While we sang hymns, a fat black spider spun her web over the holy dove’s wings. It was painted at the crest of the church’s vaulted ceiling, haloed in buttery light where it hung above the congregation. In those delicious moments when the reverend’s voice would rise, shine, for thy light is come, my neck would tilt back in feverish rapture. I would gaze into the dove’s open wings and feel that I was protected under its gentle wingspan.
It had taken me a while to notice the spider, since the church’s ceilings were so high. They arched over the pews like a massive stone ribcage, shielding the soft, warm bodies of the congregation. Each Sunday, I remembered my own smallness. The spider didn’t seem to care that the holy dove was five times its size. It scuttled over the sacred olive branch clutched in its beak.
The freshman soprano standing next to me missed her note, and the chord hung sour in the heated air before our director cut us off. The congregation gave polite applause. I couldn’t stop watching that spider. It was a scalding summer day and I was drenched with sweat. I couldn’t tell if anyone else was sweating as much as I was, not with our choir robes hanging like stiff black shields over our bodies. In the yearly youth choir pictures, we always looked like a group of floating heads. Busts displayed on a pedestal of black fabric, all variables of body erased.
We started singing the next song. All Creatures Of our God and King. The spider’s spindly legs formed dark cracks over the dove’s white body. I imagined the cracks spreading out until the whole ceiling was webbed, ready to crumble under its own weight and squish us all flat. My skin prickled, phantom spiders skittering up and down my spine. The holy dove, once a constant source of beauty and comfort, suddenly seemed hideous to me. Those hulking wings, those cold, beady eyes pinning me down. I had never experienced such a betrayal of my own senses; to have the beauty of a beloved thing vanish seemed much worse than immediately judging something disgusting. The heated air sliced down to my lungs with each breath, drying my tongue until I couldn’t sing, couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe.
We still had two hymns left, but at the end of All Creatures, I stepped off the stage and headed to the back door. I could imagine the director, chorus, and congregation staring after me, blank-faced with surprise. In a few seconds, each face would begin to settle into individual expressions of pity, judgment, or suspicion. I didn’t turn back to see it.
Outside, the heady thrum of crickets and distant cars. My own breaths, wheezy with panic. My fingers scrambled for the clasp at the back of my neck. I unclipped my robes, and they fell to the ground in a dark pool, revealing my damp clothes. I took gulps of rotten air. I was standing next to a dumpster, pressed snug to the back of the church. Next to it was a pile of trash: a battered AM radio, an empty sleeve of crackers, a flip flop, and a puzzle box warped with water and time. This collection of objects, unrelated and dream-like in their proximity, nearly brought me to tears. What kind of incomprehensible logic had brought these things together, rotting in a pile behind a Presbyterian church? I felt nauseous, off balance, like something solid at the center of my being had been ripped away. Inside, the choir started back up again, perfectly functional without my voice.
I thought of calling my mom for a ride home. Then, I heard a noise coming from the thicket behind the church. My body tensed. The trees were close knit, and I couldn’t see anything in the darkness.
“Who is that?” I called into the woods. No response. I wiped my face with shaky hands. I wasn’t scared by the woods, or the strange noise, but I was terrified by the way my voice vanished into the trees. “Anyone there?” I called louder, hoping for an echo.
A blur of gray came hurtling through the branches and I leapt back. It settled on the dumpster’s brim – a common pigeon. It hopped down, poking at the sleeve of crackers. The bird was mottled brown, like a white bird that’d been mud-splattered by a passing car.
“Hello,” I said. The pigeon tilted its head at me, crumbs stuck to its grimy beak. Then, it continued hunting in the plastic sheath. The pigeon kept pecking at the wrapper. I watched its dogged persistence of this simple task, the importance of finding each crumb. My breaths evened out. Faintly, I could hear the choir singing the last hymn we’d rehearsed. Eventually, the churchgoers would file out and leave the hall to the spider, who would patiently weave in the dark. The church would be strewn, wearing time like fine silk.
Nina Collavo is a senior at Binghamton University. She is an English Literature major with an affinity for weird nature, especially deep-sea creatures and carnivorous plants. She has edited with Harpur Palate and is the founder and editor-in-chief of Maenad, an online literary magazine.