Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.59] “Your bishop friend called,” Cody said.
“Hank?” Ben, lying on the couch, was mulling over a U.S.G.S. article.
“Said he was just checking in.”
“What a guy.”
“He means a lot to you.”
He sat up. “We’ve been good friends. High school pals, missionary companions, roommates.”
“What was that like?” She sat beside him. “To be missionary companions?”
“Why do you want to know?”
She touched his hand in a way that reminded him of how strangers had touched his hand at his father’s funeral—a gesture that tried to soothe, comfort, bless; tried to enter his life. “I want to know,” she said. “That’s all.”
The memories pelted him. She had opened him to them. She could do that—open a person’s past—the same, easy way other people open their doors after a day at the office. Her touch.
His mission: the two-year sentence Merry had given him as the condition of their engagement. He wanted to say, “I hated it,” remembering the endless rules, the written “gospel discussions,” the “tracting”—ceaseless sales-pitching, door to door. Remembered how his identity had been reduced and molded into a black name-tag: “Elder Benjamin Morgan.” Two years of walking cobblestone for Jesus.
But he also remembered the sweet, tropical smells, the heavy, glistening leaves thriving everywhere, remembered how he had learned to love a whole culture. He recalled one night in particular—one he had not mentioned to anyone but Merry—when he had experienced something akin to Cody’s mind-melding gifts. He chose not to tell her because she would read too much into it and finally only managed, “I hated my mission.”
She pressed his hand harder, digging into his thoughts. He [p.60] was almost used to it by now. “There’s more,” she said, her fingers beginning familiar circles.
He withdrew his hand, stood, paced, scratched his baldness. “A mission is two years of boot camp. You wear suits instead of fatigues. You carry scriptures instead of M-16’s.”
“There’s more,” she repeated, drawing him back with her voice. He remained standing as she went on: “Spiritual things. Have you forgotten?”
It was a version of Merry’s voice she was doing—not quite mockery, but almost. He recognized Merry, then let her sound vanish in his mind exactly the way his dreams of her vanished. “My mission memories aren’t pleasant,” he said.
“No. Not all. But some are.” It was her own voice now.
“There was one night,” he relented.
“Hank and I were in a little place called Tecpan. Tiny Indian village. We were called in to attend a woman. Indian woman. Her baby had just died.”
“To bless her, you mean.”
“Right. To bless her.”
She smiled up at him, then patted the couch to invite him back. He sat beside her, and again she touched his hand, stroked his knuckles like she was healing them of tension.
She had calmed him. His voice, his memories, came easy now. “It was the middle of the night. Some old Indian woman nearly knocked our door down to wake us up. The baby had choked on something, I don’t remember what. Been dead several hours. Six months old. And when we went to the hut, a bunch of church members were already with her—this was three o’clock in the morning—and some of the women—”
“Yes, the sisters. The sisters were dressing the little girl’s body. Hank and I sat down in the back of the hut. Someone was holding a candle. That was the only light. And—I can feel the dirt floor.”
[p.61] “Let yourself feel it. Cold.”
He shivered. “One of the sisters handed the baby to its mother. Then we all stopped breathing. Every one of us.” He closed his eyes, letting himself move fully into the memory as Cody opened it up. “It was like we were all holding our breaths. Then in perfect unison, like wind, we breathed out—all of us did—and the mother took her little girl.”
“And for just that split second, we had one mind, one heart.”
“Yes.” He opened his eyes. For the briefest moment, Cody became that grieving mother. Her eyes were dark, full of excruciating love, her half-bleached hair was simply moonlight.
“And you knew what the mother was feeling when she accepted her child.”
“Then you know how it is to enter someone else’s soul.”
He willed himself out of the vision. “’Fraid not,” he said, not as loudly as he wanted to. “Just how it is to peek in. I don’t have your gifts. No offense, but I don’t want them.”
Cody breathed in, nodding. “There are so many things Merry would like to say to you.”
“You’re good. I admit it. You even sounded like her a second ago.”
“You do have spiritual gifts, Ben. You’ve been very busy denying them. Very scared of your own strength. You didn’t want to tell me that story.”
“That’s true. I didn’t.”
“Because then I’d know about your gifts.”
“Not everyone wants to read minds.”
“You won’t survive this without God,” she said. It was Merry’s voice again—and again gone.
“Merry made me go on that mission. Threatened me if I didn’t.”
[p.62] “She’d never marry someone who wasn’t a returned missionary.”
“She said, ‘I’d never marry someone who wasn’t a returned missionary.’” He stared at her, then away.
“Reclaim your gifts, Elder Ben. Be brave.” Cody stood, began to leave, then turned back. “Where was it? This village— Tecpan? Where did you do this mission, Ben?”
“Guatemala,” he said.
She stepped back. “Oh.”
Cody didn’t go to her room, but outside. So Ben had likely walked the same streets as Tomás had. Tecpan. Yes, she had heard Tomás mention it. Ben’s shoes had stenciled the same dusty roads Tomás had described to her. Perhaps Ben had even touched her absent lover at a bus stop or the marketplace. Was this the attraction she was feeling suddenly for Merry’s husband? The fact that he had been in Tomás’s country? Was she sensing Tomás’s touch through this “returned missionary?” This country she had never seen, was she experiencing it, loving it, remembering it—and Tomás—through Ben?
The Mormon temple on the hill glowed in the distant haze.
“Tomás?” Cody said to the sky. “Tomás?”
Joe Kelby wore his All in the Family tie and looked even more the hippie than usual. He winked at Elizabeth when she entered the classroom. When the bell rang, he began talking about God and about the church, which in Cache Valley meant the Mormon church. Then he calmly announced that he was a socialist.
While the most pious girls stared incredulously at him, Joe went on. “George Orwell saw us quite clearly, you know. How many of you have finished the assignment—1984?”
[p.63] Three hands went up. Elizabeth raised two hesitant fingers to indicate that she had gotten to page sixty-seven.
“Oh this is good.” Joe shook his head. “It’s a pretty remarkable book, ya’ll. About a society run by ‘Big Brother’ who controls everything and everyone. Anyone not working for the society’s good is zapped. Bang. Big Brother has even conjured up a war, just to keep the people’s sense of adventure satisfied. The enemy unites them like they were a bunch of Mormons fighting Satan.”
“Does he say that?” Mary Jo asked.
“I say that,” said Joe. “I say Cache Valley is like Orwell’s society. Think about it. Who controls better than God?” Both his arms raised grandly, set to part the Red Sea or at least divide the sheep from the goats. “God,” he said like swearing, “God the omnipotent punisher of evil, the vindictive Santa Claus of Cache Valley, the sterling rewarder of good—who can thwonk a bad guy better than capital HIM?”
No one even giggled. The majority of the boys would be missionaries next year, many of the girls would be missionaries in three years.
“You do what God wants—which means what the leaders SAY God wants—or you’re clonked, brothers and sisters. The monster Devil is our enemy, isn’t that the way it is? We must unite against sin!”
Elizabeth thought he might stand on his desk and lead them in a chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” But the most furious part of his sermon was over. He lowered his arms slowly, palmed the sweat off his temple, leaned over his desk.
“God—Big Brother—knows our thoughts, our actions, our words. And he sure as hellfire punishes us if we’re screwing around.”
An uneasy silence answered.
“So, yeah, I’m a socialist.”
At that, Klem Hanks, the class debater, shouted out in a per-[p.64]fect Orrin Hatch voice: “Now wait a doggone minute!” Klem proceeded to expound on the virtues of private ownership.
Sitting back with an amused smile, Joe let him go on. As other students got involved in the debate, Joe looked pleased, even smug. When the dismissal bell rang, he said, “Well, think about it. You don’t have to agree with me, but you do have to think. Maybe there are no right answers, just good thoughts. So get some. Like by doing your own reading.”
Elizabeth waited until the others had gone before asking Joe, “Are you really a socialist?”
He grinned, and then poofed his fingers through his hair. “I am if it’ll pull you guys out of your high school stupor.”
As she had suspected. “So you said all that stuff for fun? It was a game?”
“That was fun, wasn’t it? A gas.” He grinned again and started stacking papers on his desk. “How is everything, by the way?”
“Grandma left,” Elizabeth said.
“Was that a big relief?”
“Duh! She never found out about you and Penny, by the way.”
“I guess that’s good. So, is she doing okay?”
“Oh. I guess she’s so-so.”
He folded a page of his notes into a fan. “She phoned me, Lizzie. Night before last. Said a lot of crap about how it was better this way and I’d thank her later. Sounded more like suicide than divorce. So I drove over to her place—that little dump of an apartment. She wouldn’t let me in.”
She took his fan, studied it, then fanned herself. “You still love her?”
“True confessions. Yeah. I’m a socialist masochist, I guess.” He expelled a sad laugh and changed the subject so self-consciously that his voice came out strained, thin—like if he [p.65] tried any harder he’d squeak. “Geez, you’re growing up so fast. Seems yesterday you were a chubby little half pint, ladling out frappé at our reception. And here you are, a senior.”
“No. Not chubby. Really pretty.”
“Flattery.” She rolled her eyes.
“And not flattery either. Just truth. I met Pen when we were seniors. Look, put down the fan and help me erase the board, would you?”
She obeyed, made semi-circles of chalk dust. “Does she know you still love her?”
“I think she does,” he said. “It’s just that it doesn’t matter. So, how’s your mom?”
She put the eraser down and turned to him. “How am I supposed to answer that? You ask me that all the time like you’re expecting her to die any minute.”
He shrugged a vague apology. “I miss your mom. We were great friends. I worry about her.”
“But you ask all the time! Like one of these days I’ll tell you she died last night and I have to go pick out a coffin after class.”
“I’ll try to talk about the weather, then.”
“Pretty cloudy, last I looked.”
His gaze held her. “You and Pen,” he said, “you have the same eyes, you know that? Flaming amber, that’s what I used to call them. From your mom, right?”
“I guess,” she said, then noticed her watch. “I’ve just missed my bus.”
She knew he’d offer her a ride, which he did.
The ripe, fruity smell of autumn was everywhere, the musk of decomposition, the scent of hay from distant farms, a whiff of manure. Crimson maple leaves whisked around their feet as they walked to Joe’s car.
[p.66] Then Elizabeth saw Josh and Janny kissing under the biggest maple. Josh’s hand was sliding up and down her sister’s ribs.
Joe looked away.
“Janny, you’re such an idiot,” Elizabeth murmured.
To the cave again, though it was even colder in the mountains than in the valley.
Jan’s teeth were chattering as Josh guided her to the cave floor. “I’ll warm you up,” he said and kissed her mouth— hard—until she was melting under him in the dark.
“No farther than kissing,” Janny said.
“No,” said Josh. “We won’t go any farther.”
January 17, 1976
I am proud to announce the arrival of Elizabeth Alexandra to the world. She is beautiful, a hearty eater, good sleeper.
I’m a good sleeper, too. I sleep too much. I guess the lactation takes my energy. And probably the pregnancy damaged my sciatic nerve since I keep getting this tingling sensation in my toes, like they just suddenly go to sleep. Sometimes it really hurts. Sometimes, I can’t even walk—or I’m walking and I just trip over nothing. Anyway, all this ooey gooey self pity—but what’s a journal for?
We’ve bought a house here in Logan, just a few blocks from the university—a fixer-upper, which I wish I had the energy to fixer-up. I did plant a bunch of tulip bulbs and mums the day before I gave birth—which is maybe why I delivered when I did, a week early, and that’s fine with me.
[p.67] Ben’s a great help, though I sense his frustration with my tiredness. He tries not to show it. Anyway, I don’t feel guilty expecting him to do dishes sometimes. It’s good for him to do dishes—not just because I refuse to be married to a male chauvinist pig, but because it relaxes him—and he needs relaxation. He works too hard, puts in posolutely too many hours on campus. It’s like he thinks he has to prove something to the chairman. The chairman IS a male chauvinist pig.
So, dishes are good. His gem work relaxes him, too, and I wish he’d do it more often. I could use some sapphire earrings anyway to go with my blue dress—which is the only one that fits anymore since my stomach is still a glump of flab.
I am being so negative! Why don’t I just quit it? I think I’ll tear out this page some day because I don’t want my posterity reading it and saying what a pity-monger I was.
Seriously, life is posolutely, absotively, resolutely good. I am so thrilled to have my sweethearts—my Elizabeth and Penny. And my Ben.
There were times, when Cody read the journal, that she could hear Merry’s voice, could sense the words before her eyes reached them. The way Merry had talked: “Ooey gooey.” “Posolutely.” She could plumb Merry’s love for her daughters, could feel it moving into her. My sweethearts.