Nobody knew the church was sick until the floorboards curled inwards and the walls turned soft and rotten. Even Father David couldn’t bring himself to believe all the chips of paint which petaled off the walls to the space between his feet. The congregation had tried everything to save St. Andrews, and by everything, I mean, inquiring the Lord for His holy blessing during Grace, and throwing in an extra five bucks in the donation pan (I suppose God ain’t big on bribes). Father David cleared his throat as he stepped up to the podium. His clerical collar and cassock were as clean and pristine as they were every Sunday morning. “If y’all could turn to Job 2:11, I’d like to start this mornin’ with a lil’ lesson on sufferin’.”
My mother reaches into her bag for her cracked leather Bible. The words “King James Version” once inscribed in gold were now too faded to read.
“In the midst of trials and tribulations we are inclined to ask ourselves ‘How could I, a faithful servant of the Lord, be subjected to such afflictions?’ It’s important realize that sufferin’ ain’t a token of God’s enmity, but of His love. Just as Job endured poverty, death, and disease, we too, must endure the hardship of these difficult times. As you may have observed, St. Andrews is in rather poor condition. Hopefully with the charity of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can come up with enough money for renovations.”
I looked around the church. The faded white walls looked like they were contracting and porous. It seemed that the only thing holding up the building were the hands of God Almighty Himself.
I met Elizabeth Sanders at a Christian youth camp the summer before second grade. Her blonde hair and blue eyes would have you believe that she was some kind of angel (she was the preacher’s daughter after all), yet she always seemed to be the most oblivious in Sunday school. At camp we established a certain routine: Mrs. Merletti would begin class with a verse from the Bible, and Elizabeth would interject with a question.
“In the beginning God created the heav-”
“When was God created?”
“God’s eternal. He’s always existed.”
“But, there has to be a beginning. Everything has a beginning!”
“But God doesn’t.”
I watch her eyebrows crinkle in frustrated confusion. She mumbles something to herself and looks down at her desk, then back up at me. We spend the rest of class coloring in pictures of Noah’s Ark from “The Big Book of Bible Story Coloring Pages”.
“Noah’s Ark was a massive ship built at God’s command, that saved Noah, his family, and two of every kind of land animal” Mrs. Merletti tells me.
“From the great flood of Genesis. An act that saved the righteous and cleansed the world of sin.”
I give Noah a green robe and purple hair. I’m not sure what to color the boat.
For my eleventh birthday, my father gave me a laptop preinstalled with a parental filter software. A couple days later, while researching the history of Mesopotamian architecture, I discovered my computer’s cache function allowed me to completely bypass the program. Elizabeth and I giggle as we type the word “sex” into the Google Images search bar. We lie on our stomachs, heads tilted to the side as we wonder at the mosaic of images: the gentle curves of hips and breasts, the soft folds of skin between their legs. What our adult bodies will look like.
“You know Noah and his family wouldn’t have needed saving if God didn’t start the flood in the first place” Elizabeth tells me as we sit on St. Andrew’s lawn. The summer of 8th grade was as sweet as root beer floats and watermelon pops. Afternoons slipped like molasses and melted into the concrete’s black, sticky pores. In the sunlight, Elizabeth’s blonde hair seemed to form a halo around her head.
That was the summer I learned the fateful work of drowning. It begins with a revelation: collarbones surfacing like flying fish, and spines shot skyward like steeples. It ends with a plea: the air smothered in the spaces between our fingers, and the longing to be brought up gasping from our fateful silence.
“Even God was born in the arms of a maiden” she reassured me as I capsized into her lap.
I discover the “browsing history” tab when I try return to a Wikipedia article on plumb lines.
“A plumb line is made by taking a weight and tying it to a cord. The weight, once suspended, makes a true vertical line. It was a standard once used in construction to make sure that the walls were level. They were used to “plumb” a wall.”
I was also horrified to discover the St. Peter’s style record of Heavy Metal music, Family Guy episodes, and anatomical diagrams of genitals. I find the “clear history” button on the top right corner. The pixelated rectangle seems like an embodiment of that old hymn my mother used to sing: “All the guilty past is washed away, from its penalty I’m free.”
I wondered if they were still using plumb lines to reconstruct St. Andrews.
Four summers later, Elizabeth has let her hair grow just past her shoulders and has stopped wearing pigtails. I’ve grown a bit taller and gotten rid of my braces. I haven’t been to church for years, but it looks like they’ve finally finished construction. The hard white walls, polished mahogany floors, and new stained glass window of Mary made the entire place feel foreign and strange. I see Elizabeth sitting alone at the front pew rolling rosary beads between her fingers. She sees me, smiles, and motions me over.
“Where you applying?” I ask her.
“Duke, UNC, Berkeley, and Stanford so far.”
“Wow, shooting for the stars huh?”
“Yeah, I suppose they’re more of my ‘Hail Mary’ schools, but I applied to Duke early decision and heard back from them a couple days ago. A seventy thousand dollar scholarship!” she beamed at me with a full set of bright adult teeth and freckle free cheeks.
“What! That’s amazing! Does your Dad know?” I see her smile fade as she glanced down at her feet, then back up at me.
“Nah, he doesn’t even know I applied. He’d never let me attend a secular university.”
That service, I watched her father’s shadow, a spoiled negative on the wall, tremble and twitch the Sunday sermon. “Sodom never did what you and your daughters have done, Ezekiel 16:48” Father David repeated. His eyes seemed to turn a flickering shade of dark as the front cover of his Bible fell upon its pages like a final exhausted sigh.
Mrs. Merletti opened her Bible, worn and torn just like my mother’s. “In the book of Acts, God asks Amos, “What do you see? I will not pass by them anymore” as he showed him the plumb.” She pauses and catches the confused looks on our faces.
“In other words, God declared that the sins of the Israelites will no longer be overlooked. The line that He held will pass through the hearts of men as the sword of judgement. That’s how God measured the sins they’ve cast upon one another” she says.
“What did the Israelites do that was so bad?” a boy asks from the back.
“They worshiped false deities and set up idols in their honor. Some of them even burned their children in the fire to Molech.” She sets her Bible on her desk next to the coffee cup of colored pencils and roll of “Good Job!” stickers.
I clear my history after scrolling through Elizabeth’s Facebook feed. I clear my history after following and unfollowing her Twitter account (handle: @warrior_of_Christ346). Her latest tweet was a picture of her wearing a “Duke Blue Devils” T-shirt with the caption “North Carolina here I come!”
I clear my history after searching “how to tell if you’re saved”, “evidence for noah’s ark”, and “christian doubts” in an order I can’t remember. I clear my history after scrolling through her Facebook feed again, and accidentally liking a photo from 2010. I clear my history after looking up Duke’s supplemental essay prompt:
If you would like the opportunity, we invite you to share more about your sexual orientation either below or in the Duke optional essay (250 words).
I take this weight and hold it in my hands. I feel its heaviness as the muscles in my fingers relax, letting it slip and fall through the air. If the weight is heavy enough it will sink straight down, but it may not. If it doesn’t, I’ll watch as it swings in the belief that it will steady itself eventually.
I clear my history after sending my application for Duke. I clear my history after drafting an email to my counselor entitled “Uncertain”. I clear my history after I delete the email.
Repentance is a father’s moon white knuckles on the steering wheel as you drive away from church. Resurrection is to drown in your own infected silence but to still feeling fire licking at your feet. It’s words spread thin like the tide over skin. It’s the tide pulling away something you can’t quite name. To be whole is to be holy. To be whole is to type the letter “n” into the search bar and summon your previous searches “nude”, “naked women”, and “natural” below it. To be holy is to forget to delete your browsing history.
A slice of amber cleaved the carpet as I parted Elizabeth’s bedroom curtains. The belly of the sun against the horizon looked like an act of pure creation, like a city receding back to the birth of God. Her hair is smoke on her pillow, rising and coiling between my fingers. The glow of dusk settled on her skin as I mapped the gentle jut of her shoulder blades.
“Will you shelter the prodigal son that sleeps cold and hungry?” I asked in a prayer without words. She presses me into the nook of her neck: “Breathe these embers to life. Break this body into bread.”
While she sleeps, I try to imagine what Sodom must have looked like without its exiled children. The empty churches, once humming with prayer, now void like a stomach that was always empty and reeling. But maybe there were no buildings at all. Maybe they all just burned up. I close my eyes see it. A city engulfed by swollen light, and the blackened clay burning into the night like a confession.
Angela Villegas is a high school senior in Cairo, Egypt. She self identifies as a caffeine fueled organism and a staunch supporter of the Oxford comma. On her free time she enjoys long walks on the beach and other cliché romance things.