Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.85] Journal Entry:
Oct. 28, 1979
It’s been a year since I’ve written in the journal. I’m bearing up okay.
I don’t understand why this is happening. What occurs to me is, what if this ISN’T my test of faith—what if it’s Ben’s? What if God is testing Ben, like He tested Job, to see how much he can take? Job lost his wife, lost his children, just so God could show the devil a faithful soul. We never hear from Job’s children. We never hear what it’s like to be the scribbled-out part of someone’s test.
What I want to know is, is God a male chauvinist pig?
I don’t mean that. That is blasphemous and I will cross it out as soon as I finish writing this stuff.
Last week in church, Sister Hansen said we don’t have crosses on top of Mormon chapels because we celebrate the life, not the [p.86] death, of Jesus Christ. She said—right in her talk—“Why whip a dead horse?” Now THAT is blasphemous. She should cross that out. But we don’t have a cross in the Mormon church.
I know God loves me.
Is it a gender thing? Is Heavenly Father saying to Heavenly Mother, “Let me test Ben’s faith first, and then you can test Merry’s?” Anyway, the end of the test—regardless of who it’s for—is healing. Isn’t it?
Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief. Sorry for the blasphemy. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
Sorry, Merry. But things happen the way they need to. Sorry.
Blue friction sparks flashed as Cody folded Ben’s trousers. “You use fabric softener?” she asked Janny, who was standing beside her like a sentry, watching every move.
“I’ll put it on the list,” Cody said. “You don’t need to help, you know.”
Jan didn’t answer.
“You should be at some sort of Christmas party, not folding pants.”
“I’m not a party person.”
“You never bring friends home. Don’t you have friends?”
“I don’t mean Josh.”
Jan sniffed. “Not everything in this house is your business.”
Cody looked up. “Let me be your friend. You need to talk.”
“Not to you.”
[p.87] “But I’m the one who knows.”
“The secret. The one that makes you sad.”
Jan took the pile of towels and headed for the door, turning just before her exit. “Guess what?” she cooed, then narrowed her eyes. “I know your secret too.” And she was gone.
Cody looked out the window to the brooding half light of winter. The fading sky seemed to be moving inside the house, dimming day, veining rooms with shadows, turning hearts to steel.
Even her own heart. Even her own lonely heart.
Elizabeth still had the eager, nervous, magical insomnia that is an American tradition. But her thoughts this night were caught up in bigger mysteries than Santa Claus and flying reindeer.
She was thinking about God. She was remembering a Sunday school teacher responding to her question about why God had allowed the Holocaust. The teacher, a fat, arrogant baritone, threatened her with his eyes and said, “We don’t question the Creator.”
No questions? But if there were no questions, how could there be answers? Were there questions that shouldn’t come but did?
God, do you hate my mother?
Do you hate my family?
Are you powerless against the laws you’ve ordained?
Are we being punished?
Did we lose the cosmic lottery?
Why are you letting this happen? How can you watch it?
Who do I ask if not You?
[p.88] Oh God, make a miracle! Repair her nerves! Put her muscles back! Let her lift her head! Let her dance!
There were carolers outside, singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Elizabeth imagined them like a scene from Dickens, red scarves wrapped around their necks, flushed cheeks, mouths forming perfect circles, frosted breaths. But she couldn’t join their summons, she wasn’t “faithful.” Not right now.
She had participated in all the family rituals: Ben had read the Christmas story, they had sung carols, she and Janny had put the fake tree up, strung blue lights over its petrified flocking, interspersed silver baubles between needles. But the tree was too much a symbol of the family. It was a token, imitation. Not real, not this Christmas. Something inside them, something spiritual, was becoming as sick as Merry. The family was beginning to unravel. The glue that held them together was turning to a gritty powder. Was Cody causing this—even in all her peace and good will? Or were they all just too tired to stick together anymore?
Yet, Christmas morning did bring a miracle of sorts. There were some very real, very happy, very Christmasy moments.
Penny came over to open gifts. Ben, who had never been a gift giver, had made rock collections for each of his daughters and one for Cody. There were gypsum crystals, pyrite, amethyst, and opal, as well as more common rocks, separated and labelled in tiny wood boxes. His eyes glowed as his daughters unwrapped their gifts, and it seemed they were unwrapping him too, unbinding his burdens.
When Elizabeth and Janny gave the photo album to their mother, Ben turned the pages and wiped Merry’s steady tears.
Later, as they were tossing the last bits of Christmas wrap into the fireplace, there was a knock at the door. Penny opened it but found no one, only a gift wrapped in aluminum foil and penned “For Lizzie.”
“Looks like Joe’s writing,” Pen said.
“I think it is from Joe.” Elizabeth opened it as Penny watched. [p.89] A book: The Great Gatsby. “I guess he wants to be sure I don’t waste my vacation. I guess he thinks I should read this.”
And the cloud returned. By nighttime, they were all wearing weights again, even as they snacked on the eggnog and Christmas turkey Cody had so beautifully prepared.
On New Year’s Eve, Merry tried to eat part of a roasted chestnut. She choked on it, turned blue, and fainted. Ben did the Heimlich maneuver and got her breathing again but turned pale and bluish himself in his panic. “Don’t do that!” he whispered.
“She can’t help it, Dad,” Jan yelled.
Ben bowed his head, exhausted. “I’m not talking to her.”
The choking, Jan insisted, wasn’t that bad.
“It’s happening more and more,” Ben said. “Twice last week.”
“We manage,” she said.
“Do we?” He lowered his head to his hands.
“We’ll get used to it.”
“Maybe there are some things we’re not supposed to get used to. Maybe we shouldn’t have her here. We don’t have the kind of equipment she’s going to need soon.”
“Like what?” Janny’s voice was panicked.
“Like oxygen and doctors and feeding tubes.” He breathed out long, then suggested maybe it was time to look into a rest home.
Cody stayed with Merry after the choking incident, calming her. What the others didn’t realize was how much more terrifying the choking was to Merry than to any of them. To fight for breath and find none—it was a black mark in the life line, the threshold right there, a split second away.
“Calm, Merry,” said Cody. “Inside calm, outside calm.” She turned on the tape machine for ocean sounds. “Listen to the waves. We remember them, don’t we? This is our ocean. Listen [p.90] to it. Light. Love. Peace. Be calm. We dive in. So clear and cold and salty. Be calm. Listen to the sea. Ben is worried. He thought he would lose the woman he loves, thought he’d lose her tonight. Be calm, so calm. I’ll take care of everything.
When Merry closed her eyes, Cody sang her a dream of the ocean, moving her arms like patient waves, singing sounds like wind and gulls. And Merry dreamed.
Eight years ago. Penny is fourteen, already womanish in a black bikini, hair peroxide blonde and wild around her face, mincing around the beach, then letting her toes flirt with water.
Elizabeth, nine, full of feminine possibilities, stands on ocher cliffs, watching the oiled, brown bodies of sunbathers, Janny among them.
The ocean: endless blue-green water fringed with white, and the sun winking on its facets.
“Come down!” Merry calls from the base of the rocks. Her voice is rich, young, and unbraked. Both her arms are waving— not flailing, but controlled, muscular, direct. “Elizabeth, come down!”
Elizabeth does, gingerly, and the water comes to meet her, pooling around rough rock. Merry sees the sudsy flow of water over the beach, sun shining through the wave, spread and reflected as filigrees of light on the submerged shore, and beyond that, a solid, weighty blue.
MY ocean. Wearing a scuba mask, Merry dives into the water. Ben (so young!) follows. Elizabeth touches her toe to the cool wet and goes in deeper as the Pacific accepts her legs, hips, breast buds.
Two feet from where Penny is floating, Merry springs up, drops of ocean flying from her like jewels. Penny whines that [p.91] she didn’t want her hair wet. Merry dives again, her back arcing in the air. She is an unseasoned dolphin, feet pointed, nails polished pearl. She kicks up froth, the ocean is restoring her muscles. She is swimming, making determined, rhythmic kicks, moving the cold, sweet-salt water with powerful hands, elbows lifting, triceps tensing.
Ben and Elizabeth follow her farther out to where the ocean floor drops. Merry smiles, closes her eyes, lifts her arms. Her hands cross before her face, then extend out and up. This is ballet, her dance with life. And then, with equal grace, she sinks.
Ben goes down too. Merry points to a barnacled reef and they see the manta. Its black body floats past exactly at eye level. The light underside is barely visible, but when it lifts its wings, two lines of white form parallel crescent moons. As though this is the sea’s response to Merry’s dance, the manta poses in cinque haute. The wing points nearly touch, then they glide back down. Another manta comes. Merry moves to the creatures as though she would ride them. She is flanked by two immense arrowheads.
MY ocean. Its rhythms rock her, rock her.
When she awakes, she imagines the mural is moving.