A Divine Calling by Ed Laird

Some said it was because of the mandrakes, as long as twelve inches, which the Clarks gathered at dusk on moonless summer nights. Some whispered that they grew only beneath a seminal oak where a Cherokee Indian of long ago was hanged. There are even those who claimed to have heard the mandrakes scream when plucked unwillingly from their loamy abode. Others said it was nothing but a mountain panther looking for her mate.

Whatever neighbors might say of the Clarks, they agreed on their fruitfulness. Theirs was a progeny of mostly males and more prodigious with each successive generation. Joseph Abraham Clark, the second, had six sons with no namesake until the seventh, which he named after himself as his father before him had done, he being the seventh son of his father. Pumpkin Holler residents needed no explanation. It was understood. It was the mountain ways.

Joe Clark, the third and the final, was watched over carefully by his father and the rest of the community. In many ways their livelihoods depended on him. Their holler home had no branch, no creek, not even a spring. Without wells, it was a winding, five-mile trip by mule up past Cherokee Oak over the ridge to Possum Trot, the nearest source of naturally running water, and the folks of that hamlet were adamant in their refusal to share their meager spring, which often ran dry in late summer.

“No need to worry,” said Aunt Tildie, wizened seer and midwife. “The boy’s got it,” she announced to his father and mother as she severed the umbilical cord. “I can feel the vibrations. It’s very strong.” Mother and father smiled approvingly.

Joe grew in grace and knowledge under the tutelage of his father. He had a generosity of spirit that matched his gift and a clear awareness of his calling. If anything, his anointing was greater than that of his grandfather or his father. It was plain for all to see. On his seventh birthday his father took him to Cherokee Oak, propped a twenty-foot ladder against its lowest hanging limb and sent young Joe up, carrying a dagger between his teeth.

The boy scampered through the branches like a simian without tether. His father peered upward, watching patiently, while Joe surveyed each limb and tested each branch. Making a selection, he whacked the chosen piece with an expert cut, which he dropped into his father’s hand. The dagger fell, a pinpoint landing, sticking into an exposed root of the oak, causing it to bleed. In the work shed they circumcised the three-foot branch of its bark, sharpened one end to a fine point and carved the branched, forked end to fit the dimensions of Joe’s clinched hands.

Obvious to all was young Joe’s divine ability and his special relationship with his father. Some said they detected jealousy from his older siblings. Others said take no mind; they would work it out. Joe applied himself to his job with an energy and dedication that took everyone by surprise for one so young. Before long he was in great demand, dousing for each new cabin as married children left home and dousing for new wells when the old ones ran dry.

Joe’s reputation was permanently sealed while dousing, mindful of no particular objective, on his seventeenth birthday within sight of Cherokee Oak. He felt his instrument oscillate, rise and twist in a way it had never done before. Bracing himself, his feet in the earth and his back to a large boulder, he pushed with mystical strength. First there was a murmur, a weeping, an effusive gush, and then gallons of water bursting forth and blasting a bed through rocks and soil. A crescendo of appreciative shouts from residents hailed Joe as he followed the life-sustaining creation down the holler.

None can say for certain. Some say it was one of his jealous brothers. Most say it was the revenge of the hanged Cherokee. But seven months later, the day the water stopped, Joe was found lying face down on a bed of mandrakes under Cherokee Oak with his divining rod through his heart.