Brief EncountersCanLitShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 20: “Glory” by Janice Lynn Mather

From Uncertain Kin

“Priscilla stepped off the mailboat and looked around to see if God was on the dock.”

As opening sentences go, this one, from Janice Lynn Mather’s “Glory,” is both knotty and beguiling. It sets up a situation about which the reader knows next to nothing other than a character’s given name and her relative position disembarking from a mailboat. We know, then, that she has been on a voyage from somewhere, though the nature of her journey is unclear. The designation of a mailboat indicates that the setting is not an urban centre or anywhere that might receive its postage by truck or airplane. This is confirmed by a reference in the following sentence to “this package or that box their cousin or sister or friend had sent from Nassau”; it would appear that we are in the Bahamas.

But the most intriguing element of the opening sentence is the reference to God. Not “god” with a lowercase “g”: this is the full-on, fire-and-brimstone, “thou shalt have no other God but Me” deity.

It’s a clever gambit on the author’s part, at once announcing an important theme, suggesting setting, and introducing a key character (Priscilla, not God, though the latter figures large in the story also), while holding enough back to make the reader want to continue reading.

“Glory,” from Mather’s debut collection for adults (the author was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award for her young adult novel Learning to Breathe), finds its dramatic tension in a situation all too familiar in many conservative cultures: a teenage girl gets pregnant and is sent away to deliver the child in shame and secrecy. In this case, fourteen-year-old Priscilla is bundled off to the care of her grandmother, who, we learn, knows more than a little about unmarried women in the family way. “Another day. Another girl done got herself in trouble,” Grammy thinks ruefully. “Nothing new under the moon nor the sun.”

Grammy is also, we come to understand, a devout believer, an attitude she has passed down to Priscilla’s mother. In a letter of transmission that the girl surreptitiously opens on the boat, Priscilla’s mother bemoans her daughter’s plight – “what was inside her and, less explicitly, what had been inside her” – and expresses “hope that Priscilla would Repent And Find God.” In the context of the mother’s letter, it becomes apparent that the story’s opening sentence is, in at least one respect, not metaphorical: Priscilla is literally searching the dock for the God her mother wrote about.

God is a figure who hovers over the whole story, though Priscilla determines she won’t find Him at her Grammy’s, in part because there are no mountains where the old lady lives. An kitchen exchange during the making of supper further locates Priscilla and Grammy in opposition to one another:

“Grammy, you ever see God? I never saw Him. I think we don’ see cause we ain’ got no mountains. … God like mountains, you know. I don’ think God would stay in a place that don’ have no mountains.”

The old woman pressed her lips together, shook her head.

“Grammy, why you think we ain’ got no mountains here? It so flat. I mean, Jamaica have, an Trinidad have, an Saint Lucia an Saint Vincent an –”

“You better get your life right an pray one day you could be on the right side a ya Saviour to ask Him these fool questions.”

“Or Her.”

Grammy’s aggrieved reaction to Priscilla’s comment – “Lord Jesus, grant me the patience” – underscores her archly conservative religious attitudes, while Priscilla’s musings indicate a more open-minded, if somewhat naive, viewpoint. Her association of God with the mountains explicitly aligns Priscilla to the natural world, something that is extended in the teenager’s repeated trips to the beach. (“Beach in the nighttime?” Grammy laments. “Lord Jesus, help this girl, Lord this girl possess. Devil get her, she possess, she possess.”)

Priscilla, for her part, would much rather spend her time waiting for the baby to come surrounded by the natural world, rather than where Grammy would have her situated – in church. Priscilla has vague memories of going to church, where a “dour, pale Jesus held out empty hands” and “[i]f God planned to show up, it likely wouldn’t be there, except perhaps for a nap.”

The conflicting attitudes of Priscilla and Grammy form the central dramatic tension in the story, a tension that is mitigated by a female figure who comes upon Priscilla while she is sunning herself at the beach and provides her counsel that is independent of God’s vengeful wrath. The woman, like Priscilla, is more closely associated with the water than the divine as a lifegiving force; a conversation about the nature of the local swimming hole blurs the distinction between the natural environment and the essentially unknowable:

“You know what this is? This is a blue hole. Just the tip of it. Just the start. This one go down a thousand feet. Six thousand, some people say. You believe that? The further down you go, the fresher the water is. Fresh in the middle of the sea. So fresh you could drink. And deep, deep.”

Priscilla’s heart was still racing. “Deep like a mountain high?”

“Sure.” The woman spoke smooth. “Deep like that.”

There is mystery and grandeur in both the sea and the mountains as conceived by Priscilla and the woman, whose identity shores up both Grammy’s hypocrisy and one possible reason for the old woman’s unwavering devotion to a faith predicated on a vengeful moral code. If Priscilla is one pole in Mather’s story and Grammy is another, the woman at the beach offers a possible third way, a middle ground that opens up the potential for the divine in the everyday, and for forgiveness in place of eternal punishment.

The story’s title likewise pulls in two directions at once, most obviously tilting toward Grammy’s idea of salvation, something she feels Priscilla has come to test. When Priscilla does not appear for dinner, Grammy employs the title word in an exasperated, ironic imprecation: “Child, I ain’ know where you is, but ya better come get this food while it hot, cause I ain’ gat the strength to call for you. … Oh, Glory.” But the notion of glory is also implicit in Priscilla’s unborn child, and in the beauty of nature. The water, and the woman she befriends there, also provide a kind of glory – earthier, to be sure, but no less real for that.

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