Trouble for People
Peg Alford Pursell

Tendrils and tangles of vines draped down the sides of the grape arbor in the backyard where nine-year-old Shelly lay underneath in the cool shade of late afternoon. Overhead, broad green leaves formed a thick mat blocking out the sun's rays. A sliver of silvery white sky fractured through now and again. She opened and closed her eyes, squinting then softening her vision, focusing in and focusing out, experiencing a strange sensation of separateness and distance from her surroundings. She was in charge of how she could view her surroundings. The voices of her mother and father shouting in the kitchen carried over the yard. She tried to do with her ears what she did with her eyes. By concentrating hard she muffled the sound and turned inward to hear what sounded like her own mind fizzing behind closed eyelids. She could make sound move in and out like waves of the ocean, but it wasn't easy.

Sooner or later, her parents would stop, but the later could come a long time from now. It could grow dark by then. It could start to rain. The grape arbor, shaped like a little house, could protect her, unless it really poured. Say that it poured like the story in the Bible about Noah. They'd had that story today in Sunday school.

Mother was in one of her phases of attending church, and Mrs. Charles had acted unsurprised to see Shelly, as if the teacher had seen her only a couple weeks ago. Mrs. Charles rubbed the paper figure of Noah over her felt board to create static and make the cutout stick to the board, while she explained the story, how a pair of each kind of animal boarded the ark.

"A mother and a father," she said and placed cutouts of two goats on the board beside Noah.

Shelly knew that saying "a mother and a father" was a polite way of saying a male and female that would go on to make babies. Be fruitful and multiply, the scripture said.

You didn't have to be a mother and father to have sex, she knew, even though she wasn't completely sure how to have sex, what actions were involved. She knew that her mother and father suspected each other of having sex with other males and females. That wasn't the way they said it when they accused one another, but her older brother had explained that's what the word meant. Screwing.

The word made her think of hardware, shiny and gleaming, the jars lined up on Dad's workbench in the basement. It didn't have the sound of a fun activity—though Tommy acted as if it were—but of something more like work. A chore that had to get done.

Mrs. Charles made it seem that the action was necessary, so that the world would fill up with animals once again after God ended the flood. But what if one kind of animal wanted to screw another kind, like if a male horse thought a female zebra was prettier? Maybe animals were better than people and stuck to their own partners. Maybe God made animals one way and people another, but why? If you could do anything you wanted—if you were God—why would you make so much trouble for people?

You weren't supposed to think such thoughts, questioning God's mysterious ways. Bad things happened to the people in the Bible who didn't trust His plans. God told one woman not to look back at the town he forced her family to leave, but she couldn't help herself, so He turned the woman into a pillar of salt. If Shelly didn't watch herself, the grape arbor could cave in on top of her. Or worse. She picked up a sharp twig and dug it into the palm of her hand to punish herself first.

Though it was quiet in the house now, Shelly would wait until Tommy got home from wherever he was before she risked going in. Her bad thoughts probably hadn't made anything happen—that would be too much like an episode on Chiller Theater. Real life wasn't like that. But what about the Bible—weren't you supposed to believe it? She couldn't stop her thoughts. Shaky, she dug the twig into her hand again.

Tommy pulled up the driveway on his bike. Her brother didn't notice her under the grape arbor. "Where is everybody?" he yelled, banging into the house.

"Wipe your feet!" Mother said.

"Do what your mother says," Dad commanded.

So they were fine. Shelly could go in now. She snapped the twig in two, palm stinging, and went to the house, reminding herself to wipe her feet at the door.

Peg Alford Pursell is the author of the forthcoming book of stories, SHOW HER A FLOWER, A BIRD, A SHADOW (ELJ Publications). Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from RHINO, Permafrost, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, the Los Angeles Review, among others, and shortlisted for the Flannery O'Connor Award. She curates Why There Are Words, a reading series she founded five years ago in Sausalito.