The Precious Head of Junie Ray Byrd
fiction by Randall Ivey

Lordy, y’all, when we got the news in the sanctuary that Sunday morning that little ol’ Junie Ray Byrd had the brain cancer and would most likely die from it real soon, Lord, we just about fainted at once, the whole congregation together, on the floor. A whoosh of sighs and groans passed from one side of Morning Tide Baptist to the other. Men and women both sobbed like young’uns, and the young’uns theirselfs, not knowing what was going on, hollered even louder.

Our pastor Johnny Barrow’s the one who announced it but could hardly get through the news for crying hisself. He said Junie Ray had inoperable brain cancer called glio…glio…glio….  Ah Lord, I’m too country to pronounce the thing right. Pastor Barrow said it was the worst kind you can have and that Junie Ray’d be lucky to live another fifteen months with it. Well God, that last part just made us yell out again and this time louder and go all weaker in the knees. We was pitiful. Just pitiful. But Lord, the child was only fifteen years old!

We had noticed before the service started that they wasn’t there – Junie Ray and their mama and daddy. Junie’s daddy Carl was the music director at Morning Tide. Her mama May-Bright looked after the nursery on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights while the services went on. They wasn’t from Compton though. Come over to us from a church in Greenville, South Carolina. Big, happy-looking people. The mama, the daddy, and the little girl. Well, there I go again, calling Junie Ray little she wasn’t really. She’s actually right tall and stout. Fact of business, if you seen her from a few yards away, you’d swear she was a full-growed woman and not fifteen years old. All three of them was that way. Wide-spaced people. I reckon it ain’t nice to call nobody fat these days. So I won’t. Healthy. That’s a better word. That was my daddy’s word for the big ones. “Lord, there goes a healthy child,” he’d say when a plump one passed, not meaning no harm, just stating a fact. (Daddy always called ‘em as he seen ‘em, bless his heart.) Junie Ray and May-Bright was healthy, and somehow that made them more loveable. Not that they didn’t have commendable qualities other than their heft, for surely they did. May-Bright was sweeter than a bag of peppermint sticks. Truly. Could calm a squalling young’un just by looking it in the face and smiling. Carl had a singing voice that was out of this world, almost as good as a opera singer’s, and could direct the choir like he was on fire from the Lord, raising his hands all which-a-way and rocking back and forth and looking to the heavens for direct inspiration. And that Junie Ray. Again, you’d have thought she was thirty or forty and not fifteen with the way she held herself in front of you and talked, all mature-like and well-mannered and such and looking you in the eye and not at all like a run-of-the-mill teenager in Compton.  

We’d had them at Morning Tide for six months before the awful news come down. They was precious as gold to us, even though they come from someplace else other than here.    

Well, there was one person there that morning who did not participate in the general misery following Pastor Barrow’s sad announcement. And that was Mizriz Agnes Haley, a eighty-something year old who used a walking cane but for show not walking. Miz Haley was the oldest member of Morning Tide Baptist and had all the energy of a eighteen year old and got around better than anybody else in Compton. You seen her anywhere at anything. And she always had to have her say about whatever was going on. The only one to match her in this regard might have been Miz Jenny deGraffenreid, also in her eighties but of the Methodist faith. And I’d still put my money on Miz Agnes. Anyway, she come out of her pew with her stick and little arms a-waving (for she is skinny as a rail) until the commotion died down. Then she stood at the front of the sanctuary and planted her hands on her bony hips. Then she spoke.

“I don’t believe what I’m seeing here this morning. I been going to this church for fifty years, and I don’t believe I’ve ever been more ashamed of a room full of Baptists than I am this one. Here y’all are bawling and wailing like a pack of burnt cats, feeling sorry for yourself when you ought to be rejoicing and thanking the Lord. That’s right. I know what I’m saying. I’m not crazy. The Good Lord’s given us a chance to see His miracles at work, and y’all too blinded by your tears to see it. Do you doubt his power to heal? If you do, then you need to get up right now and walk through them doors, for you got no place in the holy house of the Most Wise, of the Great Physician Hisself. As for myself, I believe it. I got no doubt whatsoever that the Good Lord is going to lay His hands on the precious head of June Ray Byrd and scoop out the cancer and throw it to the pits of hell where it belongs. I believe it as sure as I’m standing here talking to you. Do you? If you do, put up your hands and shout ‘Amen!’”  

And that’s what we done, raised our hands all together and all together shouted “Amen” to the high heavens above us. And right away, the Lord’s peace come over us, and we wiped away our tears and took our seats again in the pews, all calm again like we started out. (There’s some who’ve said Miz Agnes, long a widow woman, should have been pastor at Morning Tide herself, and maybe now you can see why.)  

Days went by, and it wasn’t long that we found out Carl and May-Bright had managed to get Junie Ray into Duke, in North Carolina, about the best place around for brain tumors. News come down that the doctors at Duke would do the surgery, but they did not hold out much hope for Junie. The doctors, I mean. As far as cancers went, brain cancer was one of the meanest a person could catch. But us at Morning Tide Baptist did not doubt. We couldn’t, y’all. Miz Haley wouldn’t’ve allowed it. Each night leading up to Junie Ray’s operation, we met at Morning Tide and went down on our knees and sent up prayers for them doctors at Duke what would go into Junie Ray’s skull and remove that cancer. We prayed in the daytime too. We prayed ever chance we got. We prayed and sang. We cried out to Him what run the demons into the swine and turned the water into wine. The spirit moved mightily in Morning Tide Baptist. Some members was so overcome that they pulled at their own clothing like they wanted to scratch it off them. They swooned and wept. Some even begun to speak in tongues unknown. Mizriz Haley stood among us with her head and arms raised to Heaven, her stick pointed up like a weather vane. Morning Tide Baptist was on fire with faith! Nothing like it had ever happened before in Compton County. Not that we knowed of leastways. If it had, Mizriz Haley would have told us about it, never you doubt.

But, y’all, our work had just started.

They done the surgery and got the cancer out. “It’s a miracle,” they told Carl and May-Bright. That wasn’t news to us in Compton. We knowed that. We believed in our Lord.

Morning Tide Baptist was full to the rim the Sunday morning after the surgery. Songs of praise rung out to the rafters. Tears of joy flowed like the river of Jordan. I’m telling you the truth now: Never before in Compton County had a people been so gladdened, what with the healing hand of God having been revealed and all. Mizriz Haley went from pew to pew that morning, shaking hands and hugging shoulders, a great big smile spread across her elderly face. It was like she was the church pastor and not Rev. Johnny. At some point, she looked to the ceiling and shouted, “Our God is good!” Yes He was. And is. But a problem remained for the Byrd family. Money. How would Carl and May-Bright pay for all of it? The hospital room. The surgery. The hotel room in North Carolina where Carl and May-Bright stayed to be close to their baby girl. It would cost a pretty penny anywhere, even here in the South Carolina upcountry, but Duke was the real thing. World-class and all that. It meant thousands and thousands of dollars, money Carl and May-Bright did not have. They didn’t even have insurance. Ours was a poor church, although rich in faith, of course. We couldn’t afford insurance for Carl or nobody else employed at Morning Tide Baptist. God’s insurance was the best we could come up with on our budget.

What would the Byrds do?

You might know, it was Mizriz Haley what come to the rescue. One Sunday morning the congregation at Morning Tide Baptist sat all glum and gloomy about the Byrds and their money trouble. Miz Haley, right after Pastor Johnny’s sermon, took to the floor, leaned on her stick, and pointed a bony finger at all of us. “What is this?” she says, her face all full-red. “The house of the Lord or the house of the dead? You know good as I do our work ain’t done yet. We can’t leave the Byrdses in a lurch. They’re our brethren, and the Lord has put a burden on us to look after our own. So pull up your faces and pull out your pocketbooks and give, give, give. Give joyously!"

A silence fell as we wondered at this Godly woman’s words. Then reluctant-like at first, we done as she instructed. We put all the money we had in the plates and hats that went ‘round. We reached in and dug deep. And if you need a example that miracles are real, even the stingiest at Morning Tide Baptist (and there are several of them whose names will not be called) give with smiles on their faces. Again the spirit moved among us in that little church, and again we felt that uplift of joy, like we might leave our pews and go floating to the rafters. We smiled. We cried. We hugged one another like we hadn’t been in the same room together in years. Miz Haley dominated it all, swaying in the sanctuary with her and stick aimed Heavenward. “Never doubt him!” she shouted to the ceiling.  

But as I said, y’all, it was just the start. In the days and weeks to come, we thought up ways to raise money for the Byrds. We sold baked good and hot dogs. We put jars by the cash registers at stores that would allow it. We had a little carnival for the young’uns in the church parking lot, with inflated slides and lots of good things to eat. One of the young’uns at Morning Tide who knowed about computers started a charity there. By this time, the story of Junie Ray’s afflicted brain had spread to the newspaper and to the computer and to churches all over the upcountry. Pretty soon we was getting donations from folks in Spartanburg and Gaffney and Greenville and even as far away as Gastonia in North Carolina. By the time we was done with our hands out, it seemed we had as much money as they got at Fort Knox. That’s how it felt. 

And there in the front row sat their baby, Junie Ray, her face damp too and being patted on the shoulder by them close enough. If any doubted how the Lord moves among men, the humble folks of Morning Tide
Baptist showed them otherwise.  

As soon as we could, we got the money to Carl and May-Bright, who couldn’t have been more humble or grateful if they tried to. They stood one Sunday morning at Pastor Johnny’s podium with tears big and bright in their eyes and thanked us and thanked us and thanked us and promised to pay us all back if it was the last thing they ever done. And there in the front row sat their baby, Junie Ray, her face damp too and being patted on the shoulder by them close enough. If any doubted how the Lord moves among men, the humble folks of Morning Tide Baptist showed them otherwise.  

So all was good and well again and back on track. Once more Carl Byrd was in the choir loft, May-Bright in the nursery, and Junie Ray in the paper, on the computer, and in the sanctuaries of other churches giving her testimony to the healing hand of God and the generousness of God’s people in a time of so much doubt and stinginess. “Stay humble,” Miz Haley instructed us one Sunday morning. “It was God what worked this miracle. Not me and you.” That sounded right. We accepted that and went on. But not long after that, something peculiar happened. It begun slow and quiet then growed and spread through Compton like a virus of some sort. The computer started it. The computer may be the evilest thing Satan has ever wrought upon mankind. It’s like the serpent in the Garden deceiving man, tempting him and all such. It’s a cauldron of lies. It makes folks pull away from each other and hate each other. And it started the word around Compton that Junie Ray Byrd had never been sick with brain cancer to begin with, that her and her mama and daddy made the whole thing up just to get the money.

“She never did lose no weight the whole times she was supposed to be sick,” they said.

“She never did lose her hair,” said another. “People always lose their hair.”

“I know my mama did. Went bald as a billiard.”

“We never did see no doctor report saying she was sick,” put in a third. “It was all done far away, up in North Carolina, where we couldn’t see none of it.”

“I hear they took the money and went to Disneyland with it.”

“Yeah, and bought May-Bright some nice dresses with famous names and spent the rest in Charleston, eating lobster and shrimp and riding around town in a horse and buggy just like royalty.”

“Somebody said June Ray is really May-Bright’s little sister, not her daughter.”

“Wouldn’t doubt it. She is right growed-up looking for a fifteen-year old.”

“I’d hate to be them and have to account for all that.”

And such as that.

After a while, it got so’s if you admitted to attending Morning Tide Baptist Church, people would look at you strange, like you done walked off a spaceship or something. Like there was something wrong with worshipping there. Like we was a devil’s cult, you know? And we figured they blamed us for the lie they believed that Junie Ray and her mama and daddy had perpetrated upon Compton and beyond. Not everybody, of course, but enough to get us in the church to wondering “Did they? Would they? Could they?” We even heard that the church treasurer, Mizriz Lurleen Waggoner, had got calls from folks wanting back the donations they give under false premises and all that. A bad spirit come over the church, a ill wind. The congregation looked at each other suspicious-like. We ignored Pastor Johnny’s sermons, too busy eying one another, wondering if the man or woman next to us had done something wrong in praying for Junie Ray and giving her money and all such as that. Had they been made a fool? Had we? Sometimes it sure felt like it. After all, it was true what they said. We never did see no doctor’s report saying Junie Ray was sick (not that it was our business to in the first place) nor had Junie ever reduced or gone bald-headed. She never seemed to get sick the way radiation makes you.

Soon tension took the place of joy in Morning Tide Baptist. Folks got short with each other, grumpy and glum and not a bit Christian-like. We looked at Carl Byrd in the choir loft with something like hatred, or maybe it was hatred, the real thing, us thinking maybe he didn’t have no right leading honest folks in songs of praise to a honest God. Oh the devil had set foot in Morning Tide Baptist, determined to take it over. And he come close too.

At some point, the congregation thinned out. Folks moved their letters elsewhere or stopped church-going altogether. Us what remained looked at each other like enemies, not brethren in Christ. We snipped and snapped and sung the hymns half-hearted. It was all Pastor Johnny could do keep our attention while he preached. It was like the Lord had took a long vacation from Morning Tide Baptist.  

What we should have done but was too timid to was face Carl Byrd direct and ask him, “Did you pull the wool over our eyes, Carl? Did you make fools of us in the eyes of Compton? Did you steal from us?”

But none would. Except one. Mizriz Agnes Haley.

That little old woman, no bigger than the hickory stick she toted with her, a true God-warrior if one ever existed, who could move a mountain with her faith, took over Morning Tide Baptist that morning, at least for a little while. She didn’t even let Pastor Johnny say his sermon. After the morning prayer, she stood and went to the center of the sanctuary, planted herself firm, and pointed at Carl Byrd where he stood in the choral loft.

“Carl Byrd!” she hollered at him, her voice strong as Gabriel’s trumpet. Carl turned. Miz Haley spoke the charges against him. She asked the question that laid silent on all our tongues. “Did you do this thing?” Carl’s arms went out from him, his hands turned out. His eyes swoled up with tears. He shook his head.H e took a step towards us. “No ma’am,” he said. “As the good Lord is my witness, I done no such thing. Nor did May-Bright nor Junie.” He put a hand to his face and wept like a young’un. It was pitiful.

Miz Haley turned back to us.  

“I been a member of this church since it opened its doors in nineteen se’umty-three, and I reckon I’ll remain one till they shut them doors for good or I’m dead and buried in the ground. Whichever comes first. And I’ll be durned if I’m going to stand and let this house of God and the good, Godly people in it be bad-mouthed by the wicked, wagging tongues of a pack of know-nothings what’s jealous of our faith. Faith! We had it. We have it. We opened our hearts to the Word of God, and He spoke to us and told us to help this here man and woman and their young’un. And that’s what we done. And we done right. Do you think He would lie to us or lead us astray? If you do, you got no place in Morning Tide Baptist Church. The spirit moved here. You felt it good as I did. Was the spirit of joy only the Lord God in Heaven can send to His people. Now the devil has got in here somehow. He followed some of you in here, I reckon, because when you come in, you had let down you guard. And he’s jealous, beloved. Oh he’s jealous of our joy and wants to kill it. 
Well, I tell you what. He ain’t about to kill this old woman’s joy. No sir. I am steadfast. And you must be too if you aim to see your mamas and daddies and grandmamas and granddaddies again in Heaven. The doubt comes, you push it away. It comes again, you keep on pushing till you feel you can’t push no more. And you remember Junie Ray Byrd and the miracle He worked in her because you believed. You believed, you believed, you believed. And belief beats doubt every time.”

Miz Haley said it. We believed it. And that, y’all, settled it.  

Randall Ivey
teaches English at the University of South Carolina in Union, where he also directs the annual Upcountry Literary Festival, a gathering of some of the South's finest literary talents.  His work has appeared in venues throughout the US and the UK, and he is the author of seven books.

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