There are places so far away from anything that it seems a miracle that anyone would live there. But they do, way up in the back hollows, behind piles of coal slag as high as the mountains they tore apart to get that coal. There in those tiny hollows where nature has slowly reclaimed her kingdom from the indignities of greed, people live. I was born in such a place, Independence, West Virginia. A town so hidden it won’t show up on your GPS, yet so real that I wake each morning startled by the sounds of traffic outside my window, having dreamt myself back there in the hidden hours of slumber.
I dreamt I wandered up to the country store, barefoot like we did as children for a Coca-Cola and a package of nabs, fingering the quarters in my overall pockets, clutching yesterday’s bottle put in the dusty wooden rack by the door. I see the old men with their hats tipped back on their heads, shirt sleeves worn thin, frayed at the cuffs sitting there on the porch sliding handfuls of peanuts into the cola before each sip. Someone will mention a pain in their shoulder that the county doctor failed to diagnose on his semi-annual visit. One of the women leaning on cooler will say, “You best take that to Miz Nettie, she’s the one who can fix it.” That’s when I wake, startled that I’m not there with them, those faces of old, probably dead, now calling me home.
I call my office, “Yes a family emergency. They called last night. Well it’s a long drive down there; I’ll probably be gone all week. Yes, I’ll let you know.” I don’t tell them there’s no cell service anywhere in the county much less in the high country.
Where I come from everybody knows that all you have to do if there is trouble in your house, or a weight on your heart, you go visit Miz. Nettie. She’ll pray for you. Lay her hands on your furrowed brow. Stare deeply into you with her rummy hazel eyes, and you will feel better. She’s available twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days out of the year. Some say that if you don’t have the time to spend the full hour in her company, all you need to do is park at the end of her driveway and touch her mailbox post with your right hand and she will somehow heal your suffering. It’s the kind of miracle you don’t hear about in the city where charlatan palm readers and psychics will take your cash and tell you what you want to hear but never risk saying what will actually make you better. Miz Nettie’s not like that. She deals in the unvarnished truth of your troubles, meets you there, and leads you home.
Miz Nettie’s fame started in 1968 at the big tent revival they hold at the high school over in Sparta. She was twenty-four years old and pregnant for the second time. Some claim it was only the heat, or maybe the bad air down there in the bottom lands by the creek, but all of a sudden, in the middle of singing “Precious Lord,” Miz Nettie threw her hands up in the air hollering, “Jesus! Jesus!Jesus! I see him! He’s right here! Come to live among us! Lord don’t leave me Here in this valley of trials and tribulations!” And then she fainted. When she came to, she had the touch. The healing touch that only comes to a very few. Right then and there she started healing the persistent cough, the fainting spells, the cataracts, the broken hearts. Jewlie Rankin got bit by a copperhead that was hiding under the pulpit up there at the front. Miz Nettie laid her hands on that swollen ankle, prayed in tongues, and the swelling went down. She drew the poison out and cast it away.
When I was young we all had stories to tell of Miz Nettie’s healing gifts. Someone in our family or someone we knew from the hollow or Galax had been cured through her touch. We all believed in Miz Nettie, even if our mothers dutifully took us to the vaccination clinic held at the elementary school twice a year, to the dentist at Black Mountain, and scrimped to buy glasses if needed. We saw these tools as the necessary substitutes to prevent us from wearing Miz Nettie out with problems we could solve ourselves. Miz Nettie specialized in the unsolvable problems.
Her house sat up on the hill on the other side of the New River. A swinging bridge hung from old wooden posts driven into the bank was the only way over to her door. You parked on the road, took the path through the pokeweed to the bridge, crossed above the rapids, then climbed the steep stone path to her porch. She was always waiting for you. I don’t know how she knew folks were coming. She didn’t have a telephone, nor electricity. But she was always there watching for us to park before we even got out of the truck.
The pain I felt that could not be healed was eating a hole through my stomach. The virus that threatened so many lives was raging and killing off the friends who had become my family, one after another. Some called it the gay disease, only there wasn’t a happy thing to say about it. I had left Independence with my tail between my legs when my father found out that I was one of those men. He cast out the demon son who brought desecration to his house. My mother cried, pushing three hundred-dollar bills into my palm as she held me close to say good-bye, knowing that it would be our final farewell. I left. The fear of what might happen flew out the open windows as I drove up Highway 81 to Pittsburg, then northeast to New York City. They didn’t call when my brother got married. Nor did my brother call when the semi jumped the median and crashed into the truck killing both mama and daddy one cold January day. I found out about it through the friend of a friend who owned a hiking business in the Shenandoah, two years after the fact. I thought I’d never go back. But here I am, a reasoned well educated being, in a shiny red rental sedan, driving south towards springtime in Appalachia. Watching as the first dogwood and redbud make their promise known through the baren forest.
I parked by the road. Her mailbox was papered with petitions for succor and notes of thanks. Two garish wreaths of faded red and green plastic flowers stood sentinel on either side of the rutted path trailing through dry weeds to the bridge. Here and there, green ramps, the first signs of spring coming, poked their heads up through the newly thawed earth, otherwise winter still held close. She was sitting on her porch wrapped in a bright crazy quilt, rocking slowly back and forth in a split-back rocker. I waved, but she did not respond. I pick my way across the bridge, stopping to stare down at the crystal-clear water breaking over the rocks and the stony river bottom. When I step up onto the porch itself, she raises her eyes to look at me. Thick Coke-bottle glasses, the old-fashioned kind they used to use for cataracts magnify the green in her eyes.
“I have come for healing a revelation,” I said, dropping to my knees. “I humbly request your assistance in lifting this plague from my body and freeing my soul to do its work.”
She smiled, seeing right through me.
I felt a warmth filling me from within, like a fire that had grown cold, down to its last ember suddenly bursting into flame. My fingers and toes tingled, the hair on the back of my head stood up. I trembled but not from the cold.
She said, “Last night, when I was praying for my son, the Lord came to me in the mirror. I saw my own face, old, withered from the bone so that the flesh hung lose on my jaw. Jesus stepped up behind me and knelt so that our faces became one in that reflection. And I saw my son’s face.” She stared out at the blue ridgeline, watching a pair of buzzards drop from a bare oak, flap lazily, and rise on the current off the ridge. The whole mountain hung silent for that moment, watching her, listening to her breathe.
“He’s dying, you know. Just like you are, and so many like you.” She looked at me through eyes that have held more suffering than I believed a body could bear alone. I caught myself for the first time in ages praying to Jesus to lift her pain.
“At first I thought he must have been sent by the devil to tempt me.” She continued, “There’s a sin to loving a body before the soul and I loved my children as they were in their bodies, a part of me. I would do most anything I could to keep them alive and well. Most people think I’m all goodly and a saint, but that’s not the truth. I have my sins the same as anybody. When he came home from school that day and told me that he was one of them, well like you. I set him aside. I blamed the devil and him for being as he was. I sent him away.”
She strained her eyes toward the ridge, watching for something that wasn’t there. “But now I’m not so sure. You see, I have seen Jesus a thousand times and I know his face. And it was Jesus that come to me last night and showed me the face of my son in mine.” Tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks, fell like dew on her upturned hands. Two blue jays took up a quarrel on the far side of the river as the sun crested the ridge turning the whole valley golden. “The Lord brought my son back to me last night, and I’m sitting here wondering if I have strength enough in my heart to love him. It’s a terrible thing to shut someone out of your heart.”
I would like to say that I was the source of my own courage in that moment, but I would be telling you a lie. I led Miz Nettie down off her porch, guided her over the bridge and into the bright red rental car. We drove in silence down to Wake County Memorial Hospital where her son lay, skeletal and alone, waiting to die from the same virus that coursed through my veins. We prayed for an end to his suffering. We prayed for all the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who can’t see through their anger and pain to love their kin. We prayed till the sun cast its golden parting light through the room, and the first star of evening appeared.
“Make a wish,” she whispered.
We held hands tight till the second star appeared beside the first.
The night radio played softly as we carried him home. The headlights carved a path up the mountain. I drove with Miz Nettie snoring softly beside me.