The tent was erected on the evening of the day they arrived. A big, dirty canvas smudge on the horizon of town. They trampled the frozen ground until it was muddy enough to stain the cuffs of trouser legs and the hems of dresses. It was an odd crew of travelers dressed in uniforms of penitent black until the sermon began and all appeared in robes bleached pearly white except their preacher. He stood on a makeshift stage in his preacher's collar spitting tales of damnation to empty folding chairs until curiosity brought in the townsfolk. Slowly they filed in from the encroaching evening; the soft glow from the tent flaps contrasting sharply the brimstone and ash that the preacher painted. All who entered the tent suffered from sick hearts. All sat slouched in their chairs avoiding the eyes of their neighbors and rue the words that crafted guilt from humanity.
Francis and Ellen Hapsford brought with them their son, an only child six years of age and paralyzed from a terrible illness. He was held by his father, legs draped uselessly over his father’s lap. It was not salvation they sought that evening. They watched the preacher carefully hoping for the offering of a miracle steeped in the kind of faith that had been drawn out of them long ago by merciless winters and the hard ground that they tilled.
The preacher paused suddenly and fixed his dark eyes upon them. Two sunken, oily pools untouched by the lamplight regarded them as if he had only just realized he was being watched. His glistening lips, wet with spoken word trembled and turned up into a smile as he beckoned them to the stage, hands fanned and palms turned toward them in prostration. They were helped nervous and shaking to the stage by the alabaster following and boy was pried from fathers grasp. With a flourish the preacher placed his palm against the forehead of Francis who stood suddenly rigged and then fell limply backward into the arms of the following. They laid him on the stage, straightened his limbs and with a razor stole a lock of hair. The process was repeated for Ellen who looked anxiously into the crowd before the preacher tapped a palm against her dampening brow. When both were laid out onto the stage the lockets of hair were tied with twine and placed inside a wooden box. The preacher then held the boy and whispered into his ear. The boy nodded slowly, trance-like in response and was handed to two of the following who stood him on the stage between them like a puppet. The preacher placed his palm on the child’s forehead and shouted toward the crowd and banished the boy's demons. The boy was laid back on the stage between his parents and covered with a sheet.
The preacher faced the crowd and turned his head from corner to corner scanning the audience. His face wore the expression of dourness but something had awakened behind his eyes. All members were leaned forward watching the scene expectantly, some teetering on the edge of their seats. One woman held a handkerchief to her face as if hiding behind it. Another couple had hands squeezed tight and purple between their seats. All in the crowd resembled pressed springs, ready to release. The preacher grinned a crooked, yellow wedge at the crowd, raised his hands and then lowered them, palms toward the ground as if pressing the springs further down in their seats. Then he bent his head and said, "let us pray". All bowed their heads in compliance and when "amen" was uttered and their heads rose again the sheet was upright and standing, only the boy's shoes visible, poking out beneath the edge. Ellen was seated with her hands clasped against her mouth as if holding back her breath and Francis was tottering on his feet mouth agape at the ghostly sheet. Francis looked to the preacher who nodded toward him and then grabbed the bottom corner of the sheet and slid it off of the boy and let it fall to the stage. The boy was standing poised and steady staring solemnly past the crowd. The preacher beckoned him forward with a swoop of his hand. The boy did not look at the preacher but stepped forward with first his left and then his right foot. The lady hiding behind her handkerchief rose, pointed at the preacher, opened her mouth as if to say something to the crowd then fainted on the spot. With that all of the energy inside the tent erupted in a flurry of “blessed be” and “hallelujah”. People sprang from their seats and raised their hands toward the stage.
Ellen crept on knees to her son, grabbed his hands in hers and peered into his face. He did not raise his eyes to his mother but kept them fixed on a point at the back of the tent. Ellen dropped his hands and recoiled. She looked to Francis imploringly and whispered, “This is not our son” but Francis was weeping into his hands and did not hear her. No one heard her above the din of the frantic crowd except the preacher whose eyes she felt on her back. She turned toward him suddenly cold. “This is not my son” she said. His lips were drawn down tightly at the corners but his eyes gleamed. “This is not my son” she repeated louder. The preacher eyes danced in their sockets.
He nodded his head toward the boy and her eyes followed the direction of the nod. The boy's eyes were on her now but no spark of her son peered from behind them. The doppelganger eyes regarded her dispassionately. He cupped her cheek with one cold hand and she felt powerless to pull away. With the other he gestured as if buttoning her mouth. She felt a scream rise inside her but was suddenly powerless to let it out. She could make no expression with her face as she looked to the frenzied crowd. Francis scooped the boy up into his arms and pressed his wet face against the boy's shoulders but Ellen could not protest. She could not warn him that what he held had something tainted and ancient inside of it. She could do nothing but kneel empty and useless beneath the preacher's bemused, fiery gaze.