Evangeline Beckett was seventeen years old when she walked away from a vision from God. Seventeen and stunningly beautiful, she walked away from the vision as easily as she stamped her foot in defiance when her father forbade her from riding the dappled mare into town alone. She never had taken to his authority, nor anyone else’s for that matter. She was born with her own ideas about everything from how to style her hair to how much sugar to put in the divinity to which Scripture the minister should use in his sermon next Sunday.
So when she stood on the eastern veranda and looked across the lawn toward the stream that ran between the house and the cotton fields, it was no surprise that she turned her back to the vision she saw from the Lord Himself.
Evangeline made it her afternoon ritual to spend a quarter of an hour circling the porch that wrapped around the entire house before spending an hour reading Scripture. She watched the field hands work from the western veranda, checked on the vegetable garden from the south, minded the housemaids working at the wash line from the north, and from the east the flower garden bloomed along the stream for half an acre that she was certain was more beautiful than Solomon’s splendor. Evangeline adored the flower garden and sat among the narcissus on a small wrought iron bench painted stark white for daily Scripture reading when the weather was pleasant, which was not often in East Texas.
On the afternoon of the vision, Evangeline made her rounds on the veranda with her Bible clutched in her hands, but she never did cross the lawn to the flower garden. Instead, she stood stock still in front of the parlor windows staring across the lawn to the east, as though someone had hammered nails straight through her shoes into the porch.
Evangeline was a young woman whose attention was difficult to garner. She kept herself so focused on whatever held her interest that folks could hardly make her hear them when they called her name. She was also a young woman who believed, who knew without hesitation, that she was right. There was no questioning her judgment or correcting her mistakes. No, her mistakes were swept away like leaves from the porch, forgotten in the compost pile by everyone but the old negro, Jonas, who tended the vegetable garden. She firmly believed that so long as she confessed her sin, it was forgiven, and while she tried to walk uprightly before the Lord, she did not toil over her sins or castigate herself for committing them. She simply washed them away, never minding them until she eventually believed that they had never been committed in the first place.
The Lord knew how difficult a time He would have garnering Evangeline’s full attention. He knew her temperament as intimately as He knew the destination of a single drop of water flowing down the stream by the house. He understood that something dramatic would take hold of her mind better than just about anything else, because despite her hour spent in Scripture every day, Evangeline Beckett knew plenty about Him, but hardly knew Him.
The afternoon the Lord displayed His vision before Evangeline, the oldest freedwoman on the plantation was tending the pink rose bush at the edge of the flower garden where a two hundred year old live oak grew. Grandmother Patience’s only responsibility at Beckett Plantation was the flower garden. In her younger years, she had labored in the fields, but a long bout with scarlet fever in 1849 rendered her useless for heavy labor and also left her a little slow in her faculties. In time, she learned what Mrs. Beckett expected of a housemaid and became an excellent cook. When her granddaughter started toddling around the plantation, she taught little Addie how to cook and clean and raised her up beneath the shadow of the Lord’s protective wing. Every freedman and freedwoman on the plantation looked to Grandmother Patience as a pillar of faith.
Evangeline revered no one, least of all a former slave who had been freed by the Yankees. She reserved her esteem for folks who deserved it, folks such as herself, who could see the truth of things without having to open their eyes. Inborn brilliance is what she called it. Few possessed it, and only those who did knew the burden of it.
But on that day, the day of the vision, no amount of inborn brilliance could have enlightened her to the mysteries of God Almighty.
Evangeline leaned against the porch railing, her eyes narrowed at the peculiar display next to the rose bush under the old oak tree. Grandmother Patience, bent over the rose bush with her broad back facing Evangeline, had long, deeply plowed furrows of soil stretched across her back from neck to waist. Row after row, they appeared one after the other until her entire back was full of them, these earthy, thick, dark furrows that looked as fertile as the cotton fields after they were newly plowed for spring planting. Then the rain came pouring over the field on Grandmother Patience’s back, and Evangeline could see tiny little seeds falling into the rows along with the rain that fell in teary streams. The first sprouts pushed up through the soil, and they grew, not into bolls of cotton, but saplings, tiny oak trees standing in long rows up and down Grandmother Patience’s rounded back. The saplings grew until they towered above her, straight, tall, a peculiar display of little dark green leaves fluttering in the afternoon breeze.
Evangeline blinked and drew her head back, perplexed. As quickly as the vision had come, it disappeared, and Grandmother Patience straightened with her pruning sheers in hand and slowly walked through the flower garden to the shed by the chicken coop.
Thinking perhaps a bit of madness had crept in, Evangeline placed her Bible on the porch railing before rubbing her temples and scanning the flower garden to clear her eyes of the strange sight still lingering in her mind. She shook her head twice before glancing around to make sure no one had seen her standing on the porch, mouth agape, staring at an old negro woman in the garden. She put the sight out of her mind, and walked into the house through the parlor door.
“Soul!” she hollered upon seeing dirt sprinkled across her mother’s carpet. She was certain that Addie girl had run in with her feet dirty from tramping through the garden again. She’d take a switch to that child and teach her to wipe her feet before she came in the house. When the houseman still had not come to the parlor, she shouted louder, “Soul Janders!”
“Yes’m,” the man answered when he appeared in the doorway.
“There is dirt on my mother’s carpet.” She shared the news as though it had been a personal attack on her immortal soul. Her hands landed squarely on her hips, her chin rose, and she pursed her lips with such ferocity that her jaw ached.
“I’ll clean it up, Miss Evangeline. Right away.” Soul gave her a patient nod, the same patient nod he had been giving her since she was a very little girl so full of her very big opinions.
She exhaled slowly and issued a small smile. “Thank you, Soul.”
“Yer welcome, Miss Evangeline.”
She left him to his cleaning and went to the kitchen to fetch one of the switches her mother kept in an old tin bucket by the door for just such a need as whipping impudence out of a child. Once she had a switch in hand, she went to find that Addie girl. There would be no having the child brought to her. She would not permit the girl to have the opportunity to conjure up lies on her long walk to the parlor for discipline. No, she would catch her in the midst of some other badness and thrash her.
Addie was tending the laundry at the back of the house with Mazie and Docia.
Addie’s head snapped at the harsh tone of Miss Evangeline. At eighteen, she was hardly a child, but Miss Evangeline treated her with the same contempt she would an eight-year old. “Yes, Miss Evangeline,” Addie replied.
The young despot tapped the switch in her hand thrice before her mind filled with the image of an oak tree towering over Grandmother Patience’s back, and the switch fell to the ground.
Addie picked it up and handed it back to Miss Evangeline, who said nothing as the color drained from her face. She stared past Addie, past the other two freed women who had stopped their washing when the switch fell.
“Miss Evangeline?” Addie inquired, daring to touch the woman’s arm.
“Take your hand off a me.” Evangeline’s eyes narrowed. Her pale cheeks ripened. She gripped the switch as easily as the spine of her Bible and beat Addie until her dress tore and her back bled.
When she was done, Evangeline Beckett sat down on her white wrought iron bench beside the narcissus and smiled.