Stealing that pack of Vogue cigarettes when I was 11 was the bravest sin I’d ever done. It took a long time to work up the nerve for it, weeks of pushing hellfire out of my mind. In the entrance of Salem Church hung a poster advertising a week of upcoming revival meetings with a preacher from Omaha, Nebraska. I tried hard not to think about that while I organized my sin, and still harder pretended to show a normal face at home.
Then to find I couldn’t smoke those Vogues after all because I’d forgotten to steal matches — my courage took a beating as I crumpled the cigarettes in a fit of terror and flung them into a bush and ran myself to exhaustion at the edge of the village, while the preacher’s fire burned back from where I had pushed it.
Somehow I managed to get home for supper that evening. My mother was fretting about the garden, Dad was preoccupied with something that wouldn’t come together in the workshop, and I swallowed my borscht and went up to my room, and no one suspected what a monstrous sinner had just been sitting at the kitchen table.
That night in bed, nearing the end of 11 years, I surrendered. I’d have to go forward in church when the preacher issued the altar call.
In the following days, once in a while I felt almost peaceful. Then I rebelled — to have to shame myself that way in front of the church, confess to the handsome evangelist everyone adored. He had a charming smile when he wasn’t preaching, the smile that beamed from the poster in the church, though the elders seemed to prefer him in the pulpit with a calfskin Bible, looking sombre underneath the motto on the wall that read PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD.
One morning when my father was away, Mom found a mouse trapped in the cellar of the house and begged me to get rid of it — she had an incomprehensible horror of mice. I went out to the woodpile for a stick, came in and asked for a paper bag. Down in the cellar, the mouse blinked where it sat hunched in a dark corner, caught by the tail but otherwise unhurt and very much alive. I clubbed it till it stopped twitching, emptied the trap into the bag while my mother watched from the top of the stairs and praised me as I came up, “You’re so good to do this, I’ll tell Dad when he gets home how you helped me today.”
Out in the back alley I dumped the mouse into tall grass and thought, If I’m so good, why do I need to get saved? I stared at the little carcass, my heart divided between a mother’s gratitude and God’s uncompromising holiness. “All your righteousnesses are like filthy rags” — last year the evangelist had quoted this text from Isaiah, shocking everyone by saying that in the original Hebrew it referred to a woman’s menstrual rags. Regardless of what we did, we were wrong — that much the evangelist had made clear. He knew how to separate Christians from pagans, and divide true Christians from backsliders. I knew myself that down in hell I’d beg for relief from the torment — just a drop of water, please, one drop on my tongue. But no, Father Abraham would say from the other side of the chasm, you had your chance back there in Salem Church, filthy rag that you were, and then you went and stole the cigarettes, and killing a mouse to satisfy your mother won’t save you.
The Saturday before the revival began I walked to the meadow in the middle of the village. Usually it was a peaceful place, but today the smell of prairie sage in the summer heat only seemed to forecast the lake of fire, and though the wild roses wafted sweet aches through me, the evangelist was coming, that was the thing, he was coming again.
Late at night I tossed in bed. What others did with their souls was their own business — mine was with the stolen cigarettes, a failed, repentant smoker who’d have to go up to the altar. There was no other way.
My parents snored from their bedroom. They had been saved years ago. Now they only had to worry about powdering cabbages in the garden, or to figure out what was wrong with the washing machine. They didn’t want their son to be lost forever, but otherwise hell did not concern them personally.
Outside my window, a dog barked. A carful of hoods careened toward Main Street, going to shoot pool in the Variety Shop, or dance at the Community Hall with lost souls from neighbouring towns and get into fights with them. The Bible brooded on a shelf beside my bed. For God so loved the world that he killed his only son, and if you don’t believe it and confess your sins, you’ll end up in the lake of fire begging, begging . . .
Then it was Sunday morning. The plastic Gem radio in the kitchen was tuned to the Old-fashioned Revival Hour from Pasadena, California. I sat down at the table. My mother scooped porridge into our bowls. Then my father prayed, first for our lost relatives, and for the missionaries around the world, and finally that God would revive Salem Church, beginning today.
We picked up our spoons, and I knew I was the only one who needed to be saved.
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.