Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Church

 

 

 

“You see, Mr. McCauley, the world is a strange place.”

 

The Reverend Whitley Blakesmore wiped his mouth with a small hand as he passed the jug on. The group had pulled off the road, down a rutted track that ended in a small clearing. Micah had built a fire—something not done before—the flames bright and crackling, illuminating the heft now in the dwarf preacher’s odd head, the lines like crop rows on the cheeks of his wife. Different, each in their grotesquerie, he with that long, big head and neck, each perhaps normal-sized but over-large on his small body; she thick about the torso and small everywhere else, as if her maker had run out of energy as he moved to her extremities. Her head was small, a child’s head, and it was only the lines on her face and her voice that showed her true age. The two darkies looked enlarged in comparison: the girl’s face less a skull than a set of flat plates, her father’s skin dark and shiny like a bare, polished rock. Only McCauley looked the same as before, the thin tilt to his body, the scruff of beard down his neck. All of them feral, like things brushed from the earth.

 

They’d eaten cornbread and apples, then soup the tiny woman served from an old, beaten pot. It was good, all good, and the youth had been pleased to sit staring at the bright fire and the insects that swooped down in its shadows, content not to be moving, to be resting this night. McCauley had offered little on their change in plans, the evident expansion—at least to this point—of their misshapen crew. Only a muttered “. . . tired of walking in the dark . . .” as they brought things down from the wagon. The Reverend and his wife shared their hidden wares freely, producing from unseen alcoves small bottles of spice, a woven blanket to sit on, tin cups for the soup. And then the jugs: big clay containers hard to lift and smelling sweetly of ferment. The youth took a few sips, bracing the jug on his elbow as some spilled down his shirt. After that he declined, content to sit back and listen. The conversation grew boisterous as the jug made its rounds.

 

“So there are lots of you folks, then.” McCauley squinted up through the smoke.

 

“Whole colonies,” cackled Hilda. “Surprised you ain’t seen us, being from New York like you are.”

 

“There’s parts of the city I never get to—parts I don’t know.”

 

“Why are you . . . here?” Micah leaned to the Reverend like he wanted to touch him.

 

“We must all use our talents.” The Reverend’s deep voice was at odds with his body. “Whatever the Lord gives us. I am a peculiarity in the greater world, it is true—right, my Hilda?—and as such put that difference to profitable use. I was once with a traveling show, a big show—the Rackleff Brothers. We had strong men who pulled wagons with their teeth, a wonderful lady with a fuller beard than my own, a wild man from Borneo who slept on knives and walked across glass. The ‘Manchester Midget,’ they called me, though I’m not from Manchester. I’m from North Carolina. But I was just a part of the show, a simple piece of machinery. I got it into my head one day that the Lord had more in store for me, that He wished me to go out and preach the Gospel, to use my deformity and uniqueness to spread His holy word. That was six or seven years ago—Hilda was with me, then—and so we left, traveling the country, from Philadelphia to Charleston to Knoxville to Raleigh. We’ve converted thousands, we’ve told the tale over and over, we’ve fed ourselves in these troubled times. And I’ve never regretted even a minute of it.”

 

“So you’re a Southerner.”

 

“I am.”

 

“And you ply the South—in the middle of the war?”

 

“Doesn’t it seem to need it? I didn’t create this cursed conflict. We’ve been on both sides of it; we’ve seen the horrors, the corpses. The towns empty because all the men have left and will not return. The dead farms, the fallow earth. The poor widows, the old men and children that need something to hang on to. Salvation. They need salvation.”

 

“And do you take up . . . collections?” McCauley’s tongue flicked his teeth.

 

“Of course!”

 

“And what happens to the money?”

 

“It’s used for the ministry. To save souls.”

 

McCauley shook his head, grinning. “My, my, Reverend. Do you pass out the hooch at these services?”

 

“Of course not.” The Reverend looked pained. “That’s a separate enterprise. All profits to the ministry, of course.” He covered a belch with his hand. “Don’t get the wrong idea, Mr. McCauley—I’m serious in my work. The thrill of saving a soul is unlike any other. It is what I live for, what we live for. Have you been saved, sir?”

 

McCauley looked about. He plucked a tick from his arm and held it, examined it.

 

The Reverend nodded toward him. “You.”

 

McCauley grinned again. “I’ve been to church, if that’s what you mean. I’m not sure I’m worth saving. Now Bart, there, and his arm, he’s more your project. Maybe you can save him, or maybe not. You see, Reverend, this war does something to you. When you’ve been shat on and ground in the dirt and seen your buddies die and your government forget you, it’s kinda hard to turn the other cheek. You been to Andersonville, Reverend? Ever seen the Rebel prison there? I’d like to see you save those souls. The priest that comes in, the prisoners spit on him. Jesus ain’t too prevalent there, Reverend. Food is more welcome.”

 

“The Lord is prevalent everywhere, son. Even places you think He ain’t.”

 

“This from a preacher that’s sharing his whiskey.” McCauley’s grin returned.

 

“I’ll share anything I have. As will Hilda.”

 

McCauley nodded. “I appreciate that, Reverend. I do.”

 

Things went silent. The girl was humming, the way she did. She sat with her arms out, her pregnant belly extended. Did she think she would make it? The youth looked up and around.

 

“So tell me about yourselves,” said the Reverend. “What exactly are two men and two nigras doing in the woods in north Georgia?”

 

 “Escaping,” said McCauley, slowly raising his head. “Going north, to the Union. To Ohio, for them.” He jerked a thumb at Micah.

 

“You escaped . . . together?”

 

“No.” Again, the sly grin. “We hooked up.”

 

“I see.”

 

“Would you like to join us?”

 

The dwarf twisted his body. “Perhaps, for awhile. Why do you want me?”

 

“I don’t know, Reverend.” McCauley’s words rounded. “I like you. I like your hooch. I like traveling with a man of God.” He took off his faded bandana and wiped his face in long wipes.

 

“We draw attention.”

 

“So you do. I’m thinking perhaps that’s not a bad way to go.”

 

* * *

 

The big tent flapped in the afternoon breeze, the breeze that looked to pick up to a storm but had not as of yet. They’d hauled the tent out from the wagon, the Reverend huffing and directing, the canvas smelling of mildew and old oats, strung up on a single pole that bent under its weight. The tent had been ripped such that the back portion was missing, leaving an impression of a broken parasol or a hat battered back. If it rained the tent wouldn’t shelter much. They’d brought the wagon around to use as a platform, boards placed before it. Hand-painted signs bent and turned in the breeze, announcing “Revival!” in steep letters, “The Reverend Blakesmore” in others.

 

They’d reached a small town—Greenville, the youth heard someone call it—a dusty crossroads stationed between two large hills. Farther to the west, grey shadows like mountains gave him hope they’d made progress, that Tennessee was closer, closer even than he’d thought. He learned later that this was not so. The town had a feed store, a corral, two churches, a handful of houses, even a small window with “Candy” stenciled on it that appeared to be closed. The town was filled, though, with people, mostly negroes and old women and children. A number of buckboards and teams heaved and pawed, gathered around an open-air market where vegetables changed hands from the backs of the grey wagons. It dawned on the youth this was Saturday, market day—he had lost track of days. The Reverend had pulled his wagon up near the others as if claiming a distant kinship, and the signs and flapping half-tent soon aroused a fair curiosity: children at first, poking their heads under, then their mothers, then the negroes, all asking “What time?” “When’s the show?” At which point Hilda would rise from her spot near the wagon, answer “Four o’clock!” in a ringing voice and expose thus her stunted form, whereupon the questioner would step back or even shriek in surprise before retreating to spread the strange news. After several such episodes the children formed a small ring at the tent, black and whites intermixed, to point at Hilda’s reappearance or pull on apron strings or simply stare at this oddity.

 

The youth stayed on the periphery of all this, performing the duties he’d been assigned: bringing water for the mule, shoveling away excrement, guarding the signs, keeping an eye out for trouble. McCauley and the Reverend stayed holed up in the wagon, sprawled in the battered compartment the Reverend used as a bed, playing cards, talking softly. The two negroes sat behind and to one side, watching, Micah chewing blades of grass between spasms. The youth perspired in his efforts, uncomfortable in the heat, conscious of his ragged appearance and the fact his missing arm garnered attention and made him part of the entertainment. After these weeks of walking in stealth he found it odd to take pains to be noticed. He had questioned this strategy, envisioning a dozen scenarios where they’d be shoved into the tiny jail at the town’s one end, the strangeness of white men and negroes parading through town in war’s midst exposed then and addressed. There were few signs of war here, only the absence of white men, a battle flag hanging limp in one window. Still, a clamminess came upon him, his sweat thick and pasty. He saw himself a charlatan, or, worse yet, a highwayman, waiting for black thievery to begin.

 

The tent and signs did stir up three white men: the town’s two preachers and the county’s aged sheriff. The first preacher to arrive, a tall man with a nose that jutted out like a doorknob, expressed immediate displeasure. He stood before the wagon looking at the one sign as if having trouble reading it, then began at Hilda’s next appearance to shower her with invective, demanding to know where she came from and under whose authority she acted. She replied without expression that she needed no authority but God’s, which she had. This enraged the tall man, unleashing a new torrent of words only partly understandable, “damnation” and “blasphemy” rising clearer than others. His barrage brought more gawkers, including a robed figure, shorter and rounder; his voice, too, began squawking, though it soon grew apparent his argument was with the tall man and not Hilda. Then the sheriff arrived, a stooped man with a big mustache and pronounced limp who raised both arms like a humped crow in an effort to quiet the shrill ruckus. This succeeded after a time, and the sheriff’s long drawl could be heard over the diminishing noise of those gathered, “Now, who’s in charge, here?”

 

“The Lord is,” said the Reverend. He’d appeared without warning, standing legs-spread next to Hilda, his left arm swinging, his right hand hooked in his belt. He was shorter even than his wife. A black vest and hat gave him the look of a child playing dress-up, except for the size of his head and his neck. The hat made him look Lincoln-like, even though it was not a top hat like the President’s but flatter, and rumpled, and the youth wondered if this was by some design, a resemblance calculated to spawn awe or hatred among those gathered to see him. The crowd retreated then surged, its curiosity newly whetted. One woman fainted, her arm rising up as if she’d gone underwater. Two boys and two negroes pulled her off to one side.

 

The tall preacher recovered his voice first, returning to his harangue with the sheriff now its target, “. . . I demand to know how . . .” Then the other preacher, his voice high and tinny, until the sheriff again raised his crow-arms. At the sheriff’s suggestion—inaudible to the youth—the two preachers, the Reverend and the sheriff adjourned to a private conversation at the wagon’s one edge, the tall preacher gesticulating, the sheriff and the other preacher bent to the Reverend’s small form. The meeting lasted some minutes, the tall preacher’s nods becoming slower and less vigorous, until finally the sheriff gave a great shrug and turned to the crowd that hung like coyotes around a kill.

 

“There’ll be a revival at four o’clock,” he said, in ringing tones not dissimilar to Hilda’s. The crowd cheered and clapped its approval. “This afternoon only.”

 

Children scurried to spread the news, others milling about then dispersing, for it was hot and still early afternoon. The youth had moved during the conference, closer now to the wagon, so that he saw fully the tightness of the tall preacher’s lips, the pale of his eyes that shone like wet stones. The two preachers did not speak, or look at one another. The sheriff turned back for a short word to which the Reverend nodded his thick head in assent. Then the Reverend and Hilda disappeared behind their wagon.

 

The youth made his way to the darkies. “What do you make of all this?” he asked, not expecting an answer. He had asked questions thus of the horse and mule back at home.

 

“I know there’s great bunches of little people under this ground,” Micah said softly. “These two sneaked on up to the light, see what things are like here on top.” He jerked his head, ducked it. He stood next to the wagon, fingering an old bull whip that hung there, running his fingers over it. He jerked again.

 

The youth shook his head. “I saw a two-headed dog once. A dead thing.”

 

“Everybody seen something, done something.”

 

The youth shifted. “What would happen if you were caught?” he asked. He’d been thinking about this again. Their stopping in this place bothered him, unseen pursuers perhaps now catching up.

 

Micah cast a solemn eye up, then away. He did not jerk. “They bring us back. Maybe sell us, separate us. Punish us. Some slaves that run gets their legs cut, so they don’t run no more. Why?”

 

“I was just wondering. Did you know Lincoln—the President—freed the slaves? He done it a while back. You’re free now.”

 

Micah’s eyes squinted. The scar on his nose twisted and writhed like a snake. “Free,” he said, and said nothing more. The girl touched his arm but he shook her off with slow jerks.

 

The youth grimaced. A big grasshopper jumped and sat and made another long leap.

 

“I still think we’re gonna get run out of this town,” he said finally. He glanced over at the girl, who stood staring absently, one hand like a glove on her belly. Did she feel it, her baby? The thought came that he could leave, that the three of them could take off—there was nothing holding them here, nothing to stop them. McCauley would . . .  McCauley might join up . . .  For a moment the vision hung there, light and suspended, until a breeze caught and blew up against him, cooling his side where his arm had once hung. The tent flap rustled, the dream shook and left. He spat, his mouth bitter. He sat on the grass and waited on the show.

 

* * *

 

It began with some hymn singing, Hilda in the lead in a high, piercing voice, “Rock of Ages,” “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”—the ones everyone knew. No instruments, no accompaniment, only voices that rose and fell like splashed water. The crowd was large, filling the torn tent and spilling out far beyond, white folks in front, negroes in back, their children mixed together but then again not. Maybe one hundred fifty, the youth thought, teams driven in from the country, from somewhere. It was hot, the tent taking the heat and compressing it to a thing seen, buzzing and glistening and shifting in its willfulness. Old men had their hats off, their heads slick with sweat, the pull of women’s fans like the flutter of soft insects.

 

The Reverend got right to it, perhaps on account of the heat. He strode out in his hat, vest and coat, the hat and coat soon discarded, his face red and swollen beneath his beard, brows and chin jutting, his torso puffed up behind the misshapen limbs. He held a large Bible balanced on one hand, referring to it often with hoofed stabs of his other, the word “Jesus” falling from his lips with such frequency it dripped like saliva. It was his voice . . . no, his appearance . . .  Maybe it was the words that mesmerized them. He charged from one side to the other, the crowd giving way as he pushed up against them, his face redder, his voice richer, his one arm swinging the Bible as if he held a thick sword. The cries started soon—though without sense of time—the yelps and praises and shouts of “Jesus!” and “Hallelujah!” and “Savior!” that broke like gunfire and stirred the Reverend on. The crowd stood on tiptoe: the old widow women, hair kinked and sweaty; the children glassy-eyed, open-mouthed; the negroes hunched in the sun, squinting in near-delirium. A small dog approached and on hind legs began humping a woman’s bent calf but no one paid any notice. The town’s short preacher sat in front to one side, his face in rubbery ecstasy, tears or sweat channeling down past his ears, the taller preacher outside, mouth open, the jar of his nose like a lantern held high. The youth perched with the two darkies, close enough to see sweat plop upon page in great droplets, to smell the hooch-sweetened breath that spewed forth like a cloud. McCauley peered from the wagon’s side opposite, the look on his face that of a child given a treat.

 

The Reverend continued. Through Peter and Judas and Pilate and Mary—names the youth knew but had not heard in this way. Over it all Jesus, Jesus, the red face purpling, the short arm thrashing. Women swooned and fell out in the heat, only to be picked up and revived; those newly awakened refused then to leave. The crowd’s calls joined and meshed with the Reverend’s, a single voice raised exalting, exhorting. Then the healings began, the Reverend with his free hand against a child’s tiny stomach, an old man’s stiff leg, a bent woman’s back, a girl’s shiny forehead. Cries of anguish became shouting anticipation, the crowd surging and pleading now, blind in its neediness. The space before the wagon diminished as hands reached, bodies thrust and prostrated. A stout woman bared her huge buttocks, blackened and wrinkled in some wasting disease: the Reverend put a hand on it. A negro boy fought his way to the front, pointing to an odd growth on his neck: this, too, was touched. An old woman’s eyes, a child’s drooping chin—the Reverend hopped onto a stool to reach more. Still the words flowed, his lips trembling with effort, his hair dark and wet now, his whole body wet. He put down the Bible so he could touch with both hands. Still they came on.

 

The youth felt the girl’s touch on his thigh then, her hand. He turned but her gaze remained on the Reverend, her mouth open so that he thought perhaps she’d not known she’d done this. He glanced back at Micah in mixed guilt and innocence but Micah was caught with the crowd, his head lifted, his throat strained in praise. The girl’s fingers remained on his leg as if holding him down, and when he finally summoned the courage to touch them only then did she look, her eyes cow-like and wide. She dipped her head to the Reverend, to the stumpy form on its stool, and he knew then her intent even as things built within him, watching the arms swing like tentacles, the multiple appendages of a huge, faceless beast. He glanced down his side at the stump limp in his sleeve, but something stopped him in this and he would not bring himself forward. He would not be touched. He watched as those before the Reverend fell back, withered legs churning, stiff shoulders shaking, the afflicted laying claim to their healing, their survival. The girl removed her hand, the look on her face back to blankness, to nothingness. The youth stood and walked behind the wagon to where only the Reverend’s short legs were visible, the back of his oversized head.

 

The collection began—coins clinking and jangling—even paper bills floating soft into baskets. Food and goods, too, from those without money. McCauley and Micah collected, McCauley from the whites, Micah the negroes. It took some time. Hilda returned, leading now some new hymns, “Great Redeemer We Adore Thee,” “I Surrender All.” The last few extended arms or trunks to be touched by dripping hands. The crowd had thinned some, a few melting away, looks of exhaustion and strain on wet faces. The Reverend closed with a prayer that regained briefly his fervor before releasing it again like a balloon’s expelled air. The remainder of the crowd withdrew then, slowly, almost fearfully, as if afraid to turn back and find things never there. A little breeze flickered and raised the tent’s sides. The two preachers stayed on, as did the sheriff, and they soon disappeared behind the wagon with the Reverend and the two basketfuls of collection. A murmur followed, the clinking of coins, and every now and then a raised voice or snort of something like triumph.

 

“What’d you think, dearie?” asked Hilda. She was putting away the Bible, the stool. She’d gathered the signs.

 

“I . . . I don’t know,” said the youth. Then, not wanting to offend, “It was impressive.”

 

“Yes. Impressive.” She bent to a bucket and wet her face, her breasts hanging visible beneath the fold of her dress. “Were you raised in the church?”

 

“Sort of. I went every now and then.”

 

She nodded. “Whitley never went till he was grown. But the light can strike any time. Struck him when he was 39, when he was kicked off the show.”

 

“Does he really heal these people?”

 

She glanced up. “Do you doubt it?”

 

“How come . . . I mean with you—if he can heal . . .”

 

“I ain’t got nothing I need to be healed of.”

 

The youth nodded, his face hot and wet.

 

“Let’s get at this tent now. We need to get going.”

 

He nodded again, grateful to do something. The two darkies appeared, pulling at the tent poles. The youth looked at the girl but she would not hold his gaze.  

 

* * *

 

That night they drank, McCauley and the Reverend and Hilda. Toasting the revival, and God, and his providence—they offered none to the negroes. The youth refused his. Instead he sat at the edge of the campfire, watching the top of Hilda’s breasts as she turned in her shift, the Reverend’s face reddening anew, the shrink of McCauley’s eyes into curled, cat-like slits. They toasted again ignorance, and beauty. They were loud and uncaring, and it made the youth nervous. He listened for hoof beats, for the soft tread of soldiers. The negroes sat apart by the fire.

 

The toasts fell to arguments, amiable in tone, the Reverend in his stage voice, Hilda’s squeak breaking in. McCauley too, his words tumbling. They spoke of war, and mankind, the folly of it all. Man was good—no, man was bad. It would all end up well, or not end up at all. The government was at fault, whichever government it might be. Each took different sides then switched positions, such that it became hard to follow who had claimed what or put forth what argument. The youth watched their shadows, watched as Hilda bent, laughing. He entered the fray only once, surprising them with his outburst, after McCauley asserted loudly that, indeed, God was good.

 

“Was he good in the camp?” he asked shortly. “Those men dying, their mouths rotting—you said it yourself. Those poor bastards singing hymns. Was he good to them?”

 

McCauley stopped, showed his teeth. “He helps those that help themselves—ain’t that right, Reverend?”

 

The Reverend turned the youth’s way but said nothing.

 

“How about these negroes—is he good to them?”

 

The two looked up, unseeing. The youth kicked with his foot, his stump swinging. He hated them then, hated them all, but the Reverend the worst.

 

“I don’t claim to know the half of it, boy.” The Reverend’s tone was soft, his voice gentle. “I’m a sinner, caught up in this little body. I’ve wondered the things you have—a thousand times, a million—why me and not him? Why him and not me? Take your arm, there.” He pointed. “It still hurts, don’t it?” The youth looked up, surprised at this. “It’s the soul, son. It’s still there when we die, when any part of us dies. You ask, what’s it all mean? I only know that there’s power in the Word, that it brings joy to people, bliss beyond their feeble imaginings. This little revival”—and he motioned then with his hand, as if it were a thing there on the ground—“whatever else it does, it reminds folks that Christ suffered, gives ’em some tiny bit of hope in their struggles. I think there’s beauty in that, in hope. That’s why I do it.”

 

The youth’s head angled down. “How do you know it’s not false hope?” he asked, his voice low. But his anger had lessened.

 

“I don’t know that for sure. It seems to me that any hope is better than none—I know it has been for me. Christ is for the downtrodden, not the rich. That’s the way of it. That’s the wisdom in it.”

 

The Reverend took another swallow, wiped his beard and belched into his hand. McCauley stared out at the youth, his face partly hidden, his expression one of bemusement or pity, or perhaps even pride. The clamor resumed, the toasting and drinking, McCauley with his arm on the Reverend’s small shoulders, McCauley with his hands in Hilda’s thick hair. The last sound before sleep was the splash of their pissing—even Hilda’s?—their laughter, their voices carrying off in the night. The youth dreamed then of the girl’s baby: a squat little thing with short arms and legs, its face and thin beard jutting out like the Reverend’s.

 

 

 

 

 

Mark T. Mustian is an author, attorney and city commissioner. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife, three children and dog. His novel The Gendarme will be published in September 2010 by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam.