"Then I looked, and I heard an eagle crying with a loud voice, as it flew in midheaven..." (Revelations 8:13)
It has happened a few times. Enough times, actually, so that he worries about it. Sometimes during the prayer of the day or the reading of the lesson. Often during the sermon. Usually when the congregation is seated. Always when it is fairly quiet.
When it happens, he digs his fingers into the cushioned pew or the green cover of the hymnal, pushes a fingernail into the gold outline of the cross on the cover, deep enough to leave an indentation, a rut, then follows the line around and around, digging deeper into the crease of the cross, until the urge is gone.
But he knows it will return. And he is never sure when. Maybe next Sunday he will do it. Next Sunday, perhaps, as the preacher stands before the congregation, the front pews filled with confirmands in white robes and red carnations. As he rattles through a sermon about the Holy Spirit, trying to explain how the Holy Spirit is just like the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. Unseen, powerful.
The preacher is quite serious, but he doesn't realize what he is saying. The congregation doesn't realize. The confirmands are quietly peeling the wrapping paper from the gifts they were given earlier in the service and one by one are finding small commemorative dinner plates left over from the fiftieth anniversary of the church celebrated five years earlier. They don't know that Chernobyl means "wormwood." The plant of bitterness, the blazing star from heaven that poisoned a third of all the earth's water. The Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit that rose from Reactor Number Four in a cloud three miles high. The Holy Spirit of plutonium still inside the cracking tomb of Reactor Number Four. The Holy Spirit of exposure. The Holy Spirit of radioactive milk. The Holy Spirit of leukemia and tumor. The Holy Spirit of Beylorussian children.
He squirms and squeezes the front edge of the cushioned pew. He might do it now. Jump to his feet. And yell something, like "Hogwash!" or something really stupid, like "Everybody duck!" Or break into the first verse of that Hank Williams' song:
"Hear the lonesome whippoorwill"
before two deacons and the church custodian spring onto him faster than anyone dared to spring a few weeks earlier when the man in the pew that the sun sits hard stiffened and pitched forward during the sermon.
"It sounds too blue to fly"
And while they try to quiet him, the preacher covers the microphone with his right hand to keep the outburst muffled from the radio audience, from those who stare beyond the kitchen window to the muddy ruts in the driveway, from those who listen at an open window for the cry of a lone eagle.
He stares at the pages of newspaper scattered across the kitchen table. He can't focus on any of the words, everthing a gray blur. He picks up his coffee cup, sips a bit, then puts the cup down precisely on the wet ring seeping through the newsprint. Again and again he does this, each time pressing harder and twisting the cup a little until a round wafer of paper can be lifted from the page. As he carefully peels it away, he reads what's printed inside the ring. Something about a $100 million NASA project to see if life exists elsewhere, about a few scientists who will begin listening tomorrow for signals from whoever might be out there. He reads, "Many stars emit radio waves, and if human ears were tuned to the right frequency, the sky would roar as much as it glows."
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"Spiritual Fallout" and "Morning Coffee" appear in Broken Lines (Juniper Press, St. Paul, 2004). © 2004, David Bengtson. Reprinted with permission from Juniper Press.