There is a neighbor who calls me to her house in the dark of the morning. I’m to take her place when she is gone. She is gone. It’s a sweet place, like the sad spot in the middle of a pound cake. There is coffee with half and half. There is a library with favorite novels I do not own myself. I take them down, sit at the kitchen table and offer thanks to the Lord for making such a neighbor. Wonder of wonders. An hour of stillness, then a rustling upstairs, a thump, a giggle, a hush. I reread the same line over and over. They want to watch me awhile. They move as a unified front down the steps, then spread out and advance, behind one chair to another to a beam now dropping to the floor. I don’t notice. I don’t hear them. I let them come till at last I look up in surprise to see four little faces around the table. The girl grins but the boys look as if someone let a banshee in the house, fascinated, wary, except for the smallest who has Down Syndrome. He looks at me like Christmas morning come early. Breakfast? I say and they all jump.
The love I have for these children is natural. I can imagine the whole time that I am their mother or big sister and this is our morning game. But Jesus loved the wholly set apart from himself: you and me. He did the sneaking up on all of us and invaded our narrow inner circle. The love of the Trinity was so great that it overflowed, as the morning stars sang for joy, and spilt over to the lowest pits and dry wells of the earth.
These little people are my neighbors and by the end of the day they will manage to have me chasing them around the house with my eyes closed. I’m no good at this game, but to have the girl rolling in laughter and boys sympathetically patting me on the head is worth the bruised knees and sore bones. Then there is the neighbor who asks me to scoop the litter box she herself hasn’t cleaned in weeks, the neighbor who literally throws his trash out the nearest window, the neighbor who brings alpaca toenail fungus for me to examine, the neighbor who occasionally leaves tamales at the gate as penance for his bad behavior, the neighbor who fires an actual cannon on gentle unsuspecting evenings, the neighbor from the west who calls on me for rescue, the neighbor from the east who has rescued me.
Months go by when the only thing we can do for one another is mark our leavings and returnings, when all we can have is the decency to stop and look and remember their existence as they remember ours.
I came back home last week from Charleston, South Carolina, where I saw places I’ve had a mind to see for some time. I was traveling with friends who have a great capacity for appreciating both the grand and the common, not good company, the very best. Through the small towns, every street name was read and considered. We drank deep of the land at the tea plantation and vineyard: Charleston Breakfast, Earl Grey, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and more. We pretended like Middleton Place was our own, and condescended to share with the thirsty, as long as they would walk through the world like it was something to see and not something to move past. But of all the beautiful places my favorite was a humble spring on the way home in Blackville. Every old person has at least one story about a spring, but I had never seen one… and this one in particular was said to have healing waters too. We stopped to ask for directions from the stylish librarian who whispered the way but had never been there herself, either not believing the claim or having no ailments.
As for me, I believe in all the articles of the Christian faith. I am certainly capable of believing in the fantastic, miraculous and out of the ordinary, though I rarely expect it. But I can testify that it rushes from the deeps there in Blackville, for around the ten iron pipes sticking out of the ground and steadily pouring cold water beside a little creek was a group of colored women laughing, dancing and soaking wet. We approached just as we were, travelers a long way from home, shy and strange, unfit for the inner circle. This wasn’t like the grand plantations, where we paid to come, joined sightseers and listened to well done spiels from tour guides recently here from the Bronx. This was a deeply personal place, at least at the time of our approach. It was free but costly. Everyone was quiet, except the spring. It sounded between us, making introductions, thirsty one to thirsty one, weak and wounded, sick and sore, believer. We watched and listened and smiled to one another, yet unsure.
So tell us about this place, I said, remembering all the people who’ve opened the door for me. Do you live around here?
Allendale, one lady offered and then the eldest told the story of the spring, beginning with her own childhood, ending with a motherly come taste it and the glade bubbled with laughter and silliness again. We filled our mason jars, drank from cupped hands and splashed the water to our sticky faces. Allergies, eczema, arthritis, everything, honey the lady said. Mama would even wash my hair in it. And you see that? she pointed to a mark in the tree. What does that look like? An ear. God is listenin’ here, she said. The fact that he listens everywhere, not just in Blackville, is beside the point.
The water was sweet and hard with minerals, like the wells we were familiar with, as distinct in their reservoirs as casks of wine, like every small town street, every neighborhood and country road. Maybe it is healing. Who am I to say? Maybe I would have died by now if it weren’t for that drink. But it’s no less wonderful if it’s not, maybe more so. Who ever heard of simple water bringing such joy? To sneak up on a banshee, to be happy on Christmas morning, is one thing, to be thrilled by and loving to a plain, old neighbor implies a thirst and interest only capable in a masterfully created mind and a world of meaning yet untapped, deep and wide, as sweet as the sad spot in the middle of a pound cake, as inexplicable as a welcome bruise.
Anything that can bring people together like that is healing, my friend said, as we made our way back to the highway, back home to the men who us watched go, to the women who share our water, to the neighbors who would drink our tea and wine more often if it ran over like the love of the Godhead, like the spring still pouring out in Blackville, South Carolina.