Nocturnal Lagophthalmos | Christi Krug
At Bethany Faith Temple, there was clapping during the singing, shouting during the clapping, and dancing during the shouting. The golden front pew flickered in a flame of bold souls—people who’d gone to church forever, knew all the verses and when to say Amen. In the slow songs, they raised their hands, closed their eyes, and sang to God. In the fourth row, I stared at the vaulted ceiling where pendant lights hung from sparkling plaster. I fixed my gaze on brass and crystal, raising arms above eyebrows, palms inward. I didn’t shut my eyes.
The people of Bethany Faith Temple—my new family—believed in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which included healing. This woman, Harriet Denham Prix, was a faith healer coming to speak. Marietta told me about it. “She’s healed all kinds of people! Cancer patients, people with heart problems, paralytics who get right out of their wheelchairs and walk!”
One thing about Marietta, she had faith. Maybe that’s why she’d wanted me in the first place. Christian Family Services had a kid available: a pretty decent 12-year-old who tried hard in school, mostly followed the rules, and had lived in one family after another. Marietta decided she and Joe would be the best parents I’d ever had. It was one thing I wanted her to be right about. One thing I was trying hard to believe.
We were sitting down to lunch, and Marietta slipped me a plate of perfect toasted sandwich halves, bookending rosy apple wedges. “We should invite your mother to church,” she said.
Grilled cheese went gummy in my mouth. This would mean bringing my stumbling, greasy-haired, wool-coated, drab little mother into a place where, after a year and a half with Joe and Marietta, I was finally making a good impression. Darlene Harris, the pastor’s wife, always touched my shoulder, told my new parents how fast I was growing. I got to be in The Shoemaker’s Christmas, my dark hair snowy with baby powder for playing old Mrs. Shoemaker. Before this, grownups didn’t notice me. Except a long time ago.
“When you were a baby,” Mother said, “you slept with your eyes open, and we would laugh, not knowing if you were asleep or awake.” She smiled. “Oh, how we loved to watch you.”
I looked it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the reason babies sleep with eyes open is because their brains are developing in REM sleep—nocturnal lagophthalmos it’s called. But maybe, in my case, I just wanted to know what was going on.
What was going on now was Marietta inviting Mother to a faith healer.
Bad enough that I didn’t know what a faith healer was. I’d read the Bible all the way through, spoken in tongues, been baptized. On TV, faith healers were hyper, dressy people on platforms with scads of crowds. It was all I could picture.
“Just think what it would be like if your mother was healed!” Marietta said.
Mother would get freaked out by the jouncy music and pushy talk. At the altar call, she would stumble into the church aisle, eyes wide, a hand quivering at her forehead, like when she was hearing voices. Healing or no healing, Mother was at best worried. At worst, ranting and hallucinating.
Most dreaded of all, if she was faith-healed, I was sure I would have to live with her again.
Marietta was the one who ironed creases into my jeans. Cut and feathered my hair. Kept a bathroom with sage-scented shampoo for me to use and velvety guest towels for me not to. Drove me to youth group. For the first time, I had a life like other kids—in a clean, happy house.
After school Wednesday, church night, Marietta greeted me with a smile, her short auburn hair shining in the daylight windows. The curtains were open and two tabbies curled on chairs, two Great Danes bounded in the backyard, and even the house spider plants dangled their tails in delight.
I had learned not to cry myself to sleep for missing Mother. I had learned how to fold towels, smooth my bedspread over a fluffed pillow, brush my teeth every morning and evening. I was ashamed of all I was never taught, afraid of what I might never learn. How to make people like me, want me, keep me. To make my own good family some day. The last thing I wanted was everyone seeing the very worst thing about Christy Penney: the mother I came from.
Marietta nodded and smiled. “This is so-o-o exciting!” She and God were a team, and if she thought God needed to faith-heal Mother, then certainly God must think so, too. I felt shaky, weak. I couldn’t tell Marietta what a bad idea this was.
She reached for the phone. “Mrs. Penney? Can you join us at church?”
Mother would be murmuring, “Oh my. This week?” and protesting that she didn’t have anything to wear.
“Come as you are!” said Marietta.
Then Marietta was repeating Mother’s address and writing it down in her gigantic, confident, loopy hand. My breath caught in a knot in my sternum.
Mother lived at Mercer Inn, a halfway house in a creepy, crumbling old building in downtown Seattle. Joe had picked her up a couple of times. I had gone in to get her, confronted by dazed residents sitting like barnacles on ripped red vinyl chairs in a hot, smoke-filled lobby that burned my eyes and turned my stomach. Now my mind reeled with horrific moments, there and elsewhere, of Mother slow-stomping to school conferences, choking on her food at Thanksgiving dinners, saying stupid things when I brought a friend over to play.
Wednesday night came quick. Marietta and I got in the car; Joe was working late driving his Washington State Patrol car. We rolled down the freeway, exiting downtown. My stomach clenched. How could I stop this? I had no choice but to pray to the same God everyone else was praying to. God, please don’t let my mother come to the meeting and get faith-healed.
The brown Ford Pinto wound through downtown streets, a left, a right, a lurch to a stop sign. With a tomato-red nail, Marietta touched the paper with the directions. “Pike . . . Pine . . . Boylston. Oh crap, it’s a one-way!” A U-turn in a parking lot, a circle around the block. “It’s supposed to be right here!” Minutes of frustration ticked into half an hour, forty-five minutes, an hour of useless driving.
Marietta looked at me. “I can’t believe this. I can’t find Mercer Inn. We’re so late to the service there’s no point. Might as well go home.” She shook her head.
I could breathe again, my whole body relaxing against the vinyl seat.
But I’d done evil. I’d prayed at cross-purposes against her, against God. I could never let Marietta know. She wouldn’t want me anymore.
After we crossed an overpass, the Space Needle disappearing behind us in the fog, a thought punched in: What if Mother really could get better? What if she could, again and always, be the person who read to me in her soft voice, who laughed at my dumbest jokes, who wrote a poem of her daughter as a beautiful pearl? Had I doomed her to that tiny room with cockroaches and suitcases and pantyhose mildewing at a dripping, green-ringed sink? I smothered the images, clinging to my frail relief that we hadn’t picked her up. My secret identity was safe.
When we got home and shared a late dinner, Marietta told Joe, “The Devil kept us from finding Christy’s mother. She would have been healed. She was supposed to be healed.”
I was an instrument of the Devil.
Sister Harriet was scheduled to speak again the following Sunday night. Mother wasn’t coming. It was a saving grace that, with Marietta and Joe in choir, they couldn’t pick her up.
I was a tangle of conflicting emotions as we walked early into church. Marietta and Joe disappeared to put on their long purple choir robes. Curiosity welled while I waited in the foyer. Who was Harriet Denham Prix? Was she glowing, serious, powerful, masculine, young, or grandmotherly like Mrs. Shoemaker? I peeked into the sanctuary. An ordinary middle-aged woman sat next to Reverend Harris while Marietta and Joe filed onto risers with the choir. They all burst into the rousing, “Highway to Heaven.” The woman had old-fashioned strawberry-blonde hair tapered around her face like June Cleaver, and a long blue silky dress with a gleaming chunky silver cross around her neck. She was thin and smiley with a giant mouth of white teeth.
I moved aside as people flooded past. I tried to blend in, even though I was the only middle-schooler; the youth group was meeting elsewhere.
People were wheeling in on wheelchairs and hobbling in on canes, people with loose, mustardy skin and rheumy eyes, parading silently into their places.
Harriet Denham Prix walked to the lectern, her face turning serious. Congregants nodded. They stuck hands in the air and waggled them. Small, twisted bodies sat in heaps, looking down, while strong, determined bodies held the wooden backs of pews, faces bright and focused.
Sister Harriet must have given an invitation to come forward, because a pasty old man crawled out of his seat and inched down the aisle, dragging a leg like Igor. He stood below her, waiting. She talked while he tottered, and I was afraid he was going to collapse in an accident if she didn’t hurry up and heal him. And then she jumped down the altar steps, stretched her hands over his balding head, and closed her eyes, face glowing. She looked like an angel. Her shout leaked out the sanctuary doors: “I thank you Lord for this healing. Whatever it takes!”
He stood, nothing different about him, but everyone in the church lowered their hands, statue-still. I didn’t know if this was a healing. Confusion roiled in my chest.
All these hopefuls, with their cancers and diseases—they belonged to the world of miracles. Mother wasn’t here, never would be. Her illness was beyond the body; she had suffered shock treatments and hospitalizations and lectures and assaults, she had been outcast and divorced and widowed and broken; she had parented me badly, whenever she could get out of bed.
I turned, taking the side steps two at a time to the youth annex. Late to youth group, I acted casual, slipping onto the threadbare, overstuffed couch. Pastor Stan was saying he wanted to be relevant to kids today. He read to us sex advice from a Christian college magazine, Love, Sex, and The Whole Person. Those in seventh grade sat bewildered, while the eighth graders snorted and rolled their eyes, and Jen Baskin, a tenth grader, leaned forward and asked, “Does it count as sex if you’re just touching each other?”
The night ended with the usual drive home, Joe and Marietta bouncily reprising “Highway to Heaven” in the car.
I thought about the healing service for a long time. Years later, I would pray my best prayers for Mother, asking for miracles, saying, “Whatever it takes, God.” My heart would break, wanting her to have a different life. But not yet. I was still living with the threat that any moment my happy life could end.
When we got home, Marietta spooned up fudge batter pudding at the dessert table. “Sister Harriet said interesting things,” she said. “You should never pray for something you’re not ready to believe. If it doesn’t happen, your faith will be destroyed.”
I’d tried doing two things at once: believing in God, and keeping Mother out of the picture. Maybe my faith was destroyed, but then again, maybe I had all the faith in the world. Good or evil, what I asked for had happened.
I had done something strange, abnormal, like nocturnal lagophthalmos. But maybe God had answered because God couldn’t help it. Smiling at me, thinking I was cute. Sleeping with my eyes open.
About the Author:
Christi Krug’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in dozens of journals, zines, and anthologies, most recently in Backchannels Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and GRIFFEL. Christi is a 2022 Emerging Writer for Centrum and a 2019 creative resident for North Cascades Institute. She is a presenter, a Pushcart nominee for poetry, and the author of Burn Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Creative Breakthrough, inspiring audiences across the United States. Christi serves as a writing coach, teaches for community education programs in Oregon and Washington, and leads nature/yoga/writing experiences at the Oregon Coast where she makes her home. www.christikrug.com