Agnes borrowed my hymnbook, a hairpin, scissors. “I’m always forgetting things, Hannah.” Agnes could chuckle so sweet. She returned things in perfect condition, on time, but she did not return James and I did not want him back.
“He gave you an apple,” said Beth, “not his ring.” As if James could afford rings.
Agnes was dead serious when she entreated Parham for the laying of hands. She actually asked, outright, no chuckles. “Ask and ye shall receive,” she told me, and then she asked James to walk her back to her room as she tucked my hairpin at the base of her head so that the creamy nape of her neck was bare and sinewy as she turned to look at James from the corners of her amber eyes. Her neck was pure white, but her cheeks were marked with freckles, and I thought they looked unwholesome, but Beth said freckles were girlish and flirty which only amplified my beliefs. I walked behind, hair disheveled, heavy books in both arms.
That was a long time ago. Now Agnes scrubs her freckles with lemon halves and has dry bread for breakfast. James left the seminary, disappointed. But she has that same look in her eye, like the Fourth of July, the eyes crackling when she wants something bad.
Parham suggested to Lucas that he sit for the laying of hands, the rheumatic boy with the fragile jawbone and long eyelashes who filled Parham’s eyes with something pained every time he limped past. “I will hold the ghost in both these hands and press it into you,” he said, demonstrating with hands joined like a soup-dish that looked eager and covetous even to Lucas, who was a simple boy. Lucas looked away from the hands toward the ground, muttering, “I am not worthy,” before turning red and limping away.
Agnes is a foil for Lucas. “Come see,” says Parham, and Agnes does not disappoint. She surpasses expectations. We lay hands together, all of us as one. Agnes lies on a long table, and we sit like guests at a dinner with Agnes as the meal. We pray from Hebrews, and some of us tap fingers nervously, playing Agnes like a harpsichord so Parham says, “Flat. Flat and still.” I expect her skin to rise like dough under my warm, moist palms, but Agnes trembles and then turns stiff and someone says, “She does not breathe!” Agnes’ eyes roll back, and her lips part like a saint in an Italian painting, and then suddenly in one long exhalation she spouts forth rivers of words, exotic channels of meaning. Some jerk their hands away, but Parham, red in the face, urges, “Press on!” My blood freezes like Shunganunga Creek in January, but I hold my hands flat as she ululates with alien dialects. I look into the eyes across from me and realize I am not the only one who thinks, ‘How do we know this is the Holy Ghost? How can we be sure that our vanity has not summoned Satan himself?’
When it grows dark, Parham bids us to retreat, and we sit back and cradle our hands like injured kittens. Agnes continues her xenolalia until she grows parched. She drinks three glasses as her hands continue transcribing the words of the ghost. “She writes in Chinese!” says Parham, who has met many Asian peoples in his travels yet is not conversant. But why, I wish to ask but fear sounding irreverent, did the Holy Ghost choose to address us in a language of the East? I know better than to question the ways of our Lord.
Near the witching hour, Agnes collapses from exhaustion and while Parham and the others ease her onto a cot, I seize a page scribbled with Chinese characters and tuck it into the waist of my skirt
The next day, I go to the dry goods shop run by the old Chinese man, and I unfold the paper with the curious figures before him, and he snatches it up and throws it at me, exclaiming in his strange tongue. Agnes must have written something profane, I think. So, it was the devil after all?
When I go home that evening, my mother is waiting on the porch, arms akimbo, her face a wooden door. “The Chinese shopkeeper says you were mocking him with foolishness!”
“Mama! I didn’t know! Agnes wrote the note!” And then a slap in the face like a hot iron.
“Then why go giving nonsense to strangers?”
“I will apologize tomorrow,” I say and turn away with shame. A sting on the cheek stings less when you slap the other cheek almost as hard. I slap myself once but not hard enough so I slap twice, three times, four.
“There you go,” says my Mama.
We ride in the back of the truck to get to the peaches. I stand up and hold onto the cab and enjoy a breeze around my neck and under my arms. Last time I sat in the wagon I got a splinter two-inches-long through my skirt and deep into the soft flesh beneath my undergarments. I bit my lip and left it there all day to keep from lifting my skirt. Now, I stand up away from the splinters—and the chicken dung. Frank stacks cages of screaming birds on Tuesdays to take them to the market, and they splash their waste onto the wagon floor, and it sticks to your boots, and Beth even slipped on a creamy little mound of it and fell like an old sack. Silly thing.
Beth says that Frank is a man, nothing like the rakey, unformed boys at school. I look down through the back window of the cab and see Frank’s thighs sprawled on the car seat, the muscles underneath filling in the denim as it stretches over his legs with a shiny patina. So that’s a man, I think.
We pick peaches until the sun is too high, and my fingers feel like long, fuzzy caterpillars. My shirt is sticking to my wet bosom, and every time I peel it from my skin, it falls back again, magnetized. I tell Beth I’m going to catch my breath in the shade behind the barn, and I lean against the weathered planks not caring about the peeling paint sticking to my skirt cause I’m suddenly drowsy and my head feels like it’s trapped in a clay stove, and all I want is to throw water on my face because the sweat crawling down from my hair is even hotter than my skin. I'm not thinking when I pull up my skirt to mop my brow with the hem. Against my face, the skirt feels like the blessed Shroud of Turin. I pray into the fabric for a moment, and when I lower it, Frank is standing there, with a water pail dangling from his arm and I think he looks angry. I gasp but his hand is over my mouth, and the water spills all over our feet, and I crave that muddy water, grieve its freshness. The hand over my mouth is cool and wet, and as my mouth wrestles to speak, my tongue brushes against the fingers and Frank makes a low sound, like a stuck gear, and his hand only fumbles a little before it slips down the front of my skirt, into my underpants and that secret place between my legs where even I never go.
Before his wife and the girl died of smallpox, she used to scratch out his eyes every time they caught him stealing. He only stole at cards. There is a little scar curving downwards at the corner of his mouth that makes him look sad. I wonder of Emma, the young wife, did her sisters peel off her clothes after she died and find slashes and bruises between the gaping pockmarks or more of that buttery beigeness that covered her face?
He parts me with his two fingers, moving one of them like he is sending desperate messages with Morse. I taste water on his other hand, dung-heavy and metallic.
I look upwards at the trees and know I am trapped beneath something heavier than heaven. The base of his palm is pressing so hard against my bone, I fear it will shatter like a porcelain bowl.
Then a breeze, as if the ghost of a wet cloud. His hands grow feathered and light, begin to shed in wispy flakes. The breeze fluffs the plumes and they become wings, working together towards flight, flapping and lifting me upwards. The ghost sucks the last living air out of my mouth. Oh sweet ghost, sweet holy hands, wings above my dishonorable crown, ghost of heavens, mud and water.
Agnes! Pure, as they say in Greek, whose cheek was a glass bowl that someone had poured cool milk into. Her hands were stained with milk scent, not the kind you find in plastic bottles these days, well-lit and refrigerated, but hot and cheese-flavored, the way it comes out of an animal, like filtered maternal worry. “Don’t want to see another cow teat till kingdom come,” she said and scooped the mud off her patent-leather slipper with a licked finger. With the other hand she brushed back a strand of hair to let the morning sun splash against her face. Her irises swirled light like maple syrup stirred into batter. She wore those patent-leather slippers day-night until she got a red and raw indentation under the strap. “No more manure under my boots,” she said and crossed a slender leg over another. “I hope to die in these.”
When I rested a hand on her knee, she shoved it off. She could be cold like that. First time I kissed her, she stayed seated there on the porch swing with the cat in her lap, and I was leaned over with an arm half-round her shoulders, and I felt them wave a little like wheat stalks in the wind and then grow stiff. The cat hissed with contempt so I tipped my hat and walked on home.
I asked Billy Williamson, who had kissed Maryann and Marybeth, what to do. “Nothing,” he said. “That Agnes got something scary in her eyes. I’d just stay away. Marybeth is soft for you.” He still felt guilty about leaving Marybeth at a picnic and getting lost with Maryann between some cornstalks.
“Nah,” I said.
“So, what about Agnes?”
“I think I’ll marry her,” I said.
The second time, almost four months later, several months before she started speaking in strange tongues, she kissed me. I said, “You’ve never seen anything like a Kansas prairie in the Spring,” and we biked until our cheeks were red and the road got thinner, swallowed up by tall grass and wildflowers, and Agnes yelled, “Stop!” flung the bike aside and dashed toward a field of sunflowers, a school of happy heads. She laughed and greeted their brown faces with a kiss, then fell down in a clearing laughing joyously. I did a somersault and landed on my rear beside her, and she hooted and almost rolled on top of me then gave me a kiss so hot I thought our lips would weld together. She looked into my eyes and said, “Je t’aime.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s French, you bumpkin. I’ve got lots to teach you.” Then she was about to kiss me with that fiery tongue again and I swelled with anticipation—God forgive me, I couldn’t help it—but at the last moment she trembled and paused. “What’s that,” she whispered, “above my head?” And there was a dragonfly, long and blue as ice, sitting atop her curls like we were expecting him.
“We have a guest,” I whispered, and she took in a long breath like she had just come up from the depths of the sea. She stood up, smoothed her skirt and walked back to her bicycle without another word, leaving me plumped up like a Christmas goose.
The next day, a swarm of grasshoppers infested the fields and Agnes told me I ought stay away from her.
Ah, Agnes! I lifted my insides out like a fork under a shellfish.
The train puffs something grey and foul, and I wait for it to expel all its anguish before I alight. As soon as I step on, it begins its swarthy grind. 2:05 PM exactly. In my bunk I unravel my tie, roll up my shirtsleeves, remove my shoes, and request a shoeshine. God’s messengers must impress favorably. I sit and unfold a parcel bestowed upon me by a matronly follower, a full-bosomed woman who leaned forward from the weight of her. I haven’t eaten since last night, I realize, tearing at the embroidered linen, the second layer of cheesecloth. The rhubarb pie sticks to the cloth and its insides crumble like a mud shack in a storm, an undignified mess, the sugary juices already tangy with fermentation. I lower the window and toss the whole bundle out, let the Illinois breeze cool the car, ease my grumbling belly. I have earned hunger, I think. A small penance for the sinner that I am. I lean my head against the cool glass and sleep.
It is hunger that wakes me. There is a girl in a white dress at my feet, playing with a doll and a toy lamb. “How did you get in here?” I ask her.
“She let me in,” she answered.
The little girl does not respond. Perhaps she is speaking of her doll, a little husk-stuffed figurine with lurid painted eyes. “I’m going to eat you!” the doll says to the woolly lamb. “No!” bleats the lamb in terrified shrieks.
“Away!” I cry. “Back to your Mummy!” She looks up at me and her lips quiver, her cheeks a bright pink. “Do you have fever?” I ask.
“Mommy says I’m burning up.” Then she laughs and runs away.
I lock the door and shut the window, but outside in the darkening forest I see nothing but tongues of flames igniting and whole trees swallowed up in the sweeping conflagration, souls twisting and beseeching within the foliage and the sounds of branches cracking like bones. Black smoke, like demons, is released above them. But oh! The broken bones!
A bang on the door. “Go away! Back to your Mummy!” There, the lamb left behind on the floor, mangled and patchy.
“Sir! Can you help a small girl? We heard you was a preacher.”
I pick up the lamb and follow the servant to the dining hall. The girl is laid out on a short table and even though she is little, her feet dangle off the end. I place the lamb on her belly and look into her vague eyes. The cheeks are as red as the boys’, Lucas, the last time I laid eyes on him. “Ripe strawberries at Pentecost mean a good wine,” I mutter and the eyes around me turn from expectant to inquisitive. “Goethe,” I explain, but the expressions do not change.
First, I lay my hand upon her arms. They singe. I gasp but hold hands firm. Is this a test, I wonder? Outside, the forest has been transformed to plains and the stars are fat as lemons.
Her temperature is yet growing hotter. She becomes a vessel of clay hatching in a kiln, a fine Japanese teacup that I saw once in a gentleman’s library. It was saved for special occasions, I was told, because it contained the wind. I cup the vessel in my palms and feel the fire that created it. I see a crack, thin as an eyelash, separating the clay from the fire, the wind howling as it is set free, and I think fire and brimstone, fire and brimstone, and my hands turn cool as puddles, and I breathe in sweet, plentiful air and drench my hands in the holy spirit.
I place my cold palms over her red burning patches, “We take up the sword of the spirit,” on her cheeks, her hands. “We bind this illness,” on her neck, “with chains and fetters of iron,” and slowly, I begin to put out the fire.
MARIA POULATHA is originally from New Jersey and lives in Athens, Greece with her husband and daughter. Her stories have appeared in Split Lip, SmokeLong, Copper Nickel, Pithead Chapel, The Offing, and other lovely journals.