Tara Stillions Whitehead

The day after they declare another war, Joe takes me to the river to show me how he talks to God. There is no water there, only a cement aqueduct filled with sand that soldiers like Joe have brought back with them over the years. We can’t see the base from here, and we can’t hear the touch-and-gos or feel the practice bombs and their controlled detonations, but we can smell fire and know which way smoke travels.

Joe strips first. Then me.

It’s easy. 

When Joe talks to God, there’s no kneeling. There’s no speaking in tongues or inquiry. Only time—vertical and threatening, collecting like a storm over the desert of the body. When Joe talks to God, desire supplies the breath, and touch forms the words. I am. I am. I am. I am. When Joe talks to God, I taste the faith of a man who has died more than once. I taste thirst and a softness that wasn’t there before. When he talks to God, I become part of his circuitry, vectoring knowingly towards the light in the dark, asking all the while how, Joe—how has it gotten so dark?

When Joe talks to God, I write gibberish in the shadow-cool sand and erase it with splayed palms. 

I’ve been taught to pray once before, at a church that rented space in an industrial park near the airfield in Miramar. We sat in folding chairs facing a raised platform flanked with artificial ferns and an overhead projector. The walls didn’t reach the ceiling because there was no ceiling, just exposed HVAC piping and an indiscriminate patchwork of fiberglass insulation and steel beams. I forget the players and the plot and the logistics, but I remember the heat and the labyrinthine silver pipes. I remember drywall and damp suits and the temperature of conversion. Open your mouth, the young pastor instructed, gathering my face into his large hands, and let the Word of Godpossess youPrayer is possession, hallelujah. Prayer is exorcism, hallelujah. The exorcism of sin to make space for the Holy Ghost. I remember fire without smoke and how touch’s pleasure shamed me, this young pastor’s fingers opening and closing my jaw into anti-speech, animating me towards that holy language of tongues I never learned to speak.

When Joe talks to God, there is no humiliation.

After airstrikes and rogue missiles down the civilian planes and they declare war, I am asleep and believe that, in spite of my husband’s long-ago death, morning will come and I will finally be saved. After airstrikes and rogue missiles down the civilian planes and they declare war, Joe is awake and knows that, in spite of all that can be done to stop it, night will continue to fall and nothing will be spared. Joe reminds me of my husband, and I remind Joe of the armistice, at least that’s what we tell each other.   

There is no altar in the aqueduct, so we make one out of our folded clothing and other objects of worship. Keys, phones, wallets and sidearm. We tithe until there is nothing left to sacrifice, until it is just us and our reprieve. 

When Joe is finished talking to God, I call out His name. 

And when I call out His name, an F-4 Phantom breaks the sound barrier. The clouds, so long threatening, release, clear the smoke as Joe pulls out of me, as he rises, covered in sand, nodding.

Tara Stillions Whitehead is a multi-genre writer and filmmaker living in Central Pennsylvania. She holds a degree in film from University of Southern California and an MFA in fiction from San Diego State University. Her words have appeared in many journals and magazines, including PRISM international, The Rupture, Jellyfish Review, Bending Genres,and cream city review. She recently produced American Content: Hollywood, a series created by acclaimed writer/producer Mark Roberts. You can find her on Twitter at @mrswhitehouse74.
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