The River Jericho.
In the summer of 1950, my father sent me down to Jericho from Philadelphia to stay with my grandfolks. He, too, believed that we would overcome one day. He was old then, nearly sixty-five. And while he never thought that he would live to see the day, he knew that I would. He figured that, in order for me to one day understand how far I had come, I needed to know where we had started. In his mind, Jericho was as good a starting place as any.
At the time, I didn't know why my father would send me to such a God-forsaken place. What I did know was that, when me and the old man went into Woolworth's to have a hotdog, we had to eat it way back by the kitchen, not at the counter like everybody else. Our rootbeer didn't come in the big frosty mugs I had seen on the counter, but in paper cups. Our hotdogs were served on napkins instead of plates. I didn't mind because the old man didn't seem to mind. He just wanted me to have anything this world had to offer and would have endured both hell and high water to see that I got it. Me, I thought that we must have done something pretty bad to deserve that kind of treatment.
The old man took me down by the riverside almost every day. It was the only place where he was truly happy. We would fish and swim until the sun went down. Then we would walk the mile or so along the dirt road back to the house. The old man owned his own land. He couldn't vote, but he was a land-holding citizen. Anybody who tried to take that away from him would have had better luck someplace else. He didn't play when it came to his inalienable rights, especially the right to bear arms. Gramma may not have liked having a gun in her house, her being a Christian woman and all, but somewhere she understood that all the praying in the world could not change the world. So, she let him be.
Gramma would have our plates waiting for us on the big, black potbelly stove when we got home. She went to her meetings almost every night around sundown. The old man would kid her by saying something like, "Don't you think Jesus has more to do than sit up and listen to you wailin' every night?" She wouldn't pay him any mind. She thought that if she asked, she would receive. She knew she wouldn't always receive, only when she prayed just right. What she didn't know, and what my grandfather didn't tell her, was that praying really didn't have anything to do with it. All she had to do was believe that the Spirit being called upon was the Spirit within her own breast. Had she known that, her prayers would never have gone unanswered.
My grandfather never said a word of that to Gramma. He thought that she would never believe him because her religion kept her from true understanding." As long as she's b'lievin' in another man's book," the old man would say," she'll never learn to b'lieve in herself." That wasn't the only reason he wouldn't tell her. The real reason was Mose. She never believed in Mose.
Mose was my grandfather's grandfather, as well as the subject of his favorite story. He, like the old man, lived in Jericho all of his life, but he wasn't from there. He was born in a small town one hundred miles north of Jericho called Logos. The old man seemed to think that was why Mose was so special. He would tell me the story of Mose each time we were down by the riverside. And though I knew the words to the story by heart at the end of the summer, I never could tell it like the old man. I remember the first time he told it like it was yesterday.
"Long before they put that interstate up there," he said pointing above his head to the drone of passing automobiles coming from the new highway, "there didn't used to be anything up there but hills and sky. That's how Mose liked it. This here was the prettiest part of the river. In the springtime, couldn't see nothing but cherry blossoms for almost a mile. It was something else."
He sat down along the riverside and paddled his feet in the water. His feet were rusty from always going barefoot. I sat down next to him and tried to splash my feet around in the water too. I had my pants rolled up a little past my knee even though I knew my legs were too short to get near that much water. My legs were too short even to get my toes wet. I kept trying though, stretching my feet down under me with my arms back on the ground for support. I reached too far, the ground gave way, and I fell in.
"You might as well stay in there a while and get yourself fresh. Get some of that corruption from that city life out of your soul."
I had no idea what my grandfather was talking about. Naturally, he went on: "That water heals. It cured me of the cholera. I know that may be hard for you to b'lieve. Your Gramma doesn't b'lieve it either, but that don't make it a lie. I laid up sick for two days with a fever. Anybody'll tell ya. My throat and mouth was so dry I could hardly say a word. I was jerking around in my sleep like the devil had jumped in me and got ahold of my body. It got so bad that nobody thought I was gonna make it, except for Mose. He carried me in arms about the size of your legs the whole three miles to this part of the river. My fever was so bad that I fell out."
It was always at that moment in the story that the old man risked his credibility. It wasn't that I didn't think he passed out. With a fever in the Jericho heat there wasn't much else he could do but pass out. The walk down to the river, on the other hand, was no more than a mile. I let him have his license anyway. It was his story.
"When I came to, Mose was standing waist high in the river dunking me under the water. I didn't know whether I was coming or going. He just kept dunking me and dunking me. On the way home I had the shakes somethin' terrible. He didn't have a towel to dry me off because he wanted the water to dry into my skin. I woke up two days later feeling like nothing ever happened."
But something had happened, and the old man knew it. It wasn't the water that got him well. It was Mose. Mose believed that the river was just one form of the Law and that he and my old man were another. If all were one-and-the-same, then it followed, in his mind, that all should be in the same condition. He figured that the tranquility in one was enough to soothe the unnecessary turmoil in the other. The old man didn't quite see it that way. He thought that Mose was special. In a sense, he was. He was special in that he knew the purity of his own essence.
"Once Mose found out that they was going to build that trestle above the prettiest part of the river, he knew that things for him could only get worse. He worshipped this river like most folks worship Jesus. He would say, 'Nature don't know favorites, it knows law.'
"He would take a rock from me. I always collected rocks in a little satchel on the way down here to skip over the water. He would take a rock from me and skip it so the water would ripple and ask me, 'You see how that water did that? It don't matter who throws that rock, they get that. It don't matter what color the man is.'
"Mose never went down by the riverside while they were building the trestle, two whole years. The day they finished, he left the house early in the morning and headed toward the river without telling nobody. I seen him sneaking around the house, so I got up and followed after him. Soon as I knew he was going to the river, I got worried. I thought that he didn't want nothing to do with that river anymore. He knew I was following him. There wasn't much he didn't know. He just went about his business and kept walking down to the river. When he got to the trestle, he climbed up it like it was a jungle gym or something. The whole time I was wondered what he was doing. I knew for sure he was gone. I thought the man couldn't have been all there. I yelled up to him and asked what he was doing all the way up there like that. It took him a while to answer. When he did, his voice shook the hills and made the water splash like crazy. He yelled, 'The pure in heart shall see God.'
"That sounded just as strange to me, almost like he was reading from the Bible. That was all he said and not a word more. Then, I covered my eyes with my hand, just like I'm doing now and I looked at him real good and I saw it. I saw Mose jump off that trestle and fly away from it just as pretty as any robin I've seen around here in the springtime. He flew off toward the sun until I couldn't see him no more. That's when I knew I had seen a man, as good a man as there ever was."
It was true. Mose was as good a man as there ever was. My Gramma didn't believe it. "You ever seen a man fly?" she would ask me. "You would think that as old as your grandfather is he could at least be honest. My nerves can't take all this dreaming he's always doin'." She was right. I had never seen a man fly and that should have been enough for any rational mind to dismiss the old man as crazy. But there was something more in it for me. While I may not have understood entirely, I could feel it.
Mose knew that, with the building of the trestle, there was no hope for a man like himself. They built a monstrous wood-and-stone structure over the prettiest part of the river. Mose knew that anyone who could not see the beauty of the river would not see the beauty in themselves, all of themselves. Perhaps one day, he hoped, man would come to really see God. The trestle told him that man had a long way to go and that things would only get worse before they got better. Having already seen the charred remains of slavery and the failure of Reconstruction, Mose was not willing to wait around that long.
He was right. A year later, Jim Crow became the law of the land.
That was my last summer in Jericho. I left my Gramma and the old man to live a life of misunderstanding until his death ten years after I left. They had love. I had seen it. Love was the only thing that enabled them to stay together so long. What they didn't have was a belief in their own unity. Even if she didn't believe him, my Gramma still could not see that the only place the infinite possibilities of life could unfold for the old man, under the laws of the land, was in his imagination. The old man, in all of his wisdom, didn't know that in a world of human fallibility what Gramma needed most was a man that she could see, touch, and believe in. That's what I was for--to bridge the gap. That was the point of his telling me the story. It was the old man's way of letting me know that what I saw before me was not necessarily what should be. I have carried that message around with me all of my life, like an old picture in an heirloomed locket.
The changes my father predicted came and went. Yet we still have a ways to go before we are truly free at Last. Things are better, but I'm not satisfied with better because better is still not good enough. My concern, now, is not whether or not I see things in reality as I know they truly should be. I've grown too old and too weary for such optimism. Nor am I concerned with whether or not my own children live to see the day of universal enlightenment. All of that is out of my hands. All I can do is believe, pass that belief on to my children, and remember that river.
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|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1994|
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