"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"
A Short Story by Homer Page
It was one of those hot summer nights that makes sleeping in Missouri an ordeal. My father was away in the Army fighting the Great War. Actually, the Great War had ended, but he was still in Korea waiting to be discharged. My mother, grandmother and I, and my two year old little brother sat on the screened-in back porch wishing for a cool breeze. We were patient and hopeful, much like a gambler waiting for a good hand, and about as rewarded as a chronic loser on a bad luck streak.
“Ain’t it hot?” my grandmother said.
“Sure is,” my mother answered. “I’m sweatin’ just sittin’ here, not even movin’.”
The night sounds surrounded us. Whippoorwills punctuated the constant grinding and scraping of the crickets. Insects hurled themselves against the wire screen that separated them from our tempting mammalian bodies. We could hear the shouts and singing that emanated from the Pentecostal Revival meeting across an open field. It was summer and the country was alive. The biosphere was worshipping.
“I wonder if they will go over to the pond again tonight,” I asked my grandmother.
“Oh, I bet they will,” she said with a tone of certainty in her voice.
That morning, my grandmother talked on the telephone with my aunt. Aunt Dee had all the news about the carrying on at the revival meeting. Floyd Dowl, who attended all the meetings, had seen Uncle Walter in town and told him about the wondrous things that were taking place. “The Holy Spirit surely was loose among us,” Floyd told him. “People were speakin’ in tongues. Old Cal Cox, the Daddy of the orneriest bunch in the whole county, said the spirit had come into his body and thrown him down on the ground, and told him that if he didn’t give up drinkin’ and bein’ mean to people, he would go to hell. He was scared to death and was tremblin’ and beggin’ forgiveness and prayin’, and the Lord forgave him, and ‘Hallelujah!’ He was saved.” And Floyd said they went over to Cheadom Pond and baptized Cal and all the others who were saved.
He said even old Mrs. Walton, who was eighty years old if she was a day, got the spirit. She walked out into the pond with all the others, and when Brother Eddie started baptizing, she sat right down in the water, even though everyone knew she was already saved.
I was five years old, so sitting down in the pond seemed an exciting and dangerous thing to do. I couldn’t understand why an old woman, especially with all of her clothes on, would sit down in the water and get soaking wet. My grandmother said that they were going to do it again.
“Why do they all want to get soakin’ wet, Ma?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I guess they’re hot from all that whoopin’ and hollerin’,” she answered. Ma was a Methodist.
“I’ll bet it’s hot in that church,” I offered.
“Mighty hot,” she agreed.
“They sing good,” I said.
“Mighty good,” she agreed.
I knew from her perfunctory answers that our conversation about the revival was over.
The church we attended was enclosed by a cemetery. During those earliest years of my memory, the grassy rows of graves were often scarred by new burials. The graves were covered with piles of dirt. These were resting places of the soldiers who came home in boxes. My grandmother, mother, little brother and I witnessed some of these homecomings. The sounds of the bugle blowing “Taps”, and the rifles firing salutes filled many of my waking thoughts and sleeping visions.
“The war is over. He’ll be all right,” my grandmother told my mother.
I don’t remember the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. Whatever the morality of these weapons may have been, for my family their use meant that there would be no more soldiers coming home in boxes. As I grew older, I came to understand that my father was in the ranks of soldiers designated to invade the Japanese mainland. He saw combat on Okinawa. His infantry division cleaned up the remnants of Japanese resistance after the end of the war. It would be almost 40 years before one of these graves would claim him.
One day, Brother Eddie came to visit. “Hello, son,” he said. “You’re gettin’ to be a big boy. I’ll bet your daddy will be proud of you when he gets home.”
“And I’ll sure be proud of my daddy,” I told him.
My grandmother invited him in and asked him to have a seat. The living room floor was covered with linoleum. It was slick from waxing and polishing. It made a fine surface for a boy in stocking feet to slide on. An upright piano stood in one corner. A small, round table covered by a crocheted doily stood by a window that looked out on the barnyard. A couch covered with corduroy sat under the front window, and a wooden rocking chair sat in the opposite corner facing the piano. My mother and father’s wedding picture hung on a wall, and a framed certificate, which my mother had received when she completed her studies with a local piano teacher, was proudly displayed on another wall.
Brother Eddie sat down on the couch and took off his straw hat. “It’s only ten ‘o clock, and it’s already hot,” he said.
My grandmother sat in the rocking chair, and my mother took a seat on the piano bench. I sat on the floor at her feet. She smoothed down my hair with her hand.
“It sure is nice for you to stop by and see us,” my grandmother said. “What can we do for you?” she asked.
“Why nothin’, Sister Annie,” he said. “I thought maybe I could do somethin’ for you. The folks at church wanted me to stop by and see if you needed anythin’.”
“No, we’re fine,” she told him. “Bob will be home soon, and we’ll be fine till then,” she told him.
“Well, that’s good,” he said. “But there’s somethin’ else the folks want me to talk with you about.”
For the first time my mother spoke. “What’s that, Brother Eddie?” she asked with something in her voice that made me feel a little uneasy.
The folks say you ought to bring this boy to the revival so we can pray for him and for you, too. They say all of you bear the curse. I tell you, the Lord is doin’ miracles. We can pray you through, and the Lord will bestow his savin’ grace 16I felt my mother’s body stiffen, so I was quiet.
My grandmother spoke. “We don’t believe in the curse,” she said. “We hear you singin’ every night. Sure is pretty, but we’re Methodists, and I guess that’s good enough for us.”
“You don’t have to be Pentecostal to come to our revival, and you don’t have to stop goin’ to your church,” he said. “It would just be so wonderful with Bob comin’ home if, when he got here, all of this would be taken care of. Think how good that would make him feel.”
“We’ll think about it,” my grandmother said diplomatically and stood up, indicating that as far as she was concerned, the visit was over.
“Now, just a minute,” Brother Eddie said. “Don’t you think we ought to pray about it?”
“You’re goin’ a little too fast for us. We’ll think about it,” she said.
“All right,” he said. “You do that.”
Brother Eddie didn’t like being dismissed, but that was what Ma did to him.
When Brother Eddie left, my mother said, “I just wish people would mind their own business.”
But I was bewildered. Brother Eddie made it seem like something was wrong with us, and God was mad at us. He said we could be fixed before Daddy got home. I wanted that to happen, and I wanted to go in the pond with all my clothes on. I asked my mother if we could go to the revival.
“Hush,” she said. “That’s just foolishness.”
“What is a ‘curse’?” I asked.
“Why do you ask that?” she inquired in a tone of voice that said she knew very well why I asked.
“Brother Eddie said we were cursed,” I replied. “What is ‘cursed’?” I persisted.
“You are too young to understand,” she said. “But when you get older, I will tell you. It is nothin’ for you to worry about.”
I didn’t worry, but I did wonder.
That night found us once again on the back porch listening to the crickets and the folks across the field.
“I wonder if they are goin’ to the pond tonight,” I remarked to my grandmother.
“I reckon they will,” she said.
“Ma, are we cursed?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “That is an old story that people made up. Don’t you worry about it.”
I didn’t worry, but I wondered why neither my mother nor my grandmother would talk about it, and I wondered why Brother Eddie wanted to save us from it and fix us up before Daddy got home.
Several weeks later, we went over to Aunt Dee’s for Sunday dinner. Floyd Dowl and his family were there. After the chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, string beans, cole slaw, biscuits and apple pie had been eaten, the children were sent outside to play. I joined the others in the front yard where Willy Dowl was conducting a revival meeting.
Willy was eight years old, and big for his age. He had red hair and freckles, and he was fat. Willy was slow at school. The other children made fun of him, but he was a bully with the younger children in our extended family. He had attended the revival meetings with his father and mother, and he had watched very closely. He said we needed to call him Brother Willy.
“I am Brother Willy,” he said. “I want all of you sinners to get down on your knees. Now, say ‘Praise the Lord’!”
“I don’t want to,” I asserted.
He walked over to me and pushed me down on my knees. “You are cursed by Satan,” he snarled.
“I am not, and you let me up!” I yelled at him.
“You’re blind, and you’re cursed,” he said. “I will make you ask for forgiveness. Brother Eddie says your grandmother is an old blind witch. All of you are goin’ to hell.”
There it was again. Was I cursed? What was cursed? And then he said ‘blind’. Was I going to hell because I was blind?
I kicked him, and bit his hand. He started to cry and hit me in the stomach. He knocked the wind out of me, and I began to cry.
Floyd Dowl came out to see what was going on.
“He bit me!” Willy told his father. “He’s bad. He’s goin’ to hell for sure.”
Floyd looked at Willy’s hand. “It’s bleedin’,” he said. “If you do somethin’ like this when your daddy gets home, you’ll get a whippin’ for certain,” he told me.
“He started it,” I sobbed, but Floyd didn’t answer. He reached down and cuffed me and took Willy and walked away.
“My daddy will be mad at you,” I yelled at Floyd’s back. However, I wasn’t at all certain of that. I sincerely wished I wasn’t blind.
I had known that my grandmother and mother and I were blind, but before that day, I hadn’t felt it. As we drove away in Uncle Walter’s car, I heard Willy yelling, “Praise the Lord that I’m not blind.”
I wanted to cry, but instead, I said to no one in particular, “I will kill him.”
“Hush now,” my mother said. “You’ve done enough already.”
“He started it,” I said. “And he’s bigger than me.”
My grandmother put her arm around me and pulled me to her. “Praise the Lord you’re not like Willy Dowl,” she said and laughed. I moved closer to her and started to cry quietly. Soon, I was asleep.
My grandmother taught me how to rebel and insist that I be shown respect. She saved me. My tears and her love washed me clean. I lost interest in the pond. Perhaps she was an uppity, old, blind witch, but if that is what she was, then all I have to say is, “Praise the Lord.”
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Copyright 2002 A&H Publishing Corporation