Wish You Well
They left in the late morning. Mother was doing fine, and the baby's color had improved greatly. He was nursing feverishly, and the boy's lungs seemed strong.
Sally and Billy said their thanks, and even Jesse managed a grunt. But Lou noticed that the stove was cold and there was no smell of food.
George Davis and his hired men were in the fields. But before Billy joined them, Louisa took the boy aside and talked with him about things Lou could not hear.
As they drove the wagon out, they passed corrals filled with enough cattle to qualify as a herd, and hogs and sheep, a yard full of hens, four fine horses, and double that number of mules. The crop fields extended as far as the eye could see, and dangerous barbed wire encircled all of it. Lou could see George and his men working the fields with mechanized equipment, clouds of dirt being thrown up from the swift pace of the machines.
"They have more fields and livestock than we do," Lou said. "So how come they don't have anything to eat?"
" 'Cause their daddy want it that way. And his daddy were the same way with George Davis. Tight with a dollar. Didn't let none go till his feet wedged agin root."
They rattled by one building and Louisa pointed out a sturdy padlock on the door. "Man'11 let the meat in that smokehouse rot afore he give it up to his children. George Davis sells every last bit of his crop down at the lumber camp, and to the miners, and hauls it to Tremont and Dickens." She pointed to a large building that had a line of doors all around the first floor. The doors were open, and plainly visible inside were large green plant leaves hanging from hooks. "That's burley tobacco curing. It weakens the soil, and what he don't chew hisself, he sells. He got that still and ain't never drunk a drop of the corn whiskey, but sells that wicked syrup to other men who ought be spending their time and money on they's families. And he goes round with a fat roll of dollar bills, and got this nice farm, and all them fancy machines, and man let his family starve." She flicked the reins. "But I got to feel sorry for him in a way, for he be the most miserable soul I ever come across. Now, one day God'll let George Davis know 'xactly what He thinks of it all. But that day ain't here yet."
* * *
EUGENE WAS DRIVING THE WAGON PULLED BY THE mules. Oz, Lou, and Diamond were in the back, sitting on sacks of seed and other supplies purchased from McKenzie's Mercantile using egg money and some of the dollars Lou had left over from her shopping excursion in Dickens.
Their path took them near a good-sized tributary of the McCloud River, and Lou was surprised to see a number of automobiles and schooner wagons pulled up near the flat, grassy bank. Folks were hanging about by the river's edge, and some were actually in the brown water, its surface choppy from an earlier rain and good wind. A man with rolled-up sleeves was just then submerging a young woman in the water.
"Dunking," Diamond exclaimed. "Let's have a look." Eugene pulled the mules to a stop and the three children jumped off. Lou looked back at Eugene, who was making no move to join them. "Aren't you coming?"
"You g'on, Miss Lou, I gonna rest my bones here." Lou frowned at this, but joined the others.
Diamond had made his way through a crowd of onlookers and was peering anxiously at something. As Oz and Lou drew next to him and saw what it was, they both jumped back.
An elderly woman, dressed in what looked to be a turban made from pinned-together homespun sheets and a long piece of hemp with a tie at the waist, was moving in small, deliberate circles, unintelligible chants drifting from her, her speech that of the drunk, insane, or fanatically religious in full, flowering tongues. Next to her a man was in a T-shirt and dress slacks, a cigarette dangling like a fall leaf from his mouth. A serpent was in either of the man's hands, the reptiles rigid, unmov-ing, like bent pieces of metal.
"Are they poisonous?" whispered Lou to Diamond.
"Course! Don't work lessen use viper."
A cowering Oz had his gaze fixed on the motionless creatures and seemed prepared to leap for the trees once they started swaying. Lou sensed this, and when the snakes did start to move, she gripped Oz's hand and pulled him away. Diamond grudgingly followed, till they were off by themselves.
"What stuff are they doing with those snakes, Diamond?" asked Lou.
"Scaring off bad spirits, making it good for dunking." He looked at them. "You two been dunked?"
"Christened, Diamond," Lou answered. "We were christened in a Catholic Church. And the priest just sprinkles water on your head." She looked to the river where the woman was emerging and spitting up mouthfuls of the tributary. "He doesn't try to drown you."
"Catolick? Ain't never heard'a that one. It new?"
Lou almost laughed. "Not quite. Our mom is Catholic. Dad never really cared for church all that much. They even have their own schools. Oz and I went to one in New York. It's really structured and you learn things like the Sacraments, the Creed, the Rosary, the Lord's Prayer. And you learn the Mortal Sins. And the Venial Sins. And you have First Confession and First Communion. And then Confirmation."
"Yeah," said Oz, "and when you're dying you get the -- what that's thing, Lou?"
"The Sacrament of Extreme Unction. The Last Rites."
"So you won't rot in hell," Oz informed Diamond.
Diamond pulled at three or four of his cowlicks and looked truly bewildered. "Huh. Who'd thunk believing in God be such hard work? Prob'ly why ain't no Catolicks up this way. Tax the head too much."
Diamond nodded at the group near the river. "Now, them folk Primitive Baptists. They got some right funny beliefs. Like you ain't go and cut your hair, and women ain't be putting on no face paint. And they got some 'ticular ideas on going to hell and such. People break the rules, they ain't too happy. Live and die by the Scriptures. Prob'ly ain't as 'ticular as you Catolicks, but they still be a pain where the sun don't shine." Diamond yawned and stretched his arms. "See, that why I ain't go to church. Figger I got me a church wherever I be. Want'a talk to God, well I say, 'Howdy-howdy, God,' and we jaw fer a bit."
Lou just stared at him, absolutely dumbstruck in the face of this outpouring of ecclesiastical wisdom from Professor of Religion Diamond Skinner.
Diamond suddenly stared off in wonder. "Well, will you look at that."
They all watched as Eugene walked down to the water's edge and spoke with someone, who in turn called to the preacher out in the river, as he was pulling up a fresh victim.
The preacher came ashore, spoke with Eugene for a minute or two, and then led him out into the water, dunked him so that nothing was showing of his person, and then preached over him. The man kept Eugene down so long, Lou and Oz started to worry. But when Eugene came up, he smiled, thanked the man, and then went back to the wagon. Diamond set off on a dead run toward the preacher, who was looking around for other takers of divine immersion.
Lou and Oz crept closer as Diamond went out in the water with the holy man and was fully plunged under too. He finally surfaced, talked with the man for a minute, slipped something in his pocket, and, soaking wet and smiling, rejoined them, and they all headed to the wagon.
"You've never been baptized before?" said Lou.
"Shoot," said Diamond, shaking the water from his hair, the cowlick of which had not been disturbed in the least, "that's my ninth time dunked."
"You're only supposed to do it once, Diamond!"
"Well, ain't hurt keep doing it. Plan to work me up to a hunnerd. Figger I be a lock for heaven then."
"That's not how it works," exclaimed Lou.
"Is so," he shot back. "Say so in the Bible. Ever time you get dunked it means God's sending an angel to come look after you. I figger I got me a right good regiment by now."
"That is not in the Bible," insisted Lou.
"Maybe you ought'n read your Bible agin."
"Which part of the Bible is it in? Tell me that."
"Front part." Diamond whistled for Jeb, ran the rest of the way to the wagon, and climbed on.
"Hey, Eugene," h
e said, "I let you knowed next time they's dunking. We go swimming together."
"You were never baptized, Eugene?" asked Lou as she and Oz clambored onto the wagon.
He shook his head. "But sitting here I got me a hankering to do just that. 'Bout time, I 'xpect."
"I'm surprised Louisa never had you baptized."
"Miz Louisa, she believe in God with all her soul. But she don't subscribe to church much. She say the way some folk ran they's churches, it take God right out cha heart."
As the wagon pulled off, Diamond slid from his pocket a small glass jar with a tin screw cap. "Hey, Oz, I got me this from the preacher. Holy dunking water." He handed it to Oz, who looked down at it curiously. "I figger you put some on your ma from time to time. Bet it hep."
Lou was about to protest, when she received the shock of her life. Oz handed the jar back to Diamond.
"No, thanks," he said quietly and looked away.
"You sure?" asked Diamond. Oz said he was real sure, and so Diamond tipped the bottle over and poured out the blessed water. Lou and Oz exchanged a glance, and the sad look on his face stunned her again. Lou looked to the sky, because she figured if Oz had given up hope, the end of the world must not be far behind. She turned her back to them all and pretended to be admiring the sweep of mountains.
It was late afternoon. Cotton had just finished reading to Amanda and it was apparent that he was experiencing a growing sense of frustration.
At the window, Lou watched, standing on an overturned lard bucket.
Cotton looked at the woman. "Amanda, now I just know you can hear me. You have two children who need you badly. You have to get out of that bed. For them if for no other reason." He paused, seeming to select his words with care. "Please, Amanda. I would give all I will ever have if you would get up right now." An anxious few moments went by, and Lou held her breath, yet the woman didn't budge. Cotton finally bowed his head in despair.
When Cotton came out of the house later and got in his Olds to leave, Lou hurried up carrying a basket of food.
"Reading probably gives a man an appetite."
"Well, thank you, Lou."
He put the basket of food in the seat next to him. "Louisa tells me you're a writer. What do you want to write about?"
Lou stood on the roadster's running board. "My dad wrote about this place, but nothing's really coming to me."
Cotton looked out over the mountains. "Your daddy was actually one of the reasons I came here. When I was in law school at the University of Virginia, I read his very first novel and was struck by both its power and beauty. And then I saw a story in the newspaper about him. He talked about how the mountains had inspired him so. I thought coming here would do the same for me. I walked all over these parts with my pad and pencil, waiting for beautiful phrases to seep into my head so I could put them down on the paper." He smiled wistfully. "Didn't exactly work that way."
Lou said quietly, "Maybe not for me either."
"Well, people seem to spend most of their lives chasing something. Maybe that's part of what makes us human." Cotton pointed down the road. "You see that old shack down there?" Lou looked at a mud-chinked, falling-down log cabin they no longer used. "Louisa told me about a story your father wrote when he was a little boy. It was about a family that survived one winter up here in that little house. Without wood, or food."
"How'd they do it?"
"They believed in things."
"Like what? Wishing wells?" she said with scorn.
"No, they believed in each other. And created something of a miracle. Some say truth is stranger than fiction. I think that means that whatever a person can imagine really does exist, somewhere. Isn't that a wonderful possibility?"
"I don't know if my imagination is that good, Cotton. In fact, I don't even know if I'm much of a writer. The things I put down on paper don't seem to have much life to them."
"Keep at it, you might surprise yourself. And rest assured, Lou, miracles do happen. You and Oz coming here and getting to know Louisa being one of them."
Lou sat on her bed later that night, looking at her mother's letters. When Oz came in, Lou hurriedly stuffed them under her pillow.
"Can I sleep with you?" asked Oz. "Kind'a scary in my room. Pretty sure I saw a troll in the corner."
Lou said, "Get up here." Oz climbed next to her.
Oz suddenly looked troubled. "When you get married, who am I going to come get in bed with when I'm scared, Lou?"
"One day you're gonna get bigger than me, then I'm going to be running to you when / get scared."
"How do you know that?"
"Because that's the deal God makes between big sisters and their little brothers."
"Me bigger than you? Really?"
"Look at those clodhoppers of yours. You grow into those feet all the way, you'll be bigger than Eugene."
Oz snuggled in, happy now. Then he saw the letters under the pillow.
"What are those?"
"Just some old letters Mom wrote," Lou said quickly.
"What did she say?"
"I don't know, I haven't read them."
"Will you read them to me?"
"Oz, it's late and I'm tired."
"Please, Lou. Please."
He looked so pitiful Lou took out a single letter and turned up the wick on the kerosene lamp that sat on the table next to her bed.
"All right, but just one."
Oz settled down as Lou began to read.
"Dear Louisa, I hope you are doing well. We all are. Oz is over the croup and is sleeping through the night."
Oz jumped up. "That's me! Mom wrote about me!" He paused and looked confused. "What's croup?"
"You don't want to know. Now, do you want me to read it or not?" Oz lay back down while his sister commenced reading again. "Lou won first place in both the spelling bee and the fifty-yard dash at May Day. The latter included the boys! She's something, Louisa. I've seen a picture of you that Jack had, and the resemblance is remarkable. They're both growing up so fast. So very fast it scares me. Lou is so much like her father. Her mind is so quick, I'm afraid she finds me a little boring. That thought keeps me up nights. I love her so much. I try to do so much with her. And yet, well, you know, a father and his daughter.... More next time. And pictures too. Love to you. Amanda. P.S. My dream is to bring the children to the mountain, so that we can finally meet you. I hope that dream comes true one day."
Oz said, "That was a good letter. Night, Lou."
As Oz drifted off to sleep, Lou slowly reached for another letter.
* * *
LOU AND OZ WERE FOLLOWING DIAMOND AND JEB through the woods on a glorious day in early fall, the dappled sunlight in their faces, a cool breeze tracking them along with the fading scents of summer's honeysuckle and wild rose.
"Where are we going?" asked Lou.
Diamond would only say mysteriously, "You see."
They went up a little incline and stopped. Fifty feet away and on the path was Eugene, carrying an empty coal bucket and a lantern. In his pocket was a stick of dynamite.
Diamond said, "Eugene headed to the coal mine. Gonna fill up that bucket. Afore winter come, he'll take a drag down there with the mules and get out a big load'a coal."
"Gee, that's about as exciting as watching somebody sleep," was Lou's considered opinion.
"Huh! Wait till that dynamite blows," countered Diamond.