The Fruits of the Spirit
by Christine Smallwood
In 1989 my parents sent me to Mount Misery, a Methodist camp in New Jersey just south of Route 70. If you look at the map and squint, the green northern chunk of the Pinelands forms a gently crumpled heart. Mount Misery is the pin piercing the navel of the heart, the point where the chambers meet.
My best school friend Amy came to Mount Misery with me. Amy’s family was Catholic. I went with them once to Sunday mass: a cathedral of people on their knees choking on incense and asking the priest for permission to talk to God. During the week Amy decorated her notebooks in stickers and watched TV shows that my parents said were inappropriate. But we were allowed to be friends, because I was a good influence. When we got to the cabin, I unrolled my sleeping bag and unpacked my Bible and Amy arranged her collection of rubber bracelets and hair spray on the only dresser.
“Don’t touch this stuff,” she said.
Our counselor came in to greet us. For weeks I had fantasized about having a counselor. I pictured her a high school student, in denim cut-offs and a gold cross and short hair like mine. She would be beautiful and have a boyfriend and her name would be Summer. Our real counselor’s name was Mrs. Jean. She had sagging jowls and a scraggle of gray hair down her broad old back. She reminded me of my great-aunt, who baby-sat me and my brother once while my parents were in Hawaii. My great-aunt saved old pantyhose and used them to tie bread bags. She filled the tub with three inches of lukewarm water and sat on the toilet, watching me bathe. She was also a Catholic.
There were eight girls in our cabin. Before we trooped off to lunch, Mrs. Jean laid hands on our heads and prayed over us. It was a long prayer. While she was still wrapping it up Amy poked me in the ribs and mouthed something sassy and I made a shush face and shut my eyes fast as I could. I didn’t want to get in trouble, especially not on the first day.
Lunch was followed by a nature walk and the swim test. Amy wore a shell necklace in the water that made her look like a mermaid. We treaded water for sixty seconds. Back on the dock I shook water from my prescription goggles and pulled tendrils of clumpy brown lakegrass from my calves while Amy combed her hair. That night was the first “all camp” meeting. The director talked about what a great week it was going to be.
“But not everybody can have great weeks,” he said. “In some parts of the world, missionaries are persecuted. Christians are persecuted. Kids your age, sometimes, are persecuted.”
He told us about life in communist Russia. The Christians there faced terrible threats. Age was no guarantee of safety. It had just happened, the camp director said, that a group of armed Russian soldiers in full combat gear had visited a local elementary school and herded all the boys and girls into the cafeteria. One by one, they called them to the front of the room, and ordered them to spit on the Bible. Those Russian children did as they were told: they crept up to the platform and spit. Pa-tooey. Pa-tooey. Pa-tooey. Pa-tooey. (The director acted this part out, simpering in imitation of their complacency.) In that whole Russian school, he said, there was just one little girl who believed with all her heart and all her soul and all her strength. She was eight years old, same age as me. She refused to spit on the Bible, and the soldiers shot her in the head. The camp director looked up to the heavens and back around the room, extolling the bravery of the little Russian martyr.
There were all the usual camp attractions at Mount Misery: moonlight hay rides, batik and lanyard-making, the “polar bear swim” down at the lake one black dawn. Other kids had signed up to play sports or learn about ecology, but Amy and I were in the musical. It was an original production written by Mount Misery’s counselors called Planet X. The plot was that a group of American missionaries had been sent by NASA to the lushly tropical Planet X, where they encountered alien farmers who lived off the land, and who were eager for news of the life of Jesus. Amy and I both had speaking parts, but mine was dramatic—I was Mission Control—and hers was comic relief. She played the ditzy astronaut. She wore a shield covered with silver foil and got lost in the alien forest, so the others had to go on a dangerous mission to find her and bring her home.
I appeared in the first scene and at the climax of the play, to guide the lost astronauts back to the ship. (When they congratulated me, I pointed to the sky and gave the glory to God.) I also had a solo in the big finale, a number called “Jesus Loves Me (and the Aliens).” On the first day I made up some basic choreography for the song, and Gloria, the theater counselor, let me teach it to the others.
I was a real performer at that age. I did tap and jazz and took singing lessons and had a lot of flair. I loved the feeling of disappearing into a part, the license it gave you to be someone else—the bigger and more bombastic the better. And I had a natural gift for memorizing lines. By the end of the week I had memorized my own and everybody else’s without even trying. Gloria gave me the job of being rehearsal prompter.
“I want to give up,” said the head missionary, who was played by a girl in a fake bushy moustache. “It’s so hard here, and I miss home.”
The head missionary’s wife looked around in a panic.
“What would…” I whispered.
“What would Jesus do?” she screamed.
My favorite song in Planet X was one that I didn’t get to sing. It was a song the astronauts sang to the natives, about the fruits of the spirit. Each verse featured a fruit, none of which could be found in Paul’s letter—coconut, cantaloupe, banana, etc.—accompanied by hand gestures. On “coconut,” the astronauts rapped their balled-up fists against their heads. On “banana,” they arced their arms and leaned to one side. On “apple,” they mimed biting into an apple. The point of the song was that the fruits of the spirit feed the soul, like the fruits of the earth feed the body—you know, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
It bothered me, the inclusion of apples in the song. Apples were worse than worldly; they were the fruit of temptation.
So I raised my hand, interrupting the action, and asked about it.
“Why are they teaching the aliens about apples?” I said. “Aren’t apples bad?”
Gloria turned around. She adjusted her plastic headband. She looked a little like I had imagined Summer, only she wore glasses, and her face had fallen into a bucket of freckles.
“Wow,” she said. “What a great point! But did you know that the real fruit that Eve ate in the Garden wasn’t an apple at all? It was a pomegranate!”
After rehearsal, while Amy and I were walking back to our cabin for rest time and to write letters home, I asked if she had known about the pomegranate.
“Gloria’s dumb,” she said. “Why do the aliens have the same fruits as we have on Earth? The song doesn’t make any sense.”
“I like the song,” I said.
“Pomegranates are dumb, too,” Amy said. “They take forever to cut up, and get your hands covered in muck.”
I had never tasted a pomegranate, and was amazed, as usual, by Amy’s worldliness.
Every night the director organized an “all camp” activity. On the second night we met in the chapel to listen to a professional storyteller. The professional storyteller had knuckles covered with dark hair and wore khakis and a ball cap and projected so powerfully that he didn’t need to use the chapel microphone. He had traveled to schools and camps all over the state, telling stories of local history.
“This area was named Mount Misery because of its mosquitos,” the storyteller explained. “But some people say that the mosquitos aren’t normal mosquitos at all—they’re the advanced guard of the Jersey Devil.”
I looked at my legs, which were an unhealthy pale and covered in red lumps.
The Jersey Devil, the storyteller went on, made his home in our woods—these very Pine Barrens. He had cloven hooves and a forked tail. He was the wayward son of a witch, and he chased anyone who was foolish enough to disturb his rest.
I was sweating like I would die. It was bad enough that bugs had attacked me; now I had to contend with satanic bugs. Black magic: It scares me still. The lights came up and I looked over to Amy, who was sitting next to a boy named Tim or Tom, I can’t remember anymore. Amy had gotten down to business right away, at the ice cream social on the first night. Tim/Tom had complimented Amy’s rubber bracelets, and then they traded tokens of affection, stones or notes, and took bites from each other’s sundaes. It was your basic camp romance. Tim/Tom had fresh skin that reddened easily and blonde spiky hair and he wore a silver chain that made him seem far older than his nine years. On his neck was a line of welts that looked to be the work of the devil’s flying minions.
Amy’s hand was in Tim/Tom’s; she must have been scared, too. It was late, so after a quick song and perfunctory good-night prayer that did nothing to dispel my fright, off we went, scattering through the pines to our drafty bunks.
We dashed fast as we could through the dark, but it was hard running; the soil was sandy, and our feet sank deep. We howled all the way. The yellow moons of our flashlights bounced off the branches that reached with spindle arms to grab our girlbodies and hold them tight for the devil.
Naturally we were unable to sleep.
“The Jersey Devil is going to get us!” I said, squirming on the thin mattress. My sleeping bag said, shhhhhhh.
“He’s not real,” Amy said. “He can’t be.”
“Of course he is,” I said, scratching my legs until they bled. “Why else would they warn us about him?”
We sat up chattering and listening to the wind until a shadow with a horrible goat’s head appeared in the window of the cabin door and we screamed. Our voices echoed back: banshees, the Jersey Devil’s paramours and handmaidens. But it was only Mrs. Jean, come to scold us for all the noise. She was wearing a translucent pink nightgown under which was plainly visible a pair of enormous breasts that sagged like the last water balloons in the bucket. The flat brown discs of her cyclops nipples stared at us threateningly. I had never seen anything to compare. Amy and I giggled in the dark about their strange shape.
“That’s where the Jersey Devil drinks his milk,” Amy said.
I was shocked into silence, and slept until Mrs. Jean shook us awake the next morning.
Amy and I ate all our meals together, but by mid-week we were regularly attracting the presence of other girls from the musical—girls with poufy swept bangs, and French braids. One of the girls wore a fedora. Another wore a bra. She tugged on the strap while she talked. She played one of the alien natives in Planet X. She wore a flowered headscarf and her big line was, “Beautiful forest!”
“I hate the showers here,” the bra-wearer said, while we were drinking juice boxes and waiting to be dismissed. “I like a really hot shower.”
The others nodded knowingly.
“Did you know about the pomegranate in the garden of Eden?” I asked the bra-wearer.
“No,” she said, sucking air through her straw. “But I’m not surprised. Pomegranates are romantic. My dad cuts one up for us on Valentine’s Day. They look like rubies.”
That night, the whole camp gathered together to play a game called “Romans and Christians.” The older kids, the over-13’s, were the Romans. It was their job to hunt and capture the Christians, and corral them in bases from which they would try to escape. While the director was shouting the rules through a bullhorn I noticed among the Romans my brother, who was also at camp that year. He was in the “outdoor adventure” section, where they slept in tents and pooped outside and hiked. I waved at him, but he didn’t see me, and then the whistle blew.
Amy was already gone. Off the paths the forest was dense and dark. Owls were hooting. Kids were shrieking and shoving each other. At the end of the night Amy and Tim/Tom were declared the winners. The last Christians on the loose, they stayed out of sight until long after the final whistle. The counselors found them sitting on a piece of driftwood down by the lake. Technically the lake was off-limits territory, but everyone was so impressed with their bravery that they got the prize anyway.
“A Christian is daring!” said the camp director at the bonfire, as he pinned a ribbon on Amy’s shirt. “A Christian is bold.”
I tried to congratulate Amy, but she was whispering by the bonfire with Tim/Tom, and motioned for me to go away. The bra-wearer and fedora-wearer were toasting marshmallows. They rotated them slowly, so each side was lightly toasted to gold.
“I just love a perfectly toasted marshmallow,” I said to the bra-wearer.
“Your marshmallow is on fire,” she said. We watched it slide in a gooey mess off the stick and onto the ground.
I found my brother and asked him what he thought, if Amy had cheated by hiding out down at the lake.
“Rules are made to be broken,” he said, and shoved an entire s’more in his mouth at once.
I considered whether or not I had followed the rules. After Amy took off, I had trotted over to the nearest Roman with my arms high in the air, and spent the game picking bark off twigs in jail. I knew I was supposed to run and hide. But I found turning myself in preferable to the anxiety of waiting to be caught.
That was the only time I saw my brother at Mount Misery. The rest of the week he was out of sight, cooking in a Dutch oven or stargazing, or doing other woodsperson activities. He wasn’t there on Friday morning when we performed
The curtain rose on me behind a big desk covered with knobs and colored dots representing blinking lights. I counted down and at“Blast-Off!” Gloria trilled the piano keys like her hands were having a seizure.
“They made it!” I cried with joy. “They’re on Planet X!”
The next scene took place in the jungle. I sat stage right in a metal folding chair. My services as prompter were more required than ever. Even kids who had memorized their lines earlier in the week were forgetting them. The astronauts stared blankly at the aliens, the aliens stared blankly at the astronauts; nobody did the right choreography in the fruits of the spirit song. I made the gestures from my chair to help them out. And in my second big scene, when the head missionary radioed to say that Amy was lost, I did something I didn’t even know I was capable of: I made myself cry on cue.
“We must find her!” I said through the tears. “We will risk everything to bring her back to safety.”
I wept. My nose ran. I blew it on my shirt. I looked around the room and saw the littlest campers gaping in silence. One young girl was crying in sympathy. Her counselor took her outside.
Amy wasn’t connecting with the audience. She didn’t require any prompting, but her jokes fell flat. She spoke too quietly, or rushed the lines so no one could understand what she was saying. Whenever she said, “What?”, which was supposed to be funny, a sign of her character’s dimness, it came off as bad-tempered.
Then she did something strange—she improvised. I still don’t understand her motivation, whether she wanted to make the play more realistic, or if she forgot what she was supposed to do. After the missionaries hunt high and low to find her in the alien forest, they finally come upon her, stirring a pot and dressed in native garb, and she was supposed to jump up in relief and follow them back to the ship. But instead, Amy said that she liked it on Planet X, and planned to stay forever.
The head missionary panicked.
“What do I say?” she said, completely out of character.
I cut in on the radio.
“Astronaut 3, this is Mission Control,” I said. “We’re here to rescue you.”
“I don’t want to be rescued,” Amy said.
The head missionary tugged on her moustache and glared at Amy, who held her ground with magnificent poise. For the first time in Planet X she was commanding the room.
I was elated—I felt totally alive. There was a crisis, and it was up to me to solve it.
Gloria, impatient for a resolution, started playing the opening bars of the finale song.
“Wait,” I said. “I know what to do.”
Gloria’s hands fell into her lap.
“Astronaut 3, you have free will,” I said. “Just as we all do when it comes to Jesus. We will leave you behind. Astronauts 1 & 2, walk away.”
They were frozen, but I shooed them with my arms, and they obeyed. They wanted to get off stage, they just needed to be told it was okay.
“Astronaut 3, we will return to Earth without you,” I said.
Amy grabbed her chance at redemption—and at stardom.
“Wait!” she said. “I’m coming with you.”
“I don’t like the food here,” she added.
Everyone laughed. When the astronauts returned to Earth, Amy and I hugged. At the curtain call, I bowed twice. It was the happiest moment of my childhood.
The counselors who’d written the words and music for Planet X approached me, one by one, and thanked me for saving the show. Tim/Tom raised a hand in greeting and said, “Nice going.” All afternoon I was riding high. Kids I had never seen before nodded at me, and I nodded back. I passed the bra-wearer on the path between the cabins and she said, “That was cool.” But then evening came, and Amy and I sat in the dining hall with the other girls from the musical, talking about home and school. It was our last camp dinner. I remembered the Russians.
I knew the books of the Bible, and always came in first or second when we did “sword drills” in Sunday School. I played in the bell choir. I did my best to be a witness to my peers, wearing a pin on my backpack during the winter months that read, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But this ardor had been, I now saw, essentially casual—make-believe. I had saved Planet X, but what had I really done? I had gotten us back on script. I had followed the rules—what our pastor, in his mild, sad voice, dismissed from the pulpit as “forms.” I could not have done what Amy did. I did not possess that spirit of defiance. Sitting there sweating over my tray I looked into my wretched trembling heart and knew, more clearly than I had ever known anything, that if soldiers had a gun pointed at my head I would spit neatly on the Bible and take my seat again. I began to pray, fervently, with my eyes wide open, so that no one would suspect my cowardice. I prayed, Dear God, please forgive me for my weakness. I added, If I live, I will make it up to you and dedicate the rest of my life to glorifying your name Amen. But these prayers had the feeling of negotiations.
The dining hall smelled like ketchup and relish marinated in a bucket of Clorox. I was a picky eater, I only really ate peanut butter at that time, and the lingering ketchup-relish-Clorox smell was nauseating. Lazy fans rotated overhead, making the flags flutter. They were illustrated with scenes from the New Testament. Every cabin had contributed one, except us. The director hadn’t hung up the one our cabin made, of the woman being stoned for adultery, because, he had said, our representation was too violent: he didn’t care for the spurts of blood I had drawn coming out of the woman’s eyes and ears. The other flags featured sheep, water, the usual cuddly stuff. My eyes came to rest on a flag that represented Paul blinded on the road to Damascus. He was wearing sunglasses and flashing a peace sign.
After dinner, Amy and I followed Mrs. Jean down the gravel path back to the cabin.
“If the Russians told you to spit on the Bible, would you do it?” I asked Amy. “Would you spit, or get shot?”
“Spit,” she said. “I’m too young to die.”
“I would get shot,” I lied.
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t believe you,” she said.
Looking back on it now, I guess you could say that it was at Mount Misery that I lost my faith. Amy and I stayed friends the next year, but it didn’t last. She became popular, then sluttish and distant. By the end of middle school, I had fallen in with a triumverate of high-achieving Jewish girls, and Amy and I passed in the hallways without a word. In junior high she hung a mirror inside her locker. I saw her there, pulling at her eyelids and squirting liquid into the red jelly before the first bell. She wore purple lipstick and thick, cracked foundation and her skirts were always getting caught under her backpack, exposing the flesh. There were rumors about what happened on the way home from the Gettysburg field trip, but I was on a different bus. I lost track of her entirely in the nineties.