Wish You Well

  Lou had given him and a clean shirt. There were a few other Negroes there, including one petite young woman with remarkable eyes and beautifully smooth skin with whom Eugene spent considerable time talking. Cotton explained that there were so few Negroes up this way, they didn't have a separate church. "And I'm right glad of that," he said. "Not usually that way down south, and in the towns the prejudice is surely there."

  "We saw the 'Whites Only' sign in Dickens," said Lou.

  "I'm sure you did," said Cotton. "But mountains are different. I'm not saying everybody up here is a saint, because they're surely not, but life is hard and folks just trying to get by. Doesn't leave much time to dwell on things they shouldn't dwell on in the first place." He pointed to the first row and said, "George Davis and a few others excepted, that is."

  Lou looked on in shock at George Davis sitting in the front pew. He had on a suit of clean clothes, his hair was combed, and he had shaved. Lou had to grudgingly admit that he looked respectable. None of his family was with him, though. His head was bowed in prayer. Before the service started, Lou asked Cotton about this spectacle.

  He said, "George Davis almost always comes to services, but he never stays for the meal. And he never brings his family because that's just the way he is. I would hope he comes and prays because he feels he has much to atone for. But I think he's just hedging his bets. A calculating man, he is."

  Lou looked at Davis there praying like God was in his heart and home, while his family remained behind in rags and fear and would have starved except for the kindness of Louisa Cardinal. She could only shake her head. Then she said to Cotton, "Whatever you do, don't stand next to that man."

  Cotton looked at her, puzzled. "Why not?"

  "Lightning bolts," she answered.

  For too many hours they listened to the circuit minister, their rumps worn sore by hard oak benches, their noses tickled by the scents of lye soap, lilac water, and grittier smells from those who had not bothered to wash before coming. Oz nodded off twice, and Lou had to kick him each time to rouse him. Cotton offered up a special prayer for Amanda, which Lou and Oz very much appreciated. However, it seemed they were all doomed to hell according to this fleshy Baptist minister. Jesus had given his life for them, and a sorry lot they were, he said, himself included. Not good for much other than sinning and similar lax ways. Then the holy man really got going and reduced every human being in the place to near tears, or to at least the shakes, at their extreme uselessness and at the guilt dwelling in their awful sinned-out souls. And then he passed the collection plate and asked very politely for the cold hard cash of all the fine folks there today, their awful sin and extreme uselessness notwithstanding.

  After services they all headed outside. "My father's a pastor in Massachusetts," said Cotton, as they walked down the church steps. "And he's also right partial to the fire and brimstone method of religion. One of his heroes was Cotton Mather, which is where I got my rather curious name. And I know that my father was greatly upset when I did not follow him on to the pulpit, but such is life. I had no great calling from the Lord, and didn't want to do the ministry any disservice just to please my father. Now, I'm no expert on the subject, yet a body does get weary of being dragged through the holy briar patch only to have his pocket regularly picked by a pious hand." Cotton smiled as he surveyed the folks gathering around the food. "But I guess it's a fair price to pay to sample some of these good vittles."

  The food indeed was some of the best Lou and Oz had ever had: baked chicken, sugar-cured Virginia ham, collard greens and bacon, fluffy grits heaped with churned butter, fried crackling bread, vegetable casseroles, many-kind beans, and warm fruit pies—all no doubt created with the most sacred and closely guarded of family recipes. The children ate until they could eat no more, and then lay under a tree to rest.

  Cotton was sitting on the church steps, working on a chicken leg and a cup of hot cider, and enjoying the peace of a good church supper, when the men approached. They were all farmers, with strong arms and blocky shoulders, a forward lean to all of them, their fingers curled tight, as though they were still working the hoe or scythe, toting buckets of water or pulling udder teats.

  "Evening, Buford," said Cotton, inclining his head at one of the men who stepped forward from the pack, felt hat in hand. Cotton knew Buford Rose to be a toiler in dirt and seed of long standing here, and a good, decent man. His farm was small, but he ran it efficiently. He was not so old as Louisa, but he had said so long to middle age years ago. He made no move to talk, his gaze fixed on his crumbling brogans. Cotton looked at the other men, most of whom he knew from helping them with some gal problem, usually to do with their deeds, wills, or taxes. "Something on your minds?" he prompted.

  Buford said, "Coal folk come by to see us all, Cotton. Talk 'bout the land. Selling it, that is."

  "Hear they're offering good money," said Cotton.

  Buford glanced nervously at his companions, his fingers digging into his hat brim. "Well, they ain't got that fer yet. See, thing is, they ain't a'wanting to buy our land 'less Louisa sell. Say it got to do with how the gas lie and all. I ain't unnerstand it none, but that what they say."

  "Good crops this year," said Cotton. "Land generous to all. Maybe you don't need to sell."

  "What 'bout next year?" said a man who was younger than Cotton but looked a good ten years older. He was a third-generation farmer up here, Cotton knew, and he didn't look all that happy about it right now. "One good year ain't make up fer three bad."

  "Why ain't Louisa want'a sell, Cotton?" asked Buford. "She way older'n me even, and I done all worked out, and my boy he ain't want to do this no more. And she got them chillin, and the sick woman care for. Ain't make no sense to me she ain't partial to sell."

  "This is her home, Buford. Just like it is yours. And it doesn't have to make sense to us. It's her wishes. We have to respect that."

  "But can't you talk to her?"

  "She's made up her mind. I'm sorry."

  The men stared at him in silence, clearly not a single one of them pleased with this answer. Then they turned and walked away, leaving a very troubled Cotton Longfellow behind.

  Oz had brought his ball and gloves to the church supper, and he threw with Lou and men with some of the other boys. The men gawked at his prowess and said Oz had an arm like they had never seen before. Then Lou happened upon a group of children talking about the death of Diamond Skinner.

  "Stupid as a mule, getting hisself blowed up like that," said one fat-cheeked boy Lou didn't know.

  "Going in a mine with dynamite lit," said another. "Good Lord, what a fool."

  "Course, he never went to school," said a girl with dark hair rolled in sausage curls who wore an expensive wide-brimmed hat with a ribbon around it and a frilly dress of similar cost. Lou knew her as Charlotte Ramsey, whose family didn't farm but owned one of the smaller coal mines, and did well with it. "So poor thing probably didn't know any better."

  After listening to this, Lou pushed her way into the group. She had grown taller in the time she had been living on the mountain, and she towered over all of them, though they were all close in age to her.

  "He went in that mine to save his dog," said Lou.

  The fat-cheeked boy laughed. "Risk his life to save a hound. Boy was dumb."

  Lou's fist shot out, and the boy was on the ground holding one of those fat cheeks that had just grown a little plumper. Lou stalked away and kept right on walking.

  Oz saw what had happened and he collected his ball and gloves and caught up with her. He said nothing but walked silently beside her, letting her anger cool, surely nothing new for him. The wind was picking up and the clouds were rolling in as a storm front cleared the mountain tops.

  "Are we walking all the way home, Lou?"

  "You can go back and ride with Cotton and Eugene if you want."

  "You know, Lou, as smart as you are, you don't have keep hitting people. You can beat 'em with words." She glanced at him and couldn'
t help but smile at his comment. "Since when did you get so mature?"

  Oz thought about this for a few moments. "Since I turned eight." They walked on. Oz had strung his gloves around his neck with a piece of twine, and he idly tossed the ball in the air and caught it behind his back. He tossed it again but did not catch it, and the ball dropped to the ground, forgotten.

  George Davis had stepped from the woods quiet as a fog. For Lou, his nice clothes and clean face did nothing to soften the evil in the man. Oz was instantly cowed by him, but Lou said fiercely, "What do you want?" "I know 'bout them gas people. Louisa gonna sell?" "That's her business."

  "My bizness! I bet I got me gas on my land too." "Then why don't you sell your property?" "Road to my place goes cross her land. They can't git to me 'less she sell."

  "Well, that's your problem," said Lou, hiding her smile, for she was thinking that perhaps God had finally turned his attention to the man.

  "You tell Louisa if she knowed what's good for her she better sell. You tell her, she better damn well sell." "And you better get away from us." Davis raised his hand. "Smart-mouthed cuss!" Quick as a snake, a hand grabbed Davis's arm and stopped it in midair. Cotton stood there, holding on to that powerful arm and staring at the man.

  Davis jerked his arm free and balled his fists. "You gonna get hurt now, lawyer."

  Davis threw a punch. And Cotton stopped the fist with his hand, and held on. And this time Davis couldn't break the man's grip, though he tried awfully hard.

  When Cotton spoke, it was in a tone that was quiet and sent a delicious chill down Lou's back. "I majored in American literature in college. But I was also captain of the boxing team. If you ever raise your hand to these children again, I'll beat you within an inch of your life."

  Cotton let go of the fist and Davis stepped back, obviously intimidated by both the calm manner and strong hands of his opponent.

  "Cotton, he wants Louisa to sell her property so he can too. He's kind of insisting on it," said Lou.

  "She doesn't want to sell," said Cotton firmly. "So that's the end of it."

  "Lot of things happen, make somebody want'a sell."

  "If that's a threat, we can take it up with the sheriff. Unless you'd like to address it with me right now."

  With a snarl, George Davis stalked off.

  As Oz picked up his baseball, Lou said, "Thank you, Cotton."

  * * *


  LOU WAS ON THE PORCH TRYING HER HAND AT DARN-ing socks, but not enjoying it much. She liked working outside better than anything else and looked forward to feeling the sun and wind upon her. There was an orderliness about farming that much appealed to her. In Louisa's words, she was quickly coming to understand and respect the land. The weather was getting colder every day now, and she wore a heavy woolen sweater Louisa had knitted for her. Looking up, she saw Cotton's car coming down the road, and she waved. Cotton saw her, waved back, and, leaving his car, joined her on the porch. They both looked out over the countryside. "Sure is beautiful here this time of year," he remarked. "No other place like it, really."

  "So why do you think my dad never came back?" Cotton took off his hat and rubbed his head. "Well, I've heard of writers who have lived somewhere while young and then wrote about it the rest of their lives without ever once going back to the place that inspired them. I don't know, Lou, it may be they were afraid if they ever returned and saw the place in a new light, it would rob them of the power to tell their stories."

  "Like tainting their memories?"

  "Maybe. What do you think about that? Never coming back to your roots so you can be a great writer?"

  Lou did not have to ponder this long. "I think it's too big a price to pay for greatness."

  Before going to bed each night, Lou tried to read at least one of the letters her mother had written Louisa. One night a week later, as she pulled out the desk drawer she'd put them in, it slid crooked and jammed. She put her hand on the inside of the drawer to gain leverage to right it, and her fingers brushed against something stuck to the underside of the desk top. She knelt down and peered in, probing farther with her hand as she did so. A few seconds later she pulled out an envelope that had been taped there. She sat on her bed and gazed down at the packet. There was no writing on the outside, but Lou could feel the pieces of paper inside. She drew them out slowly. They were old and yellowed, as was the envelope. Lou sat on her bed and read through the precise handwriting on the pages, the tears creeping down her cheeks long before she had finished. Her father had been fifteen years old when he wrote this, for the date was written at the top of the page.

  Lou went to Louisa and sat with her by the fire, explained to her what she had found and read the pages to her in as clear a voice as she could:

  "My name is John Jacob Cardinal, though I'm called Jack for short. My father has been dead five years now, and my mother, well, I hope that she is doing fine wherever she is. Growing up on a mountain leaves its mark upon all those who share both its bounty and its hardship. Life here is also well known for producing stories that amuse and also exact tears. In the pages that follow I recount a tale that my own father told me shortly before he passed on. I have thought about his words every day since then, yet only now am I finding the courage to write them down. I remember the story clearly, yet some of the words may be my own, rather than my father's, though I feel I have remained true to the spririt of his telling.

  "The only advice I can give to whoever might happen upon these pages is to read them with care, and to make up your own mind about things. I love the mountain almost as much as I loved my father, yet I know that one day I will leave here, and once I leave I doubt I will ever come back. With that said, it is important to understand that I believe I could be very happy here for the rest of my days."

  Lou turned the page and began reading her father's story to Louisa.

  "It had been a long, tiring day for the man, though as a farmer he had known no other kind With crop fields dust, hearth empty, and children hungry, and wife not happy about any of it, he set out on a walk. He had not gone far when he came upon a man of the cloth sitting upon a high rock overlooking stagnant water. 'You are a man of the soil,' said he in a voice gentle and seeming wise. The farmer answered that indeed he did make his living with dirt, though he would not wish such a life upon his children or even his dearest enemy. The preacher invited the farmer to join him upon the high rock, so he settled himself next to the man. He asked the farmer why he would not wish his children to carry on after their father. The farmer looked to the sky pretending thought, for his mind well knew what his mouth would say. 'For it is the most miserable life of all,' he said. 'But it is so beautiful here,' the preacher replied. 'Think of the wretched of the city living in squalor. How can a man of the open air and the fine earth say such a thing?' The farmer answered that he was not a learned man such as the preacher, yet he had heard of the great poverty in the cities where the folks stayed in their hovels all day, for there was no work for them to do. Or they got by on the dole. They starved— slowly, but they starved. Was that not true? he asked. And the preacher nodded his great and wise head at him. 'So that is starvation without effort,' said the farmer. 'A miserable existence if ever I heard of one,' said the holy man. And the farmer agreed with him, and then said, 'And I have also heard that in other parts of the country there are farms so grand, on land so flat that the birds cannot fly over them in one day.' "This too is true,' replied the other man. The farmer continued. 'And that when crops come in on such farms, they can eat like kings for years from a single harvest, and sell the rest and have money in their pockets.' 'All true,' said the preacher. 'Well, on the mountain there are no such places,' said the farmer. 'If the crops come fine we eat, nothing more.' 'And your point?' said the preacher. 'Well, my plight is this, preacher: My children, my wife, myself, we all break our backs every year, working from before the rise of sun till past dark. We work hard coaxing the land to feed us. Things may look good, our ho
pes may be high. And then it so often comes to naught. And we still starve. But you see, we starve with great effort. Is that not more miserable?' 'It has indeed been a hard year,' said the other man. 'But did you know that corn will grow on rain and prayer?' 'We pray every day,' the farmer said, 'and the corn stands at my knee, and it is September now.' 'Well,' the preacher said, 'of course the more rain the better. But you are greatly blessed to be a servant of the earth.' The farmer said that his marriage would not stand much more blessing, for his good wife did not see things exactly that way. He bowed his head and said, 'I'm sure I am a miserable one to complain.' 'Speak up, my son,' the holy man said, 'for I am the ears of God.' 'Well,' the farmer said, 'it creates discomfort in the marriage, pain between husband and wife, this matter of hard work and no reward.' The other man raised a pious finger and said, 'But hard work can be its own reward. ' The farmer smiled. 'Praise the Lord then, for I have been richly rewarded all my life.' And the preacher seconded that and said, 'So your marriage is having troubles?' 'I am a wretch to complain,' the farmer said. 'I am the eyes of the Lord,' the preacher replied. They both looked at a sky of blue that had not a drop of what the farmer needed in it. 'Some people are not cut out for a life of such rich rewards,' he said. 'It is your wife you are speaking of now,' the preacher stated. 'Perhaps it is me,' the farmer said. 'God will lead you to the truth, my son,' the preacher said. Can a man be afraid of the truth? the farmer wanted to know. A man can be afraid of anything, the preacher told him. They rested there a bit, for the farmer had run clear out of words. Then he watched as the clouds came, the heavens opened, and the water rushed to touch them. He rose, for there was work to be done now. 'You see,' said the holy man, 'my words have come true. God has shown you the way.' 'We will see,' the farmer said. 'For it is late in the season now.' As he moved off to return to his land, the preacher called after him. 'Son of the soil,' he said, 'if the crops come fine, remember thy church in thy bounty.' The farmer looked back and touched his hand to the brim of his hat. 'The Lord does work in mysterious ways,' he told the other man. And then he turned and left the eyes and ears of God behind."

  Lou folded the letter and looked at Louisa, hoping she had done the right thing by reading the words to her. Lou wondered if the young Jack Cardinal had noticed that the story had become far more personal when it addressed the issue of a crumbling marriage.

  Louisa stared into the fire. She was silent for a few minutes and then said, "It be a hard life up here, 'specially for a child. And it hard on husband and wife, though I ain't never suffered that. If my momma and daddy ever said a cross word to the other, I ain't never heard it. And me and my man Joshua get along to the minute he took his last breath. But I know it not that way for your daddy _ here. Jake and his wife, they had their words."