Another Perspective

New Orleans, 2005

"The Lord said a fire, not a flood next time."

By 9.9.05

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A little boy in the warm buzz of a Sunday morning at church, dressed in his starchy fragrant best, used to trace the carving in the wood of a pew. Grooves, chiseled by hand, ran down each pew arm to a scroll at the end, and the little boy would run his finger along the grooves, tracing the slow curve down from the top, and then into the scroll, and around and around to infinity, and a stop. The wood was golden and warm and had been waxed by hand twice a month for 125 years. The boy's father would lay a hand on the back of the boy's neck and stroke him gently and watch as the preacher's voice boomed out. It was warm, and across the congregation people in white gently fanned themselves. The boy's father had traced those grooves himself when he was a boy.

Sometimes the boy would raise his head and look at the church's ceiling, very far away. Across the vaulted ceiling ran beams, the same color as the wood under his hand. The beams were carved, too, with scrolls, and the boy wished he could be up there, looking down at the congregation. The people, he imagined, would look like pigeons lined up in brown crescent rows, the pews curving across the floor, pigeons dressed up grandly in white Sunday feathery clothes, starched, lacy, proper, grand, and plump. He imagined running his fingers along the grooves in the beams, and wondered briefly how he would stay out of the way of the rattan ceiling fans lazily stirring the warm air. It would be hot up there, he thought, knowing enough to know that hot air rose. Why push the hot air down, he would wonder, as he always did.

The boy would turn over and rest against his father's warm body and rub his cheek against the satin fabric of his father's vest. He would look at the church's stained glass windows, six of them, three along each side of the sanctuary. They were tall, each of them a skinny gothic pair with the pointed arches on top, and they told stories. Here, in stormy colors brooded old Abraham with his gray beard, a knife in one hand and the hand of a dewy-cheeked boy in the other; light was just breaking through the clouds. Here was Joseph, bound in chains and borne away by a gang of men in short white dresses, while in the background his brothers counted a bag of money. Daniel, with golden tresses, stood amid a pride of transfixed lions. And so forth.

The boy looked at Daniel, with his serene blonde visage, and thought about the time an Egyptian man had come to visit a church supper. (He always thought about the same thing when he looked at that window.) A skinny, agile fellow, nut-brown, he leaped up on the stage in the parish hall and told them stories about Christians in Egypt and Ethiopia and the Sudan.

"You look at him, now," the boy's Aunt Ginnie had said, whispering in his ear. "That's probably just the color Jesus was."

THEN THE LITTLE BOY'S AUNT ELLA began to play the piano. The sermon was over. It was time to stand up, which the whole congregation did, with a grand rustle, and then came the sound of heavy hymn books pulled from the racks in the backs of the pews, a kind of mute thunder.

"Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling... Calling for you and for me..." the piano played, and the congregation sang. No one needed the hymn books, really. Oh, it was magnificent. Everyone knew their parts, and it sounded so big, so fat, so warm. There were little old ladies singing wiggly soprano, and big ladies who had deep alto voices, and men in tenor and bass, and some of them could ornament the melody, too.

"Come home," sang the altos and sopranos, and the basses and tenors answered "Come home." Then all together, "Come ho-o-ome... Ye who are weary, come ho-o-ome..."

The little boy knew the piano well. He had come to the empty church with Aunt Ella when it was time to practice. From when he was very little, when he used to sit on the floor by Aunt Ella's feet and watch her work the pedals and thrill to the vibration from under the body of the grand, till now, when he would wander different parts of the sanctuary and listen to the sound from different angles, he knew that piano. It was a Boesendorfer, carved like the pews, a massive thing brought at colossal trouble and expense to the church before World War I. It sounded different when the church was empty, when Aunt Ella practiced, than it did now, with a full congregation behind her. She watched the pastor and the congregation through a rectangular wood framed mirror that sat alongside the music rack. Occasionally, she would catch the boy's eye during church and wink at him in that mirror.

THE REVEREND PAT ACTUALLY STARTED the evacuation at Friday night prayer meeting. And in spite of the groans and cries from many in the congregation, everybody agreed. It would not be the end of the world, the Reverend Pat said. "The Lord said a fire, not a flood next time." He had arranged to have the congregation of their sister church in Baton Rouge take many of them in, those without families. Joe and Pete, who drove the church's school bus and van, saw to picking up those without cars and the shut-ins. Everybody met in the church's parking lot on Saturday morning for a final prayer under a sky already angrily spitting wind and rain. Everybody came, even old Elmer the sexton who waxed the pews every two weeks, and he even brought a bottle, which everybody knew about, because old Elmer always had a little buzz on.

Staying at his cousins' house the next week, the little boy thought about the church and about what his mother had said when they finally knew how bad it had gotten.

"I'd feel better if a bomb had just blowed it up," Ma had said. The boy, thinking about the lovely church ruined, knew what she meant. It was crueler, somehow, to spoil than to destroy.

(*This is a work of fiction.)

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.

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Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.