Chapter 5

“What’re we gonna do?” says Lou Ann.

“Folks will be waiting at the church by now,” I say. “One of us has to go to the church and tell them, the other one should stay here with Mama. You want to be the one to go or stay?” 

“I’ll stay with Mama.  I ain’t never been good at talking in front of people.”

Uncle Hiram pats my arm.  “I’d go with you, Sissy, but I got to help find Joe Ray.  Besides, I ain’t fit for church like this.”  He points to his clothes.

“I’d best be getting ready then.”    In the bedroom I take the black dress I’d pressed last night off the hanger and lay it on the bed.  I turn to find my reflection in the looking glass, the same as I left it this morning; and then I put on my mourning dress and comb my hair.  I pull black slippers over the feet of my silky pantyhose, place a narrow tasteful chain in fourteen-carat gold around my neck, and watch the reflection in the looking glass change.  I stand there undecided, and then remove the necklace, laying it on the dresser.

I raise my eyes again to gaze in the mirror that once belonged to Mamaw and catch a slight movement from behind me, from a corner of the room.  Papaw nods his head slightly in approval before fading. 

Before his decline Papaw had told me many stories about our ancestors coming into these hills when Kentucky was still just a county of Virginia.  We were of mixed blood, he’d said, and some people had called us Melungeons.  In the beginning many of our people had been killed by the Indians, but, later, others had married up with them, bringing Indian blood into our family line. We were also descended from early Porty-Gese sailors, he said, who’d been shipwrecked off the North Carolina coast three hundred years ago.  They’d made their way across the land into the mountains through Sounding Gap, later known as Pound Gap, a well-known Indian warpath, into eastern Kentucky, mixing their dark blood with the Indians and mulattos and whites.  The Germans, the English, Scots-Irish and Jews. 

The Mullins line, he said, came from Abraham De Moulins and his bride, Rachel Broret, French Huguenots who came over in 1700 on a refugee ship from London, where they’d gone to escape religious persecution, landing in James Town, Virginia and settling on the James River.  One of their descendants, whose name had been changed to Mullins, made his way into the mountains in the late 1700s, bringing with him a hatred of the Catholics, passed down like a genetic memory in the blood.  When John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, Papaw’s family feared the Pope had at last gained power and would rule the world from Rome.

Having no quarrel with the dark-skinned breeds they found on the mountain ridges, the descendants of Abraham and Rachel had intermarried with them.   We were mongrels, Papaw said, chuckling as if that were a good thing to be.  The mixed blood, he said, was where I’d gotten my dark complexion.

“Then why are my eyes blue.” I said.

“You got your blue eyes from Mamaw.  My folks are the ones what had the mixed blood.”

After that I’d look in the mirror, at my straight black hair, my dark complexion and blue eyes, and wonder where the different parts of me came from; who had given me the long narrow nose, the ears that stuck out on the sides of my head, the long thin body and big feet with their long toes that I could pick up rocks with, and throw them, like I did at Luther when he teased me, calling me long-nosed Callie.

Did someone also give me the music I heard when I stood in the bottomland beyond the house, watching the jagged line of sky against the trees on the mountaintops?

In the city I hear a different kind of music, not like the music of my childhood, the music from the mountains, that flowed in varying tones of gaiety or sadness, sometimes pounding in despair, yet always stirring a deep memory in my soul. With each visit home the music of the mountains has grown fainter, the gap widening between who I was and who I’ve become.

And then yesterday Lou Ann called me, and across the wires I heard the music, loud, harsh and strident, calling me home.  

When I come back into the front room Lou Ann and Uncle Hiram are picking up the flowerpots and sprays of flowers, taking them to the porch and placing them on the cart the coffin had laid on.

As they carry them through the room, the blossoms send their fragrance into the air, adding a hint of sweetness to the smells of sulfur and rain, bacon and coffee that fill the house, a faint odor creeping through of decaying things and mice that once lived here beneath these floors, burrowing into the walls to gnaw at night.  Beneath it all is the smell of old decaying wood and winter fires gone out. 

We push and pull the cart down the rocky path.  Its wheels hit a rock and try to veer off into the flattened brown grass.  We reach to keep the flowers from falling off.  At the bridge, we carry them across to my Jeep, one by one, keeping a hand free to hold onto a cable.

When the flowers are loaded, Lou Ann and Uncle Hiram cross the bridge to the house while I sit in my Jeep watching them roll the empty cart back up the path and up the steps onto the porch.  See it sitting there, waiting.   

The church sits at the head of the holler, a long narrow building that used to be a general store.  It sits beside the road, the gold-painted cross hanging above the door the only sign it’s the house of God.  As I pull onto the gravel, I remember all the moaning and crying and praying I’ve heard in this church through all the years of Sundays, and their echoes seem to rent the air as I exit the Jeep and hurry towards the rain-wet cross, running up the steps to the church door.

The door is open and I walk in. Preacher Clyde sits in his big chair facing me as I walk down the aisle, past the people in the folding chairs on either side. Towards flowers that cringe beside the empty place left for a coffin. The preacher stands, a question on his face. I give a slight shake of my head.  I don’t want him firing folks up with his nonsense, be better if it’s me who tells them.

All eyes are on me as I turn around.  I see Dorrie Hill and Hank Collins, married now, Mama said; he holds the baby. I see others I went to school with and friends of Joe Ray and Lou Ann. Old man Fields sits in the second row, hunched like Uncle Hiram from black lung, his claw-hands on the back of the chair in front of him.  From up on Spider, there’s old man Grigsby, widowed twice and married, in all, to three sisters.  I wonder if he’ll outlive this one, the baby of the family; no more sisters left to marry.

My eyes stop at Martha Brashear, whose eyes are red from crying, and I realize they all are waiting for me to speak. And how do I begin?  If Joe Ray were here he’d make up words, right on the spot, strum on that old guitar of his and tell them all about his journey down the creek, how he fell in the water and sister Callie didn’t save him and he drowned.  And he’d laugh, Lord how he’d laugh.  He always thought I made too much of things.  Ain’t that bad, Callie, he used to say.  Life’s just a big joke and you gotta learn to laugh instead of cry.  Know what I mean?   No, I don’t Joe Ray, I’d say. I don’t know what you mean at all.

I’m crying now as I stand here thinking about Joe Ray, knowing he’s dead but not believing it, and other folks are crying, asking about Mama.  They think I’ve come to tell them she died from grief over Joe Ray, that we’re going to wait and have a double funeral.

“No, no,” I say.  “It’s Joe Ray; the funeral’s been delayed because there was an accident.” 

“What kind of accident?” 

“Who was hurt?”

“Oh Lord, oh Lord, have mercy,” voices cry out from around the room.

“Nobody’s hurt,” I say quickly, “But Joe Ray’s coffin is laying somewhere at the bottom of Hanged Man Creek, and it’s going to take awhile to find him; we may have to wait until the creek goes down.” 

The crying and moaning and praying in the church grows louder, as if Preacher Clyde had given one of his Hell-bent sermons. 

It’s then Luther raises his head and for the first time I see him sitting at the end of the front row next to a law officer.  Tears are running down his face.  I quickly walk over to him, lean over and kiss his wet cheek, catching a glimpse of the handcuffs on his wrists.

“Oh, Luther,” I say.

Preacher Clyde raises his hands to quiet the room down, and then speaks.  “Why don’t we all go down to the creek together and say a few words for Joe Ray. Then if it’s alright with Miz Callie we’ll come back here and eat the meal the ladies have fixed for us.” 

Feeling all the eyes on me, I try to say something, can’t, so I nod my head. The preacher motions for me to go ahead of him; he follows with the deputy and Luther close behind.

As I walk down the aisle, hands reach out to pat my arms and someone says “God bless you, child.”  And I am a child again in that moment, all the self-taught knowledge I’ve gained like a footprint fading in the dust.  For that moment, I am back where I belong.

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