[Originally published in The Medulla Review Volume 4 Issue 1 (Fall 2012)]
“The command ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ was promulgated, according to our authorities, when the population of the world consisted of two people.”
– William Ralph Inge
Mr. Turner sits in the back of the church and clasps his thin hands together, whispering fiercely towards Mr. Smith. Mr. Turner’s fiancée and Mr. Smith’s wife sit on either side of their lovers, throwing occasional peeks towards the front of the church at the defendants seated at two different tables by the altar.
“Good lord, Smith,” Mr. Turner hisses. “So, you’re telling me that you’ve never wondered whether this is right or not?”
Mr. Smith places a hand on Mr. Turner’s shoulder.
“Turner,” Mr. Smith says, squeezing the younger man’s bony collar gently. “I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. It just is.”
The wooden door near the altar opens and Mr. Jefferson, the bailiff, steps in, the door thudding closed behind him. The idle chatter in the church ceases abruptly and Mr. Jefferson makes his way to the closest corner, the click of the soles on his shoes beating against the floor. All the men and women in the church peer at Mr. Jefferson with a tense, collective need in their eyes, but none as much as Mark and Sheila Ovapo, the defendants seated with their baby at the table to the right of the altar.
Mark sits with his arms crossed tightly beneath his sternum, a stance meant to project strength. Nevertheless, as he tries to exude a calm stature, his elbow occasionally shakes and he looks down at it, frowning before readjusting his arms even tighter. Sheila, Mark’s wife, sits next to him tugging at her blue prison garments and fiddling with their baby—Mark Junior’s—outfit. Next to the couple sits a lawyer named Cassius (nobody’s ever really known Cassius’s last name, nor really cared; the last few years have made him more of a formality than anything), chewing on his lip restlessly. He studies a stack of papers in a folder in front of him, grumbling every couple of minutes.
To the left of the group is another table, where Mr. Washington, the prosecutor, sits alone with his hands folded neatly in front of him. A smug grin adorns his face and an open briefcase sits on the chair next to him, a carefully organized stack of legal-length papers visible inside.
A faint knock at the door the bailiff just entered from enlivens Mr. Jefferson and he takes a step forward, whispers purring through the crowd as he speaks.
“All rise,” he bellows. Mr. Jefferson’s voice has a commanding quality and most of the attendants are on their feet before they even realize what he’s said. Mr. Jefferson waits until the very last person is standing before continuing.
“This court in and of Richmond County is now in session. Honorable Judge Paul R. Swift presiding.”
Behind him, the door opens and a short, crouched old man draped in a black cloak enters. Judge Swift climbs the steps of the altar up front and rounds a chair that stands behind a large desk, facing the crowd. Behind him, a larger-than-life crucifix hangs on the wall, depicting a bronze Christ solemnly hanging his head. A steel pole sits on the ground next to the crucifix, a faded American flag mounted on it with tattered pieces of wire.
“Seated,” Judge Swift says curtly.
There is a collective sigh as everybody sits and Judge Swift pulls a pair of bifocals out from a hidden pocket in his cloak, flipping through his notebook. He clears his throat loudly and Mark Ovapo flinches, then retightens his crossed arms beneath his chest.
Judge Swift reads quietly to himself before closing his notebook slowly and removing his glasses, peering at the table directly in front of him: the lip-chewing Cassius next to Mark and Sheila with their child in tow. Judge Swift glances at his watch before turning to the bailiff.
“Bring them in,” he says.
At the command, Mr. Jefferson pokes his head out the door, speaking a few words before quickly moving back to his corner.
“All rise,” he yells again.
The crowd rises again from their seats in quick succession as the door opens and twelve people enter—five women and seven men—making their way to their chairs that sit in two rows of six against the wall near the altar.
Everybody in the room remains standing until the twelve are in front of their chairs. Judge Swift raises a hand then lowers it slowly, and there’s another exhale of mass seating which ruffles the ends of the judge’s cloak.
Judge Swift directs his focus to the juror sitting closest to him, an elderly gentleman named Mr. Jackson.
“Jurors, have you come to a decision?” Judge Swift says tiredly, looking only at Mr. Jackson, who nods. Judge Swift glances at the two tables in front of him, towards Mark and Sheila, who sit up nervously.
“Alright,” Judge swift says. “Foreman. May we have the jury’s decision?”
Mr. Jackson stands eagerly with a folded sheet of paper held in his hands, straightening his suit jacket. Mark and Sheila tense. Slivers of light peek through the shattered stained glass window near the ceiling and gleam off the drying tears dotting Sheila’s cheeks. The sun shifts behind something outside and the church dims as Mr. Jackson silently reads the sheet of paper to himself. Mark Ovapo, unable to stand the tension, turns his attention to the church’s floor work, to how nicely the new boards have held up, though a visible layer of ash has settled and made the ground seem older than it actually is. The walls aren’t as impressively redone; the cheap paint used to cover the scorch marks is beginning to fade. Mark helped lay the boards and roll the paint, along with a lot of the other men in the room. He glances at them, but they avoid his eyes.
Mr. Jackson clears his throat, finishes reviewing the paper, and eyes Mark and Sheila with thinly veiled disdain.
“We, the jury, find the defendants Mark Ovapo Senior and Sheila Ovapo…” Mr. Jackson pauses cruelly, a humorless sneer touching his lips. “…Guilty on both counts of first degree negligence and unlicensed conception.”
The church erupts with whispers and Mr. Jackson sits down slowly. Below the clatter of voices, a soft sob drifts from the front as husband and wife hold each other and their baby. The bang of Judge Swift’s gavel reverberates through the church and Mark Junior lets out a soft whine, his mother’s desperate whispers calming him back into a cooing reverie. The chatter dies off and the judge drops the gavel, peering at the couple in front of him.
“Mr. and Mrs. Ovapo.” Judge Swift pauses, thoughtfully. “Before I hand down sentencing, do you have any final words?”
Mark faces his wife, who clutches their child to her chest. His eyes display his fear, his regret, his sorrow. And his anger. He stands quickly and straightens his prison outfit then calls out defiantly.
“Yeah,” he says, wringing his hands for a moment before raising his chin. “Yeah. I have some words.” He motions towards his wife and child, raising his voice. “This is a Godforsaken outrage.”
Another buzz sweeps through the crowd, a few people shaking their heads and staring at Mark scornfully.
“How so, Mr. Ovapo?” the judge continues. “And may I warn you, I will not overlook such outbursts in my deliberation.”
“‘How so?’” Mark repeats, his mouth hanging open. “‘Deliberation?’ We’re being condemned, for… for loving each other?” He looks at his wife. “For wanting each other? For wanting to leave something behind?”
The judge waits patiently and the murmurs from the pews are nonexistent now.
“This is archaic,” Mark continues adamantly. “There’s no other way to say it. My son, bless his soul, cannot be given precedent over a pair of grown adults. Over an already established marriage, over a union under God.” His wife glares at him and he holds his hands up. “And, neither should we be given precedence over him. Rules are rules, I know. But this wasn’t a premeditated move on our part. We didn’t plan this,” he says, slamming a fist into his palm. “We didn’t plan any of this, it just happened. We’re sorry, but it happened, and it should be our responsibility to raise our child. It’s unfair, I tell you. And it’s… it’s… it’s bullshit.”
The crowd gasps and Mark glares at the judge defiantly.
Judge Swift stays quiet for a moment, rubbing his temples and sighing.
“Is that all Mr. Ovapo?”
“No,” Sheila says from next to Mark. He focuses on his wife as she stands slowly, her eyes puffy and bright with rage.
“How dare you,” she says softly. She turns to the crowd behind her, her voice rising shrilly. “How dare all of you. To punish us for doing what’s natural? Who are you to say what’s God’s plan? Just who the hell do you think you are! My husband and I have done nothing wrong here today, or any day, nothing more than what is natural to us, to you, to all mankind, to every living thing on this planet. No manmade law can take away the fact that we were built to—”
“Mrs. Ovapo,” Judge Swift roars and Sheila stops immediately. Judge Swift’s face is a ghastly shade of bright pink, and he takes a moment to collect himself before speaking in a much lowered voice.
“We, the state, make laws for a reason. And we as a community have agreed to uphold these laws. There is a problem—we have a problem—and we have taken measures to counter it.” He shrugs. “And in this case, the penalty is non-negotiable.”
He raises his gavel as he speaks, elevating his voice for the entire church to hear.
“For the crime of first degree negligence towards the United Cause to Re-advance the State of New York, and for Unlicensed Conception of a Child in violation of Amendment 123 of the New York State Constitution, Mark Ovapo Sr. and Sheila Ovapo are hereby sentenced to immediate death by consumption.” He motions towards Mr. Jefferson. “The child is to be placed in county custody immediately. This court is adjourned.”
The bang of the gavel is superseded by a strident shriek. Sheila kicks her seat to the side as she jumps up, the chair flying halfway down the center aisle between the rows of pews and the crowd of onlookers who are instantly on their feet. Clutching her child to her chest and baring her teeth ravenously, Sheila growls at Mr. Jefferson, approaching from the left. Her husband jumps in front of her as Judge Swift exits the church the same way he entered and a flurry of movement comes through the open door behind him. Stone-faced men with batons aid Mr. Jefferson in his approach and Sheila tilts her head back, crying out again, a guttural, primitive sound. She bends her knees a little, readying for combat and Mark stands in front of her and his child, grabbing one of the chairs from behind the table next to him and swinging it wildly.
Behind them the pews jump, people shouting and cajoling. Mr. Washington, the prosecutor, remains seated at the other table next to his briefcase full of carefully organized legal-length papers, watching the scene unfold with the same smug grin on his face, his hands now folded on his lap as he leans back in his chair. On the other side of Mark and Sheila, Cassius stands up swiftly, shoveling his folders into a tattered briefcase before turning and walking briskly down a side aisle and out of the church. He ducks his head as he walks, his eyes trained on the ground, his bottom lip still tucked away in his mouth.
Mark continues to swing the chair at Mr. Jefferson, not noticing one of the other baton-wielding men creeping around the wall and coming up on his side. As Mark swings the chair wide and away, the sneaking man blindsides him with a blow to the head. Mark lets out a loud gasp and drops the chair, bringing his hand up. When he looks at it, shades of red streak across his palm and his vision blurs.
In the momentary confusion, Mr. Jefferson grabs Mark and triumphantly kicks the chair from his outstretched hands. A pool of blood collects above Mark’s ear and streams down the side of his head, the coppery smell tingeing the air as he struggles and falls to the floor and out of Mr. Jefferson’s grip. Clawing at the ground, trying to scramble away, he is promptly seized by three officers who pull him up and tie his hands in front of him, lifting the husband and father with the disheveled beard and the bloody head above them as he flails and screams, cursing and spitting violently.
Once Mark is secured, Mr. Jefferson directs his attention to Sheila, who proves even more of an ordeal with the baby held delicately in her arms, her face painted heavily with pain and rage. She bites and scratches relentlessly, swinging with her free hand and holding Mark Junior away in the other. Yet, despite her efforts, an officer manages to grab her hand and shake her until the baby comes loose. Sheila cries out hoarsely as Mark Junior falls, her bloodshot eyes bulging in their sockets, and for a few long seconds it seems that little Mark Ovapo Junior will meet the ground in a brutal introduction, until Mr. Jefferson falls to his stomach and catches the child, getting his hands underneath just as the infant nears the wooden floor. Mr. Jefferson stands slowly, holding the baby to his chest. Mark Junior smiles up at him, reaching a pair of chubby hands towards Mr. Jefferson’s face.
Sheila hangs limp with relief at the sight of her son safe, multiple pairs of hands holding her wrists as three more officer’s lift her above their heads like her husband. She stays rigid as they do, her arms outstretched, her legs held tightly together, her sobs barely audible above the excited chatter coursing through the church. Mark continues to kick and flail down the aisle between the church pews, blood flowing freely from his head wound and down one of his captor’s arms. The steel-jawed man doesn’t seem to notice.
The total of six officers carry the couple towards the back of the room and out the door. Mr. Jefferson follows in stride, holding the giggling baby. With the entertainment moving outside, most of the crowd and the jury clear out, some hopping pews to get ahead in line, others following at a slower pace, most trying desperately to hide the ravenous glimmer in their eyes. A smirk returns to Mr. Smith’s face as he plants a firm kiss on his wife’s cheek and then turns to Mr. Turner and Turner’s fiancée.
“Sheila’s thigh for our pantry,” he roars.
Mr. Turner hangs his head, and for a second it seems he will resume his argument with Mr. Smith about the morality of the situation. After a moment, though, he glances up at Mr. Smith, a sheepish grin on his face.
“I’ll take her breasts, I guess,” Mr. Turner says. “For my pantry.”
Mr. Turner’s fiancée scowls at the remark but stays quiet. Mr. Smith, momentarily taken aback, recovers quickly and slings his arm around Mr. Turner’s neck.
“Breasts for the best, Mr. Turner,” he bellows, then ruffles Mr. Turner’s hair and lets out a hearty laugh. “Breasts for the best.”
A third man across the church yells that Mr. Turner will have to fight him for them, then whoops and hollers his way out the door. Mr. Turner and Mr. Smith chuckle and pat each other’s backs as they walk out, through the open church doors, the drifting scent of burning charcoal creeping up the aisle between the pews and towards the altar of the church to ruffle the flag, the faded fabric barely brushing against the feet of the crucifix.