Of Prodigals and Pig Parlors
Mrs. Turpin and Mary Grace sat opposite one another there in the doctor’s office.
Grace wore her wounds upon her face while Mrs. Turpin’s demeanor announced the complacent wholeness of her entire being. As the wife of a well-to-do hog farmer, Mrs. Turpin did not normally keep company with the sick and infirm, but her husband had been poorly and so they had come. Respectable as always (and glad of it she was), she noted the rag-tag collection of humanity on the other side of the room. A scrap of boy (“white trash,” as Mrs. Turpin would say) squirmed in his seat. Small, feverish, and absolutely miserable, he sucked his dirty thumb and tried to sleep.
At least she was not like that—like him. Dirty. Unkempt. Illiterate and poor. For that she was grateful. Yes. God had been good. Why, she could almost cry for the gladness of it! God had been good! And if it seemed He had been less than good to others? Well, who was she to wonder why? Surely they deserved it. Just as she deserved it. (His goodness, I mean.) And my goodness! Wasn’t He good!
Now, I won’t mortify myself by attempting to catch at Flannery O’Connor’s incomparable style. Suffice it to say that the climax includes an exasperated Grace rising up to pitch her book (sadly, not a Bible) headlong into the smug face of Mrs. Turpin. Thus the freshly grieved matron returns home to attend her chores and her hogs and her pride. As she does, she falls to brooding upon the recent assault of Grace until finally, standing prodigal-like at the edge of her pig parlor, and having raised her complaint to Heaven, she noticed—
… a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives…and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and [her husband], had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone, were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.
She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile. At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”