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A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME
Something has spoken to me in the night . . . and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying:
"[Death is] To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.
I sat there in the car with the gravel dust blowing across the parking lot and saw the place for what it was, not what it was right at that moment in the hot sunlight, but for what it had been maybe twelve or fifteen years before: a real general store with folks gathered around the lunch counter, a line of people at the soda fountain, little children ordering ice cream of just about every flavor you could think of, hard candy by the quarter-pound, moon pies and crackerjack and other things I hadn't thought about tasting in years. And if I'd closed my eyes I could've seen what the building had been forty or fifty years before that, back when I was a young woman: a screened door slamming shut, oil lamps lit and sputtering black smoke, dusty horses hitched to the posts out front where the iceman unloaded every Wednesday afternoon, the last stop on his route before he headed up out of the holler, the bed of his truck an inch deep with cold water. Back before Carson Chambliss came and took down the advertisements and yanked out the old hitching posts and put up that now-yellow newspaper in the front windows to keep folks from looking in. All the way back before him and the deacons had wheeled out the broken coolers on a dolly, filled the linoleum with rows of folding chairs and electric floor fans that blew the heat up in your face. If I'd kept my eyes closed I could've seen all this lit by the dim light of a memory like a match struck in a cave where the sun can't reach, but because I stared out through my windshield and heard the cars and trucks whipping by on the road behind me, I could see now that it wasn't nothing but a simple concrete block building, and, except for the sign out by the road, you couldn't even tell it was a church. And that was exactly how Carson Chambliss wanted it.
As soon as Pastor Matthews caught cancer and died in 1975, Chambliss moved the church from up the river in Marshall, which ain't nothing but a little speck of town about an hour or so north of Asheville. That's when Chambliss put the sign out on the edge of parking lot. He said it was a good thing to move like we did because the church in Marshall was just too big to feel the spirit in, and I reckon some folks believed him; I know some of us wanted to. But the truth was that half the people in the congregation left when Pastor Matthews died and there wasn't enough money coming in to keep us in that old building. The bank took it and sold it to a group of Presbyterians, just about all of them from outside Madison County, some of them not even from North Carolina. They've been in that building for ten years, and I reckon they're proud of it. They should be. It was a beautiful building when it was our church, and even though I ain't stepped foot in there since we moved out, I figure it probably still is.
The name of our congregation got changed too, from "French Broad Church of Christ" to "River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following." Under that new sign, right out there by the road, Chambliss lettered the words "Mark 16:17-18" in black paint, and that was just about all he felt led to preach on too, and that's why I had to do what I done. I'd seen enough, too much, and it was my time to go.
I'd seen people I'd known just about my whole life pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire up to their faces just to see if it would burn them. Holy people too. God-fearing folks that hadn't ever acted like that a day in their lives. But Chambliss convinced them it was safe to challenge the will of God. He made them think it was alright to take that dare if they believed. And just about the whole lot of them said, Here I am, Lord . Come and take me if you get a mind to it. I'm ready if you are.
And I reckon they were ready, at least I hope so, because I saw a right good many of them get burned up and poisoned, and there wasn't a single one of them that would go see a doctor if they got sick or hurt. That's why the snake bites bothered me the most. Those copperheads and rattlers could only stand so much, especially with the music pounding like it did, and all them folks dancing and hollering and falling out on the floor, kicking over chairs and laying their hands on each other. In all that time, right up until what happened with Christopher, the church hadn't ever had but one of them die from that carrying on either, at least only one I know about: Miss Molly Jameson, almost eleven years ago. She was seventy-nine when it happened, two years younger than I am now. I think it might've been a copperhead that got her. She was standing down front on that little stage when Chambliss lifted it out of the crate, closed his eyes and prayed over it. He wasn't more than forty-five years old then, his black hair cut close and sharp like he'd spent time in the army, and he might have for all I knew about him. I don't think a single one of us knew for sure where he came from, and I figure anyone who said they did had probably been lied to. Once he finished praying over that snake he handed it to Molly. She took it from him just as gentle as if someone was passing her a newborn baby, this woman who'd never had a child of her own, a widow whose husband had been dead for over twenty years, his chest crushed up when his tractor rolled over and pinned him upside a tree.
But like I said, she held that copperhead like a baby, and she took her glasses off and looked at it up close like it was a baby too, tears running down her face and her lips moving like she was praying or talking to it in such a soft way that only it could hear her. Everybody around her was too wrapped up in themselves to pay any attention, dancing and carrying on and hollering out words couldn't nobody understand but themselves. But Chambliss stood there and watched Molly. He held that microphone over his heart with that terrible-looking hand he'd set on fire years before in the basement of Ponder's feed store. I'd heard that him and some men from the church were meeting for worship down in that basement, drinking lamp oil and handling fire too, and I don't know just how it happened, but somehow or another Chambliss got his sleeve set on fire and it tore right through his shirt and burnt his arm up something awful. They said later that his fingers were even melted together, and he had to pull them apart and set them in splints to keep them separated while they were healing. I didn't ever see his whole arm because that man didn't ever roll that right sleeve up, maybe the left one, but not that one. I reckon I can't blame him. That right hand was just an awful sight, even after it got healed.
Like I said, Chambliss stood back while Molly handled that snake and he watched her catch hold of the Holy Ghost, and when he felt like she was good and filled up with it he went to her and put his good hand on her head. Then he took up that microphone and prayed into it. I remember just exactly what he said because it was the last time I ever heard that man preach. It was the last time I ever stepped foot inside that church until now.
He said, "Oh dear, sweet Jesus, take this woman and fill her up with your spirit from head to foot. Fill us all, sweet Jesus with your good Holy Ghost. Lift us up in your name, dear Lord." And when he said that, he put his good hand under her elbow and helped her lift that snake up over her head. He moved away real slow and she just held it there above her like she was making sure God could see it, her eyes closed tight, her feet running in place, her mouth alive and moving in a prayer she probably hadn't ever prayed in her life.
When she lowered that copperhead is when it happened. The first time it struck it caught her just under her left eye, right along her cheekbone. And when she went to pull it off her face it got her on her right hand, right in between her thumb and her finger, and it wouldn't let go. She hollered out and cracked that snake like a bullwhip, but it was too strong. Chambliss dropped his microphone and him and two of the deacons laid her down right there in front of the church. They held her still and finally got that snake's fangs to turn her hand loose. You could tell by the way they handled it that they didn't want to hurt it, and they didn't want themselves to get bit either. Chambliss picked it up just as gentle as he could and then opened the top of that crate with the toe of his boot and let that thing slide right back inside. Everybody stopped their dancing when they heard Molly hollering, and soon the music stopped too. That church was quieter than it had ever been until Chambliss got down on his knee beside Molly and put that microphone up to her lips like he expected her to say something. "Go ahead," he said to her, but all you could hear was the sound of her panting like she couldn't catch her breath. Somebody brought her a glass of water, and those two deacons helped her raise herself up and take a drink. When they sat her up you could see that her cheek had started to turn blue, and they had to tip the water glass into her mouth because her lips were almost swollen shut.
"Sister Jameson," Chambliss said, "You've stepped out in faith, and we're all witness to that belief you have in the love of Jesus Christ to protect you and keep you safe, whether it's here with us on this sinful earth or at home with him in glory." Whispered "amens" rose up out of the congregation, and people waved their arms over their heads in hallelujah. "I'm going to ask the rest of the deacons to come up here with me and lay their hands on you, Sister, and maybe the good Lord will let us pray you through this." The sound of folding chairs being pushed across the linoleum rang out and groups of men went up on the stage and kneeled around Molly and laid their hands on her and prayed different prayers, some of them in tongues, some of them calling on God and asking him to save her. Chambliss stayed knelt down beside her and he kept his eyes closed, his good hand on her head, the burned one still holding on to the microphone.
"God's sent his angels," he whispered. "I can hear their footfalls up on the roof above us; I can hear their wings just a-fluttering, Molly. God's sent his angels to be with you this very morning, and we don't know if they're here to watch over you and keep you with us, or if he's sent them to carry you home to glory, but we feel them here with us don't we, and we feel Jesus's love washing over us this very minute." He looked up at the congregation. "And all God's people said, 'Amen.'"
"Amen," the people hollered back. Chambliss stood up and looked out at us, and then he looked back down at Molly where she was laid out and surrounded by all those men who were still busy praying over her.
"But the world ain't made up of God's people," he said. "The world ain't given to know what we know. The world ain't going to understand this woman's faith; it ain't going to understand her wanting to take up that serpent to conquer the devil. And I can tell you that the world ain't ever going to understand the will of God in allowing her to come home to him."
"That's right!" someone hollered out. "Hallelujah!"
"But we know," Chambliss said. "We know what's at work here. We know God has a plan for his people. We know God lets only the righteous into Heaven. We know God brings only the worthy home."
"Amen!" another voice said.
"And I tell you," Chambliss said. "It's a good day when one of us goes home. It's a beautiful Sunday morning when one of us is called back to Jesus. Hallelujah!" He dropped his hands to his sides and shuffled across the front of the church like he was dancing. "It gives me joy to see it! No tears. No sadness. Hallelujah! Just joy. Joy that this woman's going home. We got that good Holy Ghost power up in our church today, praise God!" He looked over to where Mrs. Crowder sat behind the piano, and he nodded toward her and she took up playing and pounding away at the keys. The drums and the guitar picked up after that, and before I knew it the congregation had started in on "Holy Ghost Power" and everyone had took to dancing and singing like nothing had ever happened, like they'd all done forgot that Miss Molly Jameson was dying from a snakebite right there in front of us, the music so loud and pulsing you could feel it in your chest. A couple of deacons picked Molly up and carried her out of the church, right down the middle aisle, right past everyone there, but not a single one of them people even seemed to notice.
A few days later I was down at the post office in Marshall when I heard a woman at the counter telling the postman about how Molly's sister-in-law came over to the house and found Molly dead in the garden on Wednesday evening. Said she was out there laying face down in a row of tomatoes, a spade still in her hand.
"What took her?" the postman asked. He wet his finger with his tongue and counted out dollar bills for the woman's change, and he laid them out on the counter like a fan.
"They don't know exactly what got her," the woman said. She tore a stamp from the sheet the postman had just given her, and she licked it and smoothed it out on her letter before handing it over to him. "But they reckon a snake must've been hiding in them tomato plants. By the time they found her on Wednesday her right hand had turned black, and she had a black lump under her eye too. It was just as round and hard as it could be," she said. "Shiny too, like a ripe apple but for the blackness."
They buried Molly that Friday, and Chambliss preached her funeral.
After that I understood that my church wasn't no place to worship the Lord in, and I realized I couldn't stay. I'd been a member of that church in one way or another since I was a young woman, but things had been took too far, and I couldn't pretend to look past them no more. If having Molly Jameson die right in front of that church didn't convince Carson Chambliss to stop his carrying on, who's to say that somebody setting themselves on fire and burning down the church would change his mind? There wasn't no amount of strychnine that could've got him to stop; wasn't no kind of snake that man wouldn't pick up and pass around.
Even though that newspaper in the windows kept folks from seeing inside that church, I figure everybody in town knew what was going on, and it wouldn't be long before they had the law down there trying to break it up. I didn't like none of it one bit at all, and I knew if it wasn't a safe place for an old woman, then there wasn't no way it was a safe place for children, and so I prayed on it and I prayed on it, and that's when God laid it on my heart. Addie, he said, just as clear as day, You need to get out of that church, but you know you can't leave them children behind. And I knew then that I'd have to stand up to Carson Chambliss, that I'd have to tell him that what he was doing was wrong.
I got down to the church early that next Sunday morning, the week after Molly Jameson was killed, and I pulled up just as Chambliss and Deacon Ponder unloaded the last of the crates out of the back of Ponder's pick-up truck. I got out of my car and stood there watching them. Chambliss must've had some kind of premonition about my business because when he saw me he stopped what he was doing and looked at me, and then he handed his crate over to Ponder.
"Would you carry this inside for me, Phil?" he asked. "I'm going to stay out here and visit with Sister Adelaide for a bit." He slammed the gate on the truck bed, and Ponder nodded his head and smiled at me and walked on inside the church. Chambliss dusted off his hands and walked over to where I was standing by my car. "You're here awfully early," he said. His eyes narrowed to keep out the sun, and then he lifted his good hand to shield them from the light. His face was ruddy and weathered like most men's faces up here who've spent too much time working in the sun or smoking too many cigarettes, or maybe both.
"I wanted to get here early because I need to talk to you about some things," I said.
"About what all has happened," I said. My voice was shaking, but I tried my best to hide it because I didn't want him knowing I was scared of crossing him. "I want to talk to you about what happened to Molly last Sunday."
"What do you need to talk about?" he asked me. "You were there. You saw it. She stepped out in faith and the Lord took her home."
"But it ain't right," I said. "It ain't right what y'all did to her."
"What do you mean, 'It ain't right?'"
"It ain't right what you done with her after church," I said. "Taking her home and laying her out there in the yard and just leaving her, hoping somebody would find her before the animals started eating at her. People got a right to know about these things."
"What people?" he said. "Everybody who really loved her, everybody she loved, they all know what happened. He pointed at the church. They were all right inside this church when it happened. Nobody else deserves to know anything more than that. Besides us, nobody in this world needs to know anything at all. It ain't going to do her a lick of good, and trouble is all it's going to bring us." He dropped his hand from his eyes and squinted against the sun.
"Folks talk," I said. "Especially in a town like Marshall, especially about a church like this. Putting up newspaper so they can't see inside ain't going to keep them from talking."
"Well," he said. "I trust the folks of my congregation to know who needs talking to and who don't. But if you got any ideas about taking our business outside this church then I think you'd better tell me now. I need to know that I can trust members of my congregation with the Lord's work."
"That's fine," I said, "Because I can't be a part of this no more."
"What do you plan on doing?" he asked.
"I can't be a part of this no more," I said again. "I'm leaving the church, and I want to take the children with me."
He smiled and just stood there looking at me like he was going to laugh in my face.
"Is that right," he said. "You're just going to take the children out of my church, and teach them in your own way, teach them your own beliefs. What do you think gives you the right to do that?"
"Before the hospital got built I delivered just about every child that ever stepped foot inside this church," I said. "And I delivered just about all their mamas and daddies, too. I ain't claiming to be in charge of their spirits, but I have a job to see them safely through this world after bringing them into it. And I can tell you this ain't no place for children to be," I said. "It just ain't safe."
"Sister Adelaide," he said, "I've been pastoring this church long enough for you to know that we protect our children, and I can tell you that I wouldn't never let a youngster take up no snake or drink no poison or nothing like that. But you've been here long enough to know that what we do here is the 'Truth,' and our children need to see it. Our children need to be raised up in it."
"And you should know that children can't keep no secrets about what they see either," I said.
He folded his arms across his chest and kind of rocked back on the heels of his boots. He turned his head and looked out over the river toward downtown Marshall like he was thinking about what I'd said. Then he turned his head and looked back at me.
"Can you, Sister Adelaide? Can you keep a secret?"
"I can," I said. "But I'd rather not know any secrets that need keeping, and I won't know them if I stay out of your church. A church ain't no place to hide the truth, and a church that does ain't no place for me. Ain't no place for children neither."
Chambliss never forgave me for taking the children out of that church. He warned me then that in leaving the church I was leaving my life as I'd known it, and that those folks wouldn't ever accept me the way they once had and that I'd always be an outsider. I told him I wasn't leaving the church, I was just leaving him, but I knew he was right. I lost friendships I'd had just about my whole life, and it hurt me. It still does. But for ten years I kept those children out, kept them safe. Once the service started, I'd take them across the road and down to the river when it was nice and warm, or folks would just drop them off at my house in the wintertime or if it was raining. We'd have us a little Sunday school lesson, then they'd play outside. Sometimes we'd make things, color pictures, and sing songs. But I didn't step another foot inside that church for ten years, and I hardly said more than a "hello" to Carson Chambliss in all that time. And for a while there it was real nice, that little truce. I had my little congregation and he had his, and we didn't have hardly anything to do with each other. I felt like I was doing what the Lord wanted me to do with those children.
But I should've known it couldn't have gone on like that, and I should've known that something terrible was going to happen again. But there was just no way I could have guessed it would happen to one of mine. I tried to keep them children out of that church, and for ten years I did, but that ten years didn't do nothing for Carson Chambliss but make him ten years older and braver and ten years more reckless too. And here I was on a Thursday afternoon, sitting outside a church I thought I'd never see the insides of again, waiting to talk to a man who I was afraid of being alone with. It was the only time in my life I'd ever gone to church out of fear.
I sat out there in my car with the windows rolled down and my keys still swinging from the ignition, and I stared at the church through all that bright heat and thought about him sitting in there in all that dark and waiting. The sound of that gravel dust getting blown through the parking lot could've been bare feet shuffling across the hallway the night before, when Julie was standing in the doorway watching me hunched over the bed in my funeral clothes. I finished folding the covers down, then I turned around and settled myself by the quilt that was slung over the footboard, and I smoothed out my dress and looked up at her. She didn't have a black dress to wear because she'd had to leave so many things behind right after it happened, and I ended up giving her one of mine. It hadn't been worn for years, and I reckon it had fell out of fashion well before I'd come to own it, but she seemed glad to have it and it looked just fine on her. She almost looked like a young girl, even though she was a woman a couple years past thirty who'd just buried her son. When we'd come in from the funeral she'd gone into the bedroom across the hall and closed the door. I heard the old springs on the bed give a creak when she laid down on it. I imagined her in there on that bed with her eyes wide open staring at the ceiling until the room got too dark to see it. Then she'd opened the door and come across the hall with her hair let down just as long and pretty as it could be. About the color of sweet corn. I could see she'd done a little more crying.
"You fixing to turn in?" she asked me. I nodded my head and tried to smile at her.
"I was thinking about it," I said. "You need anything before I do?"
"No mam," she said. "I think I'll be all right. I just want to tell you again how much I appreciate you letting me stay here. Shouldn't be but just awhile. Just till I decide what I'm going to do."
"Lord, girl," I told her. "You can stay here just as long as you're needing to. You don't need to make no kinds of decisions, especially not tonight, especially after what all has happened." She looked down at that pretty, yellow hair where it draped over her shoulder and fell down to her chest, and she picked up the ends of it and swished it over her fingers like she was dusting something off her hands.
"Pastor told me he wants to see you," she said. "Tomorrow afternoon, down at the church. He said about three o'clock." She dropped her hair and used both her hands to move it back behind her shoulders, and then she raised her face and looked at me.
"I wish he could've told me himself," I said. "And I wish he'd been out there today at Christopher's funeral. Don't seem right that he wasn't."
"He thought it'd be better if he didn't come," she said. "After all that's happened, I mean."
"Is that right?" I said. "A little boy dies during his church service and he thinks that's a reason to stay away. It don't seem right to me." I stood up from the bed and turned on the lamp on the bedside table and went to the closet where my nightgown hung on the back of the door. "I don't reckon you want to go down there with me?"
"He said he wanted you to come alone," she said.
"I can't say I'm too surprised by that," I said.
There wasn't a single car out there in the parking lot besides mine and Chambliss's old Buick. I opened the door and put my feet out on the blacktop and looked across the road where the land sloped down toward the riverbank. Downtown Marshall sat about a mile or so up the river, too far away to hear the sounds of cars or people's voices or other things you might hear on a Thursday afternoon in a little town. It looked to be real still, like there wasn't even anybody on the streets at all. I looked back toward the church and saw the green field spread out behind it, the trees rising up from the woods farther out at the field's edge. There weren't any sounds except for that little bit of breeze and the sound of the river running softly across the street. I climbed out of the car and closed the door and just stood there for what seemed like forever trying to wrap my head around what might've happened up here on Sunday night, trying to imagine what was going to happen to me.
I can tell you that opening the door and stepping inside that church was like walking right into the dark of night. The newspaper over those windows blocked out the sun, and with that dark wood paneling on the walls it took a good while for my eyes to get used to all that blackness; I couldn't hardly see a thing until they did. Once my eyes got fixed right I could see where the broken linoleum tiles exposed the bare cement floors after those coolers had been yanked out. It hadn't hardly changed a bit in ten years. I followed the floor tiles down the center of the room where the folding chairs parted to lead you down to the front of the church. I could just barely make out Chambliss sitting in a chair right up there on the first row. His back was to me, and he didn't even turn around when the door closed behind me. He didn't turn around when he spoke to me either; he just sat there looking straight ahead.
"Sister Adelaide," he said. "I was hoping you'd decide to come in."
"Julie said you wanted to see me," I said. "And here I am."
"And here you are," he said. "I'm glad you came. It's good to have you inside our church again." He put his arm across the chair beside him and finally turned his head and looked at me. "Come on up here and have a seat by me." I could see his face good now, and except for that silver hair around his temples, he hadn't changed. His eyes looked just as cool and distant as they always had.
I walked down the center aisle past them rows of folding chairs. It was dead silent in there because he didn't have that window air conditioner on or none of them floor fans running, and that hot, stifling air almost took my breath away. When I got down to the chairs in the front I saw that he had one of them wooden crates sitting in the floor right by his feet. It had a little hinged trap on the top of it, and I could see that the clasp on the trap was undone. I stood there looking down at it, and then I looked over at Chambliss. He was staring up at me and smiling like he'd just thought of something funny to tell me. His left arm was still across the back of the chair beside him. He took it off the chair and patted the seat.
"Sit down," he said. I didn't want to sit that close to him, so I walked in front of him and took a seat a few chairs over to his right. When I did he moved his arm and covered his right hand with his left, like he didn't want me staring at just how awful that burned-up right hand looked. We both sat there real quiet for a bit. I crossed my ankles and leaned forward just a little until my back wasn't touching the chair, and he just sat there with his feet flat on the floor, his hands in his lap, the left one covering up the right so I couldn't hardly see it.
Somebody'd hung all kinds of pictures and calendars on the front wall behind the stage, and just about every one of them had a picture of Jesus Christ on it: Jesus praying in Gethsemane; Jesus at the Pentecost; Jesus holding out his hands to Doubting Thomas to show him the places where those nails had gone right through. From where I was sitting I could see there was an old calendar from Samuels' Funeral Home and some other ones from a couple of stores in Marshall and Hot Springs and one from the old bank. Some of them calendars were so old you could only look at the pictures because you couldn't hardly read the lettering on them. In between all those calendars and all those pictures, right there in the middle of the wall, was a big framed painting of Moses taking up a serpent in front of the burning bush. I sat there and looked at that picture of Moses and thought about how he watched that staff come alive right there in the dirt, and I wondered how he must've felt when the voice of the Lord commanded him to pick it up by its tail. I looked from that painting to the crate where it sat on the floor in front of Chambliss.
"I know the sheriff's been out to see you," he said.
"Yes," I said. "He has. A couple days ago."
"And I reckon he had him a few questions about what happened up here on Sunday."
"He had some questions," I said. "But I didn't have any answers for him. I told him I couldn't speak for what y'all do up here in this church. This ain't my place anymore, even though I've been a member of this church for fifty-something years, it ain't been my place for a very long time. That's what I told him."
"What is your place, Sister Adelaide?" he asked me. He turned his head and looked at me with just about the most blank expression I've ever seen on a man's face. I stared right back at him too, and then something caught my eye, and when I looked down I seen that that awful hand had made a fist and he was using his left hand to try and cover it up, but it was almost like he couldn't do it, so instead he took to rubbing his fingers back and forth across the back of that hand, and I just sat there and stared at them fingers and I couldn't take my eyes off them.
"What is your place?" he asked me again. His fingers stopped moving and he opened his fist and laid both his hands flat on his thighs. I looked up at him.
"My place is with the children of this congregation," I said.
"Is it?" he asked.
"That's where I say it is."
"You know your Bible, don't you, Sister Adelaide?"
"I do," I said. "I know it very well."
"Then you should know Matthew 9:33," he said. "If you know your Bible then you should know it says that 'when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke.' And I reckon you should probably know Matthew 17 too, about the man who brought his son to Jesus because he was sick with a disease brought on by a demon, and the disciples didn't have the faith enough to heal him."
"I know both of them stories," I said. "I've read them both many, many times."
"They ain't no stories," he said. "You can believe me when I tell you that." He looked away from me toward the front wall where all those pictures of Jesus were hanging up. "Jesus took that boy from the book of Matthew," he said, "and he healed him. He told the disciples they didn't have the faith enough, and he promised them that if their faith was even as small as a mustard seed, then they could move mountains." He looked away from the pictures and turned his head back toward me. "That's all it would've taken, Sister Adelaide, just that little bit of faith, but they didn't have it. They didn't have faith enough to cast that demon out. Jesus had to do it himself."
"You ain't no Jesus," I said. "And Christopher didn't have no demon in him. He was born that way; I was there when he came into this world, and I can tell you God makes us how he needs us to be. I'd think about that the next time you go off on some idea about trying to change things you ain't got any business changing. I might be afraid of tempting that kind of power."
He smiled at me like he thought what I'd said was funny, but I wanted to tell him that I didn't mean for it to be no joke. He turned his head back to the front wall and took to rubbing his fingers back and forth across the back of that hand again. Well, I'd had all I could stand of his talk and his little Bible lesson, and I just wasn't going to sit there and stare at that hand no longer than I had to. I uncrossed my ankles and smoothed out my skirt and got ready to stand up to leave, and when I did that's when I felt it right there on the back of my neck.
What he did next I can't even picture quite good enough to tell just how it happened, but when I felt it on my skin I knew right then what it was; it felt just like the hand of a dead man, just as cold and clammy as it could be. He grabbed me by the neck just above my shirt collar and forced me to my knees right there in the front of the church, and when he did I heard the toe of his boot kick open the little trap on that crate. He let go of my neck and got a hold of my arm, and before I even knew he was going to do it he'd already stuck my arm down inside that crate, and he held there with that hand he'd once set on fire to hold it there. I tried to jerk it out, but he was just too strong, and when I tried to stand up he leaned one of his knees down on the back of my shoulders. My feet scraped at the floor, and I kicked at one of the metal folding chairs behind me in the front row. It fell over and the crash echoed along the floor. Chambliss acted like he hadn't heard it. I kept kicking my feet, looking for something that would help me stand, but there wasn't nothing there.
Chambliss stood above me and held onto me tight like I was some kind of hog he was fixing to butcher and he was afraid of me getting away before he'd done it. I tried again to jerk my hand free, but he held it there tight, and I could feel the cold, smooth skin of his fingers where they wrapped around my arm.
"Shhhh," he whispered. "Don't fight it now. Don't fight it."
I gave up then and I quit struggling with him, and I can tell you that's when I took to praying. I closed my eyes and turned my head away from that crate, and that's when I heard it inside there; it was real quiet at first, like a light wind rustling dry cornstalks, but then that rattle got louder and louder until I just couldn't make myself pretend it was nothing else. I squeezed my eyes shut just as tight as I could, and I imagined feeling the prick of its fangs, something like a bad bee sting, and I imagined that venom coursing itself through my veins on the way to my heart. I pictured myself pulling my arm out of that crate after it struck me, the skin on my hand already turning black around the two puncture holes and the blue veins rising up all cloudy with poison. I pictured Miss Molly Jameson, how her faced swelled up, how she struggled to breathe, how they'd found her laying out there in her yard without the least idea of how she'd got there. I tell you that I thought I was going to die, and I did my best to get ready for whatever it was that was going to happen after I did.
"You ain't afraid, are you?" Chambliss whispered. I tried to say something to him, but it was like the words got caught in my throat and I couldn't cough them up good enough to speak. He gave my neck a hard squeeze and shook me good, and when he did I felt that rattler buck against the roof of its crate and I thought I'd been bit for sure. "Are you afraid!" he hollered at me then.
"No," I finally said so quiet I almost couldn't hear myself. "I ain't afraid."
"You ain't got to be afraid if you believe," he whispered. "If you got your faith there's nothing in this world that can hurt you. Not the law, not no man neither. Ain't nothing you need to fear but the Lord himself."
Once he said that I felt that hand let go of my arm, and I pulled it out of the trap on that crate just as fast as I could and tucked it under me with my other hand. I heard him close that trap with his boot, and then I heard him behind me setting that folding chair back upright. I still had my eyes closed because I was too afraid to even open them, and I stayed there on my knees in the floor with my arms pulled up under my chin like I was praying. I heard his footsteps come around in front of me, and he bent over and closed the latch on that crate and picked it up by its handle. I could tell he was standing right there over me because I heard him breathing heavy, but other than that it was quiet again, so quiet it was almost like nothing had happened.
"Hope to see you on Sunday," he finally said. "If you get a mind to it, come on inside and join us for worship."
I stayed hunkered down there in the front row of the church and listened to his footsteps as he walked down the center aisle toward the door. I heard him open it up and step outside, and when he did my eyes sensed the explosion of light the door let in even though I had them closed just as tight as I could. He was outside, but I stayed froze just like that until I heard the sound of his car engine revving; I still didn't move when I heard him pull out onto the road and head out toward the highway. Once I was sure he was gone I opened my eyes and tried to look around to get my bearings, but the light from the door was gone, and I knew my eyes would have to fix themselves against the blackness that had once again taken over the church.
What People are Saying About This
“A riveting story! The writing is bold, daring, graceful, and engrossing.”
“This book will knock your socks off. It’s so good to read a first novel that sings with talent. Wiley Cash has a beautifully written hit on his hands.”
“This novel has great cumulative power. Before I knew it I was grabbed by the ankle and pulled down into a full-blown Greek tragedy.”
“The first thing that struck me about Wiley’s novel is the beautiful prose: the narrative is strong, clean, direct and economical. . . . I think this could be the beginning of a long, fruitful career.”
“I try to state the truth and dislike flinging superlatives about with mad abandon, but I have been so deeply impressed by this novel that only superlatives can convey the tenor of my thought: this is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read.”
A Conversation with Wiley Cash
What is A Land More Kind Than Home really about, in your opinion?
The novel tells the story of the bond between two young brothers and the evil they face in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. I think the novel is about lost innocence and the constant threat of dark, outside forces we often don't understand until it's too late. But, ultimately, the novel is about the power of forgiveness in the wake of tragedy and a community's ability to heal.
A Land More Kind Than Home is set in the mountains of North Carolina. Historically, readers have been especially interested in novels set in the South. What is it about the South that draws their interest?
The South has always been a great a source of mystery, even for those outside the United States. Some of this country's first regional writers were writing about the South; I'm thinking of authors like Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, and Charles Chesnutt. Northern readers were very curious about what was going on below the Mason-Dixon line in the late nineteenth century - and with good reason. Even after the Civil War and Reconstruction, the South remained very different from other parts of the country, even as it moved away from an agrarian economy and toward industrial manufacturing. Writers like Langston Hughes, William Faulkner, and Margaret Mitchell also kept readers interested in the South.
But what I find interesting about the American South is that there are so many areas we can call 'the South'. Virginia and Florida have about as much in common as California and North Dakota, but Virginia and Florida get lumped together anyway. But when we read a book by a Virginia author like Lee Smith and then Zora Neale Hurston's Florida in Their Eyes Were Watching God, we understand how incredibly different these two places are. I never realized the diversity of the American South until I spent five years living in Southwest Louisiana, right in the heart of Cajun Country. But even Louisiana has its different Louisianas, its different identities. If you want to know about Southwest Louisiana you should read a book by Ernest J. Gaines. If you want to know about New Orleans you should read Kate Chopin or Tennessee Williams. The same goes for North Carolina. Perhaps that's why the American South looms so large in our imaginations. There are just so many rich cultural histories and beautiful dialects.
Book clubs have become a popular way for readers to come together and discuss books they find interesting. Are there any particular themes that book clubs might enjoy exploring in your book?
I think faith and the role it plays in people's lives is always a provocative topic. I got the idea for the novel originally after coming across a news story about an autistic boy on Chicago's South Side who was smothered during a church service. The story is obviously unsettling, but I couldn't help but be curious about a group of believers who would literally believe in something so dangerous. In my novel, the boys' mother, Julie, can't possibly know what will happen when she takes her children into the church. She can't possibly foresee the tragedy that awaits them.
This is a novel with family and community at its center, and I wanted the community to tell the story of this family. That's why I chose for it to be narrated by three voices: nine-year-old Jess Hall, the youngest of the two brothers; Adelaide Lyle, the church matriarch who acts as the community's conscience; and Clem Barefield, a local sheriff who must confront his own painful past to understand the root causes of this event.
Have you always been a reader? A writer?
I tell my writing students that you must nurture and protect your reading life before you can attempt to create a writing life. Trying to write without reading is like trying to drive a car without gas in it. I've always been reader. I was very fortunate that I grew up in a home that took literacy very seriously. On our sixth birthdays, my brother and sister and I were all given the opportunity to get our first library cards, and I can clearly remember the first time I held mine in my hands. I grew up in a community that didn't have a bookstore, so going to the library and being able to pick up books and flip through them and then take them home was like stepping into Oz; it was almost too good to believe. I still feel the same rush when I step into a bookstore or a library; I look around at all the books and realize that each one is an opportunity to visit a place I wouldn't have visited otherwise, a chance to meet people I never would've met.
My mom always read to us, but when I branched out on my own I found myself really interested in biographies. I poured through the biography section in the library, reading bios of basketball players like Walt Frazier and Larry Bird and "Pistol" Pete Maravich. These were my first heroes. As I got a little older I began to adopt literary heroes like Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway. I began to write doomy, self-centered poetry like everyone does when they're fourteen. (Wait, everyone doesn't do that?) Okay, so I was a weird kid.
By the time I got to college I realized that I was a pretty terrible poet, mostly because I'd been reading the same bad poets and their poetry over and over for years. But I knew I wanted to write, so I tried my hand at fiction. The first short story I wrote was published. I thought I had the writing thing all figured out, and then I waited ten more years for another publication. But I'm glad I never gave up; those ten years were filled with rejection, but I saw each rejection as an opportunity to improve my writing, and that's what I tried to do.
Who have you discovered lately?
One of the most amazing things that's happened since my book was sold to William Morrow is that I've had the opportunity to meet a lot of writers I've always admired as well as a lot of writers who are just starting out like me. Among the writers I've recently "discovered," there are several I'm really excited about. Ben Fountain, author of the story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, [Winner of the 2006 Discover Award (fiction). -Ed] has a first novel titled Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk that's really wonderful. I've met Ben a couple of times and he's easily one of the kindest, most encouraging writers I've ever been around. Another great writer and super-cool guy is Matt Bondurant, whose new novelThe Night Swimmer is really interesting and haunting. One forthcoming book I'm really excited about isShine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer. I read the galley and was blown away: laughing, crying, the whole nine yards. It won't be out until June, so while I read it I felt like I was discovering a secret the world didn't yet know.