The Quotable

Covenant Breath

Little girl, close your eyes, the older woman says to the younger. Close them tightly. Tell me what you see.

Nothing, nothing. Nothing is there.

Look harder, look hard. Look closer, look close. Shut your eyes tightly, little girl. There is no one around. What is there, what is there? What do you see?

I told you. There is nothing. There is nothing. There is nothing. There is—

—an insignia: a cross and a dove. A yellow church flush against a pale sky. The waxen pages of well-thumbed Bibles, the bristle brush of cold air in the stairwells, unheated during winter. The crack of gravel crunching under American-made tires, the resonant clap of car doors as latecomers hurry inside.

The congregation: a fleet of floor-length floral skirts and at-home perms, bluntly trimmed mustaches and finely pressed pant legs. A stage. A podium. A pastor. A people. A secret passageway leads to a baptismal bathtub presiding over a phalanx of cream-colored plastic chairs. The building: an architectural conglomerate of rectangles. One rectangle lies on its side, slain by the Spirit, and two behind it stretch high, offering praise to God. At the property’s edges, yellow-brown grain fields tilt in the wind. Cows swing their tails swatting at meandering flies. Amish buggies clop-clop home to their blue-door houses after their own Sunday services. Though they call their God by the same name, we have never met together.

At Covenant Breath, the faithful wave their hands in the air. They shout. They weep. They recoil at the structure and rules of conventional church. How suffocating. How fake. Constantly, they hunt for an exhibition of God’s presence on earth. God is doing amazing things in our time, they cry. Lord, make yourself manifest, they pray. Make your presence known to your people.

The Holy Spirit moves like the wind, they say. Don’t know where it’s going. Don’t know where it’s been. Crazy things occur when the Holy Spirit appears. A slight woman with the gift exhales her sweet, anointed breath on a man three times her size at a revival. He falls to the floor. A drug addiction is conquered in an instant, a chronic limp vanishes, an arthritic limb straightens. These gifts, these miracles become talismans of this faith; the stories that are told offer evidence of the favor of God.

You can even see Jesus, so the stories go. If you have the gifting.

Look, look, the people say. God has blessed us here in the western Pennsylvanian Promised Land. We are rich with things that the world needs. Iron and coal in the hills, healing and prophecy in the church. Come see us. Come and learn the secrets we know.

What do they know? They know that the latest, glossy buildings built in downtown Pittsburgh are empty because no one can afford the office space. Buildings stand barren, constructed for an expansion that will never come. The people dread the cracks in their steel empire: the new competition from abroad, the stalemated union negotiations. They cringe at the sight of its teeter-totter, frightened of the velocity it will reach before hitting the ground. Waiting, they continue to hold on.

Today, a woman crawls to the front of the sanctuary, bereft and contrite. She’s given a microphone.

“Please,” she says. “Please. I need to be healed from addiction, from pain, from hurt. From life.”

One pastor, two pastor, three pastor, four. The pastors drape their hands on her. On her hair, on her back, on her neck, on her shoulders. She bows her head. This is the posture one assumes to receive healing, the essence of submission and defeat. Each member of the crowd raises a hand toward the broken woman on the stage, two-hundred stalks of grain without any wind to move them. They pray. I watch. I don’t lift my hand. I am seven years old.

While others pray, I close my eyes and imagine that while we are inside of it, the church lifts off the ground and floats through the sky. It continues up and up and up with no signs of landing. I do a lot of daydreaming in church because I don’t possess any of the gifts that the others do. Prophecy. Healing. Teaching. Tongues. Even though I’m only in second grade, many of the other children’s gifts have already been identified. My brother Jacob, two years younger, likes to pray and lift his hands toward the stage. He cries when other people cry. It makes him sad. My sister Jessica, three years older, loves to sing. She plays the piano and her voice sounds sweet overlaid on the guitar and bass notes thumping from the front. She’s been blessed with the gift of worship.

I picture what Jesus might look like if I could see him. I plan what we would do if I had him to myself (we’d go swimming). I imagine his hands (large knuckles, rough carpenter’s palms, nails cut to the quick), his feet (be-sandled, dusty and dry), but never his face. It’s a blur, beyond my ability to imagine it.


The prayer ends, and the woman stumbles down the steps and flops into a chair in the front row, her face hidden in her hands. Her voice echoes in my head. Please, she said. Please.

This is how it is, Sunday after Sunday. I read a book during the long, Spirit-filled sermons. Jacob wears powder blue suspenders and a red clip-on bow tie that holds steady when he runs around the back of the sanctuary after the service ends. “Look!” he will yell at whoever is nearby. “Looky look! Look at me! I’m so fast!” Jessica and I will titter with our friends and fluff our at-home perms and yank up the waistbands of our tights.

Today, a man dances in the aisle. He left his shoes by his chair, and the yellow crowns on the heels of his black dress socks bounce up and down as he kicks his feet. I can hear his pocket change jangle along with his keys.

And after church, my favorite part, my dad will pop the trunk of our station wagon and we’ll sit in the abandoned parking lot beside McDonald’s, tossing French fries to the birds.

What else, what else, what else do you see?

I can’t remember it, I can’t remember it, I can’t remember it, I can’t remember—

—a friend. Her name was Carly. The entire Covenant Breath congregation believed Carly was special and the hand of God was on her. Was it because she was beautiful? Olive skin, dark eyes, thick, lustrous hair that defied any rubber band’s attempts to restrain it. She only needed to wrap an elastic twice around her ponytail while it took me twice as many. How perfectly she swooped the l and y in “Carly” into cursive flower petals with her delicate right hand. When she laughed, she crimped her nose in an oh-so-adorable scrunch. At the school of Covenant Breath, our teacher chose her to play the lead in the kindergarten play: the miller’s wife. I was relegated to the chorus of chicks. The day of the performance, Carly glowed in a lovely red and white gingham dress and I chirped in a yellow hat with a large triangular bill that my grandmother sewed for me. I watched Carly from the galley at the foot of the stage. Some of us are predestined to be miller’s wives, some of us to be chicks. Chirp. Carly received an award for being the best “friend” in our class during Vacation Bible School one year. My teacher selected Carly for the advanced reading group. Carly swam in the pool in her backyard. Carly, Carly, Carly.

One Saturday evening, a prophesying dance troupe from the Midwest came to town on their way to do a tour along the East Coast. They placed their hands on Carly. “They saw that I’m going to do great things,” she told me later. The women flitted about in pink and the men wore forest green with very white shoes. Dancers and prophets: a peculiar concoction. During their performance, I sat so close I could see the film of dust that had settled on their travelling parquet floor. I could hear the thrust of their leather shoes beating against it. It was beautiful, how they used their bodies, how they moved. How free they seemed.

The church promoted a loose posture, except when it came to prophecy. Mortal lips gained supernatural strength when speaking on the Lord’s behalf. Sparse collections of people zipped into huddles; limp arms and legs snapped to attention. The person being prophesied over became charged with static electricity. Hands couldn’t help but stick to a shoulder, a back, or if you were a woman, your head.

Once the dance performance ended, my mother ushered me past the group of praying, stiff people. My mother, young and petite, was an unlikely, but alert watchdog. My parents never felt the need to have prophets work their magic on their children or to place them in the center of the prophesying pod. “I’m claustrophobic,” my mother used to tell me every time we were in an elevator. Suspicious by nature, she didn’t like acquaintances coming too close. And yet, she sought out the Covenant Breath community because she discovered a tangibility to God’s presence that she couldn’t find at churches with pews, programs, and hymnals.

This church had a fascination with the transmission of energy and they believed in the power the chosen possessed to pass it to others. The laying on of hands. That’s what they called it. A sneaky transitive property lies dormant between two beings, and an electric shock will bolt between them when it awakes.

Their enthusiasm for the passing of energy extended from generation to generation as well. They liked their children hard-boiled, like little deviled eggs, insides scooped out, dressed up, and piped back in. The young are agents of conduction, a current running from past to future. Insurance that a way of life will not become extinct.

Then, one Sunday, finally! God answers the cries of the faithful. An amazing climax to the service!

A voice rings jubilant from the front: “Someone! Someone in this very congregation was chosen. There is a movement of God here in this place, and He’s shown himself to one of us. Someone has seen Jesus.”

The whispers scatter across the darkened sanctuary. Was it you? Was it you? Was it you? Was it you?

Carly comes forward. “It was me.”

“Oh, Lord,” the people cry. “What a gift. What a child.”

She offers proof that God is here in this room. He is here among His faithful.

The people rejoice.

After the service I hunt Carly down at back of the carpeted sanctuary. Beside us, chairs are being stacked, stories swapped.

“You saw Jesus?” I ask.

“Yes. I saw him.”


“Up there.” She points a nicely manicured finger to the right side of the stage in the front, right beside the hanging banners that name the names of God. Jehovah Jireh. Adonai. El-Shaddai.

“Was he standing or floating?”


“What did he look like?” I ask.

“He looked like Jesus.”


“Beard?” I ask.





I want to ask her how she saw him, but I don’t. I don’t want to hear that you must be chosen.

“Sex is bad,” she says. “It’s in the Bible.”


“I’m never having sex,” she tells me. “Not even when I’m married.”

The thought of seeing Jesus both terrifies and excites me. For weeks I inspect the front of the sanctuary every Sunday, fighting every urge to blink. I watch when the faithful bow their heads for prayer. I watch when the lights dim and the sermon closes. I patrol the perimeter right before the service starts, when I figure no one else will be looking. I never see him. I never see any miracles, either.

I do not doubt Jesus’ existence. At times, I don’t doubt that Carly saw him—or a version of him, at least. Did he look like a trailer park Jesus, solemn-faced and bearded, scabby-skinned and yellow-teethed? Did he look like one of us?

I believe that God does miracles. He can hear your thoughts, He can part the ocean, He can heal the sick. God, infinite and mysterious. But I do wonder—how does He decide to whom He should reveal Himself?

Each Sunday, this gut-punching jealousy hounds me. I do not speak in tongues, but I hear others do it every week. When a chosen one speaks in this secret language between God and man, the tongue splits into butterfly wings and rattles inside the mouth. Within church walls, it is the language of kings and to me it sounds like babble. I don’t know which is more shameful at Covenant Breath—never having spoken it or never having wanted to. Still, my jealousy bloats so much that I could pop it like a blister.

There is more, there is more, there is more, there is more.

No there isn’t, no there isn’t, no there isn’t, no there is—

Ecstasy. I saw it once. It came from the cigarettes my ballet teacher Audrey was smoking on the floor of the studio kitchen. I spied her from the crevice between the door and the wall minutes before ballet class was scheduled to begin. She laid prone, flat on her back, her head propped against the cupboard beneath the sink. The tile on the floor was gray, her spandex was gray, her hair was gray, her teeth were gray. Gray smoke lifted from gray ash. Just a small hint of orange burned at the end of the filter. That glow and its ignition transformed a tube of nicotine and paper into instant euphoria. How alchemic, this conversion. What thrill and fear I felt at seeing what was not to be seen. My eyes widened, hypnotized by the unbridled honesty of her emotion. Two fingers clenched that cigarette while the rest of her body lay limp. She brought it to her lips slowly, with all the focus and regard she’d give to a dance partner. I’d never before seen such a look of complete, obsessive satisfaction.

These kinds of honest, unkempt moments were rare at Covenant Breath. Once, during a Sunday morning service, I left the sanctuary during the worship portion to go to the bathroom. Hands clapped, the bass thumped, feet stomped. I was nine. On the way back in, I saw a boy, seventeen years old, standing at the back of the congregation, preparing to parade down the center aisle hoisting a fifteen-foot banner from a special belt around his hips. Purple and gold, soft to the touch. It read “His Banner Over Us Is Love.”

He preened the sides of the banner, the billows of his shirt, the wave of his hair. He turned his head and looked down at me. I looked up at him. This duty granted him a place of honor, and yet when our eyes met, he looked embarrassed. I held his stare until he turned his face away. His cheeks flushed, and there it was: honest, mortal emotion. A pulse, a blip. Human to human, an evanescent moment before the production began.

You lie, you lie, says the older self to the younger. You lie about so much.

I don’t lie, I don’t lie, I don’t lie about—

—Mr. Howard Lotte. A middle-aged fifth grade teacher who gives piano lessons in the brown basement of his white house. Who doesn’t love him? He likes to use the metronome to keep the time, his students have said. Or slap his knee. That’s where it begins, at least. His hand roams to the steady progression of a well-played sonata. His knee, your knee, his thigh, your thigh, your back, your shorts, your top. A song in 4/4 time. ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three, four. For him, the students wait in line.

To her parents, a young girl comes forward. “He put his hands on me,” she says. “To the beat of the metronome.” Then another comes forward, then another, then another. ONE, two, three, four. ONE, two, three, four.

Was it you? Was it you? Was it you? Was it you?

Carly comes forward. “It was me.”

“Oh, Lord,” the people cry. “What a shame, what a tragedy.”

Shock, disgust, and confusion ricochet through town. Investigation. Arrest. Trial. Conviction.

Was God there in that room? Was he there among His faithful?

“Hey,” someone says to me when all the commotion has muffled to living room whispers. “You took lessons from that guy, didn’t you? Did he ever put his hands on you?”

It is easy for me to say no. I am accustomed to being un-chosen.

Is that all? Is it really all? That can’t be all.

Please. No more talking, no more talking, no more talk—

A.J. Kandathil
grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania known for its empty steel mills, four-wheeler accidents, and $1 parking tickets. A graduate from Cornell University, she is currently a student in the master’s program for creative nonfiction at Hunter College where she’s at work on her first memoir. Her work can be seen in Issue 02 of Burner Magazine.

Subscribe or Buy

Like this story?

Support the artist!

Share This


Get 4 issues per year!

Starts with the current issue

ebook icon Print edition
Book icon Ebook - Choose format:

Buy Issue 1

Book icon Print Edition $6 + shipping
Add to Cart
Ebook iconEbook - Choose format:
Add to Cart
Add to Cart

View Cart

Questions? Contact Us!