. Her mother had warned her about vanity and pride and she had an extra lesson that morning about modesty. She didn’t understand. The dress was so pretty, and she never got new things. If it was wrong to like the dress, then why did she have the dress? There was an extra lesson for her in not asking impertinent questions.

When the lessons were done, and everyone dressed in the nicest clothes they owned, they all walked together into town. Her father walked in front, then brothers, then her mother. She walked last, always. She didn’t mind. Most of the time, she kept her head down, but sometimes, she would look up and see the sunlight glittering off the new green leaves or a little bird flittering from branch to branch, singing his Spring song. Once or twice, she dared a twirl, just to see the dress move and the little flowers dance. After, she looked up carefully at her mother and father. If they saw, she would have more lessons later. They walked steadily, seeming to have taken no notice of anything. Her mother’s head was bent and her father was walking steadily, setting the pace for them all, his head straight and his eyes on the path, not on her.

It was an important day, the most important of the year and everyone had come. Families that lived farther out than hers had come; some must have begun walking days before to make it on time. They all looked tired and slightly rumpled from their long journey. The women all nodded at their husbands, and then carried their baskets filled with family lunches and suppers over to the rough picnic shelter. The boys could mingle and talk quietly amongst themselves, but the girls lined up next to the shelter and said nothing. They had all had many lessons.

They were supposed to keep their heads bowed and pray. She never did. The things she was supposed to ask for, humility, modesty, obedience, she didn’t want, and she wasn’t sure anyone was listening anyway, despite repeated lessons to the contrary. This was the first Spring Gathering she had been allowed to attend, fully. She attended worship services, of course, twice a week, but this was an event. In past years, the small children were ushered out and spent the night in someone’s home, where they read scripture and sang songs until their families collected them the next day. Her parents called the Spring Gathering special. She didn’t pray but she wondered what made it special. Nobody would tell her. Her brothers, who normally liked to tease her with all sorts of tall tales about everything were sedate and quiet about this.

She was hot. They were standing in direct sunlight and while the morning had been cool, the sun was at full strength now and its bright rays and the layers of clothing were making the girls sweat. Mercifully, the worship bell rang. Seven long, slow chimes signaled everyone to assemble and begin. The small children were collected and taken by a group of women. Everyone else filed into the worship area. It was different from the normal area. Set back into the forest a quarter of a mile from the main church, the land was cleared. There were roughly hewn wood benches and a rudimentary stage and altar. There were poles and lanterns surrounding the entire area, but none of that seemed at all remarkable to her. What was remarkable was the area to the left of the pulpit. There was a perfect circle of dead grass. It wasn’t burned or charred, just dead. Brittle and gray, the circle stood in stark contrast to the tender, green grass that grew thick and luscious all around it.

Her father led them to a bench and they all sat down when he did. That was no different than any other service that she had ever been to. The main difference was the silence. There wasn’t the usual friendly hum of conversation that preceded a normal service. Nobody said anything. In fact, nobody moved. No fidgeting, no shuffling in seats, everyone sat still and stared directly ahead. Her brothers both looked pale and nauseated, as if they were both about to throw up. Her mother was sweaty and kept her head bowed, her lips moving in silent prayer. Her father just sat there sternly as he stared at the altar.

She didn’t know how long the silence lasted but it was finally broken when the Pastor climbed on the stage and took his place in the pulpit. He instructed everyone to stand for the invocation, which was the longest one she had ever heard. The clearing was in full sun and it was stifling hot with no breeze. It was difficult to stand still but nobody dared move, not even to fan themselves.

When the Pastor was finished, he motioned for some of the fathers to help him and they brought out a big copper kettle. It was steaming hot. The men used thick woolen mittens to handle it and when they placed it on a tripod in front of the altar, she could see the wisps of vapor and waves of heat. The pastor said another long-winded blessing over the kettle, then he dipped a ladle in and extracted some of the liquid. He poured some out on to the spot of dead, brown grass and then he drank a ladle full himself. He coughed a bit and his face reddened, but he didn’t do anything else remarkable. He motioned for the fathers to bring their families forward. Each father obliged. They led their family to the kettle and each took the ladle and made every member of their family drink. She could tell that several did not want to drink. They looked afraid, their faces pained and grimaced even before the ladle touched their lips. But there was no choice in the matter. The fathers made everyone drink. When her own father led them to the kettle, her mother swallowed hers without any complaint at all and then went back to praying. Her older brother did the same and her middle brother sniffled a bit, but he drank.

She was unprepared for the smell of the liquid when her father put the ladle to her lips. The steaming brown liquid smelled like the outhouse in the middle of summer and burning hair. She wrinkled her nose and took a step backward, but her father’s eyes flew wide and his mouth got the angry white ring around it. He grabbed her and pulled her closer, then grabbed her chin and poured the liquid down her throat. She doubled over and coughed and sputtered. It was the most vile, bitter, foul tasting thing she had ever put in her mouth. She thought she might throw up, but her father grabbed her chin and held her mouth closed. The sick came up, but had no place to go, so she swallowed it down and he dragged her back to their seats.

Once every person in the clearing drank the liquid, the men put the kettle away. The Pastor began to read scripture. After a while, people in the crowd began to shout at him and their words were gibberish. He ignored anything except the book in his hand and kept reading. His voice started out as a dull drone, but as time went on, he got louder and more animated. His face was beet red and he was sweating profusely, his white shirt front soaked through with brown stains. Everyone in the audience was sweating too. Her own blue dress was completely drenched, and her hair stuck to her head. The world was spinning, and she could no longer hold in the sick. She threw up all over her dress front and she wasn’t the only one. All the children had vomited all over themselves, some of the older teens too. Most of the adults looked sick, but only a few of them had. Her father and mother were drenched in sweat and pale looking but they looked otherwise well enough. Her mother had raised her hands to the sky and was swaying back and forth, speaking in gibberish and her father’s eyes were flashing as he growled and shouted encouragement to the Pastor.

The Pastor was screaming, and she couldn’t understand anything he said. He had gone on for hours and it was dusk now. All the colors were dark orange and vibrant, like nothing she had ever seen before and if she hadn’t been so sick and confused, she might have said the world looked beautiful. But it was still so hot, and everything smelled like vomit and body odor, the smells and heat hit her in never ending waves and cramps gripped her stomach. She soiled herself as had everyone else in the clearing. Some of the children had fallen over. They twitched every so often and she didn’t think they were dead, but that was the only indication that any of them were alive. Her older brother had joined a group of men who were tearing at themselves and pounding the area around the pulpit as the Pastor spoke. She had never seen him act that way before. He was normally quiet and docile but now he was a wild thing, beating his fists bloody against the rough wood.

Someone started a chant. It was nonsense to her, but soon almost everyone had picked it up, including her parents. She just couldn’t get it and she stood silent as everyone else sang. After a bit, a father would scream a blood curdling yell, not a fearful sound, but one full of anger and rage and they would grab someone and pull them to the circle of dead grass. She watched her Uncle yell and grab her cousin Ava. Ava screamed and vomited, terrified. Soon the circle of dead grass was almost surrounded by struggling, screaming pairs. Her mother was frantically praying and beating her hands against the bench. Her middle brother was doing the same and they all cried out when her father raised his hands to the sky and gave the loudest, most rage-filled yell of them all.

He grabbed her. Her instinct was to run, and she tried, but he was too strong. He easily pulled her to the edge of the circle. She kicked and clawed at him, bit down hard into his arm and he slapped her so hard one of her teeth came loose. The Pastor had stepped into the circle. As he made his way around the circle, he told stories of each person. He detailed how bad they were and how they had sinned. One boy was too soft and feminine. One girl, not soft enough. Some were lazy. Some didn’t listen well. When he stopped in front of her, his list was long. Prideful. Disobedient. Questioning. The Pastor spat all those words out as if they were the same vile, brown liquid they had all drunk earlier. His face was angry red and white rage spit formed at the corners of his mouth as he enumerated everyone’s sins.

Finally, he turned to the middle of the circle and began to ask for help. She couldn’t tell exactly who he was asking to help, but everyone else seemed to know because they began chanting a name. The name wouldn’t stick in her head, so she couldn’t say it even if she wanted to, all she could hear was the steading chanting of the crowd. The Pastor seemed satisfied and then he turned back around to them and began running around the circle. He stopped in front of each pair again and raised his hands, letting the crowd scream for each one. They screamed loudly for her each time he held his hands above her, her father loudest of all, but they screamed loudest for a tall red-haired boy, her oldest brother’s age, seventeen or so. They found him with books. Words not in the Scriptures. Old ones.

More fathers came, and they helped drag the boy to the middle of the dead grass. He was crying and fighting them, but like her, he had vomited and was so sick and weak, that he couldn’t put up much fight. The Pastor prayed over him and what words she could make out sounded like an offering. The Pastor fell to the ground, beating the dead grass, imploring someone or something to help the boy. The crowd resumed the chants and they added in pounding of their own.

Through the gibberish and the drumming, she could hear something else. Something very faint at first, as if were far away and as it got closer, it got louder. The ground shook slightly, but just as the rumble got louder, the tremors got stronger as well, until finally, the whole dead circle of grass was churning and vibrating.

The Pastor stepped out of the circle as did the men holding the boy. He tried to run, but he tripped and fell flat. A thin black root had emerged from the ground and it hooked his ankle. The boy pulled his foot free and stood up, but as soon as he tried to run, another oily black tendril snaked out of the ground and caught him. A few more attempts netted the same result, as if the root were mocking him. The crowd was still chanting and pounding and as they did, a big mound of earth in the center of the circle appeared. A thick black trunk began to push its way out of the dirt, slowly at first, but then it gained momentum as it seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd. It rose up, at least fifteen feet from the earth, dripping putrid black oil. She could smell it and it smelled worse than the liquid in the kettle, as if every dead thing in the world had combined their rot and decay.

The boy was sitting on the ground. A few of the tendrils held him there but she didn’t think he would move anyway. He was staring at the trunk, and he was listening. She could hear it too, a whisper and while she couldn’t make out the words, she could hear the quiet hatred in them. The boy was sobbing as the voice kept whispering the hatful words that only he could understand.

Black, putrid tendrils pushed their way out of the ground. They slithered toward the boy and wrapped themselves around his torso. Slowly, they pulled him to the trunk and then pushed him up into the air. One tendril wrapped around his left arm and positioned it above his head. Another did the same thing with his right arm. The tendrils snaked around the trunk and plunged into the boy’s wrists. He screamed, and the crowd cheered and drummed louder. He screamed again when the oily tendrils pierced his feet. The tendrils that had encircled his torso released and he was supported only by the wounds in his wrists and feet. The crowd cheered and danced as the boy writhed. She wanted to look away, but her father saw, and he held her head steady. She tried closing her eyes, but it made her dizzy, so she had no choice but to watch the boy’s misery and to listen to the malicious whispers and the hate-filled chanting of the crowd.

It took the boy all night to die. It finally happed as dawn was peeking over the treetops and when he died, the crowd fell over, exhausted and spent. She passed out too and when she woke up, the trunk and the boy were gone. The circle of grass remained, but the ground was undisturbed. It was as it had been before, just yellow-gray, dry, dead grass.

She was filthy. Covered in vomit and all her other body fluids, her pretty, light blue dress with the delicate white embroidered flowers was ruined. Her father burned it, along with everyone else’s soiled clothes after they had all washed. Some people ate, the adults, the ones who had seen it before. She couldn’t. She wasn’t sure she could ever eat again. After somber goodbyes and quiet well wishes, the families started home.

As she walked behind her mother, she kept her head down and tried not to vomit again. Her head throbbed, and her stomach was still cramped up. She glanced up once at the tree tops and smiled at the light glinting off the fresh green leaves of the canopy but her smiled faded and she bowed her head again when she heard the voice begin to whisper, and this time, she could understand every word.

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