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Living in Ashton: The Church Steeple

The younger people of Ashton didn't care when Father Michaniuk proposed to pull down the steeple and plant the bell between posts of wood buried in the ground. But predictably, the older parishioners, for whom the belfry was a loved and familiar sight, said that a church without a steeple was a rusty barn of a building.

Even more damningly, Elva Howland claimed that the prayers would have nowhere to go: "They'll get stuck under the church roof. They'll slam there until they die, like that Sunday when we found the floor covered in dead birds." Three months earlier thousands of birds had somehow pried their way past the wrinkled screens, and spent Monday to Sunday beating themselves against the walls. The birds became a political tool in the hands of the devout, who shouted for meetings on Wednesday nights.

Father Michaniuk was not the most progressive minister, and his proposal had nothing to do with improving the church. He was responding to a dream that had come to him after a particularly dry Sunday. There must have been a football game or a big run down at the slaughterhouse, for when Father Michaniuk went to preach his sermon--that artificial insemination is a sin against nature and god--he found the building empty. He stood for a long time realizing that the parishioners make the church. Then, forced to drink the sacrificial wine he'd consecrated for the service, he reeled away home.

His dreams that night were unsettled, but one theme was clear. The church needed a radical change. In the visual medium of Father Michaniuk's dream, the change was visited on the body of the church proper. Father Michaniuk went to work with a clear purpose. The steeple must come down.

He first approached the church board, which consisted mostly of those members who were too busy to come on Sunday. They intended to pay the toll levied by purgatory and go straight to heaven, their good deeds offsetting a lifetime of evil doings. The board disagreed with Father Michaniuk and Tittle Klesen punctuated his disgust by pitching his glass of water into Father Michaniuk's face. Tittle revealed both the depth of his passion and, inadvertently, that he'd been drinking vodka in a church meeting. The meeting broke up, but not before everyone was determined that the steeple would stay.

Father Michaniuk was equally stubborn. He had argued that the steeple set the church off from the other buildings, and that the hotel bar had no steeple. Everyone agreed with that. But his claim that the presence of a steeple meant that fewer parishioners could find their way to the church on a Sunday morning, did not--for nearly all of them--follow logically.

Only Emerson Fullerton believed in Father Michaniuk's scheme; but his support was suspect, since he was the only carpenter in town. Behind fences people joked that Emerson's advice about euthanasia was corrupted by his coffin making business, and that his measurement of creaky cupboards leaned towards his ready hand as a cabinet maker. Everyone knew what his encouraging words meant, although few were willing to undermine what he said. They worried that the next time he worked on their house their bathroom floor might slant or a crack would appear under a window that should have been sealed. Emerson's power was seemingly limitless, but even so his opinion on the steeple was largely ignored.

Father Michaniuk was not a man to be trifled with. Before he'd gone off to the seminary he'd worked at the rodeo wrestling bulls. A biblical profession. He was Moses, fresh from the mountain and critical of a new town sculpture. The other jobs he'd held, however, were more difficult to explain. For three years in Vancouver he'd driven prostitutes to work. He'd sat in the car offering a slim protection and smoking dope, while the women plied their trade inside Kitsilano hotels. Father Michaniuk had also been a guitar player in country bars, where anything could have happened. The worry that god had been watching through that period in his life was typically enough to drive him to his knees on the hard church floor. Today was no exception, although this time he asked for divine help on his proposed renovation.

The hand of the divine came in the person of Jimmy Nash. Jimmy was a reserve boy who'd responded to the talk about the church steeple by reading about steeplejacks. Jimmy swore that he could climb a steeple as well as the boy in the book. Although he had no pigeon to rescue at the top of the highest church in town, he set off to prove his point. Even while Father Michaniuk kneeled below him, the cramping in his legs underscoring his supplication, Jimmy was climbing the church roof. He got onto the main roof by way of the entrance overhang, hooking one foot over the doorknob and shimmying up onto his belly. Father Michaniuk heard the noise, but presumed the damage could be taken care of after god had been placated.

Even as Jimmy approached the steeple, cars began to stop on the main road. They parked away from the church grounds, which they said was not to disturb the boy. But they knew, deep down in their non-interfering hearts, that they wanted to watch the show, not save Jimmy Nash from himself. Soon thirty cars were parked by the highway. Amongst them was Eddy Prosser's police cruiser, where Jimmy had spent many a terror-filled afternoon.

They all watched and drank, as Jimmy crept up the steeple, and many laid bets on who would win, Jimmy or gravity. Some said gravity had the advantage, for countless eons it had been untroubled by boys from the reserve; it had been working longer to bring people down than Jimmy had on going up. Other people argued that Jimmy had the benefit of surprise. By picking his moment as he had, perhaps gravity might be caught napping.

It was Father Michaniuk, from inside the church, who first realized Jimmy was slipping. Perhaps because his knees were so in tune with the wooden floor, he felt the vibration and then heard Jimmy's fingernails, as they gripped, slipped and then gripped again, all to the tune of rattling shingles.

Outside the stakes were high on Jimmy to win, and going higher when the crowd saw him slip. Some tried to dump their bookings on their neighbours, even as Jimmy fell from the steeple and hit the ground. Such was their gambling disappointment, that Jimmy was left there. When Saul from the reserve stopped because he had seen the crowd, he gathered up the broken boy and took him to the hospital.

At first the hospital was reluctant to admit him, since Dr. Reginald Klassen was in attendance. He'd made his feelings about patients from the reserve clear when he had Angel Littlerock wait three days to deliver her baby, who was born dead and blue from lack of oxygen. Typically, the reserve took care of its own, but Saul was desperate and Jimmy was dying. Finally, Jimmy was only reluctantly admitted--after spending four hours on the bed of Saul's truck--because Saul threatened to vandalize Reg's car. Reg was famous for his car collection, and rarely a day went by that he wasn't driving a new one. Acquiescing only because of fear for his true love, Reg plotted how to get Saul on his fear-stained operating table even as he palpated Jimmy's extensive wounds.

When Jimmy died later that night, Father Michaniuk knew his prayers had been answered. Jimmy's death once again confirmed the existence of god for all of those sinners who had skipped church the previous Sunday. In his eagerness, and showing a political acumen he'd learned in the country bars, Father Michaniuk skipped over the church meeting and went straight to his parishioners.

Present in the audience were a healthy number of people from the reserve. Even though they were not normally allowed in the town church, they'd come hoping for solace after Jimmy's death. Intent on his speech, Father Michaniuk inadvertently ended up giving them more consolation than he normally would have.

"We must remove the evil spike of vanity. We must rid ourselves of temptation." Citing the World Trade Centre in the same breath as the Tower of Babel, Father Michaniuk soon had all parishioners on his side and demolition was slated for the following day.

Perhaps if Jimmy had not died, or if the parishioners would have had time to think about their decision, they would have chosen differently. Many blamed those from the reserve, whose presence had slanted the vote in their favour. The fact that Father Michaniuk had allowed them in the church was now seen as a power play by those who spoke against the destruction of the steeple.

When Emerson climbed the roof the following day, self-conscious in a new shirt, everyone was watching. He had no idea how big a crowd there would be. Over by the trees, near the creek, were at least two hundred from the reserve, here to confirm that after so many white lies that the preacher's words would become true. They represented the entire population of the reserve. Although once they had been many thousands, even these latter day representatives made the whites uncomfortable. The Aboriginal people kept to themselves, and even the children watched silently, as Emerson looked over the whites, rowdy and drinking in the parking lot.

To the tune of car stereos, Emerson climbed to where Jimmy's fingers, in their desperation, had made scores in the shingles and left bloodstains on the roof. There Emerson bent to work on the fasteners that held the steeple in place. Heaving to find purchase on the slippery roof, his work was rewarded when his crowbar jammed aside the shingles and bent the spikes which held its timbering. After prying for nearly twenty minutes, the steeple tilted and much to the crowd's satisfaction, slammed down past the church steps onto the tarmac of the parking lot.

Some of the reserve kids wanted to rush over and see, but they were held back by their parents. The white kids were not so constrained, so it was they who first saw what the steeple contained. Their blanched looks, even on the face of Butcher Brad who had just started at the slaughterhouse, brought the adults running. Even as the steeple broke apart and spilled its dark secrets onto the pavement, the whites stood as a divided group. Some hovered near their cars, with keys in hand, and when Eddy tried to control the crowd, almost puking at what he saw, more than one person crept away into the stand of poplar behind the graveyard.

Showing a sensitivity that went unnoticed, the Aboriginal people returned to the reserve. Their curious children glanced back and chattered about what could have been in the steeple. Those whites who were not washing out their mouths and splashing cold creek water on their faces stood around in a rough circle, watching as one bundle after another was lifted out of the steeple body. Sally Jenning's self-aborted foetus was laid to one side, to reveal the wizened body of the Edwards boy, who was born small and then had just disappeared.

Even Eddy found his own contribution, the reserve boy he'd beaten, who had died in the town jail and been forgotten. Granny Spittle, as everyone ashamedly remembered calling her, fell out as a bag of ash and sticks. The baby of the Mennonite girl, Jessica Yaap, rejected by her devout parents, tumbled after those that had been removed. Body after body, an impossible amount of bones and shrivelled limbs, of desiccated skin and mummified skulls, every dirty secret in the neighbourhood, fell one by one out of the steeple. Although cars should have been conspicuous by their absence, everyone was too intent on the content of the steeple to make note of who was missing.

Just when the steeple no longer seemed to be discharging its terrible load, more bodies, some more recent than others, spilled out. There were kids from residential schools, recognizable by their uniforms and the lash marks on their knuckles, backs, and faces. Aboriginal women, caught by the police out late at night, came after them. Hunters found the men they'd accidentally shot and cruel children saw the birds they'd killed right out of the nest. Mothers saw the times they'd shook little Jeff too hard, and slapped Susie. Even Father Michaniuk saw something he was loath to describe to his parishioners, when on the following Sunday they held their secret funeral. Then they buried the hundreds of corpses, which had fallen, impossibly, out of the narrow steeple. Since there was no time to ask Emerson to make a coffin, they got Jake, who ran the snowplough, to dig a trench. There they laid, tenderly using the steeple as a casket, their dead to rest.

Emerson patched the church roof, but everyone complained that his hasty application of discount shingles showed where the steeple had been. Father Michaniuk was fired, and found himself at a church in the inner city, where the endless parade of glue sniffers, solvent drinkers, and crack heads was a relief. He was robbed three times in a year of the collection plate, which mostly consisted of joints and hash, but his church had a flat roof and the bell tower was open to the winter winds.

In the churchyard there was a mound where the steeple lay, and the parishioners passed by it every Sunday they could spare away from the slaughterhouse or the game. Even years later they still complained that Snave, down at the mortuary, had made an inappropriate marker. Since he was the only stonecutter in town, the stone stayed, a small steeple beckoning to the indifferent prairie sky.

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