Up and Down Wye Mountain

by Jon Tribble

    Daffodils crowning the summit
of this country church-topped hill
    have begun to pale and wither

from the sun and heat of Arkansas
    summer, though the earlier
hymn of the flowers’ open mouths

    brought out the city dwellers
to the festival the congregation
    here celebrates every year.

But it is the church itself which
    calls us, our pilgrimage
a journey to familiarize my mother

    with this site and one other
the Bishop appointed her to lead.
    Her recent vocation has been

rehearsed with sermons, ceremonies,
    and assisting in the rituals
that embody the articles of faith,

    reaching beyond response
which a lifetime of supplication
    has taught to lead the call,

but, at sixty-eight, she now seeks
    to test the strength of her
calling anew, to discover if this

    challenge is the path study
and long prayer mean to bring her to.
    My father, my wife, and I

have joined today, all of us, perhaps,
    a bit skeptical and concerned,
but also warmed by the enthusiasm

    apparent in my mother’s
sharp attention to all the practical
    concerns: how long it takes

to drive from home, gas stations
    or their lack upon the way,
the safe and unsafe speeds to wend

    this single winding trail.
My wife steps out first and then
    the rest of us stretch

and gaze about at this calming
    scene, the handiwork
of masons resting under the oaks.

    The stone church appears
to be locked tight, but a back door
    guarded only by a blue-

bellied lizard opens and we enter.
    There is much more here
than any of us had dared hope for:

    kitchen, Sunday school
meeting room, an organ and piano,
    and the simple solid altar

and cushioned pews the sanctuary
    presents us with exceed
every expectation and demonstrate

    the care of belief and duty
we might or might not find evident
    in storied sacristies

housing relics of less humble
    design. Attendance
figures from the Sunday before

    show “38” adults on hand,
“15” children, and a collection
    of “$143.85” with “$20”

added for building and grounds.
    My father wants a picture,
and though my mother refuses to

    pose for him, my wife
and I take turns standing behind
    the sturdy Communion rail.

We head down the hill to Bigelow,
    six miles away by road
—though the hawks we see rising

    in the bright sky might
make the distance less than three—,
    and my mother wonders aloud

why two small congregations are not
    one, though she says she
would not rush either church toward

    a change neither might want.
As we reach the bottom of Wye Mountain,
    the rich flood plain for

the Arkansas River slopes through
    stands of pine and tangles
of honeysuckle on to Toadsuck Ferry

    where the now lock-and-dam
tamed waters are traversed much more
    easily, though perhaps less

often since busy interstates have
    cut off these back roads.
Bigelow approaches with promise

    at first, a horse farm
shadowed back amidst the loblolly,
    a cattle ranch with heavy

Bhraman hybrids sinking in a stock
    pond’s cool mud. But as
we near the single railroad track

    which marks this town as
here—along with its beige aluminum-
    sided post office—houses

begin to seem to sway as much from
    poor construction and
disrepair as from the humid heat.

    Our first attempt to find
the church finds us turning around
    at the mobile home assembly

yard that must be this town’s only
    industry, though scattered
insulation and a cemetery of unused

    metal frames appear to be
permanent monuments to prosperity
    long past. A second try

leads us back and forth dead-end
    one-way streets, but there
are few enough that by process

    of elimination we end up
in front of what a weathered sign
    tells us is the “United

Methodist Church,” though easily
    we could have mistaken
the style of the scrawl painted

    here for a “For Sale By
Owner” posting. With no apparent
    parking site and the ditches

flanking the road choking with tall
    weeds, I ease the car
onto the crossover leading up to

    the white wooden building
which teeters on its cinderblock
    foundation. The squat

steeple points toward heaven only
    indirectly, seemingly
concerned in this world with

    the thin shade in sight
some hundred yards away. My wife
    and father get out, but

I remain with my mother, who now
    gasps a bit from the close
air. She fans herself and tells

    how this church has lost
members to death and relocation
    the last decade, how fewer

than two dozen names appear on
    the current roll—maybe
fifteen or twelve active members:

    Not a growing ministry.
The job here would be staying
    the decline and, perhaps,

attracting a new congregation,
    though from where is—
at best—unclear. When my wife

    and father return with
the word that the building is
    locked, their survey

of the exterior is grim indeed:
    rotting doors stacked
carelessly against the outside

    of the church, mildew
and what unstained paint there is
    flaking and peeling off

—an erratic layer of dandruff
    spotting the surrounding
ground—, no visible electric lines,

    —though a rusted-out
window unit belied the absence
    of power—, and stairs,

front and back, warped and loose
    and waiting for any
misstep to send someone tumbling.

    “Someone should burn
it to the ground,” my father says,
    despite forty-five years

working for and with the Methodist
    Church. “If you’ve got
a match, I’ll do it right now.”

    But my mother is calm.
She says this challenge is what
    she prayed for. We all

wonder how this forgotten church
    has kept its charter,
but slowly my mother’s resolve

    takes hold of us doubters
until my father even begins saying
    he will transfer membership

to this church, work with them
    to clean and shore up
the damage. We drive back past

    the chapel atop the hill
on our way home, understanding
    a little more the devotion,

the need to serve which shapes
    my mother’s calling.
A week later, the Bishop joins

    my parents for their
introduction to the congregation
    of ten at Bigelow and

the members of the church welcome
    my mother and father.
Then the Bishop tells the church

    how happy he is to find
them supportive of this newly
    licensed minister on her

first appointment, and suddenly
    the recognition strikes
them, they want to know what

    the Bishop thinks he is
trying to pull on them, that surely
    he doesn’t expect them

to receive sacraments from a woman.
    Recounting this later,
my mother says, “It was as if I

    were no longer there
the moment they realized I was,”
    and her voice is weary,

even as she goes on to describe
    her surprise at the beauty
of the sanctuary: six tapestries

    resplendent on the walls
following the Gospel of Christ’s
    nativity, His ministry,

the Last Supper, Gethsemane,
    the Trial before Pilate,
and Calvary’s hill. New hymnals

    rested beside dog-eared
Bibles in the plush red-velveted
    pews. She said they had

polished the brass to impress their
    new pastor, decorating
the heavy oak altar with yellow lilies

    bowing beneath the dark
shining wood of the empty cross
    suspended from the rafters.

JON TRIBBLE was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. His poems have appeared in the anthologies The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Surreal South, and Two Weeks, and in Crazyhorse, Poetry, Ploughshares, and Quarterly West. He teaches at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he is the managing editor of Crab Orchard Review and the series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry published by SIU Press.