Content Warning: religious trauma
Melanie cringed as Cassie’s shrill voice rippled through the wood-paneled living room.
“All right, ladies!” Cassie called out to the little clucking group of ladies before her, her back bent precariously over the silver DVD player that her husband had just bought for her. She had to have it for the Ladies’ Wednesday Night Bible Study; naturally, since it was for church, he obliged.
But as Melanie sat cross-legged on the beige carpet, peering down at her own trembling hands, she wished she could fling that DVD player out of the Darleys’ window and watch it crumble on the concrete below. Hardly any of the other girls noticed her somber expression, of course; they hadn’t really noticed Melanie at all since she joined Grace Baptist Church last April, or wandered into their Bible Study that May. They certainly didn’t notice Melanie’s ashen face when Cassie announced the new study on the Song of Solomon, or her steady gulps as Cassie droned on hour after hour about “biblical romance”. So of course, none of the chattering women noticed Melanie’s sullen features as Cassie jumped eagerly into tonight’s workbook questions.
None, except for Selena. Her hazel-green eyes turned toward Melanie as she reached for her own workbook on the chair behind her. Selena’s wan smile instantly vanished as they locked eyes; wordlessly, she pressed her hand on top of Melanie’s, which was now gripping the carpet beneath them both. Melanie threw her a quick, pitiful look of desperation, but even Selena didn’t know, could never know, why Melanie’s heart churned with fear.
“Wasn’t that just a beautiful teaching?” Cassie asked, oblivious, as the ladies nearest to her bobbed their heads right on cue.
“Honestly,” she gasped, “the first chapter of the Song of Solomon always brings a tear to my eye – to see God’s design for love between men and women portrayed so tenderly!”
More bobbing, and a handful of murmurs, as Melanie sat in stony silence.
“Now ladies,” Cassie continued, “Dr. McAllen gave us a powerful discussion question to consider tonight. Based on what we read in the first chapter, what do you think are the ideal characteristics a woman should look for in a husband?”
Melanie’s stomach now twisted into a knot.
“Go on!” Cassie chimed. “You’ve each got some space right here in your workbooks – I want to hear all of your ideas!”
Like good Baptist girls, the ladies began scribbling away, nibbling the ends of their pens as they reviewed their Bible text for tonight, searching for clues to the right answer (which was almost always “Jesus”, but not on this occasion). Soon the workbooks bore a multitude of charming traits: “honest”, “brave”, “generous”, and, naturally, “walking with the Lord”.
But Melanie’s workbook page was stubbornly, fitfully, blank. Her Bible lay open before her, the words were there, in plain English (King James Version, to be exact). But it was all she could do to stare listlessly at the shag carpet beneath her sandals. Melanie’s head snapped up as she heard the unexpected tolling of her own name from Cassie’s bright red lips.
“Well, Melanie,” Cassie murmured sweetly, “what about you? What qualities are you looking for in a husband?”
Melanie’s throat closed as she tried to think quickly, but her thoughts eroded into mash as she searched for a passable response. Slowly, her eyes turned back to Selena. Melanie took a deep breath as inspiration finally struck her.
“I would want…someone…who is gentle, and tender,” she answered, hoping the hesitation wasn’t too obvious in her shaky voice. “A…person…who is kind, and loving, who expresses their soul with their eyes.” She gently exhaled, but not before stealing another tepid glance at her friend beside her.
The ladies around Melanie blinked, nearly in unison, at the strange list – so disparate from theirs! But Cassie, ever dauntless, flashed a winning smile in Melanie’s direction.
“What a lovely list!” Cassie exclaimed. “I just love how you always think outside the box, Melanie. We are so fortunate to have you in our group!”
An hour, and several hugs, later, Melanie lay in her shabby twin-sized bed – the very same one she had carted across the Florida-Georgia state line when she arrived in Atlanta a few years prior. Melanie slammed her forehead into the pillow beside her, her mind refusing sleep, as she tried to remember who she was back then, just three short years ago, what she had dreamed she would be, and then, the most chilling thought of all, who she was now.
It consumed her, night after night in prayer, reading her Bible, meditating on the Word, hours spent asking God to clear her mind and change her heart, to take this thorn from her flesh. It never worked. No matter what, when or how often she prayed, God was deaf to her. Or was it Cassie’s God who was deaf to Melanie? She wasn’t quite sure, not anymore.
Melanie knew all the Bible verses; she grew up in church, after all. She could quote them, word for word. She had read them over, and over, and over, her heart breaking apart a little more each time: Genesis 19. Leviticus 18:22. Leviticus 20:13. Romans 1:26. They told her, clearly, that she was wrong. Her very being was wrong – intrinsically wrong. The pastor of Grace Baptist had said so many times. So did a whole multitude of pastors. Not just any pastors, but smart pastors, ones with fancy degrees who had studied the Bible for years or even decades. How could Melanie argue with them, with their knowledge, their absolute assurance of God’s will and their own righteousness? They all agreed, everyone agreed, Cassie would surely agree: there was something very wrong with Melanie.
Melanie gingerly pushed herself up from the cool linen sheets. Her shaking hand reached for the Bible on her dresser as she slowly flipped the pages to the Song of Solomon, desperate as she was to push those other, painful, verses from her head. She began to read:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth— for your love is more delightful than wine. Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out.
Melanie’s mind wandered back to Selena, to the brief gaze they had shared that night, as her eyes brimmed with tears. Melanie knew that she could never tell Selena how much she admired her gentle heart and adored her tender spirit. How her innate kindness, her marvelous capacity for love, drew Melanie to nestle in beside her night after night of Bible Study. She could never whisper to Selena that her very soul was in her eyes.
Most of all, she could never admit that Selena’s gaze was more delightful than wine.
Melanie’s trembling hands finally went limp as the first tears trailed down her cheeks. She jolted at sound of a crash near her bedside. A quick glance downward revealed her Bible, split open on the floor after sliding from her sweaty palms. She forcefully wiped her face as she threw her arm down to grab the book before plopping it back on her lap. Through her hazy gaze, she glanced at the book and chapter it had landed on: Psalm 139.
Tepidly, fearfully, Melanie began to read once more:
For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.
Melanie drew a sharp inhale of breath, like a drowning woman pulled to the surface at last.
Fearfully and wonderfully made.
The words rang in her mind, over and over again, as she gently replaced the Bible on her nightstand. She rose from her bed and ambled a few paces to the floor-length mirror hung over the door of her closet. Carefully, she considered every inch of her body: the stubby toes, the short legs, the round hips, the broad shoulders, the mass of curly, honey-brown hair pulled lazily into a bun and lastly, the deep brown eyes now gazing back at her. Every single part of her was, undeniably, fearfully and wonderfully made.
Melanie swallowed her fear and steeled herself to say the words that had terrified her for so long, the ones she never thought she could say aloud:
“My name is Melanie. I am a woman, and I love other women.”
Another sharp inhale of breath scattered the voices clanging in Melanie’s mind for so long – the pastors, Cassie – all of them, blown like dust to the four corners of creation.
“And You formed me in my inward parts. You covered me in my mother’s womb. And I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made – right now. As I am.”
Melanie’s nails dug into her palms as she uttered the words, over and over again: fearfully and wonderfully made. Fearfully and wonderfully made. Melanie swore to herself that she would never forget it – never, ever again.
After a few more moments repeating her mantra, Melanie crawled between her bedsheets to finally, peacefully, lay down her head. As her eyes slowly closed, she repeated the verse once more as she began to pray. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” she whispered into the darkness. “Thank you, God. Thanks an awful lot.”