Tiresias walks behind his grandmother into the Church of the Glorious Love of Jesus Christ. It’s a hot day already and despite the breeze that sneaks in with them, the tent feels airless. Most people are sat down, rocking their behinds on the hard, wooden benches, fanning clammy faces with hymn sheets and whatever else they have at hand.
Tiresias’ grandmother nods at a few people as she moves down the centre aisle to an empty bench and they nod back. Despite the relative poorness of his vision, Tiresias plainly sees the raised eyebrows when they notice him. Neither does he miss the mouthed “freak” from the pretty, little girl who lives down the road from his grandmother’s house.
In truth, Tiresias doesn’t blame them. In contrast to his grandmother’s steadfastness, he can’t remember when he last came to church, and he is a freak. Tiresias Pike, with his colourless hair and skin, his little, piggy, red eyes.
He doesn’t really know why he is here. For appeasement? For a quiet life? He sure as hell knows he’s not here to be saved by something he doesn’t begin to believe in. The tent-flaps swish and part when people who are more strident latecomers than they are arrive; and through the gap, Tiresias feels the might of the Kentucky mountains. Smells the dark-green sweetness of the pennyroyal mint drifting into the stuffy church.
“Tiree, it’s about time you stopped concerning yourself with those damned cats”, his grandmother had said. “Just leave them alone in the barn, why don’t you? You’re fifteen. You should be studying, or at least showing some interest in making friends or some such.”
Tiresias hadn’t the heart to tell her just how impossibly remote the idea of making friends with anyone at his high school was. Reading and writing was hard, for sure, but talking to another kid – girls especially – was a dream of a daydream, from a star in the farthest of galaxies.
It was different, though, with cats. They didn’t see in colour, he’d heard someplace, and he wondered whether this accounted for their ease with him, and his with them. Besides, whatever a cat thought, you didn’t in the end try to understand it.
A cat was ultimately unknowable and sometimes, if he held one up close to his face so he could look into the depths of its eyes, he saw only the same arbitrary pattern that he might notice in winter ground-frost when robins had walked over it. Or when ice etched brittle, white veins on fallen leaves.
The grey cat had recently had kittens and they were at an age now where they could go where they wanted, but still felt the need to explore together - almost as one cat, and still never far from their mother. Tiresias had watched them writhing round her, all shades of smoke and silver, tails in the air, mewling and chirruping. He’d noticed though that Tuesday morning, that there weren’t the usual five kittens, the little grey-striped one being absent.
He’d found it later on his usual walk into the woods, dead by a mound of stones near to the woods’ entrance. He figured a fox or maybe even a raccoon for its attacker, judging by the precise, red slashes cutting through the fur on its flank.
Tiresias had carried the kitten back home to the barn and placed it in front of its sleeping mother. She’d sniffed it, then left the rest of her brood to wash it, precisely and thoroughly with light, rasping strokes of her tongue. Then she’d stretched and gone back to lie down with the other kittens; solemn, amber eyes never leaving Tiresias.
He’d buried the kitten behind the house near the wood pile, feeling certain he’d been justified in presenting the grey cat with her dead baby. It was that thing they called closure and if she’d not seen it dead, how would she have ever known otherwise?
Up until this point, the tent has been full of sounds – chatter and laughter and the buzz of flies. Now, everything has gone silent. The preacher is coming.
Tiresias squints to see better as he passes him – a tall man in a dark blue suit, around sixty, maybe older. Long, white hair tied back in a ponytail, large, engraved rings on both hands, although Tiresias can’t see their detail. As he moves up the aisle, he leaves a trail of some kind of citrus perfume, both sharp and over sugary, to Tiresias’ mind.
Before he begins to speak, the preacher clears his throat and this triggers a coughing fit so severe that for a minute, Tiresias thinks someone might need go to his aid; but then he recovers himself and begins to preach.
From his grandmother, Tiresias knows every Bible story like ur-language fused with his bones; and the story the Preacher is telling is the one about Jesus and the merchants in the temple. Tiresias hears words about the throwing over of stalls and the temple being Jesus’ father’s house.
The preacher’s voice booms through the tent and Tiresias feels the welcome disturbance of the air as the preacher raises his arms. At the outer range of Tiresias’ vision, the preacher appears to be dancing and people rise from their seats to join him. All is fervour and movement, all frenzy. His grandmother has risen too and Tiresias can barely make her out in the motion of the crowd. In the middle of this wild maelstrom, Tiresias remains seated; unmoving and silent.
When the kids from school got to him, Tiresias would always end up at the same place by the lake, and this is where he found himself that Wednesday afternoon. Here the world was cool, whatever the weather, and he liked to think that the lap of the water would help wash away the words they used only to hurt. Bino freak. Ghost boy. Rat eyes.
The lake seemed to belong to Tiresias alone, and the only way anyone would know it was there at all was if they were prepared to take the faint and winding track through the woods. And few were prepared.
By the lakeside, Tiresias lay on his back and thought on the mystery of the land. On the flying things – the blue jays and bats, the cardinal birds and the viceroy butterflies. On the trees – the beech and white oak, the holly and the walnut. On the blue grass with its deep shades of grey-green. Mostly on the plants and flowers that made him feel safe and part of something. Poppy, columbine, butter-weed and bellwort.
Tiresias knew that sometimes the wind blew from the east – he wasn’t a fool – but here, in this place, he held everything without deep within him.
Something is happening to Tiresias. It starts as a feeling of what he can only think of as anxiety: a buzz in his arms and legs and a tightness in his chest. His vision, never the best, becomes oddly crisper. The words of the preacher and the responses of the congregation are both louder and more tolerable in their resonance. Tiresias feels he can hardly sit still – he has to move, he has to dance.
People around him are looking and smiling at this boy, this strange, pale boy, getting up from his bench. Their expressions are of a sort that Tiresias has never seen before – they are smiles of welcome. Of approval. He moves to the front of the tent and starts to speak.
“And Jesus was betrayed in the garden and he was kissed, Lord he was kissed. He went alone to pray amongst the flowers. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
“Then the angel came down and he strengthened him, yes he did. He strengthened him and Jesus sweated blood. He bled and his blood, Lord his blood, it fell on the ground. It soaked into the earth.
“And he knew it was the hour of his betrayal. Yes, people, he knew. But I will never betray him for I embrace him. For Jesus said to Peter, could you not watch with me one more hour? But Peter did not. I will watch though, Lord, I will watch.”
Around Tiresias, the people are clapping and his grandmother comes to hug him, tears in her eyes, down her cheeks. Tiresias leans into her hug and he wonders whether the claps would be quite so strong, the tears so flowing if they could see the flowers streaming from his mouth. If they could hear the birdsong in his head. Or catch the smell he holds of cool rain on hot earth.
When his grandmother had come home that evening and had caught him in her dress, Tiresias had really no way of explaining it to her. She would never have understood that the smell of the dress was of her sweat and of the earth – a smell that was entirely of him.
He didn’t want to be her, but she was his kin and her lineage took him back to the land. It was as natural as chill in winter, or a dusting of snow. It spoke to him of moonshine and flannel cake. Of pailings and bless your heart. None of this would be in his grandmother’s purview, however and besides, he didn’t feel he had the right words to adequately talk about any of these things to her.
So instead, he’d agreed to go to church to get himself some salvation. It was the only thing he could say to pacify her or bind her tongue. That night, the to and fro of the swing seat in the yard was particularly jarring, the sunset a golden black.
In the tent, the people are singing now, sharing words to a hymn that Tiresias does not know. He takes their joint distraction as opportunity to leave the tent without anyone noticing. The God in this place is not his god.
In the hollow outside the back of the tent, Tiresias stands as still as a day in early summer, and what he believes in is given his voice.
I believe in the rustle of raven wings, the honest brightness of the stars. In the owl’s screech in Fall, the scuttle of the silverfish on the walls of my bedroom. I believe in the larkspur’s bloom and the secret wisdom the black oaks share on windy nights. I believe in the righteous judgement of mountains. In the feist of squirrels. I believe in milk and blackberries and in the glitter of the profoundest, black coal.
Tiresias sways slightly and then he is still again. All movement dissipated. He is stalwart, holding tight to him the mystery of things. His hair and fingernails are growing fast. They transform into twigs, branches, then trunks; rooting him to this, his earth.