“Son of God”
“Of Zebulun, fifty thousand seasoned troops,
equipped for battle with all the weapons of war,
to help David with singleness of purpose”
– 1 Chronicles 12:33 –
Zebulun, North Carolina, is the town that Israel forgot; the Wal-Mart parking lot stretches fatter than cars can fill, styrofoam cups piled beside crusting waste bins. There is not a truck without a Confederate flag or a church without a fire-and-brimstone mantle.
Nothing good could ever come out of Zebulun.
Joshua was about to turn eleven and, for his birthday, had asked for another My Little Pony doll. He imagined his own hair turning the same shade as the lilac hair that sprouted from her mane. He knew every song and every line from the DVD collection of the show his parents had first purchased for his sister some four years earlier.
His mother had taken him shopping for presents the Wednesday before his birthday. They were not of much money, nor of many options, so to the overflowing parking spots of Wal-Mart they went.
Joshua made a beeline for the toys section. His father had warned his mother that, being in middle school, Joshua had no business asking for toys anymore. But Joshua paid his father no mind, and so neither did his mother.
The cardboard sign for the Ponies had peeled, tight rows of brown corrugation interrupting the magenta and purple promises that “Friendship is the Best Magic of All!” A February birthday always meant the shelves were lean with all that had been pulled from deep storage after the holidays. None of the toys corresponded with the price tags and there were dents in the plastic casing.
Joshua, however, did not notice the desolation. With glee, he fingered the edge of the princess pony. The packaging was particularly damaged, which was probably why the doll was left in the wake of Christmas. Joshua looked expectantly at his mother. He lifted his eyebrows, a smile tucked in the corner of his face.
Joshua’s mother gave him a gentle grin in return, lifting the toy off the rack and leading him back to the checkout. The man running the register shot a questioning look at the doll, and then at Joshua, but he bagged it anyway.
As they cleared the automatic doors at the exit, they saw Joshua’s Sunday School teacher.
“Well hey there Josh-u-aaah!” she smiled so wide that the blue eyeshadow she’d caked around her eyelids smeared onto her temples. “How are you, buddy?” She forced a hug.
“And hey there to you, too, Mary!” she said to Joshua’s mother in the same carbonated tone. “How are y’all doing?”
Mary smiled politely and said that she and her son were just doing a little bit of shopping for his birthday.
“Welllll, what’d ya get?” Her smile widened, the tips of her teeth yellowed against her too-red lipstick.
Joshua’s fingers tightened, the plastic handles cutting into his hand.
“Come on now, y’all! What’chya got there, Joshie?” When neither Mary nor Joshua made a reply, her smile started to contort, like she’d popped a warhead for the first time, eyes all crunched and nose turned but lipstick still in place. “Joshua,” she shot a warning look at Mary, “you didn’t buy one of those – those toys again, did you?”
Mary said nothing, turning her cheek to look at her son.
“Joshua! That’s a girl’s toy!” the Sunday School teacher hissed, staring down every detail of Joshua and his mother – his old sneakers that only barely concealed a pair of pink socks, her fraying sweater cuffs and poorly bleached hair. Joshua took hold of his mother’s hand.
“That’s just unnatural. Joshua, honey, don’t you remember our talk?”
Joshua just squeezed his mother’s fingers. Her nails had been painted a deep purple, the cheapness of the paint meant they were already chipping. Joshua had asked once if he could paint his nails purple. But his father had pulled his mother aside and warned her that boys his age wouldn’t let that slide, “Joshua is enough of an outsider already.”
Joshua’s sister was normal enough. But Joshua was most content alone or with his sister, and happiest most of all when his sister let him wear her clothes and play with her toys. At first their parents thought it was normal, he was just admiring his big sister’s plush pink bathrobe because he loved his big sister. All the books told them this was normal, that they need only gently redirect and the Lord would guide the way.
But mustard seeds sprout mighty branches.
Joshua did not outgrow his love for plush pink things when his sister did. Joshua had tried, more than once, to play with Daniel next door. But Daniel had wanted to behead Joshua’s sister’s Barbie collection and had started punching Joshua in the gut when Joshua protested.
It was Daniel’s dad who had started the rumors at church that Sunday. That Joshua was too sensitive for a boy, that his parents weren’t teaching him Good Christian Values.
Joshua’s Sunday School class had laid hands on him at the same time that the Pastor called Joshua’s parents into the church office. Both the Pastor and the Sunday School had talked about stumbling blocks. How one boy in a frilly skirt was only a few steps away from bestiality. The Pastor wanted Joshua’s parents to know they were loved, but that their son better start behaving as he was expected to.
Joshua didn’t understand why the class had to pray for only him, when he was pretty sure the Ten Commandments condemned Daniel for bruising Joshua’s side. After they were done praying the Devil out of him, Joshua had gone to the handicapped bathroom.
And he began to wash his hands. He wasn’t sure how long he had stayed there, except that when he finally toweled off his fingers they were pruning and the sermon had already started. He’d just let the water run, washing him clean. His Sunday School teacher had told him to pray for purity, to pray away the temptation.
But Joshua was not praying away the devil. He wasn’t sure what he was praying for.
Now standing in front of the teacher, he gave his mother’s hand a small squeeze.
“What is it to you?” Mary’s voice cracked. She was staring down the Sunday School teacher as best she could, her hand firmly wrapped around her son’s. “Joshua is not your son to worry about.”
Joshua looked up at his mother.
“Well, I – ” spluttered his teacher. “I just, I just want what’s best for him – ”
“Then leave that to his parents,” Mary retorted, her voice small, but stern.
The Sunday School teacher forcefully ruffled Joshua’s hair. “Aw, he’s knows I love ‘im. Anyways, I’m here with the Ladies Luncheon gals, collecting change for the soup kitchen. Y’all wouldn’t be able to spare anything, would you?”
Mary’s mouth tightened into a line. She dug deep into her wallet and fished out forty cents.
“Aw well, uh, thank you, Mary. You know, we need every cent we can get! No amount is too small. We just don’t know what we have, do we.” She winked at Joshua, her voice escalating. “After all, the Lord tells us, whatever we do for the least of these we do unto Him.” She tapped the diamond cross she wore prominently over her sweater. “Every one of them is Jesus in disguise!”
Mary nodded in terse agreement. Taking Joshua again by his hand, she led him to the car.
The car rattled the whole drive home. Mary held one hand on the wheel and with the other, she stroked Joshua’s hair. Joshua watched Zebulun unfold outside the window: rickety white houses with American flags over porches, decaying gas stations, church steeples stark against the flatness of the land. That flatness made Zebulun look like it stretched to the Atlantic. Like nothing could exist between here and the rest of the world.
They pulled into the driveway. Mary turned off the ignition. She drew a breath and gently turned Joshua’s face toward her own.
“Joshua.” Her voice had a catch to it. “Darling Joshua.”
Joshua just looked at her. His expression was unreadable.
“I love you, Joshua. I don’t want what your Sunday School teacher said to stop you from loving this toy. I – I may not be as learned in my Bible as I should be, but I know for certain that you are God’s child. And I think God wants you to be happy.” Her brow furrowed. “And you are my very, very special boy.” She pulled him into a hug and kissed him firmly on the forehead.
Joshua was too buried in her frail chest for his mother to see his face.
She pulled back. “Come on, sweetheart, why don’t you go play with your new toy.” They walked inside their own rickety house, where Joshua’s father and sister watching television. Joshua’s father must have seen the expression on Mary’s face because he walked over to her with an uncharacteristic suddenness. Mary murmured something to him, but Joshua didn’t want to hear.
He had heard enough.
He turned down the short hall, ducking into the room he shared with his sister and firmly closed the door. Clutching the bag with the pony inside of it, he collapsed to the floor. More than anything, he wanted to cry, the release like when he was little and he’d skinned his knee. Crying was its own baptism.
But all Joshua felt was a hollow space where the plastic of the pony’s package pressed into his chest. He ripped off the casing. Held the toy in his hands. He didn’t look longingly at the pony’s lilac hair now.
He threw the toy across the room. It smacked into his open closet door, landing in a pile of clothes. The sight of the pony, her face still shining in an affixed smile, cracked him open. His weeping was not the gush of a tantrum, like he wanted. They were resigned, quiet tears; the kind that only plunged him further into himself.
Down the hall, he could hear the whir of the TV and, if he strained, the muffled sound of his parents talking in the kitchen.
He pushed himself off the floor and walked to his closet. As he stooped down to pick up the toy, he caught sight of his one and only necktie. His father had bought it for him a couple Christmases ago, to wear on special occasions. It was red, like the blood of the lamb Moses spread over the doorways of the Israelites to protect them from God’s curse. God was punishing those who would not listen, snatching away the firstborn sons from those who did not heed God’s law.
Joshua wondered, as he ran the necktie through his fingers, if God had cursed him.
And he turned to the bunk bed and began to climb the ladder to the upper bunk. At the end of the mattress ran a beam, seven feet off the ground.
Carefully, Joshua began to tie the knot he’d learned in Troop 22. And he began to pray:
Who Art in Heaven
His fingers were slick with sweat, the tie slipping in his hands.
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
A loop big enough to pull over his head.
On earth as it is heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
Joshua secured the noose. Carefully, he squeezed himself between the beam and the bed, and looked at the ground below him. His breath rattled in his ribs. From down the living room he heard the whir of the TV cut off. His parents’ voices weren’t murmuring anymore; they sounded like they were coming down the hall.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who have sinned against us.
His mother gently called his name from outside the door. Joshua jammed his eyes shut and –
Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
elizabeth mcmanus (lower-case intentional) is a member of the Mount Holyoke Class of 2014, majoring in Religion. In the fall, she will begin her Masters of Divinity program at Duke University Divinity School. Her first published work is an autobiographical essay entitled “Sex, Shame, and Scarred Knees” in Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith (White Cloud Press, 2013). She served as editor for the collection of essays, Courageous Conversations: Christian Women Unearthing the Unspeakable (RCWMS Press, 2013). For the Blackstick Review she worked as web co-editor. She lives in Durham, North Carolina with her partner and their two cats, Mary Poppins and Burt. Should you like more of her work, she writes about faith, feminism, and early adulthood mishaps at WanderingWrites.com.