Story: The Passage (1948)

By: William J. Watkins, Jr.

passage

For Garland Breazeale, his garden patch was a refuge. An Eden prior to the Fall. But on recent Saturday mornings, before the sun began its climb up the eastern sky, the patch would change. Garland had never been able to catch a glimpse of the perpetrator and found no hard evidence, such as footprints, of a trespass. Yet, the Enemy’s work was evident.

And so it was on this first Saturday in December 1948. Garland was up long before the roosters on the Chauga Valley’s farms began to announce a new day. The morning was cold but not frigid. Large flakes of snow fell across the valley in the dim morning light. When Garland ventured out back, he saw no evidence of accumulation. He retrieved an armload of firewood and proceeded to rekindle the fire in his stove. The pot-bellied stove was small, but for a bachelor residing in a three-room cabin, it was all he needed.

A member of the bar, Garland’s friends were forever reminding him, should have more respectable lodgings in town. Cecil T. Sandifer, Hampton Falls’ sole physician and a sometimes client, enjoyed lecturing Garland that appearances were just as important as a professional man’s ability.

You certainly got to be able to do the doin’” Cecil would concede. “But if you don’t look like you’re able, then nobody’s gonna darken your door–you’ll do no doin’ even if you’re right well able.”

Cecil was 27 years Garland’s senior, and Garland always politely thanked the older man for his advice. Despite Cecil’s genuine concern for his career, Garland believed he’d been doing much “doin’” since hanging out his shingle in the summer of 1946 after resigning his commission in the Army’s JAG Corps. In that short span, he had tried close to two dozen cases, drafted scores of wills, and assisted with settling more estates than he cared to recall. Things had picked up so that he felt he spent too much time in his office on Jack Street. In fact, he was spending so much time at work that the convenience of a home in town somewhat appealed to him.

He ensured that the draft of the stove was closed and laid a spilt of dry wood in the stove’s belly. Several glowing coals remained from the previous evening’s fire. The weak coals came back to life as Garland gave them a couple of pokes. He placed his kettle on top of the stove and hoped that its whistle would not be long delayed. Hot tea would take the chill off. As the water heated, Garland cracked two eggs and readied them for the skillet.

After breakfast and indulging in the warmth of the stove, Garland grabbed his canvass work jacket and headed for the garden. Because of the short December days and his case load, he had not spent much time among his winter vegetables. He had made a quick pass through the garden earlier in the week. Garland recalled that the broccoli was heading nicely and should be ready to pick. The snow had stopped falling, but the wind coming off Battered Rock Mountain cut into him.

Garland had only four beds planted; a far cry from the rows of summer vegetables that he had tended to. On the terraces where the corn had grown and the melons sprawled, a cover crop of turnips and rape looked up into the sky. The beds that had featured his tomatoes and peppers showed a small growth of winter peas. Old Buck Marcengill had warned Garland that the peas were better suited as spring cover, but Garland had gone ahead with the experiment. Once again, he had proved Buck a prophet.

The thought of Buck brought first a smile and then a frown to his face. Garland recalled, as if he could forget, that he was scheduled to teach the Saturday Bible study at the Hampton Falls Poor Farm. Buck was the superintendent of the poor farm and did an amazing job of providing for the two dozen or more residents. In theory, a resident who did not work did not eat. But, considering that only a handful of the resident paupers were able-bodied men, Buck was not a rigorous enforcer of the rule.

The thought of his duties for the day turned Garland’s heart away from his broccoli, collards, and lettuce. Instead of seeing lush blue-green leaves made ready by the frosts of the season, he saw thorns and thistles.

Exhaling deeply, Garland walked through the garden and down the slope to where the Oakatee Creek ran beside his property. Brushing the dusting of snow off of a rock, he sat down. The creek was not more than six feet wide as it cut down the side of Garland’s land. In the dry times, he rigged up a water ram next to the creek to pump water to a holding tank by the garden.

His mind was fixed on his impending trip to the poor farm. He had taken over the teaching duties in the summer just after Frank Honea had his first stroke. Mr. Honea had been a fixture at Reedy Fork Baptist Church. Garland agreed to teach the study with the understanding that he was just filling in while Mr. Honea recovered. Unfortunately, a second stroke followed and led to his home going.

At the start of his Saturday teaching, Garland enjoyed exploring the Scriptures with the farm’s residents. As if readying a case for trial, he diligently prepared so he could answer any questions from his pupils. It did not take long to realize that most questions he received would not be about Biblical exegesis, but drifted into the realm of free legal advice. Were there any procedures a man could follow to recover property sold at a tax sale? Wasn’t part of Mister Roosevelt’s New Deal a farm bill with public lands available for the asking? If a merchant didn’t pay a man the agreed upon price for a crop, was there any recourse in the courts?

Garland patiently listened to all their questions and answered as best he could. Sometimes he had to conduct some additional research in his law books or courthouse records, but he always reported back to his inquirers.

Garland had learned, formed friendships with several of the residents, and believed that he was doing a needed service. Yet, in the last few months, he felt weary—as if he were on a steep climb with a heavy and ill-fitting rucksack. Garland had always loved a ramble in forests of the Chauga Valley, but his current trek felt more like a road march from his boot camp days.

When the study started back in the summer, the residents and their teacher carefully and joyously had covered the Epistle of James. He especially liked James’ warning that faith without works is dead. But the works of each Saturday were becoming more difficult. And now they were moving through the first Epistle of Peter.

By Labor Day, Garland had realized that he would have to deal with The Passage—most likely before Christmas. The Passage caused him anxiety. When it was preached on or even mentioned in some extemporaneous prayer, he felt a twitch of discomfort. His breathing would slow and the very air seemed to press against his body.

With head in hands, his vision pierced the melodious waters of the creek. Looking for some sign of life, Garland saw only decaying leaves whisked along by the current. He sat by the creek for a length of time contemplating the day’s duty. The cold and dampness of the rock were seeping through his britches and into his body. His stillness accelerated this process.

With the chill pressing in upon him, Garland climbed back up the creek bank and trudged through his garden. He thought about picking some greens for his supper, but lacked the desire to engage in this small chore. As had happened on previous Saturdays, his beloved garden patch had been changed. The snow had begun to melt off the broad leaves of the cabbage and collards. On other days he would have stopped to marvel at the colors and the water droplets’ slow journey down the stalks of the plants. Not today. The presence of an Adversary robbed him of this natural spectacle. He walked on, feeling something like briars pulling on his boots and slowing his usually quick gait.

Back in the cabin, he washed his breakfast dishes, made his bed, and generally straightened up his living quarters. After a trip to the privy out back, he pulled his old rocking chair next to the stove and pondered. He began to reach for his Bible to review the day’s lesson, but suddenly stopped. If he opened it, The Passage would be there. Garland’s stomach turned a summersault. He laid his head on the back of the rocker and slowly gathered a breath. In an effort to keep his breakfast down, he recalled the morning’s snow and the beauty of the flakes. He tried to think on anything but The Passage.

The rocking motion helped him maintain the upper hand on his nerves, but he could not stop the hands of the clock from advancing. Mrs. Marcengill would expect him to eat dinner with the poor farm’s residents prior to the lesson. It being Saturday and cold, he knew Mrs. Marcengill would be serving her famed “soup bucket soup.” Never ones to waste, the Marcengills collected the week’s leftovers in a large bucket kept in the ice box or root cellar depending on the season. On Saturday morning Mrs. Marcengill poured the contents of the bucket into her stew pot and added whatever extra ingredients she had on hand. It was not appetizing to think about the making of the “soup bucket soup,” but the end product always was delicious.

Garland rose from his chair, gathered his coat and hat, retrieved his Bible, and headed out the front door. His 1937 Chevrolet pickup was parked in the driveway. Any remnant of frost or flurries had vanished from the hood and windshield. Despite the cold, the truck started right up and Garland put it in gear. The truck lurched out of the driveway and pulled onto Pump House Road.

His stomach still a bit queasy, he rolled down the window and felt a rush of cold air on his face. He didn’t know whether the cold relieved his anxiety or the bite of the wind simply took his mind elsewhere. He did not care. He was happy to have some momentary relief.

Garland did not meet another vehicle as he drove toward the farm. This was not unusual. Most folks with business in town would have driven in much earlier and were now in the midst of shopping, conversation, and other townly diversions.

In an effort to delay the inevitable, Garland kept the Chevrolet at 30 mph. Moving further down Pump House Road, most of the land was open—barbed wire fencing to the left and right of the truck. After passing the Barron place, Garland could see in the distance the main house of the poor farm. It was a white two-story, wood-framed house with chimneys on the eastern and westerns ends. The slate roof gleamed in the sunlight. A porch ran all the way across the front of the house. Garland thought he could make out rocking chairs easing back and forth on the porch.

Just behind the main house was a smaller two-story house. It was weathered and in much need of paint and various repairs. This house also had chimneys on the eastern and westerns sides, but the roof was tin. The main house was reserved for families that were more or less intact and orphaned children. This second house typically housed the farm’s cripples and short-term residents who were biding their time before moving on once the spring came around.

A veritable rogues’ gallery it is,” Buck often lamented. “Several ‘em boys are just waiting to get caught in the wrong chicken coop.”

Garland pulled up to the main house and parked his truck. Before he could shut off the engine he was met by a gaggle of children pulling on his door handle. He was known to take part in the children’s afternoon kickball games and they saw him as one of them rather than a typical adult with an officious concern for the rules of “civilized society.” They loved his visits.

As he exited the truck, Garland heard Buck Marcengill’s familiar mock greeting.

Why, Mister Breazeale Esquire, could we have your company at our table and modest spread of victuals?”

No matter how many times he heard it, this greeting caused Garland to blush and grin.

Absolutely, my good sir,” he responded mimicking Buck’s faux aristocratic tone.

But only if you allow my esteemed colleagues here to join us for the sumptuous repast that Lady Marcengill has no doubt prepared.”

You’ve got a rough crew there, but I suppose we can allow it, if you insist.”

Buck then turned to the children. “Okay, kids. Inside, wash first—and let the Mrs. know that our honored guest and teacher is here.”

Like a flock of robins, the children flew up the steps and through the front door. Some of the smallest were knocked aside by the older ones, but they quickly got back to their feet and brought up the rear of the procession.

The last child was hardly through the door when Garland heard the ring of the dinner bell. It was a signal for the men to leave their work in the barn and come inside.

The sound of the house was a true cacophony to Garland. As an only child, he never grew up with a steady din that an assemblage of children can make. Not even the Breazeale family reunions compared to the noise and activity at the poor farm. His youth had been spent in relative solitude and this became only more so when his parents died in 1933. “The Derailment,” as folks in those parts called it, brought loss to sundry of the Chauga Valley’s citizens. Southern Railway never definitively identified the cause of the locomotive and three passenger cars jumping the tracks. Nor could Southern explain the resulting fire that left 11 dead and a dozen more with severe burns. Garland was 20 at that time and just finishing his second year at the state agricultural college. Insurance proceeds, and the beneficence of his uncle Vernon Abbot, allowed him to complete college and go on to law school in the midst of the Depression.

The oaken table in the dining room sat 12 adults. Buck, as he always did, insisted that Garland occupy the head of the table. Every seat was taken. In adjacent rooms, children scuffled over chairs surrounding card tables and other makeshift eating places. After thanks was given, the farm’s residents and guest eagerly attacked Mrs. Marcengill’s soup bucket soup and buttermilk cornbread.

All the activity caused Garland to forget his weak stomach and to actually enjoy the meal. The cornbread reminded him of his mother’s—the crispy edges wrought by the cast iron skillet were done to perfection. In between bites, he and Buck talked of the brief snowfall and the December work of sharpening tools, repairing machinery, and the first harvest from the farm’s cabbage patch. Buck inquired about Garland’s work, and nodded politely as Garland recounted the week’s document drafting and court appearances.

All too suddenly, Mrs. Marcengill and two of the teenage girls in residence appeared and began to clear away the dishes. Without being summoned, children started to filter into the dining room for their Saturday lesson. Full stomachs plus the warmth from the fire resulted in something of a hush as eyes turned to Garland.

Feeling the life drain out of him, Garland stood. His eyes surveyed his diverse audience. Big Dan Ballenger sat with hands folded over his belly and eyes shut. Gladys Dixon, her spectacles pushed to the end of nose, studied her tattered Bible open on the table. The three Dixon boys, afraid to move a muscle, stood at attention behind her. Along the walls various boys and girls leaned, some shifting from side to side.

Buck gave a nod, and the lesson began. The Passage jumped from the page and onto Garland’s tongue. Garland’s mouth burned, and he parsed his lips to bring forth words.

Today we shall look at First Peter, chapter one, verses fifteen through sixteen. Give attention to the Word of the Lord. ‘But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy, for I am holy.’”

To explain the concept of God’s holiness in The Passage, Garland turned to the third chapter of Exodus and Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. “Draw not hither: put off thy shoes from thy feet,” Jehovah commanded Moses. “For the place whereon thy standest is holy ground.”

As Garland read from Exodus, he felt his feet grow warm—as if fire from the bush was about to consume him. A fine man he was to give a lesson on holiness. As he discoursed on the attributes of God, his mind mulled over his own attributes. Self-Pity, Childishness, and Stubbornness were the foundation of the wall he often hid behind. It was dank behind the wall, but it gave him a sense of safety. He controlled his exits from the wall and carefully ensured that no one could come in without a proper invitation. The bricks of the wall allowed him to deal with the outside world on his terms. Inside the wall was seldom a holy place.

As he looked closer at his wall, the bricks of Envy and Resentment stared back at him. Life after The Derailment had been a battle, but he had so much to be thankful for: education, a supportive extended family, and his church. Despite these blessings, he nonetheless envied friends with parents still living. He resented the fact that his parents had been taken away. He did not deserve this loss. There were rapscallions throughout the Chauga Valley who would enjoy Christmas dinner with both a mother and father. Garland had not experienced that in years.

Garland’s head spun. He talked, exposited, and discoursed. Every so often, a brick from the wall seemed to fly toward him. With his spine perfectly straight as he taught, in his spirit he ducked. The brick of Disillusionment crashed into the door frame behind him. The force of impact caused the house to rattle. He fixed his feet firmly to the floor and continued on with the lesson. Other bricks came so fast that Garland could not quite make out their names. Their trajectory was level with his head. Bobbing and weaving like a prize fighter, he pushed forward with The Passage.

With sweat soaking his armpits and back of his collar, there was one final brick that Garland could not dodge. As Pride streaked toward him, he braced for the jolt. He shut his eyes and a loud crash resonated through the room.

Garland opened his eyes and saw Big Dan picking himself up off the floor. He had fallen asleep and leaned too far back in the old chair. The children were in an uproar—despite the stern looks from Gladys Dixon. Mrs. Marcengill stood in the doorway to the kitchen biting her lip to keep some semblance of dignity.

Finally, Buck stood up and motioned everyone to settle down. Big Dan put the chair upright and sat down as if nothing had happened. Slowly, the quiet resettled in the room and Buck gave a fatherly nod to Garland.

Unsure where he was in the lesson, but figuring that it must be towards the end if Big Dan had already nodded off, Garland wrapped things up. He steadied himself and reached for more words. His work with The Passage was done.

Well, my friends, that is the Apostle’s teaching on our need of holiness and our duty to imitate this trait found in the Lord. Any questions, comments, concerns?”

There seldom were. The room was silent and the fire crackled in the background.

It’s mighty sweet, ain’t it?”

That was the voice of Gladys Dixon.

What’s that, ma’am”? Garland asked.

That one who was perfectly holy, without no compulsion, would make a way for the likes of you and me so that we might be able to enjoy that holiness of the Lawd hisself not for just a spell, but for time, and all times. It is truly an amazing grace that He has and something nary a one of us can earn with our best deeds being but filthy rags. Ain’t it, Mr. Breazeale?”

Garland wiped a touch of moisture from the corner of his left eye. His eyes met those of Mrs. Dixon. “It sure is, ma’am. Thank you for reminding us of that.”

The room emptied and the children scurried to the yard for games. As usual, Garland followed them. Grabbing the old rubber ball and kicking a stray brick out of the way, he played. The sky was cloudless. The chill of the morning had passed. In between rolls of the ball, he thought of his garden and the greens he would pick for supper. It was the loveliest day Garland recalled seeing in the Chauga Valley.

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