God Is Good
"You're too ugly to escape."
Those were the last words Mama spoke to her eldest daughter, Clementine, the night she left the family with her suitcase in hand. The stench of whiskey stuck to the high-yellow skin and soft, curly hair that she hadn't blessed her daughter with. The Ellington family had hit a fork in the road marked by the death of Mama's Daddy who left to his living children a plot of land deep in the Appalachian mountains, an hour from where they currently lived in the tiny community of Junuluska, hidden away in Boone, North Carolina. None of Mama's siblings wanted it and neither did Mama.
"I won't go back there!" Mama had shrieked at Daddy in the middle of the night but Daddy was a stubborn man. So Mama disappeared and Clementine, Daddy and her four little brothers moved to the mountains.
It was five beautiful, fertile acres surrounded on all sides by mountains, strong, sturdy walls that encased the Ellington's, insulated them from any non natural threats. Previously, Junuluska has provided some of that protection. It was a bastion of safety for blacks in Boone. White people rarely came around. But for Clementine, the mountains provided something far more valuable and they demanded far less in exchange. The whispering creeks spoke only kindnesses to her. The dried orange pine leaves piled up under foot never rejected her. She was no longer going to school- someone had to help Daddy tend the land so the little ones could get educated- so she no longer heard the nicknames. She was no longer "Charcoal" and "Roach" or just "that ugly girl". She was just Clementine now.
One night, when Daddy and the boys were asleep with full bellies, Clementine took a lantern and stepped outside into the cool night, flickering with the lightning bugs who'd arrived early this summer. The woods that surrounded the open land had been calling to her and she finally had a moment to herself to answer. She stepped into the brush and was soon surrounded on all sides by dense trees that obscured her path. She considered, for a moment, getting lost. The woods went on forever. It seemed impossible anyone would find her. That would be alright.
Underneath the singing of crickets, the whisper of the leaves rustling against each other, the distant babbling of the creek, Clementine heard something, something that was getting louder and louder no matter which direction she walked. The sound got sweeter and clearer until she recognized it as a person's voice.
Suddenly, the leaves above her rustled and something fell from the tree tops, landing light and easy into a bush. Clementine clutched her chest, stumbled back into a tree and held her breath as the thing from the trees rose up. But when it rose to its full height and moved into a beam of cool moonlight, all the panic fell from her body and left only awe.
Before her stood a boy, about her age, hands held up in surrender. He was wearing only a leather sarong around his waist and his exposed skin glowed unearthly pale in the moonlight. Long black hair cascaded over his shoulders and as he stepped forward, the most beautiful smile stretched out across his face and sparkled in his big blue eyes.
"I didn't mean to scare you," he drawled as he crept closer. "But I couldn't help myself. You the prettiest thing I done ever seen in all my years."
Clementine bowed her head. "D-don't tease me." Her eyes burned with threatening tears. She thought she'd escaped this particular kind of cruelty.
"I ain't teasin. I'm as serious as death." He stepped closer and closer. Clementine looked up at him as his hand stretched out and just barely brushed her cheek. "You look like the night sky." He took her jaw in his hand like he was holding fragile china and tilted her head back and forth as he observed her with quiet reverence. "My my… God really is good."
Clementine swallowed. Her throat was dry, her stomach in knots. "Th-this is my family's land."
The boy laughed, a bright and delightful sound, like a frog croak. "What a coincidence. It's mine's too!" He stepped back and offered his hand to her. "Will you take a walk with me, pretty girl?"
Clementine lifted her shaking hand and timidly laced her fingers with his. The boy squeezed her hand and started leading her through the woods like he was walking a path only he saw.
"Who are you?" she whispered.
"I ain't nobody but a servant of God. But you can call me Oak. What do I call you, pretty girl?"
"Clementine." No one had ever said her name like that before, like it tasted like honey. "I think we both somewhere we got no business being. You can keep a secret, can’t you?"
"Yes!" Clementine said, nodding her head vehemently before she even processed what he said. Oak thanked her with a smile.
"Let me show you my woods."
It was as if Clementine had never felt joy before, had never seen color before Oak came into her world and made her acutely aware of how dull her real life was. An endless cycle of doing laundry, pouring Daddy's ever increasing drinks, making sure her brothers studied what she would never get the chance to learn. The world outside the woods felt muted, like a half remembered dream that only ended when all she could see was trees on every side. She never knew when or where Oak would find her, only that if she walked long enough he would appear with an outstretched hand to show her the hidden intricacies of the woods and call her beautiful in every possible way a boy as articulate as he could. And he always came with a smile that rustled the leaves to let light fall to the ground, a laugh that made the birds sing. She feared nothing, no wolves or bears or demonic creatures that Daddy had warned her about. Oak loved her and the woods were alive with that love.
One evening, as the sun was setting and casting the land in warm light, the two were walking in comfortable silence, hand in hand, when a high pitched whine accompanied by a rustling caught Clementine's attention. She stopped and looked around as she tried to place the sound.
"What's that?" she asked.
"Something dying…" Oak turned away from her for a moment. "This way! Come on!" he yelled and, though his back was to her, Clementine swore she heard a smile in his voice.
Oak led her to a rabbit lying in a small pool of its own blood, twitching and shrieking but unable to move as its back leg was gashed open. Clementine stood back from the macabre scene as Oak knelt over it.
"We should put it out of its misery."
Oak shook his head. "No, no. God knows what he's doing. We should let him work." He took the creature's wounded paw in between his fingers, lifting it to examine the wound as the rabbit screamed in agony. "What happened to you…" he chuckled under his breath.
He looked at her and his smile turned to concern. Oak stood up and took Clementine gently by the shoulders. "Oh, pretty girl, I'm sorry. But you gotta remember, God created everything, even suffering. And all of God’s creation is beautiful." He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and began to lead her away. "Wouldn't be right to cut such a beautiful thing short."
She couldn't word any of the questions whirling in her head, partly because of how her heart had been rattled, partly because of how warm and tight and safe Oak's arm was around her. So instead, she nodded silently and as they walked away, she saw Oak look back at that rabbit one last time. The corners of his lips twitched.
Clementine awoke one morning to Daddy shouting, throwing things around, whipping the kids into a frenzy as they tried to obey his commands without understanding his crazed screaming. Clementine looked around and saw three of her brothers. The youngest, six year old Darnell, was nowhere to be found. There were tears in Daddy's eyes.
There were no signs of distress, no blood, no tire marks, no ransom note, no animal tracks, nothing, as if the little boy had just vanished. Clementine split off from the rest of her brothers and her withering father under the guise of searching for the little boy, though she knew that none of them knew the woods better than Oak.
After what could have been a few minutes or a few hours of running through the woods, her bare feet bloodied and muddied, briars hanging from her nightgown and biting into her legs, Oak stepped out from behind a tree and caught her in his arms.
"Whoah, girl! What's all the fuss?"
Clementine collapsed in his arms and Oak lowered her gently to the ground, cradling the back of her head as she cried out into his chest.
"My baby brother! He's gone! We don't know what happened! I just…"
"Oh, Clementine. It’s alright. Ssh." Oak held her tight and wiped the tears from her cheek with gentle swipes of his thumb. "I'm sorry. I know it's sad how hungry these mountains can be."
"W-what do you mean?" she choked.
"It's just what happens out here, pretty girl. It's good land up here. The land calls people up here and swallows them whole, one by one. It's just how God works. He feeds on the suffering but he also blesses young men like me with loves like you."
"But I can't take it!" Clementine cried as she dug her nails into his arms. "My heart can't take it! Daddy's heart can't take it and I-" She dissolved into sobs, imagining her life with a Daddy grieving twice over. He could barely handle his grieving now, knowing his wife was most likely fine without him, and he loved his sons too much to take his grief out on them.
After a moment of silence, Oak sighed. Clementine looked up at him. His expression was serious, his eyes distant, lacking the sparkle that once seemed to be a permanent part of his countenance. He looked down at her with a half-hearted smile. "I don't wanna see you cry… I know where your brother is."
Oak nodded and pulled her to her feet. "You gotta close your eyes and promise not to open them, ok? No matter what." His voice was low and grave and Clementine didn't hesitate to obey, screwing her eyes shut and clutching onto his arm.
Oak began to lead her through the forest. There was nothing familiar about the rocks and brush under foot. It felt like he was leading her in circles but she trusted him too much to even consider opening her eyes. She was safe in the woods because they loved her, because Oak loved her.
Eventually, after some number of minutes or hours, the ambient buzz of the woods began to change. Amongst the quiet hum of the breeze and the winds, the quiet breathing and heartbeat of the mountains, the sound of voices started to get louder and louder until there were voices all around, speaking in tones too hushed to make out the words but loud enough that Clementine could make out the accent, an uncannily familiar twang. On top of that was the symphony of people living together, soft footsteps and babies babbling and the roar of a fire, getting louder and louder.
"Boy, what's this?" An old man's voice startled Clementine and she clung to Oak's side.
Oak wrapped his arm around her tight. "Shh, it's alright," he whispered in her ear. "She's a blessing from the mountains, one way or another. Just give me a second."
He led Clementine a few more steps and slowly unwound his arm from around her waist. "Here ya go, pretty girl. Open your eyes."
It took her a moment to process what was before her. They were in a village, small huts spread out through the trees and paths of dry, compacted earth connecting them. There were eyes on her from every direction. Pale, black haired men, women and children in the same leathers Oak wore, ogled at her with expressions varying from confusion to bemusement that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Just a few yards from her, a fire roared in a fire pit. On either side of the fire was a tall forked stick and standing close by was a man, idly sharpening another stick while staring at Clementine with an empty grin.
Directly in front of Clementine was a cage made of thick wooden bars beaten into the ground. In the center of the cage was a small lump covered in a blanket rising and falling with quick, sharp breaths. Clementine stepped up to the bars and leaned in when she saw a little brown hand poking out from the blanket.
The little boy popped out from under the blanket, eyes wide and round cheeks stained with tears. "Clem!" he cried out. He ran to the bars and the two clutched each other as much as they could. Clementine took his face in her hands, brushing away tears even as new ones fell.
"I'm right here. I'm here," she cooed.
"It's alright. You're gonna be ok." Clementine looked up at Oak. "What's happening?"
Oak sighed and knelt down next to her. "My people, we've been blessed. God made man to do many things, to be his hands, his feet... and we here? We are blessed to be his mouth. And what a hungry God we serve."
Clementine looked around, at the roaring fire and the spit they were building above it, at the women sitting at the doorways of their huts, chopping herbs and snapping peas and whispering into the ears of their children as they motioned to the sobbing negroes in the center of town. Her stomach twisted and bile rose up in her throat.
"It ain't as scary as it sounds, pretty girl. Look at this paradise we get to dwell in!" He swung his arm out, marvelling at the green that surrounded them. "And all we gotta do to earn this heaven on earth is be his mouth and taste the greatest delicacy on this Earth. Suffering! And suffering? Well, it's your birthright. It's in your blood, in those big brown eyes, this pretty brown skin…" He ran his hand down her bare arm, raising goosebumps all over her body. "It's a gift from you ancestors, just like this providence is mine." Clementine could feel the power of his fond gaze and warm smile loosening the knot in her stomach and relaxing her shoulders. But she shook herself, clinging to her anxious sanity.
"Oak, please!" she whimpered.
Oak shook his head. "I can't defy the will of God, Clementine. And I'm just one little man. But…" He dropped his gaze for a moment and took a deep breath. "If you want, you can take his place, give him a little more time to live, maybe even escape. Can't say it wouldn't break my heart though." He looked up with glassy eyes and as he blinked and fluttered those long, thick lashes, a tear rolled down his cheek. Still he smiled at her, as beautiful as ever. "I was thinking I'd get more time with you before your time came."
"Time comes for most everyone who answers the call of this land and it always will. We do serve a hungry God."
In that moment, Clementine heard it, felt it in every bit of herself, the serenade of the trees and the creatures and the leaves above, all building the symphony of the mountains in which God dwelled. It was sweet and warm and intoxicating, just like the only person who'd ever loved her like a woman, ever called her pretty. She felt the presence, the power, the terrible love of God and there was no choice she could make to fight against it.
She turned to Darnell, smiled and took his hands in hers. "Darnell, you remember what Daddy said when we moved out here? About moving so far from church?"
"Just cause we ain't going to church don't mean we heathens?" he choked out.
"That's right!" Clementine swiped the tears from his eyes. "Now I want you to close your eyes and sing our nighttime prayers with me, alright?"
The little boy took a deep breath, lowered his head and closed his eyes. He trusted her like he had trusted their Mama. Clementine folded her hands over his, bowed her head and began to sing unto the Lord and as she did, the leaves above stirred with a breeze she was certain was the holy spirit.
"My dungeon shook and my chains fell off, Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last, This is religion, I do know, Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last; For I never felt such a love before, Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last…"
Daddy was the last to go, just a week before Clementine's 17th birthday. It wasn't much different with him gone. Each missing son had been another bottle and Clementine was happy to keep his glass full and keep him too deep in a drunken stupor to lash out at her. Most of the crops they had withered and the house was falling apart but it didn't matter. It was the responsibility of the next bunch of folks who answered the call of the mountains. Clementine was the most content she'd ever been, drifting through days centered around her time with Oak.
Clementine was sitting on the porch on a warm Sunday afternoon when he stepped out of the woods and through the brush. He never came to her. It was always the other way around. She knew. She'd been feeling her time coming. For a moment, she sat still and admired him. He was taller now and the shadow of a beard was forming on his jaw. She would've liked to see him age, to see lines grown in the corner of his eyes and in the shape of his smile. She would've liked to see him in the face of the little person forming in her belly. She hadn't told him yet. There was no need to.
"You look so beautiful," he said as he approached the porch. He placed his palm on her cheek and she nuzzled into his touch.
"Thank you. For everything. Every good thing."
She stood and pressed her forehead to his as he wrapped his arms around her waist. For a while, they basked in the giggles of a young love that would stay that way forever. Oak took a deep breath and turned towards the woods.
"God is good all the time," he said.
"And all the time God is good."