Monday, July 21, 2014

Chapter 1


It All Started When …



“Look around you Brothers and Sisters!  It is a judgement by God Almighty!  A judgment I say!! It’s the end of days!  Whoa be to those that have brought this on our heads!  God will smite our enemies!  God will smite those who ridiculed us!  God will smite the unfaithful, the sinners, the no counts, the blasphemers!  God will smite the spiritually unclean, the dopers, the sexually immoral! God will smite …”

I lay under a bench temporarily masquerading as a pew trying to stay out of the way of getting trampled by those enthused by all the smiting that was to come and those that were taken in the Spirit.  It gave me a peculiar view of those around me.  It also meant I overheard things because no one knew I was there.

For example, it didn’t take long for me to hear some stuff I probably wasn’t meant to.  A hissing whisper from behind and above my position asked, “Doesn’t he ever just shut up?”

Another whisper answered the first, “Hasn’t yet.  He’s been going at it for three days straight now.   Them crazies’ll stop for fifteen or twenty minutes a couple of times a day to allow the so-called faithful to get something to drink or hit the crapper but that’s about it.  They’s working themselves up for something big to happen but I have a feeling they’re in for a let down.  God don’t seem to be listening to anyone much less this crazy group here.”

A snort that was meant to be an agreement I suspect preceded, “Not like they need to stop for a full meal anyway; the truck is two days overdue and frankly I don’t think it’s coming and it don’t seem like that guy’s god is gonna send manna this time around like the Reverand was pushing up on claiming yesterday.”

“You think that’s why them National Guard guys and gals picked up and left this morning?  Think they knew something?”

I could hear a bit of plastic rattling as they pulled their garbage bag ponchos on, preparing to go back outside, away from the sticky atmosphere of depression, hunger, fear, and zealotry.  “Don’t know, maybe they just finally got tired of the reverend there forever telling everyone that following their orders wouldn’t do any good anyway since the world was coming to an end and if they followed him they’d all get to Glory.”

“Glory,” the other man said with derision.  “Only place this bunch’ll be going like as not is a dead end and a watery grave just like the rest of us if them damn pontoons don’t show up soon.”

As the two men went outside into the ever present rain part of me felt badly for agreeing with them.  Reverand Jacob had been going at it pretty hard and heavy.  If sheer volume of words was capable of convincing anyone of anything, the Reverand would hands down have the world believing everything he said.  The man didn’t know what sparing meant when it came to elocution.  But no matter how I tried to be good like I was told, I just couldn’t bring myself to agree with Rev. Jacob and it felt kinda sacreligious if not downright blasphemous. 

“Psst.  Hey … Ell, got anything to eat?”

Sighing I rolled over and around and looked at my fourteen year old cousin before climbing out from my refuge and drawing him out onto an empty space on the porch of VFW Lodge.  “Todd Michael I told you last time you asked – and all the times before that for the past twenty-four hours – that I don’t have anything left.  You and Josh Daniel cleaned me all out night before last while I was asleep.  If you two would have listened to my warnings we’d still have something but you just stuffed your face with it all and what you didn’t eat you gave to the kitchen ladies and who knows what they did with it … we sure didn’t get any.”

Sounding the next best thing to whiney my cousin said, “That’s not our fault.  Dad said we was to shake you down and make sure you weren’t holding back.”

I rolled my eyes.  “I wasn’t holding back, I was saving it for us just in case.  Now it is just in case time but we don’t have anything saved.”

Josh Daniel picked that moment to stroll up.  He was big - easily twice or more my size - and another year older.  At seventeen he was on his way to a college football scholarship and an escape from the life his mother’s abandonment and his father’s fanatical religiosity had sentenced him and his brother to; was being the operative word.  “Todd Michael, how many times you gotta be told you ain’t gotta listen to Elizabella; she’s just a girl and a pretty useless one at that.”

I set myself to move out of the way of a large fist when I told him, “Useless to this family is the last thing I’ve ever been.  If it wasn’t for me coming you’d still be wearing dirty drawers and eating charity dinners.”  Sure enough Josh Daniel’s oversized pride tried to take control at the very idea of an uppity girl child telling him an honest fact.  Instead he started coughing and hacking like a lung was coming up.  I knew I’d broken that cough two days before and I also knew the likely cause of its return.  “Oh Lord, what has she dosed you with now?!”

Todd Michael looked at me in fear.  “You shouldn’t talk about Sister Jacob that way.  She’ll set the spooks on you.”

Ignoring my younger cousin I helped Josh Daniel over to a chair on the porch of the Lodge.  “Look at me Josh Daniel.  What did that woman give you?”

“She had me … (cough, cough) … had me … (spit a glob of yellow yuck) … had me smoke some Jimson Weed.  Said it would clear my lungs.”

My outrage momentarily took my voice away.  I nearly screamed in frustration.  It isn’t that I thought my family was backwards; no, there’s not a thing wrong with being backwards and old fashioned.  What irritated the skin right off my body is the fact that they were ignorant and bound and determined to stay that way.  “How many times do I have to tell you not to take anything from that woman?  Momma always thought she was more dangerous than the snakes Brother Jacob Sr. liked to play with.  Don’t you have any sense?! I swear, Jimson Weed is poisonous!”

Behind me a scratchy female voice intoned, “Harlot.  Witch.  Just like your mother.  You use God’s gifts to blind the eyes of good men.”

Being cooped up a week with people that think next to nothing of you has a way of wearing on your nerves.  Having had just about all I could take I turned around and spat, “I said poisonous and I mean poisonous.  Just like you.  My parents were married and it shouldn’t be a surprise ‘cause your own daddy was the one that said the words over them.  You just got your nose out of joint because my daddy didn’t care for your charms.  How you can hold a grudge over something like that all these years is something to drive a saint crazy trying to figure out.”

SMACK!

“Are you insane?!” I shouted rubbing my cheek.  “Hit me again and see if I stand for it.  The only reason you’re getting away with it this time is because my uncle seems to be taken with you.  But you listen here, I might only be sixteen to your … your … whatever it is … but even I have sense to know you don’t tell kids to smoke locoweed.  This stuff is datura, belladonna … poison!  It will kill you right where you stand.”

In a righteous and superior tone she intoned, “They say the same thing about the snakes, but they don’t hurt the faithful.”

“Uh huh … and is that why your daddy died of snake bite?  He had a crisis of faith or something?”

She tried to slap me again but I moved and her hand plowed into the porch column that I had been standing in front of, embedding a good sized splinter of wood into the palm of her hand.  She commenced to acting like I’d stabbed her in the heart and the women of the flock gathered around her and walked her back inside, every last one of them giving me the evil eye despite the fact I’d never even laid a hand on the skinny ol’ besom.

Since I was pretty well used to it by this point I ignored them with ease now that I knew they’d be leaving me alone which singed a few tail feathers by the smell of their passing.  Or maybe that was just all the sweat from some of the charismatic frolicking going on.  I turned to Josh Daniel and told him, “I am not bossing you but you need to let me listen to your breathing … so no hitting or I’ll give you reason to start wheezing if you aren’t already.  Understand?”

He ignorned me as well as I had ignored the battle ax brigade but he didn’t make a fuss when I opened his shirt collar and listened.  What I heard upset me in a way that Sister Jacob never could.  “You listen to me Josh Daniel.  You cannot go out in the rain anymore.  And you need to keep dry socks on your feet.”

“Don’t have no dry socks.  And Daddy says I have to help gather up what all is left since I’m so big and can carry more than some of the old folks.”

“I’ll talk to Uncle Jerry.”

An angry voice behind me said, “Talk all you want girl, I ain’t listening to your mouth no more.  You done pushed me too far.”

I turned swiftly and caught a backhand that sent me tumbling off the porch into all the standing water below.  Before I could stand up my backpack followed me down.  “I have put up with you and put up with you and put up with you for near four years now.  I tried to get the devilishness out of you but you are turning into a demoness just like your mother’s sister did.”

Wiping the blood off my mouth, knowing he was about to fulfill the threat he’d been making since the first day he picked me up at the courthouse, I finally decided to have my say.  “Ever thought that half Aunt Penny Lynn’s problems stemmed from the fact that she loved you and couldn’t understand why you beat on her?  Ever wonder why she stayed as long as she did?  Ever wonder why she jumped off the Leap instead of just divorcing you and finding a new life?  You want the answer to that try looking in a mirror if you can stand it.”

“You whore of …”

“… Babylon.  Yeah, you’ve said it enough.  But how can I be a whore and still be a virgin?  Huh?  Even after Sister Jacob convinced you to force me to see that doctor?  Plenty of people wondered why that doctor wouldn’t have nothing to do with Sister Jacob after that.  I could have told them if anybody would listen.”  Well there were certainly a lot of interested listeners now and it was time to give them an ear full.  “It was because he wouldn’t lie for her that’s why.  I heard ‘em Uncle Jerry.  I heard them fighting about it.  He refused to say I was loose and that I’d been fooling around because he knew it wasn’t true.  That’s why he no longer would come up here to the community and why Rev. Jacob couldn’t find another to replace him.  Word got around.  You know good and well Lee Ward and I weren’t doing anything but working on a science project.  His momma or sisters were right there the whole time.  He was a good friend and that’s all.  And was only a few months to heading off to school anyway so why all the ruckus and lies I can’t account for.  After he left and word got passed around by the gossips no one would be friends with me anymore.  Then Lee’s family packed up and moved because of all the persecution and the community lost one of the best families of carpenters this mountain has ever seen.  And one of these days Sister Jacob is going to get hers … if not on this earth then on Judgment Day.”

Uncle Jerry had gone pale and I could see the guilt in his eyes.  He knew I was telling the truth but he hid from it.  He was so in love with Cecily Jacob that he couldn’t even stand to entertain the idea that she was who and what she was.  I knew for a fact that Uncle Jerry and Sister Jacob had done more than go walking – and didn’t that nearly blind me for life coming upon them in the old mill offices where I’d been looking for a particular kind of spider for the science project in question that got me and Lee in trouble.  I also knew that was why she hated me – or at least was one of the reasons why.  She had seen me see her and my uncle doing what the Good Book said unmarried people had no business doing.  What her own brother preached against at some point nearly every Sunday straight from the pulpit.  I mean for a fact for a bachelor he sure was hung up on sex.

Uncle Jerry also suspected I had seen and for a long while feared what I could do to them.  Reverend Jacob could turn on a body near as quick as the snakes he was fond of handling; family or not wouldn’t matter to him any more than it had mattered to his father before him who cut off nearly all of his children when they slid away from the faith.  If Uncle Jerry had known me at all he would have known I never would have ratted on them.  No one would have believed me anyway.  I tried to tell him that in a round about way but that only seemed to make him more fearful … and confused. 

“You are …”

“… thrown out of the family. Thrown out like that old murderer Cain.  Nothing but a pile of salt like old Lot’s wife.  Left without the protection of my menfolk like poor Dinah. Yeah, yeah; I get it.  You’ve been threatening to do it since day one.  Why on earth you signed them papers to take me on in the first place I don’t know.  Was it guilt over driving my mother’s sister to drink and then to suicide?  Was it some kind of penance?  Did you think that would make her ghost go away and leave you be?”

“Go!  Just … just go!!  Get thee from my sight!”

Why is it when people are turning family out they have to go all biblical and old-fashioned in their words?  I don’t think Uncle Jerry ever used “thee” any other time except when he was threateneing to turn me or someone else out of the family. 

I turned to Josh Daniel and Todd Michael and told them, “Couple of words then I’m gone ‘cause you’re my cousins and despite our differences family means something to me.  B’ware that you don’t turn out like your daddy.  And don’t listen to that mean old witch he is taking up with and her so-called doctoring.  She’ll kill you or worse with her cures.  And wear your rain coats.”  I looked in the crowd and saw June Ellen Darby and told her, “Please look after them.  Josh Daniel’s lungs are sounding as wet as my feet are right now.”

June wanted to be a nurse and she knew as well as I did that Sister Jacob was nothing but a quack.  She wouldn’t say it but she knew it.  She and Josh Daniel had started talking about a month before the rains started when they found out they had scholarships to the same school.  If anyone was strong enough to keep the boys out of the clutches of that nasty woman it would be June; her family had left Rev. Jacob’s flock when the church split three years ago when a few in the church thumbed their nose at the local sheriff and tried to bring snake handling back despite the fact that it was about as against the law in these parts as you could get.  Only time I’ve ever seen Josh Daniel cross his daddy was concerning June; he wouldn’t give her up even if she did go to a different church.
I turned around and started walking – slogging in my muck boots through the water that reached just above my ankles was more like it – half expecting to feel a stone or soggy hymnal catch me in the back of the head.  I walked deliberately toward town until I was out of sight of the rest of them and then when I was sure no one was looking I started hurrying and headed up in to the trees and across a wood lot until I reached a secluded picnic table the highschoolers had put there for their parties away from parental eyes.

The ground was still soggy but the gravel the table sat on – carried in by the pocketful so no one would notice – kept the land from being muddy.  I took a hurried look inside my backpack and sighed with relief.  Everything was still in there and sealed in ziplock bags and the trash bags I had tripled lined the inside of the pack with had prevented those from getting even a little damp despite the minor dunking the pack had suffered.  I knew what I needed to do and I needed to do it quick.  If I waited any longer I’d get cut off and then all my planning would be for nothing.

3 comments:

  1. Oh I remember this one now. :) but well worth reading again! thank you

    ReplyDelete
  2. You are such a writer. Thank you. enjoying a background I'm not familiar with and intrigued to see how Ell manages.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks to checking back on MJOTZY' I became aware of this story,. Let it die? Good thing it didn't.
    I must agree frazzledsugarplummum

    ReplyDelete