Two southern boys go on an adventure
| THE SECOND COMING
Now the reason that I got involved in this in the first place was because of my second cousin Clifton who was two years older than me. And the reason I don't mind talking about it when there are so many people who for all those years didn't mention it hardly at all and if they did they almost always said it didn't happen the way someone heard it did and even then usually lied and said they weren't there, is because I don't owe anyone in Hog Eye Bend, Arkansas one blessed thing. The only one I would have protected anyway was Clifton who got killed in the Second World War though they wouldn't take him at first because he couldn't pass the IQ test.
Mama always said that it turned out that Clifton was just smart enough to get himself killed but that's not the way I looked at it. I sort of idolized him, him being older and everything, and I felt he had a good mind. It took a good mind to stand out in those days. And Clifton stood out as far as I was concerned.
“Fun is where you find it,” – Clifton used to say, and I agreed. “Fun is just about better’n anything’” he would add. “It keeps us from bein’ mules or such.” I mean, does that sound like the philosophy of a person who couldn't have passed an IQ test if he had wanted to? Really wanted to?
Anyway, fun was what we were looking for and it was fun that brought us to where we ended up, which brought us to have a front row seat to the most exciting thing to ever happen in or about our little settlement, and which revealed so many things about so many people. You could say that it was part of the folklore of the Arkansas delta, even if it was recorded by two boys scarcely old enough to realize what was happening, much less old enough to attach much meaning to it.
I was ten at the time, and Clifton was twelve, he being twenty-one when they hit Pearl Harbor and not living long past that. It was in August when the crops were laid by, that being another reason why so many people got involved. Had it had happened any other time of the year most people would have been in bed and would never had even known about it.
"I got it all figured out," Clifton announced one day.
"You know anything about girls?"
"Oh yeah," I lied.
"Ever see one nekkid?"
"Oh my God! Who?"
"You won't believe it."
"Why would anyone want to see that?"
"Cause she's a girl, stupid!"
Until that moment, I had never thought of Gehaw as a girl, or as anything else for that matter. I didn't even know her name except that her last name was Ratliff and she was one of the Ratliff's from south of Pine Bluff - the means ones - the ones that Papa said married one another. I hadn't even heard her talk except to her Daddy's mules which she drove from sunup until sundown every day and all she said to them was "Gee" and "Haw." Of course that's where she got that name. She was about eighteen, I suppose, and I remember her being real tall and real skinny.
"You kiddin'?" I asked.
"I got it all figured out."
"How'd you like to watch her take a bath tonight?"
I tell you I was stunned by the prospect of an escapade of such magnitude. Clifton sensed it. I could tell by the way he looked at me.
"Take a bath?"
"How do you know she does?"
"Hell, everybody takes a bath."
"I mean how do you know she will tonight?"
"She does every Saturday night, right before dark. Fish Johnson told me and Chester's Gracie told him.
Now I wouldn't bank a whole lot on what Fish Johnson said but Chester's Gracie was about as reliable a person as you found in Hog Eye Bend. She shared that common first name with a bunch of other girls about her same age as a result of the Lady Evangelist Gracie Throughgood who had held a week long meeting in Kingsland about twenty years earlier. She must have made quite an impression on the local people, for almost any girl born the next three years was named Gracie. Since they were mostly related, there was considerable confusion until they started getting married at which time they took their husband's first name as an identifier. We had, in addition to Chester's Gracie: Newt's Gracie, Jesse's Gracie, Neddo's Gracie, and Ed's Gracie just on our road alone. And my Grandmother, who was given the name half a century before this all happened, was called “Papa's Gracie” the last few years of her life.
Anyway, I never thought at the time about how Chester's Gracie might have come by this information because I was considerably troubled by Clifton's plan. I knew from past adventures that he tended to underestimate both the degree of difficulty as well as the time required for execution. "First you got to get started and then you jest play 'er as she goes," was his tactical battle plan for most undertakings. And his plans tended to get larger and more complicated as we got older.
This one presented a pretty good step up, even for Clifton.
"You mean we just slip up and watch her?" I asked.
"As easy as that," he said and he got that blank look on his face like he did when he was thinking. He hadn’t said so yet but I knew we were off on an adventure.
Now this discussion took place on Saturday about noon and we were supposed to embark about an hour before dark. Normally, this would have been simple since Clifton and I stayed with Uncle T.J. and Aunt Hallie, his grandparents, most of the summer. But, as I said, the crops had been laid by and Papa used this time of year to make whiskey and that was a problem.
The making of the whiskey wasn't the problem as much as the testing of it, a job which Papa trusted to no one else and which often rendered him unpredictable by Saturday night. Once he made a particularly bad batch and became convinced that the "White Russians" were coming after us, whoever they were. That night we all huddled in a corner while he sat in a chair in the living room with a deer rifle across his knee, waiting for the attack.
"I'll shoot the goddam monkeys," he kept saying all night while Mama kept up a steady line of prayer. It turned out later that he didn’t even have bullets in the gun. That would have been lucky for any intruders, I suppose.
That was when I began staying with Clifton whenever I could. You never knew when whiskey and imagination might collaborate to create a new enemy for Papa. That might, of course, keep me at home and I sure didn't want that to happen tonight.
Thinking back on it, I don't think it was so much to get to see Geehaw take a bath as it was for the honor of being asked to by a man much older and wiser man than I.
"What happens afterwards?" I assumed a logical continuity.
"Nothin’”. We may tell Fish but we may not. He talks too much."
"What happens if we get caught?"
Clifton looked at me as serious as death and drew an imaginary knife across his throat. "Old man Ratliff would kill us I reckon." Then he looked at me suspiciously. "You in this with me?"
"Sure," I said and in the saying of it I felt the metallic taste of the knife blade. I had always taken it for granted that, if I were to be killed, it would during some great brave act, like protecting my family for instance... say from an onslaught of White Russians. Only my respect for Clifton could have forced me to face such a sacrifice as the price of watching Gehaw Ratliff take a bath.
But I was game and this adventure was as good as underway.
My fears were realized. Papa had tied one on by the time I came home, but luckily for me he had sailed right past belligerence and was nearing a state of bewilderment as Mama tore into him. I could hear them when I reached the front yard.
"You low down, skunk! Sorry outfit. You ain't fit to live!"
"Shut up for Christ's sake," Papa was struggling to keep his balance. He kept reaching for the garden fence and every time he did he grabbed a handful of blackberry vines.
“Damn it to God Almighty hell,” he yelled.
"Blasphemer!" Mamma shouted.
"Yes, Goddammit!" Papa countered, "Now get out of here and leave me alone." I had walked up and noticed the green cast to his skin. "I don't feel good," he said weakly. He tried to look past Mamma to me.
"No wonder," Mama shouted right into his face. "You been swillin' rotgut whiskey all day and now it's the Lord's turn." Then she looked around at me. "Bobby you get over here and help me pray."
"I was going over to Uncle T. J's," I said.
"You get your hind end over here and pray." Mama said. Then she dropped to one knee.
"All of you leave me alone - just get away!" Papa shouted. Then his jaw went slack. "I'm gonna be sick," he announced, not to any particular person; he just announced it like it was of some importance to the world.
"You get out of my sight then," Mama said although she needn't have bothered, for Papa had already lurched around the corner of the house. Then she turned to me. "I hope you're satisfied."
"You should look after him. You know how sorry he is."
Papa was making awful noises. Sort of like the gurgling sound that a hog makes when it's stuck, I thought, only much louder and with a lot more thrashing around. I didn't want to draw atttention from him so I played it contrite. "I ain't done nothin'."
"Hush," Mamma said, to my relief. She was listening for Papa, who wasn't making any noise at all now. I looked at her and I could see real concern in her face.
"You think he passed out?" I asked.
"You shut your little smart mouth!" Mamma said. I had forgotten that criticizing Papa was a privilege that she reserved for herself. "He may have died for all you know. A man that works all day and all week for you and who don't ask nothin, who ain't never done nothin' but smell the backside of a mule all his life and ain't got a nickel to his name for it because he spends it to keep you fed and who you ain't never once offered to help, even once when his back was bent over and breakin', not once, just always off with Clifton doin' God knows what."
She could have gone on like this for hour or so if she had wanted to. I've seen her. But Papa had walked up so quietly that we hadn't noticed. He stood by the back door and he looked worse than before.
"I think maybe you had better pray after all," he said softly, his eyes meeting Mamma's.
"Halleluia!" she said and forgot all about me.
It was settled then, I was cleared for action. I changed shirts; that's the only thing I could thing of that might add dignity to the affair. It was true that the shirt I changed to was exactly like the one I discarded, and that my dress was the same overalls and blue shirt that every young boy in the county wore, but I felt that the impending activities required some sort of special attention, no matter how modest.
I stopped by a window before I left to make sure that Mamma and Papa were going to be occupied for awhile, and, sure enough, they were going at it in earnest. Mamma had Papa on his knees with his head in both hands and tears were streaming down her face, which was, of course, raised toward the Savior.
"Lord, look down on this poor drunk sinner." she began.
"Wait!" Papa cried. "Wait just a Goddam minute!"
"A blasphemer and a drunkard," Mamma expanded.
"Wait," Papa said again and he tried to rise but Mamma had him in salvation's grip. He simply rolled over on his back.
"You be still, "Mamma said, and she raised her face once more toward heaven. "Lord, this drunk sinner needs forgiveness, undeserving though he is."
This time Papa prevailed. "Don't tell Him I're drunk, dammit, tell Him I're sick!"
"I can't lie to the Lord," Mamma said, and she raised Papa's head up until his eyes met hers. "I won't lie to the Lord, even for you."
"Just tell him I're sick, then, that part's the truth. Just don't mention the drunk part."
"I can't Homer, not even for you."
"Oh please just this once. Who’ll know?"
I listened to them go on like this for a few minutes and I guess you could say that Papa finally got his way, for as I left for Clifton's house I could hear Mamma's voice drifting out over the cotton fields. It was sort of musical, like some misty plea for mankind itself. "Help this poor sick sinner, Lord. He ain't worth a ten cent bucket of lard, but could you help him please? He ain't much, but he's sick and he's all we got."
I skedaddled before Papa got his strength back.
I arrived at Uncle T.J.'s house on time. Clifton was ready. I don’t think that I would have been disappointed if he had thought up an alternative adventure. But he was as determined as ever and we were soon on our way. We told his grandparents that we were going to check our trotlines. I don’t think they even heard us. They were sitting on the front porch, Aunt Hallie snapping green beans and Uncle T.H. reading the Bible. Neither of them looked up. We backed off the porch and across the yard, quietly. Then we simply evaporated and headed for the bayou.
Clifton was giving the directions and I was following as best I could. I was, at the same time, plotting an escape route in the event that old man Ratliff became involved. I didn't mention this to Clifton, of course, for it was his strong belief that if you even thought of an unlucky possibility it was more likely than not to happen. Planning for any sort of mishap, would, in his way of looking at it, invite that very disaster - so why bother?
"Lucky for us they live on the edge of the bayou,"Clifton explained as we crossed the Ratliff's field. "We'll act like that's where we're headed and then we'll just move up in the cover of the woods when the sun starts going down."
"Sounds good." I tried to sound older than I was.
"You ain't told nobody, have you?'
"Who would I tell - Mama and Papa?"
"Something like this, well you just got to keep it to yourself," Clifton said with a wise nod. "No use letting it get around."
"You're right," I agreed and fought away the image of old man Ratliff's knife.
We decided to sit for a time on the bank of the bayou to wait for the sun to go down. It was quiet and peaceful there. The shade felt good and there was a soft summer breeze drifting through. We had a few moments, I felt, to ponder the greater mysteries of life.
"Why do men want to?"
"Want to what?"
"You know," I struggled for the words. "See nekkid women."
"Just something to do," said Clifton. "Just for fun, like us I reckon. Why else would they want to?"
"That's what I wondered, myself," and I noticed that the woods were getting darker. "Think it's nearly time?"
"Purty near," he replied and I felt something inside me tremble like it was cold but I knew it couldn't be in August.
"Do you reckon we'd go to hell for this?"
"We ain't old enough. You got to get to what they call the ‘age of accountability’ for it to count that hard agin you." He paused for a minute as he chewed on a twig. "I reckon we're safe from about anything for a couple of more years. Except maybe killin' or something."
"Oh," I said. I hoped that the relief didn't show through in my voice.
"So I guess we'd better get going," he said.
"Yep, I guess we'd better," I said.
We were able to stay well hidden by hanging close to the edge of the bayou, it being so low that time of year. We got due south of the Ratliff place just as it got dusky dark for we could make out the two oak trees that stood by the house place. As we began to ease our way up the bank toward a vantage spot, Clifton whispered his final instructions.
"No more talkin'. Find yourself a low tree limb to sit in and enjoy the show. I"ll whistle like a Bob White two times when it's time to go. Okay?"
"Okay," I whispered, thankful that I didn't have to muster enough spit to talk out loud.
"You won't forget this night," Clifton said, and disappeared into the darkness.
I eased forward toward where I thought the house was and immediately decided to amend Clifton's plan. I wasn't going to climb any tree and risk getting caught there by a Ratliff. No thank you. I'd take my chances on foot even if it meant getting in closer.
I took each step slowly, easing through the foliage as I had been taught to when hunting, not making a sound, even when walking on dry leaves, the way they said Indians could do. I parted each vine carefully, half expecting some trap to spring, set by a Ratliff as a precaution against... well against people like me.
All around me the night voices of lowland insects had erupted with the end of the last light and I had never heard them enjoin so loudly. Surely they were alerting the household to the presence of strangers. I stopped, swallowed as best I could, and eased forward again. Never in my life, I imagined, would I ever be as alone as I was now.
"Surely I'm almost there," I was thinking when the area directly in front of me exploded in light. I froze in my steps. A sharp, electric surge raced across the back of my tongue and I could almost see the front of my overalls bounce with every beat of my heart which I knew could be heard for half a mile. I couldn’t, of course, see my hair but I was sure it was standing straight up. This was it. This was what life had come to for a ten year old boy who would never see another adventure, who in fact was destined to die before his first was really underway good. I froze and waited.
Then I realized that I was still in the shadow of the woods and that, at least yet, nothing was coming for me. As I watched, with blood screeching through my head with every heartbeat, the scene formed before me.
The light was coming from a lantern which had been swinging from an arm and which now was being set on a barrel. The light framed a clearing about fifty feet across with the Ratliff's chicken house on the back side and the woods on the other three. In the center of the light was Geehaw Ratliff. Her head was framed in its glow and the scene brought back a memory of something I had seen before. But I was too scared to remember what. A picture of something I had scene. What was it?
Then I remembered. In the Bible, the pictures of the Virgin Mary always looked like that. With her head framed in light and all. The Wise Men would be looking at her and the Baby Jesus and the light would glow all around them like this. But this wasn’t the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus. It was Gehaw Ratliff and I was not a wise man, I felt, just a common sinner, watching something I had no business watching.
She had all her clothes on but there was a number three washtub in front of the barrel and I could see that the tub was full of water. It had no doubt been set out earlier to warm in the sun. As for me, I was completely hidden in the dark, but another step or two would have had me walking into the clearing just as Gehaw did.
So it seemed that for now I was safe. Gehaw went about her business without looking our way so I guessed that Clifton was safe as well and had a good view. Gradually, my heart stopped pounding and I felt as normal as a person could have felt under those circumstances, I suppose. Actually if you had known the truth, there were a lot of places where I would rather have been, but I was here so I determined to take her in for all it was worth.
As my presence of mind returned, I noticed that Gehaw didn't seem in any hurry to take a bath. In fact, she seemed a little nervous and kept looking toward the far corner of the chicken house. I was puzzled. If she was going to take a bath I wished that she would get it over with so I could find Clifton and get out of there.
Then I saw what she was looking for - there was someone else that had come to take part in this Saturday night ritual - a guest that was surely more welcome than the two of us. He was standing in the shadows at the edge of the building but I could make out who it was and I tell you I was shocked to the bottom of my feet, more shocked still when Gehaw walked over to him like she had been waiting for him all of her life, and shocked further when she took him by the hands and spoke to him so softly that I couldn't hear.
I was so shocked, in fact, that I didn't notice old man Ratliff come around the opposite corner.
"Come out from around there," he yelled and I turned to see him clearly in the light.
I guess, now that I think about it, it was just a regular shotgun. But in that pale light, with the bugs beginning to swirl around it, things took on a bizarre look and the gun sure looked bigger. It looked more like a cannon, I thought, and it wasn’t even aimed at me.
"I got you now," Mr. Ratliff said. He sounded like a man on a hunt that had just trapped a coon in a tree.
“Hot damn boys, I got him now!” I half expected him to say something like that.
Gehaw didn't say a word, just flattened herself against the building like maybe she could get so flat that her Papa couldn't see her.
"Girl git to the house," he said and motioned that way with the gun. Then he addressed the still hidden figure again. "I told you once to get around here you son of a bitch - I got a shotgun!"
The other man never moved. I was the only one who could see them both and I could tell that he wanted to run but maybe he didn't know exactly where Mr. Ratliff was or whether there might be some more Ratliffs waiting where he wanted to run. Mr. Ratliff started toward that end of the chicken house.
It was when he was about halfway there that Gehaw let out a scream that curled my toes and that was when we first saw it. We must have all seen it right about the time that she screamed, for I heard the man behind the chicken house yell "Oh my God!" Gehaw was still screaming and even Mr. Ratliff stopped to look.
Then the shotgun went off.
Let me tell you, it was confusing for a couple of seconds. Old man Ratliff must have fired the gun off accidentally when he saw the thing in the sky and when that happened, the other man just disappeared. In fact, there seemed to be movement everywhere.
The spray from the gun hit the roof of the chicken house right over Gehaw's head and shingles flew every which way. She bolted and ran right by me out into the edge of the field and ran smack into a section harrow. The handle was sticking up and she hit it with a thud that made me sick to my stomach. She screamed again but just kept running out of the light and into the cotton field.
"Come back daughter!" old man Ratliff yelled but it was no use. She was gone. He didn't stay long either. He took one more look into the sky, threw down the shotgun and ran for the house screaming "Mamma get the boys, the world's coming to an end and I kilt Caroline!"
“Caroline.” So that was her name. Of all the shocking things going on before me, I remember being most interested in the fact that Gehaw had a real name.
Then I heard the woods coming alive to my right and in a second I heard Clifton holler, "Bobby, you all right?"
"Yeah," I hollered back. "I'm right over here.
Clifton materialized in a second and, after assuring himself that I hadn't been shot, pointed to the sky. "What in the hell is that?"
What we were looking was described by a lot of people in a lot of different ways, but I can tell you what it looked like to me, and, if Clifton were here, he would probably tell you the same thing. It was a great ball of fire off to the east and it was moving in mysterious loops looking all the world like a fiery host descending toward us ever so deliberately.
There are those who say it wrote out various messages but don’t believe that. It was just moving back and forth across the sky like it was trying to decide exactly where it wanted to land. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it was a frightening spectacle.
"Let's get the hell out from here," said Clifton. I couldn't have been more in agreement.
We didn't have to take the route back through the woods. We could hear the whole Ratliff family already heading out to the road, all of them yelling for Gehaw. Clifton and I just skirted the edge of the field until we hit the road and then we started down it like we had been there all along.
"Goddammit, I thought you was shot," said Clifton.
"No, I think he just got scared and pulled the trigger."
"I don't blame him," said Clifton as he watched the light in the sky. "I don't like the looks of this at all."
"Neither do I," I said. "Do you really think it's the end of the world?"
"Could be," he said. "Got to happen some time. Let's head down to the Church."
"That ‘age of accountability thing,’" I asked, "Are you sure about that?"
"Oh yeah," he said. "Besides, we never done nothin'. Don't reckon they can get you for just plannin' to do something can they?"
"Heck, I don't know," I said. “They can tell what you’re thinking can’t...”
"Dang, look at the people!" Clifton interrupted. Sure enough, with a full moon out now you could see pretty clearly. There was a file of people ahead, and every time we passed a house, another family would emerge from the front door and join the throng. They seemed to be in a trance of some kind. They walked stiff legged, like they were walking in their sleep maybe. Nobody said much and everyone just looked straight ahead except for the kids, who were taking everything in.
I began to recognize so many shapes on the road up in front of us that I guessed the whole county was turning out, white and black alike. They were all in the same group. Nobody said anything. They still just looked straight ahead.
We stayed behind the line so we could see. We eventually got to the Centerville crossroads. At this point, the black families peeled off to the right towards their church. As they reformed, I could hear them beginning to sing. Then I could hear a shout or two. It seemed to me at the time that they almost sounded happy. Clifton and I stopped to allow the stragglers to get ahead of us. I glanced around, sort of hoping it had gone.
It was still there – if anything it was even closer.
"Maybe it is the end of the world," I said.
"Look at Grandma and Grandaddy!" said Clifton, pointing at Uncle T. J. and Aunt Hallie who were in a crowd about twenty feet in front of us and visible now in the. "They still got their nightclothes on!"
And sure enough both were dressed like they were ready to step right into bed. We surmised that they, like everyone else had been surprised by the spectacle in the sky and, assuming the worst, had rushed out without bothering to change. As we began to recognize more of out friends and relatives, we marked a variety of dress as if the end of the world had truly caught everyone unprepared.
"Let's hang back, I got to figure this out," said Clifton. We sat down under a tree. Then he looked at me like there was some the answer to some long hidden problem surfacing in his mind. "By the way, who was that man come to meet Gehaw?"
"You wouldn't believe it if I told you," I said.
"God almighty, look a yonder!" Clifton said, pointing to the shy where the light had appeared again, this time making a beeline for the crowd of travelers who filled the road. There was a mixed chorus of screams, halleluiah’s, prayers and singing as some dove for the ditches on either side, some grabbed one another, and some just fell to their knees to wait for the worst.
Clifton and I just stood back behind the rest, taking in the scene. I guess we felt a little secure because of our age. Or maybe we relaxed in the knowledge that the most important sin of our lives to this point had been curtailed before it really got under way. But I also think maybe there was a slight flash of understanding, something hinting of familiarity in the movement of the light that the others, occupied as they were with the prospect of such an imminent and lasting judgment, missed. We each guessed it at the same time.
"This is going to be good," he said. "Let's get to the Church and get a good seat for it."
"You bet," I said, and we set out across the open cotton fields.
When we got there, we didn't go inside. Instead, we went to the dark side of the building and found a good strong limb in an oak tree. From there we could see almost the whole inside. The windows were open, so we wouldn't miss a word. This was going to be some show all right.
By the time we got settled, the Church was half full and people were still streaming in. Preacher Hargraves was already in the pulpit, his face flushed red like it did when he got filled with the Spirit. His wife, Preacher's Gracie, was pounding the piano like it was the devil itself. She was one of the fattest women in the county and watching her bouncing around on that piano seat sent Clifton into a spell of laughing that I just knew was going to get us caught.
“Shut up,” I said. He just laughed harder.
"Fall down and repent!" Preacher was saying, and several people took him right at his word. They fell right down in front of the pulpit. A couple of them began to shake and jerk uncontrollably.
This seemed to satisfy the preacher, so he continued.
"I have seen the light of salvation in the eastern sky."
"Glory, Glory," someone shouted from the pews.
"Praise his name brother!" Preacher said.
"Oh Lord, have mercy," said another, "I been a bad sinner and I ain't ready."
"He hears you Brother.” He was getting warmed up now.
"Been a liar," said another.
"Oh Lord I've stole from my neighbor."
"Pray to Him brother"
"Lord I'm a drunkard."
I recognized that voice. Before I could get a good look, I heard another just as familiar.
"Lord I just got done lyin' to you that my husband was sick when he was dead drunk instead,"
I could see the two of them, Mamma and Papa kneeling near the back with Uncle T.J. and Aunt Hallie who had just come in. I couldn't hear the rest of what they said on account of Clifton was laughing so hard.
"Stop it," I said. "They're going to come out here and get us."
"I can't help it," said Clifton who had tears streaming down both cheeks and snot starting out of his nose he was laughing so hard. I wouldn't look at him now for every time I did he busted out all over again. Then I would get the giggles. Inside they were heating up so that we could just hear snatches.
"Stole a hog!"
"I ain't been to Church....."
I can’t quite describe it. Clifton was limp by now. He laid back against the limb and just watched, sort of like he was daydreaming. The noises and the music reminded me of a carnival. Maybe like when you stand beside a carousel and watch the people glide by to the music. It all began to flow together.
Then we heard another voice we recognized, this one clear and strong above the rest to the point where the other voices stopped and even Clifton sat up.
"I thank I kilt my daughter tonight."
It got real quiet. There was no sound but for the insects.
But Preacher didn’t seem to want things to calm down. He took over again before things got too quiet and addressed old man Ratliff from the pulpit.
"Ain't nobody gonna die ever again, brother." He added quickly, "Help me pray for this man!"
Then the din started up again and we couldn't hear any single voice, just the crying, singing, praying and shouting of a hundred voices seeking salvation in that delta night. It was if the earth had opened and the sins of the earth were being poured out of that little country church.
Clifton and I just sat back in amazement, knowing that we would never see anything like this again.
"Is he in there?" Clifton whispered over to me.
I didn’t say anything. I guess I didn’t have to. I guess it was just the way I was watching him and laughing.
"You're lyin," he said, but when he looked and saw I wasn't I could tell that he was as shocked as I had been although being older than I was and all, he didn't shock as easily.
"I'll be damned," he said.
That seemed to end it for him. "You reckon we ought to stop them?"
"Guess somebody ought to so's they can go home,"
We slid off our perch and walked around to the door of the Church. Actually, they had begun to wear down a little themselves, having gone at it for nearly and hour. They heard us open the door and, all at one time, looked around at us. Here stood two young boys instead of the heavenly hosts that they had expected so earnestly. You could see surprise as if it had been painted on there faces.
The noise had died away like a summer storm does when it moves off into the east. Even Preacher's Gracie quit playing the piano. She just leaned over against it and you could hear her breathing real heavy above everything else.
The preacher was the only one who seemed to want to keep it going after we walked in.
"You boys better get in here and pray," he said. "Ain't you seen the Lord on his way here?"
"Where?" said Clifton from the back of the room.
"In the sky, boy. Ain't you seed it?"
"I seen a buzzard with a fire tied to its leg," said Clifton. "That's all I saw."
"A what?" said a voice in the crowd.
"A buzzard," said Clifton. He looked toward the pulpit.
"If you can't tell the difference between a buzzard and the Lord coming, you ain't much of a preacher."
"Oh lord. Hush Clifton," said Aunt Hallie.
There was this funny sound like everyone in the room drew a quick breath at once. They stared at us. I expected them to start up again with us at the center of things.
Then I think the truth must have pierced that room for I heard Uncle T.J. "You hush woman. By God I thank the boy's right."
The room got quiet again.
"I thought there was something funny about it myself," said a voice I didn't recognize."
"Are ya'll goin to listen to a couple of sneakin' kids over a man of God?" Preacher was pleading now but he knew it was over, too. Then I heard Papa.
"I wanna go home and go to bed, Mamma."
“Sure you do,” she said quietly. “Let’s get on back to the house.
We moved away from the door as she and Papa walked out. She didn’t say anything to me but gave me a look that said plenty. One of the things it said was to never mention this again. I watched them disappear into the night. She had her arm around Papa and was leading him home like he was her son instead of her husband.
Then it all began to break up. It was pretty plain that no one wanted to talk to anyone else - didn't want to see anyone else really - just wanted to get out of there and without once raising their eyes to meet anyone else's.
Preacher eased toward the back door with his Gracie behind him. Clifton and I faded back into the darkness and waited in the hope that something else of a lively nature might occur. But it was all over.
Everyone has realized by now that it wasn't the second coming that they saw in the southern sky that night but just a coal oil soaked rag set fire and tied to a buzzard's leg by, as it turned out, Fish Johnson who thought it was wondrously funny until they almost sent him to the penitentiary over it. We all walked home a little thoughtful, though, having been forced by the events to confront our own personal sins, or, in the case of Clifton and me, our intended sins.
As I said at first, nobody ever mentioned it much. I never talked about it at all as long as Mama and Papa were alive. He, by the way, never touched whiskey again.
Preacher disappeared the next day. He left Gracie and she taught piano lessons for a while and then disappeared herself. The harrow handle that Gehow ran into when the shotgun went off was, we found out later, bent over even with the ground and people used to walk by the house just to look at it. She wasn't dead at all but was all right after a few days and back with the mules.
Of course we never did see her take a bath, or even want to, really, after that night. We never mentioned it again. I never even told Clifton what her real name was, not that he would have had any interest.
Clifton and I had more fine escapades but I never saw him with as much spirit. In fact, I think he sort of lowered his sights after that. It was as if he knew he had been part of something big - maybe even bigger than Hog Eye Bend itself for that matter - and it might be dangerous to try to top it.
I've thought about Clifton a thousand times, I guess, particularly as he looked that night going home, his hands stuck in the pockets of his overalls and his feet shuffling along and the dust of the delta rising in the full moon's light behind him to form a diamond-like mist that seemed to want to hang there so it, too, could glory in this moment. It was a grand adventure for him and I'm glad he had it before the Japs got him.