Up and Down Wye Mountain

by JON TRIBBLE

Daffodils crowning the summit of this country church-topped hill have begun to pale and wither from the sun and heat of Arkansas summer, though the earlier hymn of the flowers' open mouths brought out the city dwellers to the festival the congregation here celebrates every year. But it is the church itself which calls us, our pilgrimage a journey to familiarize my mother with this site and one other the Bishop appointed her to lead. Her recent vocation has been rehearsed with sermons, ceremonies, and assisting in the rituals that embody the articles of faith, reaching beyond response which a lifetime of supplication has taught to lead the call, but, at sixty-eight, she now seeks to test the strength of her calling anew, to discover if this challenge is the path study and long prayer mean to bring her to. My father, my wife, and I have joined today, all of us, perhaps, a bit skeptical and concerned, but also warmed by the enthusiasm apparent in my mother's sharp attention to all the practical concerns: how long it takes to drive from home, gas stations or their lack upon the way, the safe and unsafe speeds to wend this single winding trail. My wife steps out first and then the rest of us stretch and gaze about at this calming scene, the handiwork of masons resting under the oaks. The stone church appears to be locked tight, but a back door guarded only by a blue- bellied lizard opens and we enter. There is much more here than any of us had dared hope for: kitchen, Sunday school meeting room, an organ and piano, and the simple solid altar and cushioned pews the sanctuary presents us with exceed every expectation and demonstrate the care of belief and duty we might or might not find evident in storied sacristies housing relics of less humble design. Attendance figures from the Sunday before show “38” adults on hand, “15” children, and a collection of “$143.85” with “$20” added for building and grounds. My father wants a picture, and though my mother refuses to pose for him, my wife and I take turns standing behind the sturdy Communion rail. We head down the hill to Bigelow, six miles away by road —though the hawks we see rising in the bright sky might make the distance less than three—, and my mother wonders aloud why two small congregations are not one, though she says she would not rush either church toward a change neither might want. As we reach the bottom of Wye Mountain, the rich flood plain for the Arkansas River slopes through stands of pine and tangles of honeysuckle on to Toadsuck Ferry where the now lock-and-dam tamed waters are traversed much more easily, though perhaps less often since busy interstates have cut off these back roads. Bigelow approaches with promise at first, a horse farm shadowed back amidst the loblolly, a cattle ranch with heavy Bhraman hybrids sinking in a stock pond's cool mud. But as we near the single railroad track which marks this town as here—along with its beige aluminum- sided post office—houses begin to seem to sway as much from poor construction and disrepair as from the humid heat. Our first attempt to find the church finds us turning around at the mobile home assembly yard that must be this town's only industry, though scattered insulation and a cemetery of unused metal frames appear to be permanent monuments to prosperity long past. A second try leads us back and forth dead-end one-way streets, but there are few enough that by process of elimination we end up in front of what a weathered sign tells us is the “United Methodist Church,” though easily we could have mistaken the style of the scrawl painted here for a “For Sale By Owner” posting. With no apparent parking site and the ditches flanking the road choking with tall weeds, I ease the car onto the crossover leading up to the white wooden building which teeters on its cinderblock foundation. The squat steeple points toward heaven only indirectly, seemingly concerned in this world with the thin shade in sight some hundred yards away. My wife and father get out, but I remain with my mother, who now gasps a bit from the close air. She fans herself and tells how this church has lost members to death and relocation the last decade, how fewer than two dozen names appear on the current roll—maybe fifteen or twelve active members: Not a growing ministry. The job here would be staying the decline and, perhaps, attracting a new congregation, though from where is— at best—unclear. When my wife and father return with the word that the building is locked, their survey of the exterior is grim indeed: rotting doors stacked carelessly against the outside of the church, mildew and what unstained paint there is flaking and peeling off —an erratic layer of dandruff spotting the surrounding ground—, no visible electric lines, —though a rusted-out window unit belied the absence of power—, and stairs, front and back, warped and loose and waiting for any misstep to send someone tumbling. “Someone should burn it to the ground,” my father says, despite forty-five years working for and with the Methodist Church. “If you've got a match, I'll do it right now.” But my mother is calm. She says this challenge is what she prayed for. We all wonder how this forgotten church has kept its charter, but slowly my mother's resolve takes hold of us doubters until my father even begins saying he will transfer membership to this church, work with them to clean and shore up the damage. We drive back past the chapel atop the hill on our way home, understanding a little more the devotion, the need to serve which shapes my mother's calling. A week later, the Bishop joins my parents for their introduction to the congregation of ten at Bigelow and the members of the church welcome my mother and father. Then the Bishop tells the church how happy he is to find them supportive of this newly licensed minister on her first appointment, and suddenly the recognition strikes them, they want to know what the Bishop thinks he is trying to pull on them, that surely he doesn't expect them to receive sacraments from a woman. Recounting this later, my mother says, “It was as if I were no longer there the moment they realized I was,” and her voice is weary, even as she goes on to describe her surprise at the beauty of the sanctuary: six tapestries resplendent on the walls following the Gospel of Christ's nativity, His ministry, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the Trial before Pilate, and Calvary's hill. New hymnals rested beside dog-eared Bibles in the plush red-velveted pews. She said they had polished the brass to impress their new pastor, decorating the heavy oak altar with yellow lilies bowing beneath the dark shining wood of the empty cross suspended from the rafters.

JON TRIBBLE was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. His poems have appeared in the anthologies The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Surreal South, and Two Weeks, and in Crazyhorse, Poetry, Ploughshares, and Quarterly West. He teaches at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he is the managing editor of Crab Orchard Review and the series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry published by SIU Press.