All I’d ever wanted to feel is whole. Fully inside myself. But I was always pulled apart, a half step behind myself. The morning I had to do prayer turned out like this too. I held my hands out, tensing and relaxing my fists over and over so I could feel my arms, so I could feel my heartbeat on the squeeze.
“Just like we practiced, Theo,” Pastor Matthews whispered to me as walked me to the front of the pulpit, “pick up after the choir.”
Then he left me to stand there. My body to stand there. I could see the choir lined up along the sides of the sanctuary, swaying, singing: Take me back, dear Lord, to the place where I first received you.
Don’t take me, I thought. Not yet, not today, let me stay right here.
The sunrise through the stained-glass windows cast the choir’s shadow over the pews. It was a forest of green and purple over the congregation that stretched to the center aisle, competing waves crashing at the pulpit. I reached in my pocket for my lucky stone. It wasn’t there. I should’ve checked before. I should’ve told Pastor Matthew I couldn’t pray nothing without my stone. It was the river rock with a groove in the middle that was the perfect fit for our thumbs. I held it to stay connected to the ground. My hands weren’t reliable enough.
Satchel told me when I got like this to close my eyes. To take a breath, to listen to what was around me and maybe if heard where I was, I could find myself again. “Like when you looking for your keys”, he said, “you gotta close your eyes and think through the room.” I’d laughed at him but he said, “Five Breaths,” with eyes as serious as Momma about homework.
I closed my eyes and counted: one, two. I felt it in my knees; they moved without moving, like I could feel the cells dancing there, my blood bubbling beneath the skin. Three, four: my chest gone, my breath tripping on itself without the clear rhythm of my pulse. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe. The pulling. How do I stay inside myself? How do I stay here?
Keep me here, I hollered, and the choir refrained behind me, like I was taking the lead. Keep me here, Lord, they sang, keep me here.
Five. I opened my eyes. I did.
My eyes were open, I swear they were. I could hear the church, but they weren’t there. They weren’t here. I could hear the music; I swear my eyes were open. I could hear the voices – Ms. Jones leading the call with her pitchy soprano, Vera’s uneven tambourine shake to my left, the vibration of the chorus all the way up the sides to keep the whole church singing. I could hear them, but what I saw was mute. It was the same pews. Almost empty. Only a few people. I know them. Lord Jesus, I knew the people left in these pews were not alive.
I see them. I see Alice, in the same purple dress from her casket. The same one from her funeral when Pop made me touch her cold hand in prayer. Brother Samuel, Brother Kinney, the line of deacon men who died within the same year of each other so as not to be lonely on whiskey-drinking nights. And my Poppa, halo of gray hair, jacket pocket crinkly from peppermint wrappers. Their heads were bowed. All of them were bowed. Like they waiting on my prayer.
But then, without even the sensation of turning, my eyes were in the aisle. I could see Pastor Watters, the Pastor who had been long gone, back in his place above me, in the pulpit, preaching something, praying something. Making no sound. Was he praying? Was he praying for me?
I tried to grip my fists again, but I was air.
Satchel, I called. And the choir mellowed down to a whisper, letting his piano shine. I heard him soften the melody so I could pray.
Go ‘head, Theo, was his voice. I couldn’t find him in this place I where I was. Nobody was at this piano. Everything was hot, everything was bright. I couldn’t see myself standing there no more and maybe, again, I was dying.
“Put me back together, Lord!”
Yes, I heard back, from the congregation where my body was. A chorus of inhales.
“Take me back, please let me come back into my body. I promise I will use it for good. I promise I will use it for your doing. Please Lord, please let me come back”
“Lead him, Lord,” they called, “bring him to your glory.”
“Can you hear me?” I yelled to the ghosts I saw, “Please go, please tell me how to go.”
Take me back, the choir started again, take me back to where I first believed.
I moved in front of my Poppa, his head still down, I wanted to touch him but there was none of me. I tried to summon the pulling, anything, nothing. All I had was my voice.
“Please save us, Lord, Please save me!”
Poppa was glowing, yellow orange like an apricot, and as I moved back, I saw the others were too. Everything getting brighter, hurting my eyes like that rising sun.
“Why can’t I see? Why can’t I see? FIND ME, SAVE ME!”
My heart was coming back to me, deafening booms of a drum, and sound of breath followed. So loud, I lost Satchel’s music. So loud I felt the edges of me stiffening. The beginning of a body.
“Can you hear me?” I yelled again at the ghosts and their heads snapped up at me. Their eyes, only light. So bright, I lost my eyes.
I woke laying at the feet of the Ms. Jones, with Pastor Matthews above me yelling, “the spirit, oh holy, the spirit.” I squeezed a fist to start over again, to try to hold myself together.
Jamie Moore is the author Our Small Faces, a novella available through Doubleback Press. She is a writer, doctoral student, and professor in California. She received her MFA in fiction and is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Also an alumna of the VONA writers and Mendocino Coast writers workshops, she can be found on all social platforms at @mixedreader.