These High Green Hills (#03 in Mitford Years Series)
InThese High, Green Hillswe're once again in Mitford, a southern village of local characters so heartwarming and hilarious you'll wish you lived right next door. At last, Mitford's rector and lifelong bachelor, Father Tim, has married his talented...
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InThese High, Green Hillswe're once again in Mitford, a southern village of local characters so heartwarming and hilarious you'll wish you lived right next door.
At last, Mitford's rector and lifelong bachelor, Father Tim, has married his talented and vivacious neighbor, Cynthia. Now, of course, they must face love's challenges: new sleeping arrangements for Father Tim's sofa-sized dog, Cynthia's urge to decorate the rectory Italian-villa-style, and the growing pains of the thrown-away boy who's become like a son to the rector.
Add a life-changing camping trip, the arrival of the town's first policewoman, and a new computer that requires the patience of a saint, and you know you're in for another engrossing visit to Mitford-the little town that readers everywhere love to call home.
Jan Karon writes ato give readers an extended family and to applaud the extraordinary beauty of ordinary lives.a
CHAPTER ONE - Through the Hedge
CHAPTER TWO - Bread of Angels
CHAPTER THREE - Gathered In
CHAPTER FOUR - Passing the Torch
CHAPTER FIVE - A Close Call
CHAPTER SIX - Love Came Down
CHAPTER SEVEN - Flying High
CHAPTER EIGHT - Serious about Fun
CHAPTER NINE - Locked Gates
CHAPTER TEN - The Cave
CHAPTER ELEVEN - Darkness into Light
CHAPTER TWELVE - Lace
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - Homecoming
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - The One for the Job
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - And Many More
CHAPTER SIXTEEN - Loving Back
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - Sing On!
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - Every Trembling Heart
CHAPTER NINETEEN - Starting Over
CHAPTER TWENTY - Send Me
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE - These High, Green Hills
Teaser Chapter: Out of Canaan
Sneak Peek: Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.; Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.); Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England; Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd); Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd); Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, I 1 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi- 110 017, India; Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd); Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc. 1996
Published in Penguin Books 1997
Copyright © Jan Karon, 1996
All rights reserved
Illustrations by Donna Kae Nelson
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint an excerpt from Life Together by
Dietrich Bonhoeffer. English translation copyright © 1954 by Harper and Brothers. Copyright
renewed 1982 by Helen S. Doberstein.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
ISBN : 978-1-101-46377-2
1. City and town life—United States—Fiction. I. Title. II. Series: Karon, Jan, date Mitford years.
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
For my precious grandmother,
Fannie Belle Bush Cloer,
Mama, Redwing, The Storyteller.
With sincere thanks to:
Miss Read (Dora Saint); Rev. Rocky Ward; Marrion Ward; Dr. Greg Adams; Dr. “Bunky” Davant; Dr. Greg Hawthorne; Flyin’ George Ronan; Jim Atkinson; Dr. John C. Wolff, Jr.; Billy Wilson; Dr. Buck Henson; Dr. Cara Roten-Henson; David Watts; Tony di Santi; Dr. Ken McKinney; Fr. James Harris; Ruth Bell Graham; Earl and Nancy Trexler; Sonny Klutz; Richard J. Foster; Dr. William Standish Reed; Jim Barber; Diane Grymes; Steve Sudderth; Bear Green; Bob Moody; Fr. Chuck Blanck; Fr. Rick Lawler; Fr. Russell Johnson; Raney MacArthur-Ratchford; Maribelle Freeland; Julie Q. Hayes, R.N. BSN, Blowing Rock Hospital; Pam Collette, R.N. BSN, Clinical Nurse Mgr., Donna Joyner, Assistant Clinical Nurse Mgr., and Pamela Thomas, R.N. BSN, of the Burn Center, North Carolina Baptist Hospitals, Inc., Winston-Salem; Dana Watkins, R.N. BSN, Sanger Clinic, Charlotte; Rev. James Stuart; Fr. Kale King; Dr. Ross Rhoads; Doug Galke; Shirlee Gaines Edwards; Bertie Beam; Nancy Olson of Quail Ridge Books; Shirley Sprinkle of The Muses; my friends at Gideon Ridge Inn; Liz Darhansoff, my gifted and indefatigable agent, and Carolyn Carlson, my visionary Viking Penguin editor and friend; Jerry Burns, the small-town newspaperman with the big heart; and the vanishing breed of old-time Gospel preachers (especially the late Vance Havner and the still-present Arndt Greer), who brought conviction to their calling and color to the language.
Last but never least, thanks to the wonderful booksellers who have enthusiastically spread the word, and to the many readers who have cheered me on, given my books to family and friends, and come to feel comfortably at home in Mitford.
Through the Hedge
HE STOOD at the kitchen window and watched her coming through the hedge.
What was she lugging this time? It appeared to be a bowl and pitcher. Or was it a stack of books topped by a vase?
The rector took off his glasses, fogged them, and wiped them with his handkerchief. It was a bowl and pitcher, all right. How the little yellow house next door had contained all the stuff they’d recently muscled into the rectory was beyond him.
“For your dresser,” she said, as he held the door open.
The last thing he wanted was a bowl and pitcher on his dresser. The top of his dresser was his touchstone, his home base, his rock in a sea of change. That was where his car keys resided, his loose coins, his several crosses, his cuff links, his wallet, his checkbook, his school ring, and a small jar of buttons with a needle and thread.
It was also where he kept the mirror in which he occasionally examined the top of his head. Was his hair still thinning, or, by some mysterious and hoped-for reversal, growing in again?
“Cynthia,” he said, going upstairs in the wake of his blond and shapely wife, “about that bowl and pitcher . . .”
“The color is wonderful. Look at the blues. It will relieve all your burgundy and brown!”
He did not want his burgundy and brown relieved.
He saw it coming.
Ever since their marriage on September seventh, she had plotted to lug that blasted armoire over for the rectory guest room.
The lugging over was one thing; it was the lugging back that he dreaded. They had, for example, lugged over an oriental rug that was stored in her basement. “Ten by twelve!” she announced, declaring it perfect for the bare floor of the rectory dining room.
After wrestling the table and chairs into the hall, they had unrolled the rug and unrolled the rug—to kingdom come. It might have gone up the walls on all four sides and met at the chandelier over the table.
“This is a rug for a school gym!” he said, wiping the pouring sweat from his brow.
She seemed dumbfounded that it didn’t fit, and there they had gone, like pack mules, carting it through the hedge again.
The decision to keep and use both houses had been brilliant, of course. The light in the rectory would never equal that of her studio next door, where she was already set up with books and paints and drawing board. This meant his study could remain unchanged—his books could occupy the same shelves, and his vast store of sermon notebooks in the built-in cabinets could hold their place.
Marrying for the first time at the age of sixtysomething was change enough. It was a blessed luxury to live with so few rearrangements in the scheme of things, and life flowing on as usual. The only real change was the welcome sharing of bed and board.
Over breakfast one morning, he dared to discuss his interest in getting the furniture settled.
“Why can’t we keep things as they were . . . in their existing state? It seemed to work. . . .”
“Yes, well, I like that our houses are separate, but I also want them to be the same—sort of an organic whole.”
“No organic whole will come of dragging that armoire back and forth through the hedge. It looks like a herd of elephants has passed through there already.”
“Oh, Timothy! Stop being stuffy! Your place needs fluffing up, and mine needs a bit more reserve. For example, your Chippendale chairs would give a certain sobriety to my dining table.”
“Your dining table is the size of something in our nursery school. My chairs would look gigantic.”
She said exactly what he thought she would say. “We could try it and see.”
“Cynthia, trust me on this. My chairs will not look right with your table, and neither will that hand-painted magazine rack do anything for my armchair.”
“Well, what was the use of getting married, then?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I mean, if no one is going to change on either side, if we’re both just going to be our regular, lifetime selves, what’s the use?”
“I think I see what you’re getting at. Will nothing do, then, but to cart those chairs to your house? And what about my own table? It will be bereft of chairs. I hardly see the point.” He felt like jumping through the window and going at a dead run toward the state line.
“One thing at a time,” she said happily. “It’s all going to work out perfectly.”
thanx for your note re: diocesan mtg, and thank martha for the invitation to put my feet under yr table afterward. however, I must leave for home at once, following the mtg—hope you’ll understand.
while i’m at it, let me ask you:
why are women always moving things around? at Sunday School, jena iivey just had the youth group move the kindergarten bookcAses to a facing wall.
on the homefront, my househelp has moved a ladderback chair from my bedroom into the hall, never once considering that i hung my trousers over it for 14 years, and put my shoes on the seat so they could be found in an emergency.
last but certainly not least, if C could lift me in my armchair and put it by the window while i’m dozing, she would do it.
without a doubt, you have weightier things to consider, but tell me, how does one deal with this?
i hasten to add that ii’ve never been happier in my life. to tell the truth, i am confounded that such happiness—In such measure—even exists.
He signed the note, typed on his Royal manual, thankful that Stuart Cullen was not merely his bishop, but his closest personal friend since the halcyon days of seminary.
Fr Timothy Kavanaugh,
The Chapel of Our Lord and Savior
Old Church Lane, Mitford, N.C.
In truth, it is disconcerting when one’s househelp, SS supervisor, and wife do this sort of thing all at once.
My advice is: do not fight it. It will wear off.
In His peace,
P.S. Martha would add a note, but she is busy moving my chest of drawers to the far side of our bedroom. As I am dealing with an urgent matter with the House of Bishops, I could not be browbeaten to help, and so she has maneuvered it, at last, onto an old bedspread, and I can hear her hauling the whole thing across the floor above me. This particular behavior had lain dormant in her for nearly seven years, and has suddenly broken forth again.
Perhaps it is something in the water.
He could see, early on, that beds were a problem that needed working out.
They had spent their wedding night in his bed at the rectory, where they had rolled down their respective sides and crashed together in the middle.
“What is this trough doing in your bed?” she asked.
“It’s where I sleep,” he said, feeling sheepish.
They had been squeezed together like sardines the livelong night, which he had profoundly enjoyed, but she had not. “Do you think this is what’s meant by ‘the two shall be one flesh’?” she murmured, her cheek smashed against his.
The following night, he trooped through the hedge with his pajamas and toothpaste in a grocery bag from The Local.
Her bed was a super-king-size, and the largest piece of furniture in her minuscule house.
He found it similar in breadth to the state of Texas, or possibly the province of Saskatchewan. Was that a herd of buffalo racing toward him in the distance, or a team of sled dogs? “Cynthia!” he shouted across the vast expanse, and waited for the echo.
They had ordered a new mattress for the rectory immediately after returning from their honeymoon in Stuart Cullen’s summer house. There, on the rocky coast of Maine, they had spent time listening to the cry of the loons, holding hands, walking along the shore, and talking until the small hours of the morning. The sun turned her fair skin a pale toast color that he found fascinating and remarkable; and he watched three freckles emerge on the bridge of her nose, like stars coming out. Whatever simple thing they did together, they knew they were happier than ever before in their lives.
One evening, soon after the new mattress and springs were installed at the rectory, he found her sitting up in bed as he came out of the shower.
“I’ve had a wonderful idea, Timothy! A fireplace! Right over there where the dresser is.”
“What would I do with my dresser?”
She looked at him as if he had toddled in from the church nursery. “Put it in the alcove, of course.”
“Then I couldn’t see out the window.”
“But how much time do you spend staring out the alcove window?”
“When you were parading about with Andrew Gregory, a great deal of time.” His face burned to admit it, but yes, he’d been jealous of the handsome antique dealer who had squired her around for several months.
She smiled, leaning her head to one side in that way he could barely resist. “A fireplace would be so romantic.”
“Why must I be the romantic in the family while you hold up the conservative, let’s-don‘t-make-any-changes end?”
He sat down beside her. “How quickly you forget. When we were going steady, you said I was wildly romantic.”
She laughed and kissed him on the cheek. “And I was right, of course. I’m sorry, old dearest.”
He regretted being anyone’s old dearest.
“Old dearest, yourself,” he said grumpily. “I am, after all, only six years your senior.”
“By the calendar,” she said imperiously, referring, he supposed, to something decrepit in his overall attitude about life.
In any case, the fireplace issue did not come up again.
In truth, he had no words for his happiness. It grew deeper every day, like the digging of a well, and astounded him by its warmth and power. He seemed to lose control of his very face, which, according to the regulars at the Main Street Grill, displayed a foolish and perpetual grin.
“I love you . . . terribly,” he said, struggling to express it.
“I love you terribly, also. It’s scary. What if it should end?”
“Cynthia, good grief . . .”
“I know I shouldn’t talk of endings when this is a blessed beginning.”
“Don’t then,” he said, meaning it.
That Barnabas had so willingly given up the foot of his master’s bed to sleep on a rug in the hall was a gesture he would never forget. Not only did his dog enjoy eighteenth-century poets and submit to his weekly bath without rancor, his dog was a gentleman.
The decisions were made, and both parties were in amicable accord.
They would sleep at the rectory primarily, and on occasion at the little yellow house. Though she would work there, as always, they would treat it much as a second home, using it for refreshment and private retreat.
He promised to have his sermon well under control each Saturday afternoon, with time to relax with her on Saturday evening, and he would continue to make breakfast on Sunday morning.
He showed her where his will was, and promised to have it rewritten. She confessed she didn’t have a will, and promised to have one drawn up.
If they should ever, God forbid, have a misunderstanding, neither would dash off to the other house to sulk.
He would continue to have the cheerful and enterprising Puny Guthrie, née Bradshaw, clean the rectory three days a week, and Cynthia would use her services on a fourth day, next door.
They would go on with their separate checking accounts, make some mutual investments, counsel with the other about gift offerings, and never spend more than a certain fixed sum without the other’s prior agreement.
He suggested fifty dollars as the fixed sum.
“One hundred!” she countered.
He was glad he had opened the bidding low. “One hundred, then, and I keep that old jacket you earmarked for the Bane and Blessing sale.”
They shook hands.
They felt relieved.
Getting a marriage off on the right foot was no small matter.
“I reckon you’re gone with th‘ wind,” said Percy Mosely, who rang up his lunch tab at the Main Street Grill.
“How’s that?” asked the rector.
“Married an‘ all, you’ll not be comin’ in regular, I take it.” The proprietor of the Grill felt hurt and betrayed, he could tell.
“You’ve got that wrong, my friend.”
“I do?” said Percy, brightening.
“I’ll be coming in as regular as any man could. My wife has a working life of her own, being a well-known children’s book writer and illustrator. She will not be trotting out hot vittles for my lunch every day—not by a long shot.”
Percy looked suspicious. “What about breakfast?”
“That,” said the rector, pocketing the change, “is another matter entirely.”
Percy frowned. He liked his regulars to be married to his place of business.
He looked up from his chair in the study. Curlers, again.
“I have to wear curlers,” she said, as if reading his mind. “I’m going to Lowell tomorrow.”
“Lowell? Whatever for?”
“A school thing. They want me to read Violet Goes to France to their French class, and then do a program in the auditorium.”
“Must I what? Read Violet Goes to France? That’s what they asked me to read.”
“No, must you go to Lowell?”
He didn’t want to say anything so idiotic, but he would miss her, as if she were being dropped off the end of the earth.
A long silence ensued as she curled up on the sofa and opened a magazine. He tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate.
He hadn’t once thought of her traveling with her work. Uneasy, he tried to let the news sink in. Lowell. Somebody there had been shot on the street in broad daylight.
And another thing—Lowell was a full hundred miles away. Did she have good brakes? Plenty of gas? When had she changed her oil?
“How’s your oil?” he asked soberly.
She laughed as if he’d said something hilariously funny. Then she left the sofa and came to him and kissed him on the forehead. He was instantly zapped by the scent of wisteria, and went weak in the knees.
She looked him in the eye. “I love it when you talk like that. My oil is fine, how’s yours?”
“Cynthia, Cynthia,” he said, pulling her into his lap.
“Guess what?” said Emma, who was taping a photo of her new grandchild on the wall next to her desk.
This was his secretary’s favorite game, and one he frankly despised. “What?”
“Let’s see. You’re going to quit working for the Episcopalians and go to work for the Baptists.” He wished.
“I wish,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Try again.”
“Blast, Emma, I hate this game.”
“It’s good for you, it exercises the brain.”
“Esther Bolick’s orange marmalade cake recipe is coming out in the New York Times food section.”
“See? You don’t even try. You’re just talking to hear your head roar. One more guess.”
“Give me a clue.”
“It has to do with somebody being mad.”
“The vestry. It must have something to do with the vestry.”
“Wrong. Do you want me to tell you?”
“I beg you.”
“Marge Wheeler left her best basket in the kitchen after the bishop’s brunch last June, and Flora Lou Wilcox put it in the Bane and Blessing sale. Somebody walked off with it for a hundred dollars! Can you believe a hundred dollars for a basket with a loose handle? Marge is mad as a wet hen, she threatened to sue. But Flora Lou said she doesn’t have a leg to stand on, since you’re always running notices in the pew bulletin to pick up stuff left in th‘ kitchen.”
“Ummm. Keep me posted.”
“It’s been four months since the brunch, so I can see Flora Lou’s point that Marge should have picked it up and carted it home. Anyway, how could Flora Lou know it was handmade by Navajo Indians in 1920?” Emma sighed. “Of course, I can see Marge’s point, too, can’t you?”
He could, but he knew better than to intervene unless asked. His job, after all, was Sales and Service.
He rifled through the mail. A note from his cousin, Walter, and wife, Katherine, who had done the Ireland jaunt with him last year.
Since Ireland is now old stomping grounds, why don’t you and Cynthia plan to go with us next summer? Thought we’d plant the seed, so it can sprout over the winter.
We shall never forget how handsome you looked on the other side of the pulpit, standing with your beautiful bride. We love her as much as we love you, which is pecks and bushels, as ever, Katherine
PS, Pls advise if canna and lily bulbs should be separated in the fall, I’m trying to find a hobby that has nothing to do with a pasta machine Yrs, Walter
He rummaged toward the bottom of the mail stack.
A note from Dooley Barlowe, in that fancy prep school for which his eldest parishioner, Miss Sadie Baxter, was shelling out serious bucks.
Hey. I don’t like it here. That brain in a jar that we saw is from a medical school. I still don’t know whose brain it is. When are you coming back? Bring Barnbus and granpaw and Cynthia. I culd probly use a twenty. Dooley
There! Not one ‘ain’t,’ and complete sentences throughout. Hallelujah!
Who could have imagined that this boy, once barely able to speak the King’s English, would end up in a prestigious school in Virginia?
He gazed at the note, shaking his head.
Scarcely more than two years ago, Dooley Barlowe had arrived at the church office, dirty, ragged, and barefoot, looking for a place to “take a dump.” His grandfather had been too ill to care for the boy, who was abandoned by a runaway father and alcoholic mother, and Dooley had ended up at the rectory. By grace alone, he and Dooley had managed to live through those perilous times.
“I’ve been wondering,” said Emma, peering at him over her glasses. “Is Cynthia goin‘ to pitch in and help around the church?”
“She’s free to do as much or as little as she pleases.”
“I’ve always thought a preacher’s wife should pitch in.” She set her mouth in that way he deplored. “If you ask me, which you didn’t, the parish will expect it.”
Yes, indeed, if he could get the Baptists to take Emma Newland off his hands, he would be a happy man.
“Miss Sadie,” he said when she answered the phone at Fernbank, “I’ve had a note from Dooley. He says he doesn’t like it in that fancy school.”
“He can like it or lump it,” she said pleasantly.
“When you’re dishing out twenty thousand a year, you sure can be tough, Miss Sadie.”
“If I couldn’t be tough, Father, I wouldn’t have twenty thousand to dish out.”
“You’ll be glad to know the headmaster says he’s doing all right. A little slow on the uptake, but holding his own with those rich kids. In fact, they’re not all rich. Several are there on scholarship, with no more assets than our Dooley.”
“Good! You mark my words, he’ll be better for it. And don’t you go soft on me, Father, and let him talk you into bailing him out in the middle of the night.”
“You can count on it,” he said.
“Louella and I have nearly recovered from all the doings in June. . . .”
“June was a whopper, all right.”
“We’re no spring chickens, you know.”
“You could have fooled me.”
“I’ll be ninety my next birthday, but Louella doesn’t tell her age. Anyway, we’re going to have you and Cynthia up for supper. What did we say we’d have, Louella?”
He heard Louella’s mezzo voice boom from a corner of the big kitchen, “Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, an‘ cole slaw!”
“Man!” he exclaimed, quoting Dooley.
The announcement rolled on. “Hot biscuits, cooked apples, deviled eggs, bread and butter pickles . . .”
Good Lord! The flare-up from his diabetes would have him in the emergency room before the rest of them pushed back from the table.
“And what did we say for dessert?” Miss Sadie warbled into the distance.
“Homemade coconut cake!”
Ah, well, that was a full coma right there. Hardly any of his parishioners could remember he had this blasted disease. The information seemed to go in one ear and out the other.
“Ask Louella if she’ll marry me,” he said.
“Louella, the Father wants to know if you’ll marry him.”
“Tell ‘im he got a short mem’ry, he done married Miss Cynthia.”
He laughed, contented with the sweetness of this old friendship. “Just name the time,” he said. “We’ll be there.”
Autumn drew on in the mountains.
Here, it set red maples on fire; there, it turned oaks russet and yellow. Fat persimmons became the color of melted gold, waiting for frost to turn their bitter flesh to honey. Sassafras, dogwoods, poplars, redbud—all were torched by autumn’s brazen fire, displaying their colorful tapestry along every ridge and hogback, in every cove and gorge.
The line of maples that marched by First Baptist to Winnie Ivey’s cottage on Little Mitford Creek was fully ablaze by the eleventh of October.
“The best ever!” said several villagers, who ran with their cameras to document the show.
The local newspaper editor, J. C. Hogan, shot an extravagant total of six rolls of film. For the first time since the nation’s bicentennial, readers saw a four-color photograph on the front page of the Mitford Muse.
Everywhere, the pace was quickened by the dazzling light that now slanted from the direction of Gabriel Mountain, and the sounds of football practice in the schoolyard.
Avis Packard put a banner over the green awning of The Local: Fresh Volley Hams Now, Collards Coming.
Dora Pugh laid on a new window at the hardware store featuring leaf rakes, bicycle pumps, live rabbits, and iron skillets. “What’s th‘ theme of your window?” someone asked. “Life,” replied Dora.
The library introduced its fall reading program and invited the author of the Violet books to talk about where she got her ideas. “I have no idea where I get my ideas,” she told Avette Harris, the librarian. “They just come.” “Well, then,” said Avette, “do you have any ideas for another topic?”
The village churches agreed to have this year’s All-Church Thanksgiving Feast with the Episcopalians, and to get their youth choirs together for a Christmas performance at First Presbyterian.
At Lord’s Chapel, the arrangements on the altar became gourds and pumpkins, accented by branches of the fiery red maple. At this time of year, the rector himself liked doing the floral offerings. He admitted it was a favorite season, and his preaching, someone remarked, grew as electrified as the sharp, clean air.
“Take them,” he said one Sunday morning, lifting the cup and the Host toward the people, “in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on Him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”
Giving his own wife the Host was an act that might never cease to move and amaze him. More than sixty years a bachelor, and now this—seeing her face looking up expectantly, and feeling the warmth of her hand as he placed the bread in her palm. “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you, Cynthia.”
He couldn’t help but see the patch of colored light that fell on her hair through the stained-glass window by the rail, as if she were being appointed to something divine. Surely there could be no divinity in having to live the rest of her life with him, with his set-in-concrete ways and infernal diabetes.
They walked home together after church, hand in hand, his sermon notebook tucked under his arm. He felt as free as a schoolboy, as light as air. How could he ever have earned God’s love, and hers into the bargain?
The point was, he couldn’t. It was all grace, and grace alone.
He was sitting in his armchair by the fireplace, reading the newspaper. Barnabas ambled in from the kitchen and sprawled at his feet.
Cynthia, barefoot and in her favorite robe, sat on the sofa and scribbled in a notebook. One of his antiquated towels was wrapped around her damp hair. He still couldn’t get over the sight of her on his sofa, looking as comfortable as if she lived here—which, he was often amazed to realize, she did.
“Wasn’t it wonderful?” she asked.
“Wasn’t what wonderful?”
“It was!” She brought the subject up fairly often, and he realized he’d run out of anything new to say about it.
“I love thinking about it,” she said, plumping up a needlepoint pillow and putting it behind her head. “A tuxedo and a tab collar are a terrific combination.”
“No kidding?” He would remember that.
“I think you should dress that way again at the first possible opportunity.
He laughed. “It doesn’t take much for you.”
“That’s true, dearest, except in the area of my new husband. There, it took quite a lot.”
He felt that ridiculous, uncontrollable grin spreading across his face.
“It was a wonderful idea to ask Dooley to sing. He was absolutely masterful. And thank goodness for Ray Cunningham’s video camera. I love the frames of you and Stuart in his bishop’s regalia, standing in the churchyard . . . and the part where Miss Sadie and Preacher Greer are laughing together.”
“Another case of two hearts beating as one.”
“Would you like to see it again? I’ll make popcorn.”
“Maybe in a day or two.” Hadn’t they watched it only last week?
“It was very sweet and charming, the way you insisted on baking a ham for our reception.”
“I always bake a ham for wedding receptions at Lord’s Chapel,” he said. “I’m stuck in that mode.”
“Tell me something . . . ?”
“Anything!” Would he really tell her anything?
“How did you unstick your mode long enough to propose to me? What happened?”
“I realized . . . that is, I . . .” He paused thoughtfully and rubbed his chin. “To tell the truth, I couldn’t help myself.”
“Ummm,” she said, smiling at him across the room. “You know I love that you knelt on one knee.”
“Actually, I was prepared to go down on both knees. As soon as I dropped to one, however, you saw what was coming, and seemed so happy about it, I didn’t bother to advance to the full kneel.”
She laughed uproariously, and held her arms out to him. “Please come over here, dearest. You’re so far away over there!”
The evening news was just coming on when the phone rang. It was his doctor and friend, Hoppy Harper, calling from the hospital.
“How fast can you get here?”
“Well . . .”
“I’ll explain later. Just get here.”
He was out the door in thirty seconds.
Bread of Angels
“DR. HARPER’S in the operating room, Father, he can’t come out. He said put you in his office.”
Nurse Kennedy opened a door and firmly pushed him inside.
“He said for you to pray and pray hard, and don’t stop till he comes in here. Pray for Angie Burton, she’s seven. Dr. Harper says it’s a ruptured appendix, septic shock. We’re all praying—except Dr. Wilson.”
Nurse Kennedy, who generally looked cheerful, looked strained as she closed the door.
In Hoppy’s cluttered office, only a lamp burned.
Angie Burton. That would be Sophia Burton’s youngest. He thought of Sophia, who was well known for taking her two girls to First Baptist every Sunday morning, rain or shine, and for teaching them the Twenty-third Psalm as soon as they could talk. Working in the canning plant in Wesley, she kept bravely on in the wake of a husband who had totaled their car, tried to burn down their house, and disappeared into Tennessee only yards ahead of the law.
He phoned home and asked Cynthia to pray, then fell to his knees by Hoppy’s desk.
“God of all comfort, our only help in time of need, be present in Your goodness with Angie. . . .”
It was nearly midnight when Hoppy opened the door. “I owe you an apology,” he said. “I could have asked you to pray at home, but all I could think of was having you here—on the premises.”
The rector had seen that look on his friend’s face before. It was utter exhaustion. “How did it go?”
There was a long pause. Hoppy looked up and shook his head. “We did everything we could.”
He sank wearily into the chair at his desk. “Ever since we prayed for Olivia’s transplant and I saw the miracles that happened, I’ve been praying for my patients. One day, I asked Kennedy if she would pray. Then she told Baker, and soon we discovered that the whole operating room was praying.
“I never talked to you about it, I kept thinking I would. . . . Anyway, we’ve seen some turnarounds. No miracles, maybe, but turnarounds. We felt something powerful was going on here, something we wanted to explore.”
Hoppy took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “The bottom line is, we prayed, you prayed, and Angie Burton didn’t make it.”
What could he say, after all?
Angie Burton’s death was something the village could hardly bear.
Winnie Ivey was grief-stricken—Angle and her sister, Liza, often visited the Sweet Stuff Bakery after school. To them, she was Granny Ivey, who hung their school drawings on the wall in the Sweet Stuff kitchen.
The editor of the Mitford Muse, who scarcely ever spoke to or acknowledged a child, was moved to sudden tears over breakfast at the Grill and excused himself from the booth.
Coot Hendrick went to Sophia’s house with a pie his elderly mother had baked, but, not knowing what to say, ran before anyone answered the door.
The members of First Baptist mourned the loss. So many of them had been involved in Angie’s life; had held her as a baby, taught her in Sunday School, and made certain that she and Liza regularly got a box of decent clothes. In recent years, some had quietly paid the drugstore bill when the girls were sick with flu.
After the funeral, the rector went with his wife to the rented house behind Lew Boyd’s Exxon station, still known to most villagers as the Esso.
He didn’t say much, but sat on the sofa and held Sophia’s hand, against a background murmur of neighbors bringing food into the kitchen.
Next to him, Cynthia cradled Liza on her lap, caressing the damp cheek that lay against her shoulder.
When Liza began to sob, Cynthia began to quietly weep with her. Then, somehow, they were all weeping and clinging to each other, huddled together on the sofa.
It was at once a terrible and a wondrous thing. He didn’t care that he suddenly had no control, that he had lost it, that his grief was freely pouring forth, apart from his will.
They held each other until the wave of their sorrow passed and he was able to pray. They all knew that he had no answers, though they had hoped he might.
Afterward, he and Cynthia walked down the path to their car.
“Blast,” he said, clenching his jaw.
She looked at him, at the way this death had moved and stricken him. In the car, she took his hand and drew it to her cheek. “Thank you for being a loving priest.”
He didn’t feel loving. He felt helpless and poured out.
“Upside down and backwards,” the new Baptist preacher had assured him yesterday.
The usually cheerful preacher looked as if he’d swallowed a dose of castor oil. “Plan to spend the first six months in misery and confusion, and the next six months merely in confusion.”
For someone who could barely heat coffee in a microwave, the thought of what lay ahead was mind-boggling. Yet, for all the gloom and doom he had heard on the subject, he knew his vestry was right—it had to be done. Death, taxes, and computer systems. This was the law of the land, and no getting around it.
“Emma, I don’t know how to tell you this. But the vestry wants us to go on computer.”
She looked at him over her glasses. “What? What did you say?”
“I said the vestry wants us to go on computer. The bishop thinks it will bring some consistency to the affairs of the diocese. And chances are, it will do as much for the affairs of Lord’s Chapel. You’ll think so, too, once we get the hang of it.”
“No way, José!”
She rose from her chair, doing that thing with her mouth that made her look like Genghis Khan with earrings.
“No one hates it more than I do,” he said. “But it’s going to happen.”
“I work here fourteen years, day in and day out, and this is the thanks I get? I labor over these books like a slave, watching every penny, checking every total, and how many mistakes have I made?”
“Well,” he said, “there was that pledge report five years ago . . .”
“Big deal! As if a measly fourteen thousand dollars was something to get upset about.”
“... and the incident with Sam McGee . . .”
“Sam McGee! That skinflint! Anybody can say they put a thousand dollars in the plate and the check was lost by the church secretary! I hope you’re not telling me a computer could have found that stupid check he probably never wrote in the first place!”
“Ah, well . . .”
“So!” she said, inhaling deeply. “Go and find some young thing with her skirt up to here, and pay her out th‘ kazoo. Does the vestry take into consideration the kind of money they’ll be shellin’ out for her, while the money they save on me goes to Sunday School literature and soup kitchens? Ha! Never entered their minds, is my guess!”
He had expected Mount Vesuvius—and he was getting it.
They were in bed at the rectory, propped against the huge pillows she had carted from her house in leaf bags. He had to admit it was a comfort, all that goose down squashing around back there. He could hardly get past the first page of his book without nodding off.
“Timothy, do I snore?”
He liked the way her questions sometimes bolted in from the blue, contained within no particular context that he could see. Good practice for a clergyman.
He removed his glasses and looked at his wife. “Snore? My dear, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you positively rattle the windows. I think it could be overcome, however, if you would sleep with your mouth closed . . . which might also eliminate the drooling problem.”
“See how it feels? You told me I mutter in my sleep and grind my teeth. So, tit for tat.”
“Please tell me you’re kidding. I don’t really snore, do I?”
“To tell the truth, no. You never snore. Maybe a whiffle now and again, but nothing serious.”
“And no drooling?”
“Not that I’ve witnessed.”
She looked smug. “You really do mutter in your sleep, you know.”
“Worse has been said.”
He never failed to wonder how all this had come about. If he had known that being together was so consoling, he would have capitulated sooner. Why had he been so terrified of marriage, of intimacy, of loving?
He had read again this morning about the wilderness trek of the Israelites and the way God miraculously provided their needs. Manna every day, and all they had to do was gather it.
“Men ate the bread of angels,” was how the psalmist described it.
That appeared, somehow, to illustrate his marriage. Every day, with what seemed to be no effort at all on his part, he received God’s extraordinary provision of contentment—there it was, waiting for him at every dawn; all he had to do was gather it in.
“... bread of angels,” he mused under his breath.
“See! You mutter even when you’re not sleeping!”
“I hardly ever knew what I was doing ‘til you and Dooley Barlowe came along and started telling me.”
She leaned against him in her striped pajamas and yawned happily.
“You’re so comforting, Timothy. I never dreamed I would find anyone like you—sometimes, I hardly know where I end and you begin.”
It was true for him, as well, but he said nothing.
“I think our love fits into the miracle category,” she said.
“Right up there with the Red Sea incident, in my opinion.”
“Do you think the people who love you are happy about us? Isn’t some of the parish feeling a bit . . . betrayed?”
“Never. They’re glad to have someone look after me, so they don’t have to. Of course, they never had to, but bachelor priests are thought to require extra attention.”
He put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close.
She kissed his chin. “Dearest?”
“Shall we bring the armoire over this Saturday?”
Out of the blue, again! He had to be quick. “This Saturday, I’m taking you for a little . . . recreation.”
“I love recreation! What are we going to do?”
In all his life, he had never been able to figure out what to do for recreation. As a bachelor, he was forever dumbfounded by the way people planned ahead for this very thing. “What are you doing this weekend?” someone might ask, and the respondent would roll off a daunting list of activities—a ball game, a movie, dinner out, a play, hiking, a picnic, and God knows what else. If he were asked such a question, he always wound up scratching his head, speechless. He never knew what he might do until he did it.
“It’ll be a surprise,” he announced.
“Good! I love surprises!”
“Cynthia, Cynthia. What don’t you love?”
“Exhaust fumes, movies made for TV, and cakes baked from mix.”
“I’m all for a woman who knows what she likes—and doesn’t like.” He cleared his throat. “As for me, I like this.”
“This . . . living with you.”
“Then why did you fight me tooth and nail for longer than it took to build the Brooklyn Bridge?”
“No vision,” he admitted. “No imagination. No—”
“No earthly idea of heaven!”
“You said it.”
“Well, then . . .”
He leaned over and kissed her mouth, lingering.
“Oh, my goodness,” she murmured at last. “Who would ever have thought . . . ?”
“Barnabas!” he called, coming in the kitchen door.
It was time for recreation, and he’d better hop to it. Otherwise, he’d have to leg it to the hardware to rent a back brace for the lugging over.
Barnabas raced from the study, skidded through the kitchen on a rag rug, and leaped up to give his master a lavish bath around the left ear.
“If we confess our sins,” the rector quoted hastily from First John, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness!”
Barnabas retreated on his hind legs, lay down, sighed, and gazed up at his master.
His was the only dog in creation who was unfailingly disciplined by the hearing of God’s Word. Now, if all of humankind would respond in the same vein . . .
“I’m ready!” she said, appearing from the study. She was dressed in blue jeans and a sweatshirt, tennis shoes and a parka, looking like a girl.
“Ready for what?” he inquired, grinning.
“What you said. . . .”
He was as excited as a boy, and no help for it.
“Here we go,” he announced, offering his arm.
Barnabas lay in the high grass, his tongue hanging out from the long climb uphill.
They had walked around Mitford Lake twice, their cheeks red with the sting in the air, eaten lunch from a paper bag, sat on a log and laughed, and then headed up Old Church Lane to rest on the stone wall overlooking what he called the Land of Counterpane.
In the valley, with its church steeples and croplands, tiny houses and gleaming river, they saw the retreat of autumn. Only the barest hint of color remained in the trees.
“I have a great idea,” he said.
“Why don’t we do something like this every week? Both of us can get bogged down with work, and maybe this would be a way around it. Even for a few hours, let’s plan to get away.” He was learning something new, he could just feel it. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
He pressed on with mounting enthusiasm. “Even in the dead of winter!”
“Wonderful! I couldn’t agree more.”
There. Since all the stuff about checking accounts, where to sleep, and how much to spend without the other’s consent, this was their first important pact.
“Shake,” she said.
They sat on the wall until a stinging wind blew in from the north, then walked briskly down Old Church Lane and through Baxter Park.
“Look,” he said, “there’s our bench.”
“Where we were sitting when the rain came . . . where you said you felt like thin soup, and invited me to go with you to see the bishop.”
He was impressed with his wife’s memory, as he didn’t recall saying anything about thin soup.
“By the way,” he wondered, “who’s supposed to cook dinner this evening?”
“I can’t remember,” she said, wrinkling her brow.
Percy shuffled to the back booth and poured coffee for the rector, who had come in for an early lunch. “How d‘ you like it?”
“Same as ever. Black.”
“That ain’t what I’m talkin‘ about.”
“So what are you talking about?”
“How do you like bein‘ married?”
“I like it.”
This was the first time since he’d returned from the honeymoon that any of the crowd at the Grill had really questioned his new circumstances. He had strolled in one day during Percy’s beef stew special, looking tanned and thinner, fresh from Maine, and not one word had Percy Mosely, Mule Skinner, or J. C. Hogan said about it.
All he could figure was, they were ticked off at knowing somebody for nearly fifteen years who suddenly upped and married. It required a certain change of mind, which, as Emerson had pointed out, was a blasted inconvenience.
“If I had it t‘ do over, I wonder if I’d do it,” said Percy.
“You know you would. Where else would you get those terrific grandkids?”
“Oh, yeah,” said the Grill owner, brightening.
“I’d do it over in a heartbeat,” said Mule, sliding into the booth. “Fancy’s better lookin‘ today than she was when I married her.”
J.C. slid in on the other side. “I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. You couldn’t get me to do it for a million dang dollars.”
“Before or after taxes?” Mule wanted to know.
J.C. mopped his face with what appeared to be a section of paper towel. “Once was one time too many. I’d rather be shot by a firin‘ squad.”
“Is that caf or decaf?” Mule asked Percy. “Fancy’s got me on decaf, I been stumblin‘ around for two days tryin’ to get awake. Hit me with a little shooter of both.”
J.C. held his cup out to Percy. “I tried decaf for a week, and it was all I could do to get th‘ paper printed. We whittled that sucker down to four pages, I couldn’t paste up an ad without droppin’ to the floor to take a nap.” He blew on the steaming coffee. “Nossir, I wouldn’t be married for all the tea in China, women want to run your business—they put you on fiber, take you off bacon, put you on margarine, take you off caffeine.”
“You’re mighty talkative today,” said Mule.
“I was up half the night with the fire department. Omer Cunningham’s old hay barn caught fire and the sparks jumped over and started on the shed where he stores that antique airplane. The fire engine came, and it was fish or cut bait ‘til three in the mornin’.”
“I thought I might go into newspaper work,” said Mule, “but I got over it.
“If that airplane had caught, you might’ve found a landin‘ gear on your front porch.”
“Had gas in it, did he?”
“You know Omer, he’s always ready to fly. All he needs is a corn-field that hasn’t been plowed. He said he’s moving it to a hangar at the airstrip.”
Mule stirred cream into his coffee. “Somebody told me Mack Stroupe’s going to run in the next mayor’s race.”
“Mack’s for change,” said J.C. “Development, progress, and change—that’s his platform.”
“I like the platform we’ve got,” said the rector. “ ‘Mitford takes care of its own’!” he recited in unison with Mule.
Everybody in Mitford knew Mayor Esther Cunningham’s platform, including the students at Mitford School, who had painted it on a nylon banner that was annually carried in the Independence Day parade up Main Street.
“You know how he built on to his hot-dog stand when he thought Percy was goin‘ out of business? He’s goin’ to use that side of th‘ building for his campaign headquarters.”
“Right,” said J.C. “And I’m the Pope. You couldn’t get this town to vote for anybody but Esther Cunningham if you paid ‘em cash money. They’ll carry her out of office in a coffin.”
“He’ll never run,” said the rector, “so we might as well forget it. Mack’s no genius, but he’s not stupid, either.”
Mule leaned out of the booth, searching for Velma. “Are we goin‘ to order, or did I come in here for my health?”
“You definitely didn’t come in here for your health,” said J.C.
Percy’s wife, Velma, magically appeared with her order pad. “Order th‘ special.”
“What is it?” asked the rector.
“Ground beef patty with a side of Hi-waiian pineapple.”
“How’s the‘ pineapple cut up?” Mule inquired. “I like slices, not chunks.”
Velma frowned. “It’s chunks.”
“I’ll have a grilled cheese, then. No, wait.” Mule drummed the tabletop with his fingers. “Give me bowl of soup and a hot dog all the way. Fancy’s got me off cheese.”
“I’ll take a double cheeseburger all the way, plenty of mustard and mayonnaise, and large fries.” J.C. gave his order louder than usual, to make it clear he was a free man.
“You don’t have to bust my eardrums,” said Velma.
Mule sighed. “On second thought, hold th‘ onions on my hot dog, they give me indigestion.”
Velma eyed the rector, who was inspired by the sting he felt in the late October air. “Beef stew!” he announced.
“Cup or bowl?”
“Roll or crackers?”
“Change my order and bring me th‘ beef stew,” said Mule. “I always like what he orders. But no crackers for me, I’ll take the roll. And skip th’ butter.”
“I never heard of a cup of beef stew,” said J.C.
“Crackers are for sick people,” said Mule.
“Lord!” Velma ripped the order off her pad and delivered it to Percy.
Mule turned to the rector. “One thing I’ve been wondering . . .”
“How do your dog and her cat get along?”
“Violet lives in the house next door, and Barnabas keeps to himself at the rectory.”
Actually, Cynthia fed Violet her evening meal at five, then popped through the hedge to the rectory, after which Violet curled up on Cynthia’s love seat and slept until her mistress returned to work the following morning and opened one of those canned items whose odor could knock a man winding at fifty paces.
“A cat with a house,” said J.C. “That’s some deal.”
“So her cat and your dog don’t cross?”
“Not if we can help it.”
“One time you told me Barnabas slept on your bed.”
“Now he sleeps in the hall.”
There was a reflective silence.
“Anybody been up on the hill?” asked the rector.
He had just come from the site of Hope House, the five-million-dollar nursing home that Sadie Baxter had given as a memorial gift to Lord’s Chapel. By the look of things, it would be a year before it was up and running with staff.
“I shot two rolls up there Wednesday. Doin‘ a feature page next week.”
“That’s going to be some deal,” said Mule. “I wouldn’t mind movin‘ in there myself. I hear there’s goin’ to be a fountain in the lobby.”
“And an aviary in the dining room,” the rector announced proudly.
Mule scratched his head. “Did I hear it’ll have its own church?”
“A chapel. A small chapel. Local millwork, a rose window. First-rate.”
Velma carried two lunch plates on her left arm, and a third in her right hand.
Mule looked on with approval. “That’s a trick I always thought highly of.”
“Beef stew with crackers. Beef stew with roll, no butter. Double cheesburger all the way, with large fries.” Velma set the plates down in no particular order and stalked off.
The men dropped their heads as the rector asked a blessing.
“Amen,” said Mule, rubbing his hands together.
“How’s your boy?” asked J.C., who was busy pouring salt on his burger and fries.
“Great. Couldn’t be better. He’ll be home for Thanksgiving.”
“He’s not gettin‘ the big head in that fancy school, is he?”
“Nope. Dooley Barlowe might get a lot of things, but the big head won’t be one of them.”
“Did you read my story on Rodney hirin‘ a woman?” J.C. was not a pretty sight when he talked with his mouth full.
“You don’t mean it.”
“I bloomin‘ well do mean it. She starts the middle of November. A woman in a police uniform. . . . I can’t see it.”
“Why not? It’s the law, no pun intended.”
“Would you want a woman preachin‘ in your pulpit?” asked J.C., spilling coffee on his tie.
“Depends on the woman.”
“I can’t see a woman carrying a pistol.”
“How come you don’t like women?” asked Mule. “I like women.”
“I told you. They’re in the overhauling business.”
“Maybe you could use a little overhaulin‘.”
“I been overhauled, buddyroe. Dropped fifty pounds, quit cigarettes, gave up red meat, and quit readin‘ trashy books. Oh, yeah. I even got shots for smelly feet. Was that good enough? No way. She was outta there the year the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Denver Broncos twenty-seven to ten.”
“Big year,” said Mule. “The Yankees won the World Series.”
“Not to mention the Chicago Daily News went belly-up.”
None of this information gave the rector a clue as to what year they were talking about, and he had no intention of asking.
“So,” said Mule, “did the shot work, or have you still got smelly feet?”
Lunch at the Grill, thought Father Tim, was what kept life real. He had to confess, however, that he could hardly wait to get back to the office and finish the C. S. Lewis essay entitled “Thought, Imagination, Language.”
Cynthia gave him a hug as he came in the back door. “We’ve been invited to Miss Rose’s and Uncle Billy’s for banana pudding this evening.”
“Oh, no! Please, no!”
“Dearest, don’t be stuffy.”
“Stuffy? Miss Rose has been hospitalized with ptomaine poisoning twice—and nearly sent a Presbyterian parishioner to her reward. You’re the only person in town who’d put your feet under her table.”
“So, pray for protection and let’s go,” she said, looking eager.
It didn’t take much to delight Cynthia Kavanagh. No, indeed, it hardly took anything at all. What’s more, she loved flying in the face of mortal danger.
“Besides, they’ve invited us for banana pudding practically since the day I moved here, so we can’t disappoint them.”
“Of course not.”
“Next Wednesday,” she said, “Miss Sadie and Louella are having us up for supper.”
“Fried chicken and mashed potatoes.”
“We’ll be there.”
“And homemade coconut cake!”
“I’ve made a reservation in the emergency room,” he declared, sitting down at the kitchen table.
“Don’t worry, I’ll watch you every minute. You mustn’t have the gravy or the cake, and only the tiniest portion of potatoes, they’ll be loaded with butter and cream.”
He was glad J. C. Hogan wasn’t around to hear this.
“Then,” she said, adjusting her half-glasses to read from a list, “Ron and Wilma invited us for Friday evening.”
“Hal and Marge want us for dinner at the farm, the first Sunday of November.”
“And the mayor has asked us for a family barbecue the following Sunday. What do you think?”
She looked faintly worn. “So much social activity! I thought you led a quiet life.”
“I did,” he said, “until I got married.”
“Everybody wants a look at you.”
“But they’ve seen me for ages!”
“Not in your new circumstances.”
She sighed. “And then there’s Thanksgiving!”
“And the All-Church Feast, which we must attend, and Dooley and Russell Jacks and Betty Craig for turkey here the day after, and . . . You look all in, what’s up?”
She sighed again. “I’ve started a new book, and it has a crushing deadline.”
All or nothing at all. That’s what he liked about this new life.
They walked to the Porter place—cum—town museum, holding hands. A Canadian cold front had moved in, inspiring them to wrap like mummies.
“I went to see Miss Pattie this morning,” she announced, her breath sending puffs of steam into the frigid air.
“I gave Evie two hours off.”
“God knows when Evie’s had two hours off. You’re a saint.”
“I’m no such thing. We played Scrabble.”
“Scrabble? With Miss Pattie?” Evie Adams’s mother hadn’t been in her right mind for a decade, causing Evie to call the church office with some frequency, in tears of frustration.
“She spelled one word—‘go’—and declared herself the winner. Then we had an imaginary lunch and she showed me her imaginary doll.”
“Knowing you, you can describe that doll in detail.”
She laughed. “Dimples. Blue eyes—one won’t shut. It had lost its socks and shoes, and I think its toes were once chewed by a puppy. I told Evie I’d come again.”
He stopped and put his arms around her. “I’ve always wanted a deacon. You’re hired.” He kissed her on both cheeks and then on the mouth.
“Dearest . . . everyone will talk.”
“It’s time I gave them something to talk about,” he said, meaning it.
“I’ll be et for a tater if it ain’t th‘ preacher! Rose, come and look, he’s got ’is missus with ‘im.”
They stood at the back door of the museum that led to the apartment the town had remodeled for Miss Rose and Uncle Billy Watson.
The old man’s schizophrenic wife of nearly fifty years peered around the door. The rector thought she looked fiercer than ever.
“What do they want?” she demanded, staring directly at the shivering couple on the steps.
Uncle Billy appeared bewildered.
“You invited us for banana pudding!” said Cynthia. “Yesterday, when I saw you on the street.”
“I did?” Miss Rose put her hands on her hips and gave them a withering look. “Well, I don’t have any banana pudding!”
“Oh, law,” said Uncle Billy, “did you go an‘ forget you invited th’ preacher and ‘is missus?”
“I certainly did not forget. It’s too close to Thanksgiving to make banana pudding. I would never have had such an idea.”
Uncle Billy looked anguished. “You ‘uns come on in, anyway, and set where it’s warm. I’ve got somethin’ for you, Preacher, hit’s nearly burnt a hole in m‘ pocket.”
“That’s all right, Uncle Billy, we’ll come another time.” Talk about a life-saving turn of events.
“Nossir, I need t‘ give you this. It’s somethin’ that belongs to th‘ Lord, don’t you know.”
They trooped in as Miss Rose eyed them with suspicion.
The rector observed that she was still dressing out of her long-dead brother’s military wardrobe. Under a worn housecoat whose belt dragged the floor, she was wearing Army pants and a World War II field jacket. He was almost comforted by the sight of her unlaced saddle oxfords, which were her all-time favorite footwear.
“I cain’t set down, cain’t lay down, an‘ cain’t hardly stand up,” said Uncle Billy, who was leaning on a cane. “Ol’ arthur’s got me, don’t you know.”
They hovered timidly by the kitchen table while Miss Rose stood at the stove and gave them a thorough looking-over.
“Preacher, could you step in here a minute?” Uncle Billy opened the door to the unheated part of the house, admitting a blast of arctic air, and led the way. As the door closed behind them, the rector looked back at his wife, who was trying to appear brave.
“I put it over yonder,” said Uncle Billy, turning on a light in a room stacked with old newspapers. “I’ve kep‘ it hid from Rose—she wouldn’t take t’ me doin‘ this, don’t you know.”
He felt thoroughly refrigerated by the time the old man located the stack of yellowed papers and withdrew an envelope. With a trembling hand, he gave it to the rector.
“It’s m‘ tithe,” he said, his voice breaking. “Th’ Lord give me that money for my pen an‘ ink drawin’s that Miss Cynthia sold, and I’m givin’ His part back.”
The rector was so moved, he could barely speak. “May the Lord bless you, Bill!”
“Oh, an‘ He does. Ever’ day, don’t you know.”
“I’m glad we went,” he said, buttoning his pajama top.
“Me, too. Even if Miss Rose does scare me half to death!”
She put her hands on her hips and said fiercely, “I don’t have any banana pudding!”
“Thanks be to God!” he shouted, as they collapsed on the bed with laughter.
“YOU LOOKIN‘ at th’ las’ supper,” said Louella.
As Fernbank’s dining room was closed off for winter, they were sitting at the kitchen table.
“Louella’s having her knee operation on Thursday,” Miss Sadie reminded her guests. “She won’t be able to cook like this again for a long time.” His hostess, who was also his oldest, not to mention favorite, parishioner, appeared wistful.
“Who’s driving you to Winston-Salem?” asked Cynthia, who had offered to do it a month earlier.
“Ed Malcolm. I don’t know how Mr. Leeper heard about it, but somehow he did, and gave Ed the day off so he can drive us. Have you ever?”
“Extraordinary,” said the rector. Buck Leeper, the abrasive, profane, don’t-tread-on-me supervisor of the Hope House project . . .
Cynthia helped herself to another deviled egg. “How long will you be there?”
“Five days, we think,” said Miss Sadie.
“What will you do down there for five days? And where will you stay?”
“I’ll have a cot in Louella’s room!”
“She goan baby me,” said Louella, looking sunny. Miss Sadie had babied Louella, who had been born at Fernbank, since they were children. In recent years, however, circumstances had begotten the reverse.
Five nights on a hospital cot? he thought. Not good.
“Louella would do the same for me.”
“Amen!” pronounced Louella, passing the mashed potatoes. “Y‘all eat these up. We don’t have no puppy dogs t’ feed ‘em to.”
He could tell that his wife was in seventh heaven, eating like a trencherman and happy as a child. She looked at him and smiled. “Keep your eyes off the gravy, dearest.”
Lord knows, he was trying. “What will you do when you come back? Surely the stairs . . .”
Louella will sleep down here in the kitchen.“
“For how long?”
“The doctor said no stairs for three months.”
“We ain’t tol‘ him our stairs go almos’ to th’ Pearly Gates. How many we got, Miss Sadie?”
“Twenty-nine! Papa wanted thirty, but it didn’t work out.”
Sadie Baxter alone at night on that cavernous second floor? And what if Louella were to take a tumble on this cracked and broken linoleum? He didn’t like the sound of the plan, not at all.
“When we go up at night, we go together,” said Louella. “But sometime, it’s more settin‘ down than goin’ up.”
“That’s right. Sometimes it takes so long to get to the top, it’s nearly time to start back to the bottom!”
“Me an’ Miss Sadie, we sing our way up. I say, Do you remember ‘To You before the close of day . . .‘? She say, Sho’ I do, you start and I’ll jump in. We set there and sing a verse, then we climb up another little step or two. Sometime, we go through two or three hymns jus’ to lay our bones down.”
“And sometimes,” said Miss Sadie, inspired by the excitement of revelation, “we don’t come downstairs at all.”
“Miss Sadie, she keep candy in her vanity, an‘ I keeps Spam and loaf bread in my bureau. We watch th’ soaps and th‘ news.”
“We play checkers, or go ramble in the attic. I love to ramble in the attic. It keeps me young to remember old times.”
“Many a day,” said Louella, “we read th‘ Bible out loud, or Miss Sadie jus’ sleep ’til dark.”
“Louella, you don’t need to tell that!”
“It’s th‘ gospel truth.”
Miss Sadie looked suddenly tired. “This old house . . .” she murmured. “I don’t know. . . .”
You can learn a lot over a platter of fried chicken, he thought. Why had Miss Sadie never told him any of this? She always made everything seem bright and shining. They had no business rattling around in this clapboard coliseum alone. But what could be done? Hope House wouldn’t be finished and staffed for another year. Maybe good help was the solution, someone to come in at night.
Or . . . well, now. That was a thought. Why hadn’t it occurred to him before? The fine old house on Lilac Road, bequeathed to Olivia Davenport by her mother . . . perfect!
Only months ago, Miss Sadie had found something she never knew she had—blood kin. The beautiful Olivia was her great-niece, a surprising revelation that had thrilled both women. It was, however, a revelation they chose to keep secret, as it pointed to an illegitimate child by Miss Sadie’s own mother.
Now, Olivia was married to Hoppy Harper, who had engineered her miraculous heart transplant. As they were living happily in the doctor’s rambling mountain lodge, Olivia’s house on Lilac Road sat quite empty. And didn’t it have a brand-new furnace, wall-to-wall carpet, and every imaginable convenience, all on one floor?
He wouldn’t introduce the idea just now, however. He’d make his move on Monday.
The shrill ring of the phone sounded in the hallway.
“I’ll get it!” said Cynthia.
He would ask Olivia if there were any plans to sell her house. If not, he’d work on breaking down Miss Sadie’s resistance to the idea of leaving Fernbank. She had lived in the house her father built since she was nine years old—more than eighty years. One didn’t casually walk away from such a bond.
“Miss Sadie, it’s Olivia.”
As Miss Sadie left the room with her cane, Louella leaned over and whispered, “Honey, this ol‘ house killin’ me and it killin‘ her, don’t let her fool you. ’Sides that, when I say Miss Sadie, you ‘member this hymn, she say she do, but she don’t. Miss Sadie doan want you to think she doan remember. And ramblin’ in th‘ attic?’ She could stay up there ‘til Jesus comes, kickin’ up all that dust.”
“I don’t like the thought of you two being twenty-nine stair steps apart at night,” he said.
“An‘ I don’t like th’ idea of Miss Sadie doin‘ th’ cookin‘ aroun’ here! Fact is, she don’t cook—she sets out. She sets out mustard, she sets out baloney, she sets out light bread. Bless th‘ Lord, we in a pickle!”
Cynthia put on Louella’s apron and announced she was washing the dishes. She handed her husband a drying towel.
Miss Sadie came back to the kitchen and closed the door. “I declare, if it’s not one thing to muddle over, it’s two. You’ll never guess what that was all about.”
“I could never guess,” Cynthia admitted.