Sweat of Thy Face by Emilia Phillips
Sweat of Thy Face
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft —1 Samuel 15:23
When Mrs. Oake put her chubby sneakered feet on the desk, the grey muumuu slid back to reveal a little cotton-socked ankle. I sat on the edge of a chair facing her, backpack slung over one shoulder. Inside it, my geometry textbook was wedged corner to corner between the chair back and the meat under my shoulder blade, its pressure-pain a focus, tether to body for my careening thoughts. I’d never ever, ever been in the principal’s office before, and I kept telling myself that, as if I was trying to crack the code of some dream by exposing its faulty logic. The worst part was that I didn’t know why I was there now.
It was Monday morning, second period, late spring, a good gazing-out-the-window sort of day. It was already muggy in the Tennessee Valley, the sky hazy, and the pond doubling the haze with the sky. The week before, my Advanced Freshman English sat outside by the pond, which had been dug as a part of the cooling system of the new high school building. In the middle of the lesson, a water moccasin, as it was later aggrandized, slithered up the bank and onto the lap of one of the Ashleys who screamed and threw her book at it.
I’d been called out of Mrs. Heller’s near comatose lecture on irregular polygons by the administrative assistant on the intercom. She was saying mmhm on phone just outside the principal’s office. Mmhm. Mmhm. Some kid was sick again. I wasn’t breathing or, second to second, I couldn’t remember if I had been. I started to feel lightheaded, claustrophobic, the way I sometimes did in the presence of Mr. Tomlin, the new geography teacher who’d just graduated college and drove a vintage, forest green Jeep with a canvas top. I’d used a Kodak disposable camera to take a picture of him while he was stopped for pedestrians outside of the Tom Jett gymnasium one day after school. My friend, another Ashley, had pretended to pose for a portrait and, through her smiling teeth, growled, “Did you get it?”
“Might as well get comfortable,” Mrs. Oake said, nodding to my bag, her lips thin as tripwire.
She’d never spoken to me directly before, but I’d never been this close to her either. I hesitated. Her face, stony and broad as a green man’s, maintained the seriousness with which she’d summoned me. Her gaze remained stalactic, almost elemental, so I let the L.L. Bean bag—also in forest green, the color of geniuses I hoped—slide down my arm and onto the floor, heavy as a sack of potatoes.
I kept my head down. A posy of limp threads had come loose from my monogram so that it gave the faint impression that my initials EAP were really EAR. Beside me, a microwave hummed on a TV tray with a great coprolitic russet potato turning slowly on a Pyrex dish in the Holy-Family-golden light inside. Mrs. Oake waxed abstractly about “Satan’s tricks” and “gateway behavior.” I sat dumb, trying not to listen to the potato hissing through its fork holes. She discussed the environment she strove to uphold at the school, nearly reciting the mission statement word for word, and how, in assessing students’ behavior, she was beholden to the Bible’s teachings on morality and evil. And I, she told me, had gone astray of The Light.
The introduction seemed rehearsed, a best practice procedure from the school’s employee handbook. I wondered if the star running back, balding already, had gotten the same speech when he shaved his head, a violation of the personal appearance code, and was suspended for one week or for as long as his hair took to grow back at least a quarter of an inch, whichever duration was longer.
I rubbed the slubbed hem of my gray uniform skirt between my thumb and forefinger. The room was dim except for the microwave and the light of the window that backed her, outlining her shape like counterfeit noir. Then, after a big breath, she got to the point. “I know,” she said, lowering her feet to the floor. “I know you’ve been practicing witchcraft.”
Five girls were coming over, so we’d be six on Saturday night: my Ashley and one of the Brittanys (the wild one) and Kelly, my best friend since elementary school, and Jillian, who could recite full sketches every week from the latest episode of Saturday Night Live, and the new girl, who will have no name because she was innocent really, and because I don’t remember. Early in the evening, we would walk down to the Exxon at the foot of the hill and buy candy cigarettes with names like Rodeo and Horseshoe and Four-Leaf Clover that we’d pretend to smoke while calling each other
. Sometimes we’d light them so that they burbled black and melted to a sticky, rancid caramel. We would light them because they tasted like chalk and who wanted to eat chalk, and we were bored, but the new girl wouldn’t want to play along even though she seemed bored too. We’d eat whatever supper, hot and dripping with salty butter, my mother made us, and watch a movie, or just have one on while we whispered or dared or made promises or played light-as-a-feather-stiff-as-a-board.
Later, we would huddle in the floor of my bedroom painted the color of lime zest, surrounded by my things—a stickered Stratocaster knockoff on a cradle stand beside the Casio keyboard, the little white TV with a VHS deck, People clippings of the Friends cast and Robert Downey, Jr. (drug era) taped on the wall, and a strand of Christmas lights wound about the dresser, the only lights on—with a ouija board Wild Brittany had brought from her mom’s house, and my mother would walk in with a basket of folded clothes and, when she saw what we were doing, she’d egg us on: “Don’t ask the spirit how it died.” So we would ask the spirit how it died once the door closed behind her. But we wouldn’t even notice the new girl wasn’t in the room, that she’d been in the bathroom for a half hour. We wouldn’t hear her ask my mother to call her father to pick her up. We wouldn’t even know she wasn’t sick, even though that’s what she said when she left. We would be so absorbed in the ouija board, until we weren’t. Forget death and taxes, the only sure thing to us was boredom, sure to come, and soon. But, for now, we would say “bye” in chorus without looking up, leaning into the planchette, following it from letter to letter. We wouldn’t even notice when the spirit misspelled decapitation.
I learned from Mrs. Oake that I’d held a séance at my house. I learned that the citronella torches my mother lit around our deck served to encircle the six of us as we performed the ritual. I learned that we had attempted to summon a spirit or a demon—or, Mrs. Oake said, if some of that had been exaggeration, well, what we girls had done with that ouija board was essentially the same thing.
Gateway behavior. Black magic is real, and whether or not we knew what we were doing, well, it didn’t matter. Give Satan an inch, and you give him your soul.
I was trembling by the time she finished her indictments, most of which ghosted from my memory as soon as I left the room. I was scared of being in trouble in the abstract sense. I didn’t care about the reasons I was in trouble and I sure didn’t feel guilty about them; I only cared that I was in trouble. My stomach felt like a rainstick turned upside down so all the beads would tinkle down, except there was no bottom. What we had done was silly, just play. Wild Brittany had moved the planchette, I was sure. Or I was pretty sure. Should I say?
She sent me on my way. She wanted to talk to the other girls before she decided what she wanted to do with me. I would spend the rest of the day watching my friends called out of class one by one. I would warn them as soon as I got back. Wild Brittany looked cool as sugar-free peppermint gum. Panicked, Ashley would call her mom on her Cricket phone in the girls’ bathroom to tell her what was going on. Her mom would call all the other moms. I wouldn’t know that though. I would wait the rest of the day, saying almost nothing in class or at lunch, vomiting a couple times in the bathroom from nerves, something that came easily, practiced as I was on heavy caf lunches of nachos or chicken rings and fries, with the aids of 2% milk and two fingers. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground. I was never called back to the principal’s office that day. It would be days before a decision.
Before then, before all of that, I had to pick up my L.L. Bean backpack—it seemed so much heavier—and walk out of Mrs. Oake’s office. Her potato was done, and she pulled out little pads of whipped butter and paper envelopes of salt and pepper out of her desk drawer, setting her place with a plastic knife with which to open the russet, and a fork with which to eat. “Shut the door behind you,” she said, and when I turned around and grabbed the knob, the steam rose into her face and fogged her glasses, and I pulled the door to, and the bell rang, and I disappeared into the halls.
I needed a verse that would make me seem aware but also innocent, just lucid yet naive enough so that my decision to stay the path of righteousness seemed sincere.
The path of righteousness—oh, that was good. I flipped through my girls’ Bible class textbook, an NIV edition of the New Testament, every page with a heavy slab foundation of teenage-specific, question-and-answer footnotes about how far was too far and how short a skirt was too short. Everything was too far, everything too short. Something from one of Paul’s letters would do—he was all about moral declarations. I wrote a verse down with a note that I was glad I’d chosen to stay a virgin. My boyfriend and I had decided to wait because that was the pure and right thing to do. My body was a temple, yadda yadda. I closed the spiral-bound journal and shoved it into the nightstand on top of the roll of condoms.
After I was accused of witchcraft and most of my friends were pulled out of school, I started a fake journal in which I’d say I didn’t do all the things I did. I kept it off and on throughout my tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade years, fervently adding to it when I was sexually active or when I got into the habit of stealing from my mother’s liquor cart on Saturday nights—a capful of this, a capful of that into a suicide that was sweet and smoky and sludgy. Other times the cocktail was more elementary, and most often sickening: Glenlivet and crème de menthe, cheap sweet vermouth drowned in rot-your-teeth tea.
My logic in keeping the journal was that I could use it to prove my innocence, backdate my struggles and my long chastity, if I were to ever be accused of anything ever again. Look here, I’ve been fighting the good fight all along. Of course I sometimes fail or fall short. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. But see here—see? I avoided temptation. This was a one off. A mistake. So give me another chance. Give me a warning, a demerit, a day at home. WWJD? Give me grace.
My grandparents insisted I attend private school, but they also didn’t want to pay that much for it. Starting in my seventh grade year, I was enrolled at Loyd-McMahon, a Church of Christ K–12, the cheapest private school in town.
LMS sat next to the Brainerd levee on a swampy piece of land that often flooded with heavy spring rains. In March of my tenth grade year, the school cancelled classes for a week because of calf-deep water on the grounds and in the parking lots, but the buildings, on artificial earthen rises, always survived a deluge. On the back lot, behind the football stadium and baseball diamond, was a protected habitat with a dozen or more beaver. Sometimes they built dams that made the flooding worse, but no matter how often Mr. Oake, the principal’s husband and head groundskeeper, grumbled and shook his freckled fist from the back of his diesel-chuffing four wheeler, the school couldn’t touch them. Goose shit smeared the fields, especially in the fall when flocks would arrive from up north and waddle around the edges of our marching band practice, making our heel-to-toe steps unsure, our tennis shoes slick and rotten.
Run it again. Measures 24 to 38. It was often still devastatingly hot well until the first of October, and on those wet-blanket-from-the-dryer afternoons, we’d become dizzy, blowing as loud as we could, the brass flashing and blinding.
The band was so small that first year, Mr. C recruited middle schoolers, and so I joined in the seventh grade and stayed until I graduated six years later. On the first day of band camp, my first day I’d ever spend at the school, one of the older boys, the section leader, called me “Phillips,” which made me blush more than any epithet could’ve. Later that day, while brass practiced basic commands in the parking lot and the sun went down behind the levee, he fainted, denting his trombone on the asphalt. He had locked his knees at attention.
My seventh grade English teacher had a metal locker full of hairspray, lined up like cans of creamed corn in the caf kitchen. Sometimes, when we were doing busy work, she would take out a can, shake it up, and touch up the great Sutton Hoo-helmet of her hominy blond hair while looking into a mirror on the locker door. The first week of class, I printed off her pixelated staff photo from the website and slipped it into the plastic, exterior pocket of my English binder, thinking to organize in a creative way. When she saw it, she demanded I remove it at once. “Hand it to me. This is just…inappropriate,” she said, wading deeper into her fury for words. “Just wildly inappropriate!” I gave her the paper and she took it away. I don’t know what she did with it. Hers was the only class in which I ever received a D, and I still don’t know why. I did all my work, and I did it on time.
In the eighth grade, the English teacher that greeted us on the first day had a square head and a little black mustache. He seemed like he needed to take a drink of water, like his voice was catching on every word. The next day, there was a substitute, a portly man with acne scars and thick bifocals, who introduced himself as Mr. Rousseau. He remained the whole year and even took on the additional quarter-long class of eighth grade French. Mr. Rousseau later told us that the wife of the regular English teacher had left him and that he’d had a nervous breakdown. I felt no teacher had ever been as honest with us before, and yet it still felt wildly inappropriate, embarrassing even, and it made me hold my breath the way I did when I watched the adulterous sex scenes of Richard Gere and Diane Lane in the movie Unfaithful with my mother and stepfather.
Wild Brittany sometimes cut my hair with a pair of mini craft scissors in Mr. Rousseu’s class. Some days Ashley and I would trade notes about our celebrity crush Kevin Bacon, making plans for the next Bacon Night, a sort of sleepover devotional in which we’d gorge ourselves on BLTs and watch as many KB movies we could stay up for. We’d heap Twinkies onto one of our mom’s serving platters because his character in Hollow Man ate them and because they seemed phallic, rudely sploogey with their white cream interiors, and, to us, everything was entendre. Sometimes we used Mr. Rousseau’s class as a kind of study hall for Algebra or Geography. Sometimes I made paper fortune tellers that would divine which boy had a crush on each of us, even though I felt that I was too old for that kind of plaything. One time, Rousseau wrote a few French words on the board, including mouton, sheep. A girl with white-blond hair and caked-on foundation went to board and drew a sheep—or was it a cloud with legs?—next to the word as definition. During our nothing classes, she would sometimes sit next to Rousseau and ask him questions in a hushed voice. I asked her one day what they talked about. “I want to learn French,” she said, but rumor got around that she was crushing hard on the middle-aged man, and that rumor soon morphed into the beast of slander: they were sleeping together. Somehow that mouton got involved, maybe because of her woolen swirl of nearly white hair, and sheep-fucker became less a synonym of bestiality than a euphemism for pedophilia. Jailbait was the cough of choice that year.
She was shunned, of course, like all accused girls, and he quickly became as unpopular as salisbury steak. Once, when he left the class alone, some boys broke into his desk and found a Wham! cassette. The rumors became spliced then: Rousseau likes young girls, Rousseau likes dick. Both student and teacher were gone the next year, without a word.
Mrs. Munson flopped into a chair at the head of the class, sighed, and said, “All right, girls. Let’s get to it.” Normally, we just had her just for algebra, but she’d been assigned to teach the quarter-long, eighth grade girl’s health that year, and she evidently loathed the appointment. She often trudged through the class with grumbles and sighs, and it made me like her all the more. Mrs. Munson was also the middle school volleyball coach, but we weren’t allowed to call her Coach Munson in class, unlike the male coaches, one of the school’s many double standards. Still, in algebra, she carried herself like a coach, sometimes delivering pep talks or “running drills” (practice problems), and, other times, she paced and yelled at us, her face growing red, like a sidelined coach. Her favorite word was hustle. Here, though, she seemed resigned, embittered.
She told us that we’d find a piece of Scotch tape on each of our desks. We were to take that piece of tape and stick it to the back of our hands. “But don’t—” she warned, wagging her finger, and then, through gritted teeth: “Take. It. Off. Until I tell you to.”
Her eyes grew wide, staring us down, an intimidating pause.
“Now. I want to demonstrate an analogy to you.” She reminded us how, last class, we’d talked about virginity and abstinence. Our text had argued—forgive me for not remembering its absurd name—that for every sexual partner, a girl would lose something of herself and be less capable of developing true bonds with another person, therefore jeopardizing any sort of future marital bliss.
“A woman is like a piece of tape,” Mrs. Munson said, not undramatically. “Once she touches her first, she is less capable of sticking again.”
She paused, and the class remained quiet. I flexed the back of my hand, feeling the tape pull my skin.
“Ladies”—she said it like a drill sergeant might say cadets—“now I’d like for you to remove that piece of tape.”
We ripped in unison, and a paler patch of dry skin remained on the back of my hand.
“Look at your tape. Look at it good, now. What do you see?”
One girl raised her hand. “It’s all covered in skin.”
“Mine has hair,” another said.
I studied the impression of ridges on mine, almost like lace.
“That’s right,” Mrs. Munson said. “That’s ab-so-lood-ly right. And that’s just like what it’s like if you have sex with someone. You leave part of yourself with them.”
Someone snorted. Mrs. Munson raised an eyebrow and scanned the room, but every face was as innocent as the moon.
She continued: “That’s sexual partner numero uno. That may have even been a one-time thing, but look how much of you was taken off on them!” We all looked. “Now. Try to stick that piece of tape back on your hand.”
The tape was less tacky, of course, but we did it and, at her cue, we ripped it off again.
She held up two fingers in a V. “That’s your second sexual partner. Maybe that’s your high school sweetheart, but look—you couldn’t be totally committed to him because of that first sexual partner, that one time thing that you thought was nothing. Girls, I’m here to tell you, it wasn’t nothing.”
I used my thumb to roll some of the tape’s glue left on the back of my hand into a little ball.
“And, still, some more of you was left with this sexual partner.” She pointed down at her desk for emphasis on each word of with this sexual partner. “You grow less and less with each sexual partner.
I imagined a girl simply melting away like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Mrs. Munson had us repeat the procedure again. She grew more enthusiastic, her voice higher, as we went through the motions again.
“So what do you think will happen once you’re married? This, girls, is your husband,” she said, as if divining him in lines of a palm.
One girl sat up straighter in her chair. “You can’t stick to him.”
Another stifled snort. Another panoptic gaze over the rows.
“I mean,” the girl said, “you can’t be fully there for him. You’ve already given so much of yourself away.”
Snake Ashley, as I would later know her, jumped in: “Doesn’t this say that boys who sleep around just have pieces of girls all over them?”
Mrs. Munson sighed, dropping her stout shoulders. “It doesn’t work that way for men, honey.”
“Why not?” Snake Ashley asked.
“Because that’s how God made them.”
“So God is okay with boys sleeping with more people?”
“That’s not what I said,” Mrs. Munson huffed, irritation sandpapering her tone. “Of course God wants boys to be chaste too.”
“We’re not discussing it further,” Mrs. Munson said, raising her hand as if for a whistle around her neck. “This is girls’ health, not boys’.”
In ninth grade, we were handed over to Coach Heller for a semester of girls’ P.E. followed by a semester of girls’ health. A tall man with bulging eyes and a shaved head, Coach Heller proclaimed himself Mr. Positivity and Mr. Go-Go-Go and often drew smiley faces on the board and on our papers. After parent night, my mother called him Roadrunner after the cartoon character. At the start of each P.E. class, we had to run laps on the track or, if it was raining, inside the gymnasium. Many of the girls told Coach Heller they were on their periods, day after day, so that they didn’t have to do the laps. He never questioned them. They’d sit on the bleachers doing homework or whispering as they watched the rest of us. I ran my laps every day, no matter what time of the month it was, because I didn’t want to have to tell him when my period was and, for this, he gave me the end-of-the-year P.E. award.
One day at the end of class, when all the girls were in the locker room, the sweatiest among us showered while the others slipped on our skirts over our shorts, washed our faces, and put on deodorant. One of the girls boasted about how strong she was. “Push me,” she said to another girl.
They were on several sports teams together, and I suddenly felt like I was witnessing a kind of locker-room ritual.
“Okay,” the other girl said, and then, daringly, “But are you sure?”
And so the second girl went at the first, and the two of them, squatting low, grappled, trying to pull one another down or throw one another off. Then, in one stumbling lump, they fell into the wood paneling painted a Buccaneer blue. The paneling cracked open and, for a moment, nothing else happened. The girls lay on top of one another, and the rest of us stared, and then the splintered edges of the wood began to darken and move with that darkness. And then a stream of termites tongued out and mushroomed into a swarm. Girls began screaming and pushing, throwing their deo-sticks down and running up the stairs and into the gym. Coach Heller, seated on the bleachers with a clipboard, turned toward us the stampede of girls in various states of undress, some in only soccer shorts and sports bras, one girl entirely topless. The termites coughed into the gym before Coach Heller ran and shut the door. At least one girl was still down there, in the shower.
In spring girls’ health, Coach Heller pontificated on the beautiful outpouring of menstruation, and he waxed lyrically about the female body. He said he identified with King David and his carnal sins. “Sometimes,” he said, smiling up at the ceiling, as if he could see all the way to heaven, “sex can be used in a marriage to solve any problems. Once, my wife”—our geometry teacher—“and I were having an argument on the front porch and right then and there, she lifted up her shirt and showed me her beautiful breasts. I was instantly not angry. It resolved everything between us.” The next day, in second period, Mrs. Heller leaned against the podium, holding herself up, squinting with a migraine across the rows.
When my mother found out I had been accused of witchcraft, her brows narrowed and her Pandoran mouth let loose every motherfucking portmancurse she could devise. (Dip-dong, a noun, was one of her favorites.) She called Father Paden and she stomped out to the deck with a pack of Basic Menthol Lite 100s to explain to him what happened. The next day, she and the priest showed up at the school and demanded to be seen by the headmistress. The priest had come to the school once before when a boy who went to my church was accused of attending a Satanic house of worship by a Church of Christ kid who’d seen the upside-down Peter’s cross. Father Paden brought this up to Mrs. Oake by way of reintroduction, like tapping the same hole in the scarred bark for syrup. “You know why it’s upside-down, don’t you?” he asked. “The designer was just dyslexic.” My mother howled, but Mrs. Oake didn’t make a sound.
Other than the anecdote, I have no idea what was said, but that night all five mothers (all of our parents were divorced) and all five daughters gathered together at my friend Kelly’s mom’s to discuss what would happen. Three mothers were pulling their daughters out immediately; my mother and Jillian’s mother agreed that they would leave it up to us, if we were given the opportunity to stay.
The next week I was called out of class again, and the administrative assistant directed me to the guidance office. The counselor was a kind woman in her fifties who’d recently gotten braces with purple rubber bands that twanged when she absently strummed them with her tongue, and whose name was so perfect for her job that it’s almost unbelievable. I’ll call her Mrs. Psittacus. “We’re just waiting for the assistant principal,” she said. Coach Ruffe, a middle-aged man with a chili bowl haircut and shirtsleeves so starched they tented above his arms, came in shortly to discuss what the administration had learned from their investigation.
“Where’s Mrs. Oake?” I asked.
He looked up from my disciplinary folder and pouted his lower lip. “Away at a conference.”
At that moment, I got to work. I got on the airwaves and asked every cell to lend me every ounce, every droplet of fluid they had. Give me your water against the drought of my not caring, the desert of my guilt. Drop that bucket down the well, deep dark and dank inside me, and bring it up sloshing. Hit the water main. Wrench open the hydrant and flood the street. Don’t build the ark, I want to drown. I wanted to be a sybil of tears, campus in spring. I wanted to raise every bruise and broken toe back to life, lazarene, and relive it. I wanted past pain to shift tectonically under the present so that it ruptured the surface and broke open a spring. I began to cry then and didn’t stop, heaving and gasping so hard that Coach Ruffe lost his sentence about the headmistress’s wishes. Mrs. Psittacus rubbed my back and handed me tissue after tissue. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” I gasped, “was wrong. I’m afraid”—gasp—“afraid for what I’ve done.”
“I think that’s enough, David,” Mrs. Psittacus whispered to Coach Ruffe. Bottom lip pouted, he stared at Mrs. P. blankly, trying not to look at my shuddering, raccoon-eyed faced, the way someone who has to stay at the scene while someone else goes to get the police stares at the moon to avoid looking at the naked body on the beach.
I slobbered and gagged, and Mrs. Psiatticus pulled me against her bosom.
“Okay,” Coach Ruffe said, clearing his throat. Then, with more resolve: “I mean, yes—you’re right. I think she’s learned her lesson.”
He stood up from the chair and moved to the door. “I think we can let this go with a warning,” he said firmly, and then he left, hands washed clean in my tears.
The problem with my fake journal was that, with all the pecking and scratching in the dirt, I eventually found something to swallow.
During my junior year of high school, I told my boyfriend we needed to stop having sex for a while. After a few dumb scares, I’d become paranoid about pregnancy and I’d started to wonder if my journal would actually protect me from expulsion. Two of our classmates were suspended for four months for having sex. There was also something else—was it guilt?—that needled at me. I wasn’t sure if I was feeling guilty over the act itself, or my duplicity.
Later that year, I found out about a mission trip the school preacher was leading to an orphanage in Ensenada, Mexico. I begged my grandparents and father to send me on the trip, saying that I would be doing the right thing, that I would be helping people. They agreed, and I went on the seven-day trip to Baja California. On the bus from San Diego to Ensenada, we drove through Tijuana, whose burned-out streets and graffiti and abject poverty made me suddenly question this new devotion, this drive. I spent the week reading to the children, singing songs during the devotional, and even playing the role of Abraham (the beard was fake) for our morality play. By the end of the week, however, when the “faith was strong,” as the preacher put it, I began to doubt—doubt their conviction, and my guilt. The last night fever-blistered into a bonfire on the hill overlooking the orphanage and an Alcoa plant. One of the teachers called for all of us to go to our bunks and get all our CDs and books—anything that caused us to have sinful thoughts, that exposed us to sex and bad language and violence—and bring them to him. I ran back to the dorms with the other girls, and although I flipped through my CD case of classic and alt rock, I couldn’t bring myself to take anything back to the bonfire. I climbed the hill, legs firing fast, and watched my classmates throw in all of their CDs, glinting and melting like Dalí’s clocks, in the fire which flashed with trace element colors—greens and yellows and purples—as the voices rose in devotional songs. I’m going home on morning train. I’m going home on morning trai-ai-ai-ain. The bonfire had been built beside a small wading pool, and the middle school principal began to approach each of the students he knew not to be baptized, grabbing them by the head and asking them if they wanted to be baptized. Meanwhile, the preacher raised his voice into the song as a wind gusted up and the bonfire moved, seeming to crawl out from its pit. One by one the students went down, coughing and spitting up water, crying and hugging and swaying around the fire. As the middle school principal went around the circle, I moved just behind it, just enough ahead of him so that no one noticed I was moving and that he would never get to me. I felt disturbed, rocketed into some sense of shame over the faith, which, in this display, seemed ignorant, backwoods, raw.
That night I couldn’t sleep because I tried to imagine hell and couldn’t. The next morning, after only an hour or two of nightmares, I woke up with a fever. I bought a pack of Nyquil at the airport and slept the whole way home.
Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, most recently Groundspeed (2016). Her poetry and essays appear in Agni, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ninth Letter, Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. In Fall 2017, she will join the faculty at the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.