[Readings] Black Communion, By Venita Blackburn | Harper's Magazine

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[Readings]

Black Communion

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The short story was published in the Spring 2021 issue of Ploughshares.

It was Communion Day when Pastor Short announced before the congregation his engagement to a woman who was not our mother. I learned that people just feed the possessions of the dead to Goodwill, so they don’t sprout bad dreams that pretend to be memories. Instead of doing our little-by-little Sunday donations of Daddy’s clothes, we went to church. Communion was my favorite religious activity. We got to eat our God and drink His blood once a month. Christians are something else, but I can’t deny that it is a little bit empowering to think we can consume our creator, and He’d be totally cool.

The ritual of getting dressed exhausted me: the dresses and the pumps, and the matching sling purses. I hated it. T loved it. She loved the show, a pageant of sinners all powdery and polished, ready to be doused with Jesus’ bucket of forgiveness even though she never stayed awake for half of it. When we left for church, Mama’s makeup looked like something to peel off, far too light, leaving the trunk of her neck dark. We never said anything. At least she was getting out of the house.

Sis. Bloom read the announcements: couples’ ministry meeting times, the vacation Bible study schedule, building-fund goals, etc. Out of all that BS she left off a lot of the good stuff. Still, I was waiting for the main event.

Catholics have a different process, from what I’ve seen on TV. They have Communion every week and line up while a priest hand-delivers a wafer directly into their mouths, one at a time. It doesn’t stop there. They then drink from the same cup of juice. There was no way I would get all dressed up for Pastor Short to slide an oyster cracker with his bare walrus fingers onto my tongue. GTFOH.

Sis. Bloom forgot to mention that Pastor Short had been fornicating with our mother for half a year, since Daddy died. Second, she forgot to mention the dick pic Pastor Short sent to my sister T. Then Sis. Bloom forgot to mention that once T got that dick pic, Pastor Short had given up a lot of power and could never get it back, so he stopped coming over more and more until the absence forced Mama to actually go to church again and confront him. Lastly, Sis. Bloom failed to mention that Pastor Short was a greasy-lipped hypocrite, so I was like, whatever, lady. You work on your building fund.

T ate and drank her sacrament before the big moment because she always forgot or never cared and was ready to fall into her creepy sleep again, sitting straight up with her eyes half open like a basset hound in a floral dress. I saved my Communion until after everyone else tossed back their cups.

Jesus tastes like low-sodium saltines and Welch’s grape juice and was probably into carbs. Mama’s makeup had blended well over the hours, turning her face into a daub of peanut butter. I considered telling her that Pastor Short’s new fiancée was ugly, which was true, but I hadn’t developed a habit for talking to my mother. We weren’t that kind of family. She’d been gripping the pew tightly for a while as if trying to balance herself, screaming beautifully in silence. I really thought I should say something. After the juice came the hymn “I Know It Was the Blood,” the most jubilant chant about bathing in the vital fluids of a deity ever written; it had the cadence and delight of a nursery rhyme, though the irony was not lost on the people, a song and dance of the conquerors and the conquered, a kind of covenant beyond the moment to something deep in the future with a fist around the past.

Once the music was in full ecstasy, Mama made a sound. She said “huh” with her whole chest, a note between scorn and epiphany. Then I said it, too, except I was all scorn and no epiphany. Maybe it was the sugar and liquid dye and pureed fruit or the grit of salt and flour on our tongues that evoked sudden calm. The church was disproportionately women, most of the men tending to the altar, circling the pastor while the audience of women with hands stretched out propped up the men in their elevation to heaven.

I only imitated her revelation at the time, but my mother had figured out that at any moment we women could remove our hands from the air, take back our obedience, our bodies, swallow our devotion, and the whole establishment would cave in like hollow bread. She understood that the price we pay to worship is grave and will tax us to the marrow, that the dead stay dead and it is the living who will frighten, astonish, and disappoint. I always saved my sacrament because I wanted to eat the last of our God my own way.


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