Laura Ruth Loomis is a social worker in the San Francisco area. Her fiction chapbook, Lost in Translation, will be coming out in November from Wordrunner Press. It contains stories previously published in On the Premises, Flashquake, Alalit, and Many Mountains Moving, as well as new stories.
by Laura Ruth Loomis
When prayer became impossible, Irene silently repeated the things she was sure of. If she concentrated on her affirmations, she could remove herself from this place, getting through the hours from morning lessons to Repentance to evening prayers.
This will end. Someday we’ll get to say what we really think. We’ll pray the way we want to pray, only when our hearts are moved. And I’ll choose not to pray at all, just because I can, and that will be the holiest of all choices.
Repentance was the worst. During mandatory prayers, she could just repeat whatever they said and pretend she was somewhere else. Think of it as a chant, a part in a play, back when plays were permitted. But Repentance required a detailed confession, not to a shadowy priest behind a wall, as a now-forbidden sect had once done, but to a room full of fellow sinners and the Spiritual Guide.
Today’s Spiritual Guide was Brother Ezra, a scrawny lizard of a man who was impossible to please. “Let us think on our sins,” he said, though the Spiritual Guide never confessed to any, “and humbly ask the Father’s forgiveness.”
Hands shot up. There were always a few people eager to be first. She suspected that some of them were planted. “My name is Margaret,” one woman began, “but I used to call myself Pomona, after a heathen goddess. I was a witch! I used to tell the future with a Ouija board and tarot cards, and I even wrote an astrology column for the local paper.” The rest of the participants gasped and muttered as if they’d never heard such a thing before. “But now I know that only God can tell the future, and it was a sin to try to usurp God’s place.”
“An abomination,” Brother Ezra said. “If you did that today, the penalty would be grave. Think on it further. Who else?”
“My name is Pedro. I was a homosexual. I used to have sex with men, total strangers, sometimes two or three of them a night. Once, five in one night.” Pedro’s tongue touched his lips. “There was just nothing I liked better than to grab a hot guy, get down on my knees, and—”
“But that was very wrong, wasn’t it?” Brother Ezra demanded.
“Oh yes. It was very wrong for me to love the feel of a man’s naked body next to mine,” Pedro said with utter sincerity. The only hint of rebellion was a glint of teeth in Pedro’s cloying smile.
“Guard, remove him,” Brother Ezra commanded, and Pedro was dragged from the room. Pedro cried out in protest, but his voice was drowned by the clamor of others volunteering to confess.
The next time she saw Pedro in Repentance was two weeks later. He told the same story, but without the insouciant tone. “I hope that God will forgive me for my former perversions,” he said, to murmurs of approval all around him.
“Very good,” said the Spiritual Guide. Today it was Brother Martin, a fat white-haired bulb who seemed less like a holy man than a politician who’d figured out which side was the winning one. Others were offering to share, but Brother Martin began calling on the people who didn’t volunteer. They offered up their sins: a drug addict, a Mormon, a woman who’d used birth control pills. If Irene was very lucky, they’d run out of time before evening prayers.
Brother Martin looked right at her. “Sister Irene?”
This will end, and I will once again live in a world where people know that prayer happens in the heart. Words are not prayer. Words are just words.
She swallowed, and said the lines she’d rehearsed in her head. “I was a minister in the Unitarian Church for twenty years.” She was supposed to add something about how women shouldn’t be ministers, but she couldn’t quite choke the words out. “I used to join in prayer with people of other faiths: Congregationalists, Buddhists, even Jews. Now I know there is only one God.”
Humiliation warmed her face, though technically nothing she’d said was false. She believed in one God, just not the one to whom she was legally required to pledge allegiance.
“And one faith,” Brother Martin prodded.
“And we are allowed only one faith.” She silently prayed forgiveness for one more passive lie.
Martin wouldn’t let it go. “There is only one faith.” The room went completely quiet as he waited for her to repeat it back to him.
“For God’s sake, Martin,” she said, dropping the ridiculous honorific, “you don’t believe a word of this. If they told you to swear there were ten Gods, you would do it. Twenty Gods. Six and a half. None. It’s all the same to you.”
Martin’s voice had the pleasant tone of a teacher dealing with a stubborn child. “I believe you need a private Repentance session, Sister Irene.”
He signaled to two of the guards, and they took her by the arms and dragged her backwards from the room. “I can walk,” she said, but they didn’t stop.
They deposited her in a small dark cell with a bench built into one wall. She lay on her back and concentrated on slowing her breathing.
This will end. We’ll be free, and if I want to say a prayer that’s nothing but curse words, I’ll say it right out loud.
She was hungry by the time Brother Martin arrived with the guards. He turned a switch outside the room, and a light came on. Without a word, the guards pulled her to her feet, and Martin planted his fat body on the bench.
“I can’t have you disrupting Repentance,” he began warmly. “People’s souls are at stake.”
“People’s souls are affected by whether they repeat whatever you tell them to say? That’s not prayer, it’s just noise. If I can tell the difference, do you really think God can’t?”
“There is one God and one faith, and He must be worshiped in the right way.”
“There are as many faiths as there are people, and what humans know about God would not fill a teacup. For all you and I know, God may want us to cover ourselves in molasses and make love to trees.” It felt good to finally say what she was thinking, even if it was only to Brother Martin.
“I am losing my patience, child.”
“Don’t ‘child’ me. We’re both old enough to remember what happens to people who try to remake the world in their own image.” She thought she saw a flicker at the corner of his smirk. “You know, Martin, I don’t think you’re really a bad person. Before the Purge, you probably had a nice life, a home, a job, a couple of vacations every year. You didn’t want to give that up. So you sacrificed other things, like freedom, honesty, and prayers with any actual meaning. Whatever keeps you in your comfortable little corner of the world. How long before the next Purge, Martin?”
Brother Martin got up, unhurried. “We are not going to argue about this. At your next Repentance session, you will make a full and proper confession.” The guards held tight as he moved closer, and for a moment she thought he was going to beat her. A martyr for Unitarianism; that would be absurd. He pressed his forehead against hers. “And it’s ‘Brother’ Martin.” He took the guards and left, killing the light behind him.
She waited in the suffocating dark, but they didn’t come back. After a couple of hours—it was hard to guess at the passage of time—she felt along the floor to see if there was a hole, or something that would pass for a toilet. She hadn’t seen one earlier when the light was on. She pounded on the door. “Hey! Bathroom break!” She got no response. “Hey! I know you can hear me! You don’t want me to do it in here, do you?”
This will end.
She held out as long as humanly possible. And then a little longer. Finally there was no alternative except to use a corner of the room. Afterward she groped her way back, her eyes stinging with the stench and humiliation.
She drifted off to sleep, but was jarred awake by a pounding noise outside her room. It sounded like a jackhammer. The racket went on, rising and falling unevenly, for several minutes. Finally it stopped, then resumed a minute later. When it stopped for good, the echo continued to throb in her ears.
Days passed, punctuated by brief slivers of light when food was shoved through a slot in the wall. The meals seemed far apart, and she stayed hungry most of the time. The pounding resumed at irregular times, wrenching her from sleep over and over again. Exhaustion slowly pinned her down.
This will end. And when it does, I will never pray again, just to piss them off, and if I were God I wouldn’t have a problem with that.
She had almost reached the point where she could sleep through the pounding, incorporating it into a feverish dream. Then the noise changed, a whirring like the whine of a saw. She fell back into consciousness, eyes still shut.
Irene rolled from the bench and crawled to the door. She reared up and beat her fists against the metal, screaming. “This will end! This will end! This will end!”
She collapsed back on herself, sobbing, hungry and exhausted and blind. “End this!”
The black silence pressed her from every side. When her bladder began to ache again, she didn’t go to the corner or even pull up her skirt; just sat huddled as the wet spot on her clothes turned from warm to cold.
“There is one God!” she shouted. “And one faith! And one right way to pray! And one everything!” She pressed her cheek flat against the door. “Just tell me what to say!”
The door opened and Brother Martin knelt to embrace her.
“End this,” she whispered. It was the last honest prayer she ever spoke.
Copyright 2016 by Laura Ruth Loomis