Text Box: Short Story 2017/2018 — Second Place

 

Miracles, Mercies and Mary… on Toast by Sherry Morris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We live in one of those little heartland towns where there’s five times as many churches as schools. Still, Miracle! was not the first word that appeared in my head when my husband announced he was having visions. God knows the word was simulacrum. Followed by wondering if this was gonna be the next Jesus Nebula, Nun Bun, or Virginal Veggie Pizza.

I’d been shelling peas in the kitchen, listening to the Dixie Chicks when Bobby walked in, holding his John Deere cap in both hands, his face shining like the girls’ on Christmas morning. He seemed to float across the room. His mouth opened and closed like a fish, no sound came out. I got a glass of water and set it on the table in front of him.

‘What?’ I said, taking a seat next to him, wondering if he got too hot in the tractor cab, though I knew it was air conditioned. 

‘Mary’s come to me. With a plan.’

‘Your sister?’ I asked. ‘Why is she in the fields in this heat?‘

‘Not her. The Virgin Mary. She’s appeared. And smells of roses.’

I confess now, I lied back there at the beginning. Simulacrum wasn’t the first word that came to me. That word came later, during contemplation and with the help of the internet, while I thought about how much simpler things would be if that’s what this was. My real first reaction to Bobby’s announcement was to wonder if I should call the doctor. I’d heard people smelled roses right before they died.

‘You might be having a stroke Bobby,’ I said. ‘Stay still.’

Bobby took my hand. ‘No, hun,’ he said. ‘She’s been talking to me in the tractor. For a while. She didn’t want me to tell anyone, not even you, but now she wants me to go public. I said I’d speak to you.’

I looked at my husband of ten years. I’d known him since we were children. I examined his face and eyes and wished I could see into his heart. Or better yet, his head.

‘You’re saying Our Lady, the Mother of Jesus Christ Our Lord, has been visiting you in your tractor cab?’

‘Uh-huh. And now she wants me to preach at the grotto — there’s more space. More people will hear the message.’

We’d had our ups and downs, me and Bobby, but he was a good man. A kind, caring man. His heart was in the right place even if his brain might have had difficulty pinpointing its exact location in the body or explaining how this organ worked. This apparition made sense to him. But sense wasn’t Bobby strength. Still, unable to help myself, I tried reasoning.

‘How about meeting here in the kitchen, first? With a few family and friends? See if she turns up. We could get a few more chairs.’

Bobby let go of my hand.

‘No. She’s turning up. And it’s gotta be the grotto.’

He’d always had a strong, quiet faith. That’s what made him such a decent man and a catch for this town.  A lot of guys around here had descended into drugs. Others joined the priesthood or military. Some just drove away. Bobby chose to help run our family farm. I guess I should have sent up a prayer of thanks, but I thanked the stars above instead. Sure, it meant I stayed put in this town. But I didn’t mind. Most days. It’d been hard when my best friend, Rae, went off to study astronomy. First female in our town to be awarded a full science scholarship. That was something to be proud of. No point dwelling on the fact there’d been two places available.

These days my thoughts barely wandered to the sky anymore. I was rooted to family and farm. Then Bobby had his encounter with the heavens.

‘Bobby, what makes you think it’s the Virgin Mary talking to you?  Have you asked for ID?  Tested her on her bible verses? Asked just how immaculate her conception was?’

Bobby scoffed and shook his head.

‘She said you’d doubt. She knows about you. The things you hold sacred -- black holes, cosmic rays, the Kirkwood gap. You can’t see those things, but you believe they’re there. I hear you talking to the girls.’

That made me blink. I hadn’t realised Bobby had been listening.

‘I’m not doubting you exactly,’ I said, not wanting to cause a fight. As kids, we’d both been taught about the blessed visitations at Fatima and Lourdes at school. It’d be difficult to argue against these known facts. But maybe I could make them work for me.

‘It’s just that the Holy Mother tends to visit children herding sheep. Not grown men in tractor cabs…’

He looked at me trying to work out if I was poking fun. I wasn’t sure myself.

‘Tell me everything,’ I said. ‘From the beginning.’

 

She’d visited him daily for the past six months, giving messages to post anonymously in the classified section of the local newspaper. Messages that said things like:

Do not be afraid. I am with you.

She has come to tell the world that God exists.

Pray, pray, thus I will protect you.

At least she was brief — the paper charged five cents a word.  She also asked him to pray each morning at the church. Now I knew why we were spending more on gas — it was a 16-mile trip into town. He’d passed her loyalty test and was now being asked to lead a monthly morning procession — a three-hour event – at the outdoor grotto on the grounds of the church where the annual Crowning of The Virgin took place. He also talked about preaching tours to spread the word. He’d start small – travelling to neighbouring communities, but this could grow into invites to other states, or even abroad with a European show involving him and his tractor, the cab filled with roses. I let him talk, wondering if he was listening to himself.

 

In some ways, finding out what was going on was a relief. Bobby had been getting up extra early in the mornings and going somewhere. My wife’s mind said farm work. But my woman’s mind whispered affair. He’d also been distracted, and again, I’d leaned towards farm worries, rather than a woman. But how to classify this? My husband was being visited privately by a woman – maybe not a living-breathing one, but her ever-virginal body had been wholly assumed into Heaven and was now, apparently, appearing in his tractor cab. His heart and mind were full of her. She was taking his time and taking him away from me and the girls. Just like a mistress would. After he finished talking, I said the only thing I could that wouldn’t start a fight.

‘Bobby, I need time to think about this…and pray.’

‘Sure,’ he said.  ‘It’s a lot to take in.’ 

‘What about the farm?’ I asked.  ‘Me and Dad can’t do it all.’

‘Oh, that’s changing,’ Bobby said. ‘We’re moving to the church grounds.’

‘We are?’ I said.

‘There’s a trailer we’ll use. The Blessed Virgin’s got it all worked out.’

‘Does she now…’ I said, wondering what else was worked out.

He looked at the calendar on the wall.

‘We have eight days,’ he said, explaining the processions would take place on the 13th of every month to guarantee our safety.

‘Safety,’ I said. ‘From what?’

‘Tornadoes,’ Bobby replied solemnly. ‘She’s promised that with the processions, no tornado will ever hit the town.’

‘I see,’ was all I could say.

‘Pretty good deal don’t you think?’

When I didn’t respond, he kissed the top of my head and returned to his tractor cab. And her.

I poured myself a cup of coffee and tried to organise my thoughts. It seemed I was now pitted against an entity who moved within the inner circle of Heaven’s Holy Trinity. How could I complete with that? Did Victoria’s Secret carry a suitable angel outfit? I doubted it. And it was a clear bit of devilry playing the natural disaster card. Living in tornado alley, we were at their mercy every spring, heading to the basement for protection, sometimes spending the night hunched together in the dark around a radio. When one touched down, the destruction it caused was real. More real than these visitations, I suspected. But saying that wouldn’t solve anything. I couldn’t let this uproot my family. I needed to find people who’d support my side of the situation. Better yet if they held some authority in Bobby’s eyes. It came to me then as a revelation: the town’s Chamber of Commerce. It was run by a group of professional women. They’d be sympathetic and objective, I hoped. They definitely carried weight – they ran the largest monthly church bingo in five counties.

 

They listened attentively while I talked and clucked their tongues in sympathy.

‘We see your dilemma, Grace,’ Peggy, the chairwoman said. ‘But look at the bigger picture:  when the Rapture comes, your family will be sitting pretty…Perhaps you’ll consider putting in a good word for the Chamber…and the Benevolent Ladies of the Blessed Bingo Club.’

Adele added, ‘We’ve just had the bingo hall repainted, Grace. It’d be a real shame to have it blow away. The whole town would be grateful, knowing their homes and buildings were safe because of you. You’d be voted resident of the year…Every year.’

I looked around the table at the women, all nodding their heads in agreement. 

‘So you think this is real?’ I asked.

They shrugged. The bottom line was religious sightings were good for business. They provided buzz, publicity and, as an afterlife bonus, brought favour with the Lord.

‘You might even get a reality show out of it,’ Shirley advised. ‘She is, after all, an A-list celebrity. And if it turns out it’s not really her or she stops appearing, you can always go back to your regular lives.’

But I wasn’t sure we could.

I called Rae in Arizona – that was where the best went to live and work in space science. She listened to my story.

‘When are you coming to visit?’ she asked.  ‘No tornados here, just lizards and prickly pears.  I could get you into the observatory. Looking up at stars instead of down at hymnals.’

I sighed. Rae heard everything I couldn’t say in that sigh.

‘Alright, here’s what you do. Stay on the farm with the girls. Let him go and stay in the trailer for his prayer gigs.’

That sounded vaguely feasible. Then she added, ‘Maybe he’ll tire from it. Or you will…You know what to do, Grace. You just want someone else to say it.’

I hung up quickly then. In case she said it.

 

So we stayed on the farm and Bobby moved to the trailer. It was a compromise as delicate as a First Communion veil. I knew it was never really going to work. But I tried to convince myself it would. Until I found myself in an armchair, sporting a baseball helmet and a catcher’s mask in that godforsaken trailer, while Bobby sat on the sofa, drinking a beer.

‘It’s not gonna hit,’ he said, patting my shoulder. ‘It was sweet of you to drop in, but She’s promised. You’ll see – This Too Shall Pass.’

I’d come to take him to the basement at the farm. At least during the storm. I’d promised in good times and bad and I didn’t want my girls to grow up without a daddy – even one a bit touched. But he wouldn’t budge. Said I just needed to have faith, that probably this was all part of Her plan as well, to bring me here, so the two of them could help me find my faith and stop tearing our family apart.

‘You gotta be willing to sacrifice,’ he said shaking his head.

As if I hadn’t known that well enough already.

I got mad as hell then. At him, me. Her. But it was too late to leave the trailer. Tornados picked up cars and tossed them like toys out of the pram. There was no safe place here. Every room had windows. Every room was an outside wall. I found rope and tied myself to the armchair, strapped on the baseball helmet, put on the catcher’s mask.

Bobby watched me from the sofa.

‘You’re crazy,’ he said and went back to his beer. It came to me then, a way to take the smug look off his face if only for a moment, maybe even get him to take the situation seriously.

‘You’re not protected.’

He sighed. ‘If only you’d believe in the right higher power. Your twinkly stars and outer space comets can’t help you now.’

‘This trailer and church grounds sit outside the city limits.’

His face became puzzled. ‘What?’

’She said a tornado wouldn’t hit the town, right?

‘Yes.’

‘Check an ordnance map. We’re outside town.’

He paused, blinked a few times, shook his head.

‘Nah, doesn’t work like that. I’ll smell the roses and it’ll be alright.’  But a look of doubt crossed his face.

I leaned towards him as far as the rope would allow.

‘If the tornado hits and we survive, Bobby, you’ll give this up and come back to us and the farm.’

The howling wind turned into a shriek: the sound of a mother losing her child. The trailer rocked heavily. The lights and TV went out and the windows blew, covering us both with glass. Too late I realised I should have covered myself with a blanket. Or got in the bathtub. Or not come here at all and left him to his madness. But there was no time for second thoughts. The tornado was here.

Bobby tumbled off the sofa and rolled into me as the trailer rocked and turned.

‘It’s going to be fine. Just relax,’ he hollered. But he sounded worried. I saw fear on his face. We had to shout over the wind.

‘Take my hand.’        

‘No, you hold on to me.’

Then everything went quiet and cave dark. Beyond cave dark. There was a sucking sound. My ears popped.

 ‘I smell it,’ he cried. ‘Roses!’

He was mistaken, of course. It wasn’t roses. I screamed ‘sulphur’ and saw his confusion. He reached for me then, but too late. I was gone.

 

I landed in the middle of a field, without a scratch. I don’t remember much. A lifting sensation, whirling, not so much falling as floating and landing gently, as if set down by a hand. I also remember the colour of the sky. It was a soft dusky pink. We had flowers at the house that colour.

We found Bobby in the branches of a tree. Alive, in shock, bruised to hell and babbling. The church roof was torn off, the steeple in a ditch, all the grotto statues toppled and broken. They’d be repaired with time and money. There was no sign of the trailer anywhere. Ever. But nothing in town was damaged. Trees were blown over, but the serious damage occurred outside town.

Bobby spent three weeks in hospital. In between helping to clear up, I’d pop in to check on him. He was unconscious the first time I came. The second too. But the doctors said he’d come out of it and he had a stream of visitors praying and laying hands on him, so I waited and went back the third week. Found him on his own, awake and sitting up.

When he saw me he gave a big grin and said, ‘Only took Mary three days to check on Jesus.’

‘Bobby—‘

He didn’t let me finish.

‘Grace, I’m sorry. For everything. You were right.’

That stopped me. I hadn’t expected that, but I wanted to be sure.

‘About what exactly?’ I asked, wondering if he understood his answer would decide our future.

He took my hand. ‘I know the sacrifices you’ve made. And I should have left with you. But in some ways, see, we were both right --‘

I sighed, shook my head, and pulled my hand away. But he held on tight. I couldn’t pull completely free.

He gave a little smile and said, ‘No, I know, you’re more right…it’s just that…when I looked up at the sky, I wanted to see something special too.’

I forgave him then. It’s what Jesus would do. But I didn’t let him off the hook. Got him a radio for his tractor cab which he keeps turned up loud. He has an air freshener in there too. Royal Pine scent. We hired more hands to help out. So we could both starting evening classes in the fall. Bobby’s taking Star Gazing for Beginners. I’m doing a refresher in Physics. Then maybe I’ll look into teaching.

It’s not all completely rosy ‘round here though. There’s still compromise. But compromise that works. When Bobby brought home a toaster that imprints the image of Our Blessed Mother on bread, I let it slide. In fact, I use it from time to time on the sandwiches I pack for him to take while he’s working in the fields. Gives him a little thrill. He comes back at the end of the day asking if I know of any angels needing a good ravishing later. So for the most part, we’re back on track. I even called up Rae last week. Asked if February was a good time to visit.

‘Perfect,’ she said. ‘Not too hot and good viewing conditions.’

‘Excellent,’ I replied. ‘That’s what we want. Clear skies.’

And as I spread jam over my toast, covering Mary’s face in full, I sent up a little prayer of thanks.