The Reverend could Phillip running down the hill from the church. He could see the body--eager, young--and the face: still just eyes and mouth, free of character. He could not hear the words. There was a church on a hill--his church, won for him by his vision--and a boy running. Life, God’s joy, bounding from the home of his vision; the temple of his will, raised by the hands of his people, sanctified by this young soul. It was grand. It was his vision. He could feel that.
"Revurn Durkin! Revurn Durkin! It’s the telephone! They want yah on the telephone! I told ‘em to wait. I said I’d git yah."
"That’s a good boy, Phillip. You come here now and finish waterin’ this grass. Keep the nozzle movin’ side to side--like this. We don’t wanna wash out the grass. Here you go. You do it till I git back."
The Reverend gave the boy the hose and patted him on the shoulder. The face looked up and smiled.
"I’ll be back in a minute. Keep that nozzle swayin’ back and forth, now."
The Reverend turned up the hill to his church. It was crouched in the shade trees and he liked to think of it as the Lion of the Lord, squatting in the trees to keep a sharp lookout should Satan come to tempt his people. It came to him like that one day, like all the pictures in his head, when he was working down the hill; he had been pulling weeds and studying on a sermon when a storm came up all of a sudden and he looked up from the ground and it was dark and the sky was black and groaning and for a minute he was lost and afraid and the wind rose and shrieked in the black trees and the earth was in an evil element and he was on his knees and in need and he could see the valley in his mind, his people fearing the element, farmers stopped dead in fields, women gathering children to their skirts, old men trying to calm the mules, old Negroes waiting for judgment, and he was down in the dirt, smelling evil on the terrible wind, and he couldn’t get up and lightning flashed and he saw his church in the black trees and he saw the steeple high above the slashing branches and the lightning flashed again and he knew the people of the valley could see the steeple and he knew they would rejoice and be calmed and he got up and when the lightning flashed again he saw his church as the Lion of the Lord and he saw that the valley was protected and he knew that his vision had been tested and he resolved to tell his people that he had seen the truth of his vision.
The Reverend looked back at Phillip watering the grass and the spot where he had been pulling weeds that day; the boy was doing it right, moving the nozzle back and forth, gently feeding the tender roots, but he did not think the grass would ever grow there again. He had planted it twice since that day but it had died away. Nothing would grow well on that spot, not even the weeds he had been pulling.
Maybe the boy could get something to grow on it. Maybe if he gave that plot to Phillip as a special project, the boy would be able to grow something. Maybe this was another test to find a man who could bring life to that ground once again, to find a man to take his church when he passed on to Glory. That might be it, he thought, the Lord might be using that spot to find another man of vision and pass over all those college preachers.
The Reverend was not a regular preacher; he hadn’t gone to a seminary and he had told his people at the start that he was a man of vision and he was sure he didn’t know the Good Book quite right yet but that God give him his vision before his book learning and if they wanted to have him they would have to put up with it--and they had been putting up with it almost six years now, only he didn’t know about the book learning no more because he was shamed that he still didn’t have the Good Book quite right.
The Reverend stopped at the door and looked down the hill: if Phillip comes after me, he thought, I’m gonna make sure he knows the Book real good.
The Reverend went into his office and stood before the old desk; he stared at the receiver and wondered which of the tormented souls in the valley would be seeking comfort.
"Reverend Durkin," he said solicitously into the receiver.
"Jake? This is Johnson out at the pen. Listen, I hate to bother agin with this but--"
"Is it McKinney?"
"Yeah. The sonofabitch’s really done it this time. Stays in his rack, like he’s sick. Had the doc out here twice--he just left. Said some nonsense about McKinney done hexed hisself to die. Some damn ceremony or somethin’ them niggers believe in to make ‘em just lay down an’ die. First, I figgered what the hell? Sorry, Jake. I mean he’s on death row now an’ they’re gonna kill ‘im come December. That’s for certain now. But the doc said we got to keep ‘im alive ‘till then so I figgered I better call yuh. You able to come out, Jake?"
"Yes, Hal, I’ll be out d’rectly."
"I hate to haft to bother you agin but I still ain’t lettin’ that nigger preacher come out here. No offense, Jake, but if it wasn’t for that Jackson an’ them other niggers tyin’ this thing up in appeals all these years we coulda been done with it a long time back. An that Rachel--ain’t no use bringin’ that slut out here, Jake. It’s bad enough that people knows she wants that nigger--I ain’t gonna have no white woman out here crying for her nigger stud."
"Yes, I know. But she’ll want to come and try agin. I got to bring her, Hal. You do what you want to at the pen, but I got to bring her. And don’t worry ‘bout botherin’ me: the needs of God’s children is my duty--"
"Right, Jake. I’ll tell the gate you’re comin’ out. ‘Preciate it, Jake."
"God bless you, Hal."
The Reverend sat down at his desk, leaned back in his chair and settled his hands on his stomach. He hadn’t thought of McKinney in a while, even though at each baptism, as the eyes of the saved soul fell upon him, he resolved to think of McKinney each day--as a kind of penance. Some mornings as he stood before the quiet country people he remembered that McKinney and Rachel were the beginning of his church; and when he preached like hell he knew suffering had given him sight; and when his voice filled the church with praise and his eyes were closed in prayer he could see them:
see them in the courtroom, damned before God, cursed before men; Rachel in a yellow dress, crying, trying to beg; McKinney, proud and fierce, spitting answers, brandishing their story, slashing at the jury's pricked up ears with the glory of their lust
see them, a white woman lowered to hell, a black man sure to die, exalted in their love by McKinney’s hard words
see Rachel at his desk, lean and sick, grey with life, pleading for McKinney, her wet eyes drained of pride, drained by his quiet country people
see McKinney in the doorway with his butcher knife, poised and angry
see himself with the others; they would teach McKinney a lesson from behind their hoods; they would take his white woman from him; they would whip them both; they would show the uppity nigger; but none were prepared to die and McKinney cut at them with his knife, cut at their robes and their strops and Shoaf went down, screaming Shoaf went down and lay in the kitchen, soaked in his own blood
see McKinney, wild in the eyes, spattered with blood, cutting at them
see Rachel in a flowered housecoat coming from the bedroom with a shotgun
see himself run from the gun; piling into the truck with the others, racing down the dirt road to the highway; quiet, thinking of Shoaf lying in his blood, thinking of McKinney’s blade slicing the robe and the clothes to rip at flesh, to tear at the life; shivering in the darkness with the others, listening to the whine of the wheels: the whine, the tearing at the life, the blood, the knife and the whine, the blood and the tearing at the life, the blood and the knife and the whine of life, the whine in the blood; Shoaf in the kitchen; lying in the whining blood; Shoaf, dead to the world, whining in his blood; Shoaf’s soul! whining in the blood; the knife and the whine of the soul; the blood and the whine of the soul; the blood of the soul; the blood of the soul! to know the blood of the soul! to hear it whine! a vision! the whine of the soul! the soul cut and bleeding; the life cut at and dying! Shoaf cut at and dead; the others cut at and living, whining in their souls; see this! see this now! Providence! used by God to see this! a vision for some work; for the work of the soul!
The Reverend could hear water running in the pipes. Phillip was still watering the grass. He got up and went down the hill. The grass was flooded and washing away. He patted Phillip on the head and sent him home. He stood watching the boy go, hearing the wind in the trees. He would have to go by for Rachel. She would want to go plead again. He wouldn’t mind that; it was later, driving back when she would cry and he would know there was nothing he could say to her.
The Reverend had never been able to comfort her: she had never come for that, she had come only to beg for McKinney. She lived with Preacher Jackson because it was said no one else would have her.
The Reverend guessed it was true. No one else would have her. He would have taken her. He had waited for her; waited to deliver that cursed woman back to her Lord. Her soul was powerful enough to fulfill the task of his vision--to know the very blood of a soul, to hear the anguish of a soul cut to the quick. He waited for her above the nervous penitence of a pregnant schoolgirl and the frenzied misgivings of an old maid, above the pagan fears of tobacco farmers and the shrieking heresy of a mother bearing a stillborn child, above the cold dread in the eyes of the dying. He waited for her above the rest but she came only for McKinney.
The Reverend had told her that it was impossible to save his life, that perhaps God would spare his soul, but she wanted the life--only the life. She and Jackson had tried for six years to save his life and for her trouble she had been spit on and beaten, driven from her home, but she never came to him for relief. He tried to believe that it was God’s will to keep her soul in torment.
Maybe it was because of his father; some people were not yet reconciled to the fact that his father had been a captain on t chain gang. For her more than most, he thought, since McKinney was on that chain gang. He had first seen McKinney when his father pointed him out one day: "That’s Pencil McKinney. He’s a right uppity nigger. He learned to write real good. That’s why they call ‘im Pencil--he’s got one in his hand ever chance he gits. Thinks the world of a pencil. Draws a lotta stuff. Guess that’s why he’s got that swelled head. Whooped a white man in Alamance. The man was a little drunk an’ he was only tryin’ to prove a point. He had some Yankee businessman down here ‘bout somethin’ an’ he wanted to show ‘im that these niggers loves watermelon. So he sees this nigger walkin’ down the street--this here McKinney--an’ he says, ‘Hey boy, come here a minute.’ An’ the nigger, he’s a little slow, but he comes over an’ the man asks ‘im if he wants a free watermelon an’ this nigger up an’ says he don’t want nuthin’ from ‘im an’ starts to walk off. Well, this man’s friend is laughin’ his ass off so the white man goes to grab that nigger by the scrub of the neck an’ that nigger turned on the sonofabitch an’ beat ‘im nearly to the grave. Got two years out here with me an I’m gonna break that nigger in right. You watch. Hey, McKinney! Git over here! I want you to meet my boy. You tell ‘im how you like that watermelon. Go on boy! You tell ‘im how you wish to God you had et that watermelon. You better speak up boy or I’m gonna have you whipped. I’m gonna have your nuts busted if you don’t show some respect now boy. Hey, Jesse! Bring Lathan over here. We got us a nigger boy beggin’ for a whippin."
The Reverend had watched them bring up a wheelbarrow and stretch the black man across it, one man holding his head and the other his feet. His father walked over with a strop and he heard the leather slapping and slapping and further down the line the other Negroes started to sing and they sang loud until the whipping stopped. When McKinney was taken away, his father had said: "That’s how yuh handle a uppity nigger, boy, mark my words."
The Reverend had remembered those words later when the rumors about McKinney started getting around. At first people had just said what a damn good hog killer he was and what a good price he gave for butchering. He was the best, they said, and he was making a good living. Then people started saying that he hung around Rachel’s too much to be right. She was a widow and there was jobs to be done but after a while people started thinking other things. They got to spying and they found out Rachel was sleeping with him; the fact was so painful and sinful that he had organized a group to teach the wanton couple a lesson. Only nobody had been prepared to die, so when Shoaf was killed with Pencil's butcher knife, the other raiders made sure they wouldn’t be found out. They made it out to be murder and they made it out so McKinney would die for it.
And now this, he thought. Now I got to get Rachel and go out there agin. McKinney will die but I’ll go on with my church. Like Moses killing that Egyptian an’ hiding him in the sand an’ then goin’ on to great work for the Lord. It’s like that. Like Moses.
The Reverend might have enjoyed the drive along 421. The highway ran along the east rim of the valley so that, looking out across the empty passenger seat, he could see the fields and the whitewashed houses and the blackberry bushes that snarled through the fence; and glancing through his window, he could look down on the lush pastures of the valley.
The Reverend could have been going home to see his mother; he could follow 421 past the turnoff to Shine’s place and rumble into the graveled yard of his home place. He didn’t go often enough as it was--what with the church and all--but he wanted to go now. He wanted to sit on the porch, kick off his shoes and swallow down some dark, sweet iced tea; he wanted to rest in the shade of the chinaberry and pet the dog and nod at his mother when the pitch of her voice told him it was time to agree; he wanted to feel the evening breeze chill his sweat and slide it from his skin; he wanted to watch the lightning bugs and listen to the crickets and the pork chops spitting in the kitchen--he wanted to be home with his old ma, resting on the porch while she poked around in ragged blue bedroom shoes and mumbled of her son, her oldest boy, a man raised to the sight of God but never forgetting his old ma.
The Reverend almost missed the turnoff, focusing on it just in time to lock up the brakes and swing the bridled monster onto the red road. The car bounced over the deep ruts, kicking up a red cloud. The county didn’t maintain this road as it did others because no white men lived on the road. Shine Jackson and his fold were the inhabitants of the ramshackle cabins and one-horse dirt farms. He had not had call to set foot in any of the shacks as a man of God but he had visited here several times in his robes to administer justice of one kind or another.
McKinney had grown up back here in the pines and sedge. He was probably a lot like those boys fishing he had just passed on the bridge. Lazy and slow beside a river or behind a mule; eager and fast busting in a smokehouse or chasing women. But calm somehow. Mellow, like the songs that drifted from the cabins in the evening; easy in the Lord--not come Sunday--but in the morning frying fatback and watching the mist burn off and at noon, under an oak, listening to a June bug and at night watching the moon splash on the cornfield, watching the far off stars and feeling good about it, feeling good about the moon and the night, the children on pallets, the dark woods of the hollow, and the empty fields that let go till sunup.
The Reverend pulled up in front of Shine’s house, crunching rocks under the wheels and scattering the chickens and dogs. Shine came out on the porch; habit kept him on the porch until Durkin got out of the car and was recognized.
"Hiyall doin’, Revurn?" the preacher called from the porch.
"Jus’ fine, Preacher Jackson, jus’ fine. I hear yuh gonna be gitten that new school put up after all."
Shine came down from the porch. Durkin could see his eyes harden.
"Well now, we done had us a heck of a time wif the county ‘bout that--seems they didden have no money to hep us out--but we done come up wif it. We’ll be gitten hit built d’rectly. You come fuh Rachel?"
Durkin looked away to the well. It was simple to say "yes", a simple thing to say he had come to take her there again, where she would be scorned, where she would be close to McKinney but not allowed to see him; it was simple to say that he had come to try for forgiveness again, to try to win her dark heart to his care and in that be absolved for his part in their misery; simple to say that he would take her to the prison again; that he would see McKinney and not confess again, that she would cry and grieve and he could not comfort her and he could not confess to her.
"Yeah. I don’t think it’s right to take her out there an git her all upset but I know she wants to try again."
Jackson spit and turned his head to the house.
"Rachel! Revurn Durkin’s come fah yuh agin! You come on out!"
They stood in silence, pawing at the ground with dusty shoes, until she came out to free them.
"’Lo, Revurn. You goin’ out to the pen?"
"Yes, Rachel. Warden called an’ said McKinney’s kinda poorly. Thought I might be able to help. He ain’t gonna let yuh see him, Rachel, but I thought you’d wanna try."
"Much obliged. I’d like to ride out with yuh if I kin. One more time caint do no harm."
"I reckin not, Rachel. Let’s be rollin’ on, if you’re a mind to go. Preacher, good luck on that school. God be with yuh."
"Thankyuh, Brother Durkin. You do whatcha kin fah Rachel."
"We’ll be back by suppertime."
They got in the car and the black monster crawled out of the yard, groaning in low gear. He knew she wouldn’t talk until they were almost at the prison; she didn’t even seem to see the boys fishing or the fat women hanging out their wash. She just looked at the road, resting her eyes on the clay and asphalt pathways that would take her to McKinney.
When he pulled into Hudson’s for a coke, she sat in the car: still and quiet as if in prayer, moving only to brush back strands of hair. Her face was lean and hard and grey but life tugged at the mouth, twisting the corners in recognition of some thoughts or sights he did not know. She sat while he gossiped with nervous farmers, choking back with a smile or a scripture the knowledge that they were poised to spit at her again, still vengeful that she had violated their righteousness with her life. They would have gone at her, churning tobacco juice in their jaws, to exact from her another measure of shame in return for her crime against their wives’ honor; ignorant that over the years she had paid in blood and fire and tears for the honor of white woman she couldn’t even remember--never yielding to shame--they would have gone at her with their brown mouths had he not been there to put them in the presence of the Lord.
The Reverend tried to come up with conversation when they pulled out on the highway but his mind wandered away to the groves of live oaks on the cool, green hills and to the white clouds in the cool, blue sky.
The Reverend tried to prepare for her when he made the turnoff to the prison, but she only rolled up the window against the dust and looked straight ahead. He tried to imagine what a confession would mean after all the years, how it would most likely free McKinney and send him to prison, away from the church and the chinaberry trees and the ragged blue bedroom shoes.
"What is it this time, Revurn?"
He jerked around and caught her square; her eyes were deep and piercing.
"I’m not real sure, Rachel. Warden said McKinney’s been actin’ sick but they had the doc out twice an’ he caint find nothin’ wrong. Warden figures it’s somethin’ ailin’ the spirit."
"They ain’t no word from the guvner?"
"No. I don’t think the governer’s gonna listen anymore, Rachel. I know that might be tryin’ for yuh to hear but it’s true an’, well, if it turns out that the governer ain’t listening, well--if there’s anything I can do--"
"I don’t think so, just yet, Revurn. It might be like yuh say. But I got to keep tryin’. I caint find it in me to call on the Lord now. Hit seems like the guvner’s more likely to listen."
The Reverend didn’t answer; they arrived at the gate, were identified, and drove on through to the prison. Johnson was walking on the grounds with two guards; he saw the car and turned to meet Durkin. He stared at Rachel sitting in the front seat. He shook hands with Durkin.
"’Lo, Jake. Glade to see yuh. She kin jus’ set right where she’s at. Let’s go, Jake."
Durkin glanced back at the car. She was staring at the barred windows.
"I think I better go up alone, Hal. No use takin’ an army."
"Ok. Wayne, take ‘im on up. Listen, Jake, I ‘preciate yuh tryin’ like this. I don’t think nuthin’ can be done, but I ‘preciate it jus’ the same."
Durkin nodded and followed Wayne off to the special wing where McKinney and fourteen others waited for the last day. While Wayne unlocked the cell, the Reverend scanned the black figures for McKinney. Wayne stood aside, patting his shotgun.
"If there’s somethin’ yuh need, Revurn, just holler."
"Ok, Wayne, I’ll do that."
There were more men in the cell than on his previous visits but he couldn’t tell how many more because they were all huddled around one bunk. He gestured to one of the men.
"McKinney in that bed?"
"Yessir, Revurn, he sho is in that bed."
Durkin moved toward the crowd of prisoners. Suddenly they formed a wall around the bunk and one large man stepped out.
"I wouden be stirbin ol Pensul jus’ now, Revurn. Fact, if I was you, I’d jus’ stay over there. See, Pensul gotta be in the right mine an’ he said if you was to come that we wasn’t to let you see ‘im. He wrote down some stuff fah me to tell yuh. See, he ain’t talked or et in three days cause he’s inna hex but he lef’ me some stuff to tell yuh. He say he ain’t got no more use fah yuh an’ them words youse always talkin’ and he ain’t got no use fah yore Gawd. Say he gonna die now. Gonna go dead at the full moon like them hogs he kilt. Say he ain’t gonna let yore kind kill ‘im cause you ain’t fit. Like yuh wasn’t fit to eat pork when yuh had to git him to do the killin’. Say them that ain’t got no life in 'em ain’t fit to kill anuther, ain’t fit to know the thang they wanna kill. Say you done got his guts, done got his woman an’ the best part of his mind. Say he sorry his knife got to go to rust. Say they’s plenty o’ place it could do good work. Say if you wanna do sumpthin’ you tell Rachel he’s goin’ dead at the moon an’ that she gotta stay wif Shine till she git anuther man. Say she got to git anuther man cause she got too much heart not to have a man. Say you caint touch ‘im no more. Say to know that we ain’t got nuthin’ to lose. I tellin’ yuh to git that bastard what let yuh in an’ git outta here ‘fore you come to harm. One more man don’t mean nuthin’ in here."
The Reverend was caught in the man’s eyes: hard and clear, set in a wrinkled face, desperate and wild.
"Let’s go, Wayne!"
"Have you out in a jiffy, Revurn. Yuh find out what’s goin’ on, Revurn?"
"I kinda did, Wayne. I kinda kid."
The Reverend didn’t spend much time in the warden’s office. Johnson was nervous about having McKinney die on him because it might prompt a state investigation. He wanted to bust in and snatch McKinney off to solitary confinement. Durkin didn’t stay to argue against it because he knew it wouldn’t happen.
Rachel watched him approaching but dropped her eyes when he got in. He said nothing until they passed the gate, covered the red road and swung onto the highway. The sun was fading. The shadow of the chinaberry would be wrapping around the blue shoes.
"He’s hexed himself, Rachel. He says he’s goin’ dead at the full moon, like the hogs he killed. He says for you to find anuther man. Said you got too much heart not to have a man. I think he’s gonna do it, Rachel--I think he’s jus’ gonna die."
She started to cry.
The Reverend wanted to comfort her.
The Reverend wanted to cleanse himself with her tears, but he knew she would not come to him for that.
The Reverend heard Rachel’s desperate, lonely sobs: in the crucible of his wretched heart, she was eclipsed and her anguished moans rang in his soul like an anthem, like the songs drifting down from the colored cabins--easy, mellow as the moon and the night, the dark woods and the fields that let go till sunup.
Causes Michael Warren Supports