When Elizabeth McCracken signed on to judge the 2014 Texas Observer short story contest, she told us she was looking for fiction that offers what William Boyd labeled a complexity of afterthought: “When I finish a short story,” McCracken said, “I want to feel as though my brain has been struck like a gong.”
Today we present the second of four brain-ringing contest finalists, Jill Birdsall’s “Tongues,” which introduces its protagonist to a whole new language.
Look for the other two finalists to appear in this space throughout September, leading to the publication of our winning story in the Observer’s annual October Books Issue.
by Jill Birdsall
My finger dips into the toilet a couple of times each night. Every time I think of it, I have to do it. Out of bed through the dark into the bathroom. I open the lid and seat. It’s more repulsive that way, one—two—three, dip. I gag even though I do this quickly, then hurry back to bed after washing. I do it for God.
I do other things, too. Carry a baby doll to school in a brown paper bag. It doesn’t fit in my locker so I have to carry it while changing classes. The risk that the doll is going to turn over and cry “Mama” in the hall or in class is pretty great. No wonder I’m getting headaches.
But the big thing I do is in bed. I get as small as I can to leave room for God. I bend my legs, feet too, fold myself into a smaller person. I tuck my neck until it feels like it could break, insert arms, hands first, through an opening at the middle. I concentrate hard, press my shoulders tight, everything pointing in, eyebrows, nose and lips scrunched really close together. I can almost feel my organs. Is it even possible to put your hand around your heart or a lung? I squeeze so small I almost stop breathing, but I do this because it is the right thing to do. Only problem being once I make room for God, when I think of the apostles I have to smash myself tighter to the wall to make room for another 12. I jam my knees high under my chin and with my shoulder nudge the pillow toward Jesus’ disciples. They are grown men—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—and there is no way they’ll all fit, so I roll off my bed to the floor.
My parents try to conserve where they can, so at night the house is cold. Let me tell you, without a blanket or pillow and no robe, this is exactly what I’m looking for. I stay curled in a ball, one ear to the floor, listening to my mother yell at my father. I’ve tried facedown, my lips touching the floor, but after three nights, it didn’t seem like such a great idea anymore. It wasn’t helping.
So, why am I doing these things? They come into my mind and the only way to get rid of them is to act. You might say that’s scary. What if I were to think of killing someone? All I can tell you is, that wouldn’t fit what I’m about. I’m looking to make things better.
When my neighbor Hartley came by to invite me to his prayer meeting, I saw him through the window. He was all red in the face. He brought my mother a piece of crumb cake, her favorite from Walter’s Bakery, and she said I could go. He’s older and wears a big wooden cross hung on a blood-red thread around his neck. His eyes are funny; his eyeballs shake when he stares long. At school kids talk about Hartley’s eyes. Did you ever see a guy whose eyes shook like he was in an earthquake, just him? You knew because you checked your own feet to be sure you were standing rock solid the whole time his eyes were shaking.
“Poor boy,” my mom said after he left.
“That poor boy,” that’s what she says about Hartley. When he took me to the bookmobile last year and when I met him at the fireworks, even though I went with my mother she said to go off with him because he asked and she felt bad for him. It was always “poor boy.”
He wasn’t right, so there was no threat. Anyone whose eyes shook like that had to be harmless, she said. He deserved any happiness we could afford and if that happiness was me, my mother was glad to pay her dues to society, which, she says, starts close to home.
On Wednesday I had a headache. “Put a cool rag on your forehead,” my mother said. “He’s looking forward to this.”
We both attend the Catholic church in town. Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow it’s called. I don’t understand the name but I love it. This is the first time I’m in the basement. As I walk down the stairs I smell coffee brewed for meetings like the Lions and Parish Council, monthly gatherings of mostly men. In the corner is the only place you can’t smell coffee. It’s set with four rows of small desks and a long, low table for kids, and it smells like that mint paste used in grammar school. Religious education classes meet here. They do crafts like paper chains for the Christmas tree and purple resurrection banners during Lent. I never had religious education classes in the basement because it goes alphabetical and my name doesn’t fall at the end of the alphabet. But this prayer meeting doesn’t have anything to do with coffee or paste. Their smell is cigarettes and sweat.
Smokers carry it on their clothes and hair, my mother says. They breathe it when they talk. The sweat is more a group thing. The prayer group hovers. Like a swarm of mosquitoes, they are a unit. Their sweat is not the kind from summer or sports. They are worked up and happy to see each other.
There are 11 of them. I make 12. Regarding appearance they have nothing in common, except two things: Each wears the cross Hartley wears, the big wooden one hung from the red thread, and they look like freaks. I remember the confident one from school, only now she’s hanging onto one of the guys, the one with the really long, bleached hair. They are entwined like the snake ring I got from the machine at Acme. The way they walk, you can’t tell which jeans are his and which are hers, their arms around each other’s waists, their faces turned to each other. They are like Siamese with fused clothing. Without him she would look normal. Maybe he is her freak part. Or worse, there is something freakish hidden inside her that makes her hold onto him and fit into this group with Hartley.
First thing, Hartley walked around to introduce me. That’s when it hit me: I was wrong. He wasn’t doing this for him; he thought this would be good for me. When he said my name, like a secret handshake each member of the group gave me a hug. Their voices were so soft; it was like in the basement they were hiding. This whole thing had the feeling of something covert. Hartley loved it. His eyes were shaking like bulbs loose in their sockets.
Everyone grabbed a chair so I did too. They formed a circle and I followed.
I sat next to Hartley, between him and a woman older than my mother. She looked like she’d been crying. Her voice was the quietest, and she was the leader. She bowed her head and everyone joined hands. I’d never held Hartley’s hand before. It was hot and wet and I held on, but barely touching.
“We have a real live guest tonight!” the leader began.
She squeezed my hand after she said this. Even though her hand was so cold I thought she might have a medical condition, I was glad it was her on that side and not the long-haired sex man across from me who was rubbing the confident girl’s leg.
The meeting starts with praise. Eyes closed, they thank the Lord, thank Jesus, thank their Savior. They talk to him like they know him personally. Each one of them in a personal relationship with God. I’m listening to Hartley, how he starts at just a whisper, then loud enough for me to make out every word, until finally he’s so loud I don’t even recognize the voice as his.
“Praise You, Jesus. I praise You. In all Your glory, I praise You.”
They are all saying the same thing but in different ways. Like my mother and father when they fight. They can fight about totally different things, it doesn’t matter, they always say the same thing. These disciples—that’s what they’re calling themselves—couldn’t look more different from each other, but when they’re praising they’re the same, their wooden crosses and voices one.
Hartley’s looking at me, his eyes reminding me that this is what he mentioned in the car on the way over. He told me they speak in tongues.
“Tongues,” he said.
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
He said, “Interprets…”
I had no idea what he meant.
“…could be prophesy.”
My mouth had gone dry after he said “Tongues.” It sounded like maybe he shouldn’t be telling me this.
Hartley said if I prayed sincerely, right from my heart, I might receive the gift of the Spirit. It could come to me during the meeting. He’d pray for me if I wanted him to.
I’m glad he gave me the heads-up: Tongues means other languages.
“It’s one of the charismatic gifts,” Hartley said.
They don’t know the language they’re speaking, but it’s like it’s passing through them, is how he explained it.
I studied French at school, but that wasn’t what I was hearing. I doubted it was Spanish or Italian or Chinese. Were these ancient Roman languages, or Greek? Maybe a Latin that isn’t supposed to be spoken. Archaic words from small valleys in small villages across the world. When Hartley’s group meets they channel worshippers God-knows-where on the globe, their voices lifted in a wave, passing over continents and seas, through time and space. That’s what it sounded like, tongues.
He looks at me and I look at him, my eyes say, Yes, you can pray for me now. I would like to receive the Spirit. Then maybe I’ll understand.
I don’t want to, but I can’t help watching what’s going on exactly across from me. The confident girl has given up her chair. She’s sinking right into her long-haired guy’s lap. Deep in. While I’m watching, his hand disappears inside her shirt. He’s kissing her long. I play flute and know legato. This is legato. They don’t come up to breathe. They hold that kiss for so many beats, their fingers are now playing each other. His thumb plays her stomach, his other thumb under her blouse. Her ring finger rubs his ear, the lobe, while her pointer travels inside.
No one looks but me.
I hear Hartley murmuring, feel his intention. I’m trying to understand what he’s saying. I hear “t-” and “k-” but it’s not making sense. I’m a little slow to realize but then I get it: He’s got the gift. Hartley is speaking in tongues.
I wish I could figure out what his language is. Maybe Russian? Swahili?
I bow my head and close my eyes, listening the right way now. I want to be visited. I want to be saved. “Please Jesus,” I’m saying to myself. “Please Lord. Please come to me. Let me feel you. I want to feel you. Fill me, Jesus. Please let me know you’re here.”
I must have said that last part aloud because the guy across from me stops in the middle of his kiss. He looks at me and me at him. I feel my face flush.
“Submit,” Hartley says. “Submit to the spirit.”
The guy across from me starts kissing his girlfriend again. This time he’s kissing her neck, working his way down. He’s kissing her but his eyes are on me, watching my reaction.
“Feel the Holy Spirit release its power,” Hartley says, his eyes shaking so much they are vibrating my chair.
The kissing is a mix of sucking and biting and he’s below her neck, nudging her blouse out of his way. His eyes are still on me.
Everyone is praying, Hartley is praying for me, and this guy with the long hair, he shows me his tongue. No one is looking, no one notices as he sticks it out, slow and slippery, just like that, he sticks it out. It’s wide and pink and pointing. He shows me what he had hidden, shows it like a secret weapon. He uses it to get his way. He is licking, his eyes are blinking slow as he licks; up and down my skin he’s looking, licking, looking me up and down, long and luxurious. He is tasting her, me.
My body is on fire, it’s lit all the way up, like the chair has delivered me a shock. I shiver and shudder, some sounds come out of my throat that I can’t stop. It passes through me, this wave of feeling, from him to me it passes. He sees me. He heard me. Now he’s smiling.
Hartley’s gasping. “Alleluia!” he cries and jumps up from his chair, he’s screaming, “Praise the Lord! She’s been visited!”
Everyone in the prayer group jumps up, except the boyfriend and girlfriend, who are doing their own thing, repositioning and touching. They go at it wholeheartedly now, like they are alone in the room. They may as well be, because the nine other disciples rush at me, Hartley first. His arms around me, he’s holding on. “Thank the Lord,” he’s saying. But it is like Hartley is speaking in a tongue foreign to me and I don’t understand him.
I have to get out, get away from these people. I motion that they must please let me go. They think I’m sick, or about to be, so they part like the Red Sea. I walk through the middle of them.
This time instead of one I dip all five fingers. It’s worse because it’s a public toilet. Who knows who used it before me. Next hand, five more—dip, dip, dip, dip, dip. Then I throw up.
When I go back to the meeting they are singing a song of surrender. I open the door and first thing I see is them waving pale fingers like hankies.
“Don’t worry,” Hartley whispers, his eyes rattling in their sockets. “After a moment like you had, you know, when the Spirit moved you, there’s always a time of weakness. The devil approaches. He’ll try. Just keep praying.”
I don’t say anything. I’m feeling my tongue climb the wall of my teeth.
“I’ll pray for you,” he says.