BN.com Gift Guide

Faith And The Good Thing

Overview

Faith Cross, a beautiful and purely innocent young black woman, is told by her dying mother to go and get herself "a good thing." Thus begins an extraordinary pilgrim's progress that takes Faith from the magic and mysticism of the rural South to the promises and perils of modern-day Chicago. It is an odyssey that propels Faith from the degradation of prostitution, drugs, and drink into a faceless middle-class reality, and finally into a searing tragedy that ironically leads to the discovery of the real Good ...

See more details below
Paperback
$15.99
BN.com price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (27) from $1.99   
  • New (8) from $3.91   
  • Used (19) from $1.99   
Faith and the Good Thing: A Novel

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$11.65
BN.com price

Overview

Faith Cross, a beautiful and purely innocent young black woman, is told by her dying mother to go and get herself "a good thing." Thus begins an extraordinary pilgrim's progress that takes Faith from the magic and mysticism of the rural South to the promises and perils of modern-day Chicago. It is an odyssey that propels Faith from the degradation of prostitution, drugs, and drink into a faceless middle-class reality, and finally into a searing tragedy that ironically leads to the discovery of the real Good Thing. National Book Award-winner Charles Johnson's first novel, originally published in 1974, puts the life-affirming soul of the African-American experience at the summit of American storytelling.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The New York Times Book Review An ebullient, philosophical novel...a many splendored and ennobling weaving together of thought, suffering, humor, and magic.

The Washington Post A brilliant novel of allegory, myth, and folk tales, and a vivid realism, very much in the American tradition...It is a novel of rare eloquence and originality, a fable that entertains and informs.

Black World One of the great American novels of this century...unqualifiedly good and extraordinarily beautiful.

Sacred Fire
Faith Cross, a beautiful young black woman from the Georgia back country, was left little to live by. Her mother, Lavidia, left her with only this: Faith must find herself a "Good Thing." Faith does not know what this Good Thing is, but she knows it is what she needs to find the peace and happiness she so fervently desires. Before her mother dies, Faith is "saved," and at first, God appears to fulfill her need. But the satisfaction she derives from that episode pales in comparison to the expectations of the mysterious Good Thing. Dissatisfied with her first shot at salvation, Faith follows the advice of a seer, the Swamp Woman, and goes to Chicago to continue her search.

In Chicago, Faith falls prey to rape and gets heavily involved in prostitution, drugs, and alcohol. Her quest for the Good Thing leads her into doomed romances, childbirth, and a haunting relationship with a philosopher named Dr. Richard M. Barrett, who also searches in vain fur the Good Thing. Faith's journey magically leads her back to the land of her youth and a realization of the Good Thing.

Charles Johnson, only the second African American author to win the National Book Award (in 1991 for The Middle Passage), is a philosopher at heart. In The Good Thing, Faith's journey represents our individual search for self. Unlike Richard Wright, concerned as he was with the external conditions that affect existence—physical salvation—Johnson, in Faith and the Good Thing, searches for salvation of the spirit. This seminal work, structured as a folktale, precedes by twenty-five years the queries and answers offered by "new age" African American self-help authors.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743212540
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 1/10/2001
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Johnson, a 1998 MacArthur fellow, is the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Endowed Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. His fiction includes Dr. King's Refrigerator, Dreamer, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2002 he received the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Seattle.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

It is time to tell you of Faith and the Good Thing. People tell her tale in many ways — conjure men and old gimped grandmothers whisper it to make you smile — but always Faith Cross is a beauty, a brown-sugared soul sister seeking the Good Thing in the dark days when the Good Thing was lost or, if the bog-dwelling Swamp Woman did not lie, was hidden by the gods to torment mankind for sins long forgotten.

Listen.

The Devil was beating his wife on the day Faith's mother, Lavidia, died her second death. The first, an hour-long beating of bedsheets pierced by grating breaths, had been the day before, but a country doctor, Leon Lynch, came to the farmhouse where they lived and massaged Lavidia's heart. She returned from wherever it was she had been, both her legs pumping beneath the covers, her white eyes wide with terror. Lavidia raced like that the entire night, into the next day, and would have broken all long-distance records if she'd not been flat on her back. Finally she rested, counting her breaths. Faith, eighteen years old that day, stood at the window of her mother's bedroom, staring at a red sun as flat and still against the sky as moonlight on pond water. Light at first, like the sprinkle of baptism, yet steadily building, the dissolution of the clouds drenched the twenty acres of land left to Lavidia by her husband. Todd Cross had died in an odd way, so odd no one had spoken of him in Hatten County, Georgia, for twelve years. And now Faith's mother breathed her last.

Lifting the hem of her dress, Faith dried her eyes and turned from the window. She walked barefoot along the uneven wooden floorboards, circled an openmouthed stove in the center of the room, and sat beside her mother's bed on an old fiddleback chair. Judging from the photographs on her dresser, Lavidia Cross, during the Great Depression, had been a handsome woman. She once had worn back her long brown hair, her skin sparkled from homemade lard, and her limbs were strong and sturdy. But at fifty-five, her figure was gray, both her arms spindly, and her swollen legs, drawn beneath the covers and quilts close to her breasts, were as soft as those of a toad. On the wall above her head swung a dull cross beside a calendar no one had changed for months. To Faith's right were Lavidia's wig stand, her lamps made from vinegar bottles, and a heavy maple-framed mirror, her mother's favorite heirloom. But Lavidia herself was slipping slowly out of time. Cockroaches lost their balance on the damp wall and fell along her face. These Faith quickly removed. Only light from the parted drapery of the room's single window lit the room. Water dripped from a ceiling sagging at its center. And the walls shuddered with each crash of thunder, the time between thunder rolls freighted with waiting. With mourning. Faith placed her fingers under the heavy covers to touch her mother's hand. It was cold.

"Momma," she said.

Lavidia's discolored eyes closed, her mouth sprang open, a web of spittle spread between her lips. "Don't ask me no questions," she said. "...Lord give me four hun'red million breaths to take, and I'm already on the three hun'red ninety-second millionth — I can't waste none on foolish questions."

Faith began to cry. "I called for Reverend Brown. He's outside..."

Lavidia's eyes opened as though to drink in a vision. She stared sightlessly at Faith, and the blankets rose again with the kicking of her legs. Lavidia said, "Girl, you get yourself a good thing"; then she gulped once, whispered, "Four hun'red million," and died.

Behind her, Faith heard the bedroom door creak open. Through the doorway came the chubby preacher, Lucius Brown, and Oscar Lee Jackson, town mortician. Jackson, who wore a linty black suit and held his mottled hands folded in front of his paunch, stepped quietly inside the room and said, "Is she...?"

Faith shook her head and quietly withdrew her hands from the covers. "Momma's resting."

Brown and Jackson went right to work. Jackson covered the empty eyes and open mouth on Lavidia's face with a bedsheet; Brown placed his arm around Faith's shoulders to lead her into the kitchen, blew his flat nose, and said, "I know she's gone to Glory. You believe that, Faith."

Faith, lowering her head to her hands, wept. "She couldn't be going to Glory the way she was running. Momma must have got where she was going the first time, turned around scared, and run all the way back."

"And," Brown said softly, "started runnin' straight for Glory."

From the table, they could see through the kitchen window that Jackson and his two assistants had straightened out Lavidia's legs and were carrying her on a stretcher to the open door of a hearse idling just yards from the front porch. Brown's eyes rolled toward the ceiling; he said something pious in a deep voice, reached across the table, and stroked Faith's hand. "What will you do now, child?"

Do? Faith paused, squinting her eyes to clear her head. The kitchen had changed. You could locate nothing misplaced, nothing out of the ordinary, for as a housekeeper Lavidia was meticulous; but the kitchen's former gloss of permanence was gone. Its smell was still that of the dry cotton fields just outside the open window above the sink, of browning bread Lavidia had baked just two nights before; yet Lavidia was gone. Though old, dissipated, sometimes evil, she had been the focus of the farmhouse since her husband's death, its most crucial node, surely its mistress. Without her the kitchen, the house, the world beyond fell apart. Fruit cabinets on the wall still held sweet jellies preserved in the odd-shaped bottles Lavidia salvaged like a scavenger from house and yard and rummage sales; her stiff mops and silver pail still rested in the corner by brooms she'd assembled by hand. Then what had changed? Certainly not the things themselves. Studying Lavidia's dresses heaped in a washtub by the door, her pipes in their dusty rack on the kitchen table, and dry lifeless wigs, Faith felt her answer emerge from the contours of these objects: none of them was for her; they belonged, related to no one. Even Lavidia, perhaps, had not made them her own, because — with her death — they seemed suddenly freed to be as they were. Empty things, cold, without quality, distant. Without order — it was evident — there could be no life, no sense to things, no way to awake in the stillness of morning and move from the day to and through the terror of eveningtime.

Her thoughts like wild animals fed upon themselves. Before her, out there, the wall stretched completely beyond all familiarity, possession, and warmth. She felt the urge to touch it, to reclaim it as the same wall against which Lavidia had measured her height across eighteen years. But if she touched it, might it not tumble away?

Faith looked down at her hand lying brown and crablike on the checkered tablecloth. Was it her hand? There was grave doubt, yes, of even this. She let it rest on Reverend Brown's blunt fingers, thought, "Spread your fingers," and was amazed at the result. The fingers spread, but between the command and the movement only a vague parallel held sway. Things had only a tenuous connection. The unreality of life without Lavidia melted even the gloss of permanence she felt enveloped her own life. No longer was she Faith, only child of Todd and Lavidia Cross, no longer was she what she believed herself to be; only a self-conscious pressure drifting about the empty, changing, charged-with-otherness kitchen, drifting through a cold space filled with shadows.

"Pray with me," Brown said.

Startled, she withdrew her hand. Brown's words had not come from his lips; like smoke, they had risen from the room itself, flowing from silence, returning to it, at first everywhere — surrounding them both — then gone. Her eyes in desperation sought familiar details in the smooth grain of the kitchen door where as a child she could often see the faces of jinn, mermen, and fairy queens that filled her father's make-believe world. Faith studied the room and held her breath ("You'll live longer holding your breath," Lavidia had often said). The kitchen remained beyond her: out there. Inaccessible to love, to need. Out there. Its chairs and tables appeared tiny, as though made for and by dwarfs. The walls receded from her, meeting at apexes a dizzy distance away.

The reverend stroked his squared jaw with sharp, mechanical motions and laughed uneasily, perhaps frightened, for Faith was said to have funny ways like her father. "It's always hard at first...always."

"Momma told me to get myself a good thing," Faith said softly. Then she asked, "What do you think she meant?"

Reverend Brown smiled as broad as a Halloween pumpkin and seemed to swell in her vision. He stepped around the table behind Faith, floorboards groaning against his weight, and placed both his hands on her shoulders. "Faith, you know what the good thing is. You've known ever since your father died." His fingers tightened, holding her hunched over the table. "Don't you remember what happened to you?"

Brown's hard calluses met her skin, the rough texture of his fingers squeezing from her the nightmare she had hidden from herself long ago. Faith closed her eyes against remembrance. But it ascended — the images, clear as crystal, hurtling before her mind, her ears filling with the words of the messenger: God called Todd Cross.

She'd heard it first while playing during recess in the schoolyard. Children were everywhere, fighting, laughing, exchanging frogs and funny-shaped stones, and Faith had thought someone, perhaps Alpha Omega Jones, who'd said he cared about her, was trying to talk about her father in the cruel way of grown-ups. She turned toward the sound, expecting the next call to be about her mother's virtue or her own eyes, which people said were uneven, or her legs, often mocked by some children as skinny. Over the heads of the other children Faith saw fat Eula May Jenkins, her mother's neighbor, wheezing near her teacher in the doorway of the schoolhouse, her face drawn into itself like a prune, crying, "Death sneezed Todd Cross stiff as a board." The woman's huge frame shook, she wailed, she balled her fists. "Lavidia found him half an hour ago at the edge of the woods. Don't it figure the way he acted and all? Didn't I tell you them crazy ideas would catch up to him sooner or later?"

Faith broke away from the other children and ran. Eula May Jenkins called after her, but she pressed her palms to her ears and hurried home. Fifteen minutes later she stood breathlessly watching the farmhouse from afar. People crowded the small front porch and spoke in excited voices. A strange woman called to her from the yard, but Faith turned, her shoes flying from her feet, and raced for the woods. When she reached the crowd at the border of the woods she was barefoot and breathless. She shoved her way through a maze of legs and stopped, aware of her father's smell on the air: tobacco and sweat. Both his bare feet swung above from a pine tree. Caught from her waist from behind, Faith was carried away.

She had been only six then, and by nightfall most of her fear was spent. What truly upset her after seeing her father's dangling, ashy legs was that everyone now expected something from her. But no one said what it was. Many visitors came to the farmhouse and told her to be brave, to pray. Brave about what, pray to whom? Lavidia shaved her head and told her, "Your daddy sneezed his soul away — it's just." Faith accepted this without further questioning. It was believable, for life was filled with stranger things, as her father had repeatedly told her. She remembered his saying, "Everything that is is right, or it wouldn't be." During the wake Faith, thinking of this, even smiled.

Concern for Faith's peculiar reaction brought Reverend Brown, younger then and indefatigable, on regular visits to the farmhouse. He would park his old Plymouth close to the porch and sit late at night with Lavidia as she smoked and spit and rocked in the moonlight, telling her of the great spirit man who would soon speak to sinners in their county. Faith would sit close to her mother, dozing after a big dinner, thinking of her father and Alpha, who made her laugh, and only half hearing the plans for her salvation.

The day after one such visit her mother dressed her in white and took her miles from home to an enormous tent in the fields behind town. Faith had been excited — it was a circus tent, tall as timber, with flaps that spread like wings. Big Todd, she remembered, had worked in a circus, had been part of its world and found what he called his calling there. Mightn't she, too? Before they reached the entrance Faith could hear singing inside and the clash of tambourines. But it struck her as they entered that this place held no entertainment. Old men and wasted women she recognized as tireless sharecroppers and maids sang from chairs lining the interior of the tent; some spoke hurriedly, biting their tongues, in the lost language, while others spun like tops through the aisles. They had not come to see an event; they had come to be one.

Faith pulled against Lavidia, who slapped her lightly and dragged her inside to the front row, where Eula May Jenkins — not a neighbor now, or a bearer of grief, or a whisperer of rumors, but a silent dancer — beat the soles of her bare feet against the ground. Beside her two women held Alpha Omega Jones in his chair. He, the boy who loved her even then, was almost unrecognizable. His face was crimson, twisted, his lips parted, screaming emptiness, and his limbs jerked in all directions, blurred like fluttering batwings. Down the row, deep in meditation, a cripple mashed an off-key accordion; leathery old men in barley-stained overalls bent forward in their seats to hear Reverend Alexander Magnus, the spirit man, at the front of the tent. He stood head and shoulders above the others in the tent, over seven feet tall if a foot, intimidating them with his size and deep sonorous voice. When he gestured — raising his big square hands into the air and pointing toward the sky or shoving them out with his fingers curled back like claws — they could catch their breaths and hold them for what seemed like an hour. Magnus paced and pointed at people in the front row, his face shut and sweating. "Children, you are crooked and ulcerous, you are cancerous and weak. You are damned from birth and distant from the source of all good. You are as dust and excrement to Him. You are as the groveling mole and eyeless maggot before the power that pardons your trespasses and prevents your death. You are nothing! In due time, it is written, your feet shall slide and the unsteady floor of your life shall give way. Shall it be tonight?" He looked left, his eyebrows arched, toying with their fear. "Or tomorrow?" — looking right, his eyes wide, sly. "You are damned for delighting in this world. Your tongues savor fatback and burgoo, your flesh hungers for other flesh." Magnus stopped to stare into the face of a farmer and his wife. They shrank back, silent, and he shouted, "Worms will be your supper soon!

"Sinner, have you ever tortured a spider? Have you ever held it over a smoking fire on its silky web, sick of its slimy form, feeling — deep in your heart — that you'd let it drop and watch it burn? Have you ever stalked and cornered a fly for the trespass of buzzing in your car? Brother Spider," he said to Alpha, "Sister Fly," to Lavidia, "Sinners!" to everyone in the tent, "your life is supported by a perfect being who watches you with disgust, just like you watch chinches and waterbugs, slugs and lice, knowing that if you have the cheek to go too far, then — whop!" Magnus slapped his hands together like a cannon shot. "But He loves you still (I don't know why!). Nothing else explains why you didn't drop into hell in your pajamas last night. Nothing you have done, do now or will do shall save you. Not even innocence can save you." (Herewith Faith shuddered and grabbed Lavidia's clammy hand.) "Witness crib death and the diseases of childhood. Witness the fury of storms, floods, droughts, lightning, hail, the dangers of machinery, earthquakes, plagues, famines and poisoned food, senseless slaughter, recessions, depressions, bloodshed, revolutions, civil wars, and the eventual destruction that creeps closer and closer to your front door. It's here now. Can you feel it — death moving ghoul-like in the dark? Maybe tonight when you put out your candles, close your eyes, and start to sleep lightly, maybe then you'll feel death down your spine and come full awake with a start, sweat streaming in your clothes, your eyes searching the darkness of your bedroom until you see the red eyes of the Devil riveted on you; over there, brothers — in that far corner, tiny red eyes just to the right of your chamber pot." Magnus laughed at the thought of it. No one else said a mumbling word. "He'll shove his claw down your throat, fish up your soul and steal away, lame and hunchbacked, leaving no tracks for your family and friends to find you — the real you, brothers, because it'll be shoved, gibbering and pale, into Satan's big black traveling bag. Pay attention! My prayers can't save you then. He'll toss you like so much trash into rivers brimming with blood and burning corpses. All the filth and offal ever to pass through the bodies of birds and beasts and men will fill your mouths. The fire there is forever," he said in a hushed voice. "It boils the blood in your veins and bakes your brain like a biscuit; it blackens your skin so you'd think you're white right now. You'll smell your hair burn, brothers — light a strand right now and see how it stinks; you'll hear the howl of demons forever: 'Were you not saved?' And you will call on Him. Who will not hear. Torment for eternity, brothers — because you loved this illusion, this fire-wheel we call the world!"

An old woman in a black bonnet and black shawl began to dance. To Faith she danced the way a snake writhed or maybe like something dead but newly risen — like something that had no business dancing at all. She snapped back her head and stepped a mad cakewalk through the aisles, screaming. Magnus smiled. "All that is given to man, to life and to this illusion is stolen from God. Who shall you serve? If Him, your salvation is assured. If the world..." Magnus chortled so deep, so strange that it sounded like the earth moving and stiffened all who heard, "...woe unto you who would dare to love this world."

None would dare.

So the congregation thumped their feet in loud tattoos along the ground, clapped their hands, and called out. Air in the tent grew dense with dust, cries and smells released from the gathering. Distance between their bodies dissolved until all the raised voices in the tent echoed inside Faith's head. Inching slowly through the tent, Reverend Brown sought prey — the proud. He laid his fingertips on Eula May Jenkins's temples, lifting the big woman like a puppet. She quaked, shouted, screamed, and fell at Faith's feet.

Lavidia gestured to Eula May's empty seat. "You sit here by Alpha." Alpha's shirt was torn away, his chest was the color of fire. There, Faith did not want to sit. She backed away, aware of a sickness springing at the pit of her stomach, a stinging in her arms and legs. Seeing Faith and Lavidia, Reverend Brown spun on his heels and, from across the room, pointed his finger like a revolver at Lavidia. She froze, trembling once as if cold or being crushed by a great, invisible palm; then she left her seat, tearing at her throat. She collapsed, flailing the air. Faith went to her, tried to pin her arms and legs to the ground.

It was useless.

Faith's dark reflection sparkled in Lavidia's wide eyes; but her mother could not see. Lavidia's wig, golden in the lights strung overhead throughout the tent, burst from its pins. Veins corded in her neck. Beside Faith, knifing through the riot of the hymns and loud tambourines, she heard Reverend Brown whispering:

"Are you ready, child?"

Dark and triumphant, Brown's face was a mask of moving, proud expressions. He touched her arm and something inside Faith broke free. She tried to inhale, but the air was swirling, thick and weighted with invisible things. On her tongue strange words formed, and more vividly than before she saw her father's swinging feet as retribution for his terrible pride and passions.

"Call!" Brown demanded.

Pain rippled like electricity through her limbs, so intense she wanted to leap, to avoid it, from her skin. "Call," Brown whispered. "Say 'Thank You,' child." It meant nothing to her. She would have said anything to extinguish the pain inside her. There on the ground, the earth at her ear humming with voices in the air, she saw it clearly — all the possible number of things in space, all forms that had ever existed in time reflected back into time like a man's image trapped in a room of mirrors — she, herself, Faith Cross, fading back and forth on the continuum of time until she could no longer be certain of the images of herself that shone in her father's eyes; those of Lavidia, the preacher, the undertaker, and Alpha were more real than she, if in that crazy complex of images she existed at all. Faith screamed it — "Thank Yooou!" — sang it — "Thank You!" — and finally believed in its healing grace — "Thank You!"

But it didn't last. The silent kitchen said so. And so did the yard beyond.

She glanced over her shoulder at Reverend Brown, wondering if he knew how short-lived had been her salvation. An afterglow that warmed her and dissolved her intimations of a ghastly world without meaning or sense, save salvation and survival, had carried her through the remainder of her childhood. Time, though, did damage to it. For it often took the form of a hunger unsatisfied by further prayer meetings. Always these feelings possessed her, as a demon or jinni might, haunting her experiences to find a vision of complete freedom. It took in breaths beneath her own, moved with her limbs. Demanded its rights.

Sometimes she tried to ignore it, to grow up like other children. Ignoring it, though, was somehow akin to trying to forget one's own heartbeat; louder it grew with denial. Like a lover or lecher, the awareness came to her at night when she tried to sleep, stealing through her bedroom window like the scent of night-blooming flowers or the whispering rustle of wind in the trees. When it came, the world as it usually appeared...disappeared. Time was suspended, and tomorrow took its true form as illusion. Only the present was immediate and everywhere, disclosed to her as the miraculous — woven veins in a browning autumn leaf, in the minor miracle of an insect nature had fashioned like a twig — with legs!

Clearest were these feelings on the afternoons she spent spooning with Alpha Omega Jones, her first and, she often thought, last love. It was more than a run-of-the-mill high-school affair; she was certain! Together they would lie in the tall grass, holding each other until their in and out breaths coincided, breathing as a single body; her shorter breaths would slowly slip beneath his own. And the grass and trees, it seemed, would bring their pulsations in line with them until the universe was a single heartbeat. Reality was a dream, or sometimes a nightmare, but no more than this: a rhythm. She felt herself at such times carried through the world as though she had wings, but not toward Glory, never toward Glory. Only back to earth, deep within its strange fabric. No personalities existed in such a pure world of feeling, just flashes of human outlines in the quilt of creation where plants had their place, and animals — all coexisting peacefully, lyrically, like notes in a lay.

"Well?" Reverend Brown said, removing his hands from her shoulders. "You and your mother both had it for a while. You can have it again."

Faith looked away. "I felt something back then, but I don't think that's what Momma meant." She looked at him timidly, almost afraid to say more. "I think Momma meant something like it...only more."

"More?" Brown grumbled, and again, "More?" as though the word were bitter. He stepped close to her, intimidating her with his size as his hands flexed at his sides. "What more is there? Honey, the world is just the way you saw it on the floor of that tent — there ain't no more — there couldn't be! People who look for more will be annihilated."

"She meant something," Faith insisted.

The reverend cleared his throat and towered over Faith, drumming his fingers on the tablecloth. "Sometimes family deaths can be disruptive. They take away someone who's been the center of your world for a long time, and you see how difficult it is to live without someone or something to hold on to. Death ought to start a person thinking — "

"...About what the good thing really is?"

Brown's fist crashed on the table; Lavidia's pipes spilled from their rack. He glared at them, then at Faith. "Don't interrupt me! I'm trying to tell you something!" The reverend's lips curled back over silver-capped teeth, his brow wrinkled. Faith immediately wanted to take back what she had said. Brown had taken it personally. Bitterness laced his voice:

"I ain't gonna preach sin to you. There's more involved than that! Your momma, God rest her soul, was tryin' to tell you on her deathbed that you've got to have somethin' to hold on to now that she's gone... somethin' that'll pull the world together." Brown, Faith sensed, was no longer talking to her, but to himself, slamming his left fist repeatedly into his right palm and pausing for reflection. "This world we live in — it's like a shadowy cave fulla crazy sounds if you've got nothin' to light it up. There's no sun but the Saviour, y'see? There's no right or wrong, and nothin's clear-cut — there's nothin' but a lot of empty things that keep bumpin' into each other in the dark..."

Faith thought of her father, of his stunning fictions and well-meant lies. "I've heard different."

"From who?" Brown sneered. "From the Swamp Woman? I've heard tell of the stories she tells kids stupid enough to believe them. You listen to me. Forget people like that." Brown winced and grabbed at his right side. "Even talkin' about her hurts me — happens every time I mention the old witch. People like her will have you believin' in haints and hoodoo and the walkin' dead if you let them." Brown seized a napkin from the table and wiped the wrinkles from his forehead.

"Pray with me," he said.

The bleating horn of Jackson's hearse drew Faith's attention. She went to the front porch, Brown at her heels, muttering almost under his breath, "I'll be back tomorrow and the day after and I'll keep comin' back until you start showin' some sense."

From the doorway she leaned against the railing of the stairs and watched as the reverend sprinted through the rain to the hearse and slid onto the front of the seat beside the undertaker. It seemed impossible the dark machine in the mud held her mother. Lavidia's deep, almost manly laughter would no longer awake her in the morning; silent was the voice that had called her from the fields. Though it was pointless, she forgave her mother for her selfishness; her will, spitefulness, and grudges; even for taking Alpha from her in the cruelest possible way. Forgiving, though, was not forgetting. Always she would remember resting her head on Alpha's chest as they sat on the front porch of the farmhouse, painting in broad, vague outlines the possibility of a life together, only to look up and see Lavidia's gray face scowling in the window nearby. Always she would hear her mother say, "You'll never have nobody that'll love you like your mother did! You'll cry for me when I'm gone."

Lavidia lived in fear of Faith's leaving her to a house full of memories that would become distorted and terrifying with the passage of time. Therefore, she clung to her, screened every boy that drove up to the farmhouse to visit Faith, and browbeat each with questions: "Faith's been saved — she's married to God," Lavidia would say; then wryly, with squinted eye and twisted mouth: "Are you God?" Alpha found such competition unbearable. He never returned. Faith had waited for him each evening on the front porch until Lavidia informed her, "He won't be back no more. I was payin' him to court you 'cause you looked so lonesome all the time. Wouldn't no other fellah look at a girl as plain and backwards as you. I couldn't afford it no more. I guess he's gone for good."

It must have been a lie. Yet to this day Faith was uncertain. Others — the rowdy boys from the mill, the shy ones without a future, and the bold ones destined to die soon in fights or drink — came to the farmhouse after Alpha's disappearance, but Lavidia never confronted them. Faith herself turned them away, excusing herself to do school- or housework, or simply hiding from them in her bedroom. Did one ever really know another's affections? You could guess at them and live as best as you could in the shadow of uncertainty. That was Big Todd's way. He never asked, never doubted that haints and demons inhabited everything. He told her great love and hatred moved men to happiness and shame: it was that simple.

She looked at Reverend Brown beside the mortician and saw that his smugness, his strength came from knowing or thinking he knew with his heart the workings of other men, that they lusted, or felt lost and would be rewarded or damned proportionally for those longings. But was that true? Was all that really there? Concerning his feelings, Alpha's face told her nothing. His dark eyes were quiet, and his lips bent up at their corners whenever he saw her; but there was nothing about this, or his smooth hands, or his face and smoother words, that really told her what he was thinking. Love was a myth born in imagination, pieced together from the inferred softness of a stare, deduced, probably from false premises or undistributed middle terms, from his smile: it could have been deceit. Lavidia never ceased to make that clear when Faith found herself moping about the house. "Just how did you know he loved you?" she would challenge. No reply was possible. You could never know. And Alpha and the world of things, of kitchen furniture and hearses, came to her as cold, inaccessible things out there.

You couldn't fool yourself; you knew you wanted the smile to be love, and knowing that you knew completely ruined the feeling. How had Big Todd done it — lived in a world so full of magic that he could call pots and pans by proper names he'd given them? Seen from the floor of Brown's tent the world had been a wasteland; the one in Big Todd's tales, a dream. Could you choose?

Within herself Faith found no answer.

And now the hearse was at the road, hauling her mother to the halfway house between Hatten County and Hell. She jumped down the stairs and ran slipping through the mud. Jackson stopped the car, rolled down his window, and called:

"You go and stay with Mrs. Jenkins tonight."

They left her at the road. From the north the wind brought rain to pelt Faith. She suddenly feared reentering the farmhouse. It rested on white stones her father had carried by mule from the forest. Lavidia's rocking chair creaked back and forth slowly in the wind. Tree toads were carping, harbingers of a storm, and the rain exploded like the report of rifles far away. Faith remained still, staring at the front porch, trying to imagine Lavidia sitting in her rocker, smoking and squeezing from the pores of her waxy nose white things she called worms. The cabin defied her memories, determined to remain...out there. Then came thunder, and in a way that frightened her — as though the noise would tear the thin membrane of the sky, rending it to the horizon like a run in cheap hosiery, and angels, God's throne, and heavenly host would tumble like leaves across the fields. Faith began running south until she fell. She looked back, still frightened by the cabin that appeared to descend into the soft ground. Alone, she cried, but kept walking, aimlessly and for hours. Her flight took her to the edge of the swamp. Then it was that Faith decided to seek audience with the werewitch at her shanty in the bogs.

Copyright © 1974 by Charles Johnson

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Chapter 1

It is time to tell you of Faith and the Good Thing. People tell her tale in many ways — conjure men and old gimped grandmothers whisper it to make you smile — but always Faith Cross is a beauty, a brown-sugared soul sister seeking the Good Thing in the dark days when the Good Thing was lost or, if the bog-dwelling Swamp Woman did not lie, was hidden by the gods to torment mankind for sins long forgotten.

Listen.

The Devil was beating his wife on the day Faith's mother, Lavidia, died her second death. The first, an hour-long beating of bedsheets pierced by grating breaths, had been the day before, but a country doctor, Leon Lynch, came to the farmhouse where they lived and massaged Lavidia's heart. She returned from wherever it was she had been, both her legs pumping beneath the covers, her white eyes wide with terror. Lavidia raced like that the entire night, into the next day, and would have broken all long-distance records if she'd not been flat on her back. Finally she rested, counting her breaths. Faith, eighteen years old that day, stood at the window of her mother's bedroom, staring at a red sun as flat and still against the sky as moonlight on pond water. Light at first, like the sprinkle of baptism, yet steadily building, the dissolution of the clouds drenched the twenty acres of land left to Lavidia by her husband. Todd Cross had died in an odd way, so odd no one had spoken of him in Hatten County, Georgia, for twelve years. And now Faith's mother breathed her last.

Lifting the hem of her dress, Faith dried her eyes and turned from the window. She walked barefoot along the uneven wooden floorboards, circled an openmouthed stove in the center of the room, and sat beside her mother's bed on an old fiddleback chair. Judging from the photographs on her dresser, Lavidia Cross, during the Great Depression, had been a handsome woman. She once had worn back her long brown hair, her skin sparkled from homemade lard, and her limbs were strong and sturdy. But at fifty-five, her figure was gray, both her arms spindly, and her swollen legs, drawn beneath the covers and quilts close to her breasts, were as soft as those of a toad. On the wall above her head swung a dull cross beside a calendar no one had changed for months. To Faith's right were Lavidia's wig stand, her lamps made from vinegar bottles, and a heavy maple-framed mirror, her mother's favorite heirloom. But Lavidia herself was slipping slowly out of time. Cockroaches lost their balance on the damp wall and fell along her face. These Faith quickly removed. Only light from the parted drapery of the room's single window lit the room. Water dripped from a ceiling sagging at its center. And the walls shuddered with each crash of thunder, the time between thunder rolls freighted with waiting. With mourning. Faith placed her fingers under the heavy covers to touch her mother's hand. It was cold.

"Momma," she said.

Lavidia's discolored eyes closed, her mouth sprang open, a web of spittle spread between her lips. "Don't ask me no questions," she said. "...Lord give me four hun'red million breaths to take, and I'm already on the three hun'red ninety-second millionth — I can't waste none on foolish questions."

Faith began to cry. "I called for Reverend Brown. He's outside..."

Lavidia's eyes opened as though to drink in a vision. She stared sightlessly at Faith, and the blankets rose again with the kicking of her legs. Lavidia said, "Girl, you get yourself a good thing"; then she gulped once, whispered, "Four hun'red million," and died.

Behind her, Faith heard the bedroom door creak open. Through the doorway came the chubby preacher, Lucius Brown, and Oscar Lee Jackson, town mortician. Jackson, who wore a linty black suit and held his mottled hands folded in front of his paunch, stepped quietly inside the room and said, "Is she...?"

Faith shook her head and quietly withdrew her hands from the covers. "Momma's resting."

Brown and Jackson went right to work. Jackson covered the empty eyes and open mouth on Lavidia's face with a bedsheet; Brown placed his arm around Faith's shoulders to lead her into the kitchen, blew his flat nose, and said, "I know she's gone to Glory. You believe that, Faith."

Faith, lowering her head to her hands, wept. "She couldn't be going to Glory the way she was running. Momma must have got where she was going the first time, turned around scared, and run all the way back."

"And," Brown said softly, "started runnin' straight for Glory."

From the table, they could see through the kitchen window that Jackson and his two assistants had straightened out Lavidia's legs and were carrying her on a stretcher to the open door of a hearse idling just yards from the front porch. Brown's eyes rolled toward the ceiling; he said something pious in a deep voice, reached across the table, and stroked Faith's hand. "What will you do now, child?"

Do? Faith paused, squinting her eyes to clear her head. The kitchen had changed. You could locate nothing misplaced, nothing out of the ordinary, for as a housekeeper Lavidia was meticulous; but the kitchen's former gloss of permanence was gone. Its smell was still that of the dry cotton fields just outside the open window above the sink, of browning bread Lavidia had baked just two nights before; yet Lavidia was gone. Though old, dissipated, sometimes evil, she had been the focus of the farmhouse since her husband's death, its most crucial node, surely its mistress. Without her the kitchen, the house, the world beyond fell apart. Fruit cabinets on the wall still held sweet jellies preserved in the odd-shaped bottles Lavidia salvaged like a scavenger from house and yard and rummage sales; her stiff mops and silver pail still rested in the corner by brooms she'd assembled by hand. Then what had changed? Certainly not the things themselves. Studying Lavidia's dresses heaped in a washtub by the door, her pipes in their dusty rack on the kitchen table, and dry lifeless wigs, Faith felt her answer emerge from the contours of these objects: none of them was for her; they belonged, related to no one. Even Lavidia, perhaps, had not made them her own, because — with her death — they seemed suddenly freed to be as they were. Empty things, cold, without quality, distant. Without order — it was evident — there could be no life, no sense to things, no way to awake in the stillness of morning and move from the day to and through the terror of eveningtime.

Her thoughts like wild animals fed upon themselves. Before her, out there, the wall stretched completely beyond all familiarity, possession, and warmth. She felt the urge to touch it, to reclaim it as the same wall against which Lavidia had measured her height across eighteen years. But if she touched it, might it not tumble away?

Faith looked down at her hand lying brown and crablike on the checkered tablecloth. Was it her hand? There was grave doubt, yes, of even this. She let it rest on Reverend Brown's blunt fingers, thought, "Spread your fingers," and was amazed at the result. The fingers spread, but between the command and the movement only a vague parallel held sway. Things had only a tenuous connection. The unreality of life without Lavidia melted even the gloss of permanence she felt enveloped her own life. No longer was she Faith, only child of Todd and Lavidia Cross, no longer was she what she believed herself to be; only a self-conscious pressure drifting about the empty, changing, charged-with-otherness kitchen, drifting through a cold space filled with shadows.

"Pray with me," Brown said.

Startled, she withdrew her hand. Brown's words had not come from his lips; like smoke, they had risen from the room itself, flowing from silence, returning to it, at first everywhere — surrounding them both — then gone. Her eyes in desperation sought familiar details in the smooth grain of the kitchen door where as a child she could often see the faces of jinn, mermen, and fairy queens that filled her father's make-believe world. Faith studied the room and held her breath ("You'll live longer holding your breath," Lavidia had often said). The kitchen remained beyond her: out there. Inaccessible to love, to need. Out there. Its chairs and tables appeared tiny, as though made for and by dwarfs. The walls receded from her, meeting at apexes a dizzy distance away.

The reverend stroked his squared jaw with sharp, mechanical motions and laughed uneasily, perhaps frightened, for Faith was said to have funny ways like her father. "It's always hard at first...always."

"Momma told me to get myself a good thing," Faith said softly. Then she asked, "What do you think she meant?"

Reverend Brown smiled as broad as a Halloween pumpkin and seemed to swell in her vision. He stepped around the table behind Faith, floorboards groaning against his weight, and placed both his hands on her shoulders. "Faith, you know what the good thing is. You've known ever since your father died." His fingers tightened, holding her hunched over the table. "Don't you remember what happened to you?"

Brown's hard calluses met her skin, the rough texture of his fingers squeezing from her the nightmare she had hidden from herself long ago. Faith closed her eyes against remembrance. But it ascended — the images, clear as crystal, hurtling before her mind, her ears filling with the words of the messenger: God called Todd Cross.

She'd heard it first while playing during recess in the schoolyard. Children were everywhere, fighting, laughing, exchanging frogs and funny-shaped stones, and Faith had thought someone, perhaps Alpha Omega Jones, who'd said he cared about her, was trying to talk about her father in the cruel way of grown-ups. She turned toward the sound, expecting the next call to be about her mother's virtue or her own eyes, which people said were uneven, or her legs, often mocked by some children as skinny. Over the heads of the other children Faith saw fat Eula May Jenkins, her mother's neighbor, wheezing near her teacher in the doorway of the schoolhouse, her face drawn into itself like a prune, crying, "Death sneezed Todd Cross stiff as a board." The woman's huge frame shook, she wailed, she balled her fists. "Lavidia found him half an hour ago at the edge of the woods. Don't it figure the way he acted and all? Didn't I tell you them crazy ideas would catch up to him sooner or later?"

Faith broke away from the other children and ran. Eula May Jenkins called after her, but she pressed her palms to her ears and hurried home. Fifteen minutes later she stood breathlessly watching the farmhouse from afar. People crowded the small front porch and spoke in excited voices. A strange woman called to her from the yard, but Faith turned, her shoes flying from her feet, and raced for the woods. When she reached the crowd at the border of the woods she was barefoot and breathless. She shoved her way through a maze of legs and stopped, aware of her father's smell on the air: tobacco and sweat. Both his bare feet swung above from a pine tree. Caught from her waist from behind, Faith was carried away.

She had been only six then, and by nightfall most of her fear was spent. What truly upset her after seeing her father's dangling, ashy legs was that everyone now expected something from her. But no one said what it was. Many visitors came to the farmhouse and told her to be brave, to pray. Brave about what, pray to whom? Lavidia shaved her head and told her, "Your daddy sneezed his soul away — it's just." Faith accepted this without further questioning. It was believable, for life was filled with stranger things, as her father had repeatedly told her. She remembered his saying, "Everything that is is right, or it wouldn't be." During the wake Faith, thinking of this, even smiled.

Concern for Faith's peculiar reaction brought Reverend Brown, younger then and indefatigable, on regular visits to the farmhouse. He would park his old Plymouth close to the porch and sit late at night with Lavidia as she smoked and spit and rocked in the moonlight, telling her of the great spirit man who would soon speak to sinners in their county. Faith would sit close to her mother, dozing after a big dinner, thinking of her father and Alpha, who made her laugh, and only half hearing the plans for her salvation.

The day after one such visit her mother dressed her in white and took her miles from home to an enormous tent in the fields behind town. Faith had been excited — it was a circus tent, tall as timber, with flaps that spread like wings. Big Todd, she remembered, had worked in a circus, had been part of its world and found what he called his calling there. Mightn't she, too? Before they reached the entrance Faith could hear singing inside and the clash of tambourines. But it struck her as they entered that this place held no entertainment. Old men and wasted women she recognized as tireless sharecroppers and maids sang from chairs lining the interior of the tent; some spoke hurriedly, biting their tongues, in the lost language, while others spun like tops through the aisles. They had not come to see an event; they had come to be one.

Faith pulled against Lavidia, who slapped her lightly and dragged her inside to the front row, where Eula May Jenkins — not a neighbor now, or a bearer of grief, or a whisperer of rumors, but a silent dancer — beat the soles of her bare feet against the ground. Beside her two women held Alpha Omega Jones in his chair. He, the boy who loved her even then, was almost unrecognizable. His face was crimson, twisted, his lips parted, screaming emptiness, and his limbs jerked in all directions, blurred like fluttering batwings. Down the row, deep in meditation, a cripple mashed an off-key accordion; leathery old men in barley-stained overalls bent forward in their seats to hear Reverend Alexander Magnus, the spirit man, at the front of the tent. He stood head and shoulders above the others in the tent, over seven feet tall if a foot, intimidating them with his size and deep sonorous voice. When he gestured — raising his big square hands into the air and pointing toward the sky or shoving them out with his fingers curled back like claws — they could catch their breaths and hold them for what seemed like an hour. Magnus paced and pointed at people in the front row, his face shut and sweating. "Children, you are crooked and ulcerous, you are cancerous and weak. You are damned from birth and distant from the source of all good. You are as dust and excrement to Him. You are as the groveling mole and eyeless maggot before the power that pardons your trespasses and prevents your death. You are nothing! In due time, it is written, your feet shall slide and the unsteady floor of your life shall give way. Shall it be tonight?" He looked left, his eyebrows arched, toying with their fear. "Or tomorrow?" — looking right, his eyes wide, sly. "You are damned for delighting in this world. Your tongues savor fatback and burgoo, your flesh hungers for other flesh." Magnus stopped to stare into the face of a farmer and his wife. They shrank back, silent, and he shouted, "Worms will be your supper soon!

"Sinner, have you ever tortured a spider? Have you ever held it over a smoking fire on its silky web, sick of its slimy form, feeling — deep in your heart — that you'd let it drop and watch it burn? Have you ever stalked and cornered a fly for the trespass of buzzing in your car? Brother Spider," he said to Alpha, "Sister Fly," to Lavidia, "Sinners!" to everyone in the tent, "your life is supported by a perfect being who watches you with disgust, just like you watch chinches and waterbugs, slugs and lice, knowing that if you have the cheek to go too far, then — whop!" Magnus slapped his hands together like a cannon shot. "But He loves you still (I don't know why!). Nothing else explains why you didn't drop into hell in your pajamas last night. Nothing you have done, do now or will do shall save you. Not even innocence can save you." (Herewith Faith shuddered and grabbed Lavidia's clammy hand.) "Witness crib death and the diseases of childhood. Witness the fury of storms, floods, droughts, lightning, hail, the dangers of machinery, earthquakes, plagues, famines and poisoned food, senseless slaughter, recessions, depressions, bloodshed, revolutions, civil wars, and the eventual destruction that creeps closer and closer to your front door. It's here now. Can you feel it — death moving ghoul-like in the dark? Maybe tonight when you put out your candles, close your eyes, and start to sleep lightly, maybe then you'll feel death down your spine and come full awake with a start, sweat streaming in your clothes, your eyes searching the darkness of your bedroom until you see the red eyes of the Devil riveted on you; over there, brothers — in that far corner, tiny red eyes just to the right of your chamber pot." Magnus laughed at the thought of it. No one else said a mumbling word. "He'll shove his claw down your throat, fish up your soul and steal away, lame and hunchbacked, leaving no tracks for your family and friends to find you — the real you, brothers, because it'll be shoved, gibbering and pale, into Satan's big black traveling bag. Pay attention! My prayers can't save you then. He'll toss you like so much trash into rivers brimming with blood and burning corpses. All the filth and offal ever to pass through the bodies of birds and beasts and men will fill your mouths. The fire there is forever," he said in a hushed voice. "It boils the blood in your veins and bakes your brain like a biscuit; it blackens your skin so you'd think you're white right now. You'll smell your hair burn, brothers — light a strand right now and see how it stinks; you'll hear the howl of demons forever: 'Were you not saved?' And you will call on Him. Who will not hear. Torment for eternity, brothers — because you loved this illusion, this fire-wheel we call the world!"

An old woman in a black bonnet and black shawl began to dance. To Faith she danced the way a snake writhed or maybe like something dead but newly risen — like something that had no business dancing at all. She snapped back her head and stepped a mad cakewalk through the aisles, screaming. Magnus smiled. "All that is given to man, to life and to this illusion is stolen from God. Who shall you serve? If Him, your salvation is assured. If the world..." Magnus chortled so deep, so strange that it sounded like the earth moving and stiffened all who heard, "...woe unto you who would dare to love this world."

None would dare.

So the congregation thumped their feet in loud tattoos along the ground, clapped their hands, and called out. Air in the tent grew dense with dust, cries and smells released from the gathering. Distance between their bodies dissolved until all the raised voices in the tent echoed inside Faith's head. Inching slowly through the tent, Reverend Brown sought prey — the proud. He laid his fingertips on Eula May Jenkins's temples, lifting the big woman like a puppet. She quaked, shouted, screamed, and fell at Faith's feet.

Lavidia gestured to Eula May's empty seat. "You sit here by Alpha." Alpha's shirt was torn away, his chest was the color of fire. There, Faith did not want to sit. She backed away, aware of a sickness springing at the pit of her stomach, a stinging in her arms and legs. Seeing Faith and Lavidia, Reverend Brown spun on his heels and, from across the room, pointed his finger like a revolver at Lavidia. She froze, trembling once as if cold or being crushed by a great, invisible palm; then she left her seat, tearing at her throat. She collapsed, flailing the air. Faith went to her, tried to pin her arms and legs to the ground.

It was useless.

Faith's dark reflection sparkled in Lavidia's wide eyes; but her mother could not see. Lavidia's wig, golden in the lights strung overhead throughout the tent, burst from its pins. Veins corded in her neck. Beside Faith, knifing through the riot of the hymns and loud tambourines, she heard Reverend Brown whispering:

"Are you ready, child?"

Dark and triumphant, Brown's face was a mask of moving, proud expressions. He touched her arm and something inside Faith broke free. She tried to inhale, but the air was swirling, thick and weighted with invisible things. On her tongue strange words formed, and more vividly than before she saw her father's swinging feet as retribution for his terrible pride and passions.

"Call!" Brown demanded.

Pain rippled like electricity through her limbs, so intense she wanted to leap, to avoid it, from her skin. "Call," Brown whispered. "Say 'Thank You,' child." It meant nothing to her. She would have said anything to extinguish the pain inside her. There on the ground, the earth at her ear humming with voices in the air, she saw it clearly — all the possible number of things in space, all forms that had ever existed in time reflected back into time like a man's image trapped in a room of mirrors — she, herself, Faith Cross, fading back and forth on the continuum of time until she could no longer be certain of the images of herself that shone in her father's eyes; those of Lavidia, the preacher, the undertaker, and Alpha were more real than she, if in that crazy complex of images she existed at all. Faith screamed it — "Thank Yooou!" — sang it — "Thank You!" — and finally believed in its healing grace — "Thank You!"

But it didn't last. The silent kitchen said so. And so did the yard beyond.

She glanced over her shoulder at Reverend Brown, wondering if he knew how short-lived had been her salvation. An afterglow that warmed her and dissolved her intimations of a ghastly world without meaning or sense, save salvation and survival, had carried her through the remainder of her childhood. Time, though, did damage to it. For it often took the form of a hunger unsatisfied by further prayer meetings. Always these feelings possessed her, as a demon or jinni might, haunting her experiences to find a vision of complete freedom. It took in breaths beneath her own, moved with her limbs. Demanded its rights.

Sometimes she tried to ignore it, to grow up like other children. Ignoring it, though, was somehow akin to trying to forget one's own heartbeat; louder it grew with denial. Like a lover or lecher, the awareness came to her at night when she tried to sleep, stealing through her bedroom window like the scent of night-blooming flowers or the whispering rustle of wind in the trees. When it came, the world as it usually appeared...disappeared. Time was suspended, and tomorrow took its true form as illusion. Only the present was immediate and everywhere, disclosed to her as the miraculous — woven veins in a browning autumn leaf, in the minor miracle of an insect nature had fashioned like a twig — with legs!

Clearest were these feelings on the afternoons she spent spooning with Alpha Omega Jones, her first and, she often thought, last love. It was more than a run-of-the-mill high-school affair; she was certain! Together they would lie in the tall grass, holding each other until their in and out breaths coincided, breathing as a single body; her shorter breaths would slowly slip beneath his own. And the grass and trees, it seemed, would bring their pulsations in line with them until the universe was a single heartbeat. Reality was a dream, or sometimes a nightmare, but no more than this: a rhythm. She felt herself at such times carried through the world as though she had wings, but not toward Glory, never toward Glory. Only back to earth, deep within its strange fabric. No personalities existed in such a pure world of feeling, just flashes of human outlines in the quilt of creation where plants had their place, and animals — all coexisting peacefully, lyrically, like notes in a lay.

"Well?" Reverend Brown said, removing his hands from her shoulders. "You and your mother both had it for a while. You can have it again."

Faith looked away. "I felt something back then, but I don't think that's what Momma meant." She looked at him timidly, almost afraid to say more. "I think Momma meant something like it...only more."

"More?" Brown grumbled, and again, "More?" as though the word were bitter. He stepped close to her, intimidating her with his size as his hands flexed at his sides. "What more is there? Honey, the world is just the way you saw it on the floor of that tent — there ain't no more — there couldn't be! People who look for more will be annihilated."

"She meant something," Faith insisted.

The reverend cleared his throat and towered over Faith, drumming his fingers on the tablecloth. "Sometimes family deaths can be disruptive. They take away someone who's been the center of your world for a long time, and you see how difficult it is to live without someone or something to hold on to. Death ought to start a person thinking — "

"...About what the good thing really is?"

Brown's fist crashed on the table; Lavidia's pipes spilled from their rack. He glared at them, then at Faith. "Don't interrupt me! I'm trying to tell you something!" The reverend's lips curled back over silver-capped teeth, his brow wrinkled. Faith immediately wanted to take back what she had said. Brown had taken it personally. Bitterness laced his voice:

"I ain't gonna preach sin to you. There's more involved than that! Your momma, God rest her soul, was tryin' to tell you on her deathbed that you've got to have somethin' to hold on to now that she's gone... somethin' that'll pull the world together." Brown, Faith sensed, was no longer talking to her, but to himself, slamming his left fist repeatedly into his right palm and pausing for reflection. "This world we live in — it's like a shadowy cave fulla crazy sounds if you've got nothin' to light it up. There's no sun but the Saviour, y'see? There's no right or wrong, and nothin's clear-cut — there's nothin' but a lot of empty things that keep bumpin' into each other in the dark..."

Faith thought of her father, of his stunning fictions and well-meant lies. "I've heard different."

"From who?" Brown sneered. "From the Swamp Woman? I've heard tell of the stories she tells kids stupid enough to believe them. You listen to me. Forget people like that." Brown winced and grabbed at his right side. "Even talkin' about her hurts me — happens every time I mention the old witch. People like her will have you believin' in haints and hoodoo and the walkin' dead if you let them." Brown seized a napkin from the table and wiped the wrinkles from his forehead.

"Pray with me," he said.

The bleating horn of Jackson's hearse drew Faith's attention. She went to the front porch, Brown at her heels, muttering almost under his breath, "I'll be back tomorrow and the day after and I'll keep comin' back until you start showin' some sense."

From the doorway she leaned against the railing of the stairs and watched as the reverend sprinted through the rain to the hearse and slid onto the front of the seat beside the undertaker. It seemed impossible the dark machine in the mud held her mother. Lavidia's deep, almost manly laughter would no longer awake her in the morning; silent was the voice that had called her from the fields. Though it was pointless, she forgave her mother for her selfishness; her will, spitefulness, and grudges; even for taking Alpha from her in the cruelest possible way. Forgiving, though, was not forgetting. Always she would remember resting her head on Alpha's chest as they sat on the front porch of the farmhouse, painting in broad, vague outlines the possibility of a life together, only to look up and see Lavidia's gray face scowling in the window nearby. Always she would hear her mother say, "You'll never have nobody that'll love you like your mother did! You'll cry for me when I'm gone."

Lavidia lived in fear of Faith's leaving her to a house full of memories that would become distorted and terrifying with the passage of time. Therefore, she clung to her, screened every boy that drove up to the farmhouse to visit Faith, and browbeat each with questions: "Faith's been saved — she's married to God," Lavidia would say; then wryly, with squinted eye and twisted mouth: "Are you God?" Alpha found such competition unbearable. He never returned. Faith had waited for him each evening on the front porch until Lavidia informed her, "He won't be back no more. I was payin' him to court you 'cause you looked so lonesome all the time. Wouldn't no other fellah look at a girl as plain and backwards as you. I couldn't afford it no more. I guess he's gone for good."

It must have been a lie. Yet to this day Faith was uncertain. Others — the rowdy boys from the mill, the shy ones without a future, and the bold ones destined to die soon in fights or drink — came to the farmhouse after Alpha's disappearance, but Lavidia never confronted them. Faith herself turned them away, excusing herself to do school- or housework, or simply hiding from them in her bedroom. Did one ever really know another's affections? You could guess at them and live as best as you could in the shadow of uncertainty. That was Big Todd's way. He never asked, never doubted that haints and demons inhabited everything. He told her great love and hatred moved men to happiness and shame: it was that simple.

She looked at Reverend Brown beside the mortician and saw that his smugness, his strength came from knowing or thinking he knew with his heart the workings of other men, that they lusted, or felt lost and would be rewarded or damned proportionally for those longings. But was that true? Was all that really there? Concerning his feelings, Alpha's face told her nothing. His dark eyes were quiet, and his lips bent up at their corners whenever he saw her; but there was nothing about this, or his smooth hands, or his face and smoother words, that really told her what he was thinking. Love was a myth born in imagination, pieced together from the inferred softness of a stare, deduced, probably from false premises or undistributed middle terms, from his smile: it could have been deceit. Lavidia never ceased to make that clear when Faith found herself moping about the house. "Just how did you know he loved you?" she would challenge. No reply was possible. You could never know. And Alpha and the world of things, of kitchen furniture and hearses, came to her as cold, inaccessible things out there.

You couldn't fool yourself; you knew you wanted the smile to be love, and knowing that you knew completely ruined the feeling. How had Big Todd done it — lived in a world so full of magic that he could call pots and pans by proper names he'd given them? Seen from the floor of Brown's tent the world had been a wasteland; the one in Big Todd's tales, a dream. Could you choose?

Within herself Faith found no answer.

And now the hearse was at the road, hauling her mother to the halfway house between Hatten County and Hell. She jumped down the stairs and ran slipping through the mud. Jackson stopped the car, rolled down his window, and called:

"You go and stay with Mrs. Jenkins tonight."

They left her at the road. From the north the wind brought rain to pelt Faith. She suddenly feared reentering the farmhouse. It rested on white stones her father had carried by mule from the forest. Lavidia's rocking chair creaked back and forth slowly in the wind. Tree toads were carping, harbingers of a storm, and the rain exploded like the report of rifles far away. Faith remained still, staring at the front porch, trying to imagine Lavidia sitting in her rocker, smoking and squeezing from the pores of her waxy nose white things she called worms. The cabin defied her memories, determined to remain...out there. Then came thunder, and in a way that frightened her — as though the noise would tear the thin membrane of the sky, rending it to the horizon like a run in cheap hosiery, and angels, God's throne, and heavenly host would tumble like leaves across the fields. Faith began running south until she fell. She looked back, still frightened by the cabin that appeared to descend into the soft ground. Alone, she cried, but kept walking, aimlessly and for hours. Her flight took her to the edge of the swamp. Then it was that Faith decided to seek audience with the werewitch at her shanty in the bogs.

Copyright © 1974 by Charles Johnson

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(0)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)