Washed in the Blood

Connie Bull Stillinger

I was out under the oak tree pushing my feet back and forth in the tire swing after supper and pondering how Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables would handle the changes in my life. Mama called me into the house to take a bath and get ready for church. It was a Thursday evening, and I had just been to the midweek prayer service with my parents and sister the night before.

“Why do I have to go to church two nights in a row?” I complained as I climbed in the tub.

Mama took a nailbrush to my fingers and scrubbed. “Kellie June, you’re willful and defiant at twelve years old. Your father and I don’t think it’s proper for you to buck authority the way you do. This kind of behavior has to stop.” She handed me the wash cloth, turned off the water, and told me to hurry up.

Tuesday night had been the start of the latest round between me and my parents.

“Papa, why doesn’t Sally ever have to help me hoe the garden?”

It seemed he was determined to work me into total exhaustion while my friends were swimming and fishing at the local lake and having fun during the summer. He expected me to work all day in the garden and then wash dishes and go to bed without ever doing anything fun. Most nights I was too tired to even read, which had always been a favorite part of my evenings. Papa pulled his belt off, pushed me over the table and whipped me until I cried.

“I’m not going to tolerate your mouth,” he said. “It’s not your place to question anything I tell you to do.”

Papa wasn’t always so mean. It used to be just the two us. He called me his little shadow. I wore my blue denim overalls and helped him on the farm, afternoons until supper. Our favorite thing in the world was packing a lunch of Mama’s pimento cheese sandwiches wrapped in wax-paper, a big jug of sweet tea, a peck bag full of boiled peanuts and spending Saturday afternoons fishing Aunt Gertie’s pond for Red-breast and Bass. Papa would quiz me about what books I was reading and he would shake his head in agreement when I talked about how The Chronicles of Narnia was about an eternal struggle between good and evil.

He used to say it didn’t matter none that I was a girl. “Kellie June,” he’d sing, and his eyes would twinkle, “I love you more than some stinkin’ old boy.” He would tug on my twin braids and wink. But since the preacher-man came two years ago, everything changed.

Preacher Manning pranced around the pulpit every Sunday, going on about how wives and children needed to be quiet and subservient to their husbands and fathers. His sermons droned on about children being obedient and girls being modest. He said girls should be soft spoken and learn from their mothers how to be a good daughter and wife. When he got himself worked up he pounded on the pulpit and hollered about how sin was due to the fall of Eve and Jesus’s blood was shed to redeem us all. His timid little wife would cringe on the front pew and then flinch when he got all wound up. He started having the men’s group to the church for regular Bible study to teach them how to take charge of their homes.

“Martha, you’ve always been a good wife, I’m proud of you. Sally’s a sweet and good girl. I’m sure she’ll be a fine wife one day, but Kellie June is a problem,” Papa said one night after his men’s group.

I didn’t understand how I was a problem and why I had to be a certain way so I could be a wife. I wasn’t sure I liked boys, much less ever wanted to marry one. I tried to be good. I really did. But Papa was never happy with me.

Mama drove the car over the crest of the hill and the church was there in the twilight. Red brick with white steeple, surrounded by grass and cemetery that butted up next to the creek that ran through the woods. Six Mile Swamp Baptist Church had been situated in this part of the low country of South Carolina for over one hundred years in some form or another and some of the graves out back were older than that. During the light of day, the view from the hill looked postcard pretty. But on this night, whispering ghosts lurked among the graves and the shadow of the church loomed large against the woods. On this hot August evening just before dark, only a few cars sat out front.

“Kellie June Sanders, make sure you do everything Reverend Manning expects of you tonight. He and a few of his deacons are going to lay hands on you and pray,” Mama said. Her lips tightened and her eyes glanced at me in the gathering darkness. Tammy Wynette was playing on the eight-track player, wailing about standing by your man. Mama motioned for me to pull my dress down over my knees. I sighed loudly and tugged at the hem as she reached over and turned the music off.

“Have you memorized Ephesians 6:1-4 yet? It’s important that you know what God’s holy word says regarding children being obedient to their parents” She sighed as I shook my head no . It was still over ninety degrees, and my legs stuck to the vinyl bench seat of Mama’s 1966 brown Ford Galaxy as we pulled into the parking lot. She opened her door, came around and grabbed my hand.