God’s Country

St Francis Xavier’s church stood as a final testament to the waning faith in God. The last of the devout washed up against the crumbling red stone of the structure, a wave of dirty despondent desperation clinging to the last of the light swiftly fading out of the world. The big rectangular box of the basilica stood high in the depths of the wold in the backcountry of Wisconsin.

The last believers waited on the hill, watching the sun set beyond the tree line in sullen silence, dreading if the place of prayer would also succumb as all the other houses of worship had.

After the final Denunciation of Religion had passed in Congress six years ago, churches, mosques, temples, cathedrals, synagogues, any center where people would gather daily to pray and beseech benedictions from the Almighty, had been shut down and worshippers barred from entry. The government had finally demoted God from big capital G to little g, enforcing the rule of prohibiting religion in the country to reduce and discourage radical terrorism.

After nearly two decades of constant and unpredictable warfare in the States, attacks initiated and reciprocated by faiths of all sorts, the government finally decided to shut down all forms of religion, in the hope that if they took away God, then they’d also be removing the crazy impulse of people to harm one another in the name of their faith. Outrage, protest, riots, prayer circles, bombs, they’d analyzed and anticipated for all possible scenarios and backlash resulting from the drastic move to blot out the blight religion made upon humanity. They’d handled it all so well…until the earth began claiming the houses of worship one by one.

The first to occur had been a small Jewish temple located between a block of deli stores and an organic food market. Witness accounts from protesters boycotting the religious ban and passersby both attested the same: great rents in the sidewalk suddenly appeared between the feet of those gathered outside the temple. Though anyone within a block’s radius could clearly hear the gnashing of stone, only those standing within the perimeter right beside the synagogue were subject to the tremors. Some fled in fear, wildly shouting of God’s vengeance, as others produced phones to freeze the moment into social media.

The videos all captured the cracks appearing all about the boundary of the building; within moments rough gravelly soil pushed up and out of the asphalt, sliding up and over the walls and windows. The air vibrated with the squeal of metal and the explosive sound of masonry shattering as the dirt rapidly consumed the building. The rocky earth severed the brick, metal, and glass connecting the temple to the adjacent structures beside it.

In minutes the three storey teak colored stone of the synagogue became completely enshrouded by the rocky mud, the peaked roof and columned porch borne away into a subterranean mystery.

Only a concave hole remained to mark the spot; the earth slightly rumpled as if a large comb had been ran over the surface a few times. Jagged bits of shorn metal, wood, and stone stuck out from the neighboring buildings. The hole stood out like a vacant socket where the tooth had just been violently ripped out. Plumes of dust swirled about the gathered people, phones held out like offerings, wondering what it could mean.

The narrow arched temple was only the first to be swallowed by the depths of the earth. They said it was God’s wrath, that if faith and worship were banned from the country, then God would reclaim were once reverence was performed. Or something more sinister could now lay it’s hand upon the now empty House of God.

“Stand straight and true as the love you proclaim for the Lord!” Father Hammond called in a raucous voice. After hours of constant Bible quotes and limping through the vagrant worshippers on his silver topped cane, the priest was near exhaustion. “If you want to be received back into the light of our Father, then you better get on your damn knees and beg for his pissing forgiveness!” He shouted, raved, cajoled, nearly reduced to kicking those not cowering low enough, giving a clout to anyone whose attention may be wavering. He fought hard to hold his congregation in line; it’d been over a year since he’d seen a church and would make damn certain that this rabble of their Savior’s misguided children would not fail in the eyes of God.

This may be the last basilica in the country, no, the sole remaining place of worship left to them! They couldn’t fall short, he mustn’t be found wanting, not on the eve of the Devil’s near victory. He moved back from the knots of people bowing and kneeling about the basilica, standing down the hill a bit to look up at the tower. The sun had hastened its decline beyond the fallowed hills of untamed Wisconsin, bits of stars showing in the backdrop. The wooden roof tiles of the church still carried a portion of the leaking sunlight, seeming to glow of its own accord.

Father Hammond rubbed his tired face with a shaking hand, attempting to squeeze out the fatigue. He watched as Mary his niece stood up from a nearby prayer circle, approaching his downhill position. He cleared phlegm from his scratchy throat, trying to show only calm resolve and not the weight of his sins.

“How’re you feeling Uncle? Maybe you should rest, even if it’s for a little bit. We’ve been here for days now. I can really feel the power of Jesus blessing this site.” She said, hope still a strong conviction in her eyes. Just like his had been, maybe.

No, not even in his youth, he decided. He shook his head in self chastisement at the traitorous thought.

“That’s my hope, and what my prayer goes to, Mary. Just remember, we need to continue to keep the faith strong, and our prayers loud. It may be that Heaven can barely hear just now, with so many places of holy ground reclaimed.” He made it sound sincere. At this point, he really only believed in the belief he’d once had, or never at all.

Mary agreed, returning back to the group of young adults, returning her fervent voice to the mass of noise wafting up into the materializing night sky. He reckoned there must be nearly a thousand devout here. At one time in his storied career as a TV preacher, he’d commanded an entire stadium of followers, many more eager to give them their praise, and money, to himself even over God.

Forgive me father, for I have sinned, and sinned greatly…

The Father must have deigned to answer him back, at long last after 60 years, as a distant rumbling shook far below the hill the basilica crouched on.

The earth heaved about the limestone base of the basilica, shrugging away the standing crowd like miniscule ants. Hammond fought his way back to the top of the hill, chanting a battle hymn to the Lord. This is the place, and now’s the time! He thought to himself, his aging body infused with renewed vigor.

For one of the few times in his life, he felt the ardour of love for God. Even standing over a roaring crowd in a great stadium, his voice amplified to thunderous proportions on his head mike, feeling the zealous faith thrown at him from thousands of people, even with that, with him nearly being worshipped, could hardly touch this transcending surge he felt.

“Cry out for your Lord and Savior! Remember! Proverbs 8:17! I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me. He is here, my children! He is here!” He rasped into the panicking faces all about him.

Now was the time, more than ever, to climb that podium again. Be the voice of the Almighty. Not for the fame, or the followers or money, but to be that conduit for a higher purpose. To speak for Him, speak to them.

“Hold your faith. Hold it!” He mounted the steps of the bascialla, dust and flakes of ancient mortar drifting onto his grey hair and bristly beard. Small cracks spread out from the edge of the structure and widened, dark soil slowly rising up like Lazarus from undeath.

Hammond shouldered open the pine doors with a rattle, stepping into the confines of the old church. They’d all remained outside for the duration of their vigil, but now scores of people pushed forward after the priest, upsetting the careful arrangement of pews and decorative religious trinkets.

He stood up to the small blocky pulpit stationed opposite the doors, tossing aside his cane as he lighted up the few steps by the altar. He felt alive; his movements were lithe and sure, his gaze clear and commanding. Broad gnarled hands gripped the aged wood of the pulpit, and Father Hammond preached, with a fanaticism he’d rarely never shown even throughout his career.

He spoke not only to those gathered people him, drinking in his words like wide-eyed orphans gulping down their meager share of daily soup, but to himself. He stood there and spoke of himself; of his sins as a false preacher, of leading thousands of others down a dark road for his own glory. He felt absolved of his lack of belief for so many years. He spoke God’s word at last.

Though the earth continued its subterranean roar, he railed on in his cadenced rally, voice stretched thin. The building had begun to sink, as if the worshippers gathered inside bore too much weight to keep the basilica afloat on the surface. Regardless of the imminent danger, Hammond and those inside kept their conviction.

The heaving ground refused to bend before his will, as the black gravelly soil poured up and over the pitted stained glass windows. In moments the bascialla was consumed by the rough gravel, dragged down underneath the surface. The hundreds of gathered watched in horror as it disappeared, the clear voice of Father Hammond still resonating faintly as they were carried into the depths.