“Praise the Lord!”
“Praise his holy name,” we all cry out in unison.
“Worship the Lord!” Father Jephthah shouts. Sweat drips from the tip of his long nose, mingling with the spittle which flecked his long salt and pepper beard. Mother Miriam bends low over the baby grand piano, putting her shoulders into the work as she hammers out chords with her gnarled fingers. Sitting on the lid of the piano, Mother Joanna strums her harp in time with her sister wife’s chords, her eyes never straying from the face of our father.
“Worship the Lord with voice and body and soul!” we cry out, stomping in time with the piano and tambourine. Drums have never been allowed in Paradise, but the people have found ways to make up for that. On the stage behind Father, the Lord’s Maidens dance and twirl, waving banners embroidered with scripture.
I raise my hands to the corrugated tin roof and open my eyes wide to the heavens high above the clear blue Virginia sky. Beside me, Sarah’s knees begin to wobble behind the hem of her floral print skirt. She falls forward, catching herself on the back of the pew in front of us, then totters out into the aisle.
“Cast out the demons of pride!” Father Jephthah bellows.
“Get behind me Satan,” I scream, one voice amid the chorus of my brothers and sisters.
Mother Miriam hammers a dramatic sequence of chords which announce that the sermon is about to begin, but that does little to calm the ecstasy of the family gathered in the church. Three hundred and seventeen people packed into a space that any fire marshal would limit to half that number, and several thousand more watching through the unblinking eyes of cameras perches among the rafters like so many angelic messengers. Behind Father Jephthah, Mother Iscah bangs her tambourine ecstatically and jumps up and down.
I glance aside to see Sarah swaying in the aisle. I’ve seen her overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit before, but it is so hot in the church today that my first thought is not the hand of the Lord but the heavy weight of heat stroke. I reach for Sarah’s arm and haul her back into the pew beside me.
Father Jephthah slams his calloused palm on the pulpit and scorches the congregation with a gaze that could make the saints themselves feel a lick of hellfire. For just a moment his eyes seem to fix upon me, but then Sarah collapses against my shoulder, breaking the spell. I put an arm around Sarah to support her as Miriam, Joanna, and Iscah give one last tremendous beat on their instruments, then stop, holding their breath as they wait for God’s last prophet to speak. The dancers settle onto a bench beside the piano and lean forward, eager to hear the word of God’s last prophet.
“The time has come to cast the demons of hatred out of this land!” Father Jephthah intones, his voice deep and steady, his dark eyes piercing behind the fogged lenses of his wireframe glasses.
I guide Sarah down into her seat and press a hand to her forehead as all around us voices ring out in agreement. Sarah’s face is slick with sweat, but her head doesn’t feel any hotter than my own, so maybe she was beginning to feel the call of the spirit after all.
“Cast out the demons of lust!”
I blush and shout back in affirmation to drown the guilt I feel at Father’s admonition. I fix my gaze on Father, pointedly not glancing back towards any of the girls I overheard whispering about their crushes as they walked back from home group on Wednesday. And I especially don’t look at Michael.
“Cast out the demons of homosexuality!” Jephthah cries, lips twisting in scorn as his eyes scour the crowd.
This time I’m sure his gaze lingers on me. I lower my eyes and try not to blush.
How long, I wonder. How long will the stain of my sister’s sin be a blot upon our family. I balls my fist so tightly I can feel my fingernails digging into my palm. Desperate to prove my dedication, I cry out, “Get behind me Satan!”
“Cast out the demons of abortion and gun control and globalism!” Father Jephthah shouts, stabbing his finger directly at the camera with each pronouncement. His voice strikes with the force of a shotgun blast above cries of assent from the family. “Not all of you can join us here in Paradise, but each and every child of the Lord watching this can take up arms against the pestilence which threatens to destroy our nation.”
Sarah slumps in her seat and buries her face in her hands. She begins to rock forward and back, weeping.
Beside her, I join in the chorus of affirmation. I knows that I am blessed to live in Paradise. My parents brought me here as a young child and I have lived my life warmed by the flame of the last prophet’s truth. “Come back, oh Lord,” I whisper. “Save us before we are consumed.”
“Children of the Lord, I say to you this day that the hour of our salvation is at hand. Soon our Lord will descend from heaven like a thief in the night, his tongue a white hot blade of holy vengeance. I say to you that he shall strike down the impure with his holy might.”
“Send them to hell!” a voice rings out. The congregation cheers in assent as Gideon, a grizzled veteran who still wears his gray hair in a close buzz, pumps his fist in the air.
I swipe my hand diagonally across my chest, from left shoulder down to right hip, miming the slash of the Lord’s holy blade slicing the sinner’s soul from their body. It’s an addition to the litany which Michael and Thaddeus introduced last year when they led a youth worship service. Father approved and within a few weeks the Templars had adopted it as a salute.
“Long have we stood against the rising tide of evil which threatened to engulf the world. Against the vile tide of social liberalism. The filth of miscegenation. The oppression of a government bent on striking down our right to free exercise of our faith in the one… True and holy… Lord… Almighty!”
As he speaks, Father Jephthah’s voice rises higher and higher until it reverberates from the rafters, striking down upon the congregation like the thunderous voice of God himself. He leans forward so far and with such passion that the pulpit tilts and spittle strikes the front row.
“The time of wrath is at hand, my children. Let those who have ears to hear listen and I shall show you the path of righteousness. Open your eyes that—”
Another voice cries out, cutting through Father Jephthah’s sermon. Our eyes turn to Iscah as the spirit overcomes her and she begins to shout in the language of the angels. She throws her arms wide, rattling her tambourine as she convulses, stumbles across the stage, and collapses beside Father Jephthah in a tangle of thrashing limbs.
He throws his arms up and cries out, “Hallelujah. Behold, my children, the gift of holy tongues. Listen that you might hear the prophecy of the Lord most high.”
As one, the assembled family leans forward to hear the holy words. Even Sarah stops rocking and looks up to the stage, blinking to see past the tears which still stream down her face. Miriam and Joanna leave their instruments and take their places kneeling to either side Iscah, holding their sister wife’s arms down as she continues to thrash.
What is wrong with me? I wonder. For all the times that I have witnessed the gift of holy speech, I can never understand the message. Worse, I’ve never felt even a hint of the Lord stirring within me to speak for him. My mother has. Sarah has. Sometimes it feels that every woman in Paradise has felt the hand of the Lord upon them, except for me. Is it the taint of Ruth’s sin on our family preventing me from receiving the full blessing of spiritual gifts?
All around me, the congregation falls to their knees. The men pound their chests as their wives and daughters clasp at their throats and raise a hand to the heavens. I follow their lead, my spirit heavy with guilt as I mimic an act of worship that I don’t feel.
I am a sinner.
I am damned.
I will never know the glory of heaven.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve longed for a gift of the spirit, but all of my fervent prayers and bargains whispered into the darkness and screamed at the stars on lonely nights have gone unanswered. Even at nineteen I still feel as awkward and unworthy as I did at eleven. My limbs are too gangly for dancing before the Lord. My voice still croaks like a tree frog whenever I try to sing loudly. I can’t even keep house like a proper wife. Every time I try to bake bread or make a bed, my mother finds some fault. At each service I pray that God will pour out his spirit upon me and grant some gift, or talent, or skill, but every time I leave without a blessing.
Surely the day will come when somebody will discover me for the fraud that I am.
“Behold the word of the Lord!” Father Jephthah shouts. He’s resting on his knees at the head of his youngest wife, one hand pressed to her forehead as she continues to shudder and shout. After a moment’s pause, he begins to cry out the interpretation of her holy language for the benefit of those who are not blessed with the gift of discernment. “Children of God rejoice! The time of your victory is at hand. Our long persecution will soon be at an end, for the son of god will surely return this very year. Behold, before Summertime has passed, the Lord shall call us all home to him.”
The congregation breaks into a cheer so loud that it drowns out Father Jephthah’s voice. Even I feel swept away in the joy of the moment. This is the news I have been awaiting my whole life. I turn and pull Sarah into a weepy, tear-soaked embrace as all around us brothers and sisters clap their hands, shake their tambourines, and fall into one another’s arms.
Sarah and I separate as the crowd begins to quiet, and for a moment our eyes lock. Though tears of joy have soaked both of our cheeks, I wonder, for just a moment, whether I recognize the same haunting uncertainty I feel in my friend’s eyes. The same mingled joy and dread and guilt. Sarah pulls her wide mouth into a half smile and we both try to laugh, but even as Father Jephthah delivers more of the prophecy, I can feel the splinter of doubt working its way into my heart like a shard of glass worming its way into my flesh.
I am damned.
“I say he will return!” Father Jephthah cries again, a refrain he must have been repeating amid the clamor. He leaps to his feet, leaving Iscah to the ministrations of her sisters. “Yes, my children, I tell you that our Lord will return this very year. All of our faith will soon be paid in full. All our vigilance will soon be rewarded. After a century of unmatched degradation and sin, America will finally be purged by the ultimate judgment of the Lord! I have studied the scriptures for all my life, and Mother Iscah’s prophecy has provided the key. Children, I declare to you this day that our lord will return this very year, nay, this very Summer. This very Summer, we shall be caught up in the clouds with him. Praise the Lord! Praise his holy name!
And we do.
Miriam returns to her piano and pounds out the Doxology. Many of the congregants join in, though some remain transfixed by the sight of Iscah, who now lays with her head in Joanna’s lap, body wracked with lingering trembles. Father Jephthah continues to shout prophecy, interjecting the song with shouted exhortations for all those who dwell outside the borders of Paradise to cleanse the nation of sin.
I closes my eyes and look upwards, through the corrugated roof, up past the green mountainside, streamers of white clouds, and blue sky, up into the heavens where God sits on his throne before a throng of the righteous. I can see him up there, robed in glory with the sword of truth protruding from his bearded mouth, surrounded by the fluttering wings of cherubim.
I have to see him this way. I must conjure up this image of my savior so it remains fixed in my mind and slays all of my doubts and distractions.
The Lord will soon return and I know that I will be caught up with him into the clouds. All of my sin will be burned away in the fire of his wrath and I, whatever little part of my wretched self remains after the cleansing, will be made holy at last.
“Bitch!” the woman screams. She leans out the window of the green SUV and spits in my direction before the other passengers manage to pull her back in. “Fuck you. Fuck all of you!” she screams as the window glides up and the car eases past.
I feel the flush of anger rising up my cheeks. I want to chase after the SUV, to break my sign and take a few swings at the rest of the motorcade with the long wooden handle, but then I feel a skeletal hand settle on my shoulder.
Michael shakes his head and closes his eyes, pausing to pray for patience before opening them again and saying, “Peace, sister.”
“But she spit at me!” I shout, thrusting my trembling finger towards the receding cars.
“The Romans spat upon our Lord and he loved them still.”
“She called me a bitch.”
Michael sighs and takes a slow step forward, gently tugging the heavy sign from my hands and planting himself in front of me, blocking my path with a pair of tall, orange foam-board signs and his own body.
Michael is thin. I mean, scary thin. He’s also got only half the teeth a thirty year old man should have, owing to something like ten years of meth addiction. When I was younger, he would tell me that it was not actually the meth that destroyed his teeth, but all the hours he spent cranked up on it, drinking nothing but Red Bull and not remembering to brush his teeth for days on end. I don’t know how true that is, but I do know that nothing is better for convincing a willful adolescent to brush her teeth than getting a face full of meth mouth after Wednesday night scripture study. He’s been a member of our family for about seven years, ever since Father Jephthah found him dying in a homeless shelter in Bristol.
He’s also the closest thing I have to a best friend.
“Tir, you got to look at it from their point of view.”
“But they’re sinners,” I bite back. It’s a hot day and my limbs are still trembling with rage and I’m feeling petulant. “Why should I care about what they think about while they’re hurtling down the road to hell.”
“Because we are all sinners in the eyes of the Lord. Because we are not here to comfort a dying world, but to convict them. We’re like you know, good doctors. We cut out the cancer but don’t feed our patents opioids that will get them addicted.”
Michael means well, but he sometimes mixes up his metaphors. I’m not sure if it’s a side effect of drug use or the stain of sin on his spirit. He did, after all, grow up in the world until he came to us in his early twenties, so a lot of his vocabulary was shaped by sinful culture.
“Doctors don’t cure cancer, Michael. Only the Lord can do that.”
“You’re wise beyond your years, Tir,” he replies, his voice gentle behind the gap-toothed smile.
Across the street, several cars pull to a stop beside a white pop-up awning. Uniformed men climb out of the rear SUVs, snapping wrinkles out of their crisp uniforms and pulling ornate hats onto their heads before stepping forward to take position at the rear of the hearse. The doors to the green SUV open all at once and a family spills out, the eldest son holding his mother’s arm.
“Your husband killed babies!” Jael screams, leaning across the blue police cordon.
“Repent now or you’ll all burn in hell,” Simeon adds as he and Isaiah wave handfuls of leaflets.
I can’t hear what the police say, but the three apostles only laugh in response and push leaflets into the masked faces of storm troopers manning the police cordon.
“I just wish I could be with them,” I say, nodding towards my brothers and sisters as they stand against the faceless enforcers of mammon. “They’re so brave.”
“They’re something,” Michael replies, handing my sign back to me and planting his own firmly in the grassy median.
“Don’t tell me you doubt our mission.” I jab the end of my own sign into the earth, taking care to ensure that the six-inch high black lettering is facing the funeral party. “Father Jephthah sent us here to proclaim the end. It’s our duty to save these people, whatever it takes.”
“Yeah. No. Don’t worry about it.”
But he has me worried now.
Father Jephthah used to go out into the world to minister to his flock at large, but in the last couple years he has become ever more isolated within the borders of Paradise. He says that the Lord has called him to spend more time in prayer and study of the holy scripture. Where once he might have been at the front of the cordon, inveighing against the veneration of murderers who have sold their soul to the corrupt government, today his daily missive delegated that task to Jael, Simeon and Isaiah, with Michael and me relegated to holding signs on the highway median as we keep watch on the van to make sure that none of the sinners plant a bomb on it.
This is a holy task, I remind myself. Without the van, we are over an hour’s hard march back to the gates of Paradise. More importantly, the seven-foot high signs which Michael and I hold proclaim the message of the Remnant Church to anyone who can read them:
You are going to hell! Repent today!
The Lord damns all abortionists, soldiers, tax collectors, faggots, catholics, mohammedans, jews, and politicians.
Take up arms for the LORD.
Our pockets are stuffed with trifold brochures proclaiming the same message on the cover and laying out the Lord’s plan for salvation on the inside folds. Salvation for the individual. Salvation for the church. Salvation for the family. Salvation for the nation. Salvation for the world.
It is a sad truth that most of the world rejects the Lord’s plan of salvation and will burn in hell. Father Jephthah teaches us that only some hundred and forty-four thousand will be anointed as saints in the new heaven on earth. Others may take lesser stations as servants of the saints, but the majority of the world will be condemned to burn and never see the resurrection.
I hope to be one of the saints, but as much as I believe what Father and my parents have taught me all my life, I cannot shake the feeling that I am going to be one of the damned. That I will be struck down by an aneurism between having a moment of doubt and saying my next prayer of repentance or undergoing my next purification ritual.
And I’ve long suspected that Michael feels the same way. He has never been very enthusiastic about defense drills or vocal preaching, preferring to spend his time in service or quiet contemplation. He stands in silence now, watching as our brothers and sisters shout their message to the heathens at the graveyard.
“You think there’s a better way,” I say to Michael. “To reach them, I mean.”
He shrugs and looks away, watching cars drive by on the divided highway.
“I’m not going to tell on you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Michael shrugs and fidgets from foot to foot. He used to do that a lot, my mother told me it was a habit left over from his body craving drugs, but even after nearly a decade living in Paradise, he still struggles to be still.
Finally he whispers, “I sometimes wonder if the Lord would want us to spread his word like this. He confronted the Pharisees, sure, but he spent most of his time with regular people. I just wonder if, maybe, I could do more for the Lord by working in the shelter where Father found me, instead of staying cooped up at Paradise or coming out here to convict people. Maybe my own story could bring others to faith.”
I can’t deny that he has a point. Michael’s life and soul were saved by an outreach effort which has mostly halted. After the last American presidential election, Father Jephthah had a vision that the Lord wanted us to rise up and make our voices heard in public. He called for more protests like this, saying that we could be a thorn in the side of a nation which had turned it’s back on the Lord. Since then, only members of the Templars have gone into the homeless shelters and drug dens to seek out willing souls in need of redemption.
“Oh… Lord give me strength,” Michael whispers, turning abruptly away from me. He plants the sign more firmly and leans into it, bowing his head in prayer.
I turn around and see a solitary police car pulling to a stop on the median. The doors open and Imani Franklin, the local sheriff, climbs out of the driver’s side. Father Jephthah was apoplectic when Sheriff Franklin was elected. I’m not sure whether he was more concerned that she is the county’s first black sheriff or that she is a woman, but I do recall a whole month of sermons in which he blasted her as a muslim terrorist infiltrating the power structure of the county. I did not understand that part, given that her family have been Baptist preachers going back three generations, but I am a child of sin and cannot understand all of the truths revealed to Father Jephthah.
“They can’t arrest us for preaching here,” I say.
“I just don’t like police,” Michael replies. He lifts his head and stretches a fake smile across his face.
The passenger side opens and the mayor climbs out. I glance across the street and see that the others are fully distracted by shouting at the funeral party across the police line. I breathe a prayer of thanks and hope that none of them turn around. If Father Jephthah has a bone to pick with Sheriff Franklin, he’s actively hostile towards Mayor Gentry.
“Morning Sheriff, and God bless you,” Michael says as they approach.
“Morning. You in charge here?”
“The Lord is in charge, Sheriff. I’m just holding my sign and keeping an eye on our van.”
“You look familiar. Have I seen you at other protests?”
Michael’s pale lips pull tight beneath his protruding cheekbones. He clears his throat and, for just a moment, I wonder if he is trying to come up with a lie. Then he shakes his head and replies, “I preach the word of the Lord wherever I go, Sheriff. But I’m guessing you know me from the times you arrested me, back when you was a deputy.”
“Disturbing the peace?”
“Possession. A few times. Courts put me in treatment instead of prison, owing to my age back then.”
Sheriff Franklin nods and spares a glance for Mayor Gentry. She’s probably arrested hundreds of people. No reason she would remember one junkie among dozens.
“Do you know me, kid?” Mayor Gentry asks, stepping forward.
“You’re the Mayor,” Michael says..
“That’s right. I need to get a message to Peyton Moore.”
“I don’t know that name.”
The Mayor looks to me and says, “Do you know Peyton Moore?”
I shake my head. I know everyone in Paradise, thanks to failing my way from one apprenticeship to another over the last few years, and I’ve never heard that name.
“How about Jephthah? You know him?” Sheriff Franklin asks.
“Our Father,” Michael says.
The Mayor and Sheriff exchange a grimace. I know that our family of believers has never been welcome in town. Father Jephthah even gathers the little children at the altar once a month to preach a special sermon on the importance of pulling together as a family so the outsiders cannot break our bonds of faith.
“Yeah, the man you call Father Jephthah. His real name is Peyton Moore. You didn’t know that?”
“Nope,” Michael says.
They look at me and I shake my head.
“Can you deliver something to him?” the Mayor asks.
“Probably,” I say. “Depends what it is.”
The Mayor pulls an envelope, thick with folded papers, from the inner pocket of his grey pinstripe blazer. He offers it to Michael, who stands unmoving, looking past the outsiders.
“Son, I need this to get to your leader and I need him to respond within the week. If he doesn’t, I’m going to have to send the Sheriff here in to serve these papers officially, and we both know how messy things get when the police get involved.”
Michael’s hand twitches. He wants to take the papers, I can tell, but he is also afraid of the consequences of being seen to interact with the mayor. I step in front of him and snatch the envelop from Mayor Gentry’s hand, then stuff it into the pocket of my dress and step back before anyone at the protest line can see what has happened. Without the grace of our Lord I’m already damned, so I can be the one to risk interaction with a known homosexual.
“We’ll get it to our Father,” I say. “What is it?”
Mayor Gentry nods, probably suspecting the reason for our hesitance to approach him or the sheriff. If he’s ever seen one of Father Jephthah’s sermons on broadcast he will know that we are forbidden to interact with willful degenerates. “Simply put: an ultimatum. I don’t know how much you know about the inner workings of your commune, but your leader hasn’t paid taxes for years and we’ve been getting more and more reports of potentially illegal activities.”
“Don’t let them poison your mind, Tir,” Michael whispers beside me.
“Unregistered weapons. Unlicensed drug production. Child abuse. Human trafficking. To say nothing of daily broadcasts that toe the line of incitement to violence.”
My stomach pulls into a knot and I can feel blood rising up into my face. For all my doubts and sinful nature, I know that Father Jephthah would never do anything like what they are suggesting. I’ve lived in Paradise all my life and I have never seen illegal drugs and the fallen world’s Second Amendment protects all of our weapons. I know that some heretical denominations are opposed to our marriage customs, but Father never abuses his wives and unmarried people are strictly prohibited from sexual immorality. I can feel the bile rising in my throat and I’m about to begin shouting at the two outsiders when Michael’s hand settles on my shoulder and pulls me back to my senses.
“I understand this is difficult to hear, but if Mr. Moore wants to avoid a federal investigation he is going to need to cooperate soon. The letter outlines some steps he can take to deescalate the situation.” Mayor Gentry nods towards the brothers and sisters gathered across the road. They’ve settled into a repeated chant warning the mourners that they will see the dead in hell if they don’t repent soon. “All we want is a peaceful resolution. You people are welcome to believe whatever you want, but the continual harassment has to stop and we need assurances that nobody is being held against their will.”
“We want everyone to be safe,” Sheriff Franklin adds. “We can’t guarantee your safety when Jephthah makes a habit of threatening anyone who disagrees with him. And none of us want the Feds to come in. That only ends with your whole compound being searched for anything they don’t like. We all know how troublesome it gets when big government gets involved in local affairs.”
“Is that all?” Michael asks. His hand still rests on my shoulder.
The mayor and the sheriff exchange a glance. The mayor nods and the sheriff shrugs, then says, “Make sure he gets that letter. If he doesn’t take action by the end of the week you can be sure that the Feds will be knocking at your door.”
They turn and walk back to the car, climb in, and drive across the median to turn back towards town.
Michael squeezes my shoulder. “You alright, Tir?”
“Might be best to just say that the Sheriff delivered the letter alone.”
My chest spasms and I suddenly realize that I’ve been holding my breath. I fill my lungs with a ragged gasp that sounds painfully close to a sob, but manage to keep my voice level as I turn to reply to Michael. “Are you telling me to lie to Father Jephthah?”
His hollow eyes narrow and shift to the side, then fix back on me. He gives me a small smile and replies, “Maybe just leave out the mayor unless he asks. With your family’s past, there’s no need to stir up more trouble.”
I nod and put my hand into my pocket, feeling the heavy envelope. The outsiders might be lying about Father Jephthah, but they certainly have a lot of lies to write down, judging from how thick the envelope is.
I was born in Paradise shortly after my parents joined Father Jephthah’s family. I the third child to be born here, a distinction which would make me a desirable wife were it not for my complete incompetence in most domestic duties and the taint of sin which still haunts my blood, chasing away all of the good families who might wish to arrange a marriage. Were it not for that blot on our family’s soul, my mother and father would likely be on the Council of Elders and my sister and I… well, there is no telling what spiritual gifts we might have been granted or who we might have married if she had not brought shame down upon our heads.
Because my parents joined the family so early, our home is located only a short distance from Father Jephthah’s, not far from the assembly field and the Sanctuary. While others have surpassed us in favor, Father recognizes my parents’ role in founding Paradise and has allowed them to remain in the house which he himself helped them to build nearly twenty years ago.
A short walk from the parking lot brings me to our front porch, where Mama is sitting, mending one of Papa’s work shirts. She’s still a young woman, only forty this April, but the years have been hard on her, especially these last few. She’s taken to keeping her brown hair short, though she dare not cut it higher than her chin lest the boyish cut bring suspicion of deviance. She confided in me a few months back that she had begun to find strands of gray in her hair this year, but she plucks them out lest Papa think her too old and take a second wife.
“Did the mission go well?” Mama asks as I mount the steps and push the screen door aside.
“None returned with us.”
“The Lord willing, we can hope that you at least sparked a flame of righteous anger in the heart of some of the outsiders who saw you. There is yet time for more to join us before the end of days.”
I nod and settle onto the porch swing beside her. Mama continues to stitch at the the shoulder of Papa’s shirt, saying nothing more. After a moment she begins to softly hum The Battle Hymn of the Republic, one of her favorites. We sit together in silence, watching as children play on the green under the watchful eye of their teachers, birds flit among the trees singing songs of praise to the Lord, and a band of a dozen boys and girls drills on the far end of the green. The cadence of their chants and the faint click of their rifle bolts drifts across the field to us, reminding me that I ought to go to the range for some practice soon.
“Where’s Papa?” I ask, after some time.
“Father’s got him repairing the fences. Some of them were damaged in the storms last winter and Father wants to be sure that we have an outer defensive line in case the outsiders come. You might want to go lend a hand.”
“I was hoping to go to the range this afternoon,” I reply.
Mama returns to humming the hymn, pointedly ignoring my statement. She accepts that this is practically the only gift that the Lord has given me, but in her heart she still wishes that my sister and I had both turned out to be more like her.
I suppress a sigh and ask, “Do you need help here at home?”
“Now that you mention it, I could use a hand canning the first batch of tomatoes this afternoon.”
“Are you sure? Last time I helped you with canning I dropped three jars.”
Mama gazes out across the dirt road towards the assembly field, where a dozen boys are marching in formation before going out to the quarry to practice shooting. She doesn’t look at me as she nearly folds Papa’s shirt and sets it on her knees. “You’re a year older now. I’m sure you can manage to hold a jar lifter.”
“I’ll try,” I reply, standing. “But I need to run over to Father’s house first.”
Her eyes widen and she looks right at me for the first time. “Why?”
I pull Mayor Gentry’s envelope from my pocket and show it to her. “The Sheriff stopped by the protest today. She said I need to give this to Father Jephthah or there will be trouble. She said something about the government opening an investigation.”
And like that, without even meaning to, I’ve taken Michael’s advice and told a half truth. A voice in my spirit whispers that I should feel guilt, but somehow I don’t.
Mama’s eyes fix on the envelope and I realize that she is reading the name printed on the front: Peyton Moore.
Mama heaves a deep sigh and touches a hand to my right elbow. Her eyes darken and worry lines dig in around them. “Oh, Tirzah. I wish you had never seen this.”
“What, the name? I’ll never say it. I’ve always known that Father must have another name, just like you and Papa do. I’m not a child anymore, Mama.”
With that, the worry lines smooth out, replaced by the all to familiar downturn of disapproving lips. “Tirzah, until you find your own place in the family, you are my child and your actions reflect on me, and your Papa.”
I grimace, and immediately know that doing so is a mistake as well. Nothing I can do will ever please Mama.
Before Mama can say more, I jump to my feet and step towards the screen door. “I’ll be back soon to help with the canning. I just need to give this to Father so he knows what the outsiders are plotting.”
I leave Mama on the porch and scurry down the road, pulling at my skirts half way up my shins so they don’t trip me, while being cautious to never reveal my knees. Our community has grown a lot in my lifetime, from a small collection of houses gathered around Father’s home to a full community centered around the Sanctuary, which was built at the far end of what used to be Father’s front yard. Ever since father launched the international broadcasts, has invested the donations sent in by believers across the world into upgrading our community facilities. We now have running water, electricity, and a truly glorious community kitchen attached to the Sanctuary. Father still lives in the same house, a large plantation style farmhouse that is over a hundred years old. Its white walls rises two full stories below a gabled slate roof. A columned porch runs along the front. It is second only to the Sanctuary for size, as befits the home of the Lord’s final prophet. As the scripture says, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” And Father certainly needs those rooms for himself, his wives, and the offices where his sermons and books are edited and sent to congregants all around the world.
Absalom stands guard at the front steps when I arrive. He’s a recent arrival to Paradise, coming just a couple years ago amid the tumult caused by the last election. Converts like him are not uncommon at times of unrest in the fallen world. Though he has not been here long, he always smiles when I approach and remembers my name.
“Afternoon sister Tirzah,” he says, a half smile pulling up at the left corner of his mouth.
“Hi, brother Absalom. Is Father in?”
“Should be, unless he’s slipped out the back for a walk.”
That earns a laugh. A few years ago, Father Jephthah took to going on hikes through the wooded hills at the back of the property. His Templar guards were at first afraid that he was testing them and there was a bit of a panic that he might twist an ankle or be hurt by one of the mountain lions that roam the deep forests beyond the fence, but the Lord is with Father and he always returns safely.
I lay a hand on the pocket where I’ve tucked the letter. “I need to give him something.”
Absalom rests his right hand on the butt of his rifle, which hangs barrel down from his body strap, and waves his left arm back towards the door. “You’re always welcome in Father’s house, sister.”
“Thanks,” I say, slipping past him and up the steps.
“Tirzah,” he calls after me as I mount the steps. I turn and he adds, “Gideon tells me that you’re one of the best he’s ever trained. We should go down to the quarry together some time.”
I hesitate. Absalom’s attention always warms my heart, but I have neither been betrothed nor or blessed by Father as one of the Maidens unto the Lord, so to be seen alone with a man could brung further scandal to my family. Still, few understand my desire to join the men in defending our home and Absalom has never mocked me for it. “I’d like that,” I say as heat creeps into my cheeks.
“Come back soon, Tirzah. Before we are consumed,” Absalom says with a wink.
I feel my face redden at the casual blasphemy. Unsure what to say, I turn quickly away and hurry to the entrance.
Pulling open the heavy oak and glass door, I step into the foyer and stand beneath the crystal chandelier. A curved staircase leads up to the private rooms of Father Jephthah and his wives on the second floor. Before the curved steps, set to the right side of the foyer, stands a heavy oak desk, behind which sits Father’s secretary, sister Hannah. She looks up from her work of transcribing one of Father’s sermons to be posted online for countless followers outside Paradise.
“Tirzah. I take it that the mission went well. Can I help you?”
“The mission went as well as they usually do. No new converts, but we drew the attention of the news media before it was over.”
She smiles and taps her fingers on the side of her computer. “Count yourself fortunate that you don’t have to deal with their deceitful ways, child. The world is so full of lies, both online and off. It is a blessing that Father’s words can be posted for the edification of those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.”
I shrug. I’ve used a computer before, even been on the internet a few times to help brother David order parts for a truck we were fixing, but I have never had the opportunity to read a news website.
“I have a letter for Father Jephthah. The sheriff gave it to me at the protest. She insisted that I give it to Father and I thought it better not to argue with her.”
Hannah’s serene face tightens as I tell her about the sheriff. She stands behind the desk and leans across, reaching out a hand towards me. “A letter from the sheriff? Let me see.”
I pull the letter from my dress pocket and hold it up, but don’t hand it to her. “I’m supposed to give it directly to Father.”
“Father is busy right now. Ever since Mother Iscah’s prophecy he has spent much time in prayer and study, searching the scriptures for any sign of what we are to expect in the days leading up to the Lord’s return.”
“I just want to make sure he sees this. She seemed really agitated and I don’t want to cause any trouble by not getting the letter to Father.”
Hannah nods, her sharp nose seeming to point at her extended hand. “I’ll make certain that Father receives the letter today, but he will not be happy if you interrupt him now.”
After a moment’s hesitation, I nod and hand the letter to Hannah. “Thank you, sister. I just want to do my best to help our family.”
“I understand,” she replies, taking the letter with a smile.
Then her eyes fall upon the name written on the outside of the envelope, and her smile pulls inward until her lips are a thin line beneath her long nose. Hannah cradles the letter in both hands and looks up to me with icy eyes. “How do you know that this is for Father Jephthah?”
“Because the sheriff told me it was. I didn’t recognize the name, so she told me to give it to Father.”
“You haven’t talked to anyone about this, have you?”
“No,” I say, the lie coming to my lips with worrying ease.
Hannah places the letter on her desk, with the name hidden. “Thank you Tirzah. I’ll make sure that Father receives this.” She steps around the desk and rests a hand on my shoulder. “You’re a good girl, Tirzah. The Lord will find a place for you, and a husband too.”
“I’m not so sure about either of those,” I sigh. “I try to put my trust in him, but sometimes…”
“Your parents are good people and you have a servant’s heart. Be faithful and all will turn out right in the end.” She settles back into her seat, obviously finished with me. “I’ll make sure that Father receives the letter. Have a blessed day, sister.”
I nod and turn to go, disappointed that won’t be the one to deliver the message to Father. For just a short while, carrying that letter in my pocket, knowing that I had taken it from the mayor so that Michael would not taint himself, I held the faintest hope that I might find service as a messenger, or perhaps an emissary between our family and the outsiders. We have a few of them and, while they must undergo frequent and rigorous ritual cleansing, they serve an important role in the family.
“Oh, and be certain to stop by the sanctuary on your way home,” Hannah says as she settles her hands onto the keyboard. “You’ll need to bathe and offer contrition after such close contact with the outsiders.”
“Of course, sister. I was just heading there now,” I reply, not turning back.
In truth, I had hoped to avoid the rituals of cleansing. As much as I believe in the spirit of Father’s words, I cannot help but remember that our Lord dined with sinners of all kinds and never cleansed himself afterwards. Still, I will not violate Father’s instructions.