Two lanes hump over sudden hills,
dip into hollows where tin-roofed shacks
teeter on the brink of a slate-bottomed creek,
skirt flat, newly-turned fields
avoiding the only safe terrain
the way rural roads often do.
The sign says CHURCH and at the top
of the hill, guarded by the granite names
of dead parishioners, it is the only piece
of architecture for miles around
neither tumbling down nor recently erected.
The bride chose this place, not the groom,
and though it does possess an air
of timelessness, it is not joyful
like the singing of spirituals or serene
like the hush of Bibles opening in unison.
A lone elm bows over the church
from years of unanswered prayers.
The inside is simply decorated:
plastic garland, white papier-mâché bells,
and tapers lining the pews
pointing up like fingers to the rafters.
The bride and groom are late.
The groomsmen struggle into black tuxedos,
puzzle over cufflinks and red cummerbunds,
debate the direction of pleats, up or down,
while bridesmaids, hair half-rolled
and nails still wet, waft in and out
of makeshift changing rooms; their green
identical dresses rustle like the bills
already inundating the father of the bride.
These ten are here to greet the invited
at the steps, usher in the infirm relatives,
accept gifts delivered without a sense
of etiquette, light tapers, unroll
the paper walkway, give the guests
something splendid to look at before
the wedding gown parades down the aisle.
The couple finally arrives in separate cars,
the groom blindfolded with a scrap of
wrapping paper as the bride is secreted away.
It begins easily enough: organ music,
the usual stroll toward the altar.
Outside, a herd of cows, piqued
by the mournful noise, wanders over
to the hill, munches the new grass bordering
the unfenced cemetery, and will not go in.
After the exchange of rings,
the bride, though vocally untrained
and overcome by ceremony,
sings flatly an obscure hymn
requested by her mother who lip-synchs
each phrase and gazes at the ceiling.
But cresting just beneath the hymn
rising from the bottom of the hill,
a sudden lowing from the cows
unhitches a melody old as rain
and excellent of voice.
Copyright © 2003 Mark Rudolph
Mark Rudolph is the editor/publisher of the small press magazine Full Unit Hookup. His work, both poetry and fiction, has appeared in Byline Magazine, Louisville Review, Magazine of Speculative Poetry, Harpur Palate, and other places. He lives in southern Indiana with his faithful dog Monty. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. For more about him, visit his website.