Episode 21: An Enthusiastic Hour | Scryer's Gulch
Annabelle preferred to sit in the back pew at church; despite her general self-confidence, church always made her feel exposed and vulnerable. She'd been raised both Methodic and Enthusiastic, the product of a rare mixed marriage and a childhood spent bouncing between one set of relatives and the next. She loved the clean formality of the Methodic Church and its emphasis on logic, but when it came down to it, she chose Enthusiasm: the brightly clanging bells, the incense wafting over everything, the exuberantly decorated altar, the music so loud it shook her bones, the shouts of the faithful in response to a good sermon. And the sermons were much shorter.
Her mind was Methodic, but her soul was Enthusiastic.
Her burning cheeks were back-row-ish, but her social standing in town forced her toward the front. When it was her turn to sing the Joyful Noise, as each member of the faithful was called to do, she focused her eyes on the benevolently smiling statue of the Great Mother and improvised as best she could. Her voice always sounded clear and true in the higher and lower registers, but every time she hit a mid-note her voice warbled and cracked like a boy becoming a man. Every time, she wondered if perhaps she might still become Methodic, but then the choir would respond to her offering with a window-rattling "Aaaamen, child of the Mother, AAAAMENN!" in four part harmony, and she'd remember why she followed her mother's people instead of her father's. She sat back down and listened to the rest of the congregation in their turns, ending with Ralph, Julian Hopewell's general factotum, his off-tune contribution to the Joyful Noise scraping and creaking but heartfelt.
Then came time for the somber part of the service, the Wails and Apologies. This part was why Enthusiastic churches used to be located a ways out of town; now, they just use acoustic tile and put them wherever they like, but then, the only ones who'd settle within a hundred yards of one were fellow Enthusiasts, and there weren't enough of them in Scryer's Gulch who could afford their own houses to build up much of a surrounding neighborhood for Our Lady of the Great Hullaballoo.
Wailing is good for the soul, says the Good Book, and Enthusiasts take that up with a passion as I'm sure you know if you are one, or have seen a service on the EV, or live near an old church that can't afford the soundproofing. Unlike the quiet contemplations across town of the Methodics on their trespasses against the Method, the Enthusiasts tore at their hair, wept, rolled about in the aisles, prostrated themselves before the Mother, and generally carried on about what rotten human beings they'd been during the week just passed. It behooved the choir to recover from this orgy of regret first, and take up the traditional "Forgive us, Mother, we didn't mean it, truly" chant, starting out loud to cut through the noise, and then softer and softer as people recovered their equilibrium, straightened their hair and clothes, dried their eyes, and took their seats.
At the end of the choir's chant, Brother Fattipickel took the pulpit and cleared his throat; the congregation shouted a welcome, each in their own way. "And a good morning and welcome to you all, children of the Mother! Mrs Smith, you're looking well this morning," he beamed down at the Runnels's housekeeper. "And Miss Duniway, my, aren't you a picture of loveliness. Isn't she pretty, folks?" Everyone loudly complimented Annabelle; one miner, his hair slicked back and the dirt mostly washed off from his bath the night before, even shook her hand and agreed heartily with the Brother.
"Now don't blush, ma'am, because you know it's true," continued Brother Fattipickel. "And that's the text of our sermon today, friends: are we open to the good the Mother sent us down from on high with? Or do we turn it away with blushing cheek? It makes no sense to deny what you are! Miss Duniway, you're pretty and you're smart! Ralph there, you're the best white cook in town, but I'll say this, Mrs Smith's peach pie beats even Ralph's!" He rained down loud and happy compliments on his congregation, praising one's housekeeping skills, another's way with a pickaxe, until he'd said something about each and every one of them. Throughout, the congregation shouted, "That's right!" or "Believe it, child!"
Once everyone felt good and jolly, the deacons passed the collection plate. Annabelle put in her little mite as befit a modest but pious schoolteacher, and then the choir struck up the final hymn, this time "We Are All One and Different in the Mother," Brother Fattipickel walking down the aisle swinging the censer. At the door, he gave the final benediction: "Bless you, children of the Mother, and may you face your week to come with Enthusiasm!"
Everyone filed out, shaking Brother Fattipickel's hand. When he got to Annabelle, he stopped her. "Miss Duniway, I've been meaning to ask how you get on! How is life in our schoolhouse treating you? A pity we have no Enthusiastic children as of yet."
"I'm sure they'll arrive in time, Brother," she smiled.
"We do tend to large families! I am the youngest of twelve, myself. How many brothers and sisters do you have, if I might ask?"
Annabelle blushed. "I have two brothers, sir."
"Ah yes?" Brother Fattipickel blinked, confused. "Well, when you marry, I'm sure you will make sure your own children don't grow up alone." She nodded, bid him a flustered goodbye, and hurried toward her rooms. Marriage was the last thing on her mind, and church always reminded her it should be at the forefront.
The Methodic Church was just getting out as well. First to emerge were the Bonhams, corking traffic through the doorway while Jed made a show of his great friendship with Pastor Billson, which arose from his great financial sponsorship of Pastor Billson; if he shook the Pastor's hand once, he shook it a dozen times, until Charity loudly remarked that Mrs Walters was holding breakfast for them, and Lily fairly pranced with impatience, her long gold curls bouncing. Jed spotted Annabelle, and touched his hat with a subtle leer. Charity gave her the evil eye, and Lily craned her neck behind them to see if Amelia Prake had come out yet.
Next through the door in the general flood of impatient, hungry worshippers were Deputy Rabbit and Jamie. Rabbit gave her a wide grin and tipped his hat; Jamie scowled and made a face before they both hurried off to breakfast. Annabelle wondered why John wasn't with them, and sighed in disappointment before she'd quite realized she'd done it.
Mary and Anatole Prake came out into the morning air arm in arm, with their three children close behind. Little Amelia waved at Annabelle before running to catch up with Lily Bonham, lagging behind her father. Georgie gave his teacher a sullen, imploring look before he resumed kicking the dirt up in the street.
Annabelle caught Simon's eye and smiled; he blushed, smiled, and glanced away. Very nearly a guilty smile, she thought, and frowned to herself. Had he guessed she was watching him? If so, how? She wondered if her ethergrams had given more away than she thought, and for the first time was glad Chief Howman had told her to resort to regular mail except in emergencies. With that, she hastened her steps to the Hopewell, and perhaps a nap with Misi.
As the Prakes walked home to the big breakfast finally waiting for them, Simon's insides griped from more than hunger. Annabelle Duniway had such a penetrating gaze! Did she know somehow he'd given her ethergrams to the Sheriff? How would he ever explain himself? He resolved to keep all future correspondence to himself, no matter how much Runnels threatened or cajoled, and somehow, he would confess what he'd done to Miss Duniway, if she hadn't already figured it out. He'd never felt more guilty in his life.