Part XVIII: Trail of Tears
"...and as soon as the attack is detected, multiple warheads launch against the major cities of the Arab world and Europe..." Max's audience was polite and attentive. It had clearly been a while since they stopped trying to figure out what he was talking about. At night the cafe became a sort of roadhouse where bottled beer was served. Music was provided by a Johnny Cash tribute band.
Meanwhile at the Beulah Baptist Church, fellowship time was ushered in with decaf coffee and homemade cookies. After a spell of tears and hugs from well-wishers, Natalene had found one of her old classmates among the praise and worship team. Soon a mandolin and banjo appeared among the other instruments and a bluegrass gospel jam session had begun.
I saw the light, yes I saw the light
No more of darkness, no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord! I saw the light!
Rev. Goins took Melchizedek to his office. There was a large oak desk with an old fashioned blotter, no computer and a rotary phone. The walls were completely lined with bookcases, many large sets of commentaries, concordances and obscure Bible translations. There were a few stuffed chairs for visitors and a small Oriental rug well worn in the middle by the pastor's knees.
"Now brother, I don't know any of th' details, but the Lord did give me a word of knowledge concerning you, and I'm s'posed to help in any way I can. So go and ask away and if I know the answer I give it t'ya. If y'can't bring me into all your confidences, that'd be just fine, chances are I don't want to know. What I do know is that you got a burden, and as a fellow Christian I'm t'share it."
Melchizedek had felt a tangible bond of trust with the Reverend. But he started with the account of Isaac's trek from New Amsterdam, with the background involving the vision of Menassah ben Israel. Rev Goins was an active listener nodding and occasionally chiming a response to encourage the tale.
"Well brother, as a Melungeon, I've heard my share of stories about th' Lost Tribes. You probably know about th' research done with genetic testing. There ain't any evidence that th' Native Americans have any biological connection to th' Hebrew race, but th' Melungeons do in part. We are a mix of Northern European, Iberian, Turkish, Mediterranean Middle Eastern and Jewish blood. Isaac's party surely could have had this make up, Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain coulda mixed with Turks in Salonika, Izmir and Constantinople either in their travels in the Mediterranean or in th' New World. As you know, th' Melungeon used t' identify themselves as "Portugee", and in th' time he arrived, ol' Isaac wuz bound t' run into th' Portuguese and Spanish settlers who that'd started with a fort on the coast 'tween Carolina and Georgia. They moved inland when th' English settlers b'came too many. These were likely th' ancestors of th' Melungeon and by and by, th'Native Americans and free and runaway slaves mixed in. "
"Is it likely that the original settlers were Jewish?"
"Not all mebbe, but you can bet many were on the lam from th' Inquisition. You don't go and settle in a lonesome wilderness on th' other side of the world for heck of it. I have a feeling that Isaac's group woulda felt at home. And I recall some Melungeon customs that coulda been survivals from th' Jewish rituals. My Melungeon forefathers were Christian folkvas far back as anyone can remember, but one particular thing of their worship was th' Friday night vigils where candles were lit. I know some other mountain folk did this as well, but I've never heared of it as a reg'lar thing outside these parts. Another thing that just occurred t' me was that used t'be a Melungeon settlement up in Kiln Springs jest over in Virginia, they're all gone now, that wouldn't keep hogs. That's an odd thing, pigs being the only cheap and easy thing to raise for meat in these parts. Jest mark their ears an' turn 'em loose t' fatten on th' forest mast. Sheep'r too valuable for wool and don't fatten as quick, and some can keep cows, but mostly for dairy and the meat is dear t' raise foreveryday eatin'. I remember folks speculatin' that mebbe the acorns made th' meat bitter, but it ain't clear as that's th' reason. So while I doubt if Isaac coulda found the Lost Tribes, they sure coulda become a lost tribe."
"Rev. Goins, Isaac was entrusted with something or a number of things he considered of great value and spiritual significance. We think he had at least one of the stones from the Breastplate of Aaron. We don't understand what their appearance in this age signifies, but our sense is that it is profoundly connected to the future destiny of Israel and the Jewish people. We are seeking the stones in other places in the world, but for those entrusted to Isaac, the trail ends here."
Rev Goins spent a few long moments in thought. "I've already forgotten more about th' history of these parts than anyone else knows. I'll have do some studying on it. Old Ollie Cabot left me some unpublished interviews his young folks did, and I've taken t' setting down th' stories of just about ever'one of th' old timers before they cross the Jordan. Too many t' remember, but now that I know what I'm after, if I concentrate on th' Melungeon yarns I might come up with something."
Max had made the aquaintance of several residents that shared his botanical interests, and he actually welcomed the additional delay as an opportunity to enhance his wilderness survival skills. They breakfasted together the next morning, Natalene was now radiant and peaceful, with no signs remaining of her withdrawal sickness. She spent the morning being greeted by former neighbors and schoolmates, and was planning on meeting again with some of the musicians.
Max had a date with Sojourner Perry, a robust 90 year old woman whose grandmother had been emancipated from slavery after the Civil War. She was the expert on every kind of wild food plant and medicinal herb and they would spend the day tramping through the woods. Melchizedek was to help Rev. Goins comb through his archives. It ended up as a day of scholarly triage, as the records were sorted in piles based on their perceived likeliness to yield clues to location of the stones. Only in the early afternoon were they able to start reading the accounts, many of them in the Reverend's own handwriting. By the end of the day they were in agreement that if the stones left the area before the early 1800's they would have been almost impossible to to track with the accounts they had. The only written accounts of contact with the Melungeon usually occurred when some fugitive had been suspected of hiding among them. The law seemed to have about as much luck finding outlaws among the Melungeon as Federal revenuers had of finding illegal stills. But these frustrated officials tended to take notice of any rare instances of usual travel in or our of the Melungeon communities. Melchizedek had a hunch that the Stones tended to have a unifying effect on a community whether their presence was common knowledge or not. And similarly their passing might leave subtle clues in their wake. They agreed to pick up here early the next morning.
The plan had been to meet at the cafe for dinner, but Natalene announced that they had been invited to a corn husking that evening. Some of Ollie's returning alumni had leased some fallow farm land and renovated a farm on the outskirts of town. Now that they had cribs full of the harvested ears, they had revived the communal practice of making what would otherwise be a tedious task into a party. This was a common strategy that was applied to barn and cabin raising, quilting, and sheep shearing, but overall, the mountain folk seemed to have returned to the age-old tradition of finding any excuse available to dance and celebrate.
When they arrived, the music was in full swing, but Natalene had already been admonished that only old folks need apply. Youngsters like her were supposed dedicate themselves to the mountain of corn ears in the middle of the room. One of the hosts announced that the old custom was to be honored that anyone who found a rare red ear of corn was allowed to kiss anyone he or she chose. And jealous husbands and wives weren't allowed to take a poke at them. And buried at the bottom of the pile was a 5 gallon jug of the local white lightening. The sooner the pile disappeared, the sooner it was opened and the dancing could begin. The men and women seemed to naturally sit a bit apart from each other. Melchizedek took this opportunity to update Max while they shucked, while the locals teased them about the slowness of their work.
Max listened with mild interest, then proceeded to recount his discoveries about mountain life. His survival skills were those of the forest recluse but the old-timers of Beulah Hollow lived in dependance on each other and their shared skills which allowed them not only to survive individually but to support others. For Max this was something of a revelation, in his apocalyptic worldview, he had never considered that an entire community could survive on its own devices in one of his post-historic scenarios.
Their conversation was disrupted by a commotion around Natalene. They looked up and she was holding up a shucked ear of corn like a rural version of the Statue of Liberty. While the woman hooted and hollered encouragement, the men froze in a kind of nervous anticipation, particularly Melchizedek as she began to walk towards them. She took her time for maximum effect and the shouts of the women reached a fever pitch. Melchizedek's mind began to race. His marital situation had always been complicated and the necessary travelling had made it worse. He still wore a wedding band but it was in fact a statement of hope. He wasn't looking for his situation to be complicated further.
So he was equally surprised when Natalene gave Max an enthusiastic kiss, to the wild approval of the women of Beulah Hollow.
The next morning's breakfast was a brief one. When they left the party at 3 AM the townspeople were still dancing and sipping moonshine. All three of them had refrained from the fire-water but were still bleary from lack of sleep and there was little conversation.
When Melchizedek arrived at Rev. Goins office he found the reverend surrounded by stacks of old letters.
"I have a confession t' make. I had trouble sleepin' last night and I usually find that a good time to catch up on correspondence with my denomination. I'm one of th' hold-outs that won't use email, and reading my district supervisor's letters is usually a sure cure fer insomnia. But I was suddenly reminded that ol' Ollie Cabot had some missives that were donated t' him for th' historical museum he started setting up. It ran out of funding and had t' close, and I became sort of a volunteer curator, which only means they gave me th' keys t' th' storage. I went and found th' letters I was interested in. They were from Abraham Gallegos. He was headman of the Melungeon settlement in Kiln Springs, until it dissolved in the 30's. Abraham's mother was pure Cherokee, of a pocket a that nation that chose t' hide in the hills rather than join th' forced march t' Oklahoma in th' century before. His father was Melungeon, and likely had some Cherokee on his side too.
At th' time th' Commonwealth a Virginia had a Registrar a Vital Statistics by th' name a WA Plecker who lead a crusade t' have th' Melungeon, or "mongrels" as he liked to call us, declared non-white and subject t' segregation and later t' apply Virginia's sterilization law t' th' Melungeons. The Kiln Springs community had been subject t' racial hostility for nigh on one hundred years since th' Nat Turner rebellion, but this was th' last straw. Abraham had been in contact with th' parts of th' tribe that went on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Now if y' can read this writing, tell me what y' make of it."
Uncle, I apreciate your offer and I'm making plans now for the move. I'd like to come out first to see what is invoved to fix up the property in Glazier Township.
We expect to be free to depart in peace, but we don't know what dangers we may face on the trip. As we discussed the bearer will entrust to you the Signet of the Covenant that has been in our family's keeping these long years. Should anything happen to my party it will pass to the Cherokee Nation for safekeeping.
"Turns out Abraham and his people made it safe. One might think that th' covenant is between th' Melungeon and Cherokee, but you could easily read it as between man and God. So just mebbe there is a connection. I checked the maps and Glazier Township is just outside of Tahlequah, th' old capital of th' Cherokee Nation, on th' road to Muskogee."
"I'm familiar with Glazier Township," said Melchizedek, "It was founded by my family"
Natalene had stopped by with her musician friends and Melchizedek with Rev Goins. Sojourner had invited them all to supper. They were all singing on the porch as Max took Melchizedek aside.
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, lord, in the sky
We sang the songs of childhood
Hymns of faith that made us strong
"Hey listen, unless you think you really need me in Oklahoma, I thought I would spend a few more days here. I'll check my service and you can let me know where to catch up with you..."
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, lord, by and by?
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, lord, in the sky
"Randy Martin's gonna show me how to make a stone chimney that drafts properly...anyway no more than a week..."
Melchizedek smiled warmly, gave Max a bear hug and said,"Thanks Max, thanks for everything." After he got in his car and drove off, Max was still assuring himself.
"...definitely no longer than a month..."
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