by Jerusha Matsen Neal
“She laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:7b
(Actress in bathrobe and slippers, surrounded by things you might find in a garage: lawnmower, boxes of decorations, a portable plastic shelf cluttered with garden tools. Behind her stands a pulpit, covered with black plastic. The audience should think it is simply part of the clutter.)
I was driving home from the Chick ‘n Pig meat locker when I seen it. A sign from God. Just sittin’ there plain as the baby Jesus in the manger. ‘Cept ‘stead of a stable, I was passing the Grundy’s fallin’-down mess of a house. And there it was. Sometimes signs from God are like that. They call to ya’ from the back of a picked-over yard sale. Even ‘fore I pulled up that dirt driveway, I was already figurin’ how to fit it in my car. It looked so forlorn sitting ‘tween the cowboy boot lamp and the Coca-Cola lawn chair. Brought tears to my eyes. Miss Grundy said her late husband used to teach the Brady Volunteer Firefighter classes standing behind it. Said a real-live podium made the boys pay attention, made ‘em show some respect. But this weren’t no podium.
This was a pulpit . . . in-cog-ni-to (she stretches out the word, smiling, as if she loves the feel of it on her tongue).
Ran my hand over the wood. Corners, banged up. Finish, all but gone. No cross on the front, but there’s no doubt what it was. Things know what they are, and if you listen, they tell you. There was deep water in that wood, water that had laid still too long waitin’ to run. There was blood too. Gave me a mean splinter in half-a-minute. That’s ‘at made me certain sure. A podium might be made of wood. But a pulpit’s made of water and blood. It’s a livin’ thing. And here it was, set out in the August sun in the middle of a crabgrass patch. I didn’t know where I’d put it. . . or what I’d do with it. . . But you can’t much argue with a sign from God. Specially one that don’t cost you but $5. That pulpit was mine.
People are funny about Divine signs. They’s a bit embarrassed by ‘em. Sorta like you might feel ‘bout what my mama called “mole-tunnels” in a cake. (begins opening two lawn chairs) You know what I mean. Ya’ make a red velvet masterpiece and cut it open to find air pockets windin’ all through. The ladies know it’s your fault too, even if they don’t say so. Ya’ got to whipping that batter, made yer air bubbles big as quarters, and forgot to drop the pan on the counter to pop ‘em. (firmly tapping a chair on the ground to demonstrate) My mama used to say mole tunnels in a cake showed an overzealous enthusiasm and a wanderin’ mind.
Signs from God is the same way, when you been a Missionary Baptist since the day you were born. That’s different from a Free-Will Baptist or a Primitive Baptist or a Fundamental, Independent, Dispensational Baptist for all you in the rest of the world who just thought we were Southern. Missionary Baptists believe in the Word with no frilly decoration. We feel it in the soles of our non-dancing feet… the solid weight of the Holy Script holding us up and rooting us down. In my church, you can’t have any signs from God too big, or people gonna tell you you’ve been mixing your batter more than you should… and you’re liable to get dropped.
(She picks up a small wood memory box, and cradles it as she speaks.)
But signs don’t go away, just by saying they ain’t so. They’re not like a billboard that you can paint over or block out with the blink of an eye. They’re like a call. A bird call from a bird you hope is singing for you. You can’t shut yer ears, even when yer palms is pressed against your head. The song just sneaks inside. You can’t unhear it once it’s gotten in. It’s a part of you — like that bug that crawled into Uncle Walter’s ear and died. We tried to scrape it out. . . flush it out. . . but the best we could do was crush it down until it left its blood behind inside him. A sign from God is the same. It may stop buzzin’ in your ear . . .but it leaves a stain.
‘Course that don’t mean you tell anybody about it. There are things you fess up to in this world and there are things better left… incognito. It don’t take you long to figure out which is which.
When I was a little girl, I received a sign. (She sits in a lawn chair, and pulls from the memory box a bird feather.) I’s swimming with my brothers in the quarry swimming hole, swinging out on a rope over deep water and dropping like a stone. Just as I swung out over the water a bird flew from my left and hit my cheek in mid air. Just like it were aiming. I felt its smooth breast hot on my face, its claws grazin’ my chin. Its feathers brushed my lips. And then, (dropping the feather back inside the box) I fell into green water. I opened my eyes and saw round bubbles rising toward the sun like angels going to heaven. Climbing Jacob’s ladder. And I knew . . . Just like Jesus knew when the dove descended . . . like Isaiah knew in that cherubim-filled temple . . . my mouth had been made holy. My mouth had been called to preach. I stayed under that water ‘til my lungs were burning up . . . the silence flooding my ears . . . because I knew I’d had a call . . . and I knew that I could never tell a soul.
(hurriedly standing) Everybody knows a woman can’t preach. It’s as true as any black and white Bible verse you want to pick . . . as sure as the brick of the Brady Baptist meeting hall. Unchangin’ as my mama’s calloused knees . . . red from praying or weeding, one.
(becoming still) But all the same, things know what they are. And I was a preacher. I just musta been born wrong. I couldna’ help wonderin’, why God’d make a preacher in the shape of woman who could never stand and do the deed. It didn’t make no sense. ‘Cause somethin’ happens to a calling you squirrel away . . . it goes underground and, like a ghost in a cellar, it don’t leave you alone.
(She pulls a blue ribbon from the box and fingers it throughout this next memory.)
I had a girlfriend growing up named Jeremiah June. Strange name, I know. I think her mama wanted a boy. Her people came from the House of Prayer with Signs Following Church down by the river. We didn’t associate with House of Prayer folk. They were backward and dirty and they handled snakes at their weekend services. My mama would not abide religious fanaticism of that sort. But Jeremiah and I were friends anyway . . . on the sly. One night, Miah told me afterward, a man had handed one of those snakes to her. Children don’t usually do the handling, but Miah said that night the anointing was there. She said it felt like cool death and squirming life wrapping you up in one. Like fear and dizzy joy at just being alive . . .just being brave enough to do the deed. She could never leave the snakes alone after that. I used to help her find ‘em down by the river. One Sunday, she got bit. Lost the middle finger on her right hand.
You know what happens when you get a snake bite? First ya’ feel this burning under the skin and then the flesh begins to swell till it’s stiff and hard. Like there’s something under the surface that just can’t wait to get uncovered and you’d slice your very skin to let it out. At least, that’s how Miah described it.
That’s what this feels like. This having a calling that you can’t share. This knowing who you are and pretending what you’re not. It’s like a bite . . . only the swelling is happening in your heart. (putting ribbon in pocket of her robe; leaving memory box on ground)
I’ve carried a word from God in my belly till it ached with not being born . . . till it weighed on my back and pushed on my lungs . . . till it squirmed inside me in the dark of night. Whether it’s poison or promise . . . I can’t say. But it has to come out, or your throat will grow so thick with words you choke. Your hands’ll do things you don’t even recognize. Cut your own wrists to let out the pressure . . . tear out your hair to make room . . . but that Word’ll keep growin’ and growin’, till the pain collects in your ankles and throbs behind your eyes.
Sometimes, I think, God means to break our hearts . . . (she sinks to the floor) to give us words none’ll believe or let us say. The words strain in silence, till they become the sound of a heart bust all to pieces . . . a teacup on concrete. (She lifts a teacup from her memory box, holds it with careful deliberation and then returns it.) It’s the music of heaven, that sound, hearts breakin’ with beauty ‘fore the throne of God. It’s a music can drive a person mad. And it hurts like hell.
And then one day, when you can’t carry the weight no more, you get a sign, callin’ from the Grundy’s front yard. And you come home with the only pulpit you will ever call your own. A grace from God when there was nothin’ left a’ you to shatter.
(rising with energy)
I keep it in the garage, so no one sees, and sneak down here sometimes at night. I pull off the tarp that keeps it clean and I stand behind it, (She does this. The pulpit is a collage of glass and color . . . robin’s egg blue underneath . . . gold leaf accents . . . mosaics of china . . . pieces of fabric and feathers. It looks like a crazy quilt . . . Vibrant, carefully designed, but still recognizable in shape.) So close I can feel the Spirit breathing under the wood. I never stood on the speaking side of another.
But this one is mine. I’m the lone soul sees ‘er fer what she is . . . hidden away in the dark . . . We know each other by name, this pulpit and me. I sanded her down and made ‘er pretty. I sacrificed for her . . . like the woman who poured out perfume on Jesus’s feet. Broke every piece of my mama’s china . . . the ones she handed over as a consolation prize when she gave up on my ever havin’ a weddin’ day. Smashed ‘em all on this very floor ‘n gave ‘em new birth — Mama still asks me why I don’t use ‘em. (She caresses the pulpit as she speaks.) I chose a robin’s egg blue to cover her scars. The color of a shell waitin’ to burst open in spring. Sometimes I think she shimmers like snakeskin. Jeremiah would be proud. (She pulls the ribbon from her pocket and lays it over the pulpit’s edge so the audience can see it.)
I wait in the dark. I know itsa’ comin’. I hear the Spirit moaning in that grain. I feel it enter me . . . fill me . . . cool Spirit water running down my limbs . . . my arms . . . my fingers . . . I open my mouth and my voice falls down like rain . . . my insides a burst cloud. The lilt of the sound running the length of my spine. My ribs split like a pistachio shell to free my lungs . . . I shed my skin, (as she speaks, she removes the slippers from her feet and the hairclips in her hair; she lets her bathrobe drop to the ground and stands barefoot in a simple white cotton shift), ‘n stand in the moonlight poolin’ on the ground . . . feeling for all the world like I did on my baptism day.
I preach then. I preach to the lawnmower. To the garden tools and my old Dodge station wagon. (With ecstatic urgency, she turns the lawn chairs to face her pulpit and stands behind it.) I preach to the termites in the walls and the spider in the corner. I preach till my words lose all their sense.
(preaching now with authority, to empty lawn chairs) Children a’ earth and heirs a’ heaven, return to the Word you know in yer heart . . . the Word that is near . . . The Word that pulses in your veins and fills your stomach like bread . . . How long will your tongues lie fallow and your mouth crave filth? Who will remember and stand and speak? There is a Word that lives . . . that beats even now in yer frightened heart. Hear it. Cry it out like a dog in heat. Don’t be shamed to look a fool . . . open yer mouth and be filled.
(collects herself after this reverie, coming out from behind pulpit)
What does it matter that no one hears? That the trash cans and boxes of Christmas lights sit silent and deaf? What does it matter that the words fall hard on a dirty floor? Most preachers spend their lives sowing words in the soil of hearts twice as hard. Fillin’ ears of people just as deaf. The point ain’t being heard. The point is speaking. Everybody needs a pulpit. It’s the joy and ache ‘a living.
I found Jeremiah in the forest at our secret meetin’ place when she was 28 years old — cold, stone dead. (While she speaks, she slowly ties Jeremiah’s ribbon to another piece of ribbon on her pulpit, making it a part of the whole.) Snake bite in both her hands like the nail wounds of Jesus. (to audience, with hard-fought hope) She was smiling.
Requests for permission to perform The Call should be directed to Jerusha Matsen Neal through The Well.