Going to preach those horseless fall days when the grass turned golden and the world had not yet gone dim and brittle, you learned like the wind to go on winding ways from dugout hole to hole, gathering the flock, which at first was no more than a few women and their children.
Midday we would arrive at a bow in a stream that bisected several of the homesteads, unique only in the two large stones set there and the pool of calm water below, which was good for baptizing. It was also used for the holediggers' washing, so soap-fat clung at the reeds and the rocks were draped with drying clothes even on Meeting days. No one could tell where the stones came from, there being no mountains near enough or hills of worthwhile size to yield them. They were storm gray and always warm to the touch on their sunward side, where if you climbed you would catch a rain-dog whiff of sopping clothes. The biggest of the stones Preacher-father would mount and from the top deliver the service.
The first and only regular congregation of his life began with just that smattering of women and children, the men preferring for a while to stay behind to guard their meager holdings. Never mind, he'd say, it's always Eves who come quickest to the call and bring their wailing broods along.
From his perch my father howled against sin with such vehemence that the ears of the frontier women burned red. He danced on his stone and bid them do the same, sang songs self-composed and of the same vigorous roughness in condemnation of the evils of the world and so exultant of the Lord that, though harsh of lyric, they could never be profane. Before long those women caught the fire and danced and sang as best they could to keep up with his furious inventions. And from my place in the lee of the stones my heart went to raunch to see Emily filled suddenly with the spirit, wheeling and shaking and stomping down the grass with the rest of them. More and more I was called up to preach, but only briefly; and even in those moments I was on her. My words were all for her.
Then, O God, the baptisms. Reveal to me the body of woman in all its shapes and ranges. She may be hard and underfed but a temple nonetheless.
I sorrowed at being put to dunking the little children downstream, and I watched Preacher-father drawing Rachels, Ruths, and Hagars from the water, a miracle of dripping jenny and hind. I'd seen many baptized before and have baptized many since, but to see it then at the worst of my youthful urges was a revelation of clinging wool and sackcloth, of hair to be wrung out on the bank as converts were exhorted into the drink. Emily Fladeboe went, dress ballooning as she stepped down into the water, and was received.
Heavenly father, he said, take this girl close to your heart and keep her, for she has forsaken sin and wickedness. This ewe is washed in the blood of the lamb.
And so she was dipped and came up gasping slick and beautiful, reaching out her hands for someone on the bank to take. My own hand was on a small one's head, holding him under while I lifted my voice to praise when she waded smiling to the bank. And because I was forgetful and forever sneaking looks to where she sat sodden in the cane-break, humming piously with the other women, I more than once withdrew a half-drowned child from the water.
We sent the sisters off full of the spirit, and soon the husbands gave up their guards and followed. By late fall the faithful were wearing out traces in the grass on their way to be cleansed of sin.
The locusts appeared first in singles, clumps, and clusters, then in hordes, and your every step sent up clouds of them playing dinnertime fiddles while they chewed, the sound of which was like a thousandtoothed mouth gnawing on and on.
We're thankful, Lord! said Preacher-father to his flock on the first Sunday of the plague while the assembled Chitites swatted at the horde that would soon drive them down into their underground homes. We're thankful even for this!
THE BLOOD OF HEAVEN © 2013 by Kent Wascom; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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