In the Beginning
The Wild Country
Upper Louisiana, 1799
Into the Land of Milk and Honey
They would later say that the day we came into Chit Valley all the children's fevers broke and everybody's bowels were righted. But from the way we first arrived in that place, you would never think that Preacher-father would become their fighting prophet, their bloody savior. As it stood, we almost didn't make it there.
Some miles below the falls at Louisville the captain of the flatboat we'd taken grew tired of Preacher-father and his talk of baptism, and so had us flung over the side along with what baggage fellow passengers felt like tossing after us, our horses, kit, and feed left behind — or flowing on ahead of us, as it may be. This was before the western territories had been redeemed or given any settled name and the country we passed into was then known as Upper Louisiana, though so was much of the world. Now it's called Missouri, a dangling fragment of the carved-up Union.
It was a hard time to be a Baptist. The tar was always bubbling then and there were many who had no love for preaching. We were used to rough treatments, and if the boatmen and their passengers hadn't caught us mid-sermon, by surprise and from behind, we might've shown them something of a fight, rather than being sent tumbling into the swirling cold of the river. The laughter of the flatboat riders passed away with the splashes of our bags, then the voice of Preacher-father called out my name. I whirled enough to see him bobbing some distance behind me. He thrashed ahead until he was near enough to catch me by the hand, and so I held fast to my father and together we fought across the current to a stand of limbs lying partway in the water.
So there came days of wandering through marshes, being eaten by insects till we were scabbed and shivering in our soaked leathers. Though by guesswork I was thirteen, I was still shorter than the grass, and the deeper we went into the marsh the taller it grew until I was swallowed up entirely and spent days without the sun. My skin grew gray and wrinkled and I kept my eyes to his footprints in the slough — those that weren't immediately swallowed up by water and mud — so that I could follow on the good ground. We flattened reeds to sleep dry, but still I would sink into the earth and by morning would be half-drowned. I lay those nights with my head on my hands so that my ears would not fill with mud while Preacher-father wandered, calling on God and on the river, shouting, Hey, miss! Hey, miss! like it was a woman out there waiting, and he suffered to find it the same fool way most men hunt for women.
When at last he found the river, Preacher-father mistook it for more of the Ohio. We crossed that dark and swirling parallel on a raft we hewed and poled ourselves, not knowing until we came upon some other travelers, heading north to Cape Girardeau, that we had made the river and were now into the west.
For days more we followed ruts and traces in the grasslands, daily thanking God for our deliverance, through forests and up a rise of hills where the trees ended at the lip. Among the scrabble-scratch of branches we stumbled upon a squat of Indians all laid up in a grove. They were covered in sores and too sick to move or talk, nor give us more than a roll of flyspecked eyes. Preacher-father kept his hand on the handle of his hatchet all the same as we moved through their camp, which looked as though it had been set there forever, and we passed nearest to a squaw whose cheeks were so eaten away that I could see her teeth, though she was still breathing. After we'd left them and were heading down into the valley, my father said to me, That's how you know you're on the track to Christians, son. The heathen withers and dies even in their proximity.
In those wild and thinly populated reaches we found sullen Christians living at peril of soul and fearful of the avarice of the Indian. These beleaguered whites lived in holes dug underground; the only watch kept over the endless plain was by their meager stock. A homestead would only be marked by the lonesome beasts in their pens and the stovepipes trailing smoke from the fires stoked below.
Here were the very seeds of forsaken civilization, scattered along the prairie and waiting for us to sow them into a promised land. Or so much as Preacher-father said. The place was settled by no more worthless a pack of dirt-daubers than you will find in all this awful world. They were ten or so families, with names like Shoelick and Back-scratch and Auger, and we were met at the door of each one's hole, which opened like a cellar, by bewildered and mistrustful faces. Their thin, dirt-caked children slept in biers carved into the mud walls of the dugouts and watched like rats as I stood beside my father at their family tables, if they had any. It wasn't rare for me to sit upon the floor and look up to see insects struggling in the ceiling or for an earthworm to drop into your coffee cup.
They had become like moles or rabbits and would hear our footfalls on the sod before our voices. When Preacher-father spoke, they came out, if they did at all, holding guns or farm tools, and their voices rasped with wonder for having gone so long speaking to no one but their own poor blood. When he asked them about Jesus or being saved, they stared and grew more awestruck with whatever next he said. Poverty of soul, he called it, but God knows we were bizarre, this growling man and little blond-haired boy, traveling with supplies so lacking that the holediggers all said we should have been dead. Maybe that was what first made them all believe in him.
They warned against pitching camp aboveground for the wind and the Indian to level. When they were made aware of the disease which had recently befallen the savages, the Chitites shook their heads and said that nothing could kill the devils. Dig, they said, and bury yourself for the empty horror of this land. But Preacher-father refused to huddle in the dark, hiding from the eye of the Lord and increasing his proximity to Hell. He said this was the place and these were the people he would lead to Heaven.
They were, he said, sore in need of his preaching.
Once we visited a dugout that was viciously armed. Sharpened branches stuck like pikes from around its door and there were holes cut in the boards for gun-barrels. It was early yet in our ministry of Chit, and our first time at this particular hole. I couldn't know that what awaited me within that dank burrow was my first great sin.
When a man's voice called for our names my father answered for us both. Leather hinges creaked and the door cracked open but an inch.
Come here, said the man. Show me your hand.
Preacher-father went and did as he'd been asked, then through the door-crack shot a hand that took his up and felt it, as if to see that he was real.
I'm a man of God, he said, and white.
So you are, said the holedigger, and let go his hand.
Inside the smell was not of dirt as you'd expect, but of people close and filthy. I was used to life in the open air and the dugouts seemed an awful, grave-like thing. They were the Fladeboes: father Conny, mother Fay, and — God forgive me — daughter Emily sitting there in the dark in a dingy sackcloth dress. The father led us to a short table with seats only on one side, already occupied by mother and daughter hunching over steaming bowls.
You can eat, the mother said, if you don't mind to share bowls and spoons with us. All we got is three.
They could eat off knives, the daughter offered, with a glance that in the tallow-light looked wild.
Good girl, said her mother. Go and get them.
The daughter huffed up from her place and disappeared into a darkened corner of the hole, returning, after a brief scratch and scrabble, with a pair of smooth-edged knives.
Emily, you'll share your bowl with this boy, said her mother.
Preacher-father waited till the man had set himself down at one end of the bench, then went and stood beside him, dipping now and then from the bowl with his knife, talking between swallows of our mission in this place.
I couldn't be as deft, crouching next to Emily and examining her hard enough to lose my food a dozen times down the front of my shirt. She had an eye that wandered: her left, a mud-colored marble rolling untethered in her skull. And she might have been ugly, my little starveling girl, but she was of age and I grew in her presence then, counting the ringworms in her neck and numbering them like pearls. She was gaunt as me and greedily we watched each other eat. So while Preacher-father awed the Fladeboes with our plans for ministry, I went slopping up the corn-shuck gruel and lurching after Emily in my mind.
The mother and father kept still and silent for his talk, and it was Emily who finally spoke, leaning over to whisper in her mother's ear and rocking back and forth a little on her end of the bench. The mother frowned and gave her husband, who was rapt, a good jab with a crooked finger.
She's got to pass, said the mother.
She can wait, he said.
At that, Emily gave a little whine.
Dirt or water? asked her father.
Just let her bring the gun, the mother said. She'll be all right.
Damn it, said the man. Boy, why don't you take that rifle from the door and go watch for her out there.
It hadn't struck me yet full on what he was asking. And before it did, Preacher-father was pointing me to the steps and I was taking up the rifle when Emily came hustling by, pushing out the door. I followed after her and let the door come closed. She was clutching at her lap with both hands. Wincing, she hurried off saying, Come on, it's over here.
I followed her past a pen of sickly-looking hogs, over to a patch of high grass which, when she parted herself a place to squat, I saw hid a trough of shit and piss. Soldierly I clutched the rifle to me as she got down on her heels, flipped up the backside of her dress, and started singing. I glimpsed her squatting, skirts bundled up and the grass-stalks blooming all around the white of her knees. Before I could turn, with a gyre of her wild eye Emily caught me in a glance.
I'm not looking, I said.
Good, she sang. Or else you might find that you've gone blind.
Devil-worms lit into me like magpies to a lamb's eyes as I stood out there with Emily and kept watch over her corruption. She sang on, whatever song it was, and I was busily recomposing Solomon's for her: Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like a pillar of blond smoke, perfumed with black powder and campfire ash? We have a little sister who is mousy and flat-chested, she is covered in dirt and the blades of her hips show through her dresses; what shall we do for our little sister?
The answer in my young and foolish mind was Anything. A multitude of sins rose up but I could tell her none and only manage to hide the shame which grew prodigious in my lap when she hitched up, left the ditch, and, whistling, passed me by.
The Conversion of the Chitites
My father preferred solitude for the preparation of his sermons. He'd go off, sometimes late Friday or even early Saturday, carrying only his hatchet and Bible — a copy scarred and bitten as any barroom brawler — and return sometime before Sunday morning when he would gather me up in the dark and we would head to meeting. He always left me with a good fire going while I slept beneath the lean-to we'd built against the foot of the ridge that marked the eastward end of the valley. Really, I can't say whether it was even Sundays when he preached, for all the holediggers had forgotten days, dates, and names. It didn't matter; he made whatever day he wished the Sabbath.
Going to preach those horseless fall days when the grass turned golden and the world had not yet gone dim and brittle, you learned like the wind to go on winding ways from dugout hole to hole, gathering the flock, which at first was no more than a few women and their children.
Midday we would arrive at a bow in a stream that bisected several of the homesteads, unique only in the two large stones set there and the pool of calm water below, which was good for baptizing. It was also used for the holediggers' washing, so soap-fat clung at the reeds and the rocks were draped with drying clothes even on Meeting days. No one could tell where the stones came from, there being no mountains near enough or hills of worthwhile size to yield them. They were storm gray and always warm to the touch on their sunward side, where if you climbed you would catch a rain-dog whiff of sopping clothes. The biggest of the stones Preacher-father would mount and from the top deliver the service.
The first and only regular congregation of his life began with just that smattering of women and children, the men preferring for a while to stay behind to guard their meager holdings. Never mind, he'd say, it's always Eves who come quickest to the call and bring their wailing broods along.
From his perch my father howled against sin with such vehemence that the ears of the frontier women burned red. He danced on his stone and bid them do the same, sang songs self-composed and of the same vigorous roughness in condemnation of the evils of the world and so exultant of the Lord that, though harsh of lyric, they could never be profane. Before long those women caught the fire and danced and sang as best they could to keep up with his furious inventions. And from my place in the lee of the stones my heart went to raunch — to see Emily filled suddenly with the spirit, wheeling and shaking and stomping down the grass with the rest of them. More and more I was called up to preach, but only briefly; and even in those moments I was on her. My words were all for her.
Then, O God, the baptisms. Reveal to me the body of woman in all its shapes and ranges. She may be hard and underfed but a temple nonetheless.
I sorrowed at being put to dunking the little children downstream, and I watched Preacher-father drawing Rachels, Ruths, and Hagars from the water, a miracle of dripping jenny and hind. I'd seen many baptized before and have baptized many since, but to see it then at the worst of my youthful urges was a revelation of clinging wool and sackcloth, of hair to be wrung out on the bank as converts were exhorted into the drink. Emily Fladeboe went, dress ballooning as she stepped down into the water, and was received.
Heavenly father, he said, take this girl close to your heart and keep her, for she has forsaken sin and wickedness. This ewe is washed in the blood of the lamb.
And so she was dipped and came up gasping slick and beautiful, reaching out her hands for someone on the bank to take. My own hand was on a small one's head, holding him under while I lifted my voice to praise when she waded smiling to the bank. And because I was forgetful and forever sneaking looks to where she sat sodden in the cane-break, humming piously with the other women, I more than once withdrew a half-drowned child from the water.
We sent the sisters off full of the spirit, and soon the husbands gave up their guards and followed. By late fall the faithful were wearing out traces in the grass on their way to be cleansed of sin.
The locusts appeared first in singles, clumps, and clusters, then in hordes, and your every step sent up clouds of them playing dinnertime fiddles while they chewed, the sound of which was like a thousand-toothed mouth gnawing on and on.
We're thankful, Lord! said Preacher-father to his flock on the first Sunday of the plague while the assembled Chitites swatted at the horde that would soon drive them down into their underground homes. We're thankful even for this!
By nightfall we'd draped ourselves in sheets and blankets, sat that way for the locusts to make us mounds of their scratching bodies. For days tiny legs marched over me from sole to scalp and my brain was driven off course by them and I went about administering to myself a good and thorough daylong beating, without even time to wipe the still-twitching mush away before the open patch was filled by the kith and kin of the recently deceased. So it went one night that I was still slapping at myself, peeking out from underneath my sheet, watching how the towering fire Preacher-father had built just outside was doing no more to drive them off with smoke than our coverings did to keep them out, when he cast his sheet away and was a-swarmed. They rode the ends of his hair and were mitts over his hands, they swole up from the ground and made crawling trunks of his legs, swallowed him so fully that the only way I knew he'd not been eaten all away was that he still retained some human shape and moved. My father's steps as he left the lean-to were foreshortened like he was afraid to crush too many of his multitudinous clingers; he reached into the mass of them at his chest and brought out his Bible, which they immediately covered, and I swear that in the firelight I saw them nibbling at the leafs, eating pages clean of ink or messing passages with juice when they found one not to their liking. He spread the Book wide and stared out from his locust cloak at me, and above their ever-present drone came his voice screaming how he was thankful. They streamed around his words, poured in and out his throat.
He went on like that for the remainder of the night.
THE BLOOD OF HEAVEN copyright 2013 by Kent Wascom; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.