Chapter 4

In April Daddy lost his other foot to diabetes, and I lost the small grain of hope that still clung to my heart. One morning, a little over a week after his surgery, I went in to see him before school. He was propped up on a pillow with a couple of quilts covering him from his chest down. His hands lay folded across his chest, and his eyes were closed, making me wonder for just a moment if he was asleep or dead. Then his chest rose slightly. I turned to go back out the door when a board beneath my feet creaked. I heard the quilts shift, and I turned back around to apologize for waking him. His eyes searched the room, squinted and unfocused.

"Who's there?" he asked.

My heart broke. "It's me, Daddy."

He waved me toward him. "Come here, baby girl."

I walked over to the bed and sat on top of the quilt next to him, taking his hand in mine. "I'm sorry I woke you. Can I get you anything? Some water? Some coffee maybe? Are you hungry?"

"Nah, I'm all right. I was glad for hearing your voice. I'd be mighty thankful if you could sit with me for a bit."

"Of course."

"But there is one thing that would be awfully nice."

"Anything, Daddy. What would you like?"

"I can't see to read no more. Sure would be nice to listen to some Scripture."

I reached over to the table beside the bed and took the Bible, flipping through the worn and yellowed pages. "What would you like to hear?" I asked.

He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, and he gave a small grin. "Matthew. Read to me from Chapter Nine."

So I opened the Bible and began reading.

"And he entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city. And behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; 'Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee.' And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, 'This man blasphemeth.' And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, 'Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins,' (then saith he to the sick of the palsy), 'Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house.' And he arose, and departed to his house."

I paused. "Daddy, can I ask you a question?"

"Yes, of course."

"I don't understand. It seems like Jesus was going to forgive the man's sins, but not heal him, until the scribes started grumbling about it."

"Yeah, seems like it. But Jesus knew their hearts. And notice what he did there. He used the healing to show 'em that he not only had the power to heal their physical afflictions, but the power to heal their spiritual ones too."

I looked out the window behind the bed toward the plowed fields that had recently been sown with the help of neighbors. I wondered why God hadn't healed Daddy, even though I prayed for it every day and every night, along with everyone else I knew too. People seemed to be coming by the house day and night now, praying over him, praying with him, calling on the Holy Ghost for healing. Daddy seemed to take it all in best he could, smile as best he could, and then seemed to try to make everyone else feel better about not being able to call down healing on him.

I thought about all the people Jesus must have encountered in his travels, and I wondered how many were sick and dying that he passed on by. Why would he heal some people, and not others? Why not Daddy? He was the best man I ever knew, and he worked hard to be kind to others and love God every day of his life. I felt my anger burning inside me, singeing my faith in God's goodness.

"What is it, Ruby?" Daddy asked. "I can feel the weight of your troubles on my heart."

"I just don't know," I said. "Do you pray for Jesus to heal you? Do you think he still does that?"

"I do."

"Then why doesn't he answer you? Why doesn't he answer all these people around here?"

"Healing's different for different folks. You can't make it happen the way you want to. You just gotta wait on the Lord to do his will. That's what faith is all about, Ruby. It's trust in the face of all evidence pointing against you."

"Do you think Jesus will heal you?"

"I suppose so, one way or another." He squeezed his eyebrows together and pointed at the Bible in my lap. "Flip over to Second Corinthians for me. Chapter four." I did what he said. "Now start right at about verse fifteen. I think that's the one I want."

"For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God. For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal."

I looked up at Daddy, laying in his bed day after day, his body wasting away and quitting on him. His affliction seemed anything but light. "I know what it says, at least I think I do. But don't you ever get mad?"

He let out a heavy sigh. "I feel lots of things. And yes, I get mad. But when I lose my way, I remember where my true North is. That's what that verse is talking about. All this stuff is temporary, and most days I ain't sure I'd call it light affliction, but I do know it can't compare to the glory that waits on the other side for me. And that gives me the strength to bear it."

He closed his eyes for a few moments, and I wondered if he'd fallen back asleep. I started to get up when he spoke again. "Don't lose faith, Ruby. Stay the course God has chosen for you. It ain't easy, and some days all you'll want is to give up. But keep your eyes and heart on the truth."


That afternoon, I felt worse than ever about sneaking off to the Doyle's place every day, and I guess Mary sensed my melancholy as we walked across town to her house. She didn't say anything at first, just shuffled along beside me and looked around. Every once in a while she'd stop to look in a store window, and part of the way she was even whistling a little tune. It suddenly struck me that she was actually in a good mood.

"You seem more cheerful than usual today," I said when we were about a half mile from her house.

"Do I?" she glanced over at me with a small smile. But she didn't say anything more, and it started to gnaw at my nerves wondering what was going on.

"Well? You going to tell me what's got you so happy?"

She shrugged. "It's no big deal, really. Billy Harris walked me home from church yesterday. He walked right up to Daddy and asked his permission and everything."

"Oh, Mary! That's so exciting!" I was grateful for the good news, and it was a relief to let go of the thoughts I'd been wrestling with. "Was he nice?"

"A perfect gentleman. I can't remember for the life of me what we talked about. I was so nervous, I'm sure I just babbled like a silly girl. But it was so wonderful, Ruby. I felt like a real woman."

I didn't tell her that she'd already looked like a real woman for quite some time now, at least in my mind. I listened as she talked, spreading a picture out before me of a world I barely knew, filled with racing hearts, dimpled smiles, and eyes that could make a girl nearly forget what she was talking about. By the time we reached her front door, I had forgotten all about my earlier worries.

But stepping inside the Doyle's house was like jumping from a warm, grassy bank into a freezing swimming hole, and that day I felt it more than ever. Mary must have too, because she stopped talking as soon as we went through the door, and her face went from glowing like a lightning bug to dead somber. I followed her through the foyer and around the stairs to the kitchen. We usually grabbed a biscuit and some preserves for a quick snack before I started cleaning and Mary started her piano practice, but we were stopped suddenly when we saw Mrs. Doyle had a visitor.

I didn't recognize her at first, but Mary introduced me. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Cass. This is my friend, Ruby Graves."

The woman seated next to Mrs. Doyle smiled at me, and I tried to place where I knew her from. She was older than my parents, with small, gentle eyes that seemed to rest comfortably in the wrinkles that surrounded them. She wasn't a farmer's wife, that much I knew. Her dress was nice, though not as fine as Mrs. Doyle's, and she looked far too comfortable sitting at the table to be anyone other than a friend.

"Ruby," Mary continued after a moment. "This is Mrs. Cass. Brother Cass is the preacher at First Baptist."

"Oh, of course," I said quickly. "I knew I recognized you."

She kept on smiling at me. "Well, Ruby Graves! My you've grown into a lovely young woman. I swear, time is flying so fast I can't keep up. I remember when your father was just knee high and running around causing a ruckus at the brush arbor meetings."

"You knew Daddy when he was a kid? Are you from Good Hope too?"

"Not originally, but Brother Cass started his preaching career there with his father. We hadn't been married more than a few months when we went to Good Hope and started the brush arbor meetings. That was how we got to know your Daddy."

Mary and I both took a seat across the table from the women. Mrs. Doyle offered us a biscuit from the platter in front of us, and I tried not to wolf it down, but my stomach was gnawing at me.

"He doesn't talk much about his childhood," I said.

Mrs. Cass shook her head and laughed. "He was a handful, that was for sure. He and Asa were always fighting and getting into some kind of brawl right in the middle of a good sermon. Bless their mother's heart, she tried to control them, but they were either going at each other or wrestling with some other young'un."

I wanted to to ask her more about Daddy and Asa, but I wasn't sure what to ask. I hadn't seen Daddy's brother even once in my whole life, and I knew better than to ask about him at home. But I heard through my crack in the wall once or twice about Asa, and I was sure there was something awful, and maybe a little exciting, that happened between them before Daddy and Mother moved to Hanceville.

I started to form an idea in my mind about how to ask, but I never got the chance. Once the biscuits were finished, Mrs. Doyle told Mary to hurry off and start her practice, and I knew that meant for me to get to my work too. As we stood, the kitchen door swung open and a grave-looking man stepped inside. He was small, maybe only an inch taller than me, and his thin face held a frown that stilled all of us in the room. He pat his hand on his breast pocket as he looked at Mrs. Doyle.

"Well, I did my best, but the boy doesn't seem very responsive," he said with a deep voice that sounded as if it he'd stolen it from a much larger man. "All you can do at this point is keep praying his heart will open to the truth."

Mrs. Doyle dropped her head for just a moment before she raised it almost defiantly back to the man. "Thank you, Brother Cass for visiting with him today. I assure you we're praying without ceasing."

"It's such a shame, really," he continued. "He was such a faithful child. Why, I remember his baptism like it was yesterday."

Mrs. Cass walked over to his side and laid a hand on his arm. "I'm sure your words were just what God wanted him to hear. We'll all pray he comes around soon." Then she turned back to Mrs. Doyle. "Thank you again for your hospitality."

"It was no trouble at all." Mrs. Doyle's polite smile was thin at best. "You're welcome any time."

That was when I noticed Brother Cass looking at me funny, like I was an itch in the back of his mind he couldn't quite scratch. "Who's your friend here, Mary?"

"Oh Irwin," Mrs. Cass said. "You remember the Graves boys from over in Good Hope. This is Abner's girl, Ruby."

"Ah yes, Ruby then." He lifted his head a bit so he could look down at me. I expected at least a polite smile for a greeting, but his frown deepened, making my cheeks warm. Maybe he could see my lying hanging around me like a shroud. I managed to nod my head at him, and then I dropped my eyes to the floor.

"We'd best be going," Mrs. Doyle said.

They all left the kitchen, and Mary waved her fingers at me as she let the door close behind her. I stood frozen to the floor, still covered in that shroud of shame and lies.


When I stepped into Matthew's room, I set my rags and a fresh bucket of soapy water on the floor just inside the door. I glanced around the room and found him in his chair by the window, a sign that he was having one of his better days. That was good, because his bed needed changing so bad I could hardly keep down my biscuits. As usual, he didn't acknowledge my existence, just stared out of the window at only God knew what. I pulled the blankets off the bed and laid them aside, and then I tore off the sheets to take down to the burn pile. He'd gone through three sets of sheets in as many weeks.

I walked around the end of the bed over to his side to examine how bad it was, thankful I didn't see any new stains on the floor or the wall. As I turned to fetch the bucket, I caught him looking up at me. It shouldn't have given me much pause, since I'd finally gotten used to him watching me clean his room without saying a word. But the look on his face that day made me stop and look closer. He'd long ceased looking human to me, more like a skeleton than anything-a skeleton with eyes that followed me around the room. The first day or two it had made my skin feel itchy, but I thought I'd gotten used to it. But there was something different in his face, a tiny spark behind his eyes that, along with his furrowed brow, seemed angry.

"Ruby, right?"

His voice startled me. It was weak, not much more than a whisper, but it was definitely colored with anger.

"That's right. Do you need something?"

"You're not wearing your mask today."

I lifted my hand to my face, realizing I'd forgotten it. "No, I guess not."

"You ain't scared? You best go get it before you catch your death."

"I'll be all right this one time, I'm sure. Besides, you seem a little better today. Haven't heard you cough once yet."

"Won't last. I'll be spewing out pieces of lung all night, you'll see. Never let's up for long."

"You must be exhausted."

He studied me for a moment before turning his gaze back to the window. I assumed he was done talking with me, so I got the bucket and started wiping down the wall nearest his side of the bed. I could glance along the wall and see him while I washed. His frown seemed permanently etched into the lines around his mouth and above his brow. I wondered what it felt like to be close to death when you hadn't really had a chance to live yet. It was one thing for Daddy to face death. He almost seemed like he was welcoming the relief of it. But Matthew looked like he fought the devil himself on a daily basis.

He suddenly shifted his gaze back to me, and I realized I'd stopped cleaning and was just all out staring now. I jumped and started wiping again, but I knew I was caught.

"You religious, Ruby?"

I kept washing, not wanting to look at him anymore. "I guess. I pray. I go to church. I believe in Jesus."

"What I mean is, are you saved?"

"I'd say so."

"Do you think God put tuberculosis on me?"

"What?" Now I did stop washing. I stood up, too, and walked a little closer, dropping the rag in the bucket. "Who ever put a dumb idea like that in your head?"

He blinked and looked down at the floor. "Preacher says it. Every time he comes here he says, 'Matthew, you just have to be patient. God put this sickness on you for a reason, and he's gone bless you because of it.' I can't stand to listen to him no more. He just talks out of both sides of his mouth. God loves me." He shook his head. "God afflicted me, but somehow he loves me too." He looked up at me then, right in the eye. "I don't care for serving a God like that."

I stood in silence, not sure what I was supposed to say. I sensed that same black, empty presence I'd feel whenever I cleaned his room, some kind of darkness that slid in around everything, suffocating hope and light right out of the place. I prayed for wisdom, for some truth to share that might lighten Matthew's burdens.

"You could still get better. I wouldn't give up yet."

"I don't care about getting better anymore. If I'm gone die, I wish it'd just happen already. I ain't got nothing left I can do. I just sit here every day-no, I lie in that bed every day-just waiting to die." He coughed,covering his mouth with the handkerchief in his hand. "Tell, me Ruby. What's patience gone do for tuberculosis?"

"I don't know. I can't say I'm much for having patience." I paused, afraid of saying something to make him feel worse. "I hate to disagree with a preacher, especially one as respected as Brother Cass, but I don't think you need patience. You need hope, and faith that God can heal you."

He laughed, and he coughed again. "Heal me. You mean like some kind of miracle or something?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. That's what I pray for every day. For my daddy...and for you."

His eyes narrowed a bit. "You shouldn't waste your prayers on me. Besides, you don't know me. I ain't worthy of prayers, especially ain't worth no miracle."

I turned and looked out the window with him, watching life coming into bloom all around the outside world. No wonder everything seemed so bleak from in here. I reached for the bottom of the window.

"What are you doing?" Matthew asked.

I pushed on the pane, but it wouldn't budge. "I'm trying..." I pushed harder. "To get..." I hit it a couple of times. "This window open!" I finally shoved it hard enough, and dust flew up as the window slid up about half a foot. I dusted my hands on my apron and turned to him. He didn't exactly look pleased. In fact, he looked a little nervous.

"Doc says the damp air ain't good for my lungs."

"Nonsense. It hasn't rained in over a week, and the sky is as blue as it gets. Some fresh air would do you good."

"So you know better than a doctor and a preacher?"

He coughed again, this time several coughs in a row. I started to rethink my decision.

"Well, I wouldn't say that exactly. Just seems like when I was sick and cooped up for a while, I always felt better with a little sunshine on my face and some fresh air in my lungs."

"Hey, at this point, it can't hurt nothing."

I gave his arm a gentle pat and grabbed my bucket off the floor. I went back to my washing, and he went back to his staring. Only, I noticed his frown lines had smoothed out a bit, and the sunshine had chased away the darkness from his face, from the whole room for that matter. Maybe I'd finally hit on my purpose for being here. Maybe I was supposed to bring Matthew a taste of hope.