A short story by Pamela Eason
In the 1900’s, a girl living in the rural South might have a difficult time discerning conjure from Christianity.
Priscilla Avery had just finished five cartwheels in a row when she heard his wagon wheels rumbling. She twisted her long caramel curls up to the top of her head to cool her neck, flopped against the oak tree, and watched him roll around the wide curve in the road. Two trucks and a car weaved past. Priscilla’s inquisitive blue eyes squinted for details. The man was thin and angled. He sat upright, like a ladder-back chair. It would be another five minutes before she would know if he was going to turn down her drive.
Strange men had shown up in the yard plenty times before. Once a man wearing a wide-brimmed, felt hat had bounced his way up the drive in a rusty, red, pickup truck. Priscilla had watched him walk round the yard, three days straight, holding a y-shaped stick. He looked like he was holding onto an invisible plow pulled by an unseen horse.
“What will we do if he can’t find water?” her mother had asked after the second day.
On the third day, the man had tapped the toe of his worn boot on a spot between two redbud trees.
“Dig the well right here.”
“He’d better be right. It’s going to take almost all we have,” her father had said.
After the man left, Priscilla had found her own y-shaped stick. She had walked over and over that same spot waiting for something mysterious to happen, but nothing did.
“You have to have a certain kind of wood and a certain kind of gift,” her father had explained before cranking his venerated old tractor to a roar.
Nothing more was ever said about the man or his gift. It had taken the well diggers two weeks to get to the water, but when they did, the worried look on her father’s face dissipated. The man and his gift had been permanently certified.
The wagon was in the yard now. Priscilla half skipped, half ran towards the man. He stood, rising over her like a pine tree over a hopeful daffodil. His face was older than her grandfather’s, but it had the same square shape, the same thin lips and hair, and and the same bright blue eyes that pierced right through.
He stepped down off the wagon, nodded, and headed towards the front door. Her mother greeted him. She closed the door behind him in that firm way that told Priscilla to stay outside.
Priscilla stayed close, listening for snatches of conversation. She practiced her back walkovers, fingers spread wide on the cool grass, back bent into a crescent shape, each muscular leg drawing slow graceful arcs over her head. A few of her father’s baritone syllables rotated in her head with the walkovers, but she couldn’t make sense of them. Every now and then the man’s mule would turn his head in Priscilla’s direction and blow a strong whoosh of air that made his nostrils flare and his lips tremble like a great-great-grandpa whispering some part of a dark mystery.
After a few walkovers, Priscilla sat in the grass, legs crossed like a pretzel, and picked at the round wart on the knuckle of her right index finger. She had scowled at it last Sunday during the sermon and had tried to bite it off that afternoon. It had bleed for a long time. Her grandmother had said, “If you don’t quit doing that you’re going to make more.” After that warning, Pricilla had sporadically and earnestly inspected herself the same way she had inspected her ears, nose, and throat for signs of a watermelon vine that time she had accidentally swallowed a seed.
The wart was crusty now. She scrutinized her hands and feet for signs of new outcroppings. None were visible. Satisfied, she poised herself, hands extended above her head, right foot pointed forward, for another cartwheel when the front door opened. Her father called her over.
“This is Uncle Thomas Jefferson, your grandfather’s brother. Show him your finger,” he said before turning and walking toward the barn.
She’d never heard of Uncle Tomas Jefferson, but that wasn’t unusual either. Once a man, with no legs and gloved hands, had shown up. He had swung his body out between his arms, like the Olympic gymnasts she had watched on parallel bars. He had walked up the front porch steps on his hands, maneuvered himself into a chair, took his gloves off, and talked for a while.
Her mother said, “This is your Uncle Charles Avery.” There was small jewelry box on the end table. It had a gold baby-sized ring in it. “It’s for your sister.”
He left in exactly the same way, only in reverse. Later, Priscilla had searched for clues that would solve the mystery of him, but all she found was her own baby ring nestled beside her sister’s in her mother’s jewelry box.
Uncle Thomas Jefferson nodded his expressionless greeting again and gently laid Priscilla’s small hand in the palm of his big one. He bent over slightly, starring at the wart and muttered something she couldn’t understand. Then, without another word, he climbed back onto his wagon and drove off.
The next morning Priscilla’s sleepiness rapidly morphed into astonishment. “It’s gone! It’s gone!” she told her mother and her father and her sister. The skin over her knuckle was as smooth and soft as her baby sister’s.
That afternoon Priscilla walked to her grandmother’s to show her the miracle and listen for answers. Mostly, her grandmother told the same stories over and over, but sometimes bits of new information would fall here and there like pieces of a puzzle on the floor.
“Uncle Thomas Jefferson is a Primitive Baptist preacher. He has a certain kind of healing gift.”
Priscilla took the path through the woods home. She savored the thick sweet scent sporadically drifting from honeysuckle clusters. Every now and then she pushed her nose into a flower and inhaled its heavy scent deep into her throat. She carefully pulled its stamen free and dragged the clinging drop of sweet liquid through her lips, onto her tongue.
“That’s a lot of work for a tiny drop,” she had complained to her father when he had shown her how.
“You’ll appreciate it more,” he had said.
A small, shallow, sandy creek ran along part of the path before meandering deeper into the woods. Priscilla sat down on a rock outcropping, letting her feet dangle beneath the cool water. She scoured a rhododendron bush, flaming with fragile pink flowers, for iridescent fairy wings and squinted at rays of sunlight filtering through the trees for glimpses of angels.
A low half chant, half hymn floated towards her ears. She pushed down from the rock. Wet sand squeezed between the cracks of her toes. She followed the water trail, winding around a stand of river birches closer to the mystical sound.
Past the trees, she saw Uncle Thomas Jefferson. He was walking barefoot, round a small grassy clearing, face tilted towards the sky.
“Spirrr-it of the Liv-in’ God, fall fresh on me,” he repeated in a low rumbling tune. Every now and then he reached upward and closed his hands trying to grasp at something, like the way she had tried to grasp a bird in the field that kept fluttering just out of reach.
Priscilla recognized the words. They were from a hymn she often sang in church. It was one of those hymns that ushered a hush into the soul – words that left the sanctuary permeated with anticipation. Now, the words conjured an image of a dove descending from a cloud. The dove tumbled in her head with mystical sticks and mumbled words.