Brother Carl and Brother Charles hugged, and after a few introductory comments about the beauty of the afternoon and the love he felt from everybody gathered there, Brother Charles began to testify. It was a story, both lurid and familiar, that could only have come from the South.
"Up until I was five years old," Charles said, "I lived in a tent on the banks of the Tennessee River at Old Whitesburg Bridge. Y'all know where that's at. Then my mother got remarried, and we moved to a houseboat at Clouds Cove."
"My stepdaddy was a drunk."
"Amen," said J.L., who knew something about drunks himself.
"My real daddy lived to be eighty," Charles said. "He died in the Tennessee penitentiary, where he was serving a life sentence for killing his second wife. I was like a lamb thrown into a den of lions when we moved to Clouds Cove," Charles said. "In 1948, when I was six, we lived on nothing but parched corn for three weeks, like rats. We slept on grass beds. We didn't even have a pinch of salt. Now, that's poor."
Amen. They all knew what it was like to be poor.
"By the time I was eight, I'd seen two men killed in our house. I was afraid to go to sleep at night."
Help him, Jesus.
"I made it to the eighth grade, but when I was just shy of turning thirteen years old, I got shot in the stomach with a twelve-gauge shotgun. That was the first time I heard the audible voice of God."
Praise His holy name!
"There I was, holding my insides in my hands. Them things, they really colored up funny, I thought to myself. Then I had the awfullest fear come up on me," Charles said. He was pacing back and forth by now, a loping, methodical pace, his huge, dog-eared Bible held loosely in one hand like an implement. "I saw a vision of my casket lid closing on me, and the voice out of heaven spoke to me and said, 'Don't be afraid, 'cause everything's gonna be all right,' and I felt that shield of faith just come down on me!"
"God's been good to me!"
"He's been good to me!"
"Doctors told my mother I had maybe fifteen minutes to live. 'There's no way he can make it,' they said. 'Almost all his liver's shot out, almost all his stomach.' I was on the operating table sixteen to eighteen hours. They had to take out several yards of intestines. I stayed real bad for forty-two days and nights. I was one hundred twenty pounds when I got shot and eighty-seven when I got out of that hospital. But just look at me now!"
Praise His name!
Brother Charles was standing with his hands clenched at his side and a wild look in his eyes. He was a big man, an enormous man. It was not the first time I'd noticed that, but it was the first time I had considered the damage he might do if he ever had a reason.
"God's been good to me!" he said as he started pacing again.
"I said He's been good to me!"
He suddenly stopped in his tracks. "But I wasn't always good to Him."
"Now you're telling it," Brother Carl said.
"When I was sixteen, I went to live with my real daddy in Tennessee," Charles said. "He was one of the biggest moonshiners in the state, and I wanted to learn the trade. I dabbled in it a good long time. I was bad. I went up to Chicago and did some other things I shouldn't have."
Tell it. They'd all done things they shouldn't have.
"When I came back South, I drove a long-haul rig twice a week to New York City. Then I bought me a thirty-three care farm in Minor Hill, Tennessee. Two-story house. Fine car. I had a still upstairs that could run forty to fifty gallons of whiskey, and in another room I stored my bales of marijuana. Pretty good for a boy who'd grown up picking cotton."
Amen. They knew about cotton.
He raised his Bible and shook it at us. "I don't have to tell you that's the deceitfulness of riches talking, boys."
"One day, things had really got bad on me. I had just got under so much that I couldn't go no further, and I was getting ready to kill myself. The devil spoke to me and said, 'Just go ahead and take that gun and kill yourself and get it over with.'"
He walked to the edge of the arbor and pantomimed picking something up from the grass. "I went over there and got the gun and was fixing to put a shell in it, and when I did, this other voice came to me and said, 'Put that gun back down and walk back over in front of that wood heater.'"
"I walked back over there in front of the wood heater, and suddenly that power from on high hit me in the head and knocked me down on my knees, and I said six words. I won't never forget what they was. I said, 'Lord, have mercy on my soul.'"
Amen. Thank God.
"He took me out in the Spirit and I came back speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gave utterance. The devil said, 'Look, look now. Now what are you going to do?' He said, 'Look at all that moonshine, all that marijuana you got. What are you going to do now? Ain't you in a mess now? Here you are, you've got the Holy Ghost, and you've got all this in your house.' And the Lord spoke to me and said, 'Just set your house in order.'"
Bless him, Lord!
"He said, 'Just set your house in order!'"
"So that's what I did. I set my house in order. I got rid of that moonshine and marijuana. I told the devil to depart that place in the name of Jesus, and within a year I'd taken up my first serpent."
"We've got to set our house in order!" Charles said, and now he was leaning toward us, red-faced, with flecks of white spittle in the corners of his mouth. "We're in the last day with the Lord, children! He won't strive with man forever! He's a merciful God, he's a loving God, but you better believe he's also a just God, and there will come a time when we'll have to account for these lives we've led! We better put our house in order!"
Amen. Thank God. Bless the sweet name of Jesus.
There were only thirteen people under that brush arbor, but it seemed like there were suddenly three hundred. They were jumping and shouting, and pretty soonn Brother Carl was anointing Burma and Erma with oil, and Brother Charles had launched into "Jesus on My Mind" on his guitar, and J.L. and I had our tambourines going. There was so much racket that at first it was hard to hear what Aline was doing over in the corner by a length of dog wire that the morning glory vines had twined around. Her back was to us. Her hands were in the air, and she was rocking slowly from side to side, her face upturned and her voice quavering, "Akiii, akiii, akiii. Akiii, akiii, akiii...."
It was the strangest sound I had ever heard. At first, it did not seem human. It sounded like the voice of a rare night bird, or some tiny feral mammal. And then the voice got louder, mounting up on itself, until it started to sound like that of a child who was lost and in great pain. But even as the hairs on my arm started to stand on end, the voice turned into something else, a sound that had pleasure in it as well as torment. Ecstasy, I would learn later, is excruciating, but I did not know that then.
"Akiii, akiii, akiii...." The singing and praising elsewhere in the brush arbor had started to diminish. Brother Charles had stopped strumming his guitar. Brother Carl had put away his oil. Burma and Dorothea kept their hands raised, but except for an occasional amen or praise Jesus, the air fell silent around Aline's voice. Everyone was listening to her now. I could not disentangle myself from the sound of her voice, the same syllables repeated with endless variation. At times, it seemed something barbed was being pulled from her throat; at other times, the sound was a clear stream flowing outward into thin air. Her voice seemed to be right in my ear. It was a sobbing. A panting after something she could not quite reach. And then it would be a coming to rest in some exquisite space, a place so tender it could not be touched without "Akiii, akiii, akiii...." The sun had set and the electric lights were not yet turned on, but the arbor seemed filled with a golden light. We were swaying in it, transfixed, with Aline silhouetted against the dog wire and the morning glory vines. All but her trembling voice was silent, or so it seemed, until I realized with horror that my tambourine was still going, vibrating against my leg, almost apart from me, as if it had a motive and direction of its own.
My hand froze. It was as though I had been caught in some act of indecency. But Aline's voice reacted with renewed desperation, "Akiii, akiii, akiii," and so I let the tambourine have its own way, now louder and faster, until it almost burst into a song, and then softer and more slowly, until it resembled the buzzing of a rattlesnake in a serpent box. It anticipated every move that Aline's voice made, and vice versa. The intimacy was unnerving: her voice and the tambourine, perfectly attuned to one another and moving toward the same end. I was unreasonably afraid that Charles would be angry with me. I didn't yet know the full dimensions of passion. It was much later that I would come to understand what had gone on in that moment. The tambourine was simply accompanying Aline while she felt for and found God. And I mean "accompany" in its truest sense: "to occur with." And nobody could predict when something like that might happen. Through the tambourine, I was occurring with her in the Spirit, and it was not of my own will.
I cannot say how long the episode lasted. It seemed to go on for a very long time. J.L. turned the lights on at the end. The men hugged the men. The women hugged the women. Aline and I shook hands. If the snake handlers found anything unusual about our curious duet afterward, they never spoke directly to me about it. But I do know one thing: It was after that brush-arbor meeting on Sand Mountain that they started to call me Brother Dennis.