Church of the Strangers by Barrie Darke

The day before, Gregg had turned his eyelids inside out and sat like that in class for a while. Some of the girls were sickened, but none of them notified Miss Cooper. Antony had to hold in a laugh so loud he thought he’d end up with a barrel chest.

This was the new thing – dares. Antony had started it on Monday by writing ‘sonofabitch’ on one of the dark walls; it could barely be seen, but it was enough to entrain something. Heron had followed that by making himself throw up and being sent home for the rest of the day. Then Morrow had brought along his bad-tempered dog, let it roam around inside until Principal Jones came out and told him to get rid of the damn thing.

They’d reached the end of the week without any more trouble than that. Now Antony’s turn had come round again, and he felt something special was demanded of him. Luckily, it so happened the preacher was arriving to talk to the school that afternoon.

He visited the town once a year, as part of an endless tour. His wife had died some years ago, in fuzzy circumstances it was said, and he travelled the state with his three daughters, who were in their mid-to-late teens. During recess, the older boys had things to say about those girls.

So at least half the school was disappointed when the preacher arrived by himself. They saw his horses come to a stop by the gates, and not even Miss Cooper – who was young but could be as shrill as the older teachers – minded the lapse in attention. He stepped down slowly, the last few steps out of his control, grinning and nodding at the principal in acknowledgement that he hadn’t fallen that time at least. He was red-faced, shading to purple in some tracts, with the thickest, bumpiest mountain-range of a nose Antony had ever seen. His fat was ages-settled, his suit managed to look new and slightly dusted at the same time, and he had thick, steel-wool hair that Antony imagined babies would be frightened to touch. When he entered the room with the principal, that personage looked diminished to the point where only laughter could greet his utterings. The preacher didn’t look strong so much as crammed with all possible defenses and attacks. His eyes were light blue, only mildly bloodshot, and they had the measure of what they took in: there were no surprises possible, but he was on guard for them all the same.

Antony wanted to look at Gregg, Heron and Morrow, so he could shake his head and tell them not to expect any dares from him after all, not in front of this monster. It wasn’t a religious quailing: Antony believed in God, as did everyone in the town save for a few drunken stumblebums, but he was used to hearing cynicism about the ways of preachers, enough to suggest that God wouldn’t hurtle to punish any childish wrongs visited on them; no, his doubts were more to do with this particular preacher. He looked mean, a dirty brawler: an eye-gouger and a cod-flicker. He had the kind of size that could perhaps be outrun, but also the kind of size that was silent when stealing up on a person.

Still, the dares were generating their own energy now, and there were impulses in him that wouldn’t be controllable for at least a dozen years. It was a warm, late-spring day, the open windows doing little to alleviate the skin-prickling, and the preacher, before he started his sermonizing, took off his black overcoat. Miss Cooper asked for a volunteer to take it to the ‘cloakroom,’ and it was primarily the girls who put up their hands. Maybe that was why Antony stood out and got the job.

The preacher somberly handed the coat over, though his eyes held a touch of humor, as if pointing out that this was as serious a duty as a young man could be charged with. Antony expected the coat to be heavy, and it was, but it was also awkward to keep from trailing on the dusty floor. Once he stepped on a trailing tail and almost tumbled, though he was thankfully out of sight by that time. The cloakroom wasn’t a room, just an area with racks and hooks for those few, not including himself, who brought coats, satchels and lunch pails.

Antony tried the pockets without much consideration of what he was doing. He didn’t think of himself as a thief, but when opportunities arose it was idiotic not to explore them. He felt a block of something in one of them.

It was clear from the touch what they were – a deck of cards – but he believed this one would be distinguished from most decks; a quick glance told him he was right about that. His whole body turned hot and itched before settling down again, save for a pulse in his forehead. There were pails and satchels on the floor around him, and he dropped the deck into the middle of them, arranging them with one foot to cover it over. His mind all at once worked faster than it ever had before, fast enough to shock Miss Cooper into retirement. If the preacher needed the cards for his talk – and the quick glance had told Antony that was extremely unlikely – he would’ve taken them out before handing over the coat; preachers were the most suspicious people on the planet, even worse than sheriffs, but he wouldn’t think the boy who took his coat could be dumb enough to steal from it; and he had called on a different school that morning, in a more uproarious town than theirs – the kind of place bad thoughts and blame turned to before all others.

He returned to the classroom. The preacher thanked him. Miss Cooper asked him to take his seat. He looked over at Gregg, Heron and Morrow, and gave them a tiny smile.

The preacher’s main subject was terrible young boys and girls sneaking off to lovers’ lanes and suchlike low places. He told a story of one couple, children not much older than themselves, who had stumbled into quicksand, sinking down that unknowable distance (maybe they were sinking still – think of that!), trapped in an embrace they now wished to break more than anything in the world. The class paid unusually full attention, many turning red and adjusting their seating posture. Antony sat forward a little himself. The preacher stalked in front of them, whooping then whispering, fixing each of them with his stare as he detailed the slime breathed in through lovers’ nostrils.

Then he said amen and came to an end. He thanked them for listening, thanked Miss Cooper for allowing him to pay this visit. A few noticed, without being able to say what it meant, that the smile he gave them, and the smile he gave Miss Cooper, were alike as a sparrow and an eagle.

Miss Cooper asked Antony to bring the preacher’s coat back in. He hoped she would’ve given someone else a chance to volunteer, but supposed it wouldn’t matter too much. The preacher, in a good humor now, made as if Antony was a servant who’s duties including helping him dress, only breaking the knees-bent, arms-out pose when Antony had been about to try. The class laughed, and Antony blushed.

He headed back to his seat, turning his back on the preacher for a few seconds. The voice would either boom or hiss when it came, each as horrifying as the other, and Antony almost hunched his shoulders, closed his eyes against it. When he sat down and faced the front, the preacher was comfortable in his coat. He didn’t so much as pat his pockets down.

 

There was a final hour of bewildering math before they were dismissed for the day. Antony, who had kept an eye on the window more than his study books, made sure he was first out of the door and into the cloakroom. He had the cards hidden in his waistband before anyone looked twice at him.

Gregg, Heron and Morrow wanted to know what he’d done, but Antony wouldn’t even mention the deck until the school was out of sight. They knew it revolved around the coat, so it was most likely him stealing something from it; Morrow looked uneasy at that, but still Antony wouldn’t say anything. They walked with rapid, unsuspicious steps, looking straight ahead, talking out of the side of their mouths. They passed the fields, then the farm run by the sad widow, heading for their usual spot by the creek. Soon they were running with sweat, although the afternoon had turned mild.

It was always peaceful down by the creek, or else the air pulsed with some scheme or other. The latter pertained now. He took the cards out, and they sighed and began scrutinizing them.

The images were elaborated on the back, with one special detail reproduced in the center of the card face. They were all concerned with Hell and its fires, the tortures employed by demons with the usual vivid red skin, pitchforks, teeth, hooves and tails; but each picture was slanted towards matters of sex – the old close dance, as Antony’s daddy called it whenever he had to mention it.

The low cards were reasonably innocent, while the top cards were absolutely, wholeheartedly depraved. The three of diamonds offered a glimpse of a nipple belonging to a woman cooking unquietly in a pot. The seven of clubs showed a man being entertained by a dagger pricking his tip. The jack of hearts was a woman taking it up the old kazoo, as Gregg put it, to some confusion, while a whip was on its way to meet her back. There was a scramble to find the ace of spades. It didn’t disappoint. Some kind of multi-level conglomeration was shown, with three demons, one man and one woman, all holes being used in some ways, and only the demons finding any joy in it. They had what looked like drills.

The boys spent a quiet and somewhat lonely twenty minutes looking through them, hunting down certain images again. They agreed that the king of diamonds was probably the worst: it showed a demon spraying hot-looking jizz over a man’s face, and the man didn’t have his lips pressed tightly together. He also had a knife at his throat, but that wasn’t anything special in comparison.

All in all, the experience was a flat one, and when it was over, Antony didn’t know what to do with the cards. They were the kind of things you were supposed to enjoy in later years, though he somehow doubted that would blossom in this case, and it was no great idea to take them home. Selling them to an older boy was an option, but one that could lead to trouble; no older boy was to be trusted. And it seemed unbefitting to send them drifting along the creek.

‘Well,’ he said in the meantime, ‘we could play a few hands with em?’

That made the air twist and thicken. Heron, usually the quietest of them, was the loudest now. ‘What if they’re bad cards?’ he wanted to know. ‘Cursed an whatnot?’

‘You believe any of that horseshit?’ Antony asked, with a disdain he didn’t totally feel.

‘You hear of things,’ Heron said. ‘God does those things.’

‘These weren’t made by God,’ Gregg said. He was always the brightest of them, when he wanted to be. ‘These were made by some low-minded bastid, that’s all.’

‘They’re made to scare babies,’ said Antony.

‘An we ain’t that no more,’ added Gregg.

‘Let’s set down and play then,’ Antony said.

Morrow hadn’t said anything yet. Now he said, ‘Count me out. Just go ahead and count me out. I wish I never even saw the fuckin things.’

‘Anyone else?’ Antony asked.

‘What happens to the loser, you thought of that?’ Heron said. ‘Naw, I ain’t touchin em again.’

Gregg laughed.

Morrow said, ‘You two play, go ahead. We’ll watch over ya. Won’t we?’ he asked Heron.

Heron didn’t even look happy about that, but he nodded.

‘Okay with me if it’s okay with you,’ Antony said to Gregg.

‘Okay,’ Gregg nodded.

‘So what you wanna play?’

Gregg swallowed, nodded. ‘Keep it simple,’ he said. ‘Let’s just cut the deck.’

‘All right,’ Antony nodded. He shuffled, then laid the deck on his palm. The back of the top card showed a woman having her hair cut off. She was, of course, naked.

Gregg cut the deck, had a look, and kept his face tidily blank. He waited till there was a demand before he showed them: the seven of diamonds. They all whistled low. The detail in the center was a man with a demon pecker in each hand.

Antony cut, and didn’t look at it. It was more impressive to let their reactions tell him. It was unexpected, then, when they ripped out laughing. He looked at what he had. It was the 2 of hearts, and the small detail in the center was a pair of hairy ass cheeks.

They played in the creek for a spell, and then he took them home anyway.

At dusk, Antony had to keep his younger brother amused. Henry was only just past three years old, and they were using the pitted building blocks that Antony had also played with at that age, actually building something this time rather than just knocking them together. Infant bedtime was soon to arrive, however, so a fractious period wasn’t far off. Antony planned to let his ma take over then, while he teased his sister, or spoke to his daddy like an adult, something both of them quickly grew bored with.

People would usually wander in – daddy was a popular man around town – rather than knock, so when the knock came, Antony supposed he knew right away who it was. He carried on with the building blocks. It wasn’t long before ma’s voice called him through. He dragged Henry along too.

The preacher had brought his three daughters with him. There wasn’t a flicker of time between Antony’s eye registering and his body responding: his heart didn’t know where to put itself. He’d never noticed cheekbones before – what they did to a face and to the boy who saw that face. Eye color had been a mere fact before this, but now he could spend the rest of his life marking how far short of this blue everyone else fell. They all had dark brown hair, the oldest girl wearing it long and straight, the middle girl shorter, while the youngest – only two or three years older than him – had the cutest shoulder curls he’d ever seen. Their skin was pale, and unmarred by freckle or beauty spot as far as he could tell, it was difficult to look for long.

They stood off to the right of the preacher, not appearing to take in anything about the shack lest it look rude. Their faces were open, though they smiled without showing their teeth, their lips a maze of confusion. They were introduced, eldest first, as April, May and June.

Ma took the lead, daddy not being so forwardly religious. She offered coffee and biscuits, which were politely declined, then introduced the children. When she reached Antony the preacher nodded, increased the moonlight of his smile, and said, ‘Ah now – this young man I met earlier today. Isn’t that right, young man?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Antony said.

‘A fine coat-carrier, very fine.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

His voice sounded steady to his ears, but the daughters were looking at him now. Their gaze was somehow light and slablike at the same time; they seemed to track all his thoughts, and be unsurprised by them, unsurprised and disapproving.

The preacher said he was visiting as many homes in the town as possible on his stay. He asked ma how long they had lived there, encouraged her to talk about the difficulties they’d come through with God’s grace (there had been a brother, older than Antony, who had died of a fever not long after Antony was born, and his sister had almost died after a fall from a horse a couple of years previously). Most importantly, he mentioned their obvious fortitude in the face of the sin all around them.

He shared his attention among them equally, which made Antony feel singled out. He didn’t detonate his voice off the walls like he had in the schoolroom: his tone was stoic, shaded with a tired, melancholy regret that it was their lot to live through these hard times. It was touching, even daddy paid more attention than he normally did.

The preacher went on to talk about the town, what he’d heard concerning some of its more Godless places – the saloons and ‘areas of procurement’, as he called them. Antony thought he knew what that meant.

‘Are you a gambling man yourself, Mr. Webster?’ he asked.

‘Now, that’s one thing I never been,’ daddy replied, slightly lazily.

‘That’s good news, good news indeed. Gambling is an attempt to toy with the Lord’s plans. A most grievous transgression.’

‘Well, there’s that, but for me, I ain’t riskin my children’s food, is all.’

‘An excellent view of the matter. No games of dice. No bills on the fastest horse or the leanest hound. And – need I mention – certainly no card games.’

‘Well, I never been one for no card game, either,’ daddy said, now sounding bored.

‘I would advise a man with a family not to keep a deck of cards in the house. Satan infests them.’

‘I ain’t got a deck, wouldn’t thank ye for one.’

The preacher nodded. His gaze passed over the children, again not lingering particularly on Antony, though Antony felt the special heat all the same.

‘Children can get awful fascinated with a deck of cards,’ he went on. ‘That’s the way they’re designed. To seduce the mind with the simplicity of numbers. To trick the mind into thinking it can jump the tracks the Lord has laid for us. For us all.’

‘Well, I never thought of it that way, but that sounds about right to me.’

The preacher lost himself in conjecture for a few seconds, or appeared to, then nodded and sat back. ‘Good. Very good. I’m informing everyone in this town there’s to be a gathering-in of playing cards. We’re having a collection point out by Jennings’ Red Barn. Now, this is to be a secret thing. A man could slip out quietly, or he could send his boy along. Just send his boy along, leave the cards there – I’m counting on massing quite a pile – and they’ll be taken care of.’ He grinned and turned to his daughters. ‘Dispatched to the flames, ain’t that the best way?’

They nodded and smiled back.

Daddy said, ‘That sounds like a fine plan, reverend, but it don’t apply to this household, so …’

‘I’m sure it doesn’t, Mr. Webster.’

He left the matter there, and the talk moved to subjects preparatory to a leave-taking. He ended by telling the children he believed they were good in their deepest hearts, that they would grow to be the kind of fine citizens this town needed to rise above the mire. Ma nodded her fervent agreement, eyes almost shining. Daddy didn’t look so sure.

 

***

 

On Saturday afternoon, Gregg, Heron and Morrow were full of plans, but Antony shook his head at all of them, saying he was needed to help out around the barn. They didn’t question this aloud, though it had never happened before – Saturday afternoons had always been sacred and workless to Antony’s daddy.

He wanted to ask if the preacher had visited their homes, but figured they would’ve mentioned it if he had.

He took the cards from the hiding place under his rickety wardrobe, and started towards Jennings’ Red Barn. It had been a night without an ounce of sleep, though this wasn’t to say it had been free of nightmares: he’d seen the family home, with everyone in it, razed to the ground, the preacher’s daughters standing by, holding hands, looking somber but right. Every night sound beyond the walls became them, tiptoeing through the mire, rattling their matchsticks.

The cards were again tucked into his waistband. He saw no one heading in the same direction, and hadn’t expected to. It was a hard walk, over a mile and a half, and he cursed himself in colorful tones all the way, occasionally even scowling; the fantasy of going back in time, and leaving the cards untouched in the coat, was so strong that it almost overpowered the reality of the afternoon, and he wondered if crazy people thought that way without snapping out of it.

His plan, if the preacher should be waiting for him, was to throw the deck at his feet and run home. He reckoned that if the preacher followed him and made any sort of commotion about it, daddy would take Antony’s side, at least till the preacher had gone. It didn’t have to be anything like a big deal.

When he rounded the far corner of the red barn and saw April, May and June waiting, even more of the strain eased from his shoulders. He was halfway towards a smile before he realized that might be taking it too far.

He took the deck out, but didn’t throw it. He walked directly over. The plan now was to make light of it, see if they understood what it was to be young and reckless – maybe he could even pass that spirit onto them, make them rethink their lives. He might even have said something to that effect, but the sisters took hold of him and knocked him to the ground. He never forgot how the sky just appeared like that.

April held his arms, while May took care of his legs.

‘You thought there’d be no punishment? No punishment for a thief?’ April asked. Her voice was nowhere near as pretty as her face; even her face wasn’t so pretty now, though she was still a type of beautiful. Her hair hung down lank, and her cheeks were reddening, with anger rather than exertion. He was a fairly strong boy, but he couldn’t match her. She probably did this sort of thing often and well.

‘They just fell out the pocket, I didn’t know they were his.’

‘Don’t insult us, little boy,’ May said.

‘It was a dare,’ he said. ‘Not stealin, not really.’

‘No, it was stealing. Really,’ April said.

‘You seen what’s on those cards?’ he asked. ‘It ain’t right for a preacher to be goin round with em.’

‘We’ve seen them,’ she said, ‘and they couldn’t be more right.’

June stepped forward and took his breeches down, not without care. He tried to kick and buck, but got nowhere, May proving even stronger than April. He shouted for help, but suddenly his voice didn’t travel.

His cods and his pecker were exposed. June showed no curiosity about them; and they did have a box of matches after all. One was lit, and drew in all the air he had to scream.

‘You’re going to be a stranger to women,’ April said. ‘We make converts like you wherever we go. Church of the Strangers, we call it. You’ll have a pure life. You’ll thank us for that, on your deathbed.’

June held the match between his legs. He thought he could smell the hairs he hadn’t long sprouted burning, the odor of his sister holding a strand over the cooking flame, the spark racing along like an explosive fuse, that gray-blue tang of something dying.

He babbled that he was sorry, would never steal again, would go to church every day, but it was hard to know if they could decipher it, even with their experience. He was crying on top of that. The pain melted his spine, but wasn’t the worst of it. He knew he would have to leave the town for good, say nothing to anyone, try and find a life somewhere else, maybe come back as an old man, beaten and loveless.

April looked at June, and she took the match away. She squeezed it with her fingers, and he saw that very little of it had burnt, considering the length of time it had been used on him. It was thrown away, and he was let go. He snatched up his breeches and struggled to his feet at the same time, complicating the move. When he was able to stand, the world was unsteady. He couldn’t stop tears shaming his face.

‘Stay with us and pray,’ May said, making the others laugh.

Antony ran away, without the self-possession to curse them over his shoulder.

He was a long time controlling his tears. Just when he thought they were finished, they started again. He made for the creek, a different part to where the boys would normally go, and sat for a while, trying to calm down. He saw himself travelling, in his twenties, unwelcome and never speaking wherever he pitched up.

It took ten minutes to build up the courage to have a look down there. The sting was bad enough for him to envision blackened blood, scorched skin peeling off in strips. There was only a mild red mark, and maybe a few more than usually crinkled hairs. He wet his hand in the creek and cupped himself for a few minutes. That helped.

He went wondering, not caring where he headed. But at dusk, he returned home, trying hard to be his old self.


Barrie Darke writes from the UK, where the short story market is a pitiful thing. He has a track record as a scriptwriter in the UK, but thinks prose is the main thing. He has recently been published in the UK by Byker Books, New Writing North and Sentinel Literary Quarterly; and in the USA by Menda City Review, Nossa Morte, Demon Minds, Infinite Windows, Underground Voices, Big Pulp, Pseudopod, Inwood Indiana, Bastards and Whores, Onomatopoeia, Orion Headless, Xenith, Otoliths, All Due Respect, Fiction365, Scissors and Spackle, and Fear and Trembling.