Tongues of Fire | Aurelia Kessler
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
CW: Sexual abuse of a minor
The summer I turned fifteen, my pastor found a cut diamond under my tongue. He held it up in his thick fingers like he had discovered the source of God’s power. And maybe he had, that day, his sweaty hands wiping gold dust off the cheeks of our frenzied youth, plucking white feathers from the tangled curls of the devout girls in the front row. His young wife followed behind him, gathering these gestures of God’s grace in a woven basket.
Until that moment, when his hand was in my mouth searching for the flickering he had seen between my parted lips, the service had been a whirlwind of dancing and tears and heat. In those days, in that church, worship was a series of calisthenics exercises. I kneeled. I prayed. I stood. I sang. It was dizzying, but the high we found in worship was addictive. We longed for that mania, for the outburst of emotions, for the tears and the holy laughter. It was all a carefully produced recipe to call down the presence of God into our little church sanctuary. We wanted to know Him. We wanted to feel Him. We wanted signs and wonders, proofs not of His existence—of that we were sure—but of His Grace, of the baptism of His Holy Spirit.
I leaned into the music, held open my hands and sang to Jesus. I was willing to do anything, to say yes to anything. I thought of Abraham, willing to open his own son’s throat. I wanted to be that faithful. I didn’t understand it at the time, didn’t realize what it meant to hear a voice and be obedient to it, obedient to the point of taking your own child’s life. But of course, that didn’t matter because Abraham didn’t have to take his own son’s life. God was merciful. God could be trusted. Do what He asks, and He will always provide a way. I was willing to say yes even before I knew what God would ask of me, no matter what came my way. I was taught to say yes. I was taught to submit.
My soul longed for God, a thirst that must be quenched if I was to survive in this life. I wanted Him more than any other, more than young love, more than dates with boys, more than I wanted her. That last one was harder to sell, but I repeated it to myself again and again. I want you Lord, I want you so much more than anything else Lord, more than anyone else, more than her.
I was young and I was filled with wanting. All the desire of youth gathered in sweaty palms and a thumping heart. All the desire of youth channeled toward an untouchable and unknowable being. I prayed on my knees, curled over like a dried leaf awaiting the crunch and crush of walking feet. My dark hair hung like a veil over the shame on my face. It was the shame of two kisses.
One kiss was very much wanted, very much granted, and yet forbidden. It was a dance, brazen and unrestrained. It was flushed cheeks and tenderness. She was my best friend, and when we held hands in prayer no one knew there was anything more in the electricity between our touching palms. No one knew how she saw her reflection in my honeyed eyes, how our hot thighs touched as we laid out our beach towels on the summer sand. Our secret love was innocent and so young. Glances, fingers brushing cheeks, warm hands clinging together, lips barely touching.
The second kiss was not so much granted as inflicted, as pressed into my mouth, alien tongue between my teeth. It was not young, and I did not feel young when his lips surprised mine during prayer. My eyes flicked open and I pulled away, my lips curling as if they had been doused with the tart powder sprinkled on sour candy. I was supposed to trust this man. My parents trusted him. My church trusted him. He was trusted with my life and the lives of other teenagers in his care. He was trusted with even more than that, with our eternal futures. But what was this, this unwanted touch? I’d been uncomfortable before, hand lingering on my shoulder seconds longer than it should, hand squeezes during prayer. They were the kind of attentions I was supposed to want from boys my age, and the kind of touch I craved from my best friend. These were not the kinds of touch I expected from my pastor. Wanting didn’t even enter the picture.
The heart is a deceptive thing, I was told. Did my heart thump because I wanted this somewhere deep inside of myself? Was this the tingly feeling of desire? Or was I an animal caught in a trap, looking death in the eyes? Was I afraid? And when he pulled away, apologizing and sobbing into my lap, snot bubbling from his nose, I was repulsed and also guilty. Ashamed. Was it the too low cut of my v-neck top, the strap of the bra across my shoulder? Was this somehow my fault?
I really didn’t know, back then. I didn’t know how to parse the difference between his fingers in my mouth searching for God’s grace in a cut diamond, and his breath on my neck as he whispered secret longings in my ear. I didn’t know how to separate my longing for something forbidden to me by doctrine and hellfire, and the longings of another that were shoved upon me unwanted. I didn’t know how to trust when trust was broken, how to tell anyone that he could not be trusted. I didn’t know how to protect myself when I was handed over to him week after week.
I know now. It was not my fault. I was not guilty.
A glittering stone was held aloft in a sanctuary. I swiveled my head from side to side, taking in the light streaming through the windows. The turning of my head could not keep pace with the turning of the room. I was slogging through honey, the weight of its golden syrup pulling on my limbs, its sweetness bypassing my open mouth, my waiting tongue.
The stone, slicked with my saliva, caught the light and cast rainbows onto the white walls. Fire. The fire within the stone, created by its chemical makeup, by the bending and refracting of light. The fire within the stone, endowed by its Creator, the One who filled it with grace and placed it among the soft folds beneath my tongue. A diamond, pried out of my mouth, his sweaty hands on my face, gold dust on my cheeks, transferred there from the faces he had touched before he came to me.
And when he dropped my stone, His grace, into her basket, I was jealous. I was jealous of her blond hair and her always pleasant smile. I was jealous of her wanting of his touch, of her safety, of her adulthood. I didn’t know then that perhaps she was not as safe or as wanting as I supposed. I didn’t know how her world would become a broken mirror, how her heart would be crushed by the very hands that searched my mouth for a stone.
The light pouring in through the church windows illuminated floating clouds of dust that shimmered like gold. And what happened to all this gold dust? After the service, we would stir slick soap into our palms, work it into suds and let the gold swirl down the drain. Did Miss Pattie hoover up the gold dust littering the sanctuary floor then? Did we have a vacuum bag in the closet filled with gold flakes among the dirt and hair and shed skin cells, among the spiders and their bits of web? Did that dusty bag wind up in the trash can? Did it sit out on the curb and wait to be tumbled into a reeking truck, to be driven to a landfill and mired with muck and trash? Is that where God’s grace lived, or where it ended?
God’s grace flickered in the light, the flame going in and out, searching for its fuel. God’s grace flickered in my chest, tamped down by doubt and hurt and fear. God’s grace flickered in the dust gathering on the floor, waiting to be sucked up through a plastic hose.
Aurelia Kessler currently lives in Alaska, where she works at her local public library. Her work has appeared in Alaska Women Speaks, Tidal Echoes, Wildheart Magazine, Cirque, and Crab Fat Magazine.