Imagine: You’re in a hospital room with doctors and nurses poking iv ports into your body while they tell your family, “It’s all very strange. The tests we’ve done look 100% normal. We don’t yet have any idea why Mallory won’t wake up.”
Imagine: Your husband of twelve years and your thirteen-year-old son (don’t ask about the timing) are praying-cajoling-demanding you wake up and wake up now. Before now already, as the son put it so wonderfully a few moments before. In moments like those, it simply takes everything God, genetics, and discipline has given you not to open your eyes and give yourself away.
Mallory had gone to seminary with a guy named Joel who ran ultra-marathons. She always thought he was an idiot for running them, and yet she was also attracted to him because of it. He’d get up race day and start at eight in the morning and run through the day and night and into the next day for fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty miles. Joel’d keep putting one foot in front of another, sucking Gatorade carbo goop out of a tube, and back-pedaling while he pissed. And this guy never once fell to the ground. He just kept going.
By falling to the ground and holding onto her swoon, Mallory had at last found her ultra-marathon. Realizing this kept her soul steely, her eyes shut, and her breath even.
To recap: Swooning = easy. Staying swooned = hard.
That’s what the last three days had taught the Rev. Mallory Reyerson, DMin.
Once you decide you have no choice but to go for the public swoon, it takes no skill; it’s child’s play. Going for the public swoon is all about guts or balls or gynes whatever physical image for daring you prefer.
And then, midway into your collapse, as you pick a safe landing place and shut your eyes one last time, you realize doing this is truly and literally child’s play. You think back to when you were twelve spending the night at your friend’s house, and the two of you were raiding her Dad’s living room liquor cabinet, and deciding that if her dad should suddenly appear from the hallway, the two of you had only one hope: you’d swoon and fake sleep.
Then the two of you, two tweens at 1AM and half-blitzed on the vodka you’d replaced with tap water, would pause your slurred discussion of crushes and crafting to actually practice swooning.
“Imagine my dad opens the door…NOW!” your friend would say, her voice a low growl.
And you’d whisper in response, “Drop!”
At it’s beating heart, entering the swoon is child’s play, whether you’re twelve or on the north side of forty.
When you swoon, you just close your eyes, alchemize your bones into water, slump to the floor, pretend you’re dead, and make a game of refusing to react to the well-intentioned and all too intimate touching of alarmed people.
All of this will happen (and more!) especially if you swoon on a Sunday morning right in the middle of a public service of Christian worship. And rest assured, the gasping of the congregation, the prodding, and the chaos will all soar another couple of octaves still higher if you, the swooner, are the congregation’s preacher and are, at that very moment, preaching in front of a congregation.
That’s exactly the scenario in which Mallory decided to swoon. She’d been preaching per usual on a Sunday morning with a hundred people scattered before her like too few marbles in too big a bucket.
It was 10:47 AM.
Mallory knew it was 10:47AM (and eight and a half minutes into her sermon) because, when the idea to swoon came to her, Mallory’s eyes were on her wristwatch. For years, at the beginning of every sermon, Mallory’d placed her smartwatch on the pulpit, and she glanced at it periodically while she spoke. Mallory’s glances at her timepiece were furtive and designed to create the absolute minimum breakage of eye-contact between her and her congregants.
At 10:47AM, one chamber of Mallory’s mind was making a point through her lips about how the town of Emmaus mentioned in the story from Luke chapter twenty-four was about seven miles from Jerusalem. And yet, said that preaching chamber of Mallory’s mind, the writer Frederick Buechner long ago suggested Emmaus was also wherever any of us went when life seemed dusty, lost, and dead.
At 10:47AM, another chamber of Malloy’s mind received a profound gift, a palace of an idea sculpted of finest crystal bestowed fully-formed and glistening upon her soul. The idea: just keel over and have a faint. Just fall to the ground, have a swoon, and stay with it as long as possible – forever, if you can. “Mallory,” the gift said, “Just opt out for a while – for as long as you want, in fact.”
In some third chamber of mind within her, Mallory assessed the idea dispassionately, as if from a great distance, and called it good. Very good, in fact, because the idea set up a tasty turn of events. If Mallory went for the swoon here and now, her life would take a dramatic turn and intrude upon the lives of the hundred people whose lives had so often dramatically intruded upon her own.
“My God!” this third chamber of Malloy’s mind cried. “This is indeed a palace of an idea!” It was a palace with a soft bed waiting deep within its halls for Mallory to claim, if she could just pull off the swoon. But could she?
All the while, that first part of Mallory’s mind, the one focused on her job, was busy with preaching to the congregation. This part kept Mallory’s mouth moving along without a fumbled syllable or bumbled beat: “And walking on this road to Emmaus there was a sad disciple named Cleopas and an unnamed companion by Cleopas’ side. Two sad disciples of Jesus on the long walk home from the Cross and the Tomb. Could this companion have been Cleopas’ wife? We don’t know, but Luke, after all, is the gospel that celebrates the female disciples of Jesus the most.”
As Mallory’s voice kept bubbling about the irony of Cleopas’ telling the hidden-risen-exalted Easter Jesus about the crucified-dead-rotting Friday Jesus, Mallory’s eyes, almost against her will, broke from the congregation and drifted toward the floor and her feet.
Mallory was wearing her red pumps. She loved her red pumps. She loved how their perpetual shine caught and magnified the worship hall’s ceiling lights. Sometimes Mallory wore them on cloudy days, days she felt even darker within than the storm-pregnant sky was above. She wore them on days like these because she knew her shoes would make something bright out of the dreary daylight and lift her spirits, even as she crossed a hospital parking lot on her way to bid another church member farewell.
These red shoes were Mallory’s favorite shoes, except perhaps for the canvas Sanuks she wore on Mondays while she baked scratch sugar cookies and drank cheap bourbon. She adored her red shoes, but for the first time Mallory noticed that the red of her shoes was almost the same tone and shade as the red carpet of the worship sanctuary.
How could that be? She hated the church carpet with a fierce passion nearly equal to her love for the shoes. A couple of years ago she’d considered taking a pay cut she couldn’t afford to free up some money to help pay to replace the scarlet monstrosity the congregation had stolen from the devil’s waiting room.
And now, for the first time, she noticed the carpet and the shoes were somehow the same color. Why the hell was the line between love and disgust so often so thin? But, then again, why not? Might as well ask why the newborn kitten she’d found when she was ten years-old had died after only ten days. But, holy hell, the carpet and the shoes were practically the same. How could she have missed that for so long?
Suddenly Mallory’s reality bent. The red of the carpet went soft, permeable, and hungry; it began to flow over and around the red of her shoes and consume them, and with them Mallory’s feet. The church carpet and her feet began to merge into a single sludge of red that Mallory hated/loved. And now the red tide was sucking and consuming the balls of her ankles. And now her shins. And Mallory knew it was going to just keep on going. She knew it as surely as she knew Mark was the first gospel written down and the last book of he New Testament was called Revelation (not Revelations!).
To fight off the dread, Mallory shook her head once – hard and fast – like a canvassed boxer shaking off cobwebs and a counting referee. Mallory forced her eyes back toward the two hundred eyes on her. And then, a few moments later, trusting that her feet were still her own, Mallory glanced to her watch.
When Mallory had started her time with Starkey Independent Church (abbreviated SIC in congregational communications), the SIC Governing Team Chairwoman, a realtor named Roberta Doughty, told Mallory the congregation would allow sermons that lasted between eleven and seventeen minutes.
The Chairwoman also offered this insight: since the congregation had grown accustomed to the lower register of a male voice over the years, it would be quite demanding for the congregation to track with a girl’s voice. Therefore, Mallory should always err on the eleven minute side of things since longer sermons meant too much ear-work for listeners wrestling with the timbre of the female voice.
At the performance review following Mallory’s first year, the Chairwoman insisted she hadn’t been kidding about time-frames, speaking voices, and the communal ear-strain caused by a girl’s voice. No, the Chairwoman hadn’t been kidding at all.
As the review drew to a close, Mallory, feeling more confident than she had a year before when she’d first been hired, reminded the Chairwoman she was thirty-six years-old and hardly a girl. Then, to lessen the tension, Mallory sung a few lines of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in an exaggerated, low rumble. The Chairwoman had not laughed. She’d just said, “Hmm.”
When Mallory mounted the pulpit the following Sunday, her wristwatch found its Sunday morning forever home next to her sermon notes. The watch had been there keeping tabs on Mallory’s preaching for 239 Sunday mornings since.
At 10:50AM, Mallory made the decision to swoon.
She’d been standing beside the pulpit glancing at the wristwatch while computing how long she’d been speaking. And she’d been making her point about the Gospel of Luke, receiving the idea of the swoon, calling the idea good, trying to keep her voice low without sounding stupid, cursing Roberta Doughty’s memory, and judging herself for cursing the dead because that is what the former Chairwoman had been for a couple of years now.
Mallory hadn’t been asked to officiate Roberta’s service, but she’d been present and she’d seen Roberta’s widower sitting there in the first row sobbing and leaving a slug’s trail of snot on his dye-black mustache. To curse Roberta’s memory was to mock his grief, and Mallory would not become that kind of person.
There was so much going on within her. There were so many plates spinning at once inside of her. (“Just swoon. Just swoon. Just swoon,” the crystal palace idea whispered with a cool assurance that slid in around all the plates, reached her, and tickled her soul.)
Then Mallory remembered yet another spinning plate beginning to lose its grip on the tip of its stick.
During Mallory’s performance review at the conclusion of her second year with SIC, and once the Personnel Team decided Mallory had handled their concerns about her voice adequately, the Team asked Mallory to look into another issue.
“Well, sure, of course,” Mallory said. “I am here to serve.”
The Team said Mallory was reading her sermons instead of preaching them, and this was, sadly, not good enough. While Mallory preached, she was looking down like an author and not up like an orator. More crucially, when Mallory read her prepared words, she just didn’t feel to the congregation like a good friend talking to another good friend about deep matters of the heart. And, after all, what was a sermon if not two friends, their souls open and intertwined, talking over spiritual matters of the utmost importance?
The Team said this was a concern they’d long discussed among themselves and with others in the congregation. At this point in their presentation to Mallory, the Vice-Chairman added that he’d bet his house and his hound that Jesus didn’t read his sermons when the Lord’d preached beside the Sea of Galilee.
“Nope,” the Vice-Chairman said. “Jesus didn’t take a stack of papyrus – or whatever the hell they wrote stuff on back then – and read the Sermon on the Mount to the people. He just prayed himself full and preached himself empty.”
The Team decided Mallory should stop typing out her sermons. Instead, Mallory should use minimal notes. (No notes would be optimal, of course.) By doing this Mallory would show more faith in God, maturing professional skill, and a deeper respect for the historic art of Christian preaching.
The Team continued to build its case: For the good of the congregation, Mallory’s eyes needed to be unchained from the slave master named Paper. Mallory’s eyes needed to be raised up – like Jesus from the grave – and free to roam about the worship hall in search of connection with her brothers and sisters in Christ.
The congregation needed to see Mallory talking to them with the same earnest eye-to-eye embrace the cable news hosts shared with them hour after hour every single, sun-shining day. Didn’t Mallory know the daily news was nothing compared to the Good News of Jesus? Didn’t Mallory know she had pretty eyes? Didn’t Mallory know that the ways she currently managed her pretty eyes made them bounce between Paper and Church in the most spastic and distressing way? Didn’t she know what she was currently doing with her eyes as she preached called to mind not spiritual connection but a physical tic?
Did Mallory not know all this?
The Team wanted to free Mallory and to free the Word. Besides, the random visitor who wandered in on a random Sunday morning needed to see Mallory free. Why else would this random visitor visit them again on another random Sunday? Didn’t Malloy know there were lots of other congregations? Didn’t Mallory know there were two newer church buildings right across the street from the church building in which they were all sitting right this very moment?
“Yes, of course. I am here to serve,” said Mallory. And the change was made.
As Mallory preached and built toward her swoon, her eyes again checked the watch. 10:51am.
Then another hundred plates started to rotate both within and without her. Mallory became suddenly and insistently aware not only of all she was doing and why she was doing it the way she did it. Mallory also became aware of what all the people sitting before her were thinking about and thinking about her.
A few examples:
Mitchell, to Mallory’s right and sitting in the fourth row, was trying to hold in an eggy fart while straining to make out the contours of Mallory’s breasts underneath her clergy robe.
Breanna – ninth row, left – was wondering why she hadn’t insisted her boyfriend wear a condom the night before. Was she pregnant? If she were, and she took the child to term, would her baby weight stick to her like it had to the preacher?
Clyde, sitting way back in the cheap seats, fifteenth row straight ahead of Mallory, had just decided to blame God for his ninety-one year old wife’s death a month before. Clyde was also entertaining the possibility that the funeral hadn’t really counted because a girl named Mallory had led it.
Should Clyde have another service? Clyde had a great nephew three towns over who had a degree from a Bible college. The degree was in Business, but it was from a Bible college, and the nephew had to take a couple of mandatory classes on the Bible his freshman year. Maybe this nephew could do a service and make it stick?
Mallory suddenly had so many plates spinning. Too many plates. All spinning fast and wobbly and loaded with entropy. (“Just swoon. Just swoon. Just swoon,” said the idea Mallory now believed issued from the Divine.) Mallory decided now was the time to swoon. Mallory decided to just let the plates drop, enter the door of the crystal palace, and seek out its queen-size bed. (“Just swoon. Yes, swoon.”)
Without thinking, Mallory mechanically threw her eyes across the worship hall one last time, but they did not find a safe harbor anywhere. Then she caught her soul as it fluttered, farted, and flailed. She caught her soul gently but firmly, like she’d caught so many water balloons as a counselor at summer church camp. Soul clutched with care like she was caring for a holy dove, Mallory slowly closed her eyes and initiated the swoon.
Falling to the floor and hearing the congregation’s first panicked inhales and aaahs felt like an apocalypse to Mallory, but not in the Hollywood zombies or asteroids use of the word. To Mallory, the swoon felt like an apocalypse in the pure, biblical sense of the word.
That meant the swoon wasn’t something disastrous, bleak, and terrifying like a pandemic that causes some people to eat some other peoples’ brains. The swoon was instead something, even something small, that was, nonetheless, a revealing of the way life truly was. Swooning felt like something hard but good that called Mallory to stay true and then, after all the seals were broken and pale horses mounted, called her to come home.
By Mallory’s best guess her swoon was about three days ago, but she couldn’t be sure since she’s kept her eyes closed the whole time. She could hear the beeps of the machines tracking her very healthy vital signs.
It was then Mallory felt her right hand taken up into a large, rough palm armored with callouses. Her hand was lifted to what must have be a cheek made hot from the sun. Then there was breath on her hand, and the breath carried a hushed voice, and the voice said with a rolling thunder that rivalled the engine of her step-father’s Corvette, “Talitha, cumi. Mussomeli.”
Then Mallory smelled fresh loaves of bread and sensed the weight of a strange glory.
Mallory’s shut eyes exploded behind their lids with crackles of solar flare and supernovae. Mallory became a tic swollen, not with blood, but with awe. The strange glory filled her; Mallory was convinced her every orifice and pore oozed a fragrant oil irradiated by an unbreakable peace. The awe stripped Mallory of thought and of memory, and for a few moments she lost the ability to know anything other than the scent of bread and a voice of stone intoning, “Little one, arise,” in a tongue she’d never heard spoken but, nevertheless, instantly knew.
Little one, arise, the voice had said. Talitha cumi, the voice had said. And the voice had said something else – Mussomeli. Mussomeli? What was Mussomeli? Mallory felt like she’d touched the void at the center of the galaxy, but melding with the black hole had scrambled her mind. She knew she knew the word, but she couldn’t quite chase down its meaning. Mussomeli?
All of this meant Mallory had, for those blissed, terrible moments, no memory of how she was in the hospital in the midst of faked, three-day swoon. As Mallory opened all the drawers of her memory in a frantic search for the word’s hidden meaning, she opened her eyes. Eyes open and wild, Mallory said loudly, “Mussomeli?!? Mussomeli?!? What the hell is Mussomeli?!?”
Mallory saw her husband, and he saw her. He was sitting by the door with a half-eaten tuna on wheat from Subway in his hands. His eyes had been on her, and so he saw Mallory open her eyes for the first time in three days, and his eyes bugged out upon contact with Mallory’s. Dan dropped his sandwich; it bounced off his knee and onto the floor.
“Hi,” he said to her. Then, looking to the tuna smeared on the floor, he said, “Damn.” Then back to her: “Hi.” Dan rose and approached the bed.
The swoon and everything else came back to Mallory in a sudden, violent wave that, nonetheless, could not wash away the awe of the visitation and the mystery of Mussomeli. Stunned, Mallory said, “Damn, Dan. That bastard tricked me. Tricked me. He made me forget myself and accidentally wake up.”
“Mallory,” her husband Dan said, “What are you talking about? Who woke you up? Who… you accidentally woke up? What? … It’s so good to see you, to hear you, Mallory. I, we, everyone’s been so worried. I was afraid I’d never see you wake up again.”
Dan stopped talking, leaned over, and kissed Mallory’s forehead. “Mal, why would you come out of your coma talking about Mussomeli?”
“Dan! You know what Mussomeli is? What is Mussomeli?!? I can’t come up with it.”
“Of course I know what Mussomeli is,” said Dan. “And so do you. Better than me even. We debate about Mussomeli at least once every couple of months. It’s a town in Sicily. A town in the rock Italy’s boot’s always tripping over.”
Then everything opened up in Mallory’s awe-locked cerebral cortex. Mussomeli was one of those Italian towns with ancient houses and dwindling populations who were desperately trying to ply foreigners with Mediterranean vistas, wine and cheese, and promises of $2 houses. For a long time, Mallory had wanted to go for it, but Dan had consistently pushed back with texted links to articles about other people’s disappointing experiences and the unpleasant right-wing turn of Italian politics.
“Yeah, Mallory. Mussomeli is that town you’re always talking about setting sail for in some sort of lifestyle control-alt-delete reboot move. Maybe eventually we’ll do it after Bryce finishes high school and college. Maybe in like six years. Or a few more, like ten, if Bryce takes his time in college. But, then again, you know I don’t like old houses, Mallory. There’s always stuff to fix. And, worse even than the old house hassles, and living someplace that’s not the old USA, you know how I am straight-up petrified by the idea somebody might have died in my house before, you know, I got it. And in those ancient, Sicilian houses you just know lotsa people’ve died. Probably in bad ways too. Killed by the Mafia probably. Killed right there in Mussomeli. In my $2, cracked-to-hell house”
If Mallory hadn’t swooned, if she’d finished her sermon on Luke chapter twenty-four, which was commonly called the Road to Emmaus story, Mallory just might have closed her sermon with the thoughts that now came to her as she stared at the wet-eyed, confused, and happy man who also was her husband and also the person inanely debating retirement housing preferences with his newly-awakened wife.
If Mallory had finished her sermon, she might have said this to the congregation as she concluded her eleven minute and forty second oration, “After Christ entered Cleopas’ house, Cleopas and his wife set a meal before the Jesus they still didn’t recognize. Jesus was still hidden from their eyes, but this sad, hope-crushed couple had, nevertheless, begged this stranger to spend the night safely in their home.
“We’re not told Jesus expressed thanks to the couple for their hospitality. Instead, we’re told Jesus took control of Cleopas’ dining room; Jesus became the host of the meal at Cleopas’ table. Jesus broke the dinner rolls, and then Cleopas and his wife at last saw him for who he truly had been all along, and they were elated; the cancer of despair in their souls was removed; they were reborn and wriggling and wet with a strange glory.
“But then Jesus just took off. He just bolted. Disappeared. Hit the road. Moved on. Is that what people my age would call a jerk move? Yes, I think it is.
“Jesus had always been wild, and he was no less wild on Easter. Jesus was loving and kind, and he was always working to build Earth into a palace of God’s compassion, but that didn’t mean he didn’t disappoint people or fail to meet people’s expectations or just hit the road when he felt the need, even if people my age call doing that sort of thing it a jerk move.
“If that’s Christ’s way, and we are Christ’s disciples, why wouldn’t it be our way every once and a while? My way? Amen.”
Mallory continued to look at her husband. He’d given up talking about people dying in houses and returned to telling her how happy he was to see her and how terrified he’d been of never seeing her eyes open again. Mallory could feel her right hand in his left. She reached up with her left thumb and snagged a tear sliding down his cheek.
“Mussomeli, Dan. I want to move to Mussomeli. I am moving to Mussomeli. This year. Next year at the latest. You can come, if you like.”