The Altar

It is dark, black nighttime, and I am here between the trees standing with two other girls. We have on thin gowns and we are standing side by side in front of the altar. I can see us, so small, our thin legs are shadows through the material of the gowns, cast by the flickering of a kerosene lantern. There are adults standing around the altar, and they are quietly whispering prayers.  Brother James, one of the Elders begins to talk about how Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of a clean animal and offered burnt offerings on the altar.  He speaks about redemption and sacrificing so that we can be forgiven for all of our sins and washed new.

One of the men comes toward the altar with a baby goat who has a piece of twine around its neck. I freeze as I look at it. I am so sad inside for the tiny goat. It is soft brown with big eyes that are wide open.  It kicks its heels and tries to play with the man leading it, but he doesn’t pay the baby goat any attention.  There are pieces of twigs stacked on the altar. Brother James tells the man to bring the baby goat and put it on the altar.

I squeeze my hands together in front of me tightly. I close my eyes hard, because I can’t watch Brother James slit the goat’s throat. Still I see it behind my eyelids, the little body jerking when the knife stabs in, the gurgling sound that I can’t escape with my ear, and the wild, panicked look that has settled into its dying eyes. I keep my eyes closed until I hear the crackling of the twigs from the fire starting. The smell of the burning goat makes me feel sick in my stomach. I think I hate God, but I immediately am frightened for thinking that. I don’t know what kind of punishment God would give for hating Him.  I just don’t understand why He likes us to kill baby goats to offer to Him.

We all pray around the altar as the goat burns, and I try not to breathe too deeply so I don’t have to smell it. I stare at Brother James with his hands reached up towards heaven, praying for God to give us all favor since we had just given God a goat in honor of Him. He begs God to have mercy on us, and tears stream down his cheeks. His face is flickering shadows from the fire, and my eyes stare into the woods wondering if there are demons watching us. I am fighting sleep standing on my feet.  I’m happy when they finally say we can go quietly back to the Tabernacle.

I lay in my bunk with my head under my blanket trying to see butterflies behind my eyelids so my head will stop remembering the jerking, crying, burning baby goat.

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