There’s Lucas. He has his pants legs rolled up to his skinny calves. His shoes are tied together by their shoestrings and are hung over his left shoulder. His socks are in his back pants pockets. He has his bright red clip-on bowtie stuffed into his shirt pocket along with a handkerchief. His King James Bible is tucked into the waistband in the back of his pants. Watch as he steps from the moss-covered bank of Airy Creek, into the clear, cool water, scaring off a school of minnows. With both feet in the water, he stands absolutely still, feeling the water rushing around his ankles. You can see the enjoyment of the moment in his fourteen year-old face. His smile is so big it’s certain that a laugh is soon to follow.
In the woods along the creek, there’s a symphony of birdsong mixed with the discordant, raspy hum of cicada. The air is filled with the scent of wet earth and pine. The steady, warm breeze causes the boughs of the maple and pine trees to sway gently. Acorns from the oak trees fall to the ground that is carpeted with leaves, twigs, pine needles, and pine cones. Chasing one another, brown squirrels leap from one tree branch to the next. Watch as Lucas steps out of the creek and shakes the water from each foot. He sits in a pile of dry maple leaves and puts on his socks and rolls down his pants legs. He then clips on his bow tie. He’s tied the knot in his shoestrings too tightly.
See his face redden with frustration as he tries to untie them. Unable to do so, he puts one of the shoelaces between his teeth and chews on it. Without a watch he has no idea how much time he’s spent chewing on the shoelace, but after a while he gives up, with the shoelace still intact. He slings the shoes over his shoulder and stands up. He glances up at the morning sun shining through the trees.
There he goes, running through the woods.
The Pittmore Cemetery is on the edge of the woods. It has headstones dating back to the Civil War, but the names and dates on them are almost illegible. There are a lot of headstones in the shape of crosses, and just as many that look like Moses’s tablets of the ten commandments. The few grave sites where the wealthier folks from Airyville are buried have statues of angels on marble pedestals. Only the more recently buried have brass flower vases planted in the ground in front of their headstones. A few of those have dead bouquets sticking out of them. There isn’t a fence around the cemetery; it’s just there on a large plot of ground, as if it sprouted up from the ground like a strange garden. Watch Lucas run through the cemetery, weaving in and out of the grave sites and around the headstones. The bangs on his cornsilk-like blonde hair whips his forehead and gets into his eyes. He has one hand on his shoes.
He stops at a headstone; one of those shaped like a tablet. Although only two years old, there’s a chip in the top of the right tablet. Written on the headstone is his father’s name, Daryl Thomas Yarbrough. The vase buried in the ground in front of the headstone is a large pickle jar. Watch Lucas close his eyes. You can see his lips move as he says a quick prayer. He turns and runs through the remainder of the cemetery to the gravel parking that borders it on the east side. The Trinity Baptist Church stands in the center of the lot, like an island. From the church there is the sound of music. The hymn, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine,” is being sung by the congregation, accompanied by an organ. Watch Lucas turn his good ear to the church, and begin to hum along. There are about two dozen cars and pickup trucks in the lot. Most are older models, some badly in need of paint jobs or body work. See Lucas look at his flushed, blemish-free face in a side mirror of a pickup truck. He uses his fingers to comb his hair.
The church is whitewashed brick with gray Formica roof shingles. It has three stain glass windows on each side that are different scenes of the creation, from Genesis. There are only three faded colors in each window. Two of the windows are cracked. The steeple isn’t very tall, and resembles an upside down cone. There’s a wooden cross sticking up from it. The front double doors have been painted a bright red. Watch as Lucas stands at the doors and reaches around to get his Bible. You can see the momentary panic in his face when he realizes his Bible is gone. He stands there, mentally retracing his steps.
“I’ll find it later,” he tells himself, aloud.
He takes his shoes from his shoulder and hugs them to his chest as he opens one of the doors. The scents from the polish used on the pews, inexpensive perfumes worn by the women and cheap aftershave used by the men, wafts out. There are about sixty people of all ages in the pews.
Reverend Love is standing at the pulpit. “The Jasper family and Lucas Yarbrough is going to bless us with one of our favorite hymns.”
Watch Lucas walk down the aisle and join Roy, Russell, and Dorothy in front of the pulpit. They are two brothers and a sister, and all in their forties. Roy holds his guitar and Russell has his banjo. Dorothy has a tambourine. Lucas stands in the middle. As Roy and Russell begin the intro, Lucas turns his good ear to them, and at the right moment he blends his tenor voice with Dorothy’s soprano and Roy’s baritone voices. Russell doesn’t sing.
They begin to sing, “Jordan River, I’m bound to cross.”
In the kitchen, Ma is leaning over the ironing board. The back door is open and there’s a hot breeze coming through the screen door. See the sweat roll down Ma’s cheeks as steam rises up from the iron that she has pressed into Mrs. Lark’s linen table cloth. Her gray-streaked hair is pinned into a bun on the back of her head. Stray strands droop over her ears and down her neck. There are sweat stains on her homemade cotton shift that circles out from under her arms. She sits the iron on a metal plate and removes the tablecloth from the ironing board. She carefully folds it and then places it on the stack of Mrs. Lark’s other things. Just as she takes a white, lacy doily from the basket of Mrs. Lark’s items that need to be ironed, Lucas comes into the kitchen. He has his bowtie in his hand.
See the way he looks around at all the baskets of ironing full of other people’s clothes and linens.
“I wish you coulda been in church today, Ma,” he says.
She places the doily on the ironing board. “Did you sing pretty?”
“Sure did,” he says proudly. “We did two songs. The whole congregation was praisin’ Jesus out loud by the time we finished singing ‘How Great Thou Art.’”
“Were there any baptisms down at the creek today?”
“Not today, Ma.”
Ma adjusts the temperature on the iron. “Did you stop and say hello to your pa on the way to church?”
“Yes, Ma,” he says. He wants to tell her that he lost the Bible that his pa gave him. His pa’s name is scribbled on the inside cover. Even with Russell helping him after church, it wasn’t found. But he can’t find a way to tell her.
Ma places the iron on the doily. “Go do your homework. I’ll be fixin’ supper in a little while. I got a little extra money this week from Mrs. Urbank for ironin’ her curtains, so we’re going to have strawberry shortcake with some of that store-bought whipped cream you like for desert.”
“Thanks, Ma,” he says.
Their house sits at the end of a dirt road and is a half mile away from the nearest house. Its boards are weather-worn and in need of paint. Ma has a large garden in the backyard where she grows carrots, beets, turnips, tomatoes, and cucumbers. They have a chicken coop with six chickens and one rooster. Pitch, Lucas’s border collie that died the year before, is buried near the coop. There’s a large rock on the spot where Pitch was buried. The house has one bedroom and it is used by Ma. Lucas sleeps on the couch in the living room when it’s too cold, but for most of the year he sleeps on a cot on the screened-in front porch. That’s where he is now.
Listen to him hum “Amazing Grace,” while he sits on the cot and flips the pages of his algebra textbook. The bulb screwed into a socket in the ceiling casts a dim light on the pages. Coming from the creek are the sounds of croaking bullfrogs and a chorus of crickets. To Lucas, it’s all music, and he tries to keep his good ear turned toward the creek.
He was six years old when he fell through the ice into the frigid creek water. His pa saved him by pulling him out by his hair, but as a result, he lost most of the ability to hear out of his right ear.
He loves the creek, but he’s afraid of going in too deep, and won’t step in it at all during winter months.
Ma comes to the porch doorway and leans against the door frame. Her hair is pinned up with bobby pins. The pale porch light on her face brings out the bags under her eyes.
“I heard Jess Lowery is gettin’ baptized next Sunday,” she says. “He’s your age ain’t he?”
See the anxious twitch on his right cheek come and go. “Yes, Ma,” he says.
Jess Lowery getting baptized is a sore spot with Lucas. Jess, with a few of the other boys from the school, swim in the creek all summer, while Lucas only wades in up to his calves, or sits on the bank and watches.
“You a chicken?” Jess has asked him a few times while treading water.
Watch Lucas squash a mosquito on his forearm and then stare at the dead insect and spot of blood on his arm. His pa taught him to respect all life.
“Are you goin’ to sing with the Jaspers durin’ the baptism?”
“I always do, Ma.”
Ma yawns and stretches. Before she turns around, she says, “Make sure you read your Bible scripture before goin’ to bed.”
Watch Lucas put the algebra book under his cot and then reach up and flip the light switch. In the moonlight he removes his clothes and lays down. If you listen closely, you can hear him whispering a prayer.
There’s Lucas, kicking the leaves and twigs near the bank of the creek. He’s been up since dawn re-tracing his route that he took the previous Sunday. He walked through the woods, wound his way through the cemetery, went to the church doors, and then returned back to this spot. While returning through the cemetery he stopped at his pa’s grave and put a bouquet of wildflowers in the pickle jar.
An early morning mist hangs above the water. Finch, blue jays and sparrows fly among the trees. Lucas has his clip-on bowtie in his shirt pocket with his handkerchief. He stands on the moss and watches the water flowing over the polished stones of the creek bed. Watch as he sits down and removes his shoes and socks, and rolls up his pants legs. When he steps into the water you can see goosebumps rise on his arms.
He begins to sing, “Shall we gather at the river.” His voice is clear and sweet. “Where bright angel feet have trod.”
See him wade beyond where he usually stops, and walks on.
Hear him sing, “With its crystal tide forever.”
When the water is up to his chest, he sings, “Flowing by the throne of God.”
He then relaxes his body and becomes submerged in the current. Immediately he panics. He begins to thrash about, fighting to regain his footing. His hands frantically smack at the water. See him struggle to get his head above water. He closes his eyes and lets the water pull him under. Watch as Lucas is drowning. In that instant he feels his pa’s hand on his head.
When Lucas opens his eyes he’s lying on his back on the creek bank. He stares up at the cloudless, blue sky and steadies his breathing. He rolls over onto his stomach.
See the look of amazement on his face when there in the moss he sees his Bible. It’s opened to the book of 1 Peter, chapter 3, verse 21. It had been circled by his father just before he died.
“And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Cover photo by Matt Hardy.