The church was a decrepit structure of sagging timber and blistered paint; an ugly blot against magnificent mountain scenery. I paused in front of the door and took a deep breath.
Preacher Jones was standing at the pulpit – a few pounds heavier and an effigy of wrinkles. He glanced at me, curiosity flitting briefly before continuing his eulogy. “Hazel Jenkins lived in Jasper Springs from birth.” he droned. “She was known as eccentric but harmless.”
The scattering of people in the church murmured agreement.
I had dressed down in dark jeans and plaid shirt but still felt conspicuous. The men in front of me were grizzled and rough, the women thin and hard. I hadn’t been back to Jasper Springs in twenty years but the memories were as fresh as a loaf from the oven.
“Some people said she was crazy, but although she might not have done any good, she never did anyone harm.” He coughed, a long mournful hack before looking at the folk before him. “If any of you want to say a word, now’s the time.”
There was a long silence while men shifted uncomfortably and women fiddled with collars. Then I stood and walked to the front. “You may not remember me but I was born and bred here. Name’s Jimmy Blake.”
Recognition flickered in some faces.
“I heard Hazy died and I’ve come to pay my respects.”
Preacher Jones grunted his assent.
“But I have to differ with what’s been said. Hazy did do some good.”
The ragtag bunch sat up a little straighter, fixing their eyes on me.
“I know Hazy was off the wall. The way she carried her Bible around and read to the streams and trees was weird. I called her Crazy Hazy myself. I would sit on the rocks above her and throw pebbles at her as she read.”
A thousand memories washed over me and for a moment I was back on the mountainside, the air laden with fresh pine and tendrils of woody smoke. Hazy stood on a boulder near the river, old black Bible in hand. “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”
Her voice was strong and pure, the notes ringing with a fluid cadence that captivated my young ears. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
She had looked like a crazy woman with straggling ropes of hair and shapeless dresses that hung like faded curtains. And yet her voice ... it carried emotion and depth as she poured expression into every nuance of the Bible.
I remember her on a snowy morning, her hair crusted with ice as Isaiah resonated across the hills. “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”
I pulled myself back to the present and the silent people seated in front of me. “I tormented her and made fun of her, but all the time the words of the Bible were going into my heart. When we moved to the city, they came to mind when life was tough and eventually I asked God to be in charge of my life.”
I leaned across the shaky pulpit. “Hazy was a strange old duck but her reading put me on the right path. I should have come back years ago but I’m here to tell you now.”
After a brief round of handshakes and a cup of tea, I turned to wend my way back to the city.
“Hold up.” Preacher Jones came limping after me. “Here, Jimmy.” He pushed a paper bag into my hands. “We were going to bury it with her but reckon it’s best you keep it.”
I opened the bag and inside was an old black Bible, its pages thin with age, dirty and dog eared. As I ran a finger across the cover, I fancied I saw her one last time, a stooped figure by the church, Bible in hand, voice echoing across the mountains.
“Well done, good and faithful servant ... enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”
“Amen.” I whispered, “Amen and amen.”
Scriptures from Psalm 1:3, Isaiah 53:5, Isaiah 1:18, Matthew 25:23, King James Version
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