fiction by Edward Karshner
The storm Eli had followed since leaving Oberlin seemed below him, now, as he made his way down US Route 23 South. And that gave him pause because he was always looking for signs and wonders. And this twisting of space gave him the feeling he was somewhere he shouldn’t be. So, he kept his eyes peeled for County Road 14.
Just as the rain came, he saw the marker and left the stretch of good road for what was little more than a dirt farm lane. He ran his Harley-Davidson Liberator until the back wheel slid in the greasy clay mud. Eli dropped his left foot to avoid a slide and stopped. From the saddle bags, he took out the surplus poncho and pulled it on. He’d have to push the nearly six-hundred-pound motorcycle up the muddy lane. So, he did until the bike sunk. Then, pulled until the tires popped free. Push and pull. Again and again as the rain fell harder.
He squinted, wiping his goggles with the muddy back of his hand. A weak light swung up ahead in the wind that whispered through the corn. Eli dragged the bike forward, to a long, sloped farmhouse. He put down the kickstand glad to be free of the burden.
Eli’s first thought was the dry warmth of the barn behind him. Second, was wondering over who had racked the shotgun from the front porch. He turned slowly, hands up. In the pale haint light, he couldn’t make out who held the shotgun he’d heard.
“I seem to be in need of help,” Eli said. And that wasn’t a lie. He was soaked to his core. His muscles ached and his Colt was field stripped and wrapped in oilcloth in the Liberator’s toolbox.
“No help for the likes of you,” the male voice from the porch said.
Eli understood how this looked. A stranger calling in the middle of the night, in the middle of a downpour.
“I’m lost. Liked to be drowned. I was hoping to seek refuge in your barn until the rain lets up. I can pay,” Eli said. “I ain’t got much. But I can pay.”
The voice from the porch said, “What are you doing out here?
“I’m looking for the family of a friend. The Robintettes. Like I said, the rain came. I’m lost,” Eli yelled over the rain pounding the tin roof.
The voice from the porch said, “Who are you?”
“Name’s Eli Sturdahl.
“Why you looking for…” The question was interrupted by another voice.
“What’s your name?” she said.
“Put down the gun, RJ,” she said. “Mister, you can make use of the barn until morning. But mind yourself. Don’t make me regret my hospitality,” she said.
“No, ma’am. Of course. I’m blessed by your hospitality. Thank you,” Eli said. His neck muscles relaxed as the blurry forms melted into the dark behind the haint light.
Eli had anticipated the smell and warmth of animals in the barn. But the stalls were empty. The air cold and stale. But it was dry. Parking his Liberator by the door, he hung his poncho on a nail. He wondered about the people who owned this barn, as he stripped out of his wet clothes, and pulled on a dry pair of dungarees and a sweatshirt. But he was tired. He put his canvas tarp on the dirt floor, unrolled and wrapped himself up in his wool sleeping bag. Answers could wait until morning.
Eli woke early and took to cleaning himself. He’d just finished a dry shave when the barn door opened. He quickly pulled on his sweatshirt. The young man in the door, Eli figured him to be around fifteen, seemed relieved to have the Liberator as a barrier as he shifted the twenty gauge to his other hand.
“Mom says you’re welcome to coffee by the fire,” he said.
Eli followed the young man outside and took a seat at the fire pit.
The woman sitting in the other chair, the fire between them, was a little older than Eli, maybe thirties, her hair tucked up in a floral head-wrap.
She offered him a mug of coffee.
“I apologize for our rudeness last night. We’ve been a bit jumpy as of late and you kinda snuck up on us.”
“’Better safe than sorry,’ my mom says.” Eli took a drink of the coffee. He could still feel the cold in his bones.
The woman smiled.
Eli said, “I should introduce myself again. My name’s Eli Sturdahl,”
“I know who you are. I got your letters. My name’s Dott Robinette. That,” she motioned to the teenager on the porch, “is my boy, RJ—Randall Junior.”
RJ still cradled the shotgun and Eli allowed him that vigilance.
“You look like your Pa,” Eli said.
Dott pursed her lips.
“What can we do for you?” Dott said.
Eli had practiced this moment in his head for nearly three years. Said the words to himself in the dormitory showers. Now, the practiced cadence was there. The words were not.
“I owe your husband a debt. And I apologize for taking so long. I got hung up at school. But since I was passing through on my way to see my parents, I thought I’d stop and see if I can’t make amends,” Eli said.
“You a student?” RJ said. “You look old.”
“I’m a seminary student. Studying to be a minister,” Eli said.
Dott and RJ looked at each other. RJ looked at the Liberator.
“A preacher?” RJ said.
Eli had yet managed to square who he was trying to become with who he had been.
“A lay pastor, for now,” Eli said.
Head to one side, like she was working a puzzle, Dott drew long, crossed lines in the dirt with the fire stick. She stared across the fire at Eli.
“Well, reverend,” she said.
“Please, Eli,” he said.
Dott stood up.
“Pastor, you are free to join us for breakfast if you want,” she said.
Eli sat at the butcherblock table in the center of the kitchen. The oak top was worn smooth, almost like a polish, by years of good use. He remembered something his grandma had said, “A worn thing is a useful thing,” she’d say.
RJ stood by the door with his back to the wall, the scatter gun tucked under his arm. Eli smiled to reassure him while Dott fried eggs and onions in a cast iron skillet.
“Would you like to join me for coffee, Mr. RJ?” Eli said.
RJ looked at the floor. “I’m good here.”
There was a cough and a bang from upstairs. Eli jumped, looked at RJ, then looked up.
“My daughter Linda. She’s upstairs sick,” Dott said.
Eli put down his coffee.
“Don’t know what it is. Doctor from town says a ‘wasting disease.’” Dott said.
RJ said, “She has crazy dreams. Wakes up mid-day spouting foolishness.”
“A fever?” Eli said.
“Had a doctor from Zanesville come over. He’s never seen anything like it. No money for a Columbus doctor. So, we pray. That’s all we got left,” Dott said.
“Would you like if I prayed over her?” Eli said. “If you think it might help, I’d be proud to.”
Dott and RJ exchanged looks.
“I reckon it couldn’t hurt,” Dott said. “Follow me then.”
Through the kitchen they took the back stairs behind the massive cast iron stove. The girl’s room was at the top of the stairs. And she was just a girl, not more than twelve. Linda was drawn and pale. Her dark curls plastered to her forehead. It was the smell. Eli knew it. From the war. Sweat and the smell of a body stressed beyond what was normal.
Eli pulled up a chair by the bedside and put his hand on her slight, boney forearm. Her skin dry and thin like an onion. A long, angry welt ran down the side of her face.
“What’s this?” Eli said.
“The doctor said it’s hives. I don’t know. Nothing seems to work. Always looks worse of a morning,” Dott said.
Eli started with the Lord’s Prayer, a solid context. As the words started, rote memorization lulled him into a fluid memory of words, feelings, acts. The welt on Linda’s face worked through his memories. His granny again. Her words that sometimes you needed something older than Jesus to cure an evil older than the Bible. The Long Forgotten Friend moved through his memory. He could see lines and phrases. Prayers. Charms.
The words came from his mouth, “Beneath thy guardianship I am safe against all tempests and all enemies.”
Linda’s eyes opened and she grabbed Eli’s hand.
“Owens. Owens rides me all through the night,” her eyes were wide, white, unfocused.
Eli put his hand over hers.
Linda rolled her head back onto the pillow. “Help me.” And fell asleep.
Back in the kitchen, Eli washed his hands in the sink.
Dott sat at the table, her hands gripping her coffee mug to keep them from shaking. RJ had seen enough and had gone to the woods. The smell of the uneaten breakfast hung in the air like the unanswered prayer in Linda’s room.
“He’s the pastor over in Stanton. Just over the hill,” she said.
Eli was working a puzzle of his own, now. Trying to find his way to that debt.
“You say he’s a pastor?”
“Maybe I should go see,” Eli said.
“Why?” Dott said.
Eli finished his coffee. “Why, it’s Sunday. Ain’t it?”
Stanton reminded Eli of the European villages he’d patrolled in the Fichtel Mountains. Long, narrow streets wound through the hills leading to the stone and timber church that sat on the highest ground of the hollow. He parked his Liberator in front of the bank, the only fully brick building in town, and listened. He could hear the toll of church bells layered over the whispers of fiddles and piano. He followed the music up the hill.
He opened the church door as gently as possible, but it popped like dry wood in a fire as he pushed it. A few parishioners turned to look and then slowly, with disinterest, returned to their silent prayer. An usher, an old man with his right arm taken below the elbow, tried to guide Eli upfront. Eli shook his head and slid into the last pew by the door, close to the aisle. The old man looked at Eli, squinted, then his face softened, and he patted Eli on the shoulder and took the same seat on the other side of the aisle.
The prayerful silence was broken when a stout man with flaming red hair leapt from the alter and yelled, “Hallelujah!”
It had been years since Eli set foot in a mountain church with its unique Appalachian theology and practice. Somewhere between high mass and medieval morality play, the service was now directed toward the unseen by the boisterous theatrics of the pastor who washed the congregation with the energy of participation. It was noisy. It was kinetic. It was rapturous. It was a world away from the tedious slog through theology that his seminary training demanded.
One was no better than the other, just different, he reminded himself as Pastor Owens called a young couple to the front of the church and placed them in the chancel before the altar. Pastor Owens patted each one on the shoulder and turned around, spreading his arms wide, placing himself so he was juxtaposed on the cross hanging behind him.
“Behold brothers and sister. I give you a miracle,” he said.
There was a murmur through the church and then applause. Owens dropped his arms, the tattered black Bible in his right hand slapped his thigh.
Owens paced in front of the couple. The young man stared at the polished floor. The young woman smiled nervously looking over the heads of the congregation, to the door, and Eli thought, way beyond this building and into the hills.
“You know these young’uns. Known them since they was knee high to nothing. And you remember when they was married three years ago.”
The congregation nodded. There were whispers.
Owens continued, “We were going to grow God’s army. New souls to transform an old world. Remember?”
Some women in the front throated a “Yes.”
Owens nodded. Said, “But no matter how hard they tried,” the young man looked up grinning.
“The blessing wasn’t there,” the young woman’s eyes fell. Owens shook his head.
There was a murmur of disapproval from the left side of the church.
Owens stopped his pacing. Putting his hands on his hips. His head dropped toward the floor. He made a sound in his nose. A disapproval.
“Well, they finally run the devil from their pride and come to see me,” Owens said.
Someone up front ejaculated a “Yes.”
Owens pointed at the couple with his Bible.
“They came to me as a last resort. Why is the Lord always a last resort?”
The usher across the aisle nodded.
“So, I laid hands on her. Opened her womb so the Lord could get up in there. And,” he paused, “Billy will you tell us?”
The young man, Billy, stepped forward and away from his wife. Her forced smile replaced with, Eli tried to figure it, humiliation?
“Pastor Owens has given us a child.” Billy said.
“Praise God,” Owens said.
The congregation erupted in applause.
Owens raised his hands, “Just as the Lord came into Mary, so have my prayers entered young Lizzie’s womb. Amen.”
This spectacle closed the service and Eli sat dry mouthed, his coffee slowly rising up from his guts. As the gathered walked past him through the door, Pastor Owens stopped and tapped his Bible on the pew in front of Eli.
“Not from around here, I suppose,” Owens said.
“No, sir. Passing through. Thought I’d take in some of the word,” Eli said.
Eli imagined Pastor Owens was used to intimidating people, his parishioners, the towns people. The Robinettes. A man used to
getting his way with station and cruel silence.
Owens shifted the Bible to his left hand, and they shook. “I’m Pastor Owens. This is my church,” he said.
“Where are you from Brother Eli?” Owens said.
“Originally from Red House, Putnam County. I’m at college in Oberlin,” he said.
Pastor Owens raised an eyebrow.
“School? Seem a bit long in the tooth for that,” Owens said.
“I had a detour through Europe,” Eli said.
“Ah,” Owens said. He took a seat and stared at Eli with a thin, straight smirk.
Eli imagined Pastor Owens was used to intimidating people, his parishioners, the towns people. The Robinettes. A man used to getting his way with station and cruel silence. But Eli saw nothing cruel in silence. He relished it. He sought it out in the gardens and easy fountains on campus. A motorbike trip on Route 2 along Lake Erie. Sitting under a pine tree in Tappan Square at midnight. He smiled and leaned back into the pew.
“You’re welcome to join us for a noon meal,” Owens said.
They stood and shook hands.
“No thank you. I promised the Robinettes I’d join them for dinner,” Eli said.
“The Robinettes?” Owens said.
“I’m staying with them for a spell,” Eli said.
Owens said, “That’s unusual.”
Eli said, “How’s-a-come?”
“Races mixing, as such, is, well, irregular,” Owens said. “Those people don’t belong here. Never did. We tolerated them because they knew their place. After the war, though, they got ideas. Probably from smart fellers such as yourself.”
Owens stepped into the aisle and started for the door. He paused, put a hand on Eli’s shoulder and said, “Shame about that little one of theirs. I suspect the longer they stay, the worse she’ll get.”
The words soured in Eli’s stomach.
“If you got it in your head to help, you pass that along,” Owens said leaving Eli alone in a building devoid of any semblance of what he had come to understand as holy.
Eli ate with the Robinettes under the shade of a thick oak. He had been living on cafeteria food at college, which was fine, he guessed. But it wasn’t his food. With each bite of fried chicken, fresh salad greens and his favorite, fried taters and onions, Eli found himself closer to himself. When they’d finished, Dott took a plate to Linda who was still in bed sick.
Eli spent the day cleaning the mud from his Liberator. Even though the crankcase breather had been modified to keep water out, he knew that it was always a possibility. Satisfied, he next ran his finger along the front fender wiring tube to make sure debris hadn’t wrecked the wiring to the front blackout light. He flipped the switch. The diffused glow was swallowed up in the daylight of the barn. It would be enough, at night, he thought. He’d trained for it. Looking at the disassembled Colt still wrapped in oilcloth, next to his school bag of seminary books, he wondered which he was better prepared for.
Owens should have noticed that the haint light had been unscrewed, putting the whole of the Robinette’s porch in the dark. Still, he slipped quietly to the steps.
“That’s a neat trick,” Eli said from his place in the shadows.
It was early morning and RJ walked around the Morgan, his hands stroking its muzzle and the white tuft of mane sticking out from under the bridle.
Edward Karshner, Associate Professor of English at Robert Morris University, teaches courses in writing and Appalachian Literature. His short fiction appears in the anthologies Haints and Hollers, Shelved (both from Mountain Gap Books, 2019 and 2020) and It Came from the Swamp (Malarkey Books, 2022). His creative non-fiction appears in the anthology Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia University Press, 2019), the Appalachian culture blog Blind Pig and the Acorn and the on-line magazine Reckon Review where he is a columnist. A 2022 Summer Research Fellow at Berea College Special Collection and Archives, Karshner was also a featured presenter at the 2023 Amesville Writer’s Workshop.