Mark’s writing for Revival is captivating. It tugs at you as much as it does envelop. The world he paints, along with its characters, is at once verdant and tragic. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Reader discretion is advised for physical and emotional violence.
When I was a girl, my Momma and me would sing together. She would be working her hands on that washboard and look over at me and smile, singin’ that song as happy as she could while not knowing she was working herself to an early grave. The winter after Daddy left, she got sick and died and left me all alone. I was sixteen and that’s when Irwin asked me to marry him. I guess he felt sorry for me because I had only met him a couple of times and had given him no reason to like me. His family had a large farm and they said we could live there. Where else could I go? So, I said I would marry him, and we decided we could have a wedding at the end of summer and live with his Momma and Daddy until we could build our own house.
I went to church some, but Irwin and his folks were a Bible bunch and I reckon they thought since I was going to be part of the family, they had better start workin’ on me. A couple of weeks after we told everyone we were going to get married, the whole family packed up in the truck and we drove down the highway about an hour to a hay field in the valley of a large farm. We unloaded the truck and pitched a canvas tent next to a group of other families. In the middle of the tents was a haulin’ trailer with a big shiny microphone roosted on a metal stand. Hangin’ behind it was a white sheet with big red letters
HAVE YOU BEEN WASHED IN THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB?
That first afternoon we laid out blankets on the hay field in front of the trailer, and we were right in the front, as close as we could get. In the evening, two women got up and stood on both sides of that microphone and began to sing and everybody that knew that song joined in. They sang two more songs and then left the stage. Someone turned on a string of lights that hung right over the trailer, and a lanky man ran up the wooden stairs two at a time and onto that stage and grabbed that shiny microphone and yelled into it and said Hallelujah! Have you been saved? as he held up his hands high in the air. He was young, and I don’t know if he had even shaved yet, but he was wearing a black suit and a white cotton shirt and that is the first time I ever saw anybody in a suit. He had a head full of red wavy hair and it was all combed over and was the prettiest hair I had ever seen. It shined like a new penny when he walked under that string of lights.
He began preachin’ and walking himself back and forth across that stage. Every once in a while he’d stop and look me in the eyes, and I figured it was the Lord talkin’ right at me. After he finished, the two women got up and sang again, then the lights went off and we went back to the tent for the night. Only I couldn’t sleep in that old hot canvas tent with all them family in there. Whenever somebody moved it woke me up all over again. I told Irwin I was gonna sleep outside, and I don’t know if he even heard me. I took my pillow and went and put it down on that stage and slept like a baby under the stars.
The next day we all walked down to the river and Irwin’s Momma had packed some cornbread and greens, so we all ate and put our feet in the water. That evening as the crickets started to chime, we went back to the trailer and the same two women came out to sing and I waited on the red headed preacher to come on the stage, but it wasn’t him but a big man in blue pants and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled way up. He did some preachin’. He’d stop ever so often and say Amen and take his hanky and wipe all the sweat off his face. I didn’t hear much of what he said, I was wonderin’ what had happened to that other preacher.
That night, when the family was all getting settled in the tent, I told Irwin I was gonna sleep outside again. He said I was sure to get eat up by skeeters and rolled over. So, I went back out across the field to the trailer and throwed my blanket down under that big sky and the preacher with the red hair comes walkin’ up. He don’t have his suit on and he sure looks different. He asks me what I’m doing out here. He takes his smoke and crushes it out on the metal edge of the trailer and asks me if I have ever been baptized. I shook my head no and he says we should go down to the river.
We walked down the steep bank to the river and sat on some big rocks along the side. He kept talkin’ about cars and shotguns and whiskey, but he didn’t say nothing more about baptizing. The moon was big that night and I figured I might as well sit and talk with him cause the sky was so bright, I wasn’t gonna see any stars anyway. That red hair almost glowed in the night and I kept looking at his eyes when he talked and didn’t even realize that he had put his hand on my leg and slid it up under my dress some. He went to whisper in my ear and I thought it was gonna be something about baptizing but instead he just kinda rubbed my neck with his mouth. It happened fast after that. I was lookin’ up at that big moon and pretty quick-like he stopped moving on me and just lay there and I figure that’s when he filled me with his spirit.
I used to tell myself he don’t mean no harm. But I’m an old man and now I know that sometimes you can see a thing for what it really is. I come to realize that sometimes there is evil in the world and that’s all you can say. That boy come into this life screamin’ and I reckon he won’t quit ‘til they lay him in the ground. He don’t look like none of my folk but I raised him just the same. I knew it as soon as I seen the little bastard. Damn boy come out with that red hair, how the hell was I supposed to think he were mine? Raised him though, and claimed him for my own when I knowed he wasn’t. She let me name him and I give him my uncle’s name and I shore wish I hadn’t.
When that boy was just a little feller he was pure evil, I mean weren’t a decent bone in him. Killin’ stuff around here just for the fun of it. Ants and spiders when he was knee high. Coons and possums later. Once he killed him a huntin’ dog. A damn huntin’ dog. Had a collar on it and everything. I told him it were a redbone and some hunter would sure be lookin’ for him. He didn’t care. He just kilt it to watch it bleed out. I told him it sure was a sin if I ever heard one to kill a man’s huntin’ dog. He just stood there and looked at me with that red hair stickin’ up. I give up on the boy right then and there. Roof. Heat. Food. That’s all that youngin is going to get from me. I said to myself thank God he ain’t from me, I ain’t got that evil blood runnin’ through me.
Ruthie and me don’t talk about him no more. She never let me lay into him, whip him a few times. It’s because she knows he ain’t mine. We he was about twelve or so, he got into trouble, something to do with cornering a girl after school and holding her down. School principal showed up at the house and said Don’t send Parnell back down here, we don’t want him. That boy gonna have to get his learnin’ somewheres else. Ruthie told ‘em they was all damn liars but deep down she knew it was true. Only time I ever heard her swear in her whole life. She tried all the time to get him some salvation, but he never seen the need for it. Sometimes at night she’d read to him from the Bible and he’d sit there staring into the fire, listening to her reading all the thous and shalls, his cold eyes all fixed and he’d just have this little smirk in the corner of his mouth and sometimes right in the middle of a readin’ he’d bust out and laugh and she’d stop readin and look at him. I mean right at him. I could see she was madder’n hell, but I knew she’d be right there on her knees that night prayin’ against all that evil in him. One night she just slammed her Bible shut and went to bed and cried all night and I figured that’s when she gave up on him too.
I had a girlfriend once. I was about sixteen. Pretty girl. Her neck and face as smooth and white as sweet milk. I met her down at the river. It was summertime and hot as dammit. One day Momma said she wanted me to see a preacher man. I asked her why and she stayed quiet for a real long time and I thought, well fine then don’t say nothin’, I don’t care. Then she said she wanted to get me right with the Lord and I thought well hell, why not. Damn old truck bout didn’t make it over the mountain. We drove for a good long while before we pulled up in the dirt parking lot of this church. I couldn’t read the sign, but I saw it had a steeple so I knowed it was a church. Made out of cinder blocks with white paint peeling and hangin’ off and that steeple on it were way too small looking and I thought this don’t look like no place to get any religion. Momma said to stay in the truck and so I sat there while she went inside. After a while she came back out with this big bald-headed feller and they stood there in front of the door with Momma talking at him and him standing there with his arms crossed just lookin’ at me and noddin’ and I thought this don’t look good. Momma waved me on and I walked up to them and ole baldy put his arm around me and kinda pulled me along into the church. We walked right up to the front, where all the preachin’ is done and he said I was a sinner and that I gotta get down on my knees, and so I figured we come all this way I might as well do what the man said so I kneeled on down and then he smacked my head real hard like and started screamin’ and then Momma started screamin’ and all the while I was the one bein’ smacked and I was the only one weren’t hollerin’. After he popped me a couple more times and yelled some more, he laid his hand on my head and I didn’t pay no attention to what he said but he had my head under that big hand of his and it was a shakin’ like he was trying to send something down into me. He let it go all of the sudden and told me Get Up! and I did, and I could see Momma standing there with her hands all up in the air shoutin’ and the tears a washin’ down her face. She durn near shook the hand off that old preacher and then handed him two dollar bills. On the way home, we stopped at a blue hole down by the river to eat our sandwiches and I saw her. She was swimmin’ and she knew everybody was watching her, but she didn’t care. I sat right there and watched her swim. Her hair was all slicked back on her head. When she got out of the water and on the bank, I could see her pretty bottom in that swimmin’ suit and she knew I was lookin’. She stood up and pulled at her top and bottom to make sure that nothing ain’t fell out when she got out on that rock, standing there in the sun. About that time, she bent over, and I said GODDAMN! and Momma commenced to start bawlin’ and said she reckoned the devil ain’t been out of me and that preacher must not be no good, and I started laughin’ cause I guess that’s the funniest thing I ever heard.
The social worker stood on the stoop of the tattered shack, tears flowing down her cheeks as her trembling fingers flicked at her cigarette. The sheriff should be here soon, she thought. On the rotten porch steps, she could see Parnell’s bloody boot prints heading in the direction of the heavily wooded creek area. In the open front doorway lay Irwin, his eyes open and fixed in the furrowed skin of his cold, white face. Only the handle of a large hunting knife could be seen, as the whole of the blade was entombed in the side of his chest. In the shack, some cinders remained smoldering from a neglected fire and a heavy ash lay over the stone hearth. The room showed the leftovers of a violent struggle. In the rocker next to the hearth sat Ruth. She rocked in silence save for the runners of the chair creaking with each pass on the floor. Her old hazy lensed glasses sat perched on her nose as she read from a well-worn Bible that lay open across her lap. Her craggy face showed no signs of distress or horror, but of serene peace and calmness. Along the worn floor, the blood that had drained from the wound in Irwin’s side wasn’t the bright red of a fresh cut, but a crimson as deep as the reddest of wines. The blood had rivered along the knotted pine floor to pond at the low area beneath Ruth’s rocker where some of it had soaked up into the thick wool socks she was wearing.
Mark McLain loves to write short stories about the South. A seventh-generation Tennessean, he is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and enjoys spending time with his family floating the Hiwassee River and hiking in the Appalachians. His work has appeared in Gravel and Mulberrry Fork Review.
One Reply to “Revival – Mark Houston McLain”
I love his stories… take me back to a time I knew well. He was born to write !