The Raising of Harold Mueller
By Amy Bridges.
Hermleigh, Texas, was a West Texas town so small it didn’t warrant a Dairy Queen. It was a side-road full of dirt farmers, of cotton fields that barely produced; two miles of dilapidated shacks and dry earth whose cracks opened up begging the sky for water. At nine years old, I was a bored pastor’s child who spent my summers wandering through the fields behind the church trolling for bugs and devil’s claws.
Harold Mueller was one of only two deacons in the small Baptist Church where my father served as minister. Harold sensed my wild spirit and would chase me around the church courtyard, laughing and shouting, “Hey, Little Missie! I’m gonna get your goat!”
When Brother Mueller would catch me, he’d pass off a good-sized handful of sour apple Jolly Ranchers. The candy brought an undeniable sweetness in the tiny sanctuary where my father reveled in stories of sin and redemption delivered to the fifty-or-so of us who sat at attention, cooled only by two ceiling fans in ninety-degree heat.
The loss to me was understandably great when it was announced that Harold Mueller’s life had been taken after a short bout with liver cancer.
There was a visitation the night before Harold’s funeral. It was a covered-dish dinner in the Fellowship Hall that featured buckets of fried chicken and sweet slaw. I sat alone with a mound of potato salad and a drumstick while friends of Harold revisited the memories of his life: the time Harold won the big football game, the time Harold headed up the youth carwash. I wanted to share my Jolly Rancher story, but I was too shy, and mostly invisible among the grieving adults.
It didn’t matter anyway. My mind wasn’t really on Harold’s memory, but on a story Daddy recollected in one of his sermons, the story of the raising of Lazarus.
Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus. He was the brother of Mary Magdalene. One day Lazarus died, got bound up and stuck in a tomb, and was there for a number of days before Jesus returned. The folks were good and mad at Jesus when he got back. They’d sent telegrams that they felt Jesus had ignored. Certainly, there wasn’t any hope of Jesus raising Lazarus up at that point. He’d been dead for so long, and as far as they knew, Jesus could only raise folks that had been dead a couple of minutes; an hour at the most.
Jesus’ reaction to all the hen-pecking he received was akin to a big roll of the eyes. He found their lack of faith annoying and he said as much. So with a sort of ‘I punch my own clock, and I’ll get to it when I do’ attitude, Jesus strolled up to the tomb’s entrance, and in a commanding voice said, “Arise, Lazarus, come forth! Death hath no power over thee!” And what do you know, out walks Lazarus, smelling fresh as a daisy, unwinding his mummy garments, and re-entering society as easy as a walk through customs and a stamp on the passport.
I asked Daddy if that story was true. Even to a child, it sounded far-fetched.
Daddy put his arm around me, and said, “Kid, we can’t understand everything in the Bible. But Jesus works a miracle in each of us, and we have to have faith that it is true. It’s our job to carry that truth and those miracles into the world. It’s our job as Christians to bring the world the hope of the gospel.”
That was a good answer. It was sufficient and reassuring at the same time.
I’d barely touched my food at Harold’s visitation. I couldn’t eat another bite, so I took a long hard swallow off my Kool-Aid, then slipped away from the grief-stricken adults. More than a few of them mentioned they’d seen Harold “laid out in the sanctuary.” And, “He looked like he did when he was living.” One of them even said,
“Those folks up at Johnson Brothers did a good job. Wouldn’t know he had liver cancer. Didn’t look a bit yellow.”
I slipped away from the group and walked silently up the stairs that led to the sanctuary.
The staircase was small.
I opened the door.
The lights were out in the sanctuary, but for one lonely light on the stage, whose beam illuminated a sky blue casket with a curtain beneath it. It looked like the casket was floating in space, like a strange parlor trick.
Harold and I were finally alone.
The sanctuary was silent.
I stood on tiptoe, peering over the top half of the casket. The taste in the back of my throat was warm Jolly Ranchers. Harold Mueller was as I remembered him. Thinner. But it was him. It wasn’t like those folks downstairs said at all. I mean, he looked good enough, but not the way he’d looked in the courtyard when he was ‘getting my goat.’ His skin was darker, and his face was expressionless.
I looked around. Then, with shallow breath, I reached out towards Harold Mueller’s hands. They were cupped and resting on his stomach as if they’d been filled with Jolly Ranchers. I gave those hands a quick poke with my index finger. I let out a short squeal, then stared at him. I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream.
I held myself steady, before I took another good breath, then rested my hand on top of his. This time, I kept it there. Harold Mueller felt nothing like he’d felt when he was walking among the living. His skin was as cold as a pound of hamburger meat.
With my hand steady, I whispered only one word.
I was sure I felt a movement beneath me. I was sure I could feel the rise of breath pumping beneath my grasp, the up-and-down movement of Harold Mueller’s stomach taking in oxygen. My heart pounded and I felt light-headed, like I might fall backwards from the casket.
I kept my place perfectly still, like a crouching porch cat when a coyote’s nearby.
I was certain I’d felt something, a surge or a flash. Harold felt warmer. The room was burning electric.
I spoke louder, imitating the voice Jesus must’ve used that day at the tomb.
“Arise, Harold Mueller!” I commanded. “Death hath no power over thee!”
The invisible around me was filled with shockwaves. I moved back off my tiptoes, thinking I might throw up from the tension. I was deeply afraid of Harold Mueller’s raising. At the same time, I could feel the earth shaking beneath me at the thought of it. It was the power of Old Testament prophets standing inside a fire without getting burned; spending the night in a cage full of lions whose jaws had been sealed shut by the angel of the Lord; parting the Red Sea, then walking on through.
“Arise, Harold Mueller,” I said again, this time standing as firm as Moses on top of Mount Sinai. “Death hath no power over thee!”
I held both hands up in the air, the way I’d seen folks with supernatural powers do it in the movies, the gust of invisible winds picking up behind me, the spray of Heaven’s Glory raining down like thunder and lightening.
“Arise!” I shouted into the darkness, into the valley of the shadow of death.
“Arise!” I shouted, face-to-face with Satan in the wilderness.
“Arise!” I demanded at the foot of the tomb whose stone had been rolled closed and forgotten.
I begged for the life of that poor dirt farmer.
The sanctuary was silent.
I stood for a moment in the darkness. The air around me was still warm, but slowly fizzing out, like an old black-and-white television before going black.
I stepped to the side of the casket.
I looked once again at Harold Mueller.
His dark skin.
His cupped hands.
His expressionless lips.
In life, he’d organized youth car washes.
In life, he’d stuffed his pockets full of Jolly Ranchers.
“Arise, Harold Mueller,” I whispered once more.
I slipped out of the sanctuary as quietly as I’d entered.
I ate drumsticks and sweet slaw with the rest of Harold’s family.
I learned some interesting things about him that night.
Harold Mueller once delivered a calf in a snowstorm.
One time, he hand-plowed a cotton field when he didn’t have the money to fix his tractor.
I didn’t know if the problem had been God or me. Either way, after that, I never tried to raise the dead again. It was too much of a letdown to believe in something so completely and have things turn out for the worse. I tried not to think about it, and if it came up, I tried to swallow it, like the chicken I’d eaten that night. That chicken had been greasy and flavorless.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Bridges is a Los Angeles based writer whose work has appeared on TLC, HGTV, and Discovery Health. She is the recipient of the First Prize Fiction Award at the San Francisco Writers Conference. Her play, Women of the Holocaust, was published by The Kennedy Center and The Northwest Theatre Journal. Her essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, Sequestrum, and Salon Lit.
ABOUT THE ARTWORK
A doctored archival photograph, originally captioned ‘Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas (April 18th, 1935)’ from an album by George E. Marsh. The original can be found digitised online via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s NWS Library Collection.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016.