In the inner world, time has a way of standing still long enough so you can come to your senses. Then you can have eyes that see and ears that hear. My Aunt Jewel taught me this more by example than with words. She had no use for words and she wasn’t really my aunt. Mama, a divorcée from Mississippi, had married into Auntie’s Choctaw Indian family one-day shy of my first birthday. At four feet eleven with a heart as big as Texas, I could always count on her for a kind word and a tender voice. Learning some of the old ways with her taught me that cause and effect can’t always be foretold much less recognized and controlled.
My earliest memory of Auntie is the first time she took me to her one room church near the Little Cypress Bayou that flows through the Blue Elbow Swamp, eventually entering the Sabine River near I-10 in Orange, Texas. The church, a tiny clapboard painted white with a piney wood floor and a few benches, was where the beleaguered believers felt they belonged.
“Who needs a HEALING” screamed Preacher, a red-faced man in black pants and a cheap white, sweat-soaked shirt that encased his gut, revealing a life time of buttery biscuits and sausage gravy.
“Nancy Ann, I think ya got a fever” Auntie said aloud as her brown hand felt my white face.
“No mam – I ain’t got no fever!
“Yes, you do” she whispered as she firmly took me by the arm and guided me to the homemade dais. Down on my knees I went with the weight of Auntie’s hand on my right shoulder.
When Preacher caught his breath long enough to notice he had a child to work on, he began crying and wailed, “unless you change and become like this little child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” He held up a small bottle of Jerusalem Holy Oil, so all could behold the glorious healing about to occur. As I looked up at Preacher, heartburn from that morning’s breakfast caused me mistakenly to believe it needed to be healed.
“Child, do you want to be healed,” he asked while kneeling to better look me in the eye.
“I think so.”
The fears that bumped around in my already wizened seven-year-old psyche were very real. I didn’t have the faith in the old ways like Auntie did. My pagan mother had taught me to believe in the evil eye and being cursed and such, but not in the hell that Preacher and Auntie did. To Mama, heaven was a piece of land, a good scotch with a good screw; something that made this life a little easier to bare. Hell was in between your ears, right here, right now.
“Child are you ready to confess your sins,” Preacher asked.
“I think so.”
“You think so,” he said with a faint smile.
“Yes Sir. I think so.”
“Do you repent of all your sins, so you can be healed?”
“Y e s . . . sir” slowly slipped from my lips and with that, I was suddenly looking up at the ceiling as Preacher held the back of my head, while making the sign of the cross on my third eye with his oily finger. Auntie, already filled with the Holy Ghost, was speaking in tongues. My skinny little body began to swoon as it filled with the divine energy. The room began to swirl, and I fell back on Aunt Jewel who slowly lowered me to the floor.
“Praise God” she wailed.
“Praise God” cried the congregants who were no longer quietly singing and humming along with the makeshift band. Now they were making a loud and glorious music unto the Lord singing I’ll Fly Away as loud as possible:
When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away.
As I lay there on the floor unable to get up and surrounded by all the wonderful beleaguered believers, my heart filled with joy and my nose filled with the scent of the myrrh and sweet-smelling cinnamon used to make the Jerusalem Holy Oil Preacher had used to heal me. The singing was muffled as if far away,
I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away.
After what felt like an eternity, I was helped to my feet. Everyone was beaming at me. Auntie, grinning ear to ear, was hugging me up close and whispering now we got to git ya baptized baby girl. Now we got to git ya baptized.
“Yes Lord… I know Lord… Thank you Lord…” Preacher prayed while still on his knees. His voice just loud enough so everyone could hear he was still conversing with Jesus.
There was a static electricity in the room. Every time someone came to hug me, there was a shock. My hair was sticking out on end the way it does when you pull a sweater over your head in the winter. But my stomach wasn’t burning anymore, and Auntie was so pleased with me she was promising a Dairy Queen double dip.
While she was saying her goodbyes, I went outside to stand in the October chill. It was a clear day with a slight breeze. Looking up at the sun, I wondered if my heart got healed. I wondered if a healing was the same as a protection. Mostly, I wondered what if Mama was right? What if hell really is between your ears, right here, right now? What then?