by Tony Noland
Lots of folks say it started when Ophelia got bit by that rattlesnake, but that ain't the truth. That's just what brought it to a head. See, for months before that, Ophelia was...
Look, sonny, you can call her Sister Ophelia, Mother Ophelia... hell, call her Saint Ophelia if you want. Her name was Ophelia Sawyer when I brung her out here to be my wife. She weren't no saint back then, that's for damned sure. As far as that goes, she weren't neither as pretty or as sweet natured as her advertisement claimed. She was just plain Ophelia and that's all there is to it. If a man can't call his wife by her name, then this world is in more trouble than all the sermons in anybody's church can fix. And she still is my wife. You can look that up at the courthouse.
Naw, I ain't mad. I forgave her for that advertisement a long time ago. After a while, she got to be tolerable company.
Oh, you mean about the preaching? Well... let me put it this way. If she'd got a bee in her bonnet to go off and be a lumberjack up in Wisconsin, I'da told her she was crazy and put a stop to it. But all she did was have folks over for supper. Hell, that was fine with me. I'd as soon have folks over as not.
Don't be a fool, of course nobody called 'em that. It weren't no "revival" and it weren't no... no.... whatever they call that thing where preachers get together. Conclave, that's it. It weren't no conclave. This was just Sunday afternoons and folks coming over to visit and such. At first, we all talked about everything under the sun - crops, horses, politics, grain prices, the land office, all kinds of things.
Nope, it was the usual kind of thing. Before the meal, the women would be visitin' in the kitchen, the men would be out by the well and the kids would be tearin' all over. Then we'd all set down to eat together and talk over different things. After dinner, the women would wash up and the men would go on back outside for a pipe and maybe a pull or two on the jug. In cold weather the men went out to the barn. That was all how it was at first, just the same kind of thing you'd have at any neighborly get-together. We had lots of folks over, sometimes two or even three families at a time. Somehow, it kinda switched around as time went on, though. More of the men started staying in with the women, just to hear Ophelia rattle on about this and that. She was a great talker, Ophelia was.
Well, sure it bugged me some. I ain't stupid, sonny. I figured out pretty quick that folks wasn't coming over for dinner so they could shoot the breeze with me and the jug. But... well, look, are you married?
No, I didn't think so. You don't look it. It's like this. When a man's got a beautiful wife, maybe he gets jealous of the looks she gets, but he also is kinda proud, see? Because he can say, "That's mine." It was sorta like that. People came to talk to Ophelia, or more likely, to hear Ophelia talk. And I was there over in the corner kinda mad and yet kinda proud of her. She was my wife, k'now. Is my wife still.
Hmm, let's see... it was maybe five, six months after Pastor Jeremiah Wilcox took over at the church. No, it was more like eight months. That's right, because he came just after Easter of 1873 and it was after the Christmas services that same year that Ophelia started in with her bible talk.
Well, at first it was just talk about that morning's sermon and the bible lesson for the day. Then it was a sort of running disagreement with Pastor Wilcox. Ophelia would say something like, "Well, I believe I once read a different interpretation of that verse.", and she'd be off to the races. She never read any such thing, it was all her own invention. After a while she didn't even pretend. He preached his version in the morning and she spun out her version in the afternoon. They locked horns over it once or twice.
No, she didn't like him. She thought he was a stuck-up blockhead. Not far off the mark, to be honest. Pastor Wilcox had a way of rubbing people the wrong way. He'd pat people on the shoulder, like he was your pa.
Well, no. I didn't much like him either. Still, it wasn't until Ophelia found that sleeping rattler behind the barn that things really came to a head. She went off into a fever something fierce, like you never seen. Her face was all red and blotchy, eyes yellow as cornsilk. She was raving for three days. Worst three days of my life, I'll tell you that much.
I don't give a good goddamn what she calls it. It weren't no "visitation by angels". She got bit by a rattlesnake and the poison sent her into a terrible fever. Believe me, boy, I was there. I cleaned up her sickbed and washed her linens for three days running, so don't tell me it was some angelic host come a'callin' out at our farm.
I'll calm down when you stop trying to tell me what happened! She weren't no Sister Ophelia back then, she was just Ophelia! She was a long-winded, opinionated woman with a tongue that was silver on one side and sharp on the other. After she recovered from the fever, she was weak, real weak. Womenfolk in town all clustered round, came out to stay and help out. She talked to 'em about God and the angels and what she said she'd seen.
Of course I didn't contradict her! She damn near died! I figured if she wanted to spin out a yarn to make herself feel better, why not? The golden visions she talked about were a hell of a lot nicer than the piss, shit and vomit I'd been dealing with. You ever smell somebody in the third day of a bad fever? Well, her talk of cinnamon-scented angles with long red hair beat reality by a long shot, sonny. I was tired and I didn't figure it would do no harm. How was I supposed to know?
Why, I'm talking about how people stopped listenin' to Pastor Wilcox, stopped goin' to church altogether. They all came out to our place and just sat around listening to her. How all them folks started coming in on the trains to listen to Ophelia.
Fine. To listen to Sister Ophelia. She's still my wife, y'know.
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