Beside the Still Waters

by Randy Lowens

- 1 -

From Rachael's earliest recollections, her parents carried her to the Baptist Church on the outskirts of town. (Due to peculiarities of districting, the children at church were not those Rachael attended school with.) Each Sunday morning her parents loaded her into the Chevrolet station wagon, and tooled down rural lanes towards the towering spire in the sky. They would deposit her at Sunday School, before making their way to Adult Bible Study classes.

During Sunday School, sunshine streamed through scrubbed windows, while little girls with bright eyes and ribbons in their hair sang "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know". There was no question about it. The love of Jesus was an accomplished fact.

Mrs. Anderson, her lips gleaming with bright red lipstick, wearing a different fresh flower pinned to her bleached-white blouse each week, beamed at the little darlings and praised their singing voices, assuring each that a bright future lay in store. "In the United States of America, a man can become anything he chooses. Why, one of you girls might be married to the President someday!" It seemed such a romantic notion, to scrub and clean the great big White House, just as their mothers scrubbed and cleaned the little Red and Green and Blue Houses that their fathers owned.

Each Sunday morning, the girls began by singing songs. Then Mrs. Anderson would read a Bible story. A Bible story, with a great, big, shiny moral firmly in tow. "So you see, children, as Zachahyma learned, telling lies makes people sad- the people who tell them, and the people to whom they are told- while telling the truth makes people happy!" There was no place for complexity or ambiguity in Mrs. Anderson's world.

Then, when the songs and stories were safely tucked away on the shelves, where they snuggled and napped until they were needed again the following week, the girls colored Bible scenes in booklets provided from the church treasury for that purpose, until the hour was full and it was time once again to join their mothers- and for fortunate little girls like Rachael, their fathers as well- in the big sanctuary for the Sunday Morning Worship Service.

Rachael's father held her hand as they walked into the sanctuary, her mother a few short steps behind. But Rachael found the sanctuary creepy. The organ's intonations were funereal. The singular voice of the choir was altogether too solemn for a child's tastes, its lyrics nonsensical. But the sermon was worst of all.

The whole idea of an invisible Man In the Sky who kept a score sheet on her behavior, and had been known to decimate entire populations on a jealous whim… well, these thoughts made little Rachael more than a bit uncomfortable. The sermons were very much at odds with the Sunday School experience (which was tailored especially for Good Little Girls, and emphasized the Deity's boundless and protective love.) The sanctuary experience was spooky, and focused on His wrath and vengeance. Rachael feared that perhaps the ghosts of Jehovah's countless genocides haunted the corners of the sanctuary's vaulted ceilings.

The pastor promised, time and again, that no matter how dark the stain of sin be on her soul, her soul, her very soul, that all would be forgiven- if she would but ask. But if she failed to ask, he hinted darkly, all would not be well.

Rachael could not imagine what she had done, that she was supposed to repent. The contradiction was fixed, the dilemma insolvable. If she could never be good enough for long enough, if she was born into sin and into sin she would die, what was the point in even trying? If the sermon in the sanctuary was valid, than all the mighty efforts of the Sunday School to spawn Good Little Girls was doomed to failure, and so was pointless. They could not both be true, the sanctuary and the Sunday School. One was Truth, and the other had to be an abominable lie, the work of Satan.

Rachael so wanted to believe that the Sunday School experience was Truth, and the sanctuary experience an evil con, the product of degenerate minds. But, at the age of ten, mature beyond her years, she was prepared to go wherever the Holy Ghost might lead. At times she attempted, in her childish fashion, to enunciate her concerns, her fears and doubts. To her mother, or to Mrs. Anderson. But such personages only parroted the party line: you are too young to understand. It is not our place to fathom the Hand of the Almighty. Pray and wait, and all things shall become clear.

So Rachael prayed. And she waited. But things became more confusing, long before they became more clear. Only her father, when queried, deviated from the script: "Someday you will learn, little darling, to let the dead bury their own." But Rachael didn't know what he meant.

Fortunately for Rachael, the Sunday morning paradox, the tension between the Sunday School practice and the Worship Service theory, the gaping chasm between God's love as experienced in Sunday School and God's vengeance as hinted at in the pastor's sermons, was a finite phenomena. That is, it only came to mind once a week, on Sunday mornings. For the remainder of the week, the Sunday School mythology of the Good Little Girl reined supreme. She knew that when the girls and boys at school shunned her, and called her "slut" and "whore", that she was only being persecuted for His sake. She insisted on continuing to be a Good Little Girl. She began to suspect that all was right with the world, that all was well and good, that Sunday School reigned supreme, and that the only actual problem was that some people thought incorrectly. She began to suspect that the problem resided within the pastor's head, and within the minds of her would-be friends at school. She was sure that a better world awaited her above the clouds, free of charge, and that the pastor's ranting about Our Father in Heaven being a spiteful sadist, was erroneous.

Perhaps the pastor just needed to take some of those pills that Mommy swallowed when she got all stressed out.

- 2 -

The year was 1970. The smell of roasting flesh wafted across the yard. Ribs and chicken sizzled on the grill, while potatoes sheathed in aluminum foil lay ensconced in the glowing coals. The sun played tag across the sky with sparse wisps of cloud. Rachael was running and playing with Mrs. Anderson's daughter. Her dress was knee-length, off-white with blue borders. She was ten years old. Life was good.

Daddy sat beside the grill, a can of Budweiser in his hand, still dripping wet from the ice-cooler at his side. Mr. Anderson, a pipe fitter at the mill, was saying that ever since the Tet offensive, the war in Viet Nam was going to hell in a hand-basket. He thought perhaps it was time for the nation to cut its losses, and live to fight another day. Heck, even Walter Cronkite had said as much. Mr. Samuels, a maintenance man, was arguing that if those goddam hippies would stop being a bunch of dirty commies and undermining the war effort, it could still be won. He was beginning to slur a bit, and his behavior bordered on poor taste. It was quite acceptable to slur, of course. (In fact, if a male guest failed to become at least a touch inebriated, it was something of an affront to the host.) And it was acceptable to express racist, patriotic, and hateful opinions about the war. But taking the Lord's name in vain in earshot of the womenfolk, was a bit much.

But Daddy seemed distracted. He was paying scant attention to the conversation, and appeared oblivious to Mr. Samuels' breach of etiquette. Suddenly, Rachael's bladder was full to the brim. Mommy was nowhere in sight. She ran to her father's side, just as Mr. Samuels was summing up: "A haircut and a good kick in the ass is what they need."

"Daddy, daddy. Daddy, I have to go to the little girl's room." Rachael might have said "pee", were it not for the mixed company. She was trying to set a good example for old Dan Samuels.

But Daddy didn't hear her. His mind was elsewhere.

"Daddy? Daddy?"

"What the hell do you want, child? Speak up, damn it."

In a barley audible voice, she told him.

"Well, if you need to pee, then go do it, and leave me alone."

Rachael's shoulders slumped as she walked across the porch into the house. She was Daddy's little girl. He never spoke to her that way. What had she done?

She passed through the kitchen, down the hall, and into the bathroom. Vomit soiled the bowl, and some had found its way onto the floor. Rachael desperately needed to pee, but hated to use such a filthy apparatus. Where, oh where, was Mommy?

Rachael backed out of the bathroom. She peered inside the bedroom door. Mommy was laying on the bed, fully clothed, a shoe on the floor beside her, the other still resting on her foot. Dog feces was smeared across the sole, as well as the bedcovers on which it lay. Tidbits of vomit stuck to her face. Mommy, in short, was dead drunk.

Suddenly Rachael understood. That morning Rachael's clothes had been scattered across the bedroom floor. Mama had been upset about that, and told her that Good Little Girls put their clothes away. Now, because of that, because Rachael had been naughty and stressed poor Mommy out, Mommy was drunk and Daddy didn't love her any more.

It was the Sunday School/sanctuary paradox. Now Rachael understood. She must go to Sunday School and try to be good. But, as the preacher said, she never could be good enough for long enough, because she was "born into sin". She couldn't help being naughty. Without thinking, she had scattered her clothes about the floor. It must also be true what the girls at school said, that she was a slut and a whore (whatever that meant). This state of affairs was neither right nor wrong, it was just the way things were. It was God's will.

The next morning Rachael's mother was too sick to attend church, but Daddy carried Rachael. He was quite solicitous, sensing the child was upset. (For his part, Daddy felt better, having berated Mommy regarding her behavior of the day before. Mommy, being ill unto death, had cried and begged forgiveness.) But Rachael kept Daddy at arms length. She had a mission to perform.

She dutifully attended Sunday School. She sang the songs. She listened to the stories. She colored. But all the while, her mind was on the sanctuary, the Sunday Morning Worship Service. For now she understood that Sunday School was, quite literally, child's play, and that the real deal was going down in the Big Room. When she had been a child, she had seen as through a glass, darkly. But now twas time to put away childish things.

After the Sunday School hour ended, she joined her father. They held hands, and walked into the sanctuary. The weight of the world rode on her ten-year-old shoulders.

The pastor preached. The choir sang. The organ played. The plate was passed. At the end of the service, the pastor gave the alter call as the choir murmured, "Just as I am with out a plea/but that thy blood was shed for me/ And that Thou bidst me come to Thee /oh Lamb of God, I come, I come."

Rachael stepped into the aisle. He father looked up, alarmed, and reached for her shoulder. "What in the hell?…" But she was gone. She had to go. Everything good and wholesome in life hinged on it. She had to save the family, to save Mommy and herself, and make Daddy love her once more.

She kneeled in front of the alter with the pastor, who had never known such earnestness in one so young. They prayed together, and the congregation prayed with them. They asked to be forgiven for their sins, to have the stains of evil washed from their craven souls. Rachael swore a silent and passionate oath that, God willing and though all Hell should bar the way, she would never leave her clothes scattered across the floor again. And, child-virgin though she was, she would try to stop being such a slut.

- 3 -

Rachael was ten years old when she gave her life to Jesus, to do with her as He would. The next summer, in 1971- during one of those hung-over acts of atonement that were becoming increasingly characteristic of Rachael's mother- arrangements were made for Rachael to attend a church camp on the far side of Lawrenceville. A two-week Bible retreat. Similar to Girl Scout camp, but with a spiritual angle.

Rachael was delighted, as she lugged her backpack full of clothes onto the old church bus. Under her mother's tutelage, she had packed cut-off denim shorts, tee shirts and tennis shoes. All rugged outdoor wear. (Or at least, as rugged as the garments of a doe-faced child can be.) Red tones were beginning to show in her darkening hair; her complexion was deepening; her breasts were beginning to sprout tiny buds; and she was beginning to assume a quiet maturity that was lacking only a year ago. Straight is the path and narrow the way. The burden of salvation weighed heavily upon her.

All the girls from church near to her age, were on the bus. They laughed and played games and sang, all the way to camp. "Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me/Away beyond the blue, blue, blue, blue…" It was a great adventure, made safe by the presence of familiar faces.

Upon debarking from the bus, they toted their bags into the cabins. The walls of the cabins were concrete up to the fourth foot, then crowned with wire screen, in order to keep bugs out, and let fresh air in.

The girls were hot and sweaty from the long bus ride, sans air-conditioning. So Mrs. Anderson led them to the showers. As they entered, an old black man was exiting with a bag of trash in his hand. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Anderson." He flashed a big smile, and a gold front tooth gleamed in the sunlight that shined though the entrance to the showers.

"And good morning to you, Willie," Mrs. Anderson responded. Willie McCullough ambled on his way, his back just a touch stooped and a slight hitch in his gait.

Mrs. Anderson addressed the girls. She informed them that they would be required to maintain appropriate hygiene while in her care. This meant brushing teeth on a regular basis. And bathing, daily. Any questions?

"Where are the showers?" a child asked.

"Why, right here. We are standing in the showers," Mrs. Anderson replied.

"But where are the shower curtains?"

"Well, there don't seem to be any. But I'll tell you what, I will stand watch outside the door, while you girls bathe."

Mrs. Anderson didn't get it. The girls were not simply worried that a stranger would enter the shower; or, perhaps, peer through the open space in the wall that was the entrance. They were embarrassed in front of each other.

At least, some of them were embarrassed. But not Rachael. Ever since Rachael took to wearing mini-skirts in the third grade, she and her father had played "fashion show". When her mother took ill for an extended period, or visited friends- which was more and more often- Rachael would try on clothes for Daddy. She would pretend to be a model strutting down the runway, now in a miniskirt, then in a bikini, later in a bikini bottom with a flowing silk top (actually a large scarf that she had pinched from Mommy's drawer)- the combinations were endless. As Rachael would parade, Daddy would sit in the easy chair with an unread newspaper across his lap, and pound his left hand on the arm of his chair in applause.

So Rachael was accustomed to being looked at, stared at, admired. And she was accustomed to undressing with others in the room. Without a hint of embarrassment, she peeled off her clothes and stepped into the open shower area. The combination was delicious, being wet and naked, with fresh air billowing through the walkway. Why, she spied a squirrel toying with a nut, even as she washed herself! And she didn't mind at all that the room was filled with little girls, and Mrs. Anderson. She took her time, relishing the novelty of the experience. She felt something stir between her legs, something new and dangerous and exciting. The whole camp adventure felt that way.

Finally, one of her friends joined her in the shower. Soon the row of shower heads was soaking a gaggle of naked, giggling little girls. Mrs. Anderson beamed with pride. No one even noticed when Willie McCullough shuffled past the doorway, pausing to bend and pick up a piece of trash.

That night, before retiring, Mrs. Anderson taught the girls how to build a camp fire. They sang songs, Kum-bah-yah, Do Lord, and I'll Fly Away. Heaven seemed very close to Rachael that night.

Finally, tired and happy, they marched to their cabins. Rachael stripped down into panties and a tee shirt, and climbed onto a top bunk. After a few minutes, she pulled the covers down to expose her bare legs. Then she raised her shirt up, just to the bottoms of her tiny breasts, and let the cool forest air wash over the bare, goose-pimpled flesh of her stomach. She feel asleep like that, listening to the chirping of the crickets, the croaking of frogs, and to the other friendly, exciting forest sounds.

The following morning, Mrs. Anderson led the girls to the breakfast tent. As they stood in line, holding their trays and awaiting their portion of bacon and eggs, Rachael noticed Susan B. Lansing standing in the queue behind. Susan, from school: the scorned child who had tagged Rachael a "slut". Rachael quickly looked away, to avoid acknowledging her.

That afternoon the girls climbed onto the bus, and traveled to a nearby lake to swim. The girls camp was segregated from the boys, but the sexes were allowed to mingle at the swimming hole. They were just old enough to desire each other's company, and yet young enough that such interaction posed no great risk to the moral integrity of the girls. During an afternoon of bare, wet skin in the company of boys, Rachael once again felt that strange and exciting sensation between her legs.

After the first couple of days, Mrs. Anderson stopped leading the girls around. They knew where the meal tent was. They knew where the showers were. Only activities that posed a potential danger, like swimming and mingling with boys, required a full time watch guard.

Rachael shared all of her daily activities with one friend or another, except for one. She noted that her friends did not want to share the showering experience, with her or anyone else. Not in the great, open stalls of the camp shower room. The other girls remained embarrassed. They would take pains to arrive when the shower cabin was empty, and hurry through before someone else came in. Rachael was not embarrassed; but noting her friends' discomfort, she respected it. She, too, took her showers alone, for their sake.

Rachael loved the feeling of practically showering outdoors. She relished the cool breeze on bare, wet skin. She begin to employ the third shower head from the right, because it seemed to catch the most fresh air, and afforded the best view of the world outside.

On Wednesday, the third day of the first week of camp, Rachael was showering alone. It was the middle of the afternoon. The swim with the boys had just been completed, and she supposed that supper was at least an hour away. She finished washing her hair, then turned her attention to her body, beginning at the bottom at her feet. How dirty they had gotten, just in the walk from the bus to the cabin, and then to the shower! She stood on her right foot, her back leaned against the concrete wall, her left ankle crossing her knee as she examined the bottom of the offending foot.

She didn't hear or see anyone. She just felt someone watching. Slowly she raised her eyes, without dropping her foot. Old Willie McCullough was just outside the door, a rake leaned against a nearby tree, his mouth agape. Oh my goodness, this was exciting! This was better than watching a squirrel in the tree, by far!

Alarmed at being found out, Willie grabbed the rake and begun furiously to scatter imaginary leaves. Rachael dropped her eyes. The poor man. At his age, and still every bit as embarrassed as her little friends. She made a point of not looking directly at him. She had no more desire to upset him, who wanted to watch her shower, than she did to upset her cabin mates, who wanted to shower alone. She resumed scrubbing her foot, with her ankle across her knee. She turned around, facing away from the entrance, bent over and washed her calves. She stood and reached behind her, still facing the wall, and washed the cheeks of her buttocks. She washed them well, lathering them repeatedly with a bar of soap in her bare hand. Then she turned around, making a point of not looking directly at the door. She washed her hair, again, leaning her head far, far back to rinse. She washed her stomach, her arms and her breasts. Finally she reached between her legs, and began to lather the downy hair that had just begun to grow. Only then, at long last, did she chance a peek. Willie had abandoned all pretense of raking. He stood leaning on the yard tool, staring, a second tool bulging from his left pants pocket.

Rachael was clean, but she did not wish to break the spell. She turned to the wall and began to soap her buttocks again. She heard a sound from outside. Turning, she was disappointed to find Willie gone. Mrs. Anderson stood at the door, her hair in a bun, wearing hemmed shorts and a tee shirt whose lettering declared her devotion to Our Lord and Savior. She looked Rachael up and down, but somehow it was not the same. Her tone was a touch reproving. "Well, there you are, little missus. If you want to eat supper, you had best get rinsed, and into the meal tent." And with that curt admonishment, she turned and primly strode through the great, gaping opening of the shower cabin.

By the midpoint of the second week of camp, the sense of familiarity had increased until the girls felt like veterans of a foreign campaign. They were worldly wise. They looked forward to going back to their respective neighborhoods and telling the children about life "out in the woods." They made knowing references among themselves to the cabin, the meal tent, the lake. But not the showers. The showers remained strange and intimidating, for the duration of their stay.

But not so for Rachael. Each day she showered at some time between going to the lake, and supper. And each day, if no one else was nearby, Willie McCullough watched.

Rachael tried to have an orgasm in the shower with Willie watching, but she couldn't. She would close her eyes and slowly, lovingly massage her slick, slender, soapy pubic triangle, occasionally opening one eye to peek at the lone member of her rapt audience. She had great fun, and was quite pleased with her performance. But somehow she could not make it across the finish line, although she did start in that direction a couple of times. She thought perhaps she was too self-conscious. Or perhaps she simply needed to be lying down, for she had no difficulty achieving orgasm late at night, stretched out upon her bunk, listening to the crickets and the snoring of her bunkmates.

When Rachael passed Willie on the paths around the camp, she smiled at him, to acknowledge their secret. But Willie ignored her, a troubled look clouding his old face. Finally, one day Rachael was walking from the cabins to the meal tent, and she passed Willie on a woods trail. "Good afternoon, Mr. McCullough." Willie looked away. "I said, good afternoon, Mr. McCullough," she repeated, all but forcing him to acknowledge her. Willie looked up at last, terror in his old eyes. He said nothing. "Do you like your job, Mr. McCullough?"

"Well. I guess I do. Dey some nice folks around here, for the most part."

"Do you like the work you do? I mean, do you like working where you can watch the squirrels and the birds and the bees, and all that?"

"Why, yes ma'am, I shore do. Now that you mention it, I have always been a lover of nature. Of the birds and the bees. And all that."

Rachael chattered on aimlessly. She talked about the weather, about the war, about nothing and about everything.

"Do you hunt, Mr. McCullough?"

"Why, no ma'am, I shore don't. I fish a bit. But when it come to those beautiful young animals out in the wood, I doan want to hurt them. I just like to walk the trails, and watch them."

"I thought so. I would never want to hurt anyone, either, Willie. Mr. McCullough."

"Well, now. Ma'am, you know. I shore appreciate you telling me that. You know I shore appreciate you telling me that."

"I love the Lord, and all that He makes is good, and worthy of love. Don't you think so?"

"Well now, you know, now that you mention it, I suppose that is just how it is."

"Well, I have to go get lunch, Mr. McCullough. Maybe I will see you later today."

"Yes ma'am." And just maybe I will see you later today, as well.

Finally, the two long and exciting weeks drew to a close. The camp was a bustle of activity, as children packed and stacked and compared impressions with old friends, and made plans to stay in touch with new ones, plans that would soon be lost and forgotten as each once again immersed herself in home and school.

Rachael searched the camp, but Willie was nowhere to be found. She wanted to say goodbye. She wanted to say that, although to everyone else he was just an old man who cleaned and raked, she thought he was sweet and nice and, in his own way, beautiful. Yes, that was what he was: beautiful. She would ask him to bend over, and then plant a big kiss on his old black cheek. And Willie would smile, and the corner of his eyes would crinkle, and his gold tooth would flash in the sun.

But Willie was nowhere to be seen. "Mr. McCullough? Mr. McCullough does not work on Fridays. The budget only allows for him to clean four days a week. Why on earth do you ask, Rachael?"

"I just wanted to say goodbye. That's all. It, it's no big deal."

Rachael cried all the way back home. She cried for poor old Willie, trapped in a world that he could clean and rake, but not take part in. And she cried for herself. Before boarding the buses, Susan B. Lansing, whose guiding ambition in life was to wed Rachael's former beau and spend her days choosing fabric for curtains and eating bonbons, had sought out Rachael's church friends, and informed them that Rachael- who masqueraded each Sunday as a Good Little Girl- was in fact the most infamous slut in all of Stockton Elementary School.

Rachael cried alone. Her erstwhile friends made no effort to console her. They might have liked to, but they had their reputations to think of. For her part, Rachael knew that she was being persecuted for His sake, and that she should rejoice. But she cried instead.

_______________

Randy Lowens is a former contributing editor for the Tennessee Indymedia web site. Under the pseudonym prole cat, his poetry and prose have appeared in Fifth Estate, Social Anarchism, and elsewhere. Praise, editorial queries, and idle death threats may be sent to p_c (no_spam) riseup.net.

Beside the Still Waters
© 2006
by Randy Lowens

 
     
     

 

 



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