Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  “What if they never open?” I said.

  Mama sighed a little like she did when she was praying for patience. She didn’t seem upset, though. She seemed sad. Her eyes were clear and blue with gold bands around the irises, like sunflowers against a blue sky. “They’ll open when it’s time,” she said.

  “They’ll open when it’s time.” I repeated it to myself later that morning as I sat waiting for Reverend Broomfield to call up the sinners. They’ll open when it’s time.

  Once again, he called us, and once again I walked up to the altar, and once again I kneeled, my knees buried deep in the sawdust shavings. I tried to clear my mind and not think so much. I tried to remember Mama’s words, and I pictured her flowers and how they had died after I bloomed them too early.

  After the laying on of hands and the singing, the people around me stood up and dusted themselves off and returned to their seats. But I didn’t get up. I stayed right where I was, eyes closed, hands knotted up together in a fist, and told the Lord I was done with him if he didn’t save me right then and there in front of everyone, with everybody I knew watching and me humiliated. I knew I’d never be able to show my face again down at Deal’s General Store or at school if he just left me sitting there like a heathen while sinners like Swill Tenor and Root Caldwell got their souls saved.

  My knees started to burn in the sawdust. I knew everybody was staring. “Velva Jean,” I could hear Johnny Clay hissing at me. “Dammit, Velva Jean.”

  I didn’t care. I was not going to leave that altar until I was saved. I didn’t care if they all went home and left me. I didn’t care if I had to spend the night there, on my knees, with the woods closing in and the panthers coming down out of the trees to eat me.

  The congregation began to sing. If you’ve never heard shape-note singing, you should know that it can sound a lot like thunder when enough people join in together. The music was loud and raw, and it took over the air and the trees and the earth. The power of all those voices was so great that the ground shook below us like a tornado or an earthquake. There was a trembling in the shavings around my knees. My bones rattled. My teeth jittered in my mouth. My fingers and toes began to tingle, and I lost my breath. Something was growing from down deep inside me, starting somewhere in my stomach—a feeling of light. I felt dizzy like I did right before I took sick with something, and I felt shaky like I did when I got too hungry. I wanted to lie down on the ground and hold on for dear life, but I wanted to spring up into the air at the same time.

  It was like the sky had opened and the sun was beaming down only on me, warming me from the inside. I opened my eyes. When I stood, my legs were wobbly and I had to hold on to Reverend Nix’s arm. I felt the cool, dead half-moon of a snakebite up near his elbow, a place where long ago he had been bitten and nearly died. I rubbed the scar, even though it gave me chill bumps, and then I brushed the sawdust shavings from my knees.

  Everyone was singing and watching me. I looked at my mama and my family and at all the people I loved and even the people I didn’t like very much, and they were all, each and every one of them, beautiful and shiny—even Sweet Fern. Everything around me seemed brighter and prettier and suddenly the only thing I wanted to do was dance. My feet began tapping against the sawdust floor and they carried me all over the tent until I was dancing in the Spirit. I started singing too, and then I started crying because I knew, at last, that God had listened. Even though I was just Velva Jean Hart, ten years old, from Sleepy Gap, North Carolina, high up on Fair Mountain, he had listened to me and granted my prayer—I was born again.

  Just two months later, I was standing up to my waist in the calm and peaceful waters of Three Gum River, getting myself baptized in the name of Jesus, and I surely wasn’t going to hell after all. I was relieved that my old, sinful self was gone forever. I imagined I wouldn’t ever feel like talking back or fighting anymore, and I would never feel envious again. I would do my chores without complaining and stop wishing for things I didn’t have, and, most of all, I would get along with my sister. I would only be good and upright and brave from this moment on.

  The water was dark and cold. I was floating, then sinking, then choking, then drowning. My lungs felt full and tight and I gasped without thinking, swallowing the gritty, cool water of the river. I should have taken a breath before the dunking. Johnny Clay had warned me, but I’d been too proud and thrilled by what was happening. Maybe I would die now because I hadn’t listened to Johnny Clay. At least if I did, I would most certainly go to heaven.

  The sounds of crying, shouting, and chanting above the surface disappeared. There had been the congregation singing and clapping from the shore. There had been Reverend Nix: “I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” With his left hand on my heart and his right hand lifted heavenward, he had raised his voice so that all could hear: “In obedience to the command of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, we baptize this our sister, in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Ghost.”

  And then there was only the darkness of the river.

  Hands pushed and pulled me back to the surface and I came up coughing and dripping, blinded by the water and the dazzling sun. My white dress floated up around me like foam.

  “Thank you, Jesus! Somebody lift your hands and praise the Lord!” Reverend Nix hop-skipped in place, jerking his head back with a snap and raising his hands toward the congregation gathered on the shore.

  “Hallelujah!” they said.

  “Praise the Lord!”

  Mama wailed, waving her hands in the sunlight. My brothers stood in the shallows, clapping and praising Jesus, except for Johnny Clay, who thumped the guitar and closed his eyes to the sun. Sweet Fern, twenty years old and already expecting her second baby, stood off a ways up the river with her husband, Danny Deal. Daniel, Sweet Fern called him, even though no one else did. One hand was pressed to her forehead to shade her eyes; the other was curved against her belly. And our daddy was nowhere to be seen.

  Reverend Nix helped steady me, and Brother Hiram Lee brushed the damp hair off my face where it stuck to my cheeks and chin. I had seen the others baptized and knew I should say something or cry or fall back into the water. I thought of Jesus and how when he was baptized the heavens had opened and the spirit of God flew down like a beautiful dove. I squinted up at the sky, which looked white hot and empty, and then I stared down at the snakebites on Reverend Nix’s arms, the ones he’d gotten from years of taking up serpents at the Bone Valley Church of Signs Following, over on Bone Mountain. “If you’re to lead our church,” Daddy Hoyt, my mama’s daddy, had told him years ago, “you will not be handling snakes.” Reverend Nix had agreed, but the scars were still there—welts and bruises up and down his arms, disappearing into his shirtsleeves, which were rolled up over his elbows. I wondered what the rest of him looked like, if the bites covered his whole body.

  Oh, they tell me of a land far beyond the skies,

  Oh, they tell me of a land far away

  My mama stood on the shores of Three Gum River, in her faded blue dress. I had always loved it when she sang, but I’d never heard her sing alone in public. To Mama, her own voice was a private thing, a sacred thing that she didn’t go around sharing with everyone just to be proud or to show off. It was something special to be reserved for God.

  There was a rustling from the crowd, a stirring that meant people were catching the Holy Spirit. They talked over each other—“Amen,” “Praise God,” “Praise Jesus”—hands raised, clapping, strumming banjos or fiddles or guitars.

  Mama stepped forward into the water and began wading toward me. Her beauty was as faded as her dress. Her thick, tangled brown hair was shaded with gray. Her high apple cheeks had thinned lately: Her face had turned pale. But her sunflower eyes burned bright and her voice was sweet and pure like a girl’s. The tired lines of her face seemed to disappear as her singing filled the holler. There was only her voice now and the gentle
splashing of the water rising as she walked, to her ankles, to her shins, to her knees.

  I wanted to sing with my mama, to hear my own voice mix with hers. I love to sing more than anything else in the world, and Mama said I had the prettiest voice of anyone on Fair Mountain, just as pretty as anyone we heard on the radio. She said I had a gift and a duty to use it, and that’s why I’d already made up my mind that one day I was going to be a singing star at the Grand Ole Opry with a Hawaiian steel guitar and a costume made of gold satin and rhinestones.

  Now I felt my heart bursting and the words rising in my throat. Maybe I was filled with the Spirit, too. “Glory,” I said suddenly, very small, so that no one heard me. It was what came out instead of singing. “Glory,” I said again. I felt the light and the warmth on my skin and I saw my mama’s face. There was a surge of joy from way down deep. I couldn’t tell if it was the Holy Ghost or just happiness, but my voice grew strong: “Glory, glory, glory.” I couldn’t seem to stop myself.

  My twin cousins, Clover and Celia Faye, were singing now, joining hands. Their dresses had been worn and washed so many times that you could barely see the flowered prints. Their hair was gathered off their necks; their round faces were sweet and unpainted.

  “Praise God!”

  “Praise Jesus!”

  There was swaying and stirring and prayers sent up to heaven. Daddy Hoyt smiled his kind, distracted, faraway smile. Granny danced along the shore, arms waving like a wild bird.

  I wanted to run to Mama and wrap my arms about her, but my dress was heavy from the water, pulling me down toward the river bottom, and I couldn’t seem to move my legs.

  Oh they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,

  Oh they tell me of an unclouded day

  Others joined in—Johnny Clay and my other brothers, Linc and Beachard, and Daddy Hoyt, who was a ballad singer and fiddle maker and healer—but I couldn’t sing. Suddenly the urge was gone. Maybe the Spirit had left me. Or maybe it was that I wanted just to stand there, the water lapping at my waist, listening to the voices of the people I knew best and watching the love in their faces.

  Everything changes when you’re born again, but not in the way that you think. If I’d known all that was going to happen after I was baptized in the waters of Three Gum River, I never would have prayed for God to save me. I would have risked going straight to hell no matter what my daddy said about me being a sinner astray like a lost sheep. The funny thing is that until I was saved I never knew what it was like to be lost. Afterward, I could point on the calendar to July 22, 1933, as the day when everything changed.


  When we got home that night from Three Gum River, my daddy was gone again. There was a note this time, and Mama seemed to be expecting it. She stood to one side of the kitchen and read it, and then she folded it up and slipped it into her dress pocket. She didn’t say anything to me or my brothers, just set the table for dinner and went about fixing the food without saying a word.

  After we ate, she had me and Johnny Clay clean up the mess, and even though it was warm she put on her shawl, the one that hung by the door, and went out into the night with Daddy Hoyt.

  “Where’s Mama going?” I asked Granny, who’d come over from next door to sit with us. All of us—Mama’s parents, Granny and Daddy Hoyt; my brother Linc and his wife, Ruby Poole; Mama’s sister Zona and her twins; Great Aunt Bird; Mama and Daddy; Beachard and Johnny Clay and me—lived within a few feet of each other up in Sleepy Gap, which sat high up in a holler on the side of Fair Mountain. Mama and Daddy’s house was a narrow weatherboarded two story, painted yellow, with a tin roof and a porch on the front and off the back. There were two rooms downstairs—a kitchen and a main room with a stone fireplace—and three small bedrooms upstairs.

  With the rest of the family we shared a big red barn, a chicken house, a smokehouse, a springhouse, a root cellar, and a hog scalder, and we’d lived there all my life and all Mama’s life and all Daddy Hoyt’s life too. That mountain had been in our family for generations. It was named for us, even though the family name was Justice. My great-great-great-granddaddy had named it Fair Mountain when he first arrived in 1792 because he liked the sound of it, liked that it was another word for just, and liked that it had more than one meaning.

  Granny, who was one-half Cherokee, said the Indians believed Fair Mountain was sacred. Only our mountain made its own music; only our trees told stories. The music was like the humming of a thousand bees, only it never happened in bee season and was always loudest before a thunderstorm. The air shook so you could feel it through the bottoms of your feet. The stories were left there by the Cherokee, those sent west on the Trail of Tears. They carved out holes in the trees and left messages for each other inside of them, and they bent and shaped the trees along the trail so they could find their way back someday. They called these “day stars” because you could see by them.

  “Where’s Mama going this late at night?” I asked again.

  “Down to use the telephone at Deal’s,” Granny said. Deal’s General Store and Post Office was the only place within miles that had a telephone. It sat just off the railroad tracks, down by the river, in a small oval-shaped valley called Alluvial. Surrounding the valley were mountains forged together in a high dark circle, with names like Blood and Bone and Witch and Devil’s Courthouse. With our mountain, they stood in a tight ring around Three Gum River and the stubborn lines of the railroad and looked out over high, lush green hollers tucked here and there—Sleepy Gap and Snake Hook Den and Bearpen Creek and Juney Whank Cove and Bone Valley and Panther Hole and Devil’s Kitchen, a place so horrible they named it after the devil himself.

  “Who does she want to talk to?” I said.

  “She’s just asking around after your daddy.”

  “To see where he went to?”


  We lived in the wildest part of the North Carolina mountains, up in the Smokies—the oldest mountains on earth—where winter and summer the clouds and the mist settle down over the hills and hollers and cover up the valleys. The peaks are the steepest here, the most rocky and wild. The colors are the deep brown-black of the stone and the soil, the burnt red of clay, and the darkest green of the balsam firs that cover the mountaintops. Daddy Hoyt called it the land of the wild things—the last place where the wild things could roam untouched. We lived near the Indian nation, near the Cherokee. Waterfalls. Thick forests. Rich soil. A river in the valley, which is why Daddy Hoyt’s people had settled here in the first place, all those years and years ago, when they came from Ireland.

  I thought the whole world was right there inside the Alluvial Valley. There weren’t any roads that came into our part of the country—just the old cattle path that got you started toward Hamlet’s Mill, the nearest town, ten miles away, and a few old Indian trails and footpaths. The other roads we made ourselves, by walking or driving on them. If you wanted to leave Alluvial, you walked or left on one of the three trains that came in every day on the spur line from Hamlet’s Mill. Daddy Hoyt said you could barely find us on a map, that we were hidden, that no one would ever know we were up here, out of sight beneath the smoke and the trees.

  Now I sat up listening for Mama and Daddy Hoyt because I knew full well all the bad things that could happen at night, that there were things to be afraid of in the dark, not the least of which were bears and panthers and haints. I wanted to make sure my mama and granddaddy got home safe. When Daddy was gone, I worried in a way I didn’t when he was home. He had a way of filling up a house so there was no room for anything bad or scary to get in.

  I was in bed by the time Mama came back. When I heard Mama and Daddy Hoyt walk up on the porch, I got up, quiet as I could, and went to the window. It was already wide open and I kind of leaned my ear out so I could hear.

  “He’ll turn up, Corrine,” I heard Daddy Hoyt say. “He always does.”

  Mama hugged her daddy then and clung on to him for a long time. When she pulled away, I got
back in my bed and yanked the covers up over my head even though the room was hot as a Dutch oven.

  “Did they find him?” Johnny Clay asked from the other bed, yawning in the middle of his question.

  I didn’t answer. I just pulled the covers up tighter and tucked my whole self under them, snug as a bug.

  “Velva Jean?”

  I was born again. I’d been saved at last. I wasn’t ever going to hell now. I tried to feel the water on my skin and hear the singing and tell myself I was brand new in this world. But all I could think of was Mama’s face when she read that note and the way she’d held on to her daddy.

  The next day, Mama took to her bed and stayed there. I tried to imagine what was in that note that would make her so sick that she couldn’t get up. She just lay there, her face feverish, her eyes closed or turned toward the wall.

  “I knew from the start that your daddy was going to be a project,” she liked to tell us. “We was at a candy pulling, and there he was, playing his mandolin and dancing the back step, long legged and nice looking. The prettiest thing I ever seen.” She said she fell in love with him right off, and he fell right back in love with her.

  Daddy was what Granny called “charming,” something I knew to be bad by the way her voice turned flat when she said it. He could barely read or write, but he carried hundreds of old songs around in his head, and he could buck dance and play every musical instrument he picked up, especially the harmonica. He could make it sound exactly like a steam engine, right down to the whistle and the wheels on the track.

  Mama said she knew that Daddy drank too much, fought too much, that he was a wanderer who didn’t like to live in one place for long, a blacksmith like his daddy and a part-time gold and gem miner, with talent but no real ambition, and that he had only a passing belief in God. Mama loved Jesus and she knew the Bible front to back. But she loved Daddy too. She couldn’t help it. She said she had enough faith for both of them.

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