What do I value most? One hair from the head of my child. One drop of
his blood, touching my hand. For that, I would give up anything . . .
everything . . . my own life.
The word came to me, at long last, that my husband Saul had died. This
news was brought up from the meeting ground at Cole’s Creek by one of
the men who’d been following after him these past twenty-five years.
It was stale news, of course, more than two years old; and, at that, the
man on my porch had not stirred himself so much out of love for Saul, as
in the hope that I would give him what he wanted, a sign he could take
back to the others down at the creek. What I wanted myself was to send
him on his way, with nothing. That afternoon when he came by, I was
waiting for my daughter, who was on her way home from the Carolina coast
with her new husband and my grandbaby. I had no wish to have this man in
the house while her family was present. I know from hard experience –
this is one thing to which I can bear true witness – that you cannot
protect another person from the past, although I have tried, as the Lord
knows, where my daughter and now my grandbaby are concerned.
Still, as my own father used to say, death and guilt don’t like to be
kept waiting; and now that both were on my porch, still dusty from the
road and standing on this man’s left and right at my doorstep, I
decided it would be better to have done with the one who’d brought
them, once and for all, than risk their return at some other, ill-chosen
time. I’ll confess as well, in his favor, that he reminded me of
another who’d looked much the same the first time I’d seen him. The
man in front of me was taller, his dark face covered with sweat and his
hair hanging in braided locks; but he wore the same dark clothes, and
had that same look of having long accepted hardship that comes only from
time spent on the road. From some long lost training in propriety, he
held his hat in his hands, twisting the brim with aged and roughened
fingers, and scraped his shoes on the doorstep as he entered.
“Miriam,” he said, nodding and smiling, a smile that showed yellowed
teeth. “Sister Miriam,” he called me, in a soft voice meant to show
gratitude. “Peace be to this house,” he whispered, “Peace be to
this house.” I pointed him to a seat in the center of my sofa. He
hesitated, and I know this was because he was unused to being on his own
in a woman’s house, where the furniture was clean even when it
“There, you sit yourself there,” I said, “and I’ll see what I
have that I can give you.”
I left him sitting in my living room, holding his hat on his knees. In
the kitchen, I stirred the lima beans that I’d made up with my
mama’s own molasses recipe, and opened the oven to baste the ham with
a wooden spoon that was very like the one my mama had used when I was
growing up. I took my time, while deciding what to do. It was almost
five o’clock, but I thought my daughter would be about another half
hour or so on the road. If I wanted to hear him out, there would be just
You have to understand that while I may never have seen this man before,
it would not be true to say that I didn’t know him. Each year in
summer, others like him had turned up from wherever the road had taken
them during the year, so they could meet at the place their founder
himself had lived his last days, breathed his last, and come to an end
of the sort that now, knowing so little of what actually happened, they
all seem to crave. For more than twenty-five summers they’ve come to
the meeting ground beneath the oaks and the old sycamore on the banks of
Cole’s Creek. Also, from time to time over the years, one or more of
them would come up from the meeting ground, to tap on my door. They’d
say they were seeking a cup of water, or directions to the highway –
it doesn’t matter what – but actually I’d always known they were
looking for that sign, for a word about the past, to lead them to him,
to let them touch him, and to find out whether I’d changed my mind
about them at last. In the past, I had always sent them away
empty-handed, and so, I suppose, I’d at first intended this time as
They are always roughened men, dusty, and, unlike the one who was then
in my living room, often loud and far too certain in their way of
speaking. Some seemed to have put on their way of life like a shirt or
jacket, to be stripped off in an instant, and those are not to be
trusted with anything you own, much less your soul. But there have been
others over the years whom I have found it harder to resist. That much
I’ve always understood, that you have to be careful which of them
This time – this time, I trusted. In the end, I poured out a glass of
iced tea that I took out to him in my living room, and I let him tell in
his own way the news he’d brought to me.
As he told it, Saul’s end, when it came, came in the same old way.
They were in Ohio, in Columbus, when Saul and the little group with him
crossed the path of a man who must have been one of the early followers,
someone my visitor may even have thought I would remember. The man he
told me about had been turned crazy, of course, in the way that only
true believing can turn a person. My visitor tried to explain the
quarrel between this man and Saul, but I admit I didn’t try to follow
what he said; I have never thought their disagreements would be of
interest to me, and I believe that if I ever came to understand, the
knowledge would like to drive me mad as well.
It was, I gathered, a warm evening in spring, and Saul had been
preaching in the home of a man named Morgan. I imagined, rightly or
wrongly, a frame house, two-stories, built by immigrants between the
wars, and now so long a part of the inner city that no one knows its
history of whispered Italian, children grown old, or forgotten lovers.
In a backyard of wisteria and blossoming forsythia – somehow I see him
among the same flowering shrubs we have down here – Saul sat with a
circle of the half dozen or so who had stayed after the service.
Morgan’s sister was serving around her biscuits and a peach cobbler,
with a pot of coffee, while the others listened to the stories of
Saul’s travels, of his life-fought battles for the souls of the
faithful. As it grew late, the lights from the house cut across the
small yard, deepening the shadows around them. A breeze moved the yellow
whip-staves of the forsythia, and it was then that another man, hesitant
at first, came out to stand between the darkness and the light.
“I am the voice of the Lord,” he said. He spoke quietly, and his
words were not the shouted raving you’d expect from a madman, so those
who heard him were merely puzzled when they first saw him in the
shadows. “I am the voice of the Lord,” he said again, and raised a
pistol into the light. They heard a branch-crack sound, saw a sharp,
red-yellow flame that blinded them. With the certainty of his madness,
he fired only once; but, as it happened, that once was enough. It seems
the bullet that struck Saul passed clear through him to hit Morgan’s
sister, cutting a red whip mark on her leg, right below her knee.
This much I could imagine from what my visitor told me. As for the rest
– well, I can only tell you what he said; but having known Saul, and
knowing what happens in those first moments of pain and confusion after
sudden violence, I didn’t believe it myself even when he told me.
He told me that Saul’s chair tipped over, so that he lay in the grass
near Morgan’s sister. The men around him were stopped cold at first,
but then found their voices and started calling back and forth among
themselves as they tried to help Saul and Morgan’s sister, who was
trying to sit up, clutching at her skirts and her bleeding leg. No one
thought to pay attention to the gunman, and he slipped away into the
shadows. As it happened, he didn’t take this chance to flee, but
stayed within a block or two of Morgan’s house until the police found
him a few hours later.
One man knelt beside Saul, turned him and placed a seat cushion under
his head. Others tried to stop the bleeding in Saul’s chest, or to
bind up the leg of Morgan’s sister with towels from the kitchen.
Throughout this time, Saul stayed calm, and tried to form words of
forgiveness – or so I was told by my visitor.
“You see, Sister Miriam, he not only wanted to forgive the one who
attacked him, but also he wanted forgiveness for himself. This was
noticed by everyone who was there that night, that he was not afraid of
dying, but only that he would not get the forgiveness of those who
always were closest in his thoughts.” My visitor raised his eyes to
me, and said, “Saul made them promise, promise that one of those who
were his followers in the way of the Lord would come to your door, and
tell you this news of him.”
“I understand,” I said.
“He had seen death before, he had stayed with the dying to give
comfort himself on many occasions.”
“I know that to be true.”
“Sister Miriam, I know that he belonged to you before he came to us.
He spoke often of the time you were together, and of the sore testing
the Lord placed upon him when he heard the call. Believe me when I tell
you that you were never far from his thoughts.”
Never far from his thoughts; well, all things considered, that would
have been quite remarkable. I had tried, myself, to put Saul and all his
works out of my mind as thoroughly as he had taken himself out of my
life so many years ago. Of course, my thought was to protect myself, not
just from loneliness, which I can bear as well as the next person, but
from my own guilt, for which there was now no one left who could forgive
“It was a great kindness for you to come here,” I said, thinking it
was past time to send him away.
“A kindness? No. I was only doing my duty by a man whom I loved while
he was among us.”
“But it’s an act of grace to carry out the wishes of a dead man,”
I said. “And to come so far out of your way to spend an hour with his
widow. Grace has become valuable, now that it’s become so rare and
He was embarrassed by the close attention I had given him with those
words; he may even have suspected where they’d come from. That slight
yielding to him made me feel that I could finally, and properly, see him
on his way. But that’s when I heard the screen door in my kitchen open
against its creaking springs and then slam shut, and knew I’d waited
Livia, my grandbaby, was the first one in the living room, rushing out
from the kitchen and running halfway across the room to me before she
was stopped, dead, by the sight of another person, a stranger at that,
in the room with us. She stood there, a finger in her mouth, studying
him and trying to decide what to make of him.
“Come here, darling,” I said, “come to me.”
It was as if I hadn’t spoken at all. She was starting to twist,
slowly, from left to right.
A moment later, Ruth followed her in, dropping a big handbag on the
dining room table.
“Sorry we’re late, Mama,” she said. “We had a little trouble on
the road.” She also seemed unaware at first that we had an extra
person in the room.
“Libby-baby, go give grandmama a kiss.”
Livia turned to her mother, wrapping her arms around Ruth’s skirts.
“Hey, now, what’s all this?” Ruth looked at me, and then for the
first time saw my visitor on the sofa at the other end of the room.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” she said. “I didn’t know you had company.
Here now, Libby-baby, you stop that and go to grandmama.” When Livia
came to me, Ruth held out her hand to my visitor.
“I’m Ruth Benning,” she said, “Miriam’s daughter. Have we met
before?” He rose from the sofa, stiffly it seemed, and took her hand
lightly, as if with a sudden shyness himself.
“No, no, we have not met that I know of,” he said. “But I’m an
old friend of Saul’s, and I have just stopped by to bring news of him
to your mother.” He said his own name as well, but, as before, I made
no effort to hold it in my mind or to place it among my memories of
earlier times, and I expected even then that it would be gone forever.
He seated himself again as I pulled Livia into my lap, and clutched her
small body close against me. Ruth, who has always had her own
understanding of the world, stood beside me, her hand on the back of the
big wing chair.
Because my daughter was raised at Cole’s Creek, she had no fear of my
visitor. She knew what his beliefs would be, and had no love for him,
even though she did not share my own, stronger feelings – my own,
older collection of feelings – toward him and his.
“Ruth,” I said, looking up at her, placing my hand over my
granddaughter’s ear. “It seems that Saul has passed. This gentleman
was kind enough to bring the news to us.”
“I see, I see,” she said, as if to herself; and then she spoke
directly to him. “You understand, I never knew my father; I wasn’t
much older than my little girl here when he got his calling. But I have
always missed him.”
Her hand slipped down to my shoulder, and her eyes showed the brightness
of tears that I believe he had expected all along from me. At such a
time, you can only guess at the meaning of a clear eye and a firm voice.
Still, I had done my own mourning for Saul over twenty years ago, and I
did not believe then that I had tears left for him.
“I know that this will be a sad time for you,” he said to me, “and
I will not take any more of your time away from your family. But still,
there is one thing . . .”
“Yes?” Ruth said.
“The faithful will be meeting by the creek for the next several days.
It would be a great blessing if the good people of our congregation
could see Brother Saul’s child and grandchild. It would strengthen
them for the times to come.”
“That will be up to my daughter,” I said. “But for now, our
supper’s waiting and my grandbaby is tired. We’ll want to put her to
bed, soon as she’s eaten.”
“I do understand, Sister Miriam,” he said, rising again in that
stiff way of his. “I wish only that you’d think on what I’ve
asked. The Lord guides us if we look into our hearts.”
“I have always believed just that,” I said.
Ruth followed him to the door, stood looking out into the early evening
long after he should have been out of her sight. I was still holding my
grandbaby, though not as fiercely, and watched my daughter at the
doorway, the strange and vulnerable curve of her body leaning in against
Later in the evening, Jonas took Livia upstairs to put her to bed. In a
way of course, I knew it was past time for what was to come; but it
seemed my daughter had not realized that she, at least, would finally
receive what she had been seeking from me. It was an old story, and
reluctant to come out. But I suppose it was just a day for yielding, out
of time or not.
Something else I have always believed is that there are things that
don’t truly exist until you say them. After the words have been let
out into the world, there’s no power that can put them back in their
place. Yet when she followed me to my room and sat on the edge of my
bed, I found it was easier to tell her about those days than it had ever
been to conceal them – from her, or from myself.
Excerpted from "Cole's Creek" by Kenneth H. Hall. Copyright © 2016 by Kenneth H. Hall. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.