Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.140] The next Wednesday, a new aide fed Merry a piece of roast beef which stuck halfway down her throat. Merry was blue and unconscious when they ambulanced her to the hospital. She was having a CT scan when her family arrived, doctors assessing what damage the lack of oxygen had done.
“Why don’t they let her go?” murmured Joe, fingering his temples like the whole thing gave him a headache.
“Because we’d sue the poop out of them,” said Janny. “Feeding her roast beef!”
Joe grinned at “poop.”
The chairs in the E.R. were all orange plastic, wall paintings neon green and red. “Incongruous” was the word Elizabeth thought. Such colors for the place where mortals present their tragedies to the gods of medicine and await their verdicts!
[p.141] “If God has orange seats in heaven,” she said, “I’m leaving.”
Joe grinned at that, too.
Various victims entered. A kindergartner with a nearly severed thumb. A seven-year-old with a broken arm. Voices muted and scared. Against the orange and neon green backdrop, the E.R. visitors were peeking around the corners of could-be’s.
“I’m starved,” said Joe. He was wearing a paisley tie with flecks of orange which blended with the couch. “I’m going for a sandwich. Can I get anyone anything? Pen?”
She shook her head.
She glared. “I’ve asked you to quit calling me that. Would you? Would you just quit? You always have your own agenda no matter what anyone else wants; you always do that.” She could feel her sisters staring. “Well, he does,” she pouted, eyes down. Her peripheral vision showed Joe’s mouth: a loose, amused smile.
“You’re under a lot of stress,” he said. “Why don’t you come with me, how about it? Let’s go get us a sandwich.”
“Shut up,” she sneered, and opened a Field and Stream just as the doctor emerged to announce there was no apparent brain damage. Merry would be able to return to the rest home the following day.
Elizabeth nodded, turning the pages.
That was the moment Ben entered, holding Cody’s hand. Cody’s ring finger—exactly at Elizabeth’s eye level—sparkled with a blue sapphire. Elizabeth knew it was an engagement ring and knew Jan was focused on it, too.
“How is she?” said Ben.
Joe and Pen murmured responses. Janny, though, was starting to cry. Elizabeth ushered her out.
[p.142] “Funny you should have this here,” said Cody. She was touching a half-finished dinosaur model on Ben’s office desk an hour after their hospital visit. They had not seen Merry, and Ben did not want to see Merry now. He wanted to forget everything, abandon guilt and grief and all the heavy summons of his other days.
“Why funny? I worked a summer in Vernal. Dinosaurs aren’t the exclusive province of paleontologists. Geologists know a thing or two. We check the rock stratification, date the time spans. I’m very comfortable with these models.”
“It’s funny, because it’s my dream.”
“Your dreams again.”
“I’ve been dreaming bones, Ben. Dinosaur bones, or dog bones, I don’t know. So you’re building my dream on your desk.”
“You sing good dreams, I make models of ’em.”
“I didn’t say the dreams were good.”
He removed his glasses. “I want to make love to you.”
“Not yet. Tell me how you get the bones out of the rocks?”
“Little chisels, little brushes to clear the dust. Patience.” He kissed her.
“How do you tell which bones go with which monsters?”
“They’ve figured it out,” Cody said between his kisses.
“Jan. Elizabeth. Penny. Merry, too. All of them. They know.”
He pulled back. “You’re feeling guilty? Because Merry’s in the hospital?”
“I didn’t say guilty.”
“Let’s be silent lovers tonight,” he murmured. “No more words.” He kissed her long and hard.
[p.143] The next time Bishop Hank Simpson phoned Ben Morgan, it was not a social call.
“Ben,” he said, “how are you, buddy?”
“Look, I think we need to talk. Don’t we?”
Hank knew, Ben was sure of it. And when he saw Janny reading a book on the front room couch, refusing to meet his eyes, he was sure she had told.
He would be excommunicated. Mormons who have been through the temple and then committed adultery are excommunicated. Cause-effect, no transition, no excuses. Excommunication meant you could go to church but couldn’t take the sacrament, couldn’t give a talk, couldn’t even lead the singing. You would be there and not there. Temple promises revoked. No more temple garments, no more temple recommend. No more whisperings of the Holy Ghost, so the doctrine goes. (It had been a while since Ben had heard whisperings of the Holy Ghost.) One of the jobs of a bishop was to start the accusations rolling to strike the sinner out of the church.
Putting on his coat, he asked Jan, “You had a talk with the good bish?”
She didn’t hear him. Pretended not to.
“You talked with Hank Simpson, Jan?”
She raised her head slowly, eyes as blue and emotionless as Cody’s new ring. “Yes.”
“Because,” she said easily, “I want God to punish you.”
Hank shook Ben’s hand warmly, smiled, seemed to want to hug him. Ben stiffened. Behind Hank’s desk was a picture of Jesus surrounded by families from all the ages of time. Jesus [p.144] was standing, arms open. A favorite picture in Mormon chapels. Ben happened to know it had been painted by a Seventh-Day Adventist.
When Hank spoke, he was using his ecclesiastical voice, full of emotion and authority. “Sit down, Ben.” He gestured to a brown leather chair and Ben obliged. “This is as awkward for me as it is for you, I want you to know that. Just as painful, too,” Hank said.
“I’m sure.” Despite whatever diets Hank’s wife had him on, he looked heavier to Ben than the last time they had met.
“I was beside you when they brought your dad out of the mine down there in Price. I was beside you on our mission. And I was your witness when you got married.” Hank’s cheeks were so flabby they vibrated with his words.
“I’m aware of that.”
Hank drummed a pencil on his desk, looking up every few seconds. “I’ve been beside you for some of the most important events of your life. Like I said: Your dad, our mission, your wedding. Am I being redundant?”
“My point is, I’m beside you now, Ben. Not above. Beside.”
Ben leaned back in his chair. “Except you’re acting as my bishop this time. My judge.”
“Well, yes. There’s that.” He drummed his pencil twice more, then laid it down.
Long pause. Unfamiliar territory. Catholics have a ritual, at least. Bless me father, for I have sinned. Mormons simply wait.
Ben finally muttered, “Don’t you know your line?”
Hank shrugged his immense shoulders, took off his glasses, wiped them with a Kleenex. “To be honest, I’m at a loss for words.” His eyes were watery.
You’ve got my heart on your desk, and you’re weighing it. (Not spoken.) “I believe you’re supposed to say something like, ‘You’ve been through the temple and you made a covenant to [p.145] have no sexual relations with anyone who’s not your wife. You broke that covenant.’”
Hank replaced his glasses. “Go on.”
“And I answer, ‘Yes. I did.’”
“You did, then,” he sighed.
“You say, ‘Did you initiate the contact with this other woman?’”
“What’s her name?”
“Cody. She’s Merry’s nurse.”
Hank was focused on his folded hands. “Yes,” he said. “I met her.”
“That’s right. At the birthday party.”
“What’s the answer?”
“The answer is, ‘We both initiated it.’ I believe I’m supposed to cry at this point.”
“You didn’t cry when they brought your dad out. I kept thinking you would, and you never did.” He glanced up. “You just stared at his body, same way you’re staring at me.”
“Like—I don’t know. Like you expect the worst and you’re never disappointed.”
Ben opened his arms like he was presenting himself to the fates. “I haven’t been, not yet.”
Hank focused on his own wedding band. Ben had removed his the night Merry went to South Beach Haven. “Merry gave you three beautiful daughters.”
Can’t you do any better than that, Hank? “Yes, I’m aware of that, too.” He even let himself laugh a little—at Hank, at the situation, at the ugly little blips of mortality.
“Does she know about the affair?”
“I’m sure she suspects.”
“And your daughters?”
Betrayed, abandoned. “Janny called you, didn’t she? Yes, undoubtedly, they know.”
[p.146] Hank leaned over his desk, looking very round, very kind, and somehow ready to pounce. “How do they feel about it?”
Ben forced his eyes away. “Janny hates Cody, I can tell you that much. And she misses Merry.”
“Is it true you’re going to marry this nurse person—this Cody?”
He hadn’t expected that, and felt exposed to his naked bones. He laughed again, but it was hollow. “Jan told you that?”
“Yes. I’m going to marry the nurse person.”
“Ben!” It was a moan or a sigh. Ben was facing his friend’s disappointment head on. Hank’s sweet eyes called him a wicked, wicked man. The bishop pounced, then licked Ben’s heart— tasting or healing it or teasing its rhythms with counterpoints.
Ben touched his chest, felt his heartbeat. “Look, the divorce is civil; I won’t cancel the temple sealing. Merry is my wife.” Her face is in my bones, etched like whip marks. I am married, Hank, married, married, and married—in this life and in the next, for time and eternity—to a ghost. You witnessed it, didn’t you.
“You think you’ll be happy with Cody?”
“Yes.” No. Does it matter?
“When you got sealed to Merry, I remember thinking you were the luckiest guy on earth. Such a gorgeous gal marrying YOU, for crying out loud! I’ve never seen a more beautiful bride.”
“And now—” Hank stopped mid-sentence, shook his head. This was another long, soundless, accusing moment, and Ben realized it was nearly as monumental as his marriage moment— or as the moment when Dr. Steve said “m.s.” This was his judgment time. He looked away from Hank Simpson, quickly memorized the details of the decor of the generic office, took in the leather chairs, the antique desk, the faint scent of carpet shampoo, lemony furniture polish. All the lives he was living—son, husband, father, lover, sinner, sufferer, teacher, friend, and the [p.147] part of him that was Merry—were converging for judgment, and it was Hank doing the judging in a room that could’ve come from a thrift store.
“Merry,” Ben said, as though she were beside him.
“She saved you. You were heading to a wasteland, if you ask me. Just going in circles, remember? After your dad died? She gave direction and meaning to your life.”
Ben bowed his head to his hands. He wanted to laugh again, but couldn’t. “Is this an all-expenses paid guilt trip or do I need to up my tithing to cover costs?”
“I’m just saying what I remember, what I believe. I do believe it, Ben: God will restore Merry—in his own time and way—and all this pain, it’ll seem like a dream or a shadow.”
He smiled faintly. “Truth is, Hank, I’m sick to death of dreams and shadows.” Don’t make my wife a platitude—someone to view from eternal perspectives. I knew her solid and real, moving and moving.
“I’m not going to pretend I understand one iota of what you’ve gone through, Ben. You know Sheila. She’s fine and healthy. I have no idea—”
“How it feels to lose your wife by millimeters? No, Hank. You don’t.”
“But Christ does. Christ knows your pain, felt it there in Gethsemane. I believe that!”
“You have to look past some things, Ben—all of us do! Even me. Sheila’s not exactly the girl I married either. She’s gained probably fifty pounds.”
Ben’s mouth dropped. “I can’t believe you said that. You’re seriously comparing a weight gain to—”
“I didn’t mean that.”
At once the undefined anger which had been swelling and ebbing in him over the past month or decade was focused on Hank and everything Hank represented. Ben exploded, “It’s so goddamned easy for you!”
[p.148] “All I’m saying is you have to look beyond the here and now.”
Ben didn’t remember standing, but he was on his feet, his left fist was raised. “God damn it, Hank! I live in the here and now! Here and now my wife is a pillar of salt and I’m supposed to subsist on the notion that eventually she’ll escape and be a happy spirit and then everything will be fine? Has it ever occurred to you—or to God, for that matter—that I loved her body every bit as much as I loved her spirit? And has it occurred to either of you that I didn’t stop being a man just because my wife got sick?”
“Of course, you didn’t,” he said in his sweet, bishopy voice, rising as well.
“I remember you with your Playboy magazines—even after our mission.”
Hank went red. “You know I’ve repented of that.”
“You have ten children!” His fist swept a circle in the air. “You probably made love with your wife last night—which is none of my business. God knows, I’m not the bishop here.”
Now Ben’s other fist raised. He could have lifted Hank Simpson and tossed him out the window. “For years,” he went on, gesturing widely, “while you’ve been making those darling babies, I’ve been wiping my wife’s waste, cleaning the spit from her chin, clearing her throat so she wouldn’t choke and die. For years I’ve cared for her body—.”
“Because you love her.” Hank’s voice was soft and clear, like he was imitating a religious stereotype.
Ben lowered his fists, lowered his voice to a straight and bitter line. “Because she taught me how to be responsible and she made me a family man and gave me a sense of duty like a bad habit.”
“And because you love her.”
He fell back into his chair. “I love the memories I have of her, yes.” God, what does love have to do with disease?
“Aw, Ben. What can I say to you?”
[p.149] What does God have to do with anything? “Maybe you ought to sing a verse of ‘When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high,’” he offered dryly.
“Is there anything else you want to say?”
“I wish I knew how to talk to you, Ben,” he said. “Damn.”
“Gee thanks, Hank. And the expletive is a nice touch. That almost puts us on equal ground.” He winked and stood to leave. “Almost.” Hank Simpson extended his hand for him to shake. Ben stepped away. “Not tonight,” he said. “I have a headache.”
Ben didn’t sleep with Cody that night. He dreamt of the coal mine again, even without her songs. He heard his father’s last, strangled breaths and then other breaths—many of them—like a gentle, cleansing wind.
Since “the crisis,” as Elizabeth referred to the emergency room experience, she had slept poorly. She was perpetually frightened. Of death, of love, of closeness, of abandonment. There was a constant buzz in her chest like her body had gone adrenalin crazy and pumped it out whenever sleep approached. Her eyes had gone dull—no more “flaming amber”—and she had been too tired to wash her hair. It looked so dark when it was greasy—as dark as her brows. She thought about Joe, thought about Penny—beautiful Penny, whom Joe would always love.
Please let me sleep. Mom. Divorce.
Please let me sleep. The Winter’s Tale: “Sir, spare your threats. The bug which you would fright me with, I seek. To me can life be no commodity. The crown and comfort of my life—your favor—I do give lost, for I do feel it gone.” Sleep.
[p.150] After school the next day, when Bob Evans asked if she’d like to go fishing with him, she agreed, thinking what she mostly wanted was to get away—even if it was with a chip-toothed, pony-tailed slacker. She didn’t tell her father about her plans. She wondered if he’d worry. She wanted him to.
They hiked up a mountain trail to a small lake Bob swore had the best fishing in Utah. They were surrounded by blue spruce pines, bare aspen, the scent of snow and green. It was early afternoon, cold, but not so cold as she had anticipated.
The lake was a sheet of silver almost hidden in the blue spruce arena. She filled her lungs with long breaths of mountain air. She was so tired.
Bob put on his hip-high boots—”waders,” he called them, tossed Elizabeth hers, and instructed her to follow him into the water. “This is breeding ground for carp,” he said.
Elizabeth had never fished.
“Just watch.” He hooked a worm, then swung his reel back and sent the wire arching over the water. The line entered so cleanly that the lake hardly rippled, just sent up a string of crystal drops.
Her feet were sinking into the spongy lake bed. Another fisherman was frying his catch. She could smell the smoke, the fish, the pines, the mineral scents of the lake.
Bob glanced at her and smiled. “You bored?”
She shook her head. No, not bored. Tired, sleepy. Not bored. She could understand why he loved fishing. They were half-immersed in a world that contained none of the pressures, the schedules, the clock-mindedness of the city. God’s world. And Bob was somehow more himself here—not a slacker, not an insecure high school senior, but simply a good boy with a bad complexion.
Then he reeled in a struggling shard of light. A carp.
She saw the water slide off its fins, then its helpless flailing: the body throwing itself into contortions against death, the silver skin catching the sun and throwing it back, the lidless eyes.
[p.151] “Look at the beauty! Ten inches!” Bob was shouting. He held it up, still hooked—an iridescent comma—before her face.
She could see where the hook had pierced its mouth. She could feel a scream moving up her stomach. She started making quivery, moaning, frightened, horrified noises. “Oh God. Oh God. Oh God,” she kept saying—though she had been raised to believe this was among the worst forms of cursing. Without conscious effort, she was moving away from Bob and his fish, backing out of the heavy lake.
“What’s wrong?” His smile dropped.
She could not talk but to say the name of God.
She fell, as though the thick water had tripped her. She was submerged to her neck.
Bob ran to her, water parting with his steps. “What’s wrong?” he yelled. “What is it?”
“Throw it back!”
He was holding the rod in one hand, the fish dangling from it. He helped her up with the other. “Seriously?”
“Yes!” Her voice shook.
He did as she asked, then helped her to shore.
Her crying had begun so suddenly, it shocked her. It was babyish sobbing. All the insomnia, she thought. All the pressure. I’m going insane. “You’re mad at me,” she said.
“No, I’m not,” Bob soothed, putting his arm around her. “My first time was rough too, now I remember it. It’s just the cycle of things, though, Elly. Life and death stuff. You just have to get used to it.” He squeezed her to him, and she didn’t mind. Between sobs, she told him how badly she had been sleeping, that this was why she was so emotional, but her words were barely intelligible.
Bob kept his arms around her all the while, sometimes wiping her cheeks, sometimes offering a crumpled Kleenex. Once, when her crying lulled, he said, “It’s your mom. This has nothing to do with fishing. It’s her.”
[p.152] She cried again, harder. Because he was right. Her overtired eyes had seen a vision: Merry, dangling on God’s hook, flailing against the beautiful deceptions of faith, twitching in the fist of fate. It was Merry. Over the past year, there had been so many diversions, so many little tragedies and triumphs that she had only sometimes felt the full effect of her mother’s disease. Most days, it was simply another fact of life. She lived her daily schedule, rising in the morning, dressing, eating breakfast, brushing her teeth, using the bathroom, and having a mother who was dying of m.s. All things were strangely equal.
She explained again that she had hardly slept all week.
“So, we’ll sleep,” Bob said, and wrapped a blanket around the both of them.
She did. When she woke up several hours later, stunned by a bottle rocket, it was late evening and stars were out, reflections dancing on the riffled water. He put his arm around her again; her head went to his shoulder. Again she slept, slept until dawn.
Her father was on the porch when Bob drove her home. As Elizabeth got out of the car, Ben Morgan stood. “You trying to kill me on purpose?” They had not spoken since the hospital.
“You engaged?” she answered as Bob drove off.
Ben squinted at her.
“You’re going to marry her?”
“Duh. She was wearing a ring.”
He sat again, leaned against the step, his face hard. “Please don’t change the subject.”
“You have no right to talk to me.” She tried to move past him. He called her back with a calmer voice.
“Elizabeth. Last time I looked, I was still your father.”
[p.153] “Maybe I don’t have a right to talk to you,” he said. “So, why don’t you just listen out of mercy.”
“You want a list of why’s?”
“Your mother would want you to listen.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Well, life isn’t.”
She stopped, waited. “You are engaged, right?”
“Look,” he said, “I know this is hard for you to understand, but at some point you just have to take all the pain in your life and you have to let it move into the past. You have to go on, get yourself into your future. You can’t cling to old clutter.”
“That’s what Mom is—old clutter?”
“You know that’s not what I mean.” He closed his eyes.
“Can’t you wait?”
“Cody’s as much for you as she is for me. More, maybe. You and Janny, you need a mother. I’d say you just proved my point, coming home at dawn with a guy who wears a ponytail.”
“I have a mother.”
“What I’m saying is you need a woman to take you shopping, someone you can unburden yourself on, someone who’ll talk to you about dating and boyfriends and the way your body changes. You need a woman who can do that for you.”
“Does Mom know?”
After a strained pause, he nodded once.
“How did she take it?”
Looking past her, he murmured, “She understands.”
“Did she cry?”
“Mom. Did she cry?”
“Go get some sleep, Dad.” She tried to smile. It came out a sneer.