Saints Peter and Paul Middle School is a forty-five minute drive from my grandparents' house. We trundle down the gravel drive in the old blue truck, seats fraying and dappled with stains, crumbs and dog hair lining the perimeter of the floor. My grandmother turns the dial through staticky news reports until she finds WAMU's jazz programming, sips the coffee from her plastic travel mug. The rural-Maryland cornfields drift into soybeans and trees and houses until the town hall and parish and school come into view.
School mass is today, just like every Monday, with leftover sacrament to feed our boredom. I can't take communion—my parents, rebelliously Quaker, doomed me to the back bleachers twenty years ago, so I sit in a mockery of prayer as the children of the still-faithful file down the line to the altar at the front of the gym.
The low hum of shuffling feet and whispered conversation echoes through the gymnasium and I feel the cold-steel emptiness of the bleachers around me as I sit in solitary, unbaptized limbo. I finger the glass beads in my hands, fluorescent light glinting dully from the tiny brass crucifix. The ghost of my mother's long-forgotten faith lingers in each Hail Mary, a faded memory of her own Monday masses, her own pleated skirt enveloping her First Communion rosary, her own recitative of prayers flowing through her thoughts.
I had found the rosary, lost in some dusty corner of the basement, cradled in yellowing tissue paper amongst old photographs of my mother's childhood.
The thatched-roof meetinghouse is overflowing with people. It's hot as an oven, and stinks of the surrounding Nairobi slum. My father is giving an impassioned sermon in Swahili, sweat beading at his hairline as the congregation shouts out the occasional "amen" and "halleluia". I can't understand some of the words my father is speaking—my Swahili is still poor several months after arriving in Kenya. But I feel the collective fervor as my father's voice carries through the speakers, trembling with emotion, with excitement.
The woman next to me takes my hand and raises it above my head, shaking it.
"Mungu asifiwe!" she whispers, eyes closed, face twisted into vigorous concentration. She doesn't care to notice my smallness, doesn't mind that I am only eight. To her, I am just an extension of the agitation that shivers through her body, a particle in the sea of people who are all craving the words of my father.
I close my eyes, let the beating of the drums ripple through my being.
Surrounded by the musty smell of old carpeting and stale coffee, drowning in the Indiana humidity, I try to distract myself from the monotony of Quaker meeting. My mother sits straight in the hardwood pew, her hands folded over the soft leather-bound Bible she carries to meeting every Sunday. I itch from the silence, tucked between the grandmothers of the teenagers who get to eat bagels while I suffer.
The broken crayons and cheap coloring pages lie untouched in the seat beside me—I'm too old for them, but too young to join the middle school kids downstairs in Sunday School. I'm stranded in the oppressive quiet of the meeting room, expected to resist every urge to whine or fiddle. I study my mother, fold my hands in my lap just as she does, wondering if I, too, will be able to listen for the Holy Spirit in the silence—but all I hear is the rustling of hymnal pages from the pew behind me.
I hold my scrap of notebook paper to the candle flame and watch with satisfaction as my fears and regrets ignite and curl themselves into ash and float to the carpet of damp leaves below. The smell of burning paper mixes with frankincense and black salt in a cloud of blue that idly dances in the air, soon indistinguishable from our cigarette smoke. Claudia picks the shard of obsidian from the log that serves as our makeshift altar, holds it over the coal, and presses it into my palm. It will deflect bad energy, she says. She hands the fluorite to Kelsey, for peace of mind, and takes the moonstone for herself, for clarity.
We talk about plans for the summer, about Kelsey's alcoholic mother, about parties we've attended in this clearing in the woods, about our sixteen-credit course loads. I recite a few poems, my voice wrought with the solemnity of our pagan ceremony, and Claudia hums along to Fleetwood Mac.
After a while, we fall silent to the robin's song and the rustling of leaves around us, take a drag from our cigarettes, and exhale with relief as the last scraps of our worries are consumed by the flame.
Eliza Rehard is currently finishing her second year at Earlham College, working towards a Bachelor of Arts in English and Classical Studies. She spends her time outside of school playing music, reading, and hanging out with her two dachshunds. This is Eliza's first literary publication.