I was ten years old when I was saved for the first time. Even thoughJesus himself never had much to do with religion before he wastwelve, I had prayed and prayed to be saved so that I wouldn’t go tohell. Mama had never mentioned hell to me, but the summer after mytenth birthday, on the night before the yearly Three Gum Revival andCamp Meeting, my daddy told me that I might have to go there. Hesaid that’s where sinners went, and that everyone was a sinner untilthey were saved.
“Have I been saved?” I asked him.
“No, Velva Jean.” He was polishing the handheld pickax he some—times used for gold mining. The front door was open and a faint breezeblew in off the mountain. It was still hot, even at ten thirty at night.Somewhere, far away, there was the high, lonesome cry of a panther.
“I don’t know. Maybe you ain’t opened yourself up to the Spirit.”Daddy’s face was quiet and blank so I couldn’t read it. His one goodeye—the one that wasn’t blind—wasn’t dancing like it normally did. Itwas always hard to know if he was mocking or serious on the subject ofreligion.
“How do you know I ain’t saved?” I asked a lot of questions, some—thing my daddy never had much patience for, especially in the heat.
“Because you’d know it if you was.”
I thought about this, trying to remember a time when I might havebeen saved without knowing it. I couldn’t think of one and suddenlythis worried me. “What happens if I don’t get saved?”
“It means that you’re ‘astray like a lost sheep,’ and that after you dieyou’re going straight to hell.” Daddy laughed. “That’s why your mamaand me prays every night for our children.”
For a moment, I couldn’t speak. What did he mean, I was going todie? What did he mean, I was going to hell? I didn’t want to go to hell.Hell was for the convicts down at the prison in Butcher Gap or themurderer who lived on top of Devil’s Courthouse. Hell wasn’t for decent people. I was sure my mama wasn’t going to be there or DaddyHoyt or Granny or my sister, Sweet Fern, or Ruby Poole or Aunt Birdor Uncle Turk or Aunt Zona and the twins. Probably my brothers,Linc and Beachard, weren’t going to hell either, but I wondered aboutmy youngest brother, Johnny Clay. And then I began to cry.
Later that night, when me and Johnny Clay were lying in our bedspretending to sleep, I whispered, “If you was to die, would you go tohell?” I had shared a room with Sweet Fern until she got married, andthen Johnny Clay moved in with me.
There was silence from his bed and for a moment I thought hemight actually be sleeping. Then he said, “I guess.”
I sat straight up and looked at him, trying to catch his face in thedarkness to see if he was fooling or not. He rolled over and proppedhimself up with one arm. “Why you want to know about hell, VelvaJean?”
“Daddy says if we ain’t saved, that’s where we’re going because we’reall sinners till we been born again.”
Johnny Clay seemed to consider this. “I guess,” he said again.
“I’m going to get myself saved,” I said, “if it’s the very last thing I do.I ain’t going to hell.”
“Even if I’m there?”
“It ain’t funny, Johnny Clay. I’m answering the altar call at campmeeting and I’m going to pray and pray for Jesus to save me.”
“You don’t even know how to pray, Velva Jean.” Johnny Clay wassmart. He was twelve years old and he knew everything about every—thing. He’d been an expert gold panner since he was nine, he’d beendriving since he was ten, and at school he was the marble championthree years running. He was also the bravest person I knew. I just worshipped him.
“I know, but I’m going to start praying anyway. I’m going to startdoing it right now.” And I got out of my bed and kneeled down besideit and closed my eyes tight. I tried to remember how Mama alwaysbegan. There was a sigh and a rustling from Johnny Clay’s bed, andthen he was beside me on the floor, hands clasped.
“Okay, Lord,” he said. “Please be merciful on us sinners. Pleasedon’t let us die anytime soon. And if we do, please don’t send me andVelva Jean to hell. We just can’t stand it if we die and go to hell.”
“Amen,” I whispered.
The first day of camp meeting I could barely sit still. “Stop fidgeting,”Sweet Fern hissed at me across Beachard and Johnny Clay. Sweet Ferncouldn’t stand for people to fidget, most particularly me, her own sister.She said it wasn’t something that ladies did, even though she knew Iwasn’t one bit interested in being a lady. Still, I decided it wasn’t a goodidea to talk back while I was on the path to salvation, so I sat on myhands to keep from picking at my nails and my dress. Johnny Clay keptpoking me in the leg, trying to get me to thumb wrestle, but I staredstraight ahead and waited for the altar call. Reverend Broomfield, theBaptist preacher, said he wanted only the backsliders—those who hadbeen saved already and then lost their way. One by one, they went upto the altar and rededicated their lives to Jesus, and then everyone sangand Mrs. Broomfield announced the serving of the potluck supper.
On the second day, Reverend Broomfield said he wanted all thefeuding neighbors to come forward so that he could talk to them aboutforgiveness and put them on speaking terms again, and afterward weall sang and Mrs. Broomfield announced the supper.
On the third day, Reverend Broomfield and Reverend Nix, whowas the preacher at our church, asked for all the sinners who wantedto be saved. I sat straight up and paid attention. Reverend Broomfieldpromised salvation to anyone who needed it, and all you had to dowas come up to the altar and kneel down and say that you loved andaccepted Jesus and would live your life for him now and forever. Iwondered what that meant exactly, if I could live my life for Jesus andstill be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry, with an outfit made of satinand rhinestones and a pair of high-heeled boots. To sing at the GrandOle Opry and wear an outfit made of rhinestones was my life’sdream.
One by one, I watched the other sinners take their places at thealtar. I did not want to go to hell. But I did not want to give up mydreams either. I sat there, my toes pressed into the sawdust shavings,my legs tensed up, my hands gripping the edge of the bench. EvenJesus must like the Opry, I told myself, and I stood up.
No one in the congregation was supposed to look at you—theywere just supposed to sit quietly and close their eyes or stare at theground—but when I got up to answer the call, Johnny Clay grabbedthe back of my dress and tried to pull me back into my seat. I kickedhim as hard as I could and marched right up to the altar with all theother sinners and got down on my knees and closed my eyes andthought about how much I loved Jesus.
To my left, Swill Tenor, one of the meanest and crookedest men inthe valley, suddenly let out a shout and jumped to his feet and beganjerking in the Spirit. His eyes were closed and his body was twitchinglike he was being pinched and pulled all over. Not to be outdone, RootCaldwell, who was so mean that he fought roosters on the weekends,let out a shout and started dancing all around, up and down the aisles.To my right, Mrs. Garland Welch swayed and quivered and spoke intongues. I just sat there on my knees, watching like a person struckdumb, like a person without any sense. I didn’t jerk or dance or speakin tongues because the Spirit hadn’t touched me one bit.
The congregation sang “Just as I Am” and “I Surrender All,” butwhen I lay in bed that night I felt exactly the same as I always did. Thenext day, I answered the altar call again and watched as all of my fellowsinners were overcome by the Spirit, speaking in tongues or jerking,running or dancing for the Lord. They fell to the ground and wept andshouted his name, while I sat there on my knees, my hands folded inprayer, and wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t besaved. I answered the altar call the day after that and the day after that,but nothing happened, which meant, if my daddy was right, I was stilldoomed to go straight to hell.
On the sixth morning, just one day before camp meeting’s end, Istayed in bed while everyone else got ready to go to services.“Come on, Velva Jean,” Johnny Clay said from the doorway. “You’regonna make us late, goddammit.” He had taken up swearing when hewas eleven. He grabbed my foot, but I yanked it back under the sheet.I didn’t want to go because I didn’t have anything left in me to praywith or about. I give up, God, I thought as I lay there, the sheet up overmy head. I just give up right now. If you want me to go to hell, that’s fine.I’ll go right to hell and I hope you’re happy.
But then Mama came in and told me to get out of bed in that tonethat meant she wasn’t fooling.
“I can’t,” I said. I didn’t like to disobey Mama, but I knew I was notgetting out from under the sheet.
The bed sank a little as she sat down. “Why not?” Mama was agood listener. She was shy around most people, but she always wantedto hear what they had to say, and she always asked you things insteadof just ordering you to listen to her.
“Because I’m a sinner that can’t be saved. I’m astray like a lost sheep.Even Swill Tenor got saved, and everyone knows he keeps a still.”
She didn’t say anything, just sat there quietly. It was hot under thesheet and a little hard to breathe, but I wasn’t about to come out.
“Daddy says I’m going to hell.”
Mama coughed and then tugged the sheet back, just to under mychin so that she could see my face. Her voice was soft but something inher eyes flickered. “Since when have you known your daddy to be wiseabout religion?”
I thought about this. Daddy never went to church if he could helpit, and whenever Mama said the Lord’s Prayer, he just moved his lipsand pretended to say the words along with her. I wasn’t even sure if heknew them.
“You, my baby, are not going to hell. You’re a good child, true andpure, and the Lord will call you when it’s time. You can’t bloom theflowers before they’re ready, Velva Jean.” Mama was referring to thetime I got into her garden and opened up all the flower buds because Icouldn’t wait till spring. “They got to be ready to open on their own.”
“What if they never open?” I said.
Mama sighed a little like she did when she was praying for patience.She didn’t seem upset, though. She seemed sad. Her eyes were clearand blue with gold bands around the irises, like sunflowers against ablue sky. “They’ll open when it’s time,” she said.
“They’ll open when it’s time.” I repeated it to myself later thatmorning as I sat waiting for Reverend Broomfield to call up the sinners. They’ll open when it’s time.
Once again, he called us, and once again I walked up to the altar,and once again I kneeled, my knees buried deep in the sawdust shavings. I tried to clear my mind and not think so much. I tried to remember Mama’s words, and I pictured her flowers and how they had diedafter I bloomed them too early.
After the laying on of hands and the singing, the people around mestood up and dusted themselves off and returned to their seats. But Ididn’t get up. I stayed right where I was, eyes closed, hands knotted uptogether in a fist, and told the Lord I was done with him if he didn’tsave me right then and there in front of everyone, with everybody Iknew watching and me humiliated. I knew I’d never be able to showmy face again down at Deal’s General Store or at school if he just leftme sitting there like a heathen while sinners like Swill Tenor and RootCaldwell got their souls saved.
My knees started to burn in the sawdust. I knew everybody wasstaring. “Velva Jean,” I could hear Johnny Clay hissing at me. “Dammit, Velva Jean.”
I didn’t care. I was not going to leave that altar until I was saved. Ididn’t care if they all went home and left me. I didn’t care if I had tospend the night there, on my knees, with the woods closing in and thepanthers coming down out of the trees to eat me.
The congregation began to sing. If you’ve never heard shape-notesinging, you should know that it can sound a lot like thunder whenenough people join in together. The music was loud and raw, and ittook over the air and the trees and the earth. The power of all thosevoices was so great that the ground shook below us like a tornado or anearthquake. There was a trembling in the shavings around my knees.My bones rattled. My teeth jittered in my mouth. My fingers and toesbegan to tingle, and I lost my breath. Something was growing fromdown deep inside me, starting somewhere in my stomach—a feeling oflight. I felt dizzy like I did right before I took sick with something, andI felt shaky like I did when I got too hungry. I wanted to lie down onthe ground and hold on for dear life, but I wanted to spring up into theair at the same time.
It was like the sky had opened and the sun was beaming down onlyon me, warming me from the inside. I opened my eyes. When I stood,my legs were wobbly and I had to hold on to Reverend Nix’s arm. I feltthe cool, dead half-moon of a snakebite up near his elbow, a place wherelong ago he had been bitten and nearly died. I rubbed the scar, eventhough it gave me chill bumps, and then I brushed the sawdust shavings from my knees.
Everyone was singing and watching me. I looked at my mama andmy family and at all the people I loved and even the people I didn’t likevery much, and they were all, each and every one of them, beautifuland shiny—even Sweet Fern. Everything around me seemed brighterand prettier and suddenly the only thing I wanted to do was dance. Myfeet began tapping against the sawdust floor and they carried me allover the tent until I was dancing in the Spirit. I started singing too, andthen I started crying because I knew, at last, that God had listened.Even though I was just Velva Jean Hart, ten years old, from SleepyGap, North Carolina, high up on Fair Mountain, he had listened to meand granted my prayer—I was born again.
Just two months later, I was standing up to my waist in the calm andpeaceful waters of Three Gum River, getting myself baptized in thename of Jesus, and I surely wasn’t going to hell after all. I was relievedthat my old, sinful self was gone forever. I imagined I wouldn’t ever feellike talking back or fighting anymore, and I would never feel enviousagain. I would do my chores without complaining and stop wishing forthings I didn’t have, and, most of all, I would get along with my sister.I would only be good and upright and brave from this moment on.
The water was dark and cold. I was floating, then sinking, thenchoking, then drowning. My lungs felt full and tight and I gaspedwithout thinking, swallowing the gritty, cool water of the river. Ishould have taken a breath before the dunking. Johnny Clay hadwarned me, but I’d been too proud and thrilled by what was happening. Maybe I would die now because I hadn’t listened to Johnny Clay.At least if I did, I would most certainly go to heaven.
The sounds of crying, shouting, and chanting above the surface disappeared. There had been the congregation singing and clapping fromthe shore. There had been Reverend Nix: “I indeed have baptized youwith water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” With his lefthand on my heart and his right hand lifted heavenward, he had raisedhis voice so that all could hear: “In obedience to the command of ourLord and savior Jesus Christ, we baptize this our sister, in the name ofthe Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Ghost.”
And then there was only the darkness of the river.
Hands pushed and pulled me back to the surface and I came upcoughing and dripping, blinded by the water and the dazzling sun. Mywhite dress floated up around me like foam.
“Thank you, Jesus! Somebody lift your hands and praise the Lord!”Reverend Nix hop-skipped in place, jerking his head back with a snapand raising his hands toward the congregation gathered on the shore.
“Hallelujah!” they said.
“Praise the Lord!”
Mama wailed, waving her hands in the sunlight. My brothers stoodin the shallows, clapping and praising Jesus, except for Johnny Clay,who thumped the guitar and closed his eyes to the sun. Sweet Fern,twenty years old and already expecting her second baby, stood off aways up the river with her husband, Danny Deal. Daniel, Sweet Ferncalled him, even though no one else did. One hand was pressed to herforehead to shade her eyes; the other was curved against her belly. Andour daddy was nowhere to be seen.
Reverend Nix helped steady me, and Brother Hiram Lee brushedthe damp hair off my face where it stuck to my cheeks and chin. I hadseen the others baptized and knew I should say something or cry orfall back into the water. I thought of Jesus and how when he was baptized the heavens had opened and the spirit of God flew down like abeautiful dove. I squinted up at the sky, which looked white hot andempty, and then I stared down at the snakebites on Reverend Nix’sarms, the ones he’d gotten from years of taking up serpents at theBone Valley Church of Signs Following, over on Bone Mountain. “Ifyou’re to lead our church,” Daddy Hoyt, my mama’s daddy, had toldhim years ago, “you will not be handling snakes.” Reverend Nix hadagreed, but the scars were still there—welts and bruises up and downhis arms, disappearing into his shirtsleeves, which were rolled up overhis elbows. I wondered what the rest of him looked like, if the bitescovered his whole body.
Oh, they tell me of a land far beyond the skies,
Oh, they tell me of a land far away
My mama stood on the shores of Three Gum River, in her fadedblue dress. I had always loved it when she sang, but I’d never heard hersing alone in public. To Mama, her own voice was a private thing, a sacred thing that she didn’t go around sharing with everyone just to beproud or to show off. It was something special to be reserved for God.
There was a rustling from the crowd, a stirring that meant peoplewere catching the Holy Spirit. They talked over each other—“Amen,”“Praise God,” “Praise Jesus”—hands raised, clapping, strumming banjos or fiddles or guitars.
Mama stepped forward into the water and began wading towardme. Her beauty was as faded as her dress. Her thick, tangled brownhair was shaded with gray. Her high apple cheeks had thinned lately:Her face had turned pale. But her sunflower eyes burned bright andher voice was sweet and pure like a girl’s. The tired lines of her faceseemed to disappear as her singing filled the holler. There was only hervoice now and the gentle splashing of the water rising as she walked, toher ankles, to her shins, to her knees.
I wanted to sing with my mama, to hear my own voice mix withhers. I love to sing more than anything else in the world, and Mamasaid I had the prettiest voice of anyone on Fair Mountain, just as prettyas anyone we heard on the radio. She said I had a gift and a duty to useit, and that’s why I’d already made up my mind that one day I wasgoing to be a singing star at the Grand Ole Opry with a Hawaiian steelguitar and a costume made of gold satin and rhinestones.
Now I felt my heart bursting and the words rising in my throat.Maybe I was filled with the Spirit, too. “Glory,” I said suddenly, verysmall, so that no one heard me. It was what came out instead of singing. “Glory,” I said again. I felt the light and the warmth on my skinand I saw my mama’s face. There was a surge of joy from way downdeep. I couldn’t tell if it was the Holy Ghost or just happiness, but myvoice grew strong: “Glory, glory, glory.” I couldn’t seem to stop myself.
My twin cousins, Clover and Celia Faye, were singing now, joininghands. Their dresses had been worn and washed so many times thatyou could barely see the flowered prints. Their hair was gathered offtheir necks; their round faces were sweet and unpainted.
There was swaying and stirring and prayers sent up to heaven.Daddy Hoyt smiled his kind, distracted, faraway smile. Granny dancedalong the shore, arms waving like a wild bird.
I wanted to run to Mama and wrap my arms about her, but mydress was heavy from the water, pulling me down toward the river bottom, and I couldn’t seem to move my legs.
Oh they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
Oh they tell me of an unclouded day
Others joined in—Johnny Clay and my other brothers, Linc andBeachard, and Daddy Hoyt, who was a ballad singer and fiddle makerand healer—but I couldn’t sing. Suddenly the urge was gone. Maybethe Spirit had left me. Or maybe it was that I wanted just to standthere, the water lapping at my waist, listening to the voices of the peo-ple I knew best and watching the love in their faces.
Everything changes when you’re born again, but not in the way thatyou think. If I’d known all that was going to happen after I was baptized in the waters of Three Gum River, I never would have prayed forGod to save me. I would have risked going straight to hell no matterwhat my daddy said about me being a sinner astray like a lost sheep.The funny thing is that until I was saved I never knew what it was liketo be lost. Afterward, I could point on the calendar to July 22, 1933, asthe day when everything changed.