Family Prayers

[fiction]

I.

After her mother died, the girl started sleeping outside with the pigs. It was too stuffy in the house now, too claustrophobic. She preferred to be outside with her friends under the open sky where her prayers could travel to the heavens unimpeded.  

That first night, before going to sleep, the girl knelt down in the hot mud and taught the pigs to pray. Hold your hooves like this, she said, putting her hands together, palm to palm. Pray for rain, she told Clover and William. Pray for wisdom, to Pebble and Enoch. And we will pray for courage, she said to Lenny, her favorite pig, a gentle giant fattened on slop and sorghum.  

When her mother became ill, their family prayed first for healing and when that didn’t work, they prayed for mercy. The second prayer was answered and, a few days later, her mother took her last breath in the silence between two cricket chirps—then she was gone. 

One evening, bottle in hand, her father stumbled outside to take a piss and saw his daughter and five fat pigs, hands and hooves together, eyes closed, heads bowed.  

“What can a pig know of prayer?” he called to her from across the dusty road.  

To the girl, his question sounded cruel, though maybe that wasn’t how he meant it. With her mother gone, everything sounded cruel. She recalled her father kneeling day after day next to her mother’s sick bed, praying for rain. The girl looked around at the scorched earth, dry as a rug burn, parched as her mother’s cracked lips. What did he know of prayer, her father? It rained, but never hard enough. Life went on, but never long enough. 

The next day, her father led Lenny to a far corner of the paddock and the girl followed, hiding behind a nearby bush. She watched as he took aim at Lenny’s bowed head, square between the eyes. Suddenly, she knew the answer to his question. When her father pulled the trigger, the girl sprang from behind the bush, throwing herself between Lenny and the bullet, her body as weightless and graceful as a hallelujah. 

*     *     * 

II.

Alone, the man stood at the kitchen counter preparing what was, save for the bacon, a paltry breakfast. The oats were gone; he’d fed the final crumbs to the hens in hopes it would get them to start laying again, which it didn’t. The cows udders had gone dry months ago and all the calves had died, desperately suckling their mothers’ shriveled teats. If only there’d be rain, he thought, pouring boiling water over an old bag of black tea he’d found at the back of the silverware drawer. The bag must have had a hole because as he poured the water, tiny black granules billowed into the mug. When he looked closer, the man saw the granules weren’t tea but ants. Not wanting to waste the tea, he drank it anyway, ants and all. Waste not, want not, his father told him when he was a child. Or had he read it in the Bible? After all that had happened, where he’d first heard the adage didn’t seem to matter. Not now. Now, the only thing that mattered was rain.  

The man set down the plate on the tablethree steaming slices of bacon pulled from the larder and a heel of bread. He looked out the window, framed by flowing lace curtains his wife had picked out in better times. He’d objected to the curtains at first, saying they were too feminine, but had finally relented. Now that his wife was gone, he wished he would have said yes to everything she’d ever asked formost of all that they get the hell out of this god-forsaken land, where it never rained no matter how much you prayed or, when it did, it didn’t rain hard enough. And now his daughtersmart girl, sweet girlwas gone too.  

Outside the window, his five remaining hogs grunted and flopped in the hot mud he kept wet with his piss. How long before they succumbed, taken to the heavens like his wife and his little girlBetter to shoot them before they died of disease or starvation because then at least he could eat. The smell of the bacon wafted up to his nose and his stomach churned. What else was he supposed to do? Waste not, want not. The man folded his hands together, bowed his head, and after saying grace, began to eat.  

*     *     * 

III. 

Her girl was born in the middle of a thunderstorm. Rain pelted the windowpane; lightning seared the sky. A storm baby, the nurse said, was a lucky baby. A promise of prosperity, good fortune. The woman looked down at the tiny infant in her arms, the pinched face, slick and gummy, the nub of a nose. She decided then that she would give her girl everything, as freely and abundantly as the milk that flowed from her breast.  

When her husband entered the room, the door slammed behind him like a clap of thunder. He’d just heard back from the bank. The loan was approved.  

We’re going west! he said.  

The woman gave him a tired smile, a halo of sweat on the pillow beneath her head. Look at our daughter, she said, holding the baby up like an offering.  

Her husband took the bundle into his arms, pressing her against his chest. She’s perfect, our little piglet. So cute I could just eat her up.” He put the baby’s tiny hand into his mouth and pretended to chomp on it. Delicious, he said with a grin.  

We’re going west, the woman said. All our prayers are answered. 

The next time the woman was in the hospital, six years later, she was dying. The plain room, with its whitewashed walls and shiny bleached floors, reminded her of the joy of giving birth all those years ago. This was different. This was x-rays, exams, and endless procedures. Like everything in this god-forsaken land, her body seemed to be drying up beneath the unrelenting sun. The woman watched her blood travel from her arm into the thin vial held by the nurse. She wished she could drain her blood onto their crops instead because it wasn’t going to do anyone any good in those vialsher family least of all.  

When the tests came back, the doctor perched a single buttock on the edge of the bed to show he cared. He told the woman he was sorry but there was nothing they could do. A matter of days, he said, maybe weeks. Oh, please not weeks, she thought, not because of the pain but because she couldn’t bear to watch her girlher storm baby, her piglet, now seven years oldkneeling day after day with her little hands knotted together, praying so hard her knuckles went white.  

They say it’s going to rain next week,” her husband said when the doctor was gone, dabbing her forehead with a cool washcloth.  

The woman looked out the window. Not a cloud in the sky. No, it won’t, she thought, closing her eyes. It will never rain again. In giving her daughter everything, the woman had made only one mistake: she taught her little girl how to pray, but not how to stop. 

Stephanie Rael divides her free time between reading, writing, tending a small farm, and delighting in the antics of squirrels and other rodents. Stephanie resides in Nampa, ID.