Part XVI: Prodigal Daughter
A person walking along the highway in the rain carrying a red canister can only mean one thing. But Melchizedek was already 400 yards down the road by the time the meaning dawned on his road-weary brain. The sensation of going from 0 to 40 in reverse woke Max mid-snore. "What the f- ?"
At first she stared at them like a mute apparition. In fact with her drenched hair, pale face and blue lips, she could have been what the locals called a "haint", a ghost, perhaps of a drown woman out of a familiar local legend. Melchizedek began to lower the passenger window (much to a sputtering Max's dismay), and was about to offer a ride to the next hamlet or at least to call the State Patrol if she wasn't comfortable taking a ride from two strange men. But she opened the back door and fell into the seat without a word. Soon she was either asleep or passed out.
Max began to complain bitterly about this complication in their schedule while Melchizedek searched among the luggage for a blanket. At the point that Max had him almost convinced that they should call Emergency Services, she pleaded with them to take her to the next gas station.
"You better turn up the heat in here. She's still shivering and her teeth chattering sound like castanets. It's driving me f-ing crazy!"
"She's sick but I don't think it's just a cold. I think it's withdrawal."
"She's dope sick? Oh that's just great! What if she still has drugs on her?
"If she did, she wouldn't be sick, would she?"
"This is not an auspicious development."
They had taken 81 south from Harrisburg. It cut through small sections of Maryland and West Virgina and then ran right along Virginia's piece of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It brought them into Tennessee east of their destination and they soon turned off on a poorly maintained state road. Max had done the much of the driving until they had reached Virginia. By the point that they encountered their sojourner, they were desperately in need of a rest from the road.
From Max's point of view the situation didn't get better. When they found the next town she was clearly in no condition to drive. They had her car towed to a local garage where the mechanic pointed out that the inspection sticker had expired almost a year ago, and wasn't optimistic about making it street legal. They retrieved a duffel bag and a guitar that by her last effort of will had avoided a pawn shop. They had checked into two rooms at the only motel in town, a mildewy one star affair. Melchizedek sat up with her to make sure she made it through the night safely. Max insisted on searching her bag for illegal paraphenalia. He found none but she had a small inventory of music CDs from well-known independant label with her picture on a few of them and the same name on all: Natalene Groves.
She bore cold turkey with the grim stoicism of an early Church martyr. There was no screaming or vomiting although she was drenched in sweat all night. She obediently drank the Gatorade he bought her and in the morning she was eating the breakfast of oranges and bananas picked up at the convenience store. Natalene apologized that she couldn't pay him back for the room or groceries. She was trying to get home to Beulah Hollow which was about 35 miles east of the home of the Melungeon historian in Winslowdale that they were supposed to meet. Melchizedek called their contact to reshedule and broke the news to Max that there had been a change of plans. He didn't take it well.
Natalene was feeling sound enough to travel the next day. While Max smoldered in silence, she napped and dutifully accepted more of the fruit that was laid up for her for the journey. Towards the afternoon, she was able to converse with Melchizedek for brief spells.
She had grown up here in Appalachia, her father was a mechanic for a mining company, but was chronically unemployed when she was a teenager following the main mine closure after a cave-in that claimed a dozen lives.
The central event of her young life was the arrival at the regional high school of Ollie Cabot. Of course he was first known as Mr Cabot. But despite being armed with a handful of teaching degrees from Rutgers and Princeton, it was soon apparent that he did have the presence that commanded the kind of respect needed to maintain order in a post-modern classroom. He was soon familiarly addressed as Ollie, among other things. Despite the stinkbombs, desk locks filled with glue, and blackboard caricatures that greeted him every day, he resolved to try a different approach. It was on the day when he opened his desk and was presented with an hissing mother possum, with her litter that his epiphany came. The project for his history class soon involved all but the most unruly of his students. He had them travel out to the older people who still lived up in the mountains more or less self-sufficiently. It was clear to Ollie in the early Seventies that this lifestyle and all the knowledge that went with it would vanish when these people died.
In many ways the project succeeded beyond all of his expectations. Most importantly, the students recognized and appreciated the toughness and lack of dependence the mountain people had on the modern world. They were coming into the world at the end of the first television generation, and the the contrast with the simplicity of the mountain people was stark.
The mountain people produced everything that they needed. Sheep were raised and sheared and from the wool they wove their own cloth. Hogs were allowed to fatten on the "mast" of the forest, acorns, chestnuts, etc. They were slaughtered at home and virtually no part of the animal went to waste. Even the lard was used for cooking, candles or soap. Their homes were built with tools that they fashioned themselves. Their diets were supplimented with nutrious wild greens and roots, as well as medicinal plants. That which they grew themselves they planted by the signs indicated in their old almanacs, and they had methods for preserving enought to sustain themselves through the winters.
They were not particularly averse to modern ways where it suited them, as attested to by the ubiquitous rusting hulks of autos, but they were proud of their knowledge, and sensed that technology was a relentless task-master and for the most part were content with their old way of life.
The project burgeoned into a journal published by the students called The Beulah County Almanac. Eventually the articles were published in a series of books, the first few of which eventually sold over a million copies each. Ollie then took the revenues from the books, and opened his own progressive school that offered free scholarships. By the time Natalene had enrolled, the local public television station had begun producing a show for young adults based on the articles and Natalene made her debut as one of the hosts that covered folklore, mountain music, and homemade instruments.
But her short tenure was in the twilight of the project. After almost a twenty year run, interest finally had begun to wane and three years after Ollie's untimely death from AIDS the school closed.
The way this influenced the young people in Ollie's classes was curious. The old-timers had a strong effect on the younger generation, but this seemed to be countered by the attention that the books had generated. Some of the students had actually stayed on in the area, in effect apprenticing themselves to the older folks and passing into the obscurity of the simpler lifestyle. Most of the rest of the students continued on in a normal trajectory, some going off to local colleges, joining the service or working in the mines. But there was another sizable group that included Natalene that pursued their new craving for fame and glory. Here she became reticent. She did mention that in later years that several of the alumni of the Almanac had returned with a revived interest in their earlier studies. It was her hope that there would be a place for her among them. The unspokened questions were whether she would be able to finally break the addiction and how she would fill the aching void left by the heroin.
Melchizedek had been so engrossed in the story that he was a little taken aback when Natalene asked where they were originally headed. He told the plain truth about their appointment to learn more about the Melungeon which earned him a glare from Max. His instinct was rewarded with a wealth of stories surrounding the nearby settlement that had long been abandoned, but was still remembered in the oral history of Beulah Hollow. Melchizedek had already thoroughly mined the published accounts that centered around the county seat in Winslowdale that was the epicenter of the recent Melungeon revival.
Jabez Spring was the closest thing to a city around Beulah Hollow. At the junction of two state roads, it had two gas station with convenience stores, a supermarket with strip mall, a real truckstop with a diner, and one motel belonging to one of the "value-priced" national chains that Max preferred. Natalene still didn't feel up to joining the men for dinner at the truckstop. Max's mood improved slightly as he engaged Melchizedek in the first civil conversation they had had in days. He amused himself by making observations on the seamy underside of life on the road, pointing out the activities of the women climbing into tractor trailers in the nearby lot, identifying which patrons were affiliated with white supremacist groups based on their jailhouse tattoos, and correctly predicting which traveller would approach them with a sob story about a broken down family car. When they returned, they could hear Natalene's steady guitar and slightly shaky voice coming from the next room:
Far back in my childhood
I'member th day was happy an' free
But I wandered away
I was taught by my Father
Who sleeps beneath th stone
I was led by my Mother
Yet I wandered alone
Yes alone, all alone
An' I seen them go on
Yet I wander, O how lonely
I'm shivering in th cold
Soon after the song ended there was a knock on their door. Natalene suggested that if they went with her to the mid-week service at the Beulah Methodist Church, Rev. Goins, who she described as a learned man and something of a local historian might have some useful information.Max flatly refused.. Melchizedek said he would be happy to go with her.
The meeting was in full swing when they arrived. Muted music and colored light spread a out to the parking lot like a groundfog of praise. The hymns and camp meeting worship songs were sung exuberantly. As with all well-loved songs, enthusiasm was favored over technical perfection, and the flats and sharps seemed to cancel each other harmoniously.
Rev. Goins was tall and lean, with an olive complexion. From his last name and appearance, he was almost certainly Melungeon. Natalene later told him he was probably in his late fifties to early sixties when she left Beulah Hollow. Judging by the wear in his face he could be in his eighties, but his hair still was a mixture of black and white and had the posture of a four-star general.
He delivered some announcements and other church business with mild humor. His sermon on how God uses the foolish things of this world to confound the wise would have made the top graduates of the best seminars secretly envious, but it was delivered in the homey diction of the county. It was fortified with anecdotes from his career involving unnamed persons that were alternatively heartwarming and hilarious. Nearly every point was answered with enthusiastic salvos of assent, ranging from the simple amen to "You preach it pastor!". Melchizedek was no stranger to the inside of a church, and though his travels had made attendence a distant memory, he was thoroughly enjoying himself when Rev Goins brought the sermon in for a landing and asked if anyone needed prayer.
The assembly fell into a reverent stillness as if they knew exactly what was going to happen. As if on cue, Natalene stood and walked toward the pulpit. There rose a collective murmuring from the congregation, like a soft moan of relief. Open palms were stretched towards Natalene all eyes closed and some prayed silently while others cried out loud in unearthly languages.
"Raise your face to Him, Natalene and lift up holy hands to receive His blessings" Her arms were visibly trembling and soon her legs gave out. She curled on the floor and a bloodcurdling shriek seemed at first to shatter the peace. Rev. Goins was unmoved.
"In the name of Jesus, unclean spirit, you will hold your lying tongue until commanded to speak truth. In Jesus name I rebuke you spirit, and in Jesus name you are bound..." Rev. Goins was just warming up. He seemed to relish the task at hand as he beat down Natalene's personal demon eight ways to Sunday, releasing it from it's assignment, tearing down it's stronghold, breaking it's jaw, confounding it's schemes and confusing it's purpose. At one point he had to remove his jacket and the shirt beneath was soaked in sweat, but he didn't miss a beat. After a few minutes of praying aloud in tongues and calling on the Lord, he bent closer.
"In the name of Jesus, what is your name, spirit?" The head slowly lifted as if under a heavy weight. The eyes glared balefully at Rev. Gloins and a voice croaked, "Papaveryin!"
Rev. Goins stretched himself to his full height and raised his arms. He spoke quietly. "In Jesus name, You will leave this precious child of God. She is His and you can never snatch her from His hand."
Natalene turned her head as she retched and gagged. I thin stream of a bright lime green liquid issued from her open mouth like a jet from a fountain. She let out a heart's cry, and began weeping, not in a key of misery or despair, but one of gratitude and relief.
Melchizedek came out of his seat when she fell, and was beside her. Rev Goins hunkered down beside them and stroked Natalene's head, the first contact they had during the whole encounter. He turned to Melchizedek and whispered, "This was just the overture. You and I, sir, have a divine appointment this evening!"
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