Her throat drained dry when the minister began his sermon. She tried to resist the cough, even with its patient insistence on spilling into the air. She formed a hallow space in her fist and exhaled into it. Still she felt the tickle at the back of her throat. She attempted to swallow the urge back into her body. For years she wished her mother would hand her a lifesaver candy like the boy in the commercial was given, but that never happened. Each Sunday she struggled to keep it under control.
While she squelched the tickle, she tried to absorb words, but felt the tightening of her shoulders. A nerve at the base of her skull began to twinge; pain burst from the top of her head.
She became restless in the wooden pew. Perhaps the weight of her halo was too heavy. She wiggled about, trying to tumble the halo off, until her mother stopped her with a quick, discreet, slap on the back of her neck. Sometimes that slap would knock the halo a little more askew. By eleven, her halo tumbled from her failed grasp.
When she turned twelve, she could not swallow the cough anymore. Her dry throat swelled, overflowed in a rasp, sending her out to the hallway to sip water. She would try to re-enter the chapel, but by the time she got to the sanctuary door the drying out began again. She could gulp down mucus before the rough cough arose.
The day after her thirteenth birthday, Jane told her mother she would no longer go to church. “My throat hurts and my head throbs,” she said.
“Oh well, if you are sick, I guess you can stay home this Sunday.”
“It hurts every Sunday.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It cannot hurt every Sunday.”
“I’m not going,” she said as she suppressed a cough, “because when Jesus went to heaven, he forgot me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Forgot me. He gave me a drunk for a father.”
Her mother slapped her square across her jaw. Out thrust the cough.
“I’m sorry. I am so sorry,” her mother began. “You don’t have to go to church, but you must not say things like that about your father. We need his paycheck. Anyway, he leaves us alone most of the time. You do understand, don’t you? Tell me you understand.”
Her cough spewed in fits, filling the room with its gasp, gasp, gasp, grasp.
Her mother rushed to get her a glass of water.
Jane sat on the carpeted floor of Hell, drinking its water, as her mother left for church.
Victoria Elizabeth Ruwi is the author of Eye Whispers, a book of poetry. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from San Diego State University. Her writing has been published in journals and anthologies all over the states.
Artwork: “Young Woman with Her Hand Over Her Mouth” by Edgar Degas, 1875. Public Domain.