Chapter 6

We don’t have far to go: through the churchyard, past the parked cars to where the creek has risen near the old railroad ties, gravel filled in between the ties to level the ground there.

Preacher Clyde goes ahead to the edge of the water, stops with his back to us, and raises his arms to the heavens, where dark clouds still threaten from the sky.  “Oh Lord Jesus!” he cries out.  “We are sorely tried with the loss of our brother, Joe Ray Franklin, his mortal remains lost somewheres in these waters, but we’re knowing his soul is with you, Lord Jesus, that you have brung him home. The flesh is just a shell for earthly living and Joe Ray has done with it and now he lies at peace in your loving arms.” 

Cries of “amen” and “hallelujah” come from the folks behind us.  Beside me, Luther moans.  I place my hand in the crook of his arm, feeling it shudder, seeing his handcuffed wrists through my tears.  I feel the presence of the officer, holding onto Luther’s other arm as if afraid he might escape.

Luther standing beside me with our eyes on the muddy creek, reminds me of another day, at the swimming hole, Luther and the Calhoun boys telling me they were going to teach me to swim.  Cruel hands had grabbed my ankles, dragged me through the water with my head under.  My chest thumped so hard I didn’t know which would burst first, my heart or my lungs, as I struggled, holding my breath, kicking vainly at the hands that gripped my ankles. When they finally let me go, I lay on the bank trying to breathe. The boys laughed and snorted, pointing their fingers at my developing breasts, the size of small green apples, revealed by the wet t-shirt.  “Look at Callie’s tits!” 

Mama saw me from the kitchen when I came into the front room.  “What’s the matter with you, Callie.  You look like you seen a ghost,” she said, following me into the bedroom.  “You can’t wear that t-shirt swimming no more, Callie.  Your breasts are starting to show.” 

The swimming teacher at the Y in Kansas City said she’d never seen anyone so afraid of water.  I didn’t know it was fear that cut off my wind.  I just couldn’t get my breath when I came up for air. I still can’t swim.  As for my breasts, they never got much bigger, like their growth was stunted that day.

The preacher’s voice drones on, folks behind us shouting amen and hallelujah and oh yes, Jesus, have mercy on us.  The preacher says a loud amen and someone starts singing, other voices joining in. 

“Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful the beautiful river, gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God.” 

I look at that brown, stinking creek, filled with dirt washed down the mountainsides from the strip mines, carrying trash from the holler, and I think God must be up there laughing his fool head off.

“Yes, we’ll gather at the river that flows by the throne of God.” 

When the song ends, Preacher Clyde speaks again.  “Let us all join together in expressing our sorrow to the Franklin family,” he says, glancing at Luther.  “To Bertie Franklin, a mama who’s lost one son to eternal life, the other one to worldly sin, God rest her soul.  And to Joe Ray’s sisters, Callie Jane and Lou Ann, who lost one brother and grieve for another one in his mortal shame, and for brother Luther who is suffering with us here today”

He waves the crowd towards the church. “Now let us go back to the church an’ partake of the repast put before us by the ladies of the church and the Franklin family.” 

He stops when he reaches the officer with Luther and whispers something.  He’s asking him to remove Luther’s handcuffs so he can eat with us, I think.  I squeeze Luther’s arm and he gives me a shamed look, before turning away. I walk around to the other side of Luther, and stand beside the Preacher. 

Before, the officer had just been a big presence beside Luther; now I can see he isn’t much older than I am.  His eyes are black, and his complexion has a reddish cast, Indian blood showing.   “Callie,” Preacher Clyde says, “Do you know our new Deputy Sheriff?”

I shake my head.

“Wilbur Thompson,” the deputy says, giving me a quick nod. One of the Thompsons from up on Crazy Creek, I think, the holler named after his ancestor, who had to be tied up with ropes in the smokehouse after he bred a bunch of fighting fools.

His eyes are unfriendly but I forge ahead. “Deputy Thompson, if you and Luther will stay and eat with us, it’ll be a kindness.”

His lips quirk to one side.  “I ain’t in the business of kindness.”  He glances at the Preacher pointedly, as if to say look to the Preacher for kindness, lady, I’m the hardass.

He pauses then, as if, having made his point, he’s reconsidering.  “Just for a bite,” he finally adds.  With one hand holding onto Luther’s arm, he turns and swaggers behind the folks heading back to the church, the Preacher and I following. 

Above the church door the cross wavers, then glitters, through the rain-streaked gold paint.  Come to me and I shall give you rest.  I remember one Easter Sunday when I was a child, not long after Papa died and we’d moved in with Papaw.  Coming to church wearing a pair of white gloves Mama had found in the box of old clothes the church had collected for us. The gloves stuck to the ointment she’d put on the sores on my hands, caused by my scratching when I’d gotten the itch.

Susie Nelson, her Papa the preacher we had then, stood with other folks outside the church, showing off her new Easter dress, a satiny pale-blue with white lace and a white sash tied in the back with a big bow.  The Preacher had forgotten his key and everyone was waiting for him to come back to open the church door.  Susie was preening in her new dress.

After Preacher Nelson came back to let us in, laughing as if it was no great matter that he’d kept us waiting—-after all, he’d come from some great northern city to save our souls—-I’d watched him preach his sermon, noticing the black hairs growing out of his nose. I was trying to scratch my itching hands without anyone seeing me. It was shameful to have the itch; nobody would come near you, another reason for my gloves.

All the while the Preacher talked about how Jesus had died for our sins, naming the sins of the flesh and calling on us to repent and be saved, Susie sat watching him, an angelic smirk on her face, her dress spread out just so.

Later that day I went to my secret place in the clearing on the mountain, lay in the green grass and watched the white clouds drift across the pale blue sky.  I dreamed about growing up to be a secretary in a big city, wearing a different pair of shoes to match every dress.

Preacher Clyde and I follow the deputy and Luther into the church and go down the steps to the basement, where the folks stand waiting for the preacher to arrive and say grace. The deputy takes Luther to one side and I follow them as Preacher Clyde stops and calls out.  “Brothers and sisters let us give thanks to the Lord for the food He hath put before us this day” and we bow our heads.

“Dear Lord, ye know the sorrow in our hearts. That we have lost a son and brother, but we know ye have welcomed him home and his soul is at rest with ye, and we rejoice for his salvation.  But them who are left here to mourn his passing are still in mortal bodies and we must eat.  We thank ye for this food and ask your blessing on it.  Amen.” 

The Preacher motions for me to start the food line while the deputy unlocks Luther’s handcuffs, letting him walk between us. Other folks drift over to form a line behind the deputy.

The food is laid out on a long wooden table at the back of the room, a smaller table to the right holding unmatched plates and cutlery donated to the church, paper napkins stacked beside them. I take a plate, some flatware and a paper napkin while approaching the food table where some of the women from the church stand in their flowered aprons behind platters of fried chicken, steaming bowls of mashed potatoes and gravy and a big pot of shucky beans.  Squares of brown cornbread are stacked up high in a large tray beside bowls of corn relish, pickles and chow-chow.  Another table holds cakes and pies.  I take some cornbread and a small helping of the relish, pickles and chow-chow, knowing the women who made them are in the room watching and will be hurt if I don’t.  Maddie Smith stands behind the platter of chicken with a pair of tongs.  “A thigh,” I tell her, and she picks out a large one for me, laying it on my plate.  “So sorry for your trouble,” she says. 

I nod a thank you, blinking back tears, and go on down the food line.  Behind me I hear her speak to Luther and hear his mumbled reply.

When Papaw was a boy, he’d said, they’d had their Sunday meetings at the one-room schoolhouse on the hillside, the preaching sometimes lasting all day, folks just stopping long enough to eat the food from the flour sacks the women packed the family dinners in. The traveling Preacher only came every sixth Sunday, so they had to make up for the five Sundays when they didn’t hear the word of the Lord from one who “knowed how to preach it”.

The Preacher rode his mule up the hollers with “his Bible in one hand and his shotgun in the other”, after being set on by some boys “didn’t have no sense”. He’d learned to shoot, Papaw said, as well as ‘ary one of them, saying the Bible were mightier than the sword but the sword shore come in handy sometimes.

Luther lays his plate of food on the table across from me and sits, the deputy sitting beside him.  Martha Craft comes over to ask us if we’d rather have iced tea or coffee.  All three of us ask for coffee.  Bowls of sugar, Coffee Mate, margarine, and strawberry preserves, shakers of salt and pepper, all sit along the middle of the table.

I spread margarine on my cornbread and take a bite of the shucky beans, the first I’ve had in years; not like green beans, but with a taste of their own, simmered on the stove all day with salted pork. They bring a memory of Mamaw handing me the large darning needle and a long string after I’d helped her pick the green beans from her garden.  Running the needle through the centers of the beans until I had as much as the string would hold, and then tying the ends together, hanging them on a nail on the porch to dry, where they could catch the noonday sun yet be protected from the rain.

In my mind I see her, a tiny woman with a hump back, probably from a tubercular spine, but it never slowed her down; see her scurrying about, cleaning, cooking, canning, sewing on the old treadle sewing machine, tending her garden, and keeping the front yard swept clean.  Yet still having time to deliver more babies, old Doc Mason had said at her funeral, than he’d delivered himself in his fifty years of doctoring.

“Idle hands do the devil’s work,” she’d say, putting me to work on the wooden churn Papaw made her, after she’d milked her cow. As my arms took turns pumping the paddle up and down, they felt as if they’d break off before the butter came, but the delicious taste of the fresh-churned butter on hot cornbread at supper was probably my first knowing that pain had its rewards. 

Luther’s eyes are on me.  Looking in them I see such sorrow as I’ve never seen before, even in Mama’s eyes, because it’s all mixed up with shame and desperation.  His lips move, mouthing the words “I’m sorry,” just before he bolts. He’s across the room and flying up the steps two at a time before the deputy even realizes what’s happened.

Folks scream as the Deputy jumps up and takes after him.  “Out of the way!” he yells, pushing people aside.  Some stand back and others run behind him, up the steps, and out the door.  I’m running, pushing through the ones still standing. 

As I reach the road, I see Luther, ahead of the deputy; he stops at the edge of the creek and dives in, disappearing in the muddy water. The deputy stands on the bank, holding his gun, aimed at the creek.  “Stay back!” he yells without turning around. 

Folks mind him, some crying and praying, but I stay behind the deputy’s gun hand, shaking, waiting as I watch the creek.  Waiting–like the gun that waits for Luther.  I see movement in the water and see the deputy’s gun jerk. I leap and strike his arm just as the gun goes off.

It fires into the water along the bank.  The deputy turns, striking me to the ground, a wild look in his eyes, and yells “Somebody hold this fool woman!” 

Arms grab me as he takes off along the creek bank, heading downstream. There’s no need to hold me down.  I’m shivering so badly I couldn’t stand up if I tried.  It’d happened so fast I’d only had one thought; I couldn’t let him kill my other brother. 

Go Luther, go, I think.  Get away!  I hear Mama’s voice saying, “My boy got away!  Praise the Lord, he got away!” Then I hear the gunfire, and in my mind I see Luther’s blood spreading across the muddy waters of Hanged Man Creek.

Where the lifeblood of Calliput Mountain washes out of the holler.  The blood of our ancestors.

I’m lying on something hard.  Someone is holding my hand, talking to me, but I can’t understand what the voice is saying.  A gunshot, blood on the water.

I open my eyes and look into Martha Craft’s face, wet with tears.  “He got away, Callie,” she whispers.  “Luther got away.”

“He was hit, wasn’t he,” I whisper back.  She nods her head. 

“Then how do you know he got away?”  I have an image of his body caught in Paw Paw branches at the edge of the creek, dead or drowning.

“Someone seen him git out and run into the trees past the general store.  He was holding his arm but it didn’t slow him down none so he can’t be hurt bad.” 

Folks stand across the road in small groups, talking in low voices and watching the creek.  I realize I’m lying on a picnic table under a tree in the churchyard

“Did the deputy go after him?” I say.

“Yeah, and Callie—-he said to keep you here, to not let you leave when you come to.”

“Why?”

“Cause he’s going to arrest you and take you to jail when he gets back, for trying to help Luther get away.  Don’t make no sense a’tall, anyone would’ve done what you done, seeing as how Luther’s your brother.” 

“I didn’t try to help him get away,” I say.  “I just couldn’t let the deputy shoot him.”

I feel a choking in my throat, hysterical laughter trying to get out, and think I must be losing my mind the same as Mama; except Mama would think I was the one lost my mind, laughing at a time like this.

But Mama can’t see the look on my boss’s face when someone has to call him, to tell him I’ve been arrested at Hanged Man Holler, Kentucky, for trying to help a murderer escape.  I lay on the hard table, looking at the sky through the bare branches of the tree dripping drops of water onto my black dress, and see the sky is no longer dark, but almost blue, and the clouds are gone.

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