Pastor made the grim announcement on Sunday. No surprise to anyone, but no one’s mind was on it when it happened. The summer was one of pestilence and drought; insects and varmints moving in on the prairie like the plague, the land dry enough that even the oaks were going brown and splitting at the limbs. Grasshoppers long as wrist to fingertip fell upon what was left of the pastures like a rippling curtain of wings. They squealed louder and larger than any of the old timers could remember before. The cowboys forwent their trucks and re-saddled rent horses for fear that even the slightest spark from metal against dry grass could set the whole place off. The single sidewalk that led to the church, put in because old Vance took a fatal tumble on the caliche a few years back, was scrubbed black with the broken bodies of crickets ground to dust under the old women’s feet. The sun baked their slime to smell; rot huffed in through the cracked windows. Polite ladies held handkerchiefs to their noses. Claren Ruth breathed deep and pretended there was no smell at all. After the sermon, Pastor confessed a buyer had been found for the church.
The ladies gaped at him in stunned silence, most still gripping their handkerchiefs at their lips. The ceiling fans blew slow, rotten air around the room. Pastor waited for their reply. Only Claren Ruth was brave enough to ask.
“What of the graveyard?”
“It’s being negotiated,” he replied.
Claren Ruth folded her arms and tongued the inside of her cheek where her dentures rubbed a sore. She did and didn’t look at Pastor, her eyes glued to the floor as she thought.
“Pastor,” Dorothy raised a sweet hand. She waited for his acknowledgement before speaking out of turn. “When will we know?”
Pastor smiled as he gripped the edge of the pulpit. The little rounded box held high over the pews had always reminded Claren Ruth of a princess’s balcony, and this thought didn’t stop in old age, evil as it might have been. Her neck began to hurt, staring up at him like that.
“It depends, Mrs. Teinert,” he said.“The real estate agents are talking. We have our bottom line. An agreement could be made as early as tomorrow.” He looked out over them all, his lips a thin line as he gathered his Bible and notecards. He paused, remembering himself.
“God will guide their hearts.” He exited the pulpit, leaving the ladies bereft.
One by one, they stood and shuffled their way out the front doors of the small church, the white wood and stained glass of it stark against the monotony of the pasture. All eyes checked the sky to look for a hint of a storm, an old habit from bygone days. Thick clouds holding handfuls of rain settled low over the prairie like dark cotton, washing everything gray, dulling even the brightest colors of Rosina’s neon scarf. The clouds liked to tease, but they wouldn’t let a single drop. Hadn’t since April,and even that hadn’t been enough to put a layer in the rain gauge.
But none of the ladies lived off their gardens anymore, and all were retired from the cattle business. Their husbands dead; land long sold or leased to younger guns who hardly knew what they were doing. They didn’t need the land to cradle them like it used to, and as a result, the land seemed determined to squeeze them out, going drier and hotter, until a single spark would do them in. But they were a prayerful lot—they would see what come tomorrow.
Claren Ruth shook her head. “Shameful,” she spat. “Pitiful, pitiful, pitiful.”
“Well, what would you have us do?” Dorothy asked. They milled about with the other murmuring ladies. “Ain’t no sense in keeping a building we can’t afford to keep lit up.”
“You don’t need lights in the morning time,” Claren Ruth insisted. “We know all the words to the good hymns. Besides, I remember when we used to worship by candlelight, like true Christians!” She raised her fist in the air to make a point. Dorothy waved her aside and joined the other women, conversing in the shadow of the church.
At some point in the last twenty years, the church had gone from a family gathering to an elderly communion. The whole congregation was aging, only old ladies and a few crochety husbands bent supplicant over curved canes left. The women, still upright, rolled their eyes at them but enjoyed little room for judgment. The youngest among them was Glenda who turned seventy-six the week before.
They all had kids and their kids all had families, but those families now preferred to live in the city an hour up the highway. Several moved off to other cities in other states and came home for Thanksgiving or Christmas but never both. One child even moved up to New York to be on the Broadway. She hadn’t come back since. After Minnie died the year before, it was Norma Jean, both treasurer and church secretary, who told the uncomfortable truth—the congregation was dying off faster than they could pay the electric bill. There was, she said, no way around it. They needed to sell. After some calculation, Pastor agreed and put up the listing.
“Downright disturbing,” Claren Ruth said aloud to no one.
As the women made their slow treks toward empty houses, Claren Ruth turned east and walked the gravel road to the graveyard. She went out to the cemetery often, especially on days like this. It was quieter out there, the ground more loving. All those old bodies, friends and family members resting in one last place—almost felt like a very quiet party, a communion of sorts. A club they would all join sooner or later. Unless the church sold. If the church sold, along with all the land underneath it, not a one of them would be carried through these gates when the time come. Made a person shiver to think about it.