It was January 1st, 1993 when she died, leaving me with little but a name and a few scarce instances in the future in which I would find myself struggling to draw her ghostly memory to the front of my mind. The way my father would smile when he recollected his favorite stories of his time with her told me more than the photographs ever could. She helped them teach me to walk, and I'm fairly certain she was there for my first words. The first words that ever truly stuck with me belonged to my great-grandfather as we gathered around to help him shuffle slowly down the aisle from her coffin.
If there is a heaven, I know she's there right now.
It must have been the first time I ever really considered the idea. Looking back, it seems like every day of my fragile existence before that point was filled with the oblivious pursuits of a fresh and ignorant mind. Back then I could lie flat on my back in the swing on the front porch of that old Tennessee house, drifting idly back and forth and trying to catch a glimpse of her ethereal figure floating somewhere in those puffy rolling clouds.
I never did.
My great-grandfather doesn't believe in giving up even to this day, and it was only a couple of years later when he remarried. Suddenly there was a new old house to wander about in and a new lady to offer her bountiful love to my fragmented family. I had learned about heaven from the one who passed. From her, I would learn about hell.
There is beauty in the simplicity of youth. Today I shy away from the people who surround me from day to day. The only thing more fearsome than the gritty, slithering evil lying just beneath their perpetual charade is the relentless grinding which fills my skull when I lie down at night. As a child, my only mortal concern was thunderstorms at bedtime. Ominous shadows slinking quietly up the wall. A tumultuous roar outside, and later within.
I would lie in bed for as long as I could, eyes wide and dodging toward the window as if the next thunderous clap might shatter it completely. When it became unbearable I would slide out from underneath the covers and pad quietly through the house and into the kitchen, where I never failed to find her on nights such as this. Hunched over the kitchen table with a burning Pall Mall locked between the gnarled fingers of her right hand and a King James bible splayed open before her, she greeted me with a smile.
Well, if it idn't Amos. Whatcha know there, little'un?
I never really knew how to answer that question, but I did know that if the transformer on the line outside hadn't blown then she might just flip on the light above the kitchen table and take out her old deck of Bicycle playing cards. As we idly occupied ourselves with a game of Memory or Go Fish something beautiful would take place that the rigid, paranoid adult I have become has absolutely no concept of - my worries would cease. For a few mystical moments all the icy fear within me would melt away and the great wide world consisted of nothing but the joy of the game and the comforting presence of someone who loved me.
Several people around me have turned themselves into monsters. I have watched their faces collapse, their eyes disappear into musty dead hollows, their tongues fork and flicker as they draw themselves near enough to steal my breath and constrict the flow of my veins with a venomous clutch. I feel less than human. I am the husk, and there is nothing left but the desolate whispering memories of those precious souls who graced my early life with the purity of their intent. She was one of the few.
When the last card lie overturned she would sweep them all back into a neat stack with practiced hands and draw the open bible near to her once more. Without so much as a glance in my direction she would begin to read aloud.
And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.
Forgive me my trespasses.
And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.
Enter into my willing heart, Lord.
And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment [was] as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.
And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.
Young and fragile in my cotton pajamas, I sat beneath the dirty light of that kitchen on countless stormy nights and learned about the end from a frail old woman who would soon succumb to the cancer burning within her belly. I could not comprehend it. I could not forget it. As the downpour outside diminished to a pleasant drizzle my mind would eventually drift into endless infected reveries of pestilence and torment. There were no more happy endings. My childhood was nailed to a wooden cross, left alone to writhe in agony and die.
Of the many wondrous and terrible things I took away from those ominous nights, I cherish most the fortitude which enabled her to do what she thought was right. There was no contemplation, no planning or plotting or deviation. There was only her glistening book of truth and my undiscerning young mind. If only more of life's questions could be addressed with such brutal certainty.
Although I have outgrown the multifarious terrors of that mysterious text, in a roundabout way it helped me learn how to reserve my condemnation for those who willingly pursue that which they know to be unjust. It is a lesson bought and paid for, as my father might say.
In the end, the locusts which descend upon us will have the faces of men.
I think I'm beginning to see.