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Sarah Read

In Tongues

Pastor Thomas Minstrel ran one hand over Miranda’s bulging stomach. His other clutched a microphone. Beads of sweat ran down the microphone’s shaft and trailed along its cord like dewdrops on a cobweb. Miranda watched the droplets, afraid to raise her eyes to the hissing crowd.

“Seventeen and a sinner!” Pastor Minstrel didn’t need the microphone. The speakers hummed with the effort of filtering his voice. “What kind of lesson is that for our children—to see one so young follow Satan into the sins of the flesh?”

The crowd mumbled assent and raised their hands as if their palms cupped the air below the low ceiling, as if together they held it aloft.

Miranda flinched as moisture landed on her face and thought maybe the pastor had flung sweat at her, wondered if that made it holy water. Wondered if her skin would start to hiss.

She tried to swallow the hitch in her throat and bit her lip to still its tremble. It seemed the entire county had turned out to shame her. Even people she’d never seen inside the church were lifting up their hands and convulsing with the Holy Spirit.

“Repent!” Pastor Minstrel’s red face had fogged his glasses. He pulled them off and licked the lenses clear. “Bring Jesus back into your heart.” He stomped toward her as the crowd roared.

Miranda’s hands rose to cover her belly. There was a gentle flutter under her fingertips. A deep stirring in her core that grew more frantic the louder the crowd screamed. As if the little thing inside felt the Spirit, too—as if it knew what she had tried to do. But I didn’t. Don’t accuse me. Her breath caught on the lump in her throat.

“Do you know what I found this morning?” Pastor Minstrel turned from the crowd to face Miranda. The congregation went silent. His heavy breaths rushed over the microphone, amplified through the room. Hair stuck to his damp forehead, and Miranda focused on the line where the yellow faded into grey at the roots. His suit smelled like wet wool and cologne.

Miranda shook her head.

Pastor Minstrel stomped across the stage to the altar. His footfalls caused the carpeted risers to sway. Miranda felt nauseated.

He ripped a gold-sequined cloth from over a small mound resting there.

The congregation gasped. Women shrieked and a hundred hands raised to painted mouths. Pastor Minstrel struggled with the smile dancing in the corner of his mouth. He turned to Miranda till it was tamed into a stern frown. He spun back to the crowd.

“Mr. Allen’s lost lamb. Or what’s left of it. Coyotes chewed it raw and left its remains right here on the steps of this very church. A lamb! Slain! Just as your spirit has been slain by the devil!”

Miranda glanced up at the crowd and saw Jake’s face—handsome, pale, but almost as sweaty as the pastor’s. Dripping and terrifying, like that night in the hayloft.

Well, he knows now. Not my lonely secret anymore. She felt the baby stir against her hand. Ready to meet your daddy?


• • •


Miranda pressed the vinegar-soaked rag into the creases of a ceramic angel’s robe. A wall of holy glass eyes stared down at her from her mother’s mismatched row of curio cabinets. Some large and doe-eyed, some tiny black pinpricks. A crowded flock of angels with golden halos and outstretched palms, all covered in a layer of dust and dirt that blew in from the dustbowl fields. Probably dried cow shit, too. More like bullshit. Their painted faces all smiled softly. Frozen in serenity.

She glanced over her shoulder to see if her mother had seen her smirk. But Mrs. Datlan was staring deep into the bottom of a bag of Cheetos, her round feet propped up by her floral brocade recliner.

Miranda moved on to the next angel, polishing away the grime.

“That’s right you dirty girl. Wash the angels, wash your sins away.” Mrs. Datlan’s evangelizing was punctuated by a series of loud crunches.

Miranda stared at the expansive wall of angels. Their eyes always seemed to follow her.

“I would have washed it away. You wouldn’t let me.” She ground the rag deeper into the lines of a ceramic angel’s face. The paint of its eyes came away against the rough cloth.

Mrs. Datlan struggled out of her chair, spilling Cheetos across the dingy carpet. “If you think any child of mine is going to murder my grandbaby with the help of some sin-spewing doctor, then all the angels in the world can’t help you, girl.”

Orange, powdered fingers raked across Miranda’s face.

“I’d beat you bloody if I could. But you’re carrying a blessing, even if it is a bastard one. Now finish up.”

Miranda’s hand shook as she reached for the next angel, ringing the figures against each other like small bells. “And when did I stop being your blessing, mama? When did I become your curse?”

Mrs. Datlan crumpled the empty Cheetos bag and threw it onto the sagging, dusty corduroy chair that still occupied the center of the room, its cushion five-years-cold. “You’re not my Miranda. My Miranda left me.” Mrs. Datlan’s voice broke. She slouched back to her chair.

Miranda nodded as she scraped the face from another angel. “True enough. She left with dad.”

“Dad is with the angels. You can never go there, now.”

“The damn angels are everywhere.” Miranda let her fingers loosen, felt the figure slip, and watched it fall to pieces at her feet.

Her mother howled. The baby stirred. That’s right, little angel. They’ll holler and you’ll dance, just like I always did. But not anymore. I’ve had enough.


• • •


Jake twisted her hair in his fist. She pressed her back against the tractor tire and tried to turn away, but he gripped her chin and wrenched her face to meet his.

“I don’t get any say in this? And how do I even know it’s mine, huh? You little slut.”

“Jake, I didn’t even want to—”

He hit her stomach and drove her breath from her. She gulped air, drew in a stuttering gasp, and his fist came again. Her scalp burned as her hair slid through his fingers. Her knees hit the ground in a cloud of dirt that rose and choked her.

“I’m. Not. Paying. No. Fucking. Child. Support.” He drove each word in with a kick.

Miranda curled around her middle. She heard the soft scraping click of Jake’s knife. The same one he’d used to carve their initials in the barn loft. The same one he’d used to cut a lock of her hair. She remembered how his skin smelled like sunlight and hay as she’d kissed his neck while he carved a heart around their initials.

Adrenaline hit her like a white hot flash and she was on her feet reaching for the tractor’s ladder rungs. A sharp line of pain spread at her ankle where he slashed at her legs as she scrambled into the cab and slammed down the lock.

Jake pounded against the window. Miranda reached for her bloody sock and saw the tractor key in the ignition. A green rabbit’s foot dangled from its eye.

Jake’s face disappeared from the window as the tractor shook itself awake. His shouts sounded weak and distant over the rumble of the diesel engine. Miranda rolled the tractor forward. Jake followed, stabbing at the thick tires with his knife.

Miranda rubbed at the bruises spreading across her belly. Bile rose in her raw throat. Her rage swelled, heart rate pumping blood from her ankle, blood to her face, blood beneath the tight skin of her stomach. She slammed the gear into reverse and thrust her foot against the gas. The tractor shuddered and lurched backward.

Jake’s bobbing head disappeared from view. His scream ripped through the hot, open air of the ranch.

Miranda squeezed her eyes shut. She shoved at the stiff gear and drove forward, then backed up again. She imagined the scream travelling forever across the vast Wyoming plain, kicking up trails of dust in the barren ground. The nearest thing for it to reach was the distant white speck of Pastor Minstrel’s church, and the dust-colored cinderblock jailhouse beside it. Miranda shivered and pressed the gas again. The screaming pitched, then stopped. Angel, if your blood could stop the crops, maybe his will water them back to life. Maybe we just need the right blood to end this.

She sat in silence and rested her forehead against the window, watching the line of dust rise behind Officer Barnes’ car as he sped over the fallow fields, chasing the fading scream toward the idling tractor.

Maybe they’ll think it was an accident. Another farm boy fallen, caught under the grinding weight of his father’s living, of his future. She pressed at the lumps rising across her belly and wiggled her toes in the shoe that was filling with blood. Pain shot up her leg. She couldn’t run. Not far, anyway. Not fast enough. Her lower back ached. The pain wrapped around her, as if embracing her from behind. She shut off the tractor and squeezed the green rabbit’s foot in her fist.

Her foot slid off the ladder rung and she fell into the blood-soaked dust. Shreds of Jake’s white t-shirt, stained the oxblood color of gore and fallow dirt were scattered around her. His mangled hat, bristled with torn hair, rolled in the wind.

Miranda crawled over the shallow dunes of the field toward the oncoming police car. Dry stalks of long-dead crops pierced her palms. The pain in her middle grew into an insistent pressure. Her thighs and arms shook and she fell into the dirt. Her tongue felt as dry as the grit against her cheek. She waited for Officer Barnes, prayed he’d get to her quickly.

Sorry, baby. I know a girl needs a daddy, but a daddy has no need of a girl, and anyway, I’d have found you a better one if I’d known you were coming. Oh God, you’re coming.


• • •


Miranda sat in the jailhouse, kneeling by her steel cot, and pressed her palms against her ears to shut out the amplified sound of Pastor Minstrel’s gibberish that streamed from the speakers next door. Her lip curled and bile rose in her throat like a scream. She heaved until blood ran down her chin and her stomach clenched in spasm. The bruises from Jake’s fists and feet had darkened to burgundy, deepening every hour as if they ate through her like acid. Pain wrapped around her lower back, and when it squeezed her, the little flutter inside her would still. When the pain eased, the baby would stretch, fighting back against the tightening of its space.

Waves of contractions washed over her, each one building off the ebb of the one before. She caught her breath and screamed. Too soon. I’m not ready. She’s not ready.

“Sheriff! Officer Barnes! Help!” The squeeze cut off her cry. A flush of warm water slid out from between her legs and washed into the pool of bloody vomit.

No one came. The whole county was crowded into Pastor Minstrel’s church, praying for Jake Griffith’s soul. The shrieking of their holy delirium rattled the thin glass of the jailhouse windows.

Miranda pulled herself up onto the steel cot, rolled onto her back, and gripped her knees. The world spun around the slickness between her thighs.


• • •


Pastor Minstrel had built the Pentecostal Church of Our Lord exactly so that at 8:17 in the morning—or, as he called it, 7:77—the shadow of the cross atop the pointed steeple would fall across the squat, grey jail next door.

“They will hear us sing!” he shouted that day five years ago, as he cut the ribbon stretched across the new church door. He wielded the scissors like a sword. “They will hear us praise Him! Oh del hoo laloay mala koole hale!” His tongues rattled the speakers and startled sleeping moths from the eaves along the western side of the exterior walls, bathing the jailhouse with his voice. A halo of dust had risen in the fields, concussed by a tide of sound waves.


• • •


“Life is sacred,” Pastor Minstrel said to the crowd assembled in the small yard between the church and the jail. Miranda’s baby girl slept, limp and tiny, cradled in the crook of the pastor’s arm. “New life is a gift from God.”

The sun beat down on the pastor’s silver-yellow hair, and onto the baby’s pink face.

Did they put sunscreen on her? Miranda shuffled her feet. The shackles around her ankles dragged like a chain plough in the dry grass.

“Here, in the sight of God, we name this child. What is her name?”

“Rebecc—” Miranda started.

“Tiffany! Her name is Tiffany.” Mrs. Datlan stepped forward. Her fists were clenched in front of her holey Tweety Bird t-shirt, her lips orange and twisted into a grimace.

Miranda dropped her head. Her vision spun, the edges of her sight darkening and brightening in waves that threatened to buckle her knees, wash her down to the dirt.

“Tiffany!” The pastor shouted. The speakers rattled, and the baby’s name echoed off the jailhouse wall behind Miranda’s back. “We will raise this child in the light of God. We will guide her soul away from her mother’s sin.” Pastor Minstrel paced. The microphone cord slithered through the grass like a snake.

Miranda tilted her head back and rested it against the rough grey cinderblocks of the jailhouse wall. Tears dripped off her jaw. She squinted down her nose at the crowd. Mrs. Datlan wove through the congregation, pausing at each member, dropping a bulging Walmart bag at their feet.

“This young lady has brought the wrathful eye of God to our town. She has invited Satan into our community. Do you know that she wanted to end the life of this child? To shut out the spark of God’s life—a gift granted to her in her darkest hour, and she shunned it.” He stalked in front of his audience, driving his feet into the dry powder of the earth. Baby Tiffany’s head bobbed, unsupported. Open your eyes little angel. Just once, so I can see.

Pastor Minstrel sauntered to Miranda and bent down to her face. “And then she took from us one of our own. She took from this child a loving father. She has no place among godly people.”

Miranda squeezed her eyes shut against the sun. Her knees trembled.

“As her sin bloomed, our fields grew fallow. As her spirit withered, so did our crops. And we did nothing. But our God is a forgiving God. Repent and pray with me.” He dropped to his knees.

The crowd raised their open palms to the sky. Their mouths gaped, and from their throats rose a guttural cry. Their tongues wagged over their teeth.

“Kaholy nabida kala haveel lalakohlay!” The pastor screamed into the microphone. The metal speakers shook dust from the church eaves. The baby began to wail, its tiny face screwed up in outrage.

The crowd’s fervor swelled. Miranda’s mother dropped to the grass, convulsing, orange drool running down her neck and staining the collar of her shirt.

“Let the Holy Spirit take you all! Sing in the Spirit with me!” One of the mounted speakers shook free of a bolt and hung at an angle, rattling against the dry wood siding.

The crowd swayed, shaking their hands at the sky and singing in the language of angels.

“It is our duty, as agents of the Lord, to show the unsaved the value of the life taken from us! Show her what we think of her shunning the gifts of God! Show her what we think of her pact with Satan!” The speaker shook itself free from its remaining bolt and tumbled into the grass.

As one, the crowd dropped their hands and reached for the plastic bags at their feet. Out came handfuls of dirty ceramic angels. Dusty again, and faceless.

Miranda pressed herself against the wall. Her chin trembled. She looked to Pastor Minstrel and shook her head. No, not like this.

He smiled and licked his teeth. His eyes slid to Mrs. Datlan. She nodded, weeping, eyes still rolling in spiritual reverie. “All the angels in the world can’t save you, not now, and I brought ‘em all.”

Pastor Minstrel’s microphone shook. “Show her what the Lord thinks of those who would snuff out the spark of God’s light!”

The angels flew at her. Their wings shattered against the cinderblocks around her. They broke against her forehead and her teeth. They cut into her stomach, still swollen from birth, still red. They tore at her arms, her legs, and caught in her hair. She tasted the dirt of them, felt their grit in the blood that filled her mouth. And as she sank to the grass, she smelled smoke, and saw, through a red haze, the speaker—smoldering in the dry grass, small flames licking up the side of the church wall as Pastor Minstrel held her baby aloft and hollered nonsense to the sky from a vortex of faceless angels.

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