This poem was written outside the fishbowl sessions. It is a direct sequel to "The Wingdresser's Kitchen," so read that first if you haven't already. It has been sponsored by Shirley Barrette. You can find the other poems in the series Fledgling Grace via the Serial Poetry page.
Sheba went to church on Sunday,
her black-and-green wings fresh
from Saturday's visit to the wingdresser.
She always listened to the sermon,
but she loved the songs the best.
Her church had a fine choir.
They sang the old songs
like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"
and "There Is a Balm in Gilead."
They sang the later songs
like "This Little Light of Mine"
and "Oh Happy Day."
They sang the recent songs
like "Hope of the Broken World"
and "By Your Side."
If you went during the week,
you could get just the old spirituals
or just the modern songs,
for folks who only liked one kind.
Sheba came on Sundays
because she loved all the kinds.
Since the Fledging,
the pastor had added a new service
all about birds and angels and flying --
"His Eye Is on the Sparrow,"
"I Need an Angel,"
"Wings of a Dove,"
"From Thorns to Feathers" --
even an old theme song from
The Greatest American Hero,
"Believe It Or Not."
That was a popular service,
whatever music folks liked.
Sheba felt that you could just about get
all the way from history to heaven
riding on good music.
Today the choir sounded especially fine
and so did the congregation
in the songs that everyone sang together.
Must've been something in the air.
It happened during a rousing rendition
of "Find Your Wings" when
they came to the chorus --
It's not living if you don't reach for the sky
I'll have tears as you take off
But I'll cheer as you fly
and suddenly Beatrice rose up.
She was already on her feet.
She just floated up,
slowly at first,
drifting somehow heavenward.
When Beatrice was head and shoulders
above her husband and kids,
she gave a startled scream
and her wide dove wings popped open
to try and catch herself.
"Ooohhh," said the congregation,
and then "Praise the Lord!" and "Hallelujah!"
and whump went Beatrice against the ceiling
as if caught by a sudden updraft.
"How I'm supposed to get down from here?"
Beatrice yelled in a voice that filled the hall.
Her big brown hands clutched at her Sunday best
to keep the skirt from rucking up around her waist.
Her cloud-white wings flailed in the air
and her tail fanned wide,
but neither provided much direction.
The pastor tried to shoo everyone outside,
but nobody wanted to walk away
from a real live miracle,
Sheba least of all.
Everyone was speaking at the same time
and it was hard to hear anything over the ruckus
except for the pastor who had a microphone
and Beatrice who didn't hardly need one.
Then Sheba had an idea.
If singing gospel had sent Beatrice up,
then talking about something else
might could bring her back down again.
The folks on either side of Sheba
nodded their heads and passed the word,
and pretty soon the pastor was telling everyone
to form up in groups by the pew,
so everything stayed orderly,
and talk about the weather or the ball game
or whatever they chose as long as it wasn't church-like.
It took over twenty minutes
for the toes of Beatrice's white leather shoes
to touch the polished wooden floor,
and the moment they did,
she skedaddled right out of that church.
Sheba couldn't blame Beatrice
for being frightened
by yet another unexpected something
happening to her --
way up like an angel
with the voices singing so sweet --
Sheba couldn't imagine much finer than that.
When she got home,
Sheba pushed all the furniture
out of the way in the living room.
She put on some gospel music
and sang at the top of her lungs
even though the neighbors went and
banged on the wall of the apartment with a broom.
Sheba jumped as hard as she could,
and flapped her black-and-green wings,
but she still felt as heavy as ever.
She sighed, and turned off the music.
The image of Beatrice on the ceiling
shimmered in her memory --
and just for a moment,
Sheba felt light as a feather,
felt a sudden swoop and drop in her belly
as if she'd jumped off a swing at the top of its arc.
She couldn't fly,
but for the first time,
Sheba felt certain-sure
that someday she could learn.
* * *
Read about doves, which belong to the Columbidae family.
Browse the songs: "Believe It Or Not" (lyrics) from The Greatest American Hero, "By Your Side," "From Thorns to Feathers," "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" (lyrics), "Hope of the Broken World," "Find Your Wings," "Oh Happy Day" (traditional lyrics) (Sister Act lyrics), "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "There Is a Balm in Gilead," "This Little Light of Mine," and "Wings of a Dove."
For this poem, I researched the kind of music popular in African-American churches. I started with "Negro Spirituals." Some of the earlier songs mentioned are among my favorites; I find some of this genre very beautiful. Then I wanted some later songs, so I looked for a good guide, and found the Annual Gospel Music Association Dove Awards. If you like gospel music, check out their list of winners. Basically I was looking for songs whose titles and/or lyrics both a plausible match for the church and touched on themes from the Fledgling Grace series. I found some terrific songs, so that was fun.
While I was hunting for songs, I stumbled across the article "Introducing Contemporary Worship into a Traditional Church." It explores a major challenge of churches today: How do you draw people into the church experience in a time when many people are drifting away from attendance? You play their music. For me, this answered a key question underlying the poem above: Why does the first spontaneous human flight happen in this church? Because it's a thriving church that already solved the attendance challenge before the Fledging even arrived. It has a lively congregation of people who are passionate about religion, have a tight-knit community, and adapt to new circumstances. They've already done that. They're in exactly the right position to make a fast response to a new situation, even if they weren't exactly trying to make someone fly like an angel.
This also tied into two ulterior sources of inspiration that distantly played into this poem. One is Suzette Haden Elgin's story "Lest Levitation Come Upon Us," which has only an excerpt online. In that story the levitation was considered an embarrassment. Given the context of Fledgling Grace, a more reverent and appreciative circumstance would be required -- but I did have the image in my head of someone inadvertently floating during a church service. The other is the set of movies Sister Act and Sister Act 2. Both promote the idea that worship should be an exciting, ecstatic experience instead of a drag. They do this by introducing contemporary musical styles. This kind of things works in real life. If you want a thriving spiritual community, you have to meet people's needs and make the activities relevant and appealing. When people are invested in their religion, well, sometimes miracles do happen.