In Their Own Words: An Uncertain Ritual

Witnesses write about the horror and the heroes of the TVUUC shooting—and what came after

On July 27, Knoxville joined a short roster of cities synonymous with sudden, inexplicable violence: Columbine, Blacksburg, Omaha. The shooting of congregants at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church went beyond a nightmarish crime; it's become another sign of the times, reported around the world as a new example of what America has become. But there were many stories that day, and they ought to be told by the people who were there. Here is one of them. Read more essays and Metro Pulse coverage.

An Uncertain Ritual

by Rob Spirko

I'm wandering the church,
gathering it back to myself.

Up at the memorial garden, I stop awhile
and take in the grass oval, the walk,
benches, carefully cultivated flowers
and shrubs. The smaller stone circle
off to the left.

I nearly trip over a stone.
Bending down, I pull a couple
of weeds, dig out some muck
and pea gravel, and tap the stone down.
Everyone today is looking for something
to do. Here's my big contribution.

There's a feather on the grass: long,
with brown and white bands. The quill end
translucent and scratched. I don't know
what bird dropped it here. I pick it up,
thinking my daughter would love it.
It seems significant, but what its meaning is,
I don't know. I hold it awhile, mind wandering
though meanings. I wish momentarily for
a headband, and armband, to stick it in.
Warpaint makes me think of a face covered
in blood. Enough of that idea.

It feels wrong, now, to hold the feather just
for myself. I walk to the center of the oval,
and lay the feather down. I pour out my water
at the five points of a star around it.
It seems right, in a vague way, and the questions come.
If Greg hadn't stood, would the spread of the shot
have taken me in? If the others hadn't run the man down,
what then? How much of him was crazy,
and how much was hate? Was it an accident,
or an incident? A crime scene, or a battlefield?
Was it the beginning of a war, or the end?

The "what ifs" have all faded; the "what nows" are left.
I stand. There are no thoughts now, only doings.
I turn the feather from left to right. Again, it seems
right, a ritual that came from nowhere
but must mean something. Time to head back
to the church. What path is this I walk
now, over the copper-stained stones,
a damselfly scudding ahead of me?
Is it the taste of blood in the mouth,
or can it be refined to a conductor,
something to carry electric charge?

At the bottom of the steps, a bumblebee
scurries around the disc of a passionflower.
The delicate hooks of his legs shiver
the purple and white fronds.
His back is a mass of pollen.