Fiction/Drama (Graduate)

in #12.1/Blog/McKinney 2012 Winners

All God’s Children

by Michael Rancourt

The door made a hollow sound in the empty apartment as Merry closed it behind her, cutting off her view of boxes and tea-chests stacked in a room with bare walls where once curtains and pictures had hung. With an easy grace and a soft rustle she slipped off the dressing-gown she had been wearing, hung it on the back of the door and crossed to the bed where her husband rested, half-sitting, half-lying, the soft warm light from the bedside lamp casting his silhouette across her pillow as he read. The bed creaked and fabric rustled as she climbed in, snuggled down and pressed herself up against him, taking in his rich, earthy scent, feeling his strong equine body warm against her own and drawing strength from its simple, straightforward solidity. A moment later she closed her eyes and unconsciously gave a soft whinny.

Taylor lowered his book, marking a place with one strong, blunt finger. The plume of his mane drifted slightly as he looked down. “What’s wrong?” he asked, his voice a quiet rumble. “Are the children all right?”

“They’re fine… they can’t sleep, of course, but that’s only to be expected tonight, with the move tomorrow and everything…”

“But you’re not.” Simple and to the point, as ever: her Taylor, cutting right to the chase. She felt his arm go around her and squeeze.

“Oh… oh, I don’t know, Tay,” she said, sighing and opening her eyes a little. Staring over him through denuded windows set in the strange, empty wall. “I guess it’s just nerves… leaving the city, heading away from here, starting again… It’s… oh, I don’t know.”

“You wish I hadn’t accepted that promotion?” No negativity in his response, just a simple question. “I could have passed this one up as well, and you know I would have done if you’d asked… but they tend to stop asking eventually.”

Merry squirmed around, pushed up against the bed with her hooves until she was level with her husband and could look him straight in his big brown eyes. “No, no, no! It’s not that at all! It’s just that… oh, I guess I’m just nervous. I’ve never really been away from here, from this city… everything will be so different down there: different home, different school, different neighbours… different church…”

Taylor smiled that slow, easy smile of his and leaned in. Their lips met, two pairs of soft, nimble equine lips nibbling and nuzzling for a moment. “I understand. And I’ll be busy at work all day, Mister Bigshot Junior Vice President, and I won’t have time to notice.” The good humour in his eyes, wicked, gently mischievous, forestalled her response. Idly she noticed that his left hand – she could feel the wedding ring – was wandering, and despite her nerves she felt herself relax and her body begin to respond. “Everything that matters will be the same… that we’re a family, together.”

“Mmm-hmm,” she replied, smiling up at him as their lips met once more. The bed creaked steadily for a while, then came quiet and with it darkness.

 

*

 

Is this really the right thing to do?

It seemed to Merry that she asked herself this a thousand times as they drove, even before they’d left the city, perhaps even before they had finished loading up the car and the rented trailer with the last of the contents of the house. It had seemed coincidental at the time that they would be leaving on a Saturday, but as the morning wore on into the afternoon more and more friends arrived to lend a hand or a paw. The Bryants, an elderly human couple from across the road, were the first: unable to do much lifting and carrying, they had instead taken it upon themselves to keep the children occupied and the coffee flowing while she and Taylor had carried out boxes. That alone was a great help in itself, as two excitable and excited young children could rapidly become more than either of them could cope with at the best of times.

Before long, others of their friends began to arrive, some having come all the way across town just to help them finish packing and to see them off. Theo and Mistmoon, a therian couple, he a pure-bred collie and she something of a cross between several feline species, arrived shortly after the Bryants and immediately took over the loading of the trailer. Gargan and Perry poled up around ten: Gargan, a handsome male wolf whom Merry secretly had a deep crush on, immediately set to work sweeping and cleaning the house room by room, while his husband, a rather plump human with a dry wit and an endless fount of dirty stories and who also happened to be a Professor of Theoretical Physics, did a little light dusting for five minutes and then spent the rest of the day ‘supervising’. Around eleven Delostarai, the grey quadrupedal dragon who ran the best second-hand bookshop in the state, settled down on the drive in a rustle of wings and minutes later was washing the windows, rearing up on his hind legs outside to reach the upstairs panes. Even the priest from the church where she and Taylor had married, a slender and beautiful vixen, and her human husband arrived just before noon, bringing with them the makings of a delicious, simple lunch.

By the time the packing was done and the house and garden scoured for the final time, it felt as though every friend they possessed who was in town had come to help them pack up their house and get on their way. As the car pulled out of the drive to a chorus of cheers, hollers, good-byes, come-see-us-soons and other vocalisations and moved down the street they had called home for nine years, Merry could feel tears pricking her eyes. She wanted to tell Taylor to stop, that it was all a mistake, that they should stay here after all – even as she knew in her heart that equally she couldn’t. Then she reached over to put her hand on Taylor’s leg and glanced at his face, saw the same emotions mirrored bright and sparkling in his proud eyes, and the tears just came of their own accord.

“Daddy, why is Mummy crying?” asked Daniel, their older child, all of six years old. Matthias, three, was worn out from a morning spent running around amid all the goings-on and was fortunately asleep in his car-seat, his arm curled around his favourite plushie, his head lying limply on the padded inside of the seat. His mouth was open and over the road noise Merry could hear him snoring softly.

“Because she’s happy,” replied Taylor simply. His strong hands held the steering-wheel tightly, white showing around his knuckles as he stared with deliberate focus at the road ahead.

“If she’s happy, why is she crying?”

“Because sometimes people get so happy that they feel a little bit sad as well.”

“Oh.”

Distracted by the passing traffic and the new scenery outside the car on this untravelled road, Daniel fell silent. Merry squeezed Taylor’s thigh warmly in love and gratitude, and he took a moment to glance across at her. She was still weeping silently, her head lowered and hot salt tears soaking into the soft, short grey fur on her muzzle. Once they were on the freeway he removed one hand from the steering wheel and took hers in it, and did not let it go. Oh Merry, he thought, is this really the right thing to do?

 

*

 

The drive across country took five days, and so it was not until around ten o’clock on Friday evening that they finally reached the large house they had bought in a prosperous, quiet upper-middle-class suburb. As the car stopped, Matthias, who had been as good as gold all the way, woke, took one breath of the new air, looked at the new house, lifted his head and began to cry, really and truly. Daniel, until then asleep, stirred and whimpered in sympathy with his little brother, leaving the two exhausted parents to deal with a pair of tired and disconsolate children.

Taylor and Merry climbed from the car, grunting as they stretched their bodies after being cramped in the seats all day and turned to face one another over the roof. “Oh, love,” Merry murmured, “you look about as tired as I feel.”

“At least I don’t have to be in until Monday.” Taylor stretched again and whuffled as various muscles up and down his back began to relax a little.

“Yeah… thank heaven for small mercies. Anyway, we’d better get these two indoors. What about the trailer?” she asked, moving to open the car door.

“Oh, to he— Never mind the trailer. We’ll put it in the garage for tonight and unpack it later. Right now all I want is a shower and bed.”

“I’ll second that. Come on, you… up’s-a-daisy…” Matthias, still crying, clung to his mother as she coaxed Daniel out of the car and up to the house with the promise of milk, cookies and their favourite bedtime story. As she opened the front door with the keys the realtor had sent them she heard the car start up and move slowly into the garage.

On the kitchen counter, she found a type-written sheet headed Useful Information. It was a standard welcome list, but as she read down it she noticed that most of the addresses were quite a distance away and a number were out of town. She frowned, let down Matthias, who had finally stopped crying, and began her inspection of the kitchen. Someone, possibly Taylor’s PA, had put some basics in the fridge and some cookies in one cupboard, and once she had found some cups and plates she was able to keep her promise to the children. By the time they had eaten they were both almost asleep: she laid them on the couch to rest then went with Taylor to make up the three beds before settling the little ones down for the night. There was no hot water for a shower yet as the heater had not been switched on, and so they made do with splashing cold water over their faces before tumbling into bed and a deep, deep, dreamless sleep.

The next evening saw the house at least occupied if not lived-in. The large furniture was in the process of being arranged throughout, children’s toys were scattered liberally across the floors of two of the upstairs rooms and the cupboards in the kitchen contained some few of their dishes and more food, Merry having been out to one of the supermarkets listed on the sheet she had found the previous night. She had found it more than a little strange to have been pointed to a store almost twenty miles further outside town, particularly when she saw on her way back that she had passed a good dozen different grocery stores on her way, several of which were the same chain as the one she went to. There was something a little unusual about the store itself as well, but nothing she could readily put a finger on at the time; and then, with everything else she had to do that day, she completely forgot about it.

 

*

 

“Merry, are you sure this is the right address? It seems an awfully long way to go to church… it must be twenty miles.”

“Well, if it’s the one that’s on the information sheet, then yes, it’s the right address.” Merry’s voice floated down from upstairs where she was busy persuading a recalcitrant Matthias into his ‘good’ clothes. Taylor stood at the bottom of the stairs, calling up: he had learned from experience that when Matthias was in one of his stubborn moods his presence only exacerbated matters. Daniel sat quietly on the couch and was reading his comic book: his mane was brushed and shining, his fur curry-combed to a high gloss under the small suit he wore and his hooves polished to a high, glittering black. Not for the first time, Taylor was struck by his resemblance to Merry: white, almost silver mane barely contrasting with his cloud-grey body fur that draped a slender frame, and the total concentration he was giving to what he read. Not for the first time his memory flipped back through its pages and he saw Merry seated on the couch in the coffee shop where they had first met, intent in her book moments before he had lost his footing in his rush to get back to his office, tripped and spilled his coffee and doughnuts over the floor and himself into her lap. He remembered her startled, shocked look, then the playful grin spreading over her face – the first of many he had seen – as she commented, “Well, that’s one way to get my attention…” Matthias, in contrast, took after him: dark chestnut, broader where Daniel and Merry were lithe, black feathers around his hooves testament to his, Taylor’s, Shire heritage, given to intensity and flashes of recalcitrant moodiness. Oh, why can’t Matty be more like Daniel? sighed Taylor to himself, and then sighed again. Forgive me, Lord, for thinking such a thing about my son.

“Okay… well, if that’s the one we’re going to then we need to be leaving in the next five minutes.”

“I’m well aware of that.”

Knowing the value of silence, Taylor went to back the car out of the garage. Still, it was another ten minutes before Merry came downstairs, leading a pouting and sulking Matthias. Taylor smiled a little as he saw his wife: he had never told her how much he loved to see her so well-groomed and well-dressed, the highlights in her mane and her blue eyes offset by the clothes she wore that caressed rather than hugged her frame, suggesting and outlining rather than showing off. Her grey fur sparkled in the summer morning sunshine, matching the sparkling of his eyes. Despite all her beauty, right now she looked just like the harassed mother that she was. “All right, let’s go.” Forcing a smile she reached out her hand to Daniel, who trotted diligently up and took it, before walking forward only to be stopped in her tracks after no more than that single step by a still-sulking Matthias. “Come on, Matthias,” she said, then tugged on his arm without effect.

Taylor stepped back from the front door and fixed his younger child with a stern glare. “Matthias, come along. You’re making us late for church.” After another pause, he closed the door behind him and said sternly, “Matthias, if you don’t come along right now I shall drag you along and there will be no treats for this entire week.” Matthias just stood where he was; if anything, his pout deepened. Taylor sighed. “All right, son, if that’s how you want it to be, that’s how it’ll be.” His expression was set and angry as he walked across the room to where his younger son stood, but he had covered no more than half the distance when Matthias’s expression changed to one of concentration; there was a quiet hissing noise that became momentarily louder and darkness began to flow down the front of the boy’s pants before pooling around his hooves on the wooden floor. The two adults let out a shared cry of despair and frustration.

“Oh, Matthias!” Merry exclaimed, while her husband stormed across the room and fixed the boy with a thunderous look that suggested he was in for a serious spanking. Daniel, afraid, clung close to his mother’s leg. After what felt like an eternity, Taylor said, “Mer, go and get him cleaned up. I’ll find us another church, just for today. And Matthias… if you ever, ever do this again, I will spank you so hard that you won’t be able to sit down for a month.” Then, more gently, “Come on, Daniel. Come and help Daddy find us somewhere to go to church today.”

Fifteen minutes later the car pulled up outside a large church set well back from the road and surrounded by its own grounds. Flower beds and lawns led prettily up to a set of steps and a porch, and down either side stood a row of mature trees, spaced so as to dapple the sunlight that shone upon the tall windows along each side. As they walked along the gravel path, hooves crunching with each step, they could already hear singing; as they arrived at the steps and made their way into church, the singing stopped and a man’s voice – florid, slightly pompous and self-proud, it seemed to Merry – began to speak. Once inside the door there was a small crush hall, which, although well supplied with windows, was darker than the outside had been and it took a moment for their eyes to adjust. The room was elegantly panelled in a gold-coloured wood which Merry didn’t recognise, with shelves built into the wainscoting to hold books. On a table set against the far wall there were stacks of pairs of books, one of each pair with a small flyer set into it, and the air was full of the warm, welcoming smell of beeswax polish, of the bouquet of roses, irises and mimosa standing freshly-cut in an elegant crystal vase on the table, and of that faint, lingering aftertaste that comes from years of snuffed candles. There were small vestibules at either end, and Merry, in her typical role as a mother, automatically noted which one was marked ‘Gentlemen’. Finally, two double doors led off into the church; over each of these there was a piece of scrollwork cut into wood bearing the inscription Genesis 1: 26.

It was only a few moments later, while Taylor and Merry were giving their children a final brush-down and reminding them to be good, to behave themselves, to remember that they were all new here and that, besides everything else, this is God’s house, that one of the double doors opened. Merry looked up to see a handsome young man, rather overweight, appear in the doorway, take one look at them and positively scurry through, his expression changing from one of welcome to one of utter alarm. Merry was about to ask what was the matter when he spoke. “Get out!” he said, his voice not at all accented as Merry had expected: indeed, he sounded more like her. “Get out!”

“Now look just a minute, Mister – Mister – whatever your name is,” Taylor remonstrated, looking down slightly on the man and standing his ground. “My family and I are here to attend church, and that’s what we’re going to do.” He moved towards the door, through which now came the sound of the entire congregation reciting a prayer.

“No! No, you mustn’t! You mustn’t go in there!” There was a certain desperation about him, a tone to his voice which clashed with the commanding words he was using. It was when he said, “Please,” that Merry’s stomach really twisted. “Please… oh, please, believe me, you can’t stay here!”

“Why not?” asked Taylor, his hand on the door-handle ready to pull it open. “This is a church, my family and I believe in God, and we’re here to worship Him, who loves us all equally. Come on, Merry, children.” The door had not made a sound before, so it must have been the man who groaned, as though in agony, as Taylor swung wide the double doors and took a step inside, Merry just behind him shepherding the children.

Silence fell, instantaneously, as though the entire assembly were an orchestra trained to its maestro’s baton and he had gestured and plucked off the note. Heads turned in a ripple that spread out from the doors through which they had entered, washing across the large nave in a steady flow. Merry had a brief impression of a large, high, vaulted space, painted white, of a beautiful east window full of stained glass depicting the Christ figure with his arms spread wide in welcome, his handsome bearded Caucasian face set in an expression of welcoming and authority, of sunlight pouring through the windows across old wooden pews filled full with people of all ages in their Sunday best, people who stood in silence and stared.

No, not people, Merry saw. Not ‘people’ as she had come to see folks back in the city, but people.

Humans.

The entire congregation was human.

And it was then that Merry realised what had been so different about the supermarket she had visited the day before: all the customers were therians, like her and her family. There hadn’t been a single human there, from the manager on down to the trolley-gatherer, from the oldest customer down to the youngest she had seen, a bear-cub curled up in one of his mother’s arms while she shopped and pushed the trolley with the other. Not a single human…

“How dare you!” The preacher, still in his pulpit, thundered out his denouncement. “How dare you enter here, this holy place, thou unclean creature! Be gone, leave this place of worship and never enter it again!”

Taylor’s eyes narrowed. Ordinarily he would just have accepted defeat in the face of such odds, but he was still tired from the long journey and the anger that had been roiling in him since Matthias’s misbehaviour earlier that morning was demanding release. Merry gasped as he took a step forward. “How dare you!” he roared back in the most terrible voice she had ever heard him use. It echoed around the large room, and would have been more than a match for the priest’s had the latter not been wearing a mike. The congregation muttered to itself. “How dare you deny us the right to worship God in His house! How dare you call yourself one of His chosen and preach a message of brotherly love for all, and forgiveness for all, yet stand there and deny us the right of entry!”

“I dare, sir, because I know the truth, and I walk in the light!” The preacher’s face was turning slowly puce as he leaned forwards over the front of the pulpit to skewer Taylor with a self-righteous glare. “I know God’s word, and I know it well, and I will not have some – some – some half-breed thing walk into my church and dare to lecture me on the truth of God’s word! For is it not written in the Book of our Lord, in the Book of Genesis, in the first chapter at the twenty-sixth verse, ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’

“Answer me that, sir! Thou creature! Thou servant of man, thou slave, thou lesser thing! Answer me, thy master commands it! IS IT NOT WRITTEN?!” The priest’s voice exploded, amplified, from the loudspeakers, filling the air with an almost tangible wave of sound that reverberated around the beams supporting the high ceiling. Some of the congregation had put their hands over their ears, and Taylor and his family, with their much more acute hearing, closed their eyes and tucked their ears, taking an involuntary step back in response to the pain. And Taylor, knowing he had stepped back despite himself, opened his eyes to see the triumph shining in the preacher’s eyes, bright and intelligent and utterly stupid.

“Thou cannot answer me, even as the Word of the Lord, the true Word spoken by a true believer, moves thee to obey!… Thou creature, thou less than man, thou unclean and infidel thing, leave, begone! In the Name of our God, I command thee to leave and never return!

The wooden doors slammed shut in front of Taylor, he and his entire family pushed backwards by a tidal wave of bigotry, hatred and an over-amplified voice, his last sight that of the preacher’s triumph. God is love… Love thy neighbour as thyself… I came not to replace the Law but to fulfill it… The words echoed and re-echoed inside Taylor’s head in the sudden silence that fell. Beyond the doors, after a moment, the prayer they had interrupted began again, even more loudly then before. He felt Merry’s hand touch him gently on the shoulder and he turned to look at her, saw there on her face the same shock he knew was on his own. The same realisation, the same understanding, the same sudden emptiness inside.

“I’m… I’m so sorry.” The man who had tried to stop them entering was standing by the table, one hip leaning against it. He made an ineffectual gesture with his hands, a sort of a shrug. “I really am.” There was no reply. “Look… there’s a church for — I mean, that welcomes therians not too far away. It’s a bit of a drive, but I can give you the address if you want. It’s –”

“No, thank you.” Taylor’s voice was a monotone growl. “I know where it is.”

The man took a step back, nodding his head and then looking at the floor. “All right. I really am sorry… I mean…”

“You knew that would happen?”

Another nod.

“So why didn’t you try to stop it?” Anger began to tinge Taylor’s voice darkly.

“He did,” Merry whispered, squeezing Taylor’s shoulder. “He did try, but you just went barging in… And you know as well as I do that there’s no arguing with people like that man up there in that pulpit.”

The man was still looking at the floor. “If you want to get to the other church in time for the sacrament, you need to get moving.”

Merry stepped over and touched his shoulder. “Why don’t you come with us?” she asked, gently. “You seem like you don’t belong here.”

He looked up, a sad smile on his face. “I can’t… that lunatic up in the pulpit’s my father. And besides, someone needs to be here to point therians to somewhere they’re welcome, since this church can’t be that place.

“Please… please go. I have to get back in there. There’s only so much time I can pretend to be telling you about the unpardonable sin of your very existence.”

Taylor nodded, reached into an inner pocket and produced a business card which he placed in the young man’s palm as he shook his hand. Merry didn’t fail to notice the human melt as he and her husband shook hands, nor the look of desire on the boy’s rounded, sensitive face. Despite herself, she smiled a little. Taylor has that effect on so many people. “Look me up,” he said, “really.”

The human nodded. “I promise.”

At the other church, the one to which they had originally planned to go, the priest was already reciting the Eucharistic Prayer as Taylor and Merry hustled their children inside. From the outside it appeared almost exactly as the other one had, right down to the flowers in the beds and the trees down the side, as though the builders had deliberately set out to make a point. But as they entered here an elderly caprine stepped up to meet them, smilingly guiding them to a pew and patting the children’s heads, making sure they were in the right place in the service and even digging up an old copy of an illustrated service book for the children.

… gather into one in your kingdom all who share this one bread and one cup…

Sunlight streamed down, dappled by the trees, lighting a congregation that was almost exclusively therian. Looking around, Merry could see a human here and there: some stood alone, either aloof or cautious, it was impossible to tell; there was one couple, at the back on the far side; most, though, stood close to another therian, as though married.

Draw near with faith… Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ…

At the east end of church, sunlight poured through stained glass to flood the chancel in myriad colours; another Christ holding his arms wide, welcoming all to His house. The silver chalice was cool against her lips as she sipped wine that flowed bitterly sweet upon her tongue, washing away the remnants of the wafer that had lingered. She handed the cup back to the human priest, who smiled, ritually wiped the rim where her lips had been, and moved on.

We thank you for feeding us, Lord…

Around her the sound of voices raised in song filled the air, including Taylor’s, his deep voice following the bass line. From somewhere nearby yet a million miles away came her own singing, tiny among all the vastness. The sunlight still cascaded through the windows, brighter now as the day crept on towards noon. And still that sun-filled welcome, still that familiar face, that familiar gesture, never ending, never changing, never ceasing; O, thou who changest not…

People were shaking her hand, welcoming her, inviting her and the family for coffee, and she felt herself walking, talking, laughing. Two bipedal dragons came up to greet her, both wearing elegant suits, both obviously male, holding claws, and offered help settling in, dinner that evening, insisting she and her family attend; she heard herself confer with Taylor before agreeing with a smile that felt twisted, a rictus of an attempt at a smile that belonged to someone else, not her. Then one of them, the beautiful Prussian blue with gold ventral scales and a dark azure mane that swept through the air, said, “We understand… we were there too. At least you’re a normal family; the wardens beat Cantar and I with their staves as we left.”

Reality came rushing back at her in a silent sonic boom, a dolly-zoom-in from wherever she had been. The world felt all too real, the ground too solid beneath her hooves, the air too gaseous yet too rich to breathe, the sunlight too bright, the sounds too full of tone. The events of the morning rushed through her mind, the hatred and violence and bigotry thrown in her and her family’s face by one who claimed to follow the same God whose image even now gazed down at them, unmoving, unchanging in His welcome. Although she had been talking to the dragons for some minutes it was only now she saw small scars on their faces where the metal tips of the poles must have nicked their hides. Without thinking she reached out to touch the healed wounds on the blue dragon’s muzzle as though in disbelief, as though to prove to herself that they existed. He remained quite still while her hand brushed over the paler scales where the indentations still showed, acceptant of her disbelief; Cantar watched in silence, gently squeezing his mate’s foreclaw. She felt Taylor take her other hand, comfortingly, that familiar strong grasp so tender and warm.

“How… how can they have done this?… Isn’t it the same God, the same Bible?… How can they say they worship God, how can they call themselves Christians and… and do something like this?”

“Some people are very frightened of what’s different, or what they don’t understand.” The priest’s voice was quiet, low and sad. He walked slowly up the aisle to stand beside Cantar, next to Taylor. Daniel and Matthias looked up at him, still dressed in his vestments, and smiled shyly and politely. “Or what they don’t want to understand. And the more frightened they are… the more stupid they seem to become. They focus on one word, man, and they forget everything else… including that God created us all, in the end, and that we’re all His children, no matter what we look like or who we love.”

“Amen,” whispered Daniel; quietly, as though to himself.