Hunger Unto Him by Joel Tagert | Art by Caitlyn Grabenstein

The dead, living by Caitlyn Grabenstein aka Cult Class

Hunger Unto Him
By Joel Tagert
Art by Caitlyn Grabenstein aka Cult Class
Published Issue 118, October 2023

I don’t get where we’re going.

We’re going to Wheeless to see John Hood. 

You said that. I just don’t get it. 

What don’t you get?

We got twelve dollars between the four of us and a Buick that might or might not make it another hundred miles. But instead of going west like everyone else we’re going north to Wheeless to see some crazy preacher.

Seems like you get it just fine. 

Damn it, Dustin, when you’re down to your last dime you spend it on food. You don’t throw it away hoping for a miracle. 

You’re wrong. When you’re down to your last dime, hoping for a miracle’s the best you got. 

They said that in Amarillo John Hood had cured a girl of polio, so she bounced out of her wheelchair and danced. They said in Clayton he’d cast the Devil out of a carnie geek who ate live chickens and rolled in shit, and after the man had been baptized he’d said the Lord’s Prayer as the congregation wept. But the miracle that really got their attention was the miracle of the loaves and fishes, though being America it wasn’t fish but honest to God bacon, and they said eight hundred worshipers ate that day in Boise City. People were hungry, and if you could get physical sustenance along with the spiritual, then praise the Lord.

This really is a circus, Andrew said when they finally stopped in a field alongside hundreds of other jalopies and loaded trucks. Several huge tents had been erected alongside an old barn and shed and they could hear singing. Think they got elephants in there? 

I hope so. Never ate an elephant steak but I imagine they’re big as plates. Nancy, you and Gillian mind waiting with the car while we check things out?

I guess so. But do me a favor and find out where the outhouses are first.

With this many people I think you mean a latrine, but I’ll find out.

Hood was tall, white-haired as though struck by lightning or the vision of the Almighty, hollow-cheeked with eyes of blazing blue. He wore a loose black suit and though he did not stride or strut — someone mentioned he had lost a leg in the war and so one was wooden — he often stretched and waved his arms at full extension as though doing a breaststroke or hanging upon the Cross.

That Cross stood behind him, tall and irregular. Slowly it dawned on Andrew that it was covered in feathers, black and white. Look at the Cross, he whispered, nudging his brother where they stood near the back of the tent. You ever see anything like that? But Hood was preaching and soon enough he shut up to listen.

The Good Book says, blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Hunger and you shall be filled! But don’t think it’s like little children lining up at the banquet table for cake and pudding, when they’re already full of cheesy potatoes and chicken. You have got to be hungry first. You have got to experience the fullness of hunger, you have to be completely empty before you receive the food of the Spirit. Our Lord is the Lord of fullness, of satiation, but He is also the Lord of hunger, the Lord of emptiness, the Lord of the void, and because of this His power knows no limit or boundary. If you would know Him, hunger unto Him!

Hunger unto Him, the congregation repeated. 

You have got to embrace your hunger. You have to want the Lord’s presence, you have to be desperate to be filled. You have to be willing to do anything, you understand? That’s the real power of the Spirit, when you see that the thing you thought was impossible, the thing that you never thought you could do, is right there in your reach. Most people think religion is all about prohibitions, just a long list of don’ts, but I’m here to talk about freedom in the Lord’s grace. You know who’s willing to do anything? Someone who’s starving, that’s who! The famished, the ravenous, the one whose belly’s flat and pockets empty. That’s a free man! That’s a soul with no limitation! Hunger unto Him!

Hunger unto Him, the congregation said.

How long we got to roast in here before they feed us? Andrew muttered.

Sundown, I reckon, Dustin said.

Hot as blazes. Don’t know how much more I can take.

Stick it out.

What about Nancy and Gillian? Think they’ll feed them if they’re outside? 

Expect not. We should probably get em in here before then.

The congregation broke out in song:

Time to reap the harvest

Time to shuck the corn 

Time to skin the bodies

Time to whet the horn

Where you headed, brother?

Just outside for a minute.

The worship’s inside. Ain’t you hungry for the Lord?

Sure I am. But my wife and my brother’s wife are waiting by the car. We want to tell em to come inside. 

All right. But get em in soon, you hear? In about an hour we’re gonna close the tent. You leave after that, you can’t come back. You’re either saved or you’re damned. 

Don’t worry, we’re as hungry as the next.

When Andrew stepped outside he squinted with some surprise at the birds flocking around the revival grounds. Mostly crows but some vultures too, circling high up. He realized he’d been hearing their raucous cries below the murmurs and hallelujahs of the congregation in the worship tent. He thought of the feathered Cross and frowned.

There was already a red rim forming on the horizon, like the lid of an irritated eye, evidence of the dust that hung ever present these latter days, the visible reminder of their sins. He supposed they should be grateful for the lack of wind — out here you wouldn’t want to get caught in a storm — but that left the sun to bake them like potatoes. 

One of the tents near the barn was clearly part of the camp kitchen, but you couldn’t see inside, and some large brothers stood stationed around it. To prevent any sinners from stealing, he guessed. You wanted to eat, you had to pay the price. 

Nancy and Gillian were sitting in the lee of the car fanning themselves. Come on, he said. You got to be on the inside to eat. 

Is it hot in there?

Hot as hell, yeah. But we only got a while til sundown and it’ll cool off. Bring what water we got. 

Everybody wants a free ride these days, Hood said. Everybody wants something for nothing. But that’s never been how it works, not since ancient days. God told Abraham, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham did it, just what he was told, so great was his faith. He gave the thing he loved the most, out of faith, and God stayed his hand and made Abraham the most blessed patriarch in all history. And Isaac went willingly to the altar, like Jesus to the Cross.

Now God is looking for a few more Isaacs. Do you hear him calling? He’s asking you to sacrifice, he’s asking you to give yourselves to this path. Because it requires sacrifice. There’s no getting around it. You want something for your family, you want to be filled with the ambrosia of righteousness, you have got to give it your all. Who’s ready? Who’s ready to be filled?

I am, cried one old woman. I’m ready. 

I’m ready.

Me too, Lord, I’m ready.

And these several, these five, Hood took by the hand, limping, and led onstage. These are our Isaacs! We bless them, Lord! We anoint them with oil! Which he did, smearing it on their foreheads. Don’t be afraid! These few, these shall live forever in the resurrection! And they were led away, out of the tent, as the congregation sang:

The crows cry accusations 

The sunshine weeps for blood 

The fields are thirsty cauldrons

The locusts come to bud

Where they going? Gillian whispered.

I don’t know, Andrew whispered back.

You got to offer a sacrifice! You have to give what is most precious.

 Hours passed and the sun shone its last, but somehow the tent was hot as ever, a testament to the bodies packed inside the canvas walls. Hood’s words batted at them like wings. He began to call for the Holy Spirit to lead them, to take control of his tongue, to shake him like a leaf. Having been standing without relent all evening, Andrew, Gillian and Nancy all stood with heads hung, sweat soaking their clothes. Only Dustin looked up, staring with an expression of unrelenting perplexity at Hood. Other voices were raised now, but not in any tongue someone could understand. An inchoate shouting from before the raising of Babel: Ga na hai ba graaas tillok nu! Ha na gai ba so killon tu! A young woman fainted and began muttering and spitting along with the shouter. Hood stretched out his hand and slapped a thickset man on the forehead who fell back poleaxed.

These people are crazy, Andrew said. Dustin looked back at him angrily and Andrew was shocked. 

What’s being sane ever done for us? Hallelujah! Hunger unto Him!

The whole tent seemed to be shouting now, sweat and spittle flying, folks rolling on the ground, straw in their clothes and hair. A man came on stage at Hood’s invitation and brought a rattlesnake out of a bag and started tossing it from hand to hand. The crowd chanted, Hunger unto Him, again and again, until the words began to lose cohesion, throbbing in their bellies and the veins of their foreheads. 

I can’t take this. Andrew grabbed Gillian’s hand and pressed to the door. The crowd shouted, Where you going? Don’t let the sin get you, brother. Just need some air, he said. Some in the crowd were still singing loudly, and with a sudden surge their voices came together:

Hunger unto Him!

Hunger unto Him!

Somewhere — he thought from the barn — someone rang a loud bell, and with that the congregation suddenly fell silent. In that silence Andrew became aware of an aroma that should have been tantalizing but actually made him feel sick to his stomach: roast pork. 

We are filled! cried Hood, and the tent flaps drew back.

Servers stood there, men and women bearing platters of sliced pork and heaps of corn pones, which they served on corn husks, and suddenly the hall was full of laughter and joy as each took what they pleased from the bounty. Other flaps were pulled back so the tent was suddenly open to the night, the cool air refreshing all inside. But Andrew just brushed past the servers toward the exit.

Where we going? asked Gillian. What about the food? 

I don’t want it. 

Then they were outside, and he was breathing heavily, trying to clear his head. We stood all that time and you don’t want to eat? 

Maybe later. I just need a breath of air. 

I don’t see what your problem is. When was the last time we ate a decent meal? A week? Let me go! 

You go on then. I’ll be all right. 

Gillian looked at him with anger on her face. Always had been a pretty girl. But she was too thin now. She hadn’t always been like that. You go on, he said again. I just need to walk a bit.

You sure?

Sure I’m sure.

All right. I really am hungry. 

I know.

The crows had not vanished, he saw, but had congregated on the roof of the barn. Curious, he slipped into the rows of corn when he thought no one was looking. Seemed like everyone was inside the tent now anyway, filling their faces. He made his way in the dark, stepping quietly as he could under the waning quarter moon, footsteps mingling with the rustling of the corn in the new breeze.

The planks of the barn were rough and worn and had many knotholes. To one of these he pressed his eye. 

There was a lamp inside that let him see. It took him a moment to comprehend and then he jerked back — and jerked back again, seeing a tall figure now standing behind him.

Curiosity was Eve’s sin too, Hood said. The original sin.

You’re the Devil. You’re Satan.

The Devil’s just God’s hunger. Don’t you know that? One and the same. Lord of the Void. Now listen: Don’t think these were victims. They offered themselves up. They’re holy saints now. 

You’re a butcher.

Hood chuckled. I actually was a butcher. Don’t know if you know that about me. But it’s an honorable profession.

Andrew ran. He didn’t get far though. Casually Hood threw the cleaver he’d been holding down low, threw it with unerring accuracy into the young man’s skull, where it did the work it was named for. 

Sometimes the sacrifice is unwilling, Hood said sadly, limping to stand over his fallen parishioner. But it’s still a sacrifice. 

Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast and INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.

Caitlyn Grabenstein, a.k.a. Cult Class, is a collage artist, sketch artist, and designer out of Connecticut. She started doing art at a very young age and has pursued it in different forms throughout her life. While working in the music industry and running her own charitable business, BANDADE, she began creating websites, ultimately hosting more than 50 charitable shows with over 60 different artists including Imagine Dragons, Jason Isbell, Maren Morris, Ingrid Michaelson, the Goo Goo Dolls, Alabama Shakes, Florence Welch and more. During this time, Caitlyn started collaging out of necessity to create concert posters. She fell in love with the process and began collaging regularly. Caitlyn now runs her own design business, CLG Design Co.. Her work can be found in buildings around Philadelphia. Caitlyn’s pieces have been commissioned by individuals, musicians, businesses, and real estate companies from Chile to Germany to Los Angeles. Check out more of her art on Instagram.

Check out Joel’s September Birdy install, With Every Heart And Spirit True, and Caitlyn’s, Adjusting The Moon, the companion art to Maggie Nerz Iribarne’s, More To The Story, in case you missed it or head to our Explore section to see more from these talented creatives.