Chapter 16 - 1918
In the days that followed, confirmation came that Pastor Hawkins’s daughter’s remains were found among the ashes. Helen kept to herself, and the community left her alone after a few days. Well-meaning folks showed up at the church with food, kind words, and prayers, but Helen locked herself in her father’s office. The sanctuary was kept open for parishioners to come and go. When Sunday arrived and their pastor didn’t hold a service, those gathered sang hymns and prayed for their aggrieved pastor.
All during the service, Helen sat on the floor in her father’s office, leaning against the wall with her legs drawn up as far as this old, stiff body allowed. Lyrics of God’s sovereignty and grace came muffled through the wall, every word a blow to her crushed spirit. She covered her ears, tried to block them out, but they persisted like an infestation of termites that wouldn’t abate until they ate through the entire structure. Helen imagined little bugs devouring her mind, nibbling away at her thoughts until she was driven to madness. She almost felt them crawling on her skin, into her ears, invading her brain.
She squeezed her eyes closed in an effort to shut the others out. She hummed and moaned to drown them all, pictured those people falling into the water they claimed their savior walked on. They could go, all of them, and leave her in peace. Leave her to die. Or them to die.
When the people left and silence claimed the church, Helen relaxed and whispered, “To hell with you all.”
* * *
As days died, no one questioned or bothered the man they believed was Pastor Hawkins.
“The poor man has lost both his wife and his daughter in such a short span of time...and his home,” whispered one woman to another on the streets.
Such concerns were commonly expressed in similar words.
The other woman shook her head solemnly, gazing at the church. “What do you think he will do?”
“Should someone hold a service of remembrance for his daughter?”
“Listen here,” interrupted a delivery man as he passed. “He don’t need us interferin’ with his life. When he’s ready, he’ll come back. You’ll see. Hawkins is a man of God. He’s got a strong faith.”
The younger of the women shook her head and pulled the collar up on her cloak as the chilly gust picked up. “Man of God or not, everyone has their limits. If that happened to me, I don’t know what I’d do. I still say we ought to come together and hold a service for that poor girl, for that poor man to come out of his office and know that he’s not alone.”
“Meddlers,” the delivery man spat and resumed pushing his cart.
The older of the woman snorted. “Don’t pay any attention to him, Mildred. I think it’s a fine idea. Let’s talk with the mayor and see what he thinks. Pastor Hawkins has always been a cornerstone in the community, and it’s time the community took care of him.”
They continued walking, the afternoon sun lowering in the late-October sky.
* * *
“If this is what it feels like to lose one’s mind, then I’m crazy,” Helen muttered, sitting in her father’s chair at his desk.
She glared at the place on the opposite wall where the cross left its mark. She’d taken the thing down days ago, but a darker spot in the outline of the cross remained against the sun-bleached wall.
She picked at the food people brought, but most of it lay rotting outside. She averted her eyes any time she had to leave the office to use the outhouse out back. She was also beginning to smell. She wondered what her father had done in regards to keeping himself clean when he moved out of the house.
Probably used the bath in one of his parishioner’s houses while visiting. She snorted.
It was easy to think about stupid things like body odor. She rubbed at her face, over the new beard. She considered leaving it be, as she knew nothing about shaving.
Again, to think about mundane topics was mindless.
To be mindless… Then I wouldn’t have to think at all. Of course, I could change again. Right?
Helen dismissed the thought as soon as it entered her mind.
She leaned forward in the chair, rested her elbows on her thighs, and ran her fingers through her hair. She sighed.
“Why did I do it?” she asked herself for the thousandth time. “Did I really think I’d be happy?”
She hadn’t seen Matilda since they parted two weeks ago. Helen wondered if she went back to that fancy school of hers or was engaged to the young man who came for dinner. She wondered if Matilda had any regrets, if she missed her. She saw Matilda’s lovely face with her mind’s eye and tried to remember better days.
Helen certainly didn’t wish to visit Matilda’s body, not after her rejection.
Yet her cruel mind reached for Matilda’s kiss. As she felt phantom lips brush hers, a few soft voices started singing. Helen stiffened and sat up. The voices came from outside. Curious, she stood and moved toward the window. Several people gathered in the cemetery near a cross marking a fresh grave. Helen’s chest clenched. Her throat closed up as she watched them sing a hymn of eternal life. She recognized the location of the new grave next to her mother’s.
“That’s my grave,” she whispered.
She hadn’t wanted to know what became of her body’s burnt remains. So, this was it. Someone had buried her and set a marker.
The voices rose as more joined in. Matilda stood at the front of the crowd, closest to the grave, her face pale against her black dress. A dismal sun shone bleak light upon the crowd between a parting in the clouds.
“They remember me...are remembering me.” A tear escaped. Bitterness swelled inside. She pounded at the window with her fist, shattering the glass.
The sound silenced the crowd. Several faces turned toward the source of the noise, but Helen cursed under her breath and withdrew into the office. She went to the farthest corner from the window and sat on the floor, trying to suppress herself, but her rage bubbled to the surface like a volcano about to erupt. In a fit, she stood and fled the room, the door slamming into the wall as she flung it open.
She crossed through the sanctuary and out the front doors. Someone was saying a prayer as Helen approached. She was upon the poor man and tore the Bible from his quivering hands. The little man gave a shriek and jumped into the startled crowd.
Helen held the book over her head and surveyed those gathered to pay their respects to the girl they thought dead. She glared, her lips trembling as she screamed, “You think you knew her, Helen Hawkins? You think you have any idea what her life was like?” She threw the Bible to the wet ground, stomping, smashing it with her boot until some of the pages tore. She spat on the Holy Word. “You care more about her in death than you did in life. Look at you, all of you, standing here so solemn, singing and praying to a god who doesn’t exist, a god who allows children to suffer at the hands of their fathers. Your beloved Pastor Hawkins isn’t the man you think he is. He’s a monster who raped this poor girl for years and walked about as if he were as clean as your slaughtered lamb. It’s lies, all lies! Hell, he doesn’t even believe in your god! He’s a great actor. My life is a fucking life, and it’s your fault, all of you, for being taken in, for being fooled by your pastor! Your fault for professing a false faith!” Her bloodshot eyes landed on Matilda. She pointed a shaking finger at the young woman and took a step toward her. “And it’s your fault for not loving her enough. It’s your fault most of all, Matilda Forkins.”
Matilda gave a little cry and withdrew into her parents’ arms. Several women in the crowd let out gasps and held their children close. No one moved. They seemed frozen, transfixed by the mad man in front of them.
Spittle flew from Helen’s mouth as she advanced on Matilda. “It’s your fault. Your fault. Your fault!” She launched at Matilda with her hands extended like claws, but as she made contact, Helen closed her eyes.
The darkness was cold this time, not the warm blanket it usually was. When she opened her eyes, she gazed back at her father’s slack face and vacant eyes. Her father’s form dropped to the ground as if someone had kicked all the wind out of him.
“Grab him!” a man yelled.
The crowd came to life as multiple voices started talking at once. In the chaos, Helen felt the arms of Matilda’s parents around her, holding her safe. Several men approached who they thought was their deranged pastor and grabbed his arms. Helen locked eyes with the man everyone else thought was her father, but the confused eyes of Matilda gazed back. The form of Pastor Hawkins was but a rag doll in the crowd’s clutches.
A pang shot through Helen. What have I done? Why did you have to love me? Why, Matilda, why?
Matilda opened her mouth. The pastor opened his mouth, but nothing came out. She--he--was dragged away.
But love isn’t enough. It never was, Matilda. Love is weak. Weak! She believed the lie, embraced it as truth, as she turned her eyes to Matilda’s parents.
“Are you all right, dear?” asked Matilda’s mother.
“I-I’m fine,” Helen replied in Matilda’s gentle voice.
“He’s crazy,” said someone nearby.
“Lock him up!” bellowed another.
Some of the crowd cheered in agreement. As they carried Pastor Hawkins, really poor Matilda, away, Helen took shelter in the arms of the loving family she always wanted.
I always finish what I start.