Preacher Liner said he would let me preach the Sunday after Homecoming. He was a big heavy feller with droopy jowls, and he said it as a favor to Mama more than anything else, because no preacher likes to share his pulpit, not any that I ever heard of. But Mama was a pillar of the church, and her pa had give the land for the church and built the ?rst church in the valley back when the county was founded. And for some reason Preacher Liner was afraid of Mama, maybe because she'd read more than him and knowed more Scripture. So when I told Preacher Liner I felt I had the call, that I'd been studying up to preach a sermon, he said he'd let me ?ll the pulpit, soon as there was an opportunity.
I was only sixteen, but I felt the call, and I waited weeks and months for a chance to preach. I studied the Bible every day and prayed for a sign that I was ready. When I went out to the barn to milk I thought about preaching as I pulled down on the cow's tits. And while I hoed corn in the hot June sun I studied on what I'd say when I was give the pulpit.
Mama said I could go to a revival meeting in one of the little valleys near the head of the river and preach, or might be I could preach in one of the ridge churches like Mount Olivet. But I said I wanted to start in my home church, and then I'd light out to preach in other places, if I was going to preach, if the Lord had really anointed me to preach.
"You don't want to feel too much pride about preaching," Mama said. She had been a Holiness when she was young, but now she was a steadfast Baptist. If they made women deacons she'd have been a deacon. Mama was tall with long black hair she wore in a knot on top of her head. As her hair got threads of gray in it she looked digni?ed enough to be a deacon.
"Got to have some pride to want to try preaching," I said. "Otherwise I couldn't even think of standing up in front of a crowd."
"I can't see you preaching," said Fay, my younger sister. "You talk too slow and thoughtful. You're my brother, not a preacher." Fay was only thirteen, and bony like Moody was.
"I'd rather listen to hound dogs howling after a fox," my brother, Moody, said. "That's the best kind of preaching I know." Moody almost never went to church anyway, so it didn't matter what he said.
"If Muir has the call, he will preach," Mama said. "The Lord will put the words in his mouth and the Spirit in his heart."
"Only call Muir feels is the call of nature," Moody said.
"I never thought there'd be a preacher in this family," Fay said. She was wearing the blue dress Mama had smocked for her.
"I always prayed there would be a preacher in our family, in this generation," Mama said.
Since I left school when I was twelve I'd hunted ginseng in the late summer on the ridges over near South Carolina. And I'd helped Mama in the ?elds and in the orchards on the hill. I had helped make molasses in the old furnace Grandpa had built in the pasture, and I'd cut tops and pulled fodder. I'd chopped wood and done a little carpentry and masonry for my cousin U. G. that kept the store down at the highway, and I'd laid a rock wall behind the house to hold Mama's ?ower beds. I'd also built a rock wall for my aunt Florrie, and I'd painted the house for Mama. I'd tried my hand at a lot of things, from digging herbs to hewing and selling crossties to the railroad. But the thing I'd been best at was trapping muskrats and mink and foxes on the creeks and high branches near the head of the river. I liked to walk the trapline, and I knowed every inch of the headwaters and the Flat Woods beyond. I'd learned how to set traps in the water to drown a mink before it could gnaw its foot off, and I'd learned to put a trap on a trail where a fox couldn't see it or smell it. Every winter I made more than a hundred dollars from selling fur.
I'd heard a hundred times that Mama laid in bed without moving for several weeks before I was born. She had anemia and she had kidney poisoning. And she didn't eat nothing but some biscuits and a little milk. She was afraid she'd lose the baby if she moved. "I laid in the dark, for I was afraid even to read," Mama said.
And when I was born she was in labor for seventeen hours; the midwife thought I would be dead. After I was born they saw I was early and poor as a whippoorwill. You could see my ribs I was so starved. And I was too weak to eat anything except to suck on a rag soaked in sugar water, and to nurse a few minutes at a time.
"Muir was so blue he looked like he'd froze to death," Mama said.
But the story Mama liked to tell best was about how my tongue had been tied down by a thread of ?esh. "He was so tongue-tied he couldn't even cry," Mama said. "His tongue just kind of wallowed in his mouth, so I took him to a doctor in town and had it snipped free. Everybody said he'd never be able to talk, that he wasn't meant to talk. But I knowed he would talk. He was meant to talk, and after that he howled up a storm."
"He just never learned to talk sense," Moody said.
"I know he was put here for some purpose," Mama said. "He was a marked baby."
Mama said so many times I was marked for something special that I believed it was true. But I didn't know what it was for, until after I'd been saved and after I'd been baptized. I seen that I was supposed to be a witness and a minister. I'd heard about people getting the call, and I started to feel I was one that heard the call. Mama was proud. But it made Moody mad when she talked about how I was marked for a purpose. He acted like she said it to belittle him. He acted like he was mad at everybody most of the time. He snorted and cleared the spit in his throat.
When I read a passage in the Bible I thought of myself saying it from a pulpit. "'In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you. I go and prepare a place for you...'" I imagined how I'd swing my arm in the air and slam my ?st down on the pulpit. "'And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,'" I said aloud to myself. "'Neither shall there be any more pain.'"
As I walked along my trapline I said verses to myself. "'Blessed art thou Simon Barjonah...Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it...Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven...'"
I got so drunk saying the verses to myself that I would stumble off the trail or bump into a tree. I felt light enough to ?y as I quoted, "'A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.'"
I stood on top of a ridge above Grassy Creek in Transylvania County and faced the wind and said, "'I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.'" I imagined preaching to crowds in tents and brush arbors and in open ?elds. But mostly I imagined talking to the congregation in Green River Church. I was afraid I'd be tongue-tied when I had to talk.
As I walked through the woods with my squirrel ri?e, I was eloquent in one soaring sentence after another. I stood before the crowd and shouted about the glories of heaven. I didn't talk about hell?re and I didn't talk about punishment and damnation. In my mind I talked about the glories beyond the grave, beyond the clouds above the hill. I talked about the sunlit uplands beyond the far shore.
Now the other thing I studied on was Annie Richards that lived on the creek road just beyond the church. She was only thirteen then, but she was the prettiest girl in the whole valley. Her blond hair and her pale skin was like something out of a picture. She was slender and she was perfect and she had big gray eyes. She was too young to walk home with boys from church, but she was already a little bit of a ?irt. She was quick as a fawn with her gray eyes and red lips. I had my eye on her. I was going to be a preacher, and I was going to marry her. That's what I told myself. The two things was tied together in my mind. All women was in love with preachers.
"What are you going to preach about?" Preacher Liner said to me the Sunday before Homecoming. When he talked to you he kind of leaned over you. The look in his eyes never seemed to match what he was saying.
"I will preach about the Trans?guration," I said.
"That's always a good topic," Preacher Liner said. "People like to hear about the Trans?guration."
Preacher Liner said he'd be going down to South Carolina the Sunday after Homecoming, and I could ?ll the pulpit in his place. Panic jolted through me so hard it hurt. In two weeks I'd be standing in front of the congregation. In two weeks I'd be facing all those people that I'd knowed since I was in diapers.
"Glory be," Mama said when I told her I would be preaching in two weeks. "This is the answer to my prayers."
Now the thing about worry is it can't do you much good. For worry just wears you down and don't help the least bit. But you can't just turn off worry like it was a spigot. Worry ain't something you can do much to control. Worry creeps up on you at night while you're laying in bed and crawls right into your head. And worry soaks its way into whatever you're thinking about in the daytime.
I ?gured if I studied out my sermon beforehand it might help. They said preachers in town actually wrote down sermons and read them on Sunday. But no Baptist preacher ever wrote out a sermon on Green River. That would prove you didn't have the call of the Spirit in your heart. Anybody that would write out a sermon and read it to the congregation would be laughed out of the pulpit and never invited to preach again. Only Scripture was worth reading out in the pulpit.
I took my Bible and climbed up into the pines on the pasture hill. Thought if I got on top of the ridge I could think better. The air would be clearer and I'd be closer to God. And the Trans?guration took place on a mountaintop where Peter and James and John went with Jesus. I read in Matthew: "'While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said: This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.'"
That seemed to me the ?nest passage in the Bible. I said the words over again and made my voice deep in my throat, and I made my tongue curl around the words.
I turned to the book of Luke where it also described the Trans?guration.
"'And as he prayed the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.'"
I walked up and down under the pine trees and said the verse. I swung my arm to show the power of the words. I knowed if I could get started in the pulpit I could keep going. It was getting started that was hard. I'd took part in the debates at school when I was eleven and twelve. It was standing and saying the ?rst thing that scared me. The ?rst time I stood before the class I was so dazed I couldn't think of nothing. My throat locked closed like spit had stuck there and glued my windpipe. Next time I debated I determined I'd say one word if it killed me. And I did stand up and say one word, and after that I could say more. But I remembered that feeling of having my tongue and throat froze, like they'd turned to rock.
Last, I turned to the Second Epistle of Peter, where he talked about the Trans?guration.
"'And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount.'"
It was the holy mount I wanted to mention in my sermon. For I wanted to say any mountain could be a holy mountain. And that the ground where we stood could be holy ground. I wanted to preach mountainism, for I'd read somewhere that mountainism meant a vision of paradise on earth. But I didn't know if I could say it right.
In his excitement and confusion Peter had talked about building three tabernacles on the mountaintop, one to Moses, one to Elias, and one to Jesus. He'd talked foolish, out of his head. I hoped I didn't talk foolish. I hoped I didn't speak beside myself, once I was in the pulpit. But I understood the desire to build something sacred. I had studied about building almost as much as about trapping and preaching. A life's work should be to build something that inspired people.
I stood under the pines facing the wind and read more verses, making my voice strong and far-reaching as I could. I read in a low voice and I read in a loud voice. I read the verses in a proper voice, and I read them the way a mountain preacher would that hadn't hardly been to school. I couldn't decide which way was best. But I thought, The place for a church is on a mountaintop. The perfect place to say the words of the Bible was on the highest ground in sight.
When Mama noticed how worried I was she said, "Nobody can preach without the help of the Lord. If the Lord wants you to preach, then he'll give you the words to say."
"But I have to prepare the vessel," I said.
"If the Lord don't give you the words they won't be worth listening to," Mama said.
"All the words has already been said," my sister Fay said. Fay had growed gangly and awkward but hadn't begun to show her womanly shape in the dresses Mama made her.
"Don't make no difference," I said. "They need to be said again."
"Why do they?" Fay said.
"That's like saying all the dinners have been eat," I said. "People will still be hungry come dinnertime."
"People need to hear the Word again and again," Mama said. "As long as you go by the Scripture you can't go wrong."
"Are you going to take up a collection?" Moody said. "That's the test of a preacher, how much people throw in the collection plate."
"The collection is took up before the sermon," I said.
"That may be to your advantage," Moody said. Moody had got hurt in a ?ght in Chestnut Springs earlier that year, and he had a scar on his cheek below the left eye.
"A ?rst-time preacher don't get no money," I said.
But like he did so many times, Moody could change his tune in an instant. He would talk mean and bitter, and he'd mock you and belittle you. And then all of a sudden he'd be a good-natured brother. His name ?t him perfect. I knowed he was named after the great preacher Dwight L. Moody, but the name was right for him.
It was the Friday before I was supposed to preach on Sunday morning, and I went out to milk the cows after supper and water the horse and feed the chickens. It was still full daylight, and while I was mixing the crushing and cottonseed meal for the cows Moody come up behind me and said, "You know I want you to do good on Sunday."
"Sure you do," I said.
"No, I mean it," Moody said. "I want you to make that church house ring. And I want you to save so many people they'll demand that you preach again."
"Didn't think you cared," I said.
"I care about my little brother," Moody said. "I want you to scare them so much and thrill them so much they pee in their britches."
On the Sunday after Homecoming I got to the church a little early. I put on the new herringbone suit I had bought special, and a tie that Daddy had owned. The suit ?t so well over my shoulders and hips it give me con?dence, and the woven cloth glistened in the sun. The song leader, Mack Ennis, got there almost as soon as I did. The church felt cool inside in the early morning.
"Now, what songs do you want to sing today?" Mack said.
That was the one thing I hadn't thought about. I'd worried about the text I was going to read, and who I was going to call on to lead in prayer, and how long I was going to preach. But I hadn't even considered what hymns I wanted sung.
"Ain't you picked out the hymns?" I said to Mack.
"The preacher usually has some suggestions, depending on the text of his sermon," Mack said.
"What would you normally sing?" I said.
"There is over ?ve hundred hymns in the book," Mack said. "We can sing whatever ones you prefer."
"Why don't we sing 'How Beautiful Heaven Must Be'?" I said. "And then 'Nearer My God to Thee.'"
"This is not a funeral," Mack said.
"And maybe 'On Jordan's Stormy Banks,'" I said.
When Charlotte McKee, the organist, arrived Mack told her what songs we was going to sing. She nodded and smiled at me.
I'd heard of preachers that didn't even appear until it was time for the sermon. They'd stay out in the dark, or in the woods, or even in the outhouse, till it was time for them to appear. And then they'd enter like a prophet come down from the mountain, or like John the Baptist come from the wilderness. But that wasn't the custom on Green River. It would look silly if I stayed outside till it was time to preach.
There was a chair to the side and behind the pulpit where the preacher set. And that's where I waited while people come into the church. I didn't want to look at people as they shuf?ed in and set down, so I looked at the Bible in my hands, and I even opened it and tried to read. I'd seen Preacher Liner do that. But I couldn't see the Bible verses in front of me because of my nerves. I'd marked the places and I'd memorized the passages so I could recite them if I had to.
When Charlotte started playing the organ I stood up and everybody else stood up. "How Beautiful Heaven Must Be," I called out. But my voice sounded trembly and weak in the empty air over the congregation.
"Page 302," Mack called out.
While they was singing I tried to join in but couldn't even think of the song. I hoped the song would go on forever. I looked out over the faces and tried not to look at any one face. I knowed everybody in the church, but I tried not to recognize them. The light was glaring from the white-painted windowpanes. I kept my eyes on the last window on the left side.
When the song was over it was time to lead in prayer. I knowed the custom was for the preacher to lead the ?rst prayer. I was about to bow my head and start praying when I seen the door open and somebody slip into the back of the church. It was Moody, and he didn't take his hat off when he come in. Moody never did hardly go to church. He was the last person I expected to see there, and he was the last person I wanted to see there. He had said he wouldn't come. He slid into the back row with the other boys and backsliders. He never did take his hat off. It was time for me to start praying, but all I could think of was Moody setting there with his hat on.
I bowed my head, but instead of praying I said, "Will Moody Powell please take his hat off in church." The words was out before I could stop myself.
Everybody in the church turned around and looked back. There was snickers here and there. With a grin Moody lifted his hat and held it a few inches above his head, then dropped it to the ?oor. There was more snickering and titters from the boys in the back row.
I prayed but don't remember what I said. I had thought for days about what I'd say in a prayer, but I couldn't remember a single word of what I'd planned. Moody had throwed me off. I swallowed twice and said something about thanking the Lord for bringing us all together on such a ?ne day. My face was hot and the sweat was breaking out under my arms and in my hands.
When I ?nished praying and opened my eyes I seen Mama looking at me. She smiled and nodded, like she meant to say, You go ahead and do a good job now. There was circles of sweat under her arms. But I couldn't look at her. And I couldn't remember what hymn we was supposed to sing next. It was the offertory hymn and the two deacons, Silas Bane and my cousin U. G. Latham, come forward and took the collection plates from the table in front of the pulpit. Charlotte was looking at me and Mack was looking at me. And I remembered I'd told him "Nearer My God to Thee." But it was too late. Mack frowned and ?ipped through the songbook and called out, "Number 326."
While they begun to sing, and I pretended to join in, all I could think of was what a gom I'd already made of things. I looked at the collection plates passing among the congregation and wondered why I'd even thought I could preach. How did I know what was the call and what was just vanity? Nobody but Mama had thought I had the gift. What was I going to say when the song ended? For then it would be time to begin my sermon.
When the song was over the deacons brought the collection plates to the front, and Silas Bane poured the contents of one plate into the other and put the empty plate over the money like a lid. Both Mack and Charlotte took their seats on the benches, and I was alone in front of the church. As I stood up I felt the stares of the people like a furnace blasting my face. I wanted to step back out of the heat. I wanted to run out into the fresh air and sunlight.
Stepping to the pulpit, I realized I'd left my Bible on the ?oor beside the chair. I'd already opened my mouth to speak, but I stopped to pick up the Bible. I spun around and kicked the chair so hard it banged the wall and clattered over on the ?oor.
When I stood up again behind the pulpit and opened the Bible, the air in the church was absolutely still. You could have heard a spider scratching itself, or a moth belch. The air was so hot and tight it was in pain. The skin on my forehead felt stretched. The skin around my mouth was so tight I thought it was going to break. And my lips was stuck together.
I tried to ?nd the verse in Matthew about the Trans?guration, but I kept turning pages and couldn't spot it nowhere. My hands was so sweaty they stuck to the paper. I thought I seen the chapter, and then it disappeared. I was looking in the Old Testament. It seemed like minutes and hours was passing while I ?ipped through the pages.
"I want to read you a Bible verse," I tried to say. But the words stuck in my throat. I swallowed and tried again.
There was snickers in the church. The air was dead still, and I could hear the blood pounding in my ears. Sweat gathered on my forehead and dripped down on the pages of the Bible.
Finally I found Matthew 17 and started reading, but I couldn't recall what I'd planned to say about the text. What was the point I'd wanted to make about the Trans?guration? Peter said we should build three tabernacles on the mountaintop, but he'd been talking crazy with excitement. There didn't seem to be much point in speaking about that.
Because I couldn't remember what it was I wanted to say, I kept reading. I read beyond the place where Matthew talked about the Trans?guration. I couldn't think of anything to say.
I seen Annie setting in the third row beside her mama. Annie looked at me and she looked at her lap. Why had I thought I'd impress her with my preaching? Why had I ever thought she cared anything about me? She looked so young she seemed just a child. She didn't care what I said in the pulpit. I'd wanted to say something about going to the mountaintop, but what was it?
"This is what can happen when we go up on the mountaintop," I said. "This is what happens when we get up close to the Lord." But I couldn't recall what else I was going to say. It had all seemed so clear when I'd planned the sermon. But I couldn't remember what the connection was.
"Now let me read to you what Mark says," I said. I crumpled pages of the Bible trying to ?nd the passage in the Second Gospel, but I ?nally located the right chapter. "Listen to this," I said. But as I read the verses I heard my voice in the still air of the church, and it sounded more like a boy reciting in school than any preacher. I couldn't think of what words to say next, so I just kept reading again. And when I got to the end of the chapter I said, "There is blessings for us on the mountaintop if we'll just go there. We can see the shining face of Jesus, and we can see his raiment white as snow." I could feel the voice coming to me a little bit. It was not the talk I'd planned, but at least I was talking.
"We can stand with our faces in the wind and feel the Spirit moving," I said.
Just then there was a whine in the back of the church. It was like the whine a wet log makes when it burns. The whine thickened to a blowing sound, and I knowed it was a poot, the loudest and longest fart you ever heard. It was like a trumpet and trombone together blowing a fanfare.
I forgot what I was saying and couldn't go on. My tongue was tied and ?opped around helpless as a ?sh in mud. I tried to recall what I'd been saying, but nothing come out. I was froze, and then I seen Moody stand up and walk to the back window. He raised the back window with a groan and a bang and stuck his head outside. Laughter started at the back of the church and swept forward until it ?lled the whole sanctuary like a mighty song.
Copyright © 2001 by Robert Morgan