Wild Geese (Excerpt from "Requiem")

The material substance which governs terrestrial life acts as agent likewise in the celestial.


I wore my yellow scuba mask when they baptized me in a pond full of cow shit. It was the only way I'd do it. Dad agreed to it, though he laughed at me. Mom told him to knock it off or I'd never get baptized. Was that what he wanted? No, it wasn't.

I was fourteen and had spent the early part of the summer preparing. I read verses from the Bible. I prayed lots of prayers, some rote, most fervent. I examined my soul and thanked God before every meal. I avoided looking at breasts. Eventually studies with Pastor Silas culminated in an examination of my spiritual health.

Did I believe in Jesus?


Was he the Son of God, sent for the forgiveness of sins?

Yes indeed. I'm nothing without Christ.

"And you'll walk with him unto death?" Silas said.

Death seemed far off, but sure, no problem, I said. I'll even climb up a cross and take a couple of nails in my hands and feet for him.

He smiled at that, then asked if I accepted the Holy Spirit.

Crap. Was that really necessary? Didn't calling on one get you all three, a trinity of superheroes? Here's the fact of the matter: the Holy Spirit tried to kill me when I was nine. Perhaps it wasn't technically the Holy Spirit's fault, but wouldn't an all-knowing God keep a 300 pound farmer from falling on an innocent nine-year-old?

At Cow Lick Creek Mennonite, our little church planted in the sandy lowlands near the Kankakee River, you lined up if you needed healing. You lined up and waited for the touch of Pastor Silas. You lined up and waited for the oil and the wind. And then, if the Spirit chose, you fell over. Dad was never very happy with the process of healings at church. He thought them too automated, like the car factories in Detroit: line up and out you go to the hot meatloaf waiting for you at home. Usually there were elders—Dad included—to catch those slain in the spirit, but even four strong elders couldn't catch John Martin, who had limped up the aisle to the the wooden cross at the front of the sanctuary, bracing himself with a massive walking stick he had crafted from a tree limb. He needed deliverance from his bad knees. I don't remember what ailment sent me to the cross that Sunday morning, but there I was, waiting in line for my healing, dwarfed behind John Martin's overalls and gargantuan walking stick.

In front of John Martin was the gum lady who had, as usual, stuffed her uneven legs into black stockings. They looked like burnt sausages. She often went forward for some evenness, and after church, while she handed out sticks of spearmint gum, we kids always asked her when she'd her legs would level out. It takes time to grow extra leg, she told us, the Lord works in centimeters, not inches. But on this particular Sunday, the Spirit must have worked in meters, because she was out cold on the floor, her legs nice and even. Someone had even pulled off her stockings. John Martin had to step over her, which wasn't easy to do with a bum knee. And then he began to totter backward, then forward, and then back again, a drunk over correcting a bad turn. I don't know why I thought I could stop him, but when my right hand entered the soft folds of his denim and flesh, I intimately knew a mass and velocity beyond my control. I watched my hand disappear, then my wrist and forearm, and then John Martin was on top of me. Something in my chest cracked. The trinity squad never showed up.

Mom said that I was the color of a January lake when they rolled John Martin off me. Dad said that I wasn't like that at all, that I was fine and no one was too worried. But when you came to, Dad added, you asked for the sun. And so that's what we did, Mom said, we dragged you out to the parking lot and into the sun, and your pink came back, just like that, a miracle.

The following Sunday the piano was gone. Char, Mom's pianist, was sitting in the front pew looking at the space where the piano had been. I followed Mom and Dad up to the front. There were deep indentations in the carpet, but no piano.

Mom asked about the piano, but Char sighed. "It was gone when I got here," she said.

Dad opened the utility closet next to the stage. As if it would fit in there. "Not in there," he said. "I'll check downstairs."

Mom dropped her music file onto the pew and sat next to Char. "It was gone when you got here?"

Char shuffled her sheet music and tightened the belt on her flowered skirt. "What will we do without a piano?"

Mom looked at me. I shrugged and watched a little gray moth bang against the window. I wanted to let it out, but Char's husband smacked it with the morning's bulletin. It crashed onto the carpeted floor and was still.

"I'm sure it will show up," Mom said. "Pianos always do."

Just then Dad came up the steps with a crisp slip of paper in his hand. "I found this taped to the office door," he said. "It's from John Martin." And he read the note:

Due to unforeseen circumstances involving particular parties—some earthly, others heavenly—the piano, which I might add was donated by the aforementioned (me) has been rendered, unfortunately, mute to particular parties, namely, the congregation at Cow Lick Creek, on account of my having knee doctor bills now, not to mention a Stolzfus-shaped bruise in my lower vertebrae. May Godspeed you in your endeavors, JM.

We sang a cappella that Sunday, and Pastor Timothy, Cow Lick's youth pastor, lifted his glad voice above ours all. I detested Timothy but the girls loved him, including Carrie, my crush. Carrie was two years older than me and about four inches taller. Her hair was blond and thick, and she kept it from her eyes with blue barrettes clipped just above her temples. She smelled like strawberries. During the winter she wore cozy sweaters and tight jeans, and in the summer she wore shorts that accentuated her long legs and cropped t-shirts that showed off her flat stomach. I didn't like it when Carrie went on about Timothy's sexiness, how his long, dark hair shimmered under the church's fluorescent lights; how his leather cowboy boots squeaked when he walked; how his worn Levi's with the little holes in the crotch flared his perfect swagger; how his stained white T-shirts emphasized his chest. But the best thing about him, she said, was his dog-eared bible with a worn leather cover. "Have you seen how he carries it?"

I hadn't.

"He hugs it next to his hip when he walks," she said. "Oh my god. Even Mom thinks it's sexy."

But it was Timothy who sealed my fear of the spirit when I was twelve.

It had been a hot summer, but that July evening was particularly sticky. We were in the youth room and Pastor Timothy was leading us through worship. I stared up at the limp ceiling fan. It wobbled, but I couldn't feel the breeze. Timothy probably had his guitar strapped around his neck, an accoutrement only: I never once heard him play a note. I needed a drink, but the water from the fountain at Cow Lick Creek was as rusty as a bucket of nails. I stayed thirsty.

Timothy had been preaching a series of sermons on the power of the Holy Spirit. His texts were from I Corinthians, and tonight was the night he promised us miracles. After the singing, he lined us up in a long, snaking row across the room. I eyed the door—I didn't like the looks of this at all—and then Timothy began praying for us, starting with Matt who was standing near the window. He put his hands on Matt's forehead and prayed quietly, but soon Timothy's prayers turned into babbling, louder and louder, and Matt hit the floor and glossolalia spewed from his mouth. Timothy smiled and moved on to Davey, repeating the process until it happened again: another writhing soldier on the floor for the Lord. Albert hit the floor with a boner. He shouldn't have worn sweatpants to church, and we shouldn't have called him Boner Bertie.

Carrie fell in slo-mo. Her breasts jiggled when she hit the floor, and her hair splayed itself in a perfect golden plume above her head. She looked like the Prell ads in Good Housekeeping. But why did Timothy kneel next to her? He hadn't done this with the other kids. Timothy prayed fervently, his chin uplifted, his mouth in motion. And then he put his hands on her breasts. I couldn't believe it. He kept them there for a solid minute, but Carrie didn't notice because she was speaking in tongues. I knew Pastor Timothy had privileges, but this didn't seem like one of them.

I kept my head down, but my eyes wandered. I watched my friends drop one by one. Timothy was coming closer. I could smell his Stetson cologne, see the mud on his boots. I glanced at him: he wore a wooden cross around his neck. I moved down a couple of places, then my friend Ross was on the floor, Timothy hovering over him like an overinflated balloon. Jesus. And then Timothy turned his head and leveled his gaze on me, his lips uttering a foreign language all the while. But I could understand the tongue, a deep comprehension that swelled and blossomed in my gut like Grandma's blueberry pancakes. I put my fingers in my ears, but my perception of the language was even louder: You are mine, it said, and I will grab your feet and hands and hold you under until you're safe.

But my feet weren't trapped. I could run. And after a couple hesitant steps, I sprinted and was out in air, free but thirsty. I ran to the old church bus, kicked its deflated tire, and cried, ashamed that I'd run from the spirit, sorry I'd let that man put his hands on my love, and pissed that the spirit was blind to it all.

Later Mom asked about the youth service. I was in the back seat of our LTD watching the lightning bugs whizz by. I told her it was fine, nothing new.

"You seem kind of quiet," she said.

I told her that I was just tired. Dad adjusted the AC, aimed the vent on me. The conditioned air felt good, reliable.

"Anything special happen?" Mom said.

"Nothing special," I said.

Mom was quiet for a bit. "Ross's mom said all the youth were speaking in tongues."

Dad tuned in the radio to a Billy Joel song, "Always A Woman." Mom turned it down.

"I like that song," I said. "Turn it back up."

Dad reached for the knob, but Mom said no, we're trying to have a serious conversation, Duane. Dad turned it off. "Talk to your mother," he said.

"Nothing happened," I said. "Some people fell, some didn't. Everyone sang, and then it was over."

"Char said that Ross didn't see you in the room."

"Oh Cheri," Dad said, "it's not a big deal."

I leaned back into my seat and told Mom that I was there. Not exactly a lie, not exactly a truth.

Mom sighed. "Maybe next time."

I wanted to tell her that there wouldn't be a next time, but Dad turned on the radio, switched it to AM, and we listened to Paul Harvey the rest of the way home.

So I evaded Pastor Silas's question concerning my acceptance of the Holy Spirit. Instead, I told him that the indwelling of the spirit was automatic and instantaneous and had nothing to do with me or even speaking in tongues. Silas deemed my answer good enough and the following Sunday I was baptized.

It was a hazy afternoon, the sun white and pale, when we finally filed out of church and streamed to our cars. Dad put his arm on the seat and turned around to look at me. "You ready?"

I held up my yellow scuba mask. "Yep."

Cow Lick Pond, our home for baptisms, was a mile or so away from the church. Dad pulled onto the road and I turned around in my seat and watched all the cars fall in line behind us. I asked if all those people were coming, and Mom told me that they were. I was sort of hoping for a private affair, but giving an expression of faith only counted if people were present. We looked like a funeral procession.

Silas said a few words at the water's edge, something about surrendering yourself to God, carrying your cross every day, and being obedient to death. The congregation sang a couple of choruses, and then Dad and Silas slogged through the reeds and into the pond. They were still wearing their Sunday clothes. I stared at my feet. My toes were touching the water, but it wasn't cold. A dragonfly landed on my scabbed knee. I tried to shoo it away, but it hovered then landed on my finger. It looked at me. I wondered what it saw through its glimmering, compound eyes. How did I look to it? Did it fear me? Mom pushed me forward. "They're waiting," she whispered.

I slipped the yellow mask over my face. My upper lip puckered against the seal. I looked at Silas and Dad, who had his arm outstretched, reaching for me. His eyes were a bit watery. Why did they have to go out so deep? I took a step forward. I didn't like the water grasses brushing against my ankles, so I sort of hopped a bit but almost fell. I had to be careful: a premature baptism wouldn't count.

The water was up to my chest when I reached Dad and Pastor Silas. Silas put his hand on my hand and asked if I believed in Jesus, my redeemer.

I nodded.

"And do you pledge to walk with him, even if it means your death?"
I nodded again. We'd gone through this already.

"And do you believe in the power of love?"

Love? We hadn't discussed love. What did he mean by love? But before I could answer—maybe he thought I'd say no—he shoved me under. I shut my eyes, but when I remembered I was wearing a mask, I opened them. Everything was murky and green. I could see Dad's slacks, the material clinging to his waist and thighs. He wore his leather belt, the one that spelled out his name in big, block letters: DUANE. And there were fish, too, little things that nipped at Dad's bare toes. He must have felt them, because he shifted his feet and the fish scattered. But they returned in an instant, drawn to something in that cracked skin of his. Silas had his hand was on my head, but I felt another hand slowly grip my left ankle. I looked at my foot and there it was, a pale right hand with green painted nails reaching out from the mud. I tried to move my leg, but the hand gripped tighter, pressing into my Achilles with unbelievable strength. I reached for the hand around my ankle and Silas lost his grip on my head. A left hand shot up through the mud and grabbed my right wrist. Silas found my arm and tried to pull me up—my baptism was complete and I was part of the kingdom now—but I was stuck. I could hear his muffled voice, and then Dad's hands were under my armpits. But the hands from the mire wouldn't let me go. I looked up. Light flooded through the water and I had to squint. My lungs tightened, but everything was peaceful. I could breathe this water if I chose. I looked down at the hands again, and a face gradually pressed itself against the mud. This was how I'd die then, death through baptism. I could make out a forehead, a long nose, then thin lips. Her dark hair was streaked with mud. And then she opened her eyes and looked at me, a slight smile forming on her lips. Her mouth was still, but I heard her voice: You are mine. But I wasn't ready to drown. Not today. Panic overcame me and I kicked at the hand with my free foot as hard as I could. Today was not my dying day. She released her grip and slipped back into the mud, and suddenly I was sailing toward the air. Dad said that my whole body cleared the water by several feet. I went under again, then clawed up Dad's back like a cat climbing a tree. The congregation laughed at this holy moment, and I ripped off my mask and flung it as far as I could, vowing never to set foot in water again. My mask sank and a skein of geese showed up, seven of them, geese way out of season and way out of their element, circling the shitty pond while considering their options. They untucked their webbed feet and glided gracefully onto the water's surface. We all ooohed and aaahhed, and the geese squawked and paddled directly toward the three of us out there in the water. We tried to shoo them away as we waded to shore, but the lead goose pecked my arm till it bled. They acted like they owned the pond. Maybe they did.

After we waded ashore, Dad realized that he had a fat leech stuck to his ankle. He fished out his wet wallet and scraped it off with his Visa card while Pastor Silas inscribed a blank page in my bible. His note was my official baptism certificate, and I read it several times in the car on our way to Grandpa and Grandma's for dinner: This is to acknowledge that Jake gave expression of his faith in Christ through water baptism on June 17, 1984. At this time he surrendered himself to the Lordship of Jesus, acknowledged Christ's blood for the forgiveness of sins, and dedicated himself to the cause of Christ, even unto death. Grandma had made a pot roast—it was perfectly moist—along with boiled potatoes and green beans sprinkled with slivers of bacon. We ate blueberry pie with Valpo Velvet ice cream for dessert. It was the perfect meal to celebrate a not drowning.

After lunch, Mom and Grandma went to the kitchen to clean up. I followed Dad and Grandpa to the family room. Grandpa turned on the TV and switched the station to Channel 9, then lay back in his recliner. There was a Cubs' game on, and they were losing to the Phillies. Grandpa watched an inning, and when the commercials came on, he looked at me and said, "Well, we got another one in the flock." He smiled, then fell asleep before the broadcast resumed.

Dad asked me why I stayed under the water so long. "It seemed like you didn't want to came back up," he said.

"The water was nice," I said.

"It was like you had bricks for feet, like you'd gained a hundred pounds," he said. "Water's supposed to make you lighter."

"Not if you're a sponge," I said. "The longer you stay under, the cleaner you get."

Dad laughed, then nodded off.

I looked at the TV. Leon Durham was at bat. I could still feel her fingers around my ankle and wrist. Durham swung and missed. Could anyone really get clean in a shit-filled pond? I lifted my pant leg. Her fingerprints were visible. I glanced at the TV. Another strike. I positioned my fingers onto the imprint of hers. Her fingers were long and the angle was weird and our fingers didn't quite match. Then Leon Durham struck out and a commercial came on.

About the Author

Chad Gusler

Chad Gusler teaches English composition and creative writing at Eastern Mennonite University. He earned his MFA in fiction writing from Seattle Pacific University. "Wild Geese" is adapted from Requiem, a novel-in-progress.