It's quiet in the little church, wood beams and wood pews, a prism of color stretched along the ceiling as the sun presses through a stained glass window. I am watching the red bleed across the ceiling, wondering if it will reach the apex before the morning is out. There is a girl at the podium, tall and long-limbed, hovering somewhere around twenty, my daughter's age. She is thin in the way girls don't want to be but aren't allowed to complain about. You can see it in her shoulders, the way they seek the safety of each other, hunching against the world - though this is her church and she's grown up with these people. As I watch, she leans her arms on the podium, lets her brown hair hang in front of her face and tells us why she's up there today. I'm one of the few who don't know. She and her family have suffered the worst kind of tragedy, the kind of thing that parents imagine while they lie in their beds, the kind of fear that jerks them awake just at the edge of sleep. Only the night before I had woken with the same fear-clutch, saw a loved face in my mind, whispered a pleading prayer. I do not allow myself to wonder how many times her mother woke startled and begged into the dark.
The girl plays for us a song, something pale and bright, music that brings to mind long walks on the beach or love notes folded in elaborate triangles and passed to sixth grade classmates. Music significant only because this was the last song, the last melody, the last blur of sound before the end. The sunlit notes fade and in the silence, the girl unfolds a piece of paper, tells us she's written a poem. I shift in my seat. The woman in front of me reaches in her bag for a tissue. The red on the ceiling has not moved an inch. The girl's voice, as she reads, surprises me with its clarity. It is strong and fluid and I close my eyes and let myself ride with her. We cross over the moment of knowing, into shock and horror, fall with her all the way down into grief. She does not flinch, but makes us see it, taste it, taste it again. I open my eyes and find the slash of color across the ceiling, half-close my lids again until the color deepens. At the back of my throat an ache is growing. The poem ends. The girl has not said God's name; she did not rise in hope. The congregation sits unmoving as gravestones, silent as hares when the fox is near. I tear my eyes away from the ceiling and find her face, but it is burning, lit by something that looks too much like truth for me to linger, and I slip away to the ceiling again. I hear the pop and rasp of breath as she leans into the microphone, hear the buzz of her lips as they graze the silver net of the surface. "I'm telling you this," she says, "because I want to be known." And then she is gone, slipping down the steps, her brown hair lifting behind her, one long stride after another down the aisle and out the door. I see her shadow pass behind stained glass windows, watch the color on the ceiling eclipse and darken, then return. When she is gone no one speaks. It is as if we are letting the grief fall over us, letting it spread out like a blanket so we all can carry it. After awhile a woman stands in her pew and sings an old Hebrew song, Kol Ha'olam Kulo. "All the world is a very narrow bridge, and above all is "Do not be afraid." Her voice is thin as silk and it wavers and drifts among us and I can feel it tightening, drawing us towards each other. I do not dare to look at the woman sitting next to me for fear I will take her hand and kiss it. When the meeting is over, I slip out the back, exhausted.
For weeks after this I don't return to the church. My heart is tangled in the thread of something I can't move past. I repeat it to myself over and over: "because I want to be known," "because I want to be known." I am trying to understand how a person could say that, could stand in a church and ask such a thing. Nearly all the churches I've known held rulers behind their backs and heard our stories only to measure them, listening only to find the God-words and the right kind of hope at the end, the part where we say, "but Jesus!"...and give thanks. Church is the most dangerous place of all to be known, I think, and my heart is sure of this, has confirmed it many times. In the dark, I lay in bed and see it again, the way she burned, her brown hair lifting behind her, her shadow moving behind colored windows, the red slash of light reaching out over our heads.