Another night at the Starlight Diner and Ms. Rivers takes our orders. The horizon is a black sliver against the sun. All our old mysteries unite. Our coffees get cold. We call our wives and tell them not to wait up. We present our latest research to the group. Harmony had a much darker history than the one we were told. On that eighth-grade trip Mayor Presley left out the Molasses Massacre. We found it in our research with many other stories the town fathers wished to remain forgotten.
In 1843, the Jones brothers (half-black, half-Cherokee) accidently spilled a barrel of molasses on a prominent lawyer, Don Sherill. Although Sherill forgave the brothers at the time, he recounted the incident later at a barber shop in town. A drunken mob formed among the patrons and they tried to take the Jones brothers from their home. They were injured in the melee but survived. They threatened to take Sherill and others to court. It was forbidden for a person of color to take a white man to court at the time, but even the thought of it enraged the citizenry. They formed a mob and hanged the two brothers on the oak tree in the very spot where our picture was taken outside city hall. Mayor Presley didn’t tell us that once freed from slavery, black residents of Harmony formed a neighborhood on the south side called Yellow Hill. In 1867, a blacksmith named M. Horice Warner was found to be picnicking on the hillside with a six-year-old girl and was accused of sexually assaulting her. He was taken from his home by a mob of hundreds and dragged by horses through the streets of Yellow Hill. Later people claimed the man was a friend of the girl’s father and the interaction was innocent.
The night goes on. Ms. Rivers lets us stay longer while she cleans up. Someone at the table brings up Iggy’s friend Johnny Nightshade. How his mother, Trudy, was fired from teaching in the public schools for praying in the classroom.
There’s a new court order that forbids it, the new principal, Doug Shepard said.
So what, Trudy said.
It’s from the Supreme Court, he said.Despite her cantankerous nature, reports from her classes at Harmony Christian Academy were generally positive.
Principal Shepard was a tiny bow-tied man and liked to tell anyone who would listen how he graduated from Duke University with honors.
The Supreme Court is not the supreme being, Trudy said.
The story goes she knelt in his office and prayed out loud that the sinners in the Harmony public schools would not suffer long in the fires of hell—and then walked out. That Sunday, Pastor Green told the story in his sermon at First Baptist. Mrs. Gregory, the jeweler’s wife, put up funds to build a Christian academy downtown that fall. Trudy was their first hire.
For those who don’t want their children to be raised in a godless Marxist indoctrination factory, Trudy said.
Despite her cantankerous nature, reports from her classes at Harmony Christian Academy were generally positive. She could be a kind, sensitive teacher and in certain moods had enormous patience for her students. In class she was known for reciting long poems and monologues. She was so good at it that on the first day of school when she’d launch into Shakespeare students would turn around to see if she was reading it off the back wall. She taught many of our parents the classics. Some of our older siblings still remember her classes in the later years when she’d stopped making sense. She would mix her own biography with that of the characters in famous novels. It was like time had worked on her in a way we could never understand. As if the books she read were a series of misremembered tales and she was their heroine.
She was virulently antigay, not unheard of in the South in those days, but Trudy was over-the-top even then. Some of us suspected perhaps her husband was having an affair with Mayor Presley. They sang in the church choir and took cruises together. In her later teaching years, when progressive thinking was a bit less rare in Harmony, Trudy’s students would ask her about Truman Capote or Walt Whitman or Oscar Wilde. She would immediately launch into Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
After her husband died and she retired, she would ride to town on his motorcycle, a little Jack Russell in the sidecar. There was an unconfirmed rumor she’d been a stunt pilot’s girl in Arkansas as a teenager. Some kind of barnstorming show where she was strapped half-naked standing on top of the wing as the plane did loops and dives. Allegedly there were pictures. Above all, through the years, she loved her son. Johnny was her only boy and our parents told us he was exactly the same when they were growing up together. Calling himself Johnny Nightshade even then. Same cabbie hat and soul patch. Carried his saxophone everywhere. They said during middle school he tried not to talk for a full week. Only used his sax to speak. It was funny at first, they said, but after a while it got super annoying. Honking all day like a goose through the halls.
As a mother of a child prodigy, Trudy would often say unironically.
When Johnny failed to gain admission to any of the famous music conservatories, she blamed the admissions people.
They held his love of Jesus against him, she told Ms. Rivers at the Starlight Diner one night. It’s better if Johnny stays right here with me.
And then there was the business of Iggy and Johnny playing music together. Of course there were whispers. A man as old as Johnny paling around with someone as young as Iggy. Trudy testified at Iggy’s trial about their relationship:
Johnny had all sorts of friends throughout the years. He was quite popular socially. And this boy Iggy, he was, well, kindly, lost. My Johnny gave the boy something to live for and the gift of music. Iggy was quiet, I remember that. I could barely hear him. Almost whispered when he talked. Johnny brought him home one night and I said this one needs to project his voice. The theater would be good for him.
When Iggy went away to the wilderness school, Trudy would write him and send care packages. She threw a dinner in his honor at the Starlight Diner when he came back to Harmony. In the months leading up to the incident, Trudy saw Iggy almost weekly at church. Johnny was starting a new modern music ministry at the time and they would stay late during rehearsals.
At trial Trudy was asked point blank if Johnny was homosexual. She said she would not dignify the question with a response.
I’m devoted to the First Baptist Church, she said. Christian women don’t speak of such things.
Members of the church said she was the first one in the sanctuary on Sunday and the last to leave. She always brought fresh flowers from her garden. During the Great Depression her grandmother started a flower shop downtown that sold only gladiolus because she could get cheap bulbs from a catalogue. When someone was sick in the congregation she was the first to visit and bring food. Same when one of the church members passed away. She never said the word died, she always said passed away.The events of that morning have been told and retold in the media, in trial transcripts, and through our own investigations.
There’s an upper room waiting for us, she’d say. Those willing to take Christ’s love into their hearts.
Trudy almost didn’t go to church the Sunday of the incident. She’d been fighting off a bad cold but the day before she’d seen Christy McCloud at the supermarket with her four-year-old son, Joe. Out of the clear blue Joe asked if Trudy would sit with him in church. She went to bed early the night before so she would be healthy enough to go. She sat with the McCloud family on the second row and listened as Pastor Green went through the service. The crowd was small that morning. First Baptist was losing members, which was part of the reason Johnny was trying a new musical program. More upbeat songs and contemporary music. Acoustic praise songs replaced boring old organ tunes. Some said Johnny had been talking to Iggy about playing drums. Trudy thought the whole thing was ridiculous. She felt God must be praised with the chords and melodies of the old days or it just wouldn’t take. Nonetheless she was proud of Johnny for the work he did and she thought Iggy’s presence in church each week was a sign that young people weren’t as bad as everyone made them out to be.
The events of that morning have been told and retold in the media, in trial transcripts, and through our own investigations. The detail that’s always most striking is how quickly it happened. The whole service went as it did each week. A song from the choir and the reading of scripture, the prayers of the people, the offering, another song, the sermon and the benediction.
Iggy was in the back row and walked calmly to the middle of the sanctuary as everyone stood and closed their eyes in prayer. No one noticed he was carrying gasoline.
Slowed down, the terror of that day is difficult to understand. We imagine the congregation deep in prayer. Perhaps praying to an invisible maker to render their future better than their past. More money, less illness, more time. We know what Trudy prayed for that day. She told the court.
I prayed for little Joe McCloud who was sitting next to me, she testified. I prayed he would grow up and walk with Christ.
Iggy was shaking, trying to pour the gasoline, getting it everywhere. He put the gas can down. A small stream ran down the floorboards to the altar. Then he brought out the matches. He fumbled with the matchbook. Dropping it to the floor. He picked it up and tried again. One lit on fire. He touched it to his shirt, but it went out. Johnny was sitting with the choir. He realized what was happening and ran toward Iggy. Everyone was screaming. Iggy tried another match and this time it lit. But when he saw Johnny running, he panicked and dropped the lit match to the floor. It didn’t take long for the two-hundred-year-old pine floors to ignite.
Thick black smoke was everywhere in less than a minute, Trudy testified. Couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
She began to weep on the stand.
I hear those screams at night when I try to sleep, she said. I keep replaying that morning in my mind trying to figure out how to save Johnny and the others. I hate myself for not trying harder.
The lawyer handed her a tissue.Hold on to me, he said. I won’t let you fall.
I remembered from fire safety class to stay low, she said. I crawled under the pews until I reached a window and I broke it with a hymnal. I could feel the fresh air on my face and went toward it. I jumped, fell maybe two or three feet. Then I was outside on the grass, on my back. That’s when I realized I was holding little Joe McCloud. I don’t even remember grabbing him.
They ran across the street and watched the flames get higher. She noticed someone standing, watching the fire. It was Iggy. He was standing there as if nothing had happened, as if he was in a dream.
When the fire trucks arrived, the roof of the church collapsed. The EMTs came but there was no one left to save. All twenty-five worshipers were killed. The police came next. Without being asked, Iggy told them what he had done. Almost in disbelief, they arrested him.
As you sit here today, the lawyer asked Trudy. What do you see when you look at Iggy?
I see a boy that had a lot of potential, she said. That same lost boy I met the first day Johnny brought him home. I’ve known many young people in my life as an educator. I knew Iggy’s type. He had no community. Some young people will seek sex or drugs to soothe them. Iggy sought violence because he couldn’t understand a world that he was not the center of. I begged him before, and I’ll use my time here to say it to him again: Repent. Give your life to Jesus. Help others do the same. Don’t let your life be wasted.
Trudy didn’t know where to go after the fire. They took her to the police station. When Joe McCloud’s grandparents arrived many hours later, Joe was too afraid to let go of Trudy. When they finally took him from her arms, she broke down. The weight of what happened hit her all at once. The detective in the room kept her from falling. He had been one of her students.
Hold on to me, he said. I won’t let you fall.
They took her to the hospital and sedated her. The whole time she kept asking about Joe. The next day every ten minutes a new student from the old days would come by and see her. Former colleagues and friends brought food. So many that the doctors had to restrict the number of visitors. Everyone said she saved Joe’s life. The paper called her “the heroic grandma.”You killed the best people, she said. My whole world was in that sanctuary and you took them from me. And for what?
After the fire some of Trudy’s kin, a cousin and cousin-inlaw, had arrived from Alabama, and were caring for her. They’d been reading online about Iggy. They told Trudy that he was at the county courthouse that afternoon for a bond hearing.
I want to go, she said. I want to see him.
I’m not sure that’s a good idea, the cousin said. You need your rest.
Trudy drove herself downtown, the cousin insisting on coming along. After much waiting, they brought Iggy into the tiny courtroom in shackles. The judge read some remarks and the lawyers answered some questions. Then the judge asked if anyone from the public wanted to make a statement. Trudy walked to the front of the room. She was wearing a flower-print dress. Her usual teacher demeanor had dropped. People parted as she walked up. Iggy sat with his head forward, looking at the wall. Trudy reached a tiny microphone near where the judge sat.
She looked at Iggy.
I want to say that I loved you, she said. I fought in my heart for you and prayed each day that the Lord would find a path for you. But it seems that Christ didn’t win.
She took a deep breath.
You killed the best people, she said. My whole world was in that sanctuary and you took them from me. And for what? What possible reason?
Excerpted from The Ancient Hours by Michael Bible. Excerpted with the permission of Melville House Publishing. Copyright © 2020 by Michael Bible.