Salvation

Mark is asleep when Heidi creeps out the front door and closes it behind her. The bold red, orange and blue beachfront cottages across the sand-swept street are bracing against the blustery wind tearing through their underpinnings. Her own legs wobble underneath her. Between the houses, turbulent waves flail against the shore beating it into submission. She looks down at the bruises on her arms and pulls down the sleeves of her hoodie.

Lines from William Butler Yeats's poem Second Coming pass through her mind: The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. In graduate school it was Yeats’ who’d inspired her to become a poet. And like Yeats’ she’d taken long meditative walks through the countryside, write verse in the evening by an inn's woodstove, her soggy shoes drying by the crackling fire. Oh what she would give to have a moment like that again. But that was before she was enchanted by Mark and put her notebooks and pencils away to become his devoted wife.

She steps off the rickety staircase onto the road and hesitates. Not sure whether to go on the beach or head inland. She spins around. But it's only the wind knocking over a trash can. She hurries down the road and turns the corner. Off of the shoreline, the blustery wind dies down. Out of sight, she needn’t hurry now and she wanders down one empty street after another not caring where she is going.

There is a clearing in the clouds and rays of sunlight shine down on a freshly painted white clapboard building on a large lot. It’s the church behind their cottage. She remembers there had only been a field of weeds and brambling bush when they came last year for their holidays.

She stops in the driveway and reads the sign nailed to a post. It gives the hours of Sunday service at the Church of Salvation. But this isn't Sunday and the parking lot is empty. The church door locked.

Disappointed, she sits down on the porch step and watches several orphaned kittens dig through the trash can for food scraps.

A car braking in front of the church brings her to her feet.

A lanky, white-haired elderly black man steps out of a white van, Church of Salvation painted on its door. He looks at her suspicously. The dark glasses and the hoodie covering her face might give him a bad impression. Maybe she’d come to steal the donations.

She straightens up and smiles. “I was hoping the church was open.” She keeps smiling until he finally approaches her. “The last time I was here this was just an empty lot.”  

He must have decided she wasn't a threat to him or his church and introduces himself as Martin, the new church's pastor. He unlocks the door and says, “Come in. All God’s children are welcome and it's much warmer inside.”

She stands in the portico and breathes in the sacred silence of her childhood memories. If she’d been alone, she’d have walked up the center aisle and sat in front of the altar, not to pray but just to feel safe, inviolable. Pastor Martin, obviously proud of his new church, offers to show her around.

The modern kitchen is shiny white with new appliances and there is a rustic farm table in the middle with a vase of yellow daisies as its centerpiece. From the window, she can see on the other side of the lot the rocking chair on the back porch of her and Mark’s rental cottage. She didn’t know why but they always rented in the winter when nobody else was there and all the other cottages were vacant.

Last night she had sat in that rocking chair and traced the swelling bruise on her face and the cracked lip where Mark had hit her. She knew from before that the bruise would fade from purple to yellow and then disappear leaving her visibly unmarked. Until then, she had the hoodie and sunglasses to hide behind.

"That's where my husband and I are staying," she said, pointing to the cottage.

"Does your husband strike you often?" he asked, abruptly, but without malice.

She didn’t try to deny it. "How did you know?" she asked, removing her sunglasses.

"I was here last night. There's a lot of wild cats roaming the streets. I often hear their cat fights. If I’d known it was a human cry, I would’ve called the police."

She bows her head and studies the floor.

"Don't be ashamed," he said gently. "He's the one that should be embarrassed. You should show everyone what he has done. Shame him. You are not the one to blame."

She turns to leave.

"Wait, please don't go yet. You haven't seen the rest of our church."

He walks her through the pre-school classroom. Tiny yellow chairs arranged around a low table covered in a half-finished puzzle of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She picks up a few pieces and finds where they belong on Snow White’s face.

“Do you have children?” he asks. She shakes her head. “My husband doesn’t want any.”

“I see. Well, there’s still time for you, isn't there?” His smile reminds her of the hopeful face of Mary Magdalena and she smiles back.

Returning to the chapel, he shows her the organ that was donated by a parishioner. She brushes her hand across the ivory keys.

“Do you play?” he asks.

"No. My mother played the organ in our church when I was growing up," she says. "I was hoping to light a candle for her in front of Mary Magdalena.”

Pastor Martin said he was sorry, but this was a non-denominational church. The only one in Outer Banks. “We had our first service two Sundays ago and seventy-six souls filled the pews."

“Build it and they will come,” she said, knowing if Mark had been there he would have told her not to use a stupid cliché that made her sound uneducated. He hated when she embarassed him, which she did often.

“You're right about that,” said the pastor, nodding his head in agreement. “I’m expecting even a larger turnout next Sunday. Why don’t you join us?”

She looked down at the brass organ pedals and suddenly felt very lonely. When she was small, she curled up under a similar church organ and while her mother pressed her feet down on the pedals she’d imagined the reverberating notes were the wings of celestial angels flying overhead.

Pastor Martin’s voice brought her back into the present. He was telling her it had taken a year to rebuild the church that had been beaten by and finally collapsed under the force of too many storms on Hatteras Island. This church was much stronger and would not experience a similar fate.

“A Phoenix rising,” she said, relieved again that Mark wasn’t there to criticize her use of another cliché. He was a professor of English literature at Yale, where they had met, and was always saying to his friends, “Can you believe how my wife talks. You’d never know that she has a Masters degree in poetry. Even published a chap book.”

“That’s a perfect way to say it—a Phoenix rising,” the pastor says, flipping on the electricity. The high-beamed lights sting her eyes. She asks for a glass of water.

In the kitchen, she stands by the rear window and sips the water, half listening to Pastor Martin as her eyes follow like footsteps across the sandy breach, dead bushes, weeds, and wilted grasses until reaching a half-collapsed fence that divides the property of the cottage from the church. She can make out Mark’s silhouette at the window as he stirs a spoon in a bowl.

She remembers how he had offered to make breakfast this morning. As always, he had ignored the bruises and the cracked lip when he kissed her mouth. She had gotten out of the bed before he could pin her down and have sex. He thought she liked it rough and she’d given up trying to tell him she didn’t.

She gulps down the water and thanks Pastor Martin for showing her around his church and asks if she can go home out the backdoor. The pastor’s eyes are trained on her as she lifts herself over the broken fence, but when she turns to wave good-bye his head is bowed, his hands clasped. She hopes he is saying a prayer for her though she no longer believes the celestial angels are coming to rescue her from Mark.

Creeping across the backyard, she peeks in the window at Mark bent over the stove. He is flipping pancakes. His back is to her but the smell of sizzling bacon wafting out the open window fills her nose and the sudden force of what once was makes her crumble onto the ground. She hugs herself and squeezes out one last pitiful tear. It bleeds into the sand until there is no trace left of it.

She stands up and pulls herself away from the stack of pancakes, the sizzling bacon, the heating Vermont maple syrup and the melting butter.

In the car boot is her packed suitcase. Her purse is on the seat. She gets behind the wheel and turns the key in the ignition. She’s relieved that it starts right up.

Mark appears on the front porch. He's wearing an apron, a spatula in his hand. It's almost laughable how young and innocent he looks. "What are you doing out here?" he says. "Come inside. Breakfast is ready."

She pushes the hoodie back off her face, shakes her hair loose and raises up her chin but does not look at him again.

"Heidi! Do you hear me?" He starts to come down the steps.  “Don’t make me have to get you out of the car.” She throws the gear into reverse and screeches out of the driveway. In the rearview mirror, she can see him running after her.

She does not stop. Not this time. She makes a sharp turn at the corner as Whitney Houston belts out I Didn't Know My Own Strength on the radio and she keeps going.