WHEN THE PROPHET OF GOD IS NOT A GOOD MAN
by Sadie Hoagland
IT’S HARD TO SAY WHEN things started to go bad for the whole commune. No plague came down like in the Book. There was no locusts, no blood on the doors. No, it just eventually became clear that things had gone all rotten and even as we thought it, the orchards all turned sour and the sick sweet smell of softening and bruising apples hung about everywhere. But even with this smell, no one could name any one thing that was unholy and in a land of God’s people and with only His words no one knew how to say that things were going bad until they were already far gone that way and the whole place was burning. On the other hand it’s not hard to say when things got bad for me. That’s easy to say. It was the day that someone came to tell me that the Prophet wanted to see me after all.
I was born with a limp and this is an inconvenience in most ways. It was like my right leg had gone straight from the womb to the grave, so stiff and straight and dead was it. Even the skin is cold to touch. But I learned to walk just the same as any other child learns, only with a limp on account of having to use my leg like it was wood instead of flesh and so it’s not always been easy and it’s not always made me feel believing about the light of God and the general state of fairness in the world.
One thing about a limp in a commune like ours is that it keeps you from being married off at twelve (well twelve after the Prophet went to loosing the standards of God). Now that I am seventeen, I suppose it is a good thing I wasn’t, but when I was twelve it just made me feel unwanted and unusable. Like I couldn’t ever get to helping in the numerating of God’s people. Though I always did like that it kept me round to keep after Emma and Mama, even if I used to dream of being somewhere else where work was not life but instead we had things like television. I did think that if we had a box of light, like the ones I’d seen pulsing in the windows of town, and if we could see the whole world in it, things might be different. Maybe better. And even though my Pa said television wasn’t magic, I couldn’t see how a picture of people in one place going up into space and bouncing back down somewhere else at almost the same time, could be anything else, really, and I imagined if I had a television I could see in it a picture of a girl with a limp like mine, going about her day like me but somewhere else, and I could watch her and know I was not alone. And everyone else would know I was not alone, neither, in my gait.
Another thing about a limp in this place is that there is a history of limps, and it is not a pretty thing to tell. Other children had been born with limps and in harder times they just died outright by some way or some hand owing to the logic that when a cow or horse is born with a limp, they are just slitted straight off, as soon as they take their first stupid steps and let it be known what they got. But now for want or gain of mercy, and I’ve never been quite sure which, children born in that state are left to live and limp that whole life through. This letting of children live regardless of walking straight is partly owing to Alice Parley Smith who, like me, was also born with a limp, and who was convinced her leg was dead because the devil himself lived in the flesh and at times, was able to take over the rest of her body and drive her to some terrible doings. People around here became afraid of Alice Parley Smith and the devil within her so I guess they never thought about holding another limping child’s head in the trough again. I suppose I should thank Alice. But she managed to kill her own nephew and that child’s kitten all in one day just before she died and so I do not thank her because now people look at my leg, and the crooked tread I leave, and I swear the hair of their own necks stands up for fear of the devil they saw in Alice and the devil they think they see in my own stone flesh. Because Alice did blame that leg for her taking her paring knife to the child’s throat when he asked his aunt to please sew a button on his pants for him so his mother wouldn’t find out he’d lost it and whip him. They say the boy held the kitten as he asked, a calico barn thing with fleas and big eyes like they all have and Alice first looked up from her slicing of peaches for pie making and asked to see the kitten. They say it was quick, the way she moved, with the dead flesh of her leg and the devil in it rising up to her face and even her eyes turned the cold gray of gone-life as she stabbed that kitten through its tiny ribs and into its walnut sized heart and bits of peach still on the knife were then stuck to the kitten’s fur so that the fatal wound was so irresistible to lick by the other barn cats that the kitten’s body had to be burned right off before the boy—whose turn was next and equally as quick as he dropped the button and bent over the just cooling kitten bleeding onto the table covered in flour and fruit and things for pie—was even in the ground. And when he was in the ground and everyone looked at Alice, she just looked at her leg and smiled this sad little smile and so was left alone to be punished by God in His time though children never did ask her for anything ever again. And while I am glad not to have been drowned at birth I do not thank her because the children never ask me for anything either, like I was her, and I wish they would. Also I do not thank her because not two months after Alice died, when I was only eleven, I was out working in the pen, feeding the pigs and the chickens and doing my work as I always did when Levi, my younger brother pushed me down from behind so that I was in my stomach in mud and he put his foot on my back and I saw the shadows of some of the other boys who were getting big but who were not yet men and Levi pushed down on my back and another boy, Daniel put his palm on my head and pressed until my face sunk into the mud, and the mud began to cover my mouth and nose. I could not breathe almost at all. Levi pressed down harder and then I really couldn’t breathe with all his weight on me and my face in the mud and he said Don’t you ever, ever try anything like Alice Parley Smith, Annalue, because if you do, if you ever try to kill any of us like that we will burn you and the devil that lives in your leg will go back to hell. And then just before I lost all breath and light, he let up and they walked away and left me. So I do not thank her.
This was all hanging around my life, all these things, like a harvest wind, when things started to go bad, and I was trying my best to hold down our side, my Mama’s side, of the family. My sister Emma was in all kinds of trouble with Jeremiah, the son of her betrothed, and was sneaking around thinking I did not know. Mama was worried about her daughters and sons like she was some chipmunk and wanted to keep us inside her own cheeks; we were hardly allowed outside alone unless we were with someone for some fear of hers that I did not understand. It was true that boys had been disappearing like they had been ghost children that do not die, nor live on either when they are grown. They just left and no one asked about it. Generally, it was said that the Prophet would tell the father to tell the son to leave, on account of the fact that with the girls all being the third and fourth wives of the older men, it would be a while before it swung back around to firsts for any of those boys. But this was not the usual way, and there was a dissettlement about it around, buzzing, in the air, and my leg began to ache, to stir a little in its fleshy grave, like some big storm was coming though I knew August to be hot and dry.
And then one day it did rain. A hot, quick storm. My Mama and Emma and I all stood in the barn for shelter and watched it come down like some brief and passionate gesture of God’s hand. Emma wanted to dance in the rain but my Mama looked at her once and said she’d like to get a fever and die for that kind of acting. It began to lit up when Daniel, the Prophet’s son who had since holding my face into the mud grown up to fifteen same as I was that day, appeared. He came through the West field, the afternoon sun coming out behind him and shadowing his fence post figure as we watched him come closer. Who is that? Emma asked and I said I thought it was Daniel by the way he walked, heavy on his heels and we stood under the barn and waited for our visitor even though the rain was right near gone. Daniel was soaked and cold but trying to act like he was neither when he came to us and looked straight at me.
Prophet wants to see you, Annalue, you come now? Your Pa’s already talked to him. Daniel swung his jaw like he was chewing grass but there was nothing but these words in his mouth. I looked at my Mama to see if what he said about Pa was true or if she knew about it but she did not look back at me and looked down instead. That’s when my mouth felt like it was full of flour and I nodded but as I went to follow him best I could with that way I walked, I thought of Alice Parley Smith and wondered if the Prophet had decided with the help of God to kill me now before the devil rose out of my leg and into my body, or to maybe send me off like the missing boys, into the desert, and so with these thoughts I turned and looked at Mama and Emma and saw that they too had fear in their eyes and Emma ran out into the wet sunshine then like she was going to stop me. But Daniel turned back around and looked at her and she stopped and looked at the footprints in the mud between us. We’ll be watching the road for you, which is what we women always said to each other when one was going out, but this time Emma said it to Daniel instead of me, and said it fierce, but he just snorted and kept walking so that I started again to follow in my way.
The Prophet lives always in the big house at the end of town and all roads lead to it because right next to it is the temple. The Prophet always lives in this house until he dies, and then the next Prophet moves in but this last time the new Prophet was the old prophet’s son, so he had already moved in to take care of his sick father. The new Prophet is not supposed to be the old Prophet’s son, but the new Prophet had insisted on this, and so much did he proclaim it as the word of God that there was a fear in choosing another Prophet, so he moved in and took his father’s seat next to the throne of God and started changing rules right off. I thought about this as we walked, because watching Daniel’s back from behind, which was hunched over from having grown tall too fast, I wondered if he would do what his father had done and I hoped he wouldn’t because now looking back, two years later, I think that when a son followed a father into that seat next to God, I think that's when the trouble really started.
When we got to the Prophet’s house Daniel made me stand on the porch while he told his father I was there and I waited for what seemed like a while and watched the whole world shine and dry in the sun while the clouds unmade themselves from the sky. There were sparrows making a to-do about drying their feathers and chirping like something grand had just happened in that summer storm. I watched them and felt things might be alright but then the screen door swung open and Daniel nodded that it was time to go in, and he held the door for me and pointed to the back parlor room where I limped slowly as the screen door shut and I saw that Daniel had stayed outside on the porch. I had never been in this house, as it was a place where the men communed and I was surprised how dark it was and also buy the smell of cedar on everything. In the back parlor, the Prophet, our youngest one ever but still an older man, a little older than my father, was standing by the window his arms folded and gazing out like the word of God might come at any time from the sky.
Annalue, he turned and said, I have spoken to your father.
His voice was as human as they come, that’s one thing to be noted about Prophets. We have decided it would be best for you, as pretty a girl as you have turned out.
And he walked toward me now and motioned for me to come into the room further so that I had to swing my dead leg over the edge of a rug and drag it into the center of the room,
It would be better,
and the Prophet touched my hair now,
if you were wed into God’s house after all and so I will wed you and you will be among my wives, and so thus spared a life without an opportunity to please God and do his duty,
and his hand fell onto my breast and I saw how old his hands were and I stood staring at the prophet and ate my lip a little and did not say anything. He smiled at me then and I wondered what it was about this man that made me care so little about God and my duty.
And now this is when God's own prophet must have read this in my eyes and so this is when things went bad for me. This all happened fast, and I warn you that I want to tell it even faster because of the way things like this stay unsaid unless spit out of the mouth like a loosed tooth: The Prophet had his hands on me then to show me what he had just told me about me about to become his wife and I was afraid then partly because of his words but mainly because of his hands and the inevitable truth they were telling in the liberties they were already taking, and that was a truth that I had escaped for three years but would no longer.
The Prophet looked at me with his black eyes like he did not see me, and he put his hands around my back and put his mouth over mine and he tasted like old milk and smelt like cedar just like the house, and then he pulled me toward him and what happened then was that I lost my balance.
I fell then into my own damn fate because my leg was stuck behind me at an angle I could not stand on and so that in falling, I went right into the arms of the Prophet just as I wanted to push away. It is the word of God, he said and he lay me down on an old dusty chaise and I heard the sparrows outside, all hallelujah still, and so closed my eyes.
I was back in the mud then, but on my back this time, laid there by the Prophet of God himself and it was him pressing his weight down on my body, and pulling up my dress and pulling off my underthings, the garments sticking on my straight leg that would not free them and my face not in the mud but still I could not breathe as he did what he felt to do because I would be his wife, and when he was finished he got up off me and smiled. I did not want to look at him, but did not want to look away like some kicked dog either, so I saw when his eyes fell on my leg. What I saw is something like scorn come into his face, or maybe even disgust, as he looked at my poor stiffened leg, blue as it is for lack of blood and I saw this look on the face of the Prophet of God and for the first time ever not only did I understand Alice Parley Smith, but I also felt the devil inside that leg, keeping me from some shame, wanting everything to burn, and for the first time ever I let it rise up toward my heart and let it give me the strength to push myself up from the chaise, shake the white under garments off that poor leg, straighten myself and walk out of the Prophet’s house and past Daniel and back down the road where Emma would be watching for me, all with nothing but air under my dress while those white underthings lay still on the floor of the Prophet’s house, left by the devil and waiting to be picked up by the hand of God.
SADIE HOAGLAND has a PhD in fiction from the University of Utah where she also worked as editor of Quarterly West. She has an MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Black Herald, MOJO, Alice Blue Review, Oyez Review, Grist Journal, The South Dakota Review, Sakura Review and Passages North.