One Wrong Step and You’ve Brought on the Last Days (an excerpt)

“One Wrong Step” is an excerpt from The Bone Trench, which my agent is currently submitting to publishers; the excerpt appeared in EAP: The Magazine, Summer 2015

Up the river bank from Mother Mary, two groups confabulated over a banner strung at the base of the Memphis Pyramid. The banner proclaimed “Site of Our Renaissance.” A beefy white guy hugged one of the poles holding the banner and shook it. He was trying to dislodge a guy who’d shimmied up the pole. Above the fray, the slick sides of the Pyramid glittered in the sun.

Up the river bank from Mother Mary, two groups confabulated over a banner strung at the base of the Memphis Pyramid. The banner proclaimed “Site of Our Renaissance.” A beefy white guy hugged one of the poles holding the banner and shook it. He was trying to dislodge a guy who’d shimmied up the pole. Above the fray, the slick sides of the Pyramid glittered in the sun.

“Your bones are creating discord, Mary,” Little c observed.

For two days, Mother Mary and her guardian angel had visited the site of the latest bone trench, hoping to gather more clues as to where in Memphis the missing Jesus might be. The first day, they’d stood on the ledge halfway up the bank, peering into the bottom of the circular trench with its jumble of bones. The second day, they’d been barred from the ledge, so they wandered down to the shoreline, their feet sinking in the sludgy, displaced mud. A water moccasin sunning on a concrete pylon eyed their progress. Unhinging its jaws, the snake showed its cottony mouth, hissing, and Mary and the angel called it a day.

This morning, they’d arrived just as a clutch of uniformed officials was leaving the site. Behind the departing officials, the protestors in the parking lot got busy, one side hanging their banner, the other side immediately working to rip it down. The construction work transforming the Pyramid from civic center to private prison had ceased, put on hold by the third bone trench unearthed by prison construction.

“The bones aren’t causing discord. The prison is.” Mary watched as the guy on the pole lifted garden sheers, laid the blade against the banner rope, and clipped. A protest rose from his opponents below. “They’re just using the bones to fight about the prison. No one seems to actually care about those who were killed.”

“Far be it from me to defend the benighted.” Little c pointed his weedwalloper  at the group. The weedwalloper belonged to Amelia Thomas. Claiming the snake “looked familiar,” Little c had gone next door to ask for a hoe. Amelia informed him no one hoed anymore and suggested the weedwalloper. When she’d demonstrated the shredding action, the angel had said, “That’s the ticket.” Now, he said, “They don’t know who the bones were. You do—you’ve seen them.”

“Have I ever.” Mary reflected on the visions of slaves and convict leasing victims that had been overwhelming her since she’d set her slippered foot back on earth. The visions had caused her to care deeply about the bones, even as they’d worn her out.

“My point being, the humans might need your help seeing them too.”

“Huh. You think?”

“Left on their own, humans are lost.” The angel adjusted his safety goggles. “Exhibit A: these Memphians accomplished the near impossible: they messed up a perfectly good parade.”

The Mother of God pictured the angel in the plumed hat he’d been wearing when they got  mixed up in the anti-prison march three days earlier. “It wasn’t a parade. It was a march. But you looked nice.”

“You too. Very Queen of Heaven.”

The man with the garden shears shimmied down the pole, and the man on the ground tackled him, the shears dangerously wagging to and fro. As the two men tumbled around, MM trained her smile on the brawling protestors.

“You’re too far away,” the angel predicted.

Closing her eyes, the Mother of God lifted her arms. Her beatific smile spread wider, and the smell of roses saturated the air. Light radiated and pulsed across the distance, enveloping the men, who stopped fighting, mid-punch. The folks who had been encouraging the brawl stood with their hands hanging limp by their sides.

“Impressive,” Little c said. “Very impressive. Subdued with beneficence.”

Spent, Mother Mary plopped onto the ground. Beyond the harbor, the sun glowed over the Mississippi River. The stiff grass poked her in the behind.

The angel laid down the weedwalloper  and sat beside her. Shoving his safety goggles onto his forehead, he tugged at the grass, ripping it out by the roots. “What now, Mary?”

Mother Mary fished a scrap of paper from the pocket of her martyr’s robe—the marvelously protective robe held so much. She carefully unfolded the photograph from the Commercial Appeal which showed her at the anti-prison march. She’d never seen a photograph of herself before, at least not a good one.

“The newspaper took your photo in 1968 in Egypt,” corrected the angel, who frequently piggy-backed on her thoughts.

“Yeah, but I’d been in revelation so long, by the time the Cairo paper took my picture, I looked like a pig in a pillowcase. No one in Memphis recognizes me yet, so I look less heavenly light, more human.” She peered closely. “You can see my eyebrows in this photo.”

“This is your longest stretch ever on earth—unseen, that is.”

“Yep. Two weeks. Fun, but tiring.”

“Blame it on tectonic strain.” Little c referred to the explanation given by the world’s newspaper for the light that hovered above the Coptic church for three years: an earthquake caused it. “Whole lotta shaking going on.”

Mother Mary shrugged. “I wouldn’t put it past God to use an earthquake to amplify my luminosity. After all, God brought Jesus into this world using my physical body. God likes working with nature to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.” She gazed at that body captured in black-and-white newsprint.

“What you looking for?” Little c peered over her shoulder.

“Same thing I’m always looking for.”

“Where is God in this picture?” Little c guessed.

“Where is God in this picture.”

In a moment, MM collected herself and stood. “Now. I need a mikveh.”

*****

Mother Mary waded in the river. The gentle current lapped at the hem of her robe. Early on in her heavenly journey, she’d adopted the daily ritual in honor of the dual meaning of the root letters of mikveh, which meant both the cleansing ritual and hope. Each time she bathed, she prayed for more hope in the world. Most of the time, her source of living water was a dip in a soggy cumulonimbus. Lately, it had been a birdbath at the kitchen sink of their rental shotgun. To have the Mississippi River!

The water rose to MM’s waist. Farther out, a fish jumped, its white belly shining, and slapped back into the water. From the shore, Little c sounded out the changes in the riverbed, warning her of the drop-offs that had caught many a swimmer unaware. During the entire walk over from the bone trench, he’d protested the mikveh. “Are you crazy?” he’d asked. “You’re not supposed to stick a toe in that mess of a river. Besides, that shifty-eyed snake might be following us. How am I supposed to protect you if you put yourself in danger?”

Mother Mary hadn’t listened. She had no idea how long they would be on earth. Yes, this trip had been difficult, and she missed everyone back home: the Archangel Michael, her BFF Eve, Elvis. But Earth’s life, its joys and sorrows—who know how long she’d have it, and she wanted to enjoy it while she could.

Tiptoeing, patting the water with her palms, she was emptying her mind of all worry when, suddenly, the ground disappeared beneath her feet.

Quelling her fear, she let the water catch her weight as she drifted in the spin of the current. Floating on her back, Mother Mary closed her eyes. Next thing she knew, MM was floundering in the water and Little c was lifting her into the air,flying her higher and higher, water droplets spinning.

“Down, c!” she managed to shout before the angel swooped them all the way back to heaven.

The cherub paused, wings flapping, and began to descend. “You were drowning!” he snapped.

“One of the women in the barrel…the bones found in the harbor.”

Mother Mary staggered as her guardian angel set her upright on the land. “A chambermaid named Fisty Mo. I saw her leap from a burning ship . She swam to the barrel. She was rescued.”

Breathing hard, Mother Mary closed her eyes and bent at the waist, palms on her thighs. Little c held on to her shoulder as stinging river water ran into her eyes, dripped from the tip of her nose. Focus on God’s hands, she told herself. God’s reaching hands were present in the rescue.

It wasn’t working.

“She was safe.” MM flung back her head and grabbed the ends of her robe, which she wrung mightily. A torrent of water sluiced onto the dry grass. “Then she died, and so did the ones  in the barrel who saved her. I don’t know why I continue to believe God’s plan follows any kind of discernible logic.”

“I told you that river was dangerous.” Little c retrieved his weedwalloper , glancing up in time to catch his safety goggles falling from the sky. The hip waders, which the cherub hadn’t borrowed but conjured, were undoubtedly gone for good.

“I’m getting so frustrated!” Mary thrust her hair from her eyes. “I don’t think the bones are clues to finding Jesus at all. If they are, they’re the worst clues I’ve ever seen.” She threw her hands in the air. “The woman practically drowned in front of me!”

The angel raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

“You ask, where is God in this picture? Then you wade into the river. Glub, glub, down you go.” The cherub bent his knees then jumped up. “Surprise! ‘Why am I seeing all these dead people?’”

“God is with the people who died in the trenches?” Mary crossed her arms. Water dripped from the sleeves of her robe. “What am I supposed to do with that?”

Mother Mary followed the cherub’s gaze across the swath of trees, over the bridge, and onto the Pyramid. The building’s sharp points defined the city’s skyline. One minute, bathed in golden light, the structure was beautiful. But when the clouds shifted, casting shadows across its surface, the effect was menacing.

“This private prison project is the exact sort of thing your son gets himself messed up in. He’ll start preaching, hit dogs will holler, and before you know it, he’s thrown in jail.” The cherub reached and uncrossed Mary’s arms. “Here. Hold out your arms.”

When she complied, the angel whirred his wings. The wet robe billowed as it dried.

“These humans bicker, yell at one another, run off the cliff of reason like a herd of Gadarene pigs, all because of politics, not people.”

“So…” Mary twisted her head back and forth, enjoying the angelic breeze. “We want them to see the bones as people?”

“Yes, Miss Author of the Magnificat, I am the Magnifier, hear me roar. You should use your love to magnify God’s love. You love the bones; get others to love them. Tell their martyrs’ story.”

“How do I do that?”

The angel dropped his wings and lifted the weedwalloper, holding it high beneath the towering cottonwoods. He pantomimed blowing a trumpet.

“Compose a herald?”

Little c tapped his forearm with two fingers.

“Two syllables?”

He held up his index finger and tugged his ear.

“First syllable, sounds like—”

The angel pointed at her.

“Me? Mary? Mother?” she asked as the angel made a chopping motion. “Ma? Sounds like Ma?”

Mother Mary hated charades.

When the angel finally succeeded in getting the Mother of God to say, “Pa-rade,” he re-lifted his weedwalloper and proudly marched in a circle.

“I don’t get it.”

“Oh, for St. Peter’s sake!” blurted the frustrated angel. “Marches, parades—that’s obviously the way Memphis gets out its messages.”

“A parade? How will people know the parade is for the people who died?”

“We write their stories on the back of the invitations!”

“Invitations?”

“How can you have a parade if no one shows up?”

Mother Mary let the idea sink in.

The slaves Corney and Jeremy.

The four young men murdered in a convict leasing scheme. William Walter Robinson. Clarence Cane. G.W. Scott. Douglass Gates.

Her new—slightly intimidating—friend, Fisty Mo.

A glorious, triumphant vision of parading Memphians swept over Mother Mary…followed by a scene of chaos as the crowd realized who they were honoring.

“I’m not sure, cherub. Making it personal can bring out the worst in people.”

The angel stared at Mary a moment then turned toward the house.

“What?” She quickstepped to keep up.

“We know private prisons. We were at that one in Nashville.” The angel glanced at the looming pyramid. “This feels different. More sinister. If it’s as bad as I think it is, and it takes hold in Memphis, it’ll spread like wildfire. East, west, north and south. Memphis will be distributing a new product, one full of evil. Jesus will not let that happen.” The cherub halted at the foot of the bridge rising in front of them. “If you want to protect Jesus, you need to derail the prison project.”

“I don’t do politics.” Mary thought it through out loud. “My strength is people. Individuals. I use that. Lead folks to turn away from the private prison is by getting them to care about the martyrs as people killed by human greed. I get that.” Plus, maybe it was time to try a new tactic. Stop chasing after clues to Jesus’s whereabouts. See if she could make him come to her. But holding a parade—it seemed so silly.

Silly. A slight smile played at her lips. Leave it to God to ask her to do something that seemed so silly when she was certain she saw—just over that-a-way—a much more logical path.

“Maybe you’re right.”

The cherub smiled down at her. “I’ve gotta be right. Why else would I get involved with martyrs, my least favorite thing in the whole world?” He gave an exaggerated shudder. “And by the way, I wouldn’t use that word. Not very appealing.”

“We’ll use their real names.” She slipped her arm through the cherub’s. “What do you think?”

“Sounds good. But, honestly, I haven’t a clue.”

Gazing on the Pyramid—its uncertain surface like an aged mirror whose silver backing had flaked off, marring the reflection—MM understood her guardian angel’s hesitancy. He wanted her heart to be happy, so he would tell her how to protect her son. But if she followed his advice, she might be making his job harder. For, in protecting Jesus, she might be focusing the roiling hatred of the city on herself.

Strife she could handle. She’d made choices before that went against the grain. What she couldn’t handle was making a colossal misstep. A celestial boo-boo. A decision that, followed to its conclusion, brought on the End Times. The Last Days. That screwup would be hard for even her to fix.


Comments

One Wrong Step and You’ve Brought on the Last Days (an excerpt) — 3 Comments

  1. Wow, Ellen, what a rich story! And the characterizations are wonderful. And so funny! Characteristic Ellen! I can’t wait to read it in from a book!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *