Chain of Rocks
“I swear I saw a sign for Chicago,” Ma said, holding the battered Esso map on her lap.
“Sun’s going down fast,” said Pa, for the fifth time in twenty minutes. Then, for the first time, “Don’t know where we are.”
The wooden spokes of the old Hudson vibrated on the rough concrete. Judy itched herself on the spot between her bottom and the back of her knee that touched the soft but scratchy mohair seat surface where the little sundress she was outgrowing didn’t quite cover. “Ma’s tired,” she thought, looking at the purple half-circles under Ma’s eyes reflected in the oval-shaped rearview mirror, glancing nervously at Pa while he gripped the big black steering wheel with its many levers, fiddling to turn the headlights on.
“I think we’re near Edwardsville,” Ma said. “Mama hasn’t heard from him in at least ten years, but I think my preacher cousin Derek lives there.”
Pa replied, “Hmmph.”
The closest school had closed after the storms drove most of the town out, and Judy had no playmates save the doll mama made from an old satin pillowcase and mattress ticking. Barefoot like her, Judy and Dolly played near the little spring near the back of the house most everyday; first they romped in the dirt, then Judy would carefully wash her, feet first, then hands, then face – just like Ma did for Judy.
Two hours a day, Ma would teach her out of the few schoolbooks she’d kept from her childhood, and sing a few songs from her Baptist hymnal. Judy loved science, and learning about the sky and the weather. In the mornings they’d all help Pa in the field, and Ma would point out the different kinds of clouds. Once in a great while they’d all go to the moving pictures, when the landowner, Mr. Specht, who took a shine to the little girl, would drive to Dalhart to pay taxes.
They held out for as long as they could, but they had no real friends in the Lutheran Texas panhandle. They’d moved there from Concordia before the storms came, before Judy came, with the intention of sharecropping until they had enough to own their own farm. But Pa, who’d come to Kansas as a child on an orphan train, couldn’t get any respect even when he turned a profit, which wasn’t often.
“Sharecropping bastard white trash…barely one step up from the coloreds,” the men at the bar would whisper to each other if Pa walked in. He was unbaptized, and the family wasn’t welcome in the one church in town. The staunch Lutherans wouldn’t let their kids work for Pa and his Baptist wife, and trying to keep those few acres alive without additional help eventually proved near impossible.
They’d finally had enough, just as the Soil Conservation Service came around to their corner of Dallam County with subsidies for farmers to stop planting, and plans for the CCC to furrow some of Mr. Specht’s ranch to prevent further erosion. The map was drawn right through their sharecrop. Ma took it as a sign.
“We’ve got big news, Judy,” Pa said.
“We’re leaving this land. Mr. Specht got some government money, and gave us some cash, and I bought us a car. We’re moving to a big city.”
“Like Emerald City?”
“Well…that’s just the movies,” Pa said. “I can’t promise you magic or a wizard, but yes, we’re going to have an adventure, just like Dorothy and her friends.”
“When will we come back home?”
Pa paused for a second. “Well, part of you will always be here – you were born on this farm. But this ain’t our home anymore.”
Judy started to cry.
“Oh baby,” Ma said, “Don’t you worry; wherever we are all together, we are home. And when you close your eyes, you can always go back here and play by the spring, and before you know it you’ll make new memories and friends…”
Judy looked up at Pa, who smiled. “Don’t worry, darlin’. You go to sleep, and tomorrow, we’ll be gettin’ on.”
Judy went to bed as told, in the little sleeping loft above the fireplace, listening to Ma and Pa scurry about, packing the few things Pa hadn’t already sold. It wasn’t much of a task, just clothes, books, pots, plates and pans. All of the furniture was rented from Mr. Specht.
Soon the house was dark and quiet. But Judy couldn’t sleep. She turned to her little friend on the pillow.
“Dolly,” Judy whispered, “I’m going to go on an adventure with Ma and Pa…I have to go tomorrow. Do you want to go, too?”
Dolly said nothing.
“I know, this place is home. I’m sad, too – but if you want to stay, I understand, Dolly.”
Dolly looked at Judy in a way that Judy knew meant “yes.”
“Okay,” Judy said, and a couple of tears came. “I will miss you.”
At dawn, before Ma and Pa woke, Judy climbed down the loft ladder quietly as if going to the outhouse, but went to the little cottonwood tree by the spring, careful not to make a sound. She hugged her doll for the last time and hid Dolly in a little hollow inside the tree, where they always played hide-and-seek.
“Maybe one day I will see you again, Dolly,” said Judy. She snuck inside just as the sun began to break.
Four days of hard traveling, sometimes only averaging twenty miles an hour going east then north – Judy looked out as the dead ranches buried in dust on the highwayside gave way to the outskirts of towns with leaning, makeshift homes, then the fine hotels in city centers. She wondered why well-dressed folks shook their heads as they passed. Ma and Pa stopped at little grocery stores that looked as run down as the old Hudson, where they’d slept, save for the fifth night, when an old innkeeper in Rolla gave them a room at half-price, seeing right through Pa’s pride. Mostly felt sorry for the little girl.
That night, after washing up Judy for the first time in a proper bath since leaving Texas, Pa went outside for a cigarette as Ma put Judy to bed.
“Why, where’s your Dolly?” Ma said, tucking her in.
“Dolly didn’t want to leave home,” Judy replied matter-of-factly, “so she stayed home. I’ll visit her one day.”
Ma, who had stitched together this little friend for Judy out of scraps, had to turn her head and sniff back her sob.
“Well, I’m sure you will then; we’ll find you some nice new friends in Chicago,” she said.
“It’s okay, Ma,” Judy said in a reassuring voice, seeing a tear form at Ma’s eye. “Dolly is in her hiding place and she’ll wait for me.”
Visions of government tractors clearing the land filled Ma’s head. She saw the special tree by the spring being turned into splinters.
“Of…course she will,” Ma said, her voice choking. “Now…you go to sleep, dear,” and kissed Judy’s cheek. The tear ran from Ma’s face onto Judy’s neck.
“How odd,” she thought as she drifted to sleep.
Ma turned out the lights as she left the room, and walked to the little bench close to the highway where Pa sat with his half-smoked sack of Bull Durham, puffing on one and rolling one more.
Ma had barely got to the bench when she almost shrieked, keening, repeating in tears, “We shouldn’ta left, we shouldn’ta left, we shouldn’ta –”
“What the hell’s gotten into you, Mary?!” Pa barked, more worried than angry.
“The…Dolly…the….Judy’s friend…tractors…what’re we doi…” she tried to say. Pa stood up and held her to his chest, dropping his cigarettes on the dirt under the bench, where the lit one’s smoke curled around them as he drew her down to sit.
“Mary…it’s gonna be fine. We’ll be fine. I’ll get that job at the Ford plant, Judy’ll get good schooling and make friends, you’ll work with Maude at that dress factory, maybe one day we’ll own a store, maybe we’ll…”
And Ma cried, cried, cried into the crook of Pa’s shoulder until there were no more sobs left.
The road seemed to close in quickly as dusk played tricks on them.
“The light bursts at the end or beginning of a curve,” Judy thought, “depending on what direction we’re coming from.”
Pa finally figured out they were heading north, as the last few minutes of sun were firmly on their left and the road seemed to straighten out. He breathed relief.
“All right, well, we’ll all hope this takes us back to the main highway soon. 66 is what we’re trying to find,” Pa said. “Keep your eyes open for….wait, what is that sound?” he exclaimed.
It sounded like wailing, like babies crying, then like some unknown music. Pa sped up the Hudson just a little bit. Coming up the narrow, shoulderless two-lane, he slowed when he saw the cars parked on the embankment flanking the uneven macadam-paved road surface. Dogs ran, leashless, collarless, barking, tongues out. Children ran with them; girls in white dresses, boys in white shirts and black shortpants.
“It’s a goddamn revival!” Pa said, with not a little disdain in his voice. Though he growled as he rode the clutch threading through the bottleneck of the crowd and cars, Pa was stunned into silence by the smiles of the faithful, gleaming in the dying day.
All three of them started savoring the sweet smell of corn boiling and pig roasting that filled the air. Someone came up to the window, and Pa let the motor idle.
“Are you weary?” asked the man at the window, his black eyes glinting, peaceful.
Another man came up to the car. “Come, friend. You need to stop driving, I can see it.”
Pa was silent, but then the first man said, “Yes, come, friends. Brother Derek’s about to preach the good news, too, and afterward, there’ll be plenty of food for all of you.”
Ma whispered into Pa’s ear. “Of all the uncommon coincidences…we stumble onto my preacher cousin’s revival?”
At that, Pa chortled, and turned to the eager eyes at the window. In a saccharine tone only Ma understood was sarcasm, he said, “I suppose you might say the Lord works in mysterious ways…certainly, friend, we’d love a good meal, and we could all use some rest.”
“And we’re already dressed for church!” Judy chirped.
It was true: they’d all worn their threadbare but proud Sunday summer clothing when leaving the little inn many hours earlier. Ma in blue cotton, Pa in seersucker, Judy in a little red jumper, stockings, and pigtails. If they’d needed to beg a room again, Pa figured they’d have a better chance to do so in the highfalutin’ north if they looked at least a little respectable. It’d been a long day of driving, but the dust hadn’t been too bad. The only visible evidence of their travels were the wrinkles on Pa’s once-stiff shirt, and a dark sweat ring around his collar. Ma and Judy’s dresses were too old to hold creases, and they looked pretty as a picture in the fading light.
The man at the window smiled. “Welcome, friends,” he said, and directed them to an open spot on the embankment, the Hudson lurching its way up the slight hill in low gear.
“Church,” Pa grumbled under his breath. “Mary, you planned this. This ain’t no coincidence; you held that map, you told me which way to turn.”
“Oh, hush, Ben,” Ma chided. “The good Lord’s seen fit that we find family tonight instead of sleeping in this old wreck or pleading poverty to some old man…again.”
Pa sheepishly took his battered Resistol in his hands, knowing she was right and secretly grateful for whatever clandestine plans his wife might have made. He held the hat to his face in a half-hearted effort to cover embarrassment. Ma took his forearm.
“Ben, I’m sorry. That was far too harsh of me, and you don’t deserve that, not from me or nobody else. We got rolled a bum set of dice these last months. I know you’re doing your best for us. Tonight, let’s not fret too much, all right?”
“All right,” Pa said, and squeezed Ma’s hand.
Judy ambled out of the car and ran towards the music, ten steps ahead of her parents, coming out of a big canvas tent lit from the inside with bright acetylene lamps, two old-fashioned torches flanking the wide entrance.
“It’s a carnival,” she thought, “and I’m right in the middle.” The music was joined by singing, ramping up as they entered. Judy saw a man in the center of the makeshift room.
“Is he a ringmaster?” she asked Pa.
“Well, this ain’t no circus,” Pa said, “but you might say that, darlin’. It’s your cousin, a preacher.”
“Yes, sweetie, your mama’s kin, she hasn’t seen him in a long time. His name is Derek,” said Pa.
Derek was standing on a stage of old milkcrates covered with a big, patterned Persian rug. He in turn was ringed by young girls in white robes, by young men in black trousers and white jackets, and he himself, in a long black robe emblazoned by silver-thread crosses and streaks of shiny white satin, hair pomaded into a high coif that slicked the sides and turned in the front into a perfect curlicue down his forehead, looked every bit the citified country-bred former boy preacher he was. A piano chimed as the choir swelled in song, and the people swelled into the tent, surrounding the little family, who got pushed to near the front of the crowd as they entered.
“Yes, indeed! The light is upon us!” he burst out, and began preaching as the choir whooped and the congregation began swaying between his phrases:
Banks of Jor–dan! Banks of Jor–dan!
Find my Eden cross the banks of Jorrrr–dan!
“We have ALL seen a GREAT light these few days and on this, the last evening of our Revival…”
Find my Eden…mmmm…Find my Eden…mmmm…
“…we see the good graces upon ALL of us!”
Cross the Banks of Jor–dan!
“All of us! We are holy! We are all shed in the blood! And we have come out CLEAN!”
Washed in the blood of the lamb!
The crowd shrieked and the choir dipped down to a low hum. Derek closed his eyes and raised closed fists to the ceiling. Eyes followed his hands as they opened up, as if to imply the rising sun.
“Friends, God tests us every day. But do you know what?” As the crowd called him to testify, Derek breathed in and his voice raised over them, as he raised a large red leatherbound bible above his head, its gold-leafed cross glinting in the torchlight.
“In this Holy Book, God never says ‘I can’t.’ And we are made in God’s image. God only gives us what we can handle. Say it with me now: God never says ‘I can’t’!”
The crowd responded in kind, and Derek continued. “God is capable of all you ask, if you give yourself fully. Abraham gave himself to God! And what did God give him? God gave him back his son, made him father of ALL Israel. Moses gave himself to God, and what did God give him? The privilege of deliverance! And if that was not enough, God gave us our eternal savior Jesus, to prove that when you give yourself to God, God gives you ETERNAL LIFE!”
And the choir raised its song for a brief moment as the crowd erupted in praise, the sound of someone banging a spoon on a frying pan cutting through the din.
“Now, there are those that preach DON’T. And those that preach DON’T ASK. Well, my friends, the bible is a book of mysteries. We may never know all of them, but God called me to be his servant. Yes, God called me, in plain speak. And you know what God said?
“Do you KNOW what God said?”
“I heard a voice say, ‘Derek, you are my child and I love you! Spread love to the world!’ And I am telling you now, gathered kindred, God loves you! That God says you CAN, because there is nothing that God CAN’T do – so there is NOTHING you can’t do! No matter who you are, no matter where you are going, God moves you! You are God’s child, despite what other preachers and teachers and psalms may have said – and believe me, I know these false promise-makers, the lie-mongerers, the hate keepers – THEY are the TRUE Satans! Get THEM behind you and go your own way knowing GOD LOVES YOU! Can I get an amen?”
“Can I really hear you now?”
“Now, GO! Go with God! God will be with you!! And WE are ALL with each other!!”
And the crowd erupted in hosannas and praise as the choir whooped and rolled through a reprise of their song, and the little family, especially Pa – so used to being told by parochials that he, an unbaptized orphan child, was exactly that, and rebelled against anything having to do with faith, he who insisted on getting married at the Cloud County courthouse instead of Mary’s childhood church – was meek and mute, Pa’s eyes wide open and glistening like a child about to receive a gift.
Derek walked off of the milkcrate stage and spun through the crowd, singing with the choir, hugging everyone that came into his path around the circle that had formed around the center of the tent, and then he saw the little family standing in front of him.
“Cousin…Mary?” he said, and warmly embraced Ma. “Derek, yes, my word! Oh, my, you have become quite the preacher. I haven’t seen you since we were kids…when you left Kansas with those traveling Baptists!”
Derek looked solemn for a moment, before opening his grin back up.
“Yes, Mary. Here we all are. Oh, you are quite the sight. And hello, sprout! What’s your name?”
“I’m JUDY!” she pipsqueaked. Derek chuckled. Pa, still silent, simply nodded his head toward Derek.
“And Mary’s husband,” Derek said through a warm smile. “I see you’ve brought her much happiness; this bright-eyed child is proof positive of that. What is your name, cousin?”
“Ben,” Pa muttered softly, and smiled a half-grin.
Derek grasped Pa’s calloused hand in his own soft manicured fingers, and said, “It is truly a blessing and a testament to God’s will to have you here, Ben. Come. Let’s have fellowship at the tables with my people. Celebrate with us.”
And the three travelers followed Derek to the wooden camp tables, where Derek led his flock in a quick grace. Then, as Derek walked around greeting the people, they ate corn and pork and coleslaw and bread and drank lemonade and had yellow cake with white icing. A boy and a girl walked up to their table, dressed in slightly stained whites.
“Hi there, you’re new!” the boy said, and Judy nodded.
“My name is Billy and this is my sister Sue…do you wanna come play with us and our friends?”
“Can I, Mama, can I?” Judy asked.
“Of course, honey,” Ma said, “just don’t tear your pretty dress.”
“Don’t worry, Mama!” Judy said, and went off to play, talking excitedly with the siblings and laughing.
In a field next to the tables, the three children raced hoops, and then joined other children for a game of Red Rover. Ma and Pa sat close, watching their child being a child, yelping, obviously making friends, shrieking along with the other boys and girls. After a while, the crowd began murmuring and heading off to the river to wash or to their tents to retire, and the children trickled out along with them. Soon they were alone at the wooden table, and Judy returned to them, grinning.
“Ma, we played Red Rover and I even won once, did you see? Did you see?”
Ma smiled and tousled Judy’s dirty blonde curls. “Yes, honey, you did great!”
The man who greeted them at their car window came to the table. “Ben, Mary…Brother Derek asked that you come sit with him for a spell; will you follow me?” Pa nodded, and they went along.
He ushered them into Derek’s temporary dwelling. The tent’s sides were lined with red canvas and inside with a violet velvet canopy, where Derek held court on a carved wooden chair flanked by two carved benches. The man and two younger fellows took the little family past a few other parishioners waiting in line for a moment with Derek.
“Welcome to Edwardsville. I’m assuming you’re traveling to Chicago, yes?” he asked, as the family sat down.
“Yes,” said Ma, “The dust ruined our sharecrop; we couldn’t get any hired hands anyway. Then the man who owned the land took the government’s money for…killin’ his pigs…and kindly gave us enough to get out of Texas and to go find us some factory jobs. A friend of mine has a line on some good-paying seamstress work for me, and Ben’s gonna try to get himself a job at the Ford Assembly Plant.”
“Wonderful,” Derek said. “Chicago is a wonderful place.” He sighed, tapped his fingers on his leg.
“So many parts of this nation are full of unfeeling people with certain ideas of who should be treated which way,” he continued. “As you well know, I ran from Kansas soon as I could find the strength to, and never looked back. I found my ministry not in those Baptist ideas that took me from home, but in the ideals of the human spirit I eventually discovered. After wandering the preaching circuit up and down the Mississippi River, I found my kindred when I found St. Louis, and have since settled here in this unique town – Edwardsville is the county seat, and there is a love of art and humanity here; many respected people from all over the country come to give lectures and perform music. The Nelson foundry and factory pays fair wages, and built housing and an academy, too. While there’s surely no less hatred than anywhere else in this mean country, there is hope, and people willing to try – as you can see.”
The three fellows at the door looked upon Derek admiringly, and when Derek winked, one of them blushed and smiled.
Pa caught Derek’s eye. “Your sermon…it…truly got to me,” he stammered.
Ma, so used to Pa’s ever-present stoicism, was shocked, and they stood in silence for a moment.
Derek’s voice grew low as he responded: “That means a great deal to me, Ben. It is a pleasure to meet you here, among my people. You are always welcome in the house of the Lord. And you, Judy – how old are you?”
“Six, almost seven,” she told the preacher. “The same age as Billy and Sue, we played Red Rover and I won!” Derek could not restrain from laughing at the little girl’s sudden and loud declaration, while her parents’ faces blushed.
“Well, Mary, what a delight your family is,” he said, turning to Ma. “How is it you found yourselves here tonight?”
“That twisted bridge out of St. Louis dumped us on some road we didn’t know how to follow,” Ma said. “We got lost near some town called Granite City and drove around in circles till we heard that music. We were hoping to be halfway to Chicago by now and got stuck on this backroad, looking for 66.”
Derek grinned. “Well, obviously the bridge took you exactly where you needed to be!” He laughed and then grew thoughtful. “They call that bridge the Chain of Rocks, built over deadly shoals of the same name. I think about that sometimes. A bridge named for a chain of rocks…what links, what connects those stones? What carries us over the strife placed in our way?” He paused to sip from a glass of water, and shook his head. “Whatever it is, some invisible thread pulled you here to my tent, on the night of Revival, and the truth is, 66 is around the next bend. You didn’t divert far at all. So rest and rejuvenate. These are holy moments. When we can discover a light in the midst of what seems darkness, that is God speaking to us. Oh, cousins. It is truly joyful for me to see you, to see the obvious goodness that surrounds you as you travel. This is the first time I’ve been with blood kin in so many years, and I wish you kindness on your journey. But I must say, this is a fine little town. I know many people here, and could help you find jobs and housing, if that’s something you would like for me to do.”
Pa and Ma were silent, and then Pa spoke. “I spent most of my life in smaller towns, and while that’s awful kind of you, Derek, and your people are certainly lovely, it’s time for me to…”
“…have a new adventure?” Judy asked.
“Yes,” Pa said, smiling at his daughter.
Derek put his hand on Pa’s left shoulder. “Cousins, of course I understand,” he said in a quiet voice. “It took me a while to find my place in this world, and here I am – and from here you will go, to find your way. Thank you for giving me the blessing of your presence here tonight. And if you decide Chicago doesn’t suit you, know that you are always welcome here, just a day’s drive away.”
Ma smiled then. “It’s good to know you are here for us, Derek. Thank you kindly.”
Judy began to fidget in her seat; the familiar movements of a tired child before sleep.
“I must tend to my flock,” Derek said, “and you to yours. I’m sure you are worn from your travels.” Ma nodded.
“Deacon Michael will take you to a place of lodging a few miles up the highway so you can get a good start tomorrow, and of course, Michael…the church will provide?” said the preacher.
The man who blushed came forward. “Certainly, Brother Derek.”
Derek embraced his cousins, and winked at them before they turned to depart, smiling.
The family followed Michael to a mud-streaked battered Model T pickup truck, with no doors and no engine cover, parked by their Hudson. He set the crank in place as Ma and Judy got into the Hudson. Judy watched blue sparks from the magneto light up the young man’s face as he turned the motor over. The T caught with a pep-pep-pep.
“Just follow me,” Michael said to Pa.” We’ll get the little one to bed soon enough,” They shook hands.
Judy snuggled up under an old Irish wool blanket and into the tan mohair backseat, and as the cool and heavy evening air drifted into the window, began drifting into a child’s slumber. Ma held Pa’s arm as he pulled the car off of the embankment and onto the bumpy road, following the pep-pep of the lurching old Ford in front of them as the highway lights approached.
In the absence of Dolly, Judy put her clasped hands between her inner thighs and under her stockings, so her hands were warm. As the car bounced along the road, her hand slipped up toward her belly, and she felt a spark somewhere deep inside her body – something she’d never felt before. She moved her hand to see if she could do it again. And she found she could, so she kept doing it, over and over, until the spark turned into a big lightning bolt and then that bolt hit her from her stomach and rose to her breastbone and from her neck down to her toes, which curled up as her body felt a beautiful fire.
She pulled her hands down between her knees, and shivered warmly as the feeling subsided, and she relaxed as little sparks continued to flood her. She had never felt that good, and wondered for a second if it was wrong to touch herself in that way, in her private place, as Ma always called it. But then she remembered what her cousin had preached: God never says, “I can’t.”
And she decided that if God hadn’t wanted her to feel that good, then God wouldn’t have made it possible for her to feel that good. And she smiled as she drifted off to sleep under her blanket, whispering to herself, “God loves me.”
Splitting her time between San Francisco and NYC, Mya Byrne is an award-winning songwriter, poet, actor, and trans/queer activist. She’s opened for many of her heroes, including Rae Spoon, Steve Forbert, and Levon Helm. She’s received airplay across America and internationally, was a 2015 Emerging Artist at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, won the first-place Americana award in the 2015 Great American Song contest, and was a 2014 Folk Alliance showcase artist. She made her stage debut at NYC’s Dixon Place in 2014.
Her music, poetry, and opinions have been featured in outlets including SingOut!,The Advocate, Village Voice, New York Magazine, The Aquarian, Time Out, MSNBC, NPR, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and CBS/Radio.com, with public speaking engagements at institutions including SUNY and the UU. Her writing was recently selected for Trans Women Across Genres: An Anthology, to be published in 2017 by Eoagh Journal of the Arts, and she was just announced for the lineup of the 2016 Philadelphia Folk Festival. www.myabyrne.com. Selected by Ryka Aoki.
Image copyright Bob Bell via Flickr Creative Commons.