image George Hook ~ The Whipping Christ

I

So the mother of the Chosen One ended up at Kozy Kountry Kitchens.  With a calm and mild smile, she holds out her coffee carafe and says, “Refill?”

“I’ll take one,” I say. “Oh, and could you bring me a newspaper to read?”

“Happy to, they always have them behind the counter.”

“Thanks. Speaking of newspapers, haven’t I seen you in one?”

“People always look at me like they want to ask me that question,” she says.

“But you’re the only one who ever has.”
“It’s my job.”

“You write for the papers?”

“No, a magazine sent me here to get your side of your story.” I clear my throat.

“I mean, everyone wants to know how … I mean … are you doing okay?”

“Why, I’m fine,” she says. “Thanks be to …”

Naturally, I’m expecting the blessed Name of the J here, but I didn’t think that she would grimace, as she bites on her lower lip – only for an instant though, before she returns to her smile. Probably on downers, after the downer she’s been through, I’m thinking.  

“Would you like me to tell you about my new life in Jesus?” she says.

Not really, dear, but anything for a story.  “Of course,” I say, “I want to hear all about it.”

“Let me ask my boss if I can take my break then,” she says, pouring more coffee into my cup. “Give me a minute or two.” She wipes her hands on her apron and leaves. 

Watching her go, I think how sweetly she fits into this big feast hall of a false barn just off the main interstate highway. In her waitress uniform of a full-length fluffy dress and lace pleated apron, she looks like an old-fashioned country granny, downhome on one of the shelves that line the walls.  Maybe next to those bric-a-brac knickknacks, crazy quilt rugs weaved in Vietnam, mass-produced plastic cornhusk dolls and picturesque dishware just for display that some Chinese sweatshop must have cranked out.

I found out she was working here after asking around my territory, and, right away, when I came in, I saw the woman in the photo from this one article from the Gasy Tribune, showing her grim, tearful, disheveled after the verdict was reached.  And here is a photo of the trailer home cult leader as the cops are leading him down the steps of the courthouse, arms handcuffed behind him.  It is a right-profile shot of him in a ratty flannel shirt and blue jeans torn at the knees and worn-down basketball sneakers; the top of his head and his face are shaven bare.  Though his eyes are downcast, he sports a slight grin like he is sharing a private joke with himself, before going the way of the state pen.

The article does have the who’s, what’s, where’s, and why’s of the trial down good.  The “who’s”: mother, father, his brother, and the young man from Florida who came to visit but who overstayed his welcome.  The “what’s”: what the trailer home cult leader did best: preach and kill. The “where’s”: his trailer home church.  And, the “why’s: the whippings.

But it misses the “how’s”.  Those are for Modern Cult magazine, I’m thinking.  Pitch them a first-person account of a woman caught in the squalid homicide of a mini-cult with ceremonial backwoods weirdos and helpless tot abuse.  Modern Cult should pay more than the dollar-a-column inch I earn covering area school board meetings and phoning in hog futures out here.

Now I see her, still calm, still composed, returning to my table to sit across from me.  “It’s okay if I took my break now,” she says. 

It’s also okay for her to start telling me that.

II

“We had this trailer home we found on three acres of lawn property in the woods, kind of away from everything but still not too far from the fur shed.”

“The fur shed?”

She nods.  “Where my husband Biff and brother Lester were working at, where they skin animals for the fur.”  Her shoulders quiver.

“Your trailer must have been huge, what with you and your husband and his brother and the Chosen … I mean, Mikey.”

Her shoulders stop quivering and she looks at me with eyes that beam like spotlights from heaven. “Our beautiful trailer was long, long and a double-wider,” she says. “Purple-and-white, with the best furniture we could pick out from Fetlas Grocery and Furniture Warehouse up north.  We liked living there and we liked having visitors too.”

Now, from somewhere deep inside the folds of her granny dress, she takes out a little comic book and hands it to me.  In it, starkly drawn Roman Catholics, Moslems, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses proclaim that their doctrines and rituals are the only way to god.  Then, once they sucker in converts, they tear off their human flesh masks to reveal clowning demons.  Turns out that Satan had sent them out to twist the True Words of the King James Bible into soothing lies to con all these fools.  In the end, the clowning demons laugh it up as they toss the naked fools into a lake of hellfire.

“All kinds of scary,” I say. “Where did you get this from?”

“Some Christian folk,” she says, “from the fur shed who worked with Biff and Lester.  We started talking and drinking lots of coffee and then the fur-shed Christians asked us if we’d been born again.  We told them we believed in God and went to church, at least once and awhile.  But they told us we were just sort of Christians, not real Christians.”

“After all, who wants to end up drowning in flames?”

She looks away from me to gaze out the window. “It was from the fur shed Christians that we heard what Halloween was really all about,” she says.  “See, Mikey wanted to go Halloweening with his friends from school, always talking about the costumes, the candy.  Well, the fur shed Christians let us know that Halloween was Satan’s Christmas.  So when we told Mikey we weren’t about to send him out there, he goes all crazy.  Screaming and yelling for pop and candy morning, noon and night.  Then after Halloween, it got worse, even banging his head on the floor and the wall.  All that sent us straight to Vyrgl.  You know Vyrgl?”

“It’s unincorporated.  A few houses, small farms and the one church.”

“That was the church the fur shed Christians went to.  Where we all got our baptism by immersion; but even the day we did, Mikey was all wound up, shaking all over, saying he wouldn’t go into the water until we gave him a candy bar or something.”

Under my breath, I say, “Chosen One”.

She turns her eyes and her smile back to me. “It used to be the nicest little white church,” she says.  “It was about as white as white can get.  We enjoyed going to it, with its fellowship and all.  The pastor there, Pastor Zim, was full of the spirit.  Pastor Zim was the one who baptized us and he had the most friendly and warm sermons.”

But now the smile fades. “How,” she says, “could anyone ever find something wrong with Pastor Zim?”

“Bad business in the white-on-white church?”

“Discord.”

III

On a deep humid summer day, a young man with a blonde brush crewcut came clean out of a yellow school bus with all its windows open on the gravel parking lot of the Vyrgle church.  In a starched light blue dress shirt, neatly knotted dark blue tie, pressed black pants with correct pleats.  Not one drop of sweat soaking through his clothes, never once swabbing his face with the crisp square of satin handkerchief in the breast pocket of his shirt.

“It was like his feet weren’t touching on the ground,” she says, “and shouting out ‘Praise God, I am here at last.’  You never heard anyone saying ‘Praise God’ like that, like he was telling you you just won a million dollars in the lottery or a brand-new car. Or even that you’re in heaven already.” 

Her family had offered to sponsor a guest from the missionary group that had traveled hundreds of miles in the bus north from south Florida to do God’s work in the area.  But they did not know the name of this guest until, after the young man dropping a red duffle bag onto the gravel, he walked to them and said “I am known as Shep and I believe I have been led to my family.” 

With “Praise the Lord” and “Praise God” coming again and again from out of the mouth behind his smile, Shep went to hug them, a hug that she felt touch her with pure and genuine Christian fellowship and compassion when she saw how he knelt to Mikey to hug his jitters still.  Then, breaking off the hugging, he laughed and said, “It’s been a long trip, my friends.  My stomach is telling me I am of the multitudes you will feed today” as they headed down to the white-on-white church basement for a communal fried chicken feast.

The congregation of the church brimmed with cheer all during the feasting, eating their chicken wings and thighs and biscuits and honey and corn on the cob as they bonded with the missionaries in zealous fellowship.  That is, up until the church choir assembled to sing.  Then all the notes of harmony went sour: beneath the gathering of voices in song, she heard insidious murmurings circulating among some regulars in the congregation.

 “Discord,” Shep said.  Knitting his hands together on his lap, he eased back into the purple paisley velour sofa in the living room of the trailer after the breakfast.

“They try to keep it from us,” said Lester, “but you know it’s there.”

“I could feel it moving in that basement,” Shep said.

“Well, there’s this man named Konrad,” said Lester. “You probably saw him during the breakfast in there, looks like one of those country singers back when they used to have all that slicked-over big hair.”

“I know of them,” said Shep.

“Konrad wanted to start up this choir for the church.  He got a bunch of kids together, started teaching them how to sing and all.”

“They do sing like angels,” said Biff. “Gotta say that about them.”

“So, so true,” said Shep. “They sang psalms and hymns and spiritual songs from their hearts and souls.”

“Sure enough got to me,” said Lester. “Anyway, this Konrad guy, he starts into telling everybody he wants to practice in the church anytime he wants to and that more church money has to go to the choir, that kind of thing. Didn’t sit too well with Pastor Zim.”

“Him and Pastor Zim, they hardly could stand to look at each other the whole time this morning,” Biff said. “And when the choir starts singing, Pastor Zim, he wasn’t even in that room.”

“Well it is said … pardon me, I must remove my tie.”

Shep unknotted his tie, lifted it up over his head and off his neck and set it in front of him upon the round glass top of a coffee table with a metal base of two blue dolphins leaping over surging ocean waves. When he unfastened the top button on his shirt, she noticed a braid of leather on the nape of his neck.

“What are you wearing under your shirt there, Shep?” she said.

  “That’s nice of you to ask,” Shep said. “Would you like to see it?”  Widening his smile, he pulled a brown leather neck strap out from under his shirt and presented it to her.  A lenticular hologram card of the head of Jesus Christ in a square and clear plastic holder case hung at the end of the strap. Christ on the cross: the holy blood, the crown of thorns, torment contorting the beaten face.  But when she put the card in the palm of her right hand and moved her wrist around, the crown of thorns vanished into a golden white light that purified the Jesus head, wiping its face clean of scars and blood as kind and gentle eyes gazed up at her.

“It was worn by a friend of mine, a baby Christian,” Shep said. “He was strict Roman Catholic up until I showed him where the Holy Word said he was being fooled by a man-made institution that doesn’t care about the real Bible … the King James – translated straight from the Greek, not from that Latin Vulgar of theirs.”

I interrupt her with a sharp laugh. “He calls it the Latin Vulgar?” I say.

“That’s what I remember.  What’s so funny with that?”

“Bastardizing Latin Vulgate.  So what’d he say next?”

“He said that, after his friend got baptized for real by immersion not sprinkling, he gave Shep the holy Jesus head card so Shep would always remember witnessing to him.” 

“They call it a scapular,” Shep had said.

“This is such a beautiful picture of the Lord,” she said. She kept switching from one Jesus head to the other until Mikey jolted her from behind in a grab for the scapular.

“First thing Mikey’d do when he saw there was a prize toy in his favorite cereal is eat half the box to get at it,” she says.  “Probably only thought Shep had pulled out a prize toy there.”

Shep lost his smile. He started scratching his crewcut with the cleancut nails of his right fingers. Then he said: “That’s good enough, could I please have it now? It does mean so much to me.”

She handed the scapular back to Shep. He placed it precisely around his neck, rebuttoned his shirt, slid the tie off the coffee table and, without looking in a mirror, knotted it around his collar perfectly. He cleared his throat and brought out his smile again.  “I have something I must show you now,” he said, as he reached down to the floor to slowly open his red duffel bag.

“This King James Bible came out that I thought must be the most beautiful in the world,” she says.  I see how she saw this Bible reflected in the glow of her eyes.  Its coal-black leather cover and silvery golden lettering. Inside, thin pages, neatly highlighted, finely underlined words and passages and scripted notations in red ink along the margins.

  “I believe I happen to have a passage all about discord in your church,” he said. “Yes, here it is … ‘When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.’ ”  Then he looked up from the Bible to address them: “They both want to be leaders of this church, this Konrad man and that Pastor Miz.”

“Shep, his name is Zim,” said Lester.

Ignoring him, Shep went on: “They may believe they are righteous, but they bring discord instead.  But you should not despair. Because discord can grow into something like a forest fire that burns out the deadwood to make way for bountiful lands. You know, I believe it would comfort you to pray with a brother in newfound fellowship about the discord.”

“Shep, we have been praying on it,” Biff said. “We’ve been doing our praying.”

  “Not with me,” Shep said. “I am not of this discord, so I will bring a new voice to the prayer that you need.”

“No other kind of praying seems to be working,” said Lester. “Might as well try what you’re saying.”

As if in a slow motion movie, Shep rose from the purple paisley velour sofa and bent down to genuflect on the beige shag carpet, thrusting his hands out to them. “Let us pray, shall we?” he said.  Moved by his beckoning, they went down on their knees next to him and joined hands to lock in a prayer circle.  Shep then closed his eyes firmly and prayed hard: 

“Burn up the chaff,” he said.

“Thoroughly purge.”

“Gather wheat.”

“Set an unquenchable fire to come to us.  Lord, let it burn.  Let it burn.”

Then, all of a sudden, Mikey burst into wild giggling and rushed headlong into the circle, knocking apart the linked hands. “Pray, pray, pray,” he said. “Pray for candy, pray for pop.”

“Play pray,” she says.

“Never heard of it,” I say.

“That’s the way we were teaching him how to pray, telling him he was playing a little game with an invisible man named Jesus and, if he won, he’d get candy.  Maybe Mikey was thinking Shep wanted him to come over and play pray?”

“I can guess how Shep took that.”

Drawing open his eyes, sniffing, poking the middle finger out from his right hand, scratching it over the tip of his nose.

Then Shep forced out a grin and extended both his hands with stiffened palms up toward the boy.  He said, “Why, little brother, haven’t you heard my favorite great old-time gospel hymn? Place your hands onto mine and I’ll teach you it.”

Mikey hesitated a moment before coming to Shep to lay his hands on the palms.  Shep closed his eyes and sang:

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

“Gimme Chocolate, Jesus,” Mikey said.

Shep winced, hard.

IV

Before bedtime, Shep told her he was a Floor Keeper: a follower of a brotherhood of missionaries who had vowed to sleep only on the floor in the homes of their hosts.  He didn’t want a pillow tonight, he said, maybe just whatever blanket she could spare.

“I told him that no guest of mine would ever be caught sleeping on the floor,” she says. “We had a perfectly good sofa in the living room you could fold out into a bed.  That’s what it was there for and, matter of fact, he’d be the first one we had over who ever used it that way.”

“What did the Floor Keeper say to that?”

“ ‘No, no, the vow is sacred.’   So I gave him a blanket and he smiles and whispers ‘God Bless’, lies down on the floor and puts on the blanket and goes right to sleep.” 

The next day, she awoke at dawn to find Shep roaming inside and outside the trailer in work clothes of flannel and denim.  While briskly humming that favorite hymn of his, he was, step by step, washing and scrubbing and dusting and washing again and scrubbing again and dusting again the whole trailer until it had been scoured spotless. Then, at the end of the day, she heard him singing his hymn in a loud and boisterous voice as he hauled black rubber bags full of trash to the dumpster in the deep woods behind the trailer.

“Shep and his hymn for your trailer,” I say, “serenading you.”

“And the way he recited the Bible. Later on at night, we had this prayer circle where we heard Shep start to talk like the King James was living in him.”

“What, he thought he was King James himself?”

“The whole book was in his head, and I mean each and every word.  He never read out of that beautiful book anymore after that first day, just spoke it out of himself.”  She stops meeting my eyes and, instead, looks into my coffee like a medium losing herself in the spirit world.  Sadly, she says, “That beautiful book, that son of mine.”

“He had a full day,” I say, “and he still ends up sleeping on the floor.”

She smiles a touch to herself.  “You know, you’d think that.  He went to the floor at the end of the night, tuckered out, that’s for sure.  But then some real loud kind of growling snorting coming out of the living room woke me up early next morning and I see he’s pulled out the bed on the sofa and he’s sleeping away on it.”

“So the Floor Keeper really took to that sofa.”

“He took to it all right.” She frowns away her smile and whispers:  “He was sitting on it real quiet a couple days later when he let me know about the bad Mikey.”

In starched light blue shirt, neatly knotted dark blue tie, pressed black pants with correct pleats.  With his posture soldierly rigid, Shep worked the card of his scapular in his right palm, flipping it over and over again, never looking at it.  Instead, he stared dead straight across the room at an illuminated sculpture on a pedestal: a rocky, spired hill rose from a mahogany base with a silver plaque bearing the words “I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS” and, along a winding pathway up the hill, porcelain figures of Biblical characters portrayed the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger, his teaching the children, his raising the dead and, at the crest, his ascension to heaven.

“Go the way of perfect faith,” Shep whispered to himself.

“Shep, you just don’t look yourself,” she said. “Is there something wrong with you?”

His eyelids fluttered. “Of course, there is something wrong,” he said, whispering now to her. “Scripture has been violated.”

  “What are you saying, Shep?”

“Your son, the one you know as Mikey … went to the toilet room with my Word of God.”

“Mikey did what?”

Shep took his eyes off the sculpture and onto her face. “Think upon what I just said,” he stated.

“Your King James Bible?  Mikey thinks the world of you; he probably just took it into the potty to read.”

“No, no, no,” he hissed. “The King James Bible is not bathroom reading.”

“I know that, but a kid doesn’t know that.”

“He knows enough how to soil it.”

“Soiled?”

“Forever soiled.”

“Well let me have a look at it, Shep, maybe I can clean it for you.”

“I would never keep such a piece of … work like that in my sight. I buried it, back there where I take the garbage bags, behind the dumpster.”

“I feel so bad. Shep, we’ll pay to replace it, I promise.”

Shep started rubbing the right half of his crewcut, then scratching it as if at a grating scab. “There is no replacing it,” he said. “The Bible is gone, but Mikey remains.”  

“Oh my dear Lord, what should we do?”

“First, we must keep Mikey in his room,” he said. “Do not let him out until the man of the house returns from the fur shed.”

“But what if he needs to go potty, Shep?”

Shep shuddered. “He has already been in the toilet room to do his business,” he said.

“Business?”

Severely, he glared at her.  “Yes, he went all right,” Shep said. “Went spilling.  His seed.  Your boy was …  Onan Genesis 38-9.  God saw him touching himself, spilling his seed … doing an Onan … right into the Bible … Onnnaaannn … ONNNAAANNN … sticking it to the Song of Solomon.”

V

“A Chosen One of Father Satan,” Shep told them.

“I never heard of no Father Satan,” her husband Biff said.  “How’s that any different than the regular Satan they’re always telling us about?”

“He’s different but the same,” said Shep.  He shrugged and settled down into the purple paisley velour sofa.  “There is God the Father, then this Father Satan.  An evil father to those children born into Christian families just so they can revolt against the parents like Father Satan revolted against God the Father.”

“I don’t know about this,” said Biff.

“He’s just a child, Shep, our baby boy,” she said. “How were we supposed to know he’s gone bad?”

Leaning toward her, Shep said, “You were not supposed to do the knowing.  You were being fooled all the time by the power of Father Satan.  But there was one man who should have known on that very day he tried to baptize the boy.”

“You never did like him, I know it,” Biff said.

Shep shook his head once, firmly.  “That church of yours actually calls this man its pastor?  This Miz?”

“No, his name is Zim,” said Lester.

Shep ignored him.

“He can’t even lead his church when it comes to the choirmaster and his choir,” he said.  “And I would not doubt there are some children of Father Satan in that group too, what with all the discord they have been stirring up.  A discord he can’t stop, this Pastor Zim of yours.”

“It’s Pastor Miz,” said Lester.

Shep ignored him.

“I don’t know about all this,” said Biff. “You’re talking like he’s never been our son, that he’s the son of this Father Satan you come up with all of a sudden.”

“Why’s this all happening?” she said.

Her question sent Shep into one of his thinking moods for several moments, closing his eyes so they would look closed for all time.  When he came to, he breathed his answer: “Yes, I see it now. Father Satan chose this boy as his son to sow the seeds of discord that would abort the birth of our trailer home church.”

“Now what’s this trailer home church you’re talking now?” said Biff.

“Why, our trailer home church.”

“That set off Biff,” she says.  “I never heard such language out of him before. He must have heard it in the fur shed; there weren’t just Christians in there. And I sure never seen him bring up his fist at someone like that before.”

This red right fist, streaked with knife scars from working in the fur shed, that slammed onto the glass top of the coffee table, jarring the dolphins at the base.  Shep looked down into the faces of the shaken dolphins as Biff started raving at him: “All of a sudden, you’re in here making everything all yours, right?  Yeah, well, I’m starting to think you’re coming in here like an unholy asshole.  Locking up my son, talking this Chosen One bullshit.  My son.  Look, you jag off, if he’s got to be punished, then I’ll do the punishing.  Me, I’m the father, not that Father Satan that you go on with.  You ain’t no ordained minister, Shep.  I never heard no Father Satan out of Pastor Zim.”

“Miz,” said Shep.

Then Biff stuck his thumb out from his right fist and thrust it back and forth above his shoulder like a mad hitchhiker at Shep. “You head out,” he said. “You find your goddamn bus and you take your ass back down South or wherever the hell you come from.”  

Everyone now watched Shep, his eyes still set on the dolphins, waiting to hear from him.  After moments of silence, he smacked his lips twice and muttered, “Okay, I guess we flogged that dolphin.” Then he stood up to speak in tongues out of nowhere.

“Now I tell you, I heard people with the gift of tongues in our prayer circles sometimes in Vyrgle,” she says. “But not like Shep was doing. Those words of his, I never heard anything like them before.” Like a sudden headache has hit her, she presses the palm of her right hand over her eyes and says: “I mean, there I was, my whole body started flying all around …”

Shep said: Commorabitur me ubera inter mihi meus dilectus murrae fasciculus.

 “… and I could smell perfume on my skin that tasted sweet on my lips …”

Shep said: Turis odor sicut tuorum vestimentorum odor et tua lingua sub lac et mel sponsa tua labia distillans favus.

Where is this going? I think.

“… and then … and then … I was floating over this garden …”

Shep said: Colligate lilia et hortis in pascatur ut aromatis areolam ad suum hortum in descendit meus dilectus.

I feel real spooked …

“… where there were all kinds of angels in the flesh planting seeds …”

Shep said: Numerous est non adulescentularum et concubinae octoginta et reginae sunt sexaginta.

… scribbling down notes in this language she speaks.

At this, I shudder to a halt and drop my pen. “Stop it,” I say, “I get the message.”

She stops and gazes out the window at the truck plaza across the way.

Me, I picture Biff silenced in awe and the others standing still, fixed in place by the hold of the words.

Them saying as one: “Our trailer home church. Amen.”

Shep, smiling with mesmeric charm, saying: “Now tell me the name of the man who once led you.”

All three, in their trance, staring back at him.

“Miz,” they say.

VI

I leave the men’s room and head back to the table.  She seems happy to see my glow as I sit down, and she says, “All of a sudden there, you got real pale and sweaty and ran away and didn’t say a word.”

I shrug it off.  “Too much coffee does that to me sometimes.  And I forgot to eat breakfast this morning.”

“You should at least have a bowl of cereal,” she says.  Then sighs.  “Mikey, he was always wanting for breakfast, nothing but bowls and bowls and bowls of that cereal that has the chocolate marshmallow chunks shaped like those cartoon monsters on TV.  Well, Shep, he’s telling us he wants none of that.”

Shep, waving his right palm open in the air, saying “This Mikey of yours, shaking around and jittering and babbling for his unholy communion of candy like that Chocolate Jesus of his and sugared breakfast cereals with shapes like monsters damned to hell  Running crazy around here ever since Halloween. As Christian parents, you were right to deny the boy that night; why, I have even seen children in Christian zombie vampire costumes going from house to house on Halloween night, screaming and laughing in their pagan celebration of Father Satan’s Christmas.”

Shep wagged his middle right finger at the bedroom where Mikey was locked behind the green door.  “Now, a real Christian child would obey and be glad to do it,” he said. “But a Chosen One of Father Satan? You denied him his night of nights, and now every day is Halloween for him.”

They said, “Yes, Reverend Shep.”

“Well that’s ending. Now that we have our trailer home church, we can deal with Father Satan’s Chosen One.  What that boy needs is some down home schooling in that old-time religion, like we do it in the South.’’

“So be it,” they said. Shep crouched down to his red duffel bag lying on the floor next to him, jabbed his hand inside, and slid out a thickset black-lacquered paddle. He wielded it before them and said, “That boy needs training.  From me and The Whipping Christ here. ‘And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables.’ ”

The sight of the immense heft of The Whipping Christ jolted them out of the trance. “So you, you’re going to start into spanking him?” said Biff. “My son?  You doing the spanking?”

“Come on,” said Lester. “Give Mikey a break.”

“You can’t just hit him with that thing,” she said. “You could hurt him bad.”

“You think Our Lord and Master would ever coddle and spoil children?” said Shep. “For it is written, ‘Suffer, the little children … thou shall have a paddle among thy weapons; and thou shall use it in the service of thy God.’ ”

“Shep, I can’t let you do that,” said Biff. “Sure, Mikey got spanked a couple times, but I used my hand, not something like what you got there.”

“He’s going to be doing some powerful memorizing of the Song of Solomon that he soiled,” he said. “All of it, King James Bible English.  AND the Original Greek.”

She recognized the gold lettering embossed on The Whipping Christ because she had seen examples of the Original Greek during a Bible lesson at the Vyrgl Church. “Baby boy,” she cried out.

Shep shot his glare at her then stunned them all quiet, saying, myrrhae aromatibus ex fumi virgula sicut de sertum per ascendit quae ista est quae.

“Humble, we obey,” they said.

“That’s what the Lord likes to hear,” Shep said, tapping The Whipping Christ on his right thigh. “Because time’s running out for the boy; we have to save him from an eternity on the lap of Father Satan before it’s too late. We start him tomorrow in the schooling room, break of dawn.”

Just before sunrise then, she told her son to learn everything Shep would teach him; Mikey had done bad and now must do good to the Good Book.  When his face went blank as he nodded, she felt like giving Mikey a final big hug, but then pictured how Shep would rail at her, accusing her of embracing the workings of Father Satan.

Later on, she passed by the locked door of the schooling room to check on Mikey.  Shep was muttering verses from the Song of Solomon in King James Bible English:

The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.

Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee.

Followed by the Original Greek:

ΑΣΜΑ ἀσμάτων, ὅ ἐστι τῷ Σαλωμών. Φιλησάτω με ἀπὸ φιλημάτων στόματος αὐτοῦ, ὅτι ἀγαθοὶ μαστοί σου ὑπὲρ οἶνον, καὶ ὀσμὴ μύρων σου ὑπὲρ πάντα τὰ ἀρώματα·μῦρον ἐκκενωθὲν ὄνομά σου. διὰ τοῦτο νεάνιδες ἠγάπησάν σε

How did Shep expect Mikey to connect with that faraway language?  Yes, Mikey was trying, but he kept faltering and slurring the words, and she feared the power and the hand behind The Whipping Christ that might soon smite Mikey if he did not do better.

Sooner than she thought: Draw me, we will run after thee … 

[Crack]

… the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and “what did you say, you son of darkness?  Grab those ankles and take five for your Lord God.”

[Crack Snap Crack Pop Crack]

“Now give me that in Greek, boy.” εἵλκυσάν σε, ὀπίσω σου εἰς ὀσμὴν μύρων σου δραμοῦμεν. εἰσήνεγκέ με ὁ—no, that is wrong, wrong, wrong …”

[Smack Pop Crack Smack]

“When I heard what was going on in there, I wished that Shep was speaking in tongues to me so I wouldn’t care about hearing it.  But Shep was in there, behind the green door with The Whipping Christ, beating on Mikey; so all’s I could do was run away from it, into the bedroom, fall into bed, pull the blankets over my head, push them over my ears.  I wanted to pray, but Shep told me I might just as well be praying to Father Satan himself, because Mikey was so full of evil.”

Now this is the kind of copy the Gasy Tribune doesn’t get every day, I think, as I’m writing it all down, only looking her in the face occasionally to show her I care.

“ ‘I’m the one who’ll be doing the praying over the boy in here,’ he said.  And the only times he’d come out of the schooling room was to scarf down his lunch and dinner or do our prayer circles or start sleeping on the sofa.”

“So much for the Floor Keeper,” I say.

“His looks were going too,” she says.

Never again would he dress himself in the immaculately appointed outfit of the first days of his mission; he now wore his workaday flannel shirt and blue jeans, unwashed, even when he slept, snoring in growls.  The scapular he once kept tucked under his shirt now bobbed out in the open, so that the transformation of the suffering Jesus Christ on the cross into the benign and smiling Son of God would repeat itself over and over again on his chest as he skulked inside and outside the trailer home church when he wasn’t behind the green door of the schooling room.

In there, for weeks, he drove Mikey on with lessons from the sharp, whistling report of The Whipping Christ until one night, while she was preparing the table for dinner, Shep threw open the green door of the schooling room and appeared before the trailer home congregation, triumphantly brandishing The Whipping Christ above his head.  “Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” he announced.  He then pointed the paddle at them like a magnetic wand and said, “Mikey erat positus ubi locum videte venite dixit sicut enim surrexit hic est non.”

“Then Mikey came out all white,” she says.

“Like white how?” I say.

“Little white jacket, white tie, white pants, white shoes, and they fit Mikey like they were made for him.”

I press my right hand to my forehead as I look down on my notes.  “How did this guy all of a sudden come out with a white suit for a kid?” I ask myself aloud.

“Must have pulled it from out of his red duffle bag,” she says.

“More like his bag of tricks.”

“Oh no, Shep, he never fooled around anymore.”

He was pointing The Whipping Christ toward the head of the table and he said, “Show us what you’re made of, boy.”

Mikey stood before them, speaking passages from the Song of Solomon that he knew by heart:

In King James English.

Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes.

Then in the Original Greek.

ἰδοὺ εἶ καλή, ἡ πλησίον μου, ἰδοὺ εἶ καλή, ὀφθαλμοί σου περιστεραί.

King James English:

Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our bed is green.

Original Greek:

ἰδοὺ εἶ καλός, ὁ ἀδελφιδός μου, καί γε ὡραῖος· πρὸς κλίνῃ ἡμῶν σύσκιος

As Shep stared straight and hard at Mikey, as he moved his lips silently to each word of Mikey’s recitation.

“I was proud of my baby boy, with him reading all that godly old language like he did,” she says. “I started to thinking maybe he could become a preacher after he was over with all of this.”

“Maybe even better than Shep,” I say.

“Mikey never stopped neither; he just kept on going on and on, till Shep held up his hand.”

“You may sit,” he said. “You may eat.”

Mikey did as he was told.  Now a boy of precise etiquette, Mikey ate all his food slowly and quietly, always refusing her offer of seconds.

“Shep did what he said he’d do,” I say.

She slides her hand over to my fork and nudges it over to her.  She picks it up and begins to scrape the prongs lightly over her skin on the back of her right hand.

“Sinful,” she says.

“Who Mikey?  Sounds to me like Shep put him through finishing school and made a great little man out him.”

She looks down at the prongs of the fork on her skin.  “My chocolate cake is sinful,” she says.  “I make the best chocolate cake you ever tasted.  Rich and creamy.  It’s like the frosting would float off the top into your mouth.”

“You don’t say.”

“I thought … a little slice wouldn’t hurt Mikey.  He deserved it, didn’t he?”

“Everybody needs a little reward now and then.”

She rakes the fork hard across her skin.  I’m concerned she will draw blood.

“But I know God forgives me,” she says, “for serving dessert.”

“Forbidden,” Shep shouted. “It’s the Devil’s food.”

Mikey’s tongue hung from his mouth when he saw the cake on the table across from him.  He used it to lick his lips and his eyes began to bulge.  He snatched his fork off the table with his right hand as his left hand stretched out toward the cake.  Then he lunged off his chair, throwing himself onto the plates of food and glasses of water that flipped onto the beige shag carpet and exploded off the table.  He cried: He gabbled, “Gimme Chocolate, Gimme Chocolate, Gimme Chocolate.” He then crawled through the mess on the table so he could plunge the fork into the cake like he was spearing a fierce shark and began shoveling gobs of the cake into his mouth, clots of chocolate frosting smearing the white suit.  As Mikey planted his face into the last of the cake, Shep took up The Whipping Christ to force its length under Mikey’s squirming body: “Grab the other end,” he ordered Biff and Lester. “Bring him off of there.” They laid hold of the paddle and pulled up on it, heaving together to pry Mikey off the table. But Mikey, grunting into the last of the cake, stayed put. 

Breathing heavily, Shep backed away.  He scowled. “Eat that cake good, boy,” he said. “Go on with stuffing yourself with the Feast of Father Satan.  Because we really got our work cut out for us now.  You think you saw Bible before?  Well, you have not seen the half of it.”

VII

“That’s when he went half and half on us,” she says

 “I never saw that in any of the papers,” I say. “That photo of him leaving the trial shows all his hair shaved off.”

“His lawyer was telling our lawyer before the trial that the part about Shep going half and half didn’t have anything really to do with anything.  Nobody cares if he’s crazy anyway.  They both just wanted to get it over with and put him away.”

Jesus H. Christ, I thought I had a good story before: What you usually see out of Modern Cult is your typical cult leader either all bald or all hair.  Now I’ll be giving them … you ready for this? … the Reverend Half and Half.

While twists of tangles of matted hair grew out from the right half of his head, he kept the left half as strictly clean as scoured bone.  And so, as the Reverend Half and Half, he strode mightily day and night throughout the trailer home church, proclaiming his master calling to the boy behind the green door and now, in his climactic mission of obsessive dualism, to the world outside.

Early one dawn, the Reverend Half and Half corralled Biff and Lester before they could leave for the fur shed and told them in his gift of tongues to go directly into the town of Se Haute, Indiana, and buy fine-tipped and fat-wedged brushes and paint cans of midnight black, metallic silver and crimson red.  After they returned, he again spoke in tongues to order them to stand at attention outside of the purple and white trailer home church where he laid out his designs.  First, they would paint a stark vertical stripe of midnight black from the back of the trailer, up over the roof, and down the front to mark out a line dividing the trailer home church completely in half.  Then, left of the line, Biff and Lester painted a King James English verse from the Song of Solomon in crimson red:

The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.

And underneath, the Reverend Half and Half painted the verse in Original Greek:

δοκοὶ οἴκων ἡμῶν κέδροι, φατνώματα ἡμῶν κυπάρισσοι

After finishing with that, the men sidled over to the right of the line to begin painting verses in metallic silver from what the Reverend Half and Half called his Lessons for the Chosen:

In King James English:

Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience

Then, in Original Greek:

ἐν αἷς ποτε περιεπατήσατε κατὰ τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου, κατὰ τὸν ἄρχοντα τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ ἀέρος, τοῦ πνεύματος τοῦ νῦν ἐνεργοῦντος ἐν τοῖς υἱοῖς τῆς ἀπειθείας·

King James English:

And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs.

Original Greek:

καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτῷ διαθήκην περιτομῆς· καὶ οὕτως ἐγέννησε τὸν Ἰσαὰκ καὶ περιέτεμεν αὐτὸν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ ὀγδόῃ, καὶ Ἰσαὰκ τὸν Ἰακώβ, καὶ Ἰακὼβ τοὺς δώδεκα πατριάρχας.

“Covering our trailer all over with those words and letters,” she says, sweeping her open right hand above the table. “My husband and Lester, working all morning before they go to the fur shed and after they come home till midnight or past, with this big spotlight they set up to see that they were doing it right.”

“They must have burned out.”

 

“No, Shep …”

 

The Reverend Half and Half

 

“… would keep telling and they kept doing.  No more family dinners or prayer circles, just grab a sandwich and get on with it.  Then when they were done, he told them they had to sleep on the living room floor.”

“So they’re the Floor Keepers now.”

She shakes her sad face back and forth.  “And my husband wasn’t coming to our bed anymore.  I’d be lying in the bed alone, not sleeping … so I’d get up to go to the bathroom and there he’d be on the couch still wearing his work clothes, with that light from our sacred hill of Jesus sculpture on his face while he’s doing that snorting snoring of his and growling the gift of tongues.”

“What was happening with Mikey?”

“The night after they finished painting the trailer was the same night the lessons were done with.  That’s when Mikey really got it.”

Soon after Lester and Biff had left for the fur shed, she heard a mad cry howling from behind the door of the schooling room:

“You’ll always be a fat boy, huh?”

[Snap, Crack, Snap, POP]

“Fat head, fat belly, fat legs, fat arms … a ball of fat.”

[Snap, Snap, Crack, Crack]

“What, you been sneaking food in here?”

[Crack]

“You see any pizza or French fries in the Bible?”

[Snap, Snap]

“Well, me and The Whipping Christ here, we’re taking that fat dead off of you, boy.”

She heard a harsh slap of wood against bone and felt the shiver of a tremor.  She did not know if it had gone only through her or through the walls of the trailer home church and then through her.  The feeling raised her from the bed, and she walked as if in the hold of a shadowy dream into the living room.  With Biff and Lester long gone to the fur shed for the day, she was alone in the empty living room and in the silence behind the green door of the schooling room.  She looked around to see if anything in the living room had been as disturbed as her.

Her eyes dropped to where she now saw the dolphin heads broken off from their bodies and laying at the bottom of the coffee table on the carpet: their serene, near-smiles were turned upside-down into drab frowns.  She wondered if, with all his snoring snorting, their guest was also tossing and turning on the couch and so knocked the heads off the dolphins.  Or did the shiver of a tremor indeed run through the walls, wrecking the dolphins?

Then her eyes found toppled figurines from off the sacred hill of the path of Jesus sculpture: the Virgin Mary, Joseph, Lazarus, Angels, Mary Magdalene, all of them were scattered all over the beige shag carpet.  She looked up.  A fault gap had deformed the sacred hill, to slice it in half. She gasped and backed away from it, all the way to bed.

The silence behind the green door lasted all that day and that night, that night when Biff and Lester did not return home after their regular shift at the fur shed.  Still alone then, in bed, she looked to a favorite painting on the wall across from her that was her only comfort as she waited for whatever would come to her next.

“See them?” she says, pointing at the Kozy Kountry Kitchen gift shop.  “They’re over there.”

I turned my head around to see the painting in black velvet of the Praying Hands.  “Very popular,” I say.

“They are so clean, aren’t they?  Clean like they were clean on him when he came to us that summer. Real clean when he took that Bible out and showed it to us.”

But now it was late fall, and those hands were stained with the same blood that streaked the black lacquered wood of the paddle he had also showed to their family.  Drops of blood over the blotches of silver paint he never washed away from his workings on the trailer.  The right hand held fast to the handle of the paddle on his right thigh as he stood between the frames of the open bedroom door.  The hair on the right half of his head hanging to his shoulders in strands was twisted with caked, stale paint; the left bald half the only part of his body he kept as clean as once kept his hands.  His pitch-dark face was like a window to the ground mist drifting beneath the cold blackness of the woods outside. Then, he broke the silence finally of her haunted hours:

“That cursed Song,” Shep said. “Naked breasts and gardens and perfume and fruits and honey—the fat of the land.  Daddy-O, he showed me, he showed me but good, when he was teaching me Bible; he had me read it just once then he told me, told me when I felt it in me that I should never read it again, because Daddy-O, he knew I was feeling something out of the Song that I wasn’t feeling in those other Words: women in the Song weren’t like the women in the true half of the Bible.  But did I listen to him?  Not me.  I wanted more of that Song when Daddy-O wasn’t looking, but Daddy-O, he was always looking and when he caught me with my pants down, he gave me the licking of my life, that Daddy-O of mine did.”

“Daddy-O?” she said.

He ignored her.  “He was right to do that.  They should have never put it into the Word of God.  There’s not a word about God in it.  That Song doesn’t belong.  Like those pages in the false Catholic Bible, telling them there’s something called Purgatory.”  He spat into the beige shag carpet.  “Purgatory.  There’s only hell, like Daddy-O says.  Like the King James Bible says.  Like the Original Greek says.  And like Daddy-O also says, verily, there’s a place in that hell waiting for those who added that damned Song to the Word of God and those who read it like it’s in the true Bible.” Then he pointed The Whipping Christ at her. “You know what I heard the day I caught fat boy messing with my Bible?  I heard a song all right, but it was singing ‘Find Out I’m the Chosen One’ ”.

“How come I don’t hear him anymore?” she screamed.

Swiping The Whipping Christ sideways like he was scraping bread crumbs off a kitchen cutting board, he said, “Move over.  I’m taking the bed tonight.”

VIII

After a night in oblivion, she found herself cringed into a ball on the beige shag carpet at the foot of the bed that morning.  She no longer heard the snorting, snoring or growling from above her.  Instead, there was the slow rolling sound of blunt thumps in the area of the living room. She didn’t like the sound of it and wanted to know why; she struggled to come up on her hands and knees then she stood to shuffle out of the bedroom.  She noticed first the open green door of the schooling room.  Now, she thought, she could go see Mikey inside where he had been under orders for months.

“What did you see?” I say.

“That piece of furniture in churches where the pastor puts his sermon and his Bible,” she says, meekly. “I don’t know what you call it.”

“You mean a lectern.”

“That.  It was painted in red and silver with the King James words and the Greek words, same as they painted on our trailer.  His Bible was on the top.”

“But … I thought you said he buried it after Mikey …”

“… never did.”  She shakes her head violently and snatches up my napkin, twisting it between her fingers.

“Settle down, tell me, tell me.”

“It was his really beautiful Bible.  It was still so really beautiful, like we first saw it his first day.”

I sigh in a gasp as I fall back into the cushion behind me.  “Of course,” I say.  “Mikey never did.”

“And there were … all these belts and a chain in there and they had all that blood on it.”

She screamed and, turned away, sickened, bending down to heave a clump of vomit on the beige shag carpet.  When she was finished, she lifted her eyes and saw the open front door of the trailer and heard panting.  She ran to the door and looked out to see he who she knows as Shep but I know now is the Reverend Half and Half panting out clouds of vapor in the cold air as he tugged at a black rubber trash bag with leaks along the seams that oozed red. He left red trails of streaks and slushy bootprints behind him as he dragged the bag in his left hand and The Whipping Christ in his right hand over the dusting of the first snow on the forest ground.  Biff and Lester waited for him in the distance next to a rusted blue van with the red letters Ted’s Fur Shed on the side.

Struck by the power in her horror, he dropped the bag.  He wheeled around and waved The Whipping Christ at her, and then sought to tame her with the same trance he had Biff and Lester in: “et membra quae caesa sunt desuper ordinantes caput videlicet et cuncta quae adherent iecori

“But I wasn’t having none of it,” she says to me.

“Mikey, Mikey, Mikey,” she screamed.

In the distance, Biff said, dully “What’s this stuff?

Lester answered, “It’s supposed to be good for you.”

“Did you try it?” said Biff.

“I’m not going to try it, you try it.”

“Let’s get Mikey to try it, yeah, he’ll eat it, he’ll eat anything.”

“Where are you taking him?” she said.

Shep aimed The Whipping Christ at the van.  “He wouldn’t get that fat off him,” he told her. “I kept telling him, but he would not obey.  So off it comes.  Off his stomach, off his legs, off his arms, off his face … and you know where it was real fat, don’t you Momma?”

“No, no, I don’t know.”

“Off around that cock of his.  That cock won’t crow no more.”

She bolted out of the trailer home church.  Circling The Whipping Christ above his head, Shep went to make a grab for her but slipped in the red snow and hit the ground chin-first.  He yelled at Biff and Lester to drive the van to catch her; she found a clump of bushes where brown leaves still clung on the branches and hid behind them until the van sped past her on the paved road.  She did not want to run on that road behind the van, because they might backtrack to snare her. How could she keep escaping?  That gravel backroad she suddenly remembered about a half mile behind the forest, even if she’d have to cross it in her bare feet.

Her world spun above her legs and feet as she ran for the backroad, ran in panic until she felt blood on her soles but didn’t care: she wanted to bleed like Mikey bled in the black rubber bag.  She must have run fast, because, before she knew it, she was staggering down the main road of Se Haute, Indiana.  

“I saw the sheriff’s car parked in front of the church,” she says to me, “and I screamed bloody murder at them.”

The newspaper article reports that, once the sheriff had called for an ambulance to carry her to the hospital, he and a deputy hauled out for the trailer home church. There, after struggling to wrest The Whipping Christ out of his grip, they shoved the fanatical culprit into their car.

“He likes it, hey Mikey,” he said, over and over.  All the way to the county jail, like some deranged punch line, “He likes it, hey Mikey.”

IX

“My new Christian friends in Se Haute told me that he was wearing a mask all along,” she says. “Like those comics I showed you.  They’re saying we were all fooled by the mask.”

“Biff and Lester, where are they?” I say.

“The sheriff, he called up a white van that took them to a special hospital, I heard.”

“Oh.”  I avoid her eyes by gazing out the window at my shoulder toward the semi trucks crowded around the awned fueling plaza across from the parking lot of Kozy Kountry Kitchen.  Something about their hulking motion—the cranking of their gears, the hiss from their air brakes, the metal mass of their weight—attracts my attention.  Especially that one truck that bears lettering on the side reading Florida Refrigeration that is leaving us all behind, heading toward its destination due south.

“Thank you for trusting me with your side of the story about this … hot mess,” I say to her.

“Thank you,” she says. “I needed to get it off my chest.” Now she reaches around to the back of her head to remove a neckpiece from underneath the collar of the old-fashioned country granny dress and lays it on the table next to my coffee cup. “Do you want it for your story?”

“Yes, I must have it.”

She pats the top of both my hands.  “I have to go now,” she says.  “I’ve been here too long anyway.”

Off she goes on her rounds as I regard the scapular. Golden light bathes the face of a boy in 3-D.  It shows him wearing the starched white collar and the white tie of a white suit.  A caption states he is Miguel and he beams, as if receiving an angelic blessing; but when I turn the frame in the palm of my hand, the face of Miguel drips with blood from off of a crown of thorns on top of his head, torment contorting his beaten face.

I turn the card again.

The caption now reads Johnny: the starched white collar and the white tie of a white suit; golden light bathing the beaming face.

Turn the card.

Now drops of blood from off of a crown of thorns on top of his head, torment contorting his beaten face.

Turn the card.

Now Peter: the starched white collar and the white tie of a white suit; golden light bathing the beaming face.

Turn the card.

Now drops of blood from off of a crown of thorns on top of his head, torment contorting his beaten face.

Turn the card … like an endless beat on the obituary page.

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