Sunday, April 21, 2019

Congregant: Creative Nonfiction by Shawndra Miller


Congregant

By Shawndra Miller

Up from the Grave He Arose, cued the worship leader, and the congregation breathed in as one, readied its four-part harmony for the Easter standard’s lugubrious opening line. Low in the grave He lay… My father stood on my left, deepening his baritone to hit the low-slung notes. My mother’s alto trilled into my right ear. Nine years old, I sang soprano, following the top notes in the hymnal, trying not to crack on the final long ohhhh and iiiii vowels of He arose, he arose! Alleluia… Christ arose.

I wore a bright yellow flowered dress. Sunbonnet ribbon against my white-lobed throat. The Mennonite Hymnal’s clothbound bulk steady in my hand, solid as another family member. Vainly they seal the dead…

We filed out of church on that Easter Sunday—after the pancake breakfast, after Sunday school where my handsewn dress and Laura Ingalls bonnet turned ugly next to my friends’ sleek store-bought frocks—and into a cutting breeze and long dull afternoon. Not yet warm enough to play outside without an un-Eastery “wrap,” as my mother called my coat. And I was not yet old enough to skip the enforced nap.

In my room I hustled silence into the corners, kept the closet door ajar lest something pop out to claw at me when I turned the knob. I lay on top of my brown bedspread and maybe I fell asleep, maybe I didn’t—but what I remember is getting up from lying down and seeing rain smear the window, and bursting into tears for no good reason. 

Now, decades removed from that day in time, distance, and spiritual bent, I name the feeling loneliness and bring it with me to this small house in a Washington forest where I stay alone for two long weeks. Alone but for the ghost of Elspeth, who claimed this space as her studio in years past, who dreamt of hosting women writers for solitary retreats.

Christ couldn’t dispel my mournfulness. Nor can Elspeth’s wispy spirit.

Elspeth, who tickles my neck while I stand at my efficiency stove cooking for one, who whispers, Come outside. Come now. I turn off the burner.

I’ve long since left the church, but compliance is a reflex, and I know a cue when I hear one.

Come walk the labyrinth, I think I hear her command, so I go there. Night has yet to fall, and I walk down the lane less spooked than I would after sundown, when immense darkness crowds the forest. When I round the bend, three deer lift their heads and go still. A family unit: doe, two fawns.

Six limpid eyes stare from the far edge of the clearing where Elspeth’s friends crafted a labyrinth by strewing bark mulch in a whimsied path between crooked plum and pear trees. The doe flicks her large soft ears, blinks, and takes my measure while I stand and gawp. Her black tail aswish.

The young ones, freckle-backed and leggy, mimic the doe when she lowers her head to browse. At a mosquito’s whine I wave my arms, startling them all, but they don’t leap into the woods. We all go still. Until the mother turns toward me and takes a deliberate step. And another. Each tread a high art, with bent leg raised and hoof placed, she walks straight to the center of the labyrinth. There she stops to look into my face, lowers her head once, twice. I bob my head twice, measuredly, in response. A Narnian moment. What oath have I sworn? The twisty little trees my only witness.

Much later, or maybe a few seconds later, they flow woodsward past the perimeter of blackberry brambles, where I don’t follow and sight can’t penetrate.

My dinner-for-one gone cold on the electric coil, I step through the labyrinth, obedient. A congregation of beings sings alive in the falling light, surrounding me: Arose! The notes of a hymn felt by my feet. Its crescendo rising in my chest. Alleluia.


Shawndra Miller is an Indianapolis writer drawn to stories of redemption and renewal. A two-time recipient of the Indiana Arts Commission’s Individual Artist Grant, she has been published in Confrontation Magazine, Arts & Letters, and other journals, as well as the anthology Goddess: When She Rules, from Golden Dragonfly Press. Her essay “Bleeding the Butterfly” received the 2017 Unclassifiable award from Arts & Letters. She blogs about personal and community resilience at shawndramiller.com

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