There Has Been a Great Tragedy…
We are in a black church in the South on a hot summer day watching the trim, immaculate figure at the pulpit speak to the congregation. He has been on stage many times and is a passable, if not very good actor. There has been a great tragedy in the city and he has come from far away to deliver the eulogy. He is a person of importance. He has not been invited to speak but has chosen to do so. It is a moment critical to his legacy and standing in the community. He has paid no particular attention to this community before, even though he is, by appearance, related to them. This is a performance, everyone knows it, but he is allowed. In his familiar, studied manner, he intones with baritone eloquence and passion, suitable to his audience, employing the warm, folksy dialect of the region, using all the devices for communicating emotion, the clenched jaw, the pursed lips, the quavering voice, the glistening eyes, the commanding tone, the quiet whisper. The relationship between him and the congregation is complex, but this is not the moment for analysis. Vulnerable in their grief, the congregation responds visibly and audibly to the man’s words and gestures.
Now he pauses, seeming to apprehend a powerful force rising up. There is a show of struggle, as if this impulse, though not a part of his prepared remarks, must be released. The moment stretches. The assembled clergy stands behind him in slightly anxious anticipation. The speaker musters his resources, digging for feeling. He appears to question, fleetingly, his innate authority before the congregation. His body and face transform, as if an actor assuming a new identity. Perhaps he is inwardly chagrined because he knows he is not as good as he wants to be. Perhaps not. But the authority of his office, which is the essence of the man, comes to the fore and rescues him from doubt and artificiality. You are the one, he thinks, you can do this, you can do anything you want.
And so he begins, haltingly, to sing. It is a familiar song and there is a sense of relief among the gathered that the man’s brief struggle was born of sincere emotion, manifesting itself in the most basic form known to the congregation: the spiritual song. The man sings hesitantly and rather weakly at first but everyone catches on and comes to his rescue. The church is singing with real emotion. He is riding with them, carried along with their full-throated power. It is a triumph for the man.
At first it is a dim buzzing noise, like someone with a weed whacker over on the next block, barely audible above the singing church. The man hears it before the others. It tugs at something in his stomach. It is a disquieting sensation that runs back along his spine and up to his ears. His ears tingle. The noise grows louder, but still, apparently, he is the only one who can hear it. He looks around the church stealthily, to see if anyone else hears the sound. All are absorbed in the deep soulful singing. Some have their eyes closed. Many are crying. Some are looking at him reverentially, smiling in gratitude through their tears.
The noise grows louder, but the congregation, seemingly oblivious, keeps singing. Why can’t they hear it? he wonders. The noise is very loud. He begins to feel afraid. It is as if an army of weed whackers is advancing on the church. He looks at the congregants at the far end of the room. There are three women who are not singing. They are tall women, dressed in white, holding children that are oddly limp. The women look at him impassively. The noise grows louder. It is coming from the top of the church. It is coming from the sky above the church. A shadow passes over the church. The noise is deafening. But no one in the congregation hears it except the man. The three tall women dressed in white look at him. The people in the church are singing loudly, coming to the end of the song. The man hears nothing but the roaring sound that is now inside the church itself, drowning the singing completely. The man is deathly afraid. He is losing his mind. He fights the urge to scream, to run out of the church in terror. Why can’t the others hear it? The three women have disappeared. The song comes to an end.