#FridayFlash: Sister Ophelia

Sister Ophelia

by Tony Noland

Lots of folks say it started when Ophelia got bit by that rattlesnake, but that ain't the truth. That's just what brought it to a head. See, for months before that, Ophelia was...


Look, sonny, you can call her Sister Ophelia, Mother Ophelia... hell, call her Saint Ophelia if you want. Her name was Ophelia Sawyer when I brung her out here to be my wife. She weren't no saint back then, that's for damned sure. As far as that goes, she weren't neither as pretty or as sweet natured as her advertisement claimed. She was just plain Ophelia and that's all there is to it. If a man can't call his wife by her name, then this world is in more trouble than all the sermons in anybody's church can fix. And she still is my wife. You can look that up at the courthouse.

Naw, I ain't mad. I forgave her for that advertisement a long time ago. After a while, she got to be tolerable company.

Oh, you mean about the preaching? Well... let me put it this way. If she'd got a bee in her bonnet to go off and be a lumberjack up in Wisconsin, I'da told her she was crazy and put a stop to it. But all she did was have folks over for supper. Hell, that was fine with me. I'd as soon have folks over as not.

Don't be a fool, of course nobody called 'em that. It weren't no "revival" and it weren't no... no.... whatever they call that thing where preachers get together. Conclave, that's it. It weren't no conclave. This was just Sunday afternoons and folks coming over to visit and such. At first, we all talked about everything under the sun - crops, horses, politics, grain prices, the land office, all kinds of things.

Nope, it was the usual kind of thing. Before the meal, the women would be visitin' in the kitchen, the men would be out by the well and the kids would be tearin' all over. Then we'd all set down to eat together and talk over different things. After dinner, the women would wash up and the men would go on back outside for a pipe and maybe a pull or two on the jug. In cold weather the men went out to the barn. That was all how it was at first, just the same kind of thing you'd have at any neighborly get-together. We had lots of folks over, sometimes two or even three families at a time. Somehow, it kinda switched around as time went on, though. More of the men started staying in with the women, just to hear Ophelia rattle on about this and that. She was a great talker, Ophelia was.

Well, sure it bugged me some. I ain't stupid, sonny. I figured out pretty quick that folks wasn't coming over for dinner so they could shoot the breeze with me and the jug. But... well, look, are you married?

No, I didn't think so. You don't look it. It's like this. When a man's got a beautiful wife, maybe he gets jealous of the looks she gets, but he also is kinda proud, see? Because he can say, "That's mine." It was sorta like that. People came to talk to Ophelia, or more likely, to hear Ophelia talk. And I was there over in the corner kinda mad and yet kinda proud of her. She was my wife, k'now. Is my wife still.

Hmm, let's see... it was maybe five, six months after Pastor Jeremiah Wilcox took over at the church. No, it was more like eight months. That's right, because he came just after Easter of 1873 and it was after the Christmas services that same year that Ophelia started in with her bible talk.

Well, at first it was just talk about that morning's sermon and the bible lesson for the day. Then it was a sort of running disagreement with Pastor Wilcox. Ophelia would say something like, "Well, I believe I once read a different interpretation of that verse.", and she'd be off to the races. She never read any such thing, it was all her own invention. After a while she didn't even pretend. He preached his version in the morning and she spun out her version in the afternoon. They locked horns over it once or twice.

No, she didn't like him. She thought he was a stuck-up blockhead. Not far off the mark, to be honest. Pastor Wilcox had a way of rubbing people the wrong way. He'd pat people on the shoulder, like he was your pa.

Well, no. I didn't much like him either. Still, it wasn't until Ophelia found that sleeping rattler behind the barn that things really came to a head. She went off into a fever something fierce, like you never seen. Her face was all red and blotchy, eyes yellow as cornsilk. She was raving for three days. Worst three days of my life, I'll tell you that much.

I don't give a good goddamn what she calls it. It weren't no "visitation by angels". She got bit by a rattlesnake and the poison sent her into a terrible fever. Believe me, boy, I was there. I cleaned up her sickbed and washed her linens for three days running, so don't tell me it was some angelic host come a'callin' out at our farm.

I'll calm down when you stop trying to tell me what happened! She weren't no Sister Ophelia back then, she was just Ophelia! She was a long-winded, opinionated woman with a tongue that was silver on one side and sharp on the other. After she recovered from the fever, she was weak, real weak. Womenfolk in town all clustered round, came out to stay and help out. She talked to 'em about God and the angels and what she said she'd seen.

Of course I didn't contradict her! She damn near died! I figured if she wanted to spin out a yarn to make herself feel better, why not? The golden visions she talked about were a hell of a lot nicer than the piss, shit and vomit I'd been dealing with. You ever smell somebody in the third day of a bad fever? Well, her talk of cinnamon-scented angles with long red hair beat reality by a long shot, sonny. I was tired and I didn't figure it would do no harm. How was I supposed to know?

Why, I'm talking about how people stopped listenin' to Pastor Wilcox, stopped goin' to church altogether. They all came out to our place and just sat around listening to her. How all them folks started coming in on the trains to listen to Ophelia.

Fine. To listen to Sister Ophelia. She's still my wife, y'know.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. yes, that's how the holy men's visions probably did happen out there in the deserts, the heat, the thirst & the hallucinations, not to say the scorpions, snakes etc

    marc nash

  2. You did an excellent job with his voice Tony. You can hear the petulant annoyance slowly building over time and he clearly doesn't know how to deal with it. Especially since he is not only nursed her through everything, but then found himself wholly irrelevant after. ll how irrated and jealous he is, even though he never comes out and says it directly.

    Well done!

    (It also wouldn't surprise me if something happens to poor Sister Ophelia after one too many nips fromt he bottle with the Jealousy Hobgoblin...)

  3. I thought the voice was great also. Also, very believable version of a miraculous vision. Nice one.

  4. Great voice, and love the whole Pastor stuff (being married to one myself). Very different for you, a nice path. peace...

  5. The voice is wonderful! Love the voice, and I like how he is talking to someone. I like all the little jealousies that is so clear in the voice, but that he not really admitting to.

  6. Reminds me a lot of the kicker story from Coen's Gates of Eden. Always enjoy the notion of a first person story directly addressing the listener, even if I do break the narrative flow by mentally role playing back at you.

  7. Well that was some kind of awesome, Tony. Everyone's talking about "the voice" and it came through loud and clear and yet kind of raspy and southern and sweet, all at the same time.

  8. Alright, I guess it's my turn as number 8 in line to tell you that you pulled an incredible voice out of somewhere and really made it stick.

    Over the past couple months that I've been following you, I've become more and more impressed with the flexibility in which you write. Well done.

  9. The dialect added alot to the piece. Gave it a space to flourish and come to life. Rattlesnake bites + angels = people dancing with snakes. Great stuff. Loved the comment that the guy didn't look like he was married. I've heard old timers say that.

  10. What's one more comment on the same theme! This story is very firmly set in the time/place you intended. It is your use of key words and phrases which anchor it so well.
    Good job and great story.

  11. I loved his voice, I felt I was sitting opposite him and listening to his answers. You painted a very vivid picture with your words. Great story!


  12. I'm hearing a more western voice (which to me kind of fit with the implication of "mail order bride"), but whatever the dialect, you did an AWESOME job with this. I could see him there, probably a real simple sort, maybe not shaven and a little bewildered by all the hoopla. Cool, Tony.

  13. I loved it, the voice and the story told from a personal point of view of an interviewee. The way he punctuates his narrative with "She's still my wife" told a story all of its own.

    This is a wonderful story, with depth and insight into the human condition full of petty jealousy, love and loss.

  14. Great job indeed, Tony. The origin of a prophetess, from the PoV of her husband, well-told by a sympathetic (if somewhat peeved) character.

  15. Very well done Tony! You got the characters spot on.

  16. n.b. I started this comment with a discussion about writing, specifically writing a) in dialect, and b) in the first person POV. The comment got long, though, so I saved it for a blog post. Look for that on Monday.

    marc: The real question is, does the fact that her visions were all in her head invalidate their meaning and significance for her followers?

    D. Paul: Thanks! A lot of people are picking up on the voice and the jealousy. I'm glad it worked so well for you all.

    ganymeder: Thanks, Catherine!

    Linda: It's always seemed to me that the pastor's spouse has to play second fiddle in many significant ways. This is taken to a far, far extreme. I'm glad you liked it!

    storytreasury: Another vote for the voice and the jealousy! Dialect and subtext for the win! (D&SFTW!)

    John Wiswell: I've not read Gates of Eden, but will have to put it on the list. Come back Monday, when I'll talk about the first person POV stuff in more deatil.

    Cathy: D&SFTW!

    Michael: D&SFTW! I've become more and more impressed with the flexibility in which you write. Well done. Why, thank you!

    laradunning: D&SFTW! I've also heard the old guys say that stuff about looking like you're married. Of course, I AM one of those old guys, so...

    flyingscribbler: D&SFTW!

    Helen: It's not everyone has to live with the fact that his wife has gone off to be a prophet. 8-)

    Janet: D&SFTW! In one draft, I specified that this was set in the Kansas territory. I heard western, rather than southern. Since Cathy is up in Canada, I figured she must think that all Americans sound alike. Right, Cathy? 8-)

    Vamp: Thank you! I'm glad you stopped by to read it and I'm glad you liked it!

    FARfetched: Thanks! The narrator is in a tough spot. It was tricky to make him sympathetic and not petty.

    Craig: Thank you!

  17. This is a great conversational piece. You could tell nearly straight away he was from the south. Do you still say red-necks??

  18. I don't normally enjoy writing with a lot of dialect but I did enjoy reading this! It certainly flowed beautifully and spun a lovely yarn.
    It made me puzzle over why it worked. To be honest, I felt it was very strong in voice and while dialect was obviously used I wouldn't have called this piece 'heavy in dialect'. My first thoughts, when you mentioned dialect in your tweet, were of heavily accented dialogue. I think accent and phonetic spellings are the main issues behind my aversion to writing/reading dialect. I think accent is impossible to get right for every reader. We all hear things so differently based on our own backgrounds. We also carry with us preconceived notions about how we think certain individuals will sound. I think that when a writer tries to write as they hear something, the result is either to jar the reader or to leave them staring at a bunch of oddly spelled gibberish.
    However, you didn't do that here and instead made more use of the vocab and grammatical aspects of dialect. I think that's why this piece worked so well. You didn't rely on a lot of heavily accented dialogue or misspelled words. (I think a lot of writers fall into that trap.)
    The voice comes out very strong and believable and although it's strong, it's also somehow subtle. I like the way you used expressions and still set the scene (reference to the well, barn, a pull or two on the jug).
    There are however a few instances where you used pronunciation - kinda, sorta, visitin' etc - but these were still standard enough to be recognizable. (I think the problem comes in when writers start changing the actual root of words to reflect how they think they sound.) I also noticed that there were times when you didn't use it - you stuck to raving and sleeping for example. I wondered why you didn't change all the 'ing' words but if you had I probably would have thought it overdone!
    I think it's very tricky to hit the right balance so that you don't distract the reader and make them more aware of how something is said rather than what is being said. Making sure it's subtle enough to make your point but not pull them out of the story.
    Anyways, your question earlier was whether using dialect is risky. You betcha! Did you pull it off? Yup!
    Although I'm still not a great fan of dialect (I think scene and setting can go a long way to make a reader hear the voice we want them to hear - just based on the notions they already carry - without using a lot of dialect- and I realize I am blurring accent/vocab/grammar here) I do however see that it has merit when used moderately. I think it's a matter of personal preference.
    At any rate, great flash Tony! And thanks for the food for thought! It's an interesting issue.

  19. Just read through the other comments, much to chew on!

    Will leave the post-it marked 'Tony' stuck to the monitor to remind me to come back Monday! Curious re: 1st person POV.


  20. Awesome job on the voice of the character in this, Tony.

  21. I enjoyed the story, but I was even more impressed by your use of first person. I've started a few flash pieces in first person but can't seem to work them all the way through. I may have to try it again after reading this. :)

  22. I'm always a sucker for historical (as you know) and this felt very authentic. Plus you captured voice beautifully, as ever.

  23. I love the voice in this. It's "real." And I'm a fan of the first person PoV, so I'm interested in what you have to say on it. I like it because it seems like I'm able to get inside a character's head more that way. But, of course, it has it's limitations and it doesn't work with every story, but so perfect for a flash like this one. Bravo!

  24. Loved the sour grapes conversational tone!

  25. henriettamaddox: I'm glad you liked it! As it happens, being related to quite a few people who would take umbrage at the term "redneck", I tend not to use that descriptor. (As a point of clarification, for a redneck, "take umbrage" involves blunt force trauma.)

    Susan: Ah, Susan. Your comments are the sort of thing I live for. You make so many terrific, cogent observations that I will reserve my full response for Monday's blog post on writing in dialect and first person POV.

    daniellelapaglia: Thanks, Danni!

    Chuck Allen: I enjoyed the story, but I was even more impressed by your use of first person. It's a tricky POV to use. Much like dialect, if it's done well, it is fantastic, but if done poorly, it will make on OK story horrible. It's one of the things I'll be discussing on Monday.

    Icy: Woot! I know how much you like the old West, so I'm glad the voice worked for you. 8-)

    Maria: Thank you! Getting inside a character's head with first person is a powerful aspect of that POV. I wrote something in second person POV once, and I don't think it went at all well. The challenge of it is worth some attention.

    foregoreality: Sour grapes ... perfect description!

  26. Great story, Tony. Love the narrator's voice.

  27. I could both hear and see the narrator in this - so score yet another one for the voice.

    I could also hear the interjections and questions of "sonny' echoed in the narrator's responses so there's great scene-setting here.

    The details made it great - "...for a pipe or a pull or two on the jug". You get across a whole setting with just a few words.

    Great story, Tony.

  28. The voice is fantastic, Tony. Love the monologue style and the little interruptions by the audience.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  29. Hooey! That there is a man with one helluva storm brewin' inside him. But that's the way it goes, you know? The person you marry may not be the same one you're living with some years down the road. Times change and so do people.

    I agree with you on the First Person, POV. It can be a tough nut, especially if you don't find the right voice. I think you've found a good voice for this one. The country twang gives it a nice touch.

    Good work.

  30. Derek: Thank you!

    KjM: I find that the word choices and the little touches of detail carry a voice/dialect more seamlessly than odd spellings or p'ctuations. Glad you liked it!

    afullnessinbrevity: Thanks, Adam!

    Stephen: Thanks! The person you marry may not be the same one you're living with some years down the road. This is so very true. Even in a regular marriage, each partner has ups and downs. They can be weathered, but only if both partners are committed to staying together. As I noted above, come back Monday for more on first-person POV.


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