Two for One

***Sebida Methodist church***

Will tried very hard not to laugh. He should have known Mercy would do something like this. It was as unconventional as everything else about his woman and this wedding. He supposed a double wedding had made sense. And goodness knows, Stacey Reynolds had organized, sewn, cooked, and bullied them all into submission.

Well, almost, they had agreed that each of them would get to select one song. The wedding march, the bride’s song, the groom’s, and the exit song. They had written those on slips of paper, put them into a hat, and drawn. It had all been secret. Until this moment. And there was no doubt in his mind that his woman was behind this unusual wedding march. But even Laura and Stacey seemed to appreciate Mercy’s sense of humor. The whole church was giggling behind their masks.

Bradley stood on the raised dais, Ryan was to the left, and he was to the right. Of course, the fact that his friend wore his two-month-old daughter in a sling across his chest broke a few traditions of its own. But when Stacey had come out of that Sunday school room with the baby and tried to pass her to Elena, Ryan was having none of it. He insisted that this was Chloe’s wedding too and she was going to be front and center.

“Today, we are all honored to come together to celebrate one of life’s greatest moments and give recognition to the worth and beauties of love, as we witness the joining together in the vows of marriage of Ryan and Laura, and Caleb and Mercy.”

Will fought the tightness in his throat and chest. Her blue jean skirt, t-shirt, and boots might not be the usual wedding dress, but they were uniquely Mercy. And that was all he ever wanted of her. He could not take his eyes off her.

He could just imagine how hard Stacey must have fought to braid those flowers in her hair. He had picked them himself. It was their gifts of love to the sisters. He and Ryan had gotten up before dawn and gone out looking for the wildflowers.

Not that either of them had slept worth a damn. Why Stacey had insisted that the ‘menfolk’ stay in town at the house Laura was renting apart from their women was beyond him. It was the first night they had slept apart since they were released from the hospital, and if he had anything to stay about it, it would be the last. Period.

“Who gives these women to be married to these men?”

Even Elena rolled her eyes at her husband’s question. Mercy humphed as Laura’s responded, “What misogynistic bullshit, Bradley. We are more than capable of giving our own damned selves.”

Will was confident that Sebida would be talking for weeks about this one. Even before Stacey stepped forward and added, “But ya’ll all have my blessing.”

Mercy and Laura kissed Stacey’s cheeks on either side before they came to stand beside him and Ryan. Their mother took her seat on the front row next to Reb.

Bradley turned towards Ryan and Laura, “The wedding ring is a symbol of unity, a circle unbroken, without beginning or end. And today, Laura and Ryan give and receive these rings as demonstrations of their vows to make their life one, to work at all times to create a love that is whole and unbroken, and to love each other without end. Ryan?”

His friend stood a bit straighter, his eyes on the woman before him. “Laura, I take you to be my lawfully wedded wife. Before these witnesses, I vow to love you and care for you as long as we both shall live. I take you, with all your faults and strengths, as I offer myself to you with all my faults and strengths. I will help you when you need help and will turn to you when I need help. I choose you as the person with whom I will spend my life.” Ryan slipped a thick gold band onto Laura’s finger with a smile.

Will turned to look at his woman. Mercy’s eyes were just as misty as her sister’s as Laura began to speak. “Ryan, I take you to be my lawfully wedded husband. Before these witnesses, I vow to love you and care for you as long as we both shall live. I take you, with all your faults and strengths, as I offer myself to you with all my faults and strengths. I will help you when you need help and will turn to you when I need help. I choose you as the person with whom I will spend my life.”

As she slipped the gold band on his finger, Chloe cooed loudly, and the whole church burst out in laughter as her parents placed kisses on either side of her cheeks. “Well, I guess none of us can argue with that, little one,” Brad laughed as music began to fill the church.

The couple stared at one another, smiling as the smooth country ballad filled the tiny church. “Lock me away inside of your love and throw away the key. I’m guilty of love in the first degree.”

Will could only hope that Ryan had also chosen something other than country music. It seemed that despite his vows, Mercy’s education in soul and R&B was not progressing well. He only hoped she would appreciate his choice when that time came.

As the song came to an end, Brad turned to them. “Caleb, do you take Mercedes to be your wife? Do you promise to love, honor, cherish and protect her, forsaking all others and holding only unto her?”

Will looked into her eyes. Yesterday had been a stark reminder that the world in which they lived was not anymore just or fair than the one in which his grandparents had. In some ways, the veneer of modernity that attempted to deny those realities made their battles more complicated than that time of open racism.

He had laid awake staring at the ceiling all night long. The bed in which he slept had belonged to a mixed-race local hero who had given his life in this country’s wars, whether he was justly defending freedoms that he never indeed had or protecting rich, white men’s oil was something that only history would decide. And perhaps even that was tainted and stilted.

He had played out that scenario over and over again. It had ended well. This time. But what if it had not. What if his woman had watched as he was murdered, either with a quick bullet or some white cop pressing his knee into his throat until he could no longer breathe? Could he ask that of her?

And what of the little girl that grew in her womb? The child had not only the blood of strong Reynolds women in her veins, but those of a fourteen-year-old child forced to submit her body to a forty-year-old white man that owned her. That spread her legs to that man her whole life. That bore him children he never fully recognized. That was the legacy of this country and its sad state of affairs.

But as he stared at the photos and trophies around that room of a young man he had never known. A man who would never have this opportunity, he had realized he did not have a choice. From the moment he first saw her standing on the steps of that library, watched as she pulled that gun, and shot her oppressor, he had no choice. It was Fate. Destiny. His grandmother’s meddling from heaven. Whatever the fuck. It simply was.

He squeezed her hands and, in a loud, clear voice, committed whatever future he did have to her Mercy. “I do.” He meant each of those promises, and he would lay down his life to protect her and their children. Whatever their future and the future of this country, they would face it together.

Her eyes were sparkling with tears, but her smile was broad as Brad spoke, “Mercy, do you take Caleb to be your Husband? Do you promise to love….”

“I do,” she practically shouted.

Everyone laughed again. Yeah, this wedding would give this tiny town something to talk about for years to come. “Don’t you want me to….”

Mercy turned to look at her brother-in-law with that determined stare, “As long as the word obey ain’t there, I’m good. I do. Except for obey. I ain’t never been good at that.”

Bradley nodded, “Alright then.” He cleared his throat or perhaps stifled a laugh before continuing. “The wedding ring is a symbol of unity, a circle unbroken, without beginning or end. And today, Caleb and Mercy give and receive these rings as demonstrations of their vows to make their life one, to work at all times to create a love that is whole and unbroken, and to love each other without end. Will, I think you had something you wanted to add?”

Tears blurred his vision until he could almost see their figures standing in the light that streamed through those stained glass windows. The young black preacher in his starched white shirt, dark suit, and tie with his arm wrapped about the waist of the woman in her pale pink Sunday best suit and hat. They smiled at him. At them. And for that moment, he had faith, their faith, that ‘one day’ would come.

His fingers were trembling, and his voice cracked as he opened the palm of his hand to the thin and worn silver band. “My grandfather Walt placed this finger on the finger of my grandmother over six decades ago. My grandmother wore this ring while white police officer turned fire hoses on them in Birmingham.”

“She wore it as they stood hand in hand on the steps of that monument and declared their dreams alongside Dr. King. It has been covered in the dirt of her vegetable garden too many times to count. She refused to take it off even when her fingers swelled during her pregnancies. And it was washed in my grandfather’s blood the day he was gunned down in his church by a white supremacist.”

His own tears anointed it as Mercy reached out and squeezed his finger around it. He lifted their joined hands and kissed the spot where he would soon place that unbroken circle. “That day, less than two weeks before I met you, she took this finger off for the first time in all those years. She placed it in my hand and told me that I would know. She was right. The moment I saw you, I knew this ring belonged on this finger.”

He slipped the band into place, “This ring I give as a sign of our constant faith and abiding love.”

She was smiling and crying as she pulled her hands from him. Will almost panicked at the hole he felt in his soul. Then he noticed that she fumbled with something in her hair. He frowned until Mercy held out a small gold hoop earring.

“Ain’t no way I can top that one, city boy. But I pledge to wear this ring with the same honor, dignity, and integrity that Etta Mae Williams did.” She laughed and turned towards the rows of masked clad faces, “Ya’ll know better than to expect ‘normal’ from me by now.”

She reached over and tenderly removed the gold stud he usually wore in his ear, replacing it with the hoop. “That is the first thing I bought myself when I got my babysitting job. It was a symbol to me of my freedom. Of making my own way in this world. So, I think it only appropriate that we each wear one of them as true partners in this life. Just as we will face whatever life throws at us. The good and the bad. I love you, Caleb Jefferson King Williams.”

They leaned into one another, their foreheads touching, their hands entwined as the smooth, sultry voice reverberated off the walls and filled his heart with love, hope, and faith. “When a man loves a woman can’t keep his mind on nothin’ else. He’d trade the world for the good thing he’s found….”

He wrapped her in his arms and though he knew it unusual began to sway to the sweet sounds thinking of all the times that he had watched from the kitchen as Walt came in and pulled his grandmother into his arms, singing those words acapella almost as sweetly as Smoky. “He’ll even sleep on straw in a barn if she said that’s the way it ought to be….”

His Mercy laughed and kissed his cheek at his not-quite-as-perfect as Grandpa Walt’s rendition. “I don’t remember there being much sleeping going on in that barn, city boy.”

Bradley was smiling as the song came to an end, but so was that couple in the light of stained glass. Will would have almost sworn it was Walt’s voice that gave the final benediction.

“Just as very different threads woven in opposite directions can form a beautiful tapestry, so can your lives merge together to form a beautiful marriage. To make your marriages work will take love. Love should be the core of your marriage; love is the reason you are here.”

“But it also will take trust- to know in your hearts you want the best for each other. It will take dedication- to stay open to one another, to learn and grow together even when this is not always so easy to do. It will take faith to be willing to go forward to tomorrow, never really knowing what tomorrow will bring. In addition, it will take commitment to hold true to the journey you now pledge to share together.”

“It is my privilege and honor to now pronounce you, Ryan and Laura, and you, Will and Mercy, husbands and wives. Partners in this life and whatever is beyond. You may now kiss….”

“Your grooms,” Mercy stared the young preacher down even as she wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him in for a kiss that curled his toes. He got lost in her. In their tomorrows. In the visions of the better, more just, fair, and genuinely liberated world that they would leave as an inheritance to their children, grandchildren, and beyond. It was mere snippets, vague feelings, but it was enough to sustain him. At least until he got his woman alone.

Will was vaguely aware of Ryan and Laura lifting their heads as Brad continued. “Long before you found each other in this lifetime, your souls burned brightly as one in the heavens. In this lifetime, you have grown into bright beacons of light that have gained strength and wisdom through your many travels and experiences.”

“Nevertheless, as it was written in the stars, these beacons called out to each other in the darkness. As destiny designed, their response was love. Together you stand before us prepared to reunite your soul’s incandescence by rejoining your individual beacons of light back to their original glorious flame: a flame of such magnitude that not even death will extinguish it.”

“We celebrate this joyous occasion with you, and in so celebrating, we light this candle in memory of all those who have gone before us or are unable to be with us today in recognition of the power that is love.” Brad took a candle that was lying on the altar and lit it from the candelabra behind him.

Each of them lifted candles from the altar as well. “Ryan and Laura, Will and Mercy, these candles symbolize your lives and your love. But also your hope, faith, and commitment to one another and your families and friends present here today.”

Brad faced the audience, “Beneath your seats, each of you will find candles. Please take them out now. Ryan and Laura, if you will light the candle of the person at the end of each row on the left. And Will and Mercy, if you will do the same on the right. Then I ask that each of you here who witnessed these vows of love and hope pass those flames to those next to you. Until those flames of love, hope, and faith cast out the darkness of the world in which we live.”

Music once more began to fill that little church. Will sighed; score one for Ryan. At least, it wasn’t country. “Oh, you can’t tell me it’s not worth tryin’ for. I can’t help it; there’s nothin’ I want more. Yeah, I would fight for you. I’d lie for you. Walk the wire for you. Yeah, I’d die for you….”

Will laughed when Laura gripped Ryan’s suit tightly and pulled him in for another kiss. “No fuckin’ dying. Not necessary, counselor.”  

Ryan wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her closer as they began to walk back down the aisle. This time as husbands and wives. “I wasn’t planning on it, counselor. But you know I would.”

Will had to look away when she whispered, “You’ve proven that already.”

He was so caught up in this moment and Mercy that the candles seemed a bit silly. He just wanted to get through the next couple of hours, eat enough food to sustain him, and hop on the Duchess with his wife and woman. But Mercy seemed to be into it as she bent and lit Jack’s candle. Will wouldn’t say he was happy about that since Jack was the man who had stolen her first kiss, but from how the man had his arm wrapped about the blond next to him, they were good.

When he leaned down to light the candle of the next man, he was swamped with the pain of loneliness and a lifetime of remorse. He did not recognize the man though he sat next to the woman he knew was Mercy’s best friend. But she looked just as lost. Their emotions were so out of place this day that, for a heartbeat, they overwhelmed him. It was only his wife’s hand that steadied his as they moved on.

Sometimes he hated these ‘gifts,’ especially when all he wanted to do was be with her. “Do we have to do this whole reception thing?” Will knew he was whining but damn….

“Yes, you’re gonna need your strength for what your country girl has planned, city boy,” she winked as they stepped out of the church behind Ryan and Laura. His brother-in-law looked just as disinterested in the whole thing as he was. But Stacey was already lining every one up for pictures.

“Okay, all the single girls get over here. We got two bouquets, so double your chances today, ladies.”

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