It’s me. But you already knew that. And...you already knew I was going to say that. I mean, you probably already know what I want to ask.
I unclasped my hands, thus turning off my microphone to God. It was right after bedtime. Mom and Dad had turned my bedroom light off, bidding me goodnight.
They hadn’t told me to pray. We’d already done that at dinner to the familiar cadence of “Come Lord Jesus,” which had devolved into the song from Beauty and the Beast—Come Lord Jesus, be our guest! Be our guest!—as Mom and Dad had smiled behind bowed heads.
But that morning at church, I’d been told if you prayed to God, he’d answer. He’d do things for you. “Let God into your heart,” my teacher said. I told her I couldn’t picture him in there. My heart was too small; he’d get trapped. I’d kill the Lord with every heartbeat. “Open your heart to the Lord, and he’ll listen,” she said.
I clasped my hands again. From what I could tell, this was the signal to God that you were going to Say Something. If you didn’t clasp your hands, he couldn’t hear you.
Yeah. God. Um. Thanks for...everything?
I looked around my room.
Like the bed, my pajamas, the window, the alarm clock...
I spotted a penny on my nightstand.
...Like Abraham Lincoln, a great president in the 1860s I read about in school, but you know about all that. Actually, is he up there with you? That would be crazy if he wasn’t. Can you put him on?
Hi, Mr. President! Sorry you’re just on the penny. It’s so small. But...you’re really great, okay?
You having fun up there?
Well, goodnight! Wait, do you sleep?
I unclasped my hands, deciding it was better to stop before I said something stupid. God might know everything, but once I turned the mic off, I could go ahead and think heathen thoughts. There was no need for Abe Lincoln to hear them, too.
I lay in bed, waiting to feel something about the prayer. Did the relief kick in right away? Or only when you got what you wanted?
I didn’t know, but then again I never had. Prayer had never made sense to me. The things I wanted to say never came to me when they mattered, and the things I was told to pray for didn’t always make sense. Everlasting life? But you’d get bored. Forgiveness? But I was told we were already forgiven.
I’d tried the Lord’s Prayer. It had been rolled so many times over my tongue, it was nothing but a sluice of syllables blending together, the hissing trespass against us, the rat-a-tat of into temptation. Did that count? Was God taking tally in church, listening in to each member to make sure all voices were present? Could he tell if someone was just mouthing along?
I’d once threatened him for an answer. While trying to hit a ball over a fence, I thought, God, if you don’t get this ball over the fence, I don’t believe in you! and over the fence it went! For a while, that was proof enough.
But it wasn’t an answer, not really.
You maybe have better things to do right now, but I thought I’d say hey.
Are you happy? How do you fit your halo over your hat?
My sister doodled in church. When she wasn’t doodling, she’d fold bits of paper into frogs and make them leap across her hymnal. Every week, the frogs got smaller. She’d cough when she wanted to rip the program to make even smaller frogs. I figured it was fine. Her mic wasn’t on.
I’d try to listen to the pastor talk, divine the chosen scriptures for us, tell us what God meant when he said he was listening, shape the answers we weren’t getting on our own. All the while, a march of paper frogs galumphed along our seats.
The words made sense, but the message couldn’t land, like those flimsy paper frogs tottering off our programs. I felt my mind hopping between phrases in the sermon, trying to make constellations of whatever light I found. “Live in a moment of time.” “It is a long walk in the dark.” “For he so loved the world.”
Hop, hop, fall.
We opened our hymnals and sang something instead. The service was almost over. That’s all I knew to be true once we made it past the sermon. But the prayers didn’t shape any better for me.
“That’s the thing with belief,” my dad said to me one day. “You either have it or you don’t.”
You did great stuff, but did you ever wonder what would happen if you didn’t? Would you have done great stuff even if the reward was just a penny?
My favorite hymn involved a bit of wailing. “Were You There?” a Lenten piece, sung at times as if accusatory, sometimes as if mournful, with the chorus drawing out a long “Oh...” before collapsing into “Sometimes it causes me to tremble.”
I originally liked it because I could hear Mom’s operatic voice soaring above the rest, her “Oh” almost triumphant.
As the years went on, I liked it because there was never an answer, but the “Oh” that went on, on, on.
What’s it like in heaven?
I unclasped my hands.
Is it worth it?
I lay in bed. The street lamps outside illuminated random items on the floor. I squinted at the penny on the bedside table, swatting it to the floor where it gleamed in the streetlight.
Silence, always silence.
And it was quiet I was meant to welcome, leave unquestioned.
I stared at the bumps in my ceiling.
Then I clasped my hands.
is a Shanghai-based writer and translator with a Master’s degree in comparative and world literature from Zhejiang University. She is an active member of the Shanghai Writing Workshop and co-founded the Hangzhou Writer’s Association International. Her work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, The Shanghai Literary Review, Sixth Tone, and Narrative, among others.
For links to her publications, see author’s website: