I used to worship a great and faceless god. I imagined he had long dark hair, parted in the middle. He wore white robes and never spoke. When I whispered to my distant god in the dark, I reminded him of my name. I was certain he would forget me, or, in a fit of righteous rage over some sin I had unknowingly—or perhaps knowingly—committed, choose not to remember. One night I clapped my hands together, a pathetic little sound, and he sent a bright star shooting across the northern sky. I watched it glitter and tremble its way across the velvet blackness. He knows me, he knows me! I felt seen by him, and safe. Loved by something holy and eternal. Such wonder in that moment, and surety that my existence was not only noted, but celebrated too. When I clapped my hands again, there was nothing but an endless void, dead and dying light. Always, I worship the miracle of beginning. Always, I worship the wonder and the terror of what the end might hold. I used to worship the smell of new crayons, the spray of backyard sprinklers, the cloying sweetness of cream cheese frosting. How I adored all those colors fanned out before me, and the rainbow-dazzle of water droplets in the summer sun, and the sugar thick and melting on my red, chapped lips. There was wonder in the small world around me. I memorized the topography of this familiar place—my tidy house that smelled of furniture polish and dryer sheets, the backyard with its swaying, crooked pine trees, a room with butter-yellow walls. We walked barefoot through our little town, hot ribbons of tar squishing between our toes, played hide and seek in the barren, black-scorched hollows of the half-burned house on the dead-end street. There was no one there to bother us. We swam in the river, hands clasped, strong against the current. Laughing wild, we raced through fields of timothy grass, chased the sinking golden sun. I was small; I did not know a greater world existed. All I thought was that all I would ever need was right there, waiting only to be found. Sometimes I worship sorrow, lap it up like warm milk, feel it fill me with heavy anguish that weighs me down and comes pouring out the soles of my feet, cementing me to the floor. I do not try to move. Other times I worship gladness, drink from the sun, dance under the blue-white moon, laugh as rain comes dropping down. My feet are light upon the earth, and my face is up, and the clouds reach down with soft silver arms to push me gently onward. For a long time, I worshipped a boy. He had black hair, mud-green eyes, a crooked smile that revealed inward-sloping, square, clean teeth. He was tall, and mostly kind, and he smelled of woodsmoke and cantaloupe. We spoke of hobbits, mountains, other holy things. When we began, we were children. Fourteen years old, holding hands in a movie theater as though we’d invented the entire concept of romance. But then we grew, and we did the things that grown-ups do, and I was certain he would be my one-and-only ending. I left the little town behind me, and later—not soon enough for me—he followed. There was a second-story apartment in a farmhouse where the breeze came lifting in, another on the corner of two quiet, potholed streets. I placed yellow vases in the grimy windows. He sat on the porch, smoking cigarettes and reading worn-in paperbacks—Tolkien, Orwell, Arthur Conan Doyle. When he came back into the kitchen, we spoke of what he’d read, and our words were the same as always, but also different, weighed down heavy from years of overuse. I feel like I’m drowning, I confessed inside the dark, but he didn’t understand, or maybe he chose not to. At the end, he packed away all the books I’d come to think of as ours. These were never yours, he said. This is all your fault, he said. Then he took his words away with him, and I was left alone with mine. Sometimes I worship hatred, feed off it like a vulture lighting on carrion rotting underneath the sun. I crave the salty blood, the sweet-sick taste of fear. I gulp down putrid entrails. The more I indulge in this frenzied feast, the hungrier I become. But more than this, much more than this, I worship love. It is a light and blessed thing, a flutter pure and alive in the hollows of my chest, in the spaces between my ribs. There are waves of great gold light behind my eyes, inside my throat, branching down into my heart, spiraling through my lungs. It glows and glows and glows. After he left, I worshipped the ancient river, and the summertime birds in the high and blooming branches—chickadee and sparrow, maple and white birch. I walked alone and blessed the sound of my own name. And one night in winter, the next one came knocking on my door. He asked me to dinner, and I said yes, and his kisses were like sorcery, yes, his hands a holy wonder, yes yes yes, his mouth filled with smoke and laughter and something unknown hidden that sent hot tremors all throughout my body. Yes. We found new ways to worship together. I held out my tongue for the pale wafer, genuflected at the altar, asked to be absolved of past sins committed with and against other bodies. There were nameless hymns, prayers and incantations. When it was expected, I bowed down, and did so gladly. But more than that, he knelt for me. Ambrosia, he said. An unexpected word. Most of the time, I worship words. The weight and promise and possibility of them. All the potential endings, and the infinite number of beginnings. Little scratchings upon white paper. I close my eyes and listen and wait for the right words to fall like pebbles on clean snow, pointing the way forward. Other times, I worship silence. Stillness. The full and round and wonderful nothing. I close my eyes and listen and wait for the absence of noise to descend on me like warm and softly falling rain, washing me clean, making me shine pure, absolving me of the world’s worn-in, filthy trespasses. I left the man with the magic hands. What we had was unsustainable, a strange charm that quickly began to fizzle and fade. I headed south, towards the great and dark blue sea, seeking new unknown wonders to worship. And soon I stumbled somehow across the one I was meant for all along. This love—my here and now and always love—has eyes that spark sapphire and a loping, long stride. He is gentle. He fills a room with gladness. Magnetic smile, and joy for little things—yellow blooms in the garden, cold beer on summer afternoons. In his own way, he, too, worships rivers, and trees, and distant homesick towns. We walk beside the ocean, following the arc of the sun. We stand on the shore of that great dark sea and shiver in the warmth. He towers high above me, tall and strong and solid, but never blocks my view. Instead, he points the way ahead—Look there, he says. I wonder what we might find there. It glows and glows and glows. Always, I worship the miracle of remembering. Always, I worship the wonder of dreaming what could be. These days, older now but still quite small, I worship a multitude of gods. I see these gods in the trees and on the breeze, the blades of grass and the fluffed-up, mad-wheeling dandelion fuzz. There they go darting through the fields, white tails bouncing. Look! There’s one now, little yellow body buzzing in the blue, as another takes a rest upon the highest wire. My many gods have many names, and they are always speaking. They sing to me each morning, chirping admiration, trilling in the light. At night, my gods croak and peep and cry out from unseen places, looking for a mate to ease their loneliness. As I roll closer to my love—mine—I feel his warm body sleep gentle against my own, and I hope they find what they are looking for, and that they don’t have to search too far or too long. Sometimes I watch my gods tousle their green caps under the full summer sun. I watch as their lush veined leaves come dropping down, floating through the shimmering air. I lie on the rocky ground and feel them breathing beneath my crooked spine, roots settling deeper into the dark and damp, cool earth. They laugh at unknown things. Oh, child, they sigh, and I hold my breath, waiting for what they have to tell me.
About the Author
Shannon Bowring’s work has appeared in numerous journals, has been nominated for a Pushcart and a Best of the Net, and was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021. She was a Finalist for the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance 2021 Maine Literary Awards. Shannon earned her MFA at Stonecoast, where she served as Editor-in-Chief for the Stonecoast Review. She is a Contributing Editor for Aspiring Author, a website devoted to offering business advice to writers in all stages of their careers. Shannon can be found on Instagram @shannonlbowring.writer and through her website, www.shannonlbowring.com.