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Fire in the Rock

Sister Holy Ghost & the Fourth of July

Just about the time Sue Snoddy became a teenager, she decided that her name didn't amount to much. So she changed it. From her mythology lessons at the kudzu-covered house up by the turn-off from the main road, she chose "Terpsi-chore, Goddess of Dance" as her new name, and she was dead serious about it. "Terpsi" would have been a perfect nickname for her even then, but Miz Snoddy Senior had asserted a mother's rights and surrendered the old name only to the full thing — "Terpsi-chore" — or, for short, Cora. And Cora had stuck.

Years later, on the Fourth of July 1956, Cora at a very ripe thirty was back in the side yard of her mother's house out at the end of Brickstore Road, absentmindedly doing handkerchief calisthenics with a limp lace rag high as she could reach up over her head — more of a pose, actually, than an activity. She looked like a too-delicate alabaster reproduction of the Statue of Liberty with her torch wilted in the heat. Crape myrtles at the edge of the yard framed her in deep red starbursts like so many skyrockets, their thunder muffled by the thick noontime humidity. There was no breeze at all. Nothing moved. Cora's breasts, so clearly defined by a white cotton dress that clung like thin molten bronze to every moist curve and crevice, just as clearly did not seem to rise and fall. Her knees and bare ankles, bent in a near faint, did not buckle. Her skin glistened, but no sweat dropped. She was fixed in some strange dimension right there in front of us, bombs bursting in mid-air, Miss Liberty in mid-wilt. Cora had never looked lovelier.

As far as I could tell, Cora had not noticed us gathering in the shade of a one-sided tree like cattle from some mixed-breed herd: her daughter Mae Maude and me on the arms of a wooden lawn chair, our summer tans almost matching its natural oak finish, and Pollo ("rhymes with follow," he would say, always adding, "follow Pollo," although nobody really ever did) the bicycle boy from the store. Pollo, just turned sixteen, same age as us, was sitting on the ground with his bare chocolate-bronze back against the trunk of the tree. Then there was Cora's mother Miz Snoddy Senior and the Young Senator standing under straw hats at the edge of the shade, both of them with pale white skin apparently never exposed to the sun — except for Miz Snoddy's leathery hands, which looked like they belonged to somebody else — and finally Sister Holy Ghost, who stood black as an iron fencepost and just as ramrod straight at the end of an old wicker settee.

"You call her, Sister," said the Young Senator in his low and reassuring voice. Leadership came easy and often to him, even when it didn't work very well.

"Not me," Sister Holy Ghost said. "She'll just start it all up again."

"Okay," he said in his most thoughtfully sincere tone. "Miz Snoddy, you see if you can get her over here."

"Terpsi-chore!" she called. "Get out of the sun. Come over here and have some tea. It's got that sweet mint in it just like you like. Come on over here, Cora. It's cooler in this shade."

It was no surprise to anybody that Sister Holy Ghost was right about Cora starting it all up again. As soon as she moved toward us, the high nasal hum-singing began, in a tune we had heard many times: "Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe."

"Uhnt uhvunh unhvunhree puhnluhnciz, uhnto unh wuhnld uhnv woe—"

Cora sang "woe" in a dragged-out, pouty-mouthed way, like Marilyn Monroe trying to say something more than she was really saying. When Cora got to "woe," her eyes always locked in on somebody and then drifted off again as she went on. It was the loveliest, liltingest, sweetest sound I'd ever heard. When Cora sang, I could see Jesus floating down from his ivory palaces and landing smack in the middle of that world of woe where Cora lived so much of her life.

But it just made Sister Holy Ghost mad.

For one thing, she was used to better stuff. When she wanted music, she wanted it with punch. Rhythm. Energy. Bodies rocking and hands waving and clapping. I doubt they ever sang Cora's song at Sister's House of Prayer in town, but if they did, it would have started with a shout: "Out!(clap) of the I-(clap)-vor-y pa-(clap)-la-ces(clap clap), In!(clap)to a world(clap)of woe (clap clap clap)..."

And as for that fixed-eye stare, I had seen Sister Holy Ghost use it herself, at a frenzied House of Prayer Saturday service when I was twelve and I went to see Daddy Grace, "Sweet Daddy," just to see if it was true that people would throw money at him or pay him for his handkerchief after he blew his nose in it or any of the wild things white people said colored people did. The whole place was rocking, throbbing to the drums and brass band and swaying with crowded bodies, except for Daddy Grace, who sat motionless on a red velvet throne fixed steady in the middle of that swirling mass, smiling, with his long black hair combed perfectly around his shoulders. Two light-brown women in pure white dresses and white feathered hats mopped his brow with little cloths they then handed out to people in two jumping writhing lines that snaked to the drumbeat past buckets filling with money while the horns blew louder and louder. Then Sister Holy Ghost fixed that stare on me, and I knew that I was in the wrong place and the Spirit had taken everybody but me, and I was a sinner for coming just to look and not to believe, and Daddy Grace was probably going to bring the whole place down on my head. I wanted to shout "Sweet Daddy, I'm sorry!" but somebody would be sure to tell my mother, and I wanted to run away but I could never outrun those shouting bouncing frenzied people, and Sister Holy Ghost still had that stare on me and I couldn't even turn my eyes away, let alone my body. I was dead in sin, and I stood there paralyzed until things calmed down. I sneaked out while people were looking for their seats again, and I ran home, and nobody followed me except for that stare, and I knew that my sins had been seen, clean through. Sister Holy Ghost was really good.

Cora was just pathetic. Where Sister Holy Ghost drew sin right out of her victims, Cora seemed to be trying to explain something about her own self. Her stare didn't even interest us very much. When she fixed those woebegone eyes on the Young Senator beneath our one-sided tree, we didn't even look back at her; we looked at him. The Young Senator, far from freezing, fidgeted. He looked down at the ground and at Sister Holy Ghost and up at the tree and took his handkerchief out of his hip pocket and wiped the side of his neck and across his mouth and dabbed at his forehead.

"Cora," he said, stuffing the handkerchief back in his pocket, "you know Sister."

Cora smiled and settled slow motion onto the end of the wicker settee like a human antimacassar, her body draped across the curved arm, her legs crossed at the ankles and hooked around the ball-and-claw foot of the settee, her fingertips and handkerchief coming to rest on the dusty ground. Sister Holy Ghost sat down beside her, as starched as Cora was limp. The two of them were about the same age, but they couldn't have been any more different if they had tried. Sister's sensible black lace-up shoes were properly together in front of her; her black-stockinged legs, just slightly darker than her skin color, were perfectly vertical. With white-gloved hands, she smoothed her straight black skirt and arranged the ruffled high neck of her fresh white blouse, then rested her hands in her lap. Without moving her body, she turned her head precisely to look at Cora through the veil of a black pill-box hat. Cora only rolled her head back toward the Young Senator.

"Sister says she can help," he said. "She's a counselor. A minister, really, with her people in town. And she likes us. Lined up a ton of votes for me, you know. Everybody says, Sister, you turned the tide." He winked and pointed at her with both hands, ignoring the fact that Sister's voting bloc had been transferred from the Old Senator — the Real Senator — to the son for reasons that had nothing to do with the son. "Anyhow, Cora, she even knows hip-no-tism. Honest to God. She can help you get over that bad dream. If you know what it is you're dreaming about, it'll go away."

"Come on, Cora, honey," said Sister. "There's no magic to it. We'll just talk about it." She took Cora's hand. "Come on, let's go to the house."

Cora exhaled and somehow rose to an upright stance as if somebody had lifted her by strings attached to her shoulders, with her feet the very last parts of her body to come into line. Sister Holy Ghost nodded to Miz Snoddy Senior and marched off to the house with Cora sliding along beside her, the handkerchief now flying from fingertips held at right angles to her arm and swinging opposite to the movement of her body, like a flag of resistance to any forward progress.

Nobody had to recount Cora's dream for us. Mae Maude and I had heard it direct from Cora, and we had told Pollo. Besides, Cora had told it everywhere: She would dream that her eyes were wide open, and she would see a brown slowly-swirling haze in front of her; she would try to wake up before it covered her, but she couldn't take her eyes off it; then she would see the head of her ex-husband rolling with his eyes open and fixed in a dead stare and his face sliding into the brown bog, and she would scream out. No matter who came to comfort her, she could not stop screaming, because she could still see the face sliding into the pool of excrement, ever so slowly drowning, as she put it, "in shit."

In spite of whatever he had done to her, Cora loved the man – men, actually, since it was never clear to us or to her which man in her life was sliding in any given dream into the dark deep. Cora was not somebody who lived life exactly in focus. She was bound to be as good a challenge for hypnotism as Sister Holy Ghost would ever get.

Still standing in the shade, the Young Senator put his arm around Miz Snoddy Senior. "Let's hope this works," he said. "I know her condition upsets you, but I think we can get Cora back to her old self."

Pollo and I knew exactly what was at stake for the Young Senator. We had followed on our bicycles when he drove Cora home from a political meeting in the settlement one night just a couple of weeks before, and we had watched in rapture as they made out in the back seat of his car. Rapture may not be exactly the right word, but we were more than just entertained; I tried my best to figure out what he was doing, from what little we could see, because whatever it was made Cora moan and writhe around and slip right out of her clothes like they were made out of wet paper that he could just peel away. His own clothes were something else. For that, he had to get completely out of the big Buick, taking off his suit and tie and cuff-links and sweat-soaked shirt and undershirt and wing-tip shoes and socks and garters. The harder he worked, the more he sweated, but he had finally stripped down to his shorts when Cora stepped buck naked out of the car, took him by the hand, and led him to the side door of the house.

It took them an eternity to get to her room, but eventually the lamp went on beside her bed, and we had a perfect view through her open window. The Young Senator was on her in a flash, and in no time at all Cora was moaning and writhing around all over again.

Then the Young Senator made a big mistake. He stood up to take his shorts off and dropped them on the floor.

Cora took one look at him and screamed bloody murder. The Young Senator went limp, instantly limp, while the rest of his body went rigid. With Cora screaming at the top of her lungs and yelling about a man "sinking in shit," he just stood there wide-eyed in his pale white skin, probably wishing he could sink into the floor.

Pollo and I were transfixed, but when lights went on in other rooms of the house, the smiles that came to our faces could have warned the Young Senator of the real disaster he was about to sink into. In the nick of time, he came to, started toward the door, then went back toward Cora, then started toward the open window, then went back for his shorts, and ended up in Cora's closet — where he stayed for a long, long time while Miz Snoddy Senior and Mae Maude covered up Cora and stroked her hair and her hands, with her screaming the whole time.

Pollo and I couldn't breathe for trying not to laugh out loud, thought we'd die if we stayed, but weren't about to leave. We would straighten up long enough to gulp in some air, then look at each other and fall over again.

"How hot," Pollo half whispered and half blurted, "How you guess...guess it that closet?"

"Hot as pure hell," I meant to whisper but sort of wheezed out.

Fire in the Rock
by by Joe Martin

  • paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345456912
  • ISBN-13: 9780345456915