God was close to Happy Hollow. Close, and firm. Once in a great while, as after the punishment of Brother Miller, I ventured to think He was a little hasty as well, a little inclined to overbalance months and years of piety and probity with a single thoughtless act. These reflections of mine were few and far between, because each plunged me for weeks into a purgatory of doubts and fears.
I never, so far as I remember, actually expected a lightning bolt to be hurled for my especial benefit; but I kept on trying, in little, private, murmuring supplications during the day, to appease the Almighty,. The great comfort I felt after these beseechings lasted until the nightly prayers at my bedside, overseen by my mother. I never got up the courage then to take up anything but routine heavenly business, and after my now-I-lay-me was done, I cowered under the bedclothes flinching from what would happen “if I should die before I wake” and face the Judgment with no explanation of why I had not asked God’s pardon before the world, Or before my mother, which was about the same thing.
Brother Miller was an unordained preacher. He h been a successful farmer in Canada, and was fond of telling how God, through the agency of a painful itching recurring more savagely every winter, had finally driven him to the South, where he was so happily, useful in his church work. He attended prayer meeting in the school house every Wednesday; he always had a word to say or a prayer to make.
Finally, being called upon to lead the services so often, he took it on himself to direct them without consultation, preaching, calling on the brethren for prayers, giving out the hymns. One night he gave out a hymn that called for one of the organ stops old Sister Reese always had trouble with. The organ kept yowling away like an old tomcat long after the tune should have moved down among human voices again, mortifying old Sister Reese into hysterics.
Next day a hive of Brother Miller’s unusually tame Italian bees swarmed on him as he opened the back gate of his garden and nearly stung him to death. He was in bed so long Happy Hollow had practically forgiven him his misfortune by the time he recovered; indeed a long illness, because Happy Hollow followed eagerly where the Lord led in such matters.
Happy Hollow, that is, with the exception of my mother. She always insisted on natural causes for such incidents, perhaps by way of saving herself from making some of the criticisms of the Almighty into which I was sometimes betrayed.
For weeks after little Effie Williams died I swayed between staying many feet away from my mother, so any heavenly bolt would have time to spatter a little and still miss me, and clinging close to her side so my own stainless-ness might cause the avenging Hand to be stayed. Happy Hollow read beautiful little Effie’s death from typhoid as God’s judgment on Abe Williams, who had taken to “laying out” all night when he went into Gulfport of an afternoon with a load of truck, coming home next day with blood-uot eyes to snarl at his patient wife. My mother had savage things to say about the way the Williamses lived, the pump left unrepaired for months while the family dipped its water from the creek, where every rain washed down from the outhouse and the cowshed.
When Abe quit mistreating the remaining members of his family, and went to church every Sunday, for about four or five months, it was regarded as proved that harmless little Effie had died a sacrifice to make a better man of her worthless old father. Then he took to laying out nights worse than ever, and all Happy Hollow looked upon him with a terrified awe that extended, among us young ones, even to the Williams children. The least of us knew that Abe Williams had committed the unpardonable sin, turning his back on the loving kindness of the Holy Ghost after solemn warning reaching even to the murder of his child.
Impatient as she was with much of Happy Hollow’s pious stupidity, my mother was just as addicted to her personal rituals. One afternoon I had just been lashed fiercely for heinous sin, down in the horse’s stall which leaned against the barn. Why this particular spot was always chosen for my expiations I do not know; in consideration of the long hot summers the side of the stall came just far enough down to protect Charlie from the driving rains, leaving me quite visible to any neighbors whose attention might be drawn by my howls.
The sin this day was that of sitting and giggling with half a dozen of my peers while my mother’s placket gaped opener and opener until the draft warned her of her disgraceful state, when I should have made my way politely through the swarm of quilters on Miz Tom Fred’s porch with a warning of disaster.
I had been soundly licked with an oak switch, gathered as we made our way to the place of execution through the shaded chicken yard, and was being led back to the house for the second half of the ordeal. This was being looked in the eye and told that whipping me hurt my mother much more than it did me, that consideration for the feelings of others was the first step toward Christ-like living, that one little sin, like the rift in the dike, would bring all sorts of wickedness in its train if the first little sin weren’t firmly curbed, until I should thank her for what I had just received in the horse-lot and be turned out to play.
Even a rather bad little boy forgets between times the stabbing pain of an oak limb propelled by a muscular arm against bare calves. To such a good little boy as myself, with such long-suffering parents, the rarity, of whose whippings was the admiration of Happy Hollow’s young and the scandal of its elders, the tearing pangs were torment. I accompanied my mother toward the house in leaps like those of the hind half of a greyhound, screaming loudly: ‘I’ll never eat any more; I’ll never sleep any morel I’ll never” — unthinkable blasphemy — “say my prayers any more!”
My mother actually leaped into the air at the horrible words. Her hand closed on a stout oak limb. As she jerked it down three fat Plymouth Rocks, dozing in the tree, fell headlong with squawks of terror. I collapsed under the new lashing into a squirming heap on the ground, too racked to cry for mercy.
Since I have been grown my mother, who once professed to have forgotten the whole incident, even to believe it never happened, contents herself with vowing that she snatched a mere twig, and the startled hens fluttered from a much larger limb nearby. Still, I think she could have allowed me a couple of minutes to recant as my burning legs cooled off.
The Bible was constant food at our house. When my father, enjoying two or three days of rest from his inspecting job, would take his hat and start easing out to Paff-hausen’s blacksmith shop, and my mother would sharply ask him where he was going, he would begin: “Who has found a virtuous woman; for her price is far above rubies!” Sometimes he got away; more often my mother interrupted him: “I’ll lay there was many a time that virtuous woman would have traded the advertising she got with the elders in the gates of the city for a couple o’ dabs of whitewashing, or a pole to hold the clean clothes on the line out o’ the dirt!” And he would stay at home and fix things up around the place.
When I would pass my plate for the breast of the fried chicken, after eating both second joints, my father would say: “There is a people—!” I knew enough to finish the insult to Paul’s schismatics for myself: “—whose God is their belly!”
One summer afternoon I nearly lost my life, at least my life as a little boy, through my knowledge of the Bible. I was stalking a chameleon—we called them all lizards—under a rose thicket, when it came to my mind: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”
I lay on my stomach, watching the lizard two feet away. I spread my paws on the ground before me, gazed steadily at a fallen rose cane as it swelled in size from a little stick at my feet to a trunk as thick through as my body. I had to raise myself on my forelegs to see over it. I threw back my head and flashed the challenging red wattle under my neck. A falling leaf cast a shadow on the straw where I lay, and I flinched in fear of a prowling hawk or crow. The leaf settled among the other leaves, rustling. I listened alertly to the rustle, to make sure it wasn’t the stealthy approach of a blacksnake. A moth fluttered near me; my sides trembled with the intensity of my concentration on this prey, aimlessly darting nearer and nearer the range of my flashing tongue.
Just in time, with a mighty effort of will and muscle, I jerked myself to my knees, shook myself to my right size and shape, fled the bewitched spot. It had just occurred to me that while a little boy could think in his heart he was a lizard and be a lizard, there was no promise that a little boy turned lizard could think himself back into a little boy.
Left to our home preachers, I should have been a long time getting converted. But every summer we had a camp meeting. We didn’t really camp, like the Methodists do at Seashore campground just outside of Biloxi; everybody came in a wagon, made coffee and unpacked lunch, and went home again in the evening. Some women, who either coveted the reputation of being especially choosy or were cursed with that temperament which forever drives some women to do everything the hardest way, brought fryers and murdered them on the grounds.
The meeting ground, hallowed to that purpose since the days of Sereno Spencer Taylor, had descended to his youngest brother’s son, Cousin Sam Taylor. Cousin Sam left it in its half-wild state, the original planting of pecan trees looming above the undergrowth of bushes, which was kept down fairly well by trampling horses, crunching farm wagons, and little boys foraging for fires. The old orchard sloped gently to the bayou’s edge, growing more and more free of small trees and hay as it drew in toward the scooped-out place in the shallow water where the baptisms were performed.
We Baptists sneered conscientiously at the smothering pomp of Catholic and Episcopal ritual, of which we knew only by hearsay. I doubt if the Bayou Bernard country had ever seen a live Episcopalian, except perhaps when some summer visitor to the fine beach homes strayed over the ridge into the Hollow; and we all would have died before witnessing a mass. But I wonder, looking back, what ceremonial was ever so strict as that which bound a Baptist minister at a baptismal service.
The visiting minister did the baptizing during camp meeting, and he was duty-bound to wear the best garments in which his flock had seen him. Once he had impressed the gathered worshippers with his best train-traveling garb he was allowed the comfort of everyday clothes, but only until time came for the immersions. Brother Bowen, the local pastor, could, and did, favor his infrequent new suits when he officiated between meetings, but such a sensible action would have branded the visitor irrevocably as one who put the vanities of the world ahead of his sacred office.
Candidates for baptism were saved up for months before the camp meeting, and fed to the notable a few at a time to enhance his opinion of his own saving powers. The country girls who went around their home duties in wrappers and bran-sack drawers in utter self-unconsciousness were swathed in corsets and petticoats so no hint might be conveyed of their proper sex by their dripping forms, and their mothers waited clucking on the bank with enveloping wraps.
The resplendent preacher waded into the brackish waters of the bayou, and tilted himself back and forth on his heels half a dozen times like a mechanical toy, to set his feet firmly in the yielding sand against any embarrassing struggles by the candidate. The new believer was led to the preacher’s side by a deacon. My father often had the office. My mother saw to the saving of his best pants.
With the first of the day’s baptisms always went a brief sermon, full of sly digs at our most numerous rivals, the Methodists, and their utterly unscriptural sprinklings. Allusions were made to the plain symbolism of the rite, burial of the old Adam and resurrection of the newborn soul, with its inference of “Whoever saw anyone buried under a handful of dirt?” Jesus’ coming “straightway up out of Jordan” pointed the query as to why He would have gone clear down into the river just to be sprinkled.
Then the preacher, with practised grasp, caught the convert at the waist, pressing the baptizee’s hip against his own. The preacher’s other arm went around the convert’s shoulders from behind, in a steel-trap clutch that bore down any instinctive struggles, and bent him back in a graceful swoop that ended with the newborn soul’s face six inches below the surface of the bayou before he was stood on his feet again.
Some came up sputtering from swallowing or breathing the water. Some burst into tears, some into prayers or shouts. The congregation on the shore offered the same diversity. Some giggled, some wept, some shouted as their friends and relatives emerged symbolically whitened. Once or twice, as some sinner of forty years’ standing strode to the bank, red-faced and silent, I have heard his women folk raise that triumphant cry of the hunter topping a hedge to see the fox dragging his brush in the field beyond, the chilling scream known to battle as the Rebel Yell.
I had always liked camp meeting; I went to the one when I was twelve with no warning of impending disaster. I strolled over the grounds, forgoing the noisy pleasures of the other little boys for the snobbish thrill of hearing visiting ladies ask their Handsboro hostesses;
“Who is that well-behaved little boy? The one with the glasses?”
I knew the answer: “That’s Brother Spencer Taylor’s son. He married Miss Trammell that taught the school up at Saucier; Mr. Royal Stewart’s sister-in-law, him that kept the commissary for Mr. B. Saucier for so long. She’s a mighty fine woman, from a mighty fine family over in East Alabama, I hear tell. And Brother Spencer is a consecrated young man if ever there was one. It sure is a pity—”
I moved out of earshot in a hurry. There were a lot of reasons I could think of myself for not coming to camp meetings, sometimes, and I didn’t like old ladies to be low-rating my grandfather about it. I was even a little ashamed of being such an exceptional little boy as to get the old ladies started on the subject.
At this camp meeting the preacher, after the customary three or four days parboiling the sinners into readiness to be saved as by fire, preached the just as customary, sermon on the disadvantages of spending eternity in hell, where the worm dieth not, neither is the fire quenched. I had heard it for years; I could almost have made it, He used the usual meaningless similes; the bird dutifully made his rounds, once in a thousand years, and hauled off a billful of sand, yet when he had destroyed the whole earth, it wasn’t good daylight in hell.
I had never heard of the Mabinogion, which first told time by this ingenious method, but I could grin at its similarity to the nigger legend that all the jaybirds go to hell on Fridays, each with a billful of sand for the devil. The droning voice went on describing the indescribable. The faithful deacons scotched the sweating preacher with hearty “Aniens” when he paused to expect them. The worshippers attested their attention with shaking heads and groaning. I started away, walking rapidly toward a big pecan that would hide me from the congregation, intending to dodge behind it for a moment by way, of alibi.
But along with me, repeating itself more and more loudly as it got further and further from the preacher’s ridiculous embroideries, went the word, eternity. It had always been just another word. Now it kept scratching and twisting in my head like something alive. I shrank from what, somehow, I knew was coming. I tried to hide behind the foolish symbols the preacher had used. I tried to grin again at the childish bird story. Some relentless pressure shoved me on. On beyond the end of my own life, of the world’s life, on over the edge of some horrible abyss my soul fell. Past the pecan orchard, past the green Gulf country, past the sun I plunged through blinding light into the consciousness that no act of mine, no act of God Himself, no unexampled mercy could ever set me free from the doom of enduring, of knowing, of being—
A censorious adult eye could have seen a small boy swinging idly from the loop of a huge muscadine vine, his irreverent back to the services. I was clinging to reality, itself in the grip on the brown stems which whitened the skin over my knuckles. Years later I was to read some lines in a poem about Saul, hanging in agony to the pole of his tent while David tried in vain to exorcise his black fears, and I was to make that horror-stricken descent into eternity again.
This, then, was the conviction of sin that must precede conversion, this horrible clutch on my vitals that was stripping my body off my soul. That night, without so much as a word to mother or father, I stumbled forward before Brother Bo wen could start his announcement, after the visitor’s sermon, that anyone who wished might “unite with the church, whether by letter, or a public profession of faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ,” caught the old man around the knees, and sobbed aloud in blessed relief.
The congregation was more surprised than impressed by such precocious godliness, and I was questioned closely a day or so later by a committee of the deacons. My early delvings into the Shorter Catechism, Pilgrim’s Progress, and a child’s book on the Bible, which I remember now chiefly as having a picture of Caleb and Joshua toting one bunch of grapes on a stick over their shoulders, lent all the corroborative detail necessary, to what had seemed at the start merely an unconvincing bit of dramatics. At that, it was generally thought I should be given another year or two to think it over. Only Old Brother Miller’s perception of my mortal terror of being left longer out of the fold won consent to my baptism at the end of the meeting.
The conversion didn’t make so much difference in my daily life. An earthly mother can be quite as strong an influence for outward righteousness as a Heavenly Father. I did, strong in the faith, smite a larger boy firmly on the nose for trying to entice me into smoking a cigarette he and some other larger boys had procured for the purpose of making some small boy ill. I got knocked head over heels, losing a tooth, which was just about to fall out anyway, — and my taste for martyrdom,
One day, well along in the fall, toward potato-digging time, my mother went down to my grandmother’s to do some sewing, and I was sent in to Lute Myer’s store in Handsboro, two miles away, for some thread. We lived right on the back road, but the Squire’s house was down a crossroad a quarter of a mile, so I started back through the woods.
Right behind the huge sawdust pile that marked the halting place at some past time of Uncle Hollis’s mill, there was a little clump of oak trees. And from one big limb of one tree dangled the loop of a thick muscadine vine. I shied like a half-broken colt, then straightened up and started past it, firm in the knowledge that my brief trip under the surface of Bayou Bernard had put me forever out of the reach of that terror again.
In sheer bravado I ventured nearer the edge of the abyss. After all, that dizzying stretch beyond time was going to be one of triumph for me and the rest of the saved. Then the chasm opened, right at my feet. I tried to catch at the gaudy glories of Happy Hollow’s pearl-and-jasper heaven. Too late. Down, down again into that same pitiless blaze of light I was hurled, falling and falling, the roar of my horrible speed in my, ears. Again the ghastly clutch gripped me—I could never, never, never cease to endure, to know, to be.
I knelt by a scrub oak, beating my forehead against the rough bark in despair, gabbling a useless and incoherent prayer. I was indeed a lost and miserable sinner. Not only I didn’t want to howl in hell for all eternity. I didn’t want to play on a harp for all eternity.