Once upon a time as a much younger reporter, I covered a story about members of a small south Louisiana church who for weeks kept a dead baby in an ice chest rather than report the death to authorities.
Every night church members prayed over the ice chest in the hope their faith would be strong enough to bring the baby back. And every night they finished by gently returning the ice chest to a large freezer until the next prayer session.
This went on for a few weeks – very nearly the biblical 40 days – until word leaked out and the cops came knocking at the church house door.
Why tell you this gruesome little tale?
It’s a story that has stuck with me for years and years. I tell it to my UGA journalism students as an example of how religious beliefs and governmental rules can intersect in interesting ways, especially in the South. I walk them through the challenges in reporting and writing a story like this. I’ve even tried using it as the basis of a fictional short story to explore the motives of the parents and pastor who didn’t really want to talk to some snotty young reporter without a decent Cajun accent.
Regardless, I always return to the major question I failed to ask in my original reporting of the story and one I’ve failed to answer in my poor attempts at fiction.
What if it had worked?
Even in today’s suburban concrete car-infested TV-watching cell-phone talking version of the South, you’re never more than a step and a prayer from religion. Even if you’re not religious, it’s hard to escape. The General Social Survey asked people in 1991, 1998, and 2008 if they believe in miracles and a greater proportion of those who call the South home were likely to answer “definitely.” Fifty-three percent of those living in the South said so in 1991, and 63 percent said so last year.
This particular story happened in a concrete-block, bayou-side church with a name I can’t quite recall today. It’s almost a law, though, that the farther you drive out of town, the longer the church names become. I vaguely remember a lot of nouns and a couple of verbs, maybe even an adjective for good grammatical measure.
All well and good, but what if it had worked?
I never asked that question as a reporter. It never even occurred to me to ask. Seems obvious now that after getting all those basic facts, I might have gone deeper.
I’m left today with only my imagination.
I imagine them back years ago in a small, bare church, perhaps holding hands. Not kneeling. This was a non-congregational church surrounded by Catholicism, so they sit or stand. An ice chest rests on the floor. A good reporter discovers the color and make of the chest, maybe what it was used for previously (shrimp, maybe, or crawfish?). A good fiction writer imagines similar details and adds them like seasoning to a favorite recipe.
Is the chest open or closed? I want to say closed, in part because an open chest requires describing the baby. The fiction-writing side of my brain wants it closed too.
Because if the prayer had worked, how would they know?
In my closed-chest scenario they hear something move inside the chest and wonder: is the baby alive? Or has the ice inside shifted as it melts?
Yeah, creepy. What if it had worked?
Does that mysterious shifting sound cause the mother to race to the ice chest and rip off the lid? Will the father hesitate, afraid of what may be inside? Maybe he tries to stop her.
Maybe he’s read The Monkey’s Paw.
In the 1902 horror story by W. W. Jacobs, the parents of a young man killed in India use a monkey’s paw to wish him back to life, but the father fears for what may lie beyond their front door – his son, dead for a week, marred by a terrible accident and now knocking at the door. “For god’s sake, don’t let it in,” the father pleads. That “it” has always stuck with me. But the mother will have none of it. “You’re afraid of your own son,” she says, trying to unbolt the door.
Scrambling to find the monkey’s paw, the father uses its last remaining wish.
He wishes his son away.
What if it had worked?
I had only a brief opportunity to question the pastor and parents as they walked by one day, charged as they were with a misdemeanor failure to properly dispose of a dead body. I never thought to ask them what seems to me, today, to be a most interesting of a hundred possible questions.
The South is full of fascinating religious beliefs and practices. I’ve never seen snake handling, but I once sat in a tent on a steamy Mississippi night and watched as a large woman played bass guitar and healed the sick.
Maybe it’s harder to be from the South and cover religion. We take it all for granted – the tiny buildings in the country or the suburban mega-churches, the pastors who sell dusty cassettes of their lectures out of the backseat of a Buick or who sell DVDs off of slick web sites. Growing up in South, maybe the religious forest gets lost in the trees.
Which may be why, back then, I didn’t ask any of the really interesting questions.