When I was four feet tall,
they sat me down in a pew
with a pat on the back for graduating
to "big church," where I just wished
father wouldn't rap my chubby
fingers with a wooden rod when
I squirmed on those tired Sunday mornings.
(And he should have known better
than to attack a young pianist's hands.)

All those years, I mostly recall
just one service, after which I developed
a rather enduring phobia of fire
and even the collection of red welts
on my back could not force me to return.

For Easter, they drained the baptistery
and set a trap door underneath,
as I realized years afterwards.
Smoke rose from below,
clouding the stage. We glimpsed
veiled outlines of men and women,
their cries rising one
after another.

Fulfilling his duty as an older brother, mine
leaned over and whispered in my ear
that the scene before my eyes was entirely real:

Every soul fell to their knees and
raised their voice to plead a case before God.
One cried that as a doctor,
he'd given his life to save others', not unlike Jesus.
God flipped through a couple of pages
as if He couldn't remember whether He'd scrawled
the name down somewhere, and announced
that it was sadly absent from the Book of Life.
The doctor wouldn't walk into that steaming lake;
some angel tossed him in. Twelve rows back,
his shrieks echoed in my ears.

Wide eyes
darted to my father for some explanation,
his face as blank as God's.

Through choked sobs,
the next one admitted
that in life she loved another woman.
Even all those years ago,
I grasped this all too well.
When the woman collapsed in moans,
something seized my throat
so tight
I could not breathe,
heart shaken
with an ache
too great
for a child's,
so sure that

every moment was real,
lungs swelling
with smoke
in each strain
for breath,
hands shuddering
I curled them
hard till my palms bled,
knuckles white as my face,
convinced I witnessed God Himself
condemn as desperate ghosts threw themselves
at His feet,
myself among them,
crushing stung eyes shut
tears singed my cheeks and I shrank
from the moment my pastor would shout my name,
call me for judgment if these quivering legs
will carry me up the steps –

will the angels
offer me a chance to defend myself,
or just shove me under,
kicking and screaming?
(My father's face might mirror my Father's,
still and perfect,
even then.)

Can I outrun their wings
if I run now, before
they notice me
crying in the back?

Father followed me,
strolling softly until he reached the door
so as not to cause a scene.
Muttered threats and a yank on my arm
could not console the fear of fire,
so he relented,
drove me home.

To this day my brother remembers;
he wonders why no punishment
could force his sister through the doors
of a church for years afterward or why that night,
and in the sleepless ones to come,

no one could hush her sobs or quiet
the screams that woke both of them
from those new nightmares.