You Just Got to Have Faith
When Dessie Miller lay dying at home, her family overflowed the little house in a bittersweet reunion. Food was on the table at all hours of the day and of the night, continually replenished as newcomers arrived with their contributions. "This here's the tater salad that Mommy always loved" accompanied an aluminum dishpan heaped with a pale yellow mound of potatoes, chopped pickles, and hard-boiled eggs, all glistening with mayonnaise. A gaunt chain-smoking woman, just off her factory shift, set down a cardboard tub of fried chicken with a dismissive wave of her cigarette: "It ain't but Colonel Sanders but I reckon someone kin worry it down." A grizzled farmer in clean overalls handed a covered bowl to one of the daughters. "Them greasy cut-short beans is some Ollie canned; she cain't come 'cause she's down in the back, but she cooked 'em up fer you 'uns." The Ridley Branch Freewill Baptist choir sang "O Come, Angel Band" in the living room and two teenage grandchildren got saved in the kitchen.
Elizabeth Goodweather sat quietly at one end of the plastic-upholstered sofa. The heat in the crowded house was stifling but she couldn't step out to the porch, not yet, not while Pastor Briggs was praying aloud for Dessie and for all the "miserable sinners" gathered there. He went on and on in the hypnotic chant that was the way of so many old-time mountain preachers, his voice rising and falling, a loud inhalation at the end of each phrase keeping his message from ever coming to a full stop.
The sonorous words rolled out, almost in an auctioneer's chant: "Yes, it's the hour of decision, brothers and sisters, the time when you make your choice . . . you make your choice between the fire below . . . and it's a hot fire . . . and it's an eternal fire . . ."
I hate the emphasis on damnation
, thought Elizabeth, but I know it's what these folks expect out of a sermon
. Across the room she saw Miss Birdie Gentry, one of her longtime neighbor friends. Birdie and her middle-aged son, Cletus, lived in a tiny log house down by the paved road that ran beside Ridley Branch. Cletus was what people called "simple," but he and Miss Birdie took care of each other and scratched out a living from their tobacco patch and garden. Miss Birdie's eyes were fixed on the preacher and her lips were silently moving.
". . . but there's a lifeline . . . and it's a heavenly lifeline . . . and Jesus, he'll pull you out of the pit . . ."
Many of those in the little room were swaying and nodding now; some of the women held up their open-palmed hands in an almost ecstatic surrender. "Thank you, Jesus," someone murmured. A few cigarette-hungry men shuffled uneasily by the door, held in place by sharp glances from their wives.
Elizabeth bowed her head, hoping fervently that she would not be noticed there on her corner of the sofa. She had come to say good-bye to Dessie, the old woman who, some twenty years ago, had first welcomed her and Sam to Ridley Branch, here in the mountains of North Carolina. Dessie had been in her midsixties then, sturdy and vigorous. She could hoe tobacco for hours on end or dart up the steep mountain trails after a wandering milk cow. Dessie and her husband, Odus, had taken Sam and Elizabeth under their wing, helping the newcomers to adapt to country life and teaching them how to do the myriad tasks that were part of life on a small mountain farm.
From planting potatoes to plowing with a mule, from milking a cow to butchering a hog, Dessie and Odus had taught the young couple, delighted to be passing on their knowledge of the old-time ways. From them, Elizabeth and Sam had learned the vocabulary of the mountains, had learned that a small creek was called a branch and a bag was called a poke, had learned to say "holler" for hollow, "mater" for tomato and "baccer" for tobacco. "It's about communication," Sam had said when Elizabeth's inner English major winced at these pronunciations. Now, of course, with the passage of years, the mountain dialect had flavored and enriched her own speech and she could appreciate its unique music.Odus has been gone, it must be almost fifteen years
, thought Elizabeth. Dessie had carried on with the help of her children, but time had taken its toll. She had still tended a big garden every year, but with each season she grew frailer. Every spring, as the garden patch was being plowed under her critical eye, she would say that this was her last year to put out so much corn, so many rows of beans and tomatoes. Now, it seemed, that time had come. There was no garden this year. After an unsuccessful operation--"Hit was everywhere; they said she was plum eat up with it"--and a brief stay in the hospital, Dessie had been brought home, where she could be tended by hospice volunteers and by her numerous loving family.
At last the prayer was ended and the preacher was being escorted back to Dessie's bedside for a farewell blessing. Louvanda, the youngest of Dessie's four daughters, leaned down to Elizabeth and whispered, "Soon as Preacher gets done, she wants to see you. She asked for you particular."
"Thanks, Louvanda," Elizabeth said. "I'll wait out on the front porch if you don't mind; I need to cool
off a bit."
"Lord, don't I know," agreed Louvanda, fanning her own reddened face. "Seems like I ain't never goin' to get through the change."
The porch was empty except for Dessie's half-blind old cow dog. Patsy thumped her tail and lifted her head to acknowledge Elizabeth's presence, but stayed curled up on her scrap of faded carpet. Sinking gratefully into a weathered oak rocker, Elizabeth stretched out her long legs, propping up her sneaker-clad feet on a milk crate, and looked across the road to new-plowed tobacco fields. The red dirt lay in furrows, heavy clods thrown to the side and dotted with streaming tufts of deep green barley, the remains of a winter cover crop. Beyond the tobacco fields and just out of sight behind a small ridge lay her land--more fields and pastures, barns and outbuildings. And above them all rose the tree-clad peak that was Pinnacle Mountain--her home. Elizabeth's eyes traveled lovingly up the slope, relishing the vibrant yellow-greens of new foliage merging with the deeper emeralds of pine and fir. At the top of the mountain, a slash of pasture gleamed like polished jade amid the trees.I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills
. The verse sprang into her mind, a relic of her churchgoing childhood. They do give me strength, even if I don't have the same kind of faith my neighbors do.
She thought of the women inside with their uplifted hands and radiant faces. It would be so comforting, so relaxing, just to believe and not think. I had that kind of faith when I was young.
A bitter inner voice sounded mockingly: Didn't you used to believe in a lot of things--Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and happily ever after?
Elizabeth sighed, looking at the western sky beyond the mountain. Four in the afternoon and the sun was still high over her farm. She had welcomed the lengthening days of spring, and now that May was here, with its profusion of flowers and garden work to be done, she hoped that the joyless cloud that had so unexpectedly settled on her last fall would finally lift. There would be time to work in the garden before supper. Time to hoe or dig till exhaustion forced her inside, and then a quick supper, a soak in a hot bath, and she could fall, bone-weary, into bed and sleep without thinking about the empty space beside her.
Sam's death, almost five years before, had shattered her world, but she had forced herself to carry on. She had told herself that there would be time to mourn later: later, after her girls, Rosemary and Laurel, were established in their lives; later, after she had proven to herself that she could keep the farm going. Pressing needs on every side--the farm, the girls, the business--had forced her to hide her grief in some unvisited corner of her mind. Four years had gone by and her friends and family had marveled at her strength, her cheerfulness, and her acceptance. But last October, when Laurel moved to Asheville, I just crashed,
Laurel, her younger daughter, was a self-described "struggling artist" whose large semiabstract acrylics were beginning to attract the attention of a few galleries. She was fiercely independent and extremely competent. And she's twenty-four years old and certainly capable of being on her own
, thought Elizabeth. But as sophisticated and swaggering as she comes across, there's a core of . . . of naivete. I still feel like I have to watch out for her. Or is this just the old empty-nest syndrome hitting with a vengeance?
Elizabeth had spent the winter in a kind of wounded numbness, suddenly mired in loss. She felt in need of comfort but didn't know where to find it, having been unwilling to tell her two daughters--or indeed anyone--that she missed Sam now even more than she had at the time of the accident that had taken him from her.
"Well, Lizzie Beth." Miss Birdie came out, closing the screen door carefully behind her. "Hit's good to see you. I know Dessie'll be proud you come." She wiped her eyes and Elizabeth suddenly realized that Miss Birdie, once an energetic and bustling little butterball, had lost weight and seemed frail and old. Her face was thin and haggard and she was using a cane. A cane--when did this start?
"Why don't you sit out here with me for a while, Miss Birdie?" Elizabeth suggested, pulling a rocking chair over near her own. "This must be awfully hard on you. You and Dessie have been friends since you were little girls, haven't you?"
"That we have, Lizzie Beth, honey. But when the Lord calls, I reckon we have to answer." The little woman leaned heavily on her cane and brushed her hand across her eyes. "I'm sorry I can't stay and visit with you, Lizzie Beth, but I'm lookin' for Cletus to be home today. He'll be wantin' something hot for supper after bein' back in them woods a couple of weeks." Miss Birdie shook her head. "He's right bad to loafer but he always comes home when it's gettin' time to hoe the baccer. And they's a big tent revival next week up on the bypass and that boy does purely love a tent revival. Hit's some preacher from away called John the Baptizer is what Pastor Briggs done told us."
Miss Birdie went slowly and carefully down the steps and out to her ancient pickup truck, pausing to call back, "You come see us, now."
Once again, the screen door opened and Louvanda and Pastor Briggs stepped onto the porch. "Thank you for coming today, Pastor," said Louvanda. She wrapped her arms across her chest and stood silent for a minute. Her face was wet with tears as she began again, "The home health nurse said Mommy's sinkin' fast; it was a true blessing to have you to pray with her before the end."
Pastor Briggs pulled a folded white handkerchief from the back pocket of his shiny black trousers and wiped his face. "Preaching's hard work, but I'm glad if I could be of comfort to Sister Miller and bring a few more souls to Jesus."
His dark eyes flicked toward Elizabeth, taking in her blue jeans and faded work shirt with disfavor. Louvanda followed his gaze and said, "This here is Miz Goodweather. She lives over yon, almost to the top of Pinnacle, you know, the old Baker place. Miz Goodweather's been a good neighbor to Mommy ever since her and her man moved here. Mommy wants to see you now, 'Lizbeth," she continued. "Just go straight on through. She's still awake but she just had some more of the pain medicine and she'll likely drop off pretty soon."
Stepping back into the claustrophobic heat of the house, Elizabeth saw that most of the crowd of family and friends were filling plates from the laden kitchen table and settling in chairs all around the living room to eat, to gossip, and to reminisce. She knew many of the members of Dessie's large family, and nodded and smiled her way through the throng back to the bedroom where her old friend lay.
Kylie Sue, Dessie's oldest daughter, was standing guard at the door. Her weatherworn face looked tired but serene, and she smiled sweetly at the sight of Elizabeth.
" 'Lizbeth, you come right in. She's gettin' sleepy but she was set on talkin' to you. She was askin' for you this mornin', but then the preacher come." Kylie Sue rolled her shoulders and stretched her arms. "Lordy, I been settin' there with her I don't know how long. I'm stiff all over. If you don't care, 'Lizbeth, would you stay with her till she falls asleep? I need to go get me some coffee."
The old woman lay in the dim light of the little bedroom, a tiny wasted shape under the softly glowing blues and reds of a Delectable Mountains patchwork quilt. Her eyes were closed but her thin fingers picked at the black cover of the worn Bible that was resting on her chest. Elizabeth hesitated. Then she said softly, "Hey, Dessie."
The eyes slowly opened and Dessie squinted up at Elizabeth. Her toothless mouth formed a smile. "Hey yoreself, Lizzie Beth." She stretched out a bony hand and Elizabeth took it. "Get you a chair, Lizzie Beth; I got something to say to you. Seems like it's been just a-goin' round and round in my head and I'll not be easy till I tell you."
Still holding Dessie's hand, Elizabeth sat in the ladder-back chair that was pulled up to the side of
the bed. "What is it, Dessie? Is there something I can do for you?"
Dessie looked at the younger woman fondly. "Lizzie Beth, you been a good neighbor to me all these years but there ain't a thing you can do for me now. Preacher's prayed over me and I've had a word with all the young uns. They even brought all the least uns in to say good-bye to Mamaw. I'm content in my heart. But I been studyin' about you, Lizzie Beth. All winter long you ain't been yoreself, worser even than right after yore Sam was took. Now, I know you ain't one to talk about yore troubles, but I could see it just the same. You have a great sorrow on yore heart, a hurt that ain't a-healin'."
Excerpted from Signs in the Blood by Vicki Lane. Copyright © 2005 by Vicki Lane. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.