Crosses to Bear
Crosses to Bear is a compilation of the scenes involving Callie, our heroine in Snake Oil on Snow Cones, and her adoptive father, the Reverend Enoch Sadler. In the book this story is broken into separate scenes, but here their relationship is experienced much faster than it must feel to Callie. Hope you like it.
Crosses to Bear
Callie was but a teenager on her third day of homelessness the night she met the Reverend Enoch Sadler. Even then she was wise enough to know that the most menacing of carnival perils has always been other people’s germs—roller-coaster frames missing a few rivets and drunk ride operators notwithstanding.
“I could just tear off the parts that touched their mouth,” said Callie as she eyed a half-eaten funnel cake on a picnic table not six feet away. She spoke in whispers to four merrily decorated ponies tethered and waiting to be led into the ride tent for their evening trudge with sticky, mane-yanking children. Callie stood in shadows, rubbing muzzles, eyeing the pastry, deciding.
“Ya’ll are decorated so pretty,” she murmured as one of the ponies stomped a pixie-sized hoof painted emerald green.
“One time I won the ‘prettiest decorated cash register’ for a Valentine’s Day contest at the five-and-dime where I worked.”
Another pony tried to remove the red top-hat strapped between its ears by rubbing a tent post.
“Won a bar of chocolate,” she added, even as she ventured two tentative steps toward the picnic table.
“Stop that, wicked child,” hissed an elderly woman just as Callie finally reached for the pastry. Callie jerked her hand back in shame.
“Leave that poor girl be,” said an aged man who walked up beside the woman.
The old man peered down kindly at Callie who shivered despite the late afternoon swelter. He looked at the discarded funnel cake, then heavenward, then back at Callie.
“Who provideth the raven for his food?” he asked, and when Callie gave a slight shrug he answered his own question. “The Lord Almighty provides when we are hungry.”
“Job 38:41,” said the crone, who was rewarded with a gentle nod from the man before he turned abruptly toward a crowd of carnival-goers.
“Read your Bible,” snarled the old woman.
“Do unto others…stuff like that?” replied Callie. The woman scowled and seemed about to respond when the man called over his shoulder.
“A plague of sinners awaits!” he boomed. Callie thought he sounded delighted at this prospect. The man held a pious finger heavenward, blustering his way through arm-in-arm couples and roving bands of teens as if parting a sea on the will of God.
Callie felt momentary appreciation for the first kind words she’d heard in days, glimpsing just enough hope in the man’s faith and gumption to forgo the humiliating meal and follow.
The reverend was dressed entirely in black except for scuffed tan boots. He strode to the center of the carnival and overturned a wooden crate as his pulpit, rising to speak amid the dissonance of diesel generators and carousel medleys. A nearby corn dog vendor turned down his transistor radio out of respect.
“Ye, who are slaves of Satan,” he called out to those few who formed about his dais.
“Is this a sideshow?” whispered a woman. Callie slipped through toward the front, nibbling her nails to nubs as she watched the prophetic man challenge the small crowd.
“You’re damned to an eternity of hellfire burning your flesh to bone, of horned beasts ravaging your loins…”
“Enoch, my gracious,” said the old woman.
“Say there, pastor,” protested a strapping man in overalls still dusty from the fields. “Mind the children and lady-folk,” as he moved protectively in front of his wife, a buxom woman who happened to be wearing a neck-less t-shirt emblazoned with the glittery words, “Feeling Groovy.”
“And you, you craven mule, who calls himself a man but allows his woman to show her cleavage in public like a harlot!”
Callie pulled the neck of her dress up.
“Now hold on a minute, reverend…”
“…and then change to demure attire on Sunday morning as if she can somehow avoid the mighty smiting that is God’s wrath…”
“Now, I told you that was enough, you son of a bitch!”
“He is offering you salvation!” screeched the old woman. She bumped past Callie who was now tugging the dress hem down below her knees. “Your soul demands attention.”
“You’d best tell that old man to shut his damn mouth in front of my wife, or…”
The reverend pointed directly at the man, so there would be no mistaking who he was condemning. “Damn, you, lying sinner of Beelzebub, for sending your trollop…”
At which point the man boxed the reverend’s ear and punched his mouth.
“Don’t hurt him!” blurted Callie.
“Jeremiah twenty-two, verse nineteen!” the old man yelled out through bloody gums just before a third blow. He punctuated this argument with, “He shall be buried with the burial of an ass!” index finger raised to the heavens.
The farmer, clearly confounded by the verse, took his wife and left in a huff. The crowd drifted away. The minister dabbed a knuckle at his split lip and stared after their shrugging backs with a look of triumph.
“I am the Reverend Enoch Sadler!” he called out. “Shirk God’s word, but it is his mercy you have forsaken.”
“Why must you taunt them so?’ asked the old woman as she tended a swelling knot above his left eye.
“Because they’ll now spend the afternoon less entranced by the blasphemous entertainment and more mindful of the wrath of God. Carnival-mongering on a Sunday…a SIN!”
“And you’d do well to reserve your reproof for Satan himself, for Eve brought sin unto man. I’ll not have a sister of my flock pretending any judgment for Adam. I’ll not have it!”
“I’m sorry, reverend,” she replied quickly. “Shall I get you some ice?”
He ran a hand through hair slicked back with Brylcreem before standing up and dusting off his trousers.
“Reverend Sadler?” said Callie, holding out a wad of napkins she’d collected earlier.
“What is it?” he growled, even as he took the napkins and cleaned his mouth.
“I…I was pulled by your words. They were holy words, and…”
“Hey, girl,” called a drunken ranch hand standing near a peanut vendor a few yards away. “Get done with that old fart and come give me a diddle. I got a week’s pay burning a hole in my pocket.”
Lights from the rides reflected in Enoch Sadler’s grackle eyes making them appear aflame. Callie’s own eyes flooded.
“I’m not a…I…,” she stammered.
“Be gone, you willful piglet,” cried the minister. “Or I shall call upon The Almighty to strike you down!”
“Yes, sir,” whimpered Callie, who turned in shame.
The reverend stepped past her and smote the cowboy’s shoulder with his cane. The brawny youth scrambled away, and once more Callie felt a sense of gratitude and respite in having been defended.
“Not you, child,” the reverend said, speaking to her as if she were an injured fawn. Enoch Sadler stared at her as a bearded albino lady and dwarfed lizard man strolled by arm in arm. The old woman cleared her throat as if to break his reverie.
“Enoch…reverend, we must be going,” said the old woman.
“But be ye doers of the word, and not just hearers, Evangeline,” he responded.
Callie caught a whiff of grilling hamburgers and desperately hoped this holy man and the sullen Evangeline would buy one for her.
“James 1:22,” Evangeline acknowledged.
“Indeed, sister. Let us return to the church with our guest,” he announced.
Callie looked longingly over her shoulder at the hamburger vendor, yet knowing the last few days of living meal-to-meal and makeshift beds had to end. Reverend Sadler nodded decisively and strode from the rabble toward a single-cab pickup parked across the hay field. Evangeline scowled and followed.
Callie ultimately followed as well that night. She’d known even as they hopped over furrows and corn roots that she had no plan and that the decision to go with this strange pair was fraught. But she also knew that her life no longer had anything to do with chocolate prizes or painted ponies, and it sure as hell couldn’t involve half-eaten funnel cakes.
The radio in Sadler Shepherd’s truck was tuned to a sermon being transmitted from Tulsa. Callie was dying to reach forward and turn up the volume so she wouldn’t feel the need to fill the awkwardness.
“Where’s your kin?” asked Reverend Shepherd.
Callie’s eyes filled with tears. Sadler Shepherd shifted gears and then used his right thumb to rub at a crack in the dashboard as if he could buff it right out. Evangeline sat as far to the right as the truck door allowed.
Callie watched the passing fields and wished she had the courage to ask the reverend about where they were going. Mostly she wanted to know if she would get to eat and sleep when she got there.
“Soybeans,” had always been her father’s answer to Callie’s question, “What are they growing?” She’d eventually come to realize he often had no idea what was growing in the rows of fields they passed crisscrossing Texas on his sales trips. It became their private joke. It didn’t matter if the field was producing corn or cotton; her father would answer “soybeans,” and Callie would giggle before turning back to the mesmerizing miles of crops, oil pumps and windmills.
“My dad’s funeral was eight months ago,” Callie finally answered.
“God rest his soul,” said the reverend.
“God rest him,” agreed Evangeline, though she kept her gaze firmly on the passing fields.
“His wife took up with my manager from the Winn’s Five & Dime right before Easter,” Callie continued.
“He gave me a razor wrapped in a shoebox for my birthday. Told me it was ‘for shaving those sexy legs of mine.’”
“Lustful pagan,” murmured Sadler.
“And ever since my stepmom was mad at me every minute of the day.”
Sadler shook his head. Evangeline turned to give Callie a better look, and then returned her attention outside the truck.
“Last month my manager told me he had to let me go at the store. Said it was to avoid any ‘strife and complexities in the home life.’ And then a couple of weeks ago my stepmom told me ‘crazies aren’t welcome.’ That it was ‘time to hit the road.’”
Callie noticed bullet holes in a sign announcing their arrival in the township of Salted Springs. A few minutes later they turned onto a dirt road. Evangeline lumbered out to open two cattle gates as their journey came to an end. Some of Callie’s anxiety ebbed as she spotted the little community.
A wooden church and large wooden cross made up the center of a wagon-wheel layout of seventeen brown homes. A pond, a magnificent willow shading the church, and a robust community garden contributed a quaint appeal. Callie’s mouth tingled as she smelled baking bread.
“Welcome, child,” said Sadler Shepherd.
“What are your plans?” asked Evangeline.
Callie had none.
Sadler Shepherd assembled his congregation for a special service a week to the day after Callie’s arrival. Evangeline stood with arms folded and lips pursed as she listened to his fiery oratory. It had rained just a few minutes earlier, and the resultant mud and humidity seemed only to add to her irritation.
“…and as we’ve read,” Sadler preached from the front steps of his church, “God will strike down and condemn to the fires of hell Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, journalists, non-elected police officials…”
“Sadler wants you to go stand on that step below him,” Evangeline whispered to a bewildered Callie.
“…federalists, actors—excepting, of course, for Nativity scene and Civil War re-enactors—and anyone unduly afflicted with any of the seven deadly sins.”
“…particularly lust and sloth.”
“Get on up there, child,” insisted Evangeline.
“They are destined to an eternity bereft of salvation, spent burning over and over again, their flesh continually boiling away, only to re-grow and begin to burn again.”
Callie scratched her nape and imagined flesh boiling.
“Demons will ravage them with cat wicks the girth of a tree branch, and other condemned will scratch out their eyes and bite their flesh.”
“Oh my,” whispered Callie.
“Satan will eat the most savory delicacies in front of the condemned, drink of the coldest streams as screams stifle in their scorched throats, mocking them for having neglected to accept the Lord as their Savior.”
“Amen,” answered many.
“We must save them, my children, those who had once been left out of the kingdom of heaven, especially when it is through no fault of their own. We must bring them into the flock and save them from eternal torture.”
“Callie-child, step forward,” Reverend Shepherd said. He held out his hand to the girl. She looked up at him and then out into the crowd, mortified that she was suddenly the center of attention.
“Come,” he said again, and she was compelled to ascend the two porch steps to be at his side.
“This heathen child of God—we’ll not turn her away as did her family.”
“Oh my God,” said Evangeline. Sadler lay hands upon Callie’s head.
“Let it be known to all men and be heard by the Heavenly Ghost…”
“It’s not right…” Evangeline said under her breath.
“…that henceforth this sinful waif is to be known as my daughter and heir…”
“No, no, no,” whispered Evangeline…
“…for Callie is to be saved from the hell pit for which she was otherwise doomed!”
“What?” asked Callie. “I mean…what?”
“There is His sign that what we do this evening is glorious!” screeched Reverend Shepherd. His flock followed his finger pointed toward the sky behind them. Murmurs and gasps rose from the crowd as all beheld a rainbow arcing over the horizon.
“God’s promise is a blessing on this deed,” the old minister croaked as he looked into the face of his new daughter.
Callie flashed to a memory when she asked her father what God’s face looked like. He’d smiled while pointing at a sunset. Now she looked out at the surprised applause and listened to halleluiahs from the little crowd. She noticed with dread the terse expression of Evangeline. She also noted the face of Sadler Shepherd, with his maniacal eyebrows and his teeth the palette of river pebbles.
She hoped like hell that her father had been right.
“You have failed me as a daughter,” Reverend Shepherd decreed one sweltering afternoon as Callie massaged his feet under the willow. He’d caught her casting longing glances toward the coolness of the pond, and his irritation spewed out.
“I’m sorry, Father,” she replied, forcing her attention back to his bunions and kneading his heels with every muscle in her grip. It had been a hard fourteen months since the adoption, and she had no desire to make it harder this day.
“What must I do to rid you of your wicked and lustful thoughts?” he demanded.
“No, sir, I wasn’t thinking sinfully. I was merely admiring the water, and…”
“How dare you correct your father? Do you think I don’t see your desires? Do you think God can’t see your aching desire to return to your sinful ways?”
“No, sir. I know you see my soul, but please don’t thrash me…”
“Heathen! Make bare your hip this very moment so as to purge your heathen-ness in baring yourself as Eve had been bare to God.”
A thrashing came, this time from a frayed riding crop applied smartly to her right hip. She sobbed and begged forgiveness and accepted that this was her life. Struggles and indignities? Of course, but most days she was able to find some peace in the hardship of this mortal life, knowing that she was earning an eternal life of bliss.
Thus it was with puzzlement when Callie began noticing certain un-pious behaviors in her adoptive father. They were small issues at first: catching a lustful smile when another man’s wife bent from the waist; purchasing a gold-plated crucifix to replace his handmade wooden one; taking the Lord’s name in vain when one of the milk cows kicked his hip.
Most concerning, however, was the fact that her whippings seemed to come more frequently and for increasingly unjust reasons. This was especially confusing in that she was the only “child” in the community who ever seemed to incur his wrath or warrant his patriarchal attention.
And then one day it all became painfully, poignantly clear.
“Sinful,” he would later call her act of walking into his bedroom. But there she saw him, his pants at mid-calf. He was gazing at a Polaroid of her wading in the pond with her skirt hiked to her thighs. Sadler didn’t see her at first, his lids half closed as he whispered, “God be praised,” over and over.
Sadler startled at Callie’s tiny sob. He toppled his chair and spilled his seed all at once which, at least in Callie’s memory, hissed and steamed as it burned a hole through the dusty floorboards straight down to hell.
Callie had expected to be chastised, but neither spoke as she walked back out of the room and went to cry in the vegetable garden.
Sadler Shepherd retreated to his barn for three hours the following day. He took a pitcher of water and half a loaf of bread in with him. The congregants milled about and cast curious glances during their chores. Even Callie wondered what the old man was up to in there. They could hear him banging and sawing, but no one could guess.
Reverend Shepherd fell prostrate on the hay-covered floor midway through the morning. Three cows non-judgmentally chewed their cud, though several hens clucked in reproving tones at the man’s grovel.
“Lord, I cannot look upon her face without feeling at once alive and woeful.”
He grasped at straw and mournfully rubbed handfuls over his face and neck.
“Please, I beg You, allow this toil, this toiling mindfulness of You, rid me of this cursed covet.”
He finally emerged just before noon wearing a torn woolen robe and leather sandals. He shouldered a crucifix well over twice his body length and so wide at the cross that he was standing on his toes to keep the lower edge out of the dust.
This was unfortunate, for when he took his first, triumphant step the lower edge of the cross dipped back down into the dirt. This caused him to lurch forward as the cross braked to an immediate halt. Everyone who was outside at the time stood in awed silence.
Sadler pivoted the cross back into the barn. There he took up his handsaw once again and lopped off six inches from the lower end. Evidently choosing to overlook the imbalance he’d just created, Reverend Shepherd once again hoisted the crux over his shoulder.
“What are you doing, pastor?” asked one of the braver congregants.
“I am a sinner,” announced the reverend. “And as such, I must cleanse my soul. This march will commence from the center of my sin, and will only finish when I’ve arrived at the bend in the river where we undertake baptisms. Once there, I shall ritually cleanse myself of my own lustful thoughts by immersing once more into those holy waters.”
“But, reverend, that part of the river’s over a mile away.”
Sadler Shepherd smiled sagely.
“I have already succeeded in this pilgrimage,” he announced prophetically.
With that he resumed his trek to the river. His beginning stride conveyed an image of strong, heroic leader for his flock. Within fifty feet, however, his breath was coming in gulps. Ten yards later he stumbled.
Sadler panted and stared off in the direction of the river as all eyes watched. Callie smirked behind a gardening glove.
“We are all sinners,” he announced once his breath had returned. “You—me—all of us.”
“I know my sins,” he said, growing more confident. “Have you acknowledged your own?”
He stared at them one by one, demanding with his glare that they confront their sins.
“The river beckons. We shall each shoulder this cross as did our Savior, handing if off in turn to the next sinner until we reach our destination and once again wash the sin from our souls.”
Murmurs and sideways glances indicated no one understood exactly what he was asking of them.
He grimaced in frustration and tried again. “We’re all going to take turns carrying this down to the river. Everybody is going to get baptized again once we get there.”
Everyone nodded, although no one appeared terribly keen on the idea.
“It’s over a hundred degrees,” called out one.
“Not even a Sunday,” said another.
“Everyone participates” said Sadler. “I’ve already taken my turn, so who is next? Callie-girl; you certainly carry the burden of many sins. Let us start with you.”
Sadler and Callie tried to avoid each other, though this was difficult in a community with a population of eighty-seven. The little enclave of Sadler’s founding was intended to be an “oasis of propriety and decency in a desert of sin and debauchery.”
Contact with the adjacent town of Salted Springs was limited. Once a month Sadler allowed trading of their produce for Salted Springs’ mercantile goods. The barters occurred from pickup trucks backed tail-bed to tail-bed at the town limit line. Sadler and his followers lived on their own harvests, ignored all media, and traveled nowhere on vacations.
Though it could be said that the women of the congregation were somewhat lacking in grace, independence, and life skills, it could just as easily be said that the men who came to court them were homely, disabled and stupid. To refer to most men from Sadler’s flock as strongest or smartest was analogous to awarding a trophy for “Guy with Most Skin” in a leper colony.
Sundays and Wednesdays were devoted to worship. The other five days of the week were spent working around the house and garden, tending to the brood of children from the congregation, and praying at every opportunity.
Which all served to bore Callie terribly. She wanted to be “good.” Good as defined by Evangeline, which meant nothing colorful or entertaining was allowed; good as defined by Sadler, which meant even her thoughts were a source of sin. Part of her felt she owed these people too much to stray from their beliefs; the other part felt like a lassoed mustang.
Callie found herself doing things she hadn’t even thought about in a long time. She actually flipped through the pages of a Sears & Roebucks in the waiting room of a doctor’s office in Uvalde when one of the children from the congregation had his tonsils removed. She often lapsed into thoughts of pretty hats and heeled shoes. One night she had a dream in which a former beau from high school pleasantly ravaged her, a sin so startling she awoke and immediately rose to shower.
Callie first met Angela a few nights after the dream while taking nine children from the community to play by the pond.
“Hello,” said Angela, a pretty girl with dirty-blonde hair. Angela wore a light yellow cotton skirt which didn’t even cover her knees. Daisies and a purple feather adorned her hair, and hoop earrings dangled halfway down her neck. Angela seemed to skip everywhere and laugh at everything. She always seemed to arrive from whereabouts unknown within minutes of Callie’s arrival with the children.
Angela became the first real friend Callie had had since her days at the Winn’s Five & Dime. Callie wasn’t close to any women in the church. She’d yet to speak on any subject other than fall canning, God’s grace, or proper colors for linens to be used in dressmaking since the night she met Sadler.
One afternoon Angela and Callie laughed at the children spinning to get dizzy-drunk in a patch of clover.
“I brought you something,” said Angela as the children fell down giggling.
“Boys, please don’t take Jeremiah’s frog,” Callie called out to a few of the boys. She turned to see that Angela had produced a Sears & Roebucks catalogue. The catalogue was over two years old and had blue-ink scribbles on some of the pages.
“I was reading one just the other day,” she informed Angela in amazement. “It even had blue scribbles in it, just like this one.”
Time with Angela became the most hopeful part of Callie’s life. She daydreamed of visits with her while hanging laundry or weeding. Callie became flushed on days when she could take the herd of children on a walk around the pond. She often pushed the limits of acceptable time away from the congregation to eke out just a few more minutes with her friend. One magnificent day she kicked off her shoes to mimic Angela, and they ran together through a meadow while the surprised children watched.
Callie could only peruse the gowns and perfumes advertised in her catalogue on Wednesday nights. Wednesdays and Sundays were the only nights Sadler ever went to sleep early. Sermons tended to exhaust Sadler.
She couldn’t, however, bring herself to look at the catalogue on Sundays. She just couldn’t. So she waited for Wednesdays with great anticipation, her breath quickening in anticipation of the moment when she would sneak out to the barn and flip through the pages. Her pulse quickened as if meeting an illicit lover out in that barn, but it was just a moisture-cracked catalogue that made Callie feel so happy.
One night, Evangeline told Sadler about Callie’s Wednesday night trips to the barn. Evangeline suspected Callie was meeting a man. Sadler snuck into the barn undetected and watched as Callie’s lips grew rosier with each flip of the page. He grew agitated as her hand gently stroked her own cheek. Finally he could stand it no more.
“Harlot,” he bellowed as he jumped from cover behind the compost bin. He ripped the magazine from her fingers and shoved her into a pile of hay.
“What are you doing?” Callie cried as Sadler used her candle to ignite the catalogue.
Callie saw it then, that look she’d seen in her stepmother’s boyfriend. Sadler’s eyes were locked onto her, almost as if he were looking through her whole body. His neck reddened and his breathing intensified. His hands gripped and released. He grunted like a rutting stag.
Callie frantically looked around for something heavy she’d use to strike him when he advanced. Angela was nowhere to be seen.
“Sadler, you’ll stop this now,” Evangeline said from the barn door. Sadler jerked as if startled from hypnosis. He looked over his shoulder at his sister and back to Callie.
“Stay there on the ground with the animals, because you’re acting like a heathen animal,” Sadler growled.
“What gives you the right?” screamed Callie.
“How dare you ask that,” Sadler yelled back. “God gives me the right in all things, you wanton child! I am your father, and His commandment is that you honor me.”
Sadler left her there in enveloping darkness as Evangeline indignantly marched him back to the house.
“He wants me,” Callie whispered.
“He does,” replied Angela who sat serenely on a log bench. Callie paced beside the pond.
“I have to leave.”
Angela’s fingers were stained pink from pomegranate pulp, and she offered a handful to Callie with one of her glorious smiles.
Callie had a way of looking sideways from dark-blue eyes. It was a look of too many unsure days, despite being barely old enough to vote.
“I don’t know. It was so scary before, and…”
“I brought you something!” Angela said so sprightly that Callie tittered.
Angela spent a moment searching the pockets of her blouse and jeans before remembering a small bag on the ground behind her.
“Here it is!” she announced as she handed the bag to Callie.
“Money?” said Callie as she peeked in the bag.
“Ninety-four dollars; enough for a bus ticket and a motel for a night or two.”
“Oh, Angela, I…”
“There’s a little makeup kit in there, too. We’ll need to get you fixed up a bit before you go.”
“But, I can’t…”
“Oh goodness, sweetie, you have to. I also got you this.”
Angela produced a slightly charred Sears and Roebucks catalogue. “Saved it from burning all the way to ash. I know how much you like it.”
Callie cried and gave her friend a hug so tight she worried she might break her. When they separated, Angela wiped away Callie’s tears and the two laughed out loud.
“Let’s see how pretty we can make you today.”
Angela gave Callie a little makeover right there on the log bench next to the pond. She wove daisies into Callie’s pony tail, explaining that this was what one did on May Day. All the while she told stories about dancing around May Poles in Europe and her great loves and of her life’s joys.
Callie shyly peeked in the compact mirror after Angela finished. She saw for the first time since her father died that she was lovely. She saw other things, too. Callie realized with a tiny gulp that she really was leaving. She saw that she had no means or real skill in this world, but that she would be able to find a way without selling herself or giving in to a hypocrite.
Callie squared her shoulders and walked to noon service to pick a fight.
“May Day,” sneered Reverend Sadler Shepherd from his wooden box. His congregation listened raptly.
“Right now in the world there are those celebrating spring with music…merry-making…sinful foolishness. But not here! In this community we strive for reverence. Grave reverence.”
Sadler paused to look out on his flock. Satisfied with their level of gravity, he launched into his sermon.
“We read in Hebrews 11:30 that Joshua planned to assault the Canaanites with sword and fire, but that God told him to trust in a different tactic. Amen!”
“Amen!” answered Evangeline. Others in the congregation answered as well, though Evangeline was by far the most animated.
Reverend Shepherd raised a hand scythe used for cutting corn stalks at the word “sword.” The congregants stood nearly motionless, as if mired in spiritual spackle.
“God told Joshua that the walls of Jericho would come tumbling down and lay open the land He had promised. But only if they were to march around the solid walls whilst blowing upon their mighty ram horns. God be praised!”
“Hallelujah!” shouted Evangeline. Her voice warbled from the passion of a Holy Spirit passing through her bony frame.
“Today we use our horns to tumble the walls of Satan,” continued Sadler. “This is a blessed thing we do. For Satan is here! Make no mistake. He is here to tempt us, to lead us from Salvation and directly into his sin-infested heart.”
The reverend handed the scythe to Evangeline so he could descend from his pulpit to stand amongst his followers.
“So we take up the horn and march against the leftist circle of Satan, against the hedonism of pagan rituals. We move as the hands of the clock, as did Joshua and his mighty army moved. Every step of every circuit of every day brings us that much closer to the right hand of God. Amen!”
With that he blew a kazoo-like note on a hollowed-out deer antler to begin the march, which was about the same moment Callie arrived.
“Be brave,” encouraged Angela who was standing just behind Callie.
Sadler stepped out of the vanguard as if to meet the challenge. The others turned to stare, evidently astonished at Callie’s makeup.
“Keep marching,” admonished Evangeline to trudging congregants who had slowed to watch the show. The pace picked back up, though all eyes shifted hard to the right. Soon Sadler and Callie glared at one another inside a circling, gawking herd.
Callie’s daisy-laced hair was pulled back into a chestnut ponytail. A few strands had slipped out of the rubber band to fall across one of her eyes. The scowl left Reverend Shepherd’s face. He seemed to soften for just a moment, as if he might forgive her.
But he didn’t.
“Harlot!” he cried.
For several seconds, Callie almost allowed herself to be cowed. She could still wipe off the makeup, still apologize for her behavior, still smile.
But she didn’t.
It wasn’t Sadler Shepherd’s bullying and hypocrisy that bolstered her resolve, but his thumb-length nose punctuated with a burgundy mole just left of the tip. She hated that mole. She’d fantasized many times about snipping it off with garden shears.
One of the women tittered and was shushed.
“Vex your tongue, you misbehaving ingrate!” yelled Evangeline.
“Shut up, you old biddy,” Callie shouted back.
For several moments the only sound was Sadler’s heavy breathing and the shuffling of the congregant’s feet around the cross. Callie began marching around the cross as well¾only counter clockwise¾to a chorus of gasps from the group and a growl of rage from Sadler.
“You were a sinful harlot when I found you, and you will always be a harlot,” he cried.
“What does it say about you that you pleasure yourself from pictures of your own daughter?” she demanded back.
“His adopted daughter!” shrieked Evangeline.
Sadler stomped the ground until the heel popped off one of his boots.
“Go cut me a switch! Cut it as a whip and make bare your hip so that all can see how trollops are to be treated!”
Callie did just that. She marched right up to the old willow tree near the cross. She cut Sadler’s switch. She cut one for herself as well.
“The sermon is over and the lesson hath begun,” Reverend Shepherd announced triumphantly.
“You don’t have to do this,” Angela said. “You could just leave.”
“He deserves a whipping,” said Callie.
“Don’t take him a switch, then. Just swat him and run.”
“He was decent enough to feed me when I was hungry. Now I’m disgracing him. He gets his own switch.”
“Mend her wicked ways once and for all, Sadler,” screeched Evangeline.
“I shall, sister. I shall.”
Sadler had taken off his jacket and was rolling up his sleeves as Callie returned. He tilted his head and knitted his brow when he spied two switches, and his face turned ginger as he took one from her. He hesitated, seeing she had pulled her whip back behind her shoulder.
Sadler came down with the switch, catching her on the left hip.
She retaliated by lashing him across the neck.
A general moan rippled through the congregation.
“You ungrateful…” started Evangeline, who was so appalled she couldn’t finish the sentence. Callie didn’t answer her, waiting in a fencer’s stance for the next thrust from Sadler.
Sadler’s face turned Passover blood red, and he delivered a series of lashes to her buttocks, torso and shoulders. She matched him stroke for stroke. The two fought a vicious duel across the front lawn, down into the pond, through the hanging linen, and back up onto the grassy mound where the old wooden cross was planted.
Both grew weary, and the action paused. For several seconds the combatants just panted and stared at one another. Finally Sadler threw down his switch at the foot of the cross and pointed a gnarled finger at Callie’s face.
“I am God’s messenger. What you have done to me this day, you have done unto Him.”
“You’ve damned yourself, harlot,” said Evangeline.
“Indeed,” said Sadler. “I condemn thee straight to hell!”
Callie replied by whacking him once more across the face.
“Cut two switches and be ready when I get there, you son of a bitch.”
With that, Callie collected her Sears and Roebucks catalogue and walked out of her old life forever.