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Let the Church Say


On that first Sunday in March, we woke early. The alarm went off at six a.m. and we blinked the sleep out of our eyes. We reached for our phones, tapped stop, and started our morning: shuffling to the bathroom, rubbing one eye at a time so we didn’t bump into the wall, and taking in our appearance in the mirror. Our eyes were the same but each passing day pressed the lines surrounding them in deeper. Long hair, short, brunette, blonde, red, curly, straight, wavy, thick, fine, there, gone. Whatever we had, we groomed, we brushed and polished and shaved and dabbed and patted until we were perfect. Ready to be seen.

We stood before our closets and riffled through, picking out our Sunday best. We had to look good for God. We dressed slowly—to rush would be to not take time, to not take care, and that would open us up for long looks. There was no time for breakfast; it was the day’s first service, and we had to be there by seven-thirty sharp. 

In our cars, on the bus, on the train, we smiled to ourselves. We were ready to take our sacrament, consume Christ, drink his blood, and put our money into the tray the ushers would pass around. Our throats were spit-slicked, ready for praise and worship. 

But when we entered the church, we noticed a naked woman sitting on the altar. She was hunched over, face turned away from us. Her curly hair obscured everything above her clavicle. We could see the entire length of her right side: long legs bent, blocking from view her vagina, back curved, and her right breast just visible through the space created by her arms that were stretched out in front of her. Her wrists were cuffed to the podium, her hands gripping tight the shiny legs. The previous shaky wooden stand had recently been exchanged for a black truss podium made with engineered wood and steel tubing with solid rods. We had pulled extra donation money to ensure we could get the one with a cup holder. The pastor even had it drilled into the floor so that he could lean his full weight against it as he pointed his finger and waved his bible at us. 

We walked with hesitation to our seats, silent, eyes on her body. She was completely bare, every part of her exposed yet covered. The words See Me had been painted in white all over her brown skin, except for, we noticed, her back; the only thing truly naked. The letters written on her were in all sizes, flowing in all directions. Capital letters in some and not in others, coming at random in the middle or end. Those of us seated in the leftmost pews could see that the words flowed down the length of her belly. We had to fight the temptation to look down into the space the angle we were sitting at made visible. Those of us seated in the rightmost pews saw the words crookedly make their way into the crack of her derrière. 

We looked at her and then at each other, unsure what to do. We crossed our legs, unbuttoned our blazers and straightened the bottom hems over our legs, made sure our ties were directly centered over our shirt buttons, adjusted our church hats, took out our compacts, and licked our middle fingers to lightly dab at the lipstick that had gone a bit out of line. We reached out and grabbed the little donation envelopes in the slim holder attached to the seats in front of us. We wrote prayer requests on the inside flap and then donated an amount we believed would be enough to have our prayers answered. 

All the while, we glanced up and looked at that painted cinnamon-brown skin, and we waited for the pastor. Sometimes he arrived later than we did; he was usually in his office—a separate building behind the church—meeting with the deacons about upcoming events or with the choir about a gospel song he wanted to be added to service. He must have been with both groups; it was only the ushers with us now, clutching donation bowls or standing with hands frozen in welcome, guiding people into the church, trying not to fidget, or let their smiles wan. 

Then the pastor walked in. 

“What the hell is this?” he asked and raced toward the altar. 

We watched him as he hurried over to the woman. He almost barreled right into her, catching himself against the sturdy podium. When he arrived on the altar, she finally looked up, a fierce and defiant expression on her face. She looked to be around twenty-five years old. None of us had seen her in a service before. 

“Close your eyes,” he yelled, almost growling at us, and, as one, our lids fell shut.

We all breathed out relief, happy for instruction. He called for a deacon, and we could hear one come thundering down the aisle. 

“You need to get out of here, young lady, before I call the police.”

There was no response. 

“I don’t know what devil brought you here, but I will not have this indecency in my church,” the pastor said. 

He’d taken on that tone he got near the end of service when our eyes glanced at our watches once every couple of minutes or so. His voice was high-pitched and thin, piercing us, like a nail, right through our eyelids to make sure they stayed closed. 

We heard the clang of metal on metal.

“You will stop this,” he screamed. 

We heard the sounds of a scuffle, the metal clanking and scraping. We had to fight to keep our eyes closed.

He called the name of two of the choir members, who must have come in after we closed our eyes. 

“Grab her legs.”

There was a clang, a grinding, and the sound of something thudding to the floor. 

“Get her up. Pull harder,” the pastor barked out. 

We squeezed our eyelids tighter and bowed our heads further, desperate to sneak a peek.

“There’s blood…,” someone said, voice trembling. 

There was a pause, more shuffling. 

Then there was grunting, and we could feel the force of what they were doing under our feet. The metal screeched and the wooden floorboards moaned a desperate cry. We tried to imagine, tried to see how the cuffs would be digging into her wrists, pulling against the podium, the rods pressing hard into her nipple as she clutched the sides, sweaty hands yanking on her ankle and white paint smearing onto them, the choir and deacons watching. Were the ushers privy too? We could hear the floorboard crack and knew it was the podium going. Our brows furrowed in dismay. That was four hundred dollars! And the floors were probably ruined too. Whose donation would pay for that, we wondered? 

A loud bang and then bump, bump, shh, bump, shh, shh. We could feel air whipping by our sides, hear the panting near our ears, and the louder silence emanating from somewhere by our feet. We could smell it now, that metallic, almost pungent smell of menstruation. 

Shh, shh, crr, bump, shh, crr, shh

The sound was closer to the church doors now. There was a thud, and the door to the church slammed shut. 

“Just a moment,” the pastor said, voice calmer but breathy. 

There was movement, pews creaking as people sat down, and scraping from the direction of the altar. 

“Okay, you may open your eyes.”

We blinked slowly, vision restored, taking everything in. 

The ushers were in place, the choir sitting. There’d be no songs today.

Blink. 

White paint on the aisle with red here and there—two bloody fingernails near the fourth and seventh pews.

Blink.

Near the podium, a dark red circle with little clumps on top.

Blink.

Splintered wood and screws by the pastor’s feet. Specks of red on his gray pant leg.

Blink.

The bent bottom of the podium, which now leaned slightly to the left. One of the small rods was broken. 

“Eyes forward,” the pastor said and we looked to him. 

He stared and motioned for one of the ushers. The pastor whispered in his ear, keeping his eyes locked on us. The usher scurried off to the side of the altar, going through the door that led to the bathroom, kitchen, and dining area.

We kept our eyes on the pastor. He was silent for a beat. 

“We will be reading from Galatians today.”

We rushed to open our bibles, the sound of flipping pages filling the air. 

The usher came back in. He had a bottle of bathroom cleaner and a hand towel. He knelt and began spritzing the red spot by the pastor’s feet, scrubbing hard at it. The pastor preached, and our eyes followed along. The smell of chemicals reached us and our throats dried out, our vocal cords sticking together. Our noses stung and our eyes watered. There were coughs among us, but we continued to follow along. Our fingers traced the small black words.


§


When service ended, we made our way gingerly out of the church. Usually, we were all in a rush to get to our cars and be the first out of the parking lot so we could go to whatever our designated place for breakfast was. But today, we moved slowly, whispering to one another.

“Who was that girl?”

“You ever seen her before?”

“Something is wrong with kids these days.”

“Parents stop spanking they kids and now they showing up to church naked.”

“Pastor didn’t seem too bothered during service.”

“Ain’t no use worryin’ bout it if pastor ain’t.”

As we exited the church, our heads swiveled left and right, looking for the young woman, but she was gone. A few of us spotted drops of blood leading away from the church. Others buttoned up their coats. 

“When was the clothes drive supposed to be again?”

“I’m headed to Waffle House.”

“I’m gonna take 285 and get IHOP.”

Some people started getting into their cars, and at the sound of slamming doors, the rest of us picked up speed and made our way to our vehicles to avoid being the last in line to get out of the parking lot. 


§


The following Sunday, we came in to see the podium replaced and the floor refurbished. There was no mention of the naked woman. Underneath our pressed skirts and straightened ties, we wondered about her. Who was she? What did she want? Where did she go? But soon, those thoughts were overtaken by the loud drums and piercing sopranos singing the gospel songs we knew by heart.

It would be the same the next Sunday and the one after that. The woman would fade more and more with every passing week until she was nothing but a funny story we would eventually forget about as well. 

As years pass, the white walls of the church dimming and covered in mud, hot summers turning the grass a crispy, muted yellow, we would continue waking up on Sundays, turning off the alarm, wiping the sleep from our eyes, and getting ready for early morning service. We would make our way there, sit in our pews, sing and shout and nod, and if the pastor asked, we would close our eyes and open them when he directed, and when he ended the sermon saying praise the Almighty’s holy name, we would, as one, say Amen. 


 

LYDIA MATHIS has an MFA in fiction from New York University. She earned her BA in English literature with a minor in classical civilizations from Agnes Scott College. She has worked as a teacher for Teach for America in Memphis and as a teaching fellow at Coler-Goldwater Hospital in New York City. She is the recipient of A Public Space’s 2023 Editorial Fellowship. She has stories published in Five on the Fifth and oranges journal.




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