Choosing a spot on which to break ground for the Holy Valley Church of Blessed Creatures took only the better part of one afternoon. Our dog Maurice, a born evangelical, put his paw down on a patch of shepherd’s purse growing on the south side of an abandoned cemetery. We took it as a sign the area was sanctified and would serve our purpose well. By the end of summer, we had our first service under the brush arbor. Maurice led a choir of basset hounds in a tender rendition of “I Surrender All,” and then my brother Manning blessed the congregation with a letter to the Galatians, who were after all, not that different from us, he said. They were sinners in need of grace, yes, and grace they received though they were not worthy of it.
At this, when his preaching was raised to the higher pitch of exhortation, the dogs went to howling, and you’d have thought we were living in the end times the way the sound filled our ears and our hearts, and from our lips came a stream of confessions — our loves and our indiscretions filled the little church until at last, at last we knew who we were. We saw ourselves inside and out, and we wept with amazed relief. The dogs gathered round us and laid themselves out at our feet — not in worship, no, but in companionate dedication to spiritual knowledge and compassion for other beings. Thus in peace we held communion.
Outside, a thunderclap let us know a storm was near. The dogs knew enough of prophecy that their ears and tails began to twitch and they scratched at the door to the sanctuary. In a storm such as this one, some dogs hide and tremble, but others, filled with the Holy Ghost, run straight into the wind and rain when they are let loose.
That night the dogs remembered each refrain of the sacred hymns of blessed assurance, crossing over into Jordan, into the sweet Beulah land, the heaven of animals. When they got about half a mile from the church, under the bluish light of a stone-faced moon, they encountered a creature that made their fur rise and brought a low volcanic growl. It might have been a devil that faced them down because back at the church where we sang “Softly and Tenderly,” and waited, our hands joined in unity, we sensed a powerful and disturbing presence. Finally, I said, “Mama, I’ll go after the dogs,” and into the dark I escaped and ran as fast as I could for as long as I could, but I never saw the pack, not that night nor any other.
They had disappeared. I grew to understand that I, too, could vanish on a whim, and not just me but the sermon and the pews and the altar and the whole church body, when we answer a call to go deep and willingly into the rapturous night.
Tamara Miles teaches English, Humanities, and College Skills at a technical college in South Carolina. She had a remarkable adventure in July at the Sewanee Writers Conference, where ideas and wine flowed freely. Recent publications with her poems and other writings include Fall Lines: A Literary Convergence, O’Bheal Five Words Vol. IX, Love is Love (an anthology benefitting the families of shooting victims in Orlando), and Auntie Bellum magazine. Upcoming publications that will feature her work include Subprimal Poetry & Art, Pantheon Magazine, The Tishman Review, and Verity La.