Excerpted from GODSHOT, now available from Catapult Books.
Copyright Chelsea Bieker, 2020.
To have an assignment, Pastor Vern said, you had to be a woman of blood. You had to be a man of deep voice and Adam’s apple. And you should never reveal your assignment to another soul, for assignments were a holy bargaining between you and your pastor and God Himself. To speak of them directly would be to mar God’s voice, turn the supernatural human, and ruin it. So not even my own mother could tell me what her assignment was that unseasonably warm winter, wouldn’t tell me months into it when spring lifted up more dry heat around us, and everything twisted and changed forever.
I longed to know where she went when she left our apartment each morning, returning in the evening flushed, a bit more peeled back each time. I imagined her proselytizing to the vagrants sleeping on rags in the fields at the edge of town, combing the women’s mud-baked hair, holding their hands and exorcising evil from their hearts. I imagined her floating above our beloved town of Peaches, dropping God glitter over us like an angel, summoning the rain to cure our droughted fields. I imagined all these things with a burn of jealousy, for I had not received my woman’s blessing yet, the rush of blood between my legs that would signify me as useful. I’d just turned fourteen but was still a board-chested child in the eyes of God and Pastor Vern, and so I prayed day and night for the blood to come to me in a river, to flood the bed I shared with my mother. Then I would be ready. I could have an assignment too.
That spring pastor Vern decided we were due for a congregation-wide revival. We filled an abandoned bathtub behind the church with liters of Check Mate Cola and one by one he held us under just long enough for the lungs to burn, for fearful desperation to set in, and we came up gasping and sticky, his face the first face we saw, a God to us. Our tongues darted to catch the sugar drops falling from our brows. How we cheered as the sugar dried on our skin under the ruthless burn of the sun. There was no wasting water, and so the soda would do. It was such a small sacrifice, to use soda instead of water, that I almost mistook it for a thrill.
After the baptisms, he lined us up. He paced like a mad daddy. The valley floor had sunk thirteen inches over the last year alone, and where, Pastor Vern asked, did we think we were going?
Of course we already knew. Hell was always waiting.
He said in order to save the land we so loved we would need to step over the lines of our comfort. To open our arms, span them wide, and risk being shot down by God. He fell straight as a post onto his back to demonstrate. I spread my arms, my mother next to me, other mothers beyond her and their girls. The boys and the men were there too but it’s the girls I noticed most, girls like me, ready. I thought we looked tough lined up like that, like soldiers, the hay-dead field our battleground, that vast open plain of beige nothingness surrounding. I remembered what had once been here, a land so fertile you could throw the pit of a peach after eating the sweet flesh from it and underfoot would sprout up an orchard, how we had walked lightly over the dirt, electric with the possibility of small seeds creating bounty, lettuces and kales shimmering opulent, where before there had been only earth.
But now all was dry, and the steady stream of infidels we might recruit was dwindling. No one wanted to have the rodeo here anymore. No one wanted to hold an agriculture convention where there was no agriculture. And without new believers how would we ever offer Pastor Vern’s message to the world? How could anyone trust the faith of God’s own chosen people if they could not restore their land?
Pastor Vern stood up and looked straight at me. There might have been crows in the sky circling. There might have been a child’s cough or an old man’s sniffle or sneeze from all that dust, or the scraping shift of bare feet in the hot dirt. I thought maybe Vern would look at everyone this way, and maybe he did but I couldn’t see anything beyond the way he was looking at me, like he knew me through and through, eyes saddened by my natural-born sin yet still hopeful. There was no sound but for my own blood rushing in my ears. I felt a wave of desire rise up in me—I could have jumped into his arms. He looked looked looked and finally he made a gun of his hand and pointed it at my face. Pulled the trigger.
Rebaptized or not, the next day brown water still ran from our taps, but praise, it turned clear by the time we counted to ten. It was dawn and I perched on the bathroom counter in one of my mother’s camisoles, a silky black thing that felt glamorous but she liked to remind me it was one hundred percent polyester, not silk. I wore too-small underwear she picked up from Goodwill that were clearly meant for a little boy, a penis hole and yellow tractors. I didn’t complain. She wore nothing, mowed over by the heat, and leaned toward the mirror, smoothed cream foundation over her sweaty skin even though it would slide off before she walked out the door.
“Holy holy, praise almighty,” she sang. “Our King is here, He is here. Hell is hot. Don’t drink the water. Stand and feel the fear.”
I was past the point of desiring sleep at this hour. What I desired most was time with her. I handed her the mascara and she craned her head back and opened her mouth as she raked black ink through her lashes, smudged raspberry glow into the hollows of her cheeks. I eyed her body, the thicket of light brown hair between her legs. She told me she never nursed me a day in her life and that’s why her breasts were still buoyed up on their own instead of sinking down in flaps of sadness. She was very concerned that one day they would give up so she gave them little pep talks—come on, girls, don’t fail me now. Ready steady.
I loved watching her. My mother was the sun in a dark room. “Can I try?” I asked, hungry to look like her, to do my makeup like her, or better yet, to have her lean close and do it for me.
But her eyes settled on my crotch. “Lacey May,” she whispered.
She swiped a finger across my thigh and then held it to the light.
We both saw it—the red smear.
I looked down at myself. It was as if something deep inside me had cracked open and now wanted out. I jumped off the counter and pulled her to me, but her arms stayed by her sides.
“Looks like you’re ready for a real spiritual assignment now,” she said into my hair.
“Like yours?” I asked.
She pulled away sharply, but then softened. “He’ll have something special just for you.”
I felt a surge of new self tingle within me. I didn’t like the way my mother’s face flickered when she saw my first blood, I could read her so well, I could tell something troubled her, but it seemed selfish of her when now I was finally a woman. Surely the rebaptism had sparked this flow, and I smiled with that warm believer’s glow of confidence that came from answered prayers. I primed my eyes toward destiny. I would have an assignment and Pastor Vern would bring the rain at the right time and the town trusted him and loved him and all God’s people would be tended and the crops would persevere, amen.
I pulled the camisole over my head, kicked off the bloody boy unders, and stepped into the shower. “Can I?” I asked her, hand hovering over the faucet.
She shrugged in a way I knew to mean yes.
The water rained brown on my skin, almost like blood, I thought, as it streamed down my thighs, wasted its way down the drain. Then clear and clean, the smell of metal. Hard water, everyone called it. My mother liked to complain it made our hair dull but what could dull me now? I was electric. I was thinking in glitter and gold. Thinking, with my hands raised in praise right there in the shower, of Vern’s original miracle, the way he’d cured the town of drought years before when I was just seven years old. His dying daddy had ushered him in as a replacement, the new pastor of Gifts of the Spirit church. Vern had confused everyone at first with his proclamations of the supernatural and foresight, his golden robes and long blond hair curled in ringlets, sprayed to a starch. No one in town had seen him in over ten years—he’d been on mission trips around the world, it was said, casting God into the hearts of infidels. The top of his head was shaved clean in what he called a Spirit Hole, so that God could reach him without hair in the way.
“I’ll bring the rain,” he’d told everyone on his first day. And even though Peaches was in desperation times—several farmers, including my own grampa Jackie, had killed themselves over the shame of their barren crops, drank bottles of pesticide and lay down for the long sleep—and even though there were threats to turn off the water for good and condemn the whole place to death, the doubters in the congregation had gawked at Vern with little faith. For they did not yet know the most important thing about working the land, and that was that the land was not theirs to work, but God’s.
Of the Herd women, only my grandma Cherry attended church at that time, grasping at faith after the death of Grampa Jackie. She had stood in the fields to see Vern command God’s attention. He had knelt in the dry burrs and thrown up his hands. Cherry had seen the clean sky turn back like a page, gray eating blue, rolling into a great thunderclap. She felt the first drops on her hot skin, and then it was crashing rain for days. When it flooded the streets, when the old Peaches canal overflowed, when the news reported the rain had only fallen in the bounds of our little county—population 1,008, barely 3.2 square miles in size—there was no avoiding the truth. Vern had shown our town what God could do. He’d summoned something from nothing and no one was the same after that.
The next Sunday, rain still falling, my mother and I had lined up with everyone else to touch the new pastor’s robes. To listen to that magical voice that had brought the rains. And who was my mother then?
She was a day late and a dollar short, a water bottle of gin in her purse, in the glove box, a waitressing job at the Grape Tray, and one lousy boyfriend after another who sat potbellied and spread-legged in our kitchen, yellowed fingers ashing cigarettes into empty chili cans.
I was only her bastard daughter, unsaved and seven years old, daddyless and dirt-kneed, whole mind a sin plain, my fingers pocketing gumdrops from the candy store, eyes watching cartoons of coyotes dropping anvils on heads. Someone I can hardly remember. But thank the good God, I learned that day, the past was of no matter. The rain soaked my sundress and Vern blessed us out of that life and into another.
I stepped out of the shower and let the heat of the apartment dry me. My mother was still at the bathroom mirror, head flipped upside down, filling the bathroom with hair spray. Some might think a good religious woman must be plain and clean-faced, but at Gifts of the Spirit it was fine for a woman to prepare her body and adorn herself in God’s light. The brighter the shine, the easier His angels could spot us. Vern wanted the women pretty because everything God saved was beautiful. He wanted the women pretty maybe, I wondered sometimes but did not say, to attract infidels to the church, to dangle a prize to be awarded on the other side of conversion. Nevertheless, it was something of evil to make a man stumble.
Whenever the sermons turned to the matter of stumbling, I pictured men with black holes for eyes, walking but falling, arms reaching out, hands landing upon women’s bodies unawares. Under a trance they were, and whose fault was it?
Women, God created beauty.
Women, lead men not into temptation.
But what was my mother to do with her beauty? She couldn’t pray it away. It came up from inside her. It was not just the arrangement of eyes and nose and mouth. It was something unnameable that could not be achieved with makeup or manipulation of hairstyle. She had a gap between her front teeth that she considered an imperfection, but it was what threw her beauty over the edge. It was what drove her men crazy. I knew Vern was captivated by the way she looked, considered it to be God’s gift. I had to agree. It was a gift. I imagined no one had what she had for miles and miles, though we hadn’t left Peaches since becoming saved, so there was no way of making sure.
Under my towel I reached between my legs and pressed a finger just inside. I wondered where the blood was coming from exactly. I wanted my mother to sense my question and tell me all I would need to know, really fawn over me. But she handed me a pad wrapped in thin pink plastic, no ceremony at all. “Maybe keep this between us for a little while.”
A chill came over me in the still heat of the bathroom, and though I’d never come down with a prophecy before, the prickle that spread from the top of my head to my fingertips felt close to a kind of warning.
“Just wait until the next one. It’s not that long to wait.”
I brushed past her and into our bedroom. I left the door open so I could see her finish getting ready. What was it I loved about watching her so? It wasn’t as if I saw myself in her, some future promise. Though I had her honeyed hair down my back, her freckles and water-blue eyes, I carried the blunt nose and jutting chin of my father, a truck driver out of Needles, my mother had told me, someone who left before I could remember, she liked to say.
I knew it wasn’t true. I had memories like floaters in an eye, there one moment, gone the next: his arms throwing my mother’s thin body into a deep dumpster one day, and plates crashing against walls overhead on others. His boots as he kicked her. The sound of a person spitting on another person is a particular shame.
She never mentioned any of that but was quick to recall his one short leg, the way he had mixed up letters when he tried to read and how he took one look at me and said I wasn’t his.
I put the pad into my underwear and angels did not sing. Out the window all was the same, dead grass and paint-peeling apartments. I got back into our bed, the double we’d shared since we were saved and no men came for visits anymore. It was a bent metal frame propping up a mattress that sagged in the middle, a feature I loved because it caused my mother and me to roll into each other in the night, waking each morning with our backs warmed and stuck together. I tried to pray but nothing came. I didn’t want to disobey my mother but I sensed that obeying her by not telling Pastor Vern about the blood might mean something much worse.
She stood in the doorway now. “I am your mother,” she said. A reminder not to me, but to herself.
GODSHOT is available here.
Chelsea Bieker is from California’s Central Valley. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Foundation Award and her fiction and essays have been published in Granta, McSweeney’s, Catapult magazine, Electric Literature, and Joyland, among others. She has been awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and holds an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University. Godshot is her first novel.