- Shortlisted for the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher
A yellowed newspaper clipping about a recently released prisoner who saves a drowning boy triggers a wrenching journey into memory for middle-aged Ruth Callis, forcing her to confront the events of her past and, ultimately, her own act of forgiveness.
Growing up in the far North, Ruth is attracted to the young missionaries working in her town and becomes increasingly involved in the activities of their evangelical fundamentalist church group. Much to the dismay of her long-suffering parents, she turns into an adolescent zealot.
When Ruth moves south to go to university, life becomes less simple, answers less obvious. She becomes involved with Ian, an older man who is unemployed, alcoholic, obsessive, and increasingly volatile. What at first seems exotic becomes more and more frightening. The devastating relationship forces Ruth to re-examine her own twisted ideologies.
A book of rare emotional honesty, Released reveals the selfishness of the so-called righteous, the intense cruelty of human beings, and their divine capability for real love.
I knew they wanted me to shed my family, but I knew in my fickle little heart that I was just not ready for that. I guessed I loved them too much and I was going to have to work on trying to unlove them. The shedding of my clothes had really been pretty easy. I set myself a harder task. Not as hard as shedding the family, it was true, but hard enough. I started wrestling with the problem of food. Sure, it was one thing to get rid of my material possessions, but what about my chubby body, proof that I led an undisciplined and privileged life? None of Jesus’ apostles were fat, although I was still holding out some hope for Bartholomew, the one who’d replaced Judas the traitor. I was thinking it was possible, just possible, he’d been on the chunky side. I’d never seen him in the pictures of the disciples that illustrated my brand new Bible. He wasn’t at the famous feast either, the last supper, where all they ate was bread and wine together. He was probably somewhere else, having crackers and water, dieting, to be more holy than the others so he could be chosen when they needed a new disciple to make up an even dozen.
He had a fat-sounding name, the type of disciple who might laugh a lot, right from the centre of his big belly. I imagined Bartholomew as an opera singer or a jolly pub owner, even though my version of him had no scriptural basis.
The scriptures were everything, according to the Fellowship of the One True Church of God. And even though it didn’t actually say thou shalt not be overweight, it was there in the Bible.
Aaron and Terry, who now led Wednesday Bible studies together, had pointed it out to me. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, they said. You have to learn to treat it with respect. What I heard them say was quite different. I heard, Ruth, you’re fat. God doesn’t like fat people. Every time the temple thing came up, I felt disgraced and self-conscious. The Holy Spirit had a lot of room in my temple, that was for sure. It was more like a hotel than a temple, a kind of rundown hotel at that, with no one staying in it because it had a reputation of being a bit on the fleabag side. The Holy Spirit would be wandering around in my hotel thinking what kind of place is this? It’s so huge.
I wasn’t actually even sure if the Holy Spirit lived in my body. I thought He visited from time to time, but actually lived here, no. Why would He? I was too fat. And the Evil One tempting me with chocolates had made my face break out in pimples.
I wondered if the Holy Spirit was too embarrassed to live in my fat body. I knew I wasn’t created that way. I was created to be perfect and it was only my greed and gluttony that had made me so huge and unappealing to the Holy Spirit. I knew He lived in the bodies of some of the people in the Fellowship, the fit, sleek people who didn’t ever smoke or drink or eat pizza or chocolate. Their bodies were like spas for the Holy Spirit. I imagined Him relaxed in there, dressed in some sort of toga and lying on one of those chaise lounge thingies, poolside. In those clean small bodies he was able to manifest Himself whenever the occasion arose.
I decided to give up food. Jesus had, hadn’t He? Forty days and forty nights He spent in the wilderness, drinking only water, preparing Himself for the crucifixion. If He could do something like that for me, surely I could do something like that for Him.
I didn’t tell anyone at first. It was between God and me. I wanted to prepare myself for the End Times, which were coming. I wanted to prepare my body to become a temple for the Holy Spirit so He could shine through me as a testimony to truth in the last days before the Second Coming.
"Watch and pray, people!" shouted one of the super Elders from the pulpit. "Watch and pray, oh people of Zion. The End is coming soon. Watch and pray."
"Watch and pray and don’t eat," I repeated to myself, sitting in the pew, wondering if the visiting Elder’s head was going to explode, he was so worked up and red-faced. If Jesus was coming back to claim His own I wanted to be light enough so He could lift me up at the end of the world. I knew that all the true believers would be taken away in the Rapture, before the wrath of God rained down on the sinful world, but I was a little bit scared that I wouldn’t go up with the saints, my being so big and all. Stopping eating would help that, too. Help me get taken away in the twinkling of an eye.
I knew the End Times were upon us and the Rapture was soon. I figured the Second Coming was two years away, three tops. I had to be in good spiritual shape to take what was coming, according to the Fellowship. Persecution. People would laugh at us. Maybe even revile us or hit us. Count it all joy, my brethren. Count it all joy. That’s what they said. I was going to count it all joy, too, but first I needed some assurance that the Holy Ghost was going to take the hit for me. Otherwise, how could I count it joy?
The first day I stopped eating wasn’t hard, because it was the beginning of Lent and everyone at the One True Church was giving up something. It was a small sacrifice to help us understand the Supreme Sacrifice. Brother Terry encouraged me to give up something I really, really liked as a reminder of what Jesus had given up for me. Even though he hadn’t said what it was he was going to give up, I could tell Brother Terry had something tough in mind. He was very spiritual, in a good wiry way.
For the first day, I just didn’t eat. I told my parents I had been invited for supper at Lucy’s house, which they should have known was a lie because we hadn’t hung around at all together since I’d been saved.
Instead of going there, I went to the One True Church during the supper hour, and prayed for forgiveness and strength. I prayed that I would get strength from God instead of strength from food. I prayed that He would fill me up with His holiness and I also prayed that I wouldn’t get too hungry.
No one was at the Church when I was feasting on prayer. They were all at home, legs dangling under the tablecloths, bellies flush up against the tables, eating. I was sorry they couldn’t see me. I was hungry enough that I thought I might have that shiny skinny glow, like the supermodels or the martyrs. I hoped so. I was praying and praying and there was no one there to see me. It was a little maddening.
I’d shut myself in one of the little rooms they used for Sunday school. There were glitter pictures on the wall with bits of cotton batten stuck to them that the Sunday school kids had made. The cotton was supposed to be sheep, I thought. I reached over and touched one of the pictures. Suddenly, the itsy-bitsy little chair I’d been sitting on gave way. The plastic legs just collapsed beneath my weight, bent outward, and snapped off on one side. I sprawled across the carpet. It was a sign. The fasting had to continue. And my prayers weren’t being received, I guessed, because I had let my bad worldly thoughts about the skinny supermodels creep into my prayers. Oh, God, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I got distracted. But thank you for this lesson, anyway, God. You’re so good, speaking to me. I see the way. I broke the chair because I am a fat sinner and, not only that, I forgot that I was in Your divine presence, but You reminded me by breaking the chair and thank you, thank you for the sign. You see me all the time. You want me to keep up the fast and be holy and, please God, divine God, help me to fix the chair so no one finds out.
But the little plastic chair was not to be fixed. I could see that quite clearly as I picked myself up. I’d have to get rid of the evidence. But where would I put it? The basement of the One True Church was just a big room with some Sunday school classrooms adjoining. There was a main bathroom and another small door beside it. I walked across the big echoing room holding the broken chair in two hands. Now I was really hoping nobody would come. Keep them at their supper a little bit longer, Lord. Make them eat all their dessert.
The door to the room I wanted was sticky but it opened with a sharp pull. It was exactly right, a furnace room, and as my eyes got used to the dark, I could see some janitorial supplies against the near wall. It was the perfect place to put a broken chair, especially now, when nobody would know how it got broken. As I was carefully leaning the plastic chair against the wall, and putting the leg in place so it didn’t at first appear to be broken, the furnace roared to life. There was a mighty huff as the blue gas flames ignited in the roaring belly of the furnace. I could see the fire surging clear and blue, pure flames to consume evil. I thought of one of the prophets, Malachi, maybe, who went into the furnace and was not burned because he was so good in the eyes of the Almighty.
Tentatively, I reached out towards the furnace. I couldn’t put my hand in the flames because there was a screen. But I could touch it and I did. The vents were warm but not hot. I could touch a furnace now because the living fire within had redeemed me. The fire in me was stronger than the fire in the church furnace. With the heat passing through my hand and up into my arm, I felt such strength and resolve, nothing would touch me. My shadow across the furnace room floor was elongated and drawn out. It was the effect of my holy fire. I’d had a glimpse of what it would be like to be slim and whole, after all the sins of my flesh fell away. God had confirmed it.
In the darkness, I smiled. God sure did manifest Himself to me in mysterious ways but, as far as I was concerned, if He was the one speaking, I was going to be the one listening. After all, it was not everyone who got direct messages like this. Only the Chosen.
The furnace duct was getting hotter now, so I drew back. But I wasn’t worried. Truth had been revealed. I left the broken chair propped up by a mop handle and firmly closed the door.
As I walked home through the darkness, I was no longer Ruth Callis, but Malachi, God’s chosen, touched by flames yet unconsumed. I almost hoped I’d meet a hungry dog, or better yet, a wolf, or even a pack of hungry, rabid wolves. They couldn’t touch me. I was so full of power right now, they’d cringe and slink away at the sound of my master’s name. You shall have dominion over all the world, over all the wild beasts. I was pretty sure that was a quote from the Bible, and I was hungry to try it out.
But no wild dogs came, no beasts of the tundra attacked. I walked home through the settled darkness, confident that my fast was just beginning.
The next morning, however, it was more difficult. I pretended to eat cereal, but washed it down the sink when Elsie was reading the newspaper. I knew I could throw my bag lunch away at school, but it was getting harder. My stomach was empty and groaning. The smell of toast was making my mouth water.
Supper the second day was the toughest. It was macaroni and cheese. My favourite.
"Ruthie, eat up. You’ve hardly touched your food."
That was the Devil, talking through my mother, actually.
"I’m not feeling well."
It was true, the food in front of me was making my mouth water again, the way it did before you threw up. I was so hungry.
Elsie’s hand was quickly on my forehead and she nodded. "You’re a little bit warm, Ruthie. Do you want to go lie down in your room?"
And I nodded, thinking thank you, God, although what I really wanted to do was plunge my head into the macaroni and cheese and inhale it as quickly as I could to fill up the hollowness inside my body. The hollowness was where the Holy Spirit was supposed to live. Why wasn’t He coming? I must be clean now.
The next morning it became easy. Not easy to not eat — people always wanted you to eat — but the hunger went away on the third day and the Holy Spirit came in. I thought about it like the crucifixion. The first day was pain. The second day was emptiness when Jesus had to visit Hell. Macaroni and cheese was my hell. Today the Holy Spirit had come and I felt wonderful not needing food anymore. It was a floating kind of feeling. Everything I looked at seemed less substantial, more opaque, and everything I thought seemed invested with meaning that hadn’t been there before. The scriptures took on a beauty and a wisdom I had never experienced, which I pondered and prayed upon behind the closed door of my bedroom.
It would have been fine, too, except I fainted in prayer circle just when I was starting to dream wonderful dreams and see visions of glory in my head. One of the Elders called my parents and they took me home and made me eat soup. I’d never tasted soup that delicious. Or felt that terrible eating it. I consumed three bowls of that soup, salted with tears that I couldn’t stop streaming from my eyes. I imagined the Holy Spirit inside me, soggy, half drowned by my failure.
Readers talk to Margaret Macpherson
Book club guide
Upcoming readings by Margaret Macpherson
Saturday, May 25, 10:00 am
Words in Three Dimensions
Robbins Health Learning Centre, MacEwan University
10700 104 Ave NW
Margaret Macpherson will be taking part in the Words in Three Dimensions conference as a panelist, discussing Truth in Story at the 'The Truth is Out There' panel.