A boy afraid of the dark; a man afraid of the light.
Be anxious for nothing,” his mother said, and then she went on to a better place and left the seventeen-year-old boy by himself, with nothing. The car died, and her treatments swallowed the rent money even before that final trip to the hospital. For the last month of her life, Jeremy lived with Uncle Walter and Aunt Anna and their three rotten kids, and it had not worked out. It wasn’t their fault; he knew that. Living apart from his mother for the first time in his life, he went for short visits and saw the pain consume her in stages. In the beginning his young heart begged for a miracle; in the end, for relief. Even if Walter and Anna’s house had been a haven of peace and comfort, it would still have been eclipsed by his mother’s demise.
The day before the funeral Anna gave him the letter his mother had left for him. He went down to the creek to get away from the twins, sat up against the trunk of a poplar tree, and read.
When he had finished reading he folded the letter and put it back into the envelope, then took it out and read it again. While the letter was printed neatly on two pages of his mother’s pale blue stationery and every word was clear, he didn’t make it back to the house for three hours. He couldn’t get his mind around it. Written weeks earlier, when she still had the strength to think and write, her letter contained the dying wisdom of a woman who could not possibly mean him harm, but it was the wisdom of another world. Jeremy had inherited much of his mother’s native insight, though in her last weeks she had gone beyond him, into a peace and understanding that lay outside the experience of a seventeen-year-old boy. Her instructions were perfectly plain; he understood what he was to do, he just didn’t know why. The only thing she had left up to him was the timing.
I’ve written this letter a thousand times and there’s never enough room to say all I want, so I won’t. I’ll just tell you what I need to. I know my leaving will be harder on you than it is on me, but I can’t help that. You’re what’s left of me and Tom. Knowing that, even while I’m dying, fills me up with a kind of light. After what happened to your dad all I ever wanted to do was keep you safe, and I know now it was a wrong thing. I was so scared.
But I’m not afraid anymore. The Lord has brought me to a whole new place on the other side of fear and I can see forever, like that time up at Eagle Rock. It’s like that when you’re close to death—all the unimportant stuff just sort of falls away and you know what’s real. I know now what I have to ask you to do, and I’m glad I won’t be there to see it. When the time is right I want you to go find your uncle Aiden, and when you find him, stay with him. He’ll try to run you off, but don’t you let him. Do whatever it takes to stay with him. You have something I couldn’t give him, and he has something I couldn’t give you. I won’t tell you what—you’ll just have to find out from each other. When you find it, you’ll know. Until then, don’t tell him about this letter. It might take a while, but whatever happens stay the course and remember he’s your father’s only brother.
I’ll see that Anna understands. You just go.
I love you with all my heart.
When the time is right, she said. He could almost hear her voice telling him, “You’ll know.”
At the funeral the next day Jeremy overheard part of a conversation between three gray-haired men who had separated themselves from the crowd for a quick cigarette.
“... the other one—you know, the one that lived. I heard he went back to mining as soon as he was able. Never missed a lick,” the tall, thin one said.
“Oh yeah! Whatever happened to him?” the slick one asked. He looked like a used car salesman.
Jeremy knew the third old man, the one with the deep voice. He was a deacon in Walter and Anna’s church, and he sang in the choir.
“I talked to a old boy that knows him, not two weeks ago. Said he was working a hard-rock tunnel for Murlyn & Pratt someplace down around Atlanta.”
Jeremy’s heart raced. Now, at precisely this time, on the heels of his mother’s last request, news of his lost uncle was almost prophetic. He hadn’t seen Uncle Aiden for ten years—not since the accident. Nobody had. Jeremy remembered him, but he didn’t know how much of the memory was shaped by pictures he’d grown up with, snapshots of his father and Aiden together—before. He recalled odd incidents, fragments of stories, the sound of laughter, and the way his father had smiled when he was around Uncle Aiden. The light that came into his eyes.
In the sunlit darkness of his mother’s funeral, news of Aiden opened a door onto the world and laid a question on Jeremy’s mind: Did he have the kind of faith it would take to fling himself whole into the void? There was only one problem.
He had never faced anything alone.
For the last ten years, in the absence of his father, his mother had kept him safe. Above all else, she had kept him safe. After his father’s death Julie had gathered Jeremy tightly under her wing like a mother hen, shielding him. She had tucked him in at night and awakened him in the morning with prayers for his safety, for God’s protection, for angels to hover over her only son and see that no harm came to him. She took him to church every time the doors were open; the people he’d grown up with at church formed a shell around him. Even at school he had not made a single friend outside of the kids he knew from church—partly because he didn’t hide his faith, but also because he didn’t participate in anything. His mother wouldn’t let him go out for sports. Football and baseball were too dangerous, and he couldn’t make it to practice anyway because he sacked groceries in the afternoons to help make ends meet. She had insulated him against the world the same way she’d insulated him against the snow when he was little, wrapping him in so many layers he couldn’t move.
But now her voice reached out to him through the handwritten words on the pale blue page, and told him to go, to leave the only home, the only comfort, the only protection he knew. Find your uncle, she said, and it felt strangely like a court sentence, like banishment. Worst of all, she had left him no room for debate, no way to ask why. He slipped away from the funeral service to take his mother’s letter from his wallet and read it again, though he had memorized it by now. He searched desperately for a loophole, but his mother had shaped these words, on this page, for him alone, while her warm soul still moved her hand, and she had left no question about what he was to do. Just go, she said. It contradicted everything she had said and done before, yet there it was, and it filled him with an impossible dread.
The crippling fear would not go away—he knew this—and might even grow stronger with time, as his mother’s voice faded. He knew that if he did not go now, he might never do it.
The time was right.
When he got back to Walter and Anna’s he looked up Murlyn & Pratt in the phone book, called them and told them he was a miner looking for work somewhere close to Atlanta. They gave him an address and told him how to find the place. He wrote a brief note and left it on the hall table for Anna the next morning before daylight—just a good-bye, for he had seen in Anna’s eyes that she knew. His mother had said Anna would be told, and his mother, as always, had kept her word. He slipped out the back door with a duffel bag and sixty-three dollars.
Jeremy could have taken a bus from the mountains of eastern Tennessee down to Atlanta, but bus rides cost money, which was why the shaggy-haired boy in the baggy jeans ended up hitching a ride with a farmer in a pickup truck. The old man, wearing overalls and a CAT cap and spitting tobacco juice out the window at regular intervals, had obviously picked up Jeremy to have somebody to talk to, but Jeremy didn’t say a whole lot. He didn’t have to. Mostly he stared out the window, nodding occasionally, laughing when it was called for, now and then priming the pump with a question about the old man’s farm or his coon dogs or his new Santa Gertrudis bull. He wanted to talk, so Jeremy listened. Mile after mile the hardwood forests of the Great Smokies hunched over the twisting two-lane highway, filtering the light so that Jeremy felt as if he had rolled down through the mountains in an endless green tunnel full of words. The old farmer prattled all the way down to Benton, where he was going to look at a used hay baler.
Two rides later Jeremy found himself just short of Chatsworth, Georgia, where, because the sun was about to go down, he shouldered his duffel bag, turned aside from the road and headed uphill into the woods to look for a place to camp. Alone in the world, he was in no particular hurry, and everything he owned was in the duffel bag.
The hills around Chatsworth were round and tree-covered like the mountains back home. But these were just hills, oddly steep, rising precipitously like dull teeth, a last barrier before the mountains receded into the flatlands. Ten minutes of climbing brought Jeremy to a level spot where a shelf of rock stuck out far enough to provide shelter in case it rained during the night. It was here he dropped his bag, where he could see nothing but woods around him.
Rummaging through his duffel bag for a plastic jug, he cut across the hill until he found a trickle of a brook and filled the jug. With the last of the daylight he foraged several armloads of dry firewood and used his feet to sweep the leaves back so the fire wouldn’t spread, then built a small campfire. He sat cross-legged in front of the little rock shelf and ate a dinner of peanut butter and crackers, washing it down with spring water. Lying back against his bag with his hands folded behind his head, he watched a screech owl shake and ruffle itself awake, listened to the squirrels skittering through the leaves, and felt the evening trickle into the valley. Dim memories of his father came to him here, memories of camping in places like this when he was very small. He could almost hear his father’s voice, talking softly, his face hanging in the firelight, about life and work and fishing.
But as the light failed, the realization pressed in upon him: he was utterly alone. Fear tiptoed in on the darkness and he listened hard, his ears tuned to catch the slightest rustling and turn it into footsteps. To distract himself, he tugged an old Bible from his bag and opened it. It had been his mother’s; the margins were littered with her cramped handwriting, and every worn page bore underlines and brackets and other signs of her passing. She had told him once that you could tell a lot about a person by looking at the dirty parts in their Bible, then she had laughed and shown him places she’d visited so many times that the pages were smudged brown and worried soft—dirty.
Closing the book, he parted his hands and let it fall open naturally so that it showed him, of its own accord, the place she had visited most often, right in the middle. It was the dirtiest place, and he knew the underlined words without having to read them. He had last heard them when he was standing beside her bed in the hospital. With his forearm resting on the rail so he could hold her soft, spent hand, he had finally asked her the most pressing question.
“Aren’t you afraid?”
She had smiled then, and there was pain in it. She spoke in that unnaturally high, breathy voice that came near the end.
“Not anymore,” she said. She squeezed his hand with the little strength she had left. “But I know about pain now, and I know it can only go so far. It’s not the dying that scares you, it’s the not knowing.” And then she had quoted the words from the place she visited most often, speaking them to Jeremy as if she owned them, and looking straight through him.
Raising the Bible up against his face now, he pressed his nose into it and breathed deeply. He could still smell her there, faintly. Sitting cross-legged, he tilted the book toward the campfire to catch the flickering light and read the words: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me.”
The valley of the shadow. He had gone into it with her, and though he knew she was safe now and beyond the pain, he felt that he had not entirely found his own way out again. He wasn’t sure he ever would.
For a long time he sat searching out the dirty pages, the familiar places his mother’s hands had smudged with repeated visits, reading until his eyelids grew heavy.
Burrowed into his sleeping bag, he slept as one who has no place else to be, and the stars kissed his sleep like a mother.
Bad Ground by W. Dale Cramer
Copyright © 2004 ; ISBN 076422784X
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.