Nonfiction by Ulrikka Haveron
“But, Mama,” I asked, “what about the good people who have never heard of Jesus? Do they go to hell?”
My mom distantly stroked a canvas, eyes far away and unblinking. “No,” she responded, “I don’t really believe that.”
My mom had been raised a devout Catholic but was also an artist and had a mind of her own. We lived in the east Texas country with my Vietnam vet stepdad and my brother and sister. I had never been to church, nor were my beliefs about religion pruned in some particular manner by an outside hand. I collected stories about god in a mystified manner in those early years, like lovely treasures one hides in a secret box.
I would climb up a splintery shelf in my bedroom when I was by myself and grab the Guardian Angel prayer card my grandmother had given me. I was transfixed by the picture of the gentle, winged beauty that always watches over us. She floated behind two carefree children playing with sticks near the river’s edge, her delicate hands poised like a belly dancer’s. A divine star hovered over her pretty head as lightning splintered the sky. The babes traversed a rickety bridge, oblivious to the danger they were in and blind to their loving protector. Perhaps she was their ancestor. Perhaps she was the spirit of a child who had drowned in a river, forever protecting other children from suffering the same fate. Whatever the case, I loved her.
My grandfather told me of the Lady of Guadalupe. Jesus’s mother appeared to a native of Mexico on the side of a hill and asked him to build a church there. She was floating on a black crescent moon upheld by a cherub, her body enveloped in a fiery aura. She gave him an image of herself to prove her existence that it is still possible to see today. Not only a grown-up, but a sensible old man, was telling me I could believe in spirits.
I secretly prayed at night and felt I was tapping into some sort of sacred force. No prying ears could hear the prayers that I sent to these divine confidants. No mortals knew what I was brewing in the world of spirits. These were my beliefs about god as a small child.
My mom and stepdad divorced when I was six years old and we moved into the small prison-college town nearby. My grandmother used the move as an opportune moment to have us all baptized in the Catholic church. I was very stoic as my head was dipped in holy water and I imagined it would feel good to belong to the church. My sister, in contrast, violently protested the anointment, her screams rattling the stained glass as four adults forcefully dunked her head in sacred elixir.
After the move, my mom rented out a huge two-story duplex on an acre of land right in the middle of our small town. Our yard was a large field surrounded by sparse patches of woods where my mom jerry-rigged a chicken coop, rope swing, and crudely made tree house. There was a pathway at the edge of our property that led through the woods to a solemn stone house, heavily shaded by pecan trees. I met the little girl who lived in that house. Her name was Sarah Jane.
Sarah Jane was homeschooled and made to wear long skirts and lacy button-down shirts. She had very long, light brown hair parted down the middle with braids, a rare sight in the late 1980s. Her house was unusually dark on the inside, smelling of mildew, dust, and the sweet things her mother was always baking. There were strange stacks of boxes clogging up the hallways, as if a hoarder lived there. Her mother was always scrubbing and cooking in the kitchen in her Little House on the Prairie attire. Her father would not allow her to close her bedroom door, and in fact, all of the doors in the house were locked open with a small golden hook lock, barring the bathroom. She said secrets were not allowed in her house.
Soon after meeting Sarah Jane, I started a class for children preparing for their first communion. It took place in a fluorescent-lit portable outside the church. I felt painfully out of place there. Laminated posters of cartoon Noah’s Ark, Adam and Eve, and baby Moses were taped carelessly to the wall. Fluorescent lights flickered on sanctimonious children that smelled of Downy dryer sheets and Aqua Net. They had names like Tiffany and Amanda and had oversized hair-sprayed bangs. I could tell the teacher looked down on me, as if I were a feral cat that she could transform into a good Christian with a little indoctrination and maybe a perm. Despite this, I really wanted to have my first communion, so I tolerated the unpleasantries and continued going to class.
I would play at Sarah Jane’s house a few times a week during this time. I found out her family was Second Baptist and had unusual religious beliefs, such as the conviction that modern music, clothes, and makeup were sinful. There was a rundown trailer in her backyard that had the door ripped off and a big pile of torn-up carpet foam in one of the rooms. We’d sneak in there and she’d relish in the privacy. “Let’s play a game,” she said. “I’m the devil and you’re the little girl.” She told me to lay on the ground and she proceeded to lay on top of me and pin my shoulders to the ground with her hands. She looked at me with a satisfied spark of power in her eyes. “Sometime soon,” she said, “I’m going to French kiss you.”
Around this time, I stayed with family friends for a week during the summer. They were a small nuclear family with a mom, dad, and six-year-old little girl. They lived in a typical two-story suburban home with a large backyard and trampoline. One afternoon, I overheard the little girl asking her mom for permission to jump on the trampoline and her mom casually replying yes. Out of nowhere, the dad butted into the situation. “Excuse me,” he said angrily, “who is the head of this household? You ask me, not your mother, for permission. Outside, right now.” His wife’s face looked worried as she followed him out the front door. Shortly after they left, I went through the backdoor and snuck around the front so that I could see what was going on. His wife was slouching into a corner of the front porch with tears running down her cheeks. His red face was only six inches from hers and veins stuck out of his neck. He violently jutted his index finger at her and yelled in her face.
When they came back inside, I confronted him and asked, “Why are you being so mean to her?”
He replied, “I have a very old King James Bible that I’ll show you. The Bible says men have dominion over women and women must obey their husbands.” He walked me over to a huge bible he kept in a glass case and showed me the very passage he was talking about.
A few weeks later, Sarah Jane and I were eating muffins in her dusty backyard. “I really wish I were a boy,” she said.
Her words sucked the breath right out of me. I loved being a girl and was proud of it. This felt like a deep betrayal of our kind. “Why?!” I asked, my indignation brewing.
“My mom always gives my brothers bigger scoops of ice cream than me. Boys are made in God’s image but not girls. I wish I were a boy.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “That’s not fair and that’s not right! Your parents are stupid!” I shouted. I had lost my appetite and wanted to go home.
A few days later, I visited my mom in her studio. Her eyes were distantly focused on the print she was carving. “Mom, is God real?” I asked her directly.
She didn’t look up from her piece and after a minute she said, “You know, I don’t really believe that. I’m not really sure. You can always pray to the Virgin Mary if you’d like, because maybe you could relate to her more than Jesus.”
As soon as my mom told me this, I ran straight to the path to Sarah Jane’s yard, armed with this potent information. Her mom was hanging laundry on the clothesline outside the trailer and she was playing on the dusty ground. “Sarah Jane, I have something to tell you,” I said.
“Yeah?” she responded.
I came close to her and whispered it in her ear. “God is not real.”
I had no idea how much power those words contained. Her eyes got big with shock and there was a moment of silence. Then the explosion. “What?!” She went absolutely ballistic, screaming incomprehensibly, head-banging and punching the air. “God is too real, god is real, what are you saying?! Aahhh!!” My face turned red. Her mom watched submissively by her pile of laundry as Sarah Jane lunged at me and slapped my thigh hard. I ran home as fast as I could, my thigh stinging from her angry hand. I could hear her screaming my entire way home.
My first communion was scheduled to take place a few weeks later. I was in a dark mood that day and hid under my bed when the time came. My mom did not make too much of an effort to extract me from my hiding place. Instead of having my first communion, I had my first existential crisis there under the bed. Instead of connecting with angels or sweet prayers, I was distressed about death and the possibility of there being no god. “At least if there is nothing after death,” I thought, “I will not know so it won’t bother me.” This thought gave me vague comfort.
Ulrikka Haveron is a writer of poems and short stories residing in Portland, Oregon, and originally from Texas. She was a performing acrobat and choreographer for ten years and is now focusing on writing. She is also a mother, lactation consultant, and teacher.