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FIRST READING - 1921
Preacher Liner said he would let me preach the Sunday after Homecoming. He was a big heavy feller with droopy jowls, and he said it as a favor to Mama more than anything else, because no preacher likes to share his pulpit, not any that I ever heard of. But Mama was a pillar of the church, and her pa had give the land for the church and built the first church in the valley back when the county was founded. And for some reason Preacher Liner was afraid of Mama, maybe because she'd read more than him and knowed more Scripture. So when I told Preacher Liner I felt I had the call, that I'd been studying up to preach a sermon, he said he'd let me fill the pulpit, soon as there was an opportunity.
I was only sixteen, but I felt the call, and I waited weeks and months for a chance to preach. I studied the Bible every day and prayed for a sign that I was ready. When I went out to the barn to milk I thought about preaching as I pulled down on the cow's tits. And while I hoed corn in the hot June sun I studied on what I'd say when I was give the pulpit.
Mama said I could go to a revival meeting in one of the little valleys near the head of the river and preach, or might be I could preach in one of the ridge churches like Mount Olivet. But I said I wanted to start in my home church, and then I'd light out to preach in other places, if I was going to preach, if the Lord had really anointed me to preach.
"You don't want to feel too much pride about preaching," Mama said. She had been a Holiness when she was young, but now she was a steadfast Baptist. If they made women deacons she'd have been a deacon. Mama was tall with long black hair she wore in aknot on top of her head. As her hair got threads of gray in it she looked dignified enough to be a deacon.
"Got to have some pride to want to try preaching," I said. "Otherwise I couldn't even think of standing up in front of a crowd."
"I can't see you preaching," said Fay, my younger sister. "You talk too slow and thoughtful. You're my brother, not a preacher." Fay was only thirteen, and bony like Moody was.
"I'd rather listen to hound dogs howling after a fox," my brother, Moody, said. "That's the best kind of preaching I know." Moody almost never went to church anyway, so it didn't matter what he said.
"If Muir has the call, he will preach," Mama said. "The Lord will put the words in his mouth and the Spirit in his heart."
"Only call Muir feels is the call of nature," Moody said.
"I never thought there'd be a preacher in this family," Fay said. She was wearing the blue dress Mama had smocked for her.
"I always prayed there would be a preacher in our family, in this generation," Mama said.
Since I left school when I was twelve I'd hunted ginseng in the late summer on the ridges over near South Carolina. And I'd helped Mama in the fields and in the orchards on the hill. I had helped make molasses in the old furnace Grandpa had built in the pasture, and I'd cut tops and pulled fodder. I'd chopped wood and done a little carpentry and masonry for my cousin U. G. that kept the store down at the highway, and I'd laid a rock wall behind the house to hold Mama's flower beds. I'd also built a rock wall for my aunt Florrie, and I'd painted the house for Mama. I'd tried my hand at a lot of things, from digging herbs to hewing and selling crossties to the railroad. But the thing I'd been best at was trapping muskrats and mink and foxes on the creeks and high branches near the head of the river. I liked to walk the trapline, and I knowed every inch of the headwaters and the Flat Woods beyond. I'd learned how to set traps in the water to drown a mink before it could gnaw its foot off, and I'd learned to put a trap on a trail where a fox couldn't see it or smell it. Every winter I made more than a hundred dollars from selling fur.
I'd heard a hundred times that Mama laid in bed without moving for several weeks before I was born. She had anemia and she had kidney poisoning. And she didn't eat nothing but some biscuits and a little milk. She was afraid she'd lose the baby if she moved. "I laid in the dark, for I was afraid even to read," Mama said.
And when I was born she was in labor for seventeen hours; the midwife thought I would be dead. After I was born they saw I was early and poor as a whippoorwill. You could see my ribs I was so starved. And I was too weak to eat anything except to suck on a rag soaked in sugar water, and to nurse a few minutes at a time.
"Muir was so blue he looked like he'd froze to death," Mama said.
But the story Mama liked to tell best was about how my tongue had been tied down by a thread of flesh. "He was so tongue-tied he couldn't even cry," Mama said. "His tongue just kind of wallowed in his mouth, so I took him to a doctor in town and had it snipped free. Everybody said he'd never be able to talk, that he wasn't meant to talk. But I knowed he would talk. He was meant to talk, and after that he howled up a storm."
"He just never learned to talk sense," Moody said.
"I know he was put here for some purpose," Mama said. "He was a marked baby."
Mama said so many times I was marked for something special that I believed it was true. But I didn't know what it was for, until after I'd been saved and after I'd been baptized. I seen that I was supposed to be a witness and a minister. I'd heard about people getting the call, and I started to feel I was one that heard the call. Mama was proud. But it made Moody mad when she talked about how I was marked for a purpose. He acted like she said it to belittle him. He acted like he was mad at everybody most of the time. He snorted and cleared the spit in his throat.
When I read a passage in the Bible I thought of myself saying it from a pulpit. "'In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you. I go and prepare a place for you . . . '" I imagined how I'd swing my arm in the air and slam my fist down on the pulpit. "'And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,'" I said aloud to myself. "'Neither shall there be any more pain.'"
As I walked along my trapline I said verses to myself. "'Blessed art thou Simon Barjonah . . . Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it . . . Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven . . .'"
I got so drunk saying the verses to myself that I would stumble off the trail or bump into a tree. I felt light enough to fly as I quoted, "'A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.'"
I stood on top of a ridge above Grassy Creek in Transylvania County and faced the wind and said, "'I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.'" I imagined preaching to crowds in tents and brush arbors and in open fields. But mostly I imagined talking to the congregation in Green River Church. I was afraid I'd be tongue-tied when I had to talk.
As I walked through the woods with my squirrel rifle, I was eloquent in one soaring sentence after another. I stood before the crowd and shouted about the glories of heaven. I didn't talk about hellfire and I didn't talk about punishment and damnation. In my mind I talked about the glories beyond the grave, beyond the clouds above the hill. I talked about the sunlit uplands beyond the far shore.
Now the other thing I studied on was Annie Richards that lived on the creek road just beyond the church. She was only thirteen then, but she was the prettiest girl in the whole valley. Her blond hair and her pale skin was like something out of a picture. She was slender and she was perfect and she had big gray eyes. She was too young to walk home with boys from church, but she was already a little bit of a flirt. She was quick as a fawn with her gray eyes and red lips. I had my eye on her. I was going to be a preacher, and I was going to marry her. That's what I told myself. The two things was tied together in my mind. All women was in love with preachers.
"What are you going to preach about?" Preacher Liner said to me the Sunday before Homecoming. When he talked to you he kind of leaned over you. The look in his eyes never seemed to match what he was saying.
"I will preach about the Transfiguration," I said.
"That's always a good topic," Preacher Liner said. "People like to hear about the Transfiguration."
Preacher Liner said he'd be going down to South Carolina the Sunday after Homecoming, and I could fill the pulpit in his place. Panic jolted through me so hard it hurt. In two weeks I'd be standing in front of the congregation. In two weeks I'd be facing all those people that I'd knowed since I was in diapers.
"Glory be," Mama said when I told her I would be preaching in two weeks. "This is the answer to my prayers."
Now the thing about worry is it can't do you much good. For worry just wears you down and don't help the least bit. But you can't just turn off worry like it was a spigot. Worry ain't something you can do much to control. Worry creeps up on you at night while you're laying in bed and crawls right into your head. And worry soaks its way into whatever you're thinking about in the daytime.
I figured if I studied out my sermon beforehand it might help. They said preachers in town actually wrote down sermons and read them on Sunday. But no Baptist preacher ever wrote out a sermon on Green River. That would prove you didn't have the call of the Spirit in your heart. Anybody that would write out a sermon and read it to the congregation would be laughed out of the pulpit and never invited to preach again. Only Scripture was worth reading out in the pulpit.
I took my Bible and climbed up into the pines on the pasture hill. Thought if I got on top of the ridge I could think better. The air would be clearer and I'd be closer to God. And the Transfiguration took place on a mountaintop where Peter and James and John went with Jesus. I read in Matthew: "'While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said: This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.'"
That seemed to me the finest passage in the Bible. I said the words over again and made my voice deep in my throat, and I made my tongue curl around the words.
I turned to the book of Luke where it also described the Transfiguration.
"'And as he prayed the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.'"
I walked up and down under the pine trees and said the verse. I swung my arm to show the power of the words. I knowed if I could get started in the pulpit I could keep going. It was getting started that was hard. I'd took part in the debates at school when I was eleven and twelve. It was standing and saying the first thing that scared me. The first time I stood before the class I was so dazed I couldn't think of nothing. My throat locked closed like spit had stuck there and glued my windpipe. Next time I debated I determined I'd say one word if it killed me. And I did stand up and say one word, and after that I could say more. But I remembered that feeling of having my tongue and throat froze, like they'd turned to rock.
Last, I turned to the Second Epistle of Peter, where he talked about the Transfiguration.
"'And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount.'"
It was the holy mount I wanted to mention in my sermon. For I wanted to say any mountain could be a holy mountain. And that the ground where we stood could be holy ground. I wanted to preach mountainism, for I'd read somewhere that mountainism meant a vision of paradise on earth. But I didn't know if I could say it right.
In his excitement and confusion Peter had talked about building three tabernacles on the mountaintop, one to Moses, one to Elias, and one to Jesus. He'd talked foolish, out of his head. I hoped I didn't talk foolish. I hoped I didn't speak beside myself, once I was in the pulpit. But I understood the desire to build something sacred. I had studied about building almost as much as about trapping and preaching. A life's work should be to build something that inspired people.
I stood under the pines facing the wind and read more verses, making my voice strong and far-reaching as I could. I read in a low voice and I read in a loud voice. I read the verses in a proper voice, and I read them the way a mountain preacher would that hadn't hardly been to school. I couldn't decide which way was best. But I thought, The place for a church is on a mountaintop. The perfect place to say the words of the Bible was on the highest ground in sight.