Chapter Two of
Light from Distant Stars
By Shawn Smucker
Monday, March 16, 2015
Darkness was upon the face of the deep.
When Cohen was a small boy, lying on the floor under the church pews on a humid summer Sunday night, the bright ceiling lights shone. He listened to his father’s voice boom through the quiet, the heavy pauses filled with scattershot responses. “Amen!” and “Preach!” and semi- whispered versions of “Hallelujah!” so hushed and sincere they sent goose bumps racing up his skinny arms.
Under the pews, on the deep red carpet, drowning in the hot, stuffy air, young Cohen drifted in and out of sleep. It was as if he had descended beneath some holy canopy and settled into the plush red carpet surrounded by a rain forest full of trees, which were actually the legs of pews and the legs of people and women’s dresses draped all the way to the floor, rustling ever so slightly with the sermon. He could smell the hairspray and the cologne and the sweat mingling like incense, a pleasing offering to the Lord.
Far above him, like branches moving under the weight of resettling birds, people waved paper fans created out of their Sunday evening bulletins, folded an inch this way, an inch that way, stirring the air. But to no avail. Sweat came out of their pores. Sweat welled up in droplets like water on a glass. Sweat trickled down, always down. And even there, from the floor, Cohen could imagine it: the sweat that darkened the underarms of Mr. Pugitt’s light blue collared shirt, the sweat Mrs. Fisher blotted from her powdery temples, the sweat that made his father’s bald head shine like a beacon, and the sweat that sweetened the nape of Miss Flynne’s slender neck.
Ah, his Sunday school teacher, Miss Flynne! Cohen was only nine years old in 1984, but he could tell that something about Miss Flynne opened doors into rooms where he had never wandered. Why couldn’t he speak when she looked at him? Why did the lines of her body push his heart into his throat? She was all bright white smiles and straight posture and something lovely, budding.
His mother was not all smiles, not in 1984 and never before that and never since. Sometimes, from his place of repose under the church bench, he could peek out and see his mother’s stern face, eyes never leaving his father. The intensity with which she followed his father’s sermon was the only thing that could distract her enough to allow him to slip down onto the floor. No one else seemed to notice her lips, but Cohen did, the way she mouthed every single word to every single one of his father’s sermons, as if she had written them herself. Which she had.
Sometimes, when Cohen’s father said a word that synchronize with his mother’s mouth, she would pause, her eyes those of a scorned prophet, one not welcomed in her own town. Cohen could tell it took everything in her not to stand up and interrupt his father, correct him, set him back in the record’s groove. But she would shake her head as if clearing away a gnat and find the cadence again. Somehow their words rediscovered each other there in the holy air, hers silent and hidden, his shouted, and Cohen’s mind drifted away.
If Cohen rolled over or made too much noise or in any way reminded his mother of his existence there beneath the canopy, she hauled him back up by his upper arm or his ear or his hair, whatever she could reach, hissing admonitions, hoisting him back to the pew. He felt the eyes of the hundreds of other people on the back of his own neck, sitting there like drops of sweat, their glances grazing off his ears, skimming the top of his head, weighing down his shoulders. There was a certain weight that came with being the only son of a popular country preacher. There were certain expectations.
His sister Kaye was always there, waiting for him in the canopy, only four years older than him and sitting completely still. She had an unnatural ability to weather even the longest of sermons without so much as twitching, without moving a single muscle. Sometimes she didn’t even blink for long minutes at a time. He knew. He watched her, counting the seconds. When they got older, she told him her secret to this, the things she thought about to keep her in that central spot, the stories she made up. She told him about the things in the church she would count: the wooden slats on the ceiling, the imperfections in the wooden pew, the number of pores on the back of the person’s neck in front of her and how those tiny hairs became an endless forest through which she embarked on an adventure.
When Cohen became bored contemplating his sister’s stillness, which took only moments, his gaze joined with those hundreds of other gazes, the way small streams drown into bigger ones, and he stared at his father on the stage. Cohen was transfixed by what he saw. His father reached up with his long, slender fingers and loosened his tie. He raised a pointed finger to the heavens and made a desperate plea, his voice a cadence, a rhythm, a kind of calling out, and the congregation heaved with emotion. People shouted. Women’s shoulders shook with poorly suppressed sobs. Men leaned forward, their faces in their hands, as if scorched by Isaiah’s coal.
Cohen’s father pulled a pure white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his bald head dry, and the lights shone. An usher opened the windows that ran along the east side of the building, and a cool night breeze blew through, leaking in and spreading along the floor, gathering in pools that Cohen slipped into when his mother had been taken up again by the words of her own sermon.