The Heavens Beneath

June 4th Monday

Los Suelos is a revelation.

On the surface the town looks rundown. But there is a thrum beneath the crust here. My drive from Oakland was filled with doubts—am I ready to pastor my own church? how will the congregants react to a new (female) leader? will I shepherd God’s flock well? I am still filled with those doubts.

But there’s something about Los Suelos.

Tonight, I’m staying in a motel with a huge tomato out front. The sunset on my drive in was stunning—lavender tinged with orange. I kept thinking, I’ve wandered into a dream.

June 5th Tuesday

I’m living a nightmare.

The church is a shambles. Dirty, old, odiferous. 

There’s a 5×5-foot hole in the floor behind the pulpit that goes straight down into a pit—mounds of dirt all over. Quite unsettling. This is apparently the work of the previous pastor, Pastor Kesher. Or so I gather from Elton. Elton is the custodian. We’re great friends. Our first meeting:

Elton: So, you’re a lady-pastor.

Me: And you’re a man-janitor!

Elton: Custodian.

He hasn’t spoken a full sentence since. It’s just me and Elton here. I don’t know when confession takes place, or anything besides Sunday service is at 9am. The membership list is horribly outdated. 

In addition to the hole, the small prep kitchen has rotting food in the fridge, the altar is sloping wildly to the left, and half of the pews are defaced with carvings of a rat eating its tail and their legs look like they have been chewed on by a small beaver—or very large rats. (Lord, please let it be a really small beaver.)

The only beautiful thing is the church bell, which Elton sternly told me not to ring. I assume it is broken too. A shame. It looks perfect up there. It’s silly, but I’ve always dreamed of pastoring an old, classic church like this one must have been once. There’s nothing quite like a church bell tolling on Sunday morning. A deep, welcoming voice to beckon the elect. Silent for now. Oh, well.

At least the cemetery looks nice.

The parsonage is beyond the cemetery. Or as I call it, “the Maniacal Manse.” All of Pastor Kesher’s belongings are still here. His dishes are in the sink. His laundry is in the hamper. Oh, and the walls are covered with writing. I feel paranoid saying this, but some of it looks like blood. Right across from my bed, one sentence is repeated: “The golden calf spoke as it entered the fire pit, saying ‘thank you.’”

I keep reaching for my cell phone to call someone—Pastor Rick, Professor Kerrigan, my mom—but then I remember there’s no service.

June 6th Wednesday

I’d hoped for more details about Pastor Kesher from the head elder, Terry, during our meeting today—all he said during my interview was that Pastor Kesher had “departed”—but Terry never showed.

June 8th Friday

Still no sign of Terry. I’ve cleaned out some of Pastor Kesher’s stuff and half-filled the hole behind the pulpit, but the dirt is murder on my allergies. My head feels like it might explode even now—ears ringing, mucus. Elton keeps busy in the cemetery. Every time I pass the bell-pull, I’m tempted to ring it, just test it out—I can almost hear the sonorous sounds each time I pass under it—but Elton has begun giving me one-word answers, and I dare not endanger that progress. 

I’ve been pleading with God all week for a sign that I haven’t made a massive mistake. Maybe it is just these darn allergies making me feel unwell.

June 9th Saturday

I had to get out of the Maniacal Manse. The words on the walls start swirling if I stare too long. Lots of phrases about cows and rats and pits.

I wandered a long time and finally ended up at a small stadium for the Blue Dicks baseball team—after the flower, not the male anatomy. It was refreshing to see other human faces at the game, but there was this strange noise in the stands. A pulsating boom, like someone was striking a great high-pitched gong in my eardrums. It must have been feedback in the PA system. I couldn’t stay long.

I’m not sure how I wound up at the drive-in theater. All day I felt like I was searching for something that I couldn’t remember. No one knew what movie was playing or when it would start. The guy in the red pickup next to me looked genuinely surprised that I asked.

I’m sitting out in front of the Maniacal Manse now. I couldn’t face the walls again just yet. When I arrived “home,” Elton was out back digging in the twilight. The fourth in a line of graves. I asked who all had died, when I’d need to perform the services, etc. He said no one.

June 10th Sunday

I’d hoped Sunday’s service (sans Holy Communion—we have no supplies) would remind me why I came here. Giving a sermon at a pulpit in front of a hole was not as bad as I thought. Mostly because I was dreaming of sinking into the floor the entire time I spoke. I stared at the bell pull at the far back of the church and did my best not to vomit.

I have three congregants. Years of seminary and post-grad ministry to teach three people. Not even Elton came.

There was one adolescent, who is clearly going through an emo phase, carving the back of the pew in front of him with a screeching spoon for the entire sermon (he left before I saw he’d made a rat eating its tail—at least I know who my graffiti artist is); one older gentleman in coveralls and a Blue Dicks hat who scurried in after I’d started and scuttled out before I finished; and Mrs. Finch. 

She darted up to me when I finished, a gigantic pink purse clutched to her chest.

Mrs. Finch: Pleased to meet you, Pastor Triers.

Me: Carolyn, please.

Mrs. Finch: CaroLINE. That’s a lovely name.

Mrs. Finch peppered her less coherent moments with a few insights: Terry was the last remaining elder at the church (and its main benefactor), and had resigned without notice to join a group led by a guru at the drive-in movie theater—or perhaps near it (??). A lot of folks have joined this group over the past years, hence the small congregation here. Mrs. Finch had some wild ideas about what this guru was doing. If her intel is trustworthy, it has all the markings of a cult. I’ll have to pray about what to do. When I mentioned Pastor Kesher, she left immediately.

June 11th Monday

I found a handwritten note taped to the parsonage door this morning. It says, The Called descend. Same phrase that lines my bathroom walls. The handwriting is different, though.

Elton’s obsessive digging is starting to concern me. We have a funeral booked for Thursday. Maybe he’s just trying to get ahead. I wish my allergies would settle down.

June 14th Thursday

I performed a funeral today for Harold Given. Elton said he died of “fever.” 

There was one attendee. I tried to get some details about Harold from him, but his mourner didn’t want to talk. He may have been the man in overalls from Sunday service. I tactfully asked if the funeral service had been advertised (to explain the low attendance). 

“Hibiscus.” That’s all he said. I guess he’d wanted flowers.

June 15th Friday

Elton keeps digging graves. I’m pretty sure he’s been at it all night this time. His shovel makes the most peculiar reverberation. Feels like a rat biting my ear canal. I can almost hear it saying something.

June 16th Saturday

Another note on my door, same handwriting: See you soon.

Maybe it’s Mrs. Finch? But why “The Called descend” last time?

June 17th Sunday

Mrs. Finch didn’t know anything about the notes. She was my only attendee today. She did mention the guru’s name: Hibiscus Bernard. I asked Elton about him. He said Hibiscus owns a decommissioned USGS facility near the drive-in theater. 

Mrs. Finch’s ten-dollar-per-week tithe isn’t going to keep me afloat. I need my congregants back. Think I’ll pay this Hibiscus a visit.

June 22nd Friday

The search for Hibiscus continues. Better than staring at the walls of the Maniacal Manse, listening to the spoons vibrate. I never noticed spoons before I came to Los Suelos. The bell creates a nice resonance with them, but sometimes it is overwhelming. Especially if the skillet gets involved. My allergies are still acting up, though a little better today. The hole behind the pulpit weighs on me. I need to fill it in, but my ears just unclogged and I keep putting it off. I dream about it sometimes. I can see the hole with something at its bottom, eyes and a mouth—a rat maybe, curling around itself. Small wonder, what with all the rat and cow drawings I am surrounded by. Getting out and about has done me good, I think. It’s kept me away from the bell pull anyway!

They don’t have regular meetings, this Hibiscus group. Not that I can tell. I’ve spent four nights at the drive-in theater. The Descent has played on a loop. 

Yesterday Mrs. Finch stopped by with an entire casserole inside her purse. We held confession. Easy to schedule with only one congregant.

Elton has dug fifteen graves. I joked with him that at this rate we’ll have enough to accommodate the entire town by Independence Day. He laughed for five minutes. I think I preferred silence.

June 26th Tuesday

Finally made contact with the “cult.” I don’t know what to think. It seems harmless enough, really. We gathered around a hole in the ground. There were many pieces of heavy equipment around the hole, vibrating loudly, like the spoons, but larger, more sure of themselves. There’s a near-harmony at the hole. It’s quite pleasant.

I was expecting, I guess, some sort of sales pitch. Pressure, money, power. Something. But Hibiscus Bernard is… kind of nice, actually. Mild-mannered. He greeted me by name, and introduced me to the group as Los Suelos’ newest spiritual leader. He even admitted to leaving me notes, and later invited me to speak.

The gathering was loose and relaxed, and we didn’t even get a teaching. Just a moment of silence to think of the blessed who had descended before us (the dead?) and an invitation to return tomorrow if we feel called.

June 27th Wednesday

Tonight’s meeting included what I suppose are the main “precepts” of Hibiscus Bernard’s worldview. It isn’t complicated, or even all that compelling. This time, a few people stood near him in harnesses, like they were rock climbers.

Hibiscus said Los Suelos has lost many people, and that grief is leaching into the soil as those who precede us in death are buried. He appears to believe in an afterlife, of sorts. Those who are buried continue their descent, if they are the “blessed,” into the eternal “Belowdown.” The more blessed, the deeper. There was a surprising amount of jargon about soil composition and metaphysics. I find the music of the heavy equipment combined with his voice comforting. I can’t say I’m convinced by his notions, but I need to hear more—to convince people to return to the Lord. The beauty of the place is really his best argument. It’s hard to stay away between meetings. I feel well there, clear-headed. It’s the same type of sound I hear when the skillet and spoons and bell are talking—that background vibration I can hear even now as I write—but better. If I had that sound here at the church, I could face the hole, bring my congregation back—do anything. Maybe I can harness something similar. The temptation to unleash the bell in its full-throated glory is becoming harder to resist. Why didn’t Elton want me to ring it, anyway? Perhaps he wants to keep the sound for himself.

July 2nd Monday

I’ve had a fright. Something is wrong with Elton. Last night I was listening to the spoons and the bell and the skillet when his shovel started calling out in pain, daggers in my eardrums. He’d dug himself nearly fourteen feet down and was in such a state that he broke the tip off. The shovel kept screaming, and I was hollering at him, but he couldn’t hear. I finally found a ladder and got down into the hole with him. He was so feverish that his skin burned my hands when I yanked him up with me. He was light, emaciated. His clothes melted on his body as he lay on the grass by the hole. I turned the garden hose on him, just to get him cooled down. His face… I can’t describe it. Glorified.

July 19th Thursday

Elton’s transfer to a city hospital has left me shouldering all the grave-digging (he made me promise to finish twenty-five). I resented it at first, but now I am enjoying it. I realize reading my previous entry that I seemed almost panicked about Elton, but I’m not anymore. God had a reason for Elton’s digging. He found something that night. I know he must have. The spoons and the bell sing nicely when I am in the hole with the shovel—more like how they are in the Belowdown. Better the deeper I go. It’s hard to express the beauty of their harmony—yet it’s still not quite perfect. 

I haven’t felt so close to the Lord in my life as I do when I hear those sounds. No wonder Elton was always at it, always so secretive. I’m close. So very, very close. I can feel the thrumming in my sternum, and I know that it is just a matter of finding the right placement and depth and width… Elton took it a little far and got feverish, but I won’t. Hibiscus says Elton is blessed with vision. He said fulfilling my promise of twenty-five graves would bring me closer to paradise. Hibiscus doesn’t realize I’ll use my paradise to bring people to the Lord, not his Belowdown. He can’t see the eyes staring up, can’t hear the humming. Rats and cows and bells.

I still attend his meetings. I enjoy them. He’s correct about some of it: I can feel something in Los Suelos that is different. Mrs. Finch pesters me to teach, but she doesn’t know how close I am.

July 24th Tuesday

It’s there, right beneath the dirt! I’ve been a fool. It’s been there all along. The whole time! My dream. I had it again and that’s when I realized. The eyes in the hole behind the pulpit. I realize now why I couldn’t bring myself to finish filling it in. I am meant to deepen it, of course! I prayed for a sign. Pastor Kesher knew the way. I must follow.

July 25th Wednesday

I’m close! I’m close! I can feel the vibrations more than ever before!! I have dug through the night. I break only for water, a little rest on the pews. This hasty entry—excuse my writing. Something escapes me. What is it? There’s a piece of the puzzle I am missing. Lord God, show me! I’m close!

July 29th Sunday

The heavens opened to me, at last, at last! Pastor Kesher knew all along. I needed to listen to the bell—the bell was the key, which Elton tried to keep from me. Traitor! No! I rang it. I let its full-throated glory bellow, reverberating with the ground, the Hole, all metal and ore, with Los Suelos itself. The bell showed me the WAY down. Down the pulpit into the ground. And just as in my dream, I saw it: a face in the dirt, a body—wan with death, glorified with knowledge—GOD. I rest this last time to write this, that others might know the truth, might follow when they are called here by the bell. Now I must go. I must go deeper! I must give into the gravity God created to show us which direction was right, I must no longer resist the grace of the earth, which is Heaven, the Heaven which is beneath.

Featured image by Klayton Harmon.

Photo of author

Emily Woodworth

Emily Woodworth grew up in Sisters, Oregon, where she developed a love for nature and the psychological pathologies that permeate small towns. As a descendant of the Karuk Tribe, she enjoys studying and deconstructing the tropes of the Western genre. She graduated in 2020 with an MFA from CalArts, where she attended on a Lillian Disney Scholarship. Recent work has appeared in Joyland, No Contact, CAROUSEL, and more. She’s been nominated for some Pushcart Prizes, made the long-list for Wigleaf’s Top 50, and was a finalist for cream city review’s Summer Prize in Fiction, among other honors. Emily has held fellowships from Oregon Literary Arts and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. She’s currently a fiction editor for Ruminate Magazine.