Beyond the Western
Pay for your sin, the voice had said. Atone. Many times the voice from the darkened choir loft said the same words. Never in a shout did the words arrive, but in a murmur from the shadows, an oath of a murmur.
When Reverend Tomorrow Sandspur, spanking new to cloth and collar, received his first assignment, he was fully aware of the stories about the little church on the Virginia mountainside before he arrived. The whole state knew the main episode, the deciding issue, as did everybody living in the narrow Chawkenauga Valley dipping down to the Shenandoah. Knowing the stories did not make his beginning any easier. Minor trepidation, he also realized, had a keen prying edge if let loose. Tommy, at his best, tried to hold that tool in check. He prayed en route as well as at arrival.
Pay for your sin. Atone. Ghostly and godly were the words as promise and portent played about the message coming from beyond shadow or from within shadow.
Thirty years earlier, the way the story turned, Molly Pritchard Ware had died playing the organ on a Sunday morning service at the Gracious Mountain Church of the Forgiven. The church sat on that Virginia mountain, which fell straightaway to the Chawkenauga Valley. From the peaks, they say yet, thunder rolled a mighty clap just before she died, like cannon left over from a forgotten battle come for resurrection. A sweeping rain battered the shingles on the roof and beat at the clapboards of the church. It was near cataclysmic, the moaning that ensued, and the shrill yells that blew out of throats bound in piety mere moments before. At the organ for her thirty-fifth year, Molly was in flower-crowned hat and a deep blue dress, one of her much-worn alternating pair, and the dress hid the torments of pain she had lately known. Few of the congregation knew about her illness, though Mag Curran, the storekeeper’s wife, had said on occasion that Molly’s eyes do come desperate at the oddest.
The last note Molly accomplished, as sad and mournful as could be they said, given rise by a hand frozen suddenly on one key, came in concert with the final crash of thunder and lightning let loose of the mountain. The note, a booming basso hit, legendary, an echo to thunder itself, fled through the church and out the door like an old nighttime freight train running free and loose down through the old plantations.
Some of the congregation still get chills and goose bumps when they talk about the incident.
Lucas Trimm, the janitor and general man about the grounds, said the note reminded him of a loon desperately sounding for its mate, and the Lord God hisself abetting that search. At the lectern, his sermon almost done, then Reverend Abish Dowd, a full believer in all things preternatural, heavenly and earthly at the once, heard the singular note from the choir loft and knew the organ, and the church from that moment thence, was stricken. Numbness, they also said, touched his face for a good long time.
That first evening of a new assignment, of a new career, Reverend Tomorrow Tommy Sandspur sat alone in the church collecting himself after a most unsettling journey. His mother had called him Tomorrow from the day of his birth, always looking to the future, pushing hope as well as the pram, and his father, not always sure of the future, fell quickly into calling him Tommy. So much easier his choice, and not so pretentious.
And so it was to this church he had been summoned by the congregation, salary lean and promises merely decent. Thirty-one years old, lately commissioned out of farm life and odd pursuits, he was a light blond with darker brows and eyes full of questions whose answers lay elsewhere. Many women thought him handsomer than the devil himself, but wondered about that look in his eyes. His clasped hands gave keen exhibit to early life as farmer and laborer and more recently as a somewhat knockabout; a few knuckles spread convincingly at their joints and a remnant of thick skin worn on the heels of his hands appeared as single chevrons of those late duties. His shoulders sat a slope as if the last load carried had left a mark. Or an ominous future.
Mag Curran, part of the committee bringing him to the assignment, directed him to the church when he helloed her on the lower road on arrival. Later she said to some of her women friends, “I swear, he’s too pretty to been where he’s been.”
As Tomorrow sat in a front pew, fidgeting thoughts working him, an essence of rose came to him, though limping in a way, as if shorting itself of full bloom. Wind and air, he realized, always had a fair vantage in the Virginia valleys and the Chawkenauga had its share of those joys. You could be visited anytime by anything ethereal. Though, in the case of the Gracious Mountain Church of the Forgiven, that ethereal being he would soon believe to be the ghost of Molly Pritchard Ware not letting go what she had let go of.
At the moment the edge of the pew was sharp as an ax edge and he could feel the line of it, the dimension mattering, the church making its first real physical impression. Even though air was soft in manner, appreciation of that other odor came, though hesitant in its reach. It brought him full circle to a girl he had spent an afternoon with when he was only fifteen years old, in a place he could barely remember, though dust and cobwebs and more peculiar odors abounded from that memorial frivolity. But her name had deployed outside the memories. At that precise instant, as if the trace of early sin had not let go, he saw the shadow in the choir loft in his first look at the storied reach, the myth of Molly Pritchard Ware at her given work. He gathered himself, gathered all his beliefs, and took a deep breath. When he raised his arms in supplication, the shadow fled into other shadows. Not a whisper of sound ensued.
For the hundredth time since this new journey had started, he thought about Molly and her departure.
He had heard all the stories:
For those thirty years the organ was mute, turning slowly to a thin veneer of rust, and silence its forte. And Reverend Dowd, taking his full belief with him, had long departed the church where he too had opened his ministry, and suddenly closed shop. Some people said he was a mailman in western Pennsylvania and had taken up with a woman he had known some years earlier. When he left Gracious Mountain Church, in a sudden rush, noted Mag Curran, nobody followed to bring him back.
And nobody ventured into the choir loft either.
The several clergy who came in the intervening years, and went their ways, never asked for organ music. Some of them, on a private note, agreed there was enough sound in the silence of the loft and in the rusting pipes of the old organ to create self-pause. Usually, when they were alone in the church working on a sermon, such determinations came to them.
As for Molly Pritchard Ware, she had left her marks deeper than other marks. They appeared to be permanent. Some people had forgotten her goodness.
Besides the many years of her organ playing every Sunday morning but one, when she had given birth to son Jacob, Molly had been special with her gifts. No matter who approached her for help, no matter the tone of voice or the tone of skin, she was responsive. Bert and Little Myrtle Stubbs, burned out of their cottage one Doomsday of a Saturday, stood at the small flagpole in the yard of their smoldering house, their arms around one another, tears rampant on each face, the horizon a distance that seemed too far, and house resurrection an impossibility.
“Come along, you two,” Molly said after the fire had burned itself to ashes. “Bring yourself to my cottage. Supper’s on the table in an hour. You’ve got a bed to sleep on and a place to say thanks to the Lord that you got out. He’ll be listening for you.” She herded them like children in from recess, down the hill, across the valley, to her cottage. They stayed for three weeks while a new cottage was built by friends beside the ruins of the first one.
When Davon Wilyum Pumphrey, mistakenly targeted by white neighbors as one culprit in a minor crime, was chased by dogs into Molly’s barn, she hailed him out of the barn with a solicitous wave and an ungainly loud voice. “Come to supper, Davon Wilyum. My table sprouts for the evening meal. If anybody here dares stop long enough to think about this, they’ll know you did no wrong.” With a still loud voice and a steady finger pointing at the semblance of a posse, she said in assured belief, “For land’s sake, this boy’s been near deaf since he was born. How in the world could he a heard any signal like you talk about. Mind to your own hearing, the lot of you.”
After Molly had gone, and during an initial period of musical suspension, one Sunday visitor saw a shadow high up in the back of The Gracious Mountain Church. It was a silhouette of an unknown figure. There was no music. No wind in the eaves. The organ had not sounded in some months. The man bolted from the church. People heard his screaming about a ghost in the choir. That set the speed and the clatter about Molly’s organ and the visitations. For more than thirty years the organ at Gracious Mountain Church, which people called The Silent Master, made no sound, accompanied no choir, took part in no service. The story is told that the visitor wanted to check the shadow out but something held him back, a sense of disbelief caught in the back of his mind; his eyes seeing but his mind disbelieving. The man swore the shadow had moved, as if seated at the organ, arms in the movement of playing the instrument. And the shadow wore a hat crowned with flowers.
Now, on Sunday evening, Tomorrow’s sermon had long fled his mind and those of the congregation of the Gracious Mountain Church of the Forgiven. They had shuffled out of church into a sunshine rising brilliantly from leaf and grass, humor and rumor in a kind of monotone coming back at him. He had not struck out, he believed, but could still be at bat. They had gathered in groups as he watched their slow departures, discussing opinions, planning the balance of the day. He did not figure to be in that balance.
Tomorrow, memory pacing him again, finds himself twisted in a pew. Both feet are caught under the pew in front of him, and his head screwed around to check again on the shadow’s movement, which has been solemnly illustrated, as if for him only, in the thick shadows of the choir loft. Startled by a sudden pass of wind at the single stained glass window in the church, six feet high on the eastern wall, he twisted around to look at the window. The pew squeaked as he turned about. For a second’s relief, there is neither silhouette nor outline at the window.
At that moment, for the first time in some thirty years, like the lead sound of an overture, a note escapes the organ. It’s a flat, chambered note, with the companion sensation of a hand touching him. Depth rides in it as if it were a chariot out of the ether. Tomorrow twists back, caught between attractions. The window whistles. He turns again. The organ sounds anew. His ear catches a musical completion, notes that belong together, notes from a song or a hymn he has long forgotten until that moment. The shadow moves, hands with rhythm, the head moving in concert. And then the shadow speaks.
“Atone,” he hears.
It’s a whisper of the word, as light and shadowy as the loft at the upper reaches, away from substance of deep shadows. At the back of his neck, pushed up through the spinal column, another touch advances. The wind perhaps, he thinks, a slice of new air. He knows he is being unsettled; he was always unsettled, even in some convictions that carry weight. It has been his due. His mother had cautioned him: “Tomorrow, there’s always tomorrow coming at you.” And his father, later: “A man is born a man. The Lord knew what He was doing.”
Tommy Sandspur knows he is going to be punished for his indiscretions. The silent and endless clutch is always at him, day or night, awake or asleep, anywhere on Earth. With penance a part of that belief, he is acutely aware of the perfume one girl wore many years ago in a vacant barn a long way up the Shenandoah Valley, a far and faint aroma calling out names. The rose, short of its full intent, comes back subtle as a half smile, an eye gleam, the way only a woman’s hip can move without movement, silk giving away guidance, sometimes a demonic balance only he is alert to.
He can see, as vivid as any memory, what the barn looked like, how the Saturday night girl looked in his arms, her lips anointing, how she pressed against him still, and, evermore, the clattered, stringy way old leather goods hung on a wall, the old shine of it gone, the way new shoes escape newness. He remembered the odd way he measured the sweat that such goods must have accomplished, what the mules had done daylong for a kind of forever. Eternity, in its call-back, swung a punch at him. He could not escape it.
Mag Curran probably had guessed right on many accounts, and especially when she said, more than an aside, “If your past catches up to you, Tomorrow, I’d be a listener for you today.” She had suspicions but did not know the depth of his encounters.
The lost voice of the girl with the lost face, and the lost name, mattered most of all. Then, his breath withdrawn as if held for punishment, crawled to a hush. Movement all about him, in all things, turned slow and suspenseful and drew back into Creation. Once more he knew the rose again, the sweetest attar he’d ever known.
The sweetness knocked him into total recall, everything legitimate and with edges for the grasping. The haymow returned in proper order, in that place where memory is nearest. The mow’s spider webs maintained high positions, caught silver from bare light, ran off with roof cracks and edges of beams, illusions loose like ends of railroad tracks far up the Shenandoah. It was like awakening with the complete dream still in place.
And the girl’s eyes appeared and her lips and her brows and the sweep of eyelashes. The touch that had never ended, no matter his mission, came back, the softness he had never known again elsewhere, and her name above all names.
Tomorrow’s time had come this day. The voice outside him, the voice from the choir loft, the voice inside him, said, “Hannah.” Her face came back to him completely, and then the barn again, and the topsy-turvy moment when they collided in the hay and the dust and the old leather gear and honest labor remnants all around them, the unforgettable unforgotten again.
It was the organist talking without a doubt. It was Molly Pritchard Ware’s ghost doing what it had meant to do. “Go back. Go back up the Shenandoah. Hannah waits forever, Hannah who brought surprise. Go back or I will never let go.”
Off to Flatfalls, in the middle of the following week, the voice urging him, went Tomorrow Tommy Sandspur, fearful of the connection with yesterday sitting in his brain hard as a rock.
The way up the Shenandoah was extremely beautiful, but the range of comeliness, ten thousand years in the forming, was lost in him. His inner spirits flattened all views, suffused all elements into one distant horizon. For little more than a month he had been at the church at Gracious Mountain, a month beset with memories, atonement of one measure or another digging its relentless way, and fear so liquid it ran in him daily, spreading out his days and his nights. He did not see the sweep of hills or majesty of crags bidding welcome to the sturdy. He did not see or feel the way he should have. Moments of silence came down on him sure as darkness falls after twilight. He had gone far beyond the awareness of Virginia’s natural beauty. He could only grasp at one true sense of beauty and he believed that to be forgiveness itself. Forgiveness had to matter.
“I will never let you go,” the voice from the loft had said. And a voice came from inside. “Lord,” he whispered, “the scab of this sore keeps breaking.”
Flatfalls, many years before, had originally been urged into the last option in the area for a new town, a veritable squeeze play of geography and geology, fulfilling the last Ice Age push so evident in the region. The small town hugged the edge of the mountain where it could listen to music from a minor waterfall coming to rest at a placid stream running nearly dry every September. Peace and serenity of faint order held sway in paths, dirt roads, and clipped fields where hills and mountains intruded in steep and abrupt ways. The toes of the crags themselves appeared in the dark earth landscape, gray, bothersome obstacles to farmers, but in the end were tolerated. In dark bottom land where the Ice Age made its deposit, crops came rich in small reaches, from the hard work of those who farmed at Flatfalls.
Tomorrow remembered how he had loved his stay in this small hamlet, as he worked for one farmer and merchant, honest labors appreciated, long hours noted, his demeanor gaining quiet nods from townsfolk, few as they were. “You might find a home here, Tomorrow,” the farmer and merchant Tyron Gibbs had said one evening as Tomorrow sat to supper on Gibbs’ porch, the long day’s aches gently subsiding. “You know what’s got to be done and find ways to do it,” the old man continued. “That’s a whole lot of good sense for a young man.”
At the end of one proud summer of honest labor, September falling with graces, Gibbs’s fifteen-year old daughter Hannah had unaccountably beamed at the table that evening. At first sight, when the summer began, she had been strikingly beautiful, with jet black hair, flawless skin that glistened on her cheeks, a young bud in spring who wore her early years too readily; a clumsy gait, an untrue stance, and a false laughter that carried too far its signals.
This night her blue eyes were incandescent, full of the surest fire the young man had ever seen. The whole summer she had been, like an immature woman in a developing temperament, at the edge of all things. She was positioned everywhere, all around him when he worked. When he swung a pitchfork for the hay she posed at the zenith of his swing, when he milked the two cows she smiled in the frame of a barn window, when he rolled over in bed to sleep she was bound to leave odors everywhere. The fire in the evening eyes made an announcement, said scale had been reached, achieved, said she had covered ground he dared not anticipate.
He did not believe it was her foot touching his again and again under the table, prompting him, exciting him, later suggesting him along a path of darkness before the evening was over. “I have waited forever for someone like you to smile at me.”
For young Tomorrow Sandspur, it had been ignition.
Now, caught up in the old sensations, he was back at Flatfalls. No more than two minutes into Luddum’s General Store to quench a solid thirst, a dozen known odors assailing him anew from the hillsides and elsewhere, old Ben Luddum behind the counter staring at him in quick disbelief, he was suddenly looking at himself.
The young man was perhaps fifteen or sixteen, blond as a towhead could be, thick across the shoulders widened by hard labor, his neck thick and robust too. He had spun about with a fresh pear in hand, about to yell out to someone. A small scar rode one side of his forehead, his nose fell clean and even, his mouth was full of bright teeth. Their eyes locked in a momentary signal, both reaching for a system of recognition, both acknowledging the mirror looks of the other.
The pear sat in the youth’s hand as if in offering, his mouth open in indecisive salute. Each warranted the other’s attention, alarm, similarity, intrusion, and personal acknowledgment; the way a lock of hair fell off to one side of the forehead, how it dangled a sense of the devil-may care, the eyes at subtle assessment, how the left shoulder of each dipped as if the heart in place there was a heavy load.
A grasp of breath held one spot in Tomorrow Sandspur’s throat as he looked at a face that looked back at him every time he shaved. Unknown facts rushed toward conclusion.
The first word was barely echoed from a corner of the store, from a hidden alcove soft with shadows, when Tomorrow recognized it. “Tommy,” the voice said, and a second “Tommy,” repeated affirmation of its owner, “come look at this new fishing pole.”
One single, unforgettable aroma swept Tomorrow asunder as Hannah Gibbs came out of the soft shadows. Age had not caught her in its grasp. Her hair was dark and deep as night, yet the new light of an overhead bulb made aureoles of reflections on her cheeks. Roundness had not found her either, but comfort had, and a grace in movement that flooded Tomorrow as she handed off a fishing rod in one hand. “See this new one, Tommy. It feels real comfortable.” She held the rod toward the young man, and then her eyes found those of Tomorrow Tommy Sandspur.
The fire he could remember in the eyes that once had looked up at him in the old haymow was alive and burning.
Hannah Gibbs froze near the end of the counter as she looked at Tommy Sandspur over the shoulder of her son. Behind the counter, his face appearing as if he were reading the last chapter of a book, the last paragraph of a story, a last rapturous line, Ben Luddum could hardly wait to tell his wife what he was seeing firsthand and fully righteous.
All of them realized at once what was happening. The entire scene might have been arranged those many years ago, the next scene coming in rapid sequence.
The no-longer adolescent voice of Hannah Gibbs, that once-immature lilt of it gone, said, “Hello, Tommy. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen you. It’s been forever,” her words coming as if intended for all four people in the store. An intangible light leaped about her, an understanding and acceptance accompanying her voice, her carriage. The other Tommy, the young man reaching for the fishing pole, instantly recognized a singular point in his own life as well as in his mother’s life, though he could not say a word. A burden, a long immoveable burden, had moved.
His mother spoke to this other man the way she would speak to a dear friend. “What have you been doing all this time, Tommy, this forever?” She had taken a step forward, closing the distance between her and the visitor.
Tomorrow Sandspur could only manage a few words, so deep had realizations come upon him. “I am the minister at Gracious Mountain Church down in the Chawkenauga, along the Shenandoah. What have you been doing all this time?” He nodded at his reflection holding the fishing pole.
Luddum and the young man looked on, both sharing the same awareness, alert to every signal, seeing a story run its pages.
“My son Tommy and I live where I was born, and where he was born, at my father’s farm, though my father’s been gone for five years now. I play the organ at our church. When Tommy’s not working parts of the farm, he fishes. He’s very good at it.” One hand touched the broad shoulder of her son.
Tomorrow Sandspur’s whole life leaped at him, and he somehow felt that Molly Pritchard Ware had let go her long grasp.
“I know where there’s an organ that hasn’t been played in fifteen or so years, down there in the Chawkenauga.”
Ben Luddum, as quietly as he could manage, slipped out the back door, and then rushed to tell his wife what he had just seen. He wondered if she would believe him.