The Saving Work

How to Escape from a Leper Colony
by Tipanie Yanique
Graywolf Press

A church is burning down. On a Caribbean island, in the countryside, up a road that might lead to a saving beach, but does not— a church is burning down. Everyone who is associated with this church will later think “my church has burned down.” But for now there are only two women there to look at the fire, and blame each other.

They are both white American women in the middle of their lives. They and their families are members of this church. They are each married to a local black man, both of whom are skinny and frail of body. These women want to be the strong ones. They have always been the strong ones.

Deirdre Thompson has brought the garlands for the church stairs. She has brought the pew pins and the flowers for the altar. She was the first to arrive and see the bright flames. She is already dressed in her gold silk suit. She saw the smoke from far away in her car, but she imagined some filthy native was burning garbage in his yard. The smoke seemed to disappear as Deirdre drew near the church. This was an illusion.

Her car had lumbered its way along the narrow cut into the land that is the church road. The men of the church laid the road, and, as a result, it dips erratically. The arms of thin trees scraped at the closed windows of Deirdre’s car. She wondered why no one had cut them back. She thought, with some worry, about how the limousine would make its way. The road opened into the clearing where the church crackled in the center. Through the windshield Deirdre saw what she thought was just a smallish fire, more smoke than anything. Nothing to alert the people in the nearby houses, some two hundred yards beyond the bushes.

But now Deirdre knows what she’s seeing. She’s seeing the end.

Deirdre Thompson has always been a negative kind of woman. She has one child because her womb had been stingy. And perhaps also because she left her husband once when their son was two. They did not reunite until the boy was twelve.

Her son is called Thomas— after the island of his birth.

Deirdre’s husband is an insurance salesman. He owns the business and has other men do the work of selling by foot. He stays in his office downtown and lets his faithful customers come to him. He does well. And his small family does well. But what Mr. Thompson really wants is to be a preacher. He knows he could lead the common folk. He knows he could get better pews for the main room and better robes for the choir.

During the week Deirdre Thompson works as a dental assistant. In the office and outside, as she walks on her lunch break, she wears a white coat and allows patients and passersby to call her Doctor.

On Sundays, when Deirdre teaches the high school religious classes, she does not tell her students that marriage is challenging and a thing to be careful with— like a baby. She tells them instead how much Mr. Thompson loves her and that love saves everything. She tells them that when she met Mr. Thompson she had blond hair down to her ankles and that is why he fell in love with her. She makes them turn the thin Bible pages to Sampson and study the strength that was in his hair. She makes them memorize passages from the Old Testament that demonstrate beauty as a woman’s greatest honor. The girl students are mostly of African descent and native to the island. They could never hope for blond hair to their ankles. They look at their teacher with envy or hate or pity— the last because they suspect Deirdre is lying.

Deirdre’s son does not attend his mother’s Sunday school classes. He was the crossing guard aide in middle school and the student government president in high school. He has always been a ruler of sorts. Thomas is besotted with a girl named Jasmine, the eldest daughter of Violet de Flaubert. He is a year older than the de Flaubert girl but she was skipped ahead, so she and Thomas Thompson had been in the same grade. The de Flaubert girl is brilliant and shy, and Thomas has been in love with her since he was twelve.

Deirdre stands a few safe yards in front of the burning church, watching it creak and break. She hears an engine sputter and knows it must be Violet de Flaubert’s car graveling up behind her. Deirdre does not turn to greet her. Now that Violet has arrived she wonders about her own inaction. Wonders about her own ability to simply watch the church crack, and crumble into ashes.

Violet de Flaubert sees the smoke and thinks it must be a campfire. This makes no sense. There are no campgrounds. Then she thinks maybe it’s a barbecue, but people don’t barbecue much on the island. She thinks on anything but a burning church. She is fighting not to think of a burning church.

Violet has five daughters who are each named after flowers, and with all those girls she somehow still feels virginal. When she teaches middle school religious classes on Sunday, she tells them, truthfully, that she was a virgin when she met Mr. de Flaubert. She makes them turn to passages on the mother of Jesus. She makes them act out the Christmas story. The girl students look at her with respect and adoration, for they are at the age for such things. The boy students look away from her with shame, because they are wishing they were Mister de Flaubert. The students don’t think Violet is white from America. They assume she is Frenchy and native to the islands because she talks with native inflections and because she’s been on the island since before they were born.

Mr. de Flaubert works for the government in the tax system. He is a cog, but he tells his daughters and his wife that he is an accountant. He makes decent money, but with all those girls the money does not last. He, too, wishes he were a preacher. He knows he could give good sermons. He longs to reach out and put his hands on people and speak in tongues and see flames of Jesus spark on their heads.

Violet de Flaubert is a teacher in the school where her daughters and Deidre’s son are enrolled. She teaches high school because her daughters are in high school. Before that she taught middle school. And before that she was a teacher’s aide in the elementary school. She is a teacher because she is a mother. To her they are the same thing.

Two of her daughters are students in her Sunday school class. All five of her girls are strangely beautiful and brilliant. And they all have a saving flaw. One is overly shy, another is overly bookish, another cares only for her violin and practices incessantly, one is prone to fits, and the last is a bit of a tart. But even this last one reads science fiction and is friends with the oily-faced girls.

Jasmine is the eldest. She is the shy one. She has a debilitating crush on a boy named Moby. Moby is the shortstop of the baseball team and during football season he is the quarterback and during basketball he is the tall center. Many girls are fond of Moby, and quiet Jasmine does not stand a chance. Though Moby has every now and then complimented her on her outfit during free clothes day or asked her about calculus, Jasmine hasn’t said more than a few sentences to him during their entire middle and high school years together.

Jasmine is unaware of Thomas Thompson’s adoration for her. She thinks of him as the brother she never had, and in high school she went to watch his soccer games. But this island is American and soccer isn’t yet popular. No one thinks that the soccer players are valiant. Jasmine doesn’t understand the game at all and thinks the players look like overgrown squirrels fighting for a nut.

Despite the friendship of their children, Deirdre Thompson and Violet de Flaubert hate each other. They act, of course, as though they are very good friends.

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