by Nathan Elliott
1. “One law for the Lion and the Ox is Oppression: Blake is trying to tell you one moral size does not fit all, ya’ll.”
Mrs. Mankum was from Mississippi: how did she end up all the way up here on the British Columbia border? She’d ask us, as if the class knew. We were just fascinated by the accent: we listened to every word like it was straight from God. Or Satan.
Then the accent said, “Make no mistake, Blake thought that there was a right and a wrong. A good and an evil. His very title tells you he’s willing to talk about Heaven and Hell. Blake just thought things like Bibles and Commandments and Holy Books and Laws and the Rules (the drawl hit that word hard) were the MacDonald’s chicken nuggets, the cheap Wal-Mart t-shirt, of trying to be good. Hell might really be Heaven, Heaven might kind of be a rotten place, full of parents and priests and self-righteous school teachers like me.”
She got a laugh with that last one.
2. The girl I love is pregnant.
We’re both seventeen.
We’re Baptists—Southern Baptists, actually—living in a corner of the country that most people in the U.S. don’t realize exists.
3. So the official story goes: the god tells you not to do something. You start off in innocence, not experience, you will not do what your favorite deity tells you not to do: you won’t eat the fruit, unwrap the box before Christmas, eat candy for breakfast, look behind you on your way out of the sinful city about to get smoked for too much fooling around with people who have the same genitals as you.
Then, inevitably, inexorably: shit happens. One day you do what your god told you not to do.
It’s not because the apple was so shiny, or because the snake was so convincing, or your curiosity got the best of you, or that the book of rules was just so very boring, or that ice cream and gummy worms tasted fantastic with coffee and granola, or because you forgot your poodle/prized meat-eating plant/lover in the town that was about to be destroyed by a very pissed-off divine policeman.
Despite what they say in church, it’s not because you/I/we think breaking the rules is fun. Often it’s not, and often we/I/you know that the experiment with the shady side of morality is probably not going to go well.
Waiting for the answer as to why we do it?
Your need for an answer is the answer.
Maybe I’m just full of dollar-store quality wisdom this morning, sitting in a cheap clinic waiting room chair, in the discount everything-must-go, white-elephant-style of all of Spokane. My butt is sweaty, and my back is going to ache tomorrow.
4. I know why Mrs. Mankum is here: her ex-husband the Southern Baptist preacher moved her here to replace my preacher grandpa after he left the church because he didn’t believe any of it anymore. Geology and sex: my Mississippi-born grandpa took the church secretary to Montana to dive deep into the past that layers of badland sediment hides in plain sight. A year after he disappeared to dig for fossils Mr. and Mrs. Mankum showed up from Georgia to give guidance to a flock of bewildered Southern Baptists who had somehow found themselves within spitting distance of Canada.
Six years later Mrs. Mankum decided she believed more in William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft and Robert Burns. She didn’t run off to the badlands after she put the divorce paperwork in at the county courthouse.
She stayed right here teaching her holy books.
5. Why I did it:
a. her smile. It’s a cliché, right? But there it is. Her whole face breaks in half. She has a slight gap tooth that she’s incredibly self-conscious about, and everything loving and vulnerable breaks out in a single moment. A silly metaphor that develops my stupid cliché a bit: her smile is when the overcast sky opens up just one divine vent and a single shot of pure sunlight comes through and you feel hope again.
b. the exact shape of her left breast when she’s wearing a swimsuit and making a perfect dive into Herman Lake on a late August evening when the air is hot and golden and smoke from British Columbia forest fires is paying no attention to national boundaries, yet under all of that there’s just a hint of the November snows to come.
c. and then after that smile, and after that body in midst of that perfect dive, there is the back of an even more clichéd truck, and her body is warm and inviting and wet and exactly the way that a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl’s body is supposed to be.
Because, biology class: every cell in my body wants to be inside every cell in her body.
6. I memorized this part, because I liked it so much:
Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
7. Why did she do it?
My guesses based on the things she’s said to me:
a. I read unusual books, and occasionally I say surprising things, and after seventeen monotonous years in that tiny logging town on the Canadian border she very desperately wanted to be surprised.
b. because I can, on occasion, be kind.
c. because of the way I turned a double-play back in June, ages ago, when this summer was still young. I hardly remember the play. She said it looked like ballet, and then laughed, because neither one of us has ever been to the ballet.
d. because I have a penis, and—despite what our youth pastor insists over and over again—girls do think about sex, and often, and she wanted me, every part of her body became appetite and need and desire.
e. because of the way I held her five-year-old kid sister after she skinned her knee at Bible camp and sang that kid sister silly made-up songs about Idaho potatoes and Montana mojitos until both of them started giggling.
You’re supposed to confess to what you did. You ask your god, your gods, your parents, your government, the-powers-that-be, for forgiveness. You promise to never-ever-never-ever do it again. Sorry, Daddy, sorry, Mommy, sorry.
Then your gracious deity will deign to forgive, you will be innocent and holy again.
Except that everyone in town will still remember what you did.
They’ll look at your little girl with judgment and pity in their eyes, and you’ll know forgiveness for the lie that it is.
9. She wants it out of her.
I want a baby.
I’m not a fool. Our lives would be difficult and strange yet full of ordinary, screamingly banal problems.
I also think that our lives might also be joyous and strange and full of rare moments of grace. On Wednesdays maybe.
The rest of the week might truly suck duck eggs.
But I want what we made together.
She is smart, way smarter than me. She has the grades, she has the love of our teachers, an offer from a school back East that we only ever hear about in movies and on TV. She belongs in a school that has vines crawling up the sides of brick walls, a far cry from the cow schools up the road that offer advanced degrees in experimental crop rotation.
Dad is going to get me a job at the mill in Lewiston. I’ll lead a good life. In ten years I might be able to buy a boat, take the kids waterskiing on the Snake, get busted for a DUI on the way home because I had a couple on the boat and then drove 29 in a 20.
Or maybe I’ll take some classes at the state college while I work the mill, and eventually become an accountant with an office on Main Street, and have a pretty secretary, and a view of the river.
She knows what I am.
She loves me for it.
I know what she is, and I will always love her for it.
And there’s the paradox: I love her because she can’t do this life.
10. We had to drive across the state line to do this. A bit of absurd alliteration that Mrs. Mankum would no doubt disapprove of if she didn’t have a sense of humor: puffy protestors pounced pugnaciously the moment we stepped out of the car, preaching, posturing, proclaiming what sinners we both were, the shame we should feel.
Gentle escorts helped us, even as a man with a sign telling her she was committing murder screamed that I should do the right thing and support her.
She looked at me when we got inside, and told me in a broken voice that I was doing the right thing, she had never had this much support from anyone in her life, that I was the best man she knew.
She’s wrong. I love her desperately. I would follow her into hell. Or heaven, if that was the hell I needed to follow her into.
But that’s just it: I’m not supposed to follow her at all.
And next year—when she’s sitting in some air-conditioned classroom discussing ancient Greek philosophy with future Supreme Court nominees—I’ll turn toward the church, tail between my skinny chicken legs, and ask for forgiveness. What Mrs. Mankum tried to teach us about Blake will bleed out of my brain a little bit at a time every day I punch the clock at the mill. I’m weak and I’m stupid and I need to belong.
I will spend the rest of my life sinning against the holy thing we became for one night in August.
NATHAN ELLIOTT grew up in logging and paper-mill towns in the panhandle of Idaho. The vagaries of love and academia have brought him to a paper-mill town on the island of Newfoundland, where he can occasionally be found teaching literature at the local university campus (when not spending his time in less frivolous pursuits such as snowshoeing or biking). He has published creative nonfiction with Creative Nonfiction and Tahoma Literary Review, as well as the ‘feminist nudie mag’ Peach Fuzz; currently he is at work on a book about his move to Canada. His aesthetic preoccupations and leftist political positions can be followed in real time on Twitter @writeronabike.
Photo: “Mariage du ciel de l’enfer” by Nathan Elliott