Down to Sleep . . .

Margo Berdeshevsky


Tell this story on a Pentecost.
To hold a door open.
Tell this story when there are tongues of flame to be seen . . .


Daughter of lapsed Jews, she still didn't like their notions of a wrathful and vengeful God, preferred churches of any stripe, and ignored their hypocrisies. Liked their varied promises. The soft illusions of love as long as she could ignore their bureaucracies, and she could. Faith was a smorgasbord, she picked the slices she liked and avoided any of the rest. Wanted change. Didn't know how to open its doors.

A left-leaning teen, she had no preference for which ones, when it came to faiths, liked silence, incense, dim light from stuttering candles, respite from hot days, the idea of spiritual sex.

Once, in a temporary school run by gray nuns she managed to kneel for a Confirmation ceremony, white lace gloves and a coronet of white flowers, without ever being asked if she'd been baptized. No one asked. She liked all the costumes. The lace. The artificial flowers. The long gray veils and skirts.

She touched words, in the dark. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake . . . metal words etched into a black and white palm-size figurine that leaned on a shelf beside childhood pillows. She forgot it when she left that home and shouted Never coming back. No one answered and she no longer prayed before sleep or loved the parents she escaped. They saw their worlds from different mountaintops, and she was never coming down from hers.

Now, it was July, and she'd been on roads and no roads for some years. Slept on different couches and random stranger's beds, hippie years, post-hippie years, lost woman years. A believer in words she'd found knifed into a wall in a distant man's stairwell: Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise. It was his copied motto and she loved it as a mystic's guidance in those days, that there could be surprises, promises, from the other side. Naïve as rabbits she had read about once, how before their slaughter they were so silent, how they met the hatchet and never made a sound.

All she met were strangers at first. And eventually the word friend earned multi-meanings. Friends might test fires with you. Might know what you were thinking. Or not. She had never been heart-smashed, just angry at what she'd left, just ravenous for a passionate life, she wandered more than a few years without evil. No believer in dogmas, she knelt once or twice, lit a few candles in random worship, random solace. The bad thing was to be too alone, the good thing was to call some things love, never mind how much or how little. To chant for change. To write on walls. To be less afraid. Conversations weren't love, she knew that, neither were beds or sex, but if her heart was hooded, her spirit hadn't been sold out before the age of thirty. She was a free woman with big hips and a few lightweight ounces of trust.

When a nondescript church she'd hunched in for an hour that July night closed its heavy door at the nine o'clock bells, a stranger on its steps spoke to her in a tone rising and falling between jokes and a brother-like calm. They smoked. An hour later when the offer to sleep on his living room couch . . . his family was in the countryside for the weekend, and she'd left a traveler's knapsack a long walk or hitch from where they stood . . . she just looked back at him, his smudged Lennon-esque specs, his leaf-fall-flecked green eyes, and she agreed to the invitation. By then she knew he was a father and a town councilman and lived two streets away. Plastic framed shots of his wife and two little gap-toothed boys laughed on the side table as she settled in on his guest couch, clothed, covered by a white quilt he gave her, and she curled and slowed to rest. Heard a clock's hum, and a night bird's chirrup. Her host closed his bedroom door, politely waving Good night, sleep well, wanderer, and she slept soon and without dreams against his upholstered pillows.

Before first light she woke to the sudden weight-crush and brutality of a wordless rape, a tearing of skin and cloth—when he was done he spat a single sentence, You can go now, slammed the same bedroom door he'd shut so quietly hours earlier. She retched with no sound, grasped for her torn cottons and sandals and purse and fled too harmed to think, too numbed to howl. She ran for another place, any other place, remembered a desert town where she knew a man who was once kind, tied her clothes into better covering and hiding.

Walked. Grabbed a large black plastic trash bag on the street, emptied it and pulled and tied it over her soiled clothes for more cover and a semblance of shape. Mopped at wounds that were hidden. Hitched two rides in total silence. Walked more. Spoke not at all. One driver tried to talk, but then said nothing either, until they let her out in the light. Yes, she whispered, I've been to this place before. It was noon. It was hot. It was a place where the town clock had a thermometer that read twenty degrees hotter than where she'd been. She noticed that, didn't notice how heavily her perspiration stank, or how it didn't stop wetting her, all that day. She was afraid to call the man she knew there. Not yet. Instead she took small and smaller steps and walked unseen and unseeing all that first day, and then a second. Crouched, nodded, hid, stood, walked, couldn't erase the odor that clung to her skin. It didn't wash off in a middle-of-night town fountain where she tried. Unseen by any behind shut doors and curtains. Her scent offended her, she cupped her hands and poured the liquid over her head and clothes, animal at the trough, and no one passed, and no one saw. Dried under the brief night breeze, a late desert town was the only witness. She scraped at her skin with her nails, again and again and again.

By dawn, one clear thought. Some cash she had still in her purse could be enough to buy clean used clothes off the rack of a Salvation Army shop if she found one. It was the third day after. She waited in front for them to open, scurried inside, head down. Everything she chose was white. She begged for a restroom and threw everything she'd had near her skin into the bin. When she came out a woman at the register nodded to her now washed presence, and to her whispered Thanks. Maybe they'd sold to other women like her. Now she was hungry. Now she walked in uneven circles for one more day, silent as those rabbits she remembered still.

Desert day-heat hadn't climbed yet, her steps were vague, until she heard a low sound. It was singing. People were singing. Not so near but not so far away. Following like a child to an ice cream van's bell, the voices spilled from a small open door of a wooden building on a barren morning, a sea of black faces there inside. She stopped in her all white clothes, sunlight behind her, a silhouette backlit by morning. The pews held a tide of shaded faces. Down a single aisle in front was a pale blue wall painted with a mural of a John the Baptist, she thought. A black John, pouring chutes of water over kneeling women, a circle of hands held up to their sky. A preacher's voice at the altar climbed above the singing and he'd seen her. Has anyone, anyone at all come here to be baptized this morning, anyone at all, you, child, you at the door, come right on in, step in, step in, and come on up here.

Motionless in his open door. He was speaking to her. Woman in white. He pulled and she entered like a giant marionette to an unseen rope, tiny steps coming to his open hands. Step in and come here to us. She obeyed. And in a minute she was surrounded by a dozen or more women whispering Welcome child, come to be baptized with us, and then, Speak in tongues, child, fire, child, speak with the spirit! They were touching and petting her, she was a beloved child, and they crooned. You came because today is your day, speak with us, girl, you're loved, and she was, they babbled sentences she'd never heard, no language she knew, voices spun to a sound that bathed her, familiar as a lullaby, and she let them cradle her and lower her head to the trough of water where she fell backward into their many arms. Back to their voices and water and words, and in their arms she had no words for them but she let it be done. She cried in their waters. Wept. And she was baptized, washed, presented an hour after with a blue scripted certificate that said Reborn in the Pentecostal Church of Desert Waters and Morning. No coins could buy her heart.

She returned to a gravel road of the summer of her thirtieth year to heaven, not having read Dylan Thomas yet . . . My birthday began with the water / Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name . . . not having changed direction, only clothes and that wide stare of silences. And she walked.

Someone's lost sunglasses lay in the dirt. She put them on, they cut the glare, and she walked. Sun's rigid brightness was softer now. With the last cash in her purse she paid for a room for a night on a narrow street at the farthest edge of the town.

At last she would dial the number of the man she thought she'd known there. No answer. An hour more and she called again. No answer. No answer. No answer. She folded all the white clothes and lay still and utterly naked on a clean sheet as night came in. Words she once knew stammered between her teeth. My soul to keep. If I should die before I wake . . . soul to take . . .

No one new looked in her eyes all that summer.

Until the drying of all the leaves. Thousands of small red burned hands, or belated tongues, on fire. She wondered how one could count them all as they fell. Again in the dirt, a scribbled page lay stained, there. Readable. A poet's words . . . the loneliest job in the world is to be an accountant of the heart.

And then, scribbles of a note taker, maybe. These . . . the heron / Priested shore / The morning beckon / With water praying and call . . .

Another door, held open.

If these pages are ever found . . . she has not awakened.

. . . Her soul to keep.