Hermaphrodite Terrorist Angel
Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues… Psalm 55:9
There was a man waiting for us in the parking lot of the only store off of exit 229, I-85, just north of Henderson, North Carolina. How he knew we were coming we can’t guess; he must have had some kind of tripwire strung to the hand-painted sign out on the highway that read, “MiRAcle this Exit,” because he was standing there as we rolled into the lot and when we opened the car doors he said, “You here to see it?”
“We are,” we said, and he pointed. His hand was a curled claw of melted fingers and scabby stumps. We followed his direction and saw a little white shack with words scrawled all over it in the same unsteady hand that had lured us off the highway: “Its here its here Its here.” He told us that once on this spot a hitchhiker had looked up into the sky and saw four clouds in the shape of letters: E-S-U-S.
“Well shit that ain’t nuthin,” he said. “ESUS isn’t even a word.” Then sure enough the wind picked up and a fifth cloud blew across the sky, making it a proper miracle, spelling the name.
He moved his mangled fist through the air like that ‘J’ floating into place, a hook to hang the story on now that the clouds were gone. The advertised “miracle” was actually just photographs of that divine skywriting, on sale in the white shack for $300 each. We couldn’t see them just then. The shack was padlocked, and Mr. Miracle didn’t have the key. When he insisted we buy something else to make the stop worthwhile, we asked for the local paper. The letters of the headline were deep black and even: “GUNMAN TERRORIZES CHURCH: She-Male Intruder Reportedly Calls Americans ‘Killers.'” There was no picture.
* * *
Reverend W.F. Buddy Faucette had been a preacher for forty years when the devil came into his church, said a prayer, drew a .38, and pulled the trigger.
Buddy heard later from the police that the devil wasn’t a man at all, and not really a woman either. “He got all the parts, y’see,” Buddy told us one afternoon in the print shop he owned on the main street of town. The devil had even tried to show Buddy his bosom. Reached in and tried to draw up a breast full and soft as a woman’s.
No one in the church had ever seen anything like it, but Buddy wasn’t surprised. “This kind of thing been prophesied.” he said. “Look it up, it’s in the book.”
That’s how we’d found him. With a list of names gathered from the Henderson Daily Dispatch we’d bought from the miracle man, we’d rifled through the Vance County directory looking for the numbers of anyone involved in an incident local reporters were calling the country’s “latest act of terrorism.”
“This is spiritual war,” Buddy told us. He’d been fighting it since he got the call to preach in 1959. Back then he told the Lord he couldn’t do it; he didn’t have that kind of voice.
“You hear me quiet, now,” he said to us, deep and low. “That’s how I was then.”
The Lord told him to read the Book of Joshua; He would do the rest. Buddy did so and slipped into the back of a church to see what would happen. But the devil came in after him. Whispered in his ear, “Buddy, you can’t do it. You don’t got the voice.”
“Well,” Buddy replied, slowly, “Get thee behind me, anyhow.”
“Okay,” the devil said. “I will — if you can tell me just two words you’re a-gonna preach.”
“Well,” Buddy said, and that used up the only one he had.
So he marched up to pulpit, put the devil in front of him, and opened his mouth. Out came the story of Joshua: He who won the Promised Land by killing everyone in it.
When Buddy was done the devil was nowhere to be seen, but Buddy had found the message that would build Trinity Full Gospel Church.
“Battle’s heatin’ up,” Buddy told us, the print shop behind him quiet and still, his voice gentle as it always was except when the spirit spoke through him, as it seemed to be doing more often. His silver hair swooped up like a torch, his ruddy cheeks drooped to his chin, he didn’t feel old. The visitor with too many parts had been a sure sign that the devil could still hear Buddy preaching.
* * *
The next evening we visited the church — a steeple-less, white pine box, striped by narrow windows glowing blue. One of Buddy’s deacons, Billy Joe, pointed to two colorful pictures on either side of the altar, an empty stage. “You just look right up there,” he said.
Billy Joe had come with Buddy and a few other men to meet us in case we’d been sent by the devil ourselves. Buddy looked to be a powerful man, but of the bunch Billy Joe seemed readiest to handle any fighting that had to be done, spiritual or otherwise. A plumber by trade, he kept his shoulders pulled to his neck and his short-fingered hands flexing between fists and stretched-open palms. He wore tight blue jeans spotted with paint, white leather cross trainers, and a t-shirt depicting the crucifixion in life-like detail, Jesus’ chest on the front, Jesus’ back on the back, Dying to Meet You dripping across the top in red bloody letters.
“Take a good look,” Billy Joe said. “I want you to go ahead and study on what you see.”
Behind the pulpit, the two identical images stared down like the eyes of the church itself, filled with fire and rapture and souls pulled into the sky. On a road that stretches to the horizon, cars drive into ditches, into telephone poles, into each other. In the foreground a tractor-trailer jack-knifes and bursts into flames, in the upper left a jet liner crashes into a high rise. The bodies of the worldly burn everywhere. But the souls of the saved unman taxis and graves and float through office windows, flying up toward Jesus who shines above it all like the sun at high noon.
“That’s what going to happen and that’s where we’re going,” Billy Joe declared, only he said “gone.” “Not a doubt about that. Rapture’s gone come and we will be called to His presence. We are gone to meet our Heavenly Father. In Heaven.”
He breathed through his nose and stared for a long minute, his eyes a bit too close together. He’d recently gone through a bad separation from his wife, but he claimed it’d opened his eyes. Maybe it had; they seemed to stay moist without blinking. He nodded, and kept nodding until he was sure we understood and agreed, until we nodded, too, just to stop him from nodding. He seemed to take that as a victory.
“We going up!” Billy Joe shouted, and his arms shot toward the ceiling like someone had kicked a field goal.
Buddy nodded, too, his quiet agreement like a blanket thrown on Billy Joe’s fever. Yes, he said, the war is raging, and the signs did indeed suggest that one day soon the difference between this side and that will be as clear as it is between fire and wind.
Billy Joe paced in front of the pulpit, speaking in time with his steps. “Not. A. Doubt. About. That.” He stopped in front of a gold-toned cross, the only one in the church, stretched his arms out to his side like he was playing airplane, and locked us into a close-eyed stare. “He fought for us,” he said. “So. Now. We. Fight. For. Him. We are fighting the devil every day of our lives!”
Buddy felt the need to make a distinction. The “intruder,” he said, was not the devil himself. “No, sir, just some poor soul the devil used to his own ends. Man is man and woman is woman, and the devil got that poor intruder trapped in between.”
“Yes,” murmured another deacon named Wesley, a smooth-skinned Jacob to Billy Joe’s hairy Esau. College-educated and well traveled, Wesley had married into Buddy’s church and emerged as its resident theologian. He wore black shoes, black slacks, and glasses, and although there’s no uniform for a Holiness preacher, Wesley just looked like one. He seemed aimed for a pulpit; probably Buddy’s, probably soon.
“When that person walked in here this Sunday last,” Wesley said, “I knew it was the Enemy at work. Billy Joe told me later when he saw that intruder’s yellow raincoat, he thought it was the gas company. Isn’t that right, Billy Joe?”
Billy Joe sat in a pew next to Wesley and glared at his watch.
“But I knew it,” continued Wesley. “And you know what? There was no fear in me.” He put his hands together, pressed his fingers to his lips, then opened them like a flower, lowering and spreading his arms to take in the whole room. “There was no fear in this church. The devil at our door, but why should we be afraid? We know the power.” The word came out shortened: “The powa of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Wesley stopped, content to leave it at that. He and the other men, Buddy, Billy Joe, and Billy Joe’s daddy, Billy, stared at us from across the aisle, all of us sitting sideways in pews meant to keep you looking straight ahead. Wesley had played the trump card. When they talked about and around Him, they leaned forward as if about to pounce. But when His name came out in the open, they sat back satisfied, like they’d just sealed the deal, like they’d just pressed a button to drop the A-bomb. Once the wick is lit, why bother saying anything else?
* * *
Earlier that day, we’d gone to the Vance County lock-up to meet the intruder they thought was sent by the devil. We sat across from her, separated by unbreakable glass, and listened while she spoke with her hands and breathed into a telephone receiver connected to the wall. She had the jaw of a man and the lips of a woman, skin the color of coffee with lots of cream, and, we’d noticed when a male and female escort of guards had brought her in to meet us, toenails painted purple. It looked like her nose had been broken in several places and had healed in a zigzag, and she had a mole beneath her right eye she was given to tapping. She wasn’t trying to pass. The longer you looked at her the more uncertain you were, as if her skin was loose clothing she kept re-arranging.
The Vance County sheriff, Thomas Breedlove, didn’t think she was dangerous, but while we spoke to her he paced in the corridor, his hand propped on his hip just above the handle of his weapon. Sheriff Breedlove himself had driven us to the jail in his silver Lincoln Continental, warning us all the way that the “terrorist” was “mental,” a condition he thought sad but irreconcilable. “It won’t tell you nothing,” he’d predicted.
He called the intruder “it” not because he was uncomfortable with her ambiguous gender, but because she was. When she walked into Buddy’s church the week before on a cold, clear, winter morning, called to pray out of the surrounding scrub forest from which she emerged on a dirt path, she was a man in a hardhat and a yellow slicker. But when she sang her voice was high and clear. “Ladies said it sounded like an angel,” recalled Buddy, who at first simply took her for an opportunity to share God with a black man. They were welcome, of course, but none ever came.
When Buddy shouted, “Let all who will, come!” she prayed at the front of the church on her knees, right next to the women in their flower-print dresses, joining their chorus of Holiness voices. Only, when everyone else had had enough, she remained at the altar.
Buddy knelt down beside her. “Why, there was a tear coming down there from its eye,” he told us, so he’d asked her, whispering in her ear, “Are you praying for something special?”
“For the war to end,” she answered in the voice of a man.
“Well, I’d like that, too,” Buddy said.
She was silent for a moment, then added, “Americans are killers.”
“No, no,” Buddy assured her, “we are not blood-thirsty nation. We do what we have to do.”
She seemed to ignore him, but kept praying. She prayed as the church folks just had–out loud, full-voiced, in a language no one spoke to anyone but God–praying until Buddy grabbed her by the collar of her raincoat. He tugged her away from the altar rail, clear off the ground.
“I am not afraid of you,” Buddy said once he had her outside. “Do you understand?”
“Then it went calm on me,” Buddy recalled when he told us the story. “Tilted its head back-like to get a fuller view. And it said, just as clear as me to you, ‘I live in fear every day of my life.'”
Buddy shook his head. “Imagine that,” he said. He wished he could’ve comforted her, but at the time he said nothing. “My voice failed me.”
Next thing Buddy knew, as soon as he’d returned to his pulpit that morning, the devil had come in after him. “He’s got a gun!” one of the women shouted. Buddy swung around to see. His eyes stopped on his grandson. The boy had just come up from the basement Sunday school; he stood in front of the apocalypse paintings at which the devil was aiming.
Click, click, click.
“Poor thing,” Buddy said later. “I didn’t say it then, but I’m saying it now. You tell it if you see it I’m a-gonna pray for its salvation.”
Back in the jailhouse we told her, “Reverend Buddy gave us a message: He says he’s praying for you.”
She put a finger over her lips — shhh — and rolled her eyes upward, and with her other hand she pointed above. When we’d entered the room she had picked up the phone through which we were to speak, but the only thing she would say out loud was her name. She’d told the arresting officer it was Christy, but demanded as a man that he be put down on the police report as “Isshizean Jean,” along with the facts that he was Jewish and from New Jersey. In the few words we heard of it, her accent shifted as effortlessly as the depth and tone of her voice; she could have been from anywhere. Her fingerprints revealed nothing and the gun was untraceable.
She told us she was “MIKAEL DourenT,” the first name to be all capitals, and the also the final letter, behind which she said her true name was hiding. Then she went silent, but she didn’t stop talking. Our conversation proceeded by gesture and emotion. She laughed, and when we laughed, too, she started to cry. She kissed the phone receiver into which she did nothing but breathe. She made a fist with her left hand.
There was a tattoo at the crook of the thumb. Deep black, blurry at the edges, but the shape of it was clear: a heart. Not a valentine, but the real thing, a four-chambered organ, the aorta poking from the top like a horn.
She propped her head on the tattooed hand. Slowly, her tongue began to extend from between her lips; longer and longer, its tip narrowing until it was like a finger about to tap the glass. Then it turned, hooking back on itself. It moved toward the tattoo, quivered and licked the black heart with a swirl. Her teeth held her tongue like a small animal, a trapped rabbit or a squirrel. Bit by bit, she pulled it back in until it was gone.
She pointed above again, then brought the pointed finger down and aimed it at us like a gun, smiling; her teeth, we noticed, were white and well cared for. Then, the gun still cocked, she pursed her lips and leaned forward, as if hiding from her own hand. Her eyes sagged, tears rolled, her lips began to move like she was looking for words. No sounds came through the receiver.
* * *
“I’ll tell you what,” Wesley said, “prayer is so powerful we don’t even need to see that person to force the devil outta her. We can go ahead and do it right here. Isn’t that so, Buddy?”
“Well, I don’t see why not,” Buddy answered.
“That’s right,” Wesley cheered. “We can pray the devil off her from clear cross town.”
Billy Joe clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Whew!” He couldn’t wait to get started. He began marching between the pews, praying like a fire hydrant cranked open. “We thank you Heavenly Father for the opportunity you are about to give us to welcome you among us and fill us with the most Holy Spirit of your only Son as it is in Heaven and shall be on earth forever and ever in your everlasting glory! Father! Thank you! Amen!”
Wesley interrupted him. “Pastor Buddy, would you lead us this evening in a prayer for the troubled person who brought a firearm into God’s house?”
“I would surely like to.”
Buddy reached behind the pulpit and retrieved a glass bottle with a half-torn olive oil label.
“Who is willing?” he called out.
Billy Joe stood at attention. “I am, Buddy.”
“I am willing, Pastor Buddy,” Wesley said.
Buddy ignored the two younger men, turning instead to Billy Sr., who had been sitting quietly, his hands folded in his lap.
“I am if you need me, Buddy,” he said and shuffled toward the center of the room, lifting his arms as if surrendering. Buddy plugged the bottle with his thumb and turned it over, then dabbed oil on Billy’s hands and temples.
“Let all who will, come!” Buddy shouted. “Let all be blessed who pray in Jesus’ name!”
He turned the bottle again and blessed himself, then passed it around to Wesley, to Billy Joe, then to us. We dipped the bottle into our palms, and with Buddy, Billy Joe, and Wesley, formed a circle around Billy Sr., gripping his flannel-covered shoulders with our oiled hands.
“Lord!” called Buddy. “We’re praying to you now in the name of your most holy son Jesus!”
“Glooooory!” Wesley hollered. “Hallelujah!”
“Lord!” shouted Buddy. “We know you’re in that prison cell with that soul who brought a weapon into your house and we know the devil’s there too!”
Billy Joe began mumbling his prayer like an engine revving at a stoplight, waiting for the signal to change. “Heavenly Father we pray that you come before us this night we pray for your presence and your blessing your mercy Heavenly Father.”
Buddy rolled on. “Lord! We ask in your most holy name to expel those demons from that lost person, to wash him or her in your loving mercy, to make free his soul of demonic possession!”
Billy Sr. stood dead still in the center, his arms up, his fingers fluttering like a dainty goodbye. His prayer was a steady beat under the others’: “C’mon down Jesus. C’mon down Jesus. C’mon down Jesus.”
“LORD!” Buddy called. All heads jerked back, the volume of his praise was so great. The air in the church changed, charged with all voices at once.
“C’mon down Jesus!”
Billy Joe clenched his fists and started raving like an Appalachian jihadi, his voice popping and ringing. Recognizable words fell away, replaced by rolling exultations in a language that sounded like a cross between Aramaic and Klingon:
“Shanaza palamniaz rapuptanah! Shana zarni pakling ostababajar!”
Across the circle the spirit came simultaneously to Wesley and caused him to chant in Latinate so crisp it might have come straight from the Vatican:
“Paliate rotinatur opiscopicopum! Adjerminate oliosphate copulum horarum!”
“IN JESUS’ NAME!”
“C’mon down Jesus! C’mon down Jesus!”
” Sha na ba ta ba rabbadada ostapakanar! ”
We began to shout, ourselves.
Help? Who? The hermaphrodite gunman? Sure. Buddy and co.? Absolutely. Us? Hell, yes. We were scared of Christy-Ishizean-Jean-MIKAEL-DourenT-and-more-hidden, and we were fucking terrified of Billy Joe and his holy war. Even Sheriff Breedlove had given us a fright, drawing a phony revolver on us when we’d first met him. To see if we’d jump, he’d said, and to teach us a lesson about how things that aren’t real can still hurt you. “See now,” he’d said, holding up the cap gun, “you’d pulled that on me, I wouldda shot you.”
“God! Help! Help, God!”
We stuck to English but we began praying like Billy Joe and Wesley, our shouting unheeded in the spirit-filled circle of powa: God-help-us-Jesus-or-whatever-save-us-from-hell-save-Ishizean-Jean-too-get-the-devil-outta-her-and-this-place-too-while-you’re-at-it–Breath–Help! Help! Help!
“LORD!” Buddy roared, his head thrown back and his lips distended, stretching to let out the mighty word. We could hear Billy Joe’s and Wesley’s tongues weakening, but they each strained to muster a few more spirit-filled syllables, until they came to a shared, ululating climax. Billy Sr. let his arms fall, and Wesley faded us out, wringing his hands together in a prayer grip, his voice murmuring as all others fell quiet: “glooory… glooory….. glooory…..”
The prayer circle joined hands; Billy Joe linked to Reverend Buddy, Buddy linked to Billy Sr; Billy Sr. linked to Wesley. We took the hands offered to us, completing the circuit between Wesley and Billy Joe, who still was shaking with the spirit, convulsing every few seconds as though receiving an electric charge. His grip tightened with every jolt, and we could feel it–sure as we’d felt the cold outside and, inside, the erratic heat of the church’s clanging radiator–surging through Billy Joe’s fingers into ours, a charge like a knife in an outlet, shooting up our arms until it became a ringing in our ears. We felt it as sure as we’d felt the strange unsettling power glaring through the bullet proof window at the Vance County lock up. Sure as we’d jumped when Sheriff Breedlove had pulled his toy gun.
When the circle broke apart, Wesley cradled his arms and rocked them back and forth, whispering. “I just feel the Lord holding me like a little baby.” Then we all just stood there, the silence so great it felt like we were separated by glass, until Wesley said, “And I know you boys felt something, too.”